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Is the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps a religious cult? Are members harboring weapons, recruiting and brainwashing children - things they were accused of doing when their headquarters were in California? Or are the self-proclaimed ''Soldiers of God'' simply people who practice their religious freedom, bake and sell bread and insist on privacy?
Current group members aren't offering any clues, but El Pasoan Bob Heddon, 65, remembers why he beat a hasty retreat after joining the Berino group seven months ago. Heddon, still recovering emotionally from the death of his wife, was looking for Christian fellowship and Bible study. What he found in Berino was something quite different.
Group members wore black uniforms with berets, saluted and addressed each other by military titles.
''There wasn't a Bible in sight,'' Heddon said. ''They had sort of holy roller-type prayer meetings in the mornings and in the evenings where everyone rolled around on the floor and talked in tongues.''
No televisions, no radios, no children's toys were in sight at the schoolhouse, Heddon said. The bottom floor was a huge kitchen, where ''soldiers'' baked hundreds of loaves of bread every morning.
The upper floor was full of Wisdom's Cry, a tabloid newspaper published and mostly written by the group's leaders.
Several attempts by the El Paso Times to contact the group by telephone, personal visits and certified mail were unsuccessful. On one occasion, a group member fled into the building when a reporter approached - then declined to answer the door.
Neighbors said they had no idea how many people live in the schoolhouse or whether there are any children there. Heddon estimated 10 to 12 people lived there seven months ago, most of them adults, a few in their teens. Eight years ago, the group had 25 to 30 members in Sacramento, California, according to news reports.
The group's leaders, Deborah and Jim Green, call themselves ''generals.'' They wrote and published a tabloid newspaper called The Battle Cry in Sacramento, and now publish Wisdom's Cry in Berino. Distributed free by group members and through the mail, the newspaper criticizes other religions, forecasts impending doom for mankind and calls upon group members, God's chosen ''soldiers,'' to carry on.
Critic casts doubt on mission
The Greens are intelligent, crafty people who have become adept at controlling others, said Robert Blasier, a Sacramento lawyer. He said he has represented parents of several group members. Today, he is part of the defense team at the O.J. Simpson trial in Los Angeles.
Deborah Green, who went by the name Lila Green in Sacramento, is especially convincing, Blasier said.
''Lila Green is the real power behind the group,'' he said. ''She's one of those people you look in the eyes and you feel real strange - a Charlie Manson type.''
In the El Paso-Las Cruces area, the group's only obvious contacts with the public are through its publications and when members go out into communities to sell bread. If it weren't for its past, the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps might be described as a group of model Berino citizens minding its own business.
In 10 years, the ministry has lived in five different compounds in three states and has changed its name at least three times.
In Sacramento, parents picketed the group's headquarters in the 1980s, claiming children were being recruited and brainwashed, according to a new account in the Sacramento Bee. In 1989, the ministry lost a $1 million lawsuit by default to a former member who said she was brainwashed, imprisoned and forced to divorce her husband and surrender legal custody of her four children. The group called itself Free Love Ministries then, and sometimes the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps in its newspaper.
Near Cool, Calif., and at another northern California compound, the group was accused of conducting militaristic training exercises after it was forced to abandon its headquarters in Sacramento. There, the group called itself Free Land Mountain for a while, Blasier said.
In Klamath Falls, Ore., residents were so suspicious of the group that they refused to eat at its restaurant, effectively banishing it from the town in 1992. ''They called themselves the Aggressive Christian Ministry Oregon,'' said Sue Todd, a local church member. ''The girls all wore blue skirts, knee-high socks and red or maroon sweaters. Some had babies. The community pretty much ignored them. They bought a couple houses - left them in shambles.''
Today, in Berino and at another group compound near Gallup, N.M., neighbors are curious, even though there has been no trouble, no reports of weapons and no obvious recruiting activities.
''It's a mental prison. They tore apart my life,'' said Maura Schmierer of Sacramento. She joined the group in 1982 when its headquarters were in Sacramento. ''They made me give up my children, told all kinds of lies about me . . . made my husband think I was a witch.''
Schmierer left the group, then called Free Love Ministries, in 1987. She filed a $20 million lawsuit alleging she was forced to divorce her husband and surrender legal custody of her four children. Her lawsuit also accused the group of holding her captive in a 5-by-12- foot wooden shed with a low ceiling that prevented her from standing upright.
''They claimed that God had judged me, so they excommunicated me and put me in a shed in the basement,'' Schmierer, now 47, said.
A year later she was awarded a $1 million default judgment against the Greens, the ministry and other group leaders. She regained custody of her two youngest children, but two others remained in the group with their father, she said.
Schmierer said her daughter, Rebecca, 26, returned home five years ago. Her son Nathaniel, 19, left the Gallup, N.M. compound in the middle of the night and came home six months ago. Her ex-husband, Steven Schmierer, is still with the group in Gallup but has changed his name, she said.
