I Saw Satan

Breaking away from a Boomer Christian cult

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In February 1979, John Robert Stevens made a rare public appearance, inviting reporters from the Quad-City Times and the Iowa City Press-Citizen to tour the facilities of Shiloh, spiritual headquarters of the non-denominational Christian fellowship known as The Living Word, or more informally, The Walk, which he founded in Los Angeles in 1951. At fifty-nine, Stevens was a known entity in rural Kalona: he was born in nearby Story County in 1919, and his father, William J. Stevens, had preached at the Christian Tabernacle in neighboring Washington, Iowa, since 1933, when he moved his family back from California after graduating from Pentecostal radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson’s LIFE Bible College, adjacent to Angelus Temple in Echo Park. The Des Moines Tribune had previously reported on Shiloh in 1975, noting that the construction of the 175-acre “retreat center”—by nonprofessional volunteers, mostly men in their twenties, among them “one-time drug addicts, society’s drop-outs and do-nothings from the west coast”—was nearing completion. “It’s a good life,” twenty-four-year-old San Diegan Steve Corbett told the Tribune; a former artist and musician, Corbett was “into mescaline and coke about four years,” and though he wasn’t paid for his labor at Shiloh, “his financial needs are few, and the church meets pressing ones.” 

When Stevens’s name next appeared in newsprint four years later, construction was largely finished and Shiloh was housing almost two hundred residents, with room for up to a thousand. In the meantime, more than nine hundred members of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple Agricultural Project had died from drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid at the Jonestown settlement in Guyana in November 1978. With good reason, headlines in eastern Iowa papers shivered with NIMBY suspicion. “Free Sex, Firearms?” the Quad-City Times’s story asked, rumors which Stevens seemed eager to dispel: “Let me tell you something about these cults—for over 40 years we’ve been preaching against them. . . . We’re different from most of you, and I thank God we are because we’re so against passive living.” To the Press-Citizen, Stevens laughed off reports of any affiliation with Charles Manson and dismissed local “persecution” as requisite to any movement in history “that will live godly in Christ Jesus.” A February 25 follow-up article in the Quad City paper describes Stevens as “fashionable with amber tinted glasses, long gray hair and a salt and pepper beard.” At the same time that Stevens insisted that Sunday services would be open to the public, he refused to allow reporters to take his photograph: “I don’t want to be a leader. But I would like to speak a word. . . . I’m just a voice. I don’t hold any official position at all. Just—I love to preach the word. Now, that’s just about it. I’ve been devoted to it, addicted to it. I think it lives.”

If the word is living, then God is not dead, the Bible is unfinished, and a new day is coming. Stevens predicted that day would be in 1979.

If the word is living, then God is not dead, the Bible is unfinished, and a new day is coming. Stevens predicted that day would be in 1979, when his followers, through convulsive prayer and spiritual intensity, would lift him into heaven and he in turn would leave the gates wide open, granting the faithful “resurrection life”: immortality. Like many of his contemporaries—John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., Ken Kesey and Jerry Garcia—Stevens offered children of the 1960s a vision of a world built on brotherly love, affectionately substituting himself for the Greatest Generation’s colder patriarchs, who were silenced both by the trauma of war and the bells of progress. His death from cancer in 1983 caused rifts throughout the flock: for some, the jig was up; others departed out of a mixture of loyalty to their “spiritual father” and suspicion of his successors—namely Gary Hargrave, who would continue to monetize his gospel with entrepreneurial savvy. Some true believers still hold that Stevens took Satan down with him, finishing the work begun by Jesus in the Judaean Desert so long before. In the years since, many of Stevens’s fundamental tenets and practices—wage slavery, misogyny, cronyism, hypocrisy, anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, and greed—have become the explicit platform of the Republican Party under the mantra “Make America Great Again.” It was Ronald Reagan who first used the slogan in his 1980 campaign, which resulted in the first major political victory of the religious right—when the youngest Baby Boomers were old enough to vote in their first presidential election, in 1984, they played a crucial role in keeping the White House red. Christ is supposed to have died for our sins, Kennedy and King for our civil rights; their names are remembered and invoked in the hope that their actions will someday bear fruits of change. Significantly less renowned, Stevens’s word took root without him. As far as I can tell, he died for nothing.

The Blurb of God

To trace the history of The Living Word Fellowship is to witness the broader influence of evangelical Christianity on American culture since the Baby Boomers reached maturity. It is no accident that the same people who dodged the draft, hitchhiked to Woodstock, burned their bras, and received the first legal abortions eventually elected a president who fucks porn stars, openly refers to himself as a “nationalist,” and appointed a pro-life rapist to the Supreme Court.

