Branch Davidians caught in yet another power struggle

Waco Tribune-Herald/April 20, 2006
By Cindy V. Culp

For 12 years, Clive Doyle spent every April 19th at the site of the Branch Davidian compound, remembering the day he narrowly escaped a blaze that killed his daughter and dozens of fellow cult members.

But on Wednesday, the 13th anniversary of the deadly fire that ended the group’s 51-day standoff with federal agents, Doyle, 65, marked the occasion by meeting other Davidians for lunch at a Waco buffet — an act of exile spurred by a recent coup within the religious cult.

Doyle and some of the other Davidians who were followers of apocalyptic cult leader David Koresh are now outcasts on the property they have so much history with. A new leader named Charlie Pace who moved to the property about nine years ago has mounted what he calls a reformation of the controversial faith.

Under Pace’s direction, the Koresh movement has changed its name and revamped its theology. Now known as The Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness, the church seeks to separate itself from the “depravity” of Koresh and focus on the will of the Holy Spirit, he said.

“This is a kingdom of peace and righteousness,” said Pace, 56, standing before the small church on the property, about 12 miles east of Waco. “We’re not going to continue adultery, practice polygamy or use guns. We’re going to keep the word of God.”

Pace’s new authority was on display in several symbolic ways during Wednesday’s memorial service. For one thing, members of the church burned the root of a crape myrtle planted in Koresh’s memory.

The tree was one of 81 planted by Doyle and other Davidians to symbolize all of the cult members who died during the 1993 siege. Each had a stone marker with a victim’s name.

The trees have long been a point of contention with Pace, who says such “groves” are prohibited in the Bible. In ancient times, groups of trees were often planted around temples by pagans who used them as gathering spots for orgies and other unholy activities, he said.

The markers made the display even worse, Pace says, because they turned the trees into idols. Visitors who came to the land would often kneel before Koresh’s tree in particular, he said.

For those reasons, the trees were a bur in Pace’s side. The last straw came a few weeks ago when a TV news crew brought a psychic to the property and the group spent much time gathered around Koresh’s tree, said church member Ron Goins.

The next day, Pace cut it down, he said, and broke the stone marker bearing the cult leader’s name.

Although some Davidians, including Koresh’s mother, view Pace’s act as one committed in anger, Pace and his followers dismiss the idea. They say they view it as an act of honor and perhaps even salvation for Vernon Howell, which was the cult leader’s name before he took the Koresh moniker.

If that sounds contradictory, it’s because of the love-hate relationship Pace’s group has with the late self-styled prophet. They say they believe Koresh was instructed by God to take on his sinful persona — one involving sex and violence — to bring prophesied judgment upon the church.

Koresh was a “maniacal pervert,” Pace says, but Vernon Howell was a true believer who sacrificed himself to carry out God’s will.

Goins sums it up this way: “David sinned for God’s sake.”

Pace and his followers also believe Koresh’s actions caused him to fall under a biblical curse that necessitated his destruction. To lift the curse and give Howell a chance at resurrection, they believe they had to burn his crape myrtle and replace the stone marker with one bearing Howell’s name.

Pace said the new stone is in the process of being made. It will be placed in some sort of new memorial along with the other markers, also now removed from the spots where they were adorned with crape myrtles. But for the burning of Koresh’s tree, the church had to go to Plan B Wednesday.

Originally members planned to burn the tree’s branches on an altar during the memorial ceremony. But when Koresh’s mother, Bonnie Haldeman, arrived and learned the branches were from her son’s tree, she snatched them up and threw them into the bed of Koresh’s father’s pickup.

The two then left the property to meet Doyle for their alternate, lunchtime gathering. As the group ate inside, other patrons at Ryan’s Family Steakhouse likely had no idea the brush-filled pickup bed outside contained evidence of a rift within one of the nation’s most infamous cults.

“It’s just a friggin’ tree, but it’s a symbol,” Haldeman said. “...(Charlie) thinks David said he was God. Well, who does Charlie think he is?”

Back at the church’s property, Pace’s followers lamented that the Davidians had “stolen” the branches, but they plunged ahead with their plans. They just used the root of the crape myrtle rather than its branches for the ritualistic burning.

“We do this in gratitude, not in disrespect at all,” said church member Norma Ruhling, 64, as she added kindling to the hole where the root remained.

Doyle said he feels disrespected. He said he didn’t go to Wednesday’s memorial because he feared his presence might cause the event to get “ugly.” But it was a difficult decision, he said, adding that he wrestled with it until Tuesday night.

The chain of events that led to Doyle’s departure from the property began about a year ago, he said. His group of followers had dwindled because of deaths and people moving off the property. For Saturday meetings, only about a half- dozen people were attending.

Because his group was small but still meeting in the church building, Doyle said he decided to invite Pace and his slightly larger group of followers to join them for services. Previously, Pace’s group had worshipped on another part of the property.

At first, the arrangement worked, Doyle said, with both he and Pace speaking during the meetings. But eventually Pace took over and seemed to regard Doyle as a member of his church, Doyle said.

That perception was shattered in September, however, when Doyle was the only Davidian living on the property who refused to be baptized by Pace. Baptism symbolizes joining someone’s church among other things, Doyle said, and he couldn’t do that in good conscience because of disagreements over theology.

Doyle continued living on the property and attending Pace’s services. But around the beginning of the year, Pace told Doyle that his group wasn’t going to help pay taxes on the land unless they got full credit, he said.

Doyle and other Davidians had been paying the $2,000 annual bill with their own money and donations for some time, Doyle said. So when he heard Pace’s ultimatum, Doyle refused to pony up any money out of principle.

That left Pace paying the tax bill, which increased the pressure on Doyle to either join or “get the hell out,” Doyle said. Doyle finally moved out in February, leaving his trailer on the land for an apartment in Waco.

“I thought I was extending the hand of fellowship,” Doyle said of his relationship with Pace. “It kind of got bitten.”

Moving has left him sad, Doyle said, because he had lived on the land “on and off for 40 years.” But staying on the land wasn’t worth the emotional stress of fighting Pace, he said.

Instead, he and other Davidians who share his theology meet in one another’s homes now, he said.

That doesn’t mean Doyle has given up hope of moving back to the property. He notes how he and other followers of Koresh left the land in 1984 when George Roden, a Davidian leader at odds with Koresh, briefly took over. But later God restored the true believers to the property, he said.

“Whatever God will do eventually remains to be seen,” Doyle said.

Pace says his church would love for Doyle and the other “rebellious apostates” to re-join the group. But they will have to repent first.

Asked about the timing of the changes in the church, Pace said they were deliberately linked to the 13th anniversary of the fire. In the Bible, 12 is the number of God’s government, so Koresh’s followers were given 12 years to see that their former leader had led the church astray. When they didn’t, the Holy Spirit instructed members of the “purified church” to act, he said, adding that 13 is a number of judgment in the Bible.

Pace also said the judgment brought onto the Davidians by Koresh and his followers will be repeated in churches worldwide if they don’t repent. The fact that the siege ended in fire was no coincidence, he said.

“This was a sign, a signal fire to the whole world of judgment to come,” Pace said.

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