New Home, Old Questions Controversies of Past Follow Communal Group
By Greg Garrison
The Family, formerly known as the Children of God or the Family of Love, has left its notorious past as the sex cult of the 1970s and '80s behind, say members who have settled in Shelby County. These days, the clean-cut, Bible-quoting, street-witnessing evangelists say they only want to win souls to Jesus and play their music.
But the group's public appearances in Birmingham appear to have been halted since the Watchman Fellowship, a counter-cult ministry, exposed the Family's history to would-be supporters. The Family still holds and tries to hide its bizarre beliefs, said Craig Branch, director of Watchman Fellowship in Birmingham. "We believe in their right to be here, but we don't believe in deception," Branch said.
He said he wants churches to know the history of the Family and not just judge them by their nice appearance. The Family's youth musicians, the Family Singers, have performed at King's Ranch, Twin Pines Resort and Conference Center, the Vestavia Hills Business Fair and to a Hunter Street Baptist Church senior citizens' group at Zamora Park since they arrived in Birmingham in May.
Branch said they got those appearances by presenting a false front. The Family members say they're glad to answer questions about themselves. But Lee Kinnebrew, president of King's Ranch, said it took a lot of the right questions before the King's Ranch staff got suspicious about why some of the youths didn't live with their biological parents.
Kinnebrew contacted Watchman Fellowship to see if Branch knew anything about them.
"They don't generally walk in the door and say, 'We're the kids from the sex cult,'" said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif. "They certainly are trying to put their past behind them so they don't bring it up all the time."
The opposition the Family has encountered since moving to the Birmingham area earlier this summer has caused the group to pray about whether to leave, members said.
"The people in Birmingham have been friendlier to us than anywhere I've ever gone," said Kay Spain, a member living in the Shelby County group home who joined the Children of God more than 20 years ago. "But people here are afraid of Watchman Fellowship."
The Family Singers have stopped seeking public singing engagements because they don't want anyone to be persecuted for their friendships with the Family, she said.
"No one has said they objected to anything in our programs," said Ben Nielsen, a 23-year-old musician from Denmark who sings and leads group musical performances.
"Because of our controversial past, we are an easy target," said Mrs. Spain's husband, Charlie. "It's easy to tear people down. Mr. Branch has an easy job."
"All I want is for the people to know who they're dealing with," said another critic, Ruth Gordon of Birmingham, who was a member of the Children of God from 1972-78 and wrote the book Children of Darkness about her experiences. "The only way they know to survive is to change their appearance and convince people they've changed."
But the Family really is changing, said Birmingham native Melton, editor of The Encyclopedia of American Religions. "They've been in the process of change over the last decade," Melton said.
David "Moses" Berg, who died last year, founded the Children of God among hippies along the California coast in 1968. In the early 1970s, parents of youthful members organized Free Our Children from the Children of God, which spawned other anti-cult groups and eventually prompted Berg to move his followers to other countries.
In the 1970s, Berg introduced the controversial practice of "flirty fishing."
Melton's encyclopedia says Berg "ordered the female members of the group to use their feminine assets to become 'hookers' for Jesus, a sexual variation on Jesus' admonition to become 'fishers of men.' "
By the late 1970s, the group frequently called itself the Family. By 1978, it had dropped the name Children of God.
"They had created a climate of sexual freedom in the early 1980s that had indicated that they were free to have intergenerational sex," Melton said. Adults who were inclined to have sex with children sometimes did, he said. "It didn't happen a lot, but there were a number of cases of it," Melton said.
The Family dealt with that from 1982-86 in a series of rulings cutting back on sexual behavior, leaving it where the sexual behavior is supposed to be only between consenting adults, Melton said.
The group officially discontinued "flirty fishing" in 1986; by that time it had largely been discontinued except for a few homes in Southeast Asia, Melton said.
"One of the reasons they discontinued it was because members were draining their time with long one-on-one relationships with non-members," he said. But a 1983 outbreak of venereal diseases such as herpes that spread rapidly through the Family also prompted tighter guidelines on sexual behavior, Melton said.
