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Loss Of A Fortunate Son


Eighteen-year-old Joseph Johnson was an academic star and basketball standout at a Southland high school, seemingly headed for college — before he joined a controversial religious sect you may have already encountered in the supermarket parking lot.

For Sheila Johnson, April 25 began like any other day — with a few exceptions.

She noticed that her son, Joseph, hugged her before leaving the house that morning, an unusual gesture for the 18-year old. And when he backed the car out of the driveway minutes later, Joseph waved good-bye to his parents, also unusual.

At the time, Sheila didn’t think much of it. But when Joseph returned home 10 days later, much had changed.

Things would continue to change for the Johnson family in the days following Joseph’s return, starting with a violent, early-morning confrontation, which led to Sheila becoming a defendant in an unusual “trial” that has brought a new wave of scrutiny to a controversial, religious group called the Jesus Christians. It is a group some believe is a cult, but that Joseph regards as his new family.

•••

By all outward appearances, Joseph Johnson seemed like the last teenager who would be contemplating a major life change. A handsome African-American boy with a wide smile and the lean build of an athlete, Joseph was a popular, straight-A student at his Gardena high school, where he was also a star point guard on the basketball team.

His basketball coach, Dwan Hurt, said that by Joseph’s senior year, prestigious college scholarship offers poured in and Joseph had expressed interest in becoming a doctor.

“He did everything fast,” said his mother, a substitute teacher for the Compton Unified School District, in a recent interview. “When he was about four months old, he made his first conversation, which was basically, ‘I love you.’ I was shocked. He started walking at seven months old; he was potty-trained early.”

That speed became an asset in sports, as Joseph quickly progressed from making his first basket at three years old to competing on basketball, baseball and football teams.

He was also a fast learner.

Joseph’s father, Jared, a math teacher for Compton Unified, began teaching Joseph to count as soon as his son could talk, later moving on to geometry, trigonometry and calculus.

The Johnsons, including Joseph’s older brother and younger brother and sister, attended a Pentecostal church each week and read the Bible together regularly throughout Joseph’s childhood.

In 2004, Sheila was shopping by herself at a Gardena supermarket when a young man approached her in the parking lot and introduced himself as a missionary with a group called the Jesus Christians. In exchange for a donation the missionary gave Sheila a book entitled “Survivors,” written by a man named Zion Ben Jonah, which Sheila took home and promptly forgot about.

A few days later Joseph, then 16, mentioned that he’d read it.

“He told me they had an Internet Web site or something,” Sheila said. “I didn’t think anything; I should have, but I didn’t. I didn’t think I had any reason to be concerned.”

Soon after, Joseph told Sheila he was thinking about doing missionary work for the Jesus Christians himself.

“We thought then, ‘This might be a cult, Joseph, so you better be careful,’” Sheila recalled. “We had a good talk with him … we mentioned Jim Jones and different cults and things like that, and it never came up anymore. Occasionally I would ask him, ‘Are you considering going off with this group?’ and he would say no. We thought that was the end of it.”

In fact, it was only the beginning.

•••

When he read “Survivors,” “the book touched upon truths that I had never come across in my past religious circle,” wrote Joseph — who left the Los Angeles area with the Jesus Christians several months ago and would not consent to a telephone interview — in a recent e-mail.

“Any sincere person would want to learn more from there.”

So Joseph visited the Web site address printed inside the front cover, www.jesuschristians.com. There, he found various articles explaining the philosophies and history of the Jesus Christians, and a public forum where members hosted often lively debates about their beliefs.

Founded in Australia in 1982 by an American, David McKay, and his wife, Cherry, the Jesus Christians define themselves as a “live-by-faith, work-for-God-not-money Christian community” against “hypocrisy and self-righteousness in the church.”

They claim to live by the teachings of Jesus as written, verbatim, in the Bible. Their “Top 40” list of Jesus’ commands, posted on their Web site, include: “Don’t work for food,” “Sell all that you own,” “Don’t charge for what you do,” and “Give to anyone who asks.”

Accordingly, members must give up their worldly possessions and live together 24-7, spending their days doing volunteer work and handing out Bible-based literature written by McKay (sometimes under the pseudonym Zion Ben Jonah) in exchange for donations.

