Survivor Story: Heather Marks-Nicol

Survivor Story: Heather Marks-Nicol

The following is a letter that I have submitted to Vision Baptist Church of Alpharetta, Georgia.  The pastor and deacons there have received my letter with care and compassion and are continuing to work prayerfully regarding my testimony as well as those of several others.

I do not submit my letter to this site as a form of under-cutting the church, but rather to help educate and engage those watching from the sidelines.  We as a body of believers are accountable to one another.

My prayer, as it has been from day one of my unraveling, is for the truth to be known.  I hope that you will read my testimony below with the knowledge that I am only speaking the truth.  I do not desire any legal recourse personally for how I was treated at Vision Baptist Missions.  My goal is to expose the unfruitful works of darkness as Ephesians commands.

The words below are not just a story.  They represent years of pain, tears, and loneliness.  I invite Vision Baptist Missions to own their responsibility in my situation and to publicly confess their negligence and outright coverup of sin which was well known within the inner ring of this ministry.  I specifically call on Austin & Betty Gardner and Jeff & Mindy Bush and many within leadership to confess their sin of hiding a missionary’s addiction, of endorsing that missionary to another church and board without disclosure, and of abandoning their pastoral and leadership roles in regard to me and my children.

I rest my hope in Jesus, regardless of the outcome, as He has been a dear and constant friend through every moment.  Thank you for being part of my story.

God bless,
Heather Nicol


To whom it may concern,

My letter to you comes with many emotions. I recall my days at Vision Baptist Church with great love and warmth in my heart. I loved my time there with the church and enjoyed growing with many of the ladies from the congregation.

In stark contrast, my time with Vision Baptist Missions is remembered with a very different set of emotions. Confusion, shame, fear, entrapment, uncertainty, injustice are just a few.

My arrival at the training center was with my former husband, Jonathan Marks. We moved to Alpharetta in January of 2010 with two young children in tow and several years of an already tumultuous marriage. I was hopeful that my husband could be mentored and grow into a missionary, a calling he had professed since before our engagement.

What happened was quite different. While I cannot blame AG and VBM for turning my former husband into an abusive addict, I can point to several key traits in the environment carefully curated by AG that only served to enhance what already lay dormant. Just as a tea bag immersed in boiling water emanates the bold flavor contained within, the abusive environment at VBM further brought out the corrupt behaviors of my ex-husband. Tendencies that I had already observed prior to our arrival now grew unchecked, unabated, and even encouraged under the twisted leadership of AG.

Allow me to provide some examples:

1. Women as sex objects

My former husband already struggled, unbeknownst to me, with a pornography addiction as well as a history of substance abuse. Pornography views women as objects to be used for one’s own gratification. As AG taught on marital roles, his speech on the roles and value of women could be easily confused as one in support of objectifying and using women. He frequently commented on the type of clothing we wives would wear, especially mentioning blouses that accentuated the chest. He told the wives that we needed to be available for our husband’s sexual needs, insomuch that a wife should aim to provide her husband intercourse every day for 7 days before an overseas trip so he wouldn’t be tempted, and upon his return home. I would like to take a moment to say that any man who is tempted on an overseas trip to engage in adulterous behavior has far worse problems than whether his wife is sexually available to him at home. During annual missions orientation, the women were taken aside and told that there was no excuse not to provide sex for the man. If we were sick or post-partum, “You have a hand and you have a mouth. And he has needs.” I would like the leaders of VBC and VBM to ask themselves if they would ever want their daughters to be subjected to such teaching. The sexual entitlement that my husband already had grew unabated under this teaching. I struggled with the messaging I was receiving. I wanted to be a good missionary wife, and here my mentors were telling me how. But deep within my spirit, I felt uneasy. I felt as though I didn’t matter as a person, but only as a receptacle for another person’s fulfillment. My personhood was being erased. My needs did not matter. My voice was not heard.

2. Secrecy within marriage

AG had an email ring called OG that the men were part of. For a while, Jonathan and I shared an email address, and I would occasionally see the type of discourse on these email threads. Frequently, it was gossip and cruel words about others whom AG did not think were fit for ministry or who did not appeal to his way of conducting ministry. When I asked my husband what he thought about that type of communication and conduct, he was very upset that I had compromised his position within the ring by reading emails (sent to an account that we shared). Apparently, the men were firmly instructed that anything within the OG ring was never to be shared with the wives. Imagine my confusion when I tried to couple this thought with the biblical concept that two become one, heirs together of the grace of God. Conveniently, male headship was used as the reason for secrecy from the wives. This pattern of living in secret became second nature for Jonathan. He began doing many things without my knowledge. His porn addiction grew. He spent money without my knowledge, including dragging us into $30,000 of debt. He felt no need to keep me aware of his activities or his location. A pattern of lying by omission and general deceit began to develop, all under the blessing of his mentor. Tie this in with the headship mantra that he didn’t owe his wife any explanation or involvement in decisions, etc. and you have a slow-simmering recipe for disaster.

