The Jesus People USA (JPUSA) of Chicago is a Christian commune (or as they now prefer to say, “intentional community”) that was founded in 1972. For two decades it enjoyed a kind of “fair-haired child” status among evangelicals as a combination ’60s-nostalgia/alternative-lifestyle/urban/countercult ministry. It featured, among other things, traveling music and drama ministries, a thriving literature ministry, and a K-12 school for its children, all supported by various commune-operated businesses.
A 1983 independent documentary film titled “Uptown Christian Soldiers”1 contained some of the earliest criticism of JPUSA (including ex-member testimony), but did little to tarnish its image in the evangelical community. In 1989 JPUSA became a congregation in the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination. Three years later, Christianity Today magazine devoted a six-page cover puff piece to the group.2 JPUSA was hip and trendy when it wasn’t hip and trendy to be hip and trendy among American evangelicals.
But the tide would soon turn. In 1994, Dr. Ronald M. Enroth, Professor of Sociology at Westmont College (Santa Barbara, CA) published a very unflattering chapter-length account containing testimonies of ex-members in his book, Recovering from Churches That Abuse.3 Over the next 19 years, JPUSA continued to hemorrhage members and the splendor of its first two decades gradually dimmed. Its flagship publication, Cornerstone magazine ceased publication in 2003. Its main annual event, Cornerstone Festival, folded after its final opening in 2012. And now, in the midst of this apparent decline, tremors that have been rumbling for some time just beneath the surface are poised to put JPUSA back under a very uncomfortable spotlight.
(Video Source: Kickstarter, a fund-raising web site for filmmakers.)
Jaime Prater is a 37 year-old alumnus of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago (1997) and Columbia College, Chicago (2001), where he majored in film and video. He is also a graduate of Uptown Christian School, run by JPUSA, where he was raised. A few years ago, Jaime began to put his filmmaking training to work on the project of interviewing others who, like himself, were either born at JPUSA or brought there as small children, and thus, unlike their parents, were not members there as a matter of choice.
While it is possible for JPUSA to dispute whether much of what these younger ex-members describe in their interviews actually constitutes abuse, one category of allegation is made that, if true, is beyond any debate. Jaime testifies to having been sexually molested while a child at JPUSA. When he brought this to the attention of the leadership at that time, he tells us that his story was discounted, and he suffered consequences. Some of those consequences were imposed for “acting out” behaviors that Jaime exhibited, which are often seen among children who have been sexually abused. His parents corroborate his account.
He is now wrapping up work on a film documentary titled No Place to Call Home—Growing Up in a Religious Commune.4 It turns out that Jaime is not the only person who claims to have been molested there, nor the only one who claims that his testimony was not believed. In fact, as Jaime came to the point where he thought his interviews were complete, more ex-members came forward with stories similar to his. If this string of allegations is true, it paints a picture not only of the sexual abuse of children extending back many years, but also a pattern of failure on the part of JPUSA’s leadership to alert the proper authorities.
For us, this is a difficult story to tell. One reason is that it’s not our story. We are not bringing these charges against JPUSA; we are simply reporting them. They have already been public to a certain extent, but now they will be more so. Another reason for our difficulty is the relationship we have had with JPUSA, or at least some of its key members, over many years—a relationship that has been tested over the past several years.
JPUSA and Me
Here at Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. (MCOI), our experience with JPUSA goes more than 30 years. Back in the early 1980s I worked on an annual project with JPUSA in which I, a friend of mine, and as many volunteers as we could find, would distribute evangelistic literature at the Watchtower Convention for Jehovah’s Witnesses that was held nearby. My friend knew Eric Pement, who rounded up the JPUSA volunteers and had them meet us at our location. He introduced me to Eric, who in turn showed me around the building in which JPUSA’s residents lived at that time.
I had already known of both JPUSA and Eric through JPUSA’s Cornerstone magazine, to which Eric was a regular contributor. On any given day I might be walking in Chicago or one of its nearby suburbs (particularly Oak Park, where I attended Emmaus Bible College), and a hippified member of JPUSA (long hair, bell-bottom jeans, peasant shirt, the whole nine yards) would offer me a free copy of the magazine, which I eagerly received and enthusiastically read. By the late ’70s the whole hippy shtick was already getting worn around the edges, but the magazine’s appearance was so professional, its artwork and layout so fabulous, and its articles so relevant and readable, that Cornerstone had already found its niche as a kind of Rolling Stone for Christians, complete with reviews of Contemporary Christian Music records.
