Loss of a Fortunate Son

Eighteen-year-old Joseph Johnson was an academic star and basketball standout at a Southland high school, seemingly headed for college — before he joined a controversial religious sect you may have already encountered in the supermarket parking lot.

Los Angeles Independent/December 28, 2006
By Anna Scott

For Sheila Johnson, April 25th began like any other day — with a few exceptions.

She noticed that her son, Joseph, hugged her before leaving the house that morning, an unusual gesture for the 18-year old. And when he backed the car out of the driveway minutes later, Joseph waved good-bye to his parents, also unusual.

At the time, Sheila didn’t think much of it. But when Joseph returned home 10 days later, much had changed.

Things would continue to change for the Johnson family in the days following Joseph’s return, starting with a violent, early-morning confrontation, which led to Sheila becoming a defendant in an unusual “trial” that has brought a new wave of scrutiny to a controversial, religious group called the Jesus Christians. It is a group some believe is a cult, but that Joseph regards as his new family.

By all outward appearances, Joseph Johnson seemed like the last teenager who would be contemplating a major life change. A handsome African-American boy with a wide smile and the lean build of an athlete, Joseph was a popular, straight-A student at his Gardena high school, where he was also a star point guard on the basketball team.

His basketball coach, Dwan Hurt, said that by Joseph’s senior year, prestigious college scholarship offers poured in and Joseph had expressed interest in becoming a doctor.

“He did everything fast,” said his mother, a substitute teacher for the Compton Unified School District, in a recent interview. “When he was about four months old, he made his first conversation, which was basically, ‘I love you.’ I was shocked. He started walking at seven months old; he was potty-trained early.”

That speed became an asset in sports, as Joseph quickly progressed from making his first basket at three years old to competing on basketball, baseball and football teams.

He was also a fast learner.

Joseph’s father, Jared, a math teacher for Compton Unified, began teaching Joseph to count as soon as his son could talk, later moving on to geometry, trigonometry and calculus.

The Johnsons, including Joseph’s older brother and younger brother and sister, attended a Pentecostal church each week and read the Bible together regularly throughout Joseph’s childhood.

In 2004, Sheila was shopping by herself at a Gardena supermarket when a young man approached her in the parking lot and introduced himself as a missionary with a group called the Jesus Christians. In exchange for a donation the missionary gave Sheila a book entitled “Survivors,” written by a man named Zion Ben Jonah, which Sheila took home and promptly forgot about.

A few days later Joseph, then 16, mentioned that he’d read it.

“He told me they had an Internet Web site or something,” Sheila said. “I didn’t think anything; I should have, but I didn’t. I didn’t think I had any reason to be concerned.”

Soon after, Joseph told Sheila he was thinking about doing missionary work for the Jesus Christians himself.

“We thought then, ‘This might be a cult, Joseph, so you better be careful,’” Sheila recalled. “We had a good talk with him … we mentioned Jim Jones and different cults and things like that, and it never came up anymore. Occasionally I would ask him, ‘Are you considering going off with this group?’ and he would say no. We thought that was the end of it.”

In fact, it was only the beginning.

When he read “Survivors,” “the book touched upon truths that I had never come across in my past religious circle,” wrote Joseph — who left the Los Angeles area with the Jesus Christians several months ago and would not consent to a telephone interview — in a recent e-mail.

“Any sincere person would want to learn more from there.”

So Joseph visited the Web site address printed inside the front cover, www.jesuschristians.com. There, he found various articles explaining the philosophies and history of the Jesus Christians, and a public forum where members hosted often lively debates about their beliefs.

Founded in Australia in 1982 by an American, David McKay, and his wife, Cherry, the Jesus Christians define themselves as a “live-by-faith, work-for-God-not-money Christian community” against “hypocrisy and self-righteousness in the church.”

They claim to live by the teachings of Jesus as written, verbatim, in the Bible. Their “Top 40” list of Jesus’ commands, posted on their Web site, include: “Don’t work for food,” “Sell all that you own,” “Don’t charge for what you do,” and “Give to anyone who asks.”

Accordingly, members must give up their worldly possessions and live together 24-7, spending their days doing volunteer work and handing out Bible-based literature written by McKay (sometimes under the pseudonym Zion Ben Jonah) in exchange for donations.

