"I was God's wife"

Story by Scott McKeen, The Edmonton Journal

(Okay, so it's a bit overblown, but JDR's wife Joyce really did leave him, soon to be seen by our eagle-eyed correspondent picking up her copy of "Halfway up the Mountain.")

Joyce de Ruiter had accepted the fact that her husband saw himself as the Messiah. Then he introduced his two new "wives."

    A silent John de Ruiter sat on the stage that December evening, surrounded by scores of his worshippers, as his wife took the microphone to speak. Joyce, mother of John's three children, unfolded the letter she'd prepared for the meeting.
    "Dear John, my dear John," she began. "I am the only one who loves John the man. Everyone else loves John the god."
    For almost two decades, Joyce de Ruiter had watched her husband take a magic carpet ride from humble shoemaker to this -- a god figure in a burgeoning new religion, worshipped by hundreds in Edmonton and around the world.
    A book carries his byline; videos and cassettes his voice and image. There's a Web site -- www.johnderuiter.com -- and a schedule of where he's speaking each week, be it in Toronto or India. Upwards of 300 flock to weekly Edmonton meetings, many of them newcomers who moved to Alberta from other parts of the country or the world to be near John.
    But late last year, Joyce discovered a side to her husband she'd never suspected. It had prompted her to intervene, in front of his followers, with this written plea.
    "My sweetie. You are not god, you are not deity," Joyce said that evening. "You are a normal man who has been seduced by power and adoring women."
    Devotees shifted quietly in their chairs as John stared gently at his wife.
    "You are sleeping with two of your disciples," said Joyce, "and you can't recognize how far off you've gone. Sex with Benita and Katrina is not truth."
    John's face betrayed nothing, Joyce says. The audience was like flat-calm water.
    When Joyce finished her plea, John spoke a few soft words about truth and ended the meeting. Inside, Joyce mourned, as a few of her husband's disciples came up to hug her and tell her they admired her honesty. She watched him leave, without her.
    "I was God's wife," Joyce says sardonically, looking back on that day. "The Messiah Chick."

---

    Only four years ago, John de Ruiter was an obscure guru with a negligible following. Even back then, though, he was known to his devotees simply as John. It was always "Come meet John."
    Newcomers would ask John endless questions, and the answers came after long pauses or sometimes not at all.
    In those early days of his ministry, John was supported financially by 10 or so backers. It allowed him to leave his job as an orthopaedic shoemaker to become a full-time spiritual teacher. Some of these supporters literally saw him as the Second Coming.
    As word spread, John was travelling to New Age hot spots in the United States, Holland, Germany, Australia and India. Next, converts in those places began moving to Edmonton so they could attend regular meetings with their new teacher.
    Hundreds attend meetings these days. John says that one day a new space will be found or built to handle even bigger crowds. How much room does he think he's going to need? "I just know that it will get big," he says.
    Benita von Sass knows it looks bad -- an enlightened man, a married one at that, taking two lovers. "I would have thought it was strange, too," she says, trying to look at it from an outsider's point of view.
    But this is a new reality she's experiencing. The old rules no longer apply, or apply the same way to John, to her or to her sister Katrina. "I can't define this. I can't come up with a clear argument to justify myself. I'm following what I know is true and doing what I know is true. I have nothing to prove or apologize for."
    When asked, Benita confirms she's in a sexual relationship with her spiritual mentor. "I have a full bond with John," she says.
    Does her sister?
    "Uh-huh."
    But what about the relationship between sisters? Any jealousy?
    Absolutely," says Benita.
    How do the sisters work it out?
    "A lot of discussion, for sure."
    How does Katrina feel?
    John and others describe her as emotional, quiet and compassionate. But she didn't return calls.
    Benita, meanwhile, says she has nothing but respect for Joyce as John's wife. But she says Joyce, in her heart of hearts, knows that John, Benita and Katrina are not being licentious. "What I know is that John is ... goodness and purity personified. I'm in love with love."
    "John has never replaced Joyce," she says. "He loves her absolutely."
    If John went back to her?
    "That would be awesome."

---

    A friend of Joyce de Ruiter describes Benita von Sass as one of the most beautiful women in Edmonton. Her Rapunzel hair reaches her waist, and her eyes are deep as an August sky.
    Benita has a maiden's soft skin and a litigator's stride. She drives her car fast. Her voice is soft and rhythmic.
    Every one of them -- John, Joyce, Benita and her younger sister Katrina -- are beautiful, with varying shades of blond hair, blue eyes and physical grace. Joyce says that when John first explained Benita and Katrina to her last November, he talked of having three "wives." Now he doesn't talk about wives anymore and instead refers to permanent bonds or bonds of being.
    Others might call it infidelity or immoral. John's followers? Only a few walked away from the group when the controversy broke. It's difficult to find anyone who is openly critical of John, though some are confused.

