'The Family' and Final Harvest
The Washington Post/1993-06-02/Pg. A01
By Gustav Niebuhr
Washington Post Staff Writer
LA HABRA HEIGHTS, CALIF.
Just what is The Family -- a group of radically self-sacrificing Christians or, as some allege, a sex-obsessed doomsday sect?
An answer is offered by Daniel Alexander, a polite, bespectacled man, sitting in the sun behind a big house in this Los Angeles suburb. He's the father of 13 children, once a Roman Catholic, but for the past 22 years a follower of "Father David," a reclusive prophet who foretells the coming of a dictator called the anti-Christ, the rise of a brutal One World Government and its eventual overthrow by Jesus Christ, in the Second Coming.
The Family, Alexander says, is a group of "evangelical, fundamentalist, born-again" missionaries who live and preach in dozens of countries. Spurred by their belief that the "End Time" is here, many members are returning to the United States after 20 years abroad, hoping to reap a final "harvest" of souls. The group says it has about 9,000 members worldwide, with about 750 scattered across the United States.
Sure, Alexander concedes, plenty of people object that The Family's "Law of Love" permits sex outside marriage and that the group once condoned a practice known as "flirty fishing" -- the use of sex to win converts.
But The Family's primary goals are to proclaim the Gospel and save souls for Jesus. Members oppose abortion, homosexuality, drugs and drunkenness. They frown on birth control. They respect the Rev. Billy Graham.
"We admire Christians," Alexander says. "But it's interesting, it's not reciprocal. Because they identify us as a cult."
Do they ever.
The deaths of David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers in April after a standoff with federal agents in Waco, Tex., turned up the heat on a spiritual warfare simmering across the United States.
On one side are "new religious movements" (cults, to their opponents) founded in the past three or four decades and usually led by a person whom members regard as a prophet. Arrayed against them are ex-members of these groups, along with various "counter-cult" organizations.
Few of the religious groups have been as consistently controversial as The Family. Its critics -- many of them ex-members -- maintain that The Family's leadership follows a policy of lying to outsiders, is steeped in a history of sexual deviance and has even meddled in Third World politics.
The Family denies all this, calling such statements "persecution." And members point to Waco as an example of just how far persecution can go.
The Waco tragedy reflects The Family's theology, which leans heavily on the end-of-the-world imagery in the Bible's Book of Revelation. "We believe the Waco incident was a foretaste, a foretaste of the Great Tribulation," says Alexander. "A wake-up call," agrees another member, Timothy Richard, 20.
Recently, breaking years of virtual silence, The Family began inviting reporters and religious scholars to visit its La Habra Heights commune and get to know a group that traces its roots to the 1960s counterculture.
In 1968, evangelical preacher David Berg began gathering a following of born-again hippies who hung out at a coffeehouse in Huntington Beach, just down the coast from Los Angeles.
Berg was anti-establishment to the core and full of foreboding about America's future. He condemned established churches as ineffective and urged a return to the early Christian community described in the Bible's Book of Acts, in which believers lived together and shared all.
In 1969, Berg had a revelation that California would be hit by a major earthquake and took his followers on the road.
Early members recall being wandering soul-savers, roaming the highways, preaching Jesus. A colorful bunch, they turned up at public events -- the Chicago Seven trial, the funeral of Sen. Everett M. Dirksen (R-Ill.) -- dressed in scarlet sackcloth, their foreheads smeared with ashes, carrying long staffs with which they would strike the ground and shout "Woe!" They became known as the Children of God. Berg was "Moses David."
The older adults at the commune here remember the Children of God as a revolutionary movement, attractive to the spiritual seekers of the time.
Kay Spain, 44, was a Baptist youth director in a rural Texas church, full of fire "to win the world for Jesus." Don George, 44, was a Scarsdale, N.Y., Presbyterian, a long-hair, dabbling in drugs, on a spiritual search, "just determined to find the truth."
Alexander also was on a spiritual quest. Visiting a Detroit art museum in 1971, he spotted a young man "witnessing" to strangers.
"I went up to him and I said, 'I'm looking for a way to serve God,' " Alexander says. The man belonged to the Children of God and he talked about the group's work and lifestyles. Alexander was sold on the spot. "It was like: Click! I knew that was what God had in mind for me."
