Exodus from commune ignites battle for souls

Second of two parts

Chicago Tribune/April 2, 2001
By Kirsten Scharnberg

Bundled in bulky winter coats and wool scarves, David and Nanci Mortimer clutched one another's trembling hands as they entered a harshly lit conference room on Chicago's North Side. "Be strong," Nanci Mortimer whispered under her breath. "Be strong, be strong, be strong."

It was a snow-dusted February morning in 1999, and the Mortimers had been summoned to a closed-door meeting with the eight leaders of Jesus People USA, the cloistered, inner-city religious commune to which they had belonged for almost a decade. The couple, a meek and unassuming pair with one small daughter and another on the way, hadn't been able to sleep the night before.

"It's obvious we're here to discuss your recent letters," Neil Taylor, one of the commune's leaders, recalls saying as they took their seats. "From reading them, it doesn't seem you're very happy here."

Breathless, the Mortimers rushed to explain.

"That's not it," David said. "It's just that we see some changes we think should be made."

Over the previous 18 months, with the nearly 30-year-old commune hemorrhaging longtime members, the Mortimers had written a series of carefully worded letters to the leaders suggesting radical restructuring of the group.

They had requested that all the commune's finances--a web of complicated tax exemptions and interlinked corporations--be disclosed to the hundreds of members who worked without pay in the group's multimillion-dollar businesses.

They had asked for term limits for the eight unelected leaders, half of whom were related by blood or marriage and all of whom claimed to be directly ordained by God.

And they had suggested that the commune had become so authoritarian that rank-and-file members were unable to make even the most basic decisions for themselves.

The Mortimers had expected their letters to chafe. But the meeting was going even worse than they had anticipated.

Taylor and the other leaders had ready answers for all of the Mortimers' criticisms.

No one, they said, was getting rich off the commune's income. Much of it was poured into Jesus People's highly respected charities, the rest covered living expenses for the group's 500 members, and all the leaders lived in the same poverty as everyone else.

They explained that for the commune to fulfill its mission--promoting Christianity and helping the poor--there needed to be a consistent group of leaders.

And, they argued, the commune already had loosened its rules in recent years, allowing people to leave the premises without a "buddy"; to serve on committees overseeing the home school, kitchen and church; to get help should they ever choose to leave the group.

Nearly two hours after the Mortimers had entered the conference room, the debate ceased. Heads bowed, David and Nanci Mortimer began to weep. So did several of the leaders, including Dawn Herrin-Mortimer, one of the commune's original founders and David's stepmother.

Finally, Taylor announced a decision that had been made even before the meeting began. In one clipped sentence, the man who had been David and Nanci Mortimer's spiritual counselor, neighbor, colleague and friend stripped them of their jobs, their home, their church, their children's school and virtually their entire social circle.

"Y'all have to leave," he said, exhaustion audible in every word.

Commune's changing face

In the past decade, hundreds have packed their Bibles and their children and their secondhand clothes and left Jesus People USA.

The Tuckers and the Joneses.

The Pements and the Praters.

The Randalls and the Harolds.

For all these people, leaving Jesus People USA was more complicated than simply walking out the door. It left an indelible impression on their families, their psyches and their spirits.

Of the hundreds who left, some faltered financially, leaving without savings or job references or skills. Some struggled emotionally, winding up in counseling, in substance-abuse treatment, in divorce court, in jail. Some splintered spiritually, concluding that walking away from Jesus People USA was akin to walking away from God.

But as much as these individual lives were affected, the face of Jesus People USA was just as profoundly transformed.

Where once the commune was inhabited by a close-knit family of believers who planned to stay forever, the bulk of its members now stay only for a few years. Where once the leaders knew intimate details of everyone's lives, now most faces in the crowded hallways are a blur of nose piercings and black leather and brilliantly dyed hair. And where once the group received nothing but high praise for its uncompromising Christian values, now it is mired in controversy.

Former members resent that they are given little if any financial support when they leave Jesus People USA, even after working for years without wage for a commune that was netting more than $2 million a year by the late 1990s.

