John de Ruiter: Man of vision, or …?

Some think John de Ruiter’s teachings are dangerous

Grandmas mix with middle-aged professionals and little kids. People mill between the seats, surrounded by 40-foot marble pillars and a roof accented by crystal chandeliers. It could be a church five minutes before service, though there’s no pulpit on stage, just a table, some flowers and a chair.

The people who run this building would tell you John de Ruiter is a “philosopher,” not a guru or religious cult leader. His website, which trumpets the recent construction of the $1.7-million building on 177 Street, even cautions he’s not there to solve problems, just to offer “core-splitting” truth.

It doesn’t stop people from seeking advice, as they’ve done for a decade. They fly from across the globe to pay homage – and cash – to de Ruiter, a Jesus type in a suit. His outing by media as a marital cheat five years ago didn’t visibly dent his popularity.

In the crowd is “Anne.” A few months back, her boyfriend would’ve sat next to her. But he returned to the U.S. West Coast alone and spends his time trying to coax her back. He has proposed, but no longer thinks marriage is realistic. But he tries because he loves her. Dave thinks John de Ruiter’s teachings could be dangerous. He isn’t alone.

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Health problems and curiosity brought Dave to Edmonton, common among de Ruiter’s followers. He’d seen de Ruiter at a U.S. meeting, one of dozens around the world annually.

“It was almost like there was an energy radiating from him,” Dave recalls. “He didn’t seem to really say anything that made much sense, but he just had this presence that made you want to come back and figure it out.”

Dave had supported other charismatic spiritualists. “Vincent Bugliosi, the lawyer, once said of Charles Manson’s followers that if you looked into their eyes, you could tell they were true believers. That’s kind of what it was like,” he says. “The people, they hung on John’s every word.”

Anne was one of the most devoted, he says. They hit it off immediately, and a relationship followed. “I felt like I’d maybe found some of the answers I’d been looking for my entire life and the woman I loved at the same time.”

Weeks later, Dave was beside himself. He’d given up his life to devote it to a man he thought could be a prophet. He’d asked questions, but the answers to him and others from de Ruiter seemed garbled, useless. He felt he had nothing left.

“There wasn’t any substance to him, but she insisted on staying. I listened and he talked. People asked questions and he talked, or he’d just sit and ignore them. But nothing he said ever made much sense.”

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De Ruiter was a Catholic as a child but joined the Lutheran Church in adulthood and studied to become a pastor. Known within the church as having an uncommon fervour, de Ruiter once gave testimony – an accounting of religious experiences – to the church’s board of directors for nine straight hours.

A few years earlier, at 17, he claimed a revelation. De Ruiter has said he was overcome by bliss-like peace that led to a full year of happiness and certainty. In an effort to reclaim the sensation, he started studying alternate religions and philosophies, and eventually left Christianity

By 1994, the shoestore worker met Boots Beaudry, an ex-army medic and clerk turned spiritualist. Beaudry saw de Ruiter’s effect on people, and believed his claim of tapping a wellspring of inner truth.

She’d hidden her interest in mysticism while in the army for fear of ridicule, but opened her Whyte Avenue clinic to de Ruiter for public meetings.

His following grew to hundreds. Larger, rented venues followed. He also started lecturing outside Alberta, charging hundreds of dollars for four-day “retreats” and attracting followers – some quite wealthy – who moved to Edmonton. One couple, businessman Peter Von Sass and his wife Ilona, moved to the city from Calgary to be near de Ruiter and invited their daughters, Benita and Katrina, into the fold. Others came from Britain, Germany and Australia.

Initially, de Ruiter denied to his wife, Joyce, that he was sleeping with the sisters. Eventually he admitted it and sought her acceptance, she says, claiming his “ultimate truth” had OK’d it. Many followers accepted it, but Joyce publicly rejected him. Five years later, the bitterness continues.

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“What John talks about is staying within what you know to be true,” says Beaudry. We’re in a diner near her clinic. She’s out of the inner circle, but still reveres de Ruiter.

