Waiting for the worst

Spiritual group wants to be ready for global crisis

Dallas Morning News, May 04, 2000
By Crayton Harrison

QUINLAN, Texas - For two years, Jeanette Kinman has been learning to raise chickens, believing the fate of humanity may rest, in part, on her ability to feed people without benefit of the local supermarket.

Ms. Kinman is one of several dozen people who have been building a community 30 miles east of Dallas for more than a decade. Their Adelphi Organization hopes to be self-sufficient by the day when their charismatic leader says a planetary alignment will trigger earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and weather disasters all over the Earth, killing all but a tenth of the global population.

That day is Friday.

"We hope we have enough resources," says fellow Adelphi member Harriet Gumler, who moved to the community last year with her husband. "I just don't know how much you can prepare, but I'm doing my best."

Local authorities are mostly unaware of the organization. Lonnie Kliever, a Southern Methodist University religious studies professor who helps law enforcement understand non-mainstream religious groups, says Adelphi members don't seem to pose any threat to themselves or others.

But their slight, soft-spoken spiritual leader, Richard Kieninger, 72, is already in trouble with the law.

Federal prosecutor Tom Hamilton helped convict Mr. Kieninger in 1998 of conspiracy and fraud after he helped the group distribute $1.8 billion in fake cashier's checks as a Republic of Texas separatist. Mr. Hamilton said Mr. Kieninger is "one of the most devious people I've ever met."

"He may use his grandfatherly good looks and charm and quiet disposition to make people think he's just a soft-hearted soul, but he was a big participant," said Mike Ewell, also a federal prosecutor in the case. "I don't think he was anybody's fool."

The separatists proclaimed that Texas was never formally annexed into the United States and maintained that they were legally tapping into the state's treasury.

"I've always been upset by injustice, and [the annexation] certainly was a blatant case of injustice as far as I could determine from the archives of the U.S. and Texas," Mr. Kieninger said. His conviction and 21-month sentence are on appeal.

Like his followers, he now focuses on the Adelphi movement, which sprang out of a book he wrote 40 years ago urging mankind to wean itself from modern conveniences in anticipation of a May 5, 2000, apocalypse.

Adelphi members say he is a gentle and wise spiritual leader with a loving message of self-sufficiency and personal growth.

"We do not see him as an all-knowing guru of anything. We see him as a person," said Ms. Kinman, the organization's secretary. "I feel very fortunate to live out here, because it's so peaceful, and it's not the rat race. . . . I think what brought us together is the philosophy. That's really what brought us out here, not May 5th."

Planetary alignment

The sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will indeed align from roughly Friday through May 16, just as they have almost every two decades before. Astronomers and almost everyone else say the doomsday prediction is nonsense.

That doesn't seem to faze Adelphi members, who have worked steadily to built their cluster of two-story structures on 45 acres of hilly, wooded land off a gravel road in Hunt County.

Past a simple white gate are modern brick buildings where members live and work on community projects such as gardening and construction. They frequently meet to share meals, study Mr. Kieninger's writings and make plans.

"My task has been to get people to be able to take charge of their lives and run things," said Mr. Kieninger, who said his teachings come from a group of mystical people called the Brotherhood.

Sundays are the busiest day because many community members drive to Dallas during the week to work in everyday professions such as secretary, furniture-maker and free-lance photographer.

On one recent Sunday, Mr. Kieninger, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, used a nail gun to help assemble roof trusses for an addition to the water storage facility. In one building, several potential members studied the group's philosophy with Ms. Kinman as their guide.

And in the main hall, past a table with a basket for donations and a manila folder of teaching materials labeled "KARMA," about 10 members hunched over lesson packets.

New lives

Many have left loved ones behind to join Adelphi.

Donald Schutt, 51, said he was active on the group's mailing list for 25 years after he read The Ultimate Frontier in 1974.

As he sat under a poster depicting the May 5 planetary alignment, Mr. Schutt explained how he waited for his children to grow up before leaving his job as a carpenter in Portland, Ore., to join the community. One of his children disapproves, but the other is more understanding, he said.