There are only about 30 Jesus Christians in the world, spread out in small, nomadic, commune-like sub-communities in the U.S., Australia, England and Kenya. Each community operates autonomously, though members communicate regularly — with one another and with McKay, who shares an apartment in Sydney, Australia with Cherry — through their Web site forums

Sixteen-year old Joseph, after two weeks of poring over the articles posted on the Jesus Christians’ site, e-mailed a few of the U.S. members based on the West Coast.

One of the first to reply was Jeremy Kronmiller.

Kronmiller, 28, has a crudely printed tattoo near his wrist, which he usually tries to cover with his shirt sleeves or bracelets.

“It says ‘Fortunate Son,’” he said in a recent interview, from the title of a Creedence Clearwater Revival song. “I really liked the meaning of it, so I got it … a friend did it for me and it looks horrible.

“We don’t really have any religious issues with tattoos or piercings or that kind of stuff.”

Kronmiller, who has blonde hair and a scruffy goatee, was seated at the tiny table in the back of the camper he calls home, parked across the street from Santa Monica College. He had spent the past week at the campus with another Jesus Christian named Simon Smith, 23, handing out copies of “Survivors.”

“I like the college crowd,” Kronmiller said. “Students are more receptive; they’re still trying to figure things out, whereas the older crowds are a little less receptive.”

In 2003, Kronmiller took a bus from his home state of Kansas to Los Angeles for a trial week with the Jesus Christians here, who shared a rented house in Compton at the time. He decided to stay on permanently, and not long after Kronmiller’s trial week had passed, the West Coast Jesus Christians decided to “go full-time on the road,” giving up their house.

Now, the group — which rotates as members travel between the U.S. and other countries where the Jesus Christians are based, and usually consists of five to 10 people — spends most of its time in campers.

Usually working in teams of two or three, the Jesus Christians wend their way up and down the California coast and occasionally out of state, “just trying to engage people in discussion and offering them this book [’Survivors’] that we feel has something to offer,” Kronmiller said.

In 2004, after exchanging a few e-mails with Kronmiller and some other members, then-16-year old Joseph decided he wanted to join the Jesus Christians.

“We said, ‘Your parents aren’t going to agree at this point,’” Kronmiller recalled. “‘Until you become a legal adult all we can do is share and encourage Jesus’ teachings with you.’”

For the next several months, Joseph kept in touch with the Jesus Christians while he continued to attend school and play basketball.

“Email correspondence fluctuated,” Joseph wrote in a recent e-mail, “but usually tinkered around once every two weeks.”

Approximately eight months after he first contacted the Jesus Christians, Joseph requested a face-to-face meeting to discuss their way of life. The Jesus Christians agreed, and different members of the group met with the teenager about 10 times over the course of the next year.

Kronmiller was among those who met with Joseph regularly.

“Joe arranged [the meetings],” Kronmiller said. “We’d always meet at McDonald’s or something, and he was still having some struggles with it. He was always worried that someone would be watching; he was always like, ‘I’ve got people that could know me around here,’ because he’s known as a really good basketball player.

“I guess it looked strange … here we are, these older white guys talking with him. So he would try to be discreet.”

In 2005, the Johnsons moved from Carson to Long Beach and Joseph transferred to Serra High School in Gardena for his senior year, where he picked up track and excelled as a sprinter.

He also turned 18 in November of that year.

In April, 2006, Joseph and his parents spent a weekend visiting several California colleges, including Stanford, UC Berkeley, USC and UCLA.

“I was quite worried … as my family, coaches and sports chums were all expecting me to sign with a university,” Joseph wrote in a recent post on the Jesus Christians’ Web site. “Still, I knew that I didn’t want to sign a contract to attend a four-year university; I wanted to join the Jesus Christians.”

So he sent Kronmiller an e-mail saying he finally was ready for a trial week.

On the morning of Tuesday, April 25, one day before the deadline to submit academic college scholarship applications, Joseph wrote a note to his parents saying that he had left to do missionary work and he knew they wouldn’t approve.

