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"The JP story is a tragic tale of good intentions gone bad," writes a former member of the Jesus People USA.
JPUSA ("ja-poo-zah"), as it is commonly called, is a Christian community founded in 1972 in inner-city Chicago. It ministers to the poor and the elderly and operates a Crisis Pregnancy Center in the Uptown section of the city. It is perhaps best-known to the evangelical world through two highly visible ministries, Cornerstone magazine and REZ, a Christian rock band. JPUSA's annual Cornerstone Festival features Christian rock music, conducts seminars on various topics, and draws thousands of young people. In 1989 JPUSA joined the Evangelical Covenant Church. A council of nine elders-pastors presides over the community of about five hundred members.
There is a side to the JPUSA story, suggested in the opening statement, that is largely unknown. I became aware of problems in the group after receiving letters and phone calls from former members who had read Churches That Abuse and saw parallels with their own experiences. The pain and frustration they expressed point to a longstanding pattern of abuse within the organization that cannot be denied, despite some evidence of amelioration in recent years.
One former member, whom I will call Alan Kaufman, joined the Jesus People in 1971, when the group was still a traveling ministry and had not yet settled permanently in Chicago. He and his brother, both teenagers and new Christians, were attracted to the group by the Resurrection Band. He is now in the counseling profession and states that his experiences in JPUSA help him to empathize with his clients. "I have worked through things that were difficult and painful, and that process has given me a greater understanding of myself and of my God and an inner strength.
"I come from a dysfunctional family-an alcoholic father and a codependent environment. I was a troubled child, forever seeking who I was and trying to find my place in life, more so than the average adolescent. For the three years before I became a Christian, I was involved in the occult, which contributed to my emotional and spiritual instability."
A background like Alan's is common among people who find themselves in abusive church situations. Many join religious groups looking for focus for their lives and looking for community as a place to find themselves. In the book Community and Growth, Jean Vanier remarks on the appeal of a Christian communal environment: "Coming from the insecurity of broken families or from families where there is lack of warmth and love, young people are in desperate need of communities where they can re-find their deeper selves and experience values that give meaning and a certain structure to their lives."
"One of the first things I noticed was the rules," Alan relates. "It was a communal ministry, and they imposed strict regulations which included limited conversation between men and women, appropriate dress, no television, radio or newspapers. We were cut off from all outside media with the exception of tapes of approved Bible teachers. In the beginning the ministry was actually a discipleship training school with daily classes, hours of prayer and group worship. I enjoyed those, and I believe they were a foundation for my Christian life today."
Alan soon began to question some practices of the group "such as the increase in heavy-handedness." The Herrin family assumed the leadership, and, Alan reports, "With the new leadership, I began to see a new agenda develop.
"We were told to solicit donations, something I had a problem with. Cornerstone newspaper was small at that time. We hit the streets, sometimes twelve hours a day, five days a week, to witness, to pass out literature and to ask for money. I seldom came home with more than four or five dollars and a lot less on some days, and I was reprimanded continually for my lack of support. I began to fall out of grace with the leaders at that point.
"My brother had become an integral part of the ministry because of his musical talent, and we were very close. The leaders saw this, and they disapproved. They said that we were too much alike, and they requested that we not spend anymore time together. We were separated and isolated from the familial support we could have drawn from each other. They kept us apart, and I found that to be most hurtful.
"I am a guitarist, and my guitar privileges were taken away from me. I was accused of being possessed by a demon of music. Over time, most of my recreational privileges were taken away, and I began to rebel. I was bucking the system because I didn't like what they were doing and didn't feel it was necessary for them to take from me all the things that were important to me. That is where I believe the emotional abuse began to set in.
"I had my faults and was guilty of many things. I was rebellious in many ways, but I was an adolescent. I was growing up into young adulthood, and the freedom to explore boundaries was not afforded me. They thought I should mature and stand as an adult even though I was an adolescent. Skipping that very difficult and necessary transitional period in life was impossible and absurd. I told them that, and I was reprimanded for being rebellious and unwilling. I was not permitted to fully participate in the ministry."
