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What I Learned About Cults While Making God Willing

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Filmmaker Evangeline Griego, director of 'God Willing,' which airs on public television stations in April and May, on what she learned about cults while making the film.

Thursday before Mother's day, May 1996, I got a call at home in Los Angeles from my sister, Kathy, who lives in New Mexico. "Daniel has left," she said. I had just spoken to my 20-year-old nephew the week before about picking me up at the airport that weekend and everything seemed fine. I listened to my sister read Daniel's note over the phone, "I've gone off to serve the Lord. ... Do not file a missing persons report." She then began to tell me about how Daniel, who had always been a Christian believer, had been hanging out with a group of Christians he'd met at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque where he was enrolled. She believed he must have left with them.

She didn't know much about Daniel's new friends whom she had only seen on occasion, noticing their long beards, tunic type dress, close shaven hair. She knew they had participated in university Bible study groups with Daniel. To Kathy, a devout Christian herself, they seemed like Christians who had adopted a very modest style of dress. At first we thought maybe they were some type of religious cult, but we felt sure Daniel would not join a cult; cults simply didn't fit with our image of Daniel or of our family. It's always someone else's family that would happen to, not to "good families" like ours. All we had to go on initially was the note that explicitly said, "do not come looking for me, or anything like that, I will be fine, the Lord comes first." In a matter of days she and her husband confirmed that their son Daniel had, in fact, joined one of more than 5,000 cults that exist in America.

As I grappled with the shocking idea that Daniel had joined a religious cult, an onslaught of "what ifs" began to form. "If it is a cult, how would we get him out? Where could he have gone? Do they take them to some military type camp to get indoctrinated? What if it's a doomsday cult? What if he never comes home?" Any and all worse case scenarios began to take hold.

We quickly set out to gather as much information as possible and began contacting members of Daniel's Bible study class at UNM who may have seen him with these people. We started to piece together the identity of his new friends, their distinctive clothes, their scriptural writings, manner of talking, usage of bicycles to travel. We contacted cult experts who had experience working with religious groups and within 48 hours we learned that Daniel had likely left with the Jim Roberts Group aka the Brethren or Garbage Eaters. We learned that their members are severely ascetic, believing that their only path to salvation is through perfection. Women are not able to teach or interpret the Bible. They do not believe in work for the sake of work but only for necessity. They are nomadic, often living in the outdoors, shun medical intervention and often get their food from dumpsters (thus, their moniker). The first time I saw those words in print and knew that my nephew was with them I doubled over. How could my nephew, who was so loved, educated, traveled, religious, and embraced by his immediate and extended family turn his back and forsake all that he had known?

One of the first things we learned about the Jim Roberts Group's beliefs was that they adhere strictly to the King James version of the Bible and find the book of Luke particularly rich with doctrine that supports their legalistic approach to faith and salvation. For example, they believe that to attain salvation you must forsake all, including your flesh family. To prove their point they refer to Luke 14:26 which states, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." Luke 26:33 states, "So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath cannot be my disciple."

These Biblical quotes would haunt us for the next three years. How can he hate us? Why? Not being a devout Catholic and unable to match their Biblical acumen, I armed myself with a new King James Bible and opened to Luke 14:26 to verify their teachings. I could not believe what I saw: the Bible absolutely had those versus, exactly. It pained me to see it in black and white, these words that he held as truth. However out of context the verse is taken, it was in the Bible, God's words. It became evident the JRG was using a form of twisted scriptures to convince his followers that they were the "chosen few" -- the only ones who would go to heaven. The JRG keeps the flock intact using fear and the threat that if they do not fall inline with the group's teachings they will be forsaken by God for all eternity and lose all hope for eternal salvation. A very heavy burden for anyone to carry, but for a young person sincerely seeking to serve the Lord in the right way, it can be crushing.

As we learned more about the group and their beliefs we saw additional examples of scriptures taken out of context for the benefit of justifying the JRG lifestyle and belief system. Hebrews 6:1 is another example of how Jim Roberts uses scripture to bind the members to their interpretation of doctrine that salvation is only attained through perfection and thus one must strive daily for perfection no matter the personal loss: "Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God..."

As the reality of the situation sunk in and we got to know our adversary, we quickly went into action mode. Using the nascent Internet, we began connecting with ex-members, families searching for their children, cult experts, deprogrammers/exit counselors, clergy, anyone who could give us insight or help to calm our fears that we might never see Daniel again. By this point we had met several families whose "children" had been in the group for many years, in some cases decades, without ever seeing their "child." This fear -- that we would not see Daniel again -- never subsided and consumed my family's time, energy and thoughts for the next three years. As a result of parents connecting with each other, the value of pooling resources and information became clear to us. Thus a small group of very active parents came together to support each other, forming the Jim Roberts Parent Network whose mission is to, "Release the members from the control of the Roberts Group and establish two-way communication and an open and loving relationship between members and their families." Since its formation, more than 75 members have left the group.

