These answers are by no means exhaustive, nor are the points they address the only ones we would take issue with in the Observer article. There are numerous other misrepresentations, distortions and outright fabrications in the article that are not discussed here, from inconsequential inaccuracies to egregious slander. These are simply offered to at least give an initial sampling of the types of problems that run through every element of this story.
Reality Check: The bias in this title alone is remarkable, coming as it does from an author who assured us from the very beginning that he approached this story “with no particular angle in mind.” “As a journalist,” he assured us, he would be coming from “a completely neutral point of view,” especially since this was “not a comment piece.” But where is the real evidence of this “heritage of abuse”? Why would he not title it instead, “Heritage of Rejecting Abuse”? Or better yet, “Heritage of Being Persecuted”? A strong case indeed could be made for this latter title as characterizing the nature of the article itself.
Read on into his story, and you will discover that the “evidence” for this “heritage of abuse” comes from two things: four cases of child abuse in 39 years (which the article conveniently omits that we exposed and reported) and the testimony of a certain group of ex-members (14, to be exact—half of whom remain anonymous). The testimony of this handful is contradicted by all current members, numerous ex-members and thousands of friends, neighbors and family members—but their views, of course, are scarcely mentioned, if at all. Nonetheless, we’re still supposed to trust that this story, in the words of its author, is coming from “no point of view at all.” It’s merely a “neutral” “human interest” piece.
Reality Check: As more than one reader has already commented on the Observer website, there is nothing “exclusive” about this story (except, perhaps, the sheer volume of fiction it contains). It mirrors in many ways the “story” done five years ago by the Waco Tribune Herald, featuring many of the same handful of people saying many of the same things. The Tribune article did say that ex-members made no criminal allegations, but as we pointed out at the time, these ex-members had indeed already made numerous criminal allegations against us in online blogs. In fact, Jeremy Crow (who was prominently featured in the Waco Tribune story also) had already posted, 6 years ago, the same allegations against us regarding the DeLong case that the Observer now claims to have “exposed.” Though the Tribune reporter knew of this and other criminal allegations (we discussed them with her at the time), she and/or her editors chose to exclude them. It could hardly be argued, however, that this was due to their desire to protect us, given the negative nature of their entire story line. (The ownership and management of the paper has changed since the time this article was published.) It seems more probable that they questioned if they were legitimate accusations, especially since we had already reported the entire scenario, including the delay, to the sheriff. Or perhaps they simply feared that the public might frown upon the notion of the paper printing something so inflammatory without any reasonable purpose.
On a different note, the subtitle also refers to us as a “Waco religious group accused of . . . .” It’s hard to believe this is less than an intentional attempt to fire the public synapses with buzzwords that correlate us with David Koresh.
Reality Check: The first photo was taken at our 2009 Homestead Fair. It looks almost desolate because of the angle—not a very accurate portrayal of the atmosphere at the Fair, as any one of the tens of thousands who have attended our Fairs could attest. The other two photos are mug shots of young men who were never members of our church and whom we exposed and turned in to law enforcement for child abuse.
Reality Check: We are openly nonpolitical. But given the Observer’s well-known political bias, we weren’t surprised to see that they include in the very first paragraph the fact that President Bush asked our community’s construction business to build his home in Crawford. Though this is likely a sideswipe, intended to also tarnish the former president by his association with us, we would like to make a different point about this: If such horrors and criminal activities as this article alleges were really taking place in our community, why have they not been exposed by the repeated and very careful—obviously totally nonpartisan—Secret Service background checks we’ve undergone?
4. Observer: After describing the “public face“ of our community and the fact that we’re “well known” as “harmless religious folk devoted to an earlier, simpler way of life“ (perhaps the only factually correct paragraph in the entire article), Hannaford then proceeds with his teaser: “But dig a little below the surface, and the idyllic veneer of this place begins to peel and crumble.“
Reality Check: This statement is both ironic and contradictory. On one hand, it is true that Hannaford only dug a little below the surface of the story he’s been told by this relatively small group of hostile ex-members. In fact, he only ever contacted us (the subject of his story) just a few days before the deadline for his story. Then he refused to meet with us face to face to discuss our concerns about his pre-set story line. In addition, though he makes no mention of it whatsoever in his article, he also spoke with several ex-members who directly contradicted his storyline. Thus he intentionally leaves the impression that every ex-member he came across confirmed his storyline. Moreover, he chose not to contact scores of other ex-members who are favorable towards us. Nonetheless, the reader is led to believe that corruption and vice are so widespread through our community that just a “little” digging uncovered a “litany of tragedy.” One is left to wonder how the many thousands who have known us for years, many of them very intimately, have missed these horrors that supposedly lie just beneath the surface. (Perhaps you just have to look through the right lens.)
On the other hand, as mentioned, this article is billed as a “Texas Observer Exclusive,” with the implication that the Observer’s careful investigation “exposed” hitherto unknown facts. But no new cases of verifiable child abuse whatsoever have been exposed by the Observer. Neither have they exposed “families broken apart” or any substantiation to irresponsible and false “allegations of mind control, cover-ups and secrecy.” In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find one verifiable fact in the entire article that has not been previously published in some public form (unless one considers it a verifiable “fact” that certain “allegations” have been made, many anonymously—but even most of this hearsay has been previously publicized in various forms).
