Ravi Zacharias, RZIM Ministries, Clergy Abuse
Those of us who cover stories of abuse by Christian leaders understand that there is usually not only one incident, but a pattern of incidences and similar behaviors that occur over years. Also, there’s usually not just one victim, but several, or even more. So, I suspected that others would come forward when I covered the personal account of Lori Anne on how Ravi Zacharias used his position of trust to take advantage of Lori Anne, which later led to online sexting.
When we talk about abuse, we are talking about control, taking advantage of the vulnerable for personal gain. While Lori Anne’s story was about taking control for sexual gain, this personal story is about protecting self for personal gain.
When covering a personal story like this, you have to get it right because there are so many who love Ravi and want him to succeed. I get that. I was shocked when the first sexual allegation about Bill Cosby came out – Dr. Huxtable? That funny and lovable father on The Cosby Show, the guy who was the voice of a favorite children’s cartoon, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids? The guy who made Jello brand pudding look so scrumptious? No, it couldn’t be him. But as it turned out, yes, it was him, and not with just one, but scores and scores of women.
But Ravi? He’s so likable. He has made spiritual concepts so understandable. He has positively influenced many. It’s difficult to wrap your head around even the possibility of this man with gentle eyes doing harm. But here, once again, I am presented a personal story that sounds completely legitimate, told in great detail, by a woman who by coming forward is risking much. I warned her that she would be blamed, her story would be discounted. I asked her if she was willing to subject herself to this kind of scrutiny – after all, once I hit publish, it’s over. People are so quick to take screenshots and make sure a story like this doesn’t disappear. She insisted, yes, and not only with just her first name, but also her last name. That’s brave, folks, really brave. And this is not about money, either. She is not going after Ravi Zacharias for money – it’s only about the truth for her. She wants people to know the truth.
This personal account is by Shirley Steward, who recently retired with the rank of Detective Constable from the Ontario Provincial Police after 34 years of service (Canadian Provincial police are comparable to state police in the US). This is a woman who worked on cases ranging from parking tickets to murder, and whose job was to uphold the law, which included giving sworn testimony and being cross examined in court where details and truth were essential.
But now, Shirley will enter the court of public opinion. The incident in Shirley’s personal account occurred in 1973. By that time, Ravi was a newly licensed minister, licensed by The Christian and Missionary Alliance of Canada in 1972. Does this explain why Ravi said what he did to his younger brother – because he did not want to compromise his new ministry work? How would this affect Ravi’s new career if people found out?
I asked Shirley why she wanted to come forward. She told me that events happen for a reason, and went into detail about one such event. She went to her parent’s house long after her tragic nightmare and discovered a magazine on their coffee table (mentioned in Shirley’s testimony below). The article painted Ravi and Margie Zacharias as a masterful host and hostess in their home. They used their home for ministry work and talked about how Christian homes should be a peaceful, humble place. But there was an arrogance that exuded from Ravi’s words as he described how he likes to get up from the table and help Margie with the kitchen cleanup while hosting company. He’s using himself as an example of humility. But true humility doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t draw attention to self.
But back to “events happen for a reason,” in Shirley’s account, she describes the article and her thoughts, but in her testimony, she failed to mention that she took that magazine home. To me, that is an important detail. Why did she take the magazine home when the contents made her sick to her stomach? That doesn’t make sense unless there was an emotional connection with it. Why would she save the magazine for all these years? Ravi and Margie represent religious hypocrisy to her. Wouldn’t she want to discard the magazine? Nope, I believe she kept it because she had unfinished business to do. Her heart was not settled by the harm that had been done to her. This magazine became part of her story – an event marker depicting hypocrisy in the Christian church by leaders – which she experienced personally with the pressure to end her pregnancy by abortion.
The magazine article was one event. Years later, another event or marker was when her cousin sent her information about a speaking event with Ravi nearby at Kingston, Ontario, in October of 2014. When a victim encounters these types of events or markers, it takes their mind and emotions back to the original place and time that the harm occurred. There’s no escaping it. Shirley had no control as a 16-year old with no safe people supporting her. She had no control over these markers and reminders of Ravi that popped up around her as she tried to move forward with her life. But now, she does have control of her personal story, and she can share it on her terms, in her words here. She is in control of this disclosure event, and she is marking it publicly, with the support of her family.
