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Cult-ivating the Truth

Tom Garcia says he was being being groomed to take over the Philadelphia-based Peace Movement, but left at age 15. Among his memorabilia are a 1989 Philadelphia Inquirer magazine article with a photo of Garcia with Mother Divine and a snapshot of Garcia as a boy, next to a book about Father Divine.



Claiming to have been groomed for cult leadership, Las Vegan Tom Garcia remembers his days -- and departure -- from the Peace Mission Movement of Father Divine

By Lisa Ferguson
LAS VEGAS SUN

There are questions about Tom Garcia's life that will likely remain unanswered:

Why, in 1962, was he handed over by his biological mother to the leaders of the Peace Mission Movement, one of this country's most noted religious cults?

Was the group's founder, Father Divine, grooming then 8-year-old Tommy to someday take over and lead its horde of followers into the future?

But one question the Las Vegas businessman -- who owns a local equipment leasing company with his wife -- can answer is: why doesn't he teem with rage toward the people who did this to him?

"I'm pretty much writing (the experience) off," 44-year-old Garcia explains at his northwest valley home. "The anger is always there," he says, noting that "every time I tell the story, it's like a weight (is lifted) off my shoulders.

"It's so wonderful to tell the truth now. Even though it seems so far-fetched and fantastic, it's the truth."

Garcia's "truth" is a tragic tale that began in a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood more than three decades ago.

His father, Tomas Garcia, owned an equipment company; his mother, Georgia Garcia, was a talented photographer who shot photos for individuals and the motion picture studios.

Tommy was one of her subjects. She composed a portfolio of posed snapshots of him -- sipping sodas, stealing kisses from a girl and standing in front of a religious temple on Sunset Boulevard.

Those photos were taken, Garcia says, on the same day that his mother met a "recruiter" from the Philadelphia-based Peace Mission Movement.

In the months that followed, Georgia, Tommy and his toddler-age sister, Susie, began frequenting an LA-area mission, where mostly elderly, interracial worshippers would sing praises and eat meals beneath a portrait of a bald black man, whom Garcia later learned was Father Divine.

In the summer of '62, Garcia's mother told his father that she and the children were taking a road trip to visit her relatives in New Hampshire. Tomas Garcia gave her the family's savings and sent them on their way.

On the way out town, they picked up Louise Shephard, the Peace Mission Movement recruiter she had met. From the road, Georgia sent a telegram home to Tomas that read: "Not coming back."

The journey ended a week later at the Divine Lorraine Hotel in Philadelphia, where Georgia instructed Tommy to take Susie for a bite to eat -- that she'd be right back.

When their meal was through, a black woman tapped Garcia's shoulder. "She said, 'Sorry, Tommy. Your mom doesn't want you anymore; your father doesn't want you anymore; nobody wants you anymore except the people at this hotel,' " Garcia recalls.

The hotel, as it turned out, was owned by Father Divine, then an aging black former evangelist who founded the Peace Mission Movement in the mid-1920s.

According to the "Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America" (Garland, 1994) by Dr. Gordon Melton, the movement attracted thousands of mostly black (and later white) followers during the Depression era with its promises of food, shelter, employment and "a reformed life."

Followers lived communally in, and operated hotels (called "heavens") and other real estate holdings and businesses purchased by Divine, whom they considered to be God.

"The Mission," Melton wrote, "teaches that each person is equal in the sight of God and, thus entitled to basic rights," along with the comforts and conveniences afforded by modern society.

Divine, Melton says, "was moving into the poorest black communities in the era of the Great Depression and taking black people off the streets, cleaning them up, teaching them an ethic of self-responsibility." Through the communal lifestyle, he showed "how they could live high-on-the-hog for practically nothing. He affected a great many people's lives."

Members also adopted Father Divine's "International Modesty Code" that prohibited smoking, drinking, profanity, gifts and "undue mixing of the sexes," among other vices.

In 1946, Divine married a white follower who became known as Mother Divine (he claimed she was the reincarnation of his first wife). The two resided at Woodmont, a sprawling 70-plus acre estate located in Gladwyne, an affluent Philadelphia suburb.

Today, the number of Peace Mission Movement members worldwide has dwindled considerably. As of 1992, branches still existed in Philadelphia, Canada, Europe, Australia, Central America and Nigeria.

Life with Father

That day at the hotel was the last Tommy would see of his mother for several years.

