FIC has been gifted a limited-time incentive grant! Sign-up for $5/month and we receive 20x as much! Donate here.

Tale of Two Communes: A Scholar and His Errors

Knowledgebase > Tale of Two Communes: A Scholar and His Errors

Scholar Michael Cummings relates his evolving understanding of two highly visible intentional communities: Sunrise Ranch in Colorado and Kerista Village in California. His story illustrates how communities can turn out to be something other and more complex than they first appear, and how the predilections of the observer can profoundly flavor one’s perspective-even for a professional!

How could a conscientious communal scholar end up dead wrong on a vital aspect of a community he has been studying for years? How could he do it twice, making the opposite mistake the second time? How might he make amends by helping others avoid these errors? He might write this article.

Sunrise Ranch (1945-present) is a large, beautiful, stable, and conventional-appearing community at the foot of the Rocky Mountains about an hour’s drive from Denver. 1

Kerista (1971-1991) was an exciting, fluctuating, urban, group-marriage community in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco that voted unanimously to disband at the beginning of 1992.

Sunrise Ranch initially inspired me in 1979 because of its attractiveness and practical achievements. Kerista attracted me in 1985, as it had attracted Psycholoqy Today and the Phil Donahue Show in 1980, because of its single most innovative achievement, the “responsibly hedonistic ” marital system of “polyfidelity. ” 2


Emissaries Claim Spirit Is the Key to Their Success

My misconceptions about Sunrise Ranch related to whether its impressive accomplishments stemmed from its spirituality (as residents claimed) or from its political and economic structures (which most academic visitors suspected). My misconceptions about Kerista related to whether its members were independent self-actualizers (as members claimed) or self-deluding cultists (as my coresearchers suspected).

Sunrise Ranch is the oldest community of Emissaries of Divine Light, a nonsectarian spiritual movement that originated in the vision of founder Lloyd Meeker in 1932.3 Worldwide, The Emissaries number several thousand supporters, a dozen full-fledged communities, and some 200 centers on seven continents. Sunrise Ranch came to my attention in 1979 when I asked a graduate student to find “the most impressive commune in Colorado. ” I wanted to arrange an attractive field trip for scholars attending the annual Utopian Studies Conference. The residents of Sunrise Ranch consist of four generations of friends and relatives who look, dress, and act like especially friendly “normal Americans, ” except they have relocated from city or suburb to a 400-acre organic farming village on the edge of a national forest.

This Emissary village includes grain and hay fields; fruit orchards, a five-acre vegetable garden, a large hydroponic greenhouse, canning and freezing facilities; beef, dairy, poultry, and egg production; a geodesic dome chapel; a beautiful new dining room pavilion and conference center; and a wide variety of single-family, multi-family, and apartment dwellings. There are skilled management, building construction, and maintenance teams; an extensive group of health-care professionals; state-of-the-art audio-visual facilities and a publishing company; programs in education, recreation, and the arts; a fire engine, laundry, sewage treatment, and power-generating plants. In short, everything necessary for the functioning of a small town.

The other utopian scholars and I went to Sunrise Ranch full of hard questions and skepticism, but after a day’s visit we floated away on a Rocky Mountain high. There was no doubt that Sunrise Ranch was a communal success story. Our main skepticism had to do with The Emissaries’ insistence that it was their shared spiritual awareness that had made all of this possible. As a social scientist, I was intent on discovering what political and economic institutions had produced such a communal feat.

The Emissaries at Sunrise Ranch seemed to be living the very principles of cooperation and self-actualization that I had been teaching about in political-philosophy classes. The young people were lively and well behaved. The senior citizens remained active as long and as much as they wanted (the community treasurer was in her nineties). The incidence of illness was much lower than in the surrounding society, and life expectancy correspondingly higher. Pollution, unemployment, addiction, poverty, crime, and violence were virtually nonexistent. Was I, the social scientist, to believe that all of this had been created by “spirit? “


The Emissary Spiritual Philosophy

What is the Emissary spiritual philosophy, anyway? Simply put, Emissary spirituality consists of our seeking to harmonize with life’s inherent creative design, which implies acting with integrity and love toward one another and serving as responsible stewards of the earth. Said negatively, The Emissaries resist the natural human tendencies toward egotism, blaming and manipulation of others, exploitation of nature, dogmatic beliefs, and the twin dangers of acting on mere impulse or adhering to rigid rules.

