"...whatsoever ye have said in the darkness shall be heard in the light ..." - Luke 12:3
I remember the first time I contemplated joining Jesus People USA, one of the last of the intentional communities started as part of the 1970's Jesus Movement.
I was sitting inside the Cornerstone Music Festival, a Chicago area Christian music festival launched by Jesus People USA in 1984, surrounded by thousands of similarly inspired rock n' roll/punk rock/alternative music loving Christians and we all basked in the glow of a weekend that resonated with our hearts and in being surrounded by people who didn't care what we looked like or what emotional or physical scars we had.
I was a Christian or, at the very least, I was a Jesus lovin' young man who wanted desperately to be a Christian and to belong to someone or something. I wanted this feeling that I was feeling at the Cornerstone Music Festival to be a part of my everyday life, but I was absolutely terrified of it.
I was a burden. I knew I was a burden.
I was a young man struggling to live independently as a paraplegic with spina bifida. When I was at Cornerstone, I didn't feel "disabled." I didn't even feel different.
I was a sexual abuse survivor who craved safety and family and compassion and care.
I was a Christian who had already been failed by my childhood church, Jehovah's Witnesses, a church that had failed to protect me when I needed them most and that had swept under the rug experiences that I still cannot forget.
I never acted on that desire to join Jesus People USA. I was too much of a burden. I required too much care. I saw myself as too scarred and too wounded and too damaged even for this place that had a respected and widely acknowledged history of accepting and embracing some of society's most vulnerable people.
"Eventually, I stopped crying out for help because it didn't help." - Sveeah, A Survivor of Sexual Abuse from JPUSA
Of the approximately 120 people who lived at JPUSA as children that No Place to Call Home writer/director Jaime Prater contacted about their past, 72 reported experiencing sexual abuse while living within the religious sect.
No Place to Call Home is unflinching in its honest yet compassionate portrayal JPUSA, a community that Prater still professes to love and consider his home. The film started out more as a personal reflection on what it was like to grow up in such a repressive religious community, yet as Prater began reaching out to others like himself he began to hear testimony after testimony after testimony about having experienced sexual abuse from those who'd formerly lived within the community.
This is not the first controversy to visit the community. As early as 1994, author and Westmont College sociologist Ron Enroth's book "Recovering From Churches That Abuse" documented stories of spiritual abuse among past JPUSA members, stories that were staunchly denied by JPUSA members and its governing council. In 2001, the Chicago Tribune revisited the same subject when it reported upon the authoritarian leadership of JPUSA. Again, the allegation was staunchly denied.
It was in 2009 that No Place to Call Home first surfaced as a crowdfunding project on the Kickstarter platform. No Place to Call Home, after five years in the making, now alleges that an estimated 150 children were fondled, molested, raped, or otherwise sexually abused while living at JPUSA from 1974 - 2004. In January, one of the survivors in the film, Atlanta based pastry chef Heather Kool, filed a civil lawsuit against JPUSA and the Evangelical Covenant Church, the latter being a movement of over 800 congregations in the United States and Canada with which JPUSA aligned itself in 1989. Kool seeks a fairly modest $100,000 in damages, though it remains to be seen how many others may eventually join her in a wider class action now that the allegations have gone public and so many testimonies are publicly known.
The allegations, assuming their truth and it's pretty difficult to fathom 70+ co-conspirators, range from over-the-clothing intimate and inappropriate touch to acts that can be described as nothing short of rape. In an article on the "Slow Church" blog, Christopher Smith speaks eloquently and accurately to the kind of environment that allowed such actions to occur and even multiply. Smith points towards a failure of leadership, in the case of JPUSA a long-standing governing council who are named but not heard from in the film, to appropriately respond to allegations of abuse and, as well, to fundamentally ignore their legal requirement to report allegations of abuse. An environment was fostered where children were not only not always believed, but they were often dismissed and punished for their disparaging lies. Even when they were believed, discipline towards offenders was often handled internally rather than through legal channels and often did not include removing alleged perpetrators from positions of responsibility with children.
Smith also writes about JPUSA's intensely cramped quarters and, as well, of the mission of JPUSA as potentially contributing factors to how the community could foster a potentially abusive environment. While it was an original vision that the plurality of the governing council would avoid such authoritarianism as is now being alleged, JPUSA, which remains an active community with approximately 400 members, has long possessed a mission of radical hospitality towards many of those society often rejects including those with mental illness, those with addiction issues, those without homes and others. At least two cases are documented in the film of known sex offenders living within JPUSA whose access to children was not restricted.
Smith's article addresses one final area that is addressed often within the film itself, an early but now abandoned practice within the community of separating children from their parents. Smith himself documents this practice as one of the reasons he ultimately avoided a deeper involvement with JPUSA, and this practice is cited throughout the film as a factor in incidents of molestation perpetrated by those left in charge. Additionally, this practice greatly hindered the potential for reporting abuse because the parent relationship was minimized in favor of a more communal approach.
JPUSA's current leadership is not present in the film and, likely as a result of pending litigation, have chosen not to speak publicly regarding the allegations. No Place to Call Home also presents three specific allegations towards Johnny Herrin, son of the JPUSA founder who was himself cast out of the group because of abusive actions. There is the presence of some former leadership within the film, and while there are clearly those whose testimonies are tinged with anger and resentment there's also a surprising amount of love, compassion, and hopefulness contained within the stories.
There are times when watching a film such as No Place to Call Home when it feels like one is watching a wrecking ball crashing into its intended target time and time again. Prater deserves much credit for having crafted a film that seems far more aimed at hope and healing than it does as judging and destroying. There are those who testify and who seem to clearly cling to JPUSA's idealized visions about communal living and serving others and who seem to still hold out hope that JPUSA can pull out its weeds, both individuals and unhealthy practices, and become a blossoming garden.
In terms of the filmmaking itself, Prater has crafted a compelling and intelligent film that puts the stories and the people behind the stories up front. He has given people room to breathe and, as well, he has beautifully presented those occasions where people chose not to appear on screen. While there were a couple occasions where it felt like Prater integrated himself into someone else's testimony just a bit too much, it never feels like that integration skews the story being told.
Music for the film is served up by Judson Hurd, Ben Woods, Slighter, and Wise Old River and it's all used in such a way that it complements the stories being told and helps the film move along at a pace that makes the at times difficult to hear stories appear to be not quite so jarring.
For those, like myself, who are concerned with creating safe and healthy churches, No Place to Call Home is a mandatory view. For those who are survivors of sexual abuse, the film is recommended with a strong notation that it should be considered a film that is likely to trigger your own flashbacks and memories.
For more information on No Place to Call Home, visit the film's website and consider a purchase of the film as it supports a courageous and bold filmmaker and the many survivors whose stories are being revealed.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic