Ex-Holyland resident says commune never delivered on promise

Birmingham News/June 11, 2000
By Robin DeMonia

Meridian, Miss. - Gail Walker grew up in housing projects. But she dreamed of a better life - one with a purpose, a destination. At 18, she thought she found it at a place called Holyland.

She spent 17 years at the West Alabama commune, starting out with her husband in tiny dormitory quarters with no plumbing. She kept the rules. She turned her children over to caretakers at 2 months. She worked endlessly, often traveling the country to solicit donations for the Holyland's good works.

As she toiled, the organization blossomed. It bought businesses, farmland, equipment. It bought airplanes, limousines and luxury cars. It has assets worth at least $11 million.

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Yet with all that, it never delivered Ms. Walker's better life. As the Holyland and its offshoot businesses thrived, the best Ms. Walker got was, finally, a room with running water.

"We were told it was the Bible way," she said. "But I kept thinking, 'Being saved should not be a miserable journey. If going to heaven is like this, I don't want to go.'"

In the end, she took her children and left the Holyland, even though it meant splitting with her husband, a top lieutenant in the organization. The rest of the country will celebrate Independence Day on the Fourth of July. Two days later, Ms. Walker will mark her sixth anniversary of independence. "I thank God that I'm free," she said.

The Holyland's leader, Bishop Luke Edwards, said the commune's residents are free to leave, but they have no yearning to go. "As far as I know, everyone's happy," he said.

He said most Holyland residents don't need payment or fancy living quarters to feel good about their work. "The way of holiness," he said, "is not a rat race."

Ms. Walker said she isn't greedy. What she wanted during her years at the Holyland was a chance to make choices - even the simplest of choices - for herself and her family.

"If I want to buy a pair of panties and a slip, I ought to be able to," she said. "We had to turn in a need slip."

A better life

Today, Ms. Walker is in Meridian, establishing the better life of her dreams. She has a job with a social service agency, enjoys her four children and attends college. She is buying a house and is active in a Baptist church, though she had trouble trusting a new congregation.

She doesn't like to revisit the Holyland, even in her mind. Too much remembering still triggers tears. But she has relatives at the commune, as well as her ex-husband. She wants to say something that will inspire them to break away or that will lead to better living conditions for them.

But she knows from experience that won't be easy.

She didn't leave the Holyland when its rules and routines kept her from spending time with her children - not even to share a meal or have them into her room for a drink of water.

She didn't leave when she was required to go across the country and sit outside storefronts to collect money all day, whether the weather was freezing or blazing hot. She didn't leave even when she wasn't allowed to come off the fund-raising route to attend her mother's funeral.

She continued to travel from city to city, collecting money for "abused kids," even when she had qualms. As souvenirs, she collected business cards from hotels where she stayed with her church sisters and banks they patronized to turn in collections.

One year, she stayed on the road all except for 52 days - averaging six days a week on the job.

Rolling in money

A ledger from 1993 shows her team routinely cleared more than $3,000 a week - and sometimes as high as $6,500 - after paying meager hotel, gasoline and food expenses. Between May and August in 1992, the different teams' combined gross ranged from $22,000 to $35,000 each month.

One year, Ms. Walker's personal collections reached $65,000. That doesn't count the donations collected by the other half-dozen people on her team or the other teams traveling the country at the same time.

"We were getting beau-coups of money," she said.

Her frustrations mounted as the money rolled in. She said she sometimes had to justify taking money for "abused kids" when she didn't feel like that's where the money was going. The only kids she saw suffering were those who lived at the Holyland. But their plight didn't improve, no matter how much money she raised.

"We're buying limousines and these kids are walking around with socks hanging all out the front

'cause their shoes got holes in them," she said.

'A slavery thing'

Things were scarcely better for adults, she said. Residents were promised that when there was enough money, they would all get cars and houses. But the money went to other uses. While they were told all of the Holyland properties belonged to them, the residents never seemed to get the benefits of ownership.

"If these restaurants are ours," Ms. Walker remembers asking her husband, "how come you can't take me out to eat there sometimes?"

Even though Holyland leaders warned that bad things would befall people who left the commune, she pleaded with her husband to move. Ms. Walker found herself hoping at times to be kidnapped. But she still felt unable to break free by herself. "It's a slavery thing," she said. "I think it's a real inside fear, like it's some kind of witchcraft."

In Ms. Walker's case, it's not clear what finally broke the spell. But one day, her mind was made up. After investing 17 years in the organization, she said, she left empty-handed.

The unfairness still gets to her sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, as does the hurt for what she views as broken promises by the Holyland bishop.

"I figure he owes each of us at least 40 acres and a mule," Ms. Walker said.

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