Alan and other former members testify that at one point the rod was administered as discipline to both adults and children in the community. "The combination of the spanking, the belittlement, the emotional isolation, the familial isolation, and the various desensitizing methods that JP used resulted in the hurt I experienced. I don't know if the leaders were even aware of what they were doing most of the time, that they were taking parts of my life away from me." (The use of corporal punishment with children has diminished, and the practice of adult spanking was abandoned many years ago by the community.)
A disagreement over music with Glenn Kaiser, one of the elders, was the last straw. It was" one of the final verbal blows I took from him. I was frustrated and angry. I felt stifled, and I was struggling. So I approached the elders about leaving. They sat me down and began an interrogation process. The questioning turned to accusations, and accusations to condemnation. They said that if I left JP, I would amount to nothing; I would backslide and go to hell. I was stunned.
"Dawn Herrin took me aside and said, 'If you leave here, you will always be a boy. You will never grow up. You will never amount to anything. You can't leave here; this is where your life is.' I was thinking to myself: this is where my death is.
"I left those two encounters reeling. I couldn't sleep or eat, and I lost weight. I was very distraught. Finally, after much thought and prayer, a friend and I decided to runaway.
"I felt strongly that for a person to be effective in the kingdom of God, he must be released when he left a ministry. Before I left JP, I asked the elders to release me. I needed to be released in the Spirit and in love and to be blessed. They would not do that. They flatly refused. That really hurt me.
"I stayed at another Christian ministry in Florida trying to find some solace. I was confused, the walking wounded. While with the people in Florida, I had what was one of the most intimate and beautiful experiences with God that I had ever had in my life. I couldn't sleep; I was in pain. About three o'clock in the morning, I got on my knees and prayed for the Lord's direction. All of a sudden, the room lit up. I can't describe it. I felt that God had entered the room, and then I felt something inside which I can only describe as the deepest hug I have ever felt in my life. It was hugging my being and holding me. I wept more deeply than I had ever done in my life. I felt loved in that very intimate moment. Almighty God reached down to one of his lesser children and told him that he loved him. I also felt in my heart that he had asked me to go back to JP and make things right. A week later, I went back to Chicago.
"I humbled myself before the leaders and asked them to forgive me, which was perhaps the hardest thing I have ever done. There is an old saying that you can never go back home. That is very true. After two months back at JPUSA, I was still questioning the motives of the leadership. I could not agree with how they were handling people or finances. I was very critical of what they were doing. I could not and would not buy into it. Instead of accepting me back and working with me in a healthy way, they subjected me to more submission. I was always being watched and having to disclose my thoughts.
"One time I was talking to Glenn, which was difficult to do, about why I left. I told him that I had been a Christian for many years and didn't feel that I had left with any bad motives. He stopped me and said, 'You've come back. You were never saved before. You are saved now. Forget about the other times. You are just beginning.' I felt violated after that, and that was when things began to fall apart for the second time. I knew it would not work. It added insult to injury.
"When someone takes away all that is precious to you and all that you know to be true, and throws it in the garbage can and says, 'No, you were never saved, but now you are,' he is playing God.
"My own brother would not even listen to my case, so I went before the elders again. 'I have apologized and made amends with you about the way I left before. Will you please release me in the Spirit to go and be productive in the Lord?' I asked four different elders, and each one of them denied me that. I was devastated. So I left again, feeling cold, miserable, hurt, and alienated."
"I constantly moved to avoid stopping long enough to settle down, to allow my mind to hear the message again: 'You will never amount to anything. You'll never grow up. You will always be a failure. You will backslide and go to hell.'
"JPUSA didn't help you deal with aspects of sexuality, resentment, and anger. There was a lot of suppressing and repressing of feelings in the organization. Members had no privacy and no room for failure. Failure is a part of life and a part of our Christian life. It is the proper dealing or improper dealing with failure that makes the difference. When a person does not help you deal with failure of any kind, he is hindering you.
