It’s a secret society that claims its followers descended from a “master Aryan race” on Atlantis and that humans once lived on the moon. Homosexuality is banned, corporal punishment encouraged and members atone for bad karma in past lives. Young women, denied higher education, are often married off to older men in the group, former members say.
Some male devotees have undergone weapons training to prepare for the end of the world, which is coming soon. But this doomsday cult isn’t hidden away in some rural bunker it operates out of a brownstone in Murray Hill.
Every Thursday evening, dozens of congregants line up on East 35th Street for the group’s weekly meeting. Their leader of the flock, Tom Baer, 73, preaches from the center of the room, reading from pieces of paper. Members don’t have religious texts to follow along and aren’t allowed to take notes. In official documents, the tax-exempt church is called Congregation for the Light. To members, it’s just “the Light.”
The group has about 200 members in New York, and there are congregations in Washington, DC, and Atlanta, Baer and ex-followers say.
“It’s the cult next door to every New Yorker, and no one even knows that it’s there,” said an exiled member.
The former worshiper, a Manhattan woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears retribution, joined the group in 2003 while dating a man who was raised in it. “I totally wanted to know what was going on,” she said, adding that her boyfriend assured her it was “nothing creepy .?.?. just the basic tenets of all religions.”
The deeper she got, the more skeptical she became. Baer spoke to her of battling evil people in lucid dreams and how cancer and other illnesses were the result of karma, not health habits, genetics or environment. She noted Baer’s repeated, odd mispronunciation of “awry” as “ow-ree.”
The Light dates back to at least the 1960s and has met in Murray Hill since the ’70s, though members are taught that the church dates to the 19th century. Much of what the group believes is shrouded in secrecy, though former members say it has a lot to do with karma, reincarnation and the end of the human race.
The former worshiper was shocked that attendance at weekly meetings was mandatory; absences for vacation or higher education were not excused. When she asked a fellow member if her teenage daughter would attend Harvard or Yale, the woman responded: “What are you talking about? She’ll go to a local community college. She has to attend Thursday night meetings.”
She was warned not to share the Light with others, and she kept her membership secret from her closest friends.
“Everything is ambiguous,” she said. “And if you ask, you’re told, You just don’t remember. You’ll remember when you’re supposed to .?.?. Try to control your dreams, and tonight you’ll remember a symbol.’?”
But she wouldn’t stop asking questions.
During a meeting at the end of the year, everyone was handed a white envelope except for her. The next day, she joined her boyfriend, who had since become her fiancé, and his parents for dinner.
The food wasn’t even served before her fiancé’s mother stood at the table and announced: “If you think you’re marrying him, you’re nuts. I remember you from 10,000 years ago, and you tried to bring down the Light. “We are launching a spiritual intervention to save his soul,” the would-be mother-in-law said.
Shattered, the young woman was driven home and told never to speak to her fiancé again. Two months later, he was married off to a fellow Light member. The white envelopes had been invitations to a special meeting to sabotage her engagement to the man who brought her into the Light in the first place. “I felt like I was in a movie,” she recalled. “I didn’t realize the kind of power Tom [Baer] had. That the Light had.”
Paul Arthur Miller was 18 when he found himself among a dozen young men in a secluded nook of the Adirondack Mountains. He had received instructions on what to pack for the three-day trip reserved only for elite members of the “Light Patrol.” The troop was led by two believers, ex-Army paratroopers who taught the youngsters how to track footprints, the basics of camping and other survival skills.
He didn’t realize the training would include firing M14 automatic rifles into an abandoned junk heap or training in hand-to-hand combat in preparation for the apocalypse. “The belief is that Planet Earth will be ending soon and we would have to defend our people and safeguard our food and supplies,” recalled Miller, now a 58-year-old West Village writer.
“They changed the doomsday date at least twice,” he said. “We were told it was imminent, weeks or months. People in the cult wouldn’t have dental work done because they thought, Why bother?’?”
Miller was born into the group and worked 17 years for Baer’s furniture company in Harrison, Westchester County, which employed many Light members. “I felt like a prisoner,” Miller said. “I felt like an indentured slave.” He stayed through the tenures of two Light leaders across 30 years each with his own agendas and “personal beliefs.”
Morris Kates, chairman during the 1960s and ’70s, taught Miller that once the world ended, people would be reincarnated on another planet called “Nay.” There, they would be one gender and have no stomachs. Joseph Denton, Kates’ successor and a former Southern Baptist, tried banning the Internet and some TV.
Baer took the reins when Denton died in 2001. He had married into the Light in the 1960s after hitching a ride with a Westchester-bound follower and meeting his future wife.
Miller said the three leaders had one thing in common they tried to erase his homosexuality, which they considered “a hangover from the Roman Empire.” He was ordered to date women in the Light. After one meeting, Kates cornered him and said, “Who is this guy who comes to stay with you on weekends? Is he a faggot?”
Miller was ordered to dump his boyfriend and to begin dating a woman in the Light. He saw her on and off for five years to keep up appearances Despite this, Miller said he was a favorite of Kates, who used to announce during weekly lectures, “Paul and I have been friends for thousands and thousands of lives.”
