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Two Sides of Jesus People USA

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Two Sides of Jesus People USA

The side yard of JPUSA’s main residence, The Friendly Towers (Photo by Beverly Wooding)

In the 1960s, a group of people traveled the country in a bright red bus with the name Jesus on the side. Jesus People USA, or JPUSA, preached the gospel as they went. Legend says their bus broke down in Chicago in 1972. They took it as a sign and never left. Now, more than 300 members live together in a 10-story commune. This weekend they celebrate the 25th anniversary of their famous Christian rock festival, Cornerstone. Shannon Heffernan stayed in their Uptown co-op, Friendly Towers, for four days to try and understand the people behind the music.

It's 10:00 on a Thursday night, and in Uptown a group of pierced and punky young adults sit around a table. They're talking about what many people would expect: crushes, dating, who likes who. But soon it becomes clear something's different.

DORA: I started out with a relationship uhhh… about 4 or 5 months ago, and  uhh… it was really hard cause the council was like we just want you to wait. The  council met about us. And that's what they said. And we were okay with it, so

The council is a group of eight Elders who run the JPUSA community.

PHILLP: I've had friends that pursued the relationship without the council's approval and they ended up getting kicked out.

JOSH: If the council says its not a good idea than its probably not a good idea.

JPUSA is not only a part of members dating choices, but of every aspect of their lives. Some of the young people just graduated from the JPUSA high school. Others work at JPUSA businesses, like a roofing supply company or at the homeless shelters. The community even has its own vocabulary. Like a “ding” is something on TV that is too explicit for you to hear. It got its name because members say, “Ding, Ding, Ding” so you can't hear the bad parts. Or if you do something un-godly, like loose your temper, you might say you were “in the flesh.”

The young group at the table says they like the close community.  But that wasn't the case for Luke, who moved in more than two decades ago, when he was 18. He hesitates to talk about his experience because the memories of punishments like adult spankings give him nightmares.

LUKE: They would take you into a room and they would tell you what your offense was. Then the they would ask you to take down your pants and they would beat you with a dowel rod. They they would pray with you about your problem and send you off.

Adult spankings haven't happened in the community for years. And many of the strict rules such as women wearing ankle length skirts have faded. But the community is still run by the strong leadership of the council. Elder Tom Cameron stresses he doesn't receive special benefits and lives in the same kind of dorm-like room as everyone else. Still, Cameron doesn't deny they hold a certain amount of power.

TOM: Probably to the outside world, I understand why it controversial to them, is that it's not a democracy kind of thing. But a lot of times people try to apply the  rubric of democracy to things it doesn't work in, that it doesn't really count for.  This is one of those things. My job here as a leader I could only do by calling I  could only do  it by calling. It's too much pressure, its too much everything.
HEFFERNAN: But who calls you?
TOM: What do you mean?
HEFFERNAN: Who calls you to be a leader?
TOM: Oh, God.

Rebbeca Hill, a long time JPUSA member, knows there's skepticism. She sees the face some make when they hear this story.

REBECCA: We used to call it the “Oh my God they're in a cult face.”

She's seen it a lot. But she says this isn't a group of people who blindly follow the rules. She points out members with died hair and tattoos and tells me it's actually a rebellious group. They choose to now follow the rules, because many of them are coming from abuse and drug addiction. They want structure.

REBECCA: What sort of person gives up everything to live here? It would just makes sense that a good number of us, not all of us, but a good number of us  were at some desperate point when came here
HEFFERNAN: Why would this appeal to someone in that state?
REBECCA: Probably for the same reason that gangs appeal to people. This is a  family.

And for her it does seem like a family. She has one Autistic son and two others with a blood disorder. And her JPUSA family helps her. Sometimes when she comes home from the hospital she will discover someone has done all her laundry.

Like other households, everyone in JPUSA shares the same bank account.  If a member needs something, like new clothes, they have to go to the money office to request it. Everyone leads simple lives because they believe anything extra should go to the poor.

Luke liked this idea of sharing with the poor. But he didn't like the idea of other people deciding what he should buy. He recalls not being allowed to buy a pair of shoes after his old ones wore out, even though he needed them for his job as a mover.

LUKE: In their eyes I could never mature. That's the way I felt. I could never  have any thoughts that came from the Lord. Only they could have thoughts that  came from the lord. You know?  And they knew better than me what was good  for me.
HEFFERNAN: Did you learn anything from being there?
LUKE: Oh, yeah
LUKE: I learned to love.
HEFFERNAN: How did you learn to love from the experience?
LUKE: I learned what it means to forgive. They were the only family I knew. And they treated me so badly and I still liked them.
HEFFERNAN: And is that still true, do you still love them do you think?LUKE: I mean, I don't love them enough to go and talk to them.

Everyone who talks about JPUSA compares it to family. For some, like Luke, it's abusive and stifling. For others, like Rebecca, it's a family of love and support. For both of them, it is a place they think will have influenced their lives forever.

For Eight Forty-Eight, on Chicago Public Radio, I'm Shannon Heffernan.

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