Maura Schmierer said her son Nathaniel had been with the group about 13 years, moving with it from California to Oregon and finally to the group's compound in Gallup. After he returned home to Sacramento, he estimated there were a total of about 30 people in the group's compounds at Berino and Gallup. Many of the group members he described, she said, ''are the same ones as when I was there nine years ago.''
Blasier represented Schmierer in the lawsuit. He said no one from Free Love Ministries showed up in court to contest it. As part of the judgement, the court seized the group's four houses and three small art stores. A lien also was acquired on the group's properties near Cool, in northern California.
All the properties were found vandalized after the group left them, he said.
Former group members said the Greens consider themselves prophets, chosen people who hear messages directly from God.
''They separate themselves from the world, believing the world is evil,'' Maura Schmierer said. ''They have some Christian principles, but they totally take Scripture out of context - far out in left field. They've made statements like every other church in America is going to hell.''
Searching for answers
Newcomers to the group often are people who are spiritually lost, looking for answers or help, said Doug Shearer, senior pastor at New Hope Christian Fellowship in Sacramento. He said his church has helped several refugees from the Aggressive Christianity Missions Corps get their lives back together.
''They're forced out of marriages, away from children. It's a wretched thing,'' Shearer said. ''And these types of organizations tend to get worse over time. They tend to develop a paranoia, a persecution complex.''
Blasier, who said he has helped at least 10 families try to retrieve children from the group, said the ministry's control techniques were typical of cult-type brainwashing. New members are forced to divorce themselves from the past, destroy mementos and photos, and reject all family ties. He said group members also are deprived of sleep, which induces a state of submission in many people, according to cult researchers.
- Source: El Paso Times, June 25, 1995
The name, Free Love Ministries, seems wrong.
It suggests a remnant from the 1960's: latter-day flower children teaching peace and universal brotherhood. In fact, the dozen or so people who live at "the camp," four communal houses on X and 22nd Streets in Sacramento that make up the ministry's base, see themselves as warriors doing battle daily with the world and all its demons.
And battle is the right imagery. Jim Green, the ministry's leader, fills his monthly publication, "Battle Cry: Aggressive Christianity," with illustrations of swords, soldiers, knights in armor, battlements, grotesque demons, devils, lists of feared black arts and a barrage of scenes of violence and confrontation.
Green, who does not think his lack of any theological training limits him in his role as spiritual leader, believes in a military approach to Christianity.
"If you want a nice family Church, this ministry is not the place," said Lila Green, his wife and colleague in the ministry. "God is going to send many of the soldiers we're training to the mission field."
Established in Sacramento two years ago, the group, which has at least 50 members, although Green refuses to give exact figures, has become a source of controversy recently after a Christian radio station declined to broadcast its programs because of their un-orthodox content. Some parents also have grown concerned about personality changes they say their children have undergone since joining the group.
The ministry's daily radio program, "Battle Cry," warns listeners to prepare for war as God calls up an army to do battle with Satanic forces, demons that promote everything from homosexuality to karate to psychoanalysis to fairy tales. As many as 6,000 demons can inhabit one person, a Battle Cry broadcast in may said.
The ministry's preoccupation with demons is what led KFIA, a Sacramento radio station that airs programs for a broad spectrum of fundamentalist Christian groups, to stop broadcasting Free Love Ministry's program recently. [...]
Fasting is as central as prayer in the ministry. Jim and Lila Green sometimes go on 30-day fasts, taking in nothing but water, and al members of the community, including the Greens' two youngsters fast.
Last fall the ministry asked its followers to fast 50 days, seven days on liquids only, seven on water only, seven on fruit juice only, 21 on a special bread and water, six days on fruits and two days on vegetables.
Casting out devils and healing the sick are staples of Green's revivalism. Prayer sessions in the large renovated basement room in the Green's house have the flavor of a tent meeting. Followers stretch their arms to the ceiling, babble in tongues, moan and cry out.
Both Jim and Lila preach. Lila, 37, a native Sacramentan who said she attended California State University, Sacramento, and worked at University Medical Center, is perhaps the more riveting speaker of the two.
"She's a hot preacher, a fantastic prayer warrior," her husband says.
Where the Greens are perhaps most at odds with their charismatic Christians is in their use of revelations.
The Greens maintain they have revelations from God routinely and that all of their actions - taking their family off to Latin American missions a few years back, settling in Sacramento and buying their houses - are directed by God.
Many of the more innocuous revelations are passed along to the faithful Battle Cry. In the July issue, Lila Green told how God spoke to her and gave her a recipe to prepare "travel bars," even specifying ingredients such as health-food store powdered mild and directions on wrapping the bars in aluminum foil. [...]
"I believe Jim Green is a Christian, but he's in great error and heading for destruction because of what he's into," said Viola Larson of Apologetics Resource Center, a local fundamentalist group that researches cults and aberrant Christian groups.