Georgia Garcia changed her name -- as did other members of the movement -- to the more spiritual-sounding Harmony Faith, and continues to work for the cult. (Tom Garcia has not spoken to her in nearly a decade.)

The children spent the night in separate hotel rooms, and the next morning were taken by limousine to Woodmont.

Upon exiting the car, a dog ran up and bit Susie. When he tried to help her, Garcia was scolded for touching a member of the opposite sex. Susie was taken away and did not see her brother again for two years.

Inside the 35-room mansion, Garcia was led into an office for his first meeting with Mother and Father Divine.

Divine introduced himself and, according to Garcia's accounts, said, " 'It has come to my attention that nobody wants you. Tommy, I want you,' " and asked him to live at the estate.

"I'm looking around at the opulence of this room and I think, 'It's either this or an orphanage,' " Garcia recalls. "So I said, 'Yes, I'll stay here.' "

Sure, the youngster wondered why this was happening -- why had his parents tossed him away and why was he separated from his 3-year-old sister? -- questions he mulled time and again during the eight years he spent as the "prodigal son" of Father and Mother Divine.

But he also remembered how his parents had fought before they'd left on their cross-country trip -- and how his father had hit him in the past. The woman who was his guardian at Woodmont only bolstered his suspicions "that maybe all of this was true."

But why him? It's a question Garcia still grapples with today.

He believes that the photos Georgia took of him were viewed by Father Divine who, at his advanced age and in failing health, knew he needed a successor.

Having a son by his wife was out of the question (the movement prohibited sex, even between spouses, and Mother Divine was regarded as "The Virgin Mary" by some of the followers.) So, Garcia believes that Father Divine sent recruiters to find a racially "mixed child" to sculpt into a leader.

Garcia, who is Hispanic and Greek, fit the bill.

But what made Georgia willingly give her son to a cult leader to raise?

In 1989, she cryptically told Garcia, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, that "I never believed any of this when I was in California. Then one day it zapped, it happened. The spirit hit me -- it said, 'Just go seek the spirit.'

"Father blessed you to live on this estate, but the blessings are nothing like you are going to receive in the future," she said. "Mother Divine considers you her son -- anything you want you can have."

In the same article, Mother Divine said that in order to create the movement's "reality of Heaven on Earth ... we must deny our connections with the limited family to be universal. People have to have the spirit to do it. You can't make someone do it."

She denied, however, that Garcia was to someday replace Father Divine.

"No one would be groomed for that purpose," Mother Divine reportedly said. "We are all striving to develop Christ from within. If there is any position of authority to be filled -- at that time the person would be selected."

Garcia doesn't buy it. "In my heart, do I believe he was grooming me to take over? Absolutely. If you think that somebody (from the movement) is going to put that in black-and-white and admit it, I doubt it very much."

He claims to have been the only child raised on the estate, where he had a personal chauffeur/valet who followed him everywhere and helped him purchase a multitude of suits similar to those worn by Father Divine.

He had a tractor to race around the grounds and fished from the lakes. During meals in the immense dining hall, he sat in a gilded chair near Father Divine. The followers called him "Master Tommy" and he accompanied Divine and his entourage on visits to the movement's East Coast properties.

But unlike the followers, "I didn't believe (Divine) was God; he told me he wasn't God."

Of the disciples, he says, "you look into their eyes and see a total emptiness. That's something my mother has; it's something my sister had. They zapped me a different way," he insists. Otherwise, "how could I be a leader? I'd be a follower. I've never followed anybody in my life."

All the while, Garcia attended classes at Gladwyne Elementary school -- dropped off by limousine, but wearing "tattered" clothes so as not to stand out from his classmates.

Judy Bard, one of Garcia's grammar school teachers, remembers: "He would always get into fights in school. He didn't know who he was or what he wanted."

Garcia is not the only one with questions about his identity.

Robert Weisbrot, a history professor at Colby College in Maine, authored "Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial Equality" (University of Illinois Press, 1983) and says in his research that he found no evidence of Garcia's residence at Woodmont.

Weisbrot first heard of Garcia's plight last year, when his wife, Lori Garcia, called to relate the tale.

He doubts that the story is fabricated. "She said enough things that meshed with details about the movement," Weisbrot says. "I'm at a loss, through the absence of further investigation, to say how much is a matter of reasonable difference of opinion, how much is the understandably active imagination of a boy who is plunged into a very unfamiliar and disorienting situation, and how much is true."