One of the things I appreciated Cornerstone for was its exposés of cults and other spiritual frauds. JPUSA also published some of these articles as tracts, which I found very helpful. Thanks especially to Eric’s writing and involvement in such organizations as Evangelical Ministries to New Religions (EMNR),5 JPUSA was gaining a considerable reputation in this area. Eric was also of help to me personally as I was being persecuted by the leader of a spiritually abusive group to which my wife and I had belonged for about five years in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
JPUSA and He (Ronald Enroth)
But it was right about that time that JPUSA became ensnared in controversy. One person who had helped me recover from my experience of spiritual abuse was Dr. Ronald Enroth, Professor of Sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. In 1992 I read Dr. Enroth’s book, Churches That Abuse,6 and its accounts were chillingly similar to what I was then experiencing. Once I left the abusive group, I contacted him by phone and he was very generous with his time.
In late 1993, Dr. Enroth advised me that “something big” was about to become public knowledge with respect to “a major ministry” in the Chicago area. Later he sent me a manila envelope, red-stamped “CONFIDENTIAL,” and I learned that this ministry was JPUSA. Needless to say, I was torn. But as I read the enclosed documentation, it became increasingly clear to me that whatever good works JPUSA may have done over the years, they needed to explain why so many of their ex-members were now testifying to incidents of spiritual abuse in their midst.
Unfortunately, that’s not the route they took. Instead, they circled the wagons, pointed their guns outward, and commenced firing. The first public volley came in the form of the now (in)famous “anti-Enroth issue” of Cornerstone,7 published as a kind of preemptive strike even before Enroth’s Recovering from Churches that Abuse8 came out with its chapter on JPUSA.
It seems that JPUSA received advance information concerning Enroth’s Recovering book when someone unethically smuggled an early draft copy of the chapter on JPUSA out of the offices of Zondervan Publishing House and sent it to Cornerstone. The magazine’s staff pulled out all the stops, and got as many evangelical (or not-so-evangelical) “big guns” as they could find to defend JPUSA, none of whose knowledge of JPUSA had any real depth, including one with an unsavory reputation as a cult apologist, and others whose response was to lamely question whether such things as “spiritual abuse” actually exist (I refer readers to the books of 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians for the validity of that phenomenon).
In one of several other attempts to discredit Enroth before he even had the chance to speak, Jon Trott, then a senior editor of Cornerstone, blew as many dog whistles as he could find, accusing Enroth of “McCarthyite methods … He’s just using anecdotes squeezed into a frame—the secular mind-control model. And he ignores facts that don’t fit in.”9 The firestorm of controversy had already begun, even though the first copy of Recovering was still months away from being printed.
For a group now known for holding its members’ lives under a spotlight and providing them with generous amounts of unsolicited criticism, publishing a refutation to printed criticism even before its ink dried was not the best way to demonstrate accountability. Looking for every possible argument to discredit an accusation before it comes out of an accuser’s mouth does not exactly give the impression of fair-mindedness, or even respect for the audience observing the confrontation.
When I finally received my own copy of Recovering I turned immediately to its chapter on JPUSA and devoured it whole. I then put the book down and asked, “That’s it?! The leaders at JPUSA got their knickers in a furious twist over this?!” The revelations that JPUSA knew Enroth would share with the world were serious, but hardly as damning as what he’d exposed about other groups in his previous book, or even in Recovering itself. They were things that could be addressed and remedied, if JPUSA was willing.
Unfortunately, now we know that that was not “it.” The allegations that are now surfacing, in addition to those we already knew about, not only from ex-members who joined JPUSA in its early days, but from those who were born there or taken there as young children, make the reports delivered by Enroth look very tame, indeed.
In the long run, JPUSA’s response to the Enroth debacle did not help their credibility much, nor did it generate the sympathy they expected, and from a PR perspective it is easily diagnosed as a self-inflicted gunshot to the foot.
