Across America, a nomadic band quietly recruits brothers and sisters for the “true” church
SEATTLE — It is late on a hot July afternoon at Westlake Center, a downtown plaza where drifters and tourists lounge on benches shaded by alder trees. Shoppers stream into department stores as cafe patrons idle over rich brews and listen to the flutes of an Andean street ensemble.
Into this scene come two bearded young men clutching Bibles, ambling as if in slow motion. They are scruffy — not so unusual in grunge-hip Seattle — but they seem out of place, from another time. They wear dark knee-length tunics over long pants and billed caps tight about their heads. They seem fatigued and emotionless.
But they are obviously on a mission. This time it’s to engage a teen-age boy in intense discussion, passing around a Bible, exhorting him, presumably, to a higher path. On another day, they sit on a bench, stare blankly ahead and then read Bibles held close to their noses. And they pray, hands balled into fists pressed to their temples. When someone says “hello” to one of them, he looks away nervously. They get up, head to a busy sidewalk and drift away, like leaves in a stream.
These two young men are members of one of the most secretive religious groups in America, an underground band of nomadic Christians hewing to a radically literal interpretation of the King James Version of the Bible. They do not claim a formal name, other than perhaps “the Church.” Informally they are known as the Brothers, the Brothers and Sisters, or the Brethren. They believe they are the only “true” church in America, the end-times remnant of the church inspired by Jesus Christ and advanced by his earliest disciples.
They assiduously avoid the police, their parents and the media. To them, the world — and especially the United States — is a hopelessly wicked Babylon, its established churches little more than houses of deceit.
Their leader is Jim Roberts, a one-time Marine and Pentecostal preacher from Kentucky who established the group in 1971. He is known to members as “the Elder” or “Brother Evangelist.” He does not claim to be a deity, but is without question their all-powerful leader. He does not live extravagantly and there are no signs of the excesses of some other gurus: no fleet of Rolls Royces, no armed bodyguards, no public-relations apparatus churning out pro-Roberts spin. In fact, his behavior is downright Victorian. But important decisions — where members will roam next; whether and whom they will marry — all flow from him. Dissent is not tolerated and violators face excommunication, equated with losing one’s soul.
Members typically are idealistic youths plucked from college campuses all over America, from Harvard to Humboldt State on Califor-nia’s foggy north coast. They forsake all: family, material possessions, promising futures. In their wake, inevitably, are grieving, bewildered families.
Some join at a time of vulnerability.
Don Busweiler, 27, was shattered after breaking up with his girfriend. In June 1995, he gave up all he had to join the Brothers, and that was quite a lot — a Miami Beach clothing store called Animal Farm and the Pervert clothing line. He and his thriving South Beach business had been featured in several magazines, including Rolling Stone.
His mother, Gloria Poffenbarger, of Long Island, has searched for him, but “it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Other recruits think joining is fate fulfilled.
Jay Johnson, 30, dropped out of the Rhode Island School of Design nine years ago to become a Brother. In his last phone call to his mother, Henrietta Johnson, he related that finding a sleeping bag confirmed to him that becoming a traveling Brother was his destiny.
Like other parents, Henrietta Johnson, of Roxbury, Conn., began a disappointing quest to find her son. She spotted him once, in Oregon, but when he saw her “he just turned around on his bicycle and pedaled off.”
Today she’d settle for a call or a letter.
With families out of the way, Brothers and Sisters devote themselves to their new lives. It is not an easy path. They live celibately and by faith, rejecting not only material comforts, but basics like medical care.
They are expert scroungers, collecting mountains of edible food and supplies from places where most Americans discard things: Dumpsters, supermarket loading docks, restaurant trash bins. The media has used this practice to brand the group as the “Garbage Eaters,” something ex-members and parents alike say is offensive and inaccurate.
“We do get a lot of our sustenance out of garbage cans but we do not eat garbage,” says an ex-Brother known as Ger, who lives in Portland, Ore. Other ex-members say they were amazed at the sheer bulk of edible fare this nation thows away daily.
Ascetic and sincere, they envision themselves as direct descendants of the earliest Christians, a role they practice daily.
