Tag Archives: Community of Celebration

Interview with Julia Duin

Julia Duin is religion editor for the Washington Times and author of six books, including Quitting Church: Why the Faithful and Fleeing and What to Do About It. Her latest book is Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community. Julia agreed to answer some questions for me about her new book via email. I hope these provoke further discussion on the nature of community, the Charismatic movement, and the importance of story even when the telling is fraught with difficulty.

Chris Rice: I consider one of the most interesting things about your book the fact that you yourself are a charismatic Episcopal Christian and you approach the subject of this book as a member of the church itself. You came to the community not to do a story but because you were looking for what the Holy Spirit had for you. As a journalist in this position how do you feel you maintained objectivity throughout the writing process?

Julia Duin: Much of what happened at Redeemer – 2/3 of the book, in fact, happened before 1986, which is the year I arrived in Houston. So it was easy to be dispassionate about what happened during the first 22 years of this renewal simply because I was not part of the action. However, I did manage to visit all the places the community was: 3 sites in the UK and the main 2 sites in the United States. It was really helpful for me to see the island of Cumbrae and the 2 community places in southern England – one of which I unwittingly visited in 1982 years before I moved to Houston or thought of doing the book. I will say a reporter who was not also an insider would have had an impossible time doing the book. They would not have known the code words, the inside stuff – things I was privy to for several years before deciding to write the book.

CR: You say “the places the community was” but don’t you mean the places where Graham Pulkingham started ministries? I mean, in the book Church of the Redeemer and Graham Pulkingham have friction between them by the time he is starting ministries elsewhere. So these are separate entities right?

JD: Actually, Redeemer and the Community of Celebration were separate entities. Graham and the CoC were the same.

CR: Every member of a community has his or her own expectations for their lives in and among the other members and so are limited in their ability to see the whole picture. They have a particular vantage point for telling the community’s story in their own way. In telling the stories of Church of the Redeemer, Graham Pulkingham, and their place in the larger Charismatic movement how did you move from your own vantage point to seeing the bigger picture overall?

JD: I felt that Redeemer was a microcosm of what happened all over the country. Word of God in Ann Arbor and other Catholic communities (ie Mother of God in Gaithersburg, Md. and Sojourners in Washington, DC) had similar melt-downs. Being that I was covering a lot of this as a freelancer for Christianity Today at the time, I knew what was going on nationally – which I might add most people at Redeemer had no idea of, say, what Christian communities in the Pacific Northwest were doing. Well I did know stuff like that. It really helped that I had lived in this Portland community several years before so I was one of the few people at Redeemer who knew how the other half lived; how community was being done elsewhere.

CR: Were there angles to the story that you wanted to picture but were just unable for some reason?

JD: About angles, I cut out a lot of the theological critique. I thought the extra stuff was valuable but I knew the readers would not stick with me. I also knew a lot more of the sexual sin that was going on – what got mentioned in the book was the tip of the iceberg – but some stuff I was unable to prove. One person said he was going to sue me if I mentioned him. Well I did mention him but I was not able to confirm the fact he raped a 14-year-old. I know some people in Houston are really unhappy with the book but if they only knew the stuff I *didn’t* write about.

CR: You conducted most of the interviews in the early 1990s, why did the book take twenty years to get published?

JD: I went through 32 publishers before I found one that would take this book. That’s what took the 20 years. The current one was #33. The secular publishers didn’t know who Graham was nor what charismatics and pentecostals were and they sure didn’t ‘get’ the intentional community concept. Evangelical publishers were more attuned to those things, but they objected to the sexual content. One told me the book was prophetic and needed to be published; he was just afraid of lawsuits. Please. I had a good libel lawyer working with me and there has not been a problem.

CR: It sounds like the book was a largely thankless task for a long time. You knew you had an important story, but faced a lot of opposition. Did you ever feel like throwing in the towel?

JD: Believe it or not, I didn’t because of the amazing ways the story fell together. How was I do know Graham would die in such a dramatic way? That he’d spill everything in that late-night talk with me? That people like Marilyn Mazak would magically show up in Houston just when I needed her? And then she disappeared, never to be heard from again? It was clear God was arranging things so I could write the book but what was discouraging was the 15-year wait between the time I finished writing the book and got it published.