Unbeknownst to me until after I worked with MCOI for a while, Don and Joy Veinot attended numerous conferences with Eric Pement on the topic of cult evangelism in the 1980s and ’90s. I ended up speaking at such a conference with Eric after I joined MCOI. The conference was actually hosted by a church right in my neighborhood, and I was scheduled to present some of our preliminary research on Bill Gothard. This was also not too long after Ronald Enroth published, Recovering. Eric knew that I was somewhat sympathetic to the testimonies of the ex-members that Enroth was sharing, and he didn’t seem happy about it. Nevertheless, I got a call from Eric just before the conference.
“I’m not sure this phone call is a good idea, but I need a place to stay overnight during the conference and I was wondering if you could put me up for the night.”
This was how I learned about JPUSA’s policy of requiring its adult members to get permission to travel, of not generally allowing them to travel alone, and if they spend the night away from JPUSA they’re supposed to stay with a Christian family. Since we had no spare bed, Eric slept on our living room sofa, and before he went home I took him out to McDonald’s.
The conversation we shared that day yielded no new information. I have a great deal of respect for Eric, but as I broached the subject of the Enroth controversy with him he did nothing to fill what I considered major holes in JPUSA’s attempts to defend themselves. I do not, for example, see how objecting to Enroth’s “sociological methodology” actually deals with the question of whether or not the incidents Enroth reported actually happened, and whether anything was ever done about them. Biblically speaking, that’s all that really mattered at that point. Any complaint that Enroth did not properly follow academic methods could only serve as a smoke screen.
Several years after the initial Enroth/Recovering controversy, in April 2001 The Chicago Tribune ran a huge two-issue spread on JPUSA titled, “Commune’s iron grip tests faith of converts,”10 and “Exodus from commune ignites battle for souls.”11 The titles pretty much give away the author’s point of view. Ted Olsen at Christianity Today was incredulous.
Why spend so much ink on the disputes now? Especially now, actually? If anything, the Chicago Tribune practically ignores the more recent developments in the JPUSA.12
Olsen accused the Tribune of doing “a sloppy job with JPUSA,” but he seemed blithely unaware of the fact that the Tribune folks were not the only ones spending “so much ink” on what was by that time a seven-year-long dispute. Just several months earlier, Jon Trott had returned to stirring the pot with an essay titled, “Is Abuse about Truth or Story…or Both? One Intentional Community’s Painful Experiences with False Accusations.” It appeared as a chapter—strangely out of sync with the other chapters—in a book titled, Bad Pastors: Clergy Misconduct in Modern America.13 Trott’s essay generated a lengthy response from Enroth in the form of an open letter.14 Whatever “more recent developments” might have been taking place at JPUSA, they did not include a willingness to put the whole episode behind them, or to truly make amends with ex-members, or even, after all that time, to stop attacking Enroth.
JPUSA and We (MCOI)
Around that same time, the same thing that first prompted Enroth to write about JPUSA more-or-less happened to MCOI: a significant number of ex-members contacted us, urging us to tell their stories of abuse. This led to a 2002 meeting with about 20 ex-JPUSAs at Naperville Bible Church (at least that’s how many signed the guest list). It was the product of many phone calls and email exchanges (some of which I still have). Of the ex-members of JPUSA who attended, three flew in from California, one couple came in from Tennessee, another couple from Wisconsin, someone else from Indiana, but most from Chicago and its suburbs.
We taped the meeting with the knowledge of everyone there, and we had each of them sign a confidentiality agreement in which they decided for themselves just how much permission to give us to publish what we heard. They could either (1) withhold permission, (2) give us permission to quote them anonymously, (3) give us permission to name them as a source but only when communicating with JPUSA when they agree to keep it confidential, or (4) give us permission to publish their quotes and name them as sources. We heard lots of stories, but we’d also seen how JPUSA responded to Enroth’s book in 1994, so we wanted to proceed cautiously. For reasons that will become clear as you read on, so far we have neither published anything we were told nor have we shared it with anyone, including JPUSA’s leadership.
We explained that our research into Bill Gothard lasted about six years before it resulted in a book (although it had resulted in journal articles prior to the book), and so we wanted to manage expectations. Gothard was difficult to research because his books were only available through his organization. Researching JPUSA would also be difficult because we would have to track down people, some of whom might not want to be found.
I also explained that our research would be complicated by the fact that I and my family would be moving to Florida in November 2002 and I would be starting a new career. We didn’t want people to think that we would be able to turn around a published piece right away.