The Family still holds to its doctrine called the Law of Love, which emphasizes the spiritual importance of sexuality and that sex is not wrong if it's done with an unselfish, giving spirit and no one is hurt. "They can't deny the Law of Love; that's their essential defining doctrine," Branch said.
The Spains said non-marital sex in their group is discouraged and the close living arrangements mean it would be hard to get away with it.
"Promiscuous behavior in the Family now is no more than the rest of the world," Melton said. "They cut it off altogether for children. Part of this was just their growing older."
In recent years, the Family has been returning to the United States from its long exile to other countries. There are about 9,000 members worldwide, Mrs. Spain said.
In an unannounced drop-in visit by a reporter and photographer at the Family's rented brick country house between Chelsea and Columbiana, adolescent boys were mopping the floor and cleaning the windows. Young women prepared food and supervised young children. Spain swept the floor.
"There's a daily routine about cleanliness," Melton said. "A set of books and letters has imposed a daily routine upon each home."
Between one and two dozen people live at the home, and visitation from one commune to another is common. After age 13, youths can ask to move to another home away from their parents, members said.
The members said they see their main job as converting people to Christianity. They say they encourage people to say a prayer for salvation, asking Jesus into their hearts. The Family then refers them to churches, since the Family is not a church and does not have public worship services.
"The actual number who join them are very few," Melton said. "Very few are suitable for the communal life and have a calling to be a missionary."
The sexually active hippie generation grew more conservative as their children aged and the Family teenagers have been generally conservative, he said.
"The group has always been conservative theologically," Melton said. "It's a Baptist-charismatic theology." They emphasize winning souls before the end of the world, which they believe is soon. Mrs. Spain said they oppose abortion and do not use birth control. Berg's beliefs
But Berg's status as a prophet for the group, his teachings on sex and his purported spirit contacts set the Family apart theologically.
"He claimed he was in contact with various angelic spirits who from time to time gave him various revelations," Melton said.
Branch points to many odd statements Berg made in his more than 2,800 "Mo Letters," which contain advice to the faithful. Berg made statements that Jesus may have had sex with Mary Magdalene and Martha, for example, Branch said.
"I believe he was a prophet and I don't hold to everything he said," Nielsen said. "I won't deny that Berg said very extreme things. What he really did through it all was bring people to Christ. He taught love for Jesus."
Branch said that as long as the group still believes its Law of Love, it could revert to its previous sexual behavior. "If they wanted to apply it that way, they could," Branch said.
"When I asked them, "Was he in error?' they would not say he was in error. They equivocated, skirted, but we kept pinning them down," Branch said.
"We still believe in the Law of Love," Nielsen said. "It's biblically based."
The members often refer to the biblical verse that a tree should be judged by its fruit. "If it's good fruit, then there's no law against it," Nielsen said. "God doesn't condemn if it's done out of unselfish love. You can't do anything selfish. You can't do anything to gratify yourself. We do not agree with any sex between minors. Any adult 21 and over would not have sex with someone 18 and under."
Branch said homosexuality also falls under the Law of Love. "We don't approve of that," Nielsen said. "It's unnatural, it's hurtful."
Since 1990, in Australia, Spain, France and Argentina, Norway and Canada, child welfare agencies have investigated the Family and often taken away children. But the group has prevailed in courts in every recent case, Melton said.
Melton testified on behalf of the group in Great Britain, where last year a grandmother sued for custody of a child whose mother is in the Family. It has turned into one of the longest family court cases in British history with the judge investigating whether the Family's lifestyle is unhealthy for the child. A decision is expected in two weeks, Melton said.
In addition to the singing and witnessing, the Family has done about five car washes in the Hoover area as fund raisers, Nielsen said.
What seems to impress people most is their entertainment skill.
"They're trained in music especially from their preschool years," Melton said. "They're trained to get up in front of groups."
Tom Scott, executive vice president and general manager of Twin Pines Resort and Conference Center, said the Family Singers performed during the Mother's Day buffet at the Twin Pines restaurant. "They did a splendid job," Scott said. "We had absolutely no problems with those people. Nobody did any preaching or selling of their beliefs."
