The rift of Eternal Life

New Times/July 6, 1995
By Andy Zipser

In the beginning there was man, destined to be born, live and die.

And there were gods.

Although formed in the shape of man, these gods were not of man for they had no beginning and no end and truly were immortal. Yet they laid down with mortal flesh, and so it came to pass that there was a mongrelization of death and immortal genetics, and the gods passed from existence.

Millenia passed.

And there was born, two thousand years ago in the land of Galilee, a man who was not man who was slain, and resurrected, and the resurrection was not of spirit but of flesh.

All who reflect on this shall awaken to the promise of life everlasting that is locked within themselves.

And they shall live forever, not in the next world, but in this. They shall be immortal.

That day is now.

So sayeth Charles Paul Brown, former nightclub entertainer, Assembly of God spiritual leader of a far-flung following called the Eternal Flame. Because of a genetic transformation he experienced in 1960, he says he will never die; nor will those of his disciples who have fully embraced his passion.

There is nothing even vaguely metaphorical about this claim; when Brown talks about eternal life he means just that, right now, right here. "I have already experience the cellular reality of being free from death," he writes in a newsletter. "I am abolishing death this moment."

And there are those who listen and believe. Although Brown and his wife, BernaDeane, have been Scottsdale residents for the past decade, their following has been scattered as far afield as Denver, Tulsa, Lubbock and Sarasota. Many are now selling off their possessions, packing up their families and moving to the Valley to be with the Browns, responding to the call for "Cellular intercourse."

They leave behind them a wake of bitterness and suspicion. Brown's followers, claim relatives and former friends, have been brainwashed by a cult leader comparable to Jim Jones. Stories about Eternal Flame adherents who have donated vast sums of money to the group, of group sex and forced homosexual relationships, of elderly people in particular being preyed upon for their wealth.

In one extreme case a Tulsa family recently sought a court ruling that their 77-year-old mother is incompetent to manage her affairs and alleged that she has been bilked out of $150,000. Although the judge denied the petition "with great reluctance," the family is going back to court in search of a guardianship and is lining up a battery of prominent Tulsa businessmen and politicians to testify about the elderly woman's "personality change."

Another Tulsa woman says both her parents, two sisters and a brother-in-law pulled up stakes and moved to Scottsdale last year, lured by Brown's spell-binding stories of immortal genes. Her father tried to leave Eternal Flame three times, she adds, before succeeding; he now lives secretively in Missouri, afraid to disclose his whereabouts for fear Charles Brown will reappear on his doorstep - as happened once before, the woman says.

On the other hand an investigation of Eternal Flame by the Scottsdale Police Department has turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. Acting on a request by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, detective Bob Hill looked for possible fraud and determined "the criminal act could not be substantiated," said another department officer. Adds deputy county attorney David Stoller: "Until we have someone who is disaffected and comes in and says 'They do this and they do that,' we don't have anything. It's not that we're reluctant to do anything, it's just that we don't have anything credible."

And there is the testimony of those within Eternal Flame. "I've never felt so much love in all my life - nobody has loved me the way these people do," says Glendora Buck, 50. "I've needed that so bad. I've hungered for that intensity all my life."

Buck is the closest thing to a success story you'll find in the Eternal Flame, since the movement is still too young to have any post centenarians it can point to as proof of its teachings. A year ago she was living in the state of Washington, desperately alone and seized with the conviction that there is more to life than eventual death - a conviction, she adds, that she has held for 25 or 30 years.

"I could see Jesus was preaching eternity in the flesh," Buck explains. "Why else would he be reincarnated in the flesh? Why else would he rise up into the clouds in the flesh? He took it with him."

Feeling isolated, she decided to seek out others of like mind and started running a six-word ad in hundreds of publications around the country: "Want everlasting life in the flesh?" Responses poured in by the hundreds - ultimately about 2,500 people responded. Buck estimates - but one in particular proved significant: a copy of Brown's book. "When I read that I just broke down and cried," she says. "I knew these were my people."

