Dignitaries’ Visits Prompt Complaints on Quiet Street
The burglar slipped in through the unlocked French doors without a sound and made his way carefully through the Arlington home, finally discovering what he had come for — a bottle of prescription painkillers in an out-of-the-way storage cabinet. Leaving jewelry and other valuables untouched, he vanished without a trace.
In fact, he was so meticulous that Paul Rusinko would not have known his home had been broken into but for a handwritten note the penitent burglar left in his mailbox a few days later: “My name is James Hammond . . . and I entered your home this past Wednesday and stole some prescription painkillers,” the thief scrawled. “I am very sorry, and I ask for your forgiveness. I am turning myself into the Arlington police today.”
A string of four break-ins in late August surprised many in Rusinko’s quiet, affluent Woodmont neighborhood in North Arlington. But residents were even more surprised when they learned that the culprit — who pleaded guilty to two of the burglaries last month — was a resident of one of two group homes owned by the Fellowship, a religious organization that has, since 1978, run a secluded spiritual retreat called the Cedars at the end of their block.
The Fellowship, best known for its National Prayer Breakfast every February, is described by backers as a loosely knit group of friends who advise the rich and powerful on the teachings of Jesus Christ.
In its mission to create global harmony, the Fellowship has for decades quietly brought together Third World leaders, disgraced captains of industry, members of Congress and ambassadors for talks at an imposing white mansion that sits on a hill overlooking the Potomac River. Pop star Michael Jackson was a guest last year.
More than 16 Fellowship families have moved into homes around the Cedars’ dead-end street, forming a tight-knit enclave that prays, socializes and home-schools its children together.
The Woodmont neighborhood has long been divided into “Cedars people” and “non-Cedars people.” But once news of the burglaries hit, the non-Cedars people were incensed, charging the organization with running group homes for transient and troubled young people without proper permits.
Richard Carver, the Fellowship foundation’s president, does not deny that Ivanwald, a male-only house, and Potomac Point, a nearby house for women, meet the county’s definition of group homes. That is, more than four unrelated people live in each.
But the organization never applied for the necessary special-use permit from the county, he said, because the Fellowship got informal approval decades ago to establish two homes on the street.
Susan I. Bell, Arlington’s planning director, said the county never gave the group approval to operate the two homes. The county is trying to determine what steps to take and is working with the Fellowship to resolve the matter, she said.
“What are they trying to hide?” asked former Woodmont Civic Association president Rose Kehoe. “If they’re doing so many good things for mankind, leading these young kids to Jesus, why can’t they get a zoning [permit] and follow the rules?”
Other neighbors say they think they know the answer.
“They’re obsessed with secrecy and want it to remain private,” said Barbara Feinman Todd, who teaches journalism at Georgetown University and lives on the street.
The recent neighborhood flap has shone an uncomfortably bright spotlight on a group with no official headquarters and members flung out across the globe, who carry no cards or literature and say they prefer to remain invisible, keeping their charitable work anonymous, just as Christ taught.
“We don’t keep secrets. We’re not a secret organization. We’re very open,” said Carver, a former assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration.
“But we don’t want publicity and news stories and that kind of stuff . . . that damages our ability to get things accomplished.”
From its origins as a civic prayer group in Seattle in the 1930s, the organization spawned prayer gatherings in cities in the United States and throughout the world, including on Capitol Hill, where its flagship event is the National Prayer Breakfast. The breakfast, attended by every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, is a major political event organized by the Fellowship with prayer and speeches from such luminaries as Mother Teresa.
Neighbors say they are a little scared of the organization, which claims $11 million in annual revenue and was dubbed a “Christian Mafia” by one former member. It is unofficially headquartered at the Cedars and seems to have its hand in every branch of government.
Among its members are prominent senators and representatives, as well as Bush administration officials. A sister organization to the Fellowship runs a boarding house and religious retreat center for eight congressmen, known as the C Street Center, on Capitol Hill.
Woodmont residents have long complained that chauffeurs bringing dignitaries to the 8 a.m. Tuesday ambassadors’ breakfasts at the Cedars zoom in and out at dangerous speeds. The county installed speed bumps in 2001 in response to residents’ complaints.
