Commune's iron grip tests faith of converts

First of two parts

Chicago Tribune/April 1, 2001
By Kirsten Scharnberg

Down a dead-end gravel road so heavily traveled a wall of dust hangs like smog, a tent city springs from the fallow fields. Pulsing music drifts across the scraggy plains. Neon lights advertising elephant ears, corn dogs and fresh-squeezed lemonade adorn a string of carnival trailers.

Some 20,000 people teenagers wearing black leather in the summer sun, twentysomethings who have tattooed wedding bands on their fingers instead of gold ones move among big tops, a tug-of-war sand pit and a funnel cake vendor.On every available surface the doors of portable toilets, the kiosk of 25-cent pay phones, the trunks of leafy oak trees hang dozens of brightly colored handbills trumpeting the most anticipated event of the sweltering July weekend:

Water Baptism. Beach. Saturday, 1 p.m.

Held each summer near Bushnell, Ill., a no-stoplight town that doesn't even appear on most road maps, this four-day evangelical extravaganza is Woodstock with a twist. It's Goth meets God. Punk meets prayer. Hard rock meets the Holy Spirit.

Part concert, part fire and brimstone, part brazen self-promotion, the event, Cornerstone Festival, is the most modern and public outreach of Jesus People USA, a controversial Chicago-based sect that stands as one of the last surviving religious communes of an American generation. Despite an onslaught of criticism that the group is overly authoritarian, secretive about its finances and psychologically abusive, Jesus People USA continues to attract largely the same clientele it has for nearly 30 years: troubled, disillusioned, needy youth.

In the 1970s, when protesting the Establishment was a religion of its own, Jesus People members journeyed wherever the interstates took them, preaching a devout lifestyle to hippies tired of free love and drugs. In the 1980s, they launched punk-rock bands. And today, in an age of feng shui spiritualism and dot-com materialism, the commune draws so many converts through its flashy Web site and national magazine that there is a waiting list to get in.

Those who came to Cornerstone Festival last summer a young man who hitchhiked from New York, a Christian youth group from west Texas, three sisters who drove their parents' mini-van from a farm town in North Carolina were lured there by the big-name Christian bands, the campfires and cookouts, the seminars with titles like "Mustard Seed vs. McWorld: The Future of Faith." But almost none of them knew the tempest the commune has stirred in recent years.

They did not know that scores of once-loyal members have fled Jesus People USA since 1990, accusing the commune of exploiting them for free labor in its multimillion-dollar businesses, of making them so emotionally dependent on the group that they were terrified to return to the outside world, of leaving them so spiritually wounded they no longer believe in God.

They did not know the commune's rules discourage adult members from leaving the premises without an assigned "buddy"; require them to forgo worker's compensation and health benefits; and, during the group's earliest years, allowed for them to be spanked with wooden rods as punishment for sin.

And they did not know that all authority in the nearly 500-member group rests in the hands of eight unelected men and women, half of whom are related by blood or marriage.

What the festival-goers see on July 8, the final day of last year's Cornerstone Festival, is this: a well-oiled evangelical machine that specializes in full-immersion, assembly-line baptisms where spectators are reduced to tears and converts are elevated to talking in tongues.

Thousands of people gather on the shores of the lima bean-shaped lake carved from the center of the 500-acre farm. One of Jesus People's most visible and vocal leaders, a minister named Neil Taylor, wades into the murky water until it reaches his waist. He stands with his arms outstretched, palms up, as though catching raindrops. Then, with an almost imperceptible nod, he beckons the first convert of the day.

A high school girl steps forward. She pushes her way through the crowds and trudges out to where Taylor waits. Three times "In the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, in the name of the Holy Spirit" the young woman collapses limply into his waiting arms, her entire body, even her face, swallowed by the Water of Life.

More than 60 people follow. For almost an hour, long after his fingers had begun to prune and his long angular face has turned a deep, sunburned red, Taylor baptizes all of them with a prayer he knows by heart.

Just hours after the last convert has returned to dry land, the trampled and littered fields stand nearly desolate. Cars slowly make their way back down the gravel road, disappearing into the cornfields and dust.

Some return north. Some head south. And members of Jesus People USA with several newly baptized converts drive east, to Chicago, to a threadbare building where everyone shares bathrooms and Bibles, money and mission, hardships and hope.

'Back on a Christian path'

The 10-story, 325-bedroom converted hotel rises from a trash-strewn stretch of Chicago's Wilson Avenue. The front door is locked. The first-floor windows are tinted.

