Life After Heaven
By Suzanne Gordon       

Tommy & Mother Woodmont

Tommy & Mother Woodmont

Mother Divine posed with Tommy Garcia
in front of Woodmont.
ON A SPRING DAY IN 1987, Tommy Garcia pulled his rental car up to the ornate entrance of Woodmont, a sprawling stone mansion that commands a sweeping view of a rolling hillside in Gladwyne. He stopped next to a long, black sedan and looked at the woman in the drivers seat. She appeared fragile and wane, her once olive-toned face framed by graying hair.”Peace, Miss Harmony,” he said, nodding his head in respect.

“Peace, Tommy,” the woman replied.

“Mother wanted me to talk to you,” he said.

“Mother wanted me to talk to you, too,” she answered.

“Lets go and talk,” he continued. “Lets talk alone.”

She got out of her car and into his, and the two sat outside the grand 32-room stone chateau that overlooks 73 acres of manicured grounds.

Tommy’s eyes scanned the familiar edifice, and the memories made him shiver.

“I’ve had a lot of animosities towards you for everything that’s happened in my past and the way my life has gone,” Tommy began. “But now that I’m older, I’ve learned to forget all that, and I want to let you know that you are my mom and I love you very much.”

He drew in a deep breath and exhaled in relief. Suddenly, it seemed as though the weight of hate and frustration had been lifted from his shoulders. He gazed intensely at the 55-year-old woman, his biological mother, Georgia Garcia  now called Miss Harmony Faith  hoping at last for the truth.

It had been 26 years since he was able to speak alone with his mother  26 years since she took him and sister, Suzie, to Woodmont, the home of Mother Divine, widow of Father Divine, founder of the Peace Mission Movement. For more than a quarter century, the questions had gnawed at him: Why had his mother, a raven-haired photographer of Greek descent, left her husband with hardly a goodbye in Los Angeles Why had she then traveled cross-country to deliver the youngsters into the hands of these strangers  Father and Mother Divine And why had they raised him like a charmed prince.

Anticipating her story, Tommy told his mother that he’d heard a rumor that she was dead, and that he had traveled from Los Angeles to Philadelphia to find out whether that dreaded news was true. Now that it wasn’t, he wanted to make peace with her, he said, and fill his empty heart with the truth.

Georgia Garcia, who dropped her real name and adopted the evangelical name Harmony Faith when she joined the Movement, offered only cryptic, guarded explanations of the last three decades. “I never believed any of this when I was in California,” she told Tommy. “Then one day it zapped, it happened. The spirit hit me it said, Just go and seek the spirit”

“Father blessed you to live on his estate,” she told him, “but the blessings are nothing like you are going to receive in the future. Mother Divine considers you her son anything you want you can have.

“You must visit Mother more. You are Mother Divines son, and I am Mother Divines daughter. There is no more Georgia Garcia,” she said.

THE STORY OF TOMMY GARCIA’S life is the bizarre tale of a small boy of Mexican and Greek descent  who was swept away from home, taken from the father who loved him, and delivered into the hands of strangers. These unfamiliar people, who became his parents, were no ordinary people. They were the renowned Mother and Father Divine, a childless couple whose peculiar religious movement attracted thousands of followers. These devoted believers many of the needy and suffering through the Depression  abandoned their own homes, families and real names to join Father Divines interracial flock. In return for working on his estates and in his hotels, they were given food, clothing and shelter  and spiritual guidance.

Deposited by his real mother at Woodmont, the Divines expansive estate off Spring Mill Road in Lower Merion Township, Tommy grew up as Mother and Father Divines son, a rambunctious boy who would roam the massive mansion poking into everything. At dinner, Tommy would dress in a three-piece pin-stripe suit and sometimes sit next to Father Divine, who presided over a banquet table that seated more than two dozen people. From 1962, when he was 8, until 1969, when he was 15 and in ninth grade, Tommy lived amid the affluence and rigid ritual of Father Divines estate. In these opulent surroundings, he was given anything he wanted and indulged in ways that seemed at odds with tenets of the Peace Mission Movement.

