Shining a Light on Jesus People USA’s Dark Legacy

How do I make sense of JPUSA’s positive influence on my life in light of the damage it’s done in the lives of so many others?
JPUSA’s Headquarters(Cameopro77CC BY-SA 3.0)

Shortly after graduating college, I went through a season of doubt and anxiety; I felt stuck, lonely, and unsure of the direction my life should take. During that time, I considered moving to Chicago and joining Jesus People USA (JPUSA), a Christian commune that I knew primarily as the folks behind the annual Cornerstone Festival.

I had attended Cornerstone several times, and always left rejuvenated, excited, and impressed by JPUSA’s version of a Christian culture that not only embraced art and creativity, but that also had a real heart for people who were lonely, broken, and full of doubts (such as myself). Furthermore, I had several acquaintances who lived at JPUSA and their experiences all seemed positive. Based on those impressions, JPUSA seemed like the perfect place to work through the angst that I was feeling.

In the end, I didn’t move to Chicago, but JPUSA still held my respect — again, due in large part to their work with Cornerstone. Indeed, I considered it a great honor when I was invited to be a speaker at the 2007 festival as part of its “Flickerings” film program. (I’ve previously written at length about my experiences and feelings concerning the festival, which closed its doors in 2012.)

Sometime last year, however, I began hearing rumors that not all was right with JPUSA, but at the time, the rumors seemed so far-fetched compared to my (what I now see as limited) experience with the group. Suffice to say, as I read BuzzFeed’s recent longform exposé of JPUSA’s history of sexual and child abuse, I was filled with a great deal of sadness, horror, and confusion. It’s a difficult piece to read, but Jesse Hyde has done an admirable job exploring the group’s questionable past and dicey leadership, its cultish tendencies and attempts to cover up allegations of abuse, and its legacy — for better or worse — in broader Christian circles.

Much of the article is told from Jaime Prater’s viewpoint; Prater had lived at JPUSA as a child, and not only was he sexually abused at the time, but he was placed in what was essentially solitary confinement when he told JPUSA leaders about the abuse. As an adult, Prater made a documentary titled No Place To Call Home about his experiences, and in the process of making the film, discovered he wasn’t the only one with such experiences. As Hyde writes:

When Prater set out to make his film, he didn’t have any professional experience; he simply wanted to explore what it was like growing up in a religious commune. He raised some money on Kickstarter and set out across the country, reconnecting with kids he’d known growing up, capturing their stories on film. What he found shocked him. While the broader Christian community has long been aware of allegations of strange behavior from within the walls of JPUSA, such as adult spankings and group confessionals of masturbation, few outside the commune knew of its darker secrets.

Of the 120 people Prater reached over two years, 70 said they had suffered some form of sexual abuse growing up in the commune. One woman told him of a trip to the Farm, the 300-acre JPUSA retreat in Doniphan, Missouri, where she said she was sexually assaulted by one of the commune’s leaders. Another said he had been forced to perform oral sex on two men in the Leland Building, the Jesus People dorm for single men. Prater found that the Jesus People leadership had not only been aware of dozens of complaints of abuse, but had conspired to hide those crimes and silence the victims.

When Prater finished the film and posted it on Vimeo, it went nowhere: Only a few hundred people saw it, and Prater didn’t submit it to any festivals or distributors. “I didn’t want people to think this was about me, or that I was doing this to get famous,” Prater says. But within the walls of JPUSA, and the broader Christian world, it was a bombshell. Prior to the film, no one, other than perhaps JPUSA leadership, had known about allegations of widespread sexual abuse or possible cover-ups. Suddenly, Prater had cast himself into the uncomfortable role of whistleblower.

I knew JPUSA had grown out of the ’70s “Jesus People” movement, and that they weren’t your typical evangelical Christian community. Indeed, that was part of the appeal; they were so different from your typical mainstream Christian, but everything seemed on the up and up because they loved God so fiercely (and uniquely). What’s more, they put on an awesome Christian music and arts festival.

In all seriousness, I cannot emphasize enough how important JPUSA’s Cornerstone Festival was to my faith at some critical points in my life. Previously, if you would’ve asked me about Cornerstone, I would’ve told you, in all sincerity, that it felt like the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing heaven on earth. The sense of community, the energetic and rebellious atmosphere, the passionate celebration of art and creativity… those things had a deeply positive, life-changing effect on me. Simply put, Cornerstone was fundamental in shaping how I view art and faith, and how I engage with and think about popular culture.

To think about the incredibly positive experience that I had, and then to think about the pain and shame that Prater and his fellow survivors have experienced, leaves me feeling sick to my stomach. And honestly, I’m not quite sure what to do now. I can’t easily dismiss my experiences and yet, I can’t help but call them into question in light what I now know about the organization behind them. And I can’t help but wonder who knew what; how many of the festival’s frequent and established artists and speakers knew what was going on? I certainly don’t want to point fingers or name names because I simply don’t know, but the questions don’t go away easily.

Sadly, this story mirrors so many others that have emerged from Christian circles in recent years, from the Catholic church scandals to Ted Haggard and the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Even churches that I’ve attended here in Lincoln have experienced the effects of sexual sin within their walls. JPUSA’s story, like all of the others, will no doubt drive many to deride Christianity and call out Christians as hypocrites, and understandably so. Sexual sin, and especially sexual sin involving children, is something that cannot be tolerated within the Church. Yes, grace and forgiveness are available even for sexual abusers, but that doesn’t mean such behavior can be ignored, downplayed, and swept under the rug. It must be brought to light, which is why as much as it saddens me, I’m ultimately glad that BuzzFeed published their exposé. The truth must be told… but hopefully, the story doesn’t end there.

As Chris Smith wrote in his review of No Place to Call Home:

JPUSA certainly has many upstanding and deeply committed Christians in their midst, and the community as a whole has born a good deal of witness to the radical way of Jesus in their Chicago neighborhood over four decades. Even the filmmaker, Jaime Prater, who himself was abused as child in JPUSA, holds out the hope that healing and reconciliation might be possible. Some initial steps in this direction would be for the leadership at JPUSA to admit that their community has had tragic history of sexual abuse, and to repent of its longstanding lack of transparency and to cooperate with all pertinent church and government authorities in sorting out and addressing the allegations made in the film, and others that will undoubtedly arise as victims realize that the community’s leadership is willing to take their allegations seriously.

I am part of a church whose leadership was driven in the 1920s and 1930s by the KKK (who went so far as to drive out one pastor who refused to let that hate group assemble in our church building). Even today, we bear some of the scars of that history. It is from this place that I offer hope that JPUSA might lament its sins, repent and survive as a community. This redemptive process will undoubtedly take years, or even decades, as it has for us. The process of wrestling honestly and transparently with the factors (like those I have sketched here) that contribute to a culture of pervasive sexual assault, will undoubtedly reconfigure the community and its leadership, and the JPUSA that survives the process — just as it was for us here at Englewood — will be a very different, stronger Christian community.

If they go through such a repentance and survive, the JPUSA that emerges may be a very different JPUSA, but it will almost certainly be a better JPUSA. And more importantly, such a process will hopefully mean that those who once experienced abuse within its walls will experience healing and peace instead of shame and fear.

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