Come visit our ‘secret life’ at Homestead Heritage
Crowds gather to watch a demonstration at Homestead Heritage. About 60,000 visit the grounds near Gholson every year, according to Homestead Heritage.
Sunday May 13, 2012
Gandhi once called a book that misrepresented India “the drain inspector’s report.” To him, the book unfairly characterized an emerging India by focusing exclusively on the most negative examples in Indian society (those headed “down the drain”). This focus left the reader to conclude that the very problems India so struggled to eliminate were somehow representative of their whole culture.
Such misleading reports prove so frustrating because one negative story, even if completely unfounded, inevitably has more impact on the public than dozens of positive ones. It seems that human nature inclines us to be skeptical and slow to believe a good report, yet immediately resigned to the veracity of a bad one. In troubling times, we’re often even more prone to cynicism, especially regarding cultures different from our own.
Gandhi’s words came back to me when I saw the recent broadcasts on WFAA News 8 regarding the Homestead Heritage community. I’m a lifelong resident of Waco and a member of Homestead Heritage for 22 years. I’ve grown somewhat accustomed to misunderstandings and misrepresentations of our chosen way of life by some in the media. After all, our simple, nonviolent, traditional agrarian lifestyle and Christian Anabaptist beliefs are admittedly — and intentionally — “behind the times” in many ways. But this particular broadcast was by far the most egregious yet.
The story aired the week after the 19th anniversary of the David Koresh debacle, and the reporter’s avidity for implied comparisons was evident throughout. (Sorry, Waco. It seems like our town is stuck with the infamous legacy.)
Our gates are open
Titled “Secret Lives” in the promotional trailer, the report presented our community as a “gated compound,” “a secretive and tightly controlled religious environment” with a “locked gate” where “the general public is not allowed inside.”
McLennan County residents will no doubt see the absurdity of this, since many of you are part of the more than 60,000 visitors who come to Homestead Heritage every year. Homestead has been part of the Waco community for more than 20 years, and many of you know us from our annual Craft Fair, our sorghum festival, the field trips we host every year for thousands of schoolchildren, the classes we host from Baylor and other universities, our Ploughshare School of Sustainability that teaches crafts and homesteading skills, our outreach ministries and our holiday concerts.
If you haven’t visited before, please do. We’re open all year Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and we invite you to come out and enjoy a meal at Cafe Homestead, tour our craft village and farm, meet our people and experience our way of life.
We’ve addressed the WFAA story (as well as another rendition of the same story that appeared in the Texas Observer) more completely on our website with video and written responses (see www.homesteadheritage.com/slander). But I would like to briefly comment here.
Our online video shows many examples of outrageous WFAA distortions. One shows a fuzzy, black and white, slow motion video taken inside our church, while reporter Brett Shipp is saying, “the general public is not allowed inside.” But the original footage reveals that it was actually a standing ovation at the end of last year’s Easter concert — an event attended by well more than 1,000 people from the general public, including state senators and judges, Texas Supreme Court justices and a former president of the United States with his Secret Service contingent.
Charges of hidden abuse
More ominously, the report claimed to be exposing hidden child abuse within Homestead Heritage. It was based exclusively on the testimony of nine former members (two of whom were anonymous). In reality, the report exposed nothing but unfounded slander.
The story’s seeming appearance of legitimacy comes from dredging up a handful of cases of criminal abuse that involved individuals who were more or less associated with Homestead Heritage in the past. But, again, these cases are not news — all of them were reported in the media when they occurred, some many years ago. What the WFAA story omitted, along with numerous other pertinent facts, was that, in every case, it was the ministry of Homestead Heritage that exposed and reported the crimes.
The WFAA “investigation,” which has been going on for six months, also made no mention whatsoever of McLennan County law enforcement’s involvement or opinion of the situation. The day after WFAA’s first broadcast, Lt. Clay Perry of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office told Waco’s KCEN: “When these were reported, people from within the Homestead Heritage instructed or escorted the [perpetrators] to come to us and brought them to us.”
Also appearing on KCEN, McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna said, “None of those [cases] are related in terms of it evidencing an epidemic of something going on out at Homestead Heritage. They’re independent, isolated cases.” Reyna also told KCEN he sees no connection between these crimes and the lifestyle at Homestead Heritage.
Friendly former members
Eighty-seven former members of Homestead Heritage signed a petition protesting any media story that accuses our community of condoning or hiding such behavior. (See www.homesteadheritage.com/petition) Homestead Heritage specifically pointed WFAA to this petition months before the station aired its story, but WFAA made no mention that any former members disagreed with the nine former members they selected.
In the rare cases of abuse, our church ministry and community have been doing our best to meet the practical, emotional and financial needs of the victims and their families. For their sake, we’re grieved that these painful situations, already thoroughly dealt with by the appropriate authorities, are now being exploited in the media just to lend credence to the charge that our whole community is abusive.
Because Jesus said it’s not the well who need a physician, we’ve always made it our goal to try to help those who need it most. At the same time, we’ve tried to provide our children an environment free from the social ills so prevalent in today’s world. Given the realities of human nature, it’s admittedly sometimes more than difficult to do both. We’re aware that this calling to reach out to dysfunctional individuals and families also makes us vulnerable to their personal failings, as well as to malicious attempts to then smear our whole community’s reputation with those failings. From our beginnings, we’ve not only reported criminal behavior — we’ve also removed from our community anyone who repeatedly exhibits any socially destructive behavior that endangers or hurts others. This is exactly why we asked most of those who now accuse us to leave (which often explains their personal motives for slandering us).
A word of thanks
In conclusion, I hope that our community might not be judged by the “drain inspector’s report” — that is, the behavior or stories of those who have rejected and departed from our way of life. Rather, I hope we can continue to be known by the fruit and behavior of the hundreds of us who actually love and enjoy our community life.
On behalf of Homestead Heritage, I thank all of you in McLennan County who have been so supportive of our efforts for many years. We trust that your personal experience with us has differed greatly from the terrible misrepresentations in these irresponsible media stories. We solicit your prayers that the current situation will not hinder our ability to continue serving the people of Waco and McLennan County.
For those with doubts, please come visit us, ask questions, meet our children and see for yourselves, rather than interpret us through the lens of sensationalist media. Please also watch our new video response, “For the Sake of the Children …” on our website: www.response.homesteadheritage.com