Someone who is not free to share his feelings will mask it, cap it, or hide it, but it won't evaporate.
"I think that many people who leave an abusive ministry experience some of that as well. Initially they show the signs of one who has lost a loved one; and they are the loved one that was lost. They go through a natural grieving process, but many of them don't follow through. They stop at the point of resentment and anger at the loss. Subsequently, they gravitate to their old lifestyle. They have nothing and don't look to the future. The past is shot, and the present is nothing but directionless groping.
"I was caught in that for a short period of time, but I did deal with my anger in a healthy fashion. I got a visitation from God, which I think is rare and unique in life, and I am very blessed and fortunate to have had that happen. God took time to visit his lost child who was floundering, and he put me back on the right road.
"But people who could not get the support they needed were at a stalemate and couldn't move backwards or forwards. I have talked to people who left years after I did, and the first thing out of their mouths is anger because of what the ministry did to them. They must deal with that unresolved anger.
"The anger and rage you feel when you realize that you have wasted all those years, that you have been robbed, broken down and used, is intense. You sold your life only to be dumped, kicked out, and given the bum's rush.
"I could have been a statistic of one who is burnt by a church and left to wander aimlessly and drop out of the Christian faith. But I had tenacity and stamina. I looked not to man, but to God."
Many of the former JP members I have talked with have moved beyond anger, but long for an apology or an acknowledgment that they have been hurt. I sense that for them, the lack of an apology is a stumbling block to full recovery.
"You can talk about cures and recovery," Alan says, "but by no stretch of the imagination is it ever easy. There has to be a real willingness on the part of the individual who has left a ministry which has hurt them, to let go and move on. JP doesn't set out to hurt people, but they operate in such a way that if you get in the way, you are run over. There is no room for deviation in the machine. If you do not agree one hundred percent with their agenda, you are out.
"I think I have gained back my objectivity because I have grieved, have been angry and depressed, and have regained my sense of perspective. I now understand that my significance is not based in my release or in their denial of that release. I understand that the grace of Christ is sufficient in all areas and all matters. For me that was the simple answer. For others, it may not be quite so simple. They may need to have further therapeutic intervention or counseling. Some of these answers cannot be simply doled out with quotes from Scripture. Sometimes it takes intensive one-on-one therapy.
"I am a firm believer that there is room for the grace of God. He can miraculously change things, and he has. In my life he did. My formative years were spent at JPUSA, and that did take a toll. But I speak without anger or vindictiveness. I don't want to attack Jesus People.
"When a member leaves an abusive church or is forced to leave, he walks out with virtually nothing. He leaves a part of himself behind; the years he has invested are gone. You need to deal with loss and bereavement, confusion and anger, and finally, acceptance of. that loss. Many fail to accept it and move on. They need to understand that their significance is not in what they had, but it is in their relationship with Christ. They have lost a few years, but they have not lost their soul.
"Everybody should have assistance when they leave. No one should have to tough it out on their own. They should seek the assistance of another, one who has regained confidence and objectivity after leaving. Or they should seek help from a counselor who can help them. That is why I became a counselor. I want to be someone who can be there when the time comes."
Peter and Tracy Vaughn fought many of the same internal battles as Alan after they left JPUSA. Peter was a member for twelve years, and at the time I interviewed them, he and Tracy had been out five. They struggled with newfound independence.
"I feel very strongly about my independence now as far as interpreting and understanding my relationship with God," Peter relates. "In JP, other people interpreted it for me. It took years to get to that point in my life where I could do it on my own.
"JP does a great job with people who have serious problems, who are immature and lack self-control. The way they help them is by imposing a control. As long as you stay there and follow the rules, you will get better; but only up to a point. Jesus People gets you to the point where you are teachable and not self-destructive anymore, but JP doesn't allow you to take the next step, to mature and become independent of them. They don't give you responsibilities that sit squarely on you. Keep your job, do what you are told, and they will take care of everything else. Some people there are afraid to leave because they are overwhelmed by the thought of being out in the real world alone. It is almost like being in Russia right now, where people don't know what to do with so many choices.
