In 1982, Maura, along with her husband and 12-year-old daughter Rebekah, moved to Sacramento to join a religious community that was then called Free Love Ministries, in what Maura says was a quest to find purpose in life. “God was calling us, and we needed to be obedient to God’s calling,” she recalls.
But Maura’s time in the group, which now goes by the name Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps, ultimately turned into a nightmare for her. Her ordeal is depicted in the National Geographic TV program I Escaped a Cult.
According to the group’s website, its co-founder “General” James Green was born in 1945 in Kentucky, but as a teenager hitchhiked to California, where he “became entwined in a hippie lifestyle.” It was there that he met his wife Lila, who now goes by the name of “General” Deborah. In the early 1970s, according to the website, the two joined a group called the Bear Tribe, which sought to emulate a traditional Native American lifestyle. But while on hitchhiking on a trip to scout land for the group in Montana, James Green was picked up by a driver who talked with him about Christianity, and he and his wife “felt the drawing presence of Jesus.” The couple moved back to Kentucky and joined a local church, but where disillusioned by what they saw as its corruption. Eventually, after doing missionary work in Central America and working in a Salvation Army shelter in Miami, in the early 1980s they went back to California, where they started Free Love Ministries.
According to their website, the Greens gave their new community a “paramilitary structure,” supposedly inspired by the Salvation Army. It was a rationale that appealed at the time to Maura. ”We believed that we were God’s end day army, and we had the important message that we needed to spread to mankind and that is that they needed to repent and that people were evil,” she recalls in the program.
According to a 1984 Sacramento Bee article on the group (reprinted here), Free Love Ministries’ philosophy of “aggressive Christianity” attracted at least 50 members, many of whom lived in four communal houses called “the camp” and worked at a chain of framing shops owned by a member. The group’s daily radio program, The Battle Cry, exhorted listeners to prepare for a war against Satanic forces, whom the group said were behind everything from psychoanalysis and karate to fairy tales, and who even caused colds. (The rhetoric grew so extreme that a Sacramento religious radio station decided to stop broadcasting it, out of fear that the group was turning into a cult.) The group’s tracts railed against a wide range of other religious groups, from Buddhists and Mormons to Scientology. At one point, members were directed to follow an elaborate 50-day fasting regimen, in which they spent 21 days consuming only bread and water and a week of only fruit juices. As a 1989 Portland Oregonian article detailed, the Greens and their followers took to wearing military-style khaki uniforms with brass name plates and arm patches, and to addressing one another by rank.
Maura says and Rebekah worked from dawn to dusk in one of the picture framing stores controlled by the group. According to the documentary, members ended up giving most of their earnings back to the organization, to cover rent, food, and the required tithe of 10 percent.
Even so, Maura says she never considered leaving. “I was afraid that if I left I would go to hell,” she explains in the documentary.
But Maura’s problems worsened in 1987, when the group accused her of “spiritual adultery,” which she says meant that she had placed something above God in her life. That something was her family. “They said that I idolized my children,” she recalls.
As punishment, Maura says that she was exiled to a shed in the backyard of the group’s compound, where she was given nothing but peanut butter sandwiches to eat and forced to work long hours chopping wood and doing other chores as penance. She was not allowed to have hot water to bathe. Her daughter Rebekah recalls: “They told us that we were not allowed to speak to her, that she was to wear a black scarf on her head and that we were to call her ‘Forsaken.’”
Eventually, after six months of such treatment, Maura was kicked out of the community completely. “I was told that there was no hope for me,” she recalls. “And so they put me out on the street with a box full of belongings.” Rebekah was compelled to sign a letter denouncing her mother, which was then notarized.
Maura finally decided to fight back, filing a lawsuit against the group over her alleged mistreatment. In addition to being imprisoned, she claimed in the suit that she was tricked into agreeing to divorce her husband and give up legal custody of the three young children they had while she was in the group. In March 1989, according to this Sacramento Bee article, a judge awarded her a $1.02 million judgment, after the group’s members refused to appear in court to contest the suit. As a result of the litigation, the group was evicted from its four houses in Sacramento, which were seized as part of the judgment. The McClatchy News Service reported that the houses–which were equipped with security cameras, iron gates and “safe rooms” in case of attack–were gutted by members before leaving.
(On its website, the group maintains that it was innocent of wrongdoing against Maura. ”This pathetic lie has been told and retold hundreds of times over the years by her and her fellow antagonists,” a letter from James Green on the website states.)
But the lawsuit didn’t put the group out of existence. In the mid-1990s, the group relocated first to Oregon and then to New Mexico, according to an article in the El Paso Times, reprinted here. In 2005, the Gallup Independent reported that James Green was jailed briefly after an alleged altercation with two other men on the group’s farm in Cibola County. The newspaper reported that Green allegedly tried to cut the men with a sickle, and in turn was beaten with walking sticks.
I Escaped a Cult takes viewers on a journey to discover the courageous stories of four people who escaped the clutches of abuse, mind control, and fear in two dangerous religious cults. Watch tonight, Tuesday April 10th, at 10P etpt and read more I Escaped a Cult Stories here.