Waiting for Koresh

Today's Branch Davidians still looking for David Koresh's return

Tribune-Herald, Waco, Texas/March 2, 2003
By Terri Jo Ryan

Mount Carmel -- From the lonely, windswept site of a compound made famous a decade ago, a handful of surviving Branch Davidians fervently hope their late leader, David Koresh, will make good on his promises. Specifically, they hope he will rise from the dead to judge all mankind from the Heart of Texas.

"Things are going to change soon," says Catherine Matteson, 87, one of the few Branch Davidians still attending gatherings in the 3-year-old chapel built atop where Koresh's compound stood at their Mount Carmel site. "He is going to return. He is going to be resurrected."

Koresh, 33, may have perished with 75 of his followers during a tank and tear-gas assault conducted by federal agents 10 years ago, but his vision continues to hover over this remote, haunted stretch of McLennan County, 10 miles east of Waco.

His followers are few today, but they quietly keep the faith.

"When David comes back, that's when we'll evangelize," Matteson says. "When David comes back, you'll know it."

America has never been without unconventional religious movements, but Koresh and his followers continue to fascinate scholars, historians, libertarians and religious leaders, if only because of what happened in 1993.

Told in the biblical style favored by imprisoned Branch Davidian Livingstone Fagan, the story concerns Koresh and his "Keepers of the Book" living in the "wilderness" and fiercely resisting the "army of the Evil One," only to die amid flames. The apocalyptic scenario also calls for Koresh's resurrection.

Put another way, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms launched a botched raid on the Branch Davidian compound while attempting to serve search and arrest warrants involving illegal weapons. After a 51-day siege colored by futile negotiations and talk of biblical prophecy, the FBI mounted an assault in which the compound burned to the ground.

The dead in the rubble included 21 children.

"It's a story about what happened to one unconventional religious group," says Catherine Wessinger, professor of religious studies at Loyola University in New Orleans. "But it's also about the militarization of law enforcement and the problems ... and abuse that arise from such militarization."

Critics say the Feb. 28, 1993 raid, the April assault and much of what happened in between - including stadium-style lights blinding the compound at night and loudspeakers blasting sounds of locomotives and animals being slaughtered - suggest the government's willingness to use excessive force against religious movements that don't conform to the norm.

Others portray the Branch Davidians as willing dupes of a would-be rock star whose obsession with the Apocalypse, sex and weapons, coupled with a smooth persuasiveness and keen knowledge of the Bible, brought tragedy to them all.

Wessinger says she believes Koresh would have emerged from the compound peacefully, as promised, once he completed his work inside interpreting the Seven Seals in the Book of Revelation. To have come out earlier, she says, might have compromised Koresh's need to conform to strict biblical prophecy.

However, by then senior law enforcement officials - long frustrated by Koresh's attempt to talk about prophecy rather than capitulation - decided enough was enough.

Federal law enforcement has yet to fully emerge from the long shadows cast by the deadly assault.

Today the few remaining Branch Davidians who meet at the place they dubbed Mount Carmel concern themselves little with the past.

The closest this prophecy-oriented group comes to looking backward is when they hand out to visitors Koresh's writings about the Seven Seals - or, at least, as far as he was able to get before the FBI brought the siege to a fiery finish.

During a typical Saturday afternoon gathering of the faithful, Matteson says she believes an earthquake will rock Central Texas, opening a fault line at the reservoir in Waco and dropping Lake Waco by 15 feet. The resulting tidal wave will destroy the city of nearly 114,000.

Graves will open, she says, and Koresh will return to separate the righteous from the wicked.

Matteson is sure of one thing. Koresh, she says, was the last prophet.

"What he was trying to teach us was God's mind," she says, adding that most ministers - and subsequently their congregations - have not a clue about interpreting Revelation in the Bible.

Clive Doyle, the Australian-born Branch Davidian who sided with Koresh in the 1993 standoff and today leads a dwindling number of followers through Bible discussions, says he continues to believe in Koresh's end-of-time prophetic powers.

For his part, Doyle says he lacks Koresh's magnetic leadership qualities and the drive to draw in new followers.

"I'm not ashamed of who I am and what I've been," says the man who lost a daughter in the fire 10 years ago. "We are not evangelistic. We are willing to share the truth to those who want to listen.

"We're not out there with a noose and cattle prod to get them to come here," he says. "If people come seeking, we don't disappoint them."