"People who leave JP don't know how to handle their personal finances. Some members haven't seen a checkbook in twenty years. Friends of ours who left didn't know how to do laundry. They threw a circuit breaker and thought they had destroyed the world. We cosigned a car for them, helped them get bank accounts. Very practical things like these can be huge problems when you first emerge from a communal setting.
"The first thing Glenn Kaiser said to me when we talked about leaving was, 'People who leave here don't do well.' Is that a reflection on them or a reflection on me?
"JPUSA is too insecure to allow God to finish the work he began in these people. They have no concept of a Christian community where people are welcomed in and welcomed out, where they can come and grow through the community. JP is blind to that, but they are beginning now to treat people who are leaving a bit better because some of us have come back to 'haunt' them.
"When people leave JP, they want to be dependent. They latch onto ex-members because they are used to being dependent on somebody. We have tried to help quite a few people who have left. You have to wean them. You give them the tools of survival and push them out."
Peter still struggles with spiritual confusion. "We have had a hard time getting involved in other churches. We looked at several different denominations. We did join another church for a few years in New England and when we moved back to the Midwest, they threw us a send-off party and gave us a scrapbook. I showed it to a JPUSA pastor and asked him why didn't we get one when we left JP? Why couldn't they say, 'We love you; we wish you wouldn't leave, but we wish you well. Stay in touch'?
"What I am looking for in a church is a place where I can be intellectually honest. I want to ask the tough questions. I have questions that were never resolved when I was a young Christian. I have to find out what I believe, not what others have told me to believe. I'm not going to roll over and play dead ever again."
Tracy also reveals ambivalence about spiritual matters. "I have had to deal with much emptiness since I left. I didn't know how to hear God's voice. I never had to, because I always asked somebody else. I have regrets about how long I stayed there, but I don't regret going there. I did learn about compassion for the poor and getting along with other people.
"I felt guilty about leaving. We both had dreams after we left. In my dreams I was always being bad.
"The crisis point was the third year after we left. I didn't know if there was a God, or, if there was one, why he had permitted these things to happen to us. I got angry frequently. Now I have figured out what I believe, and I don't want anyone to tell me what to do or believe. I don't want to go to church anymore, and that makes me feel guilty."
Peter concludes, "Some of the things my wife and I have done to make the transition are unorthodox. I had to express my anger in a nonviolent way; I yelled and screamed. I had to confront the personal demons in my life and make the choice to put them behind me. I slew the dragons myself, for me. That was an important step."
Steve and Bridget are examples of former members who have felt the effects of the JPUSA community on their marriage and their children. Both came to JPUSA as adolescents, and they were married there.
"I lived at JP for fourteen years until last year, when we left," Steve reflects. "I grew up there. We have friends and family there. I don't like what's going on at JP' and I have told them so. I don't want to discard the relationships that are important to us, and that is why I have tried to keep the lines of communication open, but it is difficult. Other ex-members chose to join JPUSA; I didn't, and neither did my wife. We were both sent to JP by our parents.
"Before I came to JPUSA, I had suffered from depression and loneliness, but at JPUSA I wasn't lonely anymore. My dad left us when I was two years old, and my mother was an alcoholic. I felt as if I were nobody. Both my parents were abusive. When I arrived at JPUSA, I felt I really had a family for the first time. A JP pastor and his wife became my foster parents, and their kids are like brothers to me. A lot of the pain I've had has come at their hands, but they were following guidelines set down by JPUSA. I know what it was like growing up there; many ex-members don't."
Bridget came to JPUSA just after her fifteenth birthday. "It wasn't my choice to go there. I was adopted as a child and lived with my foster parents for six years before they shipped me off to JP. I was a rebellious teenager, but I had not done anything really wrong, so I don't know why they sent me to JP. I wish they had never done it."