Buck came to Scottsdale last year to visit the group, fell ill with what she thought was the flu, and after time, finally visited a doctor. That's when she discovered she had leukemia.

The next seven weeks were spent at Scottsdale Memorial Hospital in chemotherapy. "My doctor told me I'd be dead in three months if I couldn't get through this thing," she recalls. He said that most people in chemotherapy die because of depression, and I'll tell you something, if it wasn't for these people [from Eternal Flame] coming in and giving me their love and energy every day - every day!- my will would be broken."

Buck's cancer is now in remission and she's convinced she's been cured and also decided "there's no reason to go back to Washington, even though her children are there - they can always come and visit me." She lives with other Eternal Flame members and hoped her daughter will move to join her and feels she turned her back on the life she gave her - a move exemplified by her divorce.

"The rest of my family won't have anything to do with me because I left Christianity," she says. "I've just totally discarded the past and don't even like to think about it."

"My reason for being here, on planet earth, is to find people just like me. I'm here to awaken mankind, that he may truly live and not die - and in order not to die you have to have other people around you who want to live so much!"

BernaDeane Brown struts the length of the conference room at the Scottsdale Sheraton, microphone in hand. Perhaps 70 people surround her, listening attentively, occasionally interrupting with cries of "That's right!" and "That's the truth!" They are of all ages, from a handful of children through a number in their teens and 20's and on up, but at least 30 or more are clearly in their twilight years. All but one are Anglos.

BernaDeane is on a roll. Her eyes, framed by heavy make-up, glare with intensity; her body moves with controlled tension, first with a hand on one exasperated, outthrust hip, then with her head tossed back in disdain, a moment later in rigid extension. Her voice stabs more often than it caresses, careening along the upper reaches of both pitch and volume. She has a passion, she declares, and every twist and turn and swoop of her delivery will convince you that this hunger is barely restrained, that it could devour you in a moment if she but slipped the leash.

"We are not a people that is of this world!" she announces, before shifting suddenly into a lower register to say, "I want you to know tonight that I have a caring for mankind, whether they hear me or not, whether or not they think I'm crazy."

In recent weeks the Eternal Flame has received a lot of bad publicity, she says, smelling out the reporters in the room. "I don't want the publicity we've received, it's so opposite to what we are" - an observation echoed by shouts of "It's shallow!" As a result, she adds, there are people who "are going to want to prove we can die."

She turns, eyes narrow. "We have had the threats. I want you to know we have had the threats, but I also feel like there is a protective shield about our bodies - and the protective shield is you."

Sustained applause and cheering.

"There's not a person in the world who can intimidate you - you intimidate yourself!" BernaDeane declares, whirling about. "We are going to cover the face of the earth - and if it takes eternity, what does it matter?"

There is a lot more of the same, an eclectic jumble of self-help pop psychology, appeals to the special nature of those present, condemnation of critics and a heavy dose of Brown's own curious mixture of science and religion. "The intelligence of my body will penetrate every cell of yours!" she says. Christ died because he didn't have enough followers to sustain and nourish hem: "The belief is not enough - I have to have you! And the more people I have like you, the less deaths there will be."

BernaDeane Brown's preaching is the energy high point of the evening, a Wednesday much- one assumes - like most Wednesdays for the group. Both she and Charles are accomplished performers, and the weekly meetings typically start with Charles Brown singing upbeat melodies about people needing each other, about immortality and about cellular interaction. At some point the Eternal Flame founder turns to straight oratory, delivered in a forthright manner that builds to a crescendo before lapsing into the familiar cadence of a southern Baptist preacher.

If Brown believes there was a "mongrelization of death and immortal genetics," his own message is a mongrelization of science and religion. He talks of sex in the genes, of male and female hormones, of mice and frogs regenerating amputated limbs. He believes in an "ancestral covenant with death" that is "recorded within the cellular structure" which, in turn, "activates a susceptibility to accidents, sickness, disease, aging and ultimately death." Immortal man might get sick, but he doesn't die. He is not "an accident waiting to happen." He is capable of reversing the aging process.