Reality Check: Hannaford would like the reader to believe that our community is rife with child abusers. But to put things in perspective, Bill Delong was the first case of child abuse we had ever encountered in the thirty years of our ministry at that time. Now, after almost forty years of reaching out to thousands of people from all types of backgrounds, who have suffered from all types of social dysfunctions, we’ve encountered a total of three more cases of this crime, making a total of four (not six). In every case, our ministry exposed and reported the crime. Two of the offenders were never members of our church, and a third was a member at one time but had had his membership revoked for other noncriminal problems almost a year before we learned of his crime.
Every other allegation the Observer allegedly “found” has left the alleged victim, the alleged perpetrator and the alleged church elder who allegedly failed to report it all anonymous. The Observer alleges that this alleged abuse of anonymous people by anonymous people was never reported by anyone to law enforcement. When the word “alleged” must be used so repeatedly, at what point does a story cross the line from news to gossip and slander?
Reality Check: Brazos Walking Sticks is not, and has never been, “affiliated with Homestead Heritage.” One of our members owns the company, and several members work for the company (along with several nonmembers). It would normally be very unusual to say that a church member’s private business is “affiliated” with his church. It’s also completely irrelevant to the story at hand. But there is, of course, a reason for the mention of this inaccurate detail: the Observer is trying to connect our church with the crimes of these individuals through any possible means, no matter how strained.
As an aside, the same news piece from two years ago from which the Observer likely “discovered” Andrew’s employment at Brazos Walking Sticks also told that Andrew had turned himself in. It further reported that the DA prosecuting the case had actually recommended probation for him rather than a prison term, saying that she felt “he had learned the behavior from his father.” But this more relevant information was omitted from the Observer story in favor of an attempt to “affiliate” his job with our church.
Reality Check: It appears that the Observer would like to tacitly implicate law enforcement, too, as being complicit in some way with our grand “cover-up.” But the fact that the Sheriff’s office wouldn’t release details even though the cases were in the public record is not particularly unusual—and in fact it’s very standard when a case involves a minor.
Perhaps more importantly, the fact that the Sheriff’s office wouldn’t give Hannaford any details, and that he also didn’t receive any firsthand information from the perpetrators (or their families or victims, as far as we know), exposes the fact that Hannaford does not know the details of the inflammatory things he presumes to reveal.
8a. Observer: Hannaford tells the “particularly distressing“ story of “‘Sandy’ (not her real name),“ who relates a litany of horrors she allegedly received from other anonymous church members, while anonymous “elders in the church“ that she allegedly told, allegedly “dis-fellowshipped“ the anonymous alleged perpetrators in lieu of “taking the matter to the police.“ Furthermore, the Observer has allegedly “learned from a number of different sources of other cases of sexual abuse within Homestead Heritage. But the alleged victims refused to speak publicly, and the details of their stories couldn’t be independently confirmed.“
Reality Check: Though the article stated clearly in the beginning that the Observer’s investigation had found allegations of “at least six” cases of abuse in our community, the evidence really breaks down once you get past the four cases that we exposed and reported. And though the Observer lumps these four cases together with the other alleged allegations, these four cases were certainly not unveiled by the Observer’s investigation—they had all been published in major news media when they occurred. That leaves only “‘Sandy’ (not her real name)” and “other cases” to be “found” by the Observer’s astute discernment. But in every case allegedly found by the Observer, anonymity veils all parties from everyone’s view (except Hannaford’s, of course, who allegedly knows the names and details of all of these people). Thus the verifiable facts in the abuse cases were all provided first by our ministry, then confirmed by law enforcement investigations and placed in the public record, then largely broadcast through other news media outlets (as well as copiously rehashed by these same hostile detractors in their public online blogs) and only now “exposed” by the ever alert Observer.
As for “Sandy” and the “other” alleged allegations that the Observer has allegedly dug up—the reader is left to take Hannaford at his word. If the reader prefers to take our word instead, there has been absolutely no other child abuse brought to our attention other than that which we’ve exposed and are now being blamed for.
Furthermore, besides these four cases of pedophilia (which, again, we exposed, reported and cooperated in their investigation and only two of which involved people who had ever been members of our church), even immoral relations among teenagers and among young adults—activities so prevalent in the surrounding culture as to now be excused as “inevitable”—have been confined to literally only a handful of instances during our almost forty years of existence. In contrast, an entire movement exists in modern culture that seeks to ridicule and laugh out of existence the notion of abstinence as a viable alternative for teenagers and unmarried young adults. But outside of a small handful, our young people have proven not only the realistic possibility of abstinence, even in this day and age, but also the emotional, psychological and spiritual benefits of it. Our community patterns have allowed young people to remain free from the consequential emotional and physical scars that follow young people’s rash and impulsive decisions to yield to immoral behavior.
