A Homestead Divided: Local religious group fighting to preserve its image

Waco Tribune-Herald/May 6, 2007
By Cindy V. Culp

Many people are drawn to Homestead Heritage by its simple, agrarian lifestyle. For some, it stirs nostalgia for days gone by. For others, it raises idyllic images of groups like the Amish. Visitors often tell members how lucky they are to have found an alternative to the crushing grind of modern life, an escape from the rat race.

But over the past two years, a growing number of ex-members have used the Internet and word-of-mouth to call that wholesome image into question. Their basic message: Homestead Heritage is not what it appears to be.

The face the group presents to the public is nothing more than a facade, fastidiously engineered to attract new members and draw money, some ex-members say. Beneath that surface, the workings of the group are such that most people would call it a cult, they claim.

The allegations aren’t about violations of the law and thus aren’t anything like the charges leveled against the Branch Davidians, a local apocalyptic group that in 1993 left Waco linked with the word “cult.”

But 12 ex-members interviewed by the Tribune-Herald say Homestead Heritage psychologically and spiritually damaged them to the extent that it constituted abuse. Others echo similar sentiments on Internet message boards — anonymously, in most cases.

To outsiders hearing the discord for the first time, the allegations are jarring, even unbelievable. They seem so contrary to the image Homestead Heritage has crafted for itself.

The ex-members say they’re prepared for the possibility that many people won’t believe them. After all, Homestead Heritage has many friends in the community, from the county sheriff to mothers who home-school.

But the exes say they feel an obligation to speak out so others aren’t deceived. The Homestead Heritage they know is a place where a crushing workload disrupts children’s education and drains family time, where a dizzying array of rules controls followers and, most importantly, where the religious doctrine is bizarre, even heretical. The stakes of staying silent are simply too high, they say.

Those who speak for Homestead Heritage’s 900 members vehemently deny such accusations. They acknowledge their customs and beliefs are rigid by modern standards. Consequently, some people end up leaving embittered because they can’t cut it.

But following a different lifestyle does not make them a cult, members say. They paint the exes’ campaign as nothing more than religious persecution. Anyone who takes the time to get to know them will learn that most of the ex-members’ tales are either lies or gross distortions of the truth, they say.

Still, Homestead Heritage leaders worry about what effect the allegations might have on them. They point to lies told about blacks and Jews throughout history and note how the prejudice created by such baseless attacks persists, despite the lessons of atrocities such as lynchings and the Holocaust.

In today’s polarized society, it’s easy to believe the worst about those you don’t know, members say. That’s probably especially true in the Waco area, they say, because the city has already been badly scarred by cult activities.

All they ask, Homestead Heritage followers say, is that the place they have called home for 17 years not jump to conclusions.

Homestead Heritage traces its roots back to 1973, when founder Blair Adams and his wife, Regina, went to New York City. They were sent there as domestic missionaries by United Pentecostal Church International, according to Homestead Heritage leaders.

Adams was born in El Paso in 1944. His path to ministry didn’t start until his college years at the University of Texas in Austin. He originally started there in the early 1960s, studying English and philosophy, but his schooling was interrupted when he joined the Army in 1966.

He served in the electronic intelligence branch for four years, then returned to UT to finish his degree. But shortly after he returned to school, Adams became a Christian in a Pentecostal church. He then preached at various churches around the country for about two and a half years before taking on the New York mission.

Once there, Adams and his wife lived in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, known for its rough-and-tumble ways and its connections to organized crime. They named their ministry “Voice in the Wilderness” and began reaching out to people in the area, church leaders say. Although they had been sent by a Pentecostal denomination, the mission itself was nondenominational.

About two years later, the Adamses started another church across the river in New Jersey. A couple of years after that, about 1978, church members began to feel a pull toward an agrarian-based lifestyle, longtime member Joel Stein says.

That desire arose partly from their belief that children would be better raised away from the big city, Stein says. Also, Adams’ Bible interpretations led him to conclude that church should be a whole way of life, not just a place where people come once or twice a week, says Howard Wheeler, another longtime member of the group and its unofficial spokesman.

