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How the Revolutionaries Conned the Bureaucrats

by Jean Caffey Lyles
Christian Century, 7/20-27/83

In bare outline, the story has an implausible ring: a small, poorly funded ecumenical agency discovers that its name, reputation, assets and major activity have been taken over by a secretive, cultlike network of would-be revolutionaries whose leaders spin out improbable scenarios of "armed struggle" against the U.S. government.

In the community of church bureaucracies centered at 475 Riverside Drive in New York City, the Commission of Voluntary Service and Action (CVSA) is a minor-league player. A loosely organized coalition of denominational volunteer agencies, it has a shoestring budget, no paid staff and no offices of its own. Thus the curious story of the struggle for control at CVSA has been slow to receive press attention--despite the efforts of secretary Wilbur Patterson, a Presbyterian, who warns that he and his colleagues are up against "a clear case of attempted organizational piracy."

The "pirates" are a cadre of quirky political extremists who espouse a homegrown variety of Marxist doctrine who operate under a central umbrella group, the National Labor Federation (NATLFED). That name suggests the legitimate task of organizing workers, but some former NATLFED activists charge that behind the respectable title and cover of diversionary activities lurks an underground party preparing for a "revolutionary situration" that would bring it into armed confrontation with U.S. government forces.

What would prompt a radical party with apocalyptic visions of revolution to move in on a small budget outfit run by church bureaucrats to promote voluntarism? The motivation becomes clear only when one learns of CVSA's most valuable asset: the catalogue it publishes annually listing opportunities for full-time volunteer service. That directory, titled Invest Yourself, has had a 37-year history of listing programs sponsored by both church-related and secular nonprofit agencies, in the U.S. and abroad. Typical entries describe opportunities for relatively short-term stints calling for skills or interest in such endeavors as carpentry, camp counseling, teaching, community organizing, office work, nursing, farming, child care, research and writing. Frequently volunteers pay their own transportation to the work site but are provided room, board, and a subsistence-level stipend.

The catalogue, published annually since 1946, was in the early years called Invest Your Summer. Mission-minded students--"Peace Corps types"--wanting to devote a semester or a year to altruistic volunteer work have been among the prime users of Invest Yourself. The annual directory has often sold more than 12,000 copies--to churches, campus ministries, college bookstores, schools and libraries. There is no charge to organizations for catalogue listings. The publication has long been relied on by church agencies as a tool for volunteer recruitment, and trusted by idealistic young people as a reputable guide to opportunities for putting their energies to work in a good cause.

But early last year Wilbur Patterson and his associates received dismaying evidence that led them inexorably to the conclusion that some 40 of the 180-plus organizations listed in the 1982 edition of Invest Yourself were front groups for NATLFED, and that under false pretenses, numbers of unsuspecting volunteers had been drawn to invest themselves in "entities" related to the clandestine political cult.

To understand how a responsible group of Protestant bureaucrats with voluntarism portfolios got mixed up with a collection of flaky but determined political extremists, it is necessary to review a bit of CVSA's history. According to Harold T. Hanson, the Lutheran Church in America representative on CVSA's board, the commission began shortly after World War II, "as an annual meeting among friends-- friends who had staff responsibilities for denominational programs of volunteer service relating to European workcamps surrounding the rebuilding efforts following the war." The Commission on Youth Service Projects, as it was known in the early years, had by the late '60s expanded to the point that it had an office and a full-time executive director. During this period of prosperity, the organization sponsored consultations on voluntarism, published a newsletter and other resources in addition to Invest Yourself, and continued to provide a collegial forum for its members.

Even so, it continued to be "a loose association of friends connected by common commitments, operating on the basis of collegial consensus," says Hanson. CVSA is not incorporated, although Articles of Association and By-Laws drawn up with the help of a lawyer were adopted in the early '70s. Its officers note that the organization has been marked by an atmosphere of trust and openness, and that there has been a nonjudgmental spirit in admitting new organizations--including secular service groups--to the listings of Invest Yourself. Hanson points out: "We never demanded that people do things the way we did in order for us to work with them." But this very attitude of trust made CVSA vulnerable to being exploited by groups with hidden agendas.

Two other circumstances played a key role in CVSA's infiltration by NATLFED. First, there was a push in the '70s for national church organizations to have "grass-roots" representatives on their boards to allow "the voice of the people" and the perspectives of localism to be heard. Second, as a result of denominational budget squeezes and shifting priorities in the mid-'70s, funding for CVSA fell so sharply that full-time staffing could not be maintained. Programming dwindled; the publication of Invest Yourself was now virtually the agency's sole raison d'etre. But with funding severely curtailed, it was necessary to find alternative ways of getting Invest Yourself produced.