While I wanted to know who was running the show, who had funded it, and who owned the assets, my Emissary interviewees patiently replied with some version of “It’s not this or that person or structure but Emissary spirituality that makes all of this possible. ” For many years, my basic response to this claim was some form of “Yes, but… ” for my professional training was to seek out the key decision makers, the critical power holders, and the economic string pullers within an intentional community.

Most of the students and scholars I took to Sunrise Ranch, being similarly oriented, shared my concerns and my skepticism about the Emissaries’ spiritual explanations. We felt that the Emissaries tended to avoid or deflect our nonspiritual questions about finances, governance, and family life. It was easy to sympathize with a Denver reporter’s characterization that trying to pin down Emissary beliefs was like trying “to nail Jell-O to a wall. ” When we did get answers, they seemed to differ according to which Emissary we were talking to. For instance: “Who has the final say on important decisions if everyone doesn’t agree? ” Replies ranged all the way from the mystical-sounding “We don’t really make decisions; the right one eventually emerges ” to the no-nonsense “The foreman decides. “

To our skepticism, The Emissaries responded that the only way to understand Emissary life was to experience it directly. The people at Sunrise Ranch appeared sincere, and I liked them personally, but I couldn’t help feeling that their spiritual posture was, to some extent, a cop-out, or even a cover-up.


What Changed My View?

As I visited eight other Emissary communities in the United States, Canada, England, and France, I saw that the quality of life and the notable achievements of Sunrise Ranch characterized other Emissary communities as well. Yet the political, economic, and social structures varied greatly from one Emissary community to another. Experiencing these variations personally caused me to realize that structures, rules, or institutions could not adequately account for the success of Sunrise Ranch or any other Emissary community.

This realization prompted me to refocus my “research ” away from interviewing members about Emissary structures. Instead I started participating more fully in Emissary life. I did less interviewing and more of whatever the residents were doing, working along with them in teams. At King View in Ontario, we chopped wood; while at Green Pastures, New Hampshire, we slaughtered and dressed turkeys. At Sunrise Ranch, we picked and shucked corn; at the San Francisco center, we rewired a bedroom. After painting at La Vigne in France, I nailed drywall at Mickleton, England.

People shared their concerns, openly expressed problems, and confronted conflicts. The 20 residents of the Vancouver center included me in their regular house meeting even though we had just met. The gathering started in a relaxed manner, and the general coordinator soon launched into a complaint about collections of items that had been left around the premises, a fine old mansion on a tree-lined street. Those involved explained themselves and a compromise emerged that balanced individual and community needs.

At Mickleton, the construction coordinator asked a worker to cancel the latter’s “attunement ” (spiritual therapy) session so the day’s drywalling schedule could be maintained. The worker noted that this cancellation would be the second in two days. The coordinator explained the urgency of keeping the drywalling project on schedule. Within a minute or two, they reached an amicable resolution that honored the inconvenienced worker’s sacrifice but met the immediate needs of the construction team.


Emissary Coordinators

The Emissaries have used various terms, including “focalizer ” and, more recently, “coordinator ” to denote a leader, or person in a position of responsibility. All residents of Emissary communities undergo several days of seminar training in leadership, and all residents are expected to accept leadership responsibilities in one or more spheres of community life.

Occasionally, an Emissary coordinator becomes ineffective over time, and a leadership change is needed. The Emissaries have no fixed procedure for recruiting or terminating their leaders. Rather, the groups allow a process of communication and understanding to occur by which change eventually emerges. Most Emissaries whose actions are creating problems willingly change their behavior or shift their sphere of activity. When an individual does not get the signals, or ignores them, he or she is eventually persuaded to try some other area or level of responsibility.

