Phillip Arnn has created a public presence for a group of people who once felt invisible.
For years, some former members of Homestead Heritage say they felt power- less to counter the stream of glowing news media reports about the local religious community. To varying degrees, they tried explaining to friends and co-workers that what they read or heard about Homestead Heritage was only part of the story.
But those efforts had limited reach. As soon as the calendar rolled around to Thanksgiving or Labor Day or one of the other times when Homestead Heritage holds public events, the articles and television spots started again, extolling the seemingly simple, everyday virtues of a religious group living in a picturesque stretch of Central Texas just north of Waco.
About two years ago, though, the ex-members began to have an organized presence. Fittingly enough, that presence was spurred by yet another flattering news story about Homestead Heritage — this time by Baylor University seminary professor Roger Olson in Christianity Today magazine.
The article, published in February 2005, was predictably complimentary, the exes say. But the difference this time was that the story reached a national audience.
Some ex-members wrote letters to the editor in protest. But what really gave them a platform were the efforts of a group called Watchman Fellowship.
A Christian organization focused on cults, Watchman Fellowship has gathered information about Homestead Heritage for more than a decade. But until the Christianity Today article came out, the group was not a priority.
“Up until (then), it was a small group that really didn’t have a footprint except in home school programs,” Arnn says.
After publication of the article, though, Watchman Fellowship felt a duty to step up its education efforts about the group, Arnn says. The organization doesn’t consider Homestead Heritage dangerous in a physical or legal sense, he says. But it does believe the group deceives people and is spiritually abusive.
“There are many Christians in the group,” Arnn says, “but the group is not Christian.”
Watchman Fellowship set up an Internet discussion board on which ex-members could post their experiences about Homestead Heritage. Arnn also organized a workshop for ex-members held in Waco in April 2005. The idea was to provide them with a forum to discuss their experiences, Arnn says, as well as help heal them from the “spiritual abuse” they encountered at Homestead Heritage.
Thirty-two adults came to the meeting. About twice that many were expected, but they opted out after family members still in Homestead Heritage threatened to completely cut them off if they attended, Arnn and the ex-members claim. Others couldn’t attend because they live far away, they say.
Homestead Heritage officials contend the meeting served as an opportunity for Watchman Fellowship to indoctrinate the ex-members, spurring them to embellish and invent stories to make Homestead Heritage appear sinister. But the exes dispute that notion. All Watchman Fellowship did, they say, was give them an opportunity to talk with others who had gone through similar experiences and provide them with a way to better share those stories with others.
Each of the dozen ex-members interviewed by the Tribune-Herald offers a different story about how he or she joined the group. One thing they all have in common, though, is that they joined Homestead Heritage because of the lifestyle they believed it exemplified — wholesome Christian living in the context of community.
For some, Homestead Heritage’s rules and customs were merely an expansion of the out-of-the-mainstream lifestyle they had already embraced. For others, Homestead Heritage was night and day from what they were used to in traditional church settings.
Del and Francie Barcus were an example of the first sort of family. Living in Arizona in the late 1980s, Del held an executive-level position with luggage giant Samsonite.
Because of their religious convictions, the Barcuses had no television, home-schooled their children and required their girls to wear long dresses. They searched all over Arizona for a church that held the same beliefs but were disappointed Sunday after Sunday.
Then, like a gift from God, they say, they received a home-schooling newsletter that included a write-up about one of Homestead Heritage’s crafts fairs. The group was in Colorado then, but after the Barcuses looked at the photos and saw people who looked like them, they felt compelled to contact the church.
That was 1988. During the next several years, the family became more acquainted with Homestead Heritage through visits to the ranch in Colorado and the church in Austin, hosting an elder in their home and reading some of the group’s literature.
They eventually joined while still living in Arizona. Then in 1993, Del quit his job and moved the family to Waco. Doing so meant an 80 percent pay cut, a sobering reality for the family of seven. But they gladly accepted it, believing this was God’s will.
Bob and Katherine Beechner, on the other hand, were living a more typical life in Central Texas when they heard about Homestead Heritage. They were certainly on a spiritual search, but until then, they sought God through traditional avenues.
Saved in a Baptist church after they got married, the Beechners then moved to an Assembly of God congregation. After that they worshipped with some charismatic home churches.
