My experience with JPUSA (Juhpoozah) started with a search on CouchSurfing. Jane had so many references, wrote a bunch of books, has gone on epic bike trips, and lives in an intentional community. Obviously, I wanted to stay with her. Sure, I may be traveling in my native country, but that doesn’t have to stop me from experiencing something radically different than my every day life.
I cracked a joke or two with friends about going to stay with the Jesus People, but everyone just assumed I was talking about going home to stay with my dad.
Articles about Jesus People USA start with the band touring the country, the bus breaking down in Chicago, the birth of a commune. It’s a nice founding myth. Then they jump into the controversy. Both stories will come up if you stick around long enough.
When you walk into their building at 920 Wilson, it feels like a grand old hotel. Because that’s what it is, the former Chelsea Hotel. It opened in 1923, during the heydey of Uptown, Chicago. It cost $2 million to build and has since cost much more to restore. It required visitors to stay by the month from the very beginning, even as a nice hotel.
The building is two blocks from the L and three blocks from Lake Michigan. When the hotel opened the area was quickly becoming Chicago’s entertainment district. While the Great Depression stalled those plans, the area is still full of theatres and restaurants. The neighborhood is a mix of mansions, more modest single-family homes, duplexes, and mid-rise apartment buildings.
The 10-story hotel started as a gem, but by the time JPUSA acquired it in 1990 it had fallen into disrepair. It was functioning as an SRO, run by a slumlord. When they bought the building, they agreed to keep the existing occupants and fix up the building. There was no longer reliable heat or hot water by that point.
The foyer has been beautifully restored, with ornate molding and stained glass. The ground floor has a dining room, which is currently under renovation. Community members have all of their meals provided here.
The Citizen Skate Shop used to be a beauty salon. The garden room also used to be storefronts, then a lounge famous for being a bookie joint. Outside there’s a garden and a playground.
There are 360 rooms in total. Two people share each room, either as a couple or as roommates. Rooms are about 12×12’, including a small private bathroom. People get creative customizing their rooms to make the most of their space. It’s no shock that they’ve gotten into the tiny house craze. This is less crowded than it used to be, as entire families occupied each ‘studio apartment’ from the very beginning. Each floor has its own kitchen and a lounge. They feel a lot like the kitchens and living rooms I’ve had in apartments shared with several roommates. A cozy mishmash of furniture and trinkets.
The top three floors of the building, Friendly Towers, serve as housing for low-income seniors. They have access to supportive services on-site and have their own dining room. The Chelsea Hotel became the first private retirement hotel in 1967, including government subsidized rents, so it’s keeping in tradition.
Life with Jesus People USA
The community members at Jesus People don’t look like church ladies. There are a lot of aging hippies, young punks, little kids. Imagine the straight edge kids at your high school and what they look like now. You get the idea.
Not shockingly for a group that started as a mobile ministry centered on a rock band, Resurrection Band, many of the members are musicians.
Members live a simple lifestyle. They have everything they need, even if they don’t have everything they might want. They’re not living apart from the world, though. They chat about TV shows over dinner, pull out their smartphones to check email. People go on vacations and go visit their parents for the holidays. It feels a lot like normal life in America, just with less excess.
There’s no drinking or drug use among community members, but they live in a world of musicians — they don’t care if you do. Good luck scandalizing them.
When I mentioned going through a divorce with my ex, they didn’t bat an eye at my being married to a woman. They had a liberal arts degree level of familiarity with preferred pronouns, sex worker politics, and feminism.
Some community members are formerly homeless. Some struggle with mental health issues. Their attitude about this reminded me of stories of communities in Europe accepting mental illness as a normal part of life.
They don’t preach in the streets anymore. Or in the commune. Yes, this is a religious community. However, it’s easy to forget that Christ is the motivation for the things they do. JPUSA slang replaces most of the terms that might otherwise seem preachy. They reference praying about decisions, feeling called to something, and might say God bless you more often than you’re used to. It’s about living a life inspired by Jesus, not shouting at people.
JPUSA isn’t here to save you. They’ll give you the chance to save yourself, if you want it. If not, they’re happy to offer you a cup of coffee, conversation, and a bed for the night.
There’s no one leader. There’s a leadership council, which has turned over in the past few years as younger people have been given more of a voice in the community. There are a lot of changes happening, as they choose a new direction for the church and plan the future of their community.
A monastery, with families
It sounds a little funny, but technically JPUSA is a monastery. They’re a religious order with businesses to sustain themselves and their work. Monasteries are classified as 501-Ds for taxes and aren’t tax exempt like a church would be.
While their businesses bring in a respectable amount of money, there are lots of expenses to be paid. In addition to covering business expenses, paying down their debts and mortgages, and supporting the community members who run the businesses, this money goes to running a homeless shelter, a food bank, and other charitable programs.
