WACO -- As grasshoppers flitted in 90-degree heat, workers as young as 4 and as old as 71 broke ground yesterday for a new Branch Davidian church at Mount Carmel.
Shovels and mattocks tore into the soil outside Waco -- the same scenery that six years ago formed the backdrop for the fiery debacle that killed David Koresh and about 80 followers.
The project was organized and led by Austin radio talk show host Alex Jones, 25, who has called the Davidians victims of "a government cover- up of its violation of the First Amendment."
About 60 people dug holes on the old compound site yesterday to hold support beams for a 38-by-40-foot white frame church.
The scene was reminiscent of a barn-raising; hamburgers sizzled and a portable stereo pumped out Christian country music.
"This is a statement," Jones said. "This is about saying the witch hunt of 1993 is over."
Jones called the church project a "healing process" for the Branch Davidians and the country.
On April 19, 1993, the sect's compound burned to the ground after a 51-day standoff between the Branch Davidians and the federal government.
The caravan of volunteers from Austin to Waco included Koresh's mother and stepfather and consisted of about 60 vehicles including pickups, motor homes and a luxury sedan. It arrived at Mount Carmel at 9:30 a.m.
"It means a lot," said Koresh's stepfather, Roy Haldeman, 71, a retired carpenter who lives in Tyler. "I feel good about it."
Haldeman lived at the compound for about 18 months in 1992 and 1993. Yesterday, he cast a glance at the workers and said the project was "too deep" to explain what it meant to him.
Jones began the drive to rebuild the church during a broadcast on his KJFK-FM show Sept. 13.
He said that he and others have been talking for three years about building a structure on the site. Recent questions about whether the FBI fired pyrotechnic tear gas rounds and the escalating controversy over the government's conduct spurred him to act, he said.
"All of it, it's all about public opinion. We know that now is the perfect time, that's why we're doing it," said Jones, who wore a pin with the message: "You burn it, we build it."
"This is a monument to the First Amendment," he said. "You think about speech and the press, but it is also religion and the expression thereof."
To jump-start the project, which includes a memorial inside the church to those who died in the fire, Jones gave $1,000. The church will be built in two to three months, he said.
Exactly who owns the 77- acre compound site in Central Texas isn't clear. It has been claimed by at least three parties: Clive Doyle and other followers of David Koresh, who lived at Mount Carmel; Douglas Mitchell, who claims to be the divinely appointed leader of the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Association; and Amo Bishop Roden, who has said that she was married "by contract" to the late George Roden, the former Branch Davidian leader.
Doyle, who survived the 1993 fire, has said that his group has clear title to the land because they have maintained it, established a memorial there and have paid the taxes. The land lies in an unincorporated part of McLennan County east of Waco and does not require a building permit for improvements.
Doyle said yesterday that he has been leading about 12 to 20 congregants in Bible studies in the Waco area and will probably lead services at the new church.
"I think it is a very magnanimous gesture. This to me shows care and concern," he said. "We will leave it in God's hands to increase our membership or not."
Among the volunteers was Mike Robbins, 25, of Austin, a customer relations manager at a car dealership.
Robbins hauled four cases of bottled water, bags of cement, other construction materials and some food in his pickup. He said he wasn't a Branch Davidian but had constitutional concerns about what happened to the sect.
"I came out here to support the First Amendment rights and the rights of every citizen," he said. "There is a lack of tolerance in this country and I'm here to fight that."
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