My parents first came in contact with Stevens as a voice emanating from a tape deck at meetings they attended while in graduate school at Purdue University in the mid-1970s. Deep and jovial, with a distinctly Midwestern accent warmed over by his time in Southern California and Hawaii, where he established a network of churches in the 1950s, Stevens’s sermons were distributed through a subscription service based in North Hollywood, Living Word Publications, which to this day sells audio recordings and pamphlet transcriptions of orations by Stevens and his successor, Gary Hargrave, as well as books, study manuals, and other materials numbering in the thousands. At the core of Stevens’s theology is the power of language: to speak a thing into existence is to change the world, and The Living Word Fellowship privileges words above all else. Months before Stevens died, he said that “the greatest thing that has come in this generation is the Word of God being preserved on cassettes.” I spent hours listening and re-listening to these tapes as a child: on weekend road trips between my family’s house in San Diego and the Church of the Living Word (CLW) in the San Fernando Valley; in “chapel” at Centers of Learning by the Sea, the “kingdom school” on the grounds of our local congregation, Church of His Kingdom (COHK), where I attended seventh through twelfth grade; in Walkman headphones when I was feeling especially pious or put upon, feelings that became indistinguishable as my time in “The Walk” progressed. In addition to The Living Word’s name, P.O. Box, and copyright, the beige sticker label of each tape includes the title, date, time, and location of the message alongside the fellowship’s insignia—a double-edged sword piercing the illuminated, open pages of a Bible, encircled by the phrase “the word of God is living and powerful”—as well as a coded star rating which designates the tape as either “Milk for the Babes,” “Bread for the Little Children,” or “Meat for the Young Men,” categories corresponding to “spiritual levels and stages of development” identified in The First Principles, Stevens’s 1958 guide to biblical study. The latter ratings are made available only to verified members, some are restricted to use in church lending libraries, and others’ access is limited to shepherds’ ears only.

How did a conceptual artist who spent the 1960s hobnobbing with the Beatles end up, in the 1970s, speaking in tongues on a farm in rural Iowa?

All cults have a foundational text, whether a how-to manual (Dianetics), a memoir (Mein Kampf), or a hybrid of the two (The Art of the Deal). The Living Word Fellowship has “To Be A Christian,” which Stevens wrote in 1933, at age fourteen. Only four paragraphs long, the tract reads with the bluster of a horny teenage boy: “To be a Christian, as I understand Christ,” Stevens begins, “means the acceptance of the absolute authority of Jesus in all of my life.” In Stevens’s portrayal, Christianity sounds a lot like S&M: “To be a Christian means to belong body and soul to Christ, now and evermore, for Him to do with me as He wills. . . . My joy must be in doing His will, in being His slave, in the confidence that whatever comes to me, when following Him, is His doing.”

Submission, of course, is imperative to many religions, but in The Living Word, salvation is achieved by filtering this impulse through bureaucratic hierarchy. When I was growing up, the social (and therefore spiritual) stratification of Living Word churches resembled the corporate structure of a Fortune 500 company: each congregant literally reported to managerial figures assigned by an intercongregational oligarchy known as the Apostolic Company (APCO) in dependably shifting, haphazard, and dumbfounding arrangements. It was not unheard of for an ambitious college student in his twenties to “shepherd” a middle-aged husband and father, which meant micromanaging his life: deciding if, when, and where he would take his family on vacation; what car he might buy; whether his kids could go to college. These “designated relationships” were scripturally inspired by the precedents of Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament and Paul and Timothy in the New, but more often they resembled the dysfunctional workplaces of contemporary cinema: The Devil Wears Prada, Office Space, Horrible Bosses, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Intern. Each link in the chain provided a connection to APCO’s “fathering ministries,” and therefore, a walk with God. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon is relevant here: in The Living Word, Jesus is the invisible if omnipresent prison guard.

Which is to say that, throughout its history, The Living Word Fellowship has distinguished itself from other contemporary evangelical Christian organizations by remaining intensely secretive and insular, and this has led many of its commentators and former members to label it a cult. In recent years, some efforts have been made to shed this baggage, rebranding in the image of a more mainstream church: among other interdenominational olive branches, the fellowship has invited guest sermons from evangelist and author Mahesh Chavda, and Hargrave has met with Catholic leaders, notably in Brazil, where Silas Esteves presides over some of The Living Word’s most robust congregations. Hargrave established close ties with the Israeli founder of the AMI Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies and Research, Shlomo Hizak, who led generations of Living Word members on tours of the Holy Land alongside evangelical groups from throughout the world. Hargrave also founded an “online Bible college and seminary,” Shiloh University, in 2006, which is the same year that he received a B.A. in Biblical Studies from Southern Christian University and subsequently became Chancellor of Shiloh U (he also holds an honorary doctorate in literature; like Hair Club for Men president Sy Sperling, Hargrave is also a client). The Living Word Fellowship has gone so far as to rename a number of its churches, of which there are currently eleven, but totaled nearly a hundred, with followers spread across at least four continents, prior to Stevens’s death.

