Sunday, December 28, 2014

Harbin Hot Springs and the Heart Consciousness Church

Heart Consciousness Church ceremony at Harbin Hot Springs.

Most communal-religious groups start with a vision. Then they organize as a formal group. And finally, they sanctify a piece of land as their spiritual home.

The Heart Consciousness Church took exactly the opposite path. It emerged, first as an organized sect and then as a coherent spiritual vision, directly from the lands and waters of what are now known as Harbin Hot Springs.

Located 70 miles north of San Francisco, Harbin Hot Springs is a 5000-acre retreat and conference center, nestled in a narrow, brushy mountain canyon. At its heart are its hot springs: two volcanically-heated springs that pump 800 gallons of 113-degree water every hour into a series of hot and warm soaking pools. Several cold springs from an aquifer on nearby Boggs Mountain also provide water for a cold-plunge pool, as well as for drinking.

To the Miwok Indians, Harbin was ‘eetawyomi – the sacred “hot place” that welcomed all tribes, and whose warm mineral waters healed all manner of bathers’ complaints.  Near the springs, indigenous peoples gathered for shamanic rituals and seasonal celebrations at the creek-side “Grandmother’s Circle”, giving tribute to the land that produced the magic waters.

When the Miwoks retreated and faded in the face of the Spanish conquest, the springs were largely forgotten. The canyon that held them was part of a land grant passed around between different Spanish and Mexican owners far more interested in ranching than in soaking. Eventually the land grant was taken over in the 1850s by an American, Archibald Ritchie, who “discovered” the springs just before his death in 1856.

In Ritchie’s wake, James “Mat” Harbin acquired the land. A colorful character who claimed to have bought Central America’s Mosquito Kingdom for use as a Mormon refuge, Harbin was a successful frontier capitalist who later in life, inexplicably dropped out of California society to be a hermit in Mexico. Although he gave his name to the springs, as well as to several geographic features in the area, he never did much with the land, and in 1865 passed his claim on to two Welsh immigrants, Richard Williams and Hugh Hughes.

Williams and Hughes saw great potential in the springs, and in 1867 began to develop the land as a resort. They walled and pooled the springs’ flow, planted extensive gardens around them, and built a hotel on the property that could accommodate 100 guests. “Taking the waters” for health had become fashionable in Victorian America and Europe, and the two men advertised Harbin as Northern California’s answer to such famed spas as Marienbad or Saratoga Springs, and claimed that its mineral waters could cure everything from rheumatism to alcoholism.

Bathers at Harbin went through a day-long ritual that foreshadowed both modern spa treatment, and the New Age healing practices of today. First, they spent two hours soaking in the pools, alternating between hot and cold plunges. Then they received a massage, followed by various ablutions and perhaps a coiffure. A nap was next on the agenda, and then a relaxing stroll through the spa grounds. Finally came a hearty dinner made from locally-raised vegetables and livestock.

The Harbin Hot Springs resort, circa 1915.

Oddly enough, the “health resort” offered not only home-cooked locavore meals, but also a fully-stocked bar, as well as cigars and pipe tobacco for gentleman guests. When Lake County went “dry” and banned alcoholic beverages in 1912, Harbin continued to serve booze on the sly – a practice that it allegedly continued all the way through Federal Prohibition from 1919 to 1933. The hotel also sported illegal – but fully functional, and heavily-used – “decorative” slot machines through the late 1940s.

Legendary boxer Jim Jeffries was one of many athletes who trained at Harbin Hot Springs in the early 20th Century.

In 1894, disaster struck Harbin when a fire burned down most of the resort. Undaunted, the owners rebuilt the facilities, adding larger pools and other improvements. One of the new features was a gym, which quickly became a popular training arena for such boxers of the era as Jim Jeffries and Bob Fitzsimmons. Resident pugilists swore that the clean air, hot weather and relatively high altitude of Harbin gave them harder and healthier workouts than their city-bound rivals.

The celebrity athletes helped publicize Harbin, and it continued to expand and renovate through the early 1900s, especially when the coming of automobiles greatly eased access to the resort. Although a rival spa, the Stuparich Resort, opened just north of Harbin, it didn’t provide competition for long; after rumors circulated among Lake County’s Ku Klux Klansmen that its Jewish owner planned to sell it to an African-American social club, it mysteriously burned to the ground in 1928.

A 1935 postcard depicts Harbin's main plunge.

With the poverty of the Great Depression, and the gas rationing of World War II, Harbin’s visitors and revenue plummeted. The resort burned once again in 1943; when it was rebuilt three years later, the owners soft-pedaled its health aspects in favor of a new image as a relaxing weekend getaway for stressed-out Northern Californians. Along with the pools, postwar visitors could now enjoy live entertainment, music, dancing, and even (gender-segregated) nude sunbathing on the grounds.

Despite the new attractions, Harbin hit economic hard times in the 1950s. When the County Sheriff attached the property over unpaid back-taxes in October 1960, the hotel burned down just days later. Just who exactly owed the taxes, and owned Harbin, was unclear; throughout the early 1960s various claimants fought court battles for possession of the disputed title. Somehow, Harbin continued to operate as a resort until around 1966, when it closed to the public.

Harbin’s titular owners, and the locals in nearby Middletown, were wholly unprepared for what came next. In August 1968, one Donald James Hamrick arrived at the resort, and announced his plans to convert it into a combined research-center, spiritual-retreat and commune.

Donald James Hamrick - physicist, minister, and nascent counterculture guru

Hamrick was an independently-wealthy nuclear physicist and inventor, as well as a former Church of Christ minister who’d been lauded for turning teenagers off drugs and onto meditation. He claimed that during a near-death-experience in 1966, entities he described variously as angels or extraterrestrials had given him a mission to save the world.

Towards that end, in 1967 the 32 year-old Californian founded the Frontiers of Science Fellowship in San Rafael. The Fellowship aimed to bring together the worlds of science and religion, as well as the various academic disciplines, so as to “[e]xtend the frontiers of knowledge through research and to disseminate knowledge and guidance in the preparation of humanity for a distinguished civilization…” as well as “[t]o promote the synthesis of the physical, life and social sciences.…[and to] actively influence the personal, social and economic development of the World Community.” Hamrick lectured on these topics at both the College of Marin and San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church, and soon became one of the Bay Area counterculture’s resident gurus, claiming a following of over 11,000 seekers.

One of Hamrich's visionary graphics, which combined hard-science concepts with Utopian spiritual ideals.

When the Fellowship ran afoul of its neighbors in San Rafael, it relocated to Harbin in August 1968. Hamrick wanted to rename the resort “Harbinger,” and turn it into a retreat for technological, social and spiritual visionaries to create new modes of working and living. One of his main projects was to develop inventions like the “Zendyne Zapper”: a six-foot long, copper-wired metal bar that would allegedly increase the IQ of anyone on its business end. Hamrick also envisioned a “Harbinger University” on the grounds, where he and other counterculture figures could teach classes and seminars like “Codification of Consciousness” and “Physiology of Higher Bodies” in a nontraditional learning environment.

Harbin from the air, around the time Harbinger University occupied the grounds.

At first, the isolated resort seemed ideal for the Fellowship’s purposes, and the neighboring town of Middletown welcomed Hamrick and his followers (the local paper speculated that with their presence at Harbin, “the average IQ of Middletown people will shoot up by about 50 points.”) But the Fellowship and Harbinger University also promoted Harbin as a place to expand consciousness – a concept that, in late-Sixties California, was synonymous with psychedelic drug use.

Even though Hamrick claimed he abstained from LSD and didn’t advocate its use, he and the University produced Harbinger: a 24-page tabloid that blatantly pandered to psychedelic sensibilities. Modeled on the legendary San Francisco Oracle underground paper, Harbinger was a hallucinogenic hash of multicolored text, mandalas, and illustrations that featured articles by drug-culture luminaries like Timothy Leary and Alan Watts, reprinted accounts of LSD-fueled visions, and solicited readers’ contributions about their personal “projections along the perennial trip.”

