Humble Observer: Charitable donation or cult income?

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Charitable donation or cult income?

The Humble Observer/2005-08-03

By Bonnie McKenna, Observer Intern

Have you seen the smiling young folks in grey T-shirts emblazoned with a silhouette of the face of Christ? Have you seen them on your neighborhood streets? Have you seen them running in between cars at busy intersections? Do you wonder who they are?

Everyday, somewhere around the city of Houston, this group is soliciting donations on the corners of major intersections. They are not always in the same place everyday, but they know where to go to get the most money.

By nature, Houstonians tend to take people at face value. If it appears that the people asking for donations are going to use the money for a good cause, we give and do so generously. Houstonians are especially generous. If it is for a Christian missionary program in foreign lands, folks are even more likely to donate.

The fresh-faced young people frequenting intersections such as Kingwood Drive and Lake Houston Parkway or FM 1960 and Lake Houston Parkway asking for your money are known by a myriad of different names, but they are generally known by one of the following: The Family, The Children of God, Family Aid, Family Aid Project, The Family Care Foundation or The Family of Love.

The Family is an unorthodox religious 'cult' that began in the late 1960s founded by an ex-communicated preacher named David Berg. The 60's was a time of "hippies" and free love. David Berg who called himself "Mo" or Moses was a proponent of free love. He felt that having sex with many others was expressing God's love. His message attracted hundreds of "hippie" followers. Berg also preached that America had turned its back on Jesus; that America would soon be destroyed and Berg would be a major figure in the Second Coming.

In the book The End Time Family - The Children of God by William Sims Bainbridge, an expert and able scholar in the sociology of religion, writes in the introduction: "The Family, or Children of God, is among the most vilified religious movements to arise in twentieth-century America. For a decade, it experimented with a sexual ministry and still today practices sexual sharing among committed adult members. They believe they are in contact with the spirit world, and the majority of them think they have channeled messages from the beyond. Surviving without regular jobs, educating their children outside of schools, they live in hundreds of small communes in dozens of nations." Don Lattin, the religious writer for the "San Francisco Chronicle" has been following The Family for several years. Most recently he has written about the murder-suicide of cult member Ricky Rodriguez, the son of David Berg and Karen Zerby/Maria David/Mother Maria/Queen Maria, the current prophet and spiritual leader of the Children of God.

The murder-suicide of Berg's son Ricky Rodriguez, in January 2005, has brought The Family under scrutiny again. Former members continue to allege that they were sexually abused as children. The current July issue of People Magazine puts faces to many former members that are now coming forward demanding justice for the abuse they endured as children.

Jeff Wells, project director of the Family Aid Project in Houston, admitted that there have been numerous allegations regarding the sexual abuse of children of The Family. Although investigations have been conducted, the allegations have never been substantiated. When asked to comment on the People Magazine article Wells declined saying, "I'm not authorized to speak on behalf of the Family International."

In a press release, Claire Borowik, spokesperson for The Family International, indicated that prior to the adoption of the "Love Charter," that outlines the rights, rules, responsibilities and requirements of full time Family members, there was some inappropriate behavior. "The Family's policy for the protection of minors was adopted in 1986. We regret that prior to the adoption of this policy, cases occurred where minors were exposed to sexually inappropriate behavior between 1978 and 1986."

The Family group here in Houston is formally known as the World Mission of Faith, Inc. According to IRS documents, the group enjoys a tax exemption status under section 501(c) and 501(c)a of the code. Operating as the Family Care Foundation dba Family Care Foundation International, with their attorney Victoria Davenport as the registered agent, the group is also exempt from paying state sales tax on goods and services. On their Web site, describing Family Communities, it states, "Some Missionary members and a few Family disciples take on secular employment, but most dedicate their full time and efforts to their mission."

According to Wells, "The first motivation of the group is to bring the gospel to 'those in need.' The Family has no formal church building. Time on the streets counseling is our church."

The money that is so generously put into their outstretched hands and plastic buckets is used to pay rent, buy food, and in general provide a living, tax free, for members of the group. Most of the members do not have secular jobs and live communally in order to minimize expenses. They do not, for the most part, own homes. They rent so they can easily move about the nation or to foreign countries. "Ten percent of the take is tithed directly to The Family headquarters; the remaining funds come into one 'pot' for the maintenance and support of the mission." Wells said.

When asked how much money is taken in daily, Wells refused to answer. When asked how much money was collected annually, Wells again refused to answer. Money is being collected every weekend and some weekdays all around the city. Although the exact amount is not known, it is enough to support the local group and "missionaries" that come here from other countries to get funds to live on.

The Observer newspaper reports that the Houston Fire Department during the Fill The Boot campaign, in one weekend, collected in excess of $10,000.

The Family Care Foundation, yet another branch of the Family Aid Project, claims they are called by the Red Cross and FEMA during disasters. However, the Red Cross in Houston said it does not call this group as one of their first responding agencies. Several years ago, one of their emergency response team leaders was a "missionary" volunteering his time to the Red Cross. That was the extent of the involvement, according to the Red Cross officials. According to the FEMA office in Washington, D.C., as well as the FEMA office in Texas, they have never heard of this group.

Having an office in Washington, D.C. and using the names of Red Cross and FEMA on Family Aid brochures and fliers are attempts to legitimize the group as a true charitable organization.

Are there laws that govern people out on the streets, running between cars while soliciting donations? City codes do allow charities to solicit donations on the streets as long as they have a permit. The Family Aid Project has a permit to solicit donations on the streets of Houston. They are protected by city code Public Charities and Trusts Sec. 36-72 and Transportation Code 1. Chapter 552.007 Solicitation by Pedestrians. These same laws also protect firefighters soliciting donations for "Fill The Boot" a Jerry Lewis foundation to fight Muscular Dystrophy. This law also protects local community schools and churches who solicit donations for various projects on city streets.

Letters to the Editor

The Humble Observer/2005-08-24

Dear Editor:

The Observer recently published an article about my church in your Aug. 4 edition, and I would like to make a few clarifications on points that were inaccurate and that misrepresented my church.

You imply in your article that members of our church are out everyday in the city of Houston soliciting. That is a misrepresentation of our missionary work that I personally find offensive as the primary mission of our fellowship is not to fundraise, but rather to bring the Gospel to the needy, which we do in a multitude of ways around the globe ranging from encouraging and assisting the elderly, the sick and the disadvantaged; working to rehabilitate drug addicts and gang members; offering personal counseling in prisons and juvenile detention centers; assisting in humanitarian efforts, disaster relief and refugee camps and staging benefit performances for the underprivileged in many different countries. Our members frequently work with relief organizations--both international and regional--to bring food, supplies, comfort, help and encouragement to people in distress or hardship. Obviously, work of this nature requires the support of others, as does any other charitable work.

Our members are not known by "a myriad of names." Like any other church or organization, different charities have different names-which explains why a certain project would be "Family Aid Project," yet still be affiliated to the Family International. The World Mission of Faith / Family Aid Project is my wife's ministry and mine and is completely run, financed and directed from our office in Houston. The Family Care Foundation is not a 'branch of,' nor an affiliate of the Family Aid Project (as you misstated in your article).

I find particularly objectionable your use of the word "cult." This is a politically loaded term, used to foment prejudice and intolerance. Sociologists of religion have agreed that this is not a useful term scientifically but simply a media buzzword to elevate levels of prejudice. I find your usage of this term to be discriminatory. I would appreciate it if you would publish this for the record.

Jeff Wells
Director, Family Aid Project