JPUSA: A Tragic History of Sexual Abuse

Although I heard awhile back that that this documentary on the sexual abuse of minors at the Jesus People USA (JPUSA) Community in Chicago was in the works, I happened to see this article on the Christianity Today website this afternoon and saw that it was released today.  I knew that it would be one that I needed to watch, so I plunked down my ten bucks and downloaded the movie.  You see, I have been acquainted with JPUSA for over 20 years; I have visited their community a couple of times and have friends who are members or former members.  There was a block of 5 or 6 years — before my wife and I had kids — in which I attended their Cornerstone Music and Arts Festival every July.

[ Watch the trailer for No Place to Call Home ]

No Place to Call Home is a heart-wrenching movie, offering story after story from victims who were sexually abused as children or teenagers while living as part of the JPUSA community (At one point the film offers the statistic that of 120 former members who were contacted in the course of making the film, over half were victims of sexual abuse at JPUSA).  Including among the victims who speak out on camera, is the film’s director and producer Jaime Prater. The movie culminates with three stories of victims who name their perpetrator as Johnny Herrin, a member of the community’s — relatively small — leadership council, the son of the community’s founding pastor (who himself was ousted for sexual abuse), and the drummer for JPUSA’s seminal Christian rock group, The Rez Band.  How could such a Christian community that had a relatively high profile in evangelical Christianity over the last four decades foster a culture in which sexual abuse was apparently all too common?

The first and most fundamental problem was a failure of leadership.  The stories told in NPTCH repeatedly emphasize that the community’s leaders refused to address seriously allegations of abuse.  Sometimes victims (and we are talking about children here) were accused of lying.  Other times perpetrators were punished mildly, and allowed to continue in roles that required regular interactions with children. From the stories told in the documentary, it seems that the leadership almost never took allegations of sexual abuse to the police or other authorities outside the community.  This tragic leadership allowed sexual predators to pounce on victims again and again.

Secondly, the nature of the community’s ministry in urban Chicago, working among the marginalized — homeless, drug-addicted, mentally ill, etc. — often led them to extend hospitality to some who would pose a threat to the children of the community (Although, I suspect that those who posed a threat were only a very small portion of those to whom hospitality was extended.)  The film identifies two known and legally-recognized sexual offenders who lived at least temporarily with the community.  While I am a major advocate for extending hospitality in the name of Jesus, it must always be done with greatest discretion and never at the expense of a community’s children.

The living environment, with far too many people crammed into too small a space, was apparently another enabling factor for sexual predators.  Given that children were everywhere and often unsupervised (or under-supervised) and the general chaos of the community, JPUSA was sadly ripe for the possibility of sexual impropriety.  Privacy could easily be comprised. What drove JPUSA to live in such cramped quarters?  The economics of urban Chicago undoubtedly was a factor, in which the massive expensive of purchasing new real estate was prohibitive.  I suspect that the urgency of JPUSA’s mission to Chicago’s marginalized, was also a contributing factor in driving them to pack their buildings to the point of excessive density.  One of my most vivid memories from my first visit to JPUSA in 2001, was that I could never live in a place like that was so jammed with people and so chaotic.  I had no sense then that this chaos might be fostering sexual abuse, but I had a vague — mostly aesthetic — sense that this chaos couldn’t be healthy.

Another crucial factor was JPUSA’s practice (which thankfully has been terminated in recent years) of having children removed from their parents at a very young age and having them live in quarters with other children (with minimal adult supervision).   This practice dissolved the natural parent-child trust, and often impeded the process of intervening in sexual abuse situations.  Furthermore, the stories in the documentary recounted some situations where the adult supervisor in these children’s dorms was himself the perpetrator of sexual violence on the children.  After my 2001 visit to JPUSA, this practice of separating children from parents, was an even larger contributing factor (than the general chaos of the place) to my sense that I could never live as part of JPUSA.

When you combine all these factors together, it’s not all that difficult to imagine how the sexual abuse of minors might be as rampant as this new documentary alleges.

So, what are we to make of this horrific situation?  

JPUSA certainly has many upstanding and deeply committed Christians in their midst, and the community as a whole has born a good deal of witness to the radical way of Jesus in their Chicago neighborhood over four decades.  Even the filmmaker, Jaime Prater, who himself was abused as child in JPUSA, holds out the hope that healing and reconciliation might be possible.  Some initial steps in this direction would be for the leadership at JPUSA to admit that their community has had tragic history of sexual abuse, and to repent of its longstanding lack of transparency and to cooperate with all pertinent church and government authorities in sorting out and addressing the allegations made in the film, and others that will undoubtedly arise as victims realize that the community’s leadership is willing to take their allegations seriously.

I am part of a church whose leadership was driven in the 1920s and 1930s by the KKK (who went so far as to drive out one pastor who refused to let that hate group assemble in our church building).  Even today, we bear some of the scars of that history.  It is from this place that I offer hope that JPUSA might lament its sins, repent and survive as a community.  This redemptive process will undoubtedly take years, or even decades, as it has for us.   The process of wrestling honestly and transparently with the factors (like those I have sketched here) that contribute to a culture of pervasive sexual assault, will undoubtedly reconfigure the community and its leadership, and the JPUSA that survives the process — just as it was for us here at Englewood — will be a very different, stronger Christian community.

Will JPUSA have the courage to face their tragic past and repent? Only time will tell. By my suspicion is that if they do not, they are consigning themselves to their own demise.

