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2/09/2015 5:34 pm  #1

The Family/Children of God

Children of a Lesser God / THE PATH: Coming of new age for alternative religions
Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer Sunday, February 11, 2001

Their parents came of age in that burst of idealism and naivete known as the '60s, joining utopian movements and religious sects that promised to save the world through communal living, Krishna consciousness and the messianic visions of L. Ron Hubbard and Sun Myung Moon.They sold flowers in airports, chanted on street corners, flew off to India and worked tirelessly to plant alternative religions in Judeo-Christian soil.They also married and made babies. While their parents were out spreading a counterculture gospel, the kids were left behind in nurseries, boarding schools and communal farms. Some felt abandoned and abused. Others blossomed.

Navigating the path to adulthood can be hard for any adolescent. But it can be an especially arduous journey for children in spiritual movements going through their own growing pains. This four-day series follows the lives of children born into four of the most infamous "youth cults" of the late 1960s, '70s and early '80s. Founded by charismatic leaders in the 1950s and '60s, these four crusades burst onto the national consciousness during the "cult wars" of the '70s. Since then, they have struggled to overcome the foibles of their leaders, rehabilitate damaged reputations and gain acceptance in the larger religious community.

In 1950, a science-fiction writer named L. Ron Hubbard published a book called "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health," and gave birth to what would soon be known as the Church of Scientology. Hubbard died in 1986, by which time his blend of marketing, psychotherapy and spiritualism had already grown into one of the era's wealthiest and most controversial movements.

Four years later, in 1954, a charismatic preacher named the Rev. Sun Myung Moon went to Seoul from North Korea and founded the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity. Moon would later move his headquarters to New York and proclaim himself the new Christian messiah. In 1965, Srila Prabhupada, an aging Indian devotee of the Hindu god Krishna,came to New York to found the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

By the time Prabhupada died in 1977, the Hare Krishnas controlled 100 ashrams,temples and farm communities around the world.In 1968, David Berg, a minister with the Assemblies of God church in Southern California, started a Christian coffeehouse for hippies, the Light Club, where he encouraged the flower children of that era to get off drugs and into Jesus. Within a year, "Moses" Berg had become a polygamist and prophet of "free love," and had created the Children of God, an underground evangelical movement that survived his death in 1994.

All religions start as cults, spiritual movements rising around the revelations of a charismatic leader, or sects, revival movements breaking off from existing faiths.American religious history is littered with the failed spiritual experiments of prophets, preachers and self-styled messiahs. Very few, as did prophet and polygamist Joseph Smith, the 19th century founder of the Mormon Church, start movements that evolve into mainstream faiths. Whether they flourish or whither away, religious movements have a definite life cycle.They start out intense and fanatical, convinced that the established religious and social order is misguided or corrupt. They have the way, the truth and the light.

Cults and sects can be harsh on apostates, and intolerant of dissent. Charismatic leaders may project their personal demons - as well as their spiritual insight - onto followers through the double-edged sword of divine prophecy.Some movements mellow as they mature. They become less self-righteous and more inclusive as they seek mainstream acceptance.

Others - such as the Peoples Temple of Jonestown, the Branch Davidians at Waco and Heaven's Gate in Southern California - fall into a paranoid spiral, burning out in an apocalyptic implosion of murder and mass suicide.Two early tests facing new religious movements are how well they survive the death of their founder and whether they can pass the faith onto the next generation.

Reviving the spiritual fervor of the '60s and '70s has not been easy for the Moonies, the Hare Krishnas, the Church of Scientology or the Children of God.Allegations of widespread child abuse have crippled the Hare Krishna movement and set back the Children of God's efforts to keep second-generation members in the fold.Leaders of the Church of Scientology have put more emphasis on improving their public image and attracting new members, but are fighting off attacks from disgruntled defectors, investigative journalists and government officials.

Rev. Moon's Unification Church has tried the hardest to hold onto second- generation devotees, but has met with only limited success."They haven't captured the imagination of young people," said E. Burke Rochford, a professor of sociology and religion at Middlebury College in Vermont. "Children in these movements have not committed themselves like their parents did.

"Rochford, a scholar of new religions, said he does not expect "a major world religion to come out of any of these movements, at least nothing like the success of the Mormons.""But they did bring vitality and innovation into the religious landscape," he added. "They provided an alternative to the American mainstream."


2/09/2015 5:46 pm  #2

Re: The Family/Children of God

Charismatic Leaders Gave Birth to New Faiths But Can They Survive?

Escaping a Free Love Legacy / Children of God sect hopes it can overcome sexy image 
Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2001

Children of god "Moses" Berg attracted thousands with his prophesies about Christianity and free sex. Now the children born from those unions are living his legacy.