All this is possible because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ - a Jesus Christ who now lives on within the genes of each of us. As explained in one of his newsletters: "The immortal genetics of Jesus Christ, who was and is the perfect body of man before the acceptance of the imposition of physical death, is now being revealed in every cell and atom of those who still carry the encoding of their immortal heritage. That man of sin, that invisible bastard that dwells in the consciousness and intellect of the body, is being brightened by the brightness of MY COMING."

The use of the first person pronoun is conscious, deliberate and a cause for anxiety among his critics. Brown claims both to be and not to be Jesus Christ, his references so arcane as to be open to a variety of interpretations. Again, as explained in his writings: "Nay, I will not speak of him for man to idealize as some abstract of God. I will speak for myself, for I have fulfilled all that he spoke of in the ending of the genetics of death and I AM NOW. I'm not ashamed to be called by his name."

Brown has been carrying that conviction ever since 1960, ever since his sudden "genetic restructuring" abruptly ended a two-year ministry in the Assembly of God. But despite more than two decades of proselytizing across the United States the world has yet to clamor for immortality: the Eternal Flame newsletter, started in late 1965, has a circulation of only 4,000 and even that is an inflated number ballooned out with the addition of the 2,500 people who responded to Glendora Buck's advertisements.

Brown and the Eternal Flame, in other words, would remain just another obscure sect if not for the relatively recent emphasis on Scottsdale. The Browns have been Scottsdale residents since 1971 but much of their time has been spent on the preachers' circuit, primarily, in the Bible Belt. Within the last couple of years, however, more and more of their followers have moved here in response to an emphasis on "cellular intercourse."

Today, Brown estimates, there area bout 100 Eternal Flame adherents in the area, by far the largest concentration in the country.

"Cellular intercourse" is yet another aspect of the Browns' teachings that has brought them the kind of attention BernaDeane so vehemently deplores, and is just as abstrute a theory as the one describing immortality.

In the ultimate interpretation of John Donne, Brown reasons that those who want to live forever cannot be islands unto themselves: "We who are the immortal species must flow together to nourish one another in a cellular living. YOU CANNOT LIVE IMMORTALLY ALONE," he writes.

Elsewhere he explains: "There is strength in numbers; not in members who only adhere to a truth or philosophy, but in numbers of body cells who are flowing together in a deathlessness of immortal living to keep one another eternally. That's why we are together here in Scottsdale. You cannot keep yourself alive out there as a lone identity holding to a belief in physical immortality flesh bodies to nourish and keep you."

And so they have come, from all points of the compass, to be nourished. Forever. They bring with them their hopes and dreams, their fortunes and their futures, and they turn their backs on a past - on friends and family and memories and achievement - that they claim would taint them with the genetics of death. The immortal race must protect itself from corruption.

Some don't make it.

SUE, SAYS Sally Cunningham of her mother, "has been with them ever since I can remember. They went down to Scottsdale for vacation and when they came back they sold everything they had and moved back"

"They" are virtually all of Cunningham's family: her mother and father Goerge; her sister and sister's husband, Susan and Paul; and a second sister, Twila, christened in honor of Twila Davis, an Eternal Flame leader in Tulsa before she too, moved to Scottsdale a few years ago. Only Cunningham's brother and she stayed behind, a reluctance prompted by "our seeing right through them."

That was a little less than three years ago, according to Cunningham, and in that time she has learned she no longer has a family. "They call us death - they say that we're living in darkness," she says. "I don't have a mother. She told me I don't have a mother. What can I say? They are a weird, weird gorup - very strange."

Having sold their Tulsa home and barbershop, Cunningham claims, her parents moved into a Scottsdale home with another woman - where they all shared both bed and board. That was only in keeping with the Eternal Flames emphasis on "sexual love with anybody and everybody," she adds, as well as a generalized emphasis on physicality. Charles Brown, she claims, works on people's insecurities: in one case where an elder woman was ashamed of herself: "they worked on her and worked on her until she finally got up in front of everybody and said, 'I've finally released it, I've let it go,' and then she took all her clothes off."