“Let’s say you’re in pain. If you stay within what you know to be true, that means you don’t make it more than what it is and you don’t make it less than what it is. You just let it be.”

Beaudry joined up with de Ruiter after leaving the military. She’d been a medic during the Edmonton tornado in 1987 and decided the military was not a safe occupation.

With just three years left until her pension, she opted out. At the same time, she believed she could see forms of energy around people. New-age healing beckoned.

She says de Ruiter’s philosophy is to look for answers within, a capital-T “Truth,” uncluttered by human convention or experience. She supports his contention his inner truth told him he wasn’t cheating when he slept with the sisters, even though he’d counselled his followers against infidelity.

“I don’t think it’s right, some of the stuff that he has done, but that doesn’t mean to say it’s not true,” she says.

I suggest that listening only to your heart without considering others could be a recipe for selfishness.

“Ah, but if you’re walking with a hardness of heart towards yourself or anyone else, it just doesn’t work,” she says.

“When you’re walking with an open hand, it’s like … it’s like with Benita: I knew that was coming long before it actually happened, and long before I talked to him about it.

“And I said to him, ‘This is not right.’ And he said, ‘This is not what you think it is.’ He didn’t say whether he was messing with her. He’s talking from the inside, from that place of honesty. Honesty and truth are not the same things as morality.”

Isn’t “honesty,” at someone else’s expense, selfish? I ask.

“Yes,” she says simply. “But it’s a wonderful selfishness. And we should all be more selfish. If I’m paying more attention to what someone else wants or what they believe is true to them, then what about what I want?”

Selflessness, she says, is a waste of time. “What good will you do? You’re not going to change anything. The people who might’ve been hurt will still be hurt by something else.”

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De Ruiter’s claim of offering philosophy, not guidance, is considered even by some supporters a legal manoeuvre. At least one, a B.C. man with pre-existing mental health issues, committed suicide prior to de Ruiter placing warnings on his website.

There’s no suggestion that attending the meetings played any role in the man’s death, but when a man’s allegedly answering some of life’s great questions, it pays to be careful.

“People reveal their souls to him, their deepest secrets and their greatest anxieties,” says Dr. Stephen Kent, a cult expert at the University of Alberta. “And he responds in ways that give direction to them.

“The practical consequence of his teachings is that people will continue to bond with him, first and foremost. So people who support him date together, live together, socialize and party and bring the kids.

“Despite the fact that his teachings have a highly individualistic dimension, the practical consequence is that he’s building a community around himself.

“What’s interesting about John’s message is that there doesn’t seem to be an emphasis on social action. I’ve never heard anything about helping to develop a sense of self by doing charitable work, by helping society.”

Though Kent says that could be dangerous, he also notes that people might find enough comfort in the procedure of opening up to de Ruiter to stave off problems for a while.

It’s a lucrative trade-off. Beaudry concedes z’s following – which happily purchases his dozens of DVD and audiotape lectures -has raised a lot of money.

“People would hand him envelopes stuffed thick with cash. He talked about building a community where people could explore philosophical truth together, getting a big piece of land where people could build homes,” says Beaudry. Then she laughs.

“I told him ‘John, make sure you don’t call it Jonestown’ and he just laughed at that,” she says. “I think some of the others were offended but I’ve never worried too much about them. I told him, ‘Don’t go serving any Kool-Aid.’ “

To the outside observer, Anne’s loyalty and Boots’s certainty may seem puzzling.

What would compel people to drop everything and follow a man claiming to embody truth without proof? To give him money, adoration and support?

But it’s not uncommon. In fact, science may soon explain why humans seem compelled to support spiritual beliefs despite overwhelmingly contrary evidence that they are irrational.

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Over the next four days this series will explore why we ridicule others’ beliefs but hold on to our own, why such beliefs can be both beneficial and dangerous, and why, ultimately, human beings will nearly always be able to accept what comforts them over harsh realities.

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