Preemptive Love: When a charity runs more like a cult

Founders Jeremy and Jessica Courtney have a history of abusing staff and possibly misleading donors.

Nearly 15 years ago, Jeremy and Jessica Courtney moved to Iraq and started the charity Preemptive Love. They raise millions every year for humanitarian crises in several countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela, and Mexico. They call their followers to “love anyway” and build a world “where everyone rises.”

Inside the organization, it can be a different story. The Courtneys prefer to govern by fear. They see themselves as authorities on gender and racial equality, while in practice they embody some forms of white saviorism. Staff are verbally and psychologically abused. The Courtneys, at times, appear to mislead donors about how their money is used.

Earlier this year, dozens of former staff came forward with stories of bullying, gaslighting, threats, and other forms of abuse they experienced at Preemptive Love. Their allegations triggered an investigation by the same organization looking into the Southern Baptist Convention’s handling of sexual abuse.

In many respects, I’ve come to believe the Courtneys run Preemptive Love like a cult. They demand unquestioning loyalty and punish dissent, perceived or real. They give the impression they will do anything to hold onto power.

I know, because I spent nearly six years working for them.

In the former ISIS-held town of Batnaya, Iraq, 15 miles north of Mosul. April 2017 (Photo: Ben Irwin).

Ifirst encountered Jeremy Courtney at an evangelical conference in Washington, DC.

From the stage, Jeremy spoke of fatwas issued against him by clerics in Iraq. Arab babies with life-threatening birth defects, airlifted to Israeli doctors in Tel Aviv. People who should have been enemies working together for peace.

It was compelling stuff.

A few years later, I was back in DC, this time as Preemptive Love’s head of communications. I was there to meet one of our key partners: a remarkable Iraqi woman named Hala Al Sarraf, founder of the Iraq Health Access Organization (IHAO).

Hala Al Sarraf (third from right), with representatives of IHAO and Preemptive Love, meeting an advisor to former Vice President Mike Pence in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. April 2018.

Hala was one of Preemptive Love’s first partners in Iraq. During the war with ISIS, Preemptive Love worked with IHAO to deliver countless boxes of food to fleeing families. It was largely Hala’s team who went to the frontlines, distributed the food, and dodged the sniper fire. They were sometimes accompanied by Preemptive Love staff (who faced many of the same dangers), but IHAO did most of the work and took most of the risk.

Yet Preemptive Love got the applause for being on the frontlines. We cultivated a reputation for being fearless peacemakers, willing to say and do hard things.

Initially, we shared some of the spotlight with Hala’s team. Jeremy would occasionally thank them in donor videos. Before long, however, he adopted a new policy: no mentioning partners — anywhere, ever. He didn’t even want us using the word partner.

The official reason, when asked, was that naming partners might compromise their safety. But the real reason seemed to be that Jeremy wanted people to think Preemptive Love was personally on the ground, even when we weren’t. “On the frontlines, not the sidelines,” as the organization’s core values say. It was only after intense scrutiny of our work in 2017 that Jeremy reluctantly allowed me to publish this blog post acknowledging that Preemptive Love relies on local partners for almost all its work in Syria.

Plausible deniability

Preemptive Love has long claimed to “build up local organizations, not our own.” But as early as 2016, the Courtneys were starting to focus more on building a brand for themselves, even if it meant playing fast and loose with the truth.

In May of that year, Iraqi forces launched an offensive to retake Fallujah from ISIS control. Tens of thousands of people fled for their lives.

Ruins of Batnaya, north of Mosul, Iraq, after it was liberated from ISIS. (Photo: Ben Irwin)

While Hala Al Sarraf’s team risked their lives bringing food to fleeing families, Jeremy was in his office 250 miles away, in the relative safety of northern Iraq. (That’s one detail often left out of his story of dropping into Iraq in the middle of a war: he landed in one of the safer parts of the country, Sulaymaniyah.)