There are only about 30 Jesus Christians in the world, spread out in small, nomadic, commune-like sub-communities in the U.S., Australia, England and Kenya. Each community operates autonomously, though members communicate regularly — with one another and with McKay, who shares an apartment in Sydney, Australia with Cherry — through their Web site forums

Sixteen-year old Joseph, after two weeks of poring over the articles posted on the Jesus Christians’ site, e-mailed a few of the U.S. members based on the West Coast.

One of the first to reply was Jeremy Kronmiller.

•••

Kronmiller, 28, has a crudely printed tattoo near his wrist, which he usually tries to cover with his shirt sleeves or bracelets.

“It says ‘Fortunate Son,’” he said in a recent interview, from the title of a Creedence Clearwater Revival song. “I really liked the meaning of it, so I got it … a friend did it for me and it looks horrible.

“We don’t really have any religious issues with tattoos or piercings or that kind of stuff.”

Kronmiller, who has blonde hair and a scruffy goatee, was seated at the tiny table in the back of the camper he calls home, parked across the street from Santa Monica College. He had spent the past week at the campus with another Jesus Christian named Simon Smith, 23, handing out copies of “Survivors.”

“I like the college crowd,” Kronmiller said. “Students are more receptive; they’re still trying to figure things out, whereas the older crowds are a little less receptive.”

In 2003, Kronmiller took a bus from his home state of Kansas to Los Angeles for a trial week with the Jesus Christians here, who shared a rented house in Compton at the time. He decided to stay on permanently, and not long after Kronmiller’s trial week had passed, the West Coast Jesus Christians decided to “go full-time on the road,” giving up their house.

Now, the group — which rotates as members travel between the U.S. and other countries where the Jesus Christians are based, and usually consists of five to 10 people — spends most of its time in campers.

Usually working in teams of two or three, the Jesus Christians wend their way up and down the California coast and occasionally out of state, “just trying to engage people in discussion and offering them this book [’Survivors’] that we feel has something to offer,” Kronmiller said.

In 2004, after exchanging a few e-mails with Kronmiller and some other members, then-16-year old Joseph decided he wanted to join the Jesus Christians.

“We said, ‘Your parents aren’t going to agree at this point,’” Kronmiller recalled. “‘Until you become a legal adult all we can do is share and encourage Jesus’ teachings with you.’”

For the next several months, Joseph kept in touch with the Jesus Christians while he continued to attend school and play basketball.

“Email correspondence fluctuated,” Joseph wrote in a recent e-mail, “but usually tinkered around once every two weeks.”

Approximately eight months after he first contacted the Jesus Christians, Joseph requested a face-to-face meeting to discuss their way of life. The Jesus Christians agreed, and different members of the group met with the teenager about 10 times over the course of the next year.

Kronmiller was among those who met with Joseph regularly.

“Joe arranged [the meetings],” Kronmiller said. “We’d always meet at McDonald’s or something, and he was still having some struggles with it. He was always worried that someone would be watching; he was always like, ‘I’ve got people that could know me around here,’ because he’s known as a really good basketball player.

“I guess it looked strange … here we are, these older white guys talking with him. So he would try to be discreet.”

In 2005, the Johnsons moved from Carson to Long Beach and Joseph transferred to Serra High School in Gardena for his senior year, where he picked up track and excelled as a sprinter.

He also turned 18 in November of that year.

In April, 2006, Joseph and his parents spent a weekend visiting several California colleges, including Stanford, UC Berkeley, USC and UCLA.

“I was quite worried … as my family, coaches and sports chums were all expecting me to sign with a university,” Joseph wrote in a recent post on the Jesus Christians’ Web site. “Still, I knew that I didn’t want to sign a contract to attend a four-year university; I wanted to join the Jesus Christians.”

So he sent Kronmiller an e-mail saying he finally was ready for a trial week.

On the morning of Tuesday, April 25, one day before the deadline to submit academic college scholarship applications, Joseph wrote a note to his parents saying that he had left to do missionary work and he knew they wouldn’t approve.

Then, instead of going to school, Joseph took a bus to New Mexico to meet up with Kronmiller and another Jesus Christian, 41-year old Reinhard Zeuner.

