Evangeline Griego’s documentary God Willing (which screened at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, but is also being aired on PBS (check your local listings)) is a new take on the religious cult documentary. Instead of focusing on the cult itself, or even dismissing their practices, Griego turns her attention to the parents of men and women who entered themselves into the Jim Roberts Cult (also known as the garbage eaters), a sect that takes the Bible so literally that its members are encouraged to break off all ties with their family and friends and maintain only contact with those in the cult, as they will be only family the members have in the afterlife. Griego, a documentary producers for well over a decade, has a personal interests in this particular subject: Her nephew was once a member of the Jim Roberts Cult, and during that time, had no contact with his family. Griego began work on God Willing a decade ago, soon after her nephew left The Brethren.
It’s a frustrating and heartbreaking experience for parents, obviously, knowing that their children are alive, but having no idea where they live, or what they’re doing. And for parents with children in the cult, the end goal of extraction is initially almost secondary to first, finding them, and then spending a few moments simply finding out if they’re OK. For parents who haven’t seen or heard from their children in 5, 10 or even 15 years, even a current picture can provide a certain relief, and provoke more than a few tears.
The children — typically in their 20s when they go in — aren’t bad seeds or religious wackjobs before they joined the cult. The Brethren (which still exists), in fact, often recruits from colleges and universities, like Harvard or Brown. They approach potential members during times of transition — during a finals period, or leading up the graduation — when the potential members are feeling most vulnerable and unsure of their future. The only common bond among the members is that they believe in God, and the Roberts Cult turns that belief against them, uses it to manipulate them into giving up their lives to serve God. The members are itinerants, moving about the country recruiting others, scavenging garbage for food, working only when necessary, and living only to serve God and prepare for the impending apocalypse. The women are subservient to men, and no one is allowed to marry without permission from Roberts himself, permission he’s reluctant to give because marriage begets children, and members are encouraged to discipline their children by beating them, which invites a police presence. Jim Roberts obviously doesn’t want a police presence.
The documentary thus focuses largely on a network that was formed by parents of those in the cult, who got together with the aim of finding their children and, in some cases, extracting them from the cult. That involves a lot of investigation, surveillance, and essentially stalking cult members in the hopes of catching a glimpse of their loved one, if only to see what they look like, if they are healthy. The latter half of the documentary also intersperses confessionals from former members of the sect, many of whom are still having difficulties transitioning back into the civilian world.
It’s a fascinating documentary, especially for religious cult junkies, but it was one of those rare occasions where the Q&A afterwards was actually more interesting than the film, as some of the parents of members who are still in the cult were in attendance, as well as one former member, the director, and even a man whose job is to help deprogram cult members after they leave. Where most documentaries of this nature focus on the cult leaders and the practices within the cult, God Willing is a refreshing and engrossing look at cults from a different perspective, from the families who were and, in many cases, still are affected by their loss, as well as the emotional reunions of members, both current and former, with their parents.
God Willing screened at the Independent Film Festival of Boston. Check your local PBS listings for television airtimes.