I have no doubt Jeremy would have been in Fallujah if he’d been allowed to go. But as Hala’s aid workers sent back footage of their work, Jeremy looked for a way to put himself in the story. He went outside and evidently found a backdrop that, to the undiscerning viewer, made it look as though he was in Fallujah, in the same place where Hala’s team was handing out food.

He later wove that footage of himself with footage of Hala’s team, pretending to narrate events in real time, as if he was personally there.

Mind you, Jeremy never actually said he was in Fallujah. But he let you think he was. Plausible deniability is Preemptive Love’s ultimate sleight of hand.

Two clips from Jeremy’s 2016 Fallujah video: on the left, the food distribution in Fallujah; on the right, Jeremy at a location 250 miles away, chosen to make it look as though he was in the same area.

I remember the uneasy feeling I had watching the edited video. I knew I should say something. I also knew Jeremy didn’t tolerate dissent well. I knew the price you could pay for questioning him.

I didn’t say anything. I chose to believe there had to be some reasonable explanation and put it out of my mind. It’s a decision I regret to this day.

Jeremy, for his part, continued taking liberties with the truth when Preemptive Love expanded into Syria later that year. By then, he’d built so much of his brand on the idea that he was on the frontlines that many of his high-profile supporters assumed — and publicly claimed on his behalf — that he was personally there.

He was not.

Jeremy didn’t officially set foot in Syria for two years after Preemptive Love began funding work there. Yet he was loath to correct people, and rarely stated up front that he wasn’t personally on the ground, even when people assumed he was.

The ruins of a home in post-war Iraq. April 2017. (Photo: Ben Irwin)

Jeremy’s story is filled with bullets and bombs, near misses and brushes with death. It’s hard to know which accounts are real and which are exaggerated, even for some of us who worked with him. Because Jeremy has been in active war zones. Yet he is also prone to sensationalizing his experience for the marketing value.

For example, in 2017 Jeremy was in Mosul, Iraq, during the final days of the battle there with ISIS. He returned from one trip claiming he’d almost been killed in an airstrike while filming outside the al-Nuri mosque—and they had caught it on film.

Jeremy did not send the footage to me or my production team to edit, as was our usual practice. Instead, he produced a video himself to show how close the strike had been. One minute, you see Jeremy smack in the middle of filming a message to donors while standing in the rubble. Then he stops, looks up at the sky, then a loud boom, and then… the screen goes black. A few seconds later, Jeremy reappears, having taken cover somewhere else, debris falling from the sky as he tells you an airstrike hit “a couple meters” away.

A few years, I came across the raw footage from that video. In the unedited version, Jeremy looks up at the sky, but there is only a distant thud. No loud boom nearby. No airstrike “a couple meters” away. The explosion you hear in the edited version was added in post-production.

In the original clip, Jeremy never takes cover, because there is nothing to take cover from at that moment. You can see two of IHAO’s aid workers standing behind him, filming on their phones, visibly unfazed. You can hear someone laughing off-camera.

Jeremy was in an active war zone that day. There was danger. But it seems he manipulated the story to sensationalize that danger — and put himself at the center of it, instead of the people we were there to serve.

Bridges burned

Jeremy and Jessica Courtney have burned a lot of bridges on their way to making Preemptive Love what it is today. In my experience, you either show the Courtneys absolute loyalty, or you are cast out. Erased and forgotten.

Their career began in the early 2000s as Christian missionaries in Turkey. After struggling to win any converts, Jeremy had a religious epiphany (as described in his book Love Anyway), in which he heard God tell him to stop proselytizing. Leaving behind the evangelical world they grew up in, Jeremy and Jessica moved their family to Iraq.

They continued taking money from their evangelical base. Many donors to this day think Preemptive Love is a religious charity doing religious work. The organization is often praised for its “ministry.” An FAQ page on Preemptive Love’s website notes that they are not religiously affiliated—but aside from this, the Courtneys don’t always bother to correct the record.

Plausible deniability.

