Life in the Children of God
— By Deborah Davis, circa 1985.
What did ten years in the Children of God do to me?
It's not easy to put the answer to that question into words. Being raised in a cult is an extraordinary experience, an experience most people cannot relate to. Yet, despite the macabre and ugly aspects I encountered, it is still a real and human experience, because a cult is made up of people.
I am the mother of nine children, ranging in age from 18 to two years old. All but my youngest were born in the group. I was divorced and remarried (my second husband is Bill Davis) while a member. My brother and sister are still in the Children of God--Jonathan (who is known as Hosea) and Faith. The Children of God movement, begun by my father David Berg, now perpetrates all forms of adultery, fornication, deception, sodomy, homosexuality and lesbianism, child sex, adult/child sexual relations, and teaches incest as doctrine.
If I were to make up a life story as wild and bizarre as this one, no one would believe me. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that it happened to me, yet every day I am surrounded with the living scars and wounds which assure me it's all true.
As the firstborn child of the founder and prophet, my life in the Children of God was peculiar and intense, full of trauma, confusion, agony of soul and mind, and, at times, temporal pleasure and momentary happiness.
Being in a cult for ten years, however, is nothing compared to coming out of one. Believing I was the daughter of God's endtime prophet was quite an easy matter compared to having a father who only thinks he is an end-time prophet and who is leading thousands astray. That change of perspective brings life crashing violently and viciously around you. When I saw what my father really was, all that I believed was suddenly destroyed. I found myself alone, without faith, praying to a God who had suddenly disappeared, to a God who may never have been there at all.
By the mercy of God, I am here and am a Christian today, and I have learned that God is greater than any sin and more than able to overcome any difficulty. The famous missionary Oswald Chambers once wrote,
The first thing to do in examining the power that dominates me is to take hold of the unwelcome fact that I am responsible for being thus dominated.
It is on the bedrock of that truth that I give my testimony, having been dominated for over 30 years by the tyranny of religious hypocrisy and human weakness. For the past four years I have examined the power that dominated me, and I now know that neither my father nor his movement could have had any power over me at all unless I had yielded to it.
What Went Wrong?
There exists a common misconception that the Children of God movement was good in the beginning and was bearing good fruit in the lives of young people. The movement was not good in the beginning; rather, it was built upon a lie. That's one of the major points that I know people don't understand about the beginning of the Children of God. Even a lot of ex-members, many of whom I've visited since they left, are confused here--they don't understand where the group got off the track. Back in the beginning, we thought of ourselves as the radical, avant-garde of the Jesus People. We were the front-line soldiers who had left houses, families, jobs, and all possessions for the sake of the gospel. We had forsaken all to follow Jesus.
And in the early days, even to all outward appearances, the Children of God looked like a very strict, puritanical group of youth, dedicated to preaching the gospel of salvation while condemning the morally corrupt American society and the established church system. But only a year ago did I come to understand what was wrong with our beginning: it was rooted in rebellion. My father, and so many of the rest of us, preached a gospel of rebellion, containing both truth and lies.
Jesus did not come as a zealot, to bring a physical kingdom, fighting against the Romans. He brought a spiritual kingdom and mercy, compassion, and forgiveness of sin. What my Dad did was to replace forgiveness with hatred--in other words, fight against government, fight against your parents, fight against everything. So many of these young people, back at the beginning, didn't want to hear that they needed to love their parents, that after finding Christ, they should go back and share Christ with them. They were mad at their parents; they wanted to hear that their parents were all wrong, too materialistic, hypocritical, and so on. We allowed no mercy and no forgiveness, and the kids fell willingly in line.
We do live in a very materialistic and ungodly society, that's true, and we really capitalized on that. But Dad's gospel of rebellion allowed no mercy or forgiveness or acceptance of anyone outside the movement. So when you're not dealing with outside society with mercy and compassion, what happens is, you don't allow those qualities inside the movement either. That attitude is sinful.
Another thing was that people followed Mo for rather selfish reasons. Following God's end-time prophet had great spiritual dividends and gave great support to one's self-image. Many people saw commitment, self-sacrifice, and salvation while they were in the group. But Mo claimed it was because he was hearing from God more clearly than anybody else around. By following God's prophet and trusting him, we could remain as God's crack troops. Mo was our leader guided directly by God.