There’s no endowment.
As I understand it, all profits are theoretically given as dividends to members, as far as the IRS is concerned. So, after all expenses are paid, the profit is how much “income” each member earned that year. This income is paid in room, board, and other services, not in cash. The community provides tax services to members, which seems like an excellent idea because I’m sure very few accountants know how to handle filing taxes for members of a monastery. The dividend each member receives is below the poverty line.
Once you’re part of JPUSA, everything you need is provided for. As a member, you’re given housing, including meals. You have access to a free store for clothing, furnishings, and all sorts of other things. There are a wide range of community activities every week. Your kids are provided with day care and private schooling. There are cars to use and drivers to take you around if you can’t drive or want to carpool. You are given a job within the community and might get job training.
The one omission I noticed was health insurance. Members are covered by Medicaid or Medicare, if they qualify. Others rely on free clinics.
There are also no pensions. Members of the community are given jobs according to their abilities, so as people’s abilities change they work fewer hours or less strenuous jobs. As people age, JPUSA is figuring out what retiring within the community looks like.
It’s hard to imagine living in America without any cash. Sometimes you need money. When members do, they can request it. Most members also have side gigs and even a few have part time jobs. A few people I spoke to told me they take on seasonal jobs or participate in paid medical studies. Musicians might work as roadies or run the soundboard.
JPUSA businesses and charities
JPUSA runs several for-profit businesses, as well as charitable endeavours.
Across the street is the Wilson Abbey, once a well known speakeasy during prohibition and then a burlesque cabaret. It’s still home to a lot of activities and music, but there’s no booze these days, just coffee. This is home to several of their businesses, but they also have other locations in the neighborhood.
They’ve had a number of businesses to raise money over the years. They’ve done whatever would bring in cash to keep things running: planting trees, washing windows, cleaning carpets, electrical repairs, building porches, painting houses. They had a moving company, a tent making business, and a gift shop.
Members aren’t paid for their work (okay, technically some are, but they give their paycheques back to the community), but JPUSA does employ people from the neighborhood. In fact, they’re one of the biggest employers, with over 60 employees from outside of their membership. Whenever possible, they employ people who are or have been a part of their programs. This means a lot of the staff at their homeless shelter are formerly homeless and people running the soup kitchen have eaten there. They’re also likely to give a chance to someone with a criminal background or forgive a client’s unpaid invoices. Employees don’t have to be religious.
- Coffee shop
- Skate shop
- Recording studio
- Roofing and siding supply
- Woodworking shop
- Retirement home
- Screen printing studio
- Homeless shelter
- Food pantry
- Soup kitchen
- Drop-in center for single men
- Transitional housing for women and children
At one point they’d clear away the tables in the dining rooms so the homeless could bed down on cots. Now they have two separate buildings to serve people. They’ve had other charity programs over the years, like a daycare and an after-school program. They also run their own high school for members.
They also organized the Cornerstone Music Festival until 2012.
A 2001 Chicago Tribune article lambasted them for grossing $12.6 million and netting $2 million. The article made it seem like someone was getting rich, but I think the reporter misunderstood where the money is going. Is $2 million enough to support 175 members, shelter 300 of the city’s homeless, and feed hundreds more? How much does it take simply to maintain the buildings, pay the mortgages, keep the heat on, make sure things are up to code?
They rely on (ever shrinking) government funding, charity, and ingenuity to keep everything running.
But JPUSA is a cult, right?
I kept asking people how they ended up at JPUSA. What brought them here? What kept them here?
The answer I heard most often was ‘intentional community.’
They were raised in the church and wanted to live in a way that aligned with their values, together as a supportive community.
They’d read about intentional community, maybe tried to start their own or joined another one (or six), eventually making their way to JPUSA.
They drifted along, ended up here by chance, and realized it felt like home.
When I asked how people join, the answer I got was that there is no real process. You apply to stay if you’re coming for more than a few days, but that’s not the same as joining. That’s just staying with JPUSA for a while.
Once you’ve been part of the community for a full year, that’s when the transition starts. That’s when you’re included in the group’s taxes. There isn’t an official moment you’ve joined the community, though. Everyone is welcome and if you’re part of the community long enough, it happens.
Why is it so hard to join? Because people who show up on the doorstep of a commune are looking for something no real community can possibly live up to. Idealists turn into cynics and leave. Like any religious order that lasts, they want new recruits to understand just how hard it’s going to be, not just how amazing it might be.
People I met who’d been there since the beginning said it was really hard to leave in the early days. If you left it seemed like you were ostracized. Today it’s different. People come and go. You can leave and find your own place around the corner and stay involved, you can return after a few months or years away, or maybe you leave and make your own life.
