The preacher and his flock

Deep scars remain for S.D. families decades after being ripped apart

The Arugus Leader/May 1, 2005
By Jon Walker

The letters and phone calls are a distant memory. One son stopped to see his mother before leaving town and told her she was going to hell. A daughter left without saying goodbye. Parents who were left behind still wonder about names and faces of grandchildren they never met.

The End Time Ministry once had 125 former Sioux Falls-area residents among its 300 faithful living in a community in northeast Florida. Many of these were bright, well-scrubbed young adults who stunned their parents by following the call of a religious leader named Charles Meade. While the ministry since then has attracted followers from across the country and now has 2,800 members in the town of Lake City, it's the memories of the 1970s and '80s that haunt South Dakota families.

For the families involved, those memories today wrap a form of unresolved grief around a conflict marked by religious freedom and medical tragedy. What's left are smoldering ashes with almost no hope for restoring relationships.The young adults who left South Dakota to follow Meade - who now have their own children and grandchildren - have little to say about what led them to Florida. "I'm not interested in responding, but thanks anyway," one former Sioux Falls resident, Catherine Ruzicka, said last week when reached at her home in Lake City. Several others did not return phone messages.

Parents in Sioux Falls, though, have learned to talk through their pain.Sandie Huber says she lost a son, Barry, and a daughter, Pam Stewart, to Meade's teachings in a trail that leads back to their days as students at Lincoln High School.

"They gathered together as little groups to start and were talking about going to a Bible study," Huber says. "Who worries about them going to a Bible study? It eventually grew into this group making up what the Bible said. They believed everything Charles Meade was telling them."

Her children withdrew from their parents' church and then from the family, at first intrigued by Meade and then committed to him. Meade offered diverse opinions on daily living - among them that college is unnecessary, that newspapers are evil, that calling a doctor for medical help shows a lack of faith. He said his authority came from a personal audience with God and that he had inside information on the end of the world. Eventually, Huber's children joined him in Lake City."When they left, Barry and his wife came and told us we didn't live according to their teachings, and we were going to hell," Huber says. "Pam never did stop. At least Barry came by and berated us before he left."

Ruzicka's mother is Bev Aulner, who says she last heard from her daughter "about 18 years ago, give or take a few months." Aulner says Catherine and her husband, Jerry Ruzicka, "have three children, and one of their daughters has two children, who I have never seen and don't even know their names."In their last communication, in 1987, Ruzicka said she resented her mother being in touch with critics of Meade's ministry. "She wrote me a letter saying I had all this time to repent and had not and until I do, I am to leave her alone," Aulner says. "She didn't say what I had to repent from, probably reading newspapers and watching television."

A search and a loss

Joni Cutler, 49, deals with a different sort of parental grief. She was neck deep in Meade's ministry when she gave birth to a daughter in her Brandon home and then watched the child die because of a ministry directive not to seek medical care.

Cutler says Meade's teachings reached South Dakota in summer 1973 through Gary Cooke, a high school friend and her future husband. Cooke, a 1972 graduate of Lincoln High, was attending Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., when he heard Meade speak. He brought tapes back home and soon was leading a group of young seekers who met regularly for fellowship. He soon would quit school, giving up a scholarship to one of the nation's top universities."We all loved to sing and be together. These were a lot of our high school friends," Cutler says. At the start, she says, adults had no reason to fear.

"Gary was editor of the school paper, president of the senior class at Lincoln High. He was in orchestra and band, an honor student, raised in the church," says Cutler, a '74 Lincoln grad whose maiden name was Joni Clark. "I was homecoming queen, an honor student, raised a good little Catholic girl. We were all very happy. I think we were searching as young people, searching out our own values and spirituality, which is not necessarily a bad thing."

The rise of Meade's ministry fit a pattern in turbulent times for world religion. In the 1970s, as mainline churches struggled to hold young adults' attention, new forms and settings for worship emerged, as did a new fascination with end-of-world prophecies.

Identifying religious cults

Religious cults have had a variety of leaders - from Jim Jones, who led 900 followers to drink poison Kool-Aid in Guyana in 1978, to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a messiah figure who has conducted mass weddings for the Unification Church.

But generalizing about such groups is tricky. If cults by definition are bad, then Christianity has a problem from the start, because first-century believers met secretly and adhered to startling new doctrine. If it's wrong to warn others about hell - a topic for End Timers but a taboo in many mainline pulpits - then that ignores much of the Bible. And if it's a problem to conduct Bible study meetings in the Holiday Inn or YMCA, as End Timers did in Sioux Falls, then churches need to rethink their past. Many local congregations began the same way or else promote small group meetings away from their church buildings as a way to build deeper fellowship.Meade's followers displayed telltale signs of a cult by identifying with a single man while viewing Scripture selectively. Yet Lutherans, Calvinists and Hutterites all take their names from individual men - and all sects of Christianity uphold the free will of believers as the only sincere means for seeking God.

