Cult? Sect? Folks from a strange church?

Let’s face it, the mainstream press did everything but cue the theme from “Jaws” this weekend, during the initial coverage of the strange news out of Palmdale, Calif. Consider the top of this early New York Times report, which ran under a rather ordinary headline about a “religious group.”

The frantic search began after police issued an alert: Members of a cult on the edge of the Mojave Desert had disappeared, leaving behind handwritten notes that raised fears they had planned a mass suicide.

But Sunday afternoon, the search ended when the women from a small breakaway religious sect were found praying with their children on a blanket at a local park.

The police had been searching the region for the five women and eight children since Saturday afternoon, after the husbands of two of the missing women brought letters their wives had left behind, in purses filled with cellphones, identification and legal papers, to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office. The letters mentioned “taking refuge,” “going to heaven” and wanting their families to join them. One of the husbands told the police that his wife and others were part of a cultlike group who had been “brainwashed” by the presumed leader, Reyna Marisol Chicas, 33.

“Based upon the contents of the letters found in the purse, the missing people are possibly awaiting the rapture or some other type of catastrophic event,” Capt. Mike Parker of the sheriff’s office said. Though the letters made no specific reference to suicide, and the group has no history of violence, the apocalyptic talk incited fears of the worst in a part of the country that has seen cult suicides in the past.

So, we are dealing with a “religious group” that is also a “cult,” a “sect” and a “cultlike group.” All we need is a reference to drinking Kool-Aid.

Whatever. While there are still questions to be answered about this group and its activities, at this point it seems that the best way to describe this circle of women — based on the thin reporting available — is “independent Pentecostal prayer group.”

What we have here, as best I can tell, is another totally independent evangelical/charismatic fellowship of some kind. Has anyone seen any facts about the congregation or congregations from which this circle sprang? As far as we know, this is simply a fellowship or prayer group within an existing flock, as opposed to a splinter “sect” (using that word carefully) that has left a normal Christian body because of conflict rooted in doctrinal innovations or a personality cult (in this case centering on Chicas, a Salvadoran immigrant).

The language is just as vague but less inflammatory by the time a second-day story runs in the Los Angeles Times, with a headline that refers to “twelve members of a Christian group.” The lede there states:

The group left behind farewell letters, personal documents and cash and took off into the night on a mysterious religious trip. After relatives reported them missing, authorities began a 22-hour search using horses, helicopters and patrols to comb the sprawling desert terrain around Palmdale as satellite trucks from national news outlets moved in.

Two scenarios loomed large, one unthinkable: a suicide pact that included eight children, inspired by the belief that the biblical “rapture” was upon them. But relief set in Sunday as the second scenario prevailed: authorities found all 13 gathered comfortably at a manicured park less than 10 miles from a Los Angeles County sheriff’s station.

Folks, it would be a really, really strange doctrine of the Second Coming that produced a concept in which the “rapture” takes place when a bunch of believers kill themselves, as opposed to awaiting the return of Jesus Christ to call them home — through his divine actions and will.

It does appear that someone thought to ask police department spokesman Steve Whitmore the obvious question: What, pray tell, did those “farewell letters” say? The answer was a bit on the light side.

The search began when concerned relatives contacted the Sheriff’s Department about 2 p.m. Saturday, saying they feared for their family members’ safety. Whitmore said the letters left by the group read like “a will and testament.” They were addressed to parents and other loved ones and included phrases like “Please take care of,” “Don’t worry,” “Here’s some cash,” he said. Letters written by two of the 14-year-olds were identical, which Whitmore said could indicate they were coached.

The group was found around noon, sitting on blankets laid out in the shade of a pine tree. A resident who had seen news reports on the missing group spotted them and called the Sheriff’s Department about 11:30 a.m. Chicas was playing with some of the children on the swings, while the others sat on blankets praying, said sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker. “They seemed shocked,” Parker said. “They said, ‘We are Christians, and we would never harm ourselves.’ ”

When deputies told them that notes and personal belongings they left behind had made relatives suspect otherwise, they responded by saying, “It’s sinful to have [worldly possessions] when you’re praying because they bring evil,” Parker said.

Once again, there is some strange stuff there, but nothing suicidal, nothing that is truly bizarre in terms of people who believe that the Second Coming is just around the corner. Did anyone in the press (or the police, for that matter) try calling a nearby evangelical seminary for some help translating this theological lingo? I have seen no evidence of that.