As mentioned earlier, with Shirley’s public disclosure, there will undoubtedly be naysayers, because let’s face it, Ravi has done some excellent ministry work, too. However, it should be noted that in the interest of time and space in this article, I have left out important details like collected documentation, including emails and screenshots, in addition to notes I’ve made on personal phone calls. This is not simply me posting someone’s personal story without corroboration. We believe in due diligence, and I have done a lot of background work (because it’s not fun being sued).
I’m grateful that Shirley trusted me with her personal story (and now with you) in such a raw and vulnerable way. Personal stories and events shape our lives for good and for bad. I am hoping that by sharing Shirley’s story that she will be able to get closure for the emotional and spiritual pain it has caused. And, as we discussed together by phone, we hope it will give others who may have been harmed an opportunity to come forward and share their stories.
Shirley Steward’s Personal Story
Following the story coming out about Ravi Zacharias and his fall from grace, I felt it was time to tell my story and experience about this hypocrite. About his using his pastoral position to influence a 16-year girl (me) to have an abortion. Because his brother Ramesh Zacharias (then 20 years old) was the father. I do this purely to inform folks that Ravi is not the person he claims to be. That he should be forbidden from bilking people of their hard-earned cash, which feathers his own nest. And that his counsel is only in his own best interests. And to the other victims that I’m sure this man has left in his wake – you are not alone. I believe you. You are not the diminished or evil person he painted you to be.
While my story began almost 50 years ago, I am not totally sure it ever ended completely. There are parts of my life that were forever altered. However, I did move on from it. I eventually followed my dream of becoming a police officer. I recently retired following 34 years of a career that I am very proud of. I investigated everything from a simple parking ticket to a plane crash, and assisted in a murder investigation. Of course, I had to testify innumerable times in court over the years. I appreciate and live for truth and justice. I have always been an active part of my community. Volunteering with seniors, a local community theatre and my biggest passion – animals. Cats and dogs, in particular. I think because animals are capable of unconditional love. Unlike humans. I have never been let down by an animal.
At age 14, I was living in the east end of Toronto with my parents. My brother, who is 5 years older than I am, was attending a church in downtown Toronto called the First Alliance Church, on Yonge Street, Toronto. The church was headed by Reverend JR Deitz and had a large and engaged youth group. Finally, my parents let me travel to this church. There, I met Ramesh Zacharias. Brother of Ravi Zacharias. Ramesh was 4 years older than I, and Ravi, 10 years older than I. Ramesh and I soon started spending time together and a few months later at age 15, we were considered a couple. I felt honoured to be welcomed by the Zacharias family. Ramesh was going to university to become a doctor. While he wanted me to consider nursing, I had another career choice in mind.
As happens with relationships, ours became sexual after I turned 16. Then, as nature would take its course, I became pregnant. This was I believe, in the late spring/early summer of 1973. Ramesh was living with his parents in the west end of Toronto. I was at their apartment and Ramesh wanted to talk to his brother Ravi to ask his advice as an older brother and, particularly, as a minister.
Ravi was held in high regard in our church and had ministered to our congregation on several occasions. Ramesh was on the phone either in the living room or kitchen. I was on the extension in his parent’s bedroom (needless to say, they weren’t home at the time). I remember it like it was yesterday. From the satin bedspread that had a stitched design on it, the phone extension was on the nightstand, along with an alarm clock and a lamp.
Ramesh explained briefly the situation to Ravi. I remember Ravi was very angry. More at Ramesh than me it seemed. He was not speaking in kind terms. Only pointing out that this news would ‘kill our parents’ and ‘end your future as a doctor.’ There was no talk of alternatives. I was in shock at this point. This ‘man of God,’ this ‘minister’ was actually suggesting that the baby be aborted! I couldn’t speak.
When I think back, I wasn’t asked for my feelings or input anyway. I had so many questions. How could he be advocating to kill a baby? Was he thinking straight? Oh, he gave the usual platitudes about praying for guidance and forgiveness. Yet his own views left nothing to the imagination.