---

    Born in Saskatchewan 41 years ago, John describes feeling a constant, soulful ache as a boy and told Joyce he never fit in with other children. He was led to a deep and personal search for God in Christianity and eventually attended bible college as a young man.
    In his late 20s, John says, he surrendered completely to his pain. Desperate, alone and emotionally naked, he suddenly felt something flood into him, something essential and completely satisfying.    
    "And it was at this moment that I became re-immersed in the benevolent reality of pure being," says John in his new book, Unveiling Reality. "I now know that Truth could only be truly known through sheer honesty and surrender in openness and softness to what that honesty reveals."

---

    John's meetings are open to anyone who has the $2 admission. Followers line up to get in. It's not unusual at these gatherings to see people hugging each other. There's a relaxed, open and buoyant feel to the place.
    A microphone in the audience is passed to those who have signed up to ask John questions. Even critics can take the central chair and the microphone.
    John sits onstage, a tiny headset microphone on, looking down on his flock. Sometimes he takes a sip of water, or digs into the snack prepared for him before the meeting.
    Often, he does little speaking. He will begin a session by making slow, deep eye contact with virtually everyone in the crowd.
    In these moments, people say they feel as if they've been zipped open and flung out into a new world. Some of them will make their way to the stage and, weeping, grab on to John, wanting to hold their saviour. Others crawl across the floor in an act of submission to kiss his feet. John appears to barely notice.

---

    Eroca Hunter is an artist who moved from Vancouver to Edmonton to be near John. She finds the groupie-like worship by some of John's followers to be slightly off-putting.
    Soon after it came to light that John was sleeping with two of his disciples, Eroca wrote a critical letter, wondering aloud about the nature of corruption. "In all sincerity, I wish I were not so suspicious," she wrote. "But I have yet to meet a powerful male leader who does not eventually justify having sexual relations with his more attractive followers and I believed you were way beyond that kind of pull."
    Eroca says John later admitted he could make mistakes.
    John says he originally denied the relationships because he was answering questions on a "personal level." And on this personal level, he is not having affairs, because the relationships are not about lust or sex or physical attraction, he says.
    Eroca is mostly satisfied with this answer, though she verbalizes one of the obvious criticisms of John's argument. "Why two slender blonds?" she says. "At least it could have been two ugly women."
    Eroca says she doesn't understand it, but doesn't need to understand it now. "I can only say ... that I have waited my whole life to meet such a one."
    Joyce remembers how John once pointed to Isaiah 53 in the Bible. In this passage, the prophet Isaiah predicts the coming of a messiah who would suffer for everyone's sins.
    Joyce knew this passage foretold the coming of Jesus. But John said it was about him. Joyce didn't know how to react. Did he mean he was the Messiah, or was burdened with similar work?
    Nowadays, John doesn't talk much about Jesus or the Bible because it confuses people, he says. "I shy away from speaking about it because it's too big a thing."
    "In some ways, he really does see himself as the Messiah," says Joyce, who now believes John is living "an innocent delusion."
    Carl Mindell, a psychiatrist, and his wife, Pearl, a psychologist, recently took temporary leave from their practices in Albany, N.Y., to be near John.
    "I think he is the most powerful spiritual teacher I've ever seen -- and I've seen a goodly number of them," says Carl.
    Carl was troubled at first by the fact John was sexually involved with two followers. Carl thought about it, though, and saw precedent in history. Jesus Christ, he says, sometimes put his spiritual responsibilities ahead of his family; Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha, left his wife and child to pursue enlightenment.
    Carl also puts a lot of stock in John's integrity. He's never felt pressured financially nor has he given a dime to the group, other than his $2 admission and the US$100 he paid for a retreat.
    "They are not financially adept and they are not building a financial empire," says Carl.
    A few years ago John and Joyce de Ruiter moved to a nice but far from opulent house in the west end. John has the regular use of a ski boat and a four-wheel-drive truck. But there are no obvious signs of wealth being accumulated.
    Carl Mindell, meanwhile, laughs when asked about how his friends reacted to him following a guru to Edmonton.
    "How many of them think I'm nuts? Some of my colleagues are interested. Some are a little bit scared.
    "I've been a psychiatrist for 30-odd years and I think I'm in full control of my faculties."

---

    Benita von Sass grew up in a Calgary family where philosophy, religion and the meaning of life were dinnertime conversations. Her parents were devout in their search for meaning. "They were definitely seekers, as was I," says the 36-year-old, who could pass for 10 years younger.
    It was Benita's mother who discovered John. Soon after, Benita came up for one of John's retreats. She was converted that day.
    "I watched John and as I sat there I began to experience a lot of heat in my body," she says. The room, she says, was suddenly bathed in diffused, golden light, but as Benita looked around, it was as if she alone was in this waking dream. She looked back to John, who appeared to her in neon green.
    "It was the most profound experience I had ever had in my life. It was like my heart was exploding out of my body -- like I was plugged into an electrical circuit."
    The energy was not sexual passion toward John, she says. "No, it wasn't that at all. I never respond like that to men.
    "There was a flow of goodness I'd never experienced in my life. I just wanted to completely melt into it without trying to understand it ... I was reborn. I was completely new." After finishing university, she moved north.
    Was she in love with John?
    "Not even remotely," she laughs. "I was in love with love. What happened to me was completely transformative. What I knew, I knew forevermore."