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.
Sara "Promise" Lieberman did not want a photographer to come to her house where she lives in a group home with other members of Children of God so the meeting place was a park in Orange County. CHRONICLE PHOTO BY DEANNE FITZMAURICE

"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 Sarran. 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 Sarran'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." Sarran 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," Sarran said. "The trick with the whole pedophile thing is they make you feel like you have a choice, and that it's love."

Today, Sarran 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 Sarran'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 Sarran, 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, " Sarran 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." 

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2/09/2015 5:55 pm  #3

Re: The Family/Children of God

MIXED MEMORIES OF 'THE FAMILY' / SEX: Ex-member believed abuse ‘normal’ 
Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2005
Jim LaMattery sits with his daughter Krisit, 28, at his home in San Diego, CA on Tuesday, February 8, 2005. Jim joined a cult in 1969 and left 5 years later as the group started to get wacky. His wife, who stayed, kidnapped his 2 daughters and raised them in Mexico, Thailand and elsewhere. kristie was subjected to sexual abuse for most of her life, and fled when she was 18.

Kristi La Mattery was 8 years old when she got her first lesson in flirty fishing,” a practice in which female missionaries in the Children of God were sent out as sacred prostitutes to bring lost and lonely souls into their fellowship of love.

It was 1984. Kristi and her sister were brought into the shower by their mother and given some detailed instructions on feminine hygiene. Here’'s how Kristi recalls their conversation: 
“Mommy has to sleep with a lot men, honey, and it’s important that she keep clean.”“
”“Because God is asking me to.”“
But what if they are all fat and ugly?”“
You just pray to the Lord, dear, and he will give you the strength to do it.”

Kristi’'s mother was a devoted member of the Children of God --— a religious sect founded in 1968 by Oakland native David “Moses” Berg. Berg was a radical Southern California street preacher who combined the free love of the sexual revolution with the religious fervor of the American evangelical movement. He died in 1993, but his sect lives on today as the Family International. Over the past three decades, thousands of children have been born into the Children of God and the Family.

Kristi is among a growing number of second-generation defectors who blame leaders of the sect for creating a highly-sexualized culture that encouraged widespread child abuse during the 1970s and 1980s. In a series of interviews with The Chronicle, she and her father offered an inside look at life in the Family. Their story comes on the heels of a bizarre murder-suicide that has rocked the 8,000-member organization to its foundations. On Jan. 8, Ricky “Davidito” Rodriguez, anointed by Berg as the prince and future prophet of the Children of God, killed himself and a woman who helped raise him as a child. In a videotape shot the night before his crime spree, the 29-year-old Rodriguez urged other second-generation members to rise up against his estranged mother and other top leaders.

Kristi, now 28, is doing just that. “If you were a pedophile,” Kristi says, “you had no problems in the Children of God.’’

Kristianity La Mattery was born in Laredo, Texas, on April 18, 1976, the second of two children born to Jim and Donna La Mattery. Kristi didn’t even know she had a father. By the time she was born, Jim La Mattery had been exiled from the cult for questioning some of its unorthodox doctrines. But Donna stayed in the Children of God, taking Kristi and her sister, Kerenina, to Puebla, Mexico, where they lived in a trailer with two other male members of the sect.

Kristi’s first recollections of the Family’'s sexual practices were of Donna “sharing” sex with the two men in the trailer --— while she and her sister were in the same bed, giggling. “"They'’d say, ‘Stop being foolish. Go to sleep,’"” Kristi said.

Kristi recalls first being sexually abused at age 5 or 6: “"My first memories are of this one guy who always smelled like milk and honey. It would smell like milk and honey when he kissed you.’’"

Growing up, the abuse never seemed like abuse. “"If Mommy does it, then it was normal,"’’ Kristi said. When Kristi was around age 7 or 8, her mother moved the two girls back to Texas. Donna was now mated to two different sect members, “Jay” and “Carlos,” and they were all raising money to go to Thailand. Jay was in the lumber business, Carlos was working in a Mexican restaurant and mom was out “flirty fishing,” Kristi said.“

"We had this fish who would lay me on the back couch and molest and rape me,’’" she said. "“A lot of the fish weren'’t people who'’d actually join (the sect)." Many fish had things to donate --— housing, clothes, food  and got sex in return. ’’Eventually, Donna, the two girls and Jay - whose real name is Phillip Slown -— moved to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand.

During the day, Kristi would go out with singing teams to sell Christian books, posters and tapes. “"We never really did any missionary work. We just sold products and begged,’’" she said. “"You were placed on teams depending on how pretty and cute you were.“ My sales pitch was, ‘'Hi, my name is Kristi and we’'re missionaries with a nondenominational organization trying to raise money for a really good cause.’'"’’

At night it was a different story. According to Kristi, Slown would have the girls sleep in bed with him. “He'’d lie in bed and masturbate himself,” she said. “When we'’d shower with him, he'’d have us masturbate him.’’ (Chronicle attempts to locate Slown for comment were unsuccessful.)