Berg communicated with his growing flock through a steady stream of "Mo Letters," giving guidance on matters of belief, personal behavior, even automobile maintenance. To date, he has issued more than 2,800 of these.
"God has always had a mouthpiece, where he gave his word to his people," says Jonathan Waters, 19, who lives in the La Habra Heights house and was born into The Family.
No one interviewed for this article claims to know where Berg -- now 74 -- lives these days. He was in the Canary Islands in the mid-1970s, in the Philippines about five years ago. Alexander says he met Berg in Spain about 15 years ago but adds: "Most people have never met him. He does not make personal appearances." John Francis, The Family's international spokesman, says that Berg "keeps his whereabouts private for a number of reasons, mainly to have private time to hear from the Lord."
Francis says the man they call Father David is "an iconoclast by nature" who will "often bring up issues that may be startling or shocking," but only to get people "to think." Indeed, for years, his language has been provocative, occasionally crude.
Berg once described America as "the whore" (as in the Book of Revelation's allegorical "whore of Babylon," a city that is destroyed) and warned that the comet Kohoutek, then due to appear shortly, would signal coming destruction in the United States.
Ruth Gordon, who joined the Children of God in 1972, recalls a Mo Letter that year titled "Flee as a Bird to Your Mountain," which she interpreted as "God was going to destroy the U.S. . . . and we had to get out."
Already under pressure from parents trying to "rescue" their children from the group, the Children of God followed Berg's warnings and migrated abroad -- first to Europe, eventually to Latin America and East Asia.
Gordon, who moved to Brazil, left the group in 1977 and since has become one of its fiercest critics. She calls The Family a "pseudo-Christian cult" that dabbles in occult beliefs and sanctions adultery. "They don't understand biblical Christianity apart from Berg's writings," she says.
Family spokesman Francis says the group takes "strong exception" to the claim that it is not Christian. Its beliefs are "fundamentally rooted in the New Testament," he says, comparing Berg's writings to the letters of the apostle Paul, providing practical instruction to Christians.
By the mid-1970s, the Children of God had "colonies" in an estimated 70 countries. In 1977, its members were reported to be living in overwhelmingly Muslim Libya, apparently with approval of its leader, Moammar Gadhafi. Rarely heard from, the group continued to attract unflattering publicity. In 1984, one of Berg's daughters, Deborah Davis, wrote a book about her father, alleging sexual excesses.
By The Family's own account, these were productive years -- as the group spread out to preach on five continents -- but also a time of change and uncertainty.
In 1978, Berg dismissed more than 300 leading members after hearing unspecified "reports of serious misconduct and abuse of their positions." He renamed his followers The Family of Love.
Around this time, the group began its practice of "flirty fishing" ("FFing," many members called it), which won it an enduring notoriety.
To show God's love, members would offer sex as a way of evangelizing people. The idea was Berg's. The Family's history states that, based on his reading of Scripture, "Father David arrived at the rather shocking conclusion that Christians were therefore free through God's grace to go to great lengths to show the Love of God to others, even as far as meeting their sexual needs."
The Family's history acknowledges that this scandalized "many religious institutions," but notes that "many people, most of whom would never even go near a church, were reached and won to Christ through this very humble, honest, open and intimately human approach to witnessing." Partly in response to fears about AIDS, the practice was banned in 1987.
Kay Spain remembers flirty fishing in clubs in Sweden and Finland in the 1970s. She remembers that recipients of such attention almost always became born again.
But David Hiebert, a former member who runs a support group for ex-members called No Longer Children, says flirty fishing was used to curry political favor in many countries. "They would target special people -- in the media, lawyers, in the government," he says.
Family spokesman Francis denies this, saying that flirty fishing was directed mainly at "lonely traveling businessmen that were in hotels."
"Our motives have been and always remain witnessing to the Gospel," Francis says. "We used FFing to reach people we couldn't reach any other way."
It was during this period -- The Family of Love stage -- that the group had "far fewer common standards of conduct" than previously, its official history says. The group tightened its standards in the late 1980s "to ensure that all member communities provide a very wholesome environment for all, particularly the children." It also shortened its name to The Family.
Despite the changes, opponents do not have to reach very far back in the past for ammunition.
