Controversial street preacher brings ministry (and legal troubles) to Saranac Lake

North Country Public Radio, New York/July 13, 2016

By Brian Mann

When I met Rick Trudeau in Riverside Park in Saranac Lake this spring, he was busy with his family. He and his wife Anna looked like any young couple. He had a trim beard and wore a ball cap with the logo of a small sawmill he helped found in Texas. She looked quietly confident. She was taking their kids to run errands in the village.

But when we sat down on a park bench, to talk about Trudeau’s ministry and also his growing legal troubles, he made it clear that he doesn’t see himself as a typical Christian father and small businessman. He described himself as a misunderstood prophet navigating a sinful world.

He recounted the “dreadfully terrifying” moment ten years ago when he had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. “I felt like I could not abide in his presence more than the time he allotted, which was three or four seconds,” Trudeau said.

A deepening faith and growing controversy

That vision led Trudeau to leave Saranac Lake, where he grew up and went to high school, in 2010. He eventually joined the Church of Wells, a tiny evangelical congregation based on the outskirts of Houston, Texas that preaches on street corners and college campuses across the country.

In recent years, Trudeau’s fierce brand of faith has also led him and other members of his church to numerous encounters with police and clashes with clergy from other churches.

“I am possessed by the Holy Ghost and it drives me to do things that other men who aren’t possessed by the Holy Ghost may not understand and may not find all that wonderful or attractive,” he said. “That’s my confession.”

Trudeau drew attention in Saranac Lake last March when he was arrested twice by village police and charged with misdemeanor counts of disturbing the peace and disrupting a religious service. During our conversation, he admitted to interrupting a Baptist church service and preaching noisily on downtown streets, but he said the criminal charges are unfounded. “If a church that’s claiming to be a church of Jesus Christ is not doing its job, it is worthy of rebuke,” he argued. “I’ve done what I did on the streets of Saranac Lake in multiple cities on dozens of occasions, near a hundred times. It’s always accepted by the police that there’s a right to free speech.”

Local clergy alarmed

This kind of thing has raised alarm with local church leaders. The Ecumenical Council in Saranac Lake met this week and sent out a warning to clergy in the area that the Church of Wells seems to be increasingly active in the area. The president of the Council, Rich Loeber, described the group as a “threat” and said this week that the “idea of disrupting worship is appalling.”

Ryan Schneider at the Baptist Church agreed. "I think [the Church of Wells is] a parasite on any community they're involved with. I don't see them bringing anything but hate to a community. Their message is clear, it's hate. It's not the gospel of Jesus Christ," he said.

In an interview with the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in March, Schneider said this wasn’t his first encounter with Trudeau or his fellow church-members. “They did come to my house last year and do the same thing, shouting and screaming at me at my own property,” he said.

Pure love and a prophecy of death

Trudeau was arrested last year on similar charges in Houston, Texas, after he and members of his church staged a protest during a worship service held by nationally-known televangelist Joel Osteen. Those charges were dismissed last month.
Trudeau told me that other Christians should welcome his message. “If they were saved, and if their hearts were turned to believe the Gospel, they would see that everything we’re saying and doing is actually pure love. We’re willing to suffer for the truth of God,” he said.

Trudeau doesn’t always sound loving. During our conversation, he said bluntly that “God would be just to destroy the world and destroy every man in the world and not spare one soul alive.”

He also acknowledged that he has been entangled for years in legal disputes, including a bitter custody fight with a former girlfriend in the Tri-Lakes area. “You are going to die if you don’t hand [the child] over to me,” Trudeau warned, during a phone conversation with his ex-girlfriend, which she recorded and later made public. “I’m not talking about years down the road," he said. "Very, very soon. You’re going to die and go to hell."
Trudeau was arrested following that call in 2014 and charged with misdemeanor harassment, charges that were later settled. When I asked him about the incident, he said that he wants to “make people fear” God, so that they will accept a more Christian life. But he denied that he would harm anyone personally. “Never, ever would I be violent. I would rather die myself,” Trudeau said.

A troubled journey to a fierce God

Despite his militant language, Trudeau often seemed calm and thoughtful during our conversation. He was funny and spoke warmly about Saranac Lake and his children. But he also acknowledged that his interpretation of the Bible is a severe one and he said his own journey to salvation had been marked by periods of failure and isolation.

