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Second Coming: The Story of David Bixby - Part 2

Part two in a three-part series re-introducing folk musician Dave Bixby to the city that he left 40 years ago. He is performing this Friday at The Division Avenue Arts Collective.
Left to right: Brian MacInness, Dave Bixby, Don DeGraaf (Sir)

Left to right: Brian MacInness, Dave Bixby, Don DeGraaf (Sir)

Underwriting support from:
Bixby in the 1970s

Bixby in the 1970s

The Group's headquarters

The Group's headquarters


This is part two in a three-part series re-introducing folk musician Dave Bixby to the city that he left 40 years ago. He is performing this Friday at The Division Avenue Arts Collective (115 S. Division) in downtown Grand Rapids. Click here to read Part I: CULT ALBUM.

Soon after Tom Shannon introduced me to “Ode to Quetzalcoatl,” he stumbled upon a book written by a member of the Grand Rapids religious group that Dave Bixby belonged to. When Tom finished reading the book he sent it my way; it’s a colorful read.  “Many False Prophets Shall Rise,” by Al Perrin, describes the author’s experiences as a disciple of Don DeGraaf in “The Group” or “The Movement,” as the organization was called.  Early in the book, he describes his introduction to The Group through a classmate named Jane and the cast of leaders he met at his first meeting in the early 1970s. 

“Everybody sat down on the floor, except for a table at the front of the room, where four men in their twenties sat. Jane pointed out David [Bixby], Don [DeGraaf], Mickey [Gulley] and Brian [MacInness]… and whispered in my ear that they were usually the ones that ran the meeting.” Within a few years, however, Don DeGraaf would run the whole show pushing out all those who dare dissent, including David Bixby. Years later Bixby admits, ‘it was fun working with everybody [but] Don had control and it was Don’s gig.”

Don DeGraaf founded The Group in 1968 with the intention to help young people free themselves from addiction and help them find spiritual fulfillment in the face of existential fears. Co-founder Shelton “Mickey” Gulley explained to The Grand Rapids Press in 1980 that “it was a beautiful, beautiful thing. To see those kids get off the drugs and start wanting to do something meaningful with their lives was wonderful.”

This is what initially drew Bixby to The Group. He had indulged in what the experimental ‘60s had to offer and spent a year bent on LSD, coming out empty on the other side. After a few spiritual experiences where he felt God was reaching out to him, he tried sharing his experiences with skeptical friends and family.

“First I’m dropping acid and then God’s talking to me,” David remembers them thinking. He tried hanging out with Christians instead, but they doubted his experiences too. “They tried to tell me it was the devil because I didn’t have a grasp on Jesus and I wasn’t all Hallelujah, praise the Lord, talking like that.”

On his way home from a concert late one snowy, winter night Bixby’s car died and, unable to restart it, he began to walk home.  He remembers, “I was ready to just sit down in a snowbank and just go to sleep, just give it up; I was pretty depressed. And I experienced a person, the personage of Christ.  I didn’t see anything, but I heard within my mind, ‘David, I’m with you and I’ve been with you from the beginning.'”

Bixby harnessed these experiences and wrote in less than two months what would become “Ode to Quetzalcoatl,” most of Harbinger's “Second Coming” and many other tracks never recorded.  These songs lament the damage done to his psyche by drugs and celebrate the healing he found in God.  After Bixby performed some of these songs at a local coffeehouse, DeGraaf approached him and shared stories of his own unusual spiritual experiences and the two connected.  “I think he was genuinely motivated to communicate to people that Christ exists.  He had a meaningful experience for himself, and his testimony brought Brian [MacInness] on board and it brought me  on board.” 

Soon Bixby was performing at The Group’s meetings as well as at local churches, colleges and high schools. "I did three concerts right in a row at Calvin College" he remembers. His music resonated with many young people and brought some into the fold of DeGraaf's organization. “[Ode to] Quetzalcoatl was my own experiences separate from this Group per se, but it gave me a place to play this music,” he told me in our interview.  “It fit the belief system as far as searching and finding, hitting the void and being depressed and going through all the things of the ‘60s when your beliefs are dashed.”

DeGraaf put up funds to press 1000 copies of "Ode to Quetzalcoatl" and then he handed them to his disciples to sell out of the trunks of their cars.  The money made went right back into The Group or DeGraaf’s pocket. 

Within a few years the work The Group was doing went from being seen as positive to sinister. The Reoganized Church of Latter Day Saints that allowed The Group to meet in its basement "silenced" DeGraaf in March of 1971, stripping him of his priestly powers. In the same year, two of The Group's members were arrested for trying to tap the phones of the minister of that church. Police started investigating the activies of DeGraaf and The Group but according to a Grand Rapids Press story from 1980, "He makes it a practice to never put his signature on any document relating to the movement." He began uttering what was to become a familiar phrase, "A prophet is never recognized in his own home."

