Moses Berg sat in the midst of a bevy of "flirty fishers" in this 1977 photo originally published in the German magazine Stern. Second wife, Maria, is to the right.
Marina Tafuri (left) and daughter Daphne left the Children of God in 1990. Chronicle photo by Lea Suzuki
Second- generation member Sara Lieberman said the Family was not all about sex "but about loving God." Chronicle photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice
Escaping a Free Love Legacy Children of God sect hopes it can overcome sexy image
San Francisco Chronicle/2001-02-14
By Don Lattin
They are the children of the Children of God, a new generation of freewheeling Christian revolutionaries. According to their detractors, they are heretics, cultists and polygamists, spawned by a twisted prophet preaching a strange brew of Christian compassion and free love. But to Sarah Lieberman, the oldest of 10 children born to a female member of the sect, the Children of God have been misunderstood and maligned. "People think this is all about sex," said Lieberman, 25. "But it's greater than sexual relations. It's about how you relate and feel about people. It's about loving God with all your soul."
Founded in the late 1960s by David "Moses" Berg, this underground church was one of the most notorious sects of the 1970s and '80s. Christian history is replete with movements inspired by self-proclaimed prophets - messianic leaders who claim they are the mouthpiece for God. Few of those prophets, however, were as obsessed with sex as David Berg. "We have a sexy God and a sexy religion with a very sexy leader with an extremely sexy young following," Berg wrote. "So if you don't like sex, you better get out while you can." Berg also made it clear that his word was God's word. "I am God's man for this hour, and I am the prophet of God for you," he said. "You had better believe it or you are in serious spiritual trouble." Berg died in 1994, but his movement lives on today as "The Family."
Other survivors of the Children of God include hundreds - perhaps thousands - of " Jesus babies" born in the 1970s and '80s. Their mothers were young missionaries who followed Berg's call to share sexual favors in order to bring young men to Christ. "We came from a generation that wanted something different," said Marina Tafuri, who was 16 when she joined Berg's sect in 1977. "It was super-fundamentalist, but with this sexual twist. Women would have six kids, or 10 kids, and would not know who three of the fathers were."
Berg was born in Oakland in 1919, the son of famous female evangelist Virginia Brandt Berg. He was nearly 50 years old when he began preaching in a Huntington Beach coffeehouse run by "Teen Challenge," a Christian outreach group affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination. Berg's early flock, a growing band of hippies, political radicals and "Jesus freaks," left Huntington Beach in 1969, when the prophet predicted an enormous California earthquake.
In the early '70s, they formed Christian communes in California and Texas - the first of dozens of small "intentional communities" that would spring up around the world. Within a few years, "Moses" Berg disappeared from public sight. But he continued promoting his prophecies in a series of missives, called " Mo letters, " dispatched to his far-flung flock. One of the the most detailed examinations of Berg's prophecies and sexual practices is contained in a voluminous 1995 court judgment in a British child custody case. In his conclusion, Lord Justice Alan Ward wrote that, at least until 1986, there was widespread child-to-child sex and sexual abuse of minors by adult members of the Children of God. "I am completely satisfied that he was obsessed with sex and that he became a perverted man who recklessly corrupted his flock," Ward wrote.
Citing the prophet's explicit writings depicting young children as "sexual beings," the judge ruled that Berg "bears responsibility for propagating the doctrine which so grievously misled his flock and injured the children within it." Another independent observer who has studied the Children of God, Steve Kent, agreed with Ward's conclusion that the Family has now stopped most of its past excesses. But both men say the current leaders, including the founder's widow, the "prophetess" Maria Berg, must address the continuing psychological damage upon the descendants of the Children of God. "What about the long-term effect on the children from that period," said Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta. "These kids got very little schooling, and grew up in a highly sexualized environment. Some have been able to pull themselves up, but many of them wound up in the sex trade."
Miriam Williams was only 17 when she meet some of Berg's disciples in Greenich Village. It was 1971, and she went off with them to a commune in upstate New York. "It was a campground with about 300 people," she said. "People were living together, sharing everything. It was a mixture of Christianity and communism. It appealed to me." Williams, author of the book "Heaven's Harlots - My Fifteen Years in a Sex Cult," soon found herself sharing more than her material possessions. One of Berg's teachings was called "the law of love," which included the "sexual sharing" of husbands and wives. "God will have no other gods before Him, not even the marriage god!," Berg proclaimed. "Partiality toward your own wife or husband . . . strikes against the unity and supremacy of God's Family and its oneness and wholeness."
In the search for new converts, Williams and her female brethren soon were encouraged to expand the "law of love" beyond the confines of their Christian sect. They called it "flirty fishing," after Jesus of Nazareth's call that they become "fishers of men." "At first, it was just flirting, but if necessary, you'd have sex with men to get them to join," said Williams. "Most of us weren't that shocked by it. It wasn't that much different than the whole hippie, free love thing. We were already having sex with people in the group." Berg told his female devotees that idea for "flirty fishing" was communicated to him through divine prophecy, and even composed a prayer to inspire his band of "sacred prostitutes." "Help her, Oh God, to catch men! Help her to catch men, be bold, unashamed and brazen to use anything she has, Oh God, to catch men for thee! Even if it be through the lure, the delicious flesh on a steel hook of thy reality, the steel of thy spirit. Hook them through her flesh!"
Birth control was forbidden, and the children born into the sect from these casual encounters produced the "Jesus babies." Sara Welsh was 7 years old when she and her mother left the Children of God. "My Mom had eight kids and only three are from the same father," said Welsh, now a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Today, six years after Berg's death, the Children of God, or the Family, present a very different image.
They say they have grown up to be an international fellowship of Christian communities with 13,000 members operating in more than 100 countries. They emphasize their humanitarian work: starting farming projects in South Africa, or helping street children in Mexico. Leaders of the Family say that they no longer practice "flirty fishing," although their official policy statement on "law of love" still sings the praises of "sexual sharing" among consenting married and single members. "This ensures that everyone's sexual needs are being provided for in a clean, healthy, safe and loving environment," it states. "Members can partake in such sexual sharing to bring greater unity or additional pleasure and variety into their lives."
Sara Lieberman, who lives in a communal home in Orange County with 10 members of the Family, wishes the news media and more orthodox Christian groups would look beyond the sect's sleeping arrangements. "We have doctrines that aren't mainstream, but we don't focus on them," she said. "Most of us find one spouse is a big enough challenge. We are usually so tired, we just hit the bed and fall asleep." Lieberman married when she was 21 and has two small children. "I can only think of two people who have multiple partners," she said. "We've gone through stages like the rest of society. There was a time when things were a bit looser."
Things were looser in the 1970s, when Lieberman's parents hooked up in their 20s. Her parents, who declined to be interviewed, had five boys and five girls, but are no longer full-time members of the sect. Lieberman was born in Argentina, and grew up living in Peru, Mexico, Korea, Japan and the United States. Her younger brother, Michael, now 19, says he enjoyed traveling around as a missionary child. His first memories are of Japan and living in homes with three or four other families. "You'd have all kinds of playmates," said Michael, who declined to give his last name. Michael, who got married last March and has one child, said it's up to members of the Family to decide if they want to be polygamous or have open marriages. "This is not adultery, which is something that hurts people," he said. "If your wife didn't know about it, and you had sex with another woman, that would be sinful. But if all parties are OK with it, that's another story."
Micheal and Sarah declined to let a Chronicle reporter and photographer visit their communal home in Orange County, prefering to meet in a park and be interviewed on the phone. They say they are setting the home up as a base for charity work with other churches and community groups in Orange County, and raise funds to start an overseas mission. J. Gordon Melton, director for the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, has done extensive studies of the Family.
Since the mid-1990s, Melton said, the sect has found a way to foster "friendly adherence for nominal members," rather than condemning them as backsliders or apostates. "They finally got the message that they had to create alternative roles for people who don't want to go out on the street and witness," he said. Today, in addition to their 13,000 full-time members, the Family says it has 29,000 "associates," including both first- and second-generation members. Sara Lieberman said her parents and most of her nine siblings, fall into that category. "They're not living in the Family," she said, "but they're still friends of the Family."
Since its early days, the Children of God has been a secretive organization. Few members knew where Berg and his inner circle lived. Today, members look to Berg's widow, Maria, and her husband, Peter Amsterdam, as the movement's prophets. Michael said he has never seen "Mama" (Maria Berg) or Amsterdam. They communicate to their followers through letters. "I see them both as prophets," he said. "They are mouthpieces for God." Melton thinks the sect's leaders are now living in Switzerland, although their whereabouts have always been kept under wraps.
"Berg was afraid of assassination, and set up the policies about secrecy," said Melton. "They don't tell anybody in the group where the leadership is so they can avoid court cases." Two former members who would love to sue the Family are Marina Tafuri and her daughter, Daphne. In 1977, Tafuri was living in her native Italy when she met some of Berg's devotees on a train from Rome to Naples. "They can really spot people having a hard time in life," she said. "I wasn't attracted by the born-again Christian beliefs, but I liked the commitment to social causes. They were trying to change the world." Tafuri joined the organization, and a year later, Daphne was born, the first of four children fathered by her common-law husband. Many of Daphne's earliest memories in the Children of God revolve around sex. "A lot of the escape for children was sexual play. Everything was very sexualized," she said. "By the time I was 4, I knew a lot about sex. We were bombarded with it. By the time I was 6, I was getting molested. I'd seen it happen to so many other children, it didn't really seem that strange."
Daphne and her mother left the Children of God in 1990, the year Tafuri says she finally realized that her child was being sexually molested by men in the group. "A lot of the parents didn't know because a part of them didn't want to know," Daphne said. "The trick with the whole pedophile thing is they make you feel like you have a choice, and that it's love." Today, Daphne and her mother live together in Santa Cruz, where they are trying to get a new start on life. Both have enrolled at the UC Santa Cruz.
Kent, the Canadian professor who has studied the sect, said Daphne's experiences in the sect were not that unusual. He said he has talked to three dozen people who grew up in the Children of God. "A lot of the young men and almost all of the women had sexual encounters with adults when they were children in the group," he said. It has been nine years since Daphne, now 22, left the Family. "When I got out of the group, one of the strange feelings I had was feeling guilty for not feeling guilty about what I'd done. Our sexual maps were so distorted, " Daphne said, sitting on a patio at the UC Santa Cruz campus, her mother at her side. "It's a lot of work reintegrating into society, to have a social face, and to find out that everything you lived and believed up to that point was a lie, " she said. "I still feel like I don't know who I am."