25 Oct 2007

The offspring of 'Jesus Freaks'

San Jose Mercury News

October 25, 2007

Shocking book delves into the inner machinations of the Children of God

By Rebecca Rosen Lum - STAFF WRITER

David Berg was a small-time circuit preacher whose flocks ran thin until the late '60s, when the sexual revolution and the Jesus movement bloomed at once.

The sex-obsessed Berg wove the two into a double helix, drawing from the remnants of hippie life -- people with nothing to lose, nowhere to go, and no Christian background to serve as a compass while in the thrall of a man who purported to live by Scripture.

His Teens for Christ became the Children of God, with enclaves in California and Texas expanding into a evangelical empire across continents, yielding profit and power for the "end-time prophet" and his inner circle.

But writer Don Lattin is only so interested in what makes a self-anointed prophet run. Lattin, whose book "Jesus Freaks" hit bookstores this month, cares more about what happens to children born into authoritarian groups -- the offspring of those who voluntarily cast their lot with people like Berg.

Subtitled "A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge," the book follows the brief, tormented life of Ricky Rodriguez, Berg's designated prophet prince.

As the longtime religion writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, Lattin plumbed what happens to children in cults, including the Church of Scientology, the Moonies, the Hare Krishnas and the Children of God (which would later be renamed The Family, or Family International).

Rigorous indoctrination

In each, "The kids didn't have the chance to grow up and be themselves," Lattin said in an interview just before the book's release. "There were hours and hours a day of indoctrination. In that way, the Children of God was the worst."

The accumulated years of indoctrination exploded for Rodriguez in a murder-suicide in 2005 that shook Lattin and compelled him to write "Jesus Freaks."

"I was so taken aback by what drove Ricky, raised by The Family, to kill someone else and take his own life," Lattin said. "He was the ultimate example of what can happen to kids when they're raised in an atmosphere of severe indoctrination.

"It's a really dark story, a sensational story," Lattin said. "I tried to get in the mind-sets of these people."

The Children of God melded apocalyptic Christian evangelism with mind-boggling sexual mores. Lattin stunned readers when he first detailed the unorthodox practices of the Children of God in 2001.

Berg dispatched young, attractive female followers to lure male converts through sex in a practice he called "flirty fishing." He discouraged them from using birth control.

Rodriguez, the first child conceived through "flirty fishing," was the natural son of Berg's common-law wife, Karen Zerby, also called "Maria," and a waiter she picked up in the Canary Islands. Rodriguez was called "Davidito."

"Davidito and Maria are going to be the Endtime witnesses," Berg wrote in 1978. "They are going to have such power they can call down fire from Heaven and devour their enemies."

In fact, Rodriguez did devour his enemies: He left the cult, but tormented by a life of abuse, could not make a life for himself. Driven by rage, he vilified his mother in a videotaped rant, stabbed one of his former nannies to death and shot himself in 2005.

More than 13,000 children were born to followers between 1971 and 2001; "women with six, eight, 10, 13 kids were not uncommon," Lattin said.

Mothers and caretakers pulled children from their beds at night to engage in sex acts with Berg in a regular "sharing schedule" (some kids referred to it as the "scaring schedule"). A poor performance yielded brutal punishment.

"They were made to believe their eternal salvation depended on this," Lattin said.

Deep suspicion

The group once enjoyed plenty of good press.

In the waning days of the Summer of Love, parents would say, "at least they're Christians," Lattin said.

Berg died in 1994, and Zerby took control of the organization.

Grown survivors of the group have developed a deep suspicion of outsiders and adults, Lattin said. But gradually, they sensed their stories were safe with this blues guitar-playing writer, part-time professor and married stepfather of two girls, and they let it all out.

"I've never seen so many problems among kids," he mused, munching Thai food at a favorite Berkeley haunt.

"The Children of God was a machine to spread the ideas of David Berg," he said. "The children were born to do the same thing. That was the real evil. Then, when they rebelled, as teens do, they would send them off to these re-education camps."

"Victor camps" in Macao and other places provided a punishing diet of enforced silence, hard labor and sometimes, exorcisms.

Amazingly, the material for some of the most wrenching passages in the book were provided courtesy of Berg and his inner sanctum.

"The Story of Davidito" recounts Rodriguez' sexual education, which Zerby arranged with a series of "nannies" from the time of his infancy.

"David Berg was so prolific about publishing every thought that came into his mind," Lattin said. "Essentially, he hung himself."

A child custody trial in England brought by the grandparents of one of the children also provided voluminous documentation.

'Born and raised'

No current members would talk to Lattin. They have issued prepared statements defending the group's charitable activities and distancing it from its sexually hyperactive past.

As Lattin prepared for a round of booksignings and appearances, a familiar story played out in the news: the rape trial of Warren Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who arranged a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin in 2001.

"Same kinds of things," Lattin said. "Kids were born and raised in it. They weren't raised to be themselves. They were raised to be part of a machine."

Those who have studied other cults are lavishing praise on the book and its author.

Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Tim Reiterman ("Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People," Dutton, 1982) praised Lattin's focus on Berg's lasting impact on the second generation.

"One of the insights it gives you quite well is a sense of how people can be drawn into a group, regular people who had needs that made them vulnerable to a charismatic leader," he said. "They were ready to accept things they wouldn't have been ready to accept the day they walked in."

So how do people who begin as idealists descend into unthinkable abuse? The same "way a frog will if you put it in cold water, then gradually heat the water to a boil," Lattin said.

