Anna Flowers was driving down Third Street in mid-July when a cyclist caught her eye. At first glance, she subconsciously categorized the scruffy looking man as "homeless." But then she did a double take. She recognized something that took her breath away.
The man, with his full beard and long, tunic-style shirt, was not homeless. He was a "Brother"—a member of a cult known as the Brethren, the Brothers and Sisters, or the Jim Roberts Group.
Flowers would know. She spent four years traveling with the secretive, nomadic cult, an organization spread out across the nation and that recruited her from her childhood home in Eugene. Flowers also knew where to find out more information about whether the group was settling into Bend. Primarily traveling by bike and bus, members often hit up bike shops for used parts. Flowers went straight to Hutch's Bicycles.
"I went in and was like, 'I have a super strange question,'" she recalls in an interview with the Source. Flowers says a Hutch's employee told her the man had been in a number of times over the past month or two, typically rummaging through used bike parts, sometimes with another similarly attired man. "I was kind of in a shock mode, like, ok, they're here. They are here, and it seems like there's one to two of them."
Because the group is so secretive, it's hard to be certain if the Brothers or other members of the Brethren are still in town, or already moved on. But Flowers says that it's not uncommon for one or two Brothers to scope out a city before bringing more members.
"Sometimes they send a renegade couple out to check out a city, camp there for a while or find a house to house-sit in," she says.
Either way, she knew she had to get the word out, and posted a public warning to her Facebook account.
"This, to me, is the same as knowing there's a pedophile in your neighborhood," Flowers says.
A wolf in sheep's clothing
Oregon is no stranger to cults. The Rajneeshees, who occupied the small Central Oregon town of Antelope in the 1980s, are perhaps the best know. The 2,000-strong group, which worshipped and worked for Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, carried out one of the largest bio-terror attacks in U.S. history when it poisoned more than 700 people with salmonella in The Dalles by sprinkling biological agents on salad bars at 10 different restaurants, and by poisoning the drinking water of two of the three county commissioners. They hoped to incapacitate the voting population so that their candidates could win and take the majority of the county commissioner seats. There also have been cults throughout Oregon's history, including the Portland-based starvation cult of the 1890s known simply as "Truth," the Corvallis-based "Holy Rollers" of the 1900s, and a sports-based cult in the small town of Sandy, the "Ecclesia Athletic Association," that was tied to sexual abuse and murder of children in the 1980s. The Church of Scientology, which currently has a high-profile headquarters and billboards in Portland, is also frequently characterized as a cult by former members.
Despite outward appearances of being a benign, high-demand Christian group, the Brethren is considered by many experts and former members to be a dangerous cult. In 2010, there was even a documentary about the organization, God Willing, produced by Evangeline Griego, the aunt of a Brethren member. The film follows the efforts of parents to recover their children.
Labeling an organization a cult is a sensitive area as the line between conviction and cult can be deceptively thin. Perhaps the most notorious cult leader of the 20th century, Jim Jones, was a revered community organizer, appointed by the mayor to the chair of the Housing Commission in San Francisco before his cult, the People's Temple, led to the cyanide-poisoning death of 909 of its members, including more than 300 children, and the shooting death of five others (including U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan), in Guyana. Though lacking the hallmarks of more sensational cults, survivors from the Brethren still insist that membership in the group can be traumatic, and even have fatal consequences due to the group's shunning of medical care.
Founded in the early 1970s by Jim Roberts (known to followers as "Brother Evangelist"), a Vietnam veteran and the son of a Pentecostal preacher, the Brethren believe they are the one true church and that by living a holy life, they will be assured entrance into Heaven upon Christ's pending return. They follow a particularly literal interpretation of the King James Bible and emulate the lifestyle of Jesus' early disciples. Leaving the group, whether willingly or forcibly, is seen as spiritual suicide.
According to former members, the group often recruits on college campuses, preying on vulnerable young people looking for greater meaning, acceptance, and a sense of community. In an effort to evade police, parents and the media, the Brethren is organized into cells, from Oregon to New Jersey, and often in motion, shuffling members and caravanning from city to city. Industrious and independent, they camp or "house-sit" abandoned houses, eat grocery store discards, sew their own clothing and build their own bicycles. Often volunteering at soup kitchens and bike clinics in exchange for needed supplies, members often appear salt-of-the-earth, hard working and generous—certainly alluring qualities. However, once inside, former members find that their every move is controlled by Brother Evangelist, and though technically free to leave, they are held emotionally captive by the fear of damnation drilled into them at every turn. Discouraged from contacting their families, seeking medical attention, and even marrying, members are intentionally isolated—a position that makes them all the more reliant on the group and its promise of salvation earned by perfect servitude.
Sisterhood of the traveling pious
Between joining the cult in 1997 and escaping in 2001, Flowers says she risked life-threatening infection, weathered freezing winters without heat, served as a cook and seamstress and maid to the group's Brothers, and cut off nearly all ties to her family—all in the name of living what she thought was a pure Christian life.