Eventually George, married to the same woman for 29 years, decided he wanted out. The first time he returned to Tulsa, Cunningham says, "everybody down there [in Scottsdale] kept calling him and calling him, to please come back." He did. The second time he pulled away she adds, Charles Brown flew into Tulsa and showed up on George's doorstep "and scared him half to death. He did it just by looking at him with those scary eyes of his."

The final break came four to six months ago; George is now living in Missouri , divorced and remarried. Last week, Twila, his youngest daughter, also left the group and is now with him. "They treated her real bad because she never fully accepted [the teachings]," she says with more than a trace of bitterness in her voice.

Cunningham's mother, Sue, knows she is bitter but attributes that to the divorce - and emphasizes that George's departure "wasn't from the group so much as it was from me. He left me several times," she acknowledges that she and her ex-husband took up housekeeping with a second woman, but says that was George's idea and something she agreed to only "in order to keep the marriage together." In fact, she adds, the move to Scottsdale was made in an effort to keep the marriage together.

The portrait she paints of George is not a flattering one and includes a girl friend in Tulsa as well as ads in Tulsa publications searching for partners. She knows he is living in Missouri, is not surprised he has remarried, denies that Charles Brown ever followed George in an effort to convince him to return. Nor is she surprised that Twila also departed, claiming her daughter "was never involved with the group in a total way" and "never really gave of herself."

Twila, she adds, got married after the move to Scottsdale - not an Eternal Flame member. Cunningham attended only a single Eternal Flame meeting in Tulsa and so "didn't really know what was going on." And George, Sue adds, left her with a mountain of bills she is now slowly paying off.

Yet another perspective on this particular situation is offered by Tulsa resident Marie Woods, with whom George lived for awhile before moving on to Missouri. He was, she says, a "tortured man" torn between his desire to get away from Eternal Flame and wanting to be with his wife. "I think he was struggling to get her away from that," she says. "He was never in it that much - it was because he really cared for his wife."

The money Cunningham's parents got from their Tulsa properties, according to Woods, was used to buy a Scottsdale barbershop that was then given to the Eternal Flame; George has allegedly declared bankruptcy since leaving the group.

As for the group's sexual practices, Woods said only that George had described them but "I really don't want to get into that."

"They can take everything that's in the Bible and turn it around," she said of the Eternal Flame, which she estimates has been in Tulsa about 20 years. "Many people have gone there with their Bibles in hand and he [Charles Brown] just turns them around and brainwashes them."

Charges of brainwashing have been leveled far more forcefully by Royce Newby, whose legal efforts a few weeks ago to have her mother declared incompetent garnered large Tulsa headlines. Now Newby is seeking a guardianship, utterly convinced that Charles Brown has twisted her mother's mind for his own gain. "Anyone who's had any dealings with my mother over the past 25 or 30-years cannot believe she'd have anything to do with this," she exclaims. "it blows my mind - it's all completely contrary to everything we were taught."

As Newby sees it, the troubles started in early 1981 when her father died. Millie Gertrude Bailey had previously attended "a few" Eternal Flame meetings and had met the Browns and Jim Strole the organization's vice president, but the relationship was a distant one. "If they [Eternal Flame leaders] had ever set foot on this property when dad was alive, he'd have blown their heads off," Newby claims. "He hated them with a passion."

After the death, however, the arms-length relationship became a lot closer. Bailey, who will be 77 in August, left her large family (in addition to several children she had nine brothers and sisters) and moved to Scottsdale with Dorothy Goard, another Tulsa resident and Eternal Flame adherent whose husband died in 1980. Once here, Newby says, her mother started donating large financial "love offerings" to Brown, became increasingly distant and let her health slip away.

Newby says she didn't fully realize what was happening until she flew out for a nine-day visit last thanksgiving. "That's when I realized she was mixed up in something," she says. "I could see her health deteriorating because of the pressure she was under, and she had never spent her money like this." And, she adds, in words that echo Cunningham's, she attended a meeting in which Twila Davis stood up and announced that "she'd [Bailey] broken all genetics between us and that I was no longer her daughter and she was no longer my mother."