In a plain sanctuary with more folding chairs than followers, Doyle leads his Bible study from the King James Bible - a spiritual exercise that may last three hours. The Branch Davidians are particularly enamored of prophecy, focusing on such passages as Ezekiel 9 and Daniel 9.

Sometimes the followers sing, though Doyle concedes they air their hymns poorly nowadays.

"Our best singers are buried," he explains.

Most Saturdays the Bible study is made up of three adults and two teens, plus a few visitors. Many of the Branch Davidians have drifted back to other lands, including Canada or New Zealand, Doyle says.

He suspects only 100 or so true believers remain in the world.

The fact Mount Carmel was once a bustling religious commune speaks to Koresh's powers and personality.

"Whatever David had, it must have been pretty special, for people came from around the world for it," Doyle says. "Think about it - they came to the middle of Texas and found fire ants and primitive living quarters, but they found something they couldn't find anywhere else.

"The spirit was right there, and the spirit kept them there and the spirit will resurrect them," he says. "I want to be around for that."

Certainly, the few who meet at Mount Carmel know well the price paid 10 years ago. Sheila Martin, 55, who left the compound before the FBI conducted its April 19 assault, lost not only her husband, Wayne Martin, in the fire but also four of her seven children.

Doyle himself acknowledges the loss of not only an 18-year-old daughter but many friends in the final struggle with law enforcement. Yet he insists their beliefs were true.

"People died here for what they believed in, so for those of us who are living, it would be a dishonor to their memory to give it up."

Rick Ross, a longtime deprogrammer of cult members who monitors various religious sects, says some of those who meet at Mount Carmel know in their hearts Koresh is a liar.

"What you're seeing is denial, but can you blame them?" Ross says. "Clive Doyle has suffered a terrible loss. He's lost his family, he lost a lifetime, he trusted a man who in the end destroyed everything.

"And consider Sheila Martin. She lost a husband, the love of her life, the father of her children. She lost half her children and all of her friends in this horrible, horrible tragedy. All she sacrificed was for nothing - and who did she give this up for? A pedophile, a criminal of the worst sort, a man who raped a 10-year-old."

Ross mocks the Branch Davidian religion as structured by Koresh: "A lot of David's so-called theology was theology-on-the-fly, whatever he could say to get people to stay or pull people in."

For example, one day the group would be vegetarians, strictly following Old Testament dietary laws, but the next Koresh would mount a barbecue, Ross says.

"It was whatever was expedient for David," Ross says. "And he was saying things that weren't true, like they would all [go]...through a dry...[ocean] bed to get to Israel."

Keeping followers on a short apocalyptic leash enabled Koresh to manipulate largely through fear. By saying God spoke through him, Koresh ensured that no one at the compound could thwart his will.

"God never called him to wear rags or eat bugs like John the Baptist," Ross scoffs. "No, he had all the ice cream and the pick of the women."

And Koresh, Ross adds, usually picked only the young, thin, pretty ones to be his "brides."

Wessinger, author of Millennialism, Persecution and Violence: Historical Cases (Religion and Politics), dismisses Ross' views on the Branch Davidians as lacking insight.

Surviving Branch Davidians she has talked with insist they frequently questioned Koresh's interpretations and forced him to support his statements through reliance on the Bible.

Wessinger also rejects the notion that Branch Davidians at the compound were unwitting dupes for Koresh, even as she questions some of Koresh's own thinking.

"I think they were basically good people and I think there was something going on with David Koresh's psychology," she says. "But I'm not trained in psychology so I don't articulate those opinions. From a layman's perspective, I'm sure he had some psychological issues.

"But," she adds, "he lived and died for these teachings, and so did the others."

Surviving Branch Davidians stress that Koresh was not Jesus Christ. Yet, first-century Judea was not the only time God took on flesh to visit the realm of man.

They believe God was manifested in Melchizadek, a priest mentioned in early Genesis; that he was Elihu, mentioned in the Book of Job; and that he was Jesus of Nazareth, also not destined to fulfill all the prophecies in his lifetime.

In the 20th century, they believe that manifestation of God was David Koresh.

Much criticism of what happened at Mount Carmel before federal lawmen turned the place into a smoldering historical footnote involves Koresh's insistence on separating the men and women - even those who were married - and then taking many of the latter as "brides" to produce children.

However, the Davidians and those who sympathize with them say the Bible offers similar precedents involving dubious behavior.

