House of Lies

Bruxy Cavey was a hippie cleric who preached to the masses in T-shirts and cargo shorts. On stage, he spoke about righteousness, decency and the sanctity of marriage. In private, he was grooming young women for sex

When I say I grew up in the church, I mean it. I spent most of my youth inside Protestant churches in London and Brantford. Some of the schools I attended were affiliated with those churches and even housed within them. I was at church every weekday for classes, every Wednesday night for youth group and twice on Sunday for service. Some weeks, I’d return for Friday or Saturday events. Church wasn’t just part of my life—it was my life.

That may seem stifling, but I found it liberating. I thrived at church. If Christianity were a sport, I’d have been on pace to turn pro by the time I graduated high school. I’d read the entire Bible voluntarily, filled journals with prayers and religiously tinted teenage angst, and travelled overseas to tell others about Jesus through street theatre and service projects. I wasn’t motivated by a desire to please my parents or peers; I truly believed that God had created me and come to earth in the person of Jesus, and that he loved me.

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In 2006, when I turned 18 and enrolled at Wilfrid Laurier University, I was suddenly forced out of my Baptist bubble. I made new, non-religious friends who weren’t interested in analyzing Bible passages. Every time a classmate invited me out for drinks, I cringed: my church forbade alcohol. I started wondering about my faith’s relevance to war, poverty and sex, and why non-Christians sometimes acted more morally than Christians did. The church of my childhood, which began to feel as outdated as its orange carpet and hard-backed pews, didn’t seem prepared to answer my questions. So I started looking for a new church.

Every Christian I knew seemed to be talking about a growing congregation called the Meeting House and, more specifically, its tattooed, long-haired pastor, Bruxy Cavey. I had listened to some of his sermons in high school. They were casual, relatable and funny. He applied biblical teachings to modern life and referenced movies, TV shows and pop songs. Not everyone was impressed. My parents worried that his teachings weren’t biblically accurate, and one church youth leader called Cavey a “quack.”

But, for me, the Meeting House church was seductive. It advertised itself as a church for people who weren’t into church. It certainly looked different from any church I’d attended. Cavey preached in a newly renovated, high-tech, 1,200-seat auditorium inside an Oakville warehouse in the Greater Toronto Area. The Meeting House also had congregations that met in cinemas across Ontario, where Cavey’s sermons were shown on the big screen. When a friend’s parents started attending the Meeting House at the SilverCity movie theatre in Ancaster, I tagged along.

The Meeting House’s Oakville location. Photo by Getty Images

As I walked past concession stands and movie posters, I was skeptical. I thought huge celebrity-led churches were shallow, and I worried it would be strange to watch a pastor tower over me on a giant screen. But, once Cavey started preaching, my reservations melted away. His wardrobe—jeans and a baggy T-shirt—suggested humility. He spoke informally and was unafraid to tackle controversial topics, like the dangers of ­Christians aligning with political powers and the teachings of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins. Cavey explained Christians’ differing beliefs—for instance, why some churches, like his, had female pastors while others, like mine, did not—without being condescending. He welcomed audience questions and, refreshingly, didn’t profess to have airtight answers to everything.

I was hooked. On Sundays, if I wasn’t volunteering at my parents’ church, I went to the Meeting House. I joined a “home church,” where members gathered mid-week to discuss the teachings of Cavey and other pastors. On weekends, my sister and I listened to his archived sermons on the family computer. When my sister got married, in 2008, my bridesmaid bio described me as a fellow “Bruxy Cavey lover.” That summer, I couldn’t attend the Meeting House because I was working at a camp in Muskoka, so I listened to CDs of his sermons on a Disc­man, sitting on a rock overlooking Lake Joseph.

More and more, the Meeting House seemed wrapped up in Cavey’s celebrity status—even dependent on it

I particularly enjoyed Cavey’s teachings about sex. He spoke about the topic bluntly but not crudely. Though he embraced a traditional view of heterosexual marriage and preached that sex was a gift from God reserved for a husband and wife, he wasn’t dogmatic about it. He knew first-hand that reality often fell short of Christian ideals: he sometimes spoke about how his first wife, with whom he had two daughters, had cheated on him and then left him. At the Meeting House, he welcomed sinners and Christians of all stripes.

