No Place to Call Home: Interview with Jamie Prater
By Boz Tchividjian
A few months ago I was told about a new film that documents the sexual abuse perpetrated upon children at a place called Jesus People USA. At the time, I had never heard of Jesus People USA. So I made contact with Jamie Prater, a former resident of Jesus People USA, who has spent the past years pouring his life into making this eye-opening documentary. After watching No Place to Call Home, I learned that Jesus People USA is an “intentional Christian community” on the north side of Chicago where believers share communal living spaces. Jesus People U.S.A. holds wonderful childhood memories for many of its former members. It is also a place where the bodies and souls of dozens and dozens of precious children were eviscerated through systemic sexual abuse—a place where sexual offenders roamed freely and had easy access to vulnerable little ones, who were often outside the care and supervision of their parents. This was no place to call home.
As I watched this film and listened to the many heartbreaking interviews, I found myself overwhelmed. If we are honest, I wonder how many other Christian environments may be No Place to Call Home for His little ones?
Below is my exclusive interview with Jamie Prater.
Boz: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. What is No Place To Call Home about?
Jamie: No Place To Call Home chronicles the lives of several people born and raised in Jesus People USA Evangelical Covenant Church. The film begins in 2008 when I’m living in Asheville, North Carolina and follows my journey back to Chicago and through my discovery of what would be dozens upon dozens of cases of child sexual abuse.
Boz: How did you come up with the title?
Jaime: What drew me to No Place To Call Home as a title was that I’ve always felt like a stranger in the world, by nature of first of all, how I was raised, in an extreme religious, cult-like environment, to being biracial, and then being gay and knowing that since the age of 4. Since leaving Jesus People USA in August of 1999, finding home has been a struggle for me.
There’s a beautiful song by Ray La Montagne called Empty, which perfectly captures what I’ve felt the entirety of my life. In essence, there is no place to call home, no history I can engage without it being highly painful. I look for home, I look for rest, I have not found it.
Boz: Tell us a little bit about Jesus People U.S.A.?
Jamie: Jesus People USA or the acronym as it’s known by JPUSA is an intentional religious commune that resides in the Uptown neighborhood on Chicago’s north side. JPUSA was founded in 1972 by Dawn Herrrin and her then husband, John Wiley Herrin Sr.
As an alternative to the sex and drug counter culture on the rise during the late 1960s and 1970s, JPUSA’s answer was Jesus, and they traveled around the country on a big bus, preaching the gospel, and spreading Christ’s love. One day their bus broke down in Chicago, and the Jesus People decided to stay. After staying at Faith Tabernacle for some time, the Jesus People began purchasing their own buildings to house their members. All of their members live together at the commune on a voluntary basis and any money they earn through commune owned businesses is pooled together to cover operating costs, food, housing, and shelter. The commune still operates in that same way today.
Boz: Does Jesus People U.S.A. have any type of leadership structure?
Jamie: Jesus People USA is governed by a board of leaders known as ‘The Council’, all of whom are self elected, have perpetual terms, and a majority that are related by blood or marriage. Jesus People USA joined the Evangelical Covenant Church in 1989.
Boz: How did you first become acquainted with Jesus People U.S.A.?
Jamie: My parents were a part of an intentional community on Chicago’s south side called New Life. Predominantly African American (with the exception of my mother) New Life was formed with help by JPUSA. In 1978, an agreement was made and New Life and JPUSA joined together. That was when I was 2 years old. I have no other childhood memories outside of my life at JPUSA. For all intents and purposes, I say I was born at JPUSA.
Boz: Why did you make this documentary?
Jamie: About a year after moving to Asheville, I began what would be a series of conversations with a person I had grown up with at JPUSA. Her name is Allyson, and we began to talk about our childhood experiences at JPUSA, both traumatic and enjoyable times. During those initial conversations, sexual abuse wasn’t mentioned. However, during these discussions I realized that there was so much to process about our years spent at JPUSA. Our living conditions, being raised by so many people, having essentially hundreds of other siblings, and having the church control and inform every aspect of our young lives. When we really got into personal stories, it was like a light went on inside my head. Having always struggled for purpose in my life, knowing that God had put me on this beautiful planet for a reason, when I quickly came to the realization that I could put my film school and formal documentary training to use by capturing interviews of so many I knew and grew up with; It was like purpose was staring at me in the face for the first time ever. I soon made plans to interview as many people as I could and promptly moved back to Chicago in February of 2009.
As I say in the film, I wasn’t at all prepared for what I would uncover in the process.
Boz: So, we know what prompted the interest in collecting stories, but why make a film about them?
Jamie: That is a great question. Initially, my film, then titled ’Born: Growing Up In A Religious Commune’ was more about the thoughts and impressions of people who had spent time as children at JPUSA. In the first version of the film, a woman named Heather Kool and I candidly spoke about abuse we suffered when we were children. At the time, I only had a vague knowledge of others who had also been abused.
When I made that first cut available to about 250 former members through a private Facebook page, it was only then, when so many more accounts of childhood sexual abuse poured out. Not long after, I heard back from 120 people who had spent time or grown up in Jesus People USA, of which 66 disclosed that they had experienced sexual abuse as children. That’s over 50 percent! Since then, more have come forward and that number has risen to 73 occurrences. It was only after all of these accounts of childhood sexual abuse poured out that I realized what story I was supposed to be telling.
Going back to your original question of ‘why make it?’ I’ve pondered that. There aren’t many other films that tackle this subject, especially in the context of an extreme religious setting. I suppose my question in response would be ‘how could I not make this film?’ What do I do with this information? Who do I give it to? I felt it my calling and duty in life to expose all of this to the light.
