I was recently asked what my experience at CJ was like, and also asked some questions about their Christian doctrine. Here is what I wrote:
My experience at The Community of Jesus: a thumbnail history.
I entered the Community of Jesus with my husband in January, 1970 and lived there for 40 years. We raised our 3 children there. July 9, 2010 I left and now live in the Boston area.
I was raised in a family with a father who would burst out in anger at unsuspected times. It was mostly aimed at my brother & sister, but I learned to stay unnoticed to avoid his anger. My mother denied the affect this had on us, and was always trying to explain away his actions. This pre-disposed me to neither confronting angry authority nor walking away from it.
I spent 4 years, ’65-’69, in the Hippie culture of San Francisco. I was not raised in any religious setting, and was at a loss for a moral structure other than what I intuitively felt. I also had no framework in which to place my yearning for something more to life. At the end of these 4 years, I experienced a wonderful conversion to Christianity, accepting Jesus as my Savior. My husband and I married and moved to Massachusetts in ’69 so he could reconcile with his parents, who were Christian. A minister in Oregon referred us to a minister on Cape Cod, and he told us about a fledgling Christian community in Orleans, at Rock Harbor,. We started to go to the teachings. I knew nothing about Christian doctrine, and they talked a lot about the “deeper life” and being especially connected to God, which appealed to me.
After a couple of months, my husband and I were beginning to experience trouble in our relationship, and were feeling in need of help. We almost went back to the West Coast, but instead asked if we could stay a while at the Community of Jesus. We moved in with a woman who had bought one of the first houses there.
The very first day there was a misunderstanding, and since we were waiting hours past our appointment time, we asked one of the sisters, got permission, and went ahead and unpacked our car at the house we were assigned to live in. When we were called over to finally meet with the two founders, one of them went on a 5 minute yelling tirade at us that if we were going to live there we had to be strictly obedient. It didn’t matter how long they kept us waiting, we were not to do anything unless they told us we could. It was frightening and humiliating. It was my father all over again, and so right there I was set on a path of obedience and avoidance of confrontation. I was pregnant with my first child, and desperate for a secure home, and also did want to learn how to live for God. Their stress on obedience was the opposite of the free life I had been living, and seemed to be the antidote that we needed.
At first it seemed idealistic, that we were learning how to recognize and confess sin and building a new and better life of getting close to God. However, the teaching centered solely on sin and how we had to die on the cross daily, and there was no resurrection life or joy. It was all a sin hunt. At first I believed that this was the training necessary to be able to reach a state of peace and wisdom, but the longed for salvation, forgiveness and peace were always kept tantalizingly out of reach. They often compared us to the military, and how we had to be broken down and made to be obedient in order for a new life to grow in us. The teaching was not based on the forgiveness and love of God, but rather on how sinful we were. One leader would often teach us that we deserved nothing but hell, and it was only grace that we weren’t already in hell. Like all of their teaching, there is a kernel of truth in this, that we are sinners and God’s forgiveness is grace. But instead of helping us reach a balance, it was all focused on our sin in order to make us compliant and obedient. In the military boot camp they do humiliate, name call and break individuals down, but they also encourage a bonding and pride in working together. We did not get that building up part.
I was indoctrinated, brain-washed, and through fear was taught that I could not leave. If I did I would be leaving God, since He had called me here, and my life would go back to what it was, and much, much worse. Once we became a member, we were forever a member. Vows were taken in order to make the commitment binding. Even those who did not take vows were still under the social pressure of knowing that it would be wrong to leave. The two founders, and later the next leader, would talk against anyone who left, saying that they had “chosen the world”, had chosen to follow their own sinful passions, and would experience all kinds of pain and suffering, and probably die a terrible death. When we heard of one sister who had left, and eventually died, all the gossip was about how she must have had a terrible realization at the end of how wrong she was to have left. Anyone who contemplated leaving knew they would have to go through a gauntlet of “light sessions” where their “sin” would be strongly spoken against, and also that they would be considered the enemy if they did leave. I witnessed some of these sessions, and have experienced this since I left. No one will contact me, one very good friend who did write me for a while eventually told me to stop writing. While I was there we were told to cut off anyone who had left, as they were “out of their call, and would only cause us suffering if we talked with them”.
I was taught how to block any negative thoughts, and to suppress my feelings of pain and hurt. Anyone who expressed dissatisfaction with the teaching or the life of constant exposure was humiliated even more. It was called “correction” and “light groups”, from the scriptures about speaking to one another in love and living in the light. They twisted the concept of speaking to one another in love. It was often taught us that true love was being willing to be hard on each other, accusing one another of sin, and “going after” each other until the sin was confessed. This consisted of taking the person in question into a room, and a group of others would accuse and harangue you until you broke down in tears. Often the victim would confess just in order to be left alone. We were taught that we could not possibly know ourselves as well as others could see us, so if I was accused of being in anger, even though I did not feel angry, they were “picking up the truth” about me, and I had to accept their accusation. The founders would often teach on this, that whatever anyone else “saw” about us, we had to accept in humility and accept that it must be true, even if we could not see it ourselves. So it was not a personal conviction of the Holy Spirit, but rather a teaching that we had to accept any accusation that was leveled against us. Anyone who dared to try to defend themselves, or to say that they just didn’t see the truth of what was being said, was additionally accused of stubbornness and rebellion.