And the umber brick building that sits down the block from a harshly lit Beef 'n' Fish and a stone's throw from the tracks of the "L" is hopelessly nondescript, save for a cobalt blue awning emblazoned with cheerful white lettering: The Friendly Towers.

Neil Taylor, a 47-year-old who sometimes preaches his Sunday sermons in a stonewashed denim jacket with the collar turned up, sees these lackluster surroundings as something akin to heaven on earth. On this humid summer day, he is sitting on the Friendly Towers' first floor, in the center of a crowded cafeteria with grease-stained walls, drab tile flooring and a persistent smell of burnt toast.

It's lunchtime, and people are praying loud. They are singing loud, and their hair is dyed in a dozen loud colors. A kid shouts to his mother, "What're we having for dinner?"

Like a parent accustomed to tuning out bedlam, Taylor is unfazed by the chaos. From behind wire-rimmed glasses, he sizes up the reclusive world he has helped govern for the better part of 30 years.

Jesus People USA is organized around verses laid out in the Bible. From Hebrews 13:17, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls." From Acts 4:32, "No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything in common." And from Matthew 25:45, "Whatever you did not do for the least of my brothers, you did not do for me."

The members of Jesus People USA also are united by the man-made rules that dictate their daily lives. Members are not to date for one year after joining, and they are encouraged to get the leaders' approval before marrying. Couples are encouraged to get permission and counseling before having children. Members work without pay for the commune's businesses.

That some of the commune's rules have been harsh or restrictive and that members have been excommunicated for breaking them is not disputed by Taylor. But speaking as a man with his own troubled past, Taylor says Jesus People's leaders have had no choice but to run the commune with an unyielding grip.

"A lot of people who are traditionally out of control come here," says Taylor, a stern but amiable father of two, "so they need serious limitations and guidance to get back on a Christian path."

To make his point, Taylor gestures toward a young woman with purple hair and piercings all over her face. She came to Jesus People USA with a history of drug problems, he says.

"We helped her," he confides. And that guy not wearing any shoes: "We helped him too." From the table where he sits, Taylor can see virtually the entire first floor of the once-grand hotel.

Near the front door is the "money office," a broom closet of a room where the commune's members fill out request forms for cash to buy everything from new underwear to train tickets to birthday presents for their children. A cluttered desk holds an automated telephone switchboard that answers every incoming call with the greeting, "Hi, Jesus loves you."

The front door to the Friendly Towers might just as well be a revolving one, with the number of people who are always rushing in and out.

The children home-schooled inside the commune hurry out to the adjacent playground for recess. Men and women leave after morning prayers every Tuesday through Saturday for eight-hour shifts in the commune's roofing supply company, woodworking shop and other local businesses. Those who work in the commune's cafeteria or on the housekeeping crews come and go with groceries and mops and bottles of disinfectant. And members carry boxes of donated clothes to the homeless shelter or one of the other charities the group runs in the neighborhood.

Dozens of elderly people shuffle through the hallways with walkers and stocking feet. Most of them were living without plumbing or electricity in the dilapidated Friendly Towers until Jesus People bought it in 1990, and with hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars turned the building's top three floors into an assisted-living center for them.

Each of the building's 10 floors has a communal kitchen and a communal living room. The one-room apartments have been transformed by Jesus People into beautiful spaces, with polished wood paneling, built-in cabinetry and loft-style beds.

"I look around here and I see beauty," Taylor says. "I see God."

The lunch crowd is thinning. A cluster of teenagers pray unabashedly in a corner; a man sings about Jesus while strumming an old guitar; parents sit at a nearby table, reading a large-print illustrated Bible with their rapt children.

"It's almost a miracle," he says. For a long moment, Taylor is quiet. "We've come so far."

Genesis of a church

In the beginning, Jesus People USA could fit its entire ministry in a cardinal-red school bus. The sagging, sputtering old Bluebird had 4-foot hand-painted letters that spelled "JESUS" across one side. And everywhere it stopped from lakeside towns in Michigan's Upper Peninsula to rural hamlets in the South to a beach on the outskirts of Jacksonville some two dozen long-haired, Bible-toting hippies would disembark to deliver 30-second sermons to anyone who passed.

"Jesus loves you," they would call out, completely undaunted when the people rolled their eyes or turned their backs. "Hey, did you hear us? JESUS LOVES YOU!"

It was the summer of 1972, and Jesus People USA an offshoot of a Wisconsin evangelical troupe was less than a year old. Jesus People USA and groups like it were urging people to turn away from a Vietnam-divided, do-your-own-thing society and join poor, transient ministries focused on ensuring the next life was better.

The message was a hit.

