Sameness spoils commune life for ex-member

Interview with ex TT member Cheryl Lewczyk and her mother Shirley

Source: Twelve

The Buffalo News
Gene Warner
May 21, 2000
Cheryl Lewczyk was hooked.  She was showered with attention, made to feel special and beautiful.  In her mid-30s, she found a group of people who said they would love and take care of her.  No longer  would she have to worry about being a burden to her parents at home.
And she wanted to serve God.
That’s why she joined the Community, a commune with about 50 members in two Town of Hamburg locations.
For 2 1/2 years, she lived their life, wearing long skirts and baggy pants, growing her hair long, tending to the chores at their main house on North Creek Road in Lake View and praying to Yahshua, the Hebrew name for the Son of God.
This is a real community, in every sense of the word, marked by a conformity in dress, behavior and thought.  Everyone seems exceedingly polite and friendly.  The children are home-schooled.  Members make their own clothes.  No radios, television sets or newspapers disrupt the interaction among community members.
The Community – a 25 -year old group with 27 locations in the world, including 16 in North America – follows the teachings of its apostle, Elbert Eugene Spriggs, now in his early 60s.  He believes that Christianity went off track thousands of years ago, when people put too much emphasis on possessions and not enough on living together in community.  Roughly 1,000 to 1,500 people live in these 27 communities.
Cheryl Lewczyk, 39, left two years ago.  And while she still loves and prays for many of the Community’s members, she said she now rejects the commune’s lifestyle.
“It’s like living in a straitjacket,” she said recently in her family’s Eden home.  “There’s absolutely no individuality whatsoever.  You can’t be yourself or express yourself.  Everyone looks the same and expresses the same thoughts.  It’s conformity and uniformity.”
The group controlled when she got up, what she ate, when she went to sleep – and what she thought.
Yet she stayed, of her own free will, from October 1995 to end of June 1998.
Three years ago, her mother, Shirley, felt she had lost her daughter, perhaps forever.  Her lighthearted, fun-loving and sometimes childlike daughter had become deadly serious about everything.
“I didn’t know her, and they thought that was a good thing, because she was conforming,” her mother said.  “Nothing I said changed her mind.  She wouldn’t listen to me.”
Two years after leaving, Cheryl Lewczyk is asked whether she was happy there.
“I thought I was happy, but looking back, no, I wasn’t.  I was very controlled.  I didn’t think.  I just did what I was told.  I like to laugh a lot; when I giggled, they said I wasn’t serious about their purpose.”
Elders in the Community disagreed with that claim, but they don’t deny the conformity or the singleness of thought.
“We do think alike,” said Al Jayne, an elder with the group.  “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and everybody has a voice, but it’s not a free-for-all.  We have one mind about how we think about things.  The Son of God commanded that we be in unity.”
Unity remains a top priority.  So, Jayne said, if he doesn’t like turkey sandwiches being served for lunch, he has to give up that preference and go along with the group’s position.
“That’s the way we are about everything,” he said.
The Community’s web site – – explains the significance of the word “community.”
“It means a gathering of those who love one another so greatly that they are of one heart and mind, voluntarily sharing all their possessions, living together, taking their meals together, devoted to one another because they are devoted to the One who saved them from death and misery.”
The Community’s critics and those who have studied its philosophy and practices consider it a cult.
Pardon and his institute, which has studied the Community in depth as part of groups, paint a mixed picture of the group.
The Community is made up of “truly wonderful people” who demonstrate a level of commitment, hospitality and love not found in many other similar groups, the institute has found.
But Pardon also noted that anyone joining the Community gives up all decision-making power to the group.  The Community, he said, is a controlling group that engages in what he calls “thought reform.”
While emphasizing that he believes strongly in anybody’s right to join such a group, as long as it’s an informed decision, Pardon agreed to give his own assessment of the Community.
“My opinion is that this is not a healthy group for anybody to be in.  I don’t think it’s good for anyone to abdicate the decision-making part of his life to a group, without knowing it.”
Here’s how Pardon believes the Community and other similar groups control their members:
Information control
Members do not read books, watch television or listen to the radio.  The Community’s literature even justifies lying: “Not telling the truth to someone who doesn’t deserve the truth isn’t lying.”
Two examples of how isolated Community members can become, even while living and working in the Town of Hamburg:
On the slats of Cheryl Lewczyk’s bunk bed, someone wrote, “I love Shania Twain.”  She had no clue who the country music star was.
And a visitor recently told Jayne that his voice was a dead ringer for CNN founder Ted Turner’s.  Jayne didn’t understand the reference.
Behavior control
What Jayne would consider conformity and unity, outsiders might see as control.