But as they prepared for the birth of their first child in 1987, the Beechners found themselves at a crossroad. Their home church was in the process of dissolving and the 24-year-olds were about to be left without a spiritual home.
When a friend mentioned a group that believed in home schooling and living in community, they became intrigued. About then, Homestead Heritage began holding regular meetings in Waco, so the timing seemed heaven-sent.
After attending a couple of meetings, the Beechners could barely contain their excitement, they recall. The church’s commitment to living in community was so in line with what the couple had been seeking that it almost seemed too good to be true.
Because they had been Christians for only three years, though, the Beechners wanted to be sure they were making the right move. So they say they asked what they thought were some discerning questions.
After lengthy discussions with leaders in which they say they got all the right answers, the Beechners were convinced. Bob kept his job as a firefighter with the Waco Fire Department but, beyond that, the couple looked forward to a complete life transformation.
That’s not to say these couples didn’t have some doubts. From the beginning, some things struck them as odd. The leaders were evasive, they claim, when asked certain theological questions. And the couples say they were increasingly asked to cede control over personal or family affairs.
But both couples shoved such reservations aside. The doubts, they reasoned, arose from their inability to comprehend a higher truth or the devil trying to plant seeds of doubt in their minds. Homestead Heritage leaders spoke with such confidence and quoted Scripture with such authority that they felt unworthy to question them, they say now.
It didn’t hurt that the two couples were then treated like royalty. Both say they remember picnics and other events held in their honor as they became acquainted with Homestead Heritage. The Barcuses even got front-row seats at a wedding during one visit to the group, despite barely knowing the bride or groom.
“We were treated like a million bucks,” Del Barcus says. “. . . The whole thing was orchestrated to you. You felt pretty special.”
Once the Beechners and the Barcuses officially joined the group, the honeymoon period ended, they say. Evenings went from being filled with leisurely barbecues to church-related work sessions. Strings were attached through rules and regulations to what they thought was unconditional love.
Worst of all, the couples say, they started to understand that common Christian phrases and concepts meant something entirely different at Homestead Heritage. For example, submitting to God’s authority and submitting to the leaders’ authority is considered one and the same, they say.
The authority of leaders was so revered that it amounted to all but deification, the exes claim. Robin Engell, a member for eight years, says she remembers founder Blair Adams saying that when he spoke, it was as if Christ was right there speaking. Her group leader used a similar line, saying “I am Christ to you,” she recalls.
“The idea I always got was even though it was not the same person, it was the same office,” Engell says.
That authority supposedly gives leaders the power to forgive or not forgive sin, says former member Jeremy Crow, 30, who became part of Homestead Heritage at age 10 when his family joined. Because of this authority, members are willing to follow whatever rules are set out for them, no matter how arbitrary, strange or inconsequential they may seem. If they don’t comply, they’re told they could lose their salvation, he says.
Perhaps the most obvious category of rules pertains to dress. All of the ex-members knew when they joined that their appearance would be set apart from the world. But they were still surprised by the ever-evolving dress code, they say.
When the Beechners joined, women were allowed to wear their hair down. Later they were told they had to wear it up. Eventually the standard became so strict that strands framing the face were banned.
Similarly, bobby socks were forbidden because they supposedly showed off women’s legs too much. Eyebrow-plucking was deemed worldly. And floral print for clothing was denounced, supposedly because the word “flower” came from the same root as the word “florid,” which can mean excessively ornate or showy.
“It got to be nonsense,” Katherine Beechner says.
The dress code also was ratcheted up for men. At first they were allowed to wear T-shirts. Then collared shirts were mandated because ones without collars were supposedly worn by gay men, the exes say. Finally, it was dictated that shirts be long-sleeved, at least for work duties.
When it came to jeans, Levis were outlawed for a while. Then it was Wranglers. Finally, the leadership said Dickies was the only brand permitted.
Perhaps the most controversial dress rule, though, was an eventual ban on wedding rings, several ex-members say. For years, marriage bands had been allowed, even though jewelry in general was not. Then suddenly it was announced the rings would no longer be permitted.
“It was an evolving thing . . . and it was never good news,” Bob Beechner says.