Emissaries resist fixed rules, whether about leadership, economic production, resident participation, religious practices, sexuality, or family life — which includes singles, cohabiting adults, and one- or two-parent nuclear and extended families. As to living arrangements, most Emissaries live singly or in nuclear families, although many have had group living experience. No stigma is attached to either lifestyle choice. Nor is there a set of commitment mechanisms among the Emissaries — such as those identified by Rosabeth Kanter4 — to formalize the bond between the residents and the community.

Likewise, no single approach to economics seems key to Emissary productivity and growth. Sometimes private ownership works best, while at other times community ownership, or a mixture of the two, seems appropriate. For instance, while Sunrise Ranch has been fully communal, 100 Mile House, in British Columbia, and Green Pastures have always operated more cooperatively — with financially self-sufficient members.

Flexibility and informality work well for The Emissaries. Some situations call for a consensual or democratic approach, others are considered by a committee, and some are handled by one individual with particular knowledge or skill. By contrast, many intentional communities spend a great deal of time trying to design the right structures or rules to use in guiding community life. Kerista, for instance, had several dozen explicit rules of social dos and don’ts as part of a complex social contract.


What Unites Emissaries?

What, then, unites residents of Emissary communities in a common purpose with such a flexible, efficient community life? Ten years of observation and experience finally forced a change in thinking upon me. The Emissaries’ own explanation for their practical success is the shared spiritual experience of seeking the natural design in life itself. This now seems to be a better explanation than any alternative I have been able to observe.

True, all Emissary communities have until recently been governed by a “coordinator ” system in which those persons generally regarded as most able in a specific area of community life “gave focus ” to those involved in that area. But even this shared system of leadership is flexibly adapted to local conditions, and it has proved only as strong as the spiritual commitment of those involved in it. In the last two years, many Emissary communities have been moving toward democratically elected councils — the subject of a future article.

After 13 years of visiting Emissary communities, I have come to wonder whether the life process itself may indeed provide us with a natural way to get along with one another and to thrive, if only we can attune ourselves to that process. In situations of uncertainty or disagreement, Emissaries seek to look within themselves, to attain what they call an inner stillness, and be guided by the movement of a natural design contained within life itself.

We may question whether such a natural design actually exists, as opposed to all life plans being imposed by humans. Or, we may question whether Emissaries do so well together simply because they are agreed in thinking that there is a design for life. What seems beyond reasonable doubt, however, is that Emissary spirituality works in practice.

This answer may sound vague or even meaningless to many, but it is the most likely explanation I have been able to develop. I should be cautious and note that living in a tight-knit intentional community is not everyone’s cup of tea, and it has not been my own choice. Indeed, only about one fourth of Emissaries worldwide live in an Emissary community; most limit their participation to service on Sundays and, possibly, a weekday attunement, group meeting, or project.

Critics of the Sunrise Ranch lifestyle include a small number of ex-residents who regard the Emissaries as a cult, a judgment that most ex-residents do not share. I have argued the pros and cons of Sunrise Ranch myself,5 for it has been difficult for me to accept a spiritual explanation for the practical success of a modern, nondenominational community like Sunrise Ranch. But my shift from an interview format to brief periods of participation (cultural immersion) made the dynamics of daily life at Emissary communities more accessible and understandable to me. Also, by placing my original, single case study of Sunrise Ranch in the broader perspective of other Emissary communities, I came to see beyond the limitations of my initial, nonspiritual hypotheses.

It now appears that the spiritual explanation originally offered by Sunrise Ranch residents, though inherently subjective and biased, may be closer to the truth than the political and economic alternatives to which I’d been “objectively ” committed. Ironically, the second case study, Kerista, reflects the opposite error — accepting communitarians’ accounts of their experiences at face value.


Keristan Ideals Overshadow Doubts

Regarding my scholarly study of Kerista, I need to state my central bias up front. From the very beginning, I shared the major Keristan ideals and was profoundly impressed by each and every Keristan I met in that initial period. In retrospect, I believe it was this enthusiasm that made it difficult for me to view Kerista as a leader-dominated group with some “cult ” behaviors, even in the face of increasingly troubling signs dating from before my first visit to Kerista in August of 1987.