There were other visits, each progressively more distant; most recently, Newby says, her registered mail letters have been refused. When she came to Scottsdale in May - a Tulsa television crew in tow - for four days, her mother's home was padlocked and other Eternal Flame members wouldn't tell her where Bailey was staying. Meanwhile, she found out from Dorothy Goard's son that the widow had sold her Tulsa home and donated her $10,000 in equity to Eternal Flame.

The competency hearing in Tulsa drew a lot of attention, in part because the Baileys are an old and respected family in the city. At stake, says Newby, is a trust that she claims is held equally by her mother and the children - a trust that Newby believes her mother is trying to liquidate so she can donate the proceeds to Brown and Eternal Flame. (Bailey, on the other hand, says the trust is entirely in her name and she can dispose of it in any way she pleases.)

And in a surprise twist, one of the witnesses subpoenaed by Newby was her mother's attorney, who testified that compared to a year ago, Bailey appeared to be drugged. (The Attorney, Paul Hutchins, declined to be interviewed by New Times, claiming lawyer-client confidentiality; as a result, we were unable to determine who is telling the truth about the distribution of the trust, worth at least $130,000).

Special Judge Robert D. Frank, after two days of testimony, found with "great reluctance" that there was insufficient evidence to prove Bailey was either incompetent or being held against her will. "I'm not here as arbiter as to the wisdom of decisions but whether they are informed decisions," he said. "The facts don't show that this woman is incompetent or insane."

Gertrude Bailey has her own version of what happened, of course. Part of it came out in her Tulsa testimony - testimony in which she admitted making several loans to sect members, one of them a $15,000 second mortgage on her Scottsdale home, as well as putting up her home as collateral on a $20,000 bond for an Eternal Flame member charged in California with rape.

But she also described several large - and never repaid - loans to her children, and told the New Times last week that money is in fact the basis of Newby's "concern" - that Newby is "greedy," "trying to take me for a ride" and "not dependable on what she says." Affairs of this sort drag out a family's worst secrets, and Bailey duly recounts an incident 15 years ago in which Newby's husband allegedly left her for a younger woman, an incident that "really threw her for a loop" and resulted in psychiatric care.

Gertrude bailey is tired of all the media attention and her family's legal efforts to gain control of her considerable financial assets. "Most everything that's been printed is lies, and I am getting very weary of it," she says in a tone of voice that is, in fact full of weariness. "I'm tired of this, and if it wasn't for the people here I don't think I could have made it - it's enough to give anyone ulcers, honey. And I'll tell you, nowhere else in the world is there a group of people who would go through hell and high water for you like they do - nowhere."

For a year after her husband died, she says, she lived alone before deciding to move "to enjoy life." Now she has found that enjoyment, and she intends to cling to it for all she's worth: "I'll tell you that the love here is the most caring I've ever known. I never have to be lonely any more - I can run down the street and see this lovely person here and that lovely person there…

"If they had really loved me they wouldn't have come there," she adds, referring to the courtroom appearance of her children and brothers and sisters. "They wouldn't have come to see me nailed to a cross, to see my children making a spectacle of me on the stand."

She starts to cry softly. "If any of them had stayed home, I would have known that person loved me."

But does she really believe she has now gained eternal life? "It doesn't really make any difference about that - I just want to live today," she responds. "To live forever and to live with what I've been going through the past few months? Uh-huh, I don't want that. But I do know that to live or die, we have a choice."

Bailey pauses, recalls that Christ talked of conquering the grave.

"Everything that there is, is for today," she says. And finally, "I would say today id the day of immortality."

What Bailey doesn't volunteer, however, is the information that Dorothy Goard, a years-long friend and for the past 15 months the woman with whom she shared a house they had bought together, last week abandoned both the home and the Eternal Flame. She returned to Tulsa penniless, say family friends; no one answers the phone at the Goard residence, and her son's co-workers says he is not taking calls.