Trudeau described one incident in 2006 when a windstorm blew down a barn he was building in Franklin County, destroying his woodshop and his truck. He spent much of the following winter broke and living in a basement. “It was very hard. It wasn’t easy. But it lead me to the fear of God,” he recalled. “God taught me in the spirit as I was meditating in my basement on all that I had lost.”

He met his future wife Anna a year later. She was already an active evangelical preacher and they began seeking converts on the streets of Burlington, Vermont, Glens Falls and New York City, before moving to Texas. Testimonials posted on the Church of Wells website by Trudeau and his wife offer glimpses of a tumultuous marriage, marked by painful years of spiritual searching, disillusionment and fierce disagreements over how to discipline their children.

According to Anna Trudeau’s account, she decided to leave their marriage in 2010 and Trudeau responded by climbing into a garbage dumpster and refusing to come out. “I threw my wedding band into the woods and drove off intending to leave my husband in a dumpster far from our home,” she wrote. “I knew as I drove away that somehow I was wrong and he was right. I was leaving Christ. I broke down emotionally and returned to my husband.”

They remained married, but the controversy and drama that shaped their lives continued.

A controversial church in Texas

The Church of Wells, Trudeau's adopted community in Texas, drew negative press coverage in 2013 when a 26-year-old woman named Catherine Grove disappeared from her home in Arkansas. She was later found living with church members and refused to have contact with her family. Grove’s story was featured on a broadcast of ABC’s Primetime Live in 2014. Her family claimed that she had been brainwashed.
Church deacons rejected that charge. But their strict rules and harsh discipline continued to spark controversy. In one sermon posted online, a Church of Wells leader named Sean Morris talked about the fact that "some children are even born demon-possessed."

Church leaders have spoken openly about physical punishment of children and the necessity of "breaking their will" in order to save even very young infants from sin. Another elder named Jacob Gardner preached at length about the importance of spanking and physical punishment in the education of young children.

Gardner acknowledged that some members of the congregation were taking practice too far. “[One of the parents] heard from one of us that basically it’s best to spank the child until their will breaks, that’s when you know the discipline has been effective,” Gardner recounted.

“This father has spanked the child until the child has stopped crying or until the child’s cry has turned to a whimper.” After a pause, Gardner added, “That’s not good. That’s very bad.”

In 2012, a baby in the Church of Wells Community died and the congregation waited hours before calling for help or police. That incident was profiled on the ABC program Nightline, which reported that the child had suffered from medical neglect. No charges were filed in the case.

These issues have led other Christian leaders to condemn Trudeau’s church and theology. A website and a Facebook page created by evangelical Christians in Texas portray the small community as a dangerous cult. "The Church of Wells will not answer for failed prophecies, or take responsibility for their error,” the site argued, in a blog post last December.

The small congregation also raised eyebrows when its leaders claimed in sermons and writings that they had personal knowledge of God’s plans. They described visions and compared their ministry to the work of Biblical figures.

During our conversation, Rick Trudeau described witnessing signs from God, including two cases where he saw cancers cured miraculously. “I couldn’t deny anymore, the Lord was beginning to speak to me,” he said.

Coming home to Saranac Lake?

During our nearly two-hour talk, Trudeau said his critics are misguided. He argued that even his fiercest threats and warnings and harsh words are motivated by love. He spoke hopefully about a possible return to the Saranac Lake-area, where he and his wife may settle again.

“I have many people I care for deeply in this town. I’ve prayed for this town. My coming back here is a desire to fulfill this longing in my heart to see souls saved.” He said the presence of "head shops" in the village that sell marijuana paraphenalia is evidence that a different kind of Christian ministry is needed.

But Trudeau said his plans for the future aren’t firm. And he acknowledged that he has struggled to fit in here in the past.

“I’m still wrestling to try to find fellowship in Saranac Lake,” he said, adding that many members of his family are unhappy with his preaching. “I believe they’re very embarrassed. I know for a fact that they are. They don’t understand the point of my ministry. I pray that God will forgive them.”

Trudeau and a co-defendant from the March arrests are due back in court in Harrietstown on July 25. They were offered the services of a public defender but have chosen to represent themselves during the trial.

Peter Crowley, managing editor at the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, contributed to this report.

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