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Defender of the faith

The Boston Globe Magazine/March 12, 1993
By Sally Johnson

Jeanne-Swantko
Jeanne Swantko now known as "Havah" and her husband Eddie Weisman known as "Hakam"
Ten years ago, Jeanie Swantko left her job as a Vermont public defender to join Island Pond's radical Christian community [aka "The Community" and "Twelve Tribes"].  Today, she uses her legal skills to defend the church against its critics. 

Jeanie Swantko was asleep in an upstairs room in a community household early on the morning of June 22, 1984, when the pounding awoke her.  She could hear people downstairs: the frightened voices of parents and children, the commanding voices of Vermont state troopers.  Police ascended the stairs, and a trooper burst through the door of her room, a long flashlight in his hand.  "Get up and get dressed," he told her.  "We've come to take the children."

For months, state officials had been investigating charges of child abuse against Northeast Kingdom Community Church, a radical Christian community that had settled in Island Pond, a rural hamlet close to the Canadian border.  The group had been accused by estranged spouses and concerned neighbors of striking its children.

But its members had been refusing to cooperate with the state, contending they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

Disregarding state law, the church refused to file birth or death records; neither would it give the names of children when state officials came to question its members about the charges.  Frustrated and embarrassed, senior state officials, including the governor at the time, Richard Snelling, had decided to raid the Island Pond households just before dawn, round up all the children, and examine them in an effort to document any abuse.  By noon the next day, a judge had declared the raid unconstitutional and sent the children home [they were never physically examined].  That morning in June went down in Vermont history as one of the great debacles of modern law enforcement.

No sooner was the raid over, however, than word of Swantko's presence on the scene began to buzz around the state.  Swantko was a well-known public defender in Vermont and was admired for her strong feminist principles.  What was she doing visiting a group of God-fearing communards whose women covered their heads and promised to obey their husbands?

Ten years later, Swantko, 44, is a visitor no longer; instead, she's a believer.  She is married to an elder of this group, which is now known as the Messianic Community, and is a lawyer at the forefront of the group's new expansionist phase.  By her own choice, she has stepped out of 20th-Century America to enter an insular world of radical Christianity where the only truth is laid down in the Bible, and life's only purpose is to prepare mankind for the Second Coming.

Today, Swantko has little interaction with the outside world, except in the courtroom and through newspapers; she doesn't watch television or listen to the radio, and she reads little but the Bible.  What legal work she does is on behalf of the community.  In accordance with the Scriptures, she dresses plainly and says she obeys her husband.

She also defends the church's method of punishing disobedient children with thin, flexible rods [balloon sticks dipped in a hardening resin], a practice based on the passage in Proverbs telling parents that if they "spare the rod" they will spoil the child.  Adults strike children, usually on the hand, as a correction for misbehavior.  The important point, she explains, is that children understand that the correction is offered with love.  The church also believes that parents should praise far more than they correct.

As the time of the Island Pond raid, Swantko had been assigned by the state to defend one of the church's elders on charges of spanking a child who was not his own.  She had accepted the case reluctantly, then decided she needed to know more about these strange, otherworldly people.  It was only later that she would come to view the events of that morning as a turning point in her journey from secular activist to "new woman," as she calls herself.

"I visited regularly to help represent my client," says Swantko, a short powerhouse of a woman with owlish eyes and flowing brunet hair, who had spent several nights with the community by the time of the raid.  "It was obvious that the charge was part of a political agenda.  In my gut, I sensed an injustice, and I wanted to find out the truth of it."

After the raid, her visits to Island Pond grew longer and more frequent.  In the fall of 1985, she left her home and the man with whom she had been living for eight years to join the community at Island Pond.  The next winter, she was baptized.  Then, in 1991, she married Eddie Wiseman, the man she originally had been assigned to defend.  Her transformation to "new woman" was complete.

Friends who had known Swantko as a committed social activist during her Pennsylvania College days or as a social worker in Vermont were horrified.  Even now, Barbara Harland, Swantko's former college roommate and close friend, says, "She's been brainwashed.  I don't know her anymore.  I feel like I've lost my best friend and I want her back."