"You try to understand the psychological dynamics of it," he said, shaking his head. "People were convinced to do some pretty reprehensible things. When you backtrack, you can see how it happened incrementally."

http://www.mercurynews.com/ books/ci_7276622





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  1. Abuse allegations aimed at Jesus People commune

    By Manya Brachear Pashman, Chicago Tribune reporter February 27, 2014

    A recent lawsuit and a new video documentary raise allegations of sexual abuse in decades past in a cloistered, evangelical commune in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

    Heather Kool, 38, who now lives in Georgia, alleges in the lawsuit that she was abused in the 1980s by members of Jesus People USA, one of the last vestiges of a religious movement that emerged in the renowned “Summer of Love” of 1967.

    The lawsuit names the commune and the Evangelical Covenant Church, a Chicago-based denomination that has considered the Jesus People one of its congregations since 1989. Kool’s lawsuit does not identify anyone who allegedly abused her.

    The legal action sets the stage for a new documentary available Friday in which Kool and a half-dozen others share their accounts of alleged abuse at the religious commune.

    “I loved being part of a family,” Kool said in the film, describing her growing up in the commune.

    “I wanted that physical touch, but at the same time it was very guilty, very wrong,” Kool said of the alleged abuse. Referring to her allegation that she was ostracized for telling an adult, she added: “I didn’t know I would be isolated like I was. I probably never would have told anybody.”

    The filmmaker, Jaime Prater, 37, of LaPorte, Ind., said he also was sexually abused while his family lived in the commune. When he told adults, he said he, too, was punished and eventually left the community six months after his parents.

    "What happened to me was crazy and scary and weird but it doesn’t even compare [to others’ stories],” Prater said.

    In a letter obtained by the Tribune, Kool’s lawyers have warned the Evangelical Covenant Church that 17 others, including Prater, are considering legal action if leaders don’t agree to a private mediation. Kool’s lawyers, Thomas Prindable and Scott Gibson, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

    A spokesman with the Evangelical Covenant Church said the denomination has not reviewed the documentary and can’t comment on specific allegations. He said the church also can’t comment on pending litigation.

    “We are aware and concerned for all parties involved,” said Ed Gilbreath, executive director of communications for the Evangelical Covenant Church. “We take these matters very seriously.”

    According to church officials, when the denomination finds out about an allegation with a congregation, it advises that congregation's leadership to report the matter to “the proper authorities.” The denomination does not have the authority to remove leaders from member churches, which are considered autonomous. But it does reserve the right to revoke clergy credentials, officials said.

    Jesus People USA grew out of a national movement spawned in Southern California during the late 1960s that merged evangelical Christianity with the hippie counterculture of the era. It gained steam in the 1970s as it swept across the nation, attracting evangelical youth with long hair, Christian rock and the promise of redemption, regardless of how far they had gone astray.

    continued below

  2. Larry Eskridge, a Wheaton College professor and author of “God’s Forever Family,” a recent book about the movement, said the Chicago group, formed in 1972, established its own identity as street evangelists. Members handed out tracts, staged rock concerts, and launched a variety of money-making ventures to invest in the community.

    “Jesus People USA was emblematic of the movement,” Eskridge said. “Hardcore hippie converts, drug culture – they really fit that mold because they were full-time and communal. It was kind of a go-to group in the Jesus People movement.”

    The go-to group also became one of the last to survive. But its longevity appears to have presented challenges, Eskridge said. As more people stayed to start families or new converts arrived with children in tow, the group’s outreach to the margins of society created a risky environment, he said. For a number of years, children were separated from their parents and lived with other adults. The commune since has ended this practice, a church official said.

    “You’ve got a clientele prone to having some questionable characters slipping in the side door, but you believe the Gospel is at work in these guys and at work at changing lives,” Eskridge said. “Then you’ve got this set-up with the kids. Obviously, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

    To this day, Angel Harold, 43, of Lindenhurst, questions why God wasn’t protecting the children. In the documentary, she said when she was 9 years old, she was molested by a teenager on a tractor at the commune’s Missouri farm. Soon after she told her mother, the teen “got the rod,” or a spanking. But the commune later gave him a responsible role with children, she said.

    Neil Taylor, a pastoral leader for Jesus People USA, said, “How we are having to respond is basically not to respond, based on advice we have received from lawyers.”

    Eric Pement, a member of the commune from 1976 to 2000, recalls sexual abuse allegations almost always resulted in the person being asked to leave.

    “I was extremely surprised by many of the allegations,” said Pement, 59, of Jacksonville, Fla. “It would have been standard community policy that the person would be asked to leave. We always side with the victim. It was a just a standard policy there.”

    He said he didn’t know about the allegations made in the film, which he found “shocking, gruesome and dismaying.” Noting that many of the adults told their parents only recently, “we would have done something had we known.”

    Prater said his documentary began as a collective ode to growing up inside the commune. But its focus shifted when he interviewed Kool in 2011 and realized he was not the only one who allegedly had been abused. He did nothing with the footage of Kool’s interview for a year.

    “I was scared,” he said. “There was this pull on my heart. The commune I called home I was deeply still in love with, and because of that love I was somewhat apprehensive to complete a film that perhaps, just perhaps, would sever those ties for good.”

    But as soon as he uploaded clips of the film to a private Facebook page for former members, other allegations poured in. In at least one case, multiple generations of the same family said they had been abused. That, he said, left him no choice.

    “It’s one thing if you have a church and a kid gets molested and you do the right thing,” he said in the film. “Jesus People did not do the right thing.”