Downtown Common Jesus People USA Turns 50, Faces Dwindling Membership – The Columbia Chronicle
Editor’s note: This article is from the award-winning Echo magazine in the Communications Department.
When Tom Crozier, a man with long, curly hair, sits in the Jesus People USA Communal Garden Lounge, light streaming through the window behind him creates a glowing silhouette around his head. It’s an apt image, considering it tells the story of the religious community he’s inhabited for 29 years.
A 10-story apartment complex in the Chicago Uptown neighborhood with a red and white brick facade is located on Wilson Avenue, just east of Sheridan Road. The building, which neighbors Citizen Skate Shop and Everybody’s Coffee, welcomes you with an elegant chandelier above the entrance, as residents and visitors of all kinds walk through the front door.
This apartment complex is home to approximately 200 members of Jesus People USA or JPUSA – pronounced “jah-poo-za”.
Jesus People came to fruition 50 years ago amid the Jesus movement of the 70s after a busload of young Christian hippies broke down in Chicago as the band told their story. They came with the mission to “boldly share the message of the Gospel”.
“We are Jesus people, we really dig who Jesus was, and we dig what Jesus did,” Crozier says.
Crozier came across JPUSA after attending the Cornerstone Festival with his church. The music festival drew around 20,000 attendees each summer for the 28 years it was still running, according to the Jesus People USA website. After visiting JPUSA with his wife, Laura, in 1993, the couple decided this would be their new home. Crozier and his wife raised their five children, ages nine to 29, in the commune.
“I found a place where I can be me,” says Crozier, who works as a JPUSA visitor host and “bi-professional” licensed minister at the Evangelical Alliance Church, of which Jesus People is a congregation. .
Train journey to JPUSA
Many JPUSA members come as artists, photographers and musicians, Crozier says. One member, Rich Troche, joined Jesus People as a skateboard and coffee enthusiast. Now Troche runs Everybody’s Coffee, one of JPUSA’s 10 companies.
This wasn’t Troche’s first experience of community life, as he had previously lived in a 15-person farming community in Oklahoma. Outside of group life, he thought of himself as a lost boy, free in the wind as he hopped trains across America. Troche, who has a facial tattoo of two thin black lines sticking out from his right eye and wears black gauges in his ears, considered himself an anarchist back when he traveled by train.
Eventually, after joining another group in a traveling nonprofit trailer, he shoveled snow for another hopper train in Minneapolis. On a trip through Chicago, he had met JPUSA and had begun to question his spirituality and his views on God.
“For someone who had just traveled and done anything, [JPUSA] was a sign of something new to try,” says Troche.
Three moms and a “common wallet”
Crozier says most members of the community are now empty nests in their 50s and older, but families like Crozier’s have lived the unconventional life of raising a family among fellow commune members.
Parents have their own apartment while their children’s rooms are either next door or down the hall. For Crozier, he says his family never felt unsafe with a hallway separating him from his children, as no one lived in the hallway, and they also kept a baby monitor in each bedroom.
In order for the many members and families to stay in the commune without rent, JPUSA centralized its money to pay the bills.
JPUSA operates on a shared bank account, or what members call the “common purse,” which anyone can request money from but must contribute by working in one of the common businesses.
JPUSA businesses are open to the public and spread throughout the heart of Uptown, such as Citizen’s Skate Shop, Everybody’s Coffee, and Grrr Records.
When purchasing any kind of necessities, a member can make a request on an online platform, and all members have access to it.
Crozier says that every Friday, the three commune “moms” buy the commune’s food, toiletries and other necessities in bulk, then deliver them to every resident’s doorstep.
“If businesses are doing well, people like me might ask for money for a date, and my wife and I go out to eat or go to the movies,” says Crozier. “And if businesses aren’t doing well, we all suffer together.”
Inside the Free Shop
Clifton Avenue, a one-way street also known as “Blood Alley”, is about a 10-minute walk west of JPUSA. The alley, which was once famous as a gathering place for gangs and drug addicts in the early 70s, has since turned into a makeshift art gallery showcasing works created by local artists. Cornerstone Community Outreach’s free store, down the block and up several flights of stairs, is in an open, industrial-style room where rows of donated clothing and shoes are arranged to look like a store.
Since joining Jesus People in August 2021 with her husband, artist Gary Thomas, Kim Thomas has been running the free store.
“We brought this guy in, and he was looking for dressy clothes for a job interview, so we dressed him head to toe in shoes, socks, a tie, a nice button down shirt and dress pants. “, says Kim Thomas. . “The smile on his face is what sealed the deal.”
Conflict and reconciliation
In 2014, former JPUSA member Jaime Prater released “No Place to Call Home”, a documentary about former JPUSA kids. The former members, now adults, told their stories of alleged sexual abuse and assault within the commune from 1974 to 1998. The film was released the same year that a lawsuit was filed by Prater against the commune and the Evangelical Alliance Church. The lawsuit was later dismissed for lack of prosecution. Prater could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
With over 70 former members reaching out to Prater, the impact of this documentary was one that audiences and Jesus People could not ignore. Andrea Spicer, a member of JPUSA’s Pastoral Leadership Team, says that after the documentary’s release, Jesus People members were ashamed to acknowledge their membership in this community.
“[We shouldn’t be] cut cakes and inflate balloons and celebrate [the 50th anniversary] without having something in place where people could say, ‘I was there for 10 years, and it was really great, but in the end this and that happened, and it was always a hurtful thing for [former members]”” says Spicer.
Spicer, a member of Jesus People since 1985, says eight years after the documentary’s release, they are working to put in place a process that will allow former members to apologize and experience reconciliation.
In the documentary, Prater refers to the community as a “religious cult.” While Spicer says that although JPUSA has a centralized financial system through their common exchange, they don’t have a centralized leadership position, and people can come and go whenever they want.
“What exactly constitutes a cult? Spicer asks. “The way we live can absolutely have some elements of what you would find [in a cult]but the main thing that differentiates a sect from the community is that we don’t have a single leader.
“Living in the midst of a miracle”
After 50 years, JPUSA is now primarily home to an older community, with 16 children ranging from newborns to high school students. Crozier guessed that half of the members of JPUSA are now over 50, and he takes the future of what JPUSA will become lightly.
“It’s hard to predict the future of JPUSA,” Crozier says. “One of our former leadership team members often described life in our community as ‘living in the midst of a miracle on the brink of disaster’.”
Spicer says the commune doesn’t appeal to young people, which means the group could die out, leaving even those on the management team with no idea what the group will become.
“I think a lot of us still stand up and feel called to do what we do, and the ministries that have been there are really meaningful to us,” Spicer says. “[We’re] simply trying to be true to what we are called to.
Fifty years after its founding, members of Jesus People still strive to model their lives on that of Jesus, living in close community and spreading their mission. Whether it’s like donating their time in the free store or giving couch surfers a place to spend the night, Jesus People and its members dig into the way Jesus lived and hope to portray him in the way they or they Direct.
You can read the full Echo issue 2022as well as previous issues, on our website.