Many communities besides Kerista have experimented with direct democracy, economic communism, equal rights for women, and mutual and self criticism. Few, however, have attempted the dramatic departure from monogamous marriage that Kerista called polyfidelity, meaning long-term sexual faithfulness to not one but several partners. The goal of polyfidelity is to maximize intimate friendship and sexual pleasure while eliminating jealousy and possessiveness.


Polyfidelity at Kerista

As polyfidelity was practiced at Kerista, individual members belonged to one of several families, called B-FICs, or Best Friend Identity Clusters. Each member was expected to be nonpreferential, but not necessarily equally “in love, ” with all family members of the opposite sex. Members slept with these heterosexual lovers equally and exclusively, one after the other, on a nightly, rotating schedule. B-FIC members of the same sex became one’s best friends, called “starling sisters ” or “starling brothers. “

To prevent pregnancy and alleviate world over-population, Kerista required male members to have vasectomies, an indicator that after the required, presexual courting period, a commitment to the commune was viewed as long term and was taken seriously. By the mid-1980s, each prospective new member was required to take a series of three AIDS tests and to test negative for all three.

It was polyfidelity that got Kerista on such programs as the Phil Donahue Show in the 1970s, and it was primarily an interest in studying polyfidelity that drew me and my utopian studies colleagues Lyman Sargent and Lise Leibacher to Kerista for a four-day visit in 1987. Had the Keristans really been able to eliminate jealousy? Did multiple partners reduce the strength of individual relationships? How stable were the polyfidelitous families? Were the hedonistic Keristans productive in other spheres as well, or did they spend so much time and energy on sex and related issues that they had little left over for income-earning work? Wasn’t there a downside to a schedule that automatically prevented two lovers from sleeping with each other several nights in a row? What rules governed daytime behavior and overnight trips away from the commune?

In short, how well did polyfidelity actually work, and what costs did it entail? If it worked as well as the Keristans claimed, might it not have something to offer the larger society, beset by high levels of sexual frustration and neurosis, jealousy-motivated violence, and high divorce rates?


Getting to Know the Keristans

Prior to our on-site visit, my two colleagues and I had become familiar with half a dozen Keristans at Communal Studies Association conferences; Keristans traveling through Denver had visited with me several times; and all three of us had sampled the voluminous Keristan literature. Perhaps the ambitious visions expressed in their publications exceeded their likely grasp. But we had been uniformly impressed with the Keristans we had interacted with in terms of their intellect, their articulation, their openness, and their sense of commitment. Kerista was surely one of the more controversial communes in the United States, and we looked forward to our trip to San Francisco with considerable anticipation.

Our visit to Kerista turned out to be intense, fascinating, eye-opening — and disconcerting. As we toured the several neighboring Victorian flats that housed Kerista, our first impressions confirmed the commune’s Haight-Ashbury, hippie origins: bright colors, hip clothes, energetic and sensual men and women, performance art and rock-music dances, motley living quarters in creative disarray, a highly interactive and verbal culture, universal computer literacy — and Brother Jud, the forceful, sixtyish, long-haired founder of Kerista.

By the second day of our visit, Jud6 and those closest to him were becoming impatient with our “objective ” scholarly stance. Weren’t we sufficiently impressed with Kerista to be enthusiastic advocates, if not future members? We explained that the purpose of our first visit was to understand Kerista, not to praise or criticize it. While most of the Keristans continued to impress us with their enthusiasm, intelligence, and friendliness, we felt a growing estrangement from some of our hosts.


Gestalt-O-Rama as Hot Seat

About halfway through our visit, we participated in the Keristan mutual criticism process, called Gestalt-o-Rama. Indeed, we became the focus of some heated criticism, initiated by Jud. During this process, Jud called Lyman a “schmuck ” for asking about Kerista’s policy on drugs; I was taken to task for disagreeing with critical comments Jud had made about Sunrise Ranch; and Jud warned us that if we didn’t shape up, our visit would be terminated. Apparently, we shaped up enough, since we were permitted to stay.