Swantko's former lover, Paul (he asked that his last name not be used), is less blunt.  "I don't think she's crazy," he says.  "But in a way, it's true that she's lost her mind, or at least that she's given it up.  She was used to moving through the world by using her mind."

Swantko sees the driving force behind her conversion as a long quest for personal happiness that reached fulfillment only when she surrendered her sense of self.  The values of Woodstock Nation and the sexual revolution, to which she had turned in her youth, had failed her.  In the outside world, she saw only growing anger between men and women.  The community offered this educated, driven woman of the 1960's her last, best hope.

"I saw the life here, and I couldn't deny it," she recalls.  "I hated the gospel about women, but I saw that they were peaceful and happy.  The reason these people had this life was because they followed the word of God."

Swantko's answer has resonance beyond the boundaries of her own life.  The ranks of the Messianic Community, which numbered only a few hundreds in the early 1980's, have swelled, the elders estimate, to about 2,000 throughout the world.  (There is no formal membership list.)  In recent months, the community has begun expanding, recruiting members and establishing households and businesses in the jungles of Brazil as well as in the blue-collar cities of New England.

Last summer, the community opened the Common Ground Café, in Dorchester, one of the many businesses it uses both to support its households and to provide opportunities to meet the public.  Other households are just getting off the ground in Providence, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Monticello, New York.  "We're preparing a people to serve God when He comes again," says Swantko.  "He is a loving God, and He wouldn't punish people without first allowing them to see how He wants us to be.  Our job is to give all people a chance to see the truth."

The Friday night celebration at the house at 19 Camp Street, in Hyannis, is part religious ceremony and part primitive tribal rite.  Under a black Cape Cod sky, a bonfire burns at one end of the graveled back yard, while dancers stomp and whirl to flute and drum music at the other end.  Absent the ski parkas and the electric lights shining from the house, this could be a sense from pre-Christian times.

The community's theology is self-created, a customized blend of Hebrew and New Testament teachings that combines the exuberance of Pentecostalism with the literal adherence to biblical texts preached by fundamentalist Christians.  Jesus is called Yahshua, the Hebrew pronunciation [sic], and many of the members have taken Hebrew names.  Within the community, Swantko goes by Havah, which means "new woman," and her husband, Eddie Wiseman, is Hakam, meaning "wise man."

At the hear of the theology is a lifestyle in which members give up all possessions and live in groups; governed by community elders.  They believe that without such complete personal commitment, Christian faith is little more than lip service.  For that reason, they disdain most mainstream and non-mainstream Christian groups, including fundamentalists and born-agains.  "Fundamentalism plays out in a right-wing, conservative, self-righteous life," explains Wiseman.  "The thing that should distinguish you is the life you live, not the things you believe."

In keeping with Hebrew Bible practices, the community celebrates the Sabbath on Saturday.  Just before sundown Friday, a member blows the shofar, an ancient Hebrew horn.  Its deep, wailing sound summons others to the evening gathering.  Twice a day, members of households all over the world gather at dawn and dusk to renew their pledge to God and their lives as "God's chosen people."

The Sabbath feast on this Friday evening in Hyannis, prepared by an assigned work crew, is a lamb, raised and slaughtered at the Basin Farm, a community farm in Bellow Falls, Vermont.  There are also farmgrown vegetables, salad, and rice dishes.  This meal, like all meals, is served buffet style.  The members of this one household alone number about 26, including children and as usual there are guests.

Swantko is the guest of honor tonight.  Once again, she has helped defend members of the community against charges of child abuse.  For the past few years, her life has been balanced between the demands of the legal profession and her chosen lifestyle.  Of all the members, she is probably the one with the most connected to the outside world.  She reads newspapers and magazines and has contact with lawyers and judges she knew in her previous life.

"Jeannie says she's like those other community women who cook and clean all the time," says Barbara Harland, "but what I see is a woman who gets to practice law and travel around the world.  I don't see her cooking and taking care of babies."