Today, Tom Garcia, 35, who ran away from Woodmont and Father and Mother Divine when he was a teenager, ekes out a living working for his real fathers dry-cleaning-equipment business in California. He does not view himself as privileged; on the contrary, he sees himself as deprived. Growing up, he could have whatever he wanted  a go-cart, a tractor, even his own TV. But he missed out on a normal life, the close companionship of a real father, the love of his mother deprivations that have left him confused and aching.

Since childhood, Tommy has believed he was being groomed for something special. It is a belief that has haunted and tortured him. Was he to follow in Father Divines footsteps Was he to lead an organization that was built by adults who abjured sexual contact? Was he the child needed to carry on Father Divines work Or, as Mother Divine suggests, are these just the illusions of an impressionable young man?

Tommy never knew and still doesn’t know today. All he knows for sure is what Mother Divine kept telling him, and still tells him now that he can have whatever he wants. All he has to do is ask.

So easy, and yet so hard.

No wonder Tommy is still groping, still searching for sense in a life that stretches the imagination.

A FREE-SPIRITED, independent woman, Georgia Garcia was one of 13 children born to a first-generation Greek American couple who worked in a textile mill in New Hampshire. When she was 16, restless and frustrated by her family’s poverty, she left home. Soon, she was supporting herself as a photographer, shooting mostly weddings and children. Spunky and ambitious, she decided to leave New Hampshire in 1946 and head for the West Coast. It was there, in a Southern California Mexican restaurant, that she met her future husband, Tomas Garcia, who was then going to school to become an electronics technician. They married and bought a little house in a lower-middle-class section of Los Angeles. Within a year, Tommy was born, and five years later, Suzie.

Friends and neighbors say that Georgia was very pushy, prodding her husband to work harder at various electronics jobs so that he could make more money. She was a hustler herself, peddling her photographic skills door-to-door throughout Los Angeles.

“She seemed very happy for a long time.” said her closest sister, Chris Paine, who still lives in New Hampshire, “She would always send pictures when she had a birthday or when her kids had a birthday. She was encouraging of her husband. They both worked, and she wanted him to go to school. She always wanted to go to college, but never did,” she said.

“She worshiped those kids, though. It was all she talked about. She was a good mother. I would say she was devoted to her children,” Paine said.

In time, the Garcia’s marriage began to show signs of strain, mainly because of problems that Tomas Garcia Sr. says were of his own making. The patriarch of a sizable extended family in Mexico, Garcia was generous with his relatives, sending then money and offering them shelter with his own family in Los Angeles. This did not sit well with Georgia, who resented the periodic influx of relations.

Knowing Georgia was at times unhappy with their marriage, Tomas Garcia offered to leave their home and let her stay there with the kids. He admitted that he wasn’t always faithful to her, either. But he loved her and believed she loved him. Sometimes he would help her with her photographic assignments. She, in turn, helped send him to electronics school and often bragged to friends about his accomplishments.

Then, in early 1962, six months before she left Los Angeles, Georgia began attending the Peace Circle Mission Church, which listed as its bishop, founder and pastor the Rev. M.J. Divine. She would take her kids with her, but her husband never went. She would bring home religious literature, but he never read it. In time, he began to see her change. All sexual relations ceased, he said. She suddenly showed disdain for smokers. In addition, a prim and proper woman named Louise Shepherd ? whose eyes struck Tommy as having an otherworldly look would sometimes visit. She would talk to Georgia at length about the church they attended, admonishing the children to hush up when they interrupted. Tommy, then just a small child, instantly mistrusted his mothers new friend.

Then, one very warm day in August 1962, Georgia stopped in to see Helen Bilke, a neighbor and confident who is also a magazine writer and editor. Georgia, who never swore or spoke harshly, exploded and screamed an obscene command at Helen. There seemed to be no reason for this uncharacteristic outburst, and Helen was stunned. She figured that something was terribly wrong, and later that day, her suspicions were confirmed.

That afternoon, Georgia Garcia suddenly loaded her children?s clothes and her expensive, cherished Hasselblad camera equipment into her white Comet. She said she was bound for her native New Hampshire for a month-long stay with her sister, Chris Paine. Standing outside the Garcia’s wood-frame bungalow on Parkview Avenue in Los Angeles, Georgia said goodbye to her husband of 12 years. Her first stop would be Philadelphia, where she had scheduled a job interview, she him. “I am going to take pictures and become famous,” she said matter-of-factly. He gave her $300  all that was in their savings account. Then Georgia Garcia got into the car and, accompanied by Louise Shepherd, traveled all the way across the country.