“There’s something about this whole thing that gives me unease,” said Jim Pebley, past president of the Arlington County Civic Federation. “Limos and national heavies running in and out of there at all times of the day and night. You have to wonder, what the heck is going on?”
Rusinko, for example, says he was menaced by machine-gun toting security officers on his street during Yasser Arafat’s visit to the Cedars in 1999.
For the most part, however, neighbors say that they have coexisted peacefully with the organization since leader Doug Coe and other Fellowship officials plunked down $1.2 million in 1978 to buy the Cedars. Coe had been looking for a roomy sanctuary in the Washington area for out-of-town dignitaries, and the 1898 house, with its graceful white columns and sweeping views, fit the bill perfectly, Carver said.
Aside from the speeding, serious tension in the neighborhood did not develop until last year, when a neighborhood couple launched a plan to rebuild a bike bridge over Spout Run Parkway.
The bridge ultimately was voted down after Fellowship families mounted a vigorous campaign against it, saying it would bring in foot traffic and increase crime.
As it happened, when crime did visit the neighborhood, it came from the Cedars itself.
James Hammond, 21, a college dropout from Newport News, Va., was five months out of drug rehab when he came to live at Ivanwald in November 2002.
He was among three dozen young men and women who come to the Cedars each year for several months of intense religious study.
“It tends to be well-connected young men from upper-middle-class or wealthy backgrounds with ‘leadership potential,’ ” said Jeff Sharlet, who lived undercover at Ivanwald last year and wrote an article about it in Harper’s magazine.
Sharlet spent his days in Bible study, prayer and mentoring sessions with Fellowship leaders, playing basketball and doing groundskeeping work at the Cedars. Group dates with the Potomac Point residents were allowed; TV was discouraged and sex forbidden, Sharlet said.
“We had a Rolling Stone [magazine] at the house one time,” Sharlet said, “and we had to have a little meeting about who brought it in, because it was tempting.”
Although the Fellowship denies the neighbors’ charge that Ivanwald attracts troubled youth, its own members seem to confirm that the place can sometimes bring in young men who are adrift.
“People who have had fame and money and success usually have trouble with their children, and they send their children to us because they’ve tried other options and they haven’t worked,” said Merle L. Morgan, a neighborhood resident and Fellowship volunteer.
House leader Josh Drexler, 27, said that he and others at Ivanwald had no idea that Hammond had lapsed back into drug use until one muggy night in August, when the teary young man awoke Drexler to say that he’d broken into four homes in the neighborhood and had made off with prescription painkillers.
“He said he was extremely remorseful and . . . he really screwed up,” Drexler said. “We prayed about it . . . and decided we thought he needed to confess.”
Hammond, who is in drug treatment in New Hampshire, turned himself in to Arlington police the next day.
He was charged with two counts of felony burglary and will be sentenced in April, according to Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Richard E. Trodden. He faces up to 40 years in prison.
“He feels awful about what happened,” said Hammond’s attorney, Kelly Bennett.
In the wake of Hammond’s arrest, meetings between neighborhood residents and Cedars officials were held to discuss Ivanwald and Potomac Point.
Such organizations as nonprofit groups, churches and schools can apply to the county for a special-use permit to house more than four unrelated people in one residence, in a “dormitory” or group home.
Carver said the Fellowship will pare down the number of residents at Ivanwald and Potomac Point to comply with county regulations and make the program’s application process more stringent by adding background checks and other safeguards.
“We believe it’s a very important program and one that has done worlds of good,” Carver said. “We’re not terribly interested in shutting down the program . . . but we will comply with the law, period.”
Fellowship officials said they interpret the ordinance as allowing four unrelated people to live in a home at one time, plus an unlimited number of “guests” who can stay for 30 days.
Bell responded, “Fifteen and 16 people at a time doesn’t seem to be to be consistent with reasonable numbers of guests.”
Bell said that county officials met Tuesday with Fellowship representatives to discuss Ivanwald and that “a decision will be forthcoming.”
Todd said neighbors are pushing for the Fellowship to apply for an official permit, which would require the county to monitor the facilities.
“I don’t believe them for a second,” Todd said. “When I walked by there the other day, there were 27 pairs of shoes drying on a rack outside.”