“In meeting them, in some ways it’s like walking into the Old Testament,” says Stan Avery, an ex-Brother who lives in coastal Oregon and helps former members re-enter society. Avery thinks the group has “remarkable flaws and remarkable attributes,” and admires many of the active members. “Most of the people in the group, if you met them you’d say to yourself, ‘If these people aren’t of God, I give up.’ “
The trick is meeting them.
“They are the most obscure and unobtainable group in America,” Avery says. “There have been innumerable cases of private investigators (hired by families) scouring the country trying to find them and not getting anything.”
Ex-members say there are about 10 “cells” of Brothers and Sisters, typically of 10 or fewer members, scattered in moving “camps” across the United States, with occasional forays into Canada and Mexico. These may be camps in the woods, or houses under renovation or big-city apartments. Resourceful Brothers sometimes find appropriate housing by identifying dormant houses, then tracking down the owners by scouring county property records. Sometimes, sympathetic landlords let the group live on their property in exchange for keeping watch and doing chores.
Cross-country communication is furtive and labyrinthine; senior Brothers contact Roberts through a network of general-delivery mail drops and pre-determined pay phones. (Roberts reportedly used New York City as his base earlier this year. Ex-members say New York appeals to Roberts because it is easy to blend in there, and because of the city’s large Hasidic population; the group admires Orthodox Jews, whom they believe will be reconciled with Jesus in the final days.)
Letters home from new recruits typically are postmarked in cities never visited by the recruit, but mailed instead by Brothers intent on throwing parents and private investigators off the scent.
Intrusions, especially by worldly institutions such as the media, are unwanted.
“The media persecute us,” says Joseph, a thirty-something Brother tracked down on Broadway in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district. A reporter notes that persecution followed the earliest Christians.
“And we’ll be persecuted to the very end,” Joseph retorts.
Tears well in Judy Wilcox’s eyes as she explains why she is a careful student of the Scriptures.
“I want to know what took our son away,” she says on the deck of her home overlooking the lush wheat fields of Montana’s Gallatin Valley.
Bart Wilcox was an athletic, idealistic, straight-A student who did not drink and who participated in high school track and football.
“We’re a tight family,” Judy says, “and he was always such a caring, giving son. If they can pull him away from his family, everybody is vulnerable.”
Bart, raised Protestant, was recruited on the steps of a Seattle church six years ago while on break from the University of Idaho in Moscow, where he was in the Tau Kappa Epsilon house.
Something appealed to him — something so powerful that he would forsake his family and all of his possessions.
Today, all that his parents and two sisters have to remind them of him are old photos, some letters, plus a box of books and clothes passed along by his roommates.
Judy and her husband, Larry, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, have these things in a room kept ready for Bart’s hoped-for return.
It is a sad task, explaining their loss, and difficult to discuss Bart for any length of time without having to battle their emotions.
Larry tries to be methodical, analytical. Unlike Judy, he does not scour the Scriptures for answers.
“I don’t think it’s a religious issue,” he explains. “It’s a mind-control issue. When you can take a whole bunch of men that are 18 to 26 and keep them celibate, you’ve got them by the brain. And if you don’t believe me you can ask the Army Training Command.”
Is it any comfort to Judy that her son thinks he’s living a virtuous life?
“I’m not comforted by what he’s doing,” she says. “I know he’s not out there doing drugs or stealing things. But I do think he’s leading a destructive lifestyle.”
“They only recruit good kids,” says Larry. “I’m sad they’re encouraging people to leave their families, leave their wives, leave their children. It ignores what Jesus said — ‘you just have to love me, believe in me.’ It’s a free gift.”
The full measure of the forces that converged to create the Elder and his rigid doctrine may be known only to Jim Roberts. But snapshots of his past suggest that he was shaped by a dogmatic belief system tempered by feelings of rejection and persecution.
Roberts was born into fierce Christian fundamentalism in the South. According to news reports in the 1970s, his native discipline was tempered in the Marines. A failed romance as a young man may have embittered him for life. And for the past quarter-century or so, he has lived in a nomadic state of paranoia, a trait likely born of the anti-cult fervor of the mid-1970s, when police and cult deprogrammers targeted his roving flock.
The beginnings, however, appear to have been ordinary and uneventful.
Roberts was born in Paris, Tenn., on June 15, 1939, and grew up in the western Kentucky river town of Paducah, the son of a part-time Pentecostal preacher. He took to preaching himself, perhaps as young as 15, and worked hard at his studies, after-school jobs and the track team.