From the outside looking in, there is little to differentiate The Living Word from charismatic megachurches such as Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, in Lake Forest, California, or Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, in Houston, and this surface resemblance is something that the fellowship’s public relations endeavors are clearly intended to exploit. Tan, fit, and newly remarried, Hargrave, who did not respond to interview requests, cuts an attractive figure for a widower in his sixties; frequently taking the pulpit in a loosely draped Hawaiian shirt—the de facto uniform of Living Word leadership since the 1970s—he appears an affluent, laidback CEO. Once a volunteer officer for the Redlands, California police department, Hargrave seems the ideal authority figure for a religious movement whose aims have more and more coincided with those of Republican politics over the past half century, but like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and Ted Haggard before him, his sanctimonious posture strains to conceal a history of sin—in this case, The Living Word’s totalitarian theology and its ongoing culture of abuse.

Christ’s Body Politic

In the months leading up to the 1980 presidential election, the New York Times published a series of articles gawking at the apparently sudden emergence of a politically savvy Christian right led by Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, one of several special interest groups established at the end of the 1970s in response to Roe v. Wade in 1973, as well as the liberal policies and perceived weakness of Jimmy Carter, who had received support from evangelicals in the 1976 election due to his candid discussion of faith on the campaign trail. Carter’s message was an easy sell to religious voters scandalized by Watergate, but more significantly, it was an effective rhetorical strategy that would be deployed against him by Reagan in 1980—thereby becoming the modus operandi of Republican politics until, perhaps, the election of Donald Trump in 2016. One Times story, from August 17, warns, “Ultraconservative Evangelicals A Surging New Force in Politics,” describing the evangelical platform as “militant military establishment, less Federal control of education, defeat of the proposed equal rights amendment for women and strong government sanctions against abortion, homosexuals’ rights, pornography and other social phenomena they see as threatening to the family and to the moral foundation of the nation.” The Times credits the grassroots efforts of these groups to mobilize one of the United States’ largest demographics for Reagan’s nomination, taking over state and local parties, and nominating many of their own for office. Among this cohort of political disrupters was Charles E. Grassley, then congressman for Iowa’s third district, and later chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee until earlier this year. Before he was elected a senator of Stevens’s home state, the Times described Chuck Grassley as a “lay preacher” with Falwell’s endorsement: though he made many appearances in churches on the campaign trail, including the “Washington for Jesus” rally that April, Grassley was “not directly asking for votes but testifying to his faith and beliefs.” Despite subsequent Times stories rehearsing awe over “born agains” who “interpret the Bible literally” and trusting the indication of polls that evangelicals constituted an insufficiently unified base to guarantee victory for Reagan and his partisans, the Gipper carried forty-four states, winning the popular vote by eight-and-a-half million, and Grassley beat Democratic incumbent John Culver by eight points.

It’s unclear whether or for whom Stevens voted in 1980, but a manuscript published in that year by the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP), an evangelical think tank based in Berkeley, suggests that his views skewed radically conservative. Woodrow Nichols’s research paper, “Experiment in End Time Apostasy: The Walk of John Robert Stevens” spans seventy-five thousand words. In rare detail, the manuscript traces Stevens’s doctrine back to the Latter Rain, a movement born out of Pentecostal revivals across Canada in the years immediately following World War II, and especially Winston I. Nunes, a black West Indian preacher (curious, as The Living Word’s North American congregations are almost exclusively white) whose theological emphasis was on parousia: an ancient Greek word meaning “presence” or “arrival,” which is used to describe Christ’s second coming. According to Nichols, Stevens and Nunes met in Tacoma, Washington, in the late 1960s, likely bonding over a shared interpretation of parousia: “overspiritualizing it to mean that the saints this side of the First Resurrection can experience the resurrection body in this life.” In Stevens’s case, this meant being “Christ in the Flesh”: a living, breathing heavenly emissary reincarnated from Samuel the Prophet and John the Apostle. Nichols claims that Stevens kept a vast library of the occult (astrology, hypnotism, Aleister Crowley) in Los Angeles and squandered his parishioners’ money on get-rich-quick schemes, one involving a gold mine in Nevada (others say it was silver). Among other allegations of indecency, heresy, and greed, Nichols reports that Stevens used witchcraft to pray for the deaths of Robert Kennedy, David Rockefeller, and even Stevens’s first wife, Martha, who divorced him around 1979. Some former congregants remember fellow worshippers taking collective credit for Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.