Swantko, who has no children of her own, denies that she has any elevated status among community women.  Rather, she says, she is doing only what her faith requires of her.  Mostly, that entails representing the community in court.

In honor of the Sabbath, Friday night celebrations in the community are open houses, and the outside world is welcome.  Friends, business acquaintances, relatives, and the just plain curious are invited to participate.

Gardner and Nancy Johnson, of Woodstock, Connecticut, watch from the sidelines.  The Johnsons are the grandparents of Johanna Whitten, who lives in the Hyannis community with her husband, John Mark Whitten, and their 15-month-old son, Tahor.  Johanna's mother, Kathy, the Johnson's daughter, joined the community years ago and lives now in a household near Buffalo.

Many community members are estranged from their parents, who believe their children have joined a cult and fear the worst.  But the Johnsons visit often and like what they see.  "sure, we were worried at first when Kathy joined," confides Nancy Johnson.  "We were scared of the unknown, of the cult thing.  But the first time we visited, we knew these were good people.  I taught school for years - I'm only recently retired - and I'm amazed at the difference between these children and the children I taught.  These children are sensitive, they're polite."

The house in Hyannis is intended to be the germ of a growing community.  Wiseman says the community may someday buy other houses in the area as they go on the market.  The locations of new households are chosen by consultation and prayer.  They are put where the elders see local interest, often in impoverished, run-down neighborhoods, such as in Dorchester or Bridgeport.  If local interest fails to materialize, the household is closed.

As part of its recruitment mission, the community also sends members in vans to feed and then save lost souls at gatherings as diverse as Grateful Dead concerts and Billy Graham crusade.

Community-run businesses are what keep the evangelical enterprise afloat.  In Hyannis, one of the Messianic Community gift shops, called Strictly Vermont, sells only Vermont products.  There is also a woodworking shop where men make frames for futons manufactured at the community in Providence.

The infrastructure of the Messianic Community is households, consisting of several families and single people, grouped by the elders according to the talents or "giftings" of the individuals.  Each household has both a spiritual leader and a manager to organize the labor-intensive business of feeding, clothing, and tending so many people.

All community children are schooled at home by assigned teachers from the group.  Their academic training continues until the age of 12 or 13, when they apprentice in trades, based on their talents and interest.  They do not go on to college or higher education.

As the needs of the households change, members are sent hither and yon, creating a fluid following.  Most of the people in the Hyannis house have lived in several other communities for months or years.

It is a motley group of people who appear at 6:30 Saturday rooming for the first gathering of the day.  Some, such as Rose and Elishevah, have been part of the community at Hyannis for many years.  Others, like Jonathan, a soft-spoken young man from Westchester County, New York, have only recently come looking for spiritual peace.  "I try to love perfectly, the way our master did, but I fail so often," he says.  "I realize how selfish, how self-centered, I really am.  I just have to keep trying."

On this sunny morning, the members form a circle in the living room.  The gist of the message for this gathering is that God intends all people to be their brothers' keepers, that happiness comes only when people lose sight of themselves and attend to the needs of others.

The celebrants offer up tidbits of spiritual insight they have gleaned from reading their Bibles earlier that morning.  They sing long songs of praise written by community members in the folk idiom and accompanied by a guitar.  Then the men raise their hands toward the heavens (the women keep their hands down at their sides), and the congregation begins to pray exuberantly, invoking the presence of God.

"Abba," one cries out, using a biblical word for father.  "Abba, we are your people and we are waiting for you to come again."  It goes on.  Each invocation is met with a chorus of "Yes, Abba, yes."  They talk and pray as if the presence they are invoking has entered the room and is sitting among them.

How and why Jeanie Swantko came to join this nation of those she believes to be God's chosen people is a tale rooted, to some extent, in the story of her generation.  Many of the community's elder members were hippies who had reached the end of the line, who had tried drugs and communes and rebellion and found them all wanting.  The Messianic Community is the place where the social revolution in the early 1970s found God.