An open-air class at Harbinger University

Not surprisingly, Harbin soon became a hippie haven, where academic and technological doings took a back seat to sex, drugs, and quasi-Eastern spirituality among its increasingly younger and more bohemian visitors. San Francisco hippies, fleeing the now-dangerous and heroin-plagued Haight-Ashbury district, flocked to the resort, and continued the endless party there during the latter half of 1968. At any given time, hundreds of colorfully-clad (or unclad) young people could be found at Harbin strumming guitars under the sycamore trees, sunbathing on the lawns, cooking vegetable soup in the kitchen, or soaking in the hot pools. To them, it was the Summer of Love redux, albeit in a sylvan, private setting where one could smoke weed, frolic in the nude, and generally Freak Freely without incurring the wrath of urban squares or cops.

Casual nudity, drug use, and even public sex soon became common at Harbin.

Drugs were plentiful. One former resident remembered that in the afternoons, a tray piled high with marijuana joints, lumps of hashish, tabs of LSD, and fistfuls of various pills, was passed around the lawns and porches, with nary a charge for the goodies. Rock bands jammed around the clock in the hotel rooms, many of which had their walls knocked down to accommodate acoustics and dancers. And there were frequent all-night orgies in the hot pools, where gangs of wet, naked hippies copulated openly in the waters.

Harbinger, the community's underground newspaper

The ordered community that Hamrick envisioned soon degenerated into anarchy. There were no requirements for residency; generally, if a visitor demonstrated “hip” appearance, speech and demeanor, s/he was accepted into “the Family” and could live there for months without contributing a nickel of funds or a lick of work. Bills went unpaid and buildings and pools went unmaintained while Hamrick flew around the country in a private plane, lecturing on his visions of a new world. In his stead, various organizers tried to grab the reins of power and impose order, but they seldom lasted more than a week or two, their ever-changing and contradictory edicts going unheeded by Harbin’s dope-addled denizens.

At one point, Harbin even sported a homegrown monarchy: two young hippies who styled themselves “King” and “Queen” of the retreat, and surveyed their domain from eight-foot tall thrones. Like the rest of the aspiring administrators, their pronouncements were ignored, and they were soon supplanted by other would-be leaders.

The Harbinger project quickly wore out its welcome in Middletown as well. For over a century, townies had welcomed resort visitors so long as they spent money at the local businesses, and didn’t bother the residents. Harbin’s penniless, flamboyant hippies, on the other hand, saw the entire region as their personal playground, and created chaotic scenes in the little burg with increasing frequency.

The local Establishment fought back. The Sheriff’s department began to visit Harbin regularly, ostensibly looking for underage runaways, but always with County and State narcotics agents in tow. Then in January 1969, the Lake County Health Department staged a surprise inspection of the facilities, found numerous violations of health and building codes, and quarantined Harbin, setting up roadblocks and forbidding anyone from entering or leaving the property. Although the quarantine lasted only six days, scores of residents departed in its wake, leaving fewer than 50 people living on the grounds. The remaining residents, unable or unwilling to address the Health Department’s countless concerns, faced eviction.

Perhaps sensing that the end was near, Donald Hamrick and followers staged what was to be Harbin’s most outrageous and extreme event – the Frontiers of Science Celestial Synapse. This was a combined conference/concert/ritual/party that was a last-ditch effort to unite Hamrick’s technological, educational and spiritual visions, as well as forestall a seismic apocalypse. Said a Rolling Stone article of the time:

…[it had] to do with the crystal in the center of the living Earth, which is affected by human vibrations and which may either change shape (a creative change) or change size (a destructive change, since it would cause earthquakes). The idea [was] to send down good vibrations to change the shape of the crystal, and the Celestial Synapse may very well have done that.

Collage of materials about Harbinger's 1969 "Celestial Synapse" Fillmore concert, featuring the Grateful Dead 

At the very least, the Celestial Synapse’s “good vibrations” blew minds across the Bay Area. On February 19, 1969, onstage at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West music hall, Hamrick blessed the assembled Synapse crowd of over 3,000 hippies, entreating that from the event, “something new may emerge. Let the barriers fall. Let there be a merging.” Then San Francisco’s own Grateful Dead played a four-hour set of their distinctive psychedelic-rock jams, while the acid-soaked audience members danced, chanted “OM” en masse, stripped naked, climbed onto the stage, greeted and hugged total strangers, and passed out hits of acid and joints. Bill Graham oversaw the joyful anarchy from the stage, shooing security guards away from the naked dancers and hanging out with LSD guru Timothy Leary behind the Dead’s speakers. When the show ended in the wee hours, the blissed-out revelers spilled onto Market Street and got the word: “After-party up at Harbin – enjoy it now, before the pigs close down the place!”

Soon, a great caravan of colorfully-painted microbuses and battered sedans converged on the Lake County resort for the event that would sound Harbinger University’s death knell. As The Golden Toad, a band in the Grateful Dead “family” scene, jammed in the hotel, hundreds of hippies thronged the resort, dancing all over the grounds and splashing through the pools. Virtually everyone was tripping; acid chemists had donated thousands of doses to the event, and LSD-spiked punch was ladled out like lemonade to the naked, ecstatic celebrants.

Nobody was particularly surprised, or even bothered, when the Sheriff arrived. According to one account, the lawmen “found six or seven hundred naked freaks, dancing and swilling acid punch, setting up a soaring cry which set the leaves on the trees to spinning.” Bewildered by the butt-naked bacchanalia, the deputies quickly busted about a dozen people on drug charges, and then hastily departed, leaving the rest of the freaks to party until dawn. (One account claims that a thirsty deputy innocently drank a cup of the spiked punch, promptly freaked out, and spent the rest of the night curled up in a fetal ball, and surrounded by a knot of nude hippies talking him down from the bad trip.)

By March, the party was well and truly over. A final raid that month cleared out the remaining members of the community, and closed Harbin to human occupancy until further notice. Hamrick, who’d lost a fortune investing in Harbinger University, as well as an infant son who’d arrived stillborn the night of the Celestial Synapse, moved on to the United Kingdom, where he treated Beatle John Lennon for his nicotine addiction and helped organize the first Glastonbury Festival. Eventually Hamrick changed his name to Zee Charnoe and continued to lecture and research on the frontiers of science and consciousness.

For the next three years, Harbin’s decrepit buildings and stagnant pools lay dormant. Its only visitors were local teens, who snuck onto the grounds late at night to drink beer and use the buildings for target practice. The Lake County D.A. vowed that nobody would occupy the resort until all the buildings were restored, and the facilities were compliant with the Health Code. Harbin seemed fated to become yet another one of the abandoned health-resorts whose hulking ruins dotted the American West like little ghost towns.

Visionary financier Robert Hartley, later known as Ishvara.

By 1972, the relatively few people that knew of Harbin would never have guessed that it was not only about to be reopened, but would soon birth its own religious sect, and would enjoy its greatest fame and influence over the next forty years. That spring Robert Hartley, a wealthy 39 year-old investor and Berkeley resident, was in the market for a spiritual retreat. A devotee of Fritz Perls’ Gestalt Therapy, Hartley wanted to form a commune that replaced the traditional therapist/patient model with a community of coequals who applied interpersonal Gestalt techniques as a daily discipline. Believing the relatively remote, yet developed and accessible property was ideal for his purposes, Hartley purchased Harbin for $180,000 in May 1972, then placed a mobile home by the property entrance, and moved himself and his family into the dwelling. From there he controlled access to the land, and planned to rebuild and refurbish the retreat, and make it habitable again.

Hartley staffed the project with ads in the local alternative press that read:

Hot Springs in the country. Very rustic and unfurnished. $30 per month rent, or work exchange, 1 to 1 ½ hours per day.

Relatively few people answered the call. The party-hearty days of Harbinger University were long past; potential community members were promised not “consciousness expansion” on someone else’s dime, but long hours of hard work to make to make the abandoned buildings, lawns and pools habitable and usable. Many of the people who did commit to live and work there were more interested in laid-back rural living on the cheap, than in building a conscious community. And when Hartley left for a six-month stretch, restoration work ground to a near-halt. Obviously, the place needed both his constant oversight, and a strong organizational structure, if it was going to function as a retreat.