In 1986, amid rising complaints of child sexual abuse in the Children of God, sect leaders issued new guidelines intended to crack down on such practices. "“They sent visiting shepherds out to talk to the teen girls,”" said Kristi, who was in Thailand when the shepherds arrived. “"They said if I felt something wasn’'t done to me in love, I could tell them about it. I told them.”The shepherds talked to Slown. Then they told me he was all better, and that I had to talk to him about it,"’’ Kristi said. “

"He said, ‘You feel like I'’ve done things that haven’'t been in love. But I love you, sweetie. Let’'s pray."  ”The abuse, Kristi said, did not end.
Phillip Slown holding Miriam (age approx 1yr) with Donna Marchbank. Michelle, Kerenina and Kristi are in foreground. Picture was taken sometime between 1981 (Miriam was born 3/15/81) and 1983.

Donna separated from Slown in 1990. Two years later, when Kristi was 16, Donna and her children settled down in Galva, a small town in Illinois. Donna was no longer a full-time missionary with the Family. Kristi was finally getting a taste of life in the real world. Her mom let her take a job in the local convenience store, where she met Alan, the store’'s 18-year-old assistant manager. "“He really liked me, and I started witnessing to him. He was a fundamentalist Christian, so we got along great. We were all gung-ho for the Bible and the Lord,’’" Kristi said. “"My mom'’s thing was to get him hooked. I started having sex with him and he freaked. He was a regular fundamentalist Christian." 

’’That’'s when Alan realized that his new girlfriend had grown up in the notorious cult called the Children of God. Alan'’s shocked family urged Kristi to leave the sect.

"“That was the first time I ever heard anyone talk that way about the group I’'d grown up in,”" she said. “"They explained what rape was, and I realized that was what had happened and why I felt so horrible about it." ’’Alan and Kristi moved to Chicago to live with Alan’'s sister, who encouraged her to find her biological father.“

"It wasn’'t until I was about 12 years old that I realized I even had a father out there,”" she said. “I didn'’t know his last name  r my last name— for a long time. All my mother would say is 'he was ‘of the devil.' ’ ”Working through other relatives, Kristi tracked down her father, Jim La Mattery, in San Diego —and discovered that he had been looking for her for 15 years. Jim sent Kristi a plane ticket and told her he’'d be carrying roses at the airport.

"“It was really busy coming out of the plane,"” she said. “"When I saw him, everything else around me disappeared. It was the first moment in my life that I remember feeling anything."

’’For Jim La Mattery, reuniting with his long-lost daughter was “like winning the California state lottery.” "“It was phenomenal,"” he said. "“Somehow, I always knew she would come of age, rebel against her mother and find me." ’’Soon after that 1993 reunion, Jim also reconnected with his older daughter, Kerenina, who was born two years before Kristi. Then, in 1997, one of Kristi’'s younger sisters, 16-year-old Miriam, went to San Diego to stay with Kristi. Kerenina, Kristi and Miriam are three of nine children born to Donna by seven different fathers between 1974 and 1992.

Miriam turned out to be too much for her sister Kristi to handle. The 16- year-old wound up living in several teen shelters in downtown San Diego, one of which brought her to the attention of child welfare workers with the San Diego County Department of Social Services. After interviewing family members, county social workers concluded that Miriam had been sexually abused by Phillip Slown from 1986 to 1990. In a March 3, 1998, report, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle, investigators also concluded that Miriam'’s mother sexually abused her by “having sex in front of the child” and telling her that she should “show men God’'s love” by having sex with them.

In her interview with child protective services in San Diego, Donna Slown denied that she knew of any sexual abuse of her children. But she admitted that “there was a lot of sexual freedom among the adults” in Children of God communes, and that “some people will make mistakes in large groups. ’’Donna Slown, now known as Donna Marchbank, declined to speak to The Chronicle. 

According to Kristi and Jim La Mattery, Donna still has close ties with the sect. Her current husband, Tom Marchbank, said his wife did not want to talk about the past. “"She is so hurt and has been through all that so much,"’’ he said. "“The story is so slanted their way. Half of that stuff is exaggerated.”"

After serving in the Army Reserves, Kristi moved to England and came to the realization that she was gay. Returning to the United States, she met a woman and moved to Minneapolis. Then, in January 2002, her brother Jeremy, 16, died of a drug overdose. Her sister, Miriam, had attempted suicide several times. Kristi decided to do something about it. She got a job with a support group for survivors of child abuse. ...

Eight days later, on Jan. 8, Ricky Rodriguez, the poster child for second- generation members of the Children of God, murdered a woman who'’d helped raise him and shot himself in the head. The Family was back in the news, and Kristi decided it was time to tell her story.“ "I'’ve now got another 16-year-old brother, and I want to get him out,"” she said. "“He’'s the same age as Jeremy was when he died. I couldn'’t live with myself if something happened to him.”"

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