A few days later, Tomas Garcia Sr. received a telegram that read: “Not coming back  Georgia.” He never saw his wife again, and it would be eight years before he saw his children again. “It?s very hard when you?re attached to someone  it’s like cutting off parts of your body,” said Garcia, who has since remarried but who says hes never overcome this trauma. “You feel bad, you feel awful.”

When her sisters realized Georgia had left home and seemingly disappeared, they were afraid she had died. Initially, they suspected her husband, and even alerted police. Then her husband called and explained what had happened, and Georgia sent Chris a telegram that said she would not be coming to New Hampshire. Two years later, Chris would write to Georgia’s husband: “I don’t know what Georgia has done to all of us. We never did anything to her. It’s been almost two years that we haven’t heard from her I hope she isn’t sick.” The two sisters would remain out of touch for nearly 20 years. Then, about 10 years ago, Chris visited her sister in Philadelphia, where Georgia was working for Father Divine.

Warning her sister in a letter before the visit that she had changed, Georgia Garcia said, “I’m like a nun. I’m not like I used to be.”

Chris Paine recalls Georgia telling her that she left home because “God spoke to her and told her to join (the Movement). She said that Father Divine brought up her children and did a very good job.”

BELIEVED BY HIS FOLLOWERS to be the modern incarnation of God, Father Divine was reportedly born George Baker in 1865, the son of sharecroppers in South Carolina. He married his first wife, Peninnah, in 1882. She was called Mother in the First Body, and according to church doctrine, did not actually die in 1937 but was reincarnated in the form of the present Mother Divine. An itinerant preacher, Father Divine began advocating racial equality and integration and portraying himself as God. He was arrested, jailed, and even held in an insane asylum.

Eventually, he and his disciples headed north, preaching, working odd jobs and pooling their money in a communal lifestyle that provided the basis for the Peace Mission Movement. They settled in Manhattan, and then in Brooklyn, collecting more followers and establishing an employment agency, with the workers, called angels, harkening to their god, Father Divine. In 1919, Father Divine and his first wife bought a home in Sayville, Long Island, where they established the first Heaven on Earth and which is still used as a summer retreat by Mother Divine.

Father Divine founded his empire on a belief in racial equality, and he took the Kingdom of God into many inner-city slums, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless at Peace Mission branches. Those who joined the Peace Mission Movement adhered to Father Divines International Modest Code: no smoking, no drinking, no obscenity, no vulgarity, no profanity, no undue mixing of the sexes, no receiving of gifts, tips, or bribes.

The number of disciples boomed during the Depression as the hungry, the homeless and the unemployed latched on to what Father Divine could offer in exchange for their devotion and hard work. Followers were fed at huge, sumptuous banquets, which Father blessed. Afterward, they would listen to his teachings and sing his praises.

One who was swayed by those teachings was Edna Rose Ritchings. The daughter of a florist, this blond-haired white stenographer became a member of a select Peace Mission choir of privileged young women who would eventually become known as the Rosebuds. Called Sweet Angel, Ritchings was transformed into Mother Divine in 1946 when she and Father Divine were married. At the time, Ritchings was only 21 and towered over her husband, who was 60 years her senior. They were married quietly in a Washington, D.C., private home, but as Father Divine stressed to his followers, “in name only.” Marriage, he believed, was legalized prostitution, and intimate contact between men and women was, and still is, strictly prohibited. Thus, the new Mother Divine became known as “the spotless virgin bride.”

Preaching patriotism, abstinence from sex, and civil rights, Father Divine bought businesses and several hotels, offering very affordable prices to patrons willing to follow Fathers Modest Code. Everyone worked, and everyone turned his money over to Heaven. Some worked in Divines holdings, such as the hotels, or at Woodmont, where followers would gather from far and wide on Sundays.

This “Mount of the House of the Lord,” as it now called, is a 32-room French Gothic mansion surrounded by acres of lawn, formal and terraced gardens, ponds and streams. It was built for $1 million in 1892 by Alan Wood Jr., founder of Alan Wood Steel Co. of Conshohocken, who could actually survey his plant, in the valley below, from his estate. In 1929, it was sold to J. Hector McNeal, a corporate lawyer and noted horseman. When McNeals wife, an admirer of Father Divine, died, her executors arranged for members of the mission to purchase the estate in 1952 for $75,000. After extensive renovations, Woodmont was opened to the general public a year later.

