Editor’s Note: In September, 1994, Chris Holmes interviewed members of The Away Team cult. A few year’s later, they achieved international infamy in their mass suicide, under the name of Heaven’s Gate.
By Chris Holmes
In late July, posters labeled “UFOs, Space Aliens, and Their Final Fight For Earth’s Spoils” were plastered up all over Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, reading like a comic-book conspiracy plot tying together the end of planet, evil aliens, holographic classrooms and UFO-riding angels. The group behind the poster, a self-proclaimed UFO cult, goes by several names: “The Away Team,” “The Representatives of the Next Level,” “The Next Evolutionary Level Above Human” and “Total Overcomers Anonymous.” They have no phone number, no permanent address, and no overt interest in converting new members. They simply want to spread their message; they assume that those who bear “the chip of recognition” will find them and join their organization.
On a summer’s Monday night, “crew members” June, Matt, Oliver and Ross—they refuse to disclose their last names—come to radio station WHPK to share their message. Unlike the Amish or other religious groups whose outward appearance makes them clearly recognizable, “Away Team” members dress conservatively, as if to not stand out. All in their late thirties to early forties, they wear their hair short, and the men are clean-shaven with slightly longer than average sideburns; members sport tennis shoes, slacks, and button-down shirts, untucked but with the top button fastened in L.A.’s. Latin gangster style. They wear identical gold bands on the right-hand ring finger. Asked if the rings have any significance, they seem surprised, then explain that the rings signify devotion to their beliefs and, in a way, their marriage to each other.
Having joined the group in their teens, June, Matt, and Oliver have been Away Teamers for 18 years now. Despite their posters’ sensationalism, the cult is no fly-by-night organization, but rather an offshoot of a seventies organization named “The Two,” (after the two witnesses mentioned in Revelations 11). Founded by a former college music teacher and registered nurse who went under the names Bo and Peep—aka Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles—”The Two” garnered a lot of media attention in the early seventies after the Manson Family killings and the Patty Hearst kidnapping put all cults under close scrutiny. In the mid-seventies, Bo and Peep decided the end of the world lay close at hand. They convinced followers to leave their families, give up their worldly belongings, lead a life of abstinence, and move to a Montana ranch to prepare for the end-times, when angels in UFOs would be spirit the chosen up to heaven.
In 1976, after the misguided but highly publicized apocalypse prediction proved wrong, the group went underground. Leaders encouraged members to lead normal lives, while preparing themselves for the next announcement that the apocalypse was at hand. Members integrated into society working as computer technicians and bakers, bank tellers and salesman. Like Rome’s Christians, they met in secret at “monasteries” to study the arcana of UFOs and world religions. And so, for nearly two decades, they waited for the next announcement.
In January 1994, leaders announced the time had come. Away Teamers sold all worldly belongings, liquidated their bank accounts, cut all social ties and began traveling around the country looking for others with “the chip of recognition.” Clearly Ross had one of those chips. A newcomer to the organization, Ross claimed he had read a manifesto the group printed as an ad in USA Today while flying back from France on a business trip. He says it struck a chord with him. He decided to quit his job, and “walk out of the door” of his life to join the group. Ross still looks like a businessman on holiday, though he seems very excited to be included in the groups’ excursion to the radio station.
He keeps very quiet, continuously nodding his head in agreement to points made by the others, while June, Matt, and Oliver do most of the talking, explaining their apocalyptic message with metaphors from Star Trek and computer technology. They refuse to detail their tour itinerary, but Matt’s sunburn suggests the crew descended from sunnier parts. Careful not to give a specific date, they state that the end is very near, the unredeemed’s window of opportunity closing quickly.
Looking a little like Holly Hunter, with her short brown hair and small frame, June launches the point-by-point explanation of their beliefs: “There is a kingdom level above human which uses UFOs as its method of transportation. We call it an Evolutionary Level Above Human. It is synonymous with what the Bible calls the Kingdom of God. It existed before the human kingdom; before the planet existed, and in a very real sense, we are an experiment for this kingdom.”
Tall and thin, with a mostly bald pate and a vague resemblance to “Star Trek” character Jean-Luc Picard, Oliver kicks in the next step: “We refer to earth as a holographic classroom. I don’t know how many people out there watch Star Trek, but a lot of us do at times. On the show, when you go on the holodeck, it’s like a whole artificial reality that’s created for the crew’s purpose. Wharf goes there to fight battles, others go there for psychological reasons, but the bottom line is they all go there to learn lessons and then return to the ship better for the experience. We feel Earth is a “holographic classroom” created by ‘The Next Evolutionary Level Above Human’ to teach human souls how to graduate to the next level.” Unfortunately for those with incompletes and failures, the Away Team fliers explain that “the hologram is about to be rebooted—canceled and restarted—for its usefulness and serviceability as a classroom has come to an end.”
Graduation, explains June, involves hooking up with those already having made the grade. The cult’s founders, “Bo and Peep were picked and prepped by next-level bodies. It was like taking the brain of Einstein and sticking it into a dog. It took them three years to sort out the information. In order to get to the kingdom level above human you have to hook up with them. You have to walk out of the door of your life. You have to overcome things which you are addicted to.” His football player’s frame topped off by a shock of thick brown hair and ruddy complexion, Matt further explains these tenets, “We know that we are going to be occupying vehicles (bodies) that are androgynous. We need to program our souls to be compatible with that kind of activity. When you’re a crew member aboard your spaceship in the next level you can’t have your mind clouded with human sexuality.”
Bringing thing back to the real matters at hand, Oliver lays out the situation in harsh black-and-white: “The end is coming soon. The window of opportunity is open. This classroom has ended. Heaven is a physical place. UFOs from the kingdom-level above human will physically pick up our bodies and take them to that next level. The only way an individual can get to the next level is by following the formula.”
Maybe angels will come down from heaven blazing in flying saucers to take us to the promised land. Maybe Mother Earth has had her run. Maybe Gene Roddenberry understood all of this and encrypted it in the scripts of Star Trek. Without a definite date it’s hard to prove them wrong. In any case, the Away Team plans to keep spreading its message. Before leaving, they ask if doing “The Jenny Jones Show” seems like a good idea.