In the fall of 1974, Hartley met with a small group of Harbin residents to work out a common vision for the retreat. They decided they shared a commitment to three elements – universal spirituality, the Human Potential movement, and holistic practices – and that Harbin would be a place where all could be expressed and practiced as part of daily life. The retreat would honor the fundamental truths in all religions, sponsor humanistic psychology and personal-growth disciplines, and promote healthy practices to heal and sustain human and nonhuman life on the land. The common thread of all these activities was love – for oneself, for one’s brother and sister humans, and for the Earth and all its creatures. This loving vision was called Heart Consciousness, and the group “identif[ied] itself so completely with this new point of view that we call it religion, and ourselves a Church.”

In February 1975, the Heart Consciousness Church incorporated in the State of California as a non-profit religious organization, organized “to teach spiritual life and how it can be realized by individuals, manifested to others and made learnable by example, without this process requiring group conformity or adherence to a single teacher, method or creed.” The corporation then purchased Harbin from Robert Hartley for ten dollars, and became the legal owner of the 5,000-acre retreat.

The new organization soon faced serious difficulties. In 1976 a group of Harbin residents decided that the Church’s corporate structure, which vested power in a Board of Directors elected by designated “voting members,” was elitist and undemocratic. In protest, they created their own Board, and refused to pay the $50 a month dues then required of all residents. When talks between the two factions broke down, things got ugly, and the rent-strikers began to vandalize Harbin’s work sites, disrupt its workshops, and bring in squatters to live on the land.

Kerista founder Jud Presmont (center) with followers.

With Church loyalists outmaneuvered by the protestors, and the Sheriff unresponsive to his complaints about them, Hartley brought in support from an outside source: the Kerista Consciousness Church – a “polyfidelity”-based commune led by eccentric WWII veteran John “Jud” Presmont. At the time, the Keristans called themselves “The Utopians”, and jumped at the chance to promote their communal lifestyle at the bucolic retreat, as well as use their interpersonal techniques to mediate between its warring factions. Eventually, however, they lost the community’s trust: Church Board members believed the Keristans were dogmatic ideologues who were trying to co-opt Harbin, while the rebels saw them as strike-breaking scabs imported by Hartley. It didn’t help that in the Kerista’s Spring 1977 newsletter, Utopian Eye, the sect misrepresented Harbin as exclusive Kerista turf – “our first permanent rural base.”

Tiring of the struggles with both Keristans and rent-strikers, Hartley sought refuge in a new spiritual discipline: Kundalini Yoga. Accepting Natural Yoga leader Yogeshwar Muni (aka Robert Berner) as his guru, Hartley renounced his old identity, took on the spiritual name Ishvara, and spent the next ten years performing “surrender meditation”, sometimes up to twelve or more hours a day. Although some Harbinites feared he was planning to turn the retreat into a Yoga ashram, the Heart Consciousness Church remained firmly in control of the land, and eventually expelled the rent-strikers after a court ruled in its favor. With their departure, the Church’s loose alliance with the Keristans faded as well.

Things were looking up for Harbin and Ishvara. In 1978, macrobiotics practitioner Roger Windsor arrived at Harbin, became its General Manager, and took over most of the administrative work, freeing up Ishvara for full-time meditation marathons. Windsor streamlined HCC’s organization, started a five-year building project, and set up a system where paid guests could use the facilities. Visitors would pay a small annual dues charge, which made them members of the Church, and bound them to some basic rules: respect the land and the permanent residents; be quiet in and around the pools; leave your dogs at home; don’t smoke or leave trash; and similar strictures that would have been unheard of during the freewheeling Harbinger University days.

Accommodations at Harbin during that time were Spartan. Guest rooms were furnished with foam mattresses, and nothing else. Meals were exclusively vegetarian, and neither alcohol nor coffee was served. Still, a steadily-increasing stream of visitors found their way to the pools, providing the HCC with much-needed income.

Human Awareness Institute founder Stan Dale.

Many of the visitors were followers of relationship guru Stan Dale, and his Human Awareness Institute (HAI). Dale’s “Loving Relationship” weekend seminars, which promoted greater communication between individuals through body-freedom and erotic touch, were among Harbin’s most popular activities.  HAI, which required seminarians to strip naked en masse during one of its seminar exercises, was right at home in “clothing-optional” Harbin, where warm summer weekends would find scores of nude men and women soaking in the restored pools, sunbathing on the new redwood decks, and strolling the now-tended grounds.

New Age author and would-be Harbin settler Ken Keyes. Middletown locals feared he would become another Jim Jones.

Less successful was Ken Keyes’ attempt to found another spiritual community within Harbin. The author of the bestselling Handbook to Higher Consciousness, Keyes planned to lease 32 acres from the HCC, and establish the “Living Love Center” there – a model “eco-village” of circular huts and buildings where he would teach the principles of his book to both visitors and a resident community of followers. Unfortunately for Keyes, his proposal came before the county Planning Commission just weeks after the 1978 Jonestown massacre, and the local citizens, some of whom remembered Jim Jones’ antics in neighboring Redwood Valley and had lost family members in his Guyana Gotterdammerung, rejected the idea of another Personality Cult befouling the region. Eventually Keyes gave up trying to win over the locals, and established a center in Oregon.

Around this time, another more clandestine community on Harbin’s land got the heave-ho from both the HCC and the authorities. Rumors had circulated for years that a major marijuana-growing operation was hiding in the brushy, undeveloped back acreage, but nothing came of them until the morning of October 7, 1978, when Sheriff’s deputies got permission from Ishvara to search the property for illegal plants. When a non-Church squatter in Harbin’s so-called “upper property” spotted the lawmen approaching, he fired a warning shot into the air, and people scattered into the bushes as fifteen patrol cars roared up the dirt road to the back acreage. The officers seized 413 cannabis plants, and busted two young women who hadn’t fled the scene fast enough.

The local paper identified the marijuana plantation as belonging to the Heart Consciousness Church. Seeking to avert a potential public-relations disaster, Harbin’s Board responded that none of the growers were Church members, and that the HCC did not advocate or support any form of drug use or illegal activity. Eventually the paper printed a retraction, but the bust stoked memories of the Harbinger era’s druggy excesses, and chilled the Church’s relations with the townies.

Those relations began to thaw in the early 1980s, when the burgeoning New Age spiritual movement brought a new kind of visitor to Harbin. Gone (for the most part) were the shiftless hippies and dope-growers of years past; in their place came young professionals and well-heeled “bourgeois bohemians” seeking health and spiritual enhancement at the retreat’s ever-expanding variety of workshops and intensive classes. Unlike their penniless predecessors, the new Harbinites spent freely and lavishly at Middletown’s stores and restaurants; locals welcomed the new arrivals and their money, and began to think that perhaps the naked-weirdo cult down the road wasn’t such a bad neighbor after all.

The HCC upgraded Harbin to meet the new visitors’ needs. A permanent, in-house building and maintenance crew was formed to carry out all expansion and improvement projects, and to keep the building and pool infrastructures running smoothly.  A gatehouse was constructed at the entrance to collect fees, and keep crashers and troublemakers off the property.

The formerly-rugged accommodations improved radically. Guest rooms now featured not only real beds, but linens and pillows. A cafĂ© opened in 1982; eventually, it would supplement its vegetarian fare with offerings of fish and fowl, and even wine and beer. As it had a century earlier, paid massage-therapy now often accompanied hot-water soakings. Some wondered if Heart Consciousness Church was nothing more than the corporate landlord of a weekend spa – albeit one that hosted naked workshops.

They had a point. At one level, the Church was a legal convenience that allowed Ishvara and his close cohorts to hold a 5000-acre, developed property free of the tax bills that had bedeviled earlier owners. Too, the fact that casual visitors signed up as “Church members” to use the facilities shark-proofed the leadership from legal liabilities that might have bankrupted them in a lawsuit.