My fascination with Cavey burned quickly, like a camp crush that fizzles when the leaves change colour. After a few years of attending church in a city where I didn’t live, I started to feel like an interloper. In one sermon, Cavey compared those who attended the Meeting House just to see what all the fuss was about to barnacles on boats: hanging on, not contributing. I didn’t want to be a barnacle. Gradually, my involvement faded, and I devoted my time to other churches instead. By the time I finished university, in 2011, I rarely went to the Meeting House or listened to Cavey’s sermons anymore.

Sunday service at The Meeting House included live bands, skits and breakdancing

Over the next decade, I watched from a distance as Cavey’s star rose. He became a sought-after speaker at Bible colleges, seminaries and religious conferences across North America. He published a popular book about ­Christianity called (Re)union, a follow-up to his 2007 bestseller, The End of Religion. Critics called him a “false teacher” and questioned his understanding of the Bible and Jesus, but that pushback only bolstered his status as an outsider. His followers fiercely defended him. A group of 11 particularly devoted Meeting Housers even got tattoos that said “Leviticus 19:28,” a cheeky reference to a Bible verse forbidding tattoos, to match the one on Cavey’s arm.

More and more, the Meeting House seemed wrapped up in Cavey’s celebrity status—even reliant upon it. While other congregations were hemorrhaging parishioners, he kept attracting crowds. By 2019, the Meeting House was a behemoth. It had 20 locations, as far north as Parry Sound and as far east as Ottawa, and an $11-million annual budget, provided in large part through donations from more than 5,000 weekly attendees.

In churchgoing circles, however, I heard whispers that all was not well inside the Meeting House. Key staff members had left. Rumours of adulterous affairs swirled. Then, in December of 2021, I learned that the problems were far worse than I’d imagined. A former member alleged that Cavey had sexually abused her for years. Then more accusations surfaced. Investigations were launched. Other pastors were named. My shock turned to anger as I realized that Cavey—unassuming, gentle, even goofy—was in fact a master of deception. This superstar pastor, who preached about the sanctity of marriage and the sacred virtues of consensual sex with one’s spouse, had been violating that covenant for years.

The story of the preacher who rises to fame, abuses his power and falls from grace is a tale as old as Christianity itself (see: Iscariot, Judas). In the 1960s and ’70s, Christian cult leaders like Jim Jones and David Koresh led their disciples to carnage. In the ’80s, televangelists spiralled into scandal. More recently, Bill Hybels, the founder of the massively influential Chicago-based megachurch Willow Creek, retired amid allegations that he’d sexually harassed former staff, claims deemed credible by a third-party investigation; Carl Lentz, a Hillsong pastor who once counted Justin Bieber among his parishioners, stepped down after revelations of marital infidelity; and an investigation uncovered that the late evangelical speaker and author Ravi Zacharias had sexually abused women worldwide, including employees at massage parlours he co-owned.

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Cavey seemed different. He presented himself as the anti-celebrity pastor. He didn’t appear to be in it for power or money: as his church grew, he downsized his home to show his commitment to simplicity. Whereas American evangelicals loudly allied themselves with Republican politicians and right-wing causes, Cavey’s Christianity was apolitical, self-deprecating and respectful of religious diversity. He once told Peter Schuurman, a Redeemer University faculty member who wrote about Cavey in his doctoral dissertation, that the stories of disgraced pastors were a strong motivation to stay faithful. As a divorced man, Cavey said, he knew the pain wrought by extramarital relationships all too well.

True to his brand, Cavey had never aspired to be a pastor. He was born Timothy Bruce Cavey—the nickname Bruxy originated from his inability to pronounce his middle name as a boy—and his early relationship with organized religion was fraught. His family’s Pentecostal church celebrated parishioners who spoke in tongues, but Cavey never experienced the phenomenon, so he felt alienated. After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from York, he enrolled at the seminary now known as Tyndale University. Still, he was more interested in deejaying than in preaching, so after graduation he worked with performance groups and the Christian relief organization World Vision.