CR: In a nearly linear timeline you chronicle and describe in detail the different problems that lead to the decline of the Church of the Redeemer. At the same time you describe Graham Pulkingham’s new community ventures in Scotland and then in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. You seem to see the Community of Celebration as a failed venture and yet that community lives on today with a Benedictine Rule. Has the community been opposed to your writing this book or cold toward you personally?

JD: The community has been tremendously cold since the scandal broke in August 1992 and since then has refused to work with me re the book. They blamed me for exposing Graham. I sent Bill Farra a registered letter around that time asking him to help me about but he refused. Several years later, I was in North Carolina and had arranged to meet with Betty Pulkingham to wrap up some loose ends. She cancelled the interview about 3 hours beforehand despite the fact it had been a two-day trip for me to get down there. After that, I figured I was on my own and that I’d have to work without the help of the community. Fortunately I had already completed 95% of my research by the time the story ‘broke.’

Yes, they live on – in a fashion. I talked with a friend who recently visited them – and looked at their web site – I think they’re down to 7 members. They appear to be living off the copyrights and proceeds of their music although I never hear it played any more nor do I see their books for sale in Episcopal venues so at some point that money has got to dry up.

CR: When you say that, “they live on—in a fashion. . . at some point their money has got to dry up” it sounds like you want them to fail. They’ve been going on as a small community, serving very locally for around twenty years. That’s a lot longer than many Christian communities lasted. It’s clear from the book that the way he confessed to you and it all came out was quite a mess, quite emotional, more so than you wanted it to be. But isn’t it possible that these Christians at Community of Celebration are still a beautiful expression of God at work in their local community in spite of all the sin in Graham’s life and at Church of the Redeemer before their founding?

JD: The folks at Celebration did do a lot of good, no doubt about that. But when I began observing them in 1990 – after they’d been 4 years in the Pittsburgh area – it was clear they were not making much of a dent in the neighborhood. I never heard anything further about their business incubator and I saw first-hand how few actual inhabitants were coming to Celebration’s services. It was 180 degrees from what happened in Houston.

CR: On a side note I would point out that Community of Celebration is offering .pdfs of all the books written by and about Graham and Betty Pulkingham on their website for free. These books are long out of print. To address the other side of your comment, “they appear to be living off the copyrights and proceeds of their music,” I know from the newsletters I’ve received from them over the last twenty years that this is not the major source of their income. They have a donor base similar to other small communities that consists of churches and individuals who visit the community at least annually and make contributions. Members also have outside jobs in the area. They work as chaplains and social workers in Aliquippa.


JD: I just heard from a former member who visited them earlier this month and they’re down to 6-7 people. I just do not call that healthy. They are obviously not growing, compared to what Shane Claiborne is doing in Philly. And Shane is pushing people away – he’s gotten inquiries in droves.

CR: Church of the Redeemer was unique in that it was controversial within the Episcopal Church but the Bishop took a hands-off approach even where his authority and accountability were obviously needed. How does this story speak to the way denominational churches discipline congregations?

JD: Well, one important thing is the bishop should not be as compromised as Alden Hathaway was in letting Graham be his spiritual director. One important thing I’ve seen in the Catholic charismatic communities that went belly-up is that people were warning the bishops way ahead of time that fishy things were happening there. Often the bishop did nothing. It was not until the secular media started calling that anything was done.

CR: It would be easy for someone who opposes the Charismatic Movement and Christian communities in general to use your book as proof of all their worst fears. But you don’t seem to be on a crusade against Charismatics or Christian community overall. Looking back on all that you’ve been through with this book, how did you end the book with so much hope for what God can still do through flawed humans in the future?

JD: Am certainly not on a crusade against charismatics as I still am one. But we had such high hopes back in the 1970s -we thought all of American Christianity would go communal and instead, the communities were what did not survive. By 1990-92, nearly all had crashed and burned. Even Sojourners, which did survive, gave up its households (except for interns). I think interest in community is going to come back in a major way, so I am writing to warn folks of what happened 30 years ago with Christians who were just as smart as people are today. I am hoping that younger people do not repeat the mistakes of the baby boomers.

