• A viral video shows volunteers at a United Methodist church in Oklahoma City accusing a visitor of bringing in drugs and telling her to leave.
• The woman tearfully denied she was bringing in drugs, while also taking and posting a video of the incident.
• The video has gone viral, prompting an outpouring of negative comments about the church’s handling of the incident.
Canceled worship services. Closed Facebook accounts. Extra security at churches.
That’s some of the fallout from a viral video showing an Hispanic woman being told to leave a United Methodist church that focuses on prison and addiction recovery ministry.
Staff and volunteers at Oklahoma City’s Penn Avenue Redemption United Methodist Church suspected Ashley Ontiveros — a visitor whose sister is an inmate allowed to attend worship there — was trying to bring in illegal drugs during a Nov. 14 service. In the video, she tearfully denies it.
“I’m not like that!” she exclaims at one point.
Ontiveros insisted on her innocence again in a Nov. 17 phone interview, and repeated that she felt mistreated by the church. She took and posted the video, she said, out of concern that the incident might cause a “write-up” for her sister.
“I had to pull my phone out and record that,” she said. “I knew it was their word against mine.”
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Brad Rogers, said the video only captures part of what he describes as highly disruptive conduct by Ontiveros. He said the posted video also fails to note the church’s ministry focus or the rules it must operate under to host inmates from low-security facilities of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
Of the incident and its aftermath, he said, “For us it has created a huge firestorm that has inhibited our ministry.”
Posted on TikTok late on Nov. 14 and widely shared on other social media platforms, the video has had more than 3 million views and has prompted an outpouring of angry comments at the 320-member church, including accusations of racism.
The criticism has been felt at two other churches that some people confused for Penn Avenue Redemption, since all three are United Methodist and are on the same long Oklahoma City street.
There have been threats, even death threats. Penn Avenue Redemption has unplugged its office phone and canceled its Nov. 17 and Nov. 21 worship services as a precaution.
Local TV and newspaper accounts of the incident have been widely shared on the internet.
The Oklahoma Conference of The United Methodist Church issued a statement offering context about Penn Avenue Redemption’s prison and addiction recovery ministry, including its need to follow Oklahoma Department of Corrections policies.
The statement underscores the racial diversity of the church while also saying, “We are committed to fair and equal treatment of all and regret any misconceptions that may have occurred as a result of this incident.”
The three-minute video is in two parts, and the first shows a volunteer demanding Ontiveros leave.
“Y’all are people of God and y’all are going to do that to me?” Ontiveros says.
The volunteer responds, “You’re going to bring drugs in here …”
Ontiveros replies that the food she has brought is cilantro and oregano to be used as a garnish for menudo, a traditional Mexican soup, and offers to let volunteers smell the food as proof.
The conflict escalates until Rogers comes into the scene and identifies himself as pastor and says he has stopped his sermon because of the disturbance. “Chill, chill, chill, chill,” he tells her.
She grows teary, saying she has been falsely accused. The pastor again asks her to calm down and to discuss the matter with him after the worship service.
A second part of the video shows a calmer Ontiveros speaking to volunteers in the church kitchen. She’s trying to retrieve the garnish, but volunteers tell her she can’t have it, that it’s going to be tested, and if she wants it back she can contact the police.
Ontiveros told UM News she had been to the church two or three times to bring food for her sister, for the communal meal shared after worship.
On Nov. 14, she said, she brought a grocery bag with a plate, a cup of menudo and a baggie that she said contained oregano and cilantro, and under separate wrap, carrots, onion and lemon.
The baggie contents were to be a garnish for the menudo, she said.
Ontiveros said a volunteer told her there was a new policy against visitors bringing in food, but that it wouldn’t take effect until early December. She said she left her food in the kitchen, and then went into the sanctuary to sit with her sister.
Ontiveros said she then had to go outside to answer a call from her younger sister about an apartment key. She said when she was walking up the steps to reenter the church, volunteers told her she would have to leave and began accusing her of bringing in drugs.
The confrontation escalated as Ontiveros came back inside. She acknowledges using the “F-word” — something volunteers said she used repeatedly and is not shown in the video. But she said she was upset at being accused and at the volunteers’ refusal to smell the food to verify it was a garnish for menudo.