CVSA leaders date their unwitting involvement with NATLFED from 1975, when they brought one of the group's operatives onto the CVSA board (officially known as the executive committee). Diane Ramirez purportedly represented a locally run and controlled "grass-roots" organization that made use of volunteers--the Eastern Farm Workers Association (EFWA) on Long Island. She came highly recommended by board member Randle Dew, then the United Methodist representative. Dew had worked closely with Ramirez when his office was helping the Eastern Farm Workers get established; his agency, the UMC's Board of Global Ministries, gave EFWA some funding in the early '70s.

Ramirez was assertive and capable and appeared to be deeply committed to helping poor people; she was regarded as a valuable addition to the board. In fact, so impressive was her performance that in 1980 she was elected cochair with Dew.

When CVSA was faced with the necessity of preparing Invest Yourself for publication with volunteer labor, longtime CVSA member LAOS, Inc., an ecumenical community in Washington, D.C., offered to take on the task. But the massive job of producing the catalogue strained the group's resources so seriously as to affect its ability to carry its own basic program. Its leaders gave notice that they could not accept the responsibility for another year.

At this point Diane Ramirez brought in the head of a volunteer group with which her organization had contact--the National Foundation for Alternative Resources (NFAR). David Shapiro, NFAR's director, claimed to have a Ph.D. in sociology and to have taught at California State University at Sacramento. His group was reputedly skilled at soliciting donations of paper, ink, etc., from merchants; it had access to a printing press and was able to use largely volunteer labor. Shapiro wanted to work out an agreement for NFAR to produce Invest Yourself. Since Ramirez was regarded as a trusted colleague, the other board members followed her lead; so relieved were they to have the publication of the catalogue assured that they did not question the arrangement too closely.

A contract specified that proceeds from the sale of the catalogues, after the expenses of publishing had been met, would be split 50/50 between the Commission on Voluntary Service and Action and the National Foundation for Alternative Resources. Initially a CVSA board member handled the distribution; later Sheila Averbach, a young woman associated with NFAR, assumed the responsibility. Susan Angus, a woman in her 20s who became editorial coordinator for the project, was already known to CVSA members who frequented 475 Riverside Drive: she was another protege of the Methodists' Randy Dew; a former active member of United Methodist youth organizations, she had worked in the Voluntary Service office he directed--as well as with Diane Ramirez at the Eastern Farm Workers entity on Long Island.

CVSA board member James Cavener recalls that Angus had a "pleasant, efficient sweetness" and that her performance was "productive and practical." Dew, who had known Angus since her Methodist youth days, praises her as skilled in "resource development" and proposal-writing.

At first the board had no solid grounds for distrusting the group that was now publishing Invest Yourself; after a shaky start, NFAR began improving the printing quality; pictures and new features were added, and new agencies began listing volunteer openings. It did not occur to CVSA board members to scrutinize the organizations that were being added to the directory listings.

Board members recall that it was their treasurer, Carl Bade, a United Church of Christ official, who first voiced uneasiness. Wilbur Patterson's minutes of board meetings indicate that Bade raised questions about an informal arrangement that had been worked out in 1977, whereby CVSA served as a conduit for tax-deductible donations to the Eastern Farm Workers. CVSA had tax-exempt status. In technical IRS lingo, it was a "501(c)(3) organization"; the Eastern Farm Workers was not. The pass-through operation was set up ostensibly to encourage tax-deductible foundation grants to EFWA. In fact, CVSA did receive several checks from individuals and some in-kind contributions such as a car or truck designated for EFWA. There was some question about the legality of the arrangement, and Bade warned that it could jeopardize the agency's tax-exempt status.

Later the CVSA treasurer found himself unable to get full documentation for the expenditures from an Invest Yourself checking account. The income from catalogue sales went into the bank account managed by Sheila Averback. On more than once occasion, large checks--up to $1,000--were drawn to cash, with disposition of funds unaccounted for. Moreover, checks had been written on the account to pay the mortgage, oil and electric bills on a house in Smithtown, New York--an overhead expense not clearly related to the publication of Invest Yourself. Satisfactory explanations were not forthcoming. Was money being siphoned off? The contract called for a 50/50 split of profits; curiously, profits were less than might be expected. Sales records showed the catalogue selling less than half as many copies in earlier years.

Other board members were also having doubts, but lacking concrete evidence, they kept quiet. In CVSA's trusting atmosphere of collegiality, it was difficult to believe that there were solid grounds for suspicion.

