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Commune's iron grip test faith of converts

Chicago Tribune, Apr. 1, 2001
http://chicagotribune.com/news/metro/chicago/article/0,2669,ART-50867,FF.html Off-site Link


First of two parts

(...) Part concert, part fire and brimstone, part brazen self-promotion, the event, Cornerstone Festival, is the most modern and public outreach of Jesus People USA, a controversial Chicago-based sect that stands as one of the last surviving religious communes of an American generation. Despite an onslaught of criticism that the group is overly authoritarian, secretive about its finances and psychologically abusive, Jesus People USA continues to attract largely the same clientele it has for nearly 30 years: troubled, disillusioned, needy youth.

In the 1970s, when protesting the Establishment was a religion of its own, Jesus People members journeyed wherever the interstates took them, preaching a devout lifestyle to hippies tired of free love and drugs. In the 1980s, they launched punk-rock bands. And today, in an age of feng shui spiritualism and dot-com materialism, the commune draws so many converts through its flashy Web site and national magazine that there is a waiting list to get in.

Those who came to Cornerstone Festival last summer - a young man who hitchhiked from New York, a Christian youth group from west Texas, three sisters who drove their parents' mini-van from a farm town in North Carolina - were lured there by the big-name Christian bands, the campfires and cookouts, the seminars with titles like "Mustard Seed vs. McWorld: The Future of Faith." But almost none of them knew the tempest the commune has stirred in recent years.

They did not know that scores of once-loyal members have fled Jesus People USA since 1990, accusing the commune of exploiting them for free labor in its multimillion-dollar businesses, of making them so emotionally dependent on the group that they were terrified to return to the outside world, of leaving them so spiritually wounded they no longer believe in God.

They did not know the commune's rules discourage adult members from leaving the premises without an assigned "buddy"; require them to forgo worker's compensation and health benefits; and, during the group's earliest years, allowed for them to be spanked with wooden rods as punishment for sin.

And they did not know that all authority in the nearly 500-member group rests in the hands of eight unelected men and women, half of whom are related by blood or marriage.

Jesus People USA is organized around verses laid out in the Bible. From Hebrews 13:17, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls." From Acts 4:32, "No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything in common." And from Matthew 25:45, "Whatever you did not do for the least of my brothers, you did not do for me."

The members of Jesus People USA also are united by the man-made rules that dictate their daily lives. Members are not to date for one year after joining, and they are encouraged to get the leaders' approval before marrying. Couples are encouraged to get permission and counseling before having children. Members work without pay for the commune's businesses.

That some of the commune's rules have been harsh or restrictive - and that members have been excommunicated for breaking them - is not disputed by Taylor. But speaking as a man with his own troubled past, Taylor says Jesus People's leaders have had no choice but to run the commune with an unyielding grip.

"A lot of people who are traditionally out of control come here," says Taylor, a stern but amiable father of two, "so they need serious limitations and guidance to get back on a Christian path."

To make his point, Taylor gestures toward a young woman with purple hair and piercings all over her face. She came to Jesus People USA with a history of drug problems, he says.

"We helped her," he confides.

And that guy not wearing any shoes: "We helped him too."

During their earliest years in Chicago, Jesus People members routinely spent 12-hour days canvassing the city for souls in need of saving. They recruited at O'Hare, handing religious tracts to baggage-laden travelers. They proselytized on the sidewalks of Old Town, sometimes luring potential converts from the orange-robed Hare Krishnas who also worked the neighborhood. And they attracted hundreds of converts with Resurrection Band, which eventually was touring the U.S., Canada and Europe.

"Those first years were some of the best years of my life," says Jon Trott, one of the harried fliers that Jesus People attracted at O'Hare and now one of the commune's most senior and devoted members.

But for all the excitement and purpose the commune's members felt each time they sat down to pray with a potential new Christian, being a Jesus Person was not all Bible studies and singalongs. Concerned that putting so many people from troubled backgrounds under one roof could be a volatile mix and drawing from a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, the group's leaders embraced a set of strict rules.

Men and women were discouraged from talking to one another. Marriages were suggested by the group's leaders, who supervised couples' daily visits.

Exorcisms - in which members were delivered from the evils of lust or tobacco or, in the case of one woman prone to snacking, "the demons of M&Ms" - were regular occurrences. Cadieux recalls being exorcised half a dozen times as a small girl, once for loving her mother more than God.

And it was in that basement, too, the adult spankings began. Following the Shepherding furor of the day - a Pentecostal movement that since has been characterized as abusive even by some of its own architects - Jesus People embraced during the late 1970s a system of corporal punishment for adult members. Because all members were assigned a "covering" - a senior member to whom they were expected to confess sins or thoughts of sins - many of the commune's earliest members were spanked by the leaders with a long wooden dowel known as "the rod."

Jennifer Cadieux, along with a whole generation of Jesus People children, learned to fear what they called "the spanking room." A Northbrook woman, Angel Harold, who has since left the commune, remembers that she and her best friend, both about 6 at the time, would hide behind a recliner outside the room, listening to the thumps and the crying.

About the same time the spankings were implemented, the commune's leaders began another controversial practice that eventually was abandoned. They would "adopt" new members' children if they deemed the biological parents unfit. Although none of the adoptions was ever made legal, the leaders raised the children as their own, often permitting only weekly, one-hour visits with the biological parents.