In 1991, the leaders of a Baptist church in Ancaster, impressed by Cavey’s public speaking skills and theological knowledge, asked him to be their pastor, and he reluctantly accepted. He was 26. Within five years, he grew the church’s average weekly attendance from 100 to 1,000. His career blossomed, but then his personal life collapsed. In the aftermath of his wife’s affair, he lost his spouse and left his job.

In 1996, a leader from an Anabaptist denomination now known as Be in Christ, which sometimes describes itself as “Mennonites without the buggies,” approached Cavey with an offer. One of its fledgling congregations in Oakville, Upper Oaks Community Church, had lost several key leaders and needed a new pastor. Be in Christ emphasized charity, non-violence and forgiveness; they were willing to look past Cavey’s divorce, which would have been a deal-breaker for some churches, and give him a chance at redemption. He took it.

Cavey with his second wife, Nina

Under Cavey’s leadership, Upper Oaks rebranded itself as the Meeting House, a traditional Anabaptist name for a church building. There, he found a new audience—by 2001, his weekly services were once again attracting 1,000 faithful—and a new family. One day, his girlfriend, a follower named Nina, proposed to him during the post-sermon Q&A segment in front of the entire congregation. He said yes. By 2005, the church had outgrown its original location, moved into the Oakville warehouse and begun establishing other congregations, where separate pastoral teams supplemented Cavey’s pre-recorded sermons.

Cavey’s teachings on love and sex were central to the church’s appeal. When Canada legalized same-sex marriage in the mid-2000s, he urged Christians to accept LGBTQ people. Meeting Housers even created LGBTQ-specific home churches. He encouraged men to ask women before giving hugs, to ensure that their touch wasn’t threatening. And he rejected the way some Christian men refused to be alone with women who weren’t their wives. Several Meeting Housers, many of them women, lived with Cavey and Nina during times of personal hardship. Cavey said they welcomed only people both he and his wife were comfortable with. “Your spouse has veto power” over who gets invited into the home, he said. “It just has to be that way.”

In October 2013, during a sermon series called “Modern Family,” Cavey taught his followers to heed the words of the apostle Paul, who instructs the young pastor Timothy to “treat older women as mothers, younger women as sisters in all purity.” In a podcast that supplemented the sermons, Cavey reflected on the difficulty of obeying that verse in a sex-crazed culture. “When I treat someone as my little sister, my older sister, my mom—when I treat someone as a real sibling, family—I’m going to be more comfortable with them,” he said. “I’m going to be closer with them, be more free with them, than I would be with a friend or with an acquaintance. But, at the same time, crossing a sexual boundary would be even more unthinkable.”

By the time Cavey spoke those words, he had already crossed that line. In 2011, a young woman who had recently started attending the Meeting House joined a Bible study at Cavey’s home. She was 23; he was 46. She later told the Toronto Star that, during some study sessions, the group drank martinis in Cavey’s hot tub. But she trusted him, so she sought his counsel. He gave her his cellphone number and would pray with her, thanking God for her presence in his life. Soon, he was giving her lingering hugs. Then, in 2013, they had sex for the first time. “I was in crisis and trusted him and I did not, nor could I, consent to a sexual relationship with him,” she later wrote.

Cavey told one follower that she was “sexy” and that he wanted to “kiss,” “coddle” and “fondle” her

The woman has since adopted the pseudonym “Hagar,” after an enslaved woman in the Old Testament who was forced to have sex with Abraham, became pregnant and was banished to the wilderness. Cavey told Hagar that, even though their behaviour was wrong, God would forgive them. He wanted to keep the relationship a secret; if others knew, he said, it would destroy both him and the Meeting House, which would prevent people from hearing about Jesus. Hagar didn’t want to shatter her community, so she remained silent.