Just how many followers there were during the missions heyday is greatly disputed. Father Divine claimed 20 million; other students of his movement say 500,000 to 1 million is more likely. Whatever the number, the Movement did have an impact, particularly in the Northeast. Today, the number have dwindled; many young people have never even heard of Father Divine, and only a handful of people are evident at Woodmont, which may visited by the public Sunday afternoons from April through October.

Though Father Divine “threw off his body” in 1965, when he was in his late 90s, Mother Divine has carried on the Movement, continuing to publish Fathers newspaper, the New Day. To his remaining followers, Father is still the modern incarnation of God on Earth a belief they symbolize by continuing to set a place for Father at the table when meals are served at Woodmont.

In Philadelphia, the founders teachings still set the tone at the Divine Tracy Hotel at 20 S. 36th St. in West Philadelphia, and the Divine Lorraine at Broad Street and Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia. In the basement of the Divine Tracy, there is a shop called Divine Enterprises Services, which opened in 1979 to provide typing services for college students, to take in dry cleaning, and to help prepare tax returns. This is where Harmony Faith works today.

AFTER THREE DAYS ON the road, Georgia Garcia, Louise Shepherd and the two children arrived at the Divine Lorraine Hotel on Broad Street, where Georgia told the kids to get something to eat. Then, as Tommy recalls it, a black woman approached them and said: “I?m sorry but your mothers gone. From now on, we will be taking care of you.”

“What do you mean? What do you mean, my mothers gone?” Tommy remembers saying.

“Your mothers gone,” said the black woman. “Shes left you. Shes left you in our care. The owners of our hotel have an estate in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and they want us to bring you out to them. But that won’t be until tomorrow.”

Tommy and his sister were given separate rooms. The next day, a limousine pulled up outside the hotel and drove them out to Woodmont. They arrived at the beautiful huge house, and as they got out of the car, a dog ran up to Suzie and bit her leg. Tommy ran to his little sister and picked her up.

“These people came up to me right away and told me to put her down, that I was never to grab a person of the opposite sex ever again,” Tommy remembers. Suzie was rushed off for medical treatment, and within a few minutes of arriving at the estate, Tommy was introduced to Father and Mother Divine. “From now on, you’re going to be living here on the estate with us,” they told Tommy. “Your sister is going to be put up in one of the hotels and you’re going to be with us for the rest of your life.”

Nine months would pass before Tommy saw his sister again. And even though his mother worked only a few miles away, Tommy wouldn’t see her for a whole two years. After that, he would see her periodically at Peace Mission functions, sometimes at the Divine Tracy or Divine Lorraine Hotels in Philadelphia, sometimes at the estate. Each time, she ignored him, as if she didn’t know him. Tommy’s heart ached. “The next time I pass my mother, I want her to say peace  or hi to me,” Tommy told Mother Divine. “I can’t handle this anymore.” But for years and years, his mother refused to acknowledge her relationship to her son, Tommy says.

It was a strange and bewildering world for this sensitive little boy. In some respects, his life was quite normal. He went to school at Gladwyne Elementary, where he made friends with a group of athletic boys with whom he played soccer. He also joined a Cub Scout troop. But at suppertime, while his friends were probably eating franks and beans and chatting with their families about the day at school, Tommy would be seated in a magnificent banquet hall, before platters of pigs feet, collard greens, black-eyed peas and okra. This was the chapel dining room, the site of a daily religious feast and communion, and a room of formidable formality. Imported from England, the entire wood-carved room resembles a chapel. The mantel over the fireplace looks like an organ front. Carved figures pray inside arches, and statues of saints occupy niches around the room.