Thus, the disciple of Mo was drawn voluntarily, but surely, into a belief syndrome. »Believe this doctrine and it will elevate you to a great status in the spiritual hierarchy.« The wilder his claim, the more total the devotion needed to be. In effect, we deceived ourselves by a process of dual validation. That is, by validating Mo's claim as a prophet of God, and rendering voluntary faith and obedience, one validates his own position as one of the elite in God's elect group. To me, this was brainwashing at its finest--a brainwashing that occurs because of voluntary suspension of the will.
And at the same time, we practiced a lot of deception, and people just got sucked in. I remember one very traumatic time for me came when we were in Seattle, Washington, in September, 1974, when the Jesus People Army was merging with us. My first husband, Jethro, and I were in charge of the meetings with Russ Griggs and Linda Meissner. A lot of heavy things happened up there: the police tried to arrest me, I was almost jailed, and we were under incredible persecution because the parents of the people in the Jesus People Army didn't want them to merge with us.
It was an excruciating time for me. Here I was confronting this real sweet girl and this very sincere guy, trying to get them to merge with us, but all the while they never knew what was going on behind the scenes. By the time we were in Seattle, Dad had taken on some other wives and had endorsed sexual freedom- for the leaders of the Children of God. The poor Jesus People Army had no idea what was going on; I know that if we had told them the whole story, they would never have joined.
More Than We Could Bear
We finally left the movement in April of 1978, shortly after my husband was excommunicated from the group. The chain of events began in February, when my father received a revelation saying that Bill was a devil. Appropriately, the Mo Letter was entitled »Alexander the Evil Magician,« #666.
Bill and I were living in Peru at the time, and I was responsible, along with Jethro, for heading up the work in Latin America. Bill was in charge of publishing, and he'd been guilty of editing the Mo letters intended for street distribution. In addition, we had not been enthusiastically encouraging the flirty fishing [a COG policy of using sex to obtain money or new converts]. When it got back to Dad, he was furious--the »Alexander« letter said Bill ought to commit suicide if he wouldn't repent.
Because of our position, Dad had Queen Rachael (Barbara Canevaro) fly from Europe to Venezuela, where we were visiting, to read it to me personally. Dad sent her to make sure I had a repentant attitude and that Bill was separated from me immediately. Then she read it to Bill. He was excommunicated and sent to live on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean. A couple of weeks later, Dad decided that some of us in leadership in South America should go to Australia.
It was necessary to go to San Francisco to get our visas, because we couldn't get a visa to travel direct from Venezuela to Australia.
When we arrived in the States, we had a group of six adults and 13 children with us (eight of them were mine). I was still in a state of shock from losing my husband and then being forced to move to Australia. In fact, none of us wanted to go there. It was very cold in San Francisco, and the children all got sick from the change in climate. On top of that, Dad hadn't given us enough money to pay for passage to Australia. We were supposed to go out and earn the rest of the fare by witnessing.
Every other day Dad was on the phone to us, asking why we were so slow, why weren't we on the boat, and so forth. The pressure he was putting on us was just too great, all of us were starting to freak out.
We never made a conscious decision to leave the Children of God, at least not for any doctrinal or biblical reasons. We took the money we had for the fare and bought a car, an old motor home, and three or four tents. We planned to stay out of Dad's reach for a while, hoping he would change his mind about Bill and our going to Australia. We all knew he'd gotten heavy revelations before and then later he would change his mind about them. And, most important, we needed time to think, to plan what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives.
Four months later we sent Bill a telegram, asking him to meet us in San Diego. We didn't contact my father, or any of the others' parents, because we were afraid Dad would find out where we were through them. In a couple more months, we realized that we didn't want to work for my Dad anymore. The constant pressure, the jealousy, and the ugliness was more than we could bear. So, basically, that was the reason we came out.
Dad eventually got desperate and sent out a general Mo letter saying that if anybody could find us, we should be told we could go back to South America and he would pay our way. So you see, he did calm down. But by that time we didn't want to go back.