In spite of many inaccuracies and an overindulged flair for literary sensationalism (Chapter Thirteen begins with a scene from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring), Nichols’s manuscript remains the most extensive of relatively few third-party accounts of The Living Word, limited to a handful of brief entries in reference works on cults and new religions, newspaper articles and magazines such as Jesus People USA’s Cornerstone, the creative nonfiction of former Living Word member Kelly Daniels, and Vain Glory, a thirty-minute documentary directed and produced in 1985 by Anthony Cox, Yoko Ono’s ex-husband and collaborator, who harbored their daughter Kyoko at several Living Word congregations in the 1970s after Ono and Cox divorced. Cox’s film, which Nichols participated in, stands out as the most colorful and scurrilous document in this bibliography. Vain Glory, available on YouTube, is so comically amateurish in its execution that it largely undermines its own agenda: Cox occupies the frame for more than a third of the film, waxing nostalgic for his salad days in swinging London and bemoaning the messy aftermath of his marriage to Ono in the same breath that he brags about his closeness to the Lennons. His claims that Stevens demanded sex from his followers and that, following his death, the prophet’s body was laid in state for eight months are wholly unsubstantiated and mostly untrue, but Cox’s middling celebrity itself broaches one of The Living Word’s many riddles: How did a conceptual artist who spent the 1960s hobnobbing with the Beatles end up, in the 1970s, speaking in tongues on a farm in rural Iowa?

Nichols, who is now a criminal attorney in Fresno, credits this shift to “a moving of the holy spirit that happens occasionally in history”—especially in the U.S., which has experienced major religious revivals every two or three generations since the Great Awakening of the 1730s, when Jonathan Edwards and other Protestant ministers converted the youth of New England to God’s “mere and arbitrary grace.” For Nichols, that conversion occurred at Canadian National Exhibition Stadium on June 27, 1970, when the Festival Express, featuring Janis Joplin, the Band, the Grateful Dead, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, rolled into Toronto for a two-day stint. He took LSD and had a religious experience: “I was possessed, basically, and cried out to God and God delivered me and gave me the Holy Spirit.” Not yet a Christian, Nichols felt compelled to act on this experience, so he hitchhiked to Vancouver, where he met followers of the Jesus People Army, a Seattle-based branch of a diffuse revival of restorationist theology which initially grew on the West Coast, contemporaneous with The Living Word, among young people sympathetic to drugs, rock and roll, and the counterculture: the Jesus Movement. Nichols describes his time with the Jesus People Army as “total science fiction”: “the spirit came upon everyone in a coffee house, believers and non-believers and it was unbelievable, it was just totally unbelievable. Everyone was talking as if they were talking through electronics. Electricity in the air.”

flames burst from the pages of a book held open in someone's hands
© L.T. Horowitz

Hippies and Blow Outs

Nichols’s journey is not unlike those of fellow Baby Boomers who flocked to The Living Word in the early 1970s. Tom Wolverton joined the church in San Diego when it was called Coniah Chapel and he was a senior in high school, in 1971. His mother had recently died, his father remarried and moved to Oklahoma, leaving him an orphan by default. “We were coming out of the 60s, and the idealism of the 60s was sort of crashing down on us. The Summer of Love had ended and things like Altamont had happened and pollution was still running rampant. The Age of Aquarius was not panning out like we thought it was.” Kelly Daniels describes his former stepfather Ralph Smith, who took over Ramah Chapel in Redlands when Hargrave was transferred to L.A., as a longhaired bass player in a rock band who wore a cowboy hat and rode a Harley-Davidson: “the kind of guy that drank a lot of beer but didn’t smoke pot. On the conservative side of hippie.” A number of longtime members who have since left the cult remember a “Great Hippie Invasion” in the late 1960s centered around Saturday night “bless-ins”: marathons of “violent intercession” at CLW and Stevens’s original Living Word church, Grace Chapel in the southeastern L.A. neighborhood of South Gate. Led by Stevens, then called “Brother” in the fashion of his Pentecostal youth, whose black suits and clerical robes he still adorned on Sundays, these prayer sessions frequently lasted into the early morning hours, and participants’ expression of spiritual ferocity by means of lay prophecy, speaking in tongues, foot stomping, and fist pumping approached the volume and energy of a rock concert, drawing among its crowds disaffected youth chasing utopia mere miles from the Sunset Strip, where the Doors, the Byrds, Love, and the Seeds peddled catharsis from the stage of the Whisky a Go Go. By 1975, Brother Stevens was now Papa John, the clerical robes were traded in for a leisure suit and a lei.

