January 21, 1979
Stories about the People’s Temple in Guyana have sparked interest in religious cults and have increased the invitations Melinda Horton receives to address church groups and civic clubs. A member of the Vine Community Christian Church for 15 months, Melinda refers to the group, which operates the Yellow Deli restaurants, as a cult. The community brainwashes its members through separation from family and friends, physical and mental exhaustion and dependence on the group.
“It’s worse than black slavery,” asserts the 22 year old Provident Insurance Co, employee because the members think they’re doing things voluntarily and they’re not.” “They’re giving up they’re minds, they don’t make decisions.” “They’re taught God speaks through the elders, deacons or others in authority.”
And although Melinda, in no way, suggests that the Vine Church community would engage in the extreme practices conducted at Jonestown, Guyana, she does feel that “the people in Jonestown were under the same type of mind control these people (the Vine Church members) are under.”
”They are taught absolute obedience to those in authority.” I think the church is very dangerous to the people’s minds.”
Melinda was a music major when she started attending the Vine Community Christian Church meetings in April 1975. “I was raised in a Christian home, she says, “but I had gotten in with a crowd that was doing things I wanted to quit.” “I was thinking where can I go to meet good people.”
“I wanted to change my life.” Melinda’s mother, Mrs. Alan Horton, recalls that the first night Melinda attended a Vine Community meeting: she came home and awakened her parents to tell them about the wonderful young people she had met. “She was shining, just bubbling over,” says Mrs. Horton.
“She said they were the happiest young people she had ever seen in her life, that they loved each other and the Lord.”
Describing how she came to join the community, Melinda says that the members of the group encouraged her saying, “wouldn’t it be neat to work with Christians and be with them all the time.”
“People who really care about you and really love God and really are trying to serve Him.” And, she continues, “I was looking for that.” At the meeting, “people shared what they learned that week, sang songs and prayed together, she recalls. For six weeks Melinda attended the meetings, practically every night. “They talked to me constantly about moving in,” she says. “I prayed that God would lead me to some Christians for some fellowship.” “I thought God had led me there.” “They spent a lot of time with me, just like they do anyone who seems to be interested in the group.”
Although the Horton’s were happy with their daughter’s new companions, as the weeks passed, they began to have misgivings. “Her attitude began to change,” says Mrs. Horton. She began reading the Bible 24 hours a day, like somebody possessed with something.” “My parents knew something was wrong,” says Melinda. “They couldn’t talk to me.” “It’s like a lock on your mind.”
One Sunday, Melinda’s parents forbade her to attend critical mass, the most important community meeting of the week. “I told my parents they were of Satan,” says Melinda. “I did. It came out of my mouth.” I said, ‘God wants me there.’ I told my mother I saw Satan in her eyes, and that they weren’t Christians.” Melinda left her home, walked a few blocks to the Red Bank drug store, where some group members picked her up and took her to the mass. Later that day, Gene Spriggs, the leader of the group, baptized her. Currently Spriggs is in Florida according to a community member. I told Melinda that she had already been baptized, but she said that didn’t count,” Mrs. Horton recalls. The day she was rebaptized, Melinda decided to move in with the group. Two members accompanied her to her home to get her clothes, but her father intervened and persuaded them to leave. “I was hysterical,” says Melinda. “I just kept saying, ‘I know it’s (moving in) is God’s will.’ About an hour later, Spriggs appeared at the Horton’s residence. Melinda says, “I ran in the living room and fell down and said, ‘oh Gene, I’m so glad you’re here.’ “My loyalty was to Gene, not to my parents.” And I’ve always been close to my family.”
Before Melinda entered the room, Mrs. Horton says she asked Spriggs why he was removing young people from Christian homes. Spriggs said that as soon as he walked in to the Horton’s house he knew it was no Christian home. He told Mrs. Horton that he could tell by looking at her that she was no Christian, and added “it’s because of mothers like that I have to rescue girls like Melinda.” As Spriggs and Melinda were preparing to leave, Horton appeared with his shotgun. “I held out my arms,” says Melinda, and said ‘go ahead, daddy, kill me.’ I’ll go to heaven.’ Then she adds, ‘I wasn’t normal.’