The relationship continued for several years, during which time they exchanged encrypted text messages; Cavey used code words to tell her when to delete them. In 2018, feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the relationship, Hagar ended contact with Cavey and left the Meeting House. But, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t push her anger and pain away.

In 2019, the Meeting House hired Danielle Strickland to join its team of pastors. A mother of three who once worked for the Salvation Army, Strickland is an author, a speaker and an advocate for women’s rights. Her direct involvement in the Meeting House was limited: she attended the church only when she preached there; she did not go to staff meetings or attend a home church. But parishioners viewed her as one of the church’s leaders. To Hagar, who was still traumatized by her experiences with Cavey, Strickland seemed like someone who would take her allegations seriously—and have the power to do something about them.

In late 2021, she told Strickland what had happened. Based on what Hagar knew about Cavey and the church, she was concerned that there might be other victims. Hagar and Strickland then relayed the accusations to the Meeting House’s board of overseers, a group of volunteer elders who handle church finances and governance. They were shocked. If the allegations against Cavey were true, they were heartbreaking, and they could mean disaster for the church. The board put Cavey on leave and hired an independent investigator, who filed a report concluding that Hagar’s claims were credible. In March of 2022, the board asked for Cavey’s resignation.

The church called Cavey’s actions an “abuse of power,” but Strickland believed that this was a case of clergy sexual abuse: Cavey had used his position to exploit and sexually harm a parishioner. On March 7, she resigned in solidarity with Hagar. The next day, on Instagram Live, she shared a statement Hagar had written outlining everything that had happened. In response, Cavey published a post called “My Confession” on his personal website. “At the core of these allegations there is truth,” he wrote. “Some years ago, I had an extramarital affair.” He described his actions as “selfish,” his “greatest failure” and “darkest sin,” but he didn’t call it abuse. He praised Hagar’s bravery in coming forward and stated his support for the Meeting House’s leadership. He acknowledged that he hadn’t met the high moral standards he had set. “I am deeply sorry,” he wrote.

On May 31, 2022, Hamilton police arrested Cavey and charged him with sexual assault. He hired Megan Savard, the lawyer who represented former Hedley frontman Jacob Hoggard, to defend him. His trial is scheduled for February of 2024. “Mr. Cavey is innocent and will plead not guilty,” Savard wrote in an email. She added that neither she nor Cavey would comment on additional allegations while the matter is before the courts. “He is eager to proceed to trial and clear his name.”

Cavey preaching in Oakville

Cavey’s arrest was hardly the end of the matter. A former parishioner I’ll call Kate spoke to me on the condition that she not be identified. She said there was something painfully familiar about Hagar’s story, like watching someone else reenact a terrible chapter of her life. Kate’s family belonged to the Baptist church in Ancaster when Cavey arrived, and she was blown away when she first heard him preach. “He was one of the most gifted speakers I’d ever heard,” she says. She followed him to Upper Oaks and imagined that he would always be her ­pastor—that, one day, he might officiate her wedding or teach her children about Christianity. Cavey knew about her life goals, her family, her past romantic relationships. “I was willing to engage in conversations with him about deeply personal things, because I thought they were coming from a place of him caring about my spirituality or my welfare,” she says. “But it actually was stuff he could use to get closer.”

Then came the messages. In online chats, Kate says, Cavey began commenting on her body, saying that she was “sexy” and that he wanted to “kiss,” “coddle” and “fondle” her. Kate says that, one evening at Cavey’s house, in the period between his first and second marriages, he repeatedly asked her to go to bed with him; he played songs that got him in the mood. She declined. She thought of Cavey as an uncle, someone she could turn to for advice, not someone she found sexually attractive. She held his hand to appease him, but it disgusted her. “I couldn’t even look at him while I held his hand,” she remembers. She says that Cavey later invited her to spend a weekend away together. She feared he’d pressure her for sex, so she declined again. “The only reason we didn’t have sex is because I said no,” she says. He barely spoke to her after that, and she left the Meeting House shortly thereafter.