Not everyone was a hippie, though, least of all Stevens: in 1977, he issued a memo requesting the compilation of “a complete John Birch library, with four or five copies of everything.” Mary Wyatt began attending Grace Chapel as a teenager in the late 1960s; later, she served as Gary Hargrave’s attorney (she was voluntarily disbarred in January 2018). When she was fifteen, her cousin Bob McClane took her to a service so “Holy Rollerish” that she later told friends that McClane, a rock and roll singer, must have “lost his mind on acid.” It wasn’t until her mother forced her to a counseling session with Stevens in 1969 that she met his secretary, Marilyn Cleland Holbrook, and was “blown away.” Marilyn is referred to by Living Word members mononymously, like Madonna or Cher, with reverence and devotion in equal measure to the resentment and shame her name stirs among apostates, called “blow outs” in Walk talk. When Wyatt met her, Marilyn was a beautiful single mother of two in her early thirties who claimed Native American heritage and could dance to John Lee Hooker. “At that age,” Wyatt told me, “the only women who went to church were ugly women looking for a husband.” When she saw Marilyn, she thought, “Wow! If she goes to this church, maybe there’s something to it.” The Living Word’s own literature reports that Marilyn “met the Lord” on September 29, 1963, at a home meeting in the San Fernando Valley which later evolved into CLW. Were she a Catholic saint, she would be the patron of transcription: Living Word hagiography credits the origin of the “word ministry” to a personal request from Stevens in the mid-1960s that Marilyn transcribe his sermons, laying the foundation for the transcription department which, once audio technology was involved, became The Living Word proper.

Death of the Author

Around the time Reagan took office in 1981, Stevens was deeply engaged in the series of teachings he dubbed “The Unfolding,” which would occupy him until his death two years later. It is likely that Stevens had received his cancer diagnosis before he married Marilyn on October 4, 1980, at Church of His Holy Presence in Anaheim. Nineteen years younger than Stevens, his second wife would become Marilyn Hargrave less than four years later, marrying The Living Word’s current leader, her third husband, one year and five days after the death of his mentor. The consolidation of power by means of erratic marriage and divorce stands out among The Living Word’s most callous scandals. Mary Wyatt, who lived with Marilyn and her family in a communal home on Blix Street in North Hollywood in the years leading up to Stevens’s remarriage, remembers a systematic pattern of marital reconfiguration in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including her own. Hargrave divorced his first wife only months before marrying Marilyn (his daughter, Dawn, was two at the time), but according to a narrative statement filed in 1993, Hargrave Family Ministries was incorporated as a California nonprofit religious corporation on March 26, 1982, when Stevens was still alive, though Hargrave had mostly taken over his pulpits, and Gary & Marilyn was only a rumor among gossipy congregants, as John & Marilyn had been only a few years earlier. This peculiarly casual attitude toward divorce, deployed as a tactic of psychological abuse, had the ironic effect of terrorizing Living Word members for decades. Though he had harbored reservations about The Living Word since the 1980s, Tom Wolverton remained in the cult until his two children left in the early 2000s. “I realized it would be a very high cost if I decided to leave. In the interest of keeping the family together and the kids having two parents involved in everything, I chose to stay and just be a good boy.”

At the time of his death, Stevens was mourned in at least twenty brick-and-mortar churches across the United States, but his word lived on in tapes and pamphlets of his sermons delivered by mail to individual subscribers and informal congregations around the world. For local parishioners, subscription to Living Word literature is as compulsory as a tithe: listening and relistening (a recent sermon from Hargrave insists “at least five times”) are standard practice, such that members’ car stereos (and now, iPhones) are liable to become mobile Living Word libraries. As Matt Hedstrom, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and author of The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (2012), told me, “evangelical ministries have been at the forefront of new media of all kinds” since at least Gutenberg. “Evangelicalism is networked more than traditionally run ecclesial bureaucracy like congregations and denominations. And the emphasis on preaching and the word makes it more amenable to that world of print,” not to mention radio, television, and the internet. “A lot of that has to do with the performative nature of the sermonic form—it just adapted so well to any sort of recording or broadcast technology.” With the advent of radio, mainline Christian denominations monopolized airwaves by means of programming slots radio stations offered to religious groups as a public service. Because these broadcasts were dominated by prominent leaders of historically respectable institutions, upstart evangelists, backwoods fundamentalists, and other representatives of marginal religious communities learned to become more entrepreneurial in how they got their message out: tent revivals, tape ministries, Christian rock festivals, cyberchurch.