Though Swantko herself never dropped out, she did adopt her generation's belief in helping others.  Born in 1950, Swantko was raised near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the daughter of religious, politically conservative, middle-class parents of Polish descent.  Swantko recalls that her father, who died in 1993, "drove junker cars for years just so I could attend the finest Catholic girls' schools."

She attended Chatham College, in Pittsburgh, where she roomed with Barbara Harland.  Harland, now of New Canaan, Connecticut, remembers that Swantko was passionately committed to leftist causes even then.  "Jeanie was always naïve, a bleeding-heart liberal to the core," says Harland.  "During college, she tutored in the ghetto.  She was always involved with the underclass."

Swantko graduated from Chatham in 1972, earned a master's degree in social work, and moved to Vermont.  She worked for a variety of low-income advocacy and social service programs around Rutland, then decided that a law degree would serve her clients better.

She met Paul in February 1977.  "We started living together almost immediately," he says.  "Right from the start, I was impressed with her energy, her can-do, no-limits outlook on life.  She's smart, and she's thoughtful.  She was always open to the possibilities of life."

By 1983, when Swantko was assigned to defend Wiseman on a charge of child abuse, she and Paul had bought a house together near Stowe.  She was working out of the public defender's office in Newport, which had jurisdiction over Island Pond, headquarters of the Northeast Kingdom Community Church.  "I almost didn't take the case, because it was a case of child abuse, and I'd seen too much of that already," Swantko says.  "But as I pored over it in my soul, I realized I didn't know these people.  I only knew what I'd read in the press."

She began to spend nights at Island Pond to better understand what these people were about.  She and Paul discussed it endlessly.  "The community clicked for her," he says.  "The people reached out to her and touched her."

Swantko herself recalls the "terrible mental anger" of the time she spent coming to her decision to join a group of people who do not, as a matter of faith, watch movies or television, listen to secular music, or ready any books other than the Bible.  But the most difficult issue, she says, "was the decision to obey God and give up control of my life."

She once asked Wiseman to explain the community's beliefs about the role of women.  He explained the disobedience creates dysfunctional family relationships, that the right ways is for children to obey their parents, for women to obey men, and for men to obey God.  She listened quietly for three hours, then rejected his explanation.  In fact, she says now, "I hated what he had to say."

In the end, what convinced Swantko was not the words but the "life that I saw.  Men regularly and routinely did piles of dishes without resentment, cared for children, changed diapers as if it came naturally, were gentle, and asked the opinions of their wives before making a decision."

If the decision to join seemed natural and right to her, it stunned those closest to her.  Although Paul understood her spiritual longing, he was devastated by her departure in the fall of 1985.  "It wasn't so much a surprise as it was a trauma," he says, the pain still evident in his voice.  "We were very close.  It took me at least five years to get over it."

Recurring allegations of child abuse have kept Swantko busy defending the community.  Last spring, she took up the cause of Rosemary Lavin, whose visitation rights with her six children were being challenged by her former husband in Rutland Family Court.  Stuart Lavin argued that community discipline practices were abusive and said he did not want his children exposed to them.  In the end, Rosemary Lavin won joint legal custody of the children, who were placed in the physical custody of their father.

Then, in May, came the Hyannis cases in which members of five families were charged with abusing nine children.  Chief Justice Francis Poitrast, of the Massachusetts Juvenile Court Department, says all the cases have been dismissed because "there was no evidence."

Two teenagers involved in the Hyannis dispute, Charity Gregoire, 16, and Michael Gregoire, 13, were also among those brought to court in the Vermont raid 10 years ago.  In the interim, both have voluntarily returned to the community to live with their mother.

In fact, most of the children who have gone to live with parents outside the community have returned over the years, a fact Swantko points to as evidence of the rightness of their way of life.  It is certainly the "rightness" of that life that drew Swantko initially and that has kept her within the community for the past decade.

"In the community, we've found the remedy for sin," says Swantko.  "We know that by clinging to God we can fix what is broken in the rest of the world.  I've never been happier in my life."