Cult announces comeback plans at conference of cult apologists
It’s a time of intense self-scrutiny for the Family International (formerly known as the Children of God), a tiny Christian fellowship that advocates communal living, extramarital sex and an apocalyptic worldview.
Some 40 years after David Berg, a charismatic evangelical preacher, garnered thousands of hippie followers in Southern California with his messages about sharing bodies, food, children and homes, the movement is struggling to reinvent itself. The 1960s church has battled allegations of past child sexual abuse, complaints from disaffected and aging members and dissatisfaction with an outdated theology.
All new religious groups face essentially the same question if they hope to endure: How do you revise some teachings and practices for wider appeal without forsaking the faith’s unique identity and unconventional doctrines?
“Many desire to see innovation, professionalization and modernization,” Karen “Maria” Zerby, one of the Family’s spiritual and administrative leaders, said last week in her first-ever public address. “We must determine what elements of our theology, culture and context are rooted in the past and no longer hold relevance.”
Zerby, who was Berg’s wife and his successor after his death in 1994, shared her plans for reshaping the Family at the annual meeting of the Center for the Study of New Religions in Salt Lake City.
This is no small task for Zerby and her co-leader, Steve Kelly (who goes by “Peter Amsterdam”). The Family now has about 15,000 members gathered in small communal centers in 90 nations — none in Utah.
There is a core group of followers, including some second- and third-generation members, but fewer than 20 percent of the original participants remain, and many of the those are in poor health with no medical insurance or retirement plans.
The church made headlines in 2005 when Zerby’s son, Ricky Rodriguez, murdered Angela Smith, his former nanny and confidante of his mother, and then shot himself. Rodriguez blamed the Family for ruining his life.
That’s all behind us, said two public-affairs representatives for the church who were in Salt Lake City for the conference.
“We acknowledge that mistakes were made and that there were excesses,” said Claire Borowik, who has been with the Family International for 30 years. “We’ve taken stringent measures to right those wrongs and apologized to former members.”
Thus, she said, “we find it disheartening for people to focus so much on the past.”
Zerby’s speech in Utah was part of the Family’s coming-out party, said Utah attorney Michael Homer, one of the conference sponsors.
“The Family has made a decision to begin constructing a more public profile,” he said. “It plans to enhance its Internet presence and adapt its message to the cultures in which it lives. It also plans to open the membership to persons who are not full-time missionaries and do not want to necessarily commit their entire day to Family activities. This may include allowing members to live outside homes and not participate in communal living.”
• Learn more about The Family International
• CESNUR, the organization at whose conference The Family announced its plans, is known for its support of a wide variety of cults ranging from relatively benign to destructive. Among cult experts interested in helping people leave — or avoid — cults, CESNUR is known as an organization of cult apologists.
• Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge