This is my personal history of how a good Christian girl, an active member of a loving church in a small town in Iowa found herself in a cult dubbed The Walk.
For 50 years “the walk” has dominated my thinking tho’ I left The Walk with my children in the ’80’s.
My loving home town church would later be called Church of the Living Word or “The Walk”. In 1974 a communal living and conference center would be built in my home county on the outside of Kalona, Iowa.The facility was far bigger than any church camp I had imagined. The camp would be named Shiloh. It was nothing but a “twinkle” in anyone’s eyes that would introduce to my home town church and I to concepts we had not read about in the “good book”.
As a baby boomer member of Christian Tabernacle church in Washington, Iowa I was in the middle of the conception of “The Walk” and Shiloh’s birth. My pain is different than most that were involved in Living Word. I was part of the youth group who prayed for a permanent church camp with flush toilets. In late 1973 early 1974 the dreams and prayers became to come alive.
There are probably only a hand full of 1st generation who prayed for Shiloh to be built and used for God that are still alive. I have never really had the opportunity to voice what I’m going to share. My perspective is different from most who visited or lived at Shiloh’s dormitory. The ground that Shiloh was built on is Iowa land
- Everyone worked and worshiped at Shiloh. But in decades to come most complain that they did “Slave Labor”. I am not going to address that in this blog series. the concept of “working hard on the land for poor earnings is a conflicting concept In the farmland of Iowa.
There is nothing “special” about me. I was clean and well groomed as a teen. I didn’t care too much for the latest fashions. I could have cared less if I wear make-up.
I was a quiet and scared little girl who did not want to stand out in a crowd. I had been told ” You’re horrid and ugly and no one will ever love you.”
In public I was exceptionally well behaved. But, at home, to be honest, I often had long melt downs. My parents often forgot to feed us; pick us up from school. We had work to do to help the business. Bed time was non existent. then we had church on top of all the long hours with not much play time. this was my parents lack of parental responsibility. It has nothing to do with our home town church turning into a cult. but, I think this fact says something important that I am still trying to comprehend well enough to explain it to some one else.
When I went to school and Sunday School I simply wanted to blend in the walls with my peers.I had the core. belief that I was a “bad girl”. I did not have the cognitive maturity nor the language to understand that things that were happening to me were not my fault. My “secrets” have nothing to do with The Church of the Living Word except my psycho-dynamics made me more vulnerable to “cult mind control”.
I had been beaten to a pulp by my mother and grand mother. I had been molested by my uncle and 2 of my parents’ after school high school employees. I did not want any of my school mates nor the town to know what a “bad person” I was. And, I sure did not want the good people of the new church that my dad took us to to know my “shame”. I was afraid that I was so sinful that Jesus could not love a sinner like me.
I was a tarnished little girl of about 7 years old when I went to church in my home town.
I call my home town church the “Mother Church” because this is where the father of JRS was the founding pastor.
The early church would rent a facility once a year for youth church camp- it was awesome! The youth dreamed of having camp more often some day. In the mid to late 1960’s I had the pleasure to be invited to church camp in California by the youth of the visiting preachers youth. In those years we kids never heard of the word ‘cult”. Going to church camp was a good thing to do. We Iowa kids really wanted our own church camp with flush toilets nearby. By 1974 our prayers would be answered.
All the above put me into a unique position that I was unprepared for when our home town church would be invaded by Hippies form California. I’ll explain that in upcoming paragraphs.
South Gate, California Connection
Before Shiloh was built the dream for church camp in Iowa grew.
John Robert Stevens, the son of my loving pastor in Iowa. John, or Bobbie, would come from his church in South Gate, California for special meetings along with his wife who sang and his beautiful daughters. It was almost like the circus had come to town with all of the entertainment and energy in the sanctuary.
I was mesmerized by Steven’s voice and words about Jesus. I felt that we kids in the church had special secrets of being the only ones chosen by God far more than another other kids going to church any where. I already had my own secrets that made me so vulnerable to the private ministry of John Robert Stevens. He did “cold readings” much like a psychic’s stage show.
The special week long services gave me electrical goose bumps – I could not get enough of learning how much Jesus loved me. The problem was that I was a school girl who needed to get to bed before mid-night on school nights. Sure the service maybe ended 9 or 10, I can’t say for sure, but my parents loved to yak and yak and yak. My dad was so excited to learn the scriptures and all the secrets of god that John had to share. I loved being around people who treated me so nice…but, my sisters and I had home work and we need to a good night’s sleep on school night.
In hind site i wish that our Happy Days parents would have set limits in the 1950’s on Stevens special services. School was important. We kids had to ” be ready” for school days…even if “one should be taken and the other left behind”
As time went on a number of older youth siblings of my peers in Sunday School had moved out to California. My school teacher told me that the population of LA was destined to grow as big as New York City. Now, mind you, I had gone on vacation trip to the east coast and been to NYC- nothing like Washington, Iowa at all. I was a child with limited concepts of the world.. California was where the my TV heroes lived like Roy Rodgers and Dale Evans who btw were Christians. I felt like I was in a special club with the movie stars when the preacher came to town from the state of California.. The preacher from California was bigger than life to me. Maybe was as big as movie stars to other church members- I don’t know.
The Kalona Connection
My parents were in the National Foods Association – not only did my parents keep my sisters and I out every night of the week on school nights for the special meeting when John Robert Stevens came to preach we had to go to Natural Food meetings, too. We sat in the car while my parents learned about more vitamins and organic foods. This made my parents really odd ball fanatics- health foods was their new god. Now, decades later I know the characteristics of the word “cult”. My parents hopped form one cult to another cult. In fact they thrived on cult like behavior. Their whole food fad with idolizing authors of healthy food and vitamin books consumed their lives before we even became regular church members. Then I was hard to juggle 2 cults at one time.
I was exhausted and embarrassed with my parents dragging my sisters and I form cult to cult to learn more secrets. They “knew secrets no one else knew” . I just wanted to be normal!
I tell all of this in my history of this cult for a number of reasons. One reason is that my parents befriended a lovely Amish family from Kalona a small town in Washington county, Iowa. Kalona, of course is where in the future Shiloh was to be built. The land that had been owned and donated by an Amish man – the father of the Amish man who was the friend of my parents.
It’s a small world, isn’t it?
The couple owned a health food store in Kalona. In the 50’s “health food” and “organic” was not popular at all. We would go to Kalona to get our whole wheat bread and other dried food. Every other kid in my lunch room ate Wonder bread. My new secret now was hiding my ugly brown bread form my class mates
My parents and the Amish family loved to Yak. My sisters and i liked to play with their daughters.t least we were not bored sitting in the car for hours like were used to and hated doing so. From those long , long chats this Amish family decided to check out Christian Tabernacle, our home town church. They loved they – they stayed and brought in other family members…and that is how the old Amish man started listening to John Robert Stevens on the radio and eventually donated his land to build Shiloh on.
My family’s friend were rouge Amish. They kicked over the traces of some of the Amish religion. The Amish stay with the old ways. They don’t drive. They don’t have phones. They use buttons to fasten their clothes. The women wear white bonnets. They do not have electricity. They still speak German.- low German I think. This family did not have electricity. The father did drove a car. They were very personable business people who talked to members out side of the Amish community like my parents and other in Natural Foods. The parents were looking for something different. I learned about a different way of living.
YOUTH Groups gets together
I was about 15 when our Christian Tabernacle youth group got an invitation to go to church camp in California. That was the mother load of all invitations to go to where God was Moving in California. Sow we loaded up the truck and went to “Beverly Hills.” Not really- we went to south Gate in a car driven by my foster sister boy friend. One of the girls in the car beside my foster sister and my sister was the daughter of the assistant pastor- John was her uncle. It was “grovey” to see the older sisters from our church. This is when my sister knew that she wanted to go to live in California- she did so 2 or 3 years later and got married to one of JRS “boys”.
A good time was had by all- sort of- I was uncomfortable about being what some of the CA boys called “Beverly Hillbillies”. I did not like the way I got “hit on”. When we weren’t at camp the older youth were drinking and were more promiscuous than it was acceptable in Iowa The CA girls made fun of how I dressed. I did not fit in- but all in all I have an amazing spiritual experience.