Reality Check: Alex Hannaford, along with anyone else at the Observer who knows the identity of this alleged victim, may have committed a crime under Texas law by not reporting suspected child abuse. It would be hard to excuse him for lack of knowledge of his responsibility, given that the whole thrust of his story is to accuse us of this very thing. But perhaps he feels restrained because he also knows that, according to Texas law, while failure to report child abuse is a misdemeanor, falsely reporting child abuse is a state jail felony.
Reality Check: It seems that Hannaford wants us to appear paranoid, as we “aggressively” rushed to set up a website before the story was even out. But who is really the aggressor in this situation? We are in the position of having to defend ourselves against this unscrupulous, unwarranted attack. And the fact is that we had numerous clear indicators from multiple sources (including him) that his story line was going to completely mischaracterize us with inflammatory accusations (such as anonymous claims of abuse), and we repeatedly told him so before the story came out. We were exactly right.
Besides, we wanted to include our website address in the statement we gave Hannaford for publication (though the Observer chose not to print that part of our statement), so we had to set it up ahead of time. And, as the Observer acknowledged, we didn’t answer out of turn—no content was placed on the site until after the story broke.
By omitting the part of our statement that explained our website, the Observer gave the impression that Hannaford had discovered some backhanded move of ours and so was letting the reader in on the fact that we had set up a web page about his story. Our original statement makes clear, though, that one of the very purposes of our statement was to explain why we didn’t grant an interview, why we set up the web page and to direct readers to the page.
Reality Check: First, this petition was not a response to the Observer article in particular. In fact, the dates on the petition reveal that we made this petition available long before we knew about the Observer’s intention to write a story on us. We agreed to set it up because we knew what this band of hostile ex-members had in mind and that they were actively pursuing media outlets to satisfy their agenda. We knew they had been stirred to action by the recent Santa Maria case that we exposed and reported, and they saw it as an opportunity to give the appearance of validity to their stories.
Second, as is made clear in the introduction to the petition itself, the reason we set up the petition is that some friendly ex-members, who knew of the plot against us, asked us to provide some way that they could show their support.
Third, the link to the petition in the article is not a web link (which would have been easiest and most natural). Rather, it is a link to a PDF file of a sloppy scan of the web page. Though no reason is given for this unusual move, a couple possibilities come to mind: one, no one can navigate the PDF as they could the page, so comments on the petition page cannot be opened; two, the more links directing people to a site, the higher it ranks in search engines, so making no direct link would ensure that our actual web page didn’t gain any more traffic.
Finally, the article itself makes no mention that 80 ex-members have signed this petition—more than five and a half times as many as the fourteen that Hannaford claims he interviewed, and more than ten times as many as were actually willing to put their name (or at least half of their name) in his story.
Reality Check: First, as already stated, the abuse did not continue, according to the very records Hannaford provides, as well as additional records he failed to note.
Second, Carolyn signed the petition in good faith. Though she is no longer a member of our church, the petition nonetheless reflects her true feelings about our ministry. This is because she knows the full story that the Observer doesn’t tell about her husband’s circumstances, as well as the falsehood of certain elements it does tell. In spite of her and George’s failure to report at the time, she now knows with certainty what our senior ministry’s position and practice is on all this. She knows that a minister informed the Sheriff’s office within 48 hours of our eldership board finding out about Bill’s crime and that we made sure he turned himself in immediately thereafter.
We also have a signed statement of facts from Carolyn DeLong dated December 10, 2006, regarding Jeremy Crow’s public online accusation that our ministry was supposedly caught red-handed because Bill decided to turn himself in. Carolyn writes, “Jeremy Crow has no first hand knowledge of these events. I do. My husband was exposed through Brother George’s ministry, and the elders did not get caught by my husband’s decision to turn himself in, but rather it was the elders who told my husband to turn himself in and also went to the McLennan County Sheriff to tell him what my husband was going to do.”
Reality Check: This is stated as an undisputed, unqualified fact. But where is the evidence that we claim that “most criticisms” of us “amount to secular attacks on religious freedoms”? Our experience, and our stated view, has been just the opposite! In fact, we have been very clear from the beginning about the religious roots of the current controversy with these particular hostile ex-members. These people were first organized into a “groupthink” approach by a fundamentalist religious “watchdog” group who takes it upon themselves to police the consciences of others to ensure that everyone conforms to their own narrowly prescribed view of Christian orthodoxy. Alex Hannaford is simply revealing his own ignorance of the origins and history of this conflict. We had hoped to explain the background of all of this to him, but he refused to give us that opportunity.
Nonetheless, it should be further pointed out that some of those who attack us are indeed very antireligious (even religiously so). Jeremy Crow, for example, has told several people we know that he is now an atheist. The Observer itself even quotes one of their star witnesses, Adam Alexander, saying, “I believe in God but I don’t believe in religion.” He claims that “churches . . . end up controlling people by fear,” and “he is not willing to join another institution that claims to help him reach God.” There are others, too, behind this story who are quite anti-religious, though the Observer chose not to include some of them (or at least not to name them). One recently submitted an email to this website to tell us, “I am now a staunch atheist who can refute every one of your god claims.”