One more point, as we await additional information. Is it possible that these women are Pentecostal Christians in Latino families — marriages even — that have been bitterly divided by their conversion to a fire-breathing brand of Pentecostalism? After all, this story tells us:

The Palmdale area is home to several predominantly Latino churches, where it’s not uncommon for congregants to break off into separate prayer groups practicing nontraditional beliefs.

OK, what kinds of churches? Assemblies of God? Pentecostal? Charismatic Catholics? Totally independent fundamentalists (with that word accurately defined)? What are these “nontraditional beliefs”? Please tell us some more facts.

Facts are good. Vague, undefined labels do not help, as a rule.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Given the torrent of words on what constitutes a cult, using “cult-like” without defining it is like me calling Terry an ngortenzot. I would have thought that someone using words like that would automatically be questioned about meaning by a reporter. Oh well.

    I guess I’d better not put into the public eye that I believe we’re living in the end days right now. Who knows, if 2 or 3 people agreed with me, we might be called “cult-like” by someone.

  • Jon in the Nati, non-Cult-Member

    We are a church, you are a sect, they are a cult.

  • Ray Ingles

    “…nothing that is truly bizarre in terms of people who believe that the Second Coming is just around the corner.”

    That does strike me as a bit like, “Well, that’s not really unusual in terms of an average science-fiction convention…”

  • tmatt


    OK, are you familiar with the Nicene Creed or, in this case, with Pentecostalism, the world’s fastest growing form of religious faith?

    Journalists need to know the facts about groups outside the newsroom.

    There is a big difference between a strong belief in an immediate Second Coming and a belief that is suicidal. What are we dealing with in this case? I see little evidence, so far, that anyone knows or has really tried hard to find out.

  • Ray Ingles

    Tmatt – Niether the Nicene creed nor Pentecostalism per se make any specific pronouncements on timing, so far as I know.

    My point was along the lines of conditional probability. Most people aren’t suicidal, nor are most believers in an imminent Second Coming. But just as you’re much more likely to see a cosplayer at a science fiction convention (even though most conventiongoers aren’t cosplayers), among people who think the world will end soon, you’re more likely to find ‘death cults’ (even though most aren’t members of suicidal sects).

  • Maureen

    It sounds like the ladies just took their kids on a pilgrimage of sorts; and I wonder if that’s something that would have seemed more normal wherever it is that they come from. Just because you’re Pentecostal doesn’t mean you’re not still Catholic in some ways….

    You ever noticed that, whenever you tell people not to worry, they worry more?

  • Kristen

    When these ladies left their little letters to go pray, the ones who brought it to the attention of the police were their spouses. In my book, that is the key point here. More than one spouse was concerned. Why no interviews with the spouses to see WHY they were so concerned to call police? That’s all these articles are missing.

    BTW, if my partner left a message like that with his wallet and took the kids to an unspecified location, you can bet your sweet bippy I’d call the police.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I think tmatt hit on something by asking about how family division on religion plays into this whole thing.

    What is the religion of the husbands? It is quite possible they are just mad that their wives and children are in their view spending too much time praying and not enough time with them.

    It is also quite possible that their wives disapprove of some of their habits.

    In either case this seems more like an attempt by the husbands to manipulate their wives out of church participation than anything else.

    I think the media and the sherrifs office should have questioned the husbands and their true motives more than they did.

  • Magdalena Euphrasia

    Why have we heard no more about this incident? It occurs to me that the “authorities” started out by persecuting religious groups with ideologies far from mainstream, but not exactly dangerous.

    You might recall that the state took 418 or so children away from Yearning for Zion Ranch members. The courts gave them all back, much time and trauma later, with an official statement from the judge saying there was no cause whatsoever for the removal.

    Once Americans were onboard with the abridgment of rights of “those wingnuts,” they moved a little more toward “mainstream” Christianity.

    Janet Napolitano had to “apologize” for the memo which laid out criteria for profiling “possible domestic terrorists” for Homeland Security. Among those “at risk” groups were Christians who believe in the Second Coming and/or Rapture. The memo included this concept: “‘end times’ prophecies could motivate extremist individuals and groups to stockpile food, ammunition and weapons. These teachings also have been linked with the radicalization of domestic extremist individuals and groups in the past, such as the violent Christian Identity organizations and extremist members of the militia movement.”

    And closer and closer until now we have a group of people who — not for the first time — said goodbye to friends and relatives and set off to wait for the Rapture. History showed they were not suicidal, yet they were labeled such.

    That being the case, once they were found in the park, playing and praying, clearly not drinking antifreeze or slashing their wrists, the police chose to “notify the Dept. of Children and Families” and hold the leader of the group.

    If that’s not something you think is worrisome, I don’t know if your heart is still beating.