Despite her parent’s objections, Melinda left and moved into the Branch house on Vine Street where single girl’s in the community live. “It was old and beat up with terrible wiring,” she says. “It’s not fit for anyone to live in.” Melinda roomed with several other girls, who slept on army bunks. They shared toiletries, such as toothpaste and diluted shampoo. Each girl had two or three drawers for her belongings. Since Melinda had only the clothes she was wearing, she was supplied with blue jeans and “old, old long dresses,” she says.
Melinda went to work at the Yellow Deli on Brainerd Road, and her parents began coming to see her there. “Every time they came it would upset me,” she recalls. “That’s one reason, I’m sure they (the church leaders) moved me as quickly as they could.” According to Melinda, “this group has control over where you work, when you work, how long you work, whom you work with, what you talk about, every facet of your life.” “They watch you like a hawk.” “If you’re depressed, someone is immediately on top of that person, talking to them.”
Two weeks after she joined the community, Melinda was transferred to Dalton, Georgia, to work at the Yellow Deli there. She and a group of girls lived with a family out in the country. “For several months I slept on a mattress in a garage at that house,” she says. “I was working from 11 or 12 at night till four or five in the afternoon.” “I was worn out, but I felt guilty for wanting to sleep.” “I’d think, oh, I’m being lazy for not giving my life to the Lord.”
Melinda did not receive wages for her work. The group supplied everything for her, she says. “They told us we were just barely making it financially. Months after living in the community, I got the nerve to ask for a pair of shoes and blue jeans.” Her life consisted of working, reading Scripture and attending meetings, she reports. “They isolate you from everything,” says Melinda. “They don’t watch television, listen to the radio, no newspapers , or magazines, and no contact with the outside world.” They had the radios disconnected in almost every car they have.”
Melinda’s parents visited her in Dalton, but, she says, “somebody in the group always accompanied them and listened to what we said.” And she was allowed to go home occasionally along with another member. One day Melinda’s parents called and asked her to have breakfast with them. She received permission from the elders to eat with her parents. After breakfast, her parents invited Melinda to go with them to Atlanta and then to spend the night with them. With an elder’s approval Melinda went home. During the evening her parents gave her a report on a cult, and she recognized similarities between and the Vine Community Christian Church. When she returned to Dalton, one of the church members questioned her about what her parents had said to her. After she told him, he told her that Satan had used her parents to attack her. “They’ve poisoned your mind,” he said.
Later, Spriggs spent three hours talking to Melinda, she says, and finally told her she was too weak to see her parents. Although the Horton’s visited her – but never outside the presence of a community member, Melinda did not return to her parent’s home until Christmas. “I didn’t really want to see them says Melinda. “Gene had convinced me that they weren’t even Christians.”
At thanksgiving, the members were not allowed to go home, but their parents were invited to come to Dalton. “Of course, the parent’s wanted to be at home with their families,” says Melinda. Before Christmas, Spriggs told the group that because Melinda couldn’t go home, no one would be allowed to go home. Melinda says she asked him to reconsider, and Spriggs changed his mind. “They loaded everybody on a bus and made stops at the homes.” But Melinda rode in a car with another member, who stayed with her while she was at her parents’ home.
After a few months in Dalton, the group bought a rest home on a five acre tract and moved the members there. “We walked to and from work, about a mile I guess,” she says.
While the members were not encouraged to proselytize, Melinda says that if they encountered someone who appeared to be lonely and needy, the group invited them to join the community. She also says that if they take in a “stray,” the person must “conform to their way of life within a period of time or they’re out the door.”