“They didn’t even give me a chance,” she said.
Ontiveros also said she felt the pastor “could have done so much more,” including telling volunteers to inspect the food as she requested.
She decided to leave after trying and failing to retrieve the baggie with the garnish.
“On the drive home I was crying,” she said. “I had to pull over. I almost had a panic attack.”
Rogers said police were never involved, despite the reference in the video. He said the confiscated baggie of her food was destroyed.
“I had absolutely zero interest in trying to get her in trouble,” Rogers said. “That’s not what we do here. The only reason we would ever call police is a safety issue.”
The Rev. Stan Basler, founding pastor of Penn Avenue Redemption and still its Thursday night preacher, said efforts from visitors to slip contraband to inmates has been “a constant problem” through the years.
Rogers said there had recently been such incidents, and that the Oklahoma Department of Corrections had directed the church on Nov. 12 to stop allowing visitors to bring food, to minimize the smuggling risk.
Rogers said he announced the new policy during worship on Nov. 14, saying it would go into effect in December since some people had already brought food that day. But he said volunteers were on high alert, given the recent incidents and the new policy, and saw Ontiveros’ entering, leaving and re-entering as a red flag that led to checking out her food.
Volunteers spotted what Rogers described as a “leafy green substance” in the baggie and did not believe it was cilantro, despite Ontiveros’ protestations, he said.
Rogers also said that while disturbances are not uncommon at Penn Avenue Redemption, he had never before had to stop a sermon to intervene.
“It was disrupting everybody in there,” he said of those in the sanctuary. “You could see people looking at the door.”
Rogers said he felt he and the volunteers dealt with a difficult situation as well as they could.
“I stand by our volunteers 100 percent,” he said.
The volunteers undergo Department of Corrections training to be able to escort certain prisoners as they come to the church for worship, a meal and a class.
Rogers said the church received angry calls beginning the night of Nov. 14, just after the video posted. The negative online reaction caused him to take down his Facebook page, along with canceling the next two worship services and disengaging the church phone.
Quail Springs United Methodist Church and Southern Hills United Methodist are each about 10 miles from Penn Avenue Redemption, but both are also on Pennsylvania Avenue.
They, too, began to come under fire from people who had seen the video and confused them with Penn Avenue Redemption.
By about 9 on the morning after the incident, Quail Springs had more than 90 negative Google reviews, said the Rev. Valerie Steele, pastor.
She said the many critical phone calls to the church, as well as online postings, were concerning enough that she requested the police to patrol around the church perimeter more frequently. The church’s early childhood program has continued but on lockdown, with the children not allowed outside and the classroom blinds closed.
“It’s been very difficult,” Steele said.
Southern Hills United Methodist also received a stream of angry online contacts and calls, including three death threats, said the pastor, the Rev. Matthew Scraper.
But Scraper, whose church has a homeless ministry, said he was among those disturbed by the video.
“I fully understand that there’s always more context than what you see in a video,” he said. “At the same time, I truly do wish that situation would have been handled better. (Ontiveros) could have been treated with more grace and love than what the video indicates.”
Crystal and Kadesh King were among the Penn Avenue Redemption members who interacted with Ontiveros on Nov. 14. She’s administrative assistant at the church, and he’s a volunteer who also serves as substitute preacher.
The married couple — who met at the church in 2016 as former inmates with an addiction background — said they and church colleagues are always on alert and careful to abide by Oklahoma Department of Corrections requirements.
“It’s a little different from your average Methodist church,” Crystal King said. “We have to be on our p’s and q’s.”
The Kings said they are particularly upset at the comments accusing Penn Avenue Redemption of racism. They, too, noted the congregation’s diversity, as well as their own Native American ancestry.
The pandemic was hard on their church, the Kings said, but it had begun to regain momentum. They hope the video furor can be moved past soon.
“That place is so special to me,” Crystal King said. “It changed my life. We want that for every inmate.”
Ontiveros remains critical of how Penn Avenue Redemption treated her. But she hopes the negative comments about the church will stop.
“They don’t need that,” she said. “They’ve already had enough damage. We all have.”
Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.
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