It Could Have Been A Utopia
August 28, 2015 5:33 PM   Subscribe

Jaime Prater grew up in the Jesus People U.S.A. commune in Chicago. He set out to make a documentary about the religion, and in the process uncovered widespread sexual abuse of children in the group.
posted by chrchr (20 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
posted by chrchr at 5:35 PM on August 28, 2015

I know people who used to live there in the aughts. :( Now they have kids.
posted by wormwood23 at 5:42 PM on August 28, 2015


Jack Chick's comics have always suggested that Christian rock had its roots in evil. If it's true what this article says, that the Jesus freaks of JPUSA were the wellspring of Christian rock and CCM, then perhaps, in his stopped-clock way, Chick was right.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:26 PM on August 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

A religious cult environment was abusing children? Gosh, this is my surprised face.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:47 PM on August 28, 2015 [7 favorites]

This is such a stereotypical description of a cult it's easy to forget this is still a horrible tragedy. Don't trust any attempt at a utopia if they let humans in.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:49 PM on August 28, 2015 [14 favorites]

When their bus broke down in Chicago in 1973, a preacher took them in and let them stay the night in the basement of a church. Eventually they bought a nearby apartment building and christened it “Friendly Towers.”

Sexual abuse aside, there's some other stuff that's being elided in this article, because how the fuck does that happen?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:56 PM on August 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Adherants gave all their possessions to the church when they joined, so that's how.
posted by chrchr at 7:03 PM on August 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

So many stories like this, and of course in perfectly "normal" churches like the one I went to as a kid, stuff happens too. Not to me, thankfully; I was lucky.

The further I get from Christianity, the more I wonder how much evil has been done under cover of the idea of obedient submission--to a higher power, the Lord's will, God's representatives, the "voice in your heart" that exists because you've had the rules drilled into you over and over. I remember feeling guilty about my skepticism but also knowing deep inside that I needed to hold on to myself, not lose myself in the will of the group or the pastor.

I didn't experience much in the way of coercion, except for the brief mania you get at retreats and revivals, where fatigue and the desire to fuse with the group can pull you along, but then it fades by the next day. Cults take that brief high and turn it into a near-constant thing, don't let you fall back to "normal," keep you in that fugue state as much as possible. They play on your guilt, tell you things like "you need to submit, be humbled, lose your will, let the Lord take over," and you are never really told why that is good, just that it is. That your natural resistance to letting someone else do your thinking for you is evil and from the Devil, that anything but mindless obedience is a sin.

And that is a profoundly evil message, that leaves a person defenseless against abuse of all kinds; sexual, financial, even "just" emotional is bad enough. You are literally being pressured into killing off what makes you most yourself, in order to conform to some rigid idea of what you should be.

As I said, I was only ever on the fringes of that kind of thing, but I will never, ever, even get that close again. I will never trust anyone like that ever again, and I will teach my son not to, either. It doesn't matter how much other good you do, once you demand that from another person you have done something deeply wrong.
posted by emjaybee at 7:18 PM on August 28, 2015 [40 favorites]

When I think of how close I came to living there as a teenager, it scares me.
posted by bibliogrrl at 7:37 PM on August 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Anyone know if the musical Godspell has any relation to JPUSA?
posted by gusandrews at 9:29 PM on August 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is pretty heartbreaking; I knew a bunch of people from JPUSA, and my parents knew a bunch of the people who co-founded and ran it from their days in a Christian commune-slash-"ministry-center" in the 70s, etc. I think it's fair to say that the core dynamic I saw at JPUSA was not "crazy Christian cult," but rather "punks and ex-hippies trying to build a sustainable commune in the middle of downtown Chicago."

The impulse, from everything I ever saw/heard/etc., was the genuine outgrowth of a desire to live the way Jesus seemed to in the New Testament. Live simply, help the people around you, don't separate yourselves from the "ugly" parts of society for reasons of propriety, etc.

And yet.