"It's very difficult to black-and-white that thing," Marvin Tripp, a former Sioux Falls pastor, says of cult activity. No ministry can rightly deny people medical care, Tripp says, but he cautions against trying to limit religious freedom.

Mike Hagan, president and professor at North American Baptist Seminary, says cults alter orthodox Christian doctrine by adding unscriptural elements or by stressing one principle and ignoring others.Jesus Christ, for example, does in fact teach that followers "need to leave father and mother, family and everything to follow me," Hagan says. "That's pretty straightforward teaching. At the same time, he said to honor your father and mother," and End Timers leaving abruptly for Florida appear not to have done that.

A lack of accountability

The larger church today is in the midst of what Hagan calls "the emerging church movement," a back-to-basics effort to make worshipping God meaningful in an atmosphere open to theological questions. The test of any outgrowth of that needs to be content, not form, he says.

"In church ministries, small groups are going to be more and more the wave of how church is done," Hagan says. "There still needs to be some sense of accountability and feedback. Churches do best when they have clear lines of mentoring and clear lines of reporting. Where people get in trouble is when people kind of exist 'out there.' "Accountability was missing from Meade's equation, Hagan says.

"End Time Ministries focused on teachings of one person to the exclusion of the past or the whole gospel," Hagan says. "You have a leader who said you need to dress this way, need to commune together, our children must be taught together. We can't see physicians, God will heal us. Those teachings were seen as a voice from God through one person."

Freedom to believe led Cutler into the group at age 17 and then out again after she learned of a dozen deaths where victims were denied care. That list included her own daughter, Libby Cooke, born in December 1978. The child had underdeveloped lungs, but the parents refused to call for help, believing God would heal her. Libby died in four days."It's a bitter lesson, but I try not to be bitter myself," Cutler says. "I will never forget what Charles Meade did to influence my ex-husband during that time to prevent us from getting medical care. I think that was incredibly cruel and totally unnecessary."

When Libby died, the ministry monitored Cutler, then known as Joni Cooke, for improper signs of grief. She was not permitted to know where the baby was buried and learned only with a cousin's help years later that the grave was in the Hills of Rest cemetery.

Breaking from the influence

The Cookes had four more daughters the next seven years, and Meade was encouraging them to join others in moving to Florida. Joni balked at that, sensing there would be no return.

"People here who said they'd never leave suddenly put their houses up for sale and left," she says. "That was kind of shocking."By 1986, she wanted out. A year later, the Cookes divorced. He went to Florida. She remarried, earned a law degree and now is in her second term in the state House of Representatives. She and her husband, Steve Cutler, enjoy worshipping at First United Methodist Church.

"It was a combination of things - my daughter's death and the ongoing needless suffering and deaths of people there, as well as Charles Meade's wife herself, who died of untreated breast cancer," Cutler says of her decision to leave. "I think growing older and having the responsibility of my four daughters, I just realized they just didn't really care about us at all. If we died, we were just replaceable. Somehow that light broke through."

Family alienation

Other parents only dream of such an outcome. Aulner's daughter, Catherine Ruzicka, joined the group the same way as the others, attracted by Bible study and fellowship, and soon began to show effects of Meade's teaching. The oldest of four siblings, she turned down a grant that would have paid her way at South Dakota State University, then lived with another End Timer before taking a job as a nanny for a family in New York.

Aulner and her husband, Arnie, took that as a good sign because it would get their daughter away from the group. But the New York family fired her for proselytizing the children, Aulner says, and she was soon back home with her cult friends. She married a fellow End Timer, and she too lost a baby in a home delivery, an experience that nearly killed her as well, her mother says.Aulner's three other children live in Nevada and Iowa, and she says they get along fine. She holds out no hope, however, of seeing Catherine again. "Not anymore," she says. "Not after all this time."

After losing two of their four children to Meade's ministry, Sandie Huber and her husband, Chuck, responded by speaking publicly about cults. That alienated them even more from their son and daughter and set up an unbearable farewell in the family home. Barry stopped to say he was leaving for Florida.