She first encountered the Brethren on the University of Oregon campus when she was only 17 years old. She was living in Eugene at the time, and had been raised in a fundamentalist Christian household, but during her teenage years become part of what she called the "party scene." By the age 17, she had begun seeking spirituality again. Even so, she was disillusioned with the church she knew—"It's a lot of hypocrisy, a lot of showmanship, a lot of people dressed in their Sunday best," she tells me over coffee at Palate—and was looking for something that felt more authentic, less dogmatic.
"It was a very different message of Christianity. It was like, we don't go to church, we are the church," she explains. "You don't just do it once a week, you live it.... It was like a very beautiful picture of something euphoric."
Like many former members, Flowers says she was drawn to the idea of leaving behind material possessions for a life filled with deep spiritual significance.
"It was like, we're all equal and we travel together and we live together and we just want to be good people. And we want to reach out to people with love and compassion, and it sounded amazing," she recalls, adding that the group stressed that members should focus on their souls since that's all they would take with them when they died.
Every day, the Brethren spend hours in prayer, meditation and Bible study and follow strict standards of modesty and personal conduct. That piety takes on extra urgency, explains Flowers, because members believe the return of Christ is nigh. Though they are not a prophetic group, Flowers says the "end times" always seemed just around the corner; an ever-present stick to keep followers on the straight and narrow.
Perhaps that urgency explains why Flowers, like so many of the group's followers, was willing to skip town on short notice without a clear sense of what she had signed up for. According to a parents' group that meets annually and attempts to "rescue" family members from the group's spiritual stranglehold, many young people leave with no warning, only a note urging parents not to worry or contact police.
After Flowers departed, her mother, like other parents, tried to track her daughter down. In 1998, Primetime aired an investigative report on the group and Flowers' picture flashed across the screen. But rather than leading to her recovery, the public exposure only pushed her deeper into the group, with Flowers hidden inside a house in Pennsylvania for six months.
Interestingly, Flowers' dad took a different approach: Rather than try to be the knight in shining armor, he instead showed his daughter support. He wrote letters telling her how proud he was that she had given her life to God, and sent money to be given to the ministry. Although the group generally discourages contact with family members, leaning heavily on Bible verses such as Luke 14:26 ("If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple"), Flowers' father was given a bit of leeway to contact her because he had painted himself as a sympathetic supporter.
Kristi G. Erlich, a Portland-based therapist who grew up in a cult and now counsels fellow survivors, says that while Flowers' mother's approach is typical, her father's tactic tends to be more successful.
"The 'tough love' approach is often what drives people deeper into group/cult participation. Family and friends are eager to liberate their loved ones from these groups, but must not push too hard," Erlich explains. "Of course, every person is different, but by and large, the best approach is to remain a tether to the outside world, lovingly and gently."
Flowers says that having that connection to her father helped her find an escape from the group once she was ready, ultimately recognizing that the group's authority was in a man, and not God, an observation that became particularly keen when she was denied a visit with her father.
"I was like, why is it that the feeling inside of me is that God is telling me yes, and yet you're telling me no?" she recalls. "I now had someone telling me very point blank to do something that was in direct conflict with something I was feeling. And in that moment, I was like, whoa, how come your God is different than my God? And how come your God trumps my God?"
At the time, Flowers says she was living in Hawaii. Three times, she packed her bags and tried to leave; each time in vain. She was on an island. She had no money, no means of transportation, and no real support system outside the Brethren.
"They've so built themselves up to be your everything that leaving them is incredibly scary," she explains. "How do you live in a world and not be a part of it, because that's a sin now?"
Flowers got a lucky break when another member of the Brethren had a dream that Flowers was traveling alone—the Brethren takes dreams seriously, she says—and she was soon after instructed to take a solo trip to Seattle. En route, she met a man who also was a traveling Christian, though not a member of the group.
When she arrived in Seattle, Flowers says she spent days in prayer and ultimately decided to leave the group with the man. Before she departed, she told an elder Brother why she was leaving, chastising him for playing God. When she got on a bus to head to Spokane, she says members of the group followed her, warning her of the dire consequences of leaving the cult until they reached the next fare zone.
Returning to the world
Flowers married the man who she met en route to Seattle just one month later, swayed by his similar religious convictions, but soon after he became violently abusive.
Today, she is remarried and works as a clothing designer. Though she believes in a higher power, she no longer considers herself religious. Even more than a decade removed from the cult, Flowers admits that she still has occasional moments of panic where she thinks, "What if there is a hell?"
She says if she sees the Brother again, she'll try to talk to him, tell him she met a Sister in Seattle and that she wants to learn more, attempt to infiltrate just enough to get some information.
"I really, really want to run into him again now that I wouldn't be thrown off guard," Flowers says. "I really want to run into him and have somebody on the side taking his picture so I could notify his mother that I know where he is."
In the meantime, she wants people to be aware that the group may be in town. It's a similar impulse, Flowers says, to seeing someone dating her abusive ex-husband.
"I know something you might want to know," she says.