Within a couple of days, Ramesh had come to my house to speak to my parents. He did all the talking. I just cried. At one point we all were crying and praying. Ramesh was much better at talking the talk, than walking the walk. He convinced them that the best way forward was an abortion. As I was under 18, they had to give their permission. The compelling part of the conversation was when he told them that Ravi had recommended the termination of the pregnancy given all the circumstances. My church-going, God-fearing parents relented and agreed to give their permission. After all, if a minister felt it appropriate, then it must be. Right? Again, I was never asked what I wanted for myself. I was feeling powerless that these adults were making a decision for my life and that of my unborn child.
In 1973, abortions were illegal in Canada, except in the case of a danger to the life of the mother and had to be approved by a panel of 3 doctors. I was in no danger from being pregnant and I was also too young to be aware of these legalities. So how was permission obtained? I found out after the fact, from Ramesh, that another parishioner was the one that made the arrangements. Vicki S. was a nurse, who worked at St. Michael’s hospital in downtown Toronto. Coincidentally (?) she was the best friend and co-worker of Ravi’s wife, Margie. They worked together in the same department. And St. Michael’s hospital was where the abortion was performed.
The procedure itself was a nightmare. My parents dropped me off at the hospital. No one showed up to show support and/or to pray with/for me and my baby. Not Ramesh, Ravi, Vicki or Margie. I was a scared little girl that at this point, felt abandoned and abused.
Vicki went on to be Ramesh’s first wife and Ravi’s sister-in-law. What a cozy, dysfunctional family. All said and done, I dodged a bullet, by not becoming part of it.
I stopped going to this church and having anything to do with these frauds after this whole fiasco. On a couple of occasions, when my brother (who still attended the church) happened to mention that Ravi would be at the church to minister to the congregation, I was very tempted to attend and to interrupt the service by yelling, ‘Hey Ravi, how about telling the congregation about counseling me to abort your brother’s baby!’ Maybe I should have. Except I’m sure he would have painted me as a lunatic.
Fast forward 25 years. My parents had a copy of the Nov/Dec 1998 ‘Christian Reader’ magazine on their table when I happened to visit. On the cover were Ravi and Margie. I took the magazine and read this incredibly nauseating article. If they had tooted their own horns any harder, they would have blown their eardrums. They portrayed themselves as so godly and saintly. I was truly angered to my core. So, I wrote a letter to Ravi, letting him know in no uncertain terms, how I felt about him and asked how he could sleep at night, let alone pretend to be virtuous, given his role in my abortion?
No response would have been better than his self-serving, denial of any involvement in the events all that time ago. In this 3-page, typed letter, he repeats his dismissal of his part in the events several times. It brought to mind the old saying, ‘Thou protesteth too much.’ I was even more furious. What a liar!! It wasn’t until many years later, with the introduction of the internet, that it all became clear to me. Ravi had built a sizable empire with his ‘Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.’ With charitable status in Canada and the US (at least), he had amassed millions of dollars in donations. His cult-like following totally taken in by his fake godliness. Of course he was going to deny his participation!
In 2014, Ravi happened to be having a fund-raiser in Kingston, which is near where I live in Eastern Ontario. It was held at a centre that holds 6,700 people. I certainly wasn’t going to pay to see this fraud. However, again, I was tempted to march with a placard at the entrance. I didn’t, but instead, sent his office an email saying that I knew he was a fraud and now understood why he had lied in that letter of 15 years earlier.
My 16-year old inside needs others to know that he is fake. A ‘false prophet’ as my mother recently said. He is bilking people out of their hard-earned money. He is too big a money-maker for the religion machine to strip him of his ministry. Sadly, this is horrible for the legitimate religious leaders in the world. That are transforming peoples’ lives due to a calling. And not for profit, prestige and adoration that is at the core of this monster.
I believe that if information is meant to come to your attention, that it will, without any effort on your part.
Note from Julie Anne: Spiritual Sounding Board has maintained a compilation of important links related to Ravi Zacharias here: Resource Archive and FAQs on the Ravi Zacharias and RZIM Situation. These are mostly about details arising in 2017-2018 from a lawsuit against him, and articles linked to may include additional background.