An inside look into the Children of God
Going abroad as a college student is a rite of passage — it’s when you have some of the most scandalous and unforgettable experiences imaginable. Consider yourself lucky if you come back free of any regrettable tattoos, inappropriate piercings or STDs.
Lauren Pritchett wasn’t one of the lucky ones and neither were her friends that she traveled with to London in the early 70s. Lauren travelled with Don Richards, her high school sweetheart, to London with a group of friends from their hometown. None of them returned from London the same — if they even did leave — because they joined a cult called Children of God.
“I can remember her leaving home and being so ‘one-sided’ in her way of thinking about life, and placing beliefs in this one way, only way sort of thing,” said Katie Arthur, her cousin and the only member of Pritchett’s family who was willing to be interviewed. “I…missed her terribly, as she was my older sister who I love — and still do of course — very much. She never did come back.”
Pritchett and her friends weren’t the only ones who were seduced by this cult.
“There were a few high school and college age kids that also left to ‘join’ this one group from our town. [But in those times] it was not uncommon for these ‘movements’ to come around and sort of ‘sweep’ up these young, idealistic people,” Arthur said.
Children of God, like every other cult, seems perverted and fraudulent from an outsider’s perspective. But they can appear charismatic and charming.
“[They] target the vulnerable, which is almost any teenager!” said Denise Bennett, another one of Pritchett’s cousins. “Children of God also targeted teens and college students from well-to-do families…[They] preyed on rich kids looking for answers about themselves and the world during a period of protest and rebellion.”
Pritchett, who was raised in a “conservative, Catholic family,” Bennett said, met these criteria. Pritchett had a comfortable upbringing. Her father was the town mayor and a lawyer, and her mother had her own daycare.
“Their home was always filled with visitors, friends, house guests and music,” Bennett said. “[It was] kind of like a ‘magic kingdom.’ The children had everything they wanted but their religious freedom.”
Children of God was founded in 1968 by leader David Berg, and it expanded internationally in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
“The Lord has gave us all a vision of how we can reach these young people,” said a member in the 1970s who prefers to remain anonymous. “And we’ve seen all these hippie-types sort of being beaten up by the police in New York, demonstrating against the war. It just suddenly broke my heart and I thought, ‘Wow, this generation’s really lost. We’ve gotta reach them!’”
Children of God, known today as “Family International,” defines themselves on their website as a group that “is committed to sharing the message of God’s love with people around the globe…[and believes] that everyone can have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, which affords happiness and peace of mind, as well as the motivation to help others and to share the good news of His Love.” They are also emphatic about how they cherish children, calling them “priceless treasures and gifts from God…[whose] physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of children should be amply and competently met.” This blurb seems to offer members a comfortable, loving environment.
However, what the website doesn’t advertise is how “the family” lives in an isolated world rampant with sex, abuse, denial and scandal. The children are encouraged, coerced and even forced to have sex with other members and even their own family members. They are also pressured to drink alcohol. Some members cut themselves off from reality completely and do not contact anyone from outside of “the family”. Lauren was one of these people, which broke her mother’s heart.
“[Lauren] was an earlier member of this cult before it went [even more] nutso,” Rachel Arthur, Pritchett’s cousin, said. “It was painful for all of us.” She, like most of Pritchett’s family members, refused to say anything else about Pritchett’s time with the cult.
In the early 1980s, Pritchett finally decided to come home for a visit with her boyfriend. Pritchett’s family planned an intervention for them, but found out Pritchett and Richards had left the cult voluntarily.
“We were all so relieved that she left on her own,” said Bennett.
Pritchett and Richards, after moving to Italy with the cult, decided to leave, get married and move to Spain. They raised a Catholic family in Spain and opened up a chain of organic, eco-friendly restaurants and a couple of nightclubs. Richards died in the early 1990’s, but Pritchett still remains in Marbella.
“Because the economy is bad, her house is especially full right now, because she takes in family members and friends who are having a tough time,” Bennett said.
Strangely enough, “[the cult] had a positive affect on [Pritchett’s] life,” Arthur admits. “I think that was because she is who she is — a very wonderful, loving, smart, funny woman so, so in tune with what is important in life.”
Millie Moore is a freshman IMC major who plans to go to London, but only come back with a tattoo. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org