As they have with the spankings, the leaders today have distanced themselves from the practice, saying they took charge of a handful of children because the parents were so dysfunctional they couldn't care for the youngsters. The leaders admit the adoptions were a resounding failure.

At first Jesus People's money grew on trees.

The commune had long been kept afloat on donations of cash, property and cars from strangers and new members, but as the years passed and membership grew, the group found itself flush with a growing labor pool.

Jesus People's first commercial enterprise - a tree-planting business - earned only a pittance, but it convinced the leaders that by capitalizing on members' diverse talents, the commune could meld evangelism and entrepreneurialism.
In the mid-1980s, using old linotype presses Dennis Cadieux had donated, Jesus People USA began printing wedding invitations, fliers, business cards and brochures. The group then launched several contracting companies - The Porch People, JP Movers, Jesus People Electrical and The Window People. By the late 1990s, almost a half-dozen Jesus People companies were flourishing in Chicago, including Lakefront Roofing Supply, a massive wholesale roofing company that rapidly expanded to three thriving locations.
By 1998, the most recent income tax returns available, the commune was grossing $12.6 million a year and netting well over $2 million.

Before long, Jesus People USA went multimedia. The group transformed its tiny Cornerstone newspaper into a slick, full-color magazine that tackled sexuality, economics, welfare reform, abortion and theology. The commune's summer festival near Bushnell soon was booking well-known Christian acts and attracting tens of thousands. Jesus People USA started a company to publish members' religious books and a record company to sign members' bands.

In 1990, Jesus People USA spent $1.75 million to acquire its biggest communal home to date. The building, once the Chelsea Hotel at 920 W. Wilson Ave., had fallen into disrepair. But with their trademark enthusiasm for lost causes, Jesus People members spent countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars refurbishing The Friendly Towers.

About this time, the commune, which had long been feeding the neighborhood's homeless, began to seek government grants for charity work.

As more people joined - the commune was almost 500 members strong by the late 1980s - the group's eight leaders drafted a three-page, fine-print document called the "Jesus People Covenant." The document included the surrender of any claim to worker's compensation, Social Security or health benefits and for several years it also required members to surrender power of attorney to the leaders. The covenant, Cameron says, served to "explain the consequences of membership."

But the document also fueled skepticism about the commune's finances among some members.

If we have a steady income, they wondered, why do we still use the free health care at Cook County Hospital? Why are all the mothers enrolled in the federally funded Women, Infants and Children program? Why are families collecting food stamps when the commune clearly has the funds to provide three square meals a day? And why doesn't the commune distribute financial reports?

The commune's non-profit charity also used tens of thousands of government dollars to hire Jesus People's own contracting companies to do construction work on the group's homeless shelter and the transitional living center, as well as buying the charities' food, supplies and office space from Jesus People USA. Jesus People leaders say the commune hired its own businesses because they did the jobs cheaper - since they didn't have to pay their workers - and therefore saved precious government dollars.

Almost no one took these financial concerns to the leaders - who lived in the same small rooms and under the same Spartan conditions as everyone else - but by the late 1980s, after almost 20 years of growth, Jesus People USA started to lose longtime members.

One of the commune's most senior couples, Mark and JoAnn Metcalf, decided to leave after Mark refused to sign away power of attorney. With a small inheritance Mark had received from his father's recent death, the couple borrowed a car and loaded it with as much bitterness as baggage.

Although the couple had worked for years without pay in the commune, the leaders did not give them any money on their way out, and most of their friends from the group shunned them upon their decision.

Nanci Mortimer felt her first twinges of doubt standing in the blinding glow of a copy machine.

It was the middle of 1993, and Jesus People USA had just received word that Ronald Enroth, a respected religious scholar, was including a chapter about the Chicago commune in his upcoming book, "Recovering from Churches that Abuse."Off-site Link The leaders were livid and making every effort to persuade Enroth to edit out Jesus People.

Mortimer, a devoted four-year member of the commune, was given the task of copying piles of angry correspondence between commune leaders and Enroth, whose book concluded Jesus People USA was "a tragic tale of good intentions gone bad."

As Mortimer copied, she saw how Enroth neatly divided Jesus People's lives into clinical categories: "unhealthy dependency on group," "gross manipulation of members" and "painful exit process." She made extra copies to take to her room and show her husband, David.

Enroth's book set off a firestorm of debate among religious scholars. Dozens, like Ruth Tucker, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, would defend Jesus People USA vehemently, saying Enroth was "sadly misdirected and his research methods seriously flawed." Others, like Paul Martin, the director of Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, one of the few residential treatment centers in the world for one-time members of "abusive groups," would support Enroth's findings, saying that his facility had been getting a flood of requests for help from former members and that the commune "displays virtually every sign that I watch for in overly authoritarian and totalistic groups."

Jesus People leaders would come to believe the book was "poison in the well." David and Nanci Mortimer - and eventually scores of one-time members - would say years later that reading Enroth's 11-point list of characteristics of an "abusive church" was like experiencing faith in reverse.

"Oh my, we do that," Nanci Mortimer recalls saying as she read Enroth's portrayal. "And that. And that.