Often, the messages themselves are entrepreneurial. Though rarely as explicit in its theology as Creflo Dollar or other prophets of the prosperity gospel, financial concerns are conspicuous in The Living Word’s theory and praxis. Shiloh University is only the most recent of The Living Word’s many “kingdom businesses,” to which the nonprofit organization has lent support in exchange for a committed share of earnings since 1970. This practice led to enterprises such as Impact, a paint supply company, and Golden Threads, a clothing label that sold The Living Word’s signature tropics-inspired post-hippie chic out of a factory in Redlands which employed Kelly Daniels’s mother for a time (he wrote about this period for The Sun in 2015). The menial jobs available at kingdom businesses struck many members of my parents’ generation, who dropped out of college or skipped it altogether to give their lives to Stevens, as manna from heaven, but references to this era in more recent years are often met with the hushed tones of a military veteran asked about active duty. The Living Word has long prided itself on what it has achieved through volunteer labor: the construction of Shiloh, kingdom schools in the Valley and San Diego (to which I contributed as a student there, sometimes in lieu of classes), and The Living Word’s churches in Hawaii.

My father stopped describing himself as an evangelical in the wake of Trump’s election, but his inability to recognize in the president’s hucksterism the cheap pizzazz of a televangelist is a tragic effect of his generation’s narcissistic penumbra.

Despite the working class bona fides of many Living Word congregants, the Hargraves’ jetsetting lifestyle was lavish enough to be featured by the HomeStyle section of The Honolulu Advertiser in 1999. In “Hidden Sanctuary,” from June 27, editor Mike Leidemann gushes over the “wide-open interior spaces, plenty of natural light, wooden floors, jalousie windows and more than 11 lamp and bathroom fixtures fashioned from giant clam shells” of the Hargraves’ “five-bedroom, five-bath” home in an “upscale” neighborhood “sandwiched between the slopes of Diamond Head and Kapiolani Park.” The article notes that construction “was done in about 10 months using a crew that includes many young trainees in the fellowship program.” To serve Gary and Marilyn, whether with labor, emotion, fealty, or gifts, was utmost to their sheep, and the shepherds’ relative comfort was taken as the temperature of the church itself, justified in the Word as a denial of a “poverty mentality” plaguing modern Christianity. It’s no wonder that a number of The Living Word’s most senior pastors are lawyers and accountants; Gray was ordained as “minister of kingdom business” in 1997, and my father’s luck with the stock market in the 1990s led to him managing our local congregation’s finances for nearly twenty years—gratis, of course. Meanwhile, the Hargraves’ house sold in 2005 for three and a half million dollars.

Millennial Burnout

Since 2016, internal tensions in The Living Word have reached new highs—but not because of Boomers. My father stopped describing himself as an evangelical in the wake of Trump’s election, but his inability to recognize in the president’s hucksterism the cheap pizzazz of a televangelist is a tragic effect of his generation’s narcissistic penumbra. For a generation of entitled consumers who failed at revolution only to deem it impossible, Hargrave has followed Stevens in performing an idea of a holy man, collecting a ten-percent cut every Sunday for longer than I’ve been alive.

My generation grew up in the shadow of our parents’ deluded myths of selflessness and servitude, and in The Living Word Fellowship as in America more broadly, we millennials have largely disappointed our elders. Living Word membership has been in steep decline since the products of its second baby boom have come of age in the last two decades. Though a number of my kingdom school classmates enlisted to build sanctuaries in Brazil and preach sermons in Iowa, most of us have chosen secular lives, taking advantage of the modern temptations we were brought up to hold in contempt: higher education, career ambition, mobility and travel, unsanctioned sex. The most common difficulty faced in the daily lives of former Living Word members I’ve talked to is the tyranny of choice. The ability to make decisions is one of humanity’s most essential characteristics, but for those who have spent their formative years competitively subjecting themselves to the whims of others under the guise of spiritual “coverage,” the freedom of choice can prove too heavy a burden. Still, postlapsarian life is no worse than conditions inside the cult, whose system of self-quarantine seems to be crumbling as The Living Word persists further into the information age.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment of my exit, but my attendance at COHK waned significantly in the latter half of 2003, when I graduated high school, got my driver’s license, and enrolled in college twenty miles away. My best friend and I had spent our senior year rehearsing Thelma & Louise scenarios, but they turned out to be unnecessary: San Diego’s suburban sprawl provided sufficient distance and cover, and our parents proved liberal enough to let us have what they hoped was a Rumspringa (thinking of their own youths, no doubt). I wasn’t much missed: I’d plastered church walls with home-printed Ralph Nader posters in October 2000, on top of other misdeeds which brought me school suspensions and the determined attention of the church’s more ardent disciplinarians. At first, memories of my childhood in The Living Word struck me as the very thing the drugs I discovered in college seemed designed to erase (the cult had driven me to drink much earlier), but as more of my peers followed suit—migrating north from the Otay Mesa neighborhood just above the Mexican border to the dive bars and Victorian houses on the other side of the Coronado Bridge, further than many of us could have imagined going—an informal support group grew over cheap beer and cigarettes. Some retained stronger ties than others. A few found a way to keep one foot on either side of salvation; many more flitted in and out. I showed my face very occasionally—first as heretic, then prodigal son (the eldest of five siblings), and finally pseudo-anthropologist. Civilian life was not easy for everyone; that it was for me is testament to my privilege. My family was tolerant, if uneasily so; supportive of education, and affluent enough to be. All of this made them an anomaly: despite forty-years in a right-wing cult, my parents are moderate liberals with postgraduate degrees. Pro-choice and gun control, in addition to “the Lordship of Jesus Christ,” my parents have always defended the supremacy of science (my father worked as a chemist) and art (my mother, a painter). These relative eccentricities, along with the presumably surmountable archive of cognitive dissonance they must have engendered, are what I credit for my family’s having left The Living Word behind—if only in the last year.