The meetings would begin in the brownstone’s ground-floor auditorium around 7?p.m., when Kates announced, “Greetings, friends.” The teachings are rooted in 19th-century England, ex-followers and Baer say, where a husband and wife known only as “the Wyeths” woke from the same dream and wrote down the karmic tenets and symbols they remembered.
“They don’t give you any sources. There’s no dogma you can reference. It’s just word of mouth,” an ex-member said. “You just believe what you’re told.” The Light chairman instructs followers to obsessively look for symbols in dreams and their everyday lives.
Ex-members told The Post they couldn’t even have artwork or bric-a-brac in their homes unless it contained one of the signs, which include an “owl,” or watcher protecting Light members, and a cross with an “X,” the group’s greeting sign.
“They’re brainwashed. They’re obsessed,” said Miller, who is writing a screenplay on his experience in the Light. Members aren’t allowed to associate with “know-nots,” the term for people who aren’t in the Light.
“You were always told if you leave the Light, you’re subjected to evil .?.?. because you don’t have protection,” Miller said.
Miller finally worked up the courage to leave the group in the 1990s. The last straw was a member spying on him as he dined with a male suitor. “How dare you be seen in a restaurant frequented by the Light with that blatant homosexual?” the member seethed.
Miller left a letter in Denton’s mailbox notifying him he was done. His parents left six months later. “My dad [later] apologized for getting us into this thing,” he said. He is estranged from his three sisters, who are still in the group. “I didn’t start living until I left the Light,” Miller said. “I want people to know it’s OK to leave, to reclaim their independence of thought and pursue their own life dreams.”
Another ex-follower, who requested anonymity, said he was booted from his home at age 15 because he questioned the teachings and refused to throw away his Black Sabbath records. “They believe in a master Aryan race .?.?. that lived on Atlantis,” he said, adding that black, red and yellow races existed, but a blue race was wiped out. “Once you get to a certain level, they start to tell you these things.
“They think they are otherworldly,” he added. “They carry themselves like they’re robotic .?.?. they’re not of this Earth, everything else is filth and [they] don’t want to associate.” He endured brutal beatings by his parents, who he believes were instructed by Kates. “I had this reputation of being a bad kid when I wasn’t,” said the ex-member. “I was an abused kid.”
His mother was told she was Kates’ daughter on Atlantis 10,000 years ago and believed she was a high priestess of the Light. “Everybody is brainwashed in this thing,” he said. “They’re conditioned to think and behave in a certain way, and it starts in childhood. Children are taught to fear.” The Light also teaches that children aren’t human until they reach the age of 13, he said.
The Light’s solution to his sister’s rebelliousness was to marry her off to a church bachelor in his 40s. “She was a gorgeous 19-year-old, and they married her off to this schlub,” the ex-member said. He said he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder because of his upbringing in the group.
“If they want to clear their name of suspicion, they need to start answering questions,” he said. “They should maybe have a sign out in front of their building if they’re listed as a church.”
Another ex-member said he and his mother were forced to put money in a wooden box by the entrance before they jumped ship in the late ’70s. He remembers Kates announcing the group would incorporate as a church to get tax breaks. Shortly after, the member was kicked out for marrying a Catholic woman who refused to join the Light.
“There was always so much turmoil when someone chose a partner from the outside world,” he said, adding that parents often married their children off to other members in the group. “It was not uncommon for girls as young as 18 marrying .?.?. men who were quite a bit older,” he said.
The exiled follower said it took many years for him to get over the experience and that he has never shared more than superficial details with his adult children. “It still stands out as the worst time of my entire life,” he said. “But I was
fortunate enough to have people still in my life that loved me and helped me through it.”
Baer, a charming and sharply dressed man who uses a cane and believes he was an Apache in a past life, denies the group is a “cult.” “We’re not a religion. We’re what a church should be,” said the Ohio native. “The principles are to have a decent, sane and healthy life and to be responsible for our own actions.
We’re not a religion. We’re what a church should be. “You can’t do that in one life,” he added. “It’s impossible.”
Baer denied that the group supports corporal punishment, but said, “If I want to spank my kids, it’s no one else’s business .?.?. Even Jesus said, Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ But it’s not what you do first.” The preacher said children aren’t indoctrinated until they are teens and that if a child dies before age 13, it’s because they committed suicide in a previous life.
Congregation for the Light runs a nonprofit named after Kates, who died in the late 1970s. The foundation’s address is at a Brooklyn auto shop. The group’s revenues were $116,860 in 2012 and $338,429 in 2011, tax forms show. The documents reveal a vague accounting of expenses, which include $84,000 for “totally physically and mentally disabled, total care, assistance for nurses’ aides.”
Baer, who lives on an upper floor of the Light’s brownstone, said the nonprofit gets 10 percent of its funds from donations and the rest from estates when members die. The group pays for members who are down on their luck and for their home care. “It’s not a cult. It’s not a scam,” Baer said. “You can come 3,000 times and you’re not going to have to pay a dime.”