But Harbin’s spiritual significance had since broadened and deepened far beyond the HCC’s quasi-Universalist corporate mission statement. In 1985, the New Age Church of Being emerged from Harbin as the more explicitly religious wing of Heart Consciousness. Its statement of purpose read:

The Purpose of the New Age Church of Being is to bring into being the New Age of Peace, Harmony, Truth and Love on the whole of Planet Earth.
The New Age Church of Being teaches a state of Pure Being, or union with Ultimate Reality…New persons are baptized into the Now as they enter the beingness of the New Age Church of Being, as though their slate is wiped clean as they start fresh as new-birthed souls and personalities.
Ultimate Reality is the essence of subtle energies known only to those gifted at birth or who have worked to purify awareness….

The New Age Church of Being trained Harbinites in a six-month ministerial program, grooming their spiritual, physical and intellectual abilities, and training others to do the same. Resident ministers performed regular Theosophical full-moon rituals, Hindu kirtan chants, Native American sweat-lodges and pipe ceremonies, and celebrated holidays drawn from the European Pagan calendar, as well as the occasional marriage or funeral. Eventually the NACOB took over Harbin’s sister resort: Sierra Hot Springs, a health retreat near Lake Tahoe that boasted both a Victorian-era hotel on its grounds, and a decidedly New-Age dress-code in its soaking pools.

Ishvara's Oneness in Living - the Church's unofficial Bible. 

NACOB’s principles were articulated most clearly in Ishvara’s book ONENESS IN LIVING (2002). Therein he dispensed the wisdom gleaned from 30-plus years of disciplined spiritual development, as well as the countless insights he’d collected from the retreat’s residents and visitors. Ishvara synthesized Harbin’s spiritual, holistic, and cultural visions and practices into a look at the roles non-traditional religions, the human-potential movement, and the counterculture had in the retreat’s development, and the possibilities presented by them.

One of Ishvara’s most intriguing ideas concerned Harbin’s “power spots.” According to him, a network of seven points of spiritual power formed a ring around Harbin, giving people who tapped into their arcane energies the power to dream, see visions, and reach “between the worlds.” He claimed that the Miwok Indian shamans knew of these power spots, which is why they considered the area around the springs sacred and healing.

So strong did this belief become among Church members, that Ishvara formed the Holy Lands Preservation Trust specifically to protect the sacred aspects of Harbin’s property. The Trust boasted that many of its trustees were Native Americans; in a sense, it was giving spiritual stewardship of the land to Indians for the first time since Spanish-colonial days.

Things were coming full circle. Certainly, the original Miwok Indians would have been nonplussed at latter-day Harbin’s paid admission and corporate organization. The Victorians would no doubt have been shocked at today’s mixed-gender nudity. And the Sixties hippies would’ve been bored by the quiet, low-key ambience typical of a current weekend at the retreat.

Harbin and the Churches' main Web page.

Yet all of them, and others, had helped nurture Harbin Hot Springs, and in turn inspire the Heart Consciousness Church and fuel the New Age Church of Being. The Miwok’s “hot place” would no doubt be a land of sacred visions for many years to come.

Heart Consciousness Church Web page (part of the Harbin Hot Springs site)
Ishvara, Oneness in Living: Kundalini Yoga, the Spiritual Path, and the Intentional Community. (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2002). 
Klages, Ellen. Harbin Hot Springs; Healing Waters, Sacred Land. (Middletown, CA: Harbin Springs Publishing, 1991.)

Harbinger Revisted (1967 - 1969) (Facebook group dedicated to accounts and photos of the Harbinger University era at Harbin. Thanks to Susan Jennifer Gray Charnoe for allowing me to use photos from this source.) 

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Children of God/The Family


Children of God leader David Berg, surrounded by his
"Flirty Fish" female followers in Tenerife, Canary Islands

The video opens with a young man sitting at a small, cluttered kitchen table. Darkly handsome and clad in a red muscle-shirt, with a shaved head and bulging biceps, he looks as if he could be a new Marine out on his first liberty from boot camp. At first, he speaks haltingly to the camera, referring to vague “frustrations that I’ve had” while he fiddles with some objects on the table. He mentions something about an “opportunity” that’s just come up for him, alludes to unspecified childhood traumas he suffered with other kids, and muses on the proper way to commit suicide.

At about this time, the objects he’s been fussing with come into clear view: they’re ammunition rounds, and he’s been loading them into pistol magazines. He reaches to the side of the table, pulls out a Glock 23 semiautomatic, and praises the killing power of the .40 caliber round it fires. He also produces a Ka-Bar military knife, and boasts that he’s sharpened its edge to an angle perfect for “taking out the scum, taking out the fuckin' trash.” Minutes later, he also mentions that he’s got a stun gun, an electric drill, a soldering iron, duct tape and socks – all intended for use “to get the information” out of some unnamed person – information that seems to concern the whereabouts of “those sick fucks Mama and Peter,” and various other enemies. Still, he admits he’s untrained in the dark arts of interrogation and homicide, and may not be able to go through with it.

But the young man soon recovers his mettle. He says people near him are “dropping like flies,” and that he’s going to wage war against “…fuckin' perverts…[t]errorizing little kids.” After some more ambiguous reminiscences and references to pedophilia and child abuse, he seethes: “You know anger does not begin…to describe how I feel about these people and what they've done. You know, I mean, rage!...And uh, that's gonna feel good to do some damage even if it's not much. As far as I can go. That's what I'm gonna do. It's gonna feel so fucking good -- liberating.”After a few more words, the video runs blank.

Children of God "Divine Prince" Ricky Rodriguez. Several hours after
this video was made, he murdered his old nanny, then took his own life.

 The young man on the video is Ricky Rodriguez, AKA Davidito. Just three weeks shy of 30, he’s spent his entire life as the poster child, Divine Prince and Future Leader of a controversial Christian sect with a history of promoting open, “liberated” sexuality – even among small children. And now he is about to make a final, brutal, bloody gesture against the pain and rage he’s suffered since his earliest years.

Within 24 hours of making the video, he will lure his old nanny Angela Smith (formerly Susan Joy Kauten) to his Tucson, Arizona, apartment, and then stab her to death with the Ka-Bar knife. Then he will drive west, across the Colorado River and into the desert town of Blythe, California, where he’ll check into a motel around midnight. Minutes later, he will drive a few miles’ south of town, turn onto a dark desert road, park the car, and then blow his brains out with the Glock pistol. He will leave behind a wife, a half-sister and a circle of fellow “survivors,” as well as a series of email postings and the video for law enforcement and the media to peruse.

The saddest and most shameful legacy of the Children of God (AKA The Family) – the sect that Ricky grew up in – has come home to California, where it started thirty-seven years earlier in a quiet coastal suburb….

Hjalmer and Virginia Brandt Berg

The Children of God was in many ways the fruit of a Christian evangelist’s childhood traumas, combined with a serious midlife crisis. Its founder, David Brandt Berg, AKA Moses or “Mo”, was born in 1919, the son of traveling Christian revivalist Virginia Brandt Berg, who toured America with her husband Hjalmer as the “Berg Evangelistic Drama Company.” When they weren’t on the road, the Bergs conducted a large part of their ministry in Miami, where they spent the mid-1920s working out of a 4,500-seat theater and billing Virginia as “The Miracle Woman” and “A Modern Prophetess.”

Berg’s memories of his early years were colored by his odd relationship with Virginia. He recalled that as a child, he habitually masturbated, and was regularly scolded for this by his mother (according to him, she once even hauled him before the rest of the family, grabbed a knife and a washbowl, and threatened to emasculate him on the spot if he didn’t stop abusing himself.) Berg also said that his babysitter, a Mexican girl named Maria, would fellate him to sleep every afternoon until one day when Mama Berg intervened, and threw her out of the house.

A 1931 Bible pageant features a young David Berg (second from right). His father Hjalmer is at the far left.