One source of uneasiness: Ramirez, Angus, Shapiro and Averback did not have conventional office and residence addresses and phone numbers where they could easily be reached. Ramirez, instead of giving out her home address, listed a post office box number in Floral Park, Long Island. To reach her by phone, one had to call the Eastern Farm Workers office in Bellport. She was never there, but one could leave a message; the call might or might not be returned. There was an air of mystery surrounding not only their day-to-day lives but also the production of Invest Yourself. Where was it printed, and by whom? The board members knew almost nothing about these persons to whom they had entrusted much.

Several board members had received letters from disillusioned volunteers citing unpleasant experiences with one or another of the organizations newly listed in Invest Yourself, but somehow these remarkably similar accounts did not get shared. That is, not until early 1982, shortly after Wilbur Patterson received disturbing information that could not easily be explained.

Patterson's major source of information was Jeff Whitnack, a Californian with left-wing sympathies who had been drawn into NATLFED through two of its Oakland entities: the California Homemakers Association and the Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals. Attracted by NATLFED's socialist ideology and by its "rap" about working for social change, Whitnack went full time with the organization for about two months, then suddenly dropped out, distressed by what he had learned of the group's tactics and goals. While keeping a low profile because of possible reprisals, he now spends much of his time on a personal crusade to expose the group, which he regards as a dangerous cult.

In January 1982 Patterson received a phone call from Whitnack. The Californian asked, "How much do you really know about these groups you're dealing with? The call was followed shortly by a thick envelope in the mail, full of photocopied clippings and documents detailing what was known at that time about NATLFED. At a party meeting in San Francisco, Whitnack said, he had heard NATLFED operatives boast of having infiltrated the voluntary agency and of recruiting volunteers through the listings in Invest Yourself.

Armed with the information Whitnack had supplied, Patterson and his colleagues began comparing notes. Now when they scanned the Invest Yourself listings, the similarities of some 40 were obvious; it was relatively easy to detect which were NATLFED entities. The letters in board members' files from distraught former volunteers began to make sense. "When you take a hard look," said Harold Hanson, "the stuff starts leaping out at you."

From the volunteer letters, the catalogue listings and the clippings and interviews Whitnack had collected, it was possible to piece together a picture of the local units that had recruited--and allegedly misused--volunteers. The NATLFED entities are located primarily on the east coast (especially on Long Island) and on the west coast (especially in Oakland). The groups describe their work as "all-volunteer, grass-roots community organizing." In addition to providing a "completely free mutual benefits association" for low-income workers that "meets all survival needs" (emergency food and clothing, medical and dental care, legal services, welfare advocacy), they claim to be working to change the conditions of injustice that perpetuate poverty, and say they are "organizing workers in their own historic self-interest." People served are said to be those "unrecognized by, and denied the benefits and protection on, national labor legislation"--including farm, domestic, service, temporary, seasonal and unemployed workers.

In all fairness, it does appear that these organizations provide some of the advertised benefits, at least in a sketchy fashion, to a small segment of needy people. They have been known to sponsor "well-child clinics" staffed by volunteer doctors, and to do some advocacy on behalf of poor people with public utilities and welfare offices.

But the testimony of former volunteers and the reports of investigative journalists present a more complex and troubling picture of what these "grass-roots" locals are up to. In Jeff Whitnack's estimation, the poor people ostensibly served, many of them elderly, are regarded merely as "flypaper" to attract party recruits and contributions.

Journalistic accounts based on the testimony of former NATLFED recruits say that from the ranks of youthful volunteers and student interns the most susceptible and eager are drawn into the "cadre" of indoctrinated activists who are aware of (and presumably committed to) the revolutionary scheme; some may eventually be candidates for a higher-ranking inner circle. (NATLFED also recruits professionals--lawyers, doctors and academics--bringing them into the organization at a higher entry level.) A 1977 article in Public Eye, a Chicago-based investigative journal, indicates that "there are between 30 and 50 in the clandestine party--which has no name and is referred to cryptically." George Vickers, a sociologist at Brooklyn college, in "A Guide to the Sectarian Left" in the Nation (May 17, 1980), says that the "clandestine group" is officially called the "Communist Party U.S.A. (Provisional)," and has membership of perhaps 200. Free- lance journalist Chuck Fager cites estimates of 300-500 party members.

At the very center of the inner circle, says Whitnack, is the leader of the whole questionable enterprise, one Gino Perente, who directs the authoritarian operation from a brownstone house in Brooklyn. According to Whitnack, Perente is really Gerald William Doeden, formerly of Marysville, California. Doeden reportedly had a history of involvement in groups on the sectarian left, including one called LARGO (Liberation Army Revolutionary Organization) that announced some forthcoming "revolutionary" attacks on governmental installations in northern California in the early '70s, backed out at the last minute, and dropped from view. Whitnack's interviews with Marysville residents yielded a picture of Jerri Doeden as brilliant and charming but "over the edge," a heavy drinker who had memorized long passages from Shakespeare and who, when inebriated, would break into public recitations of "As You Like It" in local restaurants. Whether Doeden and Perente are indeed the same person remains unconfirmed, though Whitnack believes the evidence he has is convincing.

