Holyland kids still bear scars

Birmingham News/June 11, 2000
By Robin DeMonia

Emelle - Their roots are here, packed deep in West Alabama soil. But many of those who grew up at the Holyland commune have scattered like chaff to places such as Michigan, Mississippi and Georgia.

Now young adults, they say virtually all of their peers left in search of happier lives.

It hasn't been easy. They say they still bear scars from their years at the Holyland - years of harsh discipline, family separation and unmet needs. "It is designed for the children to suffer," said Lakisha Davis Herr, 22, who grew up there and left two years ago.

They say their lives were more boot camp than summer camp.

They were denied food if they misbehaved, and they were whipped for such things as wetting the bed, walking on the grass and asking for help with schoolwork, former residents of the commune say. Sometimes, the children were struck with water pipes and horse straps.

They didn't celebrate birthdays or Christmas. They didn't always have good clothes and shoes. They had to get out of bed by 4 a.m. The commune adjusted its practices after being fined for more than 100 child-labor offenses in 1990 - cases that involved Mrs. Herr and her peers. But the children still recall far more work than play. Like their parents, they toiled for free at Holyland businesses or farms.

Children lived in dorms apart from their parents. The boys' dorm was smelly and ill-kept, sometimes a magnet for rats and snakes. It burned last year. The girls' dorm burned in 1998, killing four children.

Former Holyland residents - including some who claim they are the illegitimate offspring of the commune's leader, Bishop Luke Edwards - say their childhoods were filled with low points.

"God don't approve of children living like that," said Travis Davis, 15, who left the commune this year after rebelling against the Holyland's routines. "I got real sick and tired of it."

Edwards, openly advocates whippings and hard work for children. But he denies that children have been abused. He dismisses their complaints as a normal part of growing up. "They were brought up, I believe, in the right environment." he said. "In a few years, they'll realize what we tried to do was protect them."

Indeed, some who leave eventually come back, he said. One of those was Davis who has now returned to Holyland after a period of rebellion.

Former residents acknowledge that some of their peers have had trouble adjusting to life away from the Holyland. But they blame that on the crippling effect of growing up with no freedom or choices.

At least two former Holyland children say they've required psychological help to try to shake the commune's legacy in their lives. One reports suicidal thoughts, and the other has nightmares of the Holyland.

"It's just a real bad scar," said Rodney Lipsey, 30, a Michigan contractor who left the Holyland on his 18th birthday.

The accusers are members of the commune's core families, the children of deacons and other church leaders. They don't claim that they were never deserving of punishment, and they don't complain about every whipping. But they question the frequency and severity of the spankings.

Lipsey still bears the scar on his back from what he describes as a horse-strap whipping that drew blood.

Kendra Brassfield, 20, who left last July because she was tired of Holyland's "crazy rules," remembers at least one time when she was whipped with a water pipe. Other times, she said, spankings left her so sore she had trouble getting out of bed.

The children also speak of feeling deprived.

Although Edwards said the farm-oriented commune always had an abundance of food, the former Holyland children said they never felt the bounty.

They said they were told at times there were enough eggs or meat servings only for adults. "You were always too big to play," Mrs. Herr said. "But when you got to the kitchen, you weren't big enough to get eggs."

Ms. Brassfield remembers a hunger that was never quite satisfied. She carries a poignant picture in her mind of the snacks she said were sometimes given to Holyland children: empty ice cream cones.

For misbehavior, the children might get even less.

Some said they didn't think the practices were odd at the time. But Teresa Foy, now 22, ran away twice from the Holyland before leaving for good five years ago.

Once, she reported abuse allegations and triggered an investigation by the Alabama Department of Human Resources. When other children were questioned, they say now, they were too scared to tell the truth. Holyland sued and regained custody of Ms. Foy.

The loyalty of the former residents to each other is fierce. The commune's exiled children stay in touch, offer support to each other and sometimes live together. In leaving the Holyland, some broke ties with their families. Their former dorm-mates are the closest thing they have to families.

"We just stick together. If you see us all together, we click like a magnet," said Lipsey, who hauled a group back to Alabama this year for a birthday celebration. "We're always pulling each other out of holes." To Edwards, their ongoing relationship is a sign that his commune's teachings weren't in vain. "They were taught to treat each other as brothers and sisters," he said.

But some of the former residents say they now know the lesson was more true than they realized as children. A number of them believe they are Ed wards' biological offspring.

Claims dismissed

Former resident Geraldine Wilson, now of Meridian, Miss., claims her four children were fathered by Edwards.

Other children on the Holyland, including Lipsey, said they have learned that Edwards could be their father.

In the past, Edwards has denied having children with anyone other than his first wife and his current wife. He now dismisses the question outright, saying the children who claim to be his offspring are insulting their mothers.

Mrs. Herr recalls being sent at age 15 to work at the Holyland's restaurant in Tuskegee.

As she lived in the group's nearby hotel, worked full waitress shifts and kept up with her school work on the side, she saw other teenagers decked out for the prom and enjoying other adolescent rites. But Mrs. Herr said she wasn't even allowed to put her feet in the motel pool.

It didn't help that she was working for free. When she and other waitresses got caught trying to keep some of their tips, Edwards chastised them. "He said we were stealing from ourselves," she said. Mrs. Herr ended up telling her customers not to bother leaving tips.

It wasn't the only way that she feels shorted by the Holyland. By the time she left, she had years of work experience. But her schooling had suffered. When she applied at a community college, she was rejected despite her diploma from the Holyland's private school.

She said she feels like she missed her childhood. But now that she has a child of her own, she is determined not to repeat the cycle.

"They could have given us activities, treated us as children," she said. "They didn't have to whip us as much as they did. They didn't have to work us like they did. They could have fed us. They could have let us have our own mind. They could have gave love. But that is not there. They don't love the children."

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