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.