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THE BRETHREN

a.k.a. The Brotherhood, Garbage Eaters, etc.

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Sponsored link.

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Group Name:

This Christian faith group actually has no formal name.  Members refer it as a church, spiritual community, or assembly. It has been called The Brotherhood, Brothers and Sisters, The Roberts Group, and The Brethren. Counter cult groups, disaffected parents of Brethren, and others frequently call them by the derogatory term Garbage Eaters. This name apparently is derived from their practice of searching through supermarket dumpsters for over-ripe produce and food that is beyond their recommended expiry date. 

They have no connection to the much larger group, The Church of the Brethren, which first appeared in the U.S. in 1723 CE, and traces its roots back to the Anabaptist faith group in Europe.

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History:

The Brethren faith group was founded in 1971 by Jimmy T. Roberts, a former sergeant in the Marines. Members consider Roberts to be The Elder; he is also referred to as Brother Evangelist. Outsiders sometimes call him The Prophet, although that is not a term used within the group.

The group is a nomadic religious movement. They travel around North America in groups, following a simple lifestyle. They have been described as having "chosen to lead a nomadic, Spartan existence in search of spiritual salvation." 1 The term "Spartan" seems a bit extreme. They lead a simple but comfortable life --they have enough food to eat and clothes to wear. They do not consider themselves as ascetics, living a life of poverty and suffering in order to gain spiritual gifts.

They generally remain in the United States, although they have made occasional trips into Canada and Mexico. By the middle of the year 2000, they had slightly over 100 members, organized into a number of small groups -- each under the authority of a long-term member.

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Beliefs:

bulletThey "forsake all" and live as itinerate followers of Christ, much as the original disciples did in the 1st century. Jerry Williams, a group member, explained: "Our main message is we're trying to live as Christ and the early disciples did. We require what the Messiah required - it has to do with forsaking worldly possessions and living for God every day." 9 They accept the Jesus' instructions to give away most of their possessions and to live a life of simplicity, as recorded in a number of gospel passages, including: 
bullet Matthew 19:21-24: "Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."
bulletMatthew 19:27-29: "Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life."
bulletLuke 14:33:  "So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple."
bulletLuke 18:22-25: "Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."
bulletLuke 18:28-30: "Then Peter said, Lo, we have left all, and followed thee. And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God's sake, Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting."  (all quotations from the KJV)
bulletLike the early Christian movements, they have no concept of the Trinity.
bulletThey believe that living a holy life and abstaining from sin are major prerequisites for salvation.
bulletIn common with many other religiously conservative groups, they teach that their ideas provide the only way to salvation.
bulletHolding down a regular job or pursuing a career is seen as a definite hindrance to their main task of seeking God's kingdom and righteousness.
bulletThey regard the King James Version of the Bible as the only English translation that is sufficiently accurate to be authoritative. Translations exist in other languages which are on a par with the KJV. Many members read the Hebrew Tanach extensively.
bulletThey refer to God as Yahveh, Yeshua and Elohiym.
bulletThey believe that divorce and remarriage constitutes adultery.
bulletThey regard homosexual behavior as intrinsically immoral, sinful and perverse.

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Sponsored link:

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Practices:

bulletThey live communally and nomadically, moving from city to city.
bulletThey place many demands on their followers:
bulletThey must accept a life of poverty and simplicity.
bulletThey are expected to energetically proselytize and recruit new members.
bulletThey do not engage in worldly activities: watch TV, read newspapers, go to movies.
bulletThe men often wear a simple brown hooded tunic that reaches down to the bottom of their knees. They are of no set color or design. Some have sleeves, some are worn over common button-down long sleeve shirts.  Some have hoods, some don't. Women wear a  dress or jumper of similar design. 
bulletThey often carry backpacks, and ride bicycles.
bulletMen grow beards and have short hair; the women let their hear grow long and do not wear jewelry.
bulletThey do not focus their evangelical effort on a specific group. 9 However they find that they do speak mainly with youths and young adults (18-24), college or university students, counter-culture, or pop culture people.
bulletNew members initially retain their financial assets when they join the group. They gradually distribute them to the group as needed. They dispose of most of their possessions before joining. In one case where a new member had substantial savings, most of it was left untouched in the bank. The group did not want to be accused of seizing the new member's inheritance.
bulletGenerally, only adults are allowed to join the group. Exceptions are made in those cases where parents and their minor children join together, or under other outstanding circumstances.
bulletSome members take a Hebrew or Greek name when they join.
bulletMembers with less seniority in the group give deference to more experienced members.
bulletWomen are not allowed to be in a position of authority or to teach.
bulletMembers frequently live in homes or other buildings in exchange for watching the property. Sometimes they camp out, or live in a vacant building, with the permission of the owner.
bulletMen spend most of their time in study, meditation, and witnessing to those outside the group. They also engage in physical work, like gathering food, repairing and selling bicycles, working at odd-jobs, etc.
bulletTheir food is often obtained as discards from bakeries and restaurants, or packaged foods older than their expiry date, from grocery stores and supermarkets. 
bulletThey are non-violent; they do not believe in carrying or using weapons, or any form of physical violence.
bulletThey do not date. They abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage. All members are single and celibate, with the exception of one married couple.
bulletFollowing the writings of St. Paul, (1 Corinthians 6:1-7) they do not initiate lawsuits against people who have harmed them. They attempt to settle disputes by negotiation. This makes them vulnerable to harassment and kidnapping.
bulletThey do not use drugs, Alcohol is consumed not at all, or rarely and then in moderation.
bulletThey feel that they must maintain secrecy concerning their exact whereabouts in order to avoid being kidnapped by members of their family, or by deprogrammers. On rare occasions, kidnappers have allegedly pepper sprayed, forcibly confined and handcuffed members. They have been taken across state lines against their will, and subjected to abusive and criminal deprogramming by counter-cult or anti-cult groups. 