They practiced separation from your children, allowing other people to have the say on how they were raised even if they lived with you. They took one of my children away from me and had him/her live for almost a year with a couple of older teenage girls. We had a broken relationship for a long time because of this, and have suffered immense grief from what they did to us. I was caught in the trap. The harm they have done to me and my family was extensive. They essentially broke up my marriage and drove my husband away. My children were savvy enough to know the place was wrong, and at the end of High School 2 of them left. My oldest lived there for a few years as a Sister, but once she got an experience outside of the Community of Jesus (CJ) at a Harp Camp, she realized how wrong they were also. I was the one that was brain-washed the most, and therefore stayed the longest. It took 2 years of intense emotional pain for me to get up the courage to leave. It has been 3 years now that I have been out. I have recovered a lot, but am still in therapy to work on my triggers and emotional patterns, and I still deal with fear of incurring their wrath and reprisals.
I was never happy there. In the early years I took this as the work I had to do to get free from my sin. In the later years I did my best to ignore my pain. We were taught that any problem we had was our own sin, so if I disagreed with some of the teachings or the leaders’ actions, it was sin in me. I had no idea what critical thinking was. I finally got to the point, after my family had left, and I was left alone with my inner life, that I decided that I could not go on living in such a depressed state. I had to figure out what was wrong with me. That began 2 years of intense emotional struggling, trying to resolve my inner conflict at the same time as trying to make my vowed life there work. It was cognitive dissonance to the hilt. In the Rule of the Community of Jesus it states that any member can request a Leave of Absence (LOA) if they feel they have a spiritual need that requires some time alone to work on. I requested this LOA 3 times, was denied all times, and the 3rd time I was told that I had to leave, the next day, on a bus to Boston. I was kicked out at 63 years old with only $1,000 in my pocket, a suitcase and a bus ticket. I was homeless, jobless and scared. Although it was a cruel and unloving thing to do to me, especially since I was not asking to leave but was trying to get help to resolve my conflicts, it turned out to be the best thing they could have done to me. It opened my eyes to the true nature of the teaching and life at the Community of Jesus. God has watched over me and guided me into a new life. I am learning now what true Christianity is about.
I always assumed that the Bible was the Word of God, but the founders and later leaders didn’t teach that directly. They would teach from the Bible sometimes, but mostly they would teach from their own personal revelation of how to apply some of the scriptures to daily living. That was their charisma. They were always talking about how to apply scripture to our daily living. The teaching was all centered on personal wrongness. The heart of man is wicked, there is no good in me, and we have to go through the cross daily in order to come out into resurrection life. So there was the promise of getting to resurrection life, but in my 40 years there I never experienced it. I had moments of joy and inspiration and revelation, but I never reached a place of living in the salvation and joy of what Jesus did for us. The teaching was completely centered on the fact that I was wrong all of the time. Even if I wasn’t wrong factually, I was wrong in my attitude. If I argued my innocence in any particular situation, that meant I was wrong, because no one was supposed to defend themselves. To say anything in your own defense was sin, even if it was the truth.
The Divinity of Jesus was held to be true. The Trinity was believed in, accepted. The Holy Spirit was the one spoken of the most. It was a contradictory teaching. We were supposed to be connected to the Holy Spirit in order to hear God speaking to us, but if what I heard was different from what the leaders heard, I had heard wrong, and had to go back and keep praying until I heard the same thing they did. We were told that if a group prayed together for guidance, if we were all “in the Spirit” we would all get the same word/guidance. If we didn’t agree, then someone wasn’t hearing the Holy Spirit. Instead of allowing for each member to hear a part of the whole, this made us all conform to what the leaders thought was right. It also encouraged me to distrust what I ‘heard’ until I found out whether or not it agreed with authority. If what I thought/felt/heard from God was not conforming, then I suppressed it out of fear.
Jesus died on the cross for us, but…. We also had to die on the cross daily. They took that one verse, “He who would come after me must pick up his cross and follow me” and added the word “daily” to it in all their teachings. They made it the mantra for our daily living. In everything we were to die to our own desires. What to have for breakfast, what kind of job we worked at, what to watch on TV, die, die, die. Let someone else make the choices. If it bothered me, then my self-will was too strong and I needed to die to it. Every household and the Convent had someone(s) in charge, and they were the ones who enforced the rules. This set up a desire in us all to be considered obedient and good enough to be put in charge so we could have a little more freedom to make choices, as simple as those choices might be. This reward/punishment atmosphere produced more compliance and obedience in us.