Then, instead of going to school, Joseph took a bus to New Mexico to meet up with Kronmiller and another Jesus Christian, 41-year old Reinhard Zeuner.

On May 5, after 10 days with Kronmiller and Zeuner in New Mexico, Joseph was sure he wanted to join the Jesus Christians. The trio was heading back to L.A., Kronmiller says, and their first stop was to be the Johnson house so Joseph could tell his parents the news.

They arrived in Long Beach around 7 a.m., and “it was tense from the moment of arrival,” Kronmiller recalled. “They said something like, ‘How are you going to let these white people … put you back in slavery and bondage?’

Sheila, when she saw Joseph that morning, says she remembers wondering, ‘What in the world has happened to this kid? He seemed like a zombie. He just kept saying, ‘I have to do something for Jesus.’”

The mood became increasingly hostile, until “Eventually, [Jared] starts brutally shouting at us and throwing us out aggressively,” Kronmiller said.

According to Kronmiller, Jared followed Kronmiller and Zeuner outside, where Joseph’s older brother, John, pulled up to the curb in his car. Seeing John start toward himself and Zeuner, Kronmiller jumped the fence and ran.

When he turned back, halfway down the block, Kronmiller says he saw Joseph’s father and brother kicking Zeuner, who was unconscious on the Johnson’s lawn.

A crowd gathered, an ambulance was called and Zeuner — with Kronmiller riding along — was taken to the hospital, where he spent three days being treated for a fractured spine, broken teeth and brain trauma.

Joseph, who says he was held down in his bedroom by his younger brother, Josh, during the fight, stayed behind with his family.

Joseph’s father and brother have since been charged with assault, and Sheila would not comment on the fight because of the pending criminal case.

That afternoon, however, she and Jared took Joseph to the apartment of a Long Beach pastor named Prince Sullivan, whom Sheila had met the week before.

For several hours, “They went back and forth. [Sullivan] tried to read scriptures to Joseph and interpret them,” Sheila recalled. “At some point I can recall Joseph saying, ‘You’re trying to make me feel guilty.’ Whatever they had done, it was going to take longer than three hours to undo it.”

Sheila and Jared checked themselves and Joseph into a local hotel that night, putting their son in a separate room “to get his head straight,” Sheila said.

The next day, May 6, Joseph’s parents checked out, leaving the teenager at the hotel for another night in the hope that while alone, he would reconsider his involvement with the Jesus Christians.

Sometime during the evening of May 6, Joseph called Kronmiller and asked to rejoin his group. Kronmiller reluctantly agreed.

“We could see he still kept defending [his family], their actions,” Kronmiller said. “We said, ‘Look, this isn’t going to help us if you’re siding with them. Reinhard is in critical condition right now. You have to see there’s something wrong with this picture.’”

Nonetheless, the Jesus Christians allowed Joseph to return to one of their campers and stay with them for approximately three days.

During those three days, between May 6 and 9, Sheila says she received an intimidating e-mail from Jesus Christians founder David McKay.

“He told me, ‘You’re not going to hear from your son for a long, long time,’” Sheila said.

Sheila did see her son again, however, when he returned home again on the morning of May 9. That morning, Kronmiller says, “[the Jesus Christians] had to kick [Joseph] out of the community” for defending his family’s actions.

According to Sheila, when Joseph returned home on May 9, he asked her for $15,000 to give to the Jesus Christians.

“Joseph didn’t seem to have a problem with [asking for the money],” Sheila said. “It was like he was under some kind of spell … he just wasn’t himself.”

Later, Joseph went to the library in downtown Long Beach, Sheila says, where she suspects he may have been e-mailing the Jesus Christians.

“I went to pick him up,” she said. “He said he was thinking about getting out of the Jesus Christians … or something like that.”

According to an account posted on the Jesus Christians’ Web site, on May 9, “after leaving the community and returning home, [Joseph] had started to doubt what the Jesus Christians had been teaching, and to believe that he had been conned; but he sat down to pray and to read through the Gospel of Matthew.

“By the time he reached the end of it, he was convinced that … what the Jesus Christians were teaching was definitely consistent with what Jesus taught.”

Either way, Joseph called Kronmiller again that night.