Like so, so many religious groups founded by passionate, immature people, it seems to have steadily evolved into a culture of authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism. Once those things have taken root it seems like it's only a matter of time before some fucked up member of the community does something terrible… and the people running things say, "We should just handle this ourselves." It goes from bad (abuse) to worse (conspiracies of silence, and protecting the abusers). It poisons everything.
posted by verb at 9:39 PM on August 28, 2015 [8 favorites]

On reading farther into the article, it feels like a punch to the gut. I'll amend my defensive comments about JPUSA "not really being a cult" — it pains me to know that even while I knew some folks there, and attended the giant music festival they threw each year, I didn't grasp the totality of the control they wielded. From time to time I'd hear discussions about how strict the community was, but the party line was that it was necessary. They were sitting in the middle of inner city Chicago, and they accepted anyone—drug addicts, the mentally ill, lots of broken people, etc. Structure was important! Even if there was a grain of truth to that, it's horrifyingly clear that they went much, much farther than "providing boundaries."

A number of the key figures in that article were the folks my family knew and hung out with in the early days of JPUSA. And the squicky twist on fundamentalism that's referred to as "The Shepherding Movement" was something my parents' commune (ahem, "Intentional Community") eased into around the same time. I spent my first two or three years of life there, and still have hazy memories—a bannister here, a face there.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that there was sexual abuse going on in the group my parents were a part of, too. Theirs disbanded in the early 80s after the founder had an affair with a younger member (ironically legal and consensual), but quite a few of the members have stayed in touch. Most have found it very difficult to find another religious community they're comfortable in, and many still talk about that time in the 70s as The Best Days.

Authoritarianism, with a side of religious fervor. What can't it fuck up?
posted by verb at 11:07 PM on August 28, 2015 [15 favorites]

METAFILTER: it seems to have steadily evolved into a culture of authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism
posted by philip-random at 12:39 AM on August 29, 2015 [7 favorites]

gusandrews: none whatsoever. The writer, John-Michael Tebelak was an Episcopalian, and gay. Stephen Schwarz is, well, they guy who did all the music for all of the things. Godspell is actually not a particularly evangelical (in the sense of preaching, not the movement) musical.

Having mixed a student production of it about 12 years ago, I hate it with a passion as yet undimmed. In fact, my experience on that show made me hate all musicals for all time forever goddamn. But it's not a nefarious attempt to make everyone into Christians, just a musical by a guy who really loved the story.
posted by prismatic7 at 1:16 AM on August 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Indeed, prismatic7, Godspell should not be tarred with the cult or fundamentalist brush. It's a product of the theater world not the church world. Unlike you, though, I love the thing. The book isn't much. But great songs.
posted by Modest House at 7:11 AM on August 29, 2015

I attended a few Cornerstone festivals in the mid-90s and I had no idea who ran it. I heard vague stuff about JPUSA, but this is quite horrifying. It reminds me of the stories coming out now from Scientology kids.
posted by sadmadglad at 7:56 AM on August 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is deeply troubling. Having just finished reading Fred Turner's work on the quasi-roots of cyberculture in back-to-the-land hippie communes, it's been sad to read how many of the utopian hippie efforts of that era turned into deeply troubled patriarchially-authoritarian dead ends for so many people.
posted by honest knave at 7:59 AM on August 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

Has there ever been a time where "it could have been a utopia" was even a remote possibility.

Jesus wept.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:00 AM on August 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

Been to Cornerstone, too. Also only vaguely aware of JPUSA as Christian hippies.

Horrifying. And more generally I'm really thankful to have escaped evangelicalism.
posted by persona au gratin at 10:13 AM on August 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Like so, so many religious groups founded by passionate, immature people, it seems to have steadily evolved into a culture of authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism.

It's not just religious groups. Russian Communism was started by idealists acting in good faith, however like all groups there are people who want to take over and consolidate power because it is always the idealists who think they know best. There are the idealists vs. the sheep. The sheep want to be led, the idealists want to lead and before you know it the idealists find that they have handed over this consolidated power to someone with less than ideal motives for holding power.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 1:19 PM on August 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

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