In the next few days, I would like to continue this reflection, by turning to the questions that this story raises for how Intentional Christian Community is to be understood and practiced?  Stay tuned…

  • Curt Mortimer

    I live at Jesus People USA. I am 70
    years old and have lived here for 20 years. I have an undergraduate degree in
    Bible and Theology and a master’s degree in education. I have fellowshipped with Jesus People since
    1969 in other places and coming to Chicago
    was like coming home. I don’t think I am
    going to change anyone’s ideas about us but in the midst of this vilification
    from Jamie’s film and this article from Regent University I would hope to project some
    sanity into people’s minds. One big goal of propaganda is to isolate and
    objectify and certainly to vilify the enemy.

    We have a lot of public presence.
    When we say our doors are wide open, it is true. No question, we have been hurt
    by people who walk through those doors with an agenda of their own. That is our
    burden to bear and we try to bear it gracefully. We have suffered from people
    who do not believe Christians can live in a community like they did in the book
    of Acts. We have to be a cult. We have to be perverts. In the first century it
    was, “What’s with all this talk of ‘blood’ when they get together in their
    meetings? They talk about a broken body. They must be doing human sacrifice.” In the 21st century you’ve just read it and
    seen it.

    Here’s my
    advice. Treat us like God created human beings. Here a place to start:

    • Bob Sexton

      Curt, with all of your credentials and education I would think that you could come up with something a little better than that.

      Jaime’s film really only scratches the surface.
      No less than three Jesus People USA pastors are implicated in child sexual abuse. Rape.

      What you call “vilification” should truly be identified as criminal activity against children and people should be in prison for it. Please don’t sugar coat and justify the rape of children.

      You sold out long ago when you didn’t stand with your son David who pressed for “leadership accountability” and was “shown the door”.

      If you really want to be a “spokesman” for God and not the “community” call sin “Sin” and don’t try to cover for the heinous crimes of the JPUSA ‘leaders”.

      Bob Sexton, Deacon, member Jesus People USA 25 years 1975-2000

  • Jinnie VanCourt

    Thank you for the article. It was a good read. I too speak out in the film about my experience at JPUSA. I was a part of this organization from 1974-1992 just shy of 20 years. The film is absolutely true. I know all of these kids and they are dear to me. My heart breaks for each of them. If people who are vilifying these kids on here really want the truth they will find it but will they accept it? Jesus People U.S.A. doesn’t need a defender God knows what is in their heart and he will bring all things spoken and done into the light. And yes, all four of my kids were molested while living there. This is why we left. Our power as parents were undermined by the council. I had no rights in my childrens dorms. I was told by a council members wife that it did not matter if lights were on at 2 am or music playing. After the abuse my daughters were moved farther away from me to the opposite end of the building. Did I have a say in this? absolutely not! The trouble with JPUSA is the put themselves first and threw the members who got in the way of this ideal under the bus.

  • lisajoy

    Dear guess what,
    I don’t know who you are…but my question is this: if there are people claiming they were abused by children (now adults) of JPUSA can you explain how those accused ‘learned’ about sexually acting out? Isn’t it almost an admission of guilt by the part of those making this other video that the claims these children/adults have made are true? Children without a history of abuse do not abuse…

  • lisajoy

    Kaylee…I did know about abuse, I was a single women in a leadership family and when I called their actions abuse I was ‘invited’ to leave…a polite way to say kicked out. The parting words my ‘mother’ in the community had for me were, “you’re going to die addicted to cocaine because you are out of the will of God’….it took me years to heal from the spiritual abuse I endured in the short 3 yrs I was there…these children/now adults were children I knew and loved, help take care of, and consider family…like a nuclear family (though 500 strong) there were secrets and manipulations and a divide and conquer approach to leadership that left many of us not fully aware of the torment around us. Until you have lived JPUSA you cannot know it in all its brokenness and beauty.

  • Harry Powell

    Most deplorable load of crap about J.P. that I’ve ever read. You have to be still indoctrinated to see it any other way.

  • anonymousinmichigan

    This is my opinion about JPUSA. I wanted to do ministry somewhere. So I read about JPUSA online and it looked really good. Sorry to post a link but I read an article before I left to live about two hours away from where I’m from. This is the blog I read I felt like this was the place for me. I even spoke with someone who went to live there for a few months. He left because he wanted to be in the music industry.

    So I decided to come here and try it. At first I had the feeling…..well maybe this place is just for baby christians. Week after week, church service after church service….I feel like i’m not being fed enough spiritually. When I go home and go to church I feel like I can sense the Lord’s presence. But not so at JPUSA. I made a few friends, have a good “job”, etc. But that’s all I see it as now…Just a place to live and work. I have a few friends so at least they make it worth the while to live here.

    I was worried as a young female when the allegations of abuse came about. I thought I had googled this ministry enough but I never saw any reports of abuse. So the community called a meeting and said the allegations aren’t true. Weird thing is that if they were so hush hush couldn’t say very much. I had to use wifi to look online to see what the issues were. My family was also concerned about the allegations of abuse.

    I see no safety measures for the children that live there as of right now. i’m no parent but if I was I would not want a room down the hall from my child that anyone could access at any time. Down the hall in a regular apartment or house…yes….but in an apartment building with people and seniors with possible shady backgrounds….no.

    My family members were also concerned with the fact that the community was taking advantage of me, since they don’t pay you for whatever you do in the community (working at the shelter like me or other in house jobs). This didn’t bother me. All my needs are met here so I didn’t mind not getting paid.

    I think the only place I would recomment this place for is for people who are strong in their faith. Sometimes I still call my pastor with questions and i can tell from the tone in his voice, he is wondering where I got such ideas.

    I don’t know a lot about life yet but I know that if I ever meet my husband here then I know I will not be having kids here.

    Well here’s my two cents..I wish I could leave my name but I can’t really. I don’t want to be kicked out. If I do then I will have to go to college. I can’t go because I have so many friends here.

    Unfortunately I can only count on one hand how many frinds I would go too if I had a prayer need.

    Thank you for listening