Attendance was mandatory, food was plentiful, Tommy said, and some nights after dinner, the followers would begin their chanting and singing and praising the Lord. Tommy would sit near one end of the table, often one seat away from Father Divine, who would beckon him for a chat. Dressed in his dinner clothes  a child-size suit with a rose boutonniere just like Father Divines  Tommy would run up to talk to him. Father Divine would lean over to him and ask quietly, “Hows it going” “Hows school” “Do you have enough clothes”

His followers, meanwhile, would be chanting and praying feverishly. Sometimes, they would call on people to speak, and sometimes they would summon Tommy. “They’d be jumping up and down and say, Tommy, get up there and talk today. And I’d get up on the table and say, Peace, everyone, and they’d say, Peace, Tommy And Id say, I want to thank Mother and Father for blessing me with this new suit, or whatever I would say. And they’d say, Sing the praises, sing it.”

Eventually, dinner would end, and Tommy would return to his room, in a small building apart from the mansion, to do his homework. There weren’t many choices in his life. His clothes were laid out for him every morning before school by Happy Love, his own chauffeur and caretaker, who would drive him to school or on shopping trips, buying him the things that he needed. He and his friends loved Happy Love, a man one of Tommy’s chums described as “a jolly black Santa Claus.”

Tommy loved to romp around inside the house, and there were acres and acres of space for him to play at Woodmont. “I’d always go to the lake and catch the biggest fish in the lake, and they prepare if for her (Mother Divine). I treated her just like a mom.” One summer, Tommy designed his own scuba-diving system. He attached a hose to an air compressor and swam to the bottom of the pool, under the watchful eye of a worker at the estate. Sometimes, he zipped around the hilly grounds in his go-cart, and he especially enjoyed riding a tractor mower over the vast lawns.

On his 13th birthday, Mother Divine asked Tommy what he’d like for his banquet, and he requested something he hadn’t had in several years. “I said I’d like Mexican food enchiladas,” he recalled. “That was the first time they’d ever changed from grits and soul food, and it was good. Those cooks went all out and got all the ingredients, and they wouldn’t let me in the kitchen.”

Tommy and Mother and Father Divine traveled together as a family, visiting the Movements hotels in Philadelphia and Newark, and the summer estate on Long Island. Although Father Divine preached against gift-giving, the rule was relaxed for Tommy. In his boyhood, he was showered with presents; when he was 14, for instance, he was given his own television set.

In time, Tommy’s sister, Suzie, embraced the Movements religious dogma and became one the Rosebuds, the chorus of women who sang at the estate and other functions. But Tommy resisted the Movements rituals and peculiar customs. “Nobody says hello there, because it has a bad connotation of having the word hell in it,” he recalled. “Instead, they say, Peace. They have peacocks on the estate. You couldn’t call them peacocks, though. You had to call them peafowls,” he said. “You couldn’t say the word?soda crackers, because the word had the connotation of cracker in it, and cracker is what black people called white people. Your whole vocabulary changed 100 percent. And as soon as you said something accidentally bad, they were on you like bees on honey, letting you know that you had slipped up. And I was always getting caught.”

When Tommy was a seventh-grader, Mother Divine sent him to the Church Farm School, a private school for boys on Route 30 in Frazer. Tommy hated it. One day, he and a friend escaped to West Chester, and there with a woman he met, he had his first sexual experience. This taste of the life outside the strict confines of Woodmont whetted Tommy?s appetite for more freedom, and stimulated his desire to find his father and leave.

Tommy contacted a detective to help him find his father, but the detective declined because Tommy had no money. Instead, the detective suggested that Tommy try to find his fathers telephone number through the phone company. Fortunately, Tommy’s father, hoping his children would some day seek him out, had never changed his address or phone number. Tommy dialed the number, and when his father picked up the telephone and learned it was his son, he was overcome with emotion. He promptly arranged for Tommy to pick up a ticket in Philadelphia for a flight to Los Angeles.

Tommy planned to get to Philadelphia by hopping a train on the railroad main line that ran near the Church Farm School. “I used to chase down rabbits on the estate. I could chase a rabbit down and catch it in my hands,” he said. “I went out there with my buddy and my little suitcase, and I looked down the track and could see the light coming of the train. It went past and I jumped on the back of the train, going about 20 miles an hour,” Tommy said.

When Tommy and his friend reached the Paoli station, however, Happy Love was there waiting to return him to Woodmont. Tommy believes the school, learning of his absence, called Mother Divine. Back home, Tommy told Father and Mother Divine he wanted to leave and go see his father, perhaps for good. Father and Mother Divine said he could, but he could take only what was on his back. “I basically didn’t have a suitcase,” Tommy remembers, “I didn’t have my ribbons or my medals I won at school, none of my letter sweaters.”

