NEW YORK - In 1980, a man who calls himself simply Brother David says he received a message from God to sell everything he owned and move to Israel. He left his job as an RV salesman in Syracuse, N.Y., and bought a one-way ticket for the Holy Land.
In November 1999, Israel paid for the self-styled evangelist's return flight, deporting him and four other members of his House of Prayer ministry - the latest Americans to be escorted from the country since Israel began targeting apocalyptic extremist groups they believe have the potential for violence on the eve of the millennium.
"They led me out of the place with my pajamas on and put me in a paddy wagon," said Brother David, who was born David William Garden, and is now staying in New York City. "Just like Christ - they came in and arrested us in the middle of the night."
The self-proclaimed pastor had became somewhat of a fixture in the small community of Bethany, Israel, near the Mount of Olives, the place where Christians - like Brother David - believe Jesus will rise again. Brother David said he and his House of Prayer ministry cobbled together a modest living by offering guided tours of the Old City to Christian groups and renting rooms in leased apartment buildings to Christian pilgrims. They also ran a charity, Brother David said, gathering food and clothing for impoverished Palestinians.
The group kept a low profile for years and only began discussing their apocalyptic beliefs a couple of years ago when they started to agree to interviews with members of the media. The resulting stories, Brother David said, brought them to the attention of Israeli authorities.
He said the police came to them about a year ago to ask about other fundamentalist Christians who had moved into the area in recent years. Brother David said he and the others tried to help the police by teaching them about their beliefs. But their cooperation apparently did not help, Brother David said, because officials came without notice to arrest him and four other House of Prayer members on Oct. 26. They were held in jail cells before being deported to New York on Nov. 5.
"They don't know what they're looking for," Brother David said. "They think anybody that is talking about the second coming of Jesus is up to something."
Members of the House of Prayer, Brother David says, believe the end - or the beginning of a new age - is near and that Christ will appear again. But he says the ministry would never advocate violence to hasten the Christ's return. Brother David says he and the others were working with the Israeli police to help them identify potentially violent believers. He says his ministry was pushed out of the country because of ignorance on the part of some Israeli officials.
"We haven't caused any problems at all," said Al Klimek, another member of the ministry. "We weren't planning, plotting or scheming to undermine anything."
Israel is expecting to be flooded with hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims in the country's holy lands during the new millennium - the year some believe will bring Christ's second coming. Before their savior's return, though, some Christians believe there will be a period of calamity in which God will take care of the true believers and punish evil. Tourists, Israeli officials say, are welcome during the millennium, but the officials say they worry some religious extremists may take their beliefs too far.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., said Israeli law enforcement officials have been working with the FBI to determine which apocalyptic groups might pose a threat. "We in Israel are very much looking forward to the millennium," Regev said. "We are interested in doing our utmost so that everyone who visits the country will have a safe and secure visit."
But who is dangerous and who is not is hard to decipher. "The Israelis are unable to discern which group is which," Brother David said. "They have thrown us into the same pot. For them, this is a big security problem and the logistics of trying to keep order are overwhelming - so they are making a sweep to show people that they are doing everything they can (to prevent violence)."
Members of the House of Prayer ministry say they are in no way like the Concerned Christians, a group experts say fits the profile of a cult because of the group's isolation and the members' allegiance to their charismatic leader, Monte Kim Miller. Fourteen members of that group were deported in January after Israeli officials claimed they were planning a bloody shoot-out with police in the streets of Jerusalem.
Experts agree the two groups are very different. "It was a totally different situation," said Brenda Brasher [Ms. Brasher has shared news conferences with seeming cult apologist Lonnie Kleiver who is recommended as resource by Scientology], an assistant professor of religion at Mount Union College in Ohio of the two groups. "(Brother) David's group was completely open. Anyone could go and anyone could leave. There was no central authority. ... They were a totally open and a heavily-identified community of folk."
Dangerous or not, Brother David will not be in Israel for the millennium.