YOUTH Camp in CA
The Washington, Iowas youth made several more trips to church camp in CA. more of our youth traveled out there. It was such a thrill! And we learned so much about the love of god and being baptized in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. ( Pentecostal Holy roller experience ) We were on fire for God.
We went back home. Some had graduated from high school- I was younger so still in high school. It was decided that it was time for the CA youth to visit Iowa and bring back the new and exciting things that god had revealed to John Robert Stevens. ( The Bless-In, auras, -spiritual principals that god was gifting us. On another topic most of these new spiritual awakening things were taught to jrs by a witch in the church but John lead us to believe God had reveal to only him. These were occult techniques I now know. But, who knew back in late ’60’s?
First Combined Youth Camp in Iowa
Over Winter Break the California Youth group got on a plane and came to Iowa for the first time. ( 2 of the youth group members father was top official I of an air-line- this made them very special to Iowa kids.)
We youth were so excited and full of hope for the future doing god’s will. We had been going to Lake Darling in Brighton, Iowa for church camp – we rented a week. Baptism was held there if not at the Rich’s farm. We studied the Bible and worshiped- very life changing spiritual maturing for the youth of the church. This is what I think our parents believed was going to happen. The CA boys slept in the church and the girls slept over at the home of the youth/ assistant pastor.
Washington did not see this coming with the birth of Shiloh…
I sort of want to apologize for being critical- then again I want to be defensive. The culture in CA was and is so different that of Iowa. In CA the Age of Aquarius and hippies and free love was really shocking to most of the country. To CA the ‘freedom” was normal. Fact: At that time Washington, Iowa had the unique distinction of having the Most Churches Per Capita than any other city.
We had a lot of church -goers. there. Washington was a Christian town with about every Christian denomination and we respected each other’s boundaries. There were boundaries based on your family name; your income that you could tithe and what belief your family immigrated with Catholic, Amish, Mennonite…. Dad Stevens church an off shoot of Four Square- Holy roller accepted anyone and everyone who wanted to love God. If someone did not go to church but wanted a Christian wedding or funeral or there was a bad accident Pastor Stevens was the one they called.
I am a Goodie-2-Shoes
I was quiet and tried to not ever stand out tho’ I was very well known. I was a student librarian which meant I help towns people check out books- that was really big. I volunteered for the summer children program. i was a respected baby sitter and even baby sat for the school principals kids.
If that was not enough, as I said before my dad was known as the best photographer around- that had put me in every church for weddings in every county around Washington, Catholic school for school pictures and every senior who wanted my dad to take their senior pictures. this means that I knew people and they watched me grow up.
I had started “watching the door” when my dad was in the dark room when I was 3 years old.. I watched the camera bag on shoots and quickly learned how to hold the strobe light. I was very well behaved and politely talked to every preacher, priest and nun since I was 5. ( My dad did not have to hire a baby sitter if he took me along on jobs) I was respectful- I always wore my head covering, a hanky if did not have a hat. I wore my white gloves and folded my hands as I bowed my head in other churches services.
I had an incredible amount of first hand knowledge of many other denominations and a few non-Christian faiths.
I had a very good reputation has a model teen girl. I was a good witness for the lord and made my dad proud. I was trusted….bear with me on this point, please…I was not special. I just did not want to get my face slapped nor the crap beat out of me with I got home if I was not perfect. A lot of pressure was on my shoulders, but I had a good heart any way.
At a young age I had been exposed to many personalities, ways of living and ways of worship. But…I was not prepared for what was to come…neither was the town when the hippies invaded Iowa and our home town church turned into a cult.
Enter the California Youth…
The pastors had to tell the boys to calm it down at church sanctuary. I had seen the California youth do what they wanted to do in the church sanctuary – no one said anything to them that I saw with my Iowa girls eyes.
I really don’t remember much about the meeting other than teaching the “old foggies”, as was called the wonderful people i always respected. The Iowa adults were taught a very watered down version of the California youth ‘Bless-in” it was rather fascinating, I think. but, not Christian nor biblical.