In the spring, Melinda says she asked Spriggs if she could go home to get an item of clothing. “Melinda, how long have you been here?” Spriggs asked. “Almost a year.” she replied. “Well, Spriggs said, “I believe you’ve been here long enough.” “If you really wanted to leave, Melinda, and go back home and live with your parents, you know you could live a Christian life.” “I looked at him and said, “Gene, you know I’m not going to leave here.” I said, “God lead me here, I’m going to stay here and build the church. I’m not leaving.” Three days later, Melinda says, Spriggs moved her back to Chattanooga. Melinda assumes that Spriggs was “testing” her when he told her she could go home and live a Christian life. “He wanted to see if he had me or not.” “He was assured that day that I wouldn’t leave.”
While Melinda was in Dalton, she fell in love with another member of the group. Dating is not allowed, she says, but she and the young man had worked together and had grown fond of each other. One day they talked about marriage. The next day the young man was transferred to Chattanooga. Later he wrote Melinda and said he didn’t mean to mislead her, but that he didn’t think their marriage would be God’s will. Spriggs, she says, was in control of the marriages. If one of the men wanted to marry, he approached Spriggs and “got his blessing or else Spriggs said he didn’t think it was right.” Melinda says three women confided to her that they did not want to marry, but finally yielded to group pressure. “After a period of time, everyone would say, ‘oh, we think it’s God’s will,’ Melinda says.
When Melinda returned to Chattanooga, she suffered from an ulcerated stomach. “So, they decided to give me something easier (to do). They put me in the kitchen at the Vine Street house, cooking for 40 people. I arose at 5:30 a.m to cook and clean up. I had help with the dishes. I was so sick, I couldn’t even eat.” After the Vine community opened the Areopagus on McCallie Ave., Melinda began working two shifts there, then entertaining in the evening.
“Spriggs thinks of everything, says Melinda. He knew I played the flute and sang – I had sung in the Singing Mocs – and danced. He moved me back there to use me at the Areopagus. It was entertainment, and it brought people in.” Melinda says, she sincerely believed she was doing God’s will. I thought I couldn’t be happier.”
In the meantime, the Horton’s had heard of Ted Patrick, a Chattanoogan who deprograms cult members. They contacted him and asked him to come here and deprogram Melinda. It happened that Melinda had agreed to have lunch with her parents on a Sunday when Patrick was going to be in town. But she changed her mind, and when her father called her on Saturday to remind her of their planned luncheon, she said she wanted to stay at the community and sleep. “He sounded like he was about to cry,” she recalls, and told me: “Melinda, we’ve planned our whole day around you.” Boy, they really had.” Melinda agreed to keep the date. After the lunch, she and her parents went to their house. “I saw some suitcases in the middle of the floor and thought, ‘oh, no, what’s going on.”
She says, noting that whenever she visited her parents, “they were constantly, constantly questioning me, playing tapes about cults and giving me books to read, always trying to pull me out.”
Melinda’s parents told her some visitors were here who wanted to talk to her. A little black man, who didn’t look very impressive, walked in and shook hands and said ‘hello, I’m Ted Patrick.” Melinda suspected that he was going to try to persuade her to leave the community. “I was so far into it, I was going to fight and resist the devil.” So, she agreed to chat with the stranger.
Patrick’s first question: “Melinda, tell me how you got involved in the Vine Christian Community cult?” Melinda excused herself, charged into her mother’s bedroom, and “laid her out.” I said, “I can’t believe you’ve done this to me.” Then, she ran to the back door, but it was locked from the outside. Patrick’s wife protested vigorously, but Patrick persisted, telling her “Gene Spriggs is your god.”
“You’re working for Spriggs, not God.” “Tell me one thing you’ve done for God this past year and a half, Patrick continued. “Everything I do is for the Lord.” “I don’t want to hear what you’ve done for Gene Spriggs,” Patrick shot back. At that point, Melinda began sobbing, stopped resisting Patrick and started listening. Patrick told her that the first thing a cult community does is to gain a person’s trust and confidence. “Then they put a post-hypnotic suggestion in your mind and go from there,” he said. “It draws you back to the cult.” “You become dependent.” “They make you feel like you really need them.” “Then they get you physically and mentally worn down.” “Then they teach you what they want you to hear.” The deprogramming took five hours, although ordinarily it requires several days.