The Jesus People bus lurched out of Florida that fall, a "Honk if you love Jesus" sticker proudly pasted on its bumper. The believers on board, including Neil Taylor, who had given up drugs and alcohol after meeting the group on the beach, trusted God would provide them with gas, food and a divinely inspired road map.

Jesus People members stopped in virtually every town they came across to stand on street corners and introduce non-believers to Christ. The group led impromptu baptisms in placid public fountains, in muddy Missouri rivers, in cold Canadian streams. No one was turned away: not the young woman in Michigan who confessed to being strung out on marijuana and Eric Clapton, not the hitchhiker in Montreal who initially burst out laughing when one of the group's members quoted from John 3:16 while dressed as a clown.

Although Jesus People USA was far from the only mobile ministry out there, it was a highly visible one. A picture of the group's red bus appeared on the pages of Christianity Today, and the Chicago Tribune featured the group under the headline, "The young turn on to Christ." Parents who worried about their wayward children encouraged them to join. And at a time when most Christian music was staid and churchly, Jesus People USA started a Christian rock band Resurrection Band that soon was being tapped for a national record deal and drawing thousands of teenagers to concerts that often ended with the lead singer announcing, "God is calling two among you to join us."

Six months after pulling out of Florida with 41 believers on board, the oil-burning bus backfired one last time and broke down in Chicago.

The stranded travelers contacted a local minister to see if he could offer them shelter while they decided what to do. A soft-hearted cleric at Faith Tabernacle Church on the city's North Side said the Jesus People members could live in the church's unfinished, cinder-block basement for free.

That night, as the commune members carried what little they owned into the bleak church basement, they saw something that convinced them God intended them to stay in Chicago. The reflective green street sign on the corner said it all:


A hard life and hard rules

The girl didn't hop on a bus. She didn't raise her hand at a concert. She wasn't converted on a street corner or baptized in a lake. Like the other children who eventually would be raised inside Jesus People USA, Jennifer Cadieux simply followed her father.

Cadieux had just turned 9 when her father encountered Jesus People in 1973. The commune's band had been performing a Christmas concert at a suburban Aurora church, and Dennis Cadieux who had long dreamed of being a foreign missionary was so taken with the group that he decided to sell his family's home and lucrative printing business to join full time, Jennifer Cadieux recalls.

After the holidays, Dennis Cadieux donated tens of thousands of dollars to Jesus People USA and moved with his wife, Louise, and daughters, Jennifer and Cathy, to Grace Street. The couple would have two sons after joining the commune.

None of the progressively larger residences the commune eventually would own on Chicago's North Side from a yellow-brick six-flat on Paulina Street to a sprawling apartment complex on Malden Avenue to the dorm-style Friendly Towers could be mistaken for the Ritz. But that church basement where Jennifer Cadieux first encountered Jesus People USA undoubtedly was the worst.

The sewer routinely backed up, forcing everyone to sleep on thin mattresses atop sturdy, plastic milk crates. Water bugs the size of matchboxes skittered across the concrete floor. Maggots made their way into the loaves of bread.

"When we first were getting ready to move, my dad had pulled me aside," Jennifer Cadieux says. "He said there would be ponies and ducks and frogs and ponds, so I stopped worrying. But that wasn't what it was like at all."

During their earliest years in Chicago, Jesus People members routinely spent 12-hour days canvassing the city for souls in need of saving. They recruited at O'Hare, handing religious tracts to baggage-laden travelers. They proselytized on the sidewalks of Old Town, sometimes luring potential converts from the orange-robed Hare Krishnas who also worked the neighborhood. And they attracted hundreds of converts with Resurrection Band, which eventually was touring the U.S., Canada and Europe.

"Those first years were some of the best years of my life," says Jon Trott, one of the harried fliers that Jesus People attracted at O'Hare and now one of the commune's most senior and devoted members.

But for all the excitement and purpose the commune's members felt each time they sat down to pray with a potential new Christian, being a Jesus Person was not all Bible studies and singalongs. Concerned that putting so many people from troubled backgrounds under one roof could be a volatile mix and drawing from a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, the group's leaders embraced a set of strict rules.

Men and women were discouraged from talking to one another. Marriages were suggested by the group's leaders, who supervised couples' daily visits.

Exorcisms in which members were delivered from the evils of lust or tobacco or, in the case of one woman prone to snacking, "the demons of M&Ms" were regular occurrences. Cadieux recalls being exorcised half a dozen times as a small girl, once for loving her mother more than God.

