The Family: Hippie throwback or dangerous, abusive cult?
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/1993-12-12
By Gayle White
Like bell bottoms and love beads, the original "Jesus freaks" of the '60s are back - and updated for the '90s.
About 80 of them have come to Atlanta since last year from places around the world to pack themselves into homes in groups of 20 to 40.
They say they're missionaries and America is their field. From Atlanta, they reach into the Southeast, traveling and proselytizing. Other clusters have sprung up in California, Florida, Texas and New York.
They were the Children of God during the glory days when they traveled on buses Partridge Family-style, set up a community on a Texas ranch, and wore sackcloth and ashes - literally - to the trial of the Chicago Seven, charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic convention.
Today, they've become the Family, with a philosophy that's part Jerry Falwell (anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality) and part Hugh Hefner (sex between consenting men and women is fine - inside, outside and in spite of marital bonds).
Children of any union - and there are many, because of prohibitions against birth control - are valued as gifts of God.
Worldwide, the group claims 10,000 members, including 3,000 adults.
The Family is regarded variously as an amusing but harmless throwback to the hippie era, loyal followers of Jesus's New Testament teachings and a dangerous cult that's survived several investigations of alleged sexual abuses. Many people know the Family only as the sect in which the late actor River Phoenix was raised.
Watchman Fellowship, an evangelical Christian cult-watch group based in Alabama, has collected reams of material on the group. Former members have appeared on tabloid TV shows to recount their experiences. And, in Atlanta, two women have formed a support group for people who have left the Family.
"I hate to see people get sucked into the idea that they're going out serving the Lord," said former member Sharon Wilson. "I'm sorry, I don't think what they're doing is serving the Lord."
`He had the answer'
Longtime Family members give testimonials worthy of a country church revival - tales of being messed up and drugged out until the Children of God brought them to Jesus.
Michael Etheredge, 42, formerly a Methodist, said he was "dropping acid, coming down and dropping again" when he met the Children of God about 20 years ago at Corpus Christi, Texas. Until then, he had hoped to find a job on a shrimp boat as a front for dealing drugs. "They talked about Jesus," he said. He went home with them and never left.
James Parker, 42, a Polish Catholic, was in pre-med at Michigan State University when he became involved in anti-war protests and drugs. At home for Christmas, he talked to an old friend who had joined the Children of God. "He showed me the verse in Matthew 14 that says, `Come with me and I will make you fishers of men.' " He went.
Viviana Finlayson, 36, was 20 and working as a schoolteacher in her native Chile when she met a member of the Family. "My life really changed," she said. "I realized He had the answer to all problems." She quit her job and became a full-time member of the group.
Children taught at home
In the Family, their lives are carefully choreographed.
Members refuse to disclose the locations of their rental homes in DeKalb County and Atlanta. They showed a reporter a six-bedroom, two-story contemporary home near Norcross in Gwinnett County that houses 20 to 25 members.
A schedule on the refrigerator of the Gwinnett home lists the day's events: Up at 7 a.m., breakfast at 7:30, devotions at 8 a.m.
The children, who are taught at home, begin their school day with Bible study and memorization, while some adults head out for "outreach" in the Family van. Sometimes this includes delivery of donated food to the poor, or picking up donations to the Family itself.
All their income is from such donations, and no Atlanta member is on public assistance, said Etheredge, an Atlanta spokesman.
Spreading the word
For six to 10 hours a day, adults are out spreading the word - such as a recent day when they stopped by several mechanics' shops. Their van needed work, so they took the opportunity to witness.
If they find a receptive audience, they may break into peppy choruses about Jesus.
Individuals who express interest are invited to evening Bible study.
They are not so much recruiting new members as encouraging people to accept Christ before it's too late, Etheredge said. There's a one-year wait before any new member can move in with the group.
They return for dinner, Bible study and discussion, then a communal lights-out at 11.
The schedule may vary to accommodate activities.
Married couples have their own bedrooms; unrelated children share rooms.
Chores are meted out equitably - not along stereotypical gender lines.
"I've washed out many a doo-doo diaper," Etheredge brags.
"It makes me love our men more," said Joyce Rugely, 41, a mother of 13 who grew up in Watts and now lives in the DeKalb house.
Rules are clear: no running in the house; no playing in the kitchen during meal preparation or cleanup; anyone walking through the house with a hot iron or a knife must call out a warning.
`A life of service'
If the lack of privacy causes tension, "I go into my room, sit down and pray quietly," Rugely said.
"It's a life of service, a life of giving," she said. "When you enjoy giving and serving, that is enough."
As to the ultimate sharing, all parties involved must consent before sexual relationships may begin, Etheredge said. That includes permission of any spouse whose mate is involved.
Sex is "a gift of God," said Etheredge. "We do not believe that among consenting adults, sex is a sin. We do it in love, we do it knowingly, we do it openly."
The group regards this policy as superior to "this thing of doing stuff on the sly" that they say others practice.
But, he said, the liberal attitude toward sex does not extend to homosexuality. "The Bible condemns it," he said. "We wouldn't have it in our home."
Investigations `witch hunts'?
The group's sexual doctrine has drawn fire over the years. Through "flirty fishing," they used sex to attract converts.
An even more controversial practice - sex by and with children - was advocated in some literature. A 1987 manual said "there is no reason to discourage [teenagers] from having sex" until the girls are old enough to become pregnant. But, it said, a girl should not become pregnant until she is 15, so as not to shock "the doctors and authorities."
Flirty fishing was prohibited in 1987 because of public criticism and the risk of AIDS, Family members said.
"Flirty fishing was effective for its time...and bore wonderful fruit," said Etheredge. "It's time to do something else."
He said sex with a minor is now an excommunicable offense, and he dismissed child-abuse investigations in Europe, Australia and Latin America as "witch hunts."
No international case has been successfully prosecuted.
`A prophet of God'
Etheredge complained that sexual issues have eclipsed the more important message of the Family. "We're Christians," he said. "We want to help other people find the blessings we've found in Jesus."
Teenagers among the Atlanta Family praised the only life they have ever known.
"The children grow up in a very calm environment, and they grow up learning about Jesus and the Bible, which is most important, I think," said Claire Robinson, 18, who spent 12 years traveling the world with her parents in the Family.
Children are taught that sex "is not something you can have without responsibility," said Christina Williams, 16. "It's basically natural and normal at the right place and the right time . . . if you're mature enough to handle it."
Christina said she believes founder David Berg is "a prophet of God, a loving man, a Christian man who has devoted his life to helping other people."
`Living in last days'
This generation believes it may be the last.
Soon, they said, the Antichrist will rise to power and take over the world. Earthquakes, hurricanes and rising crime are evidence of the last days as outlined in the book of Revelation, as the Family sees it.
Their effort to warn people is bringing persecution upon them, said Christina.
"Cult-watch groups and deprogrammers . . . want to stop us because we're getting out the word that we are living in the last days," she said. "Soon, we're all going to have to face the Lord."
Color photo: Bible study: Carol Oehler teaches her children, 3-year-old April (left) and 6-year-old David, at the Gwinnett County home she and about 20 other members of the Family share. / Photos by LOUIE FAVORITE / Staff Color photo: Family member Levi Beckman distributes donated food in Atlanta. / Photo: Levi Beckman looks through religious material at the Family's rental home in Gwinnett County. / LOUIE FAVORITE / Staff