This time, “We determined that it was safe, that he could actually come back and he wasn’t trying to set a trap for us,” Kronmiller said. “He started to work with us again and has been working with us ever since.”

Sheila would not see or speak to her son again until nearly five months later.

Joseph, who was up for valedictorian and salutatorian of his high school class, received a diploma but did not attend his high school graduation in June.

When Joseph Johnson decided to devote his life to Jesus Christ, he knew it wouldn’t be easy.

But he might never have expected it to land him, on Oct. 7, 2006, in a Los Angeles middle school auditorium, waiting for his turn to be whipped.

Last April, just weeks shy of his high school graduation, the 18-year-old straight-A student and star athlete ran away from his parents’ home in Long Beach to join a radical religious community called the Jesus Christians, which some say is a cult.

When Joseph returned to his parents’ house one morning in early May with two other Jesus Christians to tell his family he’d joined the group, a fight broke out.

Jesus Christian Reinhard Zeuner, 41, ended up in the hospital for several days with skull and spine injuries, while Joseph’s father, Jared, (a teacher for the Compton Unified School District) and Joseph’s older brother, John, now face assault charges.

In response to Zeuner’s beating, the Jesus Christians decided to put Joseph’s family on the stand in a special sort of “trial.”

“Even amongst ourselves, we were heavily debating whether to do it or not,” Jesus Christian Jeremy Kronmiller, 28, said recently about the trial, which was held on Oct. 7. “We knew how the public could see it … we’ve gotten a lot of criticism before: ‘Crazy whipping cult.’”

Indeed, throughout their history, the Jesus Christians have been no stranger to controversy.

Founded in Australia in 1982 by David McKay, a native of Rochester, New York, and his wife Cherry, the Jesus Christians have attracted criticism since their inception.

McKay is a former member of the notorious Children of God cult, best known for its practice of “flirty fishing,” or luring new members with the promise of sex, and for being the target of child sexual abuse investigations.

In media reports the Jesus Christians have often been identified as an offshoot of the Children of God, a claim McKay disputes.

“I was a member of [Children of God] for about three months more than a quarter of a century ago,” wrote McKay, 61, in an e-mail from his home in Sydney, Australia. “I left at the time that they tried to introduce ‘flirty fishing’ … it was specifically because of that that I left them.”

According to McKay, the Jesus Christians’ sole dogma are the teachings of Jesus, as written in the Bible.

Only 30 members strong, the Jesus Christians live in nomadic communities of five to 10 people spread out between Australia, England, Kenya and, until recently, Los Angeles. Living out of campers or tents, they take literally Jesus’ directive to “not charge for what you do” and refuse to work for money.

Instead, Jesus Christians spend their days traveling and distributing literature written by McKay in exchange for small donations, and sometimes raid grocery store dumpsters for food.

Because of their all-encompassing lifestyle and unconventional take on Christianity, the Jesus Christians are often identified as a cult.

Rick Ross of the Rick A. Ross Institute, a nonprofit organization that collects data on destructive cults, has called the Jesus Christians “very disturbing.”

“When you have a small group gathered around an absolute leader [McKay] like this,” Ross said, “and the group lives communally and is relatively isolated, bad things often happen.”

McKay argues the characterization of himself as a strong central leader, writing, “I live in Australia. And our handful of members in the U.S. are scattered over the entire country … They meet hundreds of people every day, and they hear lots of criticism.”

But some who have been involved with the Jesus Christians believe that McKay exerts an unhealthy degree of influence over his largely young followers.

The Jesus Christians have faced kidnapping charges, filed by the families of former members, twice — first in 2000, when a 16-year-old boy joined the community in England, and last year, when a female journalist joined the team in Kenya.

The charges were eventually dropped in both cases when the alleged victims told authorities that they were not coerced into joining, however, and McKay denies that he has any special control over the group’s members.

“Essentially, there is no such thing as brainwashing,” he wrote, admitting that “Living in community means that there is a higher level of peer group pressure than in a church where people meet together for only a couple of hours a week.”

But Joseph Johnson’s mother Sheila, who like her husband Jared is a teacher for Compton Unified, still sees McKay as a dangerous predator who targets the young.