Religious scholars and former members, citing the number of former Jesus People members who fail to thrive in the outside world, contend that the commune does more harm than good by conditioning its followers to depend on someone else to pay their bills, assign their employment and housing, be their conduit to God.

And as people grow increasingly divided in their assessment of the commune, Jesus People USA has become the source of contention that sunders families, friends and marriages.

Persevering despite enmity

Hundreds of people file into a sunken auditorium carrying black Bibles for Jesus People USA's weekly church service. A band sets up its drums and electric guitars near the pulpit. A deacon lays out a plate of thin, round wafers and a leaning tower of Dixie cups for communion.

With an easy familiarity on this autumn morning, Neil Taylor greets everyone who passes, shaking hands and patting shoulders. A 47-year-old with salt and pepper hair, he seems as rejuvenated by the weekly ritual playing out before him as some people are by their morning cup of coffee.

Jesus People USA, headquartered in Chicago's Uptown inside a former hotel nicknamed The Friendly Towers, needs to hold its weekly services in the auditorium of the middle school next door. There isn't a room large enough in the 10-story commune to accommodate the group's entire membership in addition to the dozens of area homeless people and students from the Moody Bible Institute who show up to worship each Sunday.

Church is a stand-when-the-Spirit-moves-you gathering, with sermons that portray the Devil as a breathing entity and live music that sounds like the Christian version of John Denver. Services routinely last more than two hours, with a 15-minute bathroom break halfway through. Worship is comfortably casual, with people sporting jeans cut off at the knees, Birkenstocks without socks, and T-shirts emblazoned with maxims such as, "The man who waits for the 11th hour to find Christ runs the risk of dying at 10:59."

In recent years, the weekly gathering of believers has become a rallying of the troops, a display of camaraderie in the bunker.

"We've endured a tremendous and determined attack," Taylor says later, discussing all the controversy surrounding the commune. "And it's weighed on us to be sure."

A 1994 book, "Recovering from Churches that Abuse," included a critical chapter on Jesus People USA and prompted scores of longtime members to question the group's leadership and move out.

Several years ago, hundreds of former members started trying to recruit people out of Jesus People USA as avidly as they once had encouraged believers to join it.

And, just a few months ago, a highly critical Web site was launched that countered Jesus People USA's own flashy online presence. It included impassioned entries from former members who describe the commune as a "corrupted, unhealthy and decaying vine" and a "Russian prison."

For all the criticism, Taylor sees nothing but good in the commune he joined at age 18. He sees a group that helps disenfranchised youth and is committed to serving the inner city's poor with a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen and an assisted-living facility for senior citizens.

Because Jesus People USA traditionally has appealed to people who are lost, addicted or simply unable to find a sense of purpose for their lives, Taylor says, it should be no surprise that some members leave just as disillusioned as when they joined.

"A lot of people want a scapegoat because their lives didn't turn out exactly as they had hoped," he says, "so they've decided to blame Jesus People USA."

Just a few minutes before church finally begins, Taylor joins several of the commune's other leaders in a prayer near the pulpit. In turn, each asks God to safeguard the persecuted churches on earth.

"God, be with the Catholics in Cuba," someone begins.

"And the Christians in China," another adds.

"And the Bible study groups being banned in our own public schools," a third person chimes in.

No one mentions Jesus People USA. No one has to. A battle cry resonates in one of that morning's folksy hymns:

I will call upon the Lord

He is worthy to be praised

So shall I be saved from my enemies . . .

'Wounded soldiers'

Jennifer Cadieux hated life inside Jesus People USA. But after she fled the commune in 1981, pretending to go jogging and never coming back, the young woman discovered she hated life outside almost as much.

Like hundreds of other members who would leave Jesus People USA in the coming years, the 18-year-old Cadieux foundered in a world that seemed devoid of rules and supervision.

She drank until she forgot her name and abused cocaine. She renounced faith in God. Desperate for a job, she removed asbestos to pay her rent. And, to fit in with new friends, she purged her vocabulary of phrases like "submitting the will" and "thoughts of the flesh."

"It was like I had dropped in from another planet," says Cadieux, who still lives in Chicago.

But as alone as Cadieux felt in those days, she wasn't.

Couples who scarcely had known each other before agreeing to marriages endorsed by Jesus People leaders went through bitter divorces.