"He sat down and said, 'I'm going to explain what the Bible says.' The conversation went down the crapper after that," Chuck Huber says. "I've talked to him once since, on his 40th birthday, in 1994. He told us again that we were going to hell. I said, 'I love you, Barry, but I can't talk to you.' "The Hubers made one more try, when traveling in Florida. They stopped at the office where their son worked and found at his desk someone they knew was his daughter - one of their 13 grandchildren in Florida.

"I'm sure she was scared to death and thought we were going to drag her out and deprogram her," Chuck Huber says.The Hubers had something else in mind, he says. "We both hugged her."

Reach Jon Walker at 331-2206 or 800-530-6397.LAKE CITY, Fla. - In the beginning, an elderly widow owned a modest brick house in the most heavenly part of town. One year, she decided to put her "home place" on the market, and along came a dapper gentleman and his adoring wife with cash in hand.

The gentleman, who was 67, must have been a preacher, it was rumored, for he often could be seen strolling about his new yard in a funereal suit and necktie, even on the muggiest of summer days, with a countenance of serenity and beneficence that could belong only to a servant of the Lord.But there was something disquieting about this man, too, something inexplicable that made his neighbors uneasy whenever he greeted them by politely touching the brim of his fedora.

By every measure, the old man and his wife were model citizens. They were early risers. They did not cuss, drink, smoke, pry or gossip. They drove a gleaming, burgundy Cadillac (with gilded trim and hubcaps).

So, as months passed, the suspicions faded, dismissed as a small town's old-fashioned discomfort with outsiders.After all, as the neighbors could see, this couple was beloved.

Cars with tags from South Dakota, Illinois, Indiana, Montana and Texas arrived at all hours, and out stepped the cleanest-cut, most sharply tailored couples imaginable, and their winsome children, too, so cutely awkward in their Sunday clothes and shoes. In no time, they set about remodeling the dwelling of the preacher, whose name was Charles Meade.For weeks, the hammering and sawing did not cease. New rooms were added. Cedar shingles were affixed to the roof in red, rippling waves, until the crown of Meade's home looked like a gingerbread house. At the head of the driveway rose two great stone columns and an iron gate.

Along the boundaries of Meade's property, evergreens were planted, three rows deep. Then, when all was primped and tidied, a triple-layered privacy fence went up around the 2.4-acre lot. It was topped off with three strands of razor wire.

The year was 1984, and members of Meade's flock, dribbling in from the Midwest to join him, were willing to pay almost anything for a house in Southwood Acres where Meade's house was. The closer to the old man's residence, the more they paid.A real estate agent from Sioux Falls named Charles Sparks, one of the first of Meade's followers to move to Lake City, made the rounds in the neighborhood, knocking on people's doors and offering to sell their homes for them - regardless of whether they had any intention of moving.

Finally, a few longtime residents approached these newcomers. What, they asked them, was so special about their little corner of the universe to merit such offers?

The answer they got was this:

Lake City was the Promised Land. It was holy ground for the world's true Christians - meaning the lucky few whom Meade had chosen to follow the teachings of his End Time Ministry.

They had come to establish God's perfect community on Earth, to prepare for Armageddon, which, their leader had warned them, was imminent. Those who followed Meade would be saved. Unbelievers would be banished to eternal damnation.Meade said he had walked with God along the Milky Way and heard the Lord's very word.

A changed town

Lake City is in the hill country of northern Florida, where the surrounding Columbia County countryside, with its drooping live oaks and meadows ablaze in redbud and phlox, is more Deep South than tropical.

It seemed an unlikely location for the Promised Land. Here, Doc Adams, a numbers racketeer, was killed by his mistress (who was also the wife of his rival); college football coaches had been known to treat players to the "Big House," a parlor of sporting ladies; serial killer Ted Bundy picked up a sixth-grader near her school and never took her home.Inhabitants of the county, who numbered 36,000, seemed content in lives filled with church, swimming in glassy ponds and hours spent waiting for a twitch at the end of a fishline.

But since summer 1984, little has been the same for the people of Lake City. During the next 20 years, their habits, their economy - their community - would be transformed by Charles Meade's brand of Christianity and the End Time empire he willed into being.

The End Timers would bring energy, ingenuity and an entrepreneurial spirit. But they would also bring something else. Soon, neighbors would come to demonize one another, not wave to one another. Townies would characterize the newcomers as weird, even dangerous; End Timers would dismiss the locals as sinful and intolerant.Lake City would find itself more prosperous but badly divided - awash in mistrust and suspicion.

End Time's Trump

In the months after the Meades settled in Lake City, about 50 End Timers from the Midwest joined them. They kept coming. By 1989, Meade's Florida flock numbered 700, according to the local newspaper, the Lake City Reporter, which had begun publishing articles on the newcomers - "ETs," as the locals called them.

