Awaiting the end of time

Religious sect converges on Lake City

Lake City Reporter/November 18, 1988
By Tom Leithauser, Staff Writer

Southwood Acres off State Road 47 in Columbia County is a quiet, wooded neighborhood where kids and dogs play in big back yards and the houses are spread out enough so no one feels crowded.

Lately, however, longtime residents have begun to feel besieged.

A creeping sense of anxiety has moved into Southwood Acres as strange, new neighbors arrive. On the surface, they seem ideal. They're well dressed, well mannered, and they keep their homes and yards clean.

But, by their own admission, they are different.

The newcomers are members of a religious movement from the Midwest known over the years by a half dozen names, including The Body, The Assembly and The Overcomers. Most recently, the group calls itself End Time Ministries.

The movement's leader, 71-year-old Charles Meade, bought a house in Southwood Acres in 1984, according to records in the Clerk of Courts office.

Since then, according to Jeri Smith, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, pastor who has studied the group, Meade had a vision from God and has told his followers to move south and join him in Lake City.

More than 100 have heeded his call, selling their homes in Sioux Falls, Muncie, Indiana; Billings, Montana; Evanston, Illinois; and other cities where End Time has ministries.

More are on the way.

Between 50 and 100 End Time families remain in Sioux Falls, observers there say. Many have "For Sale" signs in their front lawns.

Meade said he doesn't understand the attention being paid to his group. They are no different from most churches, except that they are true Christians, he said. Despite five attempts to obtain information from Meade about his group, he declined to give details about the movement.

But Smith, several parents of group members, and former followers describe End Time as a cult in which those who join fall under Meade's spell and lose the power to choose how they live.

"He calls himself the Moses of the End Time, the Elijah, the one true apostle on earth," former End Time member Joni Cooke said. "He claims to be better than the Apostle Paul, second only to Jesus."

"They're not friendly and they won't have anything to do with you," said the woman, who asked not to be identified. "It would be nice to have neighbors who, when you walk by, at least wave at you."

Another resident, Hudson Ayers, said the area is taking on "a 'Twilight Zone'-type atmosphere". Group members keep to themselves, he said, and don't allow their children to play with the kids of families who aren't part of the movement.

"The neighborhood children were not even allowed to speak with them," Ayers said. "I'm uneasy with becoming an outsider in my own neighborhood overnight."

"The kids looked me over - every centimeter," he said. "It was like my daughter looking at the porpoises down at Sea World".

Ayers said he wished he knew more about his new neighbors. "A lot of my misgivings come from (my) ignorance of these people".

A few other Southwood Acres residents told similar stories. Some residents refused to comment. Others said they have not noticed anything strange happening in their neighborhood.

Still others believe the End Timers could be a credit to the neighborhood. Milton P. McArthur, a former Lake Cib resident who sold his Southwood Acres home for $97,000 to Charles Sparks, one of the group's leaders, said he recognized that Meade's followers were different, but that they were well-dressed and polite and seemed to pose little harm to the makeup of the neighborhood.

It's difficult to tell exactly how many End Timers have arrived in Lake City and Southwood Acres. An indication of the group's size comes from attendance figures at its religious services, which lately have been held in a banquet room at the Holiday Inn West in Gainesville. About 150 people attend the Sunday service. Many of them, however, said they are from towns other than Lake Cib, including Tampa, Ocala, Miami and even Chicago.

In addition, 300 to 400 End Timers will meet in Orlando around July 4, according to the Tampa branch of the national Cult Awareness Network.

    [Note: WARNING! The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was recently bankrupted and bought up by Scientology. We strongly recommend you do not contact them for assistance.]

It is also difficult to determine how many more members will converge on Lake City.

Sandy Huber, a Sioux Falls woman who has two adult children in the group, estimated that 50 more members soon may arrive from South Dakota. More may be coming from other cities where the group is established. Mrs. Meade told reporters that End Timers were arriving from California, Chicago, Miami and Ocala.

Why are they coming to Lake City? Mrs. Meade said they simply like it here. Lake City is a nice, small country town, she said.

Parents of group members, however, said they believe Meade is bringing his followers here to better control their minds and the group's finances.

Meade's group also may be trying to escape persecution generated where they once lived. Indeed, the End Timers seem to look back with dread on the days before they came to Lake City.

But the prosecution may follow End Time from the Midwest to Florida. A few residents of Southwood Acres already are angry -- angry that they've received letters asking them to sell their homes; angry at the feeling of being surrounded by secretive strangers; and distributed at the odd behavior of their new neighbors.

Contributing to this report were reporter Greg Messore, Publisher Don Caldwell and Managing Editor Russ Roberts.

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