A couple of former members ended up in prison, including Jennifer Cadieux's brother, Joshua, who served more than 3 years for aggravated battery.

And so many others have contacted the nation's most prominent inpatient treatment facility for former members of cults and "abusive" churches, that the facility's director tried to raise enough money to treat one-time Jesus People for free. Paul Martin, founder of Wellspring Resource and Retreat in Albany, Ohio, said of the Chicago commune: "There are a lot of wounded soldiers walking out of there."

Though many former members see their first years away from Jesus People USA as a test of faith, one of the most basic reasons many of them struggled in those days was strictly financial.

Early on--though it's less common today--some members made large donations to the commune upon joining. They turned over their Volkswagens, the profits from selling their homes, the money in their savings accounts.

Jesus People's leaders say they tell new members they can't get any donations back and require members to sign a covenant spelling that out. "Jesus People USA has no obligation to pay continuing or leaving members any sum of money representing any portion of the value of their donated assets or services," the covenant states.

"There's no way to divvy up a communal pot," says Tom Cameron, one of the leaders. "It wouldn't be fair to everyone who faithfully remains. At our discretion we may give exiting families whatever we can afford."

So Dale and Kim Veley, who say they donated a $175,000 inheritance to the commune before leaving in 1995, were given $5,000 and a car on their way out. Barbara and Eric Pement, faithful members for more than two decades, say they were given a family pass to the Medireview Times dinner theater in Schaumburg when they left last summer. Chris and Angel Harold say they received nothing, as did other one-time members who were interviewed.

Some of the group's former members--people whose hard work had helped build the commune's tax-paying, for-profit businesses--went on public aid in the 1990s. Others tried to borrow money from family and friends they had shunned upon joining the cloistered commune. Many were shocked to see Social Security statements that showed they were ineligible for some benefits because they had worked for an organization that didn't pay into the fund.

But more than bank accounts were gutted. For families like Jennifer Cadieux's, Jesus People USA permanently polarized those who remained loyal and those who abandoned ranks.

Cadieux's father, Dennis, who declined to be interviewed, remained one of the commune's eight leaders after his daughter ran away. Her mother, Louise, and an older brother also remained members. Her older sister also sneaked away from the commune, taking one of Jesus People's run-down cars and moving with her husband to Wisconsin. Her youngest sibling, Joshua, left the group as a teenager and joined a group of local white supremacists, ending up in prison in 1993 after being convicted of stabbing a 25-year-old Hispanic man in the back.

"We're a wreck," says Cadieux, a pale and petite woman whose hardened face and sandpapery voice make her seem older than 38.

In the 20 years since Cadieux left Jesus People USA, she has returned to the commune once, in 1996, when her mother died.

Inside the commune again, Cadieux found herself searching the eyes of everyone she met in the cluttered and chaotic hallways. Where once she had been among only a few children in Jesus People USA, now the group had produced a second--and in some cases, a third--generation.

On her way out of The Friendly Towers, Cadieux asked herself: Will they end up as lost as I was?

A painful reunion

Six years after becoming one of the first families to renounce their membership, Mark and JoAnn Metcalf sent out invitations to a reunion of former Jesus People members.

"Do you think anyone will show up?" Mark Metcalf asked his wife a few days before the party.

The Metcalfs had been faithful members of Jesus People USA until leaving in 1988. They had discovered Christianity there, married there, and they both credited the commune with saving their lives.

Before joining in the early 1970s, Mark used drugs and was a member of the notorious sex-for-salvation cult Children Of God. JoAnn drank too much and left home at 16. But once their lives were on track, the Metcalfs started to rebel against the commune's unbending rules.

Mark, a member of Mensa, the international intellectual organization, was one of the first to refuse to sign the commune's membership covenant. He also was among the most vocal in questioning about the leaders' authority.

"If this is a discipleship training school," he once asked, "when do I get my diploma?"

In 1994, the couple decided that reuniting with their old friends might provide some closure for the loss of the commune that had once been their family.

The day of the reunion, dozens of one-time members of Jesus People packed the Metcalfs' home in Wisconsin. There was a lot of drinking. A lot of crying.

