'They told us we might have to die'

The Telegraph/February 28, 2002
By Damian Thompson

Andrew McMillion and Sarah Jacobs spent their childhoods with the notorious Children of God - now they help other young people who have left similar religious groups to survive.

When Andrew McMillion and his friend Sarah Jacobs were young, they believed that they were about to develop the power to walk through walls and zap their enemies with fire from their fingertips. From time to time, Sarah would thrust her finger at people to see if - whoosh! - the magic moment had arrived. But it never had.

The odd thing is that Andrew and Sarah were teenagers at the time, not five year olds. And they had been told about their supernatural abilities by adults: members of the Children of God, the religious sect to which their parents belonged. According to the group's doctrines, as the end of the world approached, a generation of adolescent super-heroes would rise up to do battle with Satan. These Junior End Time Teens (Jetts) would be able to perform some extremely cool tricks: lifting boulders with one hand, flying through the air, sending swarms of flying insects to torment their enemies (the Children of God were big on enemies).

But there was a catch. "They told us we might have to die for the faith," says Sarah. "I liked the idea of all those freaky powers, but the martyr stuff gave me nightmares."

The Children of God, now renamed the Family, is perhaps the strangest religious group thrown up by the Sixties: a bizarre and unstable fusion of Christian fundamentalism and free love. Its adherents talk about the coming Apocalypse with the grim relish of Jehovah's Witnesses - but, unlike the Witnesses, they also have sex with multiple partners.

In the words of their late founder, David "Mo" Berg, "the Devil hates sex - but God loves it. There is nothing wrong with sex, as long as it's practised in love, whatever it is or whoever it's with, no matter who or what age or what relative or what manner."

The Family's opponents call it a "sex cult". It is the sort of group that parents dread their children joining, perhaps after being approached by one of the street musicians who act as recruiting sergeants for the movement.

But what about children who have never known anything else? In the heyday of the Children of God in the Seventies, 5,000 babies were born into or raised by the group; they included the actor River Phoenix who, at five years old, was a missionary singing hymns in the main plaza of Caracas, Venezuela, and, at 23, died from drug-induced seizures outside a West Hollywood night club.

The role of children in the group remains highly controversial. On the one hand, youngsters are burdened with the knowledge that they will one day rebuild a world blasted into the stone age after the Apocalypse; on the other, they have, in the past, been drilled like soldiers and, more rarely, there have been allegations of sexual abuse.

In the Nineties, Family communes in Britain, France, Argentina, the United States and Australia were raided by police after allegations of paedophilia. The results were inconclusive - some of the charges were patently false - but there is no doubt that the experience of being raised in the paranoid atmosphere of the sect produced some extremely troubled teenagers.

This is what has brought Andrew and Sarah to a coffee bar in Notting Hill on a drizzly February afternoon. Now 25, they have both left the group - in Andrew's case, after being kept in isolation in a caravan while his father tried to talk him out of leaving. Their aim is to provide an organisation for young people who walk out of the Family (or any other intense religious movement, such as the Moonies) and find themselves struggling to survive in a world that they have been taught to regard as the province of the Devil.

"In the first year outside, I cried myself to sleep night after night," says Andrew. "Other kids leave home, but we left our entire lives. Some people can't handle it. They stick together, drag each other down with their stories of what happened to them, get into drugs. They desperately need help to integrate into society."

"Some of them don't even know how to open a bank account," adds Sarah (not her real name). "When I left, two years ago, going into any sort of office was so scary, because I'd been told that social workers, doctors and psychologists were all evil. Girlfriends of mine who left became strippers. What else were they going to do? They had no education, but they knew how to dance, to wiggle for strangers."

Sarah has dark eyes and slender fingers that dart around her face as she talks. She has a slightly American accent and the self-composure of an actress; it is hard to believe that she works in an off-licence in south London. Andrew, son of an American father and Norwegian mother, is a round-faced boy in a woolly sweater and Scandinavian hiking boots; he is studying anthropology at university in Oslo. He calls people "dude" and keeps fidgeting because he has given up smoking.

It seems appropriate to meet in a coffee bar. The Children of God was founded in 1968 in a radical cafe in Huntington Beach, California, where teenage hippies gathered to hear the white-bearded "Father David" Berg rage against the established churches. Later, he sent them out dressed in red sackcloth, smeared with ashes, to proclaim the coming of Doomsday.

"My mom and dad were both surfers, and dad had been into the hippy drug scene," says Sarah.

"He met these guys out with their guitars who stopped him to chat on the beach. Dad and mom were very idealistic people, and they thought they had discovered the group that was going to save the world."

The Children of God became notorious for the practice of "flirty fishing", in which young woman missionaries would be sent out to bars to seduce lonely businessmen. Berg also moved his disciples around the world like chess pieces, bombarding them with new doctrines and breaking up family units. Like Andrew, Sarah spent her adolescence moving from country to country, often without her parents: the two became friends when they were schooled together in Austria and Hungary.

Andrew was 11 when he was separated from his parents and sent with his brother to a "teen training camp" in the Philippines. "There were 30 of us in one room with military-style bunk beds," he recalls.