Myron Zorger, 47, said his mother gave him his first copy of The Ultimate Frontier . But the 16-year Air Force veteran and former firefighter encountered "tough resistance" from other family members when he decided to make the move to Texas.

"I told them, 'You've known me my whole life. They're just like I am out there,' " said Mr. Zorger, who said he holds a degree in forestry. "I like it here. I haven't had one strained relationship since I've been here."

Adelphi members subscribe to the group's utopian ideals in varying degrees, preferring to remain open-minded to reincarnation and more unorthodox ideas, such as Mr. Kieninger's claim to a past life as King David.

SMU's Dr. Kliever has studied many non-mainstream ideological groups and helped police learn to deal with them, including God's Salvation Church, a group of about 160 people who awaited a personal appearance by God in March 1999 in Garland. He said people who join such groups are thirsting for a religion or philosophy to satisfy intellectual needs, even if they don't believe every detail.

"When push comes to shove, those beliefs play no real and vital and active role in their lives. Those are more like the credentials you flash as a member of the group than beliefs by which you live and die," said Dr. Kliever, a leading outside expert on the little-known Adelphi.

Not a cult

Adelphi members argue vehemently against any insinuation that they are part of a cult. They don't actively try to "convert" people - most people seek the organization out after reading the book, they said.

Adelphi members say Mr. Kieninger does not control them. The organization has a board of directors that makes most decisions for the community, and Mr. Kieninger is not a member.

"If I were doing the guru thing and saying, 'Turn over your life to me and I'll tell you what to do,' that would be one thing, but I keep telling people, 'Authorities are probably the worst people in the world you have to deal with,' " Mr. Kieninger said.

But he is the sole trustee of the group's property, with final say on land transactions. He says that trusteeship allows him to keep the organization true to its principles, since he believes an earlier community he led in Illinois strayed from its original goals.

People who live and work near the community - including the Hunt County Sheriff's Department - had never heard of the group. "There's a couple of them that come in here to get a candy bar every now and then, but that's about it," said a clerk at a nearby convenience store.

Dr. Kliever said groups such as Adelphi generally don't have much control over followers, even with an enigmatic leader like Mr. Kieninger.

Illinois group

Mr. Kieninger founded the Stelle Group, an organization similar to Adelphi, in Illinois shortly after publishing his book in 1963. Stelle's other leaders asked him to leave in 1986, saying he was disrupting the group's goals. He said several suits and counter-suits followed and were eventually settled.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Kieninger moved to Garland to plan the Adelphi community, he said. The land near Quinlan was bought in 1993.

In the mid-'90s, Mr. Kieninger joined the ranks of the Republic of Texas. He said he became trustee of the separatist group's assets soon after meeting its leaders.

Mr. Kieninger said he knows he faces an uphill battle to overturn his conviction on conspiracy and fraud charges. But he's not worried about the Adelphi Organization if he goes to jail.

He spends most days working with contractors, corresponding with followers and building what he can with his hands. Friends say he has the energy of a man half his age.

"The needs and the demands just keep pushing me," he said. "This is one of the most beautiful things I've ever been associated with."

Mr. Kieninger said the organization's policy is not to discuss precautions for May 5, although it is believed the Adelphi members will all be on the site. Meanwhile, they continue with their usual activities, driving to jobs in Terrell and Dallas and raising a new residence building.

The point, global disaster or not, is to improve the world, Ms. Gumler said.

"No dog-eat-dog attitudes anymore," she said. "You all get together and you help rebuild. Everyone came here for the opportunity to be somebody.

"May 5th has a heavier weight on me if I get involved in a discussion about it, but it's not a high priority," she said.

Staying away from strict adherence to the May 5 prediction can help the group cope if nothing happens, Dr. Kliever said.

"They'll simply go back to the drawing board," he said. "They're no less crazy than the people who stockpiled food for the Y2K thing."

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