Initially, Kate tried to rationalize Cavey’s behaviour. He had made a mistake. Maybe, if he owned up to it and apologized, they could get past it and repair their friendship. She wanted to forgive him—after all, he had preached about the value of forgiveness and said that anger was a sin. “I did what he taught me to do, which was to believe that it was just a bad mistake he had made and that he wasn’t a bad person,” she says. But, when she confronted him, accompanied by a pastor from another church, she says he lied and downplayed the incidents. “I realized he would actually make me look like a liar as opposed to being honest about how he had hurt me,” she says.

Decades later, when Kate learned that Cavey was being investigated for sexual abuse, she again debated whether to tell the Meeting House her story. She began reading up on clergy sexual abuse; it helped her understand why those long-ago interactions with Cavey still bothered her. Though they never kissed or had sex, his words, actions and attitude had violated the trust she’d given him because he was her pastor. She decided to report the incidents to the board, which asked another third-party investigator, Natasha Persaud, to look into the matter. The investigation lasted from April to August of 2022, months that, for Kate, stretched on for an eternity. A board member reached out several times to say that they were praying for her. “My expectations were pretty low,” she says. “Their feelings of genuine care surprised me.”

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In time, however, it seemed to her that the Meeting House, like Cavey, was downplaying the abuse. Pastors spoke of the complaints as a “season” that the church had to weather. Some members wanted to forgive Cavey and allow him to return to public ministry. At a church-wide meeting, one Meeting Houser wondered whether the church could use its “influence” to help lead other congregations whose pastors had abused parishioners. “I feel like there was not much outrage,” says Kate. “It just turned me back off of it again.”

Kate’s faith was shattered by her interactions with Cavey. Today, she’s no longer sure whether she even believes in God, though she feels the absence of church in her life. “I think church gives such a large sense of meaning to someone’s life,” she says. “And I have not had that since this happened.”

After cavey resigned, the Meeting House encouraged other members who believed they had been sexually abused to come forward. The church set up a confidential referral form on its website and, in mid-March, hired a victim advocate named Melodie Bissell. She is the founder of Plan to Protect, an organization that trains churches and other organizations in abuse prevention. (Full disclosure: I have written for Plan to Protect publications, but none of my work was related to the Meeting House.)

In addition to Hagar and Kate, two other women came forward with allegations against Cavey. Working at arm’s length from the church, Bissell interviewed the women, recorded their stories and, with their permission, relayed their experiences to the board. For those who wanted their claims to be formally investigated, the board asked Persaud to determine whether, on a balance of probabilities, the allegations were credible. When Persaud investigated allegations brought by Kate and the two other women, she found that Cavey had sexually abused two of them and engaged in sexual misconduct with the third; one of the women had been a minor at the time of the incident.

To date, Bissell has received at least 58 complaints, some of them concerning the same incidents. Though not all were accusations of sexual misconduct, they revealed that the church’s problems ran far deeper than Cavey. This was an organization rife with issues. One woman alleged that Tim Day, a senior pastor who left the Meeting House in 2015 to create a church-engagement app, had sexually abused her. Persaud concluded that Day, who did not participate in her investigation, had indeed committed clergy sexual abuse. I called Day multiple times and reached out to him on social media, but there was no response.

Bissell also received complaints about Craig Douglas, a worship pastor at the Oakville location who was fired in 2010 for the alleged sexual abuse of a female staff member. Church leadership had told employees that he was leaving to focus on his marriage. Then, in the fall of 2021, the Meeting House rehired him to work on the church’s livestreams. When Bissell brought Douglas’s history to the board’s attention, he was terminated again. Douglas could not be reached for comment, but I asked Matt Miles, the Meeting House’s interim senior director, why he had been rehired. Miles dodged the question and wrote in an email, “We always keep up to date HR files and conduct background and police checks.”