And it was in that basement, too, the adult spankings began. Following the Shepherding furor of the day a Pentecostal movement that since has been characterized as abusive even by some of its own architects Jesus People embraced during the late 1970s a system of corporal punishment for adult members. Because all members were assigned a "covering" a senior member to whom they were expected to confess sins or thoughts of sins many of the commune's earliest members were spanked by the leaders with a long wooden dowel known as "the rod."

Jennifer Cadieux, along with a whole generation of Jesus People children, learned to fear what they called "the spanking room." A Northbrook woman, Angel Harold, who has since left the commune, remembers that she and her best friend, both about 6 at the time, would hide behind a recliner outside the room, listening to the thumps and the crying.

"I remember we would be playing house or with our dolls," Harold recalls. "We would pretend to spank each other or our dolls with sticks, the whole time shouting, 'I do this in the name of Jesus.'"

Years later, Jesus People USA leaders would renounce the practice, saying the spankings had reflected how spiritually immature the group was.

About the same time the spankings were implemented, the commune's leaders began another controversial practice that eventually was abandoned. They would "adopt" new members' children if they deemed the biological parents unfit. Although none of the adoptions was ever made legal, the leaders raised the children as their own, often permitting only weekly, one-hour visits with the biological parents.

As they have with the spankings, the leaders today have distanced themselves from the practice, saying they took charge of a handful of children because the parents were so dysfunctional they couldn't care for the youngsters. The leaders admit the adoptions were a resounding failure.

Rigid rules and all, people were joining the commune faster than the group could find them secondhand sleeping bags.

"It was exactly what I needed at that time in my life," says Lynn Austin, a former member who credits Jesus People USA with turning her into a devout Christian.

By 1976, the year Jesus People moved from Grace Street to the first building the group owned in Uptown, it was nearly 100 members strong. Within just a few years, in what members saw as a modern-day Book of Numbers, the flock burgeoned to more than 350.

But even as more and more people pledged their faith, Jennifer Cadieux became one of the first members to grow disillusioned with Jesus People USA.

In 1981, while visiting a Missouri farm someone had donated to the commune as a religious retreat, the 18-year-old Cadieux pretended to go jogging. The lanky woman loped down the farm's tree-lined gravel lane, turned left on Old Church Road and never returned.

Entering corporate realm

At first Jesus People's money grew on trees.

The commune had long been kept afloat on donations of cash, property and cars from strangers and new members, but as the years passed and membership grew, the group found itself flush with a growing labor pool.

Jesus People's first commercial enterprise a tree-planting business earned only a pittance, but it convinced the leaders that by capitalizing on members' diverse talents, the commune could meld evangelism and entrepreneurialism.

In the mid-1980s, using old linotype presses Dennis Cadieux had donated, Jesus People USA began printing wedding invitations, fliers, business cards and brochures. The group then launched several contracting companies The Porch People, JP Movers, Jesus People Electrical and The Window People. By the late 1990s, almost a half-dozen Jesus People companies were flourishing in Chicago, including Lakefront Roofing Supply, a massive wholesale roofing company that rapidly expanded to three thriving locations.

By 1998, the most recent income tax returns available, the commune was grossing $12.6 million a year and netting well over $2 million.

Customers trusted Jesus People. The commune's workers prayed on their lunch break. The businesses' invoices and promotional materials incorporated Bible verses Lakefront Roofing's stationery read, "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain." The commune's leaders even got a letter from a satisfied client who wrote that the men who had built her porch "attacked repetitive work like prayer."

Before long, Jesus People USA went multimedia. The group transformed its tiny Cornerstone newspaper into a slick, full-color magazine that tackled sexuality, economics, welfare reform, abortion and theology. The commune's summer festival near Bushnell soon was booking well-known Christian acts and attracting tens of thousands. Jesus People USA started a company to publish members' religious books and a record company to sign members' bands.

In 1990, Jesus People USA spent $1.75 million to acquire its biggest communal home to date. The building, once the Chelsea Hotel at 920 W. Wilson Ave., had fallen into disrepair. But with their trademark enthusiasm for lost causes, Jesus People members spent countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars refurbishing The Friendly Towers.

About this time, the commune, which had long been feeding the neighborhood's homeless, began to seek government grants for charity work.

"It was no longer in vogue to preach on the streets," says Tom Cameron, one of the leaders, whom the commune sent to Northwestern University Law School so he could oversee the group's increasingly complicated legal affairs. "So we lived out our faith by helping the impoverished and needy around us."

Jesus People USA established the non-profit corporation Cornerstone Community Outreach. With grants and tax breaks that grew to as much as $1 million a year from various combined government sources including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Chicago's Department of Human Services the commune established a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen and a transitional living facility for women and children trying to get off the streets.