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Separating from friends and family:

Members generally minimize direct contact with persons outside the group, except when proselytizing, or negotiating for food or accommodation. This separation from outsiders is not of paramount importance to the Brethren. However, it is critical to many of their friends and family. 

Sources disagree about the frequency of letter writing by members.  Some parents claim that they had received only two letters: a brief letter shortly after their adult child joined the group; a second letter a few weeks later which stated that there would be no more contacts in the future. After that, there was only silence. However, some group members claim that they frequently send brief notes to parents and friends to confirm that they are OK. They often stop sending letters if parents pressure them to leave the group.

Members believe that they are following the instructions of Jesus by avoiding any close association with those outside the Brethren. They regard direct contact with their family of origin to be particularly disruptive. This policy is supported by a number of gospel passages in which Jesus told his disciples to:

bulletSeparate totally from their families of origin.
bulletDedicate their life totally to following him. 
bulletAnticipate persecution and hatred from their families and friends.

Some the "anti-family" passages in the New Testament attributed to Jesus are:
bulletMatthew 10:34-37: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.  And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me."
bulletMatthew 12:46-50: "While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother."  
bulletLuke 9:59-62: "And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."  
bulletLuke, 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.
bulletLuke 21:16-17: "And ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolk, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake." (all quotations from the KJV) 

Many of the estranged parents and friends of the Brethren are justifiably distressed, for two reasons: 

bulletMost of the members were above average in intelligence and had been attending university when they joined the group.  Their parents probably had high expectations that their sons and daughters would become financially and socially successful later in life. 
bulletSome parents must live with the minimal or no contact, with their loved ones -- some not even knowing if they are still alive. 6 

"The Roberts Parents Group" has posted a series of letters on their web site, addressed to their adult children. They talk of the incredible sadness, anger, and frustration caused by losing contact with their adult child. 7 

We believe that the Brethren only accept adults as members -- not children or adults with children. This has allegedly led to some adults leaving their spouses and children and severing all contact with their spouses and/or children in order to join the group . A literal interpretation of some of the above passages from the Bible might be used to justify such actions. However, it would be considered illegal in some jurisdictions and immoral according to many moral and ethical systems.

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Misinformation: 

The group has been targeted by:  

bulletThe Anti-Cult Movement, who claim that the members are victims of deceptive recruiting practices and mind-control manipulation administered by their leaders. Members are described as wandering around dazed, in a trance for years, while being physically isolated from all contact outside the group, and being manipulated and exploited by the leaders. This is a common charge against new religious groups. Academic researchers have found little or no evidence that it is true.
bulletThe Counter-Cult Movement, who accuse the group of being a heretical "cult" -- deviating from traditional Christian beliefs.  They give the same designation to Mormon church, Jehovah's Witnesses and many other established faith groups.
bulletFormer members, who have become estranged from the group. This is a common response of ex-members of high demand religious groups. When an individual finds that their continued membership is no a longer positive experience, they leave. Some are angry at at what they view as wasted time and effort while they were in the group.  
bulletThe estranged parents and friends of current members. 