Some of the other complainants recalled their interactions with two Meeting House youth pastors, David Churchill and Kieran Naidoo. Churchill was charged with sexual assault in 2014, promptly dismissed and later convicted. Naidoo was convicted of sexual exploitation and child pornography around the same time. In January of 2021, Naidoo was charged again, this time for sexual exploitation of a minor between 2002 and 2005, when he worked at another church. Those charges have not been proven in court. Through his ­lawyer, Naidoo declined to comment.

A service at The Meeting House

Collectively, the complaints tell the story of a church plagued by abuse and infidelity. Married employees were sleeping with other staff members. Divorce was endemic. But, prior to Hagar, whenever Meeting Housers complained about abusive relationships or the church’s sexualized culture, senior leadership encouraged them to “walk the long road of grace” and focus on the “restoration” of cheaters and abusers. Acting on the complaints, making them public, might have scared parishioners away. Accountability came second to growing the church’s membership and donor base. “It was about numbers,” one former church member told me.

This past June, the board publicly acknowledged the first 38 complaints at a church-wide meeting. “We are deeply sorry for the abuse and harm that has occurred, be it sexual, emotional or spiritual, in our church family,” a board member said. “We are deeply sorry for how many of these stories have been handled in the past. We continue to be humbled to now be the stewards of these stories.”

The Meeting House, however, has refused to provide further details on those stories, including the specifics of what Cavey and Day did. This past February, at an event meant in part to address the ways the church had failed its followers, leadership noted instances of abuse on a timeline of the church’s history, where they were given the same weight as memorable fund­raisers and outreach initiatives. “The pain that the victims suffer was so minimized,” a former churchgoer told me. “They went right on as if it was just a blip in the history of the church.”

In reality, the scandals have decimated the Meeting House. Without Cavey, the church is bleeding employees, volunteers and believers. In 2021, it had 84 staff; as of late February, its website listed 47 employees and advertised many job openings. Over the past year, at least eight board members, including several chairs, have left. Cavey’s replacement has already been replaced: in March, interim senior pastor Karmyn Bokma was demoted because of what the church called a brief “online interaction” that had “impacted her marriage.”

Instead of 20 locations, the Meeting House now has 13. As of this past November, between all of its in-person congregations and livestreams, only 2,055 people were attending weekly services, about a third of the highest reported attendance, in 2019. Many of the people who left feel disillusioned, angry and, in some cases, complicit. “We put Bruxy on a pedestal and worshipped him as a collective,” says a former member whose congregation shut down. “As a community, we need to own a lot of what we created. We allowed this to happen.”

On a sunday afternoon in August of 2022, I returned to the Meeting House for the first time in more than a decade. By then, thousands of people had given up on the church—and some on Christianity altogether. I wanted to see for myself what remained.

Back when I attended church at the cinema in Ancaster, every Sunday was a spectacle: packed theatre, hi-fi sound, the pervasive scent of buttered popcorn. When I visited the Ottawa location last summer, all I found were a few dozen diehards renting space from a United Church. There was a sense of emptiness; many formerly devout attendees were absent, probably for good. I listened to one of the parishioners deliver a short sermon and strum an acoustic guitar. Despite myself, I stood and sang about Jesus running toward us with mercy—we certainly needed it. Had there been no sign indicating that this was the Meeting House, I would have had no way to tell. The congregation reminded me of so many small, new churches I’d attended over the years. But this wasn’t a young church coming to life; it was a battered church trying to survive.

After the service, I felt sick to my stomach thinking about everything that had transpired at the Meeting House. The congregation moved to the parking lot, where they served ice cream sundaes. I hoped the sugar would comfort me. As I plunged my plastic spoon into layers of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, I felt a glimmer of renewed faith. The people who stuck around seemed glad to be there. Without Cavey and the constant obsession over his sermons, his clothes, his tattoos, there was more space for the teacher who’d brought us to church in the first place: Jesus. Even while mourning the devastation that people caused in his name, we could eat and laugh and discuss the week ahead, maybe even talk about our plans for church next Sunday.

This story appears in the April 2023 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $39.99 a year, click here. To purchase single issues, click here.