A former believer takes on the leader

Critics call the Fellowship of Friends a cult; members say it's a school of spiritual development

Appeal-Democrat, California/August 24, 2008

It's not that the emperor wears no clothes at the 1,171-acre property in the Sierra foothills with a winery, cemetery and main building meant to resemble a French castle, says Elena Haven.

The old folk tale speaks of adults afraid to say their ruler is naked. But Haven, a former member of the Yuba County-based Fellowship of Friends, said silence surrounded the colorful clothes - the salmon pink silk suit, shiny blue shoes or bright yellow pants - leader Robert Earl Burton, 69, sometimes wore.

"It's the picture of the whole phenomena," Haven, 49, said of the religious group that she calls a cult and that she left in 2007 after 17 years as a member.

That Fellowship members don't comment about Burton's clothing during gatherings at the group's headquarters in the foothills community of Oregon House is a symbol of more serious problems, Haven said.

The 6-foot, 4-inch silver-haired Burton, a one-time elementary school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, is the unchallenged ruler of the Fellowship and doesn't face questions, she said.

Not about his living like a king, not about a lifestyle said to rival a ruler in the last days of the Roman empire, not about the nuclear Armageddon that Burton proclaimed would happen in 2006, not about whether the Fellowship is following the "Fourth Way" system of spiritual development taught by two 20th-century Russian philosophers and mystics, Haven said.

"If you challenge him you have to leave the cult," she said. "No one can understand how crazy this can get."

A fresco-style ceiling painting that includes a depiction of a man with an erection is an example of the excesses of the Fellowship, Haven said.

Last month Haven did something other former members said no one had attempted since the Fellowship established its Sierra foothills site in 1971.

The 5-foot, 3-inch dark-haired Haven began picketing in July at the Rices Crossing Road entrance to the Fellowship property 29 miles outside of Marysville. Most members live in a bubble, unaware of what takes place in the Fellowship's inner circle, Haven said. Her protests came as the group said members from around the world - the Fellowship has centers for students in many countries - were gathering.

"How many more boys, Dear?" read one of her signs, a reference to what Haven said are the half-dozen young men constantly in Burton's company and known within the Fellowship as his boys. "Dear" is the term Burton uses to address members.

The Fellowship reaction to her signs was swift, Haven said. They photographed her, she said. They called the Yuba County Sheriff's Department. When Haven returned the next day to picket again, the Fellowship had put two trucks and a tractor to block the space where she had parked her car, Haven said. A member shouted several times at her, Haven said.

"I was shaking I was so afraid," she recalled, puzzled by the strong reaction to one woman with a few picket signs. "One person standing on the side presents no threat to anyone."

Before the end of the month Haven was in a Yuba County Superior Court courtroom arguing against a lawyer for the Fellowship, which sought a court order to keep Haven away from its headquarters.

When she spoke in court about what she said was Burton's conduct, the judge said it sounded like Haven was accusing Burton of wrongdoing.

"I am not," Haven answered. "I do not think being homosexual is a crime."

The Fellowship more than a quarter-century ago did not allow such sexual behavior.

Homosexuality - along with smoking, firearms and hitting with fists - was prohibited for members in a 1980 guide. By then the group had been at its Yuba County property for nearly a decade. The Fellowship began in the Bay Area and, in 1971, looking for a nearby retreat, settled upon the Sierra foothills land in Oregon House.

Burton was the leader.

From elementary school to the Sierra foothills

In 1967, Robert Earl Burton was a 27-year-old teacher at Springhill Elementary in the Bay Area, coming to work in a coat and tie, carrying a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle and talking about sports.

"He was kind of one of the stars," recalled Carol Blackburn, who taught at Springhill when Burton was there. "Everybody loved him."

After a school break he returned, transformed.

He was dressed like a hippie, complete with headband, recalled Blackburn.

Burton resigned his teacher job early in 1967 and in the book "Self-Remembering," a collection of short statements by him, Burton said that six months later that "Influence C" - 44 angels who include Walt Whitman, Buddha and Abraham Lincoln - revealed themselves to him.

"Life after death instantly became a fact," he wrote.

Within a decade Fellowship leader Burton had a blue Rolls Royce with the personalized license plate "Oracle."

On March 19, 1976, a "crystallization" occurred, Burton declared.

"I experienced a conscious birth, like a woman delivering a baby," Burton wrote. "It came upon me. There was a bolt of lightning, smoke and an earthquake. My higher centers fused. World 6 and 12 were there. It lasted for about 15 seconds. The smoke then vanished."

"It was as if someone had shot a bullet between my eyes, and I was looking at them unmoved," he said.

Fellowship members and their children came to live in houses around the Oregon House property of the Fellowship and followed guidelines - since changed - on conduct that included wearing contact lenses rather than glasses, using an English accent when speaking and not using contractions in speech.

Bruce Wodhams, 58, now superintendent at the same Lafayette School District in the East Bay hills where Burton once taught, worked in the early 1980s as a school administrator in the Yuba County community of Dobbins near the Fellowship headquarters.

Wodhams remembers students whose parents were Fellowship members telling him the youths weren't to use contractions when speaking.

"The point," he said, was "to make you think all the time about what you're saying."

Haven joined as a 30-year-old in 1990 in London at one of the Fellowship centers after finding a bookmark of the group in a philosophical text she was reading about the Fourth Way - intended to provide the West with a system of spiritual development that develops the body, mind and the emotions.