11. Observer: The Observer notes that the Internet has provided a vehicle for ex-members to “publicly channel their discontent—and in many cases, their extreme anger and despair. Using pseudonyms, they continue today to post their testimonies on online forums like F.A.C.T.net, a resource for those recovering ‘from the coercive practices of cults and religions,’ and on Topix.com, a web-based discussion community.“
Reality Check: Though Hannaford sees these online forums fostering anonymity as a wonderful provision of technology, not everyone would agree. Topix.com has even recently been written up in the New York Times for its propensity for fomenting slander, hatred and violence, particularly in small rural communities. In the article, Chris Tolles, Topix’s chief executive, “acknowledged the biggest problem at the site is ‘keeping the conversation on the rails.’ But he defended it on free-speech grounds. He said the comments are funny to read, make private gossip public, provide a platform for ‘people who have negative things to say’ and are better for business. At one point, he said, the company tried to remove all negative posts, but it stopped after discovering that commenters had stopped visiting the site.”1
The Times article says that despite some screening efforts (usually only upon request), “the site is full of posts that seem to cross lines” into libel and threats. The “company receives about one subpoena a day for the computer addresses of anonymous commenters as part of law enforcement investigations or civil suits.”2
F.A.C.T.net, on the other hand, has an added element in our case. The postings about us there were started by a leader of the fundamentalist “Christian” watchdog group that originally organized this group of ex-members against us and gave them the cult template they now seek to cram us into at every turn. (This man has, to this day, never even met one single member of our church, but this is apparently no deterrent to his omniscient judgment of us as a stereotypical cult.) Ironically, though he and most of our ex-members who post against us on F.A.C.T.net claim to be Christians, F.A.C.T.net is an openly anti-Christian site—one that has attacked not only marginalized groups like us but also people like James Dobson, Jack Hayford, Campus Crusade and Billy Graham, as well as countless other Christians of many other persuasions.
1 A. G. Sulzberger, “In Small Towns, Gossip Moves to the Web, and Turns Vicious,” New York Times, 19 September 2011
2 Sulzberger, “In Small Towns, Gossip Moves to the Web.”
Reality Check: This statement is apparently a tacit admission that even the select hostile ex-members that Hannaford interviewed don’t agree on many things of which they accuse us. But even where there is apparent agreement, sociologists warn that it doesn’t always correspond to the truth in a case like this because the ex-member syndrome fosters a “groupthink” mentality.
These ex-members have been hashing and rehashing on the web their ever-growing stories for almost eight years now, beginning soon after encountering the leader of a fundamentalist watchdog group who touched off the firestorm of postings and comments. Highly influential Artificial Intelligence theorist, Roger Schank, describes the process of “groupthink” as something that takes hold when people “network” by agreeing on the same construction—or reconstruction—of reality. Shank says that such an agreed-upon construction of reality takes place in telling a story, and, in the process of telling this story, this mind-set “also creates [a] memory structure” permanently in our brains “that will contain the gist of the story for the rest of our lives.”1 In other words, once the “networking” of “groupthink” takes hold, it becomes all but impossible to see things differently than the group. This small group of ex-members has devoted a prodigious amount of time and energy on the web to reinforcing each other’s distorted views until their fabrications have indeed become reality for them.
Terrence Deacon, formerly of Harvard Medical School and now at the University of California, Berkeley, has shown that the brain not only produces words but, more importantly, is shaped by words. Deacon argues that the brain’s development is a “direct consequence of the use of words,” in other words, instead of the brain just coming up with ideas, actually an “idea change[s] the brain.”2 To repeatedly hear stories, made up or otherwise, actually reshapes the brain neurologically. So to begin to repeat a lie or a reconstruction of an event, telling and retelling a story, creates a permanent memory of what is in fact a fabricated reality.
Of course, our detractors will accuse us of the same thing, and, indeed, in a sense all knowledge is reinforced through social interaction. But what our detractors don’t consider is that the insidious effects of “groupthink,” which hermetically seal people off from reality, primarily take hold through unconscious actions and behaviors. The members of our community consciously choose to adopt our particular worldview, and it is a minority worldview rooted in a simple, agrarian liftstyle that is challenged daily by the surrounding culture. Prior to anyone joining us, we are totally up front with them about what our beliefs are and about the sacrifices our life can entail. We have even, in fact, been greatly criticized by some for how difficult we make it for people to join us. But the stories that ex-members have for eight years networked back and forth about on the web did not first arise through their conscious understanding of the cult template the fundamentalist watchdog group offered them. They originally did not even know that the “expert” narrative they had been offered was not, in fact, Christian. They had no idea that the postings they poured out daily for months and months were not in fact posted on a Christian website, as the fundamentalist leader had told them, but instead it was a totally secular site devoted to attacking any authority, including that of Christian churches. Of course, they are free to post anywhere and anything they please, and just posting on a website doesn’t automatically infect you with the website’s views. But our point is simply that they were unaware of who they were following, why they were doing what they were doing or the nature of their newly found virtual universe, and they were therefore vulnerable to the insidious effects of “groupthink.” It is really no wonder that some of those who became most engrossed in their newly discovered “recovery narrative” have spiraled down so far from where they began that they now profess to be atheists, something we are quite sure they once never imagined they would one day become.