Politicians gave the charities rave reviews, with former Ald. Jerome Orbach calling the group "Uptown's own version of the Salvation Army."

As more people joined the commune was almost 500 members strong by the late 1980s the group's eight leaders drafted a three-page, fine-print document called the "Jesus People Covenant." The document included the surrender of any claim to worker's compensation, Social Security or health benefits and for several years it also required members to surrender power of attorney to the leaders. The covenant, Cameron says, served to "explain the consequences of membership."

But the document also fueled skepticism about the commune's finances among some members.

If we have a steady income, they wondered, why do we still use the free health care at Cook County Hospital? Why are all the mothers enrolled in the federally funded Women, Infants and Children program? Why are families collecting food stamps when the commune clearly has the funds to provide three square meals a day? And why doesn't the commune distribute financial reports?

The commune's non-profit charity also used tens of thousands of government dollars to hire Jesus People's own contracting companies to do construction work on the group's homeless shelter and the transitional living center, as well as buying the charities' food, supplies and office space from Jesus People USA. Jesus People leaders say the commune hired its own businesses because they did the jobs cheaper since they didn't have to pay their workers and therefore saved precious government dollars.

The leaders say that because so many people joined to escape all the materialism of the modern world, they never suspected anyone wanted to live more luxuriously or to see how money was being spent. In addition, Cameron says, the group cannot afford regular audits.

Almost no one took these financial concerns to the leaders who lived in the same small rooms and under the same Spartan conditions as everyone else but by the late 1980s, after almost 20 years of growth, Jesus People USA started to lose longtime members.

One of the commune's most senior couples, Mark and JoAnn Metcalf, decided to leave after Mark refused to sign away power of attorney. With a small inheritance Mark had received from his father's recent death, the couple borrowed a car and loaded it with as much bitterness as baggage.

Although the couple had worked for years without pay in the commune, the leaders did not give them any money on their way out, and most of their friends from the group shunned them upon their decision.

As the Metcalfs drove away from Uptown in 1988, Mark believed his family of four would be the first of many to leave. He compared the commune to a car with a chipped windshield.

"Anyone who's ever had a crack in their windshield knows that a little crack becomes a gaping split the first cold snap of winter," he told his sobbing wife.

A book stirs trouble

Nanci Mortimer felt her first twinges of doubt standing in the blinding glow of a copy machine.

It was the middle of 1993, and Jesus People USA had just received word that Ronald Enroth, a respected religious scholar, was including a chapter about the Chicago commune in his upcoming book, "Recovering from Churches that Abuse." The leaders were livid and making every effort to persuade Enroth to edit out Jesus People.

Mortimer, a devoted four-year member of the commune, was given the task of copying piles of angry correspondence between commune leaders and Enroth, whose book concluded Jesus People USA was "a tragic tale of good intentions gone bad."

As Mortimer copied, she saw how Enroth neatly divided Jesus People's lives into clinical categories: "unhealthy dependency on group," "gross manipulation of members" and "painful exit process." She made extra copies to take to her room and show her husband, David.

For hours, behind the closed door of their book-lined quarters, the couple read about the commune where they had met.

Nanci Mortimer had joined the group in 1989, planning to stay only a few months to volunteer in the group's numerous charities. After six months, when she announced she was leaving because she had to get a job to pay off student loans, the commune's leaders told her that if she wanted to stay, they would take care of the $2,500 she owed.

David Mortimer had joined in 1990, reeling from his 7-year-old brother's death from brain cancer. He viewed the socially minded commune as a place to worry more about humanity than his own problems. After his parents divorced, his father joined the group, eventually marrying Dawn Herrin, the only woman among the eight leaders.

"I felt like we were on the front lines doing God's work," Nanci Mortimer says of the couple's first years with Jesus People. "It was the most amazing feeling."

Enroth's book set off a firestorm of debate among religious s scholars. Dozens, like Ruth Tucker, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, would defend Jesus People USA vehemently, saying Enroth was "sadly misdirected and his research methods seriously flawed." Others, like Paul Martin, the director of Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, one of the few residential treatment centers in the world for one-time members of "abusive groups," would support Enroth's findings, saying that his facility had been getting a flood of requests for help from former members and that the commune "displays virtually every sign that I watch for in overly authoritarian and totalistic groups."

Jesus People leaders would come to believe the book was "poison in the well." David and Nanci Mortimer and eventually scores of one-time members would say years later that reading Enroth's 11-point list of characteristics of an "abusive church" was like experiencing faith in reverse.

"Oh my, we do that," Nanci Mortimer recalls saying as she read Enroth's portrayal. "And that. And that.

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