Members of the Merrymakers Caravan bring their message of God by bus to Kennedy Plaza.
PROVIDENCE — In lots of ways, they looked like veterans of the Jesus and the hippie movement of the 1960s.
What other way was there to view 30 pilgrims, some with babies, who rolled into town yesterday in three buses, one of them bedecked with brightly painted flowers and on the back, a painting of Jesus.
With a mixture of showmanship, featuring performances of Irish folk songs and Israeli folk dance, former Vermont dairy farmer Eugene Sage; his wife, Hannah; and and others in the group were on what they see as a mission of God: to let people know that it is possible not only to believe but to live the form of radical Christianity practiced by the Christians, who shared all they had.
“We don’t like to force our religion on other people, but we feel that people who have been looking and searching for something more satisfying can know that people like us exist,” said Miriam Carlin of Vista, Calif. “We try to make ourselves available and to go out into the open where people can observe us, in case they are interested.”
The Merrymakers Caravan, which traces its roots to a couple in Chattanooga, Tenn., who began Bible studies in their home 38 years ago and attracted a huge following, has been traveling since the group built its first bus in Island Pond, Vt., in 1988.
Those were tough times for members of the sect, who believe that the world is approaching its “end times,” when Jesus will return to the Earth, and believe they must protect their children from the secular world by homeschooling them. In 1993, Vermont state police, acting on allegations from some former members who said children in the sect were being abused, raided their homes and took 112 children into state custody. The children were returned a day later.
Eugene Sage, 62, said one reason the group decided to build a bus was because of the testimony of a man they met at a Grateful Dead concert who believed that a bus could reach out to people who had been searching, just as he was, for a new way of life.
“We believe there were a lot of sincere people in the ’60s who didn’t want to be part of society but were serious about following the God we call Jesus, or Yahshua, in Scripture. That movement didn’t get very far because I think there was sexual immorality and drug involvement in there, which doesn’t work at all,” Sage said.
“We believe we are the alternative society they were looking for,” said Kevin Carlin. “They attempted to create it with their communal lifestyle, but they couldn’t overcome the fatal flaw of selfishness and greed that ruined their communities and obviously afflicts every society.”
The Carlins said the community, which has members across the United States and in Europe, South America and Australia, has survived because it has taken seriously the demand of Jesus that his followers need to forgive one another. When tensions arise between two members, Miriam Carlin said, the community enlists a third person as a mediator.
The Carlins said it was difficult to say how many members of the group are involved in the caravan because some people join up for only a few days before going back home. When the group traveled around the West Coast a couple months ago, it had 52 people in four buses. The group is on the eighth day of a 41-city, 48-day tour through New England and New York that will end Aug. 20 in Buffalo, N.Y.
The group left yesterday afternoon for Plymouth, Mass. Its Web site is merrymakerscaravan.org