3. People become the problems instead of problems being the problem

Very quickly, I learned by watching the fallout between Gretchen and Jillian that anyone who did not fall in line would be ostracized, even among the women. Any woman who spoke in opposition, or offered a differing view was labeled as rebellious and unsubmissive. Instead of taking the time to address a specific problem, often the messenger of said problem became the target of conformity. That is to say, whoever spoke up was pressured into compliance instead of offered communication, conversation, or clarity to grow. An example of this came when my parents emailed AG asking what his ministry model was for young families at the OGTC. They noticed that their son-in-law wasn’t working very much and was concerned for their daughter and grandchildren. Their email contained only questions to understand the training process and what the next few goals were for their children. They sought to support us, even to the very end. That night, AG called Jonathan and me into the Spanish auditorium in the old building after Thursday service and proceeded to question us on why my parents thought he was doing a bad job. Neither of us had any idea what he was talking about at the time. He filled us in. Immediately, I became the problem. Austin declared that I had been “whining to mommy” about how hard it was there and that he wondered if I would even make it as a missionary wife if I couldn’t hack it in Georgia. I was speechless. I had not been complaining to my parents. But they weren’t stupid. They knew that a man couldn’t support a family by delivering pizzas part-time a few nights a week. Austin did not ask any questions about how our finances were going if we were struggling to make ends meet while trying to accomplish the training expectations. No pastoral care was offered. He looked at Jonathan and told him, “If you want to be a missionary, you’d better get your wife in line.” I left feeling humiliated, confused, and even angry. I would have loved an opportunity to talk about the debt that Jonathan was accruing, to disclose that I felt like what was expected was unattainable for a young family. But the worst part was when we got home, I endured a terrible abusive tirade from my husband for making him look bad, for being disloyal to him, for being discontent, and was forbidden to contact my own parents for almost 9 months. I wept for days over this. I had no idea what I had done to bring this on myself. My parents were completely bewildered at why they suddenly could not have a relationship with me.

4. Sex is the answer to all our marital problems.

In 2010, I discovered that Jonathan had borrowed a substantial amount of money from a family member without my knowledge and was then refusing to repay it. When I attempted to discuss this with him, he flew into a rage (a frequent habit when held accountable). He became so angry and volatile that I ran upstairs in our Alpharetta apartment to hide in the bathroom, fearing for my safety. I locked the door. In a matter of moments, splinters of wood flew at my face as my husband kicked through the door to get to me. I do not recall what happened after that. For those unfamiliar, this is called dissociation – a coping mechanism of the brain when faced with inescapable fear, trauma, or danger. The next day, once Jonathan left for class (as if nothing had happened), I called Betty asking if she could come over. I was still visibly shaken and traumatized from the night before. She was busy, so she sent A former VBM team missionary’s wife. By this point in my marriage, I was enduring emotional, sexual, financial, and spiritual abuse on the regular, but I had no idea that was happening. I was unfamiliar with any of this. All I knew was that my marriage seemed off. It seemed different from others’. I did not have the vocabulary to express, nor the mental capacity to process what I was living. The brain does some interesting things when it is forced to live in fear 24/7. I began to tell her that my marriage seemed different from other people’s, that it seemed that I could never make him happy, that communication over simple things often turned into fights. The former VBM team missionary’s wife did not ask me any questions. She did not invite me to explain. She told me that I needed to have more sex with Jonathan and that all my marriage problems would go away if he was allowed that “release” to decompress his stress. I sat there heartbroken with the realization that she was not someone I could share my reality with. More sex was not going to keep my husband from breaking through bathroom doors in a rage. More sex was not the answer to his porn problem. More sex was not the answer to any of it. But no questions were asked, no pastoral care or concern was offered. I was the problem. I needed to step up to the plate. So she planned a trip to an adult store in Rome, where she encouraged me to choose various items that would “make him happy.” I am physically ill just typing this. The former VBM team missionary’s wife was, unfortunately, only parroting back what AG often emphasized in Friday class, orientations, meetings at Jeff and Mindy’s, etc. Telling an abuse victim that they are the problem, and then offering a solution that further dehumanizes them is abominable.

On another occasion, Jonathan left our home in a rage, took our only vehicle and disappeared overnight. To this day, I still have no idea where he went or who he was with. When I called Betty the next day to tell her this, she sat in my living room snapping green beans, visibly unaffected by what I was saying to her. She asked no questions, offered no pastoral care, offered no follow-up to check on the situation. We never spoke of it again. Years have passed since then, and I wonder if this type of behavior seemed normal to her, and perhaps that is why she offered no empathy or encouragement.

