By Christine J. Gardner in Chicago.
The horror lingers, yet the number of aberrant groups keeps growing as
people seek community.
On November 18,
1978, Tim Stoen and his wife, Grace, sat anxiously in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown,
waiting for the right time to return to the jungles of Jonestown to try to reclaim their
only child, six-year-old John Victor. Then they heard the news: Jim Jones had led more
than 900 of his Peoples Temple followersincluding their sonin a mass
Jonestown residents had been forced to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
It was the most miserable night of my life, Tim Stoen, now 60, recalls.
A 1960 Wheaton College alumnus, Stoen had been an active member of
First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California, when he met Jim Jones in 1967.
Joness concern for the poor and minorities impressed Stoen, an idealistic
civil-rights lawyer. He joined the Peoples Temple in 1969 and became Joness
In 1977, Stoen moved to Jonestown, the Peoples Temple commune that had
migrated from the San Francisco area, to raise his son in the socialist utopia. Because of
his high position in the commune, Stoen was allowed to leave on a trip to the United
States. He thought his son would be well cared for at the commune during his absence. But
through media accounts, he came to realize the warped nature of Joness plans.
Jones suspected Stoens defection and claimed Stoens son as
his own. My intuition said if I went back Id be a corpse in 30 days,
Stoen says. It was not an easy decision to make. He decided he could help his
son more by lobbying the government. U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan of California went to Jonestown in
part as an emissary in Stoens custody case against Jones. Just before the mass
suicides, Joness guards shot and killed Ryan and four U.S. Journalist. Jones
videotaped a suicide message that blamed Stoen for causing the massacre. We
win, Jones said on tape. Tim Stoen has nobody else to hate. Then hell
CULTS ON THE RISE
The horror lingers 20 years later, but the tragedy served as a catalyst
for research on the growth of aberrant groups and improved rehabilitation for ex-members.
Academics and ex-members gathered November 13 - 15 in Chicago to discuss lessons learned
Experts agree that cultic activity has increased since Jonestown, with
anywhere between 2,000 and 10,000 groups existing today. An estimated 100,000 to 300,000
people move in and out of aberrant groups each year, and the total continues to grow.
The number of groups varies based on the definition of cult.
Evangelicals identify groups outside orthodox Christianity as cults because of their
aberrant religious beliefs. Secular researchers define cults by their abusive behavior;
they can include political or paramilitary groups, or even Protestant churches.
The rise of such groups is attributable in part to the transient nature
of society. Were becoming very aware of what a scattered society we are,
says Margaret Thaler Singer, emeritus psychology professor at the University of
CaliforniaBerkeley. People are very lonely.
The coming millennium is spawning dozens of new groups, particularly
those with a doomsday vision. There are people starting deviant, off-beat groups all
the time, says Paul Carden, executive director of the Centers for Apologetics
Research, an evangelical counter cult ministry network in San Juan Capistrano, California.
The growth of information technologyfrom the Internet to cable televisionhas
contributed to the rise of garage cults, Carden says, making it less expensive
for leaders to communicate with potential followers.
Although not all aberrant groups are religious, experts realize that
the terror of a cultic experience can obliterate hope in a loving God.
Brenda Daeges, 29, a participant in the Jonestown conference, grew up
in the Apostles of the infinite Love group in Montreal. Although not affiliated with the
Catholic church, leaders dressed as nuns and priests. Daeges says the nuns
sexually abused her, beat her with a crucifix, and tied her to a bed. I was beaten
five to six timeson a good day, she says. In her presence, nuns strangled a
stray kitten that she had befriended. After Daeges, then 17, threatened to kill one of the
nuns, they allowed her to leave. Daeges has started to find help from the Wellspring
Retreat and Resource Center, a residential rehabilitation center for ex-cult members in
However, she no longer believes in God. Daeges recalls the times
nuns tied her to a tree in nearby woods, where a bear once approached her. I was
less afraid of the bear than I was of the nuns, she says. The worst the bear
could do was kill me.
Tim Stoen and his wife divorced a year after their son died at
Jonestown. For years, Stoen lived in fear of being killed by an angry Peoples Temple
member. He wrestled with Joness final words blaming him for the tragedy. But he
eventually faced those who accused him of causing the massacre and learned the power of
forgiveness. In 1991, he recommitted his life to Christ. When you screw up, your
lifes not over, Stoen says. Recognize that you have a loving God that
Reprinted by permission Christianity Today.