The group was paid for their performance with free lodging and also played for several groups staying at Twin Pines. "Our guests enjoyed them," Scott said.
The Family Singers performed June 23-24 at the Vestavia Business Fair. "We were happy with their performance," said Lee Pilleteri, president of the Vestavia Hills Business Association. "I was looking for good, clean entertainment, which is what they did. They were a very good group of kids." At Twin Pines, Hunter Street Baptist Church member James Corbell heard the Family Singers. "I enjoyed them, they were very good," he said. "We did invite them out to sing for us and they later were my guests at church."
When the church learned the Family's history from Watchman Fellowship, it told the group it could not endorse them.
Branch said some of the Family's impressive album of recommendations, including a letter from Barbara Bush, comes from misrepresentation.
"Our endorsements are not bogus," Nielsen said. "They're letters of thanks for our work." He noted that President Bush and Mrs. Bush were impressed by the Family's three Christmas performances at the White House and by their work after Hurricane Andrew in Florida, where they met the Bushes.
Branch said some organizations have retracted their endorsements after hearing from Watchman Fellowship about the Family's history and beliefs.
Melton said the Family's sexual behavior in the many communal homes across the world may not be fully reined in from its established practices of the past.
"They've got a few hurdles," Melton said. "They're allowing a certain amount of extramarital sex among the adults. It's not a matter of wifeswapping. It's unattached adults in the homes."
But he views the group as moving toward the mainstream.
"The group is making an honest attempt to reintegrate into society," Melton said. "That's healthy for the children. They will get a better education. It's good for adults. They'll get a more positive view of the rest of us."
The Family members say they have been persecuted unfairly in many countries and cite the handling of the Branch Davidians in Waco as an example of the hysteria that could surround them.
"We just want to spread the gospel," Nielsen said.
Letters To The Editor
Other information on "Family Singers
I'm afraid some very significant information was missing from the July 21 front-page story on the arrival of the cult, The Children of God/The Family/ The Family Singers, in Birmingham.
Because of the reality of exploitation and deception by this group, people in Birmingham should have several more pieces of important information.
The young people in this cult are all over town proselytizing, seeking donations and selling CDs, cassettes and videos to homes and businesses.
This group believes that its founder David Berg, a.k.a. Moses David and "Dad" to the cult members, is the endtime prophet and considers his "MO Letters" to be "Scripture."
Berg taught, and the group believes, that extramarital sex, polygamy, premarital sex, nudity in the commune and lesbianism are all permissible and are encouraged by their major doctrine _ the law of love.
The Family Singers group has a written standard and long history of "deceiving the system" in order to perpetrate its work. The system is any church or secular organization.
The deception lies in the fact that their modus operandi is to claim that they are changing and no longer practicing such things. However, the only thing they have officially "suspended'" is the practice of adult child sex, incest and secular "evangelism."
They clearly teach that the Bible verse "all things are lawful, but not all things are expedient" gives them license to adjust like a chameleon to their settings or situations in order to continue their agenda with as little resistance as possible.
For the article to quote the liberal J. Gordon Melton as an impartial expert is to obscure the truth. Melton is a wellknown cult defender whose income is significantly supplemented by rather notorious cults such as Scientology, the Moonies, The Way, etc., who pay him for writing articles in their publications and to appear in their many court cases as an expert witness. To ascribe terms like theirs is a "Baptist-Charismatic theology" or to refer to them as "evangelists" who just want to "spread the gospel" is very misleading.
I don't know of any Baptist or Charismatic who teaches that Christ was not eternal, or whose leader claimed to have sex with pagan and occultic goddesses, believes in astrology and that Gabriel had intercourse with Mary to produce Jesus.
The Family leader Kay Spain, a.k.a. Seek or Kay Farmer, implied that people in Birmingham are rejecting them because they are "afraid of Watchman Fellowship." The only people we know who are afraid of us are those who have something to hide.
We have a principled commitment to accuracy and believe that people's right of choice needs to be protected with accurate information and integrity.