Finding a new family in a controlled environment like JPUSA's is a mixed blessing. The members discourage contact with families, saying, "We're your parents now, and this is where God wants you." This displacement of parents and family is viewed by Peter Sommer as a crucial problem in groups like JPUSA:
Eventually all of us must find an identity apart from our family of origin-we must grow up. But ... the unhealthy group takes a critical step here: rather than moving away from my parents to Christ himself, I move away to the group or its leaders. This feels like growth. In fact, it is only a trade. Although the people, places, activities, and vocabulary may all be new and stimulating, growth is not occurring. Dependent children in fact are not growing into responsible adults they are transferring dependence to the new authority figure.
Coming out of this over-protective environment, Steve and Bridget felt totally unprepared for marriage. Neither knew much about sexuality, and neither knew the other had been sexually abused as a child. "In JP you are not allowed to talk about your past life when you're engaged. If something happened, we were told that it would take care of itself. What happened years ago is only in the past and you have to deal with what's now and what's ahead. If I had known the truth, I would have postponed the wedding. Our honeymoon was hell-a nightmare. And we weren't even allowed to set our wedding day; they set it for us."
In light of the JPUSA experience, Steve and Bridget say they have a difficult time disciplining their two children. "It is hard to be good parents when you have no models to follow. We didn't have any parents to look up to. It has been a struggle for both of us."
The couple has had a long road back to normalcy since leaving JPUSA. "We go to church," Steve says, "because we know that if we're faithful to God, even if we may not feel him or may not understand it all, he will stay faithful to us. That is why I think we've stayed where we are now. For almost a year we did not go to church at all."
Steve described the environment at JPUSA as "a very mechanical type of spirituality. I told one pastor when we were leaving, 'I'm leaving because I want to be a Christian, but I can't be one here. It's too easy for me to become a machine and just follow the crowd. I'm twenty-five years old, and I'm burned out physically and spiritually. I feel like I'm old. I want to take my Christianity and be responsible for it myself because on Judgment Day, God won't be asking you what happened; he'll be asking me.
When Steve and Bridget left, they tried to get help through a counseling group for a while, but it proved to be a painful experience. "We couldn't share a whole lot because we were uncomfortable with a group setting," Steve says.
Bridget responds, "I'm afraid to get to know people and to really open up with them, even one on one. I've been hurt too many times. I can't deal with talking to people. I don't want to meet people. I'm afraid. I don't really trust anybody, even my husband. There are many times I feel like committing suicide because there is so much pain. Everything-marriage, children-happened too quickly. I hate my life. There are times I want to forget about my husband and kids and end it all. Sometimes I want to crawl into a hole and never come out.
"Right now I am trying to figure out where God stands in my life. I have been so ripped off. Do I blame God? Do I blame my parents? Do I blame the ministry? Whom do I blame? I don't know where God is in my life at this point; my walk with God is very uncertain. I am faithful about going to church, but I don't know if I want God in my life right now."
Steve once told Bridget, "I'm not ever going to be normal, and neither are you. We're not going to be normal, average persons. I would have loved to have been in a high school and dated you. I would have liked to have made decisions-the right decisions or the wrong decisions, but they would have been my decisions."
In spite of it all, Steve is optimistic about the future. "No matter what, we are deeply in love with each other. The bottom line is that the only thing we definitely, positively know to be true is that we love each other, that our kids love us and we love them. That is one thing JPUSA didn't give us. They didn't plan on that happening."
1 Shawn Haugh, "The J.P. Experience," unpublished paper, 1990.
2 Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 4.
3 Peter Sommer, "High Pressure Christian Groups: The Broken Promise," unpublished paper, 1992, 7.
The full text of Recovering From Churches That Abuse has been placed online at Apologetics Index by permission from the book’s author, Dr. Ronald M. Enroth.
© Copyright 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth.
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