The Jesus People in Uptown in the Friendly Towers have a problem – and it’s not going away.
Chicago News reported two weeks ago about this religious group of about 300 people who live in a commune in a building on Wilson Ave. just east of Sheridan. A class-action lawsuit was filed against the church and its leaders alleging child sex abuse.
This week Neil Taylor was suspended from being a pastor in the Jesus People USA Evangelical Covenant Church because of a lawsuit against him for child abuse, according to JPUSAinfo, an online forum of current and former members who take a critical look at the church.
Taylor is one of about seven secretive leaders of the Jesus People who told the Chicago Tribune a few years ago when the lawsuit was first announced, “How we are having to respond is basically not to respond, based on advice we have received from lawyers.”
In a documentary that aired in 1982 on WTTW Channel 11 called Uptown Christian Soldiers (mediaburn.org/video/image-union-episode-618), Taylor said he grew up in Jacksonville, Florida and was expected to become a lawyer like his father. But he didn’t have too much purpose in his life until his senior year in high school when he “had a moment with Jesus.”
Another church leader and son of the founder – John Herrin Jr. – was forced out of the group about two years ago based on the sex abuse lawsuit. His father founded the group in Milwaukee, and also had sexual problems that came to light before he was dismissed.
The sex abuse allegations hit the media in 2014 when Jaime Prater, who spent almost 20 years in the commune and was sexually abused as a minor, made a documentary film entitled No Place to Call Home in which he interviewed 120 former members and discovered that 70 of them had also been sexually abused as children.
“Firstly, this is a tragedy,” Jaime Prater told Chicago News about Taylor’s removal. “It’s a tragedy for all involved, the victim, his or her family, and the family of the alleged perpetrator. No one comes out of this unscathed. My heart goes out to the victim first.”
Prater said the current charges against Taylor are still only allegations, not “certainty.” But Prater said what was documented in his film and the charges today look to be the same.
“I would imagine that there are the same kinds of things happening now as when I was in research and production for the documentary,” he wrote in a text. “A specific group of people in denial and unbelieving that the alleged perpetrator could be possible of such a horrendous crime.”
After the cover story was published No Place to Call Home in Uptown’s Friendly Towers? September 8, 2017, Chicago News received several phone calls from people who have family members who joined the group. One woman told the paper that her son joined the group but left after one of the pastors kept following him, which led to her son being charged with a misdemeanor because when he pushed the pastor away from him, the pastor called the police.
Another woman contacted this reporter to say that her boyfriend was one of the former JPUSA members involved in the class action lawsuit, but that he took his life in April, which she believes was a result of the abuse he suffered when he lived with the Jesus People.
The documentary No Place to Call Home can be viewed on Youtube. Several members talk about their encounters with adults who sexually abused them, some repeatedly over a period of time. But if they complained, they said, the Jesus People leadership did not listen and only silenced them and protected the abusers.
People who have written about the Jesus People cult when it first grew out of the hippie movement in the early 1970s said setting up shop in Uptown in 1972 in a place filled with drug addicts, homeless and criminals to preach the word of god was a recipe for disaster. They say JP would allow strangers who were adults with no background checks to live in rooms with the children.
The leaders have refused to speak to the press about the current controversy and refuse to even acknowledge it to insiders demanding to know the position of the church as it continues to negotiate settlements with former members who were abused as minors.
Mark Scheiderer wrote on the Uptown Update forum in 2013 when the first lawsuit was filed that he spoke to Jesus People leader Glenn Kaiser on the phone about the sexual abuse allegations and his response was, “Are any of these people followers of Jesus?”
“At no time did he ever acknowledge that molestation occurred, nor did he express ANY sympathy for those who were molested,” he wrote. “I remained very calm during the conversation, but was amazed at his ability to skirt the issue, and appalled by his lack of emotion.”
When Chicago News contacted Jesus People for an interview, a woman who answered the phone said, “No, this is not helpful to us,” and hung up the phone.
The Jesus People, while continuing to do good works in Uptown such as feeding the homeless and providing low-cost housing to seniors, run a multi-million dollar roofing business and own several properties in Uptown that have skyrocketed in value.
“There’s some kind of spell that some people find themselves under whereby they will refuse to believe even if the house is on fire,” Prater said. “There’s so much at stake for a community like Jesus People with these kinds of allegations. They aren’t the Catholic Church where they can absorb this and continue on. This kind of ongoing drama is a blow to who they are and their integrity. Their refusal to even acknowledge these accusations publically only deepens the wound. They seem to be in self-preservation mode and an acknowledgement and admission that terrible things happened would probably make them more liable than they already are, which would open the door to more litigation and ultimately money. That’s what this is about at the end of the day.”