Don contacted JPUSA to let them know that MCOI wanted to give them an opportunity to respond to the things we were hearing. The reply that MCOI received was encouraging: Jon Trott at JPUSA expressed gratitude that we wanted to hear their side of the story. He thanked us for being the first ones who had come to them at the beginning of the research. A meeting was soon arranged and a date was set for prior to my family’s move, so that I could attend along with Don. JPUSA’s leadership (which we assumed to be its pastors) was to be in attendance, along with Jon Trott and Eric Pement. Eric was no longer living at JPUSA, but was still sympathetic to the group.
Don and I had two primary objectives: (1) secure a list of people who had left JPUSA on good terms, and who would say good things about it, and (2) secure the commitment of JPUSA to allow someone from MCOI live in the commune for a period of time and interview current members. The reason we wanted these two things was because one of the big complaints that JPUSA had about Enroth was that he didn’t interview anyone other than “disgruntled ex-members,” and thus his presentation was unfairly one-sided.
To say the meeting did not get off on the right foot is a bit of an understatement. We showed up, and Jon was there, and so was Eric, but where was JPUSA’s leadership? Jon left the room for a while and we just sat there, looking out the window. Eventually Jon returned and Dawn and Curt Mortimer showed up. It appeared that they had not been briefed on the purpose of the meeting, leading to an awkward discussion that required us to justify something we thought JPUSA had already agreed to.
It soon became obvious to us that Dawn was not very trusting, and didn’t really want to cooperate with us. I also got the sense that Curt and Jon would follow whatever Dawn said. If Eric hadn’t vouched for us, we would have never gotten them to agree to supplying us with the list we wanted and the permission for someone to stay there. During our discussion they also thought it would be a good idea if they supplied us with audio copies of JPUSA’s sermons so we could see that they do not teach legalism, and we agreed to listen to them.
Unfortunately, however, these promises went unfulfilled for months. The latter two were never fulfilled. I obviously was not going to be able to be the MCOI rep staying at JPUSA; I was moving to Florida soon. We had one main candidate who would be able to take time off work to do it—but wouldn’t you know? JPUSA found something offensive about him, and he was never allowed to stay there. I remember the “offense” seemed rather lame, but I don’t recall exactly what it was right now. And we never did receive copies of any sermons.
In the meantime, I and my family temporarily moved in with my in-laws, nearly all my possessions were boxed-up and put in storage, and soon I would be in a program working toward teacher certification. I waited and waited for the list of happy (non-disgruntled?) ex-members, but I kept on being disappointed. As my obligation to get myself retrained and provide for my family loomed larger and larger, my time-window for being able to devote reasonable time to our JPUSA project was rapidly closing. My life was upside-down, and when I landed a teaching job in 2003 virtually everything else I was doing got put on hold for a while. Of course, this all worked to JPUSA’s advantage—not that I completely halted my work. I did what I could when I could, but a lot more slowly.
After we asked Jon Trott for the list a few times he sent us a nasty email telling us he’d send it when he was good and ready. When we finally got it, it was a much shorter list than we’d expected—not nearly as many people as had shown up in Naperville. Not only that, but once I started making calls, none of the people who answered their phones had been long-term residents of JPUSA. A few of them had even rented out their houses while at JPUSA, and returned to them after staying maybe one or two years. These were hardly people who’d made the same kind of commitment as those who’d turned over everything they owned to move in, often for decades.
It’s true that these people said nice things about JPUSA. They didn’t report any of the kinds of things that we’d heard described in Naperville (at that time there was only one alleged case of sexual abuse we were aware of), and they generally considered their stays there as positive experiences. However, it would not be difficult at all to make the case that the JPUSA leadership, knowing that these people were only there for a short time, would have handled them with kid gloves. We could not give their testimonies the same weight as those that came from former long-term residents who’d turned over all their earthly possessions to JPUSA, only to be turned out onto the street with nothing years later. As far as I was concerned, JPUSA’s leadership had reneged on its word. Still, we did not want to find ourselves in a position where, no matter what we published or how thoroughly it was documented, JPUSA could come back and say, “But they only listened to disgruntled ex-members!”
So now the problem was what to do next. After a couple of years of working on this I received a phone call from someone who’d been at the Naperville meeting and who was very unhappy with our lack of progress. I apologized profusely and assured him that we had every intention of moving forward when we could, but we were very short-handed, and my job and family life were preventing me from devoting adequate time to the research.