"He changes and adds into Christian doctrine. He teaches some things that have nothing to do with Christianity. His ministry is at the very far end of the Pentecostal movement. They're very legalistic and very scary."
Bur the Greens' most sustained and vicious attack is directed at the Roman Catholic Church, described as "Mother of Harlots and Abomination of the Earth" in ministry publications. Those articles usually are written by Alberto Muniz, who was raised a Catholic and had completed two years at the University of California, Davis, by last fall when he joined the ministry and began living at the "camp."
His parents, Terry and Bill Muniz of Pittsburgh, said they became worried when their once-sociable son, who used to read and travel widely and enjoy each theater, told them his only recreation now was reading the Bible and said the world would end soon.
- Source: Diane Divoky, Capital 'prayer warriors' fight myriad demons with vigor, The Sacramento Bee, Sep. 25, 1984
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According to Maura, members of the group were trained to surrender their free will. “We were taught to push any thought from our mind that was not something that the Greens would want,” she says in the program.
Maura says and Rebekah worked from dawn to dusk in one of the picture framing stores controlled by the group. According to the documentary, members ended up giving most of their earnings back to the organization, to cover rent, food, and the required tithe of 10 percent.
Even so, Maura says she never considered leaving. “I was afraid that if I left I would go to hell,” she explains in the documentary.
But Maura’s problems worsened in 1987, when the group accused her of “spiritual adultery,” which she says meant that she had placed something above God in her life. That something was her family. “They said that I idolized my children,” she recalls.
As punishment, Maura says that she was exiled to a shed in the backyard of the group’s compound, where she was given nothing but peanut butter sandwiches to eat and forced to work long hours chopping wood and doing other chores as penance. She was not allowed to have hot water to bathe. Her daughter Rebekah recalls: “They told us that we were not allowed to speak to her, that she was to wear a black scarf on her head and that we were to call her ‘Forsaken.’”
Eventually, after six months of such treatment, Maura was kicked out of the community completely. “I was told that there was no hope for me,” she recalls. “And so they put me out on the street with a box full of belongings.” Rebekah was compelled to sign a letter denouncing her mother, which was then notarized.
Maura finally decided to fight back, filing a lawsuit against the group over her alleged mistreatment. In addition to being imprisoned, she claimed in the suit that she was tricked into agreeing to divorce her husband and give up legal custody of the three young children they had while she was in the group. In March 1989, according to this Sacramento Bee article, a judge awarded her a $1.02 million judgment, after the group’s members refused to appear in court to contest the suit.
From the outset, Jim Green espoused two clearly un-biblical teachings. One teaching was the belief that Christians could have demons living inside of them. [...]
The second un-biblical teaching the group started with was the "Manifest Sons of God" teaching [also known as "Dominion" or "Kingdom Now" teachings]. As a result of this teaching, people committed to Aggressive Christianity are encouraged to become part of the "Man-Child Company" or the "Overcomers". Like many other groups involved in this teaching, they believe that an elite group of people will move out of the Church and overcome all the enemies of Christ including even death itself. This elite group will reach a point of sinless perfection through their total commitment to God, and they will function as a literal expression or extension of Christ on earth. This will include as yet unheard of miraculous power as well as acts of judgment such as calling down fire on God's enemies [who generally turn out to be those against the group].
Consistent with their adherence to the manifest Sons of God teaching, they also told a somewhat gnostic belief in three separate levels of Christianity; that is, that there are thirty-fold Christians (justification), sixty-fold Christians (santification), and hundred-fold Christians (glorification). Or alternately, as one long time member explained it, the thiry-fold Christians are those who are "merely" saved, sixty-fold Christians are those who speak in tongues and have the Baptism on the Holy Spirit, while hundred-fold Christians are the Overcomers, the Manifest Sons of God. And only those in this elite group are considered to be Sons of God and the Bride of Christ.
Thus, the two distinctive and foundational teachings on which the group bases its ministry end up demolishing the free gift of God's grace to sinners and resulting in works, bondage, and spiritual pride.
Every vision has a beginning. In 1979 James and Deborah Green entered the prayer closet and God was there. Speaking to them prophetically, He made it clear that He was raising up an army--His Spirit army. True, there had been other armies claiming the Lord's name, but this was something new. It was by the prophetic Word of the Lord that the Aggressive Vision came to be. Believing what God had said, the Generals took it to heart and began to give their lives so they could live their lives to fulfill the vision. True to His Word, after many years of seeking and sacrifice, determination and hard work, God has brought into existence an army. And that's just the beginning. Over the years God has expanded and embellished the vision, bringing others into the revelation as well, until today God's Holy Tribal Nation shines like a beacon on a high mountain, lifting others up and calling people around the world to give their lives in His service. Yes, God is raising up His army, an army of fearless, obedient disciples--The Army That Sheds No Blood! This is how the Aggressive Vision came to be. The Word of the Lord shall never fail!
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