Nevertheless, my colleagues became intensely uncomfortable during the remainder of their stay. Though I also felt uncomfortable with Jud and a few other Keris-tans, I continued to enjoy my interactions with most of our hosts and felt more curious than threatened.


Polyfidelity Assessed

Interestingly, our conclusions about polyfidelity in the narrow sense were perhaps our least controversial. Put briefly, polyfidelity seemed to be working well in the sense that sleeping rotations were maintained, members expressed sexual satisfaction with the system, we sensed little jealousy, and friendships seemed strong among long-time members.

Moreover, the regularity and variety of sexual activity seemed to have resulted in a high level of personal gratification and freedom from sexual tension without undermining the necessary work ethic. Kerista’s computer company, Aba-cus, was well under way by 1987, and by 1991 had experienced spectacular growth into a profitable, $30-million-a-year firm that employed most of Kerista’s two-dozen-plus adults.

We did question the strength and longevity of the romantic love relationships. There had been frequent B-FIC changes over the years, and the wording of the marital vow was not for life but “a current intention of lifetime involvement ” (my emphasis). “Romance ” had a spotted history at Kerista — viewed negatively less than two years earlier, romance had come to be viewed as both positive and possible within polyfidelity.

We also found it hard to believe that Keristans were equally attracted to all of their sexual partners. We learned that during the day, as well as on trips, B-FIC members could in fact engage in more sex with some partners than with others.

On the other hand, we had no reason to believe that polyfidelity was any more unworkable than conventional monogamy with its more than 50 percent divorce rate. The fact that over the years we had heard occasional reports of Keristan infidelity did not negate the general viability of polyfidelity, any more than the much higher rate of infidelity among married Americans negates monogamy as a workable system.


Keristan Values Questioned

Far more controversial — among the three of us, as well as between the Keristans and us — were questions about (1) how well Kerista practiced what it preached about equality, democracy, feminism, and philanthropy, and (2) how the group reconciled the apparent contradiction between its highly idealistic internal practices and its patriotic enthusiasm for the oppressive external status quo, including U.S. big business and politics. In a draft article we sent the Keristans, the three of us raised the following questions.

(1) Though all Keristans were said to be equal, weren’t some, especially Jud, “more equal ” than others? Jud’s authoritarian personality stood out like a sore thumb at Kerista. We had observed him try to dominate and, we thought, seriously abuse the Gestalt-o-Rama process of mutual criticism. We had heard him simply announce a policy change, and we got the impression that he expected his position to be rubber-stamped during the required voting process. Also, we had not seen Jud sharing in domestic chores, but had often seen him being served by others, especially women. Our uncertainty about Keristan equality made us uncertain about Keristan democracy as well.

(2) Wasn’t there an unadmitted status hierarchy among the commune’s several families, or B-FICs? It seemed to us that the Purple Submarine B-FIC, by far the largest at 16 members, also contained the most active, most long-standing, and most highly respected members.

(3) How truly feminist was Kerista? While proclaiming feminism, Keristans seemed to know little about the feminist movement itself. Also, they had resisted the argument advanced by Lyman and me (whom they knew) that we wanted to add Lise (whom they didn’t know) to our research team in order to get a woman’s point of view. “We think a man can understand the situation of women at Kerista just as well as a woman can, ” said Way, at the time a hard-core Jud supporter and one of Kerista’s most zealous ideologues. At least half a dozen members, especially four or five women, seemed to us clearly superior to Jud as thinkers and leaders. Yet we sensed that Jud exercised far more influence than these more talented followers. We failed to uncover any special qualities that might justify Jud’s revered status. Lyman and Lise became convinced outright that Kerista’s feminism and egalitarianism were either a delusion or a sham.

(4) How much of the proclaimed one-third of net income earmarked for philanthropy did Kerista actually give to philanthropy? Kerista’s very bright young accountant, Luv, had given us an impressively detailed explanation of Keristan finances. Communal income relied heavily on contributions from a few individuals (like Luv himself and female banking executive Zia), who had high paying outside jobs. While Kerista financed a number of free publications, we could never get beyond the officially crafted expression — “x ” percent of net income is “made available for philanthropy ” — to a concrete figure for actual dollars given. The only actual charity we learned of was a few hundred dollars given to a poor Jamaican household.