Back to reality

When Father Divine died in 1965, Garcia says he and Mother Divine greeted the masses of mourners who visited his tomb at Woodmont.

But soon after, he noticed changes taking shape among "higher-ups" within the movement, who started "pushing people around; getting verbal with people. I thought, 'This is not what Father Divine wanted.' "

In his early teens, Garcia was sent to a private school far from the estate. While there, he visited a nearby town and met an older girl. "I started talking with her and realized that women are not bad," he says.

"I put that together with everything else that had been happening then and I decided at that time the movement was not for me."

He set out to locate his father, Tomas Garcia -- and did, through the phone book (he'd kept the same telephone number and address all those years).

"The first question I wanted to ask was, 'Pop, do you want me?' " Garcia recalls, his eyes welling with tears. "He was crying on the other end. He goes, 'Tommy, I've always wanted you.' "

He sent his son a plane ticket to Los Angeles and the younger Garcia made his escape one night by hopping a freight train. At the first depot, though, his chauffeur was waiting to take him back to Woodmont.

Garcia told Mother Divine he was heading home -- and she couldn't stop him. "She goes, 'OK, you want out? You get out. See those clothes on you right now. That's what you'll take,' " he says.

Back in Los Angeles and his old neighborhood, "it was like a reality check. We mended the rift," he says of his relationship with his father, who still resides in Los Angeles. "I love him very much, but when he talks to me ... there's such a huge gap. We're totally different people."

After high school, Garcia ran with Hollywood types, partying with the likes of entertainer Bette Midler, before hitchhiking to Sacramento to live with renegade bikers for several months.

All the while, his allegiance to the movement waxed and waned as he continued to visit Woodmont through 1989, nagged by the thought that he was to someday take over the movement.

And he may still.

Destiny's call?

Though his relationship today with the aging Mother Divine is, at best, strained, Garcia says he would return to Woodmont following her death "if the followers asked me to come back there to take care of them.

"These followers gave up their lives; they're victims, just like I was," he explains.

What does Mother Divine think of Garcia's sordid story? She told the SUN: "I am not interested in defending my position with Tommy Garcia because Tommy Garcia is not acting responsibly after his having been treated so well by the church.

"He has misconceptions and hang-ups and fears and insecurities and all of these things that I can't seem to get through to him," she says, "and I do not wish to have anymore to do with him or his ideas."

Nevertheless, Garcia says he'd like to build a "safe haven" for the remaining followers -- many of who are in their 80s, 90s and 100s -- as well as help homeless people with the movement's "old money."

He does not think, however, that any of those funds are earmarked for him personally -- nor does he care.

"Father Divine taught me at an early age the difference between being rich and being wealthy," he says."I'm already rich with my wife (and) our families."

Besides, no amount of money will bring Susie back.

Raised at one of the hotels by a black woman, Susie was ejected from the cult at age 16. Upon returning to California, she got in with an unsavory crowd that fueled her drug addiction.

"She went from the frying pan into the fire," Garcia says.

In 1993, while walking to a Los Angeles-area convenience store alone at night, she was raped and murdered.

"That was her life," Garcia says, staring at a black-and-white photo Georgia had taken of 4-month-old Susie. "I look into her eyes and I can't imagine how the world changed for her and how horrible it was for her."

It's another reason Garcia continues to tell his own story. He and his wife have amassed a collection of photos, letters and other documents which they hope to include in a book someday.

"I feel that's the least I can do for my sister," he says, "so that all of the people that had met her when she came out (of the cult know) what really happened to her."

But then, it's only in the last 18 months that he's finally come to terms with what he went through himself.

"It was like I woke up one day out of a dream," he says. "It was like the brainwashing had finally worn off."

Peace Mission Movement A PEACE MISSION MOVEMENT banquet in Philadelphia. The integrated seating pattern characterized all such assemblies.
COURTESY PHOTO
 
Father Divine FATHER DIVINE serves disciples of the Peace Mission Movement at a banquet.
 
Telegram from Georgia Garcia THIS TELEGRAM, dated Aug. 29, 1962, was sent to Tom Garcia's father after his mother moved Tom and his sister to the Philadelphia-based cult. The telegram was the last time Tom's parents had contact with each other.

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