Tommy Garcia arrived in Los Angeles the next day. He walked off the plane, with no luggage in his hands, into the arms of his waiting father.

WHEN TOMMY GARCIA RETURNED to Los Angeles, he was completely unprepared for life in the real world. Because he’d never been allowed to carry money, he didn’t know whether a penny was worth more than a quarter, or vice versa. Because he’d never been allowed out on his own, he found Los Angeles in the 60’s intoxicating ? and overwhelming. Not surprisingly, he went wild.

His father only made matters worse. Ridden with guilt, he tried to give Tommy everything. Once Tommy was old enough to drive, his father helped him buy 22 cars, and three motorcycles.

After graduating from Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, Tommy and some buddies formed a rock band. Playing the electric guitar, Tommy became known as “Tommy Danger.” For a while, he even joined an outlaw motorcycle club and lived for eight months with club members in a big house. “I was wild, but you would be, too, if you were given unlimited wealth almost. They (Father and Mother Divine) would not let me touch money, ever,” he said.

Tommy had a long-term relationship with a young woman, and then married her in 1979 in the Little Brown Church in Los Angeles the same place where Ronald and Nancy Reagan exchanged their vows. A quiet, hard working girl, M was, in a way, a victim of her husbands background. They were together for five years before both realized the marriage was not working. “He’d say, “They want me back there, they want me to take over,” M recalls. “He’d say, I don’t know what it is, but I was destined to be something big.”

Immediately after high school, Tommy worked for a framing company, then opened his own frame store. After doing that for several years, he returned briefly to the company, then got a job supervising an office-building construction crew. Now he is working for his fathers dry-cleaning-equipment company in Los Angeles and in temporarily disabled because of a recent car accident.

Since returning from Woodmont, Tommy has seemed in a state of limbo, wrestling with profound questions that seem beyond resolution: Who is he Why did his mother give him away Why didn’t his father rescue him? Why was he raised at Woodmont, the child of Mother and Father Divine? Were they grooming him to take over Fathers position someday?

“When I got out of there, it took me 15 years to realize what life was really about,” Tommy said in a recent interview. “I sat on my duff and waited and waited and waited. Waited for what? Waited for what I had been groomed for, whatever that is.”

ALTHOUGH FATHER DIVINE has been gone for 24 years, his stately wood-paneled study at Woodmont has not changed. On his broad desk are an old black telephone, an art-deco lamp, and a sculptured head representing the Statue of Liberty. His red leather chair is pushed back slightly, as though he’s just stepped away.

One day recently, Mother Divine sat in a chair beside Fathers desk and talked about their life together and Tommy Garcia, the young boy they’d reared as a son.

Mother Divine, in her early 60’s, with a Lauren Bacall hairdo, wore a tailored beige long-sleeved dress, silver earrings and a heart-shaped diamond necklace. Her shoulder-length gray hair framed her face in soft curls. Her gentle demeanor seemed in concerts with her stated role: “to mother those who are going to grow in this new state of consciousness. I really have given my life to making a world of peace.”

She spoke of Woodmont as a “paradise,” a Protestant mission where “true Christianity” is practiced. “If God is here, then Heaven is here.”

“I fell in love with Tommy the first time I saw him,” she said. “He was all boy kind, loving, full of mischief.”

He originally came to Woodmont with his mother, who did not seem to have had marital problems, she said. “His mother, in California, had a revelation. She came in contact with Father Divine,” and she decided then that she wanted to be separated from her family. Mother Divine said.

Giving up ones children may be one of the sacrifices one makes on the road to the greater good, she said, and that was the decision that Harmony Faith had made. “It is a death you have to die, to bring children into the world and then give them back to God,” she explained. “Were creating Heaven here on Earth. Creating peace and destroying thoughts of war. We are about a great mission,” she said. “There are sacrifices to be made, and what a child experiences may be one of them.

It is a traumatic experience. She, in coming here, and making the decision not to be a wife and mother, but a child of God, she was separating herself from the past and all her connections  what we all have to do if we are going to create a reality of Heaven on Earth. The limited family has to be dissolved into the universal family. 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.”

