Berg's Followers Say Death Report Won't Deter Them His Wife Will Guide The Mysterious Sect, They Say. Not Everyone Is Convinced He Is Dead.

Posted: November 26, 1994

David Brandt Berg, leader of the embattled Children of God religious sect, apparently has died the way he lived: shrouded in mystery.

His followers say they don't know where or exactly when he died, or under what circumstances. But spokesmen for the sect in the United States and Europe say Berg's wife notified them Tuesday - in a letter from an unknown location - that their 75-year-old leader, in hiding since the early 1970s, had died.

If Berg is gone (international police authorities are expressing doubts), followers who tried, but apparently failed, to establish one of the sect's communal houses in Philadelphia say nothing will change.

They still expect Berg's wife, Maria, to send instructional missives, called Mo (for Moses) Letters, from some unknown address, still expect to battle authorities in at least five countries who have accused the group of everything from child abuse to white slavery, still expect to aggressively promote "Father David's" apocalyptic vision of Christianity.

Oh, and you can rule out mass suicide, too. Despite speculation that Berg's death would send members on a bloody, self-destructive rampage, a spokesman for the sect said they're prepared to live.

"After all, Jesus had to leave his followers, and they went on," said Phillip Edwards, a spokesman for the sect in Boston.

They apparently won't be going on in Philadelphia anytime soon.

The Children of God, which claims global membership of 9,000 (a third of them children), was a fixture in the city during the early and mid-1970s. That's when Berg reportedly gave instructions for his members to leave the country and begin working as missionaries in Europe and Central and South America.

Members of the sect, who now call themselves The Family, have been trickling back into the United States. But last year, when they tried to get a West Philadelphia church to help them set up a local mission, they ran afoul of the congregation's minister.

The Rev. Geoffrey Hubler, pastor of Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church at 43d and Chestnut Streets, barred Family members from attending Sunday services, citing the sect's reputation for using sexual come-ons to attract members. Berg, whom some followers referred to as "Dad," ''Grandpa," or "Moses David," acknowledged that his sect had used ''flirty fishing" in the early '70s, but he said it had given up the practice.

In blocking the Family's participation at his church, Mr. Hubler also cited the sect's communal living arrangements, its cultish allegiance to Berg, and its nasty legal skirmishes in Argentina, France, Spain, Australia, Venezuela and Peru, where the sect has been charged with child abuse, forced labor, and using sex to attract members.

After barring Family members from his church in October 1993, Mr. Hubler vowed "to tell people we don't approve of them."

Despite such opposition, around 20 members of the sect, which Berg founded in 1968 as a hippie back-to-Jesus movement in California, did set up a communal residence in a Philadelphia apartment at 1903 Walnut St.

Calls to that location have gone unanswered for months, and messages left on a machine yesterday were answered by the Boston spokesman, Edwards.

Edwards, who helped spearhead the sect's return to Philadelphia, said the city was still a target, adding that the members who lived at the Walnut Street address were away as part of a summer-long missionary program in other cities.

He said he expected a smaller group to return but could not say when.

With investigations ongoing in several countries, international police officials speculated yesterday that Berg, a disaffected Pentecostal evangelist, might be playing dead in an effort to elude possible prosecution.

In a telephone interview with the Reuters news service yesterday, even Berg's eldest daughter, Deborah Berg Davis, suggested that the Children of God's "publicists" could be lying about his whereabouts "to protect him, to get people off his trail."

Edwards said Berg first went into seclusion in 1971 not to avoid mounting charges against his group, but because he feared the formation of "a cult of personality." He dismissed speculation about the sect leader's fate as ''another attempt to smear the Family."

"I don't believe he is hiding out or trying to create some kind of hoax or deceptive move," said Edwards, 42. "The entire worldwide leadership has been informed that he died."

Edwards said he and other members at the Family's houses in Boston and New York received a Mo Letter Tuesday saying Berg was dead. The letter was signed by Maria Berg. Other members were apparently notified by phone.

The letter, which was not included with a news release circulated yesterday by Edwards, did not say where or when Berg died.

"All we know is that it was old age, and he died peacefully in his sleep," Edwards said.

Family members usually receive up to three Mo Letters a month, most dealing with religious topics, some with practical instructions on the management of the sect, none including a return address. Some were signed by Berg, others by his wife, who is expected to succeed him as the Family's leader. The last letter signed by David Berg arrived during the first week of November, said Edwards.

That correspondence contained no word about Berg's health, focusing instead on how to encourage teenage members to stay in the sect, but other Mo Letters had suggested that the sect leader was not well, said Edwards.

"We've known over the years of his failing health, and we're happy that he's relieved of that pain," he said. "I think we were a little bit shocked and a little bit stunned at the news. But now I think there's a sense of happiness that he has gone to his reward."

If Berg is dead, it could be the first muted blast of the Family's own death knell, said William Alnor, executive director of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions, a Philadelphia-based religious organization that conducts anti-cult activities.

"Bad publicity has already hounded them nearly out of existence," said Alnor, estimating that the group had 50,000 members at its peak. "I think they will continue, but they're going to lose a lot of steam."

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