 As Virginia’s marriage with Hjalmer disintegrated, her son David replaced him as both her lieutenant and constant companion. When he turned sixteen, David Berg left school, got his driver’s license, and then spent the next few years chauffeuring his mother to various revival gigs across America, and acting as her sidekick in evangelism. Berg said that on one cold Depression night in Northern California, the pair shared a bed for warmth, and that he got sexually excited lying next to her – a disturbing admission that foreshadowed his later alleged behavior.

In 1941 Berg, now 22, was ordained to the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Four years later, after serving in the Army Corps of Engineers as a conscientious objector, he met Jane Miller at an Alliance Church in Van Nuys, California; they married shortly thereafter, and eventually produced four children.

After the war, Berg moved his family to the Alliance’s Valley Farms settlement in Arizona, a fundamentalist Christian commune where he found work as a pastor. However, in 1951 he left the community under a cloud of suspicion. Although Berg later maintained the split was over doctrinal differences, others alleged he’d been caught having an affair with a 17-year old girl who lived at the Farms.

Berg soon found a new job with Fred Jordan, one of the first televangelists. For the next sixteen years Berg worked for Jordan, helping him with his “Church in the Home” TV and radio shows, and managing one of his Soul Clinic missions. Years later, his eldest daughter Deborah claimed that during this period, he’d attempted to molest her several times, and had also started an incestuous relationship with her younger sister Faithy.

The Berg family in 1961

 Fired by Jordan in 1967, Berg looked for other missionary outlets. The former traveling evangelist went back on the road, this time with his family as a Christian singing group. Their act bombed everywhere they went, and in early 1968, Berg and his family retreated to Huntington Beach, California, where his mother was living.

Although retired, the elderly Virginia Berg had continued her evangelical work – this time informally, among the long-haired, scruffily-dressed young people who hung out along the beach boardwalk and pier. While still a suit-clad “square,” her son joined her on her missions to the beach town’s hippies and runaways. Many years later, he wrote of a vision he had then for a whole new way of evangelizing the alienated youth of late-Sixties America:

One dark night, as I walked the streets with these poor drugged and despairing hippies, God suddenly spoke to my heart and said, “Art thou willing to go to these lost sheep to become a king of these poor little beggars? They need a voice to speak for them, they need a shepherd to lead them, and they need the rod of My Word to guide them to the Light” And that night I promised God that I would try to lead them and do everything I could to save them and win them to the Lord and led them into His service…They’d been churched to death and preached to death and hounded to death by the System and it hadn’t done any good, so we just had to get out there and somehow love ‘em back to life.

Berg wasn’t the only evangelist reaching out to the California Sixties counterculture. Three hundred miles north of Huntington Beach, in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, a small knot of converted hippies were witnessing to young people who’d been alienated from both mainstream America and the various come-ons of the “alternative culture.” Across the Bay, in radical Berkeley, Old-Time Religion met the New Left as Jack Sparks’ Christian World Liberation Front preached an activist Gospel that recast the Prince of Peace as a Che Guevara-esque revolutionary whose teachings opposed the violence and decadence of a corrupt empire, and who would lead oppressed peoples to freedom and equality. All over California, small Christian communes formed, likening themselves to the original cells of believers in first-Century Rome.

Dissatisfied with the Hippie counterculture, many "Jesus Freaks"
turned on to Christ, tuned in to the Bible, and dropped out of mainstream America.

 The so-called “Jesus Revolution” was underway, and its followers would be called “Jesus people,” or more derisively, “Jesus freaks.”

For the most part, these countercultural Christians identified not with the faith’s liberal or mystical tendencies, but with the evangelical, fundamentalist strain of American Christianity that stressed the “born-again” experience, literal Biblical interpretation, and apocalyptic “end-times” theology. Like the hippies themselves, this form of Christianity had been largely a mocked, marginalized subculture in secularizing, sophisticated postwar America, until its earthy, emotive spirituality was rediscovered by a generation of young people seeking authenticity and truth. Though few would admit it today, much of American Fundamentalist Christianity’s post-Sixties cultural and political power was forged in this unlikely alliance between youth rebellion and religious traditionalism.

Although nobody would become more identified with the “Jesus freaks” than David Berg, he started out slowly and modestly. After his mother passed away, he took over her ministry to Huntington Beach’s hippies, and opened up a Christian youth center called the Light Club at 116 Main Street, just steps from the beach and the pier. Every night between 8 PM and midnight, young seekers gathered at the funky storefront chapel, stretched out on its used furniture, sipped coffee and listened to Berg’s children Aaron and Faithy perform original Christian folk-rock songs on the low stage, which doubled as an altar in worship services.

But the real action at the Light Club came when David Berg mounted the stage. Emulating his young followers, he’d shed his three-piece suit in favor of jeans and a work shirt, and had grown out his graying hair and beard in the best Old-Testament style. In his sermons, the 50-year old father of four lambasted the “System”: the older generation, and the established churches, government, capitalist economy, and military that served their corrupt, worldly interests. Berg had rejected the role of mere Christian pastor – now he was a self-proclaimed Prophet, preaching a “Gospel of rebellion” and a “Revolution for Jesus.”

In the spirit of the times, Berg and his flock took their message to the streets. They demonstrated at mainstream churches throughout the Southland, accusing the established sects of heresy. When some of his followers were arrested at a local college for trespassing (they’d been leafleting students, and had refused to leave the grounds), Berg sent a platoon of his people, clad in Biblical robes, to picket the administration building.

Eventually the local officials and “System” churches tired of Berg’s antics, and he was forced to flee, with a few dozen followers, to his old haunts in Tucson, Arizona. There, Berg, his family and a few of the faithful camped out in a 26’ RV as he plotted his next move.

One of his closest followers in Tucson was Karen Zerby, a 22-year old from a straitlaced Christian background who’d joined his ministry to her more free-spirited peers. Soon she and Berg were lovers; when their affair became common knowledge among his flock, Berg justified it as a polygamous arrangement permitted for God’s true prophets. His legal wife Janet, he later told his lieutenants, was “Old Church,” and no longer relevant in his life, whereas young Karen Zerby (who was now calling herself “Maria”) was the queen of the “New Church.” The explanation seemed to satisfy both his followers and his wife, and Karen/Maria herself remained Berg’s common-law spouse for the rest of his life.

When the brutal desert summer arrived in mid-1969, Berg and about fifty followers traveled across the continent, meeting at a campground in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains. There, in his best King James Version English, Berg declared himself the spiritual leader of the world’s alienated youth – a latter-day Moses, with the hippies standing in as the Children of Israel:

I saw unto thee this night, my children of the hippie army, bow low before me, for I will give unto thee that which I have long desired to bestow upon My Children. I have said that in the Last Days, I would pour out My Spirit, yet the world has seen but a little sprinkling of the mighty showers. During this year to come right before you I shall pour out My Spirit in mighty waves upon you as you witness to the lost children whom the churches have created by their own whoredom.

Thou shalt see it flow as rivers in the streets, parks and highways. Lo, servants, My hippie children….I have seen thy tears in the night hours during all thy childhood. I have seen the burdens of thy heart. I have seen the in all thy struggles against the Evil One, and in thy heartaches, and when the Evil One hath sought to take thy life, and did seek to destroy many of thee through drugs. I waited for the congregations of the churches to minister unto thee. But they hardened their hearts and forsook thee!

Berg’s movement gained a name shortly thereafter. A reporter, writing about an encampment of Berg’s followers in New Jersey, was told by one of them that the Christian hippies “were not part of any church or group, just Children of God.” The name stuck, and became the sect’s formal title for many years thereafter.

Jesus' Staves: Sackcloth-clad Children of God in a street demonstration.

 The reporter’s piece was just one of countless media stories about the “Jesus Freaks,” and in particular, about the Children of God and their charismatic leader. During that period Berg was in full-on Prophet of Doom mode, telling both reporters and his followers that a devastating earthquake would push California into the ocean, that Europe and North America would incinerate each other in an orgy of mutually-assured nuclear destruction, and that the youth of the world had to repent and save their souls from the older generation’s Antichrist System. The Children, now growing rapidly in numbers, began to appear at demonstrations and government offices, wearing sackcloth, sporting wooden staves and ash-stained foreheads, and preaching their leaders’ apocalyptic creed. Thousands of youths, disillusioned with the increasingly drug-sodden, cynical and self-indulgent counterculture, followed them, including Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer, who abandoned his band at a 1971 Los Angeles gig to join the Children, and remained with them for the next four decades.