When I first came out, I tried to read my Bible, but gradually we read less and less. It didn't even speak to me; it was just words. There was no reality of a living Christ in our lives at all. I still believed that there was a God, but everything about him became meaningless. Finally, I even quit praying. Very quickly we became very worldly people--we partied, we went to discos, we drank, and made no excuses. For three years we lived in that condition.
Face to Face with Sin
What finally brought us back to the Lord began in a problem we were having with my oldest daughter, Joyanne. She had been very depressed, bitter, and unhappy; she wouldn't go to school, and she became ill. Joyanne didn't understand why we had left the Children of God; she was happy there. All our communication had come to an impasse.
We weren't going to church and we didn't have anywhere else to turn, so we contacted the parents of my ten-year-old daughter's best friend. The husband is a doctor and a Christian, and we asked him if he could recommend any counseling services. Instead, he paid our way to a six-day Christian seminar on youth problems.
Every night for us was like going through an earthquake. The first night they dealt with bitterness, and I began to see how bitter against God I was. »Why did my Dad have to be Moses David? Why am I who I am? It's not fair.« I came to accept that God has allowed me to be who I am. Every night they dealt with specific areas that had been monumental in our lives. For the first time I began to see the reality of sin. I had learned so well in the movement how to excuse everything. My Dad always quoted the verse »Everything is lawful, but not everything is expedient« (1 Cor. 10:23). It's one of his foundation verses.
I was faced with the reality of sin, what sin really was, and it knocked me off my high horse. At the same time, I was confronted with the real love of Christ in that seminar. Even if I had turned my back on God and willfully rejected his counsel, the mercy of God was great enough to cover all my sin. And he can forgive me.
The fifth day they dealt with the steps to reprobation, describing how sin enters society. Bill and I looked at that chart and said »Oh, my God, that's the Children of God. That's how we did it.« It was made very clear just what we'd been going through for the past ten years. And at each stage, we got deeper and deeper into sin. It doesn't happen over night. It happens gradually. We could pinpoint each time we compromised the truth. »This happened in Vienna, and this happened in London, and this happened in so-and-so.«
We would work so hard for the Lord, I would literally make myself sick staying up day and night, but I lost the reality of him in my life.
Although we thought the seminar was meant for my daughter, it had a profound effect on us. We quit drinking, partying, and going out after that. There had been a very deep sore in our lives because we had lived in such intense immorality, and the Lord met us with forgiveness right there. We started off by memorizing the sixth chapter of Romans to establish moral victory in our lives.
That was a year ago, and since that time we've helped a lot of people who have been in the Children of God to find peace and stability. For us, it hasn't been through confronting their doctrine. They have answers and justifications for every single doctrinal point you could possibly bring up. Our approach has been through showing them the reality of the love of Christ, displaying it in our behavior and now we treat them as persons.
Of course, the doctrine is wrong, sinful, even demonic ... but it's much more effective to reach their hearts through talking about love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, all those things you do not see in the cults. Although they may talk about all the love that's in the movement, the reality of Christian love is not there: there's little or no forgiveness.
Parents and others who have loved ones in a cult need to be sensitive to those »breaking points« I described, those times of doubt or crisis. Visit your child or friend in person and talk to them during those times. Don't talk pointedly against the cult--that always convinces members more and makes you the enemy. Encourage them to come home for a rest, get out of the daily grind, and read a little bit. Usually cult members aren't allowed to read anything except their group's own material. Get them to read some other materials.
If the family is Christian, that's something that really has a powerful effect. Cult members can sense the difference between genuine Christian love and what's going on in the movement. When you leave that with them and they go away and think about it, comparing it with what they've probably had to live through, it really gets to them.
Today I can only express joy over the mercy God has revealed in my life. Surely the mercies of God endure forever. My life is a testimony to the parents of all cult victims that God is greater than any sin, greater than any cult. Never give up hope.
Deborah and Bill Davis extend their aid and encouragement to any former or active member of the Children of God. They can be contacted by writing Cornerstone/4707 N. Malden/Chicago, Illinois 60640/USA.
Reprinted from Cornerstone, Vol. 11, Issue 83.