No Place to Call Home in Uptown’s Friendly Towers?
“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
What Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago could easily be applied today to a religious group called The Jesus People who reside in a red brick building on Wilson Avenue in Uptown.
If you live in Uptown you’ve probably heard of the Jesus People, a Christian group with about 300 members who live in the building known as The Friendly Towers. You see smiling bright-eyed college kids walking in groups amidst a section of the city where gangbangers, drug addicts and homeless people criss-cross on Sheridan and Wilson. They come to service God and do good works amidst drug deals and drive-by shootings – just as Jesus would have done.
But for every good act there is evil and that is what Jaime Prater uncovered when he made a documentary about this curious religious cult that once traveled the country in a school bus with Jesus splattered on the side, where they would stop and preach and sing until the bus broke down in Chicago and they set up camp on Wilson Ave.
Prater made a documentary in 2014 about his experience living in the commune called No Place to Call Home where his interviews with former members revealed widespread sexual abuse. Of the 120 people he interviewed, 70 said they had been sexually abused as children. That discovery led to Prater and others filing a civil lawsuit against the group for its failure to protect the children who lived in the commune.
“I made it to expose the truth and I think I did that,” Prater told Chicago News. “The pedophilia we experienced we never knew it had happened to anyone else. Then we realized it had happened to everyone from the interviews.”
The haunting documentary No Place to Call Home – which can be viewed on Youtube – starts with Prater narrating, “What would you think of me if I told you my parents chose to raise my siblings and me in a religious commune. What would you think of me if I told you it was one of the most amazing, awful, wonderful, horrific experiences of my life.”
Prater says he has fond memories of the place he called home for almost his entire childhood. He said he grew up with 15o other children he calls his brothers and sisters playing and clowning around. He had wonderful experiences, until he started questioning things. And that’s what got him in trouble. He remembered a strange man who stayed in his room and fondled him. When he told the church, he was shunned and separated from the rest of the children. He was forced to take classes in a broom closet in another building. He wished he never said anything.
In the film, Prater interviewed the people he lived with. One woman told him of a trip to the Farm, a 300-acre JPUSA (pronounced Japoosa) retreat in Doniphan, Missouri, where she said she was sexually assaulted by one of the commune’s leaders. Another said he had been forced to perform oral sex on two men in the Leland Building, the Jesus People dorm for single men. A man in his early forties told him that as a boy, he was physically and sexually abused so many times by so many people over a 10-year period, he didn’t know where to start. He had been taken from his mother as a baby and raised by a council member. He told Prater he could remember sitting naked in a bathroom with a DCFS investigator, telling her that the bruising and scabs on his body had come from playing sports and bug bites, something he had been coached to say. Erik Johnson said he went to the building where the single brothers lived to get a mountain bike and a 27-year-old lured him into his room to show him karate moves. Instead, Johnson said the man performed oral sex on him. In another interview Prater filmed, Angel Harold said a teenager began molesting her when she was 9 years old. She said a pastor forced her to perform oral sex on him, and eventually raped her.
Prater found that the Jesus People leadership had not only been aware of the many complaints of abuse, but had covered up the crimes, similar to the Catholic Church hiding its pedophile priests.
JPUSA took in “the broken” – homeless people, drug addicts, victims of domestic violence, troubled souls who lived in rooms with children, sometimes unsupervised by another adult. In the late 70s and early 80s when Prater lived in the commune, homeless people lined up outside the Friendly Towers every day at lunch for a free meal and sometimes they would stay the night. The people who ran the cult kept tight control over the daily activities of its members, while paying little attention to visitors. Instead of listening to the children who were being sexually assaulted, they silenced them.
“They shunted me and that was really tough,” Prater says. “But it was a house I grew up in that I really loved.”
The Jesus People is one of the longest-running religious experiments in American history. Known as the Jesus Movement, it swept up 3 million people in the late 1960s, many of them burned-out hippies who felt disillusioned by the free-love and drugs and wanted spirituality outside traditional Christianity. The movement spawned hundreds of communes across the country, including the Calvary Chapel, one of the largest megachurches in America today. The Jesus People also hosted one of the largest Christian rock festivals in America called Cornerstone.
“Jesus People USA established a still-thriving Christian commune in downtown Chicago and a ground-breaking music festival that redefined the American Christian rock industry,” said Shawn Young, who wrote the book Gray Sabbath, Jesus People USA, published in 2015.
Another religious scholar Larry Eskridge who also wrote a book about the larger Jesus People movement, said they had evolved from their hippie “Jesus Freak” origins of fire-and-brimstone street evangelists in the 1970s to thinking about politics and social responsibility today.