By now, the main Children of God operation was at Fred Jordan’s old compound in Tyler, Texas. Berg had convinced his former employer to let him use the abandoned 400-acre ranch as an evangelical boot camp, open to all seekers. He also linked up with, and then absorbed a network of Christian communes organized by David Hoyt, a former Hare Krishna who’d converted to Christianity and had ministered to San Francisco hippies during the Summer of Love.

Scenes from the Children of God's Texas ranch, and evangelical work on the road

Hundreds of drug casualties, runaways and other young misfits were bused into these settlements by Children of God evangelists. The ones who stayed were asked to turn all their worldly goods to the group – such assets financed the Children’s growing number of collective settlements, and their increasing outreach beyond America. Seekers and camp-followers who fell in with the group’s communes and gypsy bands across North America and Europe were usually under the impression they had joined a leaderless radical Christian group, albeit one that stuck close to Fundamentalist teachings and an ascetic lifestyle. Many had never even heard of David Berg.

Berg was very much in control of the movement, however, via private communications called “The Mo[ses] Letters”. This was a series of hundreds of essays, screeds and rants written by Berg over a 25-year period, and intended for his committed followers’ instruction and enlightenment. Eventually anthologized into several thick volumes, the Mo Letters included such peculiar pieces as “I Am a Toilet -- Are You?”, a 1972 homily where Berg turned the act of defecation into a metaphor for Christian salvation, comparing himself to a bidet that was catching “the waste of the system” to purify it in God’s name, and urging the reader to become a fellow “Toilet for Jesus.”

A 1982 Mo Letter that reflected Berg's anti-Semitism

 Some of the Mo Letters’ nastiest materials concerned Jews. Berg, who had named his movement’s divisions after the Judaic Twelve Tribes, had gone to Israel hoping to establish kibbutz-style Children of God communities there. The government, perhaps fearing mass evangelizing of the population, turned him down. Berg never forgot the rejection, and for years afterward peppered the Letters with anti-Semitic vitriol, where he called the Jewish people “antichrist”, praised Hitler for attempting to check their power, and claimed that the Holocaust was a hoax designed to guilt-trip Christians into supporting Israel at all costs.

But Berg’s greatest troubles were coming not from Jews, but from nominally-Christian Americans. In San Diego, California, county government official Ted Patrick became alarmed when his fourteen-year old son came back from a 1971 Fourth of July gathering and reported that young people with “Bibles and guitars” had tried to lure him into their circle, telling him that his parents were “of the Devil” and promising him he’d never have to work or go to school again. Patrick investigated the Children of God, and even spent several weeks with them undercover as a new “disciple.” The experience convinced him that the Children were brainwashing their followers, and he soon learned of families who had “lost” sons and daughters to the cult, but couldn’t interest law enforcement in helping get them back.

Ted Patrick (r) "deprograms" a COG member.

 Patrick invented the process of “cult deprogramming.” For a fee, he and his associates would waylay members of the Children and other offbeat sects, and then hold them in seclusion while they confronted their captives, and tried to erase whatever indoctrination they’d received. As controversial a practice as anything attributed to the groups he fought, Patrick’s deprogramming work nevertheless earned him much fame, and brought the Children’s aggressive evangelizing tactics and weird beliefs into widespread public view. To mainstream America, David Berg looked less like a modern-day self-styled Moses, and more like a Pied Piper leading its children into physical, mental and spiritual slavery.

And the controversies were only beginning. In early 1974, Berg started teaching what he called “The Law of Love”: a doctrine that said the Children were “God’s last church…the last chance to prove that the ultimate Church can be trusted with total freedom in this last generation.” In this antinomian teaching, so long as one’s actions were motivated solely by love for others and for God, all Biblical legal restrictions were null and void – especially those pertaining to sex. One 1977 tract, “Love vs. Law!” proclaimed, “As far as the Bible says, for us there is no such thing as adultery! There is no such thing anymore as a Biblical law against adultery, as long as it is done in Love, because the ‘Law of Love’ supersedes all other laws!”

In the 1970s, Berg began to equate sexual and spiritual liberation

 The patriarch put this libidinous doctrine into practice with a novel evangelical technique that would be forever identified with his sect. On the move again, Berg and his close followers relocated to England, and with the hippie movement largely passĂ©, turned their missionary attentions to London’s clubs and discotheques. When his female acolytes witnessed to single men at night spots, Berg noted that the males seemed much more interested in Dionysian Eros than Christian Agape. Was it possible, he wondered, to literally seduce people into the Kingdom?

There was only one way to find out. Berg instructed his female disciples that it was now their duty to become “heaven’s harlots”, and sacrifice their bodies for Christ, that they might bring men into the Church. Becoming something of a pastoral pimp, Berg instructed his “girls” on what to wear, how to witness, and how to turn a simple one-night-stand into a loving welcome into the Christian faith.

Mere necking wasn’t enough for potential converts. Berg went on record as telling his “hookers for Jesus” to perform “masturbation, sucking and actual intercourse…It's all, or nothing at all! Hallelujah!” He even told his female missionaries to expect situations where they might be raped, advised them to endure sexual assault as one might tolerate the greed of a starving child, and openly fantasized how forced gang-bangs could be an excellent opportunity for their victims to witness for the Lord.

This booklet explained "Flirty Fishing" -- sexual
seduction of potential COG members -- to preteens

 The sexual-missionary practice would be dubbed “flirty fishing,” or FF’ing, after Christ’s declaration in Matthew 4:19, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Berg would issue many Mo Letters on the theory and practice of this Christian sacred-whoredom, such as King Arthur’s Nights – a novella describing how his wife Karen and several other Children seduced Englishman Arthur Lindfield into the sect. Another memorable title on the subject was The Little Flirty Fishy, a children’s comic book that explained the practice to Berg’s preteen followers. The Mo Letters, as well as various public tracts, began to sound less like the Pauline Epistles, and more like The Penthouse Forum.

Berg’s entourage of Flirty Fishers followed him to Spain’s Canary Islands in 1974, where both female and male Children turned their evangelical and erotic attentions to the region’s many tourists. Working out of several communal houses in Tenerife, the Children not only FF’ed many new disciples into the sect, but quickly gained international media coverage, as both Time and Stern magazines did pieces on Berg, his followers, and their paradoxical melding of Christian witness with Swinging-Seventies sexuality.

One of many instruction manuals Berg provided for FF'ers

Once again, however, the exposure brought unwanted attention. This time it was from Spain’s conservative Catholic hierarchy, who complained to local officials about the cult’s presence in the Islands.  Called into Tenerife court in March 1977, Berg instead fled to mainland Europe, where his followers now numbered in the thousands. European Children had established colonies in England, Holland, Scandinavia, West Germany, and Switzerland, and had even converted an Italian nobleman, Count Victor Emmanuel Canevaro, Duke of Zogli, who let the cult use his palatial coastal estate near Genoa as a commune.

With the Children’s numbers and notoriety growing, Berg moved to reorganize the group. Since the name “Children of God” had become synonymous with both spiritual and sexual manipulation in much of the media, Berg renamed his movement “The Family of Love,” or more simply, “The Family.” He also centralized the cult, ousting his various regional lieutenants and organizing the Family as a system of cells with elected leaders that answered directly to him.

Berg got even more paranoid in late 1978, when the Jonestown mass-suicide brought negative attention on unusual religious groups with charismatic leaders and strange practices. Fearing that the Family would be hounded or legislated out of existence in the countries that hosted its cells, Berg organized the “National Reorganize Securitywise Revolution” (NRS). He urged members to either go underground and stay on the move from the System, or infiltrate mainstream Christian churches and slowly inject his teachings into their practices. He also refocused the group’s missionary efforts on the Third World; the Family’s real future, he said, lay in developing countries where the System’s media and churches held less sway, and the suffering masses yearned for delivery from oppression.