Members dress modestly.  The men all have beards and ponytails.  In a group of four young home-schooled children, it was hard to tell that one of the youngsters was a boy.  Cheryl Lewczyk claimed the group even had prescribed procedures for how to stir the soup, dry the dishes and change a diaper.
Thought control
The group, according to Pardon, has its own loaded language, and the word “Christian” is considered negative.  Pardon also has observed members begin to hum when an outsider raises a point that goes against their world view.
Emotion control
Pardon believes the group controls basic emotions such as fear and guilt.
For example, he said, they fear outsiders and Christianity.  They don’t fear cutting off the ties to their parents or giving up all their worldly possessions.
And members who leave the Community fear that God will punish them for turning their back on Him.  This is called phobia indoctrination or bad things happen if you leave the “safety” of the community.
“When you leave this group, you’re not leaving the Kiwanis Club,” Pardon said.  “You’re leaving God’s group.’  When you leave “God’s group,” the consequences on an individual’s psyche – emotionally and spiritually – are devastating.”
Cheryl Lewczyk, who described herself as fundamentalist Bible believer, said she’s still afraid to attend Christian churches because of what Springs has said on the subject.
Al Jayne, 42, offered a different perspective on the local Community.
Members dress modestly because they don’t want to draw a lot of attention to themselves.  The community has an authoritarian structure, but the rules and regulations are less important than following the spirit of the Messiah.  Members smile a lot, because they’re happy and thankful,  and they have a clear conscience.
“All of us are here for the same reason,” he said.  We’re thankful for salvation, and we want to give everything back to the one who died for us.  He prayed when he was dying on the cross that everybody would live in unity.”
Anyone is free to leave at any time, he stressed.  And the Community isn’t for everybody.
“It’s not for people who are satisfied with society as a whole,” he said.  “If you’re satisfied with your life and the way it fits into society, then you probably wouldn’t be interested in living in the Community.  It’s for people who are sick and tired of their sin and the selfishness of their life.”
The local Community is home to almost all ages, from toddlers to people in their 60s.
The goal is to be self-supporting.  Many Community members work in the group’s three businesses: a remodeling business, a wrought iron shop and the newly renovated Common Ground Cafe on Buffalo Street in the village of Hamburg.  And the Community members make great neighbors.
Lend them a rototiller, and they promptly return it – along with homemade bread and vegetables.
“If you do something for them, they feel they have to do something good for you,” said one neighbor, Harry Hiller of Southwestern Boulevard at North Creek Road.  His wife, Esther, said group members are great neighbors who never try to push their beliefs on anyone else.
While Community members embrace many traditional values, such as growing their own food, they still live in the modern world.  Not only do they survive in the business world, but Jayne has a cell phone and the elders occasionally log onto the Internet.
Oddly enough, both Cheryl and Shirley Lewczyk have nothing but positive words for Jayne as a person.  They call him a kind man, who loves the people he lives with, takes great care of his wife, Annette, and their seven children, loves God and works hard for his glory.
“Under the system of mind control, he’s doing what he believes in his heart, but he’s a puppet of Spriggs,” Mrs. Lewczyk said.  “He doesn’t believe that, but it’s the absolute truth.”
“”That’s ridiculous,” Jayne replied, without any sign of anger.  “I absolutely disagree with that.”
So the debate rages on, with little middle ground.  That makes sense, according to Pardon’s research on such groups.
“High-control environments create either-or thinking,” Pardon said.  “Everything is black and white.  There are no gray areas.  Either you’re with us or against us.”
When people leave such environments, they tend to become incapacitated, incapable of making decisions, Pardon said.  And they become very angry, either with the group, with themselves or with God.
Two years removed from life in the Community, Cheryl Lewczyk is still going through the transition, and she wants to warn others.
“I wouldn’t want someone else to go through the emotional and spiritual devastation that I went through,” she said.  “I feel I was spiritually raped.”
Contrast that thought with the serene setting of the local Community, where people leave notes that say: “Thank you so much.  We love you.”
“This is the way everybody should live,” Jayne said.  “Living in a community with other people is the most wonderful thing if you can get past the barriers.  It’s the best way to appreciate the differences in life.”

One Comment On “Sameness spoils commune life for ex-member”

  1. Hello,
    I am conducting a research project with a group to uncover stories about the Yellow Deli. I was wondering if you would be open to having a conversation about your experience so we can learn more about what goes on behind the Yellow Deli.
    I look forward to your response.

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