1 Roger C. Schank, Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990), p. 115.
2 Terrence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1997), p. 322.
Reality Check: Given that it was our ministry that exposed and reported every case of abuse, it’s preposterous to suggest that we allow, much less foment, abuse. A better question would be if there is something about the more permissive aspects of the culture at large that our ministry must continually combat in order to maintain Christian values within our community. Though Hannaford seems to agree with Jeremy Crow that encouraging general sexual permissiveness and looseness would discourage specific sexual crimes, we wholeheartedly disagree. (This is similar to arguing that if we would legalize marijuana, people would be less likely to abuse cocaine.) It would be unthinkable to argue that our present culture, which is undeniably the most sexualized that Americans have ever known, has produced a decline in child molestation. Just the opposite has occurred—and on a grand scale. It is the insidious influence of this permissive culture that brought these situations to our doorstep.
All of the men who committed these crimes came to us from terribly dysfunctional backgrounds, and we had been trying to help them overcome the social ills acquired from their previous circumstances. Consider their histories before they ever came to our ministry: One of them had had seven stepmothers during his childhood and had been sexually abused himself as a young child by a stepmother and a cousin. His father kidnapped him from his mother and took him to live in Las Vegas when he was ten, and his distant brother is currently in prison for the same crime. Two others had had multiple stepfathers and were each raised in near poverty with no father at all for most of their formative years. One was repeatedly bombarded as a teenager with pornography and various sexual perversions at his job. In other words, none of them were the product of our community’s chosen culture and lifestyle. We were simply trying to help them clean up their lives and overcome their past. Sadly, they ultimately chose not to implement the help we offered. And now we are being blamed for what we tried to help them overcome.
None of the four men who committed these crimes were suffering from repression of their sexuality. Quite to the contrary, all of them had a history of indulging their sexuality through numerous avenues, such as pornography, long before they committed the crimes we uncovered (though much of their involvement with this kind of thing was hidden from our ministry until their crimes came to light). Perhaps Hannaford may still insist that there’s nothing wrong with these behaviors, but, again, we disagree, since it has been our experience that those who immerse themselves in such things have often gone on to commit heinous crimes: it did not prevent them from taking this course. Conversely, the hundreds in our community who live within our agreed-upon standards of moral conduct never commit such crimes.
Reality Check: “Imposing” is apparently the author’s subjective impression based on what he’s been told by these biased detractors and perhaps some photos and/or videos from our website. He’s never met Blair Adams. But this doesn’t prevent him from stating his subjective impression as fact—and his caricature conveniently fits with the “authoritarian cult leader” stereotype. It’s not, however, the impression described by hundreds of others that don’t share this agenda.
Reality Check: Blair Adams was still affiliated with the Pentecostal organization of the church in Austin for quite a few years after he began the mission church in New York. The inaccuracy of this fact is inconsequential to the Observer’s story, but it does demonstrate both the unreliability of the witnesses involved, as well as Hannaford’s lack of diligence in research, for it could have easily been checked with other sources.
It should also be noted that Blair Adams separated from the organization on the best of terms, with a letter of commendation from the general secretary of the organization. He was not, as Hannaford seems to imply, some breakaway “rogue” actor.
Reality Check: This terminology is simply another attempt to make us fit the stereotype of a reclusivist, apocalyptic, doomsday cult. But when put in a less sensational context, our views on learning to live more sustainably and sensibly preparing to be less dependent on a global economy far beyond our control is hardly outside of mainstream consciousness. In fact, news organizations with the ideological leanings of the Observer are some of the strongest promoters of global crisis concerns. The media is full of warnings about global warming, the peak oil crisis, pending socio-economic collapse, nuclear proliferation in rogue nations, and on and on. And yet our efforts to promote and implement viable solutions in the form of locally sustainable communities are here caricatured by the Observer in terms that conjure up images of fringe lunatics holing up in the backwoods listening to the ticking of the “Judgment Day” countdown.
