Salt Lake Tribune: Radical religious group returns to U.S.
Radical religious group returns to U.S.
Are ex-Children of God subversive, perverse -- or healthy Christians?
By Joe Maxwell
Religious News Service
The group, considered dangerous by its critics but strongly defended by its leaders, moved into areas overseas in the late 1970s and the 1980s, virtually abandoning U.S. mission fields for Europe, Asia and South America.
"I would say that if you take the 10 largest cities in America, you would find homes getting established there," said John Francis, a top spokesman for the Family, in a recent telephone interview. He declined to say where the new communes are, except for one near Los Angeles.
In all, between 200 and 250 Family missionaries have returned to the United States, he said. Francis said that several factors had motivated the group to target the United States again. The Family's U.S. headquarters are in Anaheim, Calif.
"We now have a new generation in our midst that is basically the age that we were when we first became part of the revolution," he said, referring to the Jesus movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. "At the same time, now, back in the U.S.A., you have another generation of teen-agers and people who heard nothing about the former Children of God or knew nothing about the Jesus revolution, but you are finding quite a desperation amongst the youth today who are quite frightened by all that they are faced with in their early ages."
In promotional material developed last year by the Family to explain and defend the group's history, leaders claim that the Children of God was officially terminated 15 years ago, in 1978, and more than 300 disruptive leaders dismissed. The leaders say that 25 percent of the group's present members are carry-overs from the defunct organization's worldwide network.
Under growing scrutiny in the United States, the group began in the 1970s to shift its missionary emphasis elsewhere. Today, the Family is actively engaged in outreach in 100 countries. Ex-members estimate the group has 25,000 full-time members, though, according to Francis, it has influenced millions because core members are urged to make as many part-time disciples as possible.
The Family's plans to move back into this country are raising the kinds of questions that usually accompany activities of groups considered outside the religious mainstream. Paul Carden, international coordinator for Christian Research Institute, a group that gathers data on aberrant and new religious movements, said that he views the Family's re-emergence in the United States with deep concern.
"This is a destructive and subversive group, and I view its return with the gravest concern," he said. "They represent a deadly mix of evangelical terminology and a perversion of Christian beliefs."
But John Francis (all Family members take on biblical names) said the group's leaders have matured since its inception in the 1960s. They are more conscious of promoting what they consider to be a healthy and truly Christian image to outsiders, including the press, he said.
"Something that we have definitely learned as we have matured as a movement is to do all that we can to make our message understandable to people," Francis said in the telephone interview. "This is one reason why we have put considerable effort into producing . . . various statements and position papers, which we are making available to the public so as to more clearly explain what our views are."
But some ex-members say the group is just as deceptive and dangerous as ever. They cite as evidence several sensational ongoing court battles in Australia and Spain where communes affiliated with the Family have been charged with child abuse. Critics also cite a swell of recent media attention in Japan to the Family's local teaching center and the group in general.