(5) Did the Keristans see any contradiction between their radically democratic, egalitarian, feminist, communal, philanthropic, and polyfidelitous model, on the one hand, and their patriotic identification with the U.S. government and corporate America, on the other? Critics of U.S. institutions have included not only “radical academics ” (our self-description) like Lise, Lyman, and me, but some of the Keristans themselves in their pre-Reagan, pre-Abacus, radical-hippie days. Part of this change in thinking may be accounted for by the growth of Abacus. By 1987 this Keristan business already numbered among its customers several large corporations and the state of California.

The Keristans were not pleased with the questions in our draft article. We-the-researchers and they-the-subjects seemed to become somewhat disillusioned with each other. In the five years after our visit, we stayed in sporadic contact with the Keristans. But they became increasingly busy with their burgeoning computer business, and had less and less time to reply to our requests for updates.

A friendlier division also developed within our three-person research team. Lyman and Lise viewed Kerista as flouting its espoused values and verging on being an unadmitted Jud-cult. Though sharing my colleagues’ concerns, I took the position that without conclusive evidence to the contrary, we should accept the Keristans’ beliefs as true, or at least sincere and plausible.

Thus I adhered to my original confidence and belief in such Keristans as Lee, Jaz, Eve, Way, Luv, Zia, and Sym. They simply had too much on the ball as individuals to let a self-chosen leader control their choices. I pointed out to Lise and Lyman that the most influential Keristans were predominantly women, including the four who jointly owned Abacus on behalf of the community as a whole. If these women insisted that they were not being exploited by Jud or anyone else at Kerista, and indeed were thoroughly enjoying themselves, who were we to tell them their true feelings or correct their “false consciousness? “

My own view of the situation was that Jud, far from controlling anyone, was being benevolently tolerated and indulged, as a kind of elder statesman. I believed that Kerista would not only survive his passing, but would thrive even more.


Kerista Breaks Up; New Commune Forms in Hawaii

I was wrong. Between November 1991 and January 1992, Purple Submarine expelled Jud from the B-FIC; Jud left Kerista; and Kerista fell apart. With Jud gone, the members of the commune voted unanimously to terminate Kerista. I happened to visit just as the process of dissolution was starting. Later I received follow-up reports from a communal electronic bulletin board. These reports included Jud’s charges against those who had expelled him — whom he dubbed the Gang of Five — as well as the official Keristan explanation of events. In July 1992, I visited the latest version of Purple Submarine (now a new ten-person polyfidelitous commune relocated in Hawaii), whose members had weathered Kerista’s demise “without missing a single sleeping rotation, ” according to Lee. I spoke at least briefly with all eight adult members (they have Kerista’s two children as well). Though pressed for cash — Abacus having fallen on hard times — these post-Keristans spoke confidently of the new, pared-down commune’s future life together as polyfidelitous lovers.


Kerista Analyzed by Insiders

How do such long-time Keristans as Eve, Lee, Tye, Jaz, and Daniel look at Kerista in retrospect? “In many ways, it was your basic cult, ” says Eve, who cofounded Kerista with Jud in 1972. “Jud was a master salesman, ” says Lee. He sold the younger Keristans on himself and his utopian visions, using Gestalt-o-Rama as a control mechanism over others, but avoiding mutual criticism himself. Over the years, Jud seemed to become increasingly negative, intolerant, and defensive toward dissenters and outsiders whom he saw as threats to his authority.

But the time came when the mutual criticism process was finally focused on Jud, and he wouldn’t take it. Relationships had been getting worse for many years, but individual Keristans were afraid to voice basic criticisms of Jud — or even Kerista in general — for fear they would be isolated, punished, or expelled. With years of growing dissatisfaction as a backdrop, the catalyst for expelling Jud was the unhappiness of the women in his B-FIC, Purple Submarine. Each time they tried to bring a new man into the B-FIC, Jud either prevented his joining or made his life so miserable that he eventually left. Ex-Purple Submariners now say that their B-FIC was indeed a kind of upper class of Kerista that, under Jud’s sway, dominated commune life. Jud’s most avid female supporter prior to the breakup, Way, is reportedly also on the outs with most of the ex-Keristans. They see her as having psychologically manipulated members in many of the same ways as Jud did.

