Uptown commune Jesus People USA turns 50 and faces dwindling membership

By Kamy Smelser, Echo magazine

Jesus People USA gathers for worship in the early years of the commune in 1972. Photo courtesy of Tom Crozier.

Editor’s note: This article is from the Communication Department’s award-winning Echo magazine.

When Tom Crozier, a man with unapologetically long, curly hair, sits in the garden room of the Jesus People USA commune, the light radiating through the window behind him creates a glowing silhouette around his head. It’s a fitting image, considering he’s telling the story of the religious community he’s called home for 29 years.

A 10-story apartment complex in the Chicago Uptown neighborhood with a facade of red and white brick is situated on Wilson Avenue, just east of Sheridan Road. The building, which is a neighbor to Citizen Skate Shop and Everybody’s Coffee, greets you with an elegant chandelier over the entryway, as residents and visitors of all kinds come through the front door. 

This apartment complex is home to around 200 members of Jesus People USA or JPUSA — pronounced “jah-poo-za.”

Jesus People came to fruition 50 years ago amid the ’70s Jesus Movement after a bus full of young, Christian hippies broke down in Chicago, as the group tells their story. They came with the mission of “boldly sharing the Gospel message.” 

“We are Jesus people, we really dig who Jesus was, and we dig what Jesus did,” Crozier says. 

Crozier came across JPUSA after attending the Cornerstone Festival with his church. The music festival drew in around 20,000 attendees each summer for the 28 years it was still running, according to the Jesus People USA website. After visiting JPUSA with his wife, Laura, in 1993, the couple decided it would be their new home. Crozier and his wife have raised their five children, ranging in age from nine to 29, in the commune. 

“I’ve found a place where I can be me,” says Crozier who works as the JPUSA visitor host and “Bi-Vocational” licensed minister at the Evangelical Covenant Church, which Jesus People is a congregation of. 

Train-hopping to JPUSA

Many members of JPUSA come as artists, photographers and musicians, Crozier says. One member, Rich Troche, joined Jesus People as a skateboarding, coffee enthusiast. Now, Troche manages Everybody’s Coffee, one of the 10 JPUSA businesses.

This wasn’t Troche’s first community-style living experience, as he had previously lived in a 15-person farming community in Oklahoma. Outside of group living, he considered himself a lost boy, free in the wind, as he hopped trains across America. Troche, who has a face tattoo of two thin, black lines jutting out from his right eye and wears black gauges in his ears, considered himself an anarchist back in his train-hopping years.

Eventually, after joining another group in a not-for-profit traveling caravan, he shoveled snow for a fellow train-hopper in Minneapolis. While traveling through Chicago he had come across JPUSA and began asking himself questions about his spirituality and views about God. 

“For somebody who had just been traveling and doing whatever, [JPUSA] was a sign of something new to try,” Troche says.  

Three moms and a ‘common purse’

Crozier says most of the community are now empty-nesters in their 50s and older, but families such as Crozier’s have experienced the unconventional life of raising a family among their fellow commune members. 

Parents have their own apartment while their children’s rooms are either next door or down the hall from them. For Crozier, he says his family never felt unsafe with a hallway separating him from his kids, as nobody lived down the hall, and they also kept a baby monitor in each room. 

In order for the many members and families to remain in the commune rent-free, JPUSA has centralized its money to pay the bills. 

JPUSA runs on a shared bank account, or what the members refer to as the commune’s “common purse,” which everyone can request money from but must contribute to by working at one of the commune’s businesses. 

JPUSA’s businesses are open to the public and spread throughout the heart of Uptown, such as Citizen’s Skate Shop, Everybody’s Coffee and Grrr Records. 

When buying any kind of necessity, a member can make a request on an online platform, and all members have access to. 

Crozier says, every Friday, the commune’s three “moms” purchase the commune’s food, toiletries and other necessities in bulk and then drops them off at each residents’ door.

“If the businesses are doing well, people like me could request date money, and my wife and I go out to eat or go to the movies,” Crozier says. “And if the businesses are not doing well, we all suffer together.”

Inside the free store

Clifton Avenue, a one-way alley also known as “Blood Alley,” is about a 10-minute walk west of JPUSA. The alleyway, which was once rumored to be a gathering place for gangs and drug addicts in the early ‘70s, has since turned into a makeshift art gallery featuring work created by local artists. Cornerstone Community Outreach’s free store, down the block and several flights of stairs up, is in an industrial-style open room where rows of donated clothes and shoes are organized to look like a store. 

Since joining Jesus People in August 2021 with her husband, artist Gary Thomas, Kim Thomas has run the free store.

“We had this one guy come in, and he was looking for dress clothes for a job interview, so we dressed him from head to toe with shoes, socks, a tie, a nice button down shirt and dress pants,” Kim Thomas says. “The smile on his face is what sealed the deal.”

Conflict and reconciliation

In 2014, former JPUSA member Jaime Prater released “No Place to Call Home,” a documentary about former JPUSA children. The former members, now adults, told their stories of alleged sexual abuse and assault within the commune from 1974 to 1998. The film was released during the same year a lawsuit was filed by Prater against the commune and the Evangelical Covenant Church. The lawsuit was later dismissed for want of prosecution. Prater could not be reached to comment in time for publication. 

With over 70 former members reaching out to Prater, the impact of this documentary was one the public and Jesus People could not ignore. Andrea Spicer, a member of JPUSA’s pastoral leadership team, says that after the documentary was released, the members of Jesus People had experienced shame in acknowledging their membership to this community. 

“[We shouldn’t be] cutting cakes and blowing up balloons and celebrating [the 50th anniversary] without having something in place where people could say, ‘I was there for 10 years, and it was really great, but at the end this and that happened, and that’s always been a hurtful thing to [former members],’” Spicer says.

Spicer, a Jesus People member since 1985, says eight years after the documentary came out, they are working to put in place a process that will allow past members to be apologized to and can experience reconciliation. 

In the documentary, Prater calls the community a “religious cult.” While Spicer says that although JPUSA has a centralized financial system through their common purse, they don’t have a centralized leadership position, and people can come and go when they please.

“What exactly constitutes a cult?” Spicer asks. “The way we live can absolutely have some elements of what you would find [in a cult], but the major thing differentiating a cult to the community is we do not have one single leader.” 

‘Living in the midst of a miracle’

After 50 years, JPUSA now houses mainly an older community, with 16 children, ranging from newborns to high-schoolers. Crozier guessed that half of JPUSA members are now over 50, and he holds lightly the future of what JPUSA will become. 

“It’s hard to predict the future of JPUSA,” Crozier says. “One of our former leadership team members often described living in our community as ‘living in the midst of a miracle on the edge of disaster.’”

Spicer says the commune isn’t attracting young people, which means the group could die out, leaving those even on the leadership team without a clue of what the group will become. 

“I think that a lot of us get up and still feel called to do what we’re doing, and ministries that were involved in that are really meaningful to us,” Spicer says. “[We’re] just trying to be faithful to what it is that we’re called to.”

Fifty years after its founding, Jesus People’s members still strive to pattern their lives after Jesus’, living in a close community and spreading their mission. Whether that looks like donating their time in the free store or offering couch surfers a place to stay for the night, Jesus People and its members dig the way Jesus lived and hope to represent that in the way they live. 

You can read the entire 2022 issue of Echo, as well as previous issues, on our website.