Perhaps only scholars conversant with the schisms and splinterings of the faction-ridden left care to pursue arguments as to whether Perente's and/or NATLFED's history includes linkages with the Progressive Labor Movement, Venceremos, Fred Newman and the International Workers Party, Lyndon LaRouche and the U.S. Labor Party, the Bay Area Revolutionary Union, and Synanon. NATLFED operatives claim connections with "real" revolutionary movements in Cuba, Guatemala, Chile and El Salvador, but most observers tend to discount their boasts of international ties. It is perhaps from the successful coups in small Third World countries that Perente and company have adopted the romantic notion that armed struggle with the government is an effective strategy. What they may fail to weigh is that the situation of a large and well-armed superpower like the U.S. is so dissimilar as to render useless and drawings of parallels. Perente's identification with Latin American revolutions reportedly extends to having his lieutenants take Hispanic names--which may explain why Diane Runkle, a child of an affluent Detroit suburb, became Diane Ramirez.

Sociologist George Vickers, who did some investigation of the group when it attempted to recruit him into the party, reports that despite an almost paranoid concern with security, actual security was surprisingly loose, and party members were quick to talk about "revolutionary stuff." Other sources report that NATLFED leaders will "casually" mention in conversations at parties the guns which they claim are stockpiled in the Brooklyn headquarters and in Sacramento.

The leaders of the Commission on Voluntary Service and Action are less concerned with NATLFED's origins and ideology than with its dishonesty about its real agenda and its use of CVSA to gain credibility. Whatever their actual place on the political spectrum, Perente and his group appear to have a capacity for violence and an apocalyptic vision that portend not meaningful social change but more likely some grand self-destructive gesture. Whitnack quotes one NATLFED operative as predicting that within a relatively short time span "we'll either be in power or dead." In 1981 a "33-month deadline for revolution" scheduled its onset for March 15, 1984. Analysts of the left point to Marxist, Stalinist, Trotskyite or Maoist elements in NATLFED; in its state of mind, however, the organization is most frequently compared by its detractors to two Bay Area radical groups that met bizarre and tragic ends--the Symbionese Liberation Army and the People's Temple.

How seriously should one take the revolutionary rhetoric? Vickers discounts the notion that NATLFED's "military wing" intends to initiate violence. Party leaders told him they thought that their organizing activities would eventually provoke the government to move against them with force; they were preparing for a defensive "armed struggle" and fully expected to lose the first round. Whitnack takes the more pessimistic view that Perente and his followers are capable of a spectacular and suicidal offensive--such as blowing up a public building.

Some former recruits describe NATLFED as both militaristic and cultlike ("like the Moonies," said one), an organization that works recruits up to 18 hours a day, keeping them in a state of chronic fatigue; subjects them to droning sessions of indoctrination; and discourages critical thinking. New arrivals at the local units are given books by Marx, Lenin and Stalin as assigned reading. Volunteers have no permanent base but are moved from place to place, sleeping in a different location each night. Two volunteers are rarely left alone together, and are told only as much as they need to know to carry out an assignment. One former volunteer recalled: "A lot of the time you wanted to go up to somebody and ask them, 'What are we doing?' but there was no one to go up to."

Students who come to the organization on a college work- study program are pressured to drop out of school and join full time (Antioch College banished the California Homemakers Association from an approved list of placements when it discovered that several students placed there never returned to school but joined up permanently with CHA or Eastern Farm Workers; other student interns left before the assignment was up and returned to Antioch with chilling reports on CHA.)

NATLFED's "daily battle plan" calls for volunteers to be sent out on "bucket drives" and bake sales at shopping centers to raise money, and on door-to-door canvasses to sign up members. Higher-up activists spend much time maintaining extensive files and dossiers and making telephone contacts--pushing one-time donors to make a regular commitment; persuading doctors and lawyers to donate their services; pressuring merchants to contribute their wares--food, clothing, or even auto parts.

