Who Are Jesus People USA (JPUSA)?

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Who Are Jesus People USA (JPUSA)?Jesus People USA, a Christian community founded in 1972, is an Evangelical Covenant church on the north side of Chicago, Illinois. About 500 people live together at one address, pooling their resources in an attempt to imitate the first-century church described in the book of Acts.

Jesus People USA

Jesus People USA is one of the few remaining Christian communes that sprang up in the 1970's Jesus Movement.

  • Founding: Founded in 1972 as an independent ministry, an offshoot of Jesus People Milwaukee. After first settling in Gainesville, Florida, JPUSA moved to Chicago in 1973. The group joined the Evangelical Covenant Church, based in Chicago, in 1989.
  • Founders: Jim and Sue Palosaari, Linda Meissner, John Wiley Herrin, Glenn Kaiser, Dawn Herrin, Richard Murphy, Karen Fitzgerald, Mark Schornstein, Janet Wheeler, and Denny Cadieux.
  • Sacred Text: The Bible
  • Headquarters: Chicago, Illinois, USA
  • Membership: About 500 people live together in the Jesus People USA community on the north side of Chicago, Illinois, USA.
  • Notable Members: Resurrection Band (aka Rez Band, Rez), GKB (Glenn Kaiser Band).

The group has more than a dozen outreach ministries in Chicago. Not all its members live in the commune. Jesus People USA says that type of life is not right for everyone, and because some members were homeless or had addiction problems, a strict set of rules governs behavior there.

JPUSA serves primarily the Chicago area, but its annual Christian rock concert, Cornerstone Festival, held in Bushnell, Illinois, attracts visitors from throughout the world.

Over the past nearly four decades, the group has seen many members come and go, has survived controversy, and has branched out into several community outreach ministries.

The founders of the organization intended to imitate the loving atmosphere and communal structure of the early Christian church. Opinions vary widely between the group's leaders and many of its former members as to how successful Jesus People USA has been at that goal.

Governing Body

According to JPUSA's website, "At this point, we have a council of eight pastors in leadership. Directly under the council are deacons, deaconesses, and group leaders. While the primary oversight of the ministry is done by the council of elders, much of the responsibilities for the daily running of the community and our businesses are taken by various other individuals."

JPUSA is a nonprofit and has several businesses that support it, and while many of its members work in those businesses, they are not considered employees and are not paid wages. All income goes into a common pool for living expenses. Members who have personal needs submit a request for cash. There is no health insurance or pensions; members use public health facilities at Cook County Hospital.

Beliefs and Practices

As an Evangelical Covenant Church, Jesus People USA affirms the Bible as the rule for faith, conduct, and authority. The group believes in the New Birth, but says it is only the beginning on the path to maturity in Jesus Christ, a lifelong process. JPUSA conducts evangelism and missionary work within the community. It also professes the priesthood of all believers, meaning all members share in the ministry. However, the church does ordain pastors, including women. JPUSA stresses dependence on the leading of the Holy Spirit, both in individuals and the church.

Baptism: The Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) holds that baptism is a sacrament. "In this sense, it is a means of grace, so long as one does not see it as saving grace." ECC rejects the belief that baptism is necessary for salvation.

Bible: The Bible is "the uniquely inspired, authoritative Word of God and is the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct."

Communion: Jesus People USA beliefs say communion, or the Lord's Supper, is one of two sacraments commanded by Jesus Christ.

Holy Spirit: The Holy Spirit, or Comforter, enables people to live a Christian life in this fallen world. He provides fruits and gifts to the church and individuals today. All believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus Christ: Jesus Christ came as the incarnation, fully man and fully God. He died for the sin of humanity, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of God. He will come again to judge the living and the dead, according to Scripture.

Pietism: The Evangelical Covenant Church preaches a life "connected" to Jesus Christ, reliance on the Holy Spirit, and service to the world. Jesus People USA members participate in a variety of ministries to the aged, homeless, ill, and children.