Ex-members say many dietary rules were drawn from the Old Testament, such as prohibitions against pork and shellfish. Others have been added, such as no white sugar, no white flour and no caffeine.
The most important rules, though, pertain to conduct, according to ex-members. The group’s code of conduct goes well beyond the normal “shalts” and “shalt nots” of mainstream Christianity. There are prohibitions against everything from listening to the radio to reading newspapers to voting, the exes say.
Strict rules govern how males and females should comport themselves, the ex-members say. People of the opposite sex who aren’t married aren’t supposed to be alone together.
And there is a general rule against anything deemed “worldly,” the ex-members say. That includes everything from wearing sunglasses to driving on oversized truck tires to putting up Christmas trees.
Breaking a nonspiritual rule is usually regarded as less serious than violating a moral decree, the ex-members say. For example, wearing cowboy boots is a lesser offense than lying. Even so, Homestead Heritage routinely punishes people for nonspiritual offenses, the ex-members say.
Sometimes people were admonished in private when they broke rules. More often, they were confronted before others, if not the entire community, in sessions that usually grew intense, the ex-members say.
“There is jumping and screaming and yelling and humiliation that you can’t even imagine,” Jeremy Crow says.
People are sometimes subjected to such treatment even for instances that don’t violate the rules, the exes say. Once a church leader admonished an 11-year-old girl, screaming at her because she walked into a meeting with a somber expression on her face, the Beechners allege.
“You’ve got to toe the line or this can happen to you,” Katherine Beechner says of such humiliation. “That’s the subtle message.”
Members also are expected to tell on one another, further aggravating disharmony in the religious community, ex-members say. Consequently, friendships are shallow. Even marriage relationships are jeopardized, they say.
Francie Barcus remembers once when she told another woman in the group she didn’t understand why it mattered if a woman wanted to trim her hair. Within minutes, Del got a call from a church leader asking why Francie was cutting her hair, she alleges.
But the worst effect of so many rules is that members always felt they were one step away from losing salvation, the exes say. Engell remembers going to bed every night wondering if everything she had done that day was up to divine standard.
One time she even got up in the early hours of the morning to rearrange her silverware and drinking glasses because she worried they might be too sloppy, she says.
Other ex-members recount similar feelings. They say the “good news” of the Gospel was never preached in meetings. Jesus’ crucifixion was mentioned only in a historical context or to make the point that members must be obedient. The idea that God would forgive them through grace was nonexistent, they say.
Homestead Heritage taught that followers needed church leaders to help them succeed in being righteous enough for heaven, the former members allege. A frequent saying was that members might be able to nail down their feet and even one hand to the cross on their own. But to completely die in the flesh, or rid themselves of sin, they needed the church to nail down the final hand.
That literal lording over of members causes them to feel compelled to run many decisions by their leaders, the exes say. Getting permission for certain major decisions such as marriage was explicitly required.
For many other decisions, gaining permission is an unspoken rule. If a family wants to go on vacation, for example, the head of the household is expected to run the itinerary by his group leader, the exes say.
If the leader disagrees with the course of action, for whatever reason, the follower is told it isn’t God’s will, the ex-member allege. Those who protest are worn down through repeated prayer sessions or rebuked publicly.
“They want you to come to them constantly with every aspect of your life,” Bob Beechner says. “After a while, you lose your decision-making ability.”
That loss of control wasn’t the only way in which home life was affected, the ex-members say. Families rarely had time to themselves, they complain, because of onerous church duties.
The men all had assigned jobs, ranging from helping with the production of Homestead Heritage literature to property maintenance. On nights when there weren’t meetings, men would often get off their regular jobs, grab a quick supper at home, then head to Homestead Heritage property to work late into the evening, the exes say.
The men also had to rotate turns on overnight watch duty.
While the need for men to do some church work is understandable, even desirable, they say, the workload ultimately proved too burdensome to maintain a healthy family life. So much so, Bob Beechner acknowledges with a sheepish grin, that he would always volunteer to host people who came to visit Homestead Heritage over the weekend.
That’s because host families weren’t expected to do regular church duties during such visits. Instead, they were encouraged to show the guests a good time. So Katherine would bake homemade bread instead of buying it at the store, the children would dust off the ice cream-maker and Bob would clean off the grill.
