Because of its liberal attitude to sex, the Family International, has been baptised ‘the sex cult’ by the Western media. But the group insists it is a religious movement living according to the law of love. They talked to Esther Namugoji and Henry Lubega.
The Family International has been baptised ‘the sex cult’ by the media in the West, chiefly because of its liberal attitude toward sex. It has issues with the ‘cult’ label. They identify themselves as a new religious movement and insist that they live according to the law of love.
Others still refer to it as a child sex cult, although the group asserts that any sexual incidents between adults and children were isolated and that since 1987, any sexual contact with minors has been an excommunicable offence.
Founded 40 years ago, by David Brandt Berg (Moses David or Mo), the movement has traded names from ‘The Children of God’ to ‘The Family of Love’ and then ‘The Family International’ or simply ‘The Family’. The group spread over 100 countries, living in communal homes where everything is shared, including sex. Although Berg died in 1994, the group continues under the leadership of his wife Karen Zerby (Mama Maria).
A book published last year by three former second generation members has revived interest in the Family. Not Without My Sister tells the story of Celeste and Kristina Jones and Juliana Buhring who were separated from their father, mothers and one another at the whim of Family leadership. They were switched from home to home, finding and then losing each other in a confusing maze they had no control over.
The authors of the book tell of being raised in communal homes, according to the strange decrees of Berg. Berg, known to adult members as Dad and Grandpa to the children, ruled through letters called Mo Letters. Rules included memorising Bible verses, a lot of housework, witnessing in the streets to win converts.
Begging for food is one of the things they found difficult. There were sessions for outings and playtime and school time, according to a Family-created home education system. Failure to obey elders or any perceived insubordination almost always resulted in severe corporal punishment and labour, or sessions reading Mo Letters and Bible verses. Celeste also tells of being locked up in solitary confinement as one of the extreme punishments meted on teenage children seen to have a rebellious spirit.
The official Family position is that a few individuals misused their authority and misapplied the law of love.
Many of the publications in which Berg glorified sex were destroyed in what was called the ‘Pubs Purge’ and new rules instituted. Sexual sharing among adults, however, is one of the things that the Family still permits.
The authors say their father was always called away to serve in World Services, the inner circle of the group’s leadership which often lived in secret locations. Because of the tight security around the leaders, the children went years without seeing their father. They document their struggle to get out of the oppressive Family.
The father of the Jones girls has been living in Uganda since 1998. One of the girls spent about seven years here and her experiences written in the book cast the spotlight on the Family’s activities in Uganda.
The Ugandan Chapter of the Family falls under two main organisations — RadioActive Productions headed by Simon Peterson and one Kathleen and Family Care Uganda (FCU) headed by one Robin.
Last December, Sunday Vision visited the Family home in a Kampala suburb. Peterson is smartly dressed, except for a little oddity; on closer scrutiny, it turns out that the socks on his feet do not match. He is a successful audio producer and he presents ‘Night Light’ on Alpha FM, a Christian radio station owned by Victory Christian Centre, Ndeeba. He also championed Nu Beat on several stations around the country.
RadioActive studios produced Juliana Kanyomozi’s You’re My Centre, a song written by Peterson’s daughter Celeste.
RadioActive worked closely with Richard Kaweesa on the music for Miss Uganda 2003 and other productions. Peterson has also acted with Kampala Amateur Dramatics Society along with his daughter Juliana. Peterson also entertains children at parties. In the book Not Without My Sister, he is referred to as Christopher Jones, but Peterson told Sunday Vision that the girls used a pseudonym to protect him. At a later meeting, he said that those were his original names, before he took on the name Simon Peter when he became a member of the Children of God. He has used other names though.
Peterson says the Family is not a cult, but a Christian group that follows the Bible.
“To call us a cult is absolute lies. The word cult has become a purgative word to persecute Christians. They start with the small groups and then on to bigger groups.
“We believe in communal groups just like the Israel Kibbutz system where everything was shared. They share their children, clothes and there’s complete sexual sharing. We believe this is how Christians should live and it is how many of them are in Africa, Asia and Arabia live in extended families and that is very godly. It is not like in the West where people are selfish. If a father is called away, the others just pitch in, there are always other adults. It is the Biblical model in Acts 4,” Peterson explains the unique communal living arrangements. With this biblical model, anybody can be a father to a child.
“People adopt children. A child needs both a mother and a father and for fathers to just get up and leave is wrong. They should sacrifice their own ideas for the children.” This statement contradicts the earlier one, but Peterson states that the Family raises healthy, happy and talented children.
Peterson initially declines to discuss Not Without My sister, saying it would affect his relationship with his daughters. “They received a lot of money to publish the book. I don’t understand how anyone can do something like this,” he says.
Peterson says accusations of sexual abuse in the Family are false. Each individual community is responsible for its own work. Kathleen emphasises that members of the homes carry out evaluation every six months to make sure they are on the right track.
“We are made of people, imperfect people. It was never meant for the law of love to be applied the way it was. As soon as Berg found out that the law was being abused, he put a stop to it.”
