Ex-cultist earns degree, warns others of danger

Argus Leader/December 25, 1995
By Steve Young

Sioux Falls, SD -- An angel sits atop Joni Clark's office desk, a simple figurine with a gold trumpet pressed to its lips.

The counselor-friend who gave it to her says it's meant to herald her arrival as one of Sioux Falls' newest lawyers.

And Clark appreciates that. For her personal odyssey from former religious cult member awaiting the end of time in Florida to a single mother now living and working in South Dakota has been a long and arduous journey.

"Sometimes when I think back, as I often do, it just seems like a blink of an eye, coming from where I came from," Clark, 39, says as she sits at her desk in the Security Building at Ninth Street and Main Avenue. "So much has happened in the last eight years".

In reality, her story goes back to 1973, when Clark's future husband; Gary Cooke, introduced a new religious sect into Sioux Falls, one that eventually came to be called the End Time Ministries.

Cooke was a student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, when he first heard the apocalyptic gospel of Charles Meade, a self-proclaimed prophet from Daleville, Indiana.

He brought Meade's taped messages back to Sioux Falls, and his friends-many of them high school students who were bright and religious but disillusioned with their own churches-quickly embraced it. In time, Cooke and Clark married and became leaders in the sect.

Among the many tenets they fervently practiced was healing by prayer, refusing any kind of medical intervention. It was a belief that ultimately proved fatal for the Cookes.

In December 1978, their 4day-old daughter, Libby, died in their Brandon home, a victim of pneumonia and her own underdeveloped lungs. She received no medical treatment.

By the mid-1980s, Meade had called his followers to Lake City, Fla., where they intended to wait for the end of time. Some 125 families moved out of Sioux Falls, many of them cutting off ties with relatives who would not renounce their own religions and join them.

The Cookes moved as well. But Joni Clark Cooke was starting to waver. She grew dissatisfied with what she viewed as the inconsistencies of Meade's teachings. In time, she divorced her husband and moved her four daughters back to Sioux Falls.

The transition was not easy.

"I came out of a situation where, for 12 years, I had not been able to read a book, pick up a newspaper, watch a movie, any of that because of the group's beliefs," Clark said. "Then to go through undergraduate and law school.... I still wonder how I made it".

In the eight years since she left the group, Clark has crusaded against cults and religious sects, speaking to scores of church groups and service organizations.

She has done seven national news shows on the subject, too, from 20-20 to Geraldo to Inside Edition and CNN.

In 1991, she successfully lobbied the Legislature to remove South Dakota's religious shield law. Now, parents in this state no longer can rely solely on prayer to heal their children.

Clark has done similar lobbying in Minnesota, Florida, Massachusetts and Michigan.

Along the way, whether she was lobbying somewhere or working on her own divorce, she said she became entranced with the idea of a career in law.

"When you go through the divorce process, you become very aware of the power lawyers sometimes have, and what a lawyer means to you when you really need one," Clark said. "You can see how the whole economic future of yourself and your children hangs in the balance of a decision in a courtroom".

"So yes, I became very interested in how it all works".

In May 1992, Clark earned her Bachelor of Social Work Degree from Sioux Falls College. After three more years of commuting between Sioux Falls and Vermillion, she had a law degree from the University of South Dakota.

Clark interned in the Minnehaha County State's Attorney's office in 1994. And now, along with setting up her own law practice, she teaches at two local colleges, too.

She said she would never have made it to this day without the support of her four daughters, ages 10 to 15, and her many friends.

"A lot of people did a lot of real practical things for me, whether it was watching the girls while I studied or anything else," she said. "And the girls were very supportive. I think they were kind of proud of what I was doing".

While juggling books and family, Clark also spent additional time lobbying the Legislature. She succeeded in helping to pass a law requiring agencies to solicit medical histories from parents who are giving up their children for adoption.

She is working on a bill now that would make it a felony for anyone to be convicted of simple assault against the same person for the third time.

Clark admits that such causes are borne of her own personal experiences as an adopted child, and as a member of an oppressive cult.

"My voice on these things always comes out of my own experiences," she said.

True, many of them have been difficult, sad, even tragic experiences. But that is the past, Clark said.

Now, considering where she was just eight years ago- waiting for the end of time in Florida-she is ecstatic to herald her future as one of Sioux Falls' newest lawyers.

"I'm still very grateful I made it out, and that I have an education and my family and a good job now," she said, holding up the angel figurine. "Really, I am very happy with the way everything worked out."

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