Churches are a favorite target of "guilt-trip" appeals for cash and canned goods. Some churches have allowed their facilities to be used by NATLFED groups for meetings, food preparation, bake sales or overnight lodging. The liberal- minded "sustainers" are generally unaware of the subterranean political agenda. Testimony from several sources indicates that most donations of money and goods end up being used by those who staff the NATLFED units, who live together in commune fashion and need food, clothing and cash to maintain their "full-time volunteer" lifestyle. The existence of the needy clients in the "mutual benefits associations" lends credibility to solicitation appeals. Although they solicit contributions and purport to organize workers, NATLFED locals appear so far to have eluded regulation as either a charity or a labor union, denying that they fit either category.

Once Wilbur Patterson and his colleagues discovered the extent of NATLFED's involvement in CVSA, they began quietly strategizing to retake control--an effort complicated by the fact that Diane Runkle Ramirez was now their cochair. Unfortunately, she somehow learned what was afoot and began reducing the number of her opponents present at board meetings by the simple expedient of postponing meetings.

At a March 1982 session, with cochair Randle Dew presiding, Ramirez and her friends were confronted with the discoveries. Hanson recalls: "Diane and her crowd came back with an abrasive attack. They were like a mad bunch of people at a school board meeting whose neighborhood school is about to close." There were threats and shouting; the meeting was "generally out of control."

Dew, by now out of the Methodist bureaucracy and pastoring in Kentucky, soon resigned from the board, citing personal reasons. In a recent telephone interview Dew, still sympathetic to the Ramirez faction, said: "I felt like I was caught in the middle between friends. I felt that I could not continue." Asked about memoranda in which Ramirez has continued to list Dew as cochair and to cite Methodist connections to lend credibility to her stance, Dew said simply, "I have not read all the papers in detail." The national UMC agency does not now have a representative on the CVSA board, and Methodist officials who were interviewed said they are not well acquainted with CVSA's current problems. Nonetheless, NATLFED people have continued to use Susan Angus's Methodist contacts to reserve meeting rooms at the Interchurch Center.

At the July 1982 board meeting Ramirez attempted to pack the board by adding her colleagues Shapiro, Angus and Averbach, and tried to oust Wilbur Patterson, charging that he was undermining CVSA with his criticisms. Both efforts failed. But in the general confusion Harold Hanson was unable to muster a majority for his motion to delay publishing another edition of Invest Yourself until criteria for listings could be reviewed. Seeing that the "gang of four" were determined to publish an unauthorized edition, Lutherans, Presbyterians and other major member organizations--about a dozen in all-- suspended their listings.

At a September meeting, which Ramirez failed to attend, the board elected a new chair (her two-year term had expired). Ramirez has not acknowledged any board meeting since July as legitimate, and has sent out lengthy memoranda detailing her revisionist version of CVSA history.

The board's repeated efforts to review the proposed listings for the '83 Invest Yourself were resisted; CVSA finally declared the publishing group to be in violation of its contract. Relations between the legitimate board and the rival faction continued to deteriorate. In the middle of the November board meeting Ramirez, her three colleagues and an attorney showed up to threaten lawsuits. Leaders of the voluntary agency take the threat seriously. NATLFED, being well stocked with volunteer lawyers, can afford to pursue legal mischief. But the officers of CVSA, unless they get denominational help, will have to pay the going Manhattan rate for legal services.

The Ramirez faction held its own spring 1983 meeting, declared itself to be the legitimate CVSA, and announced that it was incorporating both the organization and Invest Yourself. A newspaper reporter who tried to attend the meeting--Charles Austin of the New York Times--was ousted.

The 1983 unauthorized edition of Invest Yourself is now in print, minus some prominent listings of other years, but still conveying an impression of competence and legitimacy. Money sent to an address listed in the catalogue goes not to the treasurer of CVSA but to an arm of NATLFED. (As in the past, all orders must be prepaid.)

CVSA's name, its reputation, one of its bank accounts, and its longtime publication have all been usurped. Where does the voluntary agency go from here? Redeeming the name Invest Yourself maybe harder than rehabilitating Tylenol, says Hanson. Discussion at the most recent board meeting suggested that CVSA regroup under a new banner.

CVSA leaders perhaps have been as innocent as doves but not as wise as serpents. Some would say they are afflicted with "terminal niceness" in continuing to observe CVSA by-laws and traditions: they have not yet removed Ramirez from the board. "Sure, we have egg on our face," says board member Jim Cavener ruefully. But the board members are clear that they want an airing of the story of how they were outmaneuvered by a small band of unscrupulous political extremists. It may serve as a cautionary tale to warn other unsuspecting church groups of the risk of trusting too much. Right now, CVSA's leader would like to get the whole mess over with, and get their small voluntary agency back on the track of performing its most services well. "This has taken up an extraordinary amount of time," says Harold Hanson wearily, "and one wishes it would go away. This crowd irritates me no end. I can't begin to describe how much they irritate me."