He graduated in 1958 from Tilghman High School, 258th out of 269 seniors, news reports say.
Roberts joined the Marines in September 1958 and rose to sergeant. Some ex-members say he was a drill instructor; some private investigators say he was in supply. He was honorably discharged in July 1961.
In civilian life he worked as a beautician and managed a Chicago wig shop that catered to flight attendants. It was there that he was jilted by a Greek-American woman, and his life reportedly went topsy-turvy.
Whatever the cause, Roberts, like countless other Americans, dropped out in the mid-’60s, forging a deep distaste for American materialism. He evidently roamed the country, hooking up with like-minded people in the West. By 1971, he had assembled a small group who became the group’s elders. Ex-members say the Brothers and Sisters began as a radical offshoot of the Jesus Movement that sprang up in those turbulent times.
“It started out as a legitimate movement, to meet the needs of people that the churches weren’t meeting the needs of,” says Mark Richard, who joined in Berkeley at age 18 and spent the next seven years as a Brother.
But Roberts slowly “weaseled his way into control until next thing you knew he was running every aspect of your life. It just kind of got off track,” says Richard, who lives in Iowa.
There were signposts along the way that signaled why he was drawn to society’s fringes.
In the early ’70s, police raided a Brothers-Sisters camp at Oregon State University in Corvallis, jailing everyone. “That had a very real, dramatic, galvanizing effect on Roberts,” says ex-member Avery. “It cemented in his mind that they (police) were the enemy.”
In September 1975, a truck carrying 32 Brothers, Sisters and their children overturned outside Fayetteville, Ark., killing a baby. More trouble came the next month when police staged a predawn raid at a camp near Tucson, Ariz., looking for a man who had dropped out of pre-med studies at the University of Iowa to join the group. The man’s distraught wife tracked him to Arizona, where she convinced authorities to issue a missing-person warrant. He was handed over to a deprogrammer.
Roberts imposed new restrictions, including a ban on communication with parents. “It wasn’t his intention at first to be so hard-line,” says Alan Larson, a former member now living in San Diego. But “after you get slapped upside the head a few times you start avoiding the person slapping you.”
The rigid isolation continued, with shocked parents left to deal with abrupt separation.
In a Seattle coffeehouse in August 1996, Dale Hawkins, now 21, said goodbye to his mother, Dawn Todd, a public defender. “He told me he was going to join this group of Brothers,” she says, “but he wasn’t going to tell me where they were. I knew he had met these religious people who were there ‘witnessing’ and repairing bikes but I didn’t know that they were a cult.”
Stunned, Todd urged her son to think critically and beware of the leader’s motives. “He said, ‘Oh, there’s no leader.’ And I said, ‘Well, when you find out that that’s not true, I want you to remember what I told you.’ And that was pretty much it. We hugged each other goodbye and I haven’t seen him since.”
Last year, Patrick Rooney, a onetime competition skier with no evident interest in religion, dropped out of Humboldt State without a trace after the Brothers paid a visit to the area. His father, Charles “Mickey” Rooney, who lives near Boston, has made several trips West in search of the 23-year-old.
In July the senior Rooney went deep into the central Oregon wilderness to the Rainbow Family Gathering, a’60s-style back-to-the-earth annual festival that the Brothers and Sisters sometimes frequent. He found their camp — a long-shot given the sheer size of the event — but a Brother asked him to leave.
Rooney made a simple request: “If you see Patrick, could you ask him to call his mother?”
“I’ll pray about it,” the man said.
“I said, ‘What does that mean?’ And he said that meant if he saw Patrick he would pray to determine if God decided it was the right time to tell him that.”
Rooney left without seeing his son, but with a taste of the Brothers’ doctrine. “They believe they’re a step above us all, that they’re elite.”
Jim Guerra gives parents hope. He got out.
Today, he teaches seventh-grade English and lives on a tree-lined street in La Verne, a Los Angeles suburb, with his wife and their 4-year-old daughter.
But in 1976 he seemed lost to the world. As a freshman at Harvard, he met some Brothers who had dropped in on a student Bible study meeting. Lured by their “highly appealing” call to forsake all worldly goods and live by faith, he dropped out of school and hit the road, believing the Brothers’ contention that the prestigious aura of Harvard “is an abomination in the sight of God.”
