FLDS church teachings lead members into financial mire

The Salt Lake Tribune/May 5, 2004
By Brooke Adams

The year 2000 wasn't supposed to happen.

As the millennium approached, many followers of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints felt encouraged to max out their credit cards and exhaust their personal loans. The end was near, FLDS leaders said, and the bills would never come due.

"We were going to be lifted up and the wicked would be destroyed," said Pam Black, whose now deceased husband Martin did as told. "I remember him spending on his own teeth."

Only the world didn't end and the bills are coming due. Consider this case: One Hildale family piled up $47,612 in credit card debt for "living expenses" before filing for bankruptcy late last year.

"A lot of people got quite burned in the deal," said Ross Chatwin, a former member who is currently fighting the FLDS church's attempt to evict him from his home. "A lot went bankrupt, a lot of cards got cut off and vehicles repossessed."

Getting by has always been a challenge for followers of this fundamentalist faith that dominates the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The faithful adhere to what they consider a purer version of Mormonism that includes plural marriage. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints discontinued the practice in 1890 as a condition of statehood.

Providing for the big families that result -- the average family size is 8.1 in Hildale, compared with 3.57 in Utah -- is a hardship for many residents.

Jobs are limited and pay is low, a situation made worse by occasional "suggestions" that workers turn their paychecks over to the church for one project or another. Some business owners were making so many donations to the church they had trouble meeting other financial obligations, such as payroll.

As 2000 neared, "People were counseled in their business decisions that the end was tomorrow," said Ezra Draper, who left the community last summer. "They would use cash on hand to progress the needs of the church, whatever request [FLDS leader Warren Jeffs] was making of them, because the big one was going to drop sooner or later. Instead of making 30-year plans, they were making three-month plans."

Another impediment to getting ahead: All land is held by a church-owned trust, so residents are unable to get mortgages on property and have to build in a piecemeal fashion as money becomes available through earnings, credit or loans.

It was all for naught for some men.

Richard Holm, for example, used some money he borrowed from the Bank of Ephraim to fix up the home he was forced to leave in November. Holm says that over several decades he poured $700,000 into the home.

In the past year, followers' limited means have been stretched even further by Jeffs' edict that adult men make monthly $1,000 tithes. Eternal salvation, as well as continued membership in the faith, depends on complying, the people are told.

"It has always been this way, but it has gotten exceptionally bad over the past year," said Chatwin. "A lot of people, if Warren says come up with the money, they'll go borrow on a credit card without thinking about how they are going to pay it back."

Such demands caused heated fights in Black's home.

"I wanted to know why our family had to starve while he was supporting these priesthood men," said Black, a mother of 14. "It meant our whole paycheck, nearly everything we had."

God, she was told, has provided.

"We were told from the pulpit that food stamps were made for this people because we were God's chosen," said Black, who left the FLDS church in 1998 but still lives in the community.

And so Black signed up, though she hated having to rely on the hand-out and dreaded the humiliating stares she got when shopping outside the community.

"We wouldn't have survived without the food stamps," said Black.

And neither, apparently, would many other families. In 2002-2003, the twin cities received just over $3 million in food stamps.

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