“Why were they talking to a minor?” Sheila asked, referring to the fact that Joseph was 16 years old when he began exchanging e-mails with the Jesus Christians. “He was a kid at the time. If he were an adult meeting with adults, it would be different. But for a kid … I don’t even know if it’s a choice. Just like, is it his decision not to call home?”

Joseph, who has spent the past several months traveling outside of Los Angeles with another Jesus Christian and would not agree to a phone interview, has not spoken to either of his parents since the Jesus Christians went forward with their unique trial nearly three months ago.

In early October, Joseph called his parents to tell them that the Jesus Christians would be holding a trial that month in Long Beach in response to Zeuner’s beating and Jared, Sheila, John and Joseph’s younger brother Josh would be the defendants.

To take part in the trial, Joseph told Sheila, each of the Johnsons would have to prepare statements admitting their responsibility for Zeuner’s injuries.

The Johnsons declined.

“It just sounds bizarre,” Sheila said. “And even if I had written a statement, who’s to say if it would be sufficient for David McKay?”

So, the Jesus Christians proceeded without the Johnsons’ cooperation.

On the afternoon of Oct. 7, 10 members, along with a local news crew, gathered inside the auditorium of Stephens Middle School in Long Beach, which they had rented for the occasion.

“We said it was for a church service,” Jesus Christian Kronmiller said, “which it was.”

The group included all of the U.S. based Jesus Christians: Former health food store clerk Kronmiller, from Kansas, and his twin brother Ezra; Zeuner, the rail-thin former environmental engineer from Germany who was the main plaintiff; Jesse Pazos, 21, a saxophone player and an aspiring jazz musician from San Dimas; Jose’ Jacobo, 18, a shy high school graduate from Oregon; Simon Smith, 23, a former bartender from England, and Grace Hill-Speed, 18, a freckled, former church-goer from Oregon.

David McKay, with his thinning salt-and-pepper hair and full beard was also there with his blonde, bespectacled wife Cherry, after flying in from Australia to participate.

“We knew [the trial] was going to lead to strong opposition,” McKay explained, “and so it was important for us to be there to take much of the punishment.”

Inside the auditorium, the Jesus Christians sat in a row in front of the stage, facing out over a long table and wearing bright red T-shirts with their Web site address, www.jesuschristians.com, printed across the front.

On stage behind this “jury,” green curtains were parted just enough to frame a raised platform covered by a white sheet, holding a red pillow at one end.

The official proceedings began with Kronmiller recounting the May 5 confrontation at the Johnson house, which he witnessed, using a hand-drawn map as an aid.

“[Zeuner] was down on the ground being kicked in the head by Joe’s older brother and his father,” Kronmiller said later, repeating his account. “The only reason it really stopped was because they saw a crowd had gathered … there was no attempt to fight back on our part. Joseph’s younger brother, Josh … pushed [Joseph] inside and held him down in his room.”

After Kronmiller’s presentation, the statements began, starting with Joseph.

Joseph stood up and, according to a report on the Jesus Christian’s Web site, “admitted that he had given little thought to Reinhard [Zeuner]’s physical state [after the fight], despite the fact that he had seen Reinhard lying in a pool of blood and ‘looking dead’ … He stated that this tendency to think selfishly was common in his family, and that it was only when he started spending time with the Jesus Christians that he began to develop sincere feelings of compassion for others.”

After Joseph was finished, Zeuner stood to describe the morning of May 5 as he remembered it before being knocked unconscious.

“I don’t really remember much,” he said, “but it was shocking [to be hit].”

McKay followed.

“What I said about Jared was that I appreciated the fact that he had a lot of pressure on him, not only as a father, but as a teacher and a leader,” the Jesus Christians’ leader wrote later. “I said that as a father, a teacher and a leader myself, I too have had to wrestle with all those demands and to find the right way to act. However … we leaders have to take responsibility for the things that we do.”

After the statements, the jury was ready to deliver its verdicts.

For the crime attempted murder, McKay pronounced Jared guilty.

Then, in Jared’s absence, McKay volunteered to take the punishment he had prescribed for Joseph’s father — 25 lashes from a whip.

McKay walked the few steps up to the stage and laid face down on the platform with his face in the red pillow.

