The South Towns woman summed up her frustration in one short sentence: "I've already lost my daughter." The woman's daughter, who is in her 30's, is a member of the Community, a town of Hamburg group of about 40 people who live together, dress in modest clothes, shun radio and television and pray to Yahshua, the Hebrew name for the Son of God. To its supporters, it's a safe haven filled with happy, peace loving people who get the real chance to follow the path of the Messiah in everyday life. To critics, the Community is a cult that brainwashes its members, cutting them off from their loved ones in the outside world.
In some ways, the Community provides a protective safety net for the South Towns woman's daughter. A developmental disability (Autism) makes her impulsive and immature, her mother said. In the Community, she has found love and acceptance. She seems happy and tries to lead a moral, spiritual life.
But the mother feels she has lost her daughter-and may never get her back. "I have no doubt in my mind that she is brainwashed," the mother said recently, interviewed in West Seneca along with two other mothers whose children have visited the Community. "She has been brought up to be a Christian. She has totally rejected that and flipped over to their beliefs." "She doesn't reject me in an outward form, but she shuts me out," the mother added. "This is her family. She's told me that she loves them more than she loves us. We are secondary to her. I truly believe she loves us, but her mind and heart are so overshadowed by them that they are her family. This is her life."
The South Towns woman originally agreed to use her name in this story. She changed her mind only after being advised by an expert in the field that being identified could harm her chances of reconciling with her daughter. But she's not the only local parent concerned about the Community. Carol Pratt of West Seneca, whose teen age sons have visited the site frequently, has met with several other local parents to pool their information about the local residence. Like many, she has a mixed view.
"It's not a black and white issue," Mrs. Pratt said. "Some people seem so happy there. But I think there's definitely brainwashing. The people living there cut themselves off from family and friends. They don't want to hear other viewpoints, just what they're being taught there."
Al Jayne, 39, one of two elders in the local 40 member group, was asked what he would tell a parent who feels that he has lost a child to the Community. "I'd say you've lost him to a worthy cause, and I wouldn't say you've lost him," he replied. "The God we follow is a God of restoration. He's interested in restoring relationships." The Community does become the family for its residents, he acknowledged. But that doesn't necessarily cut them off from their natural families, who are welcomed to visit any time.
In a 75 minute interview, Jayne frequently framed his answers in biblical or Christian terms. "Christ had to put aside his natural family ties for a more important cause, to do the will of God on earth and defeat Satan," he said. "We follow Him. He is our example."
Is the Community a cult? Several relatives of young people who have joined or visited the Community believe it is. They cited the "group think" atmosphere, the restricted access to outside information, the lack of individuality, the weakened bonds with outside families and the movement's national "apostle," founding father Elbert Eugene Spriggs. The Community-which has roughly 22 sites and 1,500 to 2,000 residents throughout the world, with half of them in New England and New York State - remains controversial.
A Syracuse-area woman has claimed the Community helped her former husband hide her two sons from her in "safe houses" around the country for eight years. Jayne called that an isolated incident, but one in which the father followed his conscience. Some local parents fear the grip the Community can exert on their impressionable, sometimes vulnerable children in their late teens. One 19 year old man from West Seneca had dropped out of college and was looking for a spiritual place where he could regroup. He moved in, but left after six days. "We were lucky, very, very lucky," his mother said. "If he had been there for more than six days, it would have been difficult to get him back."
Mrs. Pratt praised the Community's residents as a "hardworking, nice, charismatic group." But she's concerned about how cut off they are from the outside world and about the strong social pressures to dress alike, wear their hair the same way, look like each other and change some of their names. "Several of us find this distressing," she said. "Western new Yorkers, should educate themselves and their children about what is in their own back yard."
One outside research group, the New England Institute of Religious Research, also has a balanced view of the Community. "They are, without exception, truly wonderful people who evidence a level of commitment, hospitality and love that we do not encounter in many other groups with which we have worked" the Institute wrote, following an in depth study. But the Institute also called the Community a classic study of a group that begins with the best intentions but evolves into something different that what was intended.
"The apostle of the group, Elbert Eugene Spriggs, essentially has a direct pipeline to God and no real accountability," the Institute concluded. "This is a very dangerous combination in any situation." Could the members of the 22 different Communities ever come together in some drastic action? "I don't think they're in danger of doing anything radical," the South Towns mother said. "But I wouldn't put it past them to go somewhere en masse if Elbert Spriggs got a revelation from God."
This woman compared her own plight to that of a mother who has lost her child to the drug world. "Picture your 25 year old son or daughter hanging out in a drug culture," she said. "They're totally unreachable to you. They don't want to come home, because they know you're opposed to the drugs. And you don't go to where they're shooting up, because it would upset you. Your lifestyle and ideology are so opposite you can't connect. You've lost them until you can get them in rehabilitation. "I've lost my daughter until I get her in rehabilitation."