5. Pass the problems to someone else.

When AG finally can no longer ignore a problem, or once he has unsuccessfully tried to pin the problem on someone else, he passes said problem along and feigns ignorance of it. In May of 2014, AG could no longer ignore a reality that I had been enduring for over a year. Jonathan Marks had a prescription drug addiction. He had been ordering pills online from black market pharmacies in India, using love offering money (cash) to pay for them. My estimation is that he spent between $800-$2000 a month at varying times throughout the peak of his addiction. He began pill seeking in November of 2012. Once his local doctor refused to up his monthly prescription, he found the online source. Before you ask yourself why I didn’t speak up, please refer to the above examples. People become problems instead of problems being the problem. I had attempted to confront Jonathan multiple times over this in our home. One time, he grew so angry with me for discovering he was hiding the pills from me (again) that he grabbed me by the throat and threw me up against the wall, then slammed me on the bed, still with a death grip around my neck, shaking me violently on the bed while screaming in my face. His mother was visiting from out of town and happened to walk in in that moment. The admonition from his parents did no good. I determined I would pray my way through this huge, disqualifying issue. I prayed someone would ask him what was going on. I prayed ANYONE would ask me what his deal was as he had lost a considerable amount of weight due to the addiction.

For those unfamiliar with my family’s timeline, this addiction fell right in the middle of our family’s deputation time. Can you imagine with me for a moment what it feels like to be 8 months pregnant in the passenger seat of a van carrying your other 3 children, with your husband popping pills in the driver seat, racing down the highway at 90 miles an hour, only for him to pass out at the wheel a few moments later? This was a regular occurrence for me between November 2012 – June 2014. Allison Clapp had asked me one night at Beau Carpenter’s church plant what was wrong with Jonathan. As a nurse, she could tell something was off. She said, “He either has cancer, or he’s on drugs.” Betty was in the nursery with us. I was a mixture of relieved and terrified when she asked that question. Any response I gave would surely come back to Jonathan and would result in more abuse at home. I chose my words carefully with the intent to ask Allison to lunch and disclose the whole story. I told both ladies, “He has some pain medicine for migraines, and I’m not sure he’s using it properly.” By the time we got back from our next trip, and before I could ask her to lunch, she passed away very suddenly and tragically. I remember going to her calling hours, feeling like I too was dead inside because my only safe person, my ray of hope was gone. Betty never said a word to me about Allison’s question in the nursery that night. Months later, AG finally confronted Jonathan during orientation week in May 2014. I was also in the room. Jonathan attempted to dodge the issue by changing our mission field to China. I wanted to tell 100% of the truth, but at the end of the night, at the end of that week, I had to live with this man. I had to share a bed with him. I had to tread carefully. It seemed that God was finally answering my prayers. AG told Jonathan to get rid of the pills. So he flushed them that night. And that was the end of it. Talk about anticlimactic. No questions regarding how long it had been happening, no follow-up meeting on this issue, no pressing in for more information on what type of medication he had been abusing nor how he had misused ministry money to fund an addiction! I was utterly dumbfounded. It felt like less than a slap on the wrist. I was convinced that AG needed to know more in order to act appropriately in this matter. That opportunity came a few days later when Jonathan suffered severe withdrawal symptoms of serotonin syndrome (which can be life-threatening). I found him in an altered state of consciousness, sweating, feverish, with a high heartbeat. I called Mindy in a panic. She told me Jeff had that happen one time when he quit a medication too suddenly. I asked her for help because he needed to see a doctor. She told Jeff, and AG ended up coming to our house and picking us up in his red truck. Mindy stayed with my kids. AG drove Jonathan and I to an urgent care to be seen. While Jonathan was in the back being seen, I sat in the waiting room with AG. I was hoping he would ask me some questions. In my mind, if I volunteered negative information about Jonathan, I was being an unsubmissive wife. AG had created a culture where speaking up in truth was not welcomed. But if someone ASKED me questions, I determined I would not lie; I would be 100% truthful. To my utter disappointment, AG didn’t ask me any questions. I told him that this had been going on for longer than Jonathan had admitted. He was unfazed. He pulled out his iPad and began reading emails, answering phone calls as if he was in his office. He didn’t even look me in the eye as I attempted to muster the courage to share more. No offer of pastoral concern or care was extended to me. No inquiry to the truth of what had been happening. No questions to clarify and get Jonathan some much-needed help. The provider wrote Jonathan a prescription for his favorite barbiturate (a controlled substance) and we were out the door. I felt dead inside. Instead of getting him help to break free of this problem, AG had driven Jonathan to get a fresh supply!!