---

    So how does John defend physical relationships with two followers, besides his legal wife?
    He doesn't, really. He's not defensive about it at all. While outsiders would classify this as adultery, John says it's not -- because the intent isn't there.
    "It's what I know to be true, regardless of what it looks like, which on the surface is not the smartest thing to do because it's so discrediting."
    John argues that the ties with Katrina and Benita are not based on the flesh. His relationship with these women is metaphysical and not lust, he says.
    "To me it's not infidelity. It's not unfaithfulness because my heart is still completely with Joyce. Within, I'm not separating from her, I'm not running from her.
    "I'm not a sexual wanderer, emotionally. I don't live with lust. I don't struggle with that. It's not a weakness."
    But has he had sex with anyone besides Benita and Katrina during his marriage?
    "I don't see why I should answer that," he says. "It's getting more personal.
    "I have never once flirted in the last 20 years. Never once. I've had endless offers, and they just don't mean anything."
    But really, how could he believe a relationship with three women might work?
    "The only reason it wouldn't work is because of egos."
    John says he knows this isn't going to sell in the outside world, considering the circumstances. Has he been seduced by sex, money and power?
    "No."
    Joyce was 18 and working at the Canadian Bible Society bookstore in Edmonton when a tall, good-looking young man with deep, intense blue eyes walked into her life. She was 19 when they married.
    "I was in love with him. He was soft and gentle, but also intense and pushy and persuasive -- in a sweet way.
    "He's a domineering guy, so he'd push me to do things. But he was also incredibly soft."

    During the years of their marriage, they drifted apart, though Joyce always rationalized it as the way things had to be. She knew his role demanded he concentrate on his growing ministry.
    "He was such an awesome teacher," she says.
    But she's not so sure anymore. How could an enlightened man, her husband, be unfaithful in his most intimate relationship?
    Looking back, Joyce thinks John was shaped by the group as much as the group was shaped by him. Inevitably, as John became more of a prophet, he became less of a husband and father. He had meetings to lead, other lands to visit, followers to counsel.
    "I understood that he was here on this Earth for more things than family, so I accepted it," says Joyce.
    She went along, but held back a bit, too. She saw John as a teacher, not the Messiah, as others did.
    "People are really gullible," says Joyce. "I didn't realize how many people out there have always wanted to find one being on Earth that embodied truth."
    So much adoration -- bowing down, hugging, longing.
    "I didn't like it," she says with a trace of bitterness. "I wished to death I'd married a normal husband, but oh well, he's Christ ..."
    Joyce kept getting the message, from John and others, that she had to quit clinging to these traditional views of husband and wife and let go.
    "That's part of the conditioning," she says. "Don't trust what you think." This was an "issue" she needed to deal with.
    John warned Joyce he was cutting his marriage down to the roots so it could grow again in a new way. This was about the time he began to spend more time with two new women in the group -- Katrina and Benita.
    Joyce saw it at first as her ultimate test -- to surrender and stop clinging to the false notion of attachment. On one summer holiday, John invited the von Sass sisters along and he would go on long walks with Benita. On one of Joyce's birthdays, he spent the day with Benita instead.
    "That was excruciating," says Joyce. "I would often think: John, I'm not asking for romance or candlelight. Just occasionally talk to me, or let me have a coffee with you."
    On Nov. 28, 1999, John told Joyce her ultimate surrender would come when he took two more wives. She was scared but saw it as another, more difficult test. Two days later, he elaborated. He said Benita and Katrina already were, or one day would be, his wives.
    Joyce panicked and began talking to trusted friends in the group about her worries.
    At a meeting in early December, Joyce first took the chair to question John about the affairs. She did it again at a subsequent meeting. Then in late December, Joyce took the chair a third time and read the letter asking John to come to his senses.
    Soon after, at her request, John moved out of the house they shared -- out of her life, perhaps for good.
    "None of this makes any sense to me," she says, looking back over her marriage.
    "I don't know what happened to my dear husband who 'lived and loved only truth.' I believed and defended it for 18 years.
    "But I just can't anymore."

---

    On the last Saturday of April, John and Benita showed up at Joyce's place to remove some of his belongings.
    Arguments ensued over some travel souvenirs, even a waterski Joyce wanted back, claiming it was hers, not his.
    Joyce says she told him she was upset he'd brought Benita to the family home. He explained that he'd believed Joyce was out.
    "It was ugly, ugly, ugly," says John de Ruiter's estranged wife.
    Later, John returned the waterski.

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