"What the hell has happened to us?" Mark remembers thinking that night.

Dozens of the former members left the reunion with a renewed zeal to persuade their friends still in the commune to leave it. They called, e-mailed, threatened to write "tell-all" books. If there had been a divide between the former and current members before, it fast became an unbridged gulf.

Soon, so much correspondence was flowing into The Friendly Towers from former members that one 20-year member, a fresh-faced mother of two named Sara Sullivan, started to dread opening some of her mail and answering the telephones in the commune's narrow hallways.

"Listen, I'm not an idiot," she told one persistent caller. "If I were getting abused in this place, I'd know it. I respect the right of anyone to walk away from here, but I expect them to respect my right to stay."

Unlike Sullivan, dozens of Jesus People members seemed to be listening to the commune's ever-growing circle of critics. But even as these people left, Jesus People membership held steady. For every disgruntled member who moved out, a new member was attracted through the group's popular summer festival, rock concerts or Web site.

Over time, there developed a subtle but important change in attitude among the increasingly short-term members. As people came and went, some of the excitement for volunteering for shifts in the group's charities diminished. Hand-lettered signs began to appear in The Friendly Towers' drab, poorly lit lobby:

Shifts for cash.

The authority of the leaders remained a constant, even though they began to back off some of the commune's more rigorous regulations.

It has been more than a decade since spankings were imposed on sinners or since exorcisms were performed. Where people once faced punishment for leaving the commune without a "buddy" or watching unapproved movies and television shows, those rules are now presented as guidelines. In 1989, Jesus People USA became affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, a national denomination of more than 600 Christian churches; the leaders said joining a larger denomination would ensure they, too, had to answer to someone.

And, in 1998, the commune established a transition committee to teach outgoing Jesus People members basic life skills such as how to establish credit and open a checking account, how to apply for an apartment and file tax returns.

This incarnation of Jesus People USA was the commune Mark Metcalf encountered several months ago. He had been driving through Chicago on his way to Dallas--where he had just taken a job and bought a new home for his family--when he decided to stop by The Friendly Towers.

Though most of Jesus People members were out of town for the group's popular Cornerstone Festival in western Illinois, a couple of newer members let Metcalf in. So much was different, and not just the hairstyles and clothing. Most of the young people there, he had learned, stay in the group only for a short time.

In the years since his family had borrowed a car and driven away from Jesus People USA, Metcalf had thought about the commune virtually every day. He had read textbooks about group dynamics, power structures and "co-dependent" religious communities, which led him to a simple conclusion: Jesus People USA would either have to evolve or face extinction.

That afternoon, Metcalf saw signs of progress. When asked later whether the commune looked the same, he laughed.

"Nope," he said. "I don't recognize anything anymore."

A time to grieve

In death, a young woman named Leah Wheeler succeeded where everyone else had failed: She brought Jesus People back together.

Wheeler, a 19-year-old who had been born and raised in Jesus People USA, died in her sleep in The Friendly Towers last June. There was no autopsy, and the cause of death never has been clear.

When news of her funeral reached hundreds of former Jesus People members, dozens made plans to return to the commune. After all that had happened, blame and acrimony were being set aside for empathy and grief.

A little before 10 a.m. on June 24, hundreds of Jesus People members, past and present, arrived at the tumble-down, ivory-brick Baptist church across from The Friendly Towers. They greeted one another, some briskly, some with genuine warmth, some as awkwardly as a couple on a blind date.

One by one, the mourners paused beside a simple, wooden coffin resting in the shadow of the cross.

Terry and Lori Wheeler, who remain faithful members of Jesus People USA, stood just a few feet from the child they had raised in the ultra-strict commune. For more than an hour, the couple embraced dozens of former members who had been most critical of Jesus People USA: the couple from Minnesota who had left the commune years before, saying it was dangerous for children; the family from the western suburbs who had made it their loudly voiced intention to see the commune shut down; the Mortimers, who had remained in Chicago but almost never saw their old friends from the commune.

"I can't believe so many people came back," Nanci Mortimer whispered to David.

A funeral hymn began. The congregation stood. And for the first time in years, Jesus People USA sang with one rising voice.