Tommy had a hard time growing up, going to school, and listening to his friends talk about their moms and dads, she admitted. “It was hard for him to explain the way he was growing up. Now he understands better and more maturely, as a youngster couldn’t.”

Tommy was sent away to the Church Farm School because of the “turbulence of the times,” she said. “It was the 60s, and there was such disrespect for Americanism in schools, and I thought, with him going into his teens, it would be better for him of our strict rules. They’re wonderful. He learned a lot.”

But the stringent codes in the Peace Mission Movement were bent somewhat for the young boy. “He had things that boys have,” she said. He was given gifts at Christmas, for instance because he could not be expected to understand and observe adult rules. “There’s a way to deal with children,” she said. “We showed him love and understanding.”

Now, she says, she would like him to return to Woodmont. “I’ve wanted him to come back. I?m happy for him to come if he?s willing and ready to harmonize with us. I’m not looking for anyone who’s going to be a thorn in our side.”

“He doesn’t see me as his mother. I am a spiritual mother to mother those who are going to grow in this new state of consciousness.”

Tommy, she insisted, was not being groomed to take over the Movement. “No one would be groomed for that purpose. 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,” she said.

“He could do anything he made up his mind to do. People recognized early that hes a leader. I think he needs more opportunity to lead. I don’t know what it would be,” she said. “He still has a lot of life to live.”

NOW, WHEN HE TALKS TO Mother Divine, Tommy says, she tells him to come back to his home at Woodmont. When he tells her he’s saving money to buy a house, she asks why he doesn’t just return to Philadelphia, where a huge estate awaits him.

“She tells me I can have anything I want, to just ask for something,” he says. But Tommy doesn’t understand what that means.

When he asked her a couple of years ago why he was dealing with all these uncertainties, she said cryptically, “The spirit moves in mysterious ways.”

“I wish she would have told me, No, Tom, you’re nothing. Please get on with your life. But a week after that she sent me a bunch of (Father Divines) tapes political tapes about the presidency, how to deal with politicians, government. In this, I was seeing my final indoctrination. She said,  After you listen to these tapes, I want you to get back to me on them. I never listened to the tapes,” he says.

Since early boyhood, his emotions have swung between sadness and tremendous hope for the future, Tommy says. “There’s been so much rejection in my life. The first rejection started with my mom, when we split and went back there. The second part of it was when they rejected me and sent me to the Church Farm School.”

Tommy grew up feeling he was somebody special, but Happy Love, his caretaker, says he really wasn’t. Although Tommy may have been the only child raised at Woodmont, Happy Love says, there were many children raised in the Movement at other locations, and none was treated any differently from Tommy.

There is no way that he was being groomed to take over the organization; he was in no way qualified, Happy Love says. He was wild and not not adhere to the teachings of the group. Why would they pick him He also left. Why would they pick him over somebody who was still there “Use common sense,” Happy Love says. “He was hard-headed, a typical child. He was no different from anyone else except for his unusual parents  parents who cared for him well, taught him good values, but controlled his every movement. “They taught me to help people, be classy and be a gentleman,” Tommy says.

But to what end? Today, Tommy is still baffled, still struggling to sort out his past and construct a future. “I want validation, so I can stop lying about my complete life, so that every time I tell somebody about my life, they wont look alike, “This guy is crazy. There?s no way anybody could have gone through that, Tommy says. “I just want to validate my life by telling the truth.

“I will not have children until my life is somewhat complete until I have a rock to stand on. Now, I?m starting to create that rock. Before, it was quicksand, and every time I would try to latch onto something  whoosh. I don’t think I grew up until two years ago. I’ve been living in a fantasy.”

Tommy Garcia ekes out a living today working for a dry-cleaning-equipment business in Los Angeles. But growing up, he lived in a grand mansion in Gladwyne, surrounded by “angels” and doted on by a man his followers believe is God.

All contents The Philadelphia Inquirer

 

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.

Tommy Garcia

Tommy Garcia

Tommy Garcia young

Tommy Garcia young

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 worshipers 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-1920’s.

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 80’s, 90’s and 100’s — 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.”

A PEACE MISSION MOVEMENT banquet in Philadelphia. The integrated seating pattern characterized all such assemblies.
COURTESY PHOTO
FATHER DIVINE serves disciples of the Peace Mission Movement at a banquet.
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.