Dallas Morning News: Back to the Garden

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Back to the Garden

When the Children of God took over the Texas Soul Clinic in 1970, they begat an era of peace, love and disillusionment.

The Dallas Morning News/1990-03-11

By MICHAEL PELLECCHIA

In February 1970, as the curtain rose on a one-act religious drama of uncommon passion, Nancy and I were students at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Eighty miles to the west via Interstate 20, the Children of God were settling into their commune near the town of Thurber.

Nancy was a Kappa Delta living in their house and I was in an anti-fraternity dorm. I'm almost sure that we met in some activist get-together, urging Safeway customers to boycott grapes and lettuce or passing out Vietnam protest literature.

Our idealism was both physical and defiant. We started going barefoot to classes and skinny-dipping at Benbrook Lake. We went to the Cellar in downtown Fort Worth -- it was open till 4 a.m. -- and to Hollywood-radical movies like Easy Rider and Putney Swope.

Nancy was blond, pretty and troubled. Her father had died when she was 11, leaving a void I never knew much about. She had thought about becoming a missionary while growing up in Dallas. In high school she had tried drugs. Now she wanted to try everything. So did I. It was my first time living away from home, a small New England town. I had lived a little -- seen Hair on Broadway, been to music festivals. I had even been in on one of the original Moratorium organizational meetings, in Litchfield, Conn., with playwright Arthur Miller and activist Sam Brown.

Together, Nancy and I discovered that long hair conferred no particular character virtues or guarantee of enlightenment. As a couple I suppose we were about as right for each other as Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona. Nancy really needed love and I needed a keeper. But we never could figure out the essence of our mismatch: that I was not a warm person and she was not a responsible one.

That fall she dropped out of school, only days after registration. She seemed to need a lot of attention and I wasn't helping much. I needed to study to keep up my scholarship. Still, I was hurt when Nancy took off for California. A guy I met in the dorm had bought a bunch of old mail trucks at a government auction. He sold them as hippie vans, and drove one himself. He proposed heading out to Thurber for adventure one warm, orange evening.

Dust kicked up from the wheels and in through the van's open sliding doors as Jack drove onto a winding dirt road off the interstate. We passed grazing Herefords, through live oak, mesquite and yucca, and across a dry creek bed, arriving as the sun was beginning to set on the 150-member Children of God colony.

You can take the same approach today, driving right up to the Art Deco pillars that mark the road into the old property of the Rev. Fred Jordan. The shed atop the rise is still there, too; it was an observation post from which threatening visitors could be spotted a mile away. The Children of God needed security against officials and parents who accused them of kidnapping their children and stealing their possessions.

When we had piled out of the van that night for a closer look, they took us to the dining hall, where a Jesus rock band was playing. Each time the leader yelled "Revolution!' everybody yelled back in rhythm, "For Jesus!'

Later, each of us was paired with a commune member and subjected to a high-powered pitch. Their object was a surrender to Jesus and to the Children of God. What they told us, in essence, was that we had to see that the system was too corrupt to save us. That we had to get out of the system; the devil was fixing to take it over, and the devil looked like a Russian bear. That we should bring everything we own and ourselves into the commune. Their world scenario mirrored that of the bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey. He predicted that Russia and an alliance of Arab states would invade Israel, setting off an Armageddon that only the second coming of Christ could prevent.

That night a beautiful hippie girl (with divinely unshaven legs) sat me down with the Bible and fixed me with her eyes. Eye contact, especially of such intensity, was new then. At least to me. But although I fell for Jesus, I stopped short of agreeing to drop out of school and move in. The girl -- everyone had a Biblical name and hers was Keturah -- turned me over to an elder of the commune, who made it clear that my salvation was up in the air if I didn't join the group.

But I had just seen Nancy drop out of school. She was a year ahead of me at TCU -- maybe she knew better what she was leaving behind. But I was the first person in my family ever to go to college, so I thought my life was pretty radical already.

My friend Tom, however, got the message. He was swayed, and no one could change his mind; he was going to leave it all behind. He came back to campus a few days later with a commune member to pick up his clothes and his bass guitar.