TERRORIZED the TOWN
On off time, the kids went to explore the town square with out an adult…I went with them to tour guide.
they took over the town like never happened before. Each merchant in their own shops panicked when they heard a large group of rowdy teenage boys burst into their businesses. Little old ladies were fearful. The store owners worried about damage to their merchandise from the reckless way the “Christian ” youth were handling everything.
All I can say is that the behavior was not acceptable in any store anywhere. They loud an obnoxious pulling things out and making fun of anything and everything. I suppose that behavior was not every one from CA My close friends from CA did not act like some people did. My point is that the out of control rebels did not leave a good witness nor a good taste in the merchants minds nor the entire county.
Here was a church youth group that was supposed to shine the light to the world and they blew it!
There was nothing Christ-like that stood out. Tho’ the inappropriate example was perhaps as not as many were acutely unruly it tainted the entire church. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. Nothing I could say or do helped.
The town was appalled – the poor showing would stick in the town’s mind. Yet, the youth group did not seem to care. they were there to be entertained as they were used to in their home state.
I see this incident as a taste of what was to come once Shiloh was built and strangers came to town. But, John Robert Stevens did nothing to tell the youth to behave. In California, as a goodie-2-shoes Iowa girl I felt uncomfortable with how they acted. Yet. No one seemed to call them on the not so Christ like behavior.
I did not understand why the youth groups form 2 different sates had 2 sets of rules. In those inconsistent rules the California minors drank alcohol- it was accepted. The drinking to excess was to become an accepted habit with members of TLW form then on. Again, I have gotten ahead of myself in my story about how a nice Iowa church turned into a cult.
Let’s get our own church camp facility ..
Many heads, many idea – let’ get our own camp grounds.
My idea was that he we had our own “lake Darling” property we could keep the unruly out of town and really focus on how to act like Christ. I was a goodie- 2 shoes Christian so I forgave my CA peers and wrote a letter of apology to the newspaper.
I have no idea what JRS had in mind for what was to be Shiloh, but, this was where I was in on the conception of the Walk as we became to called the movement around ’69 and the conception of Shiloh.
I participated in The Walk in various states. In 1983 – I did not see the day coming- I officially left The Walk with My children.
Building Shiloh was an exciting time and a very awkward position for me as a quiet home town girl from the “Cleanest City” in Iowa. The population of Washington, Iowa was only 7,000. It is the county seat of one of the 99 counties in Iowa.
I know that sounds like I’m a Beverly Hillbilly” – It seemed like fun to California youth to make fun of the “not so sophisticated” as they were. – And there the rub that would “terrorize” my home town a few years in the future. the expectations of California youth were far different than Iowa standards. Kalona was settled by Mennonites and Amish people, religious sects from Germany who live very simple lives working very hard in the farming community.
I was embarrassed by the behavior of the youth from California. They rude, crude, loud, obnoxious and unruly on the town square. They were more like heathens than representations of Christ’s love in the eyes of the church goers in my home town.
. People came from all over to help build Shiloh in the neighboring small town, Kalona. Once Shiloh was built many people stayed in the dormitories. Every one had chores*. But, not everyone had good manners as was the general rules for a religious community.
I think this is something that most Shiloh residents did not see – they were not an island to them selves but in the middle of farm country settled by good people before Iowa was even a state.
Today in 2019
I am thrilled to be able to reunite with the wonderful well behaved youth I knew and loved from the Walk
Not many of us are left. A few of our parents are still alive. Those dear sweet people I grew up with nurtured me and loved me – I needed that love. No one knew my deep dark secrets of being abused, yet they loved me. They would have still loved me for me even if they knew my deepest secrets that were never my fault. I did not have to hide my hurts from people who loved me. I am grateful.
For an aspiring cult leader we good people never saw it coming in John Robert Stevens back then. He saw our collective vulnerability tho’- he could look right thru’ you it seemed…he knew I was hiding something. In my mind I felt he had the power and control to open my wounds and expose that I was “bad girl’ to the whole congregation- worse yet, expose my shame to my parents.
I will guess that only a few survivors that are still around knew this side of the cults beginnings, unless you are from the Mother Church in Washington, Iowa.
I think the history is worth knowing. How did a nice small town church become a cult? The answer is one step at a time when we let things slide by.