The Ashes of Shiloh

Throughout the years, Shiloh was a place of community in a small town, however not without scandals and controversy.


The 90,000 square foot building was annexed in 2018 (CCO)

In 1974, John Robert Stevens, founder of ‘The Living Word Fellowship’ ventured out to the small town of Kalona, Iowa to establish a new branch called ‘Shiloh.’
This wasn’t just any regular fellowship however, from 1974 to the controlled fire of Shiloh in 2019, the church was figuratively and literally under fire.
In the 70s, events like the Jonestown Massacre and the Manson family cult caused widespread fear of potential religious cults among Americans. But during the time, Kalona consisted of either people who were in the Amish community or were in the church, thus making it easier for Stevens to establish Shiloh to what it was.
However this didn’t stop Shiloh from getting attention, the people of Shiloh let reporters onto the property. However, the remarks made by the members were recorded by another Shiloh member, to make sure ‘the media didn’t get anything wrong,’ according to ‘The Gazette’.

John Roberts Stevens brother-in-law, Fred Bickhart even stated that “- we began to fear that [the church] was turning into a cult,” in a special report done by ‘The Gazette’ in 1983.
This can be concluded by Bickhart’s claims from his 1982 testimony at a member’s criminal trial.
As one of the former ‘founders’ of the church, he claimed that the followers ‘prayed for the deaths of people who they thought were witches’ and ‘kept files on members as a way to control them.’
Soon after this controversy, John Robert Stevens died of cancer. His former wife, Marilyn Holbrook, married Gary Hargrave who took over the Shiloh branch until its annexation.
With property exceeding 200 acres, Shiloh was an important component of Kalona. Many citizens of Kalona helped with building the foundation of the church, with those citizens then taking their children and their grandchildren to the church.
Nalani Huggar, 11, was a part of this church since birth, with her grandparents and mother being a part of the church until 2018. Her grandparents built the foundation of the church in the seventies.
“My grandparents were one of the first people at Shiloh, my grandma helped build the church and my grandpa was a pastor there,” said Huggar.
Huggar’s mom wasn’t as involved with the church as she got older and even started disagreeing with the teachings. However, it was still hard to leave due to her family history with the church.
“We were definitely less involved in the church than my mom was when she was a kid, essentially we were more there for the community,” said Huggar.
Shiloh put on many events that brought the community of Kalona and other towns together, including Fourth of July fireworks.
“People from all over would come to Shiloh to watch the fireworks. [In my opinion,] they had the best fireworks around here,” reflects Huggar.
However, things took for the worst when some of the church leaders at certain branches were accused of sexually abusing minors.
It finally caught up to the Shiloh branch before its annexation.
Shalom Abrahamson, a friend of the Huggar family, posted a statement on Facebook exposing grooming and sexual assault from one of the church leaders that occurred when she was a minor. After posting that statement, Abrahamson joined other women from around the country in suing ‘The Living Word Fellowship.’
“I saw the abuses first hand, I saw the abuses second hand and I heard of the abuses even after leaving, ” said Abrahamson in a video provided by ‘The Zalkin Law Firm.’
This was the turning point for the Huggar family; shortly after the statement was posted, they started cutting ties with the church.
“After it happened, we stopped going… other people also stopped going, but there were definitely people that stayed,” said Huggar.
After leaving the church, the Huggar family started reflecting on their experiences in the church.
“My mom and I would watch these documentaries about religious cults and we noticed similarities between Shiloh and those cults… [like these cults] Shiloh would put the ‘church elders’ on a God-like pedestal… they would also expect their members to submit relationships to get permission from the church elders,” said Huggar.
After these events, Shiloh decided to break off ties with ‘The Living Word Fellowship.’ Working with the Kalona Fire Department, Shiloh decided to annex their building using a controlled fire.
Even with the diminishing of the fellowship, the effects of the church still reside with its ex-members.
“After cutting ties with the church, my anxiety got better, however, I still have moments where I feel like I’m a bad person and I’m going to hell just because I was doing normal teenage things. I feel like the church ruined my relationship with religion,” concluded Huggar.

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