It is easy to see what alarmed the parents of members of The Group. DeGraaf's disciples began to call him “Sir” and he began to claim he was the second coming of the prophet Elijah.  Members were encouraged to visualize DeGraaf while meditating.  As reported in the Grand Rapids Press in 1980, “What to eat, what to wear, what ‘worldly’ jobs to hold -- all basic decisions were made in conference with DeGraaf.” He got his disciples to recruit other young people who were then folded into the “family,” all while encouraging them to deny their actual families. Bixby sees it very clearly now: "The first step in a cult is to get you to denounce your parents and your family... once you’ve done that you’ve got a new family. And in many cases it’s a more fun family. Sisters have got more sisters and brothers have got more brothers." Outsiders were also alarmed to find out that DeGraaf was using his disciples to make himself lots of money. 

According to one in a series of five articles published by the Grand Rapids Press about The Group between October 19-23, 1980:

“At one time, 311 Amway distributorships were registered under DeGraaf.  Only a fraction of those were actually part of his religious cult, the others had signed on with Amway through one of his followers. When The Group began selling Amway in October 1971, the young members responded enthusiastically -- in part because DeGraaf told them God had directed him to sell Amway products.”

In my recent interview with David Bixby, he described Don’s interest in Amway:

“Don was very smart. He came out of the military and he used a lot of military stuff as far as doing group dynamics. And he knew how to pick out the leaders and knew who the followers were and he built himself a pretty good front line. That’s why he did so well with Amway. He (had) a spiritual pyramid; no one else could go direct but him.”

As well as pushing Amway products, disciples sold combs and panhandled for donations, telling the unaware it was for “our youth group.” Soon the questions in Grand Rapids became too many. The attention from authorities was too much and he started expanding the reach of the Group.  By 1972, it had spread to Ohio on its way south, eventually setting up enclaves in Florida, Alabama and Texas. Soon, Grand Rapids was all but left behind.

Parents continued to try and wrest their children from DeGraaf, going so far as to calling local FBI and police agencies and hiring a personal investigator. Even Amway started to get suspicious.  According to the October 19, 1980 article in the Grand Rapids Press, “The Amway Corporation began investigating the organization in 1972 and finally revoked his distributorship in 1977.”  By then, DeGraaf had pushed out many members and other leaders including David Bixby.

"I was in Alabama at the time and I moved to Texas (where DeGraaf was headquartered) and I didn’t like where Don was going. He was black-balling me because I was questioning what was going on.  Don had grown to really not like his people- his disciples- because they were all telling him what he wanted to hear instead of the truth and anyone that would tell him what he didn’t want to hear he’d get rid of them. So he was living in a world without accurate feedback.  So he took an est training with Werner Erhard and that training kind of opened his eyes and he wanted to make an attempt to set everybody free so they are not following him anymore and he doesn’t have to be responsible for a bunch of people who can’t tie their shoes anymore.  And I appreciate the fact that he was trying to do that.  But when he took the rules off, his money machine died and that scared him.  People represented money."

By this time, though, DeGraaf had amassed enough money to buy property in New Mexico where he consolidated his organization.  According to the 1980 series in The Press, The Group “owns and operates [a] small ski resort in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Northern New Mexico” that they bought under the name “The Religious Order of Spectrum” for more than half a million dollars. The article continues, “The previous owners told The Press [that] the Movement made a ‘substantial’ down payment in cash.”

At the time the Grand Rapids Press series was published, it was reported there were “probably fewer than 35 members, including DeGraaf” left in The Group including “seven ‘chosen’ women [from Grand Rapids] who still follow him.”  The families of these women were hoping that the attention the articles garnered could bring their daughters home.  When Bixby read the series, he said it changed his perspective on The Group. “I got clippings [of the articles] from the Grand Rapids Press a couple years after I got out and it was somebody’s other viewpoint and it really opened my eyes.  I needed to see someone’s outside look because I was in it." Soon after, he decided to go to New Mexico on behalf of parents of members still in The Group. Maybe he could help them get out: he did after all help some of them get in.

Read Part III of Second Coming: The Story of David Bixby, including a recap of Bixby's performance at the Division Avenue Arts Collective, Friday June 24 at 8pm. Learn more about the performance on The DAAC's website or on the event page Facebook.

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Great read, Matt. It was really interesting to talk to David today. It's also interesting to think that many of the people who will attend the show at The DAAC tonight weren't born when the Press expose first brought this story to light - let alone when The Group was actually active in GR.