At first, followers pursued their new mission by taking up such practices as planting backyard gardens. Before long, however, it became clear that Adams and his adherents needed more space to fulfill their dreams, and members decided to move to Colorado.

The transition to the American West began in fall 1979. The cross-country journey took longer for some than others as members had homes to sell, jobs to leave. But within a year, all of the followers had gathered at their ranch in Delta County, where they began learning the skills needed for their new life.

Books were a primary source of information, Wheeler says. People with knowledge of crafts also helped teach the group.

After a while, members developed ties with some Christians in Texas who had heard about Adams’ followers and were interested in learning from them, Wheeler says. Leaders eventually started commuting to the Lone Star state — first to San Antonio, then Austin, finally Waco.

Forged largely through friendships with local home-schoolers, the meetings in Waco were held as early as 1981 but didn’t gain any regularity until 1986, Wheeler says.

From the start, Adams’ followers were impressed with the Waco area, Wheeler says. Not only was the countryside beautiful but the people were warm and family-friendly.

“It was love at first sight,” he says.

So in 1990, when a local Baptist church that was dissolving offered its building to Homestead Heritage, the group opted to settle here permanently, Wheeler says. Members began seeking land, and by April had settled on 350 acres in the Chalk Bluff area.

At the time, the group had about 500 members. Only about 200 lived in the Waco area. Others lived in Austin, driving here for services.

Most have since moved to McLennan County, church leaders say. Today Homestead Heritage has a membership of about 900 people. Its property has expanded to about 510 acres.

When the group first arrived in Waco, it went by the name “Koinonia.” But in 1993 it adopted the name Homestead Heritage because Waco residents were confused by the previous name, Greek for “fellowship” or “communion.” The group also had gone by such names as New Life Fellowship and Emmaus Christian Fellowship at different points in its past.

Just as Homestead Heritage was getting settled, the siege at the nearby Branch Davidian compound in 1993 erupted, putting Adams’ disciples under scrutiny, Wheeler says. At one point, the group was even mistaken for the law-breaking cult by an out-of-town news agency. But the response Homestead Heritage got from local residents was one of continued acceptance, further deepening its connection to Waco, he says.

“It really meant something to realize that everyone wouldn’t paint everything different . . . with the same brush,” Wheeler says.

Central Texas has gotten to know Homestead Heritage primarily through its annual holiday festivals. The main one comes just after Thanksgiving, a tradition that began in Colorado in 1988.

Last year, the festival drew 14,000 people from 36 states and seven countries, Wheeler says. In all, more than a quarter-million people have come to the fair over the years.

At the event, visitors can buy a wide variety of food and gift items made by Homestead Heritage members, as well as heirloom-quality furniture. They also can watch demonstrations of everything from old-fashioned blacksmithing to basket-weaving.

Homestead Heritage also holds a celebration each Labor Day when sorghum is harvested and turned into syrup. It hosts school field trips each spring and offers year-round classes that teach such skills as woodworking and quilting. Six days a week, the group also operates a popular deli and bakery, offering everything from brisket sandwiches to homemade ice cream.

Homestead Heritage also interacts with the surrounding area through the businesses its members own, such as a trucking company and a plumbing business. A member-owned company even helped build the house on President Bush’s 1,600-acre ranch near Crawford.

Although those businesses are privately owned, members don’t consider them as being completely apart from the group, Wheeler says. Only 20 percent of adult members work directly for the church, either in agriculture or a business such as the deli. Nearly everyone else works in a member-owned business.

These employment arrangements are in sync with the group’s overall mission of living in community, Wheeler says. One driving force behind their lifestyle, followers say, is to provide and care for one another instead of having to rely on an “impersonal economy.”

That’s why Homestead Heritage adherents have learned to keep their own gardens and bake their own bread. It’s also why they help one another have babies at home or make attempts to care for those who are ill before going to the doctor, Wheeler says.