While I was there, I attended a going away party for a couple who were leaving the JPUSA community, but keeping their jobs with JPUSA. They’d go from living entirely within the commune system to getting paychecks like regular employees and living in the neighborhood. Another member casually mentioned to me that she was thinking about leaving, because she loved working with kids and no longer had the opportunity within JPUSA since they merged their K-8 program with another religious school. JPUSA was still her family, she just thought that maybe she wanted a different job than they could provide.
It would be difficult going from a cashless world where all of your needs are provided for (not to mention the social ties and support) to normal American life. People who plan on leaving take on part-time jobs to save for the things they’ll need to leave: rent, clothes, furnishings, etc.
It must be a huge adjustment. You’d have to start over with practically no assets and no savings. However, that sort of situation isn’t uncommon for people after a divorce, job loss, or medical emergency. With so many Americans living paycheque to paycheque, we know it’s possible to build a new life for yourself starting with very little.
The Jesus People scandal
If you google ‘Jesus People USA’ all the top results are exposees. They’re the kind of group that could use an SEO specialist to churn out positive news to push down the bad stuff, but they don’t.
Over breakfast we were discussing a news article that came out. Instead of focusing on the project du jour to help house homeless veterans, it highlighted The Scandal. Someone turned to me, “you Googled us, right?”
They don’t deny that they did many things wrong over the years. There’s no guidebook to life, to building an intentional community, to raising kids and running businesses and being people all living together. Plenty of bad things happened over the years, but the narrative that’s being told isn’t their narrative.
I don’t know if the accusations are true or not. To me it doesn’t matter. It’s not about minimizing suffering or the evil that exists in the world. It’s just that none of the allegations sound all that strange to me.
Hearing about the scandals of JPUSA reminds me a lot of Miner’s classic story of the Nacirema. The proof listed for it being a cult all sound pretty boring. Anyone who’s been a member of a Christian church knows it’s normal for them to require counseling and approval before a minister will allow you to marry. Different denominations have different rules about dating, wether codified or not. It’s encouraged for church goers to talk over major life decisions — from having a child to switching careers — with your minister. If you push the rules too far, people will keep their distance. That’s every church in America.
Somehow these articles make parents going to work and leaving their kids at daycare or private school sound unusual and sinister. Free daycare and private school is an awesome perk, not a punishment.
Sex abuse. Kids being left unsupervised. Being told what to do by someone in power. The toll of drug abuse and mental illness. Feeling isolated and alone, like you don’t belong. Who doesn’t have that story to tell about their childhood?
This is the America we live in. Child abuse is rampant. Parents experiment with new ways of parenting to avoid the mistakes of their own parents, discovering new ways to screw up their kids in the process. Schools are fraught with issues ranging from melodrama to violence. Even if someone listens to a child crying out for help, where would you turn? The authorities are known for not acting, or for overreacting and causing more harm.
These articles are trying to expose a cult, point a finger at people doing something weird and sinister. But all they’re doing is exposing the air we all breathe. If anything, it highlights just how normal they are, despite their efforts not to be. There are so rarely right answers in life, only ones that turn out to be different types of wrong over time.
I don’t think anyone involved in the allegations is lying. They’re telling their truth and doing their best. We live in a world of powerful men being taken down for things they did last week and before I was born. We live in a world where #metoo is radical. Where I was told over and over again by the women I looked up to that the grown man groping me on the street was paying me a compliment, that I was overreacting to the touches from authority figures that I knew were wrong, that speaking up for myself was not something nice girls did. That the boys are being mean to me because they like me.
Pointing our fingers at one more scapegoat isn’t going to change a cultural issue.
The whole conversation started over breakfast because a few people from JPUSA are leading a project to help homeless veterans. Are the people using these allegations to discredit their work concerned about veterans being sexually abused or harmed in some way? Is anyone being protected by preventing them from providing housing for the homeless? Tearing people down, holding them to task for being different, is a knee-jerk reaction in our culture.
CouchSurfing with JPUSA
This is what CouchSurfing is all about. I didn’t just get a free place to stay, I got to discover a piece of the world I wouldn’t have otherwise ever stumbled into. I met a bunch of really amazing people during my stay. It’s about more than the generosity of their providing me with a few days of food and shelter, it was truly a warm welcome.
I can see how people decide this is home.
I really appreciated your piece. Jpusa is a complex beast whereby there’s so much good, so much to be thankful and grateful for.
My only counter is that to compartmentalize the allegations and experiences of child sexual abuse as ‘the air we breathe’ does a disservice to all of us who suffered as children while in the care of the people who were supposed to be protecting us. To date, Jesus People USA, Evangelical Covenant Church has not once publicly acknowledged the abuse that’s happened. It doesn’t matter if it was 30 years ago, or three days ago. Until they can publicly account for what has happened to many of us who were children behind closed doors, and hidden from authorities, all will not be right.