His new leader, David Berg, had been a traveling preacher. In 1968 David's mother, Virginia, a radio evangelist, had asked him to teach at the Teen Challenge coffee house in Huntington Beach, Calif. Under his charismatic leadership, the first "Jesus people" commune, Teens for Christ, was born. From there, he and his extended family began to crisscross the continent preaching separation from the establishment, gradually evolving into confrontational "Revolutionaries for Christ." A newspaper reporter in New Jersey began to call his followers Children of God and eventually that was the name that stuck.

The Rev. Jordan's mission had once employed Mr. Berg in its broadcast ministry. He offered the group his Texas Soul Clinic property, a former missionary training camp, as headquarters. In return, a contingent of Mr. Berg's followers provided a youthful look as regulars on the Rev. Jordan's California-based Sunday morning television show, Church in the Home. The presence of hippie-looking Christian radicals helped the minister raise enough money to support not only the Texas Soul Clinic but his Towne Street Mission on Los Angeles' skid row -- with enough left over to purchase a communal ranch for the Children of God near Coachella, Calif.

The Texas Soul Clinic, with Mr. Berg and family in residence, became a magnet for idealistic youth uncomfortable with conventional authority. Like a 19th century utopian group, it tried to be self-sufficient.

Back in Fort Worth, I decided to finish reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road before beginning my own Bible studies in earnest.

Letters from Nancy were depressing. She was not finding herself, as she'd hoped, by sleeping around and getting high. She shacked up for a while with a psychology professor in Southern California. I wrote back, and with superior airs told her about Jesus, and where I'd found Him.

Suddenly, the theology that had always been used to support the status quo appeared to be arguing against it. Society and pop culture were questioning everything. College kids, Vietnam veterans, hippies and runaways were dropping out, tuning in and turning on to Jesus.

While I crusaded for Christ on campus, Nancy had become one of the hippies on the pier in Huntington Beach. She got my letter and checked out David Berg. The whole bit about the Children of God, the revolution for Jesus, the commune, the fundamentalism, must have hit a nerve with Nancy. She wrote to tell me she was a Teen for Christ, a Revolutionary for Christ, a Child of God.

In Fort Worth, I was shopping churches, going to different Sunday services, comparing preachers and hymns. Having grown up Catholic, the whole Protestant experience was new to me, especially the Pentecostals. I moved off campus into a rent house with some other Jesus freaks.

Summer came and I went on the road as a back-up musician with a gospel choir. When we got to Los Angeles, I went by the Towne Street Mission, where the Children of God were ensconced, and asked for Nancy. The elders kept me waiting for hours in the common area of the mission. I knew she was there; she had written me from there. But I was just part of the parade of acquaintances who had stopped by to look her up. Some of them, she told me later, got "saved.' But they wouldn't let me see her.

Then they shipped her to Canada, part of a movement-wide scattering of the flock that was the inevitable result of the equally inevitable culture clash between television evangelist Jordan and the Berg revolutionaries. David Berg was part of the falling out. He had changed his name to Moses David and departed a bit from the biblical script. He took a mistress and began to encourage "flirty fishing," the sexual recruiting of new members.

He still had what the Rev. Jordan wanted -- Vietnam veterans, former drug users, dealers and campus radicals endorsing his ministry. But as his charisma increased so did his demands, like: If your parents don't send money to the Children of God, don't write to them.

Parents responded by forming a pressure group called FREECOG (Free the Children of God). Some of them contracted with a former community relations specialist in Gov. Ronald Reagan's office, Ted Patrick, who came up with the idea of deprogramming. Essentially, Mr. Patrick would retrieve minors from the commune, sometimes forcibly, lock them in a motel room and subject them to a non-stop barrage of questions about the break they had made with society. When successful, Mr. Patrick was paid handsomely.

Confrontations increased. One of the Rev. Jordan's employees, Charles Johnson, accused the Children of God of breaking up families. He was denied entrance when he tried to evict the group from the Texas Soul Clinic in October 1971. "You turned my son against me after one year," he charged. "Since he has been with the group, he talks against his father. You taught him that."