Over the years, Jeremy and Jessica have churned through staff and partners. Dozens of former colleagues from every level of the organization, in the US and Iraq, have left because they were verbally abused or mistreated. I’ve seen the Courtneys mercilessly berate coworkers in front of others. At the main office in northern Iraq, the Courtneys rule with an iron fist—according to some accounts, deciding who is allowed to socialize with whom outside work.

Jeremy and Jessica claim their wartime experience in Iraq gives them authority to speak into other kinds of conflict, including the Black Lives Matter protests in the US in 2020. Yet they can exhibit profound racial insensitivity.

For example, when they asked one of my colleagues to develop a curriculum for peacemakers, Jessica Courtney rejected the content she wrote to address racial injustice, on the grounds that it would make white people “uncomfortable.” Jessica was more concerned with making these gatherings a “safe space” for white women than for members of marginalized communities.

During one staff call shortly after the murder of George Floyd, Jeremy instructed everyone to close their eyes and meditate on the details of Floyd’s agonizing death. “Think about how long it took for that police officer to strangle that man on the ground,” he said. He gave no thought to what it was like for our Black colleagues to be told to visualize the racist violence they live with every day.

Earlier in 2021, Jeremy tried to organize a panel event on what he saw as Black complicity in the surge of anti-Asian violence during the Covid-19 pandemic. “There’s a whole conversation we’re scared to engage about violence against Asian-Americans,” he said in a voice memo, “which, anecdotally I’m hearing from Asian-American leaders, and statistically I’ve seen some stuff that seems to bear this out, is carried out more by Black people and brown people than it is by white people.

Spoiler: it’s not.

Jeremy never shared any evidence to support his claim, because there wasn’t any. It took a concerted effort to stop this event from happening. Even after I shared research showing the exact opposite of what he claimed — namely, that Black people are less likely than whites to commit violence against Asians — Jeremy stewed for months over the lack of support for his idea.

Meanwhile, the Courtneys at times seem to gaslight their own donors. Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, Jeremy announced he would forgo his $165,000-a-year salary to avoid any cuts to programming or staff. He quietly reinstated his pay three months later. Preemptive Love took a $494,400 PPP loan in 2020, which it had forgiven several months later, despite being well on its way to its best fundraising year ever.

That year, Preemptive Love raised $15 million. The amount they spent on real, tangible programming—specifically, grants to local partners or their own emergency relief and job creation efforts (not including salaries and office expenses claimed as a programming cost)?

$1.6 million.

(Here is a deeper dive into Preemptive Love’s financials.)

Screenshot from a 2020 fundraising video.

The Courtney’s cult-like behavior

Most of the Courtneys’ influential friends who gave Preemptive Love a boost in its early days no longer go to bat for them. Many of their original partners are no longer affiliated with them.

The Courtneys stopped funding Hala Al Sarraf’s Iraq-based team shortly after they helped Preemptive Love secure its registration with the Iraqi government, giving the Courtneys the ability work anywhere they wanted in Iraq without relying on local partners for access. Yet Preemptive Love still claims that it “builds up local organizations, not its own.”

Dozens of colleagues from every level of the organization have left because of verbal abuse and mistreatment — this on a team that numbered 12 people when I started in 2015.

In my experience, what the Courtneys are most committed to is building their own empire. Making themselves the hero of the story. And they don’t let anyone get in their way.

They run Preemptive Love in ways that feel more like a cult than a peacemaking organization: stifling dissent and debate, frequent loyalty tests, the erasure and demonization of almost anyone who leaves. Younger, less experienced staff are underpaid and overworked, so they can’t afford to quit and don’t have the bandwidth to look for another job. Weekly staff meetings occasionally feature quasi-religious meditations led by Jeremy. On a May 2021 call, he suggested Preemptive Love’s “community of peacemakers” (that’s what they call their monthly donor program) might someday become an alternative to the church and other religious organizations.