The year that I left The Living Word, posts about the cult started appearing on FACTNet message boards, but by 2004, discussion began to move to the Cult Education Institute, known familiarly as the “Rick Ross forums,” in acknowledgement of the website’s founder, Rick Ross, author of Cults Inside Out: How People Get In and Can Get Out (2014). Across 800 pages and counting, the CEI’s Living Word thread has been used alternately as a platform for gossip, reconnaissance, confession, lay evangelism, and trolling, and while it resembles in some ways a kind of shadow cult, it has mostly been a space of group therapy and collective healing. Perhaps more effectively than Stevens or Hargrave ever did, the forums have established common ground for the diverse experience of former members, some of whom left in the 1970s, before Hargrave took office, and others, presently. Binge-reading the forums has become a rite of passage for the recently apostate—my brother began posting almost immediately after moving back to California from Shiloh, where he lived from ages seventeen to twenty-six, and when I, a longtime lurker, posted for the first time several months ago, my own mother, who had not yet admitted to me that she had left the cult, sent me an email. She apologized for my childhood, and wrote: “As I have told my therapist a million times, it’s like an abusive marriage. He can hit you, but it’s because you’re a bitch and you didn’t do what he asked. You promise to do better. You make excuses for your bruises and cuts. You fell down the stairs. The kids catch you sobbing, and it was a sad movie.”

It was only a matter of time before these conversations started spilling over to Facebook, especially as Baby Boomers came to colonize the platform: friending their daughter’s childhood bestie who stopped coming around, or commenting on a photo of a long-ago communal housemate who now attends a church outside of the fellowship. In spite of the gruesome psychological and even physical effects of The Living Word’s mandate to “break bonds,” which can mean severing ties with longtime friends and family members or putting a romantic partnership on ice, people’s hearts are difficult to destroy completely, and for many, organically formed relationships prove more resilient than the ones designated by the church. Seeing photographs, reading narrative testimony online of how happy—how fulfilled!—a life can be lived in Babylon compellingly counters the teaching sheep are brainwashed to internalize and mutually enforce: that a life without the Living Word is one of isolation, trouble, and finitude. These virtual connections inevitably lead to whisper networks—the internet has facilitated an unprecedented flow of information in and out of the cult. The gates of heaven have been crashed by #MeToo.

surreal image of a red church building with a white cross surrounded by ghostly figures
© L.T. Horowitz

Cult of Abuse

A year after the New York Times first reported on the crimes of Harvey Weinstein, allegations of sexual grooming, harassment, and assault have begun to appear in the Facebook feeds of those with ties to The Living Word Fellowship. Some have been shared dozens of times, gathering comments by the thousands from sympathetic sheep and blow outs both, including remorseful power players who were banished at various points in the cult’s history, as well as a younger generation of church leadership, whose supposedly fresh perspective inspires hope on both sides of the aisle—but not much. The primary target is Marilyn’s son, Rick Holbrook, who has overseen TLW and directed its production wing for decades, though all of these accusations point to the enablement by church leadership of a broader “culture of abuse.” An audio engineer and producer who has worked with David Foster, Peter Cetera, Jim Messina, Julian Lennon, Poco, and other soft rock stalwarts, Holbrook’s professional life is responsible for the saccharine aesthetics and technical precision of the typical Living Word worship service, as well as church efforts at community outreach, which include semi-annual Fourth of July musical revues at Shiloh’s amphitheater, followed by elaborate and expensive fireworks shows, and the Magical Christmas Caroling Truck, which loops around North Hollywood every Christmas Eve—ironically, as both Christmas and Easter fall outside of Living Word orthodoxy, which holds sacred the Jewish holidays of the New Testament church: the Feast of Tabernacles, Passover, Purim, and the Sabbath. Holbrook composes, arranges, and records the soundtrack of these productions himself alongside a cast and crew of creatively inclined (and more attractive than not) young people recruited throughout the fellowship. Perhaps inspired by his mother and late stepfather, Holbrook has married four times to increasingly younger women, some of whom used to work as his assistant.

