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|Born||Karen Elva Zerby
July 31, 1946
Camden, New Jersey, USA
|Other names||Katherine Rianna Smith, Maria David, Maria Berg, Maria Fontaine, Mama Maria, Queen Maria|
|Occupation||Leader of Children of God/Family International|
Karen Elva Zerby (born on July 31, 1946) is the current leader of the group formerly called the Children of God, a cult. The group is now called The Family International (TFI). Zerby legally changed her name to Katherine Rianna Smith in 1997, and uses the pseudonyms Maria David, Maria Berg, Maria Fontaine, Mama Maria, and Queen Maria.
Zerby joined the group, then called Teens for Christ, in 1969. After becoming a private secretary to David Berg, the group's founder, a sexual relationship started between the two. Eventually Berg left his first wife Jane Miller and Zerby became his common-law wife. Soon after leaving Miller, Berg told the group about a prophecy called "The Old Church and the New Church", which was viewed by some as his justification for leaving his first wife.
In 1975, while living in Tenerife, Spain, Zerby had a son Ricky Rodriguez (known within TFI as "Davidito", which is Spanish for "little David"). While not Berg's son, he was thought of as an adopted son. Rodriguez's childhood was recorded in a book called The Story of Davidito, which was meant to be an example to other members on how to raise their children. The book is controversial for its views some have labelled as encouragement of child sexual abuse. In January 2005, Rodriguez murdered former group member Angela Smith, who had been involved in his upbringing and at one time served as Zerby's executive secretary. Hours later Rodriguez committed suicide.
With David Berg's health declining in the later years of his life, Zerby began to take a leadership role within the group. Upon his death in October 1994, she assumed the spiritual leadership of the group and soon after married her long-time partner Steven Douglas Kelly (who legally changed his name to Christopher Smith, and is known in the group as Peter Amsterdam or King Peter).
A consistent trait throughout the history of TFI has been their aversion to government oversight and extreme secrecy surrounding leadership and finances. Since the turn of the 21st century, Steven Kelly has carried topless pictures of Karen Zerby with him on travels to show members since most had never seen a picture of their spiritual leader prior to then. By now, the group's members have seen photographs or video footage of Karen Zerby and Steven Kelly. Their location was also a closely guarded secret, and video footage of Karen Zerby were not readily available even to full-time members of TFI until March 2005, when several recent photographs were leaked online. This marked the first time that recent photographs of Karen Zerby were made available to the public in nearly 30 years. Since then, the policies of TFI have grown more mainstream, and pictures, video, and audio of Karen Zerby are available online. Zerby and her husband Steven Kelly currently (as of 2013) live in Guadalajara, Mexico with a small group of TFI staff.
- ^ House, H. Wayne (2000). Charts of Cults, Sects, and Religious Movements. Zondervan Publishing Company. ISBN 0-310-38551-2.
- ^ Lewis, James R. (2004). Controversial New Religions Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515683-8.
- ^ Murder and Suicide Reviving Claims of Child Abuse in Cult - Laurie Goodstein writing for the New York Times (published 15 January 2005)
- ^ Photos of TFI leaders — from xFamily.org
- Karen Zerby
- The Family International (TFI)
- Karen Zerby and the Children of God — xFamily.org
- xFamily.org Publications Database — contains almost all of the writings by Karen Zerby and her partner Steven Kelly, as well as the entire contents of David Berg's "Mo Letters"