Jim Guerra was one follower of the group. He joined them during his sophomore year at Harvard University, and has since left. He wrote a book "From Dean's List to Dumpsters"

The group has been the subject of a number of unsympathetic programs on network television. They have been featured in negative articles in Newsweek and in local newspapers in the areas where they visit. 8,10 Much misinformation is spread about the group. In reality:

bulletThey do not regard themselves as disciples of Jim Roberts.
bulletThey do not believe that Roberts is Christ, or an incarnation of Christ, or in any way divine.
bulletThey do not stress apocalyptic beliefs - an obsession with end of the world scenarios. In common with all other conservative Christian groups, they do believe that Jesus Christ will be returning to the earth soon; but they do not prophecy dates nor do they stockpile survival foods.
bulletThey do not demonize people outside of the Brethren.
bulletThey do not promote group or individual suicide.
bulletThey do not condemn marriage.

Only rarely are members of The Brethren interviewed in the media. 11 Almost all reports are based on parents' accounts and those of the anti or counter-cult movements. 

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Recent developments:

bullet2000-JUN: According to the ReligionToday news service at Crosswalk.com, ABC News reported on The Brethren. The quoted a "cult expert" as saying that new members are taken into hiding in a different part of the country in order to be isolated from their former lives. 
bullet2001-SEP-06: Michael Robeson wrote a positive and thoughtful article in Collegian.com about his encounter with Jerry Williams, the local leader of The Bretheren in Fort Collins, CO. 13

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Author's comments:

The Brethren is a secretive group of very dedicated believers about which little is known. Many of the factors found in destructive cults are missing in this group.  We would identify them as a high-demand but benign Christian group. Membership requires almost total personal commitment. They are attempting to live a simple life, free of encumbrances, avoiding sin and seeking after righteousness. They feel that the route to a close relationship with God is to simulate the experiences of Jesus' original disciples. 

However, in their drive to live a life as Jesus commanded -- forsaking all possessions and separating themselves from their family -- they generate immense amounts of grief and anger in many of their families of origin. As the ABC News program stated, parents can't understand what made their children change so suddenly, and don't know if they will ever see them again. Much of this pain could be alleviated if The Brethren would establish a simple, periodic, one-way Email link to members' parents that would keep families informed of the health and status (but not the location) of their children. In their drive to follow Jesus' commands to abandon their families and live a life of poverty, they are ignoring other commands by Jesus: to perform acts of kindness towards people who are suffering -- presumably including their parents. The sponsors of this web site, the OCRT, would be pleased to provide such a link at no charge. Unfortunately, our offer was never taken up

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Emmy Kondo, "Inside a Secretive and Controversial Religious Cult: The Clandestine Brotherhood," ABC News, PrimeTime Live, 1998-MAR-25. See: http://more.abcnews.go.com/  
  2. "Parents seek son lost to religious group," Denver Post, 1998-AUG-21. 
  3. "Religious group, skeptics differ on path," Denver Post, 1998-AUG-27. 
  4. J. Gordon Melton, "Encyclopedia of American Religions," 5th Edition, Page 937. 
  5. James Lewis, Ed., "Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects and New Religions," Prometheus Press, (1998), Page 85. 
  6. Larry & Judy Wilcox, "The Brotherhood Stole our Son," at: http://www.dldewey.com/ (Site is no longer active)
  7. "The Roberts Parents Group" is a group of parents of members of the Brethren who have lost contact with their adult members. They maintain a list of letters to their children at: http://bigfoot.com/~trgpn  Their Email address is: trgpn@bigfoot.com 
  8. "A Chronicle of Religious Persecution in America" is a story by a member of the group, describing how he had been harassed by a stalker. See: http://members.tripod.com/
  9. Coleman Cornelius, "Religious group, skeptics differ on path," Denver Post, 1998-AUG-27, Denver, CO, at: www.denverpost.com/  
  10. "Held captive by a cult: Cleveland man intent on reclaiming his daughter," NewsNet 5 has written a story from the parent's perspective about desperate parents kidnapping their 18 year-old daughter from the Brethren. See: www.newsnet5.com/
  11. Coleman Cornelius, "Member: Life joyless before joining." This is an interview of Patrick Rooney who was kidnapped out of the group. See: http://www.rickross.com/
  12. Jim Guerra, "From Dean's List to Dumpsters: Why I left Harvard to Join a Cult," Dorrance Publ. Co., (2000). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store. A review of this book was published by the Roberts Group Parents Network at: http://members.tripod.com/
  13. Michael Robeson, "Time spent with the Brethren brings self-reflection and many questions," 2001-SEP-06, at: http://www.collegian.com/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-MAR-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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