Sara Sullivan, the woman who had grown tired of all the anti-Jesus People rhetoric, would say later that if life were a Hollywood movie, the story of Jesus People would have ended there, the possibility of reconciliation still hanging in the air.

But that's not what happened.

Within days, a new spate of confrontational e-mails, letters and phone calls began between The Friendly Towers and the outside world.

Revelations of faith

Of all the divergent paths leading into Jesus People and all the paths leading out of it, no two people walk away believing the exact same thing about God or the world or the commune. Faith is a personal journey.

Whenever Jennifer Cadieux thinks about the commune where she was raised, she finds herself dwelling on one morning when she was about 12. She was making her bed when a perfect stream of golden sunlight arched from the window across the room to the exact place where she was standing.

"It was like the skies opened up and my spirit flew out," she says. "I guess it never really came back."

Mark and JoAnn Metcalf, now settled into their new home in Dallas, say there will be no more reunions. Even though they are financially stable and happy, the Metcalfs have renounced faith in organized religion.

A while back, when no one was home, JoAnn Metcalf dropped to her knees and prayed for a sign from God. "If you're there," she remembers pleading, "show me beyond a shadow of a doubt. I need a burning bush. I need manna from heaven. Show me that all those years were not in vain."

She heard no answer.

David and Nanci Mortimer and their two young daughters have settled into a sunny, three-bedroom apartment in Chicago's Albany Park. Under a provision advanced by the transition committee, they were allowed to live in the commune for several months while working in outside jobs to earn a small nest egg. With the help of two former Jesus People members, they found a landlord who required almost no deposit. David attends a local seminary and will be ordained as a minister in a little more than a year.

The Mortimers have found peace in prayer. After a Bible study group with members of their new congregation last year, the couple asked God to help them forgive Jesus People USA and each of the leaders, even Neil Taylor.

"He was the hardest one," Nancy Mortimer says, "because he was the one who said the words that completely ended our life as we knew it."

Taylor remains as devoted to Jesus People USA as he was on the day in 1972 that he boarded its cardinal-red bus with "JESUS" emblazoned on the side.

"Say what you want about us," he says. "But the fact is we attempt to help the kinds of people the rest of society writes off. We take in the drug addicts and the alcoholics and the sexually confused. We take in the down and out. We give them a home and a family and we love them."

Taylor, who once knew everyone in the commune's hallways, still knows most members and intimate details of their lives. But there are so many new faces in The Friendly Towers that sometimes he stumbles.

"She's got an interesting story," he begins, pointing at a young woman with a mohawk. But then he hesitates: "Maybe she's not the person I'm thinking of. It gets hard to remember everyone. People tend to come and go these days."

In late August, less than two months after Leah Wheeler's funeral, Robert and Edie Goodwin arrived at The Friendly Towers with beat-up suitcases, a pair of well-read Bibles and two young children.

The couple first got to know Jesus People at the Cornerstone Festival several years ago. They met the commune's members, picked up a brochure with a number to call about joining and were moved to tears when the commune held a mass baptism on the shores of a murky, lima bean-shaped lake at the end of the weekend.

Now, only six months after moving into Jesus People USA, the Goodwins are immersed in their new life. They pray with friends and have signed the commune's membership covenant.

"Coming here has been, without a doubt, the best experience of my life so far," Robert Goodwin says.

There is no way to predict how the couple will feel about Jesus People USA in a week or a year or a decade. They may remain true believers like Neil Taylor, or they may become absolute rejecters like Jennifer Cadieux. They might be tormented by doubt like Mark and JoAnn Metcalf, or they might be strengthened in faith like David and Nanci Mortimer.

For now, what the Goodwins believe is this:

They believe a man named Jesus Christ walked through the world. They believe a higher power led them to Chicago. And they believe in a commune called Jesus People USA.

So with the other believers, Robert and Edie Goodwin spend their days inside the lively, deafening, threadbare building at 920 W. Wilson Ave. And they spend their nights--their children beside them--reading and rereading the leather-bound tome that is their road map, beginning at Genesis, continuing through Exodus, and arriving, sometime in the future, at the final chapter of Revelation.

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