Gertrude Bailey claims not to know why Goard left. "She didn't confide in me a lot," she says. "We know there's going to be a controversy, that people will take what we say and do in a wrong way, but we don't want it twisted the way it was in Tulsa, a little old lady being imprisoned by a cult and that sort of thing," says Jim Strole. "How do you think that makes her feel, being told she's senile and incompetent?"

Nobody forced Bailey to move to Scottsdale, he emphasizes - and, alone in Tulsa, "she was dying."

Strole is one of the acknowledged leaders of the Eternal Flame, a 340year-old Arizona native who used to be a real estate salesman. Today he lives with the Browns, an arrangement that people like Newby says includes a physical intimacy well known within Eternal Flame circles. He also operates an auto salvage yard near I-10 and Seventh Avenue - a business he leased until he was able to buy it last fall. The money for the $35,000 down payment he acknowledges, came from Gertrude Bailey - but the arrangement is a business proposition. Strole adds, since he bears the responsibility of making monthly mortgage payments and has to meet a $40,000 balloon payment in two years.

In February the mortgage holder initiated foreclosure action, cancelling an announced auction of the business in May. There were some financial problems, Strole says.

Dressed in a dark blue, pin-striped suit, his tanned body of more that six feet draped in a chair in the Sheraton lounge, Strole looks neither like the sort of guy who rips apart rusting automobiles nor like a Jim Jones imitator - a name he volunteers, if only in disparage. Sitting across from him are BearnaDeane and Charles Paul Brown, the former still emanating tension after her impassioned preaching, the latter showing concern over this latest in a seemingly never ending procession of media inquiries.

"There is an anger within the body of the people," Charles Brown acknowledges, because of all the bad press. But all of it has been lies, he adds; there are no orgies, there have been no screenings of X-rated movies in motel rooms, there is no pressure on people to move to Scottsdale or to stay if they change their minds. He denies ever following George back to Tulsa, and says any unusual sexual relationships within the household were of George's own doing.

"The thing that split them up was George wanting to multiple living arrangement with two females," he says - to which Strole chimes in, "on his own terms."

Sexuality and sensuality pervade the conversation, just as they permeate Eternal Flame meetings. Part of that pervasiveness may be no more than a semantic overtone, since the Eternal Flame vocabulary is loaded with phrases such as "cellular intercourse," as well as such cryptic statements as BerneDeane's repeated assertion that "I am both male and female, and I am not only both male and female but androgynous too."

But there is more overt emphasis on physicality - perhaps not surprisingly for a group that believes the body is everything. References are made to "encouraging" relationships, an encouragement that may be interpreted as being as benign as a matchmaker's or as insidious as the forced coupling some claim has occurred. Although many unrelated Eternal Flame adults live together, the Browns say this occurs no more frequently than in the population at large and happens for economic reasons was well as out of a desire to be together.

And yes, Strole acknowledges, "We have taken our clothes off - together. In groups." Many people are uncomfortable with their bodies, he explains, which leads to self-rejection; such group encounters help overcome that rejection. But there is no free love within the group which typically is an exploitation of the body rather that a celebration.

Finally, says Charles Brown, "We don't dictate any kind of sexual intimacy between people - nor do we condemn anyone. What goes on behind closed doors is no one else's business… Marriage takes place in the cells of the body, not on paper."

Brown claims to know with absolute certainty that he has found immortality within himself. Now 48, he looks fit and trim but is clearly not as youthful as he must have appeared in 1960; no matter. He is not aging, he says, but "maturing." When his physical maturation will end, he doesn't know, but he is equally convinced that the truly immortal can also reverse the aging process if they so desire.

There is only one person within the group who has died, he says, a woman in her 80s who believed in the Eternal Flame's message "but told us this just wasn't for her." And when she asked the group to let her go, Brown says, it did ;this was, after all, what she wanted.

Is he now a god himself, Brown is asked. He sips from his glass of wine, declares, "I am what I am," then talks of his followers. "I awakened them," he says, "I caused them to experience an enlightenment, and so they may have a reverence for me. But for them to make me a lord or a god would be destructive to me, because that would immediately denote a separateness from me.

"And I cannot live apart from them," he said.

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