But again, concerns about the ecological, economic and social fragility of our world are hardly peculiar to our community. The cautions and calls to action have been sounding with increasing velocity for many decades now. For instance, Caltech professor Harrison Brown, said “The earth upon which we live is covered with a wondrous film of stuff which we call life. The film is exceedingly thin, so thin that its weight can scarcely be more than one-billionth that of the planet which supports it. If we were to collect all living matter and mold it into a single lump, it would appear, when placed next to the earth, as a mosquito appears in relation to a melon.” And this “living envelope,” which clings so “tenaciously to the surface of our planet,” is, said Brown, “insubstantial, flaccid and sensitive in the extreme to the physical conditions about it—so much so that a slight cosmic ripple would quickly bring extinction.”1 Brown concluded portentously that “just as we know rationally that the time will come when each of us as individuals will perish, so we know that our country, our culture and our species cannot exist forever. Sometime there must be an end.”2
Now that’s a “gloom and doom” warning that “the end times are near,” but is it, as Brown insisted, a “rational” gloom and doom, accurately mirroring the reality of today’s circumstances? Probably most would answer, “yes.” And more and more people are looking for ways to sustain a little longer this “insubstantial, flaccid and sensitive” “living envelope.” A quick scan through any newspaper or news website will turn up dozens of articles on the need for more sustainable living practices. Even President Obama is pursuing such goals in gardening on the White House lawn and in support for solar energy and other sustainable practices. And the thousands of people who have attended our classes and seminars on sustainable living and homesteading skills, traveling from across the country, testify that general consciousness of the tenuous nature of the world as we know it is on the rise. But again, the Observer would caricature us as “end of the world” alarmists who’ve secluded ourselves from the mainstream to “grow wheat for the tribulation,” even while their own magazine consistently runs favorable articles on the sustainable agriculture movement, and constantly promotes global crisis concerns, such as peak oil and global warming. Hannaford’s agenda to stereotype us as a dangerous cult has apparently overridden any consideration of this hypocrisy in the Observer’s treatment of our own goals in realizing sustainable agrarian community.
1 Harrison Brown, The Challenge of Man’s Future: An Inquiry Concerning the Condition of Man during the Years That Lie Ahead (New York: Viking Press, 1954), p. 3.
2 Brown, Challenge of Man’s Future, p. x.
Reality Check: Our Sunday meetings have not begun at 10 a.m. for decades. Though a minor detail, this is yet another example of basic inaccuracy that once again undermines the credibility of the Observer’s sources. Did Hannaford bother to fact check anything in his exposé? Furthermore, any meeting lasting for five hours or more would be an extremely rare exception—at least twice the length of a typical service. And finally, the stereotypically labeled “imposing Adams” does not conduct all meetings and has not done so for over thirty years. (Not that it would be so unusual if he did. Many churches typically have one pastor who conducts all their services.)
17b. Observer: The article gives our detractors’ description of our meetings as featuring an “intense drama” of “atrocious yelling,” disciplinary measures “at a moment’s notice,” people being “reprimanded,” “berated on the spot,” “cut down,” “belittled,” “condemned,” “a leader one minute and demoted the next” and “falling from grace.” These horrors were supposedly alternated with “love-bombing,” “showers of love and praise,” and “uplifting” “dancing” and such, while “all eyes were firmly fixed on Adams.”
Reality Check: This deliberately shocking misrepresentation of our services is ridiculously absurd. This is simply one more attempt to paint us as a weird cult infatuated with a stereotypical frenzied, schizophrenic, power-hungry leader. Again, how could Hannaford print such inaccurate slander as though it were an accurate portrayal of something he knew nothing about? Did it simply fit in with his prejudice? Did it really never even occur to Hannaford that these descriptions were less than accurate?
People have joined our community from all different backgrounds and walks of life: doctors, lawyers, philosophy professors, seminary graduates, ministers, social workers, law officers, military officers, IT specialists, public school superintendents, many school teachers, psychologists, PhD’s in physics, education, philosophy and so forth. Yet apparently they’ve all been “taken in” by our “grand deception,” and even such wild displays as the crazy caricatures described above have failed to clue them in that there’s something terribly wrong here. Even though most of these people have been part of us for years, maybe they’re so “shallow” that they just haven’t managed to “dig a little below the surface” yet. But they should take heart—the age of chivalry and selfless heroism is not dead. Maybe they’ll be fortunate enough to read the recent warnings of these few brave and unusually perceptive souls who’ve escaped a nonviolent, Anabaptist farming community and lived to tell the tale. Maybe it will bring them hope that they, too, can be enlightened and rescued.
Reality Check: To give an example of just how difficult it would be for someone in our community to contact law enforcement in the event of a problem, consider that we have on several occasions had families who were surprised by an unannounced visit by the Sheriff’s department. The reason? Their young child had been playing with the phone and accidentally called 911!
The notion that we are a “closed community” when we have over 50,000 visitors a year come to visit our farm and see our life is simply preposterous.
Reality Check: As the women of our religious tradition have done for 500 years, the women in our community do wear long dresses or skirts, but they do not always wear long sleeves. Because of our general belief in modest attire, they don’t wear sleeveless tops, but they very commonly wear short sleeves. This fact is inconsequential to the article in and of itself, but again reveals just how shallow and limited the author’s experience with us is, and how sloppy and shallow his “research” is. After all, in our introductory video, A Glimpse of Our Community, which is posted on our website’s video page, the very first footage of a woman shows her wearing short sleeves.
Reality Check: Of the 98 people who have married in our community over the last twenty years, exactly 6 have been 18 or 19 (and none were younger than 18). The average age of marriage over that twenty years was 23.2 years. Perhaps “John“ was “anxious“ to get married that young, but he shouldn’t project this on everyone else. We do know that “John“ was indeed quite anxious to “get out from under” any parental guidance.