Priesthood of All Believers: All believers share in the church's ministry, yet some are called to be full time, professional clergy. The ECC ordains both men and women. The church is a "family of equals."

Salvation: Salvation is solely through the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Human beings are incapable of saving themselves. Faith in Christ results in reconciliation to God, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.

Second Coming: Christ will come again, visibly, to judge the living and the dead. While no one knows the time, his return is "imminent."

Trinity: Jesus People USA beliefs hold that the Triune God is three persons in one being: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is eternal, omnipotent, and omnipresent.

Sacraments: The Evangelical Covenant Church and Jesus People USA practice two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper. ECC allows both infant baptism and believer baptism to maintain unity within the church because parents and converts come from varying religious and cultural traditions. While this policy has caused controversy, ECC feels it is necessary "to ensure that full Christian freedom may be practiced throughout the church."

Worship Service: Jesus People USA worship services include contemporary music, testimonies, prayer, Bible reading, and a sermon. ECC Core Values of Covenant Worship call for celebrating God's story; expressing "beauty, joy, sorrow, confession and praise"; experiencing the intimacy of a personal relationship with God; and forming disciples.

Brief History

When a ragtag band of hippies started living together in Milwaukee in 1971, part of the group went on an evangelism tour through the Midwest and South.

After an unsuccessful year in Gainesville, Florida (the local partyers didn't like their message and the conservative church folks didn't like their long hair), JPUSA moved to Chicago and has been there since. In 1989 Jesus People USA became an Evangelical Covenant Church and holds worship services every Sunday morning, open to the public.

Not Sparing the Rod

According to the group's history on its website, problems started about 1974 when one of JPUSA's married elders became obsessed with a young single woman in the group. Other members confronted him, but he failed to repent. Finally, the group sent him to a counseling center for fallen pastors. He left JPUSA, moving west.

In the vacuum of that elder's absence, JPUSA latched onto an older minister who headed a local Christian community. He began to teach classes at JPUSA, but one of his ideas involved a strange practice: adult spankings with a thin wooden rod. Amazingly, the spankings continued for years, until Jesus People USA elders finally put an end to them.

Today the group calls the episode "embarrassing" and blames it on their "spiritual immaturity" at the time.

Self-Supporting Businesses

About 1975, JPUSA started some businesses to sustain the community. From painting and home repairs, the group expanded to typesetting, a moving company, carpentry, roofing, porch and deck business, and a roofing supply outlet.

Today, Jesus People USA businesses include:

  • Belly Acres Design (screen printing)
  • Citizen Skate Cafe (food and skateboarding supplies)
  • Grrr Records (an independent record/CD label)
  • Lakefront Roofing and Siding Supply
  • Riverview Self-Storage
  • Cornerstone Designs (graphic design and web development)
  • Cornerstone Press (book publishing)
  • Cornerstone Festival (annual music and arts festival)

JPUSA members who work in these businesses learn a trade and contribute to the community but are not employees. All earnings go into a common pool. While Jesus People USA is a nonprofit organization exempt from taxes, the group allocates money to members to pay their individual income taxes. Members must requisition cash for personal needs not furnished by the community.

Daily Life at JPUSA

New members must be 18 years old and born-again Christians. They serve a trial period, then decide if they want to join. Single people share a dormitory-style room with another member of the same sex. Married couples have their own private room. Infant children may stay in their room or another room close by, depending on the parents' choice.

The community furnishes three meals a day. JPUSA does not provide health insurance. Members typically use public facilities at Cook County Hospital and city health clinics. Members are not required to donate any assets, and vehicles are shared in common.

At first, members do in-house chores, such as cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, and maintaining buildings. Later they are moved into the businesses. Members also work in the ministries to senior citizens, the homeless, and children. Evangelism continues to be a major part of JPUSA.

While most other Christian communes have long since disbanded, Jesus People USA continues in its mission to serve others and spread the gospel, calling itself a "work in progress."

By Jack Zavada