While Homestead Heritage’s beliefs don’t completely mirror those of any other religious following, it has adopted many customs and some doctrine from Anabaptists, members say. Living in community is the bedrock of those beliefs, along with living simply and in a way that allows people to encounter creation as God intended, says Homestead Heritage member Abraham Adams, one of the founder’s sons.

Those beliefs trickle down into daily life in numerous ways. For example, members observe certain dress rules, such as men wearing only collared shirts and women not wearing pants.

Such rules are embraced not because church officials believe they’re necessary for salvation, though they believe they’re scripturally rooted, Wheeler says. Rather, they see wisdom in putting aside self-centered tastes to preserve the unity of the group.

“We have agreed upon an identity,” Wheeler says.

Similarly, limits are put on modern conveniences because Homestead Heritage followers believe technology can take away from their relationships with creation and one another. That’s why they use draft horses to farm instead of tractors and why computers are used only for school or work tasks rather than for entertainment or communication, they say.

To them, such limitations give group members the best of all possible worlds. Technology shouldn’t be spurned, they say, but it shouldn’t control either.

“We want to control how much it influences our lives,” says 30-year-old member Dan Lancaster.

Homestead Heritage leaders say they understand many people find their customs curious, if not outright bizarre. They also know local residents, especially Christians in certain denominations, may take issue with some of their theology.

That’s OK, they say. All they ask is that they be allowed to live according to their beliefs, as others do.

Until recently, that approach worked well, members say. Homestead Heritage has been able to thrive and make friends throughout the community. They range from home-schooling parents and Baylor University professors to such officials as McLennan County Sheriff Larry Lynch and Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau employees.

But during the past two years, the group has come under attack, Homestead Heritage followers say. Although ex-members are doing most of the talking, the group believes the real force behind the offensive is a self-proclaimed anti-cult organization called Watchman Fellowship.

Founded in 1979, Watchman Fellowship has offices in seven states, including Texas. The organization describes itself as an “independent, nondenominational Christian research and apologetics ministry focusing on new religious movements, cults, the occult and the New Age.” Apologetics is the branch of theology concerned with the defense or proof of Christianity.

Watchman Fellowship makes no secret of the fact that it judges whether a group is a cult based on theological beliefs rather than sociological factors. Thus, its cult label is not reserved just for sects such as the Branch Davidians or Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. It also is applied to Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others.

Homestead Heritage first heard of Watchman Fellowship in 1993, Wheeler says. That’s when a woman who wrote home-schooling materials became fearful Homestead Heritage was trying to encroach on her business and got some of the group’s literature to read. Based on theological disagreements she had with some of the material, she reported the group to Watchman Fellowship.

Then, in 1997, a man who was associated with Homestead Heritage for a time left the group and contacted Watchman Fellowship. He was never a member, Wheeler says, because he refused to conform to the way of life. But he claimed to know all about the group.

The man showed up at Homestead Heritage’s Thanksgiving fair that year in a van emblazoned with a sign that had the word “cult” and Watchman Fellowship’s telephone number on it. Since then, Watchman Fellowship has made Homestead Heritage its “cause célèbre,” Wheeler says, and has attempted to contact and recruit anyone who leaves the group.

The result: a decided change in how some ex-members view Homestead Heritage, Wheeler says. When most of them left, they still held the group in high regard. Now, he says, they call it a cult and lie about what the group believes.

Watchman Fellowship has done work beneficial to the Christian community, Wheeler says. But Homestead Heritage’s experience with the organization has been nothing but a witch hunt, he says.

In particular, Wheeler faults Phillip Arnn, a senior researcher for Watchman Fellowship in charge of gathering information about Homestead Heritage. Like many who are part of the “anti-cult movement,” Arnn has virtually run out of real cults to hunt, Wheeler says, and now focuses on religious groups that don’t share his doctrinal views.

Noting that Arnn is in poor health, Wheeler says Arnn has made it his mission to ruin Homestead Heritage before he quits working.

“The last trophy he wants is to bring us down,” Wheeler says.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.