| Carolyn Mitchell |
Inside View: Vine Community Christian Church
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. Her message
is that 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
or 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 it's (the church) is very dangerous
to the people's minds."
Melinda was a music major at UTC 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 had 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 at first 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 members of the group picked her up and took
her to the mass. Later that day, she was baptized by Gene Spriggs, the leader
of the group, who 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 at his feet 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 you 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 parents 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 share 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,"
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-everything was supplied for her by
the group, she says. "They told us we were just barely making it financially.
It was months after I was there that I got up 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. "There's no television, no radio, no newspaper, 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 was always around listening to what we said." And she was allowed
to go home occasionally, accompanied by 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
to read on a cult, and she recognized similarities between it 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,"
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 saying
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 had 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 was getting up at 5:30 a.m.
Cooking-cleaning up- I had help with the dishes. And 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 Chattanoggan 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 the
devil." "I was going to resist him." 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.