Boz: Were you sexually victimized as a child at JPUSA?
Jamie: I am the survivor of sexual abuse as a child. It only happened to me once, but it would alter the course of my life. I was ten years old when it happened, and the man I accused continued to stay in my bedroom, substitute teach me in school, and later live on my floor with his family.
Boz: Did being an abuse survivor have anything to do with why you made this film?
Jamie: I would say that being a survivor isn’t so much the impetus for me as much as having this instinctual need to expose the truth and correct a dark history that has been rewritten by those who refuse to believe that the horrors of abuse went on in such a place. We existed. What we suffered was real, we aren’t liars, we aren’t crazy. The world has to know.
Boz: Have you received any criticism for making this film? Explain.
Jamie: Yes, I have received criticism, and it’s come in many forms. I’ve been accused of lying about my abuse for most of my life. That has undoubtedly been some of the most hurtful and emotional criticism I’ve experienced. Other criticism has been aimed at the other people who bravely chose to participate in this film by sharing their deeply personal and painful experiences. Some of these people have been called crazy, liars, unstable and other things. I realized that by making this film I was opening myself and others up for intense criticism, nasty attacks, and even in some cases outright lies. It’s always hard to hear.
Boz: How do you deal with such seemingly painful criticism?
Jamie: I deal with criticism by letting it go. I can’t dwell on it. I have to concentrate on moving forward, on finding a future for myself. Right now, to be completely honest, I’ve nothing left. This journey has taken more then it has given. I am without direction, and I’m trying to figure out what is next.
Boz: How has the abuse at Jesus People U.S.A. impacted your life? Is it something that you will ever be able to put behind you? Explain.
Jamie: That’s another great question, and somewhat emotional for me. The abuse I endured only happened one time, and despite me telling the authorities, nothing was ever done, and everyone concluded that I had lied about the incident. I was not able to attend therapy at the time of my abuse. Therapy was not an option as it would draw suspicious eyes to JPUSA, and that would’ve required the JPUSA leadership believing the event happened for starters, and the leadership never wanted that. As a result of it (the abuse), I continued through my teenage years, exposing myself to strange adult men that leadership would place into my room. Despite knowing my same sex attraction from the age of 4, my abuse distorted my ability to engage in healthy relationships. Intimacy was pursued in many different unhealthy and destructive ways. This distortion would follow me into my adult life.
It has taken many years of processing this and introspection to correct this behavior. I have since learned quite a bit about myself and ways in which to find wholeness in terms of healthy romantic relationships. I think it is important to note that I was sexually abused once. I cannot begin to even comprehend the devastating lifelong impacts upon my peers at JPUSA who suffered from repeated abuse.
As far as putting the incident behind me. I don’t know. I have forgiven the man, and I did so long ago. I don’t have a great way of answering this question. It’s an ongoing process for me.
I would also say that my experiences with Jesus People USA Evangelical Covenant Church have made me wholly untrusting of religious institutions and churches. I do not call myself a Christian; I have little faith in group thought. I have witnessed more lives damaged by religion then helped by it. I am a firm Theist. I believe in the life and works of Jesus. I aspire to be like him, but I additionally believe that god, whatever it may be, is big enough to speak to its creation any way it wishes to. I firmly believe that god has many voices and representatives in all faiths and cultures. I suppose however that a positive outcome of my time at JPUSA is that god became much bigger after I left and relearned what I had learned. Because of my upbringing, I had been taught that God acted and behaved certain ways. When I left JPUSA, I began what I can only describe as a regurgitation of that upbringing. I questioned all of it, all of the time. I had to believe it was true for me, not just because that’s what I was taught. That process continues today. What I discovered is that God is bigger then what was always described, and the love of God is more overwhelming and positive then I had ever experienced.
Boz: In your opinion, what kind of spiritual impacts do children suffer from when sexually abused in a faith community such as Jesus People U.S.A.?
Jamie: The spiritual impacts I’ve seen upon those abused in religious cultures are largely a rejection of their faith and god. That’s number one. Number two is lack of identity, and the inability to find a footing in life. Some of the people in my film have parents that still live in JPUSA and some of those parents choose not believe their child’s disclosure of sexual abuse. Some times, parents’ love and loyalty for the commune trumps their love for their own children. I am fortunate as my family is no longer a part of JPUSA and they’ve supported me in this endeavor from day one. I don’t know how I would survive without their support, but instead was doubted and held in suspicion.
Boz: Do you have any positive memories from your time at Jesus People U.S.A.?
Jamie: There were so many wonderful aspects of communal living I remember as a young child. As mentioned earlier, growing up with so many siblings, feeling like I had so many parents, being a part of the neighborhood, communal parties, birthdays…there were and are amazing times experienced. I think it’s important to see the good and discuss it while discussing so much of the bad.
I wouldn’t change many of my happy childhood experiences.
Having said that, if given the chance I certainly would change how things were handled and how so many others and I were treated. I do appreciate growing up in such a unique way.
Boz: What do you hope will be accomplished by this film?
Jamie: I just want to shine a light. That was always my number one goal. I want the truth to be heard and validated. I hope my film helps other abuse survivors who may have no connection to JPUSA find healing and wholeness. In many ways, that’s happening right now. I also realize that these stories are just the surface. There is so much more here then just sexual abuse. I am hopeful that someone takes up the mantel to investigate and speak out about the many other damaging aspects and issues as experienced by so many other people while living at Jesus People U.S.A. This is only the tip of the iceberg.
Boz: Where can we find No Place To Call Home?
Boz Tchividjian is the founder and executive director of GRACE.
This article was originally published on March 28, 2014 for the Religion News Service (RNS). Used with permission.