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Exodus from commune ignites battle for souls

Chicago Tribune, Apr. 2, 2001
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/printedition/article/0,2669,SAV-0104020221,FF.html Off-site Link


» See Part one of this two-part series

(...) Over the previous 18 months, with the nearly 30-year-old commune hemorrhaging longtime members, the Mortimers had written a series of carefully worded letters to the leaders suggesting radical restructuring of the group.

They had requested that all the commune's finances--a web of complicated tax exemptions and interlinked corporations--be disclosed to the hundreds of members who worked without pay in the group's multimillion-dollar businesses.

They had asked for term limits for the eight unelected leaders, half of whom were related by blood or marriage and all of whom claimed to be directly ordained by God.

And they had suggested that the commune had become so authoritarian that rank-and-file members were unable to make even the most basic decisions for themselves.

The Mortimers had expected their letters to chafe. But the meeting was going even worse than they had anticipated.

Taylor and the other leaders had ready answers for all of the Mortimers' criticisms.

No one, they said, was getting rich off the commune's income. Much of it was poured into Jesus People's highly respected charities, the rest covered living expenses for the group's 500 members, and all the leaders lived in the same poverty as everyone else.

They explained that for the commune to fulfill its mission--promoting Christianity and helping the poor--there needed to be a consistent group of leaders.

And, they argued, the commune already had loosened its rules in recent years, allowing people to leave the premises without a "buddy"; to serve on committees overseeing the home school, kitchen and church; to get help should they ever choose to leave the group.

Nearly two hours after the Mortimers had entered the conference room, the debate ceased. Heads bowed, David and Nanci Mortimer began to weep. So did several of the leaders, including Dawn Herrin-Mortimer, one of the commune's original founders and David's stepmother.

Finally, Taylor announced a decision that had been made even before the meeting began. In one clipped sentence, the man who had been David and Nanci Mortimer's spiritual counselor, neighbor, colleague and friend stripped them of their jobs, their home, their church, their children's school and virtually their entire social circle.

"Y'all have to leave," he said, exhaustion audible in every word.

Commune's changing face
In the past decade, hundreds have packed their Bibles and their children and their secondhand clothes and left Jesus People USA.

For all these people, leaving Jesus People USA was more complicated than simply walking out the door. It left an indelible impression on their families, their psyches and their spirits.

Of the hundreds who left, some faltered financially, leaving without savings or job references or skills. Some struggled emotionally, winding up in counseling, in substance-abuse treatment, in divorce court, in jail. Some splintered spiritually, concluding that walking away from Jesus People USA was akin to walking away from God.

But as much as these individual lives were affected, the face of Jesus People USA was just as profoundly transformed.

Where once the commune was inhabited by a close-knit family of believers who planned to stay forever, the bulk of its members now stay only for a few years. Where once the leaders knew intimate details of everyone's lives, now most faces in the crowded hallways are a blur of nose piercings and black leather and brilliantly dyed hair. And where once the group received nothing but high praise for its uncompromising Christian values, now it is mired in controversy.

Former members resent that they are given little if any financial support when they leave Jesus People USA, even after working for years without wage for a commune that was netting more than $2 million a year by the late 1990s.

Religious scholars and former members, citing the number of former Jesus People members who fail to thrive in the outside world, contend that the commune does more harm than good by conditioning its followers to depend on someone else to pay their bills, assign their employment and housing, be their conduit to God.

And as people grow increasingly divided in their assessment of the commune, Jesus People USA has become the source of contention that sunders families, friends and marriages.

Persevering despite enmity
Hundreds of people file into a sunken auditorium carrying black Bibles for Jesus People USA's weekly church service. A band sets up its drums and electric guitars near the pulpit.

Jesus People USA, headquartered in Chicago's Uptown inside a former hotel nicknamed The Friendly Towers, needs to hold its weekly services in the auditorium of the middle school next door. There isn't a room large enough in the 10-story commune to accommodate the group's entire membership in addition to the dozens of area homeless people and students from the Moody Bible Institute who show up to worship each Sunday.


A 1994 book, "Recovering from Churches that AbuseOff-site Link," included a critical chapter on Jesus People USA and prompted scores of longtime members to question the group's leadership and move out.

Several years ago, hundreds of former members started trying to recruit people out of Jesus People USA as avidly as they once had encouraged believers to join it.

And, just a few months ago, a highly critical Web siteOff-site Link was launched that countered Jesus People USA's own flashy online presence. It included impassioned entries from former members who describe the commune as a "corrupted, unhealthy and decaying vine" and a "Russian prison."

For all the criticism, Taylor sees nothing but good in the commune he joined at age 18. He sees a group that helps disenfranchised youth and is committed to serving the inner city's poor with a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen and an assisted-living facility for senior citizens.

Because Jesus People USA traditionally has appealed to people who are lost, addicted or simply unable to find a sense of purpose for their lives, Taylor says, it should be no surprise that some members leave just as disillusioned as when they joined.

"A lot of people want a scapegoat because their lives didn't turn out exactly as they had hoped," he says, "so they've decided to blame Jesus People USA."

Paul Martin, founder of Wellspring Resource and Retreat in Albany, Ohio, said of the Chicago commune: "There are a lot of wounded soldiers walking out of there."

Though many former members see their first years away from Jesus People USA as a test of faith, one of the most basic reasons many of them struggled in those days was strictly financial.

Early on--though it's less common today--some members made large donations to the commune upon joining. They turned over their Volkswagens, the profits from selling their homes, the money in their savings accounts.

Jesus People's leaders say they tell new members they can't get any donations back and require members to sign a covenant spelling that out. "Jesus People USA has no obligation to pay continuing or leaving members any sum of money representing any portion of the value of their donated assets or services," the covenant states.

Some of the group's former members--people whose hard work had helped build the commune's tax-paying, for-profit businesses--went on public aid in the 1990s. Others tried to borrow money from family and friends they had shunned upon joining the cloistered commune. Many were shocked to see Social Security statements that showed they were ineligible for some benefits because they had worked for an organization that didn't pay into the fund.

But more than bank accounts were gutted. For families like Jennifer Cadieux's, Jesus People USA permanently polarized those who remained loyal and those who abandoned ranks.

It has been more than a decade since spankings were imposed on sinners or since exorcisms were performed. Where people once faced punishment for leaving the commune without a "buddy" or watching unapproved movies and television shows, those rules are now presented as guidelines. In 1989, Jesus People USA became affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, a national denomination of more than 600 Christian churches; the leaders said joining a larger denomination would ensure they, too, had to answer to someone.

And, in 1998, the commune established a transition committee to teach outgoing Jesus People members basic life skills such as how to establish credit and open a checking account, how to apply for an apartment and file tax returns.