“Today the ideological tolerance of Jesus People USA aligns them closer to liberalism than to the religious right, and I have tried to study the embodiment of this liminality and its challenge to mainstream evangelical belief,” wrote Young, who lived and studied with the group. “I also argue that the survival of this group is linked to a growing disenchantment with the separation of public and private, individual and community, and finds echoes of this postmodern faith deep within the evangelical subculture.”
But Jesus People back then also had some strange practices in the Friendly Towers, such as adult spankings and group confessionals of masturbation.
Camille Blinstrub, a Christian writer on cults, said that Jesus People, USA led a prolonged attack via their magazine, Cornerstone, to discredit books, writers and TV shows such as Geraldo Rivera that linked sexual abuse to satanism.
“To back up their claims that satanic ritual abuse involving children was merely a witchhunt, Cornerstone relied heavily on the material of Ralph Underwager, Ph. D., his wife Holida Wakefield, and their group, the infamous False Memory Syndrome Foundation,” Blinstrub said in an interview. “Underwager, until he was exposed to be an open advocate of pedophilia, had been a popular defense expert in court for alleged pedophiles.”
“It was mind control,” Blinstrub said. “Here you have these beautiful kids passing out flyers in Uptown in the early days and it looked like a healthy alternative to the hippie lifestyle. But they wanted to take over your life.”
That happened to Shawn Haugh who joined up in 1976 and stayed until 1986. He wrote a revealing unpublished book about his experience called The Poisoned Well that can be accessed on the web – thepoisonedwell.org. In it he documents cult and child sexual abuse that dates back to the 1980s, years before Prater’s documentary and lawsuit forced the group to respond.
He wrote a letter in 1993 to the Evangelical Covenant Church which oversees JPUSA – alleging child abuse (hitting children with a dowel rod), single mothers being urged to give guardianship of their kids over to older community couples and the policy of putting children over two into dorms with older children and/or single adults. “Several cases of sexual abuse have been documented and one case is included in the list that follows. In my research I have had two ex-members confirm to me their personal stories of sexual abuse. I have had two other cases where the parents have confided to me that their children were sexually abused.”
Instead of responding to Haugh, the group ignored him and slandered him, he said.
Haugh said he joined the group three years out of high school when he was trying to figure out what to do with his life. While he enjoyed the sense of family fellowship and camaraderie, there was a lot of “brainwashing and psychological damage.” It was a strict, regimented and bureaucratic society run by nine self-appointed elders who cultivated a dependency between themselves and the members, he said.
“The JP story is a tragic tale of good intentions gone bad,” Haugh writes. “Something happened on the way to Nirvana.”
Which leads back to the lawsuit filed three years ago against Jesus People and the Evangelical Covenant Church. When the film was made several prominent families left the commune. Prater said JPUSA’s lawyers told him he had to change key parts in the film and take out any abuse allegations against John Herrin, Jr. – son of the founder and one of the leaders. He also said he was told to stop talking to the media.
“I felt my lawyers were more representing Jesus People’s interests,” he said. “They wanted me to apologize for what I did and I refused. I felt if I had signed it, it would have robbed me of everything that I cared about.”
As a result, his lawyers filed a motion to drop the case and the statute of limitations ran out. However, there are others still negotiating a monetary settlement since the lawsuit represents 17 former members who were sexually abused as minors. The Jesus People, who hired a big libel lawyer who has defended a few NFL players, mandate that anyone who signs on has to be quiet for one year, Prater said.
“I retained my voice,” he said. “I retained my freedom. I keep speaking the truth.
In addition to Prater’s heroic act to stand up for the truth and forgo the money, other positive changes resulted from his fight. After his film and the lawsuit, half of the leadership left, including Herrin, Jr. (his father founded the group that first operated in Milwaukee before setting up shop in Uptown in 1972) and changes have been made for the better, he said, such as more accountability.
Jesus People refuse to speak to the media about the lawsuit or the documentary.
Jesus People is an established religious group with deep pockets. The leadership council sits on top of a multimillion-dollar business empire – including Lakefront Roofing and Siding Supply – in addition to owning several residential and commercial buildings in a part of the city that has skyrocketed in value. Everybody’s Coffee run by JP is located across the street from the Friendly Towers on Wilson and a flashy promotional video touts their many social and humanitarian activities connected to their religious foundation.
Prater said he extended an invitation to talk to the leadership but they are not interested. “To them protecting a business is far more important than doing the right thing.”
Gone are the days of children sharing rooms with convicted sex offenders. There are strict rules to not repeat the past, and the Jesus People today continue to do a lot of good work in the community, helping the homeless and providing affordable housing to seniors in the Friendly Towers.
“I really loved them,” he said, “and that’s why I did it. It was a total turning of the tide for the commune. It was a victory for them. It will always be my childhood home, but I lost that.”