Why for five years did I accept the denials and rationalizations of a group that now calls itself an ex-cult? Why, on the other hand, had I been insufficiently open to the Emissaries’ self-assessment, which I now substantially accept?7 Part of the explanation probably rests in my own desire to believe in the workability of the Keristan ideals, and my own misweighing of the information available to me. My colleagues, Lise and Lyman, seemed to have been more accurate in their perceptions.

Polyfidelity, which reportedly continues to work well for the new group, was not what was wrong with Kerista. The hard lesson of the Keristan “cult, ” as former members now sometimes call it, seems to be that even strong individuals can fall prey to a community dynamic that encourages defense mechanisms like denial, rationalization, and compartmentalization.

Yet, even though polyfidelity can be a satisfying lifestyle, and the business was booming, Kerista failed. Could it be that personal empowerment and freedom of expression are more compelling, over the long term, than sex and money?



Hopefully, readers will not interpret this report as a glorification of Emissary communities and a debunking of Kerista. Emissary life is not for everyone, and some ex-Emissaries are critical of their experiences in community. On the other hand, the ex-Keristans I have talked with do not regret their years at Kerista, which they enjoyed in many ways and which they regard as a vital stage in their personal growth.

As the saying goes, different strokes for different folks. Living in any small community, like living in a close family, will always involve both the blessings and the pitfalls of intimacy.

A final warning. Readers will have to decide for themselves how much confidence to place in the born-again wisdom of a twice-mistaken scholar who has seen the error of his ways. Surely I couldn’t be wrong again. Or could I? I remain in contact with the Emissaries and the ex-Keristans. Let’s hope further apologies are not called for in a later edition of this Directory.



1. See Emissaries of Divine Light, About Sunrise Ranch (Loveland, CO: Eden Valley Press, 1982), and A Statement of Purpose (1977).
2. Kerista Commune, Polyfidelity: Sex in the Kerista Commune and Other Related Theories on How to Solve the World’s Problems (San Francisco: Performing Arts Social Society, 1984).
3. Exeter, Martin Cecil, On Eagle’s Wings (London: Mitre Press, 1977); Emissaries of Divine Light, Opening Series (Loveland, CO: Eden Valley Press, n.d.), and A Statement of Purpose (1977).
4. Kanter, Rosabeth Moss, Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972). Indeed, at first glance, Emissary communities and Kerista alike provide more evidence for Donald Pitzer’s view of communalism as a developmental aspect of social or spiritual movements, than for Kanter’s success-or-failure model. See also Donald Pitzer, “The Theory of Developmental Communalism, ” a paper given at the Third Triennial Conference of the International Communal Studies Association, Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, PA, July 28, 1991.
5. Cummings, Michael S., “Sunrise Ranch as a Utopian Community, ” in Michael S. Cummings and Nicholas D. Smith, editors, Utopian Studies III (Lanham, MD: Society for Utopian Studies and University Press of America, 1991), pp. 59-65.
6. The three-letter Keristan names were all acronyms standing for important ideals or qualities. “Jud, ” for instance, stood for “Justice under democracy. “
7. Preliminary evidence on the recent democratization movement in Emissary communities indicates that some of my early concerns may not have been entirely mistaken.

About the Author

Mike Cummings is Chairman of the Political Science Department at the University of Colorado, an active member of the Communal Studies Association specializing in research concerning contemporary communities, and the owner of a long-time group house in Denver. Mike is coeditor of Utopian Studies III (University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland, 1991). Interests of his include learning Czech with his one-year-old, Anthony, from Anthony’s mother, Petra, backpacking, fishing, motorcycling, dancing, and tennis.

Let's make the communities movement thrive!

You can help more people discover intentional communities by signing up as a monthly donor. For every new monthly donor (even as little as $5 per month), we will receive an additional $100 thanks to the Fund for Democratic Communities! 

Your donation gives belonging and hope for the future.