Reality Check: The idea of “reprisals” against anyone who speaks against us fits the cult template well, but is an insult to even the barest pretense of truth and cannot be backed up with one single verifiable example. Our record of absolute nonviolence and noncoercion of any kind speaks for itself. What can be verified is that many other former members think the notion of “reprisals” is ridiculous, but their opinions weren’t included in the story. It can also be easily verified that some who left us for a time, and even felt hostile towards us for a season, were welcomed back into the community when they desired to return. What the anonymous accusers Hannaford uses really fear is truth, and so their accusations are made anonymously so as to be conveniently nonfalsifiable.
Reality Check: It seems that Hannaford interprets this phrase to be some kind of brush off, implying that all the accusations are trivial. Given that Hannaford makes his living in a literary field, we assumed that he would understand the deeper meaning of this term. It refers to one of Aesop’s fables in which the fox who cannot reach a cluster of grapes resorts instead to denouncing them as sour. So our point is not to minimize the seriousness of allegations of child abuse and such, but simply to point to the principle that reveals the motive behind those allegations as being one of personal dissonance induced by personal failures and disappointments. With that said, it’s also true that some of our detractors’ gripes indeed are trivial and petty.
23a. Observer: Bob Beechner says that Professor Roger Olson “should have questioned [us] more deeply than he did” when Olson wrote about us in Christianity Today (an article Hannaford describes as a “gushing” piece). In a letter to the editor of Christianity Today, Beechner implies that if Olson had really done his homework, he would have uncovered strange and unusual doctrines, such as our alleged belief that “baptism into the group involves making a ‘blood oath’ promising ‘undying faithfulness to the group and obedience to the group’s leaders.’ ” “Do you confess,” Beechner ominously quotes our literature as saying, “that . . . your baptism is a commitment to be discipled by men He has sent to teach you obedience to His commandments?”
Reality Check: Dr. Olson, as the Observer story says, is indeed a seminary professor at Baylor University. But his credentials, in ways pertinent to the story, go far beyond that. He is a renowned theologian, having won national awards for his books. And, as Olson pointed out in a letter to the editor he sent after our detractors protested his Christianity Today story in a series of newspaper articles in 2007, he is a widely published teacher in the area of new religious groups. He is, in fact, an authentic expert on what is commonly referred to as “cults” and utterly rejects the label’s application to our community. Moreover, members of our community have spent what must add up to hours in Dr. Olson’s office and during his visits to our community discussing all manner of theological topics. He has repeatedly brought out his seminary classes to see firsthand what he calls our “experiment” with community, and we always open the visit to questions. Olson’s story was well grounded and researched, contrary to what Beechner or the Observer would claim. (Certainly substantially more researched than the Observer’s story.)
When Bob and others of our detractors mounted a vociferous criticism campaign against Olson’s article about us, demanding that Christianity Todayretract the story, the magazine sent an editor, Timothy Morgan, to investigate. Morgan met with this group of detractors for a full day, hearing their stories and complaints about us. He then met with us the next day. After meeting with the ministers of our church, Morgan then spent several hours at one of our church picnics in which he had access to interview any member he desired (and we intentionally did not inform our church that he would be in attendance so that there could be no allegations that he only talked with those who had been prepared ahead of time to answer his questions). What Morgan heard, saw and felt from our community did not at all correspond to the stories and testimony he had heard from this group of detractors. Ultimately, Christianity Today not only refused to retract the article but even graciously extended the opportunity for us to write a rebuttal to Bob’s letter. We wrote that letter, and Christianity Todaydid publish it. Apparently Bob’s been rankled about this ever since, for he’s still bringing it up seven years later.
Beechner’s specific allegations in his seven-year-old letter mostly involve distorted renditions of beliefs we hold that the majority of Christians also ascribe to in one form or another. For example, he mentions that “baptism into the group involves making a ‘blood oath.’ ” Bob’s use of the phrase “blood oath” is designed to apply an ominous, almost occultic, overtone that makes baptism sound like some creepy cult ritual. But these terms are very common in Evangelical Christian theology. Jesus Himself, of course, spoke of the “the New Covenant [oath] in [His] blood” (Luke 22:20). And in fact, even though we are of the Anabaptist tradition, we have derived much of our understanding of the baptismal covenant from the writings of the late Meredith Kline, professor emeritus at Westminster Theological Seminary and who was a Reformed theologian. (See Kline’s seminal article in the November 1965 issue of the Westminster Theological Journal called “Oath and Ordeal Signs.”) This attachment of the blood to the vow also accords with views expressed by such diverse theologians as E. W. Kenyon and Leon Morris. For example, read Morris’s The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983). Furthermore, for evidence that our practice of the pledge of a good conscience at baptism hardly originates with our unique interpretation, Christianity Today’s own Christian History and Biography magazine, Fall 2004, p. 28, contains an excellent historical overview of traditional Anabaptist practices.