Jonathan is a very calculated man and he used our change of field to China as his opportunity to leave Vision. Truthfully, we had been pressured for years by Chris G, Jason H, Mark C, and Mark T that we needed to change fields. (This is another topic that should be investigated and examined from a standpoint of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy.) Suffice it to say that when Jonathan approached Jeff and AG a few months later about changing boards and sending churches, they both were well aware of his prescription pill issue. Instead of denying him a recommendation based on his disqualifying sinful addiction, they wrote him a squeaky clean letter of recommendation to the Gospel Preacher Association and to Pastor Bell at Way of the Cross Baptist Church. This was unethical, unbiblical and irresponsible. I would even argue that this disqualifies both AG and Jeff Bush from public ministry, as they are far from blameless in this. Ephesians 5:11 says, “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.” Their silence (and complicity) definitely taught Jonathan that he could escape accountability.

Just like that, we were on our way to the southside of Atlanta with a clean slate but a suitcase full of dark secrets. No one batted an eye or took me seriously when I raised questions at the new locations. The “man of God” had given his blessing, and I was perceived as a fearful wife. What a gross misuse of influence. As a side note, Jeff Bush came to my former church in Mansfield, Ohio in the fall of 2020. I was curious if he would have anything to say to me regarding what had happened in my life. Jeff has worked hard to emulate his mentor (and idol), and in keeping with AG style, he could barely look me in the eye, offered no pastoral care or concern, took no responsibility for his part in Jonathan’s trajectory. He couldn’t even be bothered to have a conversation with me or ask a single question. Not one.

I love the church. I love the gospel. I love my Jesus. And I have to wonder what He thinks of a ministry model built on planting churches and training leaders, while simultaneously ignoring the widows and fatherless. True religion and undefiled is this, to visit the widows and fatherless in their affliction. What type of religion does Vision hope to replicate? I would suggest that while intentions are good, the methodology is not in line with the heart of Christ.

Our departure in 2014 was not the end of the abuse for me. Jonathan carried with him the manipulative and deceitful tactics that he perfected during our time with Vision, and we moved to Japan in June, 2015. He was not clinically sober (2 solid years of sobriety is required for clinical sobriety). He was financially deceitful and not accountable. Vision helped him learn how to raise thousands of dollars, only for him to misuse it overseas. Vision taught him that one need not be blameless and sober as scripture requires. Vision taught him to treat his wife as an object, not a daughter of Christ. Vision taught him how to use well-meaning people to fund his goals and greed. Vision taught me that loyalty was the only currency that mattered. Truth, integrity, and kindness were of little value in the world AG created, and that lives on today in VBM.

For those unfamiliar with how my mission’s journey ended, I will briefly summarize. In March of 2018, while living in Hokkaido, Japan, Jonathan began to nurse another form of substance abuse. Keep in mind that emotional abuse and rage-filled explosions from him were the norm in my marriage. But once I confronted him on his newest addiction, he became more physically abusive than he had ever been before. He took my phone away, took my car keys, took my visa and residency cards, hid my passport, removed all access to money, and monitored my conversations. By the middle of April, I had been assaulted twice physically and once sexually by my own husband. He had spent nearly $4,000 in a period of weeks, some of which I cannot account for. He threatened to abandon the children and me in Japan when I told our mentors about his addiction. He locked me out of my house. He forbid me from speaking to anyone else. He tracked my location. During one of the physical altercations, he hit me in the mouth. That tooth slowly died, and I now face close to $10,000 in dental reconstruction procedures.

Jonathan Marks abandoned me and his 4 children on a mission field he should have never been allowed to reach. While he returned to the states and was spiraling downhill, attempting suicide, and getting involved in heavier drugs, I have left thousands of miles from home to liquidate our lives and dissolve my lifelong dreams, while an audience of tender, young, first-generation Christians watched what a “missionary” had done. I begged God to preserve the testimony of the gospel in their eyes, that this would not deter them from Jesus. During this time, I contacted AG asking for a character reference for Jonathan should I need it for a custody battle in court. I did not tell AG what to say. I asked him to speak from his perspective. In said letter, he acknowledged that he was aware of Jonathan’s addiction. Yet, he did nothing in 2014 to address it. He was willing to be obliged to write a letter when it suited him as an accessory in helping a tragic situation—that he ironically helped create! I have attached the letter for your reference. Additionally, despite whatever rumors have circled, Austin did not pay for my airfare to return to the states.

God has been good. Jesus has been near me. I have grown to know and understand Him deeply through the past three years. My prayer for those reading this is that God will illumine all hearts and minds with truth. Truth is what sets us free. When we speak the truth, we speak Jesus into a situation. Truth can be scary and it can be world-altering. It is very tempting to live in denial, as I did for over a decade. But the truth is the only way through a trial that brings us closer to Jesus when all is said and done.

God bless,

Heather Marks-Nicol

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