Now that I'm old enough to be a parent, I can almost feel his rage. What can be worse than having your child turn against you? Only one thing: the possibility that the child is right on some level. Perhaps that was why some parents supported their children's decision to remain with the group. For a time, Nancy's mother became their spokeswoman.

The Children of God soon reached the attention of law enforcement agencies wherever its "houses" were located. In 1974, the Charity Frauds Bureau of the New York state attorney general's office put the heat on David Berg. Increasingly isolated by his evermore extravagant claims and behavior, he moved his followers out of the United States, to Canada, Europe and the Caribbean, settling at one point in Africa. By this time the Children of God were being accused of bizarre sexual practices. David Berg was portrayed as an alcoholic. In our fragmented lives he would eventually be replaced by Sun Myung Moon, Werner Erhardt, the Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh. There's always someone trying to corner the market in revelation.

Today the old commune near Thurber speaks with a small voice. What remains are crumbling shacks and shards of plumbing and the occasional decomposed rag that was once a granny dress. The dusty West Texas wind blows eerily through the broken window panes and peeling door jambs of the dining hall.

But between February 1970 and October 1971, the population doubled from 150 to more than 300, phenomenal growth considering the living conditions. When the Jordan-Berg rift brought the Children's eviction by their TV evangelist landlord, they donned sackcloth and ashes and left under protest. Even though I never joined, a part of me went with them. What did we hope for? That we had latched onto something of importance. What did we dream of? Nothing less than peace and love for everyone. Then came the gradual disillusionment.

I married (and later divorced) the daughter of a Baptist minister. I became assistant manager of a religious bookstore. I witnessed exorcisms in California and got baptized in the Atlantic Ocean at Hollywood, Fla. In Memphis I met up with a former biker named Bobby Cash who had found Jesus. He had gone to Nashville and introduced himself to Johnny Cash, and Johnny gave him a set of all-black duds so he could be Memphis' "man in black' named Cash. I helped him operate the House of Psalms, a rambling old house where vagrants and hippies could come eat and sleep in exchange for learning about Jesus.

Bobby and I went to schools and talked against drugs, although we weren't allowed to talk about Jesus. Then Pentecostals from places like West Memphis, Ark., and Southaven, Miss., started dropping by unannounced with their congregations -- on field trips to the House of Psalms. All hours of the day and night they were around, praying, shaking tambourines, speaking in tongues and abandoning crutches. The whole Jesus thing had about run its course with this believer. I drifted into advertising as a copywriter, working up scripture to order, preaching the gospel of filling your leisure hours with consumables.

On the red-eye once from Los Angeles to New York I glanced at one of the weekly newsmagazines and there was a picture of Moses David with his so-called concubines on some Caribbean island. The Children of God was a sex cult, according to the accompanying article. I stared at the faces in the picture and there was Nancy, her expression just as innocent and her posture as loose as I remembered.

Shock must have registered on my face, for the serene, somewhat aloof person sitting next to me struck up a conversation. It was one of those old-fashioned airplane conversations about things important, things you would never talk about with a stranger elsewhere. About relationships between men and women, parents and children, past, present and future. My fellow traveler was actress Susan Anspach, still quite famous then for playing a waitress opposite Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. She talked about raising her children, studying the work of Henri Piaget, and about turning down the part of Paul Simon's wife in One Trick Pony because the character was, in her words, a stereotype.

Moments that pass too quickly, moments that linger for years -- they're all similar. Places pass, too. Historical preservationists don't get this. Real preservation is the existence of places in the mind, places of no consequence to people we know now. For me the old Jordan property is one of those places. The sky over Thurber still twinkles animatedly at night, away from the city lights.

David Berg would be hard to find today. Fred Jordan died in 1988. The Fred Jordan Ministry still helps homeless people on Towne Street in Los Angeles. For Mother's Day last year, it offered free cosmetic makeovers to homeless women.

And from England, Nancy answered a letter of mine last year with a plea to come to Jesus.