The transformation of the Family into a centralized global spiritual guerrilla movement, as well as the increasing emphasis on sexuality and separation from “the world,” cost Berg thousands of followers. Those who remained were even more committed to Berg’s vision of erotic evangelism and Christian world revolution, and although the group became less visible, its practices were more radical than ever.

"Davidito" with David Berg

No person more symbolized the ideals of Berg and the Family than Karen-Maria Zerby’s son, Davidito. Born on January 25, 1975 in Tenerife, he was the child of the cult’s “Queen” and a Canarian hotel worker whom she’d “flirty-fished.” Although the boy’s legal name was Richard Peter “Ricky” Rodriguez, Berg, who’d arranged the coupling, christened him Davidito (“little David”) and proclaimed that the boy and his mother were the “Two Witnesses” mentioned in Revelation 11 that would usher in the Apocalypse. The aging patriarch raised little Ricky/Davidito as both his own son and his ostensible heir to the throne – a Divine Prince who would be a living symbol of the Family’s commitment to create a new kind of human being.

As a cult leader living in a private cell of compliant young females, Berg indulged his sexual-liberation ideals fully in the raising of “Davidito.” From birth, Ricky grew up in an erotically-supercharged environment, and as the movement’s prince, was encouraged to embody Family-style sexual freedom. His early years were thoroughly documented in a 1982 Family-published book called The Story of Davidito – a compilation of Berg’s Mo’s Letters about parenting that was bound and distributed to Family enclaves around the world, and offered as a guide to raising the cult’s children, many of whom, like Ricky, had been conceived in flirty-fishing expeditions.

The Story of Davidito, and other COG publications that followed
the "Divine Princes" hyper-sexualized childhood

 Along with accounts of his more mundane activities, The Story of Davidito was filled with anecdotes about little Ricky’s precocious sexual escapades with both other children and his many female nannies. Page after page recounted how Ricky’s nannies would parade around naked, or have sex with male Family members, in front of the little boy. How Ricky would imitate them by attempting to mount little girls, including his younger half-sister “Davida,” another child conceived by Karen/Maria’s flirty-fishing. How Ricky would be present during adult orgies, wandering between the bodies and crying for attention. And how Ricky’s nannies would lie naked with the boy and let him fondle and suck their breasts, or would fellate him to sleep.  All of this was advocated and encouraged by Berg who, no doubt remembering his own dysfunctional childhood, wanted Ricky and all other Family children to be raised without the taint of sexual guilt or shame.

Amazingly, The Story of Davidito even contained photos of Ricky in sex play with both the nannies and other Family children, including one picture that depicted an adult female sucking the toddler’s penis. In that shocking photo, as in all the others in the book, the adults’ identities were disguised with cartoon-like faces that had been drawn over their real likenesses – a weird touch that made the book all the more unnerving. The facial obscuring was done largely because Berg and his associates were on the move across Europe and Asia, and didn’t want to be identified by authorities as they shuttled between Family safe houses, often hiding behind phony identities and faked passports to conceal their movements and locations.

Davida, Davidito, and Berg

 If Davidito was the Family’s Prince – the “little child [that] shall lead them” into the time of Prophecy – then his half-sister Davida was the Princess that symbolized childhood sexual liberation. Unfortunately for her, as she testified years later, this meant being the focus of spiritual father Berg’s lecherous attentions. Davida said that during her childhood years, Berg would fondle and perform oral sex on her (there was no penetration, since years of hard drinking had rendered him impotent). He also loved having her dance nude for him, and ordered his many female disciples across the globe to send him “nudie cuties”: videos of themselves swaying suggestively while topless or naked.

Berg's granddaughter, Merry "Mene" Berg. She testified
that her grandfather had sexually and physically abused her. 

 But Davida wasn’t Berg’s only young victim. In the early 1980s, when Berg and his followers were staying at a secret compound in the Philippines, the sexagenarian sect leader continually molested his granddaughter Merry, AKA Mene, the daughter of his son Aaron’s second wife Shula. Berg also forced her to have sex with Ricky, since he wanted her to get pregnant and continue his family line.  When she resisted Berg, he “exorcised” her by tying her to her bed, beating her with a rod, and spanking her bare bottom in front of her friends and Family leaders. Astonishingly, the Family transcribed the “exorcism”, published it in a Mo Letter called The Last State, and made it required reading for all sect members.

By this time, hundreds of Family children, born of marriages, trysts, and flirty-fishing, and raised inside the cult according to Berg’s principles, were now reaching puberty. Within Family colonies, Berg set up groups known as Teen Combos to indoctrinate, educate and socialize the adolescents, and crush any rebellion they might display towards him, the sect or their way of life. Troublemaking teens were sent to so-called “Victory Camps” in the Philippines, Japan, Brazil and Macao, where they were kept in isolation from the rest of the Family, and subject to the drunken, mercurial Berg’s arbitrary and ever-changing rules on behavior and discipline. Reports of beatings and sexual abuse, especially in the dreaded Macao compound, began to filter through the close-knit world of the Family.

Manuals like Heavenly Helpers helped COG parents
and elders control rebellious children.

In the late 1980s, Berg ran the camps, as well as the rest of the sect, from “The Heavenly City” – a secretive Family settlement in Japan that also housed Ricky and the rest of Berg’s extended entourage. Initiated into full sexual intercourse at age 12, Ricky spent his teens living out Berg’s ideal of sexual freedom, making love to both other adolescents and adults, including (according to Davida) his own mother.

A Children of God "topless feast" (note the cartoon-obscured faces).

Years later Ricky vehemently denied he had an Oedipal relationship with Karen/Maria. But he did testify in detail about the orgiastic conditions at the Family compounds. One especially lurid story concerned the time when Berg & Co. occupied a compound in the Philippines that featured a swimming pool with a glass-walled subterranean observation room, where voyeurs would watch Berg and others couple with their multiple partners in the water.

In 1993, the now 18-year old Ricky traveled to the United States just long enough to visit Washington State and legally change his name to “Richard Peter Smith.” He continued his globetrotting with Family hierarchs for another year, then returned to the USA and changed his name back to “Richard Peter Rodriguez.” (Identity-switching was a common practice among Family faithful, who used aliases and pseudonyms to confuse immigration authorities, and often chose common shared surnames like “Smith” to pass as married couples or legal-family members.)

By this time, the Family was once again generating media interest – most of it highly negative. Now an adult, Merry Berg went on NBC TV’s “Now” news show in September 1993, and discussed her sexual and physical abuse at the hands of Berg and other Family elders. Soon afterwards, Merry also testified in a high-profile British child-custody case involving the Family that exposed much of their hyper-sexualized culture to public view. Other Family children were also coming forward with their own horror stories about being raised in the cult, many of which corroborated Merry’s testimony. And on Halloween 1993, film star and former Family child River Phoenix, who once claimed he lost his virginity at the age of four, died in a Hollywood gutter of a drug overdose – hardly a fitting tribute to Berg’s idealization of childhood sexuality.

Along with the personal revelations, documented evidence of the Family’s sexual shenanigans surfaced as well. Part of The Story of Davidito was leaked to the press – hard proof that at least one child had been systematically molested at Berg’s orders, as an example to his followers. An even bigger bombshell hit the sect when one of its defectors turned over sixteen trunks’ worth of pilfered top-secret Family videos and literature to reporters. The treasure trove of damning materials documented the widespread advocacy and practice of child sex in the cult.

One of many COG publications that seemed
to endorse precocious sexuality

The Family went into high-gear damage-control mode. The sect commissioned an independent study of Ricky and other Family kids that seemed to conclude there was no hard evidence of maladjustment or molestation among them. They also pointed out that despite all the seeming evidence against them, nobody in the cult had ever been convicted of any crimes or misdemeanors against children. As for Merry, Family spokespeople claimed she was a delusional mental case who had been lying and “fucking the Devil” since she was a small child.