Guerra tossed his glasses into a snowbank, having faith that God would give him good sight if He willed it. For the next decade, Guerra tramped across America, living in safe houses and wooded camps, hitting big cities and college towns in search of new recruits: UMass. Penn State. University of Michigan. New York. Dallas. Cincinnati. Kansas City. Santa Barbara. Portland. Seattle. Even Juarez, Mexico.
“I’m the only man who’s hitchhiked 100,000 miles and not seen the country,” he says, alluding to his vision.
By quantitative standards, Guerra was a recruiting flop, drawing only two recruits in 10 years. He comforted himself by noting that just eight people escaped the biblical flood on Noah’s ark.
Asked how the group gets by, its members said: “We live by faith.”
Where do you live? Quoting the Bible, Guerra said: “The foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Guerra conformed to the group norm, ending sentences with “Lord willing” or “Praise God” and referring to Jesus as Yeshua and God as Elohim. He suppressed his sense of humor and avoided chitchat, regarded as “vain babbling.”
He also learned to keep his libido in check. They were often in the company of Sisters, but even social intercourse was discouraged. Sisters wore long, plain dresses, diverted their gaze to the ground and were meek and servile, content to cook and sew for the Brothers.
Despite the sterile existence, Guerra managed to fall in love a couple of times. But Roberts strung him along, delaying an answer on whether he could marry, even concocting love-triangle tensions, playing Guerra’s affections off two Sisters in a game Guerra believes was designed to scuttle his marriage hopes.
Roberts turned against marriage, ex-members say, because marriage and family threatened the order of things. Once members married, their loyalties tended to shift from the group to their spouses. When babies came along, member attention shifted yet further. By the late 1970s, Roberts virtually banned marriage, a move that has cost him in attrition.
Guilt, fear and intimidation drove the group, Guerra says. Several times in his decade-long odyssey, Guerra would grab his few belongings in panic and scurry into the woods, or out the back doors of safe houses, to evade parents and police (he called them “centurions”).
Guerra and others suffered health problems, which were to be cured by faith, not modern medicine; he had a severe mite infection that plagued him for months. When one Brother became feverish and ill, there was no trip to the hospital. Untreated, he died of pneumonia, prompting Roberts to urge followers to dress warmly in winter — hardly a potent weapon against bacterial infection.
Still, Guerra has fond memories — the kindness of strangers and a bracing sense of freedom — chronicled in his book manuscript, written since he left the group. An excerpt:
“… we were delivered from the responsibilities and pressures that full participation in the economic system of America create. No mortgage, because we turtled our homes on our backs. No medical insurance, because God was our Healer. No fear of being fired from our jobs and suffering financial ruin, because we had not (sic)jobs and we were already financially ruined!”
Their greatest fear: “drifting away from God and being cut off from His Church.”
Guerra did drift away after taking to heart another Christian group’s criticism of Roberts’ doctrine. He delved into the Bible and conducted library research, eventually producing a 20-page list of contradictions to the Brothers’ doctrine. He took them to Roberts, who tried to escape Guerra’s intellectual dragnet by claiming he never taught the doctrine in question and by accusing Guerra of being prideful and arrogant.
Convinced he had been duped by a “paranoid megalomaniac,” Guerra quit. Then, bucking a decade of training, he called his mother to say he was coming home.
“Thank God,” she said. “I was so worried about your soul.”
The work of the Brothers and Sisters continues as the century draws to a close.
On Broadway in Seattle, two bearded men — one of them a Brother, the other an associate — approach two teens waiting for their ride home outside Dick’s Deluxe Burgers, where a loud orange sign touts “1/4-pound 100% Beef” burgers.
It is late afternoon in this festive neighborhood, its sidewalks filled with young people on foot, on bikes and on skateboards. At one end of the street is a community college. At the other are record stores, copy shops, cheap restaurants — all the trappings of a modern world rejected by the Brothers and Sisters.
Do you read the Bible?
Yes, the teens reply.
Which books are their favorite? Psalms and Proverbs.
The men talk for 35 minutes.
Then, the boys’ ride arrives. They pick up their skateboards, say goodbye and hop into a car.
Bibles in hand, the two men mount their bikes and pedal off in the fading daylight.
Nov. 10, 1997
Phillip J. Lavelle and Sandi Dolbee