Critics like to cite a couple of publications from The Family of Love period, including a 1987 "Basic Training Handbook," which offers explicit advice on sex among prepubescent teens. There's also something called "My Little Fish" containing nude photographs of a young boy and an adult woman embracing.
Francis says the handbook contains "early guidelines" intended to prevent teenage pregnancies and to teach youths that sex is a gift from God. The handbook is "long outdated," he says. "At present, there's no authorized sexual practices between any teens under the age of 16."
As for "My Little Fish," he says it is a chapter out of a longer book on child care and is meant to get parents to discuss sex openly with their children.
Still, the critics persist.
These days, one of the most outspoken is Edward Priebe, a Canadian who helped edit group publications until he quit in 1990 after 19 years. He alleges that it was not unusual for adult members to have sexual relations with teenagers before 1986, when the leadership moved against this.
Priebe says he worked in 1986-88 in the Philippines, where top Family officials openly sympathized with right-wing military officers who tried to overthrow the government of Corazon Aquino. "What we were doing was supplying all the moral support, you know, 'God is with you,' " he says.
Francis denies both charges. "There may have been genuine cases of child sexual abuse in The Family, but any place we have come across them, we have excommunicated the members." The group has no interest in political power, in the Philippines or elsewhere, he says.
At least one outside observer -- James R. Lewis, a senior research associate at the Institute for the Study of American Religions in Santa Barbara, Calif. -- also questions the charge of child sex abuse. After visiting the La Habra Heights commune, he said, "I just came away feeling if there ever was any abuse it wasn't condoned or promoted by the hierarchy. It was isolated."
The controversy with Priebe goes further. Last September, he entered The Family commune in Manila and left with numerous audio and videotapes from the group's archives. Francis says Priebe entered illegally and took material valued at $750,000.
Priebe says he offered to hand the tapes back to The Family in return for either custody of or visiting rights to his two children, who are members of the group living in another Asian country. When The Family ignored his offer, he turned over copies of some of the tapes, which he says show very young girls dancing nude, to "police authorities all over the world."
Francis says at least 90 percent of the tapes Priebe removed were irreplaceable musical recordings. But "a handful, we're talking less than a dozen," featured nudity, "very tastefully done," he says. "There's nothing more erotic on them than you'd find on MTV today."
Opponents like Gordon and Priebe irritate members who have stayed with The Family. At the La Habra Heights house, Alexander, George and Spain say that many people have passed through The Family's ranks -- up to 35,000 by their count -- but only a handful are publicly antagonistic.
In this country, members say, The Family maintains perhaps 20 communal homes, including the one it rented two years ago here in La Habra Heights, an upper-middle-class neighborhood bordering politically conservative Orange County.
About 25 people live in the house here: middle-aged baby boomers, adolescents, pre-teen children, even an infant. They're a clean-cut bunch, friendly and courteous.
In the dining room, the older teenagers pull up chairs to talk about their beliefs with a visitor. They were born into The Family; it has guided their entire lives.
Lanky Jonathan Waters recalls how as a 3-year-old living in the Netherlands, he dressed in traditional Dutch clothing with wooden shoes to sing "Jesus Loves Me" on the streets while his father strummed along on a guitar.
Music is a big part of The Family's evangelism, but so is blunt talk about the coming end of human history.
Based on its reading of Revelation, the group believes the anti-Christ and the single world government will demand that everyone wear the "mark of the Beast" (the number 666). That may be a computer chip embedded under the skin, allowing the evil authorities to track people. Through its studio in Japan, The Family makes videotapes, including a sophisticated MTV-style video for teenagers called, "Look Out for 666."
One Saturday, just after a spaghetti dinner, adults and teenagers climb into a van to go out for a little street preaching. At a busy intersection not far from south-central Los Angeles, members approach strolling Mexican immigrants. The teenagers -- fluent in Spanish after years in Latin American communes -- buttonhole passersby, whom they ask to pray to Jesus for salvation.
They pass out colorful posters called "The Endtime News!," a comic book-style explanation of the coming apocalypse. The next morning, group members proudly announce that they won 38 persons to Christ.
Later, some members muse that proselytizing arouses the forces of evil, which leads to more persecution. Just look at how early Christians were attacked by the Romans, says Alexander. "We have a heritage: This is what it means to be a Christian. But great is your reward in Heaven. It fires us up to do more."