Jose’ Jacobo, the quiet 18-year-old from Oregon, picked up a whip from the floor behind the platform and delivered the blows to McKay’s back. McKay’s body tensed with every sharp crack that resounded through the room.

Cherry McKay announced the next verdict, finding Sheila Johnson guilty of being an accessory to attempted murder and sentencing her to a choice between shaving her head and leaving it uncovered for three months, or five lashes from the whip.

Cherry chose the five lashes for Sheila, and replaced her husband on the stage to receive her punishment from Jacobo.

Joseph next found his younger brother, Josh, guilty of being an accessory and also took five lashes on his behalf.

And finally, Kronmiller announced Joseph’s older brother, John, guilty of attempted murder and took 25 lashes in John’s place.

“This was our way of addressing the issue of what took place,” said Kronmiller after the trial. “We wanted to show love for the people who committed the crime, and that’s why we volunteered ourselves to take on the punishment we thought they were deserving of.

“It’s an attempt to show, this is what true justice looks like.”

As for the Johnsons, he said, “They never once apologized.”

Immediately after the trial, the Jesus Christians became aware that Jared and John Johnson were waiting outside the locked doors of the school auditorium with approximately four young men and one woman (none related to Joseph).

A few of the Jesus Christians stepped outside the auditorium doors, Kronmiller said, headed toward their campers on the other side of the school playground, but quickly ducked back in when Jared, John and their friends ran at the group, yelling after Joseph.

The Jesus Christians locked themselves back inside and McKay called the Long Beach police.

While they waited for the cops, Kronmiller pulled his shirt up to show the red welts over his back in front of the local television cameras.

A female reporter shoved a microphone in McKay’s face, asking him if the point of the trial had been to embarrass the Johnson family.

“They’ve embarrassed themselves,” he replied.

When the police arrived, officers ushered the Jesus Christians out of the auditorium and across the school playground to their vehicles, while Jared, John and the others gathered there called out to Joseph.

“Please …” said Jared, who had been tipped off about the trial location by a neighbor who spotted the Jesus Christians’ campers, as he ran toward one of the officers. “My son’s joined a cult … his mother is so heartbroken.”

By the time Sheila arrived on the scene minutes later the Jesus Christians, including Joseph, had driven away.

“I didn’t even get a glimpse of Joseph,” Sheila said.

Joseph is currently traveling with Jesus Christian Simon Smith to the east coast, where the community is relocating its U.S. base.

The Kronmiller brothers and 18-year-old Grace Hill-Speed also recently left L.A. and are traveling across the country separately.

Zeuner remains in L.A. with Jacobo and 21-year-old Jesse Pazos, but the trio also plans to leave the state soon.

In the three months since the trial there has been an outpouring of notes from Joseph’s friends and acquaintances on the Jesus Christians’ Web site.

“I thought you were ridiculously good at basketball so I asked for your autograph and to this day I still have it!” writes a girl who identifies herself as one of Joseph’s former classmates. “As long as you’re happy I couldn’t be happier for you.”

The grandmother of one of Joseph’s high school friends, Carrie Mallory, writes, “Your Parents believe you to be in danger … your friends there, don’t really know the prayers, the work, the dreams and plans, the 18 years of giving all that they knew.

“Bye [sic] the way,” she continues, “I could not process that whip … The whip on a black mans back takes me back to my immediate grandparents and great grandparents … It is not a pleasant memory.”

Joseph, whose icon on the forum is a basketball with a smiling mouth wearing a pair of sunglasses, posted recently:

“I have forgiven my family, but you can’t just forget when a friend is nearly beaten to death. If there is to be a return to a normal relationship … there needs to be … at least some expression of remorse for the lawlessness that they exercised that led to all of Reinhard’s injuries.”

Meanwhile, Sheila hopes Joseph will return home soon. By the end of high school he had already accumulated a year’s worth of college credit, she says, and could still continue his schooling.

“We love him dearly,” Sheila said. “He needs to come home … we love him unconditionally and he has a lot of gifts, and I would like to see him use his gifts. He can still do work for the Lord; righteous work, fruitful work, productive work.

“He needs to get out of the dry spots.”

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