Ron Goins, 48, who came to Mount Carmel several years after the siege and today works as a caretaker on the grounds, says he is not a Branch Davidian. However, he frequently attends their Bible studies and echoes much of what Doyle says when confronted with questions about Koresh's apparent misdeeds.

"People say, 'Look at David Koresh, look at the women, look at the guns,'" Goins says. "I say, 'Look at Hosea, who was told to marry a prostitute and have children by her.' I say, 'Look at Isaiah, who was told to walk naked through Jerusalem for three years to show the nature of the captivity that would come.'"

As for the gun and multiple-bride charges, Stuart A. Wright, professor of sociology at Lamar University and editor of the book Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict, points to fundamental Mormon-offshoot groups dotting the American West. Some members also have a dozen or more wives and keep weapons.

Other charges are more troubling, including allegations that Koresh had sexual relations with underage girls. Two years after the Mount Carmel compound burned, 14-year-old Kiri Jewell testified before Congress how the Apocalypse-obsessed Branch Davidian leader had sex with her in a Waco motel room, then commanded her to shower and read the Bible.

She told congressional investigators she was 10 at the time of her first sexual encounter with Koresh.

In addition, she recalled a friend who, at age 14, "has a baby for David."

Such allegations surfaced well before Kiri Jewell spoke to Congress. During a 1992 custody suit between her parents, former Branch Davidians testified about Koresh's abuse of members' children. In addition, DNA testing revealed that 4-year-old Serenity Sea Jones, who died in the fire with her 18-year-old mother, Michele Jones, was fathered by Koresh.

Nevertheless, surviving Branch Davidians cast doubts on the veracity of such charges, including Kiri Jewell's.

"There's a lot of questions about whether the (Kiri Jewell) story is legitimate or if she had been grilled and trained to tell this story," says Doyle, who was in the compound with Kiri's mother and other Davidians till the day of the fire. "I don't want to call her a liar, but I'd be interested to know what really happened."

Kiri Jewell's mother, Sherri, 43, died in the FBI assault at Mount Carmel.

Often lost in all of this are the Branch Davidians' religious beliefs, initially grounded in Seventh-day Adventism but deeply imbued with highly individualized views of the Apocalypse cultivated over several decades.

Doyle says many of the Davidians were troubled by what went on at Mount Carmel, yet after great soul-searching and questioning ultimately accepted much of Koresh's viewpoint regarding his taking multiple brides to produce children who would assist him on Judgment Day.

"A lot of people are hung up with what David did or allegedly did, and we have had to wrestle with that, but we got to where we accepted it as God's instruction," Doyle says. "If people couldn't accept it, they walked away. David believed God instructed him to produce children, that they were to be special children, that they would be there for judgment.

"These children were born for judgment, he would say."

While the Branch Davidians voice a strikingly apocalyptic view of the near future, those who now gather at Mount Carmel insist their ranks up until the siege included individuals of great learning. They cite Wayne Martin, 42, a Harvard-educated attorney, and Steven Schneider, 41, who had a doctorate in comparative religion.

Both were Koresh's lieutenants, they say, and both died with him.

As for Koresh, they concede his lack of intellectualism and education while stressing his rich insights once he opened the Bible.

So the wait goes on. The Branch Davidians wait for David Koresh to return.

Until then, they contend with occasional inquiries by the news media, authors and filmmakers; they politely offer to open up their visitors center and museum to sightseers who come by; and they deal with what they say are wannabe seers who grossly misinterpret what they're all about.

"This place is like a magnet for would-be prophets," Doyle marvels. "These poor deluded souls and riffraff think they will pick up the pieces. There's one guy every year who comes, makes a prophecy of the time and date for the end of the world. A lot of people come to bring us a 'message from God' that's not scriptural in our minds."

While Davidian groups unaffiliated with Koresh's teachings survive elsewhere in the world, it's fair to wonder if the handful of Branch Davidians based in Central Texas will endure long into the new millennium, Wessinger says.

"I expect the other Davidian movements to continue, but the David Koresh Davidians are pretty decimated, unlike the early Christian movement which, upon the death of its founder, really grew," Wessinger says. "That certainly doesn't look like it's going to be the case here."

Meanwhile, the passage of time - including dashed predictions by some that Koresh would return no later than several years ago - have not dimmed hope at Mount Carmel, named for the biblical place where Elijah confronted the false prophets of Baal and emerged victorious.

"The truth hasn't diminished," Doyle says. "There are fewer students of the truth, but the truth is around us."

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