Unlike most other families, we tracked down Daniel just a week after he left. With the help of strangers and a private investigator, we located the house just outside of Denver and planned a 6 a.m. visit. In a strange twist of fate, Daniel, a "young brother," based not on age but on time with the group, who should not have answered the door according to their protocol, did. Suddenly face to face with his parents, he invited them in. Daniel deferred to an elder "brother" and the meeting immediately turned hostile. For the first time my sister Kathy witnessed the JRG doctrinal misinterpretations in action. Hoping to get Daniel to think about his family and the sacrifice he was making by leaving, my sister talked about my ailing father and asked how she could contact Daniel if his grandfather became gravely ill. The elder "brother" Lazarus immediately interrupted her. He had been very aggressive and rude since their arrival, insisting they leave now and that Daniel had a new family. Daniel would not interact or speak. When my sister pressed about how we could reach Daniel in case my father's situation became serious, Lazarus became even more aggressive and cruel, finally quoting Luke 9:59-62: "And he said unto another, follow me. But he said, Lord, Suffer me first I go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him. Let the dead bury the dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord I will follow thee: but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."

After this experience, we knew without doubt that the stakes were high and that Daniel was involved with something dangerous. Getting him out of the group became urgent. That trip to Colorado would be the first of many trips to try to "rescue" Daniel. Unlike other families who had not encountered their son or daughter for 10, 15 or even 20 years, we were able to find and meet with Daniel on several occasions over the course of the three years he spent with the JRG. Once, his parents even resorted to kidnapping him in St. Louis, only to lose him when he jumped out of the vehicle at a gas station in Oklahoma and ran to a nearby police officer yelling, "these people are trying to kidnap me!"

As we grew into stealthy and increasingly effective private investigators or "searchers," I realized that I needed to make a film about my family's experience and the impact my nephew's decision was having on his immediate family and his own life. I felt the need to educate people about this group and warn others to beware. My nephew was being held in a type of spiritual bondage while his family was being held captive in a state of constant paralysis and fear that whatever actions they may or may not take out of love and a desire to see him safe could drive Daniel further into the clutches of the JRG. I believed that making a film would help me answer my questions. I was having a hard time understanding our situation: How did this happen? Why? What were the signs? Did Daniel fit a specific profile? Weren't most people who joined cults white? We are Latino, our roots run hundreds of years deep in New Mexico. How could we lose one of our own? Who looks around their family and aptly identifies those who are susceptible to a cult? Like most families we thought that only happens to others: the ones who come from terrible families, where there is mental illness or some other reason why it can't be MY FAMILY.

But this was MY FAMILY, and there was no clear reason. I needed to try and figure out the why because the common denominator eluded us. The kids were for the most part in college, were artistic, many were religious, were mostly Caucasian with some Latinos and African Americans and were of varying religions. There were even a few Jewish kids, considered a real "prize" recruits. The families whom I had met were all wonderful -- not perfect, but all decent, loving families who yearned for a connection to their child. I never met a parent with a son or daughter in the group whose desire it was to have their child reject God.

Like other films I've made, I began as a novice, clumsily finding my way through the information, facts, issues and conflicts. With this film, God Willing, I went from a cursory knowledge of cults to catapulting into the eye of the storm and, out of necessity, becoming a sort of expert on cults and on the JRG, in particular. However, the entire time my nephew was in the group while I developed the film, I never picked up the camera and turned it on myself or my family. Not until I attended my first parents' group meeting with my nephew, who had recently left the group did I begin to film. In retrospect this was both the right and wrong thing to do. It would have been wonderfully filmic to have captured the drama of searching for my nephew and his ultimate departure from the group as it unfolded. However, that would have been a very angry film, focused on the fear and pain my family and I were experiencing, largely negating Daniel's reasons and experience. I don't believe it would have served my purpose. Having the benefit of years of reflection, understanding and learning about the group, its inner workings and about the people who have joined and left, I was able to make a film that I feel respects the experience of the person who joined and tries to understand the "why" from their point of view. I developed a much broader perspective during the years of meeting and conducting extensive research interviews with ex-members, families whose kids had been in the group from one year to 25, cult experts and others directly affected by the JRG.

When I started constructing the film after Daniel's departure from the group, I knew that I wanted to convey the journey of the parents and families. But it was also paramount that the point of view of the "missing child" be respectfully depicted. Naturally, I fielded many requests to identify and answer the "why." Why did these young people join a cult and why would someone stay five, 10, 15 or 20 years? Ultimately, there was no neat and tidy answer to this question; there was no way to make all those people who believe this could never happen to "my family" feel safe. I have come to realize that given the right circumstances anyone is vulnerable.

What I came to understand and believe was that most of those who joined the JRG had/have a sincere and real desire to serve the Lord and they believed that this group of "living Christians" were the closest present day example that they could follow. Like many young 20-somethings, they were exploring their personal and religious identity. When they encountered these "brothers and sisters," they truly believed that God had intervened in their life to introduce them to this group. While the members do experience a form of mind control and brainwashing, these young folks are not walking zombies as often seen in a stereo-typical portrayal of cult members. The control that Jim Roberts and the elder brothers has over them is more insidious: the members are ostensibly "free" to write home, call home, even visit or leave the group, but like those suffering from the battered wife syndrome, they do not act on any "flesh desire" because they are completely paralyzed by fear. Jim Roberts and the elders use doctrine to convince members that even the simple act of writing a letter, making a call or remembering a loved one will bring God's wrath and could lead to spending eternity in hell, thus tightening the spiritual bondage they wield.

What these young members cannot see is that their desire to be Godly has been hijacked by Jim Roberts and his elder members who recruited them into a cult, using forms of mind control to ensure their loyalty. Many can't recognize this fact until long after their departure. It is my hope that my film, God Willing, provides a space and cause to think about cults with fewer preconceived ideas drawn from sensationalized accounts. I also hope it conveys the JRG members' deep conviction and genuine desire to live according to God's wishes.

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