A former believer takes on the leader
Critics call the Fellowship of Friends a cult; members say it’s a school of spiritual development
It’s not that the emperor wears no clothes at the 1,171-acre property in the Sierra foothills with a winery, cemetery and main building meant to resemble a French castle, says Elena Haven.
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The old folk tale speaks of adults afraid to say their ruler is naked. But Haven, a former member of the Yuba County-based Fellowship of Friends, said silence surrounded the colorful clothes — the salmon pink silk suit, shiny blue shoes or bright yellow pants — leader Robert Earl Burton, 69, sometimes wore.
“It’s the picture of the whole phenomena,” Haven, 49, said of the religious group that she calls a cult and that she left in 2007 after 17 years as a member.
That Fellowship members don’t comment about Burton’s clothing during gatherings at the group’s headquarters in the foothills community of Oregon House is a symbol of more serious problems, Haven said.
The 6-foot, 4-inch silver-haired Burton, a one-time elementary school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, is the unchallenged ruler of the Fellowship and doesn’t face questions, she said.
Not about his living like a king, not about a lifestyle said to rival a ruler in the last days of the Roman empire, not about the nuclear Armageddon that Burton proclaimed would happen in 2006, not about whether the Fellowship is following the “Fourth Way” system of spiritual development taught by two 20th-century Russian philosophers and mystics, Haven said.
“If you challenge him you have to leave the cult,” she said. “No one can understand how crazy this can get.”
A fresco-style ceiling painting that includes a depiction of a man with an erection is an example of the excesses of the Fellowship, Haven said.
Last month Haven did something other former members said no one had attempted since the Fellowship established its Sierra foothills site in 1971.
The 5-foot, 3-inch dark-haired Haven began picketing in July at the Rices Crossing Road entrance to the Fellowship property 29 miles outside of Marysville. Most members live in a bubble, unaware of what takes place in the Fellowship’s inner circle, Haven said. Her protests came as the group said members from around the world — the Fellowship has centers for students in many countries — were gathering.
“How many more boys, Dear?” read one of her signs, a reference to what Haven said are the half-dozen young men constantly in Burton’s company and known within the Fellowship as his boys. “Dear” is the term Burton uses to address members.
The Fellowship reaction to her signs was swift, Haven said. They photographed her, she said. They called the Yuba County Sheriff’s Department. When Haven returned the next day to picket again, the Fellowship had put two trucks and a tractor to block the space where she had parked her car, Haven said. A member shouted several times at her, Haven said.
“I was shaking I was so afraid,” she recalled, puzzled by the strong reaction to one woman with a few picket signs. “One person standing on the side presents no threat to anyone.”
Before the end of the month Haven was in a Yuba County Superior Court courtroom arguing against a lawyer for the Fellowship, which sought a court order to keep Haven away from its headquarters.
When she spoke in court about what she said was Burton’s conduct, the judge said it sounded like Haven was accusing Burton of wrongdoing.
“I am not,” Haven answered. “I do not think being homosexual is a crime.”
The Fellowship more than a quarter-century ago did not allow such sexual behavior.
Homosexuality — along with smoking, firearms and hitting with fists — was prohibited for members in a 1980 guide. By then the group had been at its Yuba County property for nearly a decade. The Fellowship began in the Bay Area and, in 1971, looking for a nearby retreat, settled upon the Sierra foothills land in Oregon House.
Burton was the leader.
For a brief overview of the Fellowship of Friends, see the Freedom of Mind website.
The article includes a look at how cult expert Steve Hassan’s BITE model of mind control applies to the Fellowship of Friends.
A minister and a member praise Fellowship
A Fellowship of Friends member says he divides his life into the years before he joined — and the time since then.
“It’s lived up to every claim,” said the long-time member. “It answered a lot of my questions. It gave me the tools to help arrive at those answers.”
The man, during a two-hour interview in Marysville conducted on the condition that he would not be named, defended the group critics label a cult — and the man who leads it.
“Robert Burton is a homosexual,” the member said. “The last time I checked that was not against the law.” “He’s never asked anyone to do anything illegal,” the member said. “I have not seen where Robert Burton has crossed the line.”
A Web site critical of the Fellowship —fofdiscussion.wordpress.com — posts the writings of the same 100 to 200 people and often makes unsupported claims about what people say has happened at its Oregon House headquarters, the member said.
“There are people who want these kinds of things to be believed,” he said. “Everything is exaggerated.”
He likened Burton to the Greek philosopher Socrates and said the school seeks to develop the higher center in people, a kind of spiritual muscle that is a bridge between the earthly and divine.
“That’s what the Fellowship is about,” the member said.
The school, he said, draws on what is known as the “Fourth Way” teaching intended to provide the West with a system of spiritual development that develops the body, mind and the emotions.
“Robert has made the Fourth Way his own,” the member said. “It’s a very personal interpretation of the Fourth Way.”
“I see him as a person who got it right spiritually,” the member said. “He’s in a position to be a guide for other people.”
Robert Earl Burton, 69, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Senior minister Girard Haven said Burton does not grant interviews and prefers to devote his time to the Fellowship.