Peterson says the Loving Jesus doctrine, which encourages sexual liberties and imagining one is making love to Jesus, is optional. “It is a personal thing and purely voluntary. We have controversial doctrines, but we don’t propagate them here because some people can’t handle them. But we are not the first group to refer to Jesus as our husband. The Bible is full of such imagery. Sexual feelings are not sinful. We take a positive view of sex.”
Juliana Buhring, in her story, alleges that most of the charity work is done to maintain the fac,ade of a good Christian organisation. She claims that photos were taken to be used to ask for more donations and that many times they used some of the donated items, while the rest that could not be used were given out.
Robin denies these allegations. “We do not get money, just goods. We have many good people who give tonnes of stuff, useful things and it is all going out to those who need them. We do not keep any of it for ourselves.”
Kathleen adds: “We are using particularly radio to teach Christians to love Jesus and to be effective witnesses and the chain goes on. To imply that we are trying to use these things ourselves is absolutely not true. We don’t have any ulterior motives; if we were selfish, we would not be doing all the work that we do.”
However, they argue that it is not unusual for missionaries to sustain themselves by the donations they receive. Through the donations, FCU gives food, clothing, books and other necessities to children’s homes and other needy people.
The Family painted Mulago Hospital children’s ward some years ago. They also visited the remote Ik tribe in northeastern Uganda and donated items, including hand-cranked radios, so they could listen to the Bible recorded in their language.
On a second visit, Sunday Vision interacted with two young members of the group who represent the fresh face of the Family.
Malaika, born to a Nigerian father and an Indian mother, is proud of the things she has been able to do as a member of the group.
Besides getting to see many parts of the world, she has helped in free medical camps in Nigeria, Senegal and the DR Congo. Malaika and Rajan, a young Indian from Canada, both assert that they were brought up well.
Peterson explains that the group’s only motive is to bless Ugandans and they are not interested in controversies. Even on the second visit, he is wearing socks that do not match. It is difficult to resist the temptation to draw a parallel between the socks and the Family.
From a casual glance, one would think the Family is just another Christian missionary group. But closer scrutiny would reveal many differences.
They admit the oddities of their group, but explain that they are not in Uganda to promote those unique practices because they recognise that our society is different.
“Not everyone is called to be different,” Kathleen explains. “A communal life is not easy. There is nothing individual.” After a local newspaper printed a review of Not Without My Sister, Peterson met Sunday Vision again. He maintained that the girls made up most of the details to make it more sensational.
He had found old pictures and hand-made cards that his daughters had sent him when they were younger, to prove that they were not angry children then. The letters and pictures showed that they loved him and were happy. There are photos of the girls visiting relatives, contrary to the view that they were not allowed contact with each other. There are photographs of Celeste and Juliana in Uganda.
According to Peterson, they were happy until they met ‘apostates’ who made them see the Family differently.
“First of all the book cover is a lie. Those sad looking girls are not my girls. You would not find any kids in the Family looking like that. Secondly, that they were miserable is a lie. After meeting with bitter people, they reinterpreted their past experience, which is a psychological phenomenon that scholars have studied.”
He says he will set up a website with all the evidence that they were not miserable in the Family as they say in the book.
Celeste, he notes, was a talented musician who wrote beautiful songs and poems. Juliana lived with foster parents whom she was so attached to, that she cried when she had to leave them. She was with foster parents because as a single father, he could not take good care of her.
“She was with Celeste in Thailand — it was like a boarding school — and that is where she learnt to be as smart and talented as she is. Juliana was very popular here in Uganda as part of the Radioactive dancers and even after she left, she worked here for two years at Club Rouge and Mamba Point. She was happy and had an active social life. As far as I know, she never suffered any abuse. She basically spiced up her story to fit in with the rest of the stories,” he says.
Peterson says he cannot say Kristina was not abused because she was not in his custody. He says the stepfather whom she accused of sexually abusing her sent him a video apologising to him.
“He said: ‘I don’t deny that I had inappropriate contact with her, but it was very mild, just fatherly love.’ He swore to me that it was nothing like she described. It was in her interest to make the story juicy.”
Peterson reiterates that such behaviour was corrected long time ago and such people excommunicated, never to be readmitted. In the book, it appears that Kristina’s abuser was not excommunicated like Family rules state, but moved to different communes around the world, under different names as often happens in the group. Peterson says this man was doing missionary work in Kenya recently, but has left the Family.
Peterson states that Kristina is always there, when a witness against the Family is needed and in the media. He says her perception of Family homes is not based on current life since she left the home when she was 12. Her sisters left at 25 and 27 years, yet they were free to leave from 16 years. He believes they were instigated by Kristina and other people.
“We’ve nothing to hide. There is nothing sinister. This is a trial by the media and that’s unfair. I do nothing illegal. We have got to stand up and show the truth,” says Peterson.
That truth is constantly under attack by former members who maintain that the founder abetted unchristian practices that may still be practised today. How did David Brandt Berg start a contentious revolution that has survived 40 years?
• Original Title: Living by the law of love