The mind and its motivations had been a consuming interest since her mother shot and killed herself when Haven was 8 years old.

"I wanted to understand why people did that," said Haven, who began reading philosophy as a teenager.

She said the Fourth Way philosophy is of value but that Burton and the Fellowship no longer practice it.

Haven agrees with a key assertion of a 1996 lawsuit filed against the Fellowship by a former Yuba College student who said Burton had seduced him.

"Fellowship of Friends is a cult whose sole purpose, despite its claims supporting its tax-exempt status, is to satisfy the sexual, financial and power needs of Robert Burton, the leader," the suit stated. "Burton's word is law and cannot be questioned because he is 'awake,' while his followers are 'asleep' and therefore cannot think for themselves."

The 1996 lawsuit was settled before going to trial - the terms remain confidential.

The Fellowship family - and the biological one

Haven in 1998 made what she calls the biggest mistake of her life - deciding to leave her 11-year-old daughter Daniela with the girl's father, whom Haven had separated from years earlier.

Fellowship members, Haven said, are told that "families are biological - that they have no meaning."

Haven said she'd heard how hundreds of other women had done the same thing with family members. And she left her native country of Columbia for Oregon House without her daughter.

"Cults induce brainwashing - an inducement into an ideology that then gets practiced," Haven said. "You are not supposed to be leaving your family, you're supposed to be becoming free of your unnecessary ties."

She regrets the impact her leaving had on her daughter's life. "A child is a wonderful thing to have," Haven said.

Haven's later marriage to Girard Haven, senior minister of the Fellowship, ended because of differences the two had over the Yuba County-based religious group, she said.

In 2007, after three years of taking care of an elderly Fellowship member with Alzheimer's, Haven said she asked for some help - and that the Fellowship banned her from speaking about the situation involving the 87-year-old woman.

"I was treated as though I was saying something wrong," added Haven, who said she helped pay for additional care for the woman.

Haven said the Fellowship strips members of the lives they led before joining the Fellowship and leaves them in a cult where only their money matters.

Former member Susan Zannos, 74, who now lives in Southern California, said the financial demands on members - including such fees as $100 to be photographed with Burton - are constant.

"Every time you turn around you're getting nickled and dimed," Zannos said of requests for money that also include substantial teaching payments to the Fellowship.

Zannos, a member for three decades starting in 1976, said Burton is "the wizard behind the curtain."

The Fellowship's lure is simple, she said.

"Here's this place where everything is spelled out," Zannos said, "and everything is safe."

Sid McCarty, 74, left the Fellowship in 2006 after 28 years as a member.

"It doesn't have a heart," he said of the organization. Departing meant, "I could be myself again."

Another former member said many of those who stay in the Fellowship wonder what will happen if they leave.

Nikea Lea Erwin, 30, a member from 1996 to 2007, said true believers have invested their lives in the Fellowship story of conscious evolution and fear how they would fare emotionally outside on their own.

At the entrance in Oregon House to the Fellowship, Haven returned regularly in July to again picket after a temporary court order keeping her 50 yards from the property. Ames Gilbert, 57, a Nevada County resident who was in the group from 1978 to 1994, joined to picket with her.

"In the Fellowship there is no graduation," Gilbert said, wondering about a school of philosophy that never lets go of its students.

The remote site of the Fellowship, in what's been called the "hidden Sierra" because no major highway runs through the region, benefits Burton by keeping members close and away from communities where they could see life outside Fellowship, Gilbert said.

"The isolation in Yuba County really helps him," said Gilbert.

Protester's goal: 'Be a huge pebble in their shoe'

While the Fellowship has its critics, 64-year-old Tom Richards is not among them. His family has owned 6,000 acres in the foothills since 1942 and the Fellowship property is next to Richards' ranch in Oregon House.

He recalled a friend visiting from Redding and complaining that the Fellowship was a cult.

Richards responded, "They have a little tiny cult," and referring his friend's membership in a traditional religion, added, "You have a big cult."

"Don't worry about it," Richards said.

Haven, however, does worry about the Fellowship - and was not looking forward to a return to court for a scheduled Aug. 8 hearing on the Fellowship's try for a permanent order to restrict her picketing. When Haven called the Yuba County Superior Court late in July she learned the Fellowship had dropped its legal action.

Rick Ross, who heads a New Jersey-based institute that studies cults, said the group's initial reaction to take Haven to court over her picketing shows the impact of her actions.

"It's powerful, in particular, when former members do this," said Ross, who testified in March in a civil case in federal court in Sacramento that he considers the Fellowship a cult. Ford Greene, the attorney who represented the former Yuba College student in the 1996 lawsuit against Burton and the Fellowship, said Haven has stuck with her challenge to the group despite the legal action the Fellowship filed over her picketing.

"She wasn't going to be buffaloed and intimidated and go away," Greene said.

Haven has rented out her three-bedroom, two-bath home in Oregon House to provide her with some income and pays $250 a month to stay in a 20-foot-long, 7-foot-wide trailer.

She misses some of the comforts of her own home but is happy to be out of the Fellowship after 17 years.

She writes often on a Web site popular with many former Fellowship members who say the Internet can alert people intrigued by the group. Members once left without others knowing why they departed, Haven said, but now their reasons are posted for anyone to read on the Web site.

"The Fellowship cannot hurt me more than it has already hurt me," Haven wrote in one post. "I may not be able to stop them but I'll be a huge pebble in their shoe until the end of time."

"Each prospective student who does not join in the next 20 years," she said, "is worth all the trouble."

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