“The phone wouldn’t ring a single time,” Bob recalls.
Women at Homestead Heritage also have a large load to carry, the ex-members say. Besides house work and schooling, they are expected to perform some group chores and lend a helping hand to others in the fellowship. The end result is like a wacky game of musical chairs, where one woman will watch another’s children so that woman can clean the house of yet another who is assisting someone who is sick.
Children’s education also suffers, the ex-members allege. When he was a boy, Crow says, learning a craft and community duties were deemed more important than academics.
By the time Crow was 12 or 13, his schooling had largely stopped, he says. By 15, it was over completely. After he left the group, he got his GED, but it took a lot of studying, he says.
Engell and the Barcuses echo this complaint, saying most children at Homestead Heritage are not nearly as well educated as people might believe. Church officials heavily edit the student papers displayed on Homestead Heritage property to make children appear academically advanced, they say.
The same sort of deception kicks into overdrive each year for the Thanksgiving festival, ex-members say. The weeks leading up to the event are the most hated time of year at Homestead Heritage, they say, as members work around the clock to get everything looking just right.
Visitors are told the event is a time of celebration, the culmination of a year’s worth of work. But for members, it’s a consummate reminder of how life in the group isn’t what it appears, Homestead Heritage exes say.
Followers know how to do all of the crafts and trades exhibited at the event. They aren’t faked in that sense, the exes say.
But mostly, all the eye-popping goods and nostalgia-inducing activities are part of a hobby or business, the ex-members say. They don’t represent how most people at Homestead Heritage actually live.
One ex-member says the immensely popular event is almost like an Anabaptist Disneyworld. All of the things people enjoy are displayed with painstaking attention to detail. At the same time, anything that might stop visitors from having a good time — and spending money — are kept from view.
Members are even told they cannot attend unless they’re smiling, the exes say.
“It’s a fantasy,” Crow says. “It’s not real.”
Such claims might seem far-fetched to people who have visited the property, the ex-members say. When they tell people what Homestead Heritage is really like, people offer such responses as: “But what about that beautiful homestead we toured?” “Their furniture was the best quality I have ever seen.” Or “I saw the gardens with my own eyes. And that ice cream. It was to die for.”
But that’s why the facade is so convincing, the ex-members say. All of those statements are true, yet not true at the same time.
Yes, Homestead Heritage has beautiful houses and exquisite gardens, the exes say. Yes, many followers are highly skilled craftsmen and excellent culinarians. And, yes, the children can sing like angels as they play handmade instruments.
But it’s equally true that many members live in mobile homes or fixer-uppers with meager gardens; that women use microwaves to cook and men use electric saws to work with wood; and that the children sometimes scowl and throw fits.
That carefully manufactured effect is what most bothers those who have left the group. It’s one thing for people to agree to live a certain way in exchange for certain benefits if all conditions, restrictions and rules are made clear at the outset, the ex-members say.
It’s quite another for people to enter into such an agreement, then later learn the benefits don’t truly exist. That’s why the facade is so dangerous, they say. It lures people into the fold who otherwise wouldn’t consider the group’s rigid, all-controlling lifestyle.
Engell puts it this way: “We just figured they knew what they were doing because the product looked so good.”
The facade is also troubling because, to maintain it, followers must engage in deception that is contrary to the faith they promote, the exes say. The Barcuses recall one time when a member was using a state-of-the-art lawn mower to manicure the grounds. Suddenly, a church leader came running from the office and told him to put it away and get out a hand mower instead because a magazine editor was coming for an interview.
Similarly, followers were given a book they were expected to read to answer visitors’ questions, the exes say. They were often drilled on the material before fairs and instructed to give answers that wouldn’t offend people’s sensibilities.
For example, if a visitor asked if children from Homestead Heritage could go to college, the answer was supposed to be yes, says former member Becky Crow, Jeremy’s mother. However, she says that’s not true. Leaders rationalized the lie, she alleges, by telling followers that in America any adult is free to do what he or she chooses.
Prospective members in particular are misled, the ex-members say. At first, picnics and other special “fellowships” are held just for them in a process Homestead Heritage adherents call “courting.”
The honeymoon period is then played out in religious meetings where the usual rigidity and humiliation is left out, the ex-members say. The sessions are even tailored to the visitor on many occasions. For example, if a person is from a noncharismatic religious background, members are told not to raise their hands or pray loudly.
