Building on faith

Chapel rising from ashes of Branch Davidian cam

The Dallas Morning News, January 20, 2000
By David Snyder

WACO - The burgers are on the grill. A battered, dusty boom box blares "Deep in the Heart of Texas." The kids are throwing balls to the dogs, and the dogs are lolling in the sun. It's a picnic-perfect Sunday in a pristine Texas meadow.

Rising from this particular meadow, however, is a symbol that imbues an otherwise idyllic scene with a hint of tragedy and bloodshed. And hope. It's a new church. The Branch Davidians are rebuilding. More properly, volunteers are rebuilding on behalf of the Davidians. Because only about 12 Davidians remain in the Waco area, and not all of them agree on how and where the sect should worship, it's unclear exactly whom the church is designed to serve.

Still, every Sunday for the last three months people have driven to Waco from around the state to offer lumber, labor and time. Some say they come out of a simple sense of Christian charity. Some come because they say they're curious.

Others have a political bent. They speak of government conspiracies. With an almost devotional fervor, they rehash the events of April 19, 1993. It was that day that etched this Texas field into the American consciousness. About 80 people died when the Davidians' compound burned to the ground after a 51-day standoff with federal agents.

April 19 has, of course, taken on even greater dimensions of tragedy with the deaths that day in 1995 of 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing. "I don't know who all is going to come to the services," said Mike Hanson, a volunteer from Austin who said he has worked at the site every weekend since September. "But the thinking was this church can hold 250 people, so we can have a place out of the sun and rain on April 19, when we have a memorial service."

Variety of volunteers

The site, which has museumlike placards detailing the various parts of the old Davidian compound, draws people of various political persuasions each April 19.

If Mr. Hanson and the other volunteers meet their goal, the seventh anniversary of the siege's bloody conclusion will occur under a new roof. The church-rebuilding effort is spearheaded by Austin talk-radio host Alex Jones and has amassed about $40,000 in contributions. The 2,500-square-foot wood frame church, built on the site of the Davidians' old chapel, is about half-complete.

Mr. Jones, who describes himself as a libertarian and has regularly featured the surviving Davidians on his public-access cable television show, was fired from his radio job at KJFK-FM on Nov. 30. He said the station's managers ousted him after he refused to stop using air time to support the rebuilding effort.

Mr. Jones, 25, continues broadcasting via the Internet. He has filed to run for state representative on the Republican ticket for District 48 in Austin. Three Web sites are devoted to the reconstruction effort, and they offer a panoply of theories about the demise of the Davidian compound.

Recent admissions by the FBI that their original account of the fire was not accurate fueled support for the church's reconstruction, Mr. Jones said.

"As more and more evidence came out, we were getting calls from all sorts of people," he said. "We've had black single mothers, Jewish folks, blue-collar workers, a doctor and his wife from New York."

Support has flagged recently. The volunteers originally planned to open the church Feb. 28, the anniversary of the initial raid by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Weekly donations have dwindled to a few hundred dollars from as much as $6,000 at the beginning, and the opening date was pushed to April 19.

Outsiders on the job

Surviving Davidians in the Waco area - there are about a dozen - have offered support for the cause. But most of the work has been done by outsiders.

"Some of the believers that are anxious have a lot of bad memories about this place," said Edna Doyle, a Davidian who lives in a double-wide mobile home on the 78-acre tract with her son, Clive, who survived the fire. "We didn't expect this [the reconstruction] to happen here. But it happened, so we accept it."

Some Davidians don't want to worship at the site of the April 19 conflagration and would rather hold Bible study in private homes, as they have since 1993.

The construction site, which is active only on Sundays in deference to the Davidians' Saturday Sabbath, resembles a conventional company picnic with a little bit of camouflage garb thrown in.

Among the minivans, Igloo coolers and children playing in the mud, there are T-shirts emblazoned with pictures of machine guns and slogans such as "Death to the New World Order." The Michigan Militia has donated about $500 to the cause.

B. LeClair, a computer programmer and former Marine, drove his minivan up from Houston with his wife and two children on a recent Sunday. Like many at the site, Mr. LeClair learned about the project on the Internet. "A lot of my family thinks I'm a little bit nuts for being up here," said Mr. LeClair, who declined to give his first name, he said, for fear of reprisals from anti-Davidian groups.

"All I know is that what I saw on TV in 1993 wasn't the truth, and I just want to help the people up here."

Political statement

Others profess more pointedly political reasons for coming. Most said they don't know much about Davidianism - a sect of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church - but came to make a statement.

"I'm not even a religious man, but I just wanted to say to the people who think they're in charge of this country, 'You can't get away with it,' " said Ken Dudley, an electrician from Pennsylvania who drove to Waco from Houston, where he was visiting relatives.

The church will seat about 250 people. The entrance is where the entrance to the original chapel was. Like the original chapel, the structure will have bleacher-style seating and a stage.

Workers have installed a metal roof and fiberglass-reinforced concrete siding, and plan to treat the frame with a fire-retardant chemical compound. The original plan was to make the walls of concrete, to make them bullet- and fire-proof, said George Pulliam, a Pflugerville structural engineer who donated time to design the church and help build it. But that proved too costly.

If nothing else, the structure will be fire-resistant, he said.

"There are a lot of brush fires around here," he said. "The design is defensive against nature, hopefully not against people." A formerly homeless man lives in a trailer at the construction site, acting as a security guard. Volunteers said people have driven by and shouted implied threats such as "Burn, baby, burn." Mixed emotions

"There are a lot of people who don't want to see that church built," said Charles Pace, who lives in a double-wide trailer on the northern end of the property and was the first Davidian to move permanently to the site after 1993. He was not in Texas when the compound burned and, unlike most Waco Davidians, does not consider himself a follower of David Koresh. Amo Roden, who professes a brand of Davidianism different from Mr. Koresh's followers, spends part of the year in a tent-shaped wooden shack near the entrance to the property. She is in a property-ownership dispute with Clive and Edna Doyle, who live about 50 feet from Ms. Roden's shack. None of the three people living on the property agrees about exactly how the new church should be used. Ms. Roden said that if the courts grant her ownership of the property, she would make the church into a "Davidian Holocaust Museum." Mr. Doyle said he would use the church for Bible study. Outside the Davidian property, in Waco, support for the new church is weaker.

"You can't get any of the [local] churches to make a move," said Mr. Hanson, the organizer. "They're scared to death, and I don't know why."

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