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Julia Duin’s Days of Fire and Glory book review

Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community by Julia Duin
368 pages
Crossland Press (September 8, 2009)
ISBN: 0979027977

Julia Duin, religion editor for the Washington Times has written a very interesting account of the influential Houston Charismatic Episcopal church, Church of the Redeemer. She builds on first hand knowledge and close to 150 members who were parishioners. The story pivots around the church’s rector Graham Pulkingham. The bare facts of what happened to Graham are not new. After two decades of influence in Charismatic and Evangelical circles as an author, speaker, and bible teacher, Graham admitted to having seduced many of his male coworkers. As the person who finally got Graham to admit what he’d done, Julia broke the story to the larger news media. Her book, Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community, is a biographical narrative whose primary interest seeks an answer to the question: “How could things go so wrong at Redeemer?”

Set alongside other communal biographies, Julia Duin’s research is equally detailed, chronological, including everything from where the money came from and went to how time was spent among members on a daily basis. Her very vivid use of word pictures to describe a given setting really draw you into each moment. Her description of the workings of communal households is especially inviting. Redeemer’s household style, where a particular nuclear family would take in singles to live with them and be cared for, was adopted by Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, IL. The book uses interviews from so many different families that it can get rather cumbersome to remember all the names and situations involved. Days of Fire and Glory references and builds on the five books written during the 1970s by Graham and Betty Pulkingham and Michael Harper.

The book’s weaknesses are found simply in its being a biography as deconstruction. Duin mirrors the fast changes at Redeemer with those of the larger Charismatic movement. As a religion editor during the many scandals and moral failures among Charismatic leadership beginning with the Shepherding Movement and into the early 1990s, she writes of Redeemer in reference to larger trends. But the further she gets from first person accounts, the more subjective her reporting becomes. Her narrative tries to weave seamlessly between communities in different places: Redeemer in Houston, Woodlawn in Colorado, Word of God in Ann Arbor, and Celebration in Scotland. She looks for abuses in leadership, suffering members, or a general lack of spiritual power. But if hard pressed, many of the stories she alludes to might seem incidental if kept separate and her perspective anecdotal. Charismatic communities live or die by their sense of identity in the worship and teaching, their sense of mutual calling and their commitment to the story they’re living. It’s clear that each of these different communities in her story have similarities, but with different membership they are also very distinct. She looked for a common sickness infecting the whole. This is where her narrative is much more about deconstruction and less about the people and stories themselves.

There are several things that really unnerve me about Duin’s approach in this book. The first concerns the importance of the gift of prophecy to direct the future of the communities. Of equal importance is spiritual discernment. Taken together we see the development of some kind of spiritual sixth sense. If church leaders and members are both tuned into the life of the spirit, everything falls into place. The future of the church is assured. God’s protection will cover everyone from all harm, no one will fall into sin and everyone will be one big happy family full of the Holy Spirit’s power. The power and influence will continue to increase and spread the world over. As I read the book I get the feeling that this is what the author and members were expecting to come of their worship and common life. She is constantly taking the church’s spiritual pulse in her expectation that things will just pull back in line and they’ll all be one happy family again.

Of course there are some other assumptions as well. Part in parcel to the Spirit’s infilling comes a conservative doctrinal and political worldview. She points out everything that smacks of a politics reflecting Graham Pulkingham’s liberal period before the infilling. That period where he smoked cigarettes and tried to change the neighborhood out of liberal altruism. These political allusions are few and far enough between to keep from belaboring the point, but she makes it clear—Spirit filled Christians are conservative. Backslidden ones go all liberal again. This is just as narrow and devoid of political imagination as it sounds.

What’s taken as a given is Duin’s own ability to know where God is moving and when things are dead or dying. Of chief importance is evidence of an impact. Long after Graham Pulkingham had left Redeemer and had settled in Aliquippa Pennsylvania with the Community of Celebration she is assessing their impact in the early 1990’s:

“The community still envisioned itself as a group of poor believers, living in the neighborhood and challenging the larger political and social structure for change, but it was questionable whether such laudable things had made a dent in Aliquippa. After five years there, they had not made nearly the impact that Redeemer had made in Houston in the five years after Graham’s baptism in the Spirit. Instead, the community seemed more shell-shocked by Aliquippa’s daunting challenges and the need to constantly protect themselves. Graham and his community, I realized, did not have the spiritual power to make changes. They were the same actors with a similar script, but 25 years had made all the difference in the world.” (Pg. 269)

Excuse me, but I just have to ask where she lays claim to the authority to say where God is working and where He is not? I mean, let’s think about this. When I die I would hope that there would be family and friends there who could say, “This man loved God and his family. He served the church and was used by God.” This is every Christian’s greatest hope right? But who gets to go further than that and say x number of people’s lives were forever changed because of his impact? Who before God gets to say I have or don’t have the spiritual power to change anything?