The Courtneys claim to welcome discussion and debate from their staff (another of Preemptive Love’s core values). But in practice they demand absolute, unquestioning fealty. Jeremy has told me and other staff that he and Jessica are “the only ones who know the rules [at Preemptive Love] well enough to know when to break them.” He has said that if you question his integrity on any matter, you will be done at Preemptive Love — fostering a culture of fear that discourages people from speaking out.

Over time, I grew accustomed to the periodic loyalty checks. When a former colleague posted a veiled critique of Preemptive Love on her Instagram, Jeremy interrogated me for an hour-and-a-half about who from our staff had liked the post and why and what it meant about their loyalty to him and the organization.

I’ve seen Jessica Courtney dress down entire teams for “living in a posture of fear” when they didn’t immediately jump on board with her agenda — while at the same time telling staff that they’re supposed to “believe the best about each other.”

A now-deleted Instagram post in which Preemptive Love sought to raise money off the 2021 Haiti earthquake that killed nearly 1,500 people, despite having no operations there.

In 2021, Preemptive Love launched a costly new campaign, mailing “peacemaker packages” to thousands of monthly donors, containing expensive, designer-quality shirts. When staff raised concerns, Jeremy assured us that no donor money was used to fund this initiative. At one point, he claimed a “private donor” was covering the cost. Later he said that he was the private donor. Still later, he said the Preemptive Love board and founders (that is, he and Jessica) had “allocated” $150,000 to pay for the packages, without sharing how this allocation was financed.

None of his explanations accounted for the full cost of these packages: more than $208,000, according to the invoices that I saw.

That was in addition to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a glossy print magazine and more than a half million dollars on a film project that failed to come even close to paying for itself.

Staff who voice reservations about these expenditures and other leadership decisions quickly become targets of reprisal. In less than one week in June 2021, three members of the executive team were purged. One resigned under duress and two were fired, including the only two women in executive leadership other than Jessica, and the only woman of color. One of the individuals in question had filed a formal whistleblower complaint two days before she was terminated.

Since then, Preemptive Love’s head of human resources has also resigned. Of the original seven executive leaders, the only ones who remain are Jeremy, Jessica, and their longtime friend, JR Pershall.

I’ve spoken to former staff in Iraq who were let go after raising concerns about how money was spent or how people were treated. Those who leave, willingly or otherwise, are threatened into silence. “You came into our organization a respectable person,” one colleague was reportedly told. “Make sure you leave that way.”

Jeremy once suggested he wouldn’t hesitate to fire every last person at Preemptive Love, except for him and Jessica, if that’s what it took to hold on to power. Based on what I witnessed in my nearly six years there, he meant it.

With Preemptive Love staff and program participants in Mosul, Iraq. November 2018.

Isaw good and bad times at Preemptive Love. I made lifelong friends. I believed in the vision.

Despite a toxic environment, much of the actual work done by frontline staff is meaningful. There are families in places like Iraq and Venezuela who’ve gotten food to eat because of Preemptive Love and especially its remaining local partners. There are refugees who have jobs and agency over their lives again. Some of the staff at Preemptive Love are among the most brilliant, dedicated people I have ever known.

But I’ve seen far too many colleagues gaslit, abused, and driven out by the Courtneys. I’ve experienced their abuse myself. Several of my former coworkers have had to seek counseling after their time with Preemptive Love. Many current staff live in fear today, afraid to speak out because of the reprisals they know will come.

I stayed quiet far too long—hoping, believing things might get better. Telling myself I could help make things better if I stayed. Eventually, I realized that staying only legitimized the Courtneys’ abuse of power. I was complicit, especially because of my leadership role.

So I left. I stopped being silent.

To all my friends and former colleagues who’ve been hurt by Preemptive Love, I am sorry. I see you. I believe you.

To the remaining leadership and board: Preemptive Love says it wants to remake the world. But first, it needs to remake itself.

NOTE: This post was originally published on Medium. You can view documentation for some of the claims made in this post here. 

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