Infamous Cult Property Transformed into Dream Center
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“God is using the ministry to be a light,” says Luke W. Barnett, 50, pastor of Dream City Church (formerly Phoenix First AG). “It’s truly a remarkable opportunity to revitalize a city.”
Jeffs, the former leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), received a life prison sentence in 2011 related to his abuse of underage girls. His cult had been located on the Arizona-Utah border in an area known as Short Creek, made up of towns including Colorado City and Hildale. Jeffs ruled the secretive and controlling FLDS from a 29,000-square-foot home and other properties.
“Everything was based on fear and punishment,” says Angel J. Barnett, 48, executive director of the Dream Institute, a Utah-based nonprofit under which the Short Creek Dream Center (SCDC) operates. “Women were considered property, and they couldn’t think for themselves.”
Men didn’t even lead their own families. They performed construction jobs, gave the money to the aberrant religious group, and received food based on bizarre measures of obedience. At any given time, their spouse and children could be taken from them.
“They called them ‘Velcro families,’” says Angel, who is married to Luke. “If a husband or wife disobeyed, all the children or spouse could be reassigned to other families. Most children don’t even know who their real mother is. Birth certificates don’t exist.”
Five years ago, Jena L. Jones, 39, and Glyn B. Jones, 52, a couple from San Diego, felt called to make Colorado City their ministry base. They had been criss-crossing the U.S. in their recreational vehicle to help organizations with disaster relief.
“We plopped our RV in the middle of town with California license plates, Christian bumper stickers, one wife, one child, and no idea what God would do with us,” Jena says. “We just wanted to help kids.”
The credibility and ministry the Joneses established turned out to be critical in connecting one of Jeffs’ former wives, Brielle Decker, to the Phoenix Dream Center. Decker, Jeffs’ 65th wife, had been awarded Jeffs’ former house in a settlement by a judge who oversaw the former leader’s properties. The Joneses had just learned about the Phoenix Dream Center when Decker invited them on a tour of the 45-bedroom house, which she dreamed of turning into a place of healing and refuge for women and children coming out of the FLDS.
“We walked into this amazing facility and jokingly said, ‘This would be a great Dream Center,’ because we had toured the Phoenix Dream Center the week before,” Glyn says.
As it happened, Brian D. Steele, director of the Phoenix Dream Center, had become involved with Short Creek in 2016 when the marshal’s office there raided homes, pulled teenagers out of abusive situations, and needed somewhere for them to go for temporary refuge.
“We raised our hand to take them,” Steele says. “One girl came in a prairie dress. She was a gift bride, popular among the cult, which gifted out 14-year-olds to older men.”
Steele serves on the Arizona Human Trafficking Council, and when he learned of the availability of the Jeffs property through Decker, and the Joneses’ work in Short Creek, the Phoenix Dream Center purchased Jeff’s former home and several other buildings.
But the task ahead appeared daunting.
“The heaviness was palpable in the city limits,” says Angel. “We walked into the house and could feel this oppression, this heaviness. Polygamy is a deeper version of human trafficking because the girls are traded. They are born into it with no choice.”
Warren and the other men in the cult had abandoned the Short Creek community, moving “elite” members to secret compounds in other states and countries. They left behind “a town of children,” according to Jena. Seventy-two percent of the population in Short Creek is under the age of 17. The median age is around 15 years old. Most are uneducated beyond a fourth-grade level and have no job skills.
Many people wondered how trauma recovery could occur in a place where trauma happened.
The solution started by remodeling Jeffs’ former house and turning it into a community center. With the help of churches and Christian groups across the nation, the 45 bedrooms have been fully remodeled and given a unique and uplifting theme: beach, horses, garden, camping, and so on.
New additions at the former compound include a library, chapel, game room, an art therapy corner, and a sensory room for kids with autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and anxiety. The SCDC hosts game nights and after-school tutoring.
Today, 66 women receive regular counseling at the residence, along with crisis housing, vocational training, résumé-building, job placement, and trauma-informed family counseling.
“Much of our work is in helping people process what happened to them,” says Angel. “The DNA of the town is rapidly changing. We help them get birth certificates and food.”
The SCDC fully adopted Tommy Barnett’s ministry motto of “Find a need and fill it, find a hurt and heal it,” which adorns their vehicles and T-shirts.
“The Short Creek Dream Center has changed the whole town,” Tommy Barnett says.
Because there is no grocery store in the area, the need for food is critical. With help from Convoy of Hope and a Phoenix-area food bank, the SCDC feeds 4,000 people a month from an 11,000-square-foot food warehouse which receives weekly donations via semi-truck trailers. Teams also deliver boxes of food directly to homes. In addition, Convoy of Hope helped secure the donation of 3,500 pairs of shoes and socks from major clothing brands to donate to children in the town, many of whom didn’t own shoes.
Still, the Dream Center must tread wisely in an area scarred by religion.
“We have to be careful not to be perceived as using the properties the way Jeffs did,” Angel says. “We hope to recalibrate their way of thinking and let them start dreaming: ‘I can be something else.’”
“There’s a lot of anger toward God and religion,” Glyn agrees. “We end up winning hearts and souls through love. Just by holding hands, my wife and I start conversations, because they don’t have that.”
SCDC’s residential ministry is about to accelerate with state approval and the purchase of a third building in the former “Jeffs block,” of which the SCDC now owns half. An additional 80 or more residents, most of them mothers and children, are expected.
Already, Cindy McCain, widow of former U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security have toured the properties to see the transformation.
“The Joneses have been building trust for four years,” Angel says. “The doors are open, walls have come down. Padlocks are off. Gates are open.”
Lead Photo: A single mom participates in a community arts and craft night.
Photo 1 - A remodeled home.
Photo 2 - Those instrumental in bringing the Dream Center to fruition include (from left) Shelly and Dave Myer; Annalee, Luke, and Angel Barnett; and Jenna and Glyn Jones, the directors of the center.