By 1989, the End Timers owned at least 39 businesses in town and had a substantial chunk of the market in roofing, landscaping, lighting, electronics and pool installation.Sparks, who was Meade's son-in-law, cornered the real estate market in Southwood. Though some "ETs" rented apartments in town, half of the 60-odd homes in Southwood Acres were occupied by sect members by 1990, county records show. Before long, according to residents, only End Timers wanted into the neighborhood, but they wouldn't buy unless Sparks brokered the sale.

He was the End Time version of Donald Trump - sharp, intuitive, with an air of prosperous thrift. Before long, he would become one of the most powerful men in the county, a broker, investor and lender whose face would stare down from billboards all over town.

What was happening in Lake City had happened before and would again: a religious sect reshaping the economy and way of life in a small community.It has happened in Schell City, Mo., with the Church of Israel; in Spindale, N.C., with the Word of Faith Fellowship; in Hildale, Utah, with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; in Abilene, Texas, with the House of Yahweh; in Bellevue, Wash., with the Life Tabernacle Church; in Grants Pass, Ore., with the Foundation of Human Understanding; in Attleboro, Mass., with The Body.

In each case, the outsiders were able to exert influence through hard work, ingenuity, a bit of intimidation, and money, says Steve Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.], the author of two books on controversial sects - what he calls "destructive cults.""The pattern is for the leaders of these sects to move their followers all at once into areas that are sparsely populated, low-income, on hard times," Hassan says. "Then they buy up real estate or cottage industries on the cheap, making them power players in that county overnight."

Since the Internal Revenue Service classifies them as nonprofits, member donations are tax-exempt, he says. So it doesn't take them long to accumulate millions, and the leader can use his followers' money as he wishes.

Objects of evil

End Time women wore ankle-length dresses and never used makeup. (Meade cautioned them to beware of the "lipstick spirit.") The men didn't grow facial hair or wear digital wristwatches. (Mustaches, Meade said, were of the "homosexual spirit," and anything with a digital chip was evil.)

Nobody ever saw an End Timer with a pet. (Animals, even pictures of animals, harbored demons, Meade told his followers.)As it turned out, there were quite a few objects of evil in the world of Meade: newspapers, TV, chewing gum, earrings, even Dr. Seuss books. Illness, Meade preached, was the work of the devil, best healed not by doctors but by faith. All holidays, including Christmas and Easter, were banned as pagan rituals.

To Lake City residents, Meade was the mysterious stranger; they knew little of his past.

Public records show that he was born in Kentucky in 1916, quit school in the seventh grade and served with honor in World War II, earning eight Bronze Stars. Three years after the war, he stabbed a man in Indiana and was given a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to assault with intent to commit murder.He worked for years as a shipping clerk in an Indiana glass factory, but he'd been unemployed for some time when he joined a Pentecostal group in the late 1960s. A few years later, he started his own church, recruiting college students from Illinois, South Dakota and Montana. Meade's teachings weren't much different from other Pentecostal preachers' until he began making some unusual claims.

"I've soared into the heavens in the supernatural," he declared during one taped sermon. "God's picked me up many times. I've been in the heavens. I've looked down over the Earth!"Meade did not respond to two requests for an interview sent by registered mail. Sparks, the former Sioux Falls man whom former members speculate is next in line to lead the ministry, said no End Timer would agree to be interviewed. He was right.

Five kittens beheaded

As Meade's dwelling mushroomed in size, he withdrew from neighbors. He no longer stopped to shake their hands. His drapes and blinds were usually drawn.

According to residents and former End Timers, sentinels appeared behind Meade's triple fence, studying passing cars through binoculars. Sometimes, men in khakis stood posts around the neighborhood. They whispered into walkie-talkies, packed 9 mm pistols.Cars that slowed near Meade's driveway were tailed; roadblocks went up at Southwood's two entrances. Men with flashlights would wave cars to a stop, shine a beam in the drivers' eyes, and ask where they were headed, and why. The sheriff ordered a halt to the roadblocks, but no arrests were made.

One morning in 1989, a stray dog was found in a trash bin, headless.

In the weeks following, other canines turned up in people's yards, stiff as logs. Poisoned, several residents, including Judy Ayers and her daughter, Laurie, said. Sandra Smith, who had spoken out in the local media against the End Timers, said she walked out her front door one morning to see her five kittens beheaded on the walkway.Complaints were filed at the sheriff's office, residents said, but no one was arrested.

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