Neighbors prepare for group's celebration of Passover

Abilene Reporter-News
By Loretta Fulton

"No Trespassing" signs are tacked to trees, security cameras are mounted on poles, and dogs are tied in their yards.

A week-long festival is about to begin at the House of Yahweh in Callahan County, and neighbors are ready.

"We're prisoners on our own land," said Sherry Robinson, who along with a number of other neighbors is shoring up for the eight-day Feast of Unleavened Bread or Passover celebration at the religious compound.

The festival begins at sundown Monday and runs through sundown April 29. It's one of the three major feast days of the year for House of Yahweh followers, and it attracts up to 1,000 people from across the United States and Canada to a 40-acre plot that some derisively refer to a "The House of Hawkins."

Founder Yisrayl Hawkins, formerly Buffalo Bill Hawkins when he was an Abilene policeman, burst into the limelight a little over a year ago when suddenly more than 100 of his adherents changed their last names to match his. That number has now risen to 250.

Phone calls from worried family members nationwide have come to the Reporter-News since it published a series of articles last year about the sect. The group has since been written about in numerous publications and featured in television programs.

And, new groups have sprung up in other states as Hawkins has spread the message of his "kingdom" via radio, the Internet and word of mouth.

Two weeks ago the Jackson, Mich., newspaper devoted most of its Sunday front page to stories about a 40-member group that meets there in the home of a surgeon.

At least one of its members is planning to come to Callahan County this week for the festival.

Last month, when 39 members of a California cult called Heaven's Gate committed suicide, interest in the local sect intensified.

Following that mass suicide, "Newsweek"magazine published an article on eight groups in the United States that it describes as "living on the religious fringe." The House of Yahweh was one of them.

Leaders of the sect refuse to return telephone calls to reporters. But others are open about their concerns and frustrations at having to live next to the blight that has developed around the compound.

The House of Yahweh itself, a 600-seat worship center and other buildings, sets back from Oak Forest Road, which intersects with County Road 254 between Clyde and Eula.

The intersection "looks like a tornado hit it," said Stan Leamon, who lives nearby.

The property is littered with ramshackle trailer houses, tents, piles of wooden pallets and trash.

People like Leamon and Robinson have to drive by it every day to get to their property - land they purchased thinking they had found peace and quiet in the Callahan County countryside.

But with the House of Yahweh rapidly expanding, they have to wonder.

"I probably won't stay here," Robinson said. She had planned to build a house on her property someday where a mobile home now sits, but now she's changing her mind.

"Our friends won't come out here," she said. "There's not any sense in investing all that money."

Robinson said the sect members wander over private property and even took her dog, Sammy.

"I went down there and said I wanted him back," she said. The next day she found Sammy tied in her yard, unharmed.

The publicity about the group has brought some benefits to the neighbors. Last year Leamon and others were complaining that the caliche road leading to their homes and to the compound was constantly filled with huge potholes because of bearing more traffic than it was designed for.

Since it's a private road, the county wouldn't fix it. But now because of bad publicity, House of Yahweh members have repaired it, Leamon said.

Life is relatively quiet around the compound, Leamon said, except for festival weeks, but he and other neighbors worry about the group's expansion.

Don Burns, who issues septic system permits for Callahan County, said the group had a professional engineer design a community disposal system to accommodate up to 10 dwellings on the compound site. Burns said he doesn't know how many septic tanks were already there but that he has issued 30 permits since taking over the job in April 1991.

Another 15-20 septic tanks, designed for one dwelling each, are at the intersection of County Road 254 and Oak Forest, he said, along with "a bunch of water wells" that serve four dwellings each.

Another "development" site is proposed on the west side of Oak Forest Road, he said, that would accommodate 10-12 trailers.

As big an eyesore as the group has created around its compound, Burns said the people are pleasant to deal with.

"To me, they're just as nice and cooperative as can be," Burns said.

Burns is sympathetic with those who decry the blight that has built up, but he is powerless to do anything about it.

"There's not that much regulation in Callahan County," he said.

The state health department could be called in if a health hazard developed, but Burns said he is doubtful that will happen.

The residents are diligent in obtaining permits for larger septic systems than required.

"They're doing their best not to pollute their water," he said.

The large number of wells being drilled shouldn't create a problem, either, he said, "as long as it's done properly."

The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission is another option if an environmental threat occurred, but Burns said it would "take an act of Congress" to get TNRCC investigators to the site.

Callahan County Sheriff Eddie Curtis said he is not too concerned about the upcoming festival. The main complaint he gets is about speeding on the narrow and rough country roads.

"We really haven't had any bad trouble out of them," he said.

Even so, neighbors such as Sherry Robinson will be on guard this week.

"You just don't even know what kind of people are out there," she said.

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