"We would march to class, march to work. Many of the lessons were about the end of the world. They taught us about Nostradamus, and showed us these clips from CNN of global disasters, all signs of the End Time.

"The compound was surrounded by walls five metres high, and there were armed guards with bullet-proof vests. I left it only three times in eight months."

He was there at a time of intense anxiety about persecution from the outside world. "I got sick with malaria, so they put me to work in this secret room in the basement, destroying literature and taping over videos that might prove embarrassing," he says.

Sarah had a similar experience: at the height of the campaign against the Family, she was asked to censor comic books that showed teenage girls sleeping with men of all ages.

"There was all this spooky art with a high sexual content, and when the trials began, they wanted us to draw over it," she says. "Anyone with any artistic talent was asked to put little bikinis on the women and underwear on the boys - their idea of security was so ridiculous."

Neither Andrew nor Sarah was sexually assaulted, but they knew that other children were being drawn into sexual conversations and activity. "Most girls that I knew had something happen to them," says Sarah. "There were older men having full sex with girls of 10, 11, 12.

"It happens in the outside world, too, but people in the group were using the theology to justify their own little perversions, saying: 'Let me share God's love with you', when, actually, they just wanted to go to bed with you. But we were trained to say that it just didn't happen.

"My father is a wonderful man who never laid a finger on me, but I've asked him why he didn't do something, knowing that this stuff was happening to other kids. And he doesn't know what to say."

Perhaps surprisingly, Andrew and Sarah do not believe that sex lay at the core of the group, and they do not accept the anti-cult movement's claim that the Children of God was effectively a conspiracy to abuse children. Their most vivid recollections of their time together in the Family school in Budapest are of boredom and petty regulations.

"Our joys were extremely simple, you could put it that way," grins Sarah, sipping her herbal tea. "We got excited about all the things we weren't allowed to do, like listening to music that didn't come from the group."

"Oh, man," says Andrew. "Their music was so bad. We would listen to the radio with the volume turned right down, or sneak out and buy tapes and make copies of copies of copies.

"We were into anything we could get our hands on: Chris Rea, Lionel Ritchie, Kenny Rogers - it was sad stuff for us to be into when we were so young. River Phoenix was a hero to us because his family had left the group and he was doing so well."

"Yes, but after he died the leadership started getting these wacky messages from him," adds Sarah. "They told us River was sorry for what he did and, jeez, if he had had what we had, he never would have taken those drugs. They get messages from everybody - Marilyn Monroe, Tupac Shakur [the murdered rap artist], even Richard Nixon. He's working in the nursery in heaven now, as a penance for Watergate."

Andrew was 14 when he decided to leave the Family, but waited until he was 16. "When my brother and I first wanted to go, they put us in this caravan with my father, and all the European leaders came and tried to persuade us to stay.

"In April 1993, we contacted our relatives in the States and bought tickets, all secretly. Then we just split. I was looked after by parents of a friend of mine, a Jewish couple in Michigan who sent me to high school there. I was lucky, but it was a very difficult time."

Sarah, meanwhile, was still a believer. "I was a good girl," she says, looking apologetically at Andrew. "In a period of a few months, all my young friends walked out, and I just felt so sorry for them. That's how my little 10-year-old brother feels about me now - sad that I've left the Family."

She still finds it painful to talk about her departure, which happened more quietly and gradually than Andrew's. She remains a Christian, but has no time for organised religion; Andrew describes himself as "an agnostic tending towards atheism", and says that most children who have left the Family have found it impossible to sustain a religious faith.

Sarah's parents, like Andrew's, are divorced; her father has left the movement, but her mother is a Family missionary in China, teaching English to schoolchildren. "I talk to mom through email," she says. "She tells us she really misses us, but even when we were in the group we never saw much of her anyway - I once went three years without seeing her.

"People ask how old I was when I stopped living with my parents, and I say, 12 1/2."

Back in Norway, Andrew has become involved in an organisation called Go On, which helps the disorientated children of new religious movements find jobs, accommodation and moral support; it is supported by the Norwegian government and Save The Children.

"But the need is so much greater in London, because you have so many different religious sects here," he says.

One possibility is that a similar venture could come under the umbrella of Inform, an information service based at the London School of Economics, which already offers objective advice on new religious movements to parents, scholars and former members.

As for those children currently growing up in the Family, it is difficult to assess the degree of risk they face. The leadership, now dominated by Berg's widow, Maria, has taken decisive steps to ensure that there is no sexual contact between adults and minors.

"I can honestly say that physical abuse does not occur any more and, in my last years in the group, I was not pressurised to have sex," says Sarah.

That said, the strange theology remains: the children in the group still believe that, one day soon, they will sail through the air and rule over a post-apocalyptic utopia as kings and queens. The question is whether these teachings themselves constitute an insidious form of child abuse, filling young heads with exotic ideas that are impossible to reconcile with entry into the adult world.

"The Family always like to quote that line from the Bible: 'By their fruits you shall know them'," says Sarah, with a note of sarcasm. "And I reply, well, look at your fruit - all those young people messed up in the head after they leave. No wonder so many of them become atheists. Another line they like to quote is the saying of Jesus that if you offend one of these little ones, it would be better that a millstone be tied round your neck. But I turn it round and say: How many little ones did you offend?"

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