It is incumbent upon the current leadership of Jpusa to acknowledge and validate the suffering of the kids (that are now adults) that they helped to raise.
If your son or daughter were sexually abused in an institution proclaiming the name of Jesus that hid that abuse, and still hasn’t accounted for it, I don’t think you’d be at peace until they did the right thing by them. This idea that ‘well, sin is everywhere’ is an insult to those of us who continue to carry the wounds on a daily basis.
I had 2 stays at JPUSA , the last being about 17 years ago. I had a wonderful time and met people visiting there from.all around the world. I miss Cornerstone magazine and Cornerstone Press
because they allowed me to maintain a connection with JPUSA.
Sorry, but it is not that child abuse occurred, it was covering it up and defending actions of the perpetrators that is the scandal. They should be facing scrutiny because of that. It is not something that should be simply excused.
We spent 6 weeks with JPUSA as a family of 5 last summer (2018) and it has been a deeply touching experience. The sense of welcome, the genuineness, the lack of control, the positive/creative/encouraging atmosphere (to only name a few) have really made an impact on the whole family. We are considering moving there for a longer period as a consequence.
I’ve also tried to do my homework and eventually came to understand that it has evolved a lot over the past years. They now have very strict kids/adults behaviour rules, background checks etc. to help preventing misconduct. The whole leadership team has been renewed and doesn’t look as heavy-handed as what I could read from their 80s-90s period.
Talking with them, they have been very open about their failures, limitations, trial and error processes, difficulties – no whitewashed realities as far as I could hear.
Just genuine people aiming at following Jesus the best they can in this world.
Thank you for this article! Despite the fact that we learned of this place through our pastor, I was not really comfortable with my daughter wanting to spend a little time there. You, Cori, have helped me to better understand what Jesus People USA is all about, and in doing so, have helped me to feel much more comfortable about our potential visit with them. Again, thank you very much!
Well researched blog. Just came across in researching JPUSA. I encountered JPUSA way back in 1975, when they first formed, coming to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and turning our community and those surrounding upside down for Jesus. 18-20 young hippie-like young people plus leaders and Rez Band music. Denominations came together. Lutherans, Catholics, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc. Most of us never became hippie fanatics, but we went back to our churches renewed and encouraged to live out our faith in action rather than words. Followed them for a number of years as they settled in Chicago, taking a number of youth there to experience their intentional communal living among the poor and down-trodden. Have friends who were with them for years and now living away. For many, JPUSA’s intentional living and rules might seem oppressive; for others, freeing, having come from such discombobulated upbringings and life-styles. Sadly, have seen some of the scandal articles written about their ministry. As you state so clearly, they are not perfect, nor are any of us. If there has been abuse of individuals, hopefully it will be dealt with. In a society which is so quick to destroy all the good someone has done, let’s remember the good JPUSA has done is is doing in their broken community. Let each of us be encouraged to lead by doing and not just rhetoric. Thanks for your sharing.
Mr.V. (To my students) .
I grew up going to JPUSA (4707 Malden before they moved) often. I attended the first few Cornerstone music festivals. These guys always did right by me. They were generous and patient and kind. They actually dissuaded me from joining when I was a mixed up, goofy young guy. I never sniffed any sort of scandal (not to deny the possibility, of course), but this idea that JPUSA is some kind of cult is just nonsense. I’m no longer of the evangelical persuasion, but I feel I owe it to them to add my testimony to exactly the same goodness the author experienced.
So interesting! I’d never heard of them before, either! Will have to look into it next time I’m in town…. But your Canada is showing! It’s Lake Michigan! 😉
Haha, thanks for catching that! And let me know the next time you’re in Chicago, because I’d love to meet up if we could! It’s been far too long.
Fascinating, never heard of Jesus People before. I’m not really sure what to make of it. I guess it works for some, but like you said it must be hard to move into a normal way of life after having lived and worked there. Couchsurfing sure does offer up some interesting experiences
This was a very interesting read. I too wonder how retirement will look like for the elderly when they are no longer able to contribute to working. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live without cash and to have to request it. But it is also nice that that they will never have to worry about having a roof over their heads and always having meals. It’s awesome that many of them are musicians too.
THIS is one of the most amazing Couchsurfing stories I’ve ever heard! I love the Couchsurfing community because, like you said, it’s about so much more than just a free place to stay.
I’ve never heard of JPUSA, so this article was really interesting for me to read. It seems like a fascinating, if complex organization. A lot of people go there who are looking for an answer to a problem, so it makes sense that the organization would go through or have some hard times with so many who struggle as members. I’m glad that you were able to get to know a deeper side of them.