The thunder was a sound effect, the prophecies written in advance, all of it cut in a studio in the Valley.

In October, Hargrave announced that Holbrook and his current wife, Lorena, had been placed on administrative leave in the midst of a “360 review” of Living Word personnel, in which congregants were asked to air any grievances in letters addressed to designated point-persons. Both of these events—Holbrook’s banishment and Hargrave’s call to confession—have happened frequently enough in Hargrave’s tenure as apostle, if not always with such corporate terminology, to classify them as a tactic: Holbrook lays low while the heat dissipates, and Hargrave finds out who knows what, only to dismiss all perceived wrongs from the pulpit as “wrong thinking,” preaching forgiveness, and as always, “a new day.”

And yet, for the first time in The Living Word’s history, the resistance seems to be working: first, word broke that the Holbrooks had been “set out of the body,” like so many defrocked shepherds before them; then, on Sunday, October 28, 2018, it was announced in several Living Word churches that Hargrave and a number of other senior pastors—several of whom are named in the allegations—would be stepping down. The next day, the following message appeared on the fellowship’s website:

The Response of Living Word Fellowship to the Allegations of Sexual Misconduct by a Member of our Leadership

We take seriously any reports of mistreatment of our staff, congregation or visitors within the Living Word Fellowship of churches, and we strongly condemn sexual harassment and misconduct of any kind. Such damaging activity should never take place, period, let alone in any church location, and yet we have received credible reports of such inappropriate behavior. As leaders of a fellowship, we recognize that any such occurrence without a strong and immediate response could produce a systemic problem within our church culture, so leadership practices must be addressed.

[. . .]We know that no apology can truly make up for such hurts, and that’s why we are taking decisive action. We have already removed leaders who have been involved in misconduct or did not call out or sufficiently address such issues.In particular, Rick Holbrook is no longer involved in any aspect of leadership or involvement with The Living Word Fellowship, and he will not be allowed back as either a minister, leader, or member of a congregation of The Living Word Fellowship.

Since, the Rick Ross forums have gyrated with millennial anticipation more violent than anything I ever saw in a Living Word service: will charges be filed against Holbrook? Will APCO liquidate, ceding its holdings to Hargrave and his Brazilian wife, Silvana, to flee to the Church of the Living Word at Monte Sião, in Rio de Janeiro, where Esteves is rumored to be in ill health, and another fascist, Jair Bolsonaro, has just been elected president? Could this really be the end?

What will become of Hargrave, Holbrook, or The Living Word Fellowship remains to be seen, but there is one TLW production that I’ll never forget. The inaugural Shiloh amphitheater show premiered on July 4, 1990. I was four years old, and as I remember it, had finally succeeded in tying my shoes for the first time at the foot of the sanctuary earlier that morning. That night, I saw what I thought was John Robert Stevens for the first time: a portly man wearing all white—grey hair, beard, and glasses, on stage with a microphone. “I saw Satan,” his voice wailed in a rock and roll tenor, the final syllable sustained with vibrato. “Yes, I saw Satan. I saw Satan, fall from heaven like lightning.” There was a thunderclap, and the audience cheered.

Watching video of this performance today, it’s amazing that I fell for it, even as a preschooler. Not only had Stevens been dead for seven years (he was portrayed here by Mary Wyatt’s cousin, Bob McClane), the performance was clearly lip-synched: a Milli Vanilli routine. The thunder was a sound effect, the prophecies written in advance, all of it cut in a studio in the Valley. But I wasn’t the only one who believed it was Stevens up there, ministering to us all from beyond the pale—if not physically, then in spirit. Adults, who should have known better, stood in applause as Holbrook’s puppets came to a bow; their screams can be heard for a full thirty seconds after the lights go out. Had they been aware of the extent of the artifice, would they have screamed so loudly, or for so long?

Andrew Marzoni is a writer, editor, and musician in Brooklyn.

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