Bodily resurrection was believed in but there was an interesting twist. The leaders taught that because we had been “called” together, that we would continue to be together in heaven. The leader told me once that even those who had left would be back in the “fold” in heaven, because they had been called there. They said that the mansions in heaven were groups like ours, and that we were building our heavenly place now by loyalty to the Community of Jesus.
They believe in the return of Jesus. We went through a phase in the 70’s where we all bought wood stoves and food that was vacuumed packed, and learned about eating off the land, because they thought the end was coming soon. That has died down, but the mentality is still there that they will be a beacon of light in the darkness of the end times, that people will flock to them for safety, and that they will not suffer any harm because they are special. Again, this had a kernel of truth in it, because if we trust in God, He will be faithful to protect and guide us. But the leader once said to us that everyone else who was not living here at the Community of Jesus was “dead”, indicating that we had the truth of God, and no one else did.
Perhaps the biggest harm they do is in the extreme stress they put on obedience to human leaders (who speak for God) and therefore suppressing any critical thinking of the individual. My obedience was through fear and suppression, not freely given through an informed agreement.
Abuse and threats: Yes. There was a little bit of slapping and hitting in the early days, but once that got exposed in the Chronicle coverage, we were told to stop that. However, the verbal abuse continued and continues. Threats are used constantly. Some are big like; you will go to hell if you leave, and some are small like; you can’t watch your favorite sports program unless you stop arguing with people. A loaded language phrase was “coming under”. No matter who spoke what to us, we had to “come under” in our attitude and response. Yes, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was sinning that way, I will confess my sin, etc., etc. In those last 2 years I was there, I was once accused of something so outrageous and immoral that I finally, for the first time, denied it and stood my ground. It was not true, and I was not going to let anyone say it was true. I went through hell for that. I was yelled at and repeatedly brought into the office for “light sessions” about my “sin” and the fact that I was so adamantly denying it made them think it had to be true. I stood my ground, and finally complained to the leader that it was not true and they would not leave me alone about it. This was the only time I actually “won” my case. She said OK, it wasn’t true, and to tell them to drop it. So I won my case that time, but it created a strain on my relationships with the sisters who I had to work with who had been involved in trying to get me to confess to something that was not true. To this day I believe that it was the leaqder that had told them to go after me about that. I believe this because I was party to her doing the same thing with other people. So there is a great deal of emotional abuse that goes on daily there. They don’t call it abuse, they call it training for heaven and dealing with sin, but it is not normal, it is extreme, and it is abuse. The cognitive suppression is also abuse. I was emotionally, intellectually and spiritually dying before I was finally able to leave. I was also suffering from extreme migraines brought on by the stress. I have not had a single one since I left.
Deprivation of sleep and nourishment both happen. Deprivation of sleep is used openly and is considered a legitimate and good way to train someone at anything. Excessive prayer vigil hours throughout the night are used to train you spiritually. Excessive practices in Band and Orchestra and Choir and Drama late into the night and then early the next morning are common. In the early days we were made to go on 40 day fasts. There was no choice, everyone had to do it. If you were caught cheating, you had to start the 40 days all over again. I witnessed this happening to several people. One year the fast was on grapes and water. I was so starved for nutrition that I ran home early from church to eat lettuce dipped in dressing. Another year it was bread and water. Some of us cheated and added cheese to the bread, and we were publicly yelled at and told to start the fast over again. Eventually I learned to self-medicate through food, and began to gain weight. After I became a sister in the Convent, I gained even more weight. I repeatedly asked for help to lose it, and was told, with disgust, that I should be able to control myself on my own and just eat less. This was indicative of all areas of need. If we had assimilated the concept of self-denial, we should be able to deal with any problems without help by just denying ourselves.
Even though we tirelessly worked on the upkeep of the grounds, in the offices, and on many projects, we were never praised or thanked for our work. I served in the Marching/Field Band for 30 years. I sustained injuries to my hip and knee and foot because they pushed us so hard. I finally had to retire from playing the keyboards in 2008 because I developed strains in my thumbs from the excessive practicing. I also could no longer march or do the strenuous exercises because of having strained/sprained my foot. I served an additional year as a coach, but even that proved to be too much for my foot, knee and hip, so I explained this and respectfully retired. I received a formal note from the Band leadership thanking me for my one year as a coach, but no mention of my 30 years as a playing member. I told the leader of the Community that this bothered me, that I felt my 30 years were totally ignored and un-appreciated. Her reply was “Well, who were you doing it for, yourself or God?” The clear message, and this was a part of the teachings, is that we do not deserve thanks for anything we do. It is all a duty to God, and much less than we should be giving.