We realize baptism carries more weight for us than it does for many other churches today. But our position is not a “unique interpretation.” Rather, it’s the reality borne among Anabaptist churches during the intense persecution of the 1500’s and 1600’s and more recently in the Soviet Union. Moreover, historically, many other Christian denominations at one time in their history—and a number still today—attached great weightiness and importance to baptism. Even among those denominations that do not place great importance on baptism in America, this sacred commitment to Christ takes on an entirely different meaning in other nations where believers are persecuted even unto death, as in many Muslim countries. Whenever the stakes of becoming a believer are a matter of life and death, baptism is greatly valued and honored as the mark of complete commitment to the Christian faith.
Finally, when Beechner quotes our literature as saying “baptism is a commitment to be discipled by men He has sent to teach you obedience to His commandments,” he seems to feel he’s hit pay dirt in his quest to prove that we expect “undying faithfulness” to the “great leader”—the much-touted hallmark of the cult template. But though Bob claims to be a devout Christian, his zeal to stereotype us as a cult apparently caused him to overlook the fact that this quote simply reflects a standard Christian belief, coinciding precisely with what Jesus taught in one of the most central scriptures of the Christian faith, the Great Commission. Jesus charged His followers to go and “make disciples . . . , baptizing them . . . and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20, NIV). The “great leader” is the one and only Christ born of a virgin 2,000 years ago, suffering under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead, buried and risen from the grave. He alone is the Great Leader.
Reality Check: Who is denouncing whom in this situation? We have done nothing to these detractors besides ask them to leave our community, and yet we are being publicly and falsely denounced as a cult that covers up criminal behavior. And these denunciations of us have called upon the entire surrounding population to shun us as a “cult.”
Reality Check: Though this is a relatively small matter, it does exemplify the grossly shoddy, even libelous, unreliability of Hannaford’s “investigative reporting.” Just ask yourself, “How does he know the book was ‘not meant for anyone outside the church’?” Who told him this? Does the book have a big “Top Secret” stamp across its cover? This little aside suggesting “for members’ eyes only” does have great significance for Hannaford: all the “secrets” he can pile up, which are supposedly hidden from public view, can then, one by one, add up to fill out his overall “outing” of us as a group supposedly having a “wholesome” veneer artfully crafted to hide our heinously corrupt inner core. The charge of “secrecy” is about the only way he can put suspicion into the hearts of the hundreds of thousands that have visited us, yet left with a positive impression. He has to appear to have a plausible reason as to why people should distrust their own experience. It’s a tactic used by propagandists throughout history to provoke hysterical reactions in an unwitting populace: after all, to quote one of the most insidiously destructive of such fabrications, the Jews were said by their vicious accusers to not be what people think they are; instead, they were accused of killing Christian children in the dark of night.
Now to the book at issue. This book, Question Visitors Ask, along with dozens of others that have eventually spun off from it, was specifically written not only for our own membership but also for outsiders and so read by many people outside our congregation. The 485-page book was compiled from the best of various answers we received from our membership after we had presented them with questions we had actually encountered from visitors. (This same book was also “discovered” by the Waco Tribune Herald five years ago. Hannaford’s “exclusive” scoop is foiled again.) What Hannaford also fails to say about the book is that there are no “incriminating” answers in the book anyway, instead, in his words, only our answers to “controversial questions.” So the fact that we are willing to answer sensitive, difficult and “controversial” questions to the best of our ability is somehow taken to prove something insidious about us. Apparently, anything we do becomes proof of this to a “neutral,” “objective” reporter approaching this story from “no angle at all.”
Notice, too, that even though Hannaford has amazingly secured access to this supposedly “classified” book through an anonymous contact, for some reason he doesn’t quote one word of its dark secrets in his “exposé.” He quotes instead from the hearsay testimony of his cherry-picked ex-members.
Reality Check: If this accurately reports what she said, Katherine is “literally” lying. But if we remove the accusation that we drilled people into memorizing answers, we are left with a decidedly normal circumstance, for would it really be unusual that church members should be expected to read and understand a church’s beliefs and convictions anyway? Some ex-members elsewhere complained that we didn’t inform them about our beliefs, yet here they complain that we forced them to know what we believe. Even though the book in question was not designed as such, nonetheless asking questions in a catechism has been practiced for centuries by churches trying to discern if those joining them truly understood what they were committing to. We are not quite so stupid as to believe that visitors would fall for robotically repeated answers to their questions anyway. We give our visitors a little more credit than does the super-sleuth Hannaford.
- The Story behind the Story: Our Communication with Alex Hannaford
- Background History of Our Conflict with Ex-Members
- Hannaford Claims to Reveal the True Nature of Our Church’s Leadership
- Hannaford Chose His Expert Only to Support His Thesis Concerning What He Terms as Our “Sexual Repression”
- Other Sources Named in the Observer Story
- Hannaford Carelessly Vets His Sources and Fails to Investigate Them
- Hannaford Was Blindsided by His Own Ignorance about Our Position on Suing Members of the Church and Therefore Egregiously Misrepresents the Documents He Quotes