First page of official COG replay to allegations of abuse.

The sect also claimed that they’d renounced their more extreme doctrines about childhood sex, and that such practices hadn’t continued into the 1990s. Even flirty-fishing, according to Family literature, had been abandoned in 1987 when AIDS made the practice too dangerous. The Family also scored a public-relations victory when the British child-custody case was resolved in their favor in November 1995, although the presiding judge urged the sect to denounce Berg and his sexual teachings.

But the Family patriarch wasn’t around to suffer such an indignity. At an unknown date in 1994, the 75-year old Berg died at a Family commune in Costa de Caparica, Portugal of undisclosed causes.

Those who had hoped the Family would jettison its “weirdness” in his wake were disappointed.  Karen/Maria immediately took over the reins of leadership, and during 1995 issued a bizarre stream of “prophecies” from her late husband and Jesus, as well as beyond-the-grave messages from Genghis Khan, Jerry Garcia, River Phoenix, and even Art Linkletter (a miracle in itself, since the former TV host was very much alive at the time).

The channeled spirit of Berg insisted that his Queen marry Family executive leader Stephen Douglas Kelly, AKA Christopher Smith, AKA Peter Amsterdam, and make him King and second-in-command in the new cult dynasty. Kelly, who Merry Berg had identified as one of her childhood tormentors, became Karen/Maria’s common-law spouse – an arrangement that continues to this day.

"Queen" Karen Zerby, circa 2000.

 In these prophecies, Karen/Maria also clarified post-Berg Family doctrine. Although she emphasized that the days of flirty-fishing and kiddie-sex were long past, she stressed that the Law of Love – the pro-sexual freedom teaching that had made the Family unique among Christian sects – was still very much in effect.

Part of living the Law involved a new teaching called “Marriage of the Generations,” where young (adult) Family members were encouraged to sleep with members of their parents’ generation, in order to promote harmony and unity in the sect. Another one of Karen/Maria’s revelations, “Loving Jesus!” had Christ himself urging Family members to masturbate while praying to him, saying, “We shall have a great feast and we shall have great love, and we shall have a great, great, great big orgy together! This is My call to all the young virgins: Come unto me. I want to marry you. I want you in the bed of my love…” To critics of the Family, as well as disgruntled defectors, it seemed as if the sect hadn’t reformed at all, that it was deliberately recreating the same erotic-evangelistic environment that had caused all the trouble and heartache in the first place.

Three decades after the Family’s beginnings in Huntington Beach, the action was once again shifting to California – this time, to the little town of Dulzura in the mountains east of San Diego. Dulzura was the home of the Family Care Foundation, a nonprofit fund group whose top officers were all Family members, and which raised nearly $10 million in a six-year period from big donors and government grants. Along with its work with orphans and disaster victims, the Foundation funneled $70,000 to the youth charity “From the Heart”, run by Family member Philip Slown, who had been accused of continually molesting two girls born into the sect. Another Foundation employee and beneficiary was Paul Peloquin, who had allegedly abused Merry Berg and produced pornographic videos for the Family while running the sect’s “Music With Meaning” youth project.

For a few months in 2000, the Dulzura compound housed the Family’s most famous second-generation member: Ricky Rodriguez. But he wasn’t there for long; now married to a Hungarian Family member named Elixcia, the Divine Prince had become thoroughly sick of both Family life and his role in it, and finally denounced and quit the sect at the end of the year. He then relocated to Washington State with his wife, moved into a small apartment and found work on a fishing boat.

But Ricky had spent too many years in the Family, and been wounded too deeply by his elders, to ever forget the past and settle down to a “normal” life. By mid-2002, he had discovered the Internet, and had become a regular poster on ex- and anti-Family bulletin boards, describing his bizarre childhood and networking with other defectors and critics.

As he became more obsessed with his past, he drifted apart from Elixcia, and moved back to California in 2004, rooming with another Family escapee in San Diego and training for work as an electrician. His Internet postings started getting both more fatalistic, and more militant:

I was under the mistaken impression that having written [about my story] I could leave it all behind, start a new life that had nothing to do with the cult, and really ‘move on’ with my life. I know now that will never happen. I can’t run away from my past… Something has to be done to stop these child molesters…Every day these people [who] are alive and free [are] a slap in the face to the thousands of us who’ve been methodically molested, tortured, raped, and the many who they have as good as murdered by driving them to suicide.”

Ricky was obsessed with finding his mother, Karen/Maria. In September 2004 he moved to Tucson, Arizona, thinking that the peripatetic Family leader might land in her old hometown to visit her sister Rosemary. Ominously, he started speaking and writing about killing the Family Queen, and backed up his threats by purchasing a Glock pistol and training with it at a local shooting range.

Finally, on January 7, 2005, he made a rambling confessional video of himself in his kitchen, recounting his sufferings at the hands of the Family, and wavering between thoughts of suicide, threats of vengeance, and doubts that he could carry out either path of action. The next day he got in touch with Sue Kauten AKA Angela Smith, a close associate of his mother’s and one of the first flirty-fishers. An old nanny of Ricky’s, who appeared in Story of Davidito photos playing sex games with the little boy, the 51-year old Smith agreed to meet Ricky that evening in Tucson, ostensibly for a dinner date.

Sue Kauten AKA Angela Smith -- murdered
and possibly tortured by Ricky Rodriguez

She met Ricky at his apartment on the evening of January 8th, but never left it alive. Ricky might have tortured Smith for info on his mother’s whereabouts, but the coroner’s report on her death was inconclusive about secondary injuries. It did however determine that she had been killed with a single lethal neck wound, and had also been stabbed on her torso.

While Smith’s bloodied corpse was still warm, Ricky grabbed some belongings, jumped into his car, and headed west to California. On the road, he called his wife Elixcia in Washington State, confessed the murder and told her about his video, begging her to “come die with me” (she refused, and instead called the police). When night fell, Ricky crossed the state line into the desert town of Blythe, checked into a motel, changed out of his blood-spattered clothes, downed a few beers, and then got back in the car and drove south in the dark desert night, turning onto a dirt access road. There, at about 2:00 AM on January 9th, he parked the car, put the Glock semiautomatic to his head, and squeezed the trigger. His bullet-shattered corpse was found in the morning by an irrigation worker.

The murder-suicide once again put the Family in the headlines, and brought home the reality and damage of the cult’s sexual excesses and abuses.  Many people both inside and outside the sect wondered if Alicia Smith had given up Ricky’s mom’s whereabouts, and if he had crossed into California to stage some sort of massacre at the Dulzura compound, only to lose his nerve, as he’d feared he would in the video he made just before the killings. Most, however, felt that Ricky had burned out on life completely – he had mentioned suicide repeatedly on both his swan-song video, and his Internet postings – and had killed Sue Kauten as a last symbolic bloody gesture to the Family before he sent a bullet through his own skull.

Current Web page for The Family (formerly the Children of God)

As with all the other scandals that beset it, the Family weathered the Ricky Rodriguez suicide-murder. Today, if one peruses its slickly-designed Web site, it seems to be just another evangelical Christian organization spreading the Good News and doing humanitarian work across the globe. But its critics and “survivors” maintain that it has never officially repudiated Berg’s doctrines, and that it continues to preach and practice in his spirit, often behind the cover of front groups. The Family remains controversial and the subject of regular investigations and exposes by both journalists and various national governments.

The seeds that were planted on the Huntington Beach boardwalk over forty years ago have long since brought forth creeping tendrils that have circled the world, sometimes entangling young and innocent victims in its vines. Whether the Family is an innocent (if strange) growth, or a noxious weed, will ultimately be determined by the Harvester that David Berg claimed to represent during his time as a modern-day Prophet and Patriarch of the world’s alienated youth.

Sources/Links (massive collection of COG/Family materials by former members. The source of most of the illustrations used here.)
Chancellor, James D. Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
Lattin, Don. Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge. New York: HarperOne, 2007.
Melton, J. Gordon. The Children of God -- "The Family". Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1997.