Sometime later (in the mid-2000s) we had a volunteer come forward, and he resumed making the phone calls to ex-members for us. He had time to do this because he was on disability for a serious health issue. Unfortunately, that health issue led to his untimely death (he was in his 30s) shortly after he started working with us. I was beginning to think that the Lord was trying to tell me either that this just wasn’t the right time for this or that we weren’t the right people to do it.
Thus we’ve been maintaining confidential documents on ex-JPUSAs for more than ten years now. As a small, under-staffed, under-funded ministry, we wanted to make sure that anything we publish is fair and accurate, giving due diligence to the goal of telling the positive side of the story as well as the negative (with, of course, the permission of those who tell us their stories)—and, ironically, JPUSA effectively sabotaged our effort to tell the positive side.
One of my biggest regrets has been that I have not been able to move this project forward so that we could complete it. But now that Jaime Prater’s video has come along, I am beginning to think that it could be far more effective than anything we could have done. For one thing, I don’t know how we would have been able to gather as much information about growing up at JPUSA as Jaime has. Most of the contacts we had were people who moved into JPUSA as adults.
At this point we have no reason to doubt that JPUSA’s leadership will choose to respond to Jaime’s video project much as it has in the past. It is our hope and our prayer that this time, however, things will be different.
We hope JPUSA will avoid attacking the messengers. We hope they will show as much concern that the principle of Matthew 5:23 is observed by them as they do for the principles of Matthew 18:15-17 being observed by others. We hope they will not resort to ad hominem arguments as a defense.
Yes, it is true that Jaime Prater no longer professes to be a Christian. Yes, it is also true that he is openly gay. But these facts do not invalidate his testimony. We would point out that we have noticed that a number of ex-JPUSAs have rejected the Christian faith entirely, sometimes with hostility, and while we hesitate to lay the blame for that solely at the feet of JPUSA, it should sober their leadership nonetheless. Does it?
We have been hoping and praying for reconciliation and healing between JPUSA and its ex-members for nearly 20 years now. Our desire for this was intensified in 2002. We implore the leadership at JPUSA to try a different—and we believe more biblical—course of action now, since it seems clear that their previous strategies have ended in failure.
- “Image Union” No. 618, November 14, 1983, WTTW-TV, Chicago. http://mediaburn.org/video/image-union-episode-618/ ↩
- “Jesus’ People,” by Timothy Jones, Christianity Today, September 14, 1992, 20-25. The article is available online at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/aprilweb-only/4-2-24.0.html. ↩
- Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994. ↩
- As of this writing, Jaime is raising funds for the final version of the film at his page on the Kickstarter web site. He needs to reach his goal of $6,000 by Sunday, April 14, 2013. ↩
- Web site: EMNR.org. ↩
- Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992. Cf. “Churches That Abuse,” Wikipedia entry. Dr. Enroth has generously given his permission to make a digital copy of this book available online, free of charge, at http://www.reveal.org/development/Churches_that_Abuse.pdf. Note that the pagination may differ from the printed edition. ↩
- Volume 23, Issue 105, 1994. ↩
- Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994. With Dr. Enroth’s permission, a digital copy of this book is also available online, free of charge, at http://www.reveal.org/development/Recovering_from_Churches_that_Abuse.pdf. Again, note that the pagination may differ from the printed edition. ↩
- James D. Davis, “Ex-members Charge Church Has Abusive Dark Side,” Sun Sentinel, December 12, 1993. The article is available online at http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1993-12-12/lifestyle/9312090741_1_ex-members-commune-members-evangelical-covenant-church. ↩
- Kirsten Scharnberg, April 1, 2001. A copy of the text is available at http://www.rickross.com/reference/jesuspeople/jesuspeople2.html. ↩
- Kirsten Scharnberg, April 2, 2001. A copy of the text is available at http://www.rickross.com/reference/jesuspeople/jesuspeople3.html. ↩
- Ted Olsen, “Chicago Tribune Investigates Jesus People USA,” posted April 1, 2001, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/aprilweb-only/4-2-23.0.html ↩
- Edited by Anson D. Shupe, William A. Stacey, Susan E. Darnell, (New York, NY, USA: New York University Press, 2000). ↩
- Copies may be found at http://www.rickross.com/reference/jesuspeople/jp2.html and http://www.apologeticsindex.org/cpoint11-1.html. ↩