Thursday, October 9, 2008

Life in a Christian Commune (My year at JPUSA)

The main thing that inspired me to start this blog was a desire to post this. 'This' is a paper I wrote in a first-year anthropology about Jesus People USA, a Christian commune in Chicago that I lived with for almost a year before starting university. (Founded in 1972 and now numbering around 500 people, JPUSA is one of the largest and longest-running communes around). There's nothing particularly scholarly about it, though I passed it off by calling it 'a field notes write-up' — basically, I just told stories about JPUSA and tried to explain how it works and what it's like to live there. In a lot of ways, it was just an excuse to get a lot of my memories and thoughts down on paper, partly so I could look back on it years later.

Ever since I wrote it, I've wanted to get it up on the Internet somehow. There isn't really anything like it out there... most of the stuff on JPUSA on the Internet is either material from their official site, or paranoid 'they're a crazy cult!' kind of stuff. I definitely am pretty sympathetic to them in what I wrote (JPUSA was good to me, on the whole, after all), but I'm also definitely not candy-coating anything. I hope this will be a help to those considering spending at time at JPUSA themselves, as well as anyone else wanting to learn more about them.

It also shouldn't be taken as an exhaustive, or definitive, treatment of JPUSA. I was only there for a year, which in some ways is a long time, and in some ways, no time at all. I'm primarily concerned by how JPUSA was experienced by new young single members, because that was what I and those closest to me experienced.  Broader generalizations (about other areas, about structure, long-term trends and how 'things normally are') are at best how they seemed to a relative newcomer. 

WARNING: It's really long! If you were to print it out, it would total over a hundred pages. Hopefully it's very thorough, too. I'm also a little embarassed by some parts of it, and by the writing stye in general (it was 4 years ago), but here it is, warts and all!

Click on the links below to get started.
Part 1 - JPUSA's History ; Part 1 Endnotes
Part 2 - JPUSA Today - Structure
Part 3 - JPUSA Today - Social
Part 4 - Coming and Going
Part 5 - The Future


  1. Hi Tim. I read the article about JPUSA and I saw a link below to your blog
    ...I would also read your articles about Jesus people community, but it will be hard work - to translate it into Czech. I am from the Czech Republic ... it is in middle Europe (for your orientation)..

    PS cool pictures above :) I think it is an old Czech Skoda car and dirty sneakers that I wear.

  2. Hi, Daggie. Glad you stumbled across me. Good luck with the Czech/English thing. I'm afraid I can't help you out there. Tried checking out your blog and ran into the same problem, from opposite ends.

    The picture was taken by a friend... somewhere in Europe, so you're probably right about it being a Skoda. (I had no idea!) Not sure where she took it... she was living in France at the time, but travelled around Europe a lot. It might be from the Czech Republic itself.

    The sneakers are mine, and I'm afraid they're falling apart and on their last legs these days.

  3. Hey Tim,

    I found this post linked from the JPUSA entry on Wikipedia!

    I'm not sure if you remember me, but I lived at JPUSA for eight years and left a little over two years ago to attend school.

    I really enjoyed your "field notes write-up." It is perhaps the most thorough and accurate account of life at JPUSA I have ever come across. My wife has asked me to try to explain what it's like there, but I have a hard time explaining it. We live close to JPUSA (and I also attend Truman College in Uptown), so we have visited together and she has visited on her own, so she has a tiny little insight. I am definitely going to show her this article.

    An interesting thing I recently found on the Uptown Update blog is a link to a new film about people who grew up at JPUSA called Born,
    It's interesting to hear what they have to say outside the walls of JPUSA.

  4. Hi James. Of course I remember you -- actually I linked to your blog at one point (bottom of part 3, I think), 'cause you had some photos and observations on JPUSA.

    It's very gratifying to hear praise from someone else that lived there -- so good to know you don't think I misrepresented the place -- so thank you very much!

    That trailer looks very interesting -- I'll have to see it, when it becomes available. Watching the trailer and clips made me quite sad. Though I generally had a good impression of JPUSA, I remember thinking that it seemed a screwy place to be a teenager in.

    It also seems like when they were growing up things were a lot more unbalanced -- my impression was that a lot of the things they were (rightfully) criticizing have changed, or at least I hope so.

    I'd be interested in hearing more from you... what led you to leave JPUSA, what you're up to these days. You can always drop me an e-mail via genesiswinter(at)

  5. I am really confused. I thought I knew Genesis Winter and didn't think she was a guy but rather a woman who had grown up in JPUSA.

  6. It's an unfortunate confusion. I'm not Genesis Winter, and didn't really know her while I was there. To me, it was just a name I saw on a piece of art while I was there... I assumed it was a pseudonym or something, liked it, and started using it as an avatar/username.

  7. Hi,to think that when u hear an organisation like jpusa one would have had fun.

  8. Lots and lots 75 at paulina house ( a three story not six). The young dumd leaders decided to take the children from their parents. Forced bathing with them... And would not allow them to speak to the single mothers. they had psychologically ambushed and indirectly kidnapped the kids. . Molested them and dumped them when they were done using them as sexual fodder.. They let strangers punish them at will and never hugged and loved them... Then they had their own.. And being sexually spent they decided to raise their own children differently...

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  12. After lots of agonizing, I've deleted several more comments that Robert Adams wrote here. He accuses leaders of JPUSA of abusing their power in several ways (separating kids from children, weird corporal punishment, some sexual abuse).

    I like to think of myself of as a supporter of free speech, but for me these comments went too far when they got very personal and very crass (stuff like 'i wonder if person x poked their daughter y too' – and these are two people I knew/know, if not super-well). I mean, if these accusations are correct, I understand there being a lot anger. But this just doesn't strike me an appropriate place to talk in this way.

    Robert, if you are reading this, a few things:

    1) I apologize, but I have deleted the rest of your messages for the reasons I explained earlier. If you want to re-write what you said in a way that isn't quite so, um, wildly insulting and crass, I'd still like to have what you have to say on my site.

    2) You're right, my paper isn't the whole story. We're talking about completely different eras of JPUSA life, and I have heard quite a few disturbing stories about earlier times at JPUSA.
    I mean, I found the trailer for the film James Council referenced above very disturbing. I know a lot of the kids (now adults) in that film, and I'm shocked at the things they are saying – that is definitely not how kids are treated at JPUSA today.
    That is all I can say – my paper is a very honest representation of what I saw at JPUSA during the time I was there in the early 2000s. That's all I can talk about, 'cause it's all I really know.

    3) If 1&2 make you angry, do feel free to create your own blog, where you say exactly what you want about JPUSA exactly the way you want to. In the meantime, I'm happy to host any criticial perspective on them, as long as it's expressed in a relatively respectful way.

  13. Very interesting paper. I remember listening to Rez in the 70s (when I was a teen). Exchanged messages with Glen sometime in the 80s on FIDONET (before internet). I have heard of JPUSA any number of times and the music festivals too. I also grew up in the church, though not a PK, but just the teaching I had when young seems to be beyond what many people have after bible collage. Anyway, it is great to have a peek inside this ministry. Your paper has a lot to say about community in general and communes of any kind. Good reading in all. It is interesting how many people feel they would like to live in a commune... so long as they owned it :)

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