•••

On May 5, after 10 days with Kronmiller and Zeuner in New Mexico, Joseph was sure he wanted to join the Jesus Christians. The trio was heading back to L.A., Kronmiller says, and their first stop was to be the Johnson house so Joseph could tell his parents the news.
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They arrived in Long Beach around 7 a.m., and “it was tense from the moment of arrival,” Kronmiller recalled. “They said something like, ‘How are you going to let these white people … put you back in slavery and bondage?’

Sheila, when she saw Joseph that morning, says she remembers wondering, ‘What in the world has happened to this kid? He seemed like a zombie. He just kept saying, ‘I have to do something for Jesus.’”

The mood became increasingly hostile, until “Eventually, [Jared] starts brutally shouting at us and throwing us out aggressively,” Kronmiller said.

According to Kronmiller, Jared followed Kronmiller and Zeuner outside, where Joseph’s older brother, John, pulled up to the curb in his car. Seeing John start toward himself and Zeuner, Kronmiller jumped the fence and ran.

When he turned back, halfway down the block, Kronmiller says he saw Joseph’s father and brother kicking Zeuner, who was unconscious on the Johnson’s lawn.

A crowd gathered, an ambulance was called and Zeuner — with Kronmiller riding along — was taken to the hospital, where he spent three days being treated for a fractured spine, broken teeth and brain trauma.

Joseph, who says he was held down in his bedroom by his younger brother, Josh, during the fight, stayed behind with his family.

Joseph’s father and brother have since been charged with assault, and Sheila would not comment on the fight because of the pending criminal case.

That afternoon, however, she and Jared took Joseph to the apartment of a Long Beach pastor named Prince Sullivan, whom Sheila had met the week before.

For several hours, “They went back and forth. [Sullivan] tried to read scriptures to Joseph and interpret them,” Sheila recalled. “At some point I can recall Joseph saying, ‘You’re trying to make me feel guilty.’ Whatever they had done, it was going to take longer than three hours to undo it.”

Sheila and Jared checked themselves and Joseph into a local hotel that night, putting their son in a separate room “to get his head straight,” Sheila said.

The next day, May 6, Joseph’s parents checked out, leaving the teenager at the hotel for another night in the hope that while alone, he would reconsider his involvement with the Jesus Christians.

Sometime during the evening of May 6, Joseph called Kronmiller and asked to rejoin his group. Kronmiller reluctantly agreed.

“We could see he still kept defending [his family], their actions,” Kronmiller said. “We said, ‘Look, this isn’t going to help us if you’re siding with them. Reinhard is in critical condition right now. You have to see there’s something wrong with this picture.’”

Nonetheless, the Jesus Christians allowed Joseph to return to one of their campers and stay with them for approximately three days.

During those three days, between May 6 and 9, Sheila says she received an intimidating e-mail from Jesus Christians founder David McKay.

“He told me, ‘You’re not going to hear from your son for a long, long time,’” Sheila said.

Sheila did see her son again, however, when he returned home again on the morning of May 9. That morning, Kronmiller says, “[the Jesus Christians] had to kick [Joseph] out of the community” for defending his family’s actions.

According to Sheila, when Joseph returned home on May 9, he asked her for $15,000 to give to the Jesus Christians.

“Joseph didn’t seem to have a problem with [asking for the money],” Sheila said. “It was like he was under some kind of spell … he just wasn’t himself.”

Later, Joseph went to the library in downtown Long Beach, Sheila says, where she suspects he may have been e-mailing the Jesus Christians.

“I went to pick him up,” she said. “He said he was thinking about getting out of the Jesus Christians … or something like that.”

According to an account posted on the Jesus Christians’ Web site, on May 9, “after leaving the community and returning home, [Joseph] had started to doubt what the Jesus Christians had been teaching, and to believe that he had been conned; but he sat down to pray and to read through the Gospel of Matthew.

“By the time he reached the end of it, he was convinced that … what the Jesus Christians were teaching was definitely consistent with what Jesus taught.”

Either way, Joseph called Kronmiller again that night.

This time, “We determined that it was safe, that he could actually come back and he wasn’t trying to set a trap for us,” Kronmiller said. “He started to work with us again and has been working with us ever since.”

Sheila would not see or speak to her son again until nearly five months later.

Joseph, who was up for valedictorian and salutatorian of his high school class, received a diploma but did not attend his high school graduation in June.

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