There are a number of things that break my heart about Graham Pulkingham’s teaching recounted in the book, and much of the teaching in the Charismatic and Jesus Movement circles he moved in. The first is that they were preaching community. Now I’ve lived in two different Charismatic communities and I’m still close to both of them. But to my knowledge, neither of these preached community as some sort of special spiritual endowment. The leadership sought out the writings of other communities that had been at it quite a bit longer and learned that community is simply not for everyone, and we don’t get some special favor from God for living in it. We’re certainly not more spiritual for living in community.

But more than that, what Graham and the other leaders and families at Redeemer experienced in the early years of the Spirit’s power seemed to cause them to want more power and not necessarily more love. They wanted more of the worship experiences, the healings, the new converts, and these things didn’t necessarily strengthen their marriages, their families, or even their social skills. What we’re left with is a great sense of loss.

It’s a book of great sadness, shattered hopes, and broken relationships in the midst of great yearning. In the end she writes:

“Graham was right. It was community that made Redeemer and other powerful charismatic fellowships across the country what they were; it was community that allowed the Holy Spirit to move so quickly; it was community that birthed the music and the worship, that encouraged the spiritual gifts, that created an indefinable quality of love that drew thousands to Houston, that caused millions to read the books and listen to the music. People there gave generously because they had been loved generously by God, so much like the Christians who, 2000 years earlier, gave away all they had to gain Christ. It was a sacrificing community that made love so real to so many, that rescued the neighborhood for a brief few decades, that drew in the lost and unwanted. This is not the conclusion I expected to find, but a reporter’s job is to tell the truth. My task is done, and here you see it complete.” (pg. 318)

My only response to this is that community is not some special place that we dream about but that only comes in heaven. Community happens where we work for it. It’s not always the place we want to be. In my case it was where I was born, not what I chose initially. It’s full of many impossible people who without the love of Christ we would never choose to live with. Most importantly, Christian community does not belong to us.  Serving Jesus involves laying down our visions of what the outcome of our efforts will look like.  This is perhaps what is most difficult in the best of communities, where leaders don’t lie and cover up sexual sin and deceive their parishioners. How can we not have expectations when we put so much time and money and attention into our little projects, which we’re so certain are blessed of God? Attempts to shape people into our image will fail or God willing should hopefully fail soon. A lot can be learned from Julia Duin’s work. It is sad that so much heartbreak went into this story and that in the end Duin’s own relationship with the Community of Celebration is broken.

I keep thinking about all the failed expectations for the many white upwardly mobile Houstonians who sold everything in order to buy dilapidated houses in Redeemer’s neighborhood. Communities are rarely formed from so many professional elites. They all came looking for something. They wanted to bring God glory the way they knew how. That meant making a name for themselves: writing books, hymns, and influencing the world over. It all happened so fast, and as I look back at it I can’t help but think why should their dream succeed? Everything I know of God is that the first things that get sacrificed along with money and time are my expectations. I get hurt the most when I’m going to write that great book for God, knock them dead with my preaching, or simply say the exact “right” thing in the wrong spirit at the wrong time.

Finally, I think it’s important to realize that we never know the whole story where people are concerned. Every person entering community remains their own individual while they are there, with their own perspectives and spin on what goes down at a given time. There are many others who were at Redeemer or are now maybe at Celebration who would tell their story very differently. In so far as Julia Duin stuck to the facts that she received from her interviews and sources, her story is a valuable witness for us today. I dare say many other communities from the same era, Charismatic or not, are now passing from memory without anyone to tell their story. If you have an interest in communal narratives pick up a copy of Julia Duin’s book Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community.

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