“We staged a lot of stuff for a lot of people,” Jeremy Crow says.
Prospective members also aren’t allowed to see the full range of group literature, the ex-members say. The rationale given by church leaders is that just as someone wouldn’t take an upper-level college course before the prerequisite, people must read foundational literature before progressing to more advanced material. But the real motive at work, the exes allege, is the group knows many people wouldn’t join if they read it all.
Even once people officially join the church, they aren’t told the whole of the group’s beliefs right away, the exes say. Months, even years, pass before people truly understand the dynamics.
Looking back, ex-members say they can scarcely believe they bought into the ruse. But they did, largely because of the promise of the good life, they say.
“There were so many red flags,” Engell says. “But it just looks so good, you want to ignore them. You want to think it’s your imagination, because this is your dream, this is what you have wanted all of your life.”
Then, once people join, other factors kick in that make leaving difficult. The former members acknowledge no physical constraints keep people at Homestead Heritage. However, they contend a host of intangibles keep people hooked.
Most families are supported through jobs offered either by Homestead Heritage or one of its followers, so leaving means losing a livelihood. Families can also face losing their homes.
People who live on Homestead Heritage land sign a contract to vacate if they ever leave the church. Others live in nearby neighborhoods made up almost entirely of Homestead Heritage members. While they have the option of staying even if they leave the church, doing so can prove socially awkward, leaving them and their families ostracized.
Even more powerful is the fear of losing relationships, the exes say. When people join, they’re told to distance themselves from friends and extended family. Before long, the only real connections they have are with others in the group — and they know if they leave, those connections will be limited or cut off.
But the biggest threat, the ex-members say, is that people feel they’ll be damned if they leave — both in this life and the next.
Jeremy Crow says he was repeatedly told that going to other churches would constitute leaving God because other churches had “less light” than Homestead Heritage. When he and his wife decided to leave four years ago, a leader told him the action might trigger a vision the leader had of Crow’s newborn son being run over and killed by a truck.
Jeremy Crow doesn’t believe the vision came from God, but the idea is still hard to shake.
“It is one of those nagging things in my head,” he says.
Crow’s mother says she remembers longing for death — not because she was suicidal but because she viewed death as the only release from group life. Just thinking about leaving was scary. It would be like other Christians considering the idea of forever severing themselves from God, she says.
“I don’t know how to explain the fear that overcomes you,” she says.
Engell agrees, saying the idea she would fall from God’s grace if she ever left terrified her.
“It was like God would turn his back on me and the devil could have a heyday and do whatever he wanted with me,” she says.
Ultimately, the ex-members say they left because God mercifully created circumstances in their lives that caused them to question Homestead Heritage.
The Beechners say it started as a realization that the group was having a negative impact on their children. The younger children would often throw fits before meetings, sometimes almost becoming hysterical.
Most worrisome was the attitude their older son developed, the couple says. He saw God as something akin to a hateful tyrant, a view they feared would only intensify as the years advanced.
When the Beechners approached church leadership about their concerns, Bob was told he was the problem, not the church. Unable to work things out, the family eventually left.
For the Barcuses, seeds of doubt took root when they couldn’t get a straight answer from church leadership about what other groups qualified as Christians, they say. That prompted yet more questions, and with each sidestep or vague response from church leaders, they came closer to concluding something was wrong.
One of the last straws was the realization that Homestead Heritage followers didn’t believe people outside the fellowship could enter heaven, the Barcuses say.
“That was one of the things that bothered us, how they reviled the body of Christ at large,” Francie Barcus says. “. . . It’s hard to verbalize why you just don’t pick up and leave. But it’s just not that easy.”
As difficult as leaving was, it was but the beginning of a painful process, the ex-members say.
For the Beechners, one of the most difficult aspects was being shunned. Their first taste of it came a few days after they officially left the group. Katherine and the children were at a local grocery when they saw a family from the fellowship that they had been close to. She and her children were eager to say hello, but the mother and children turned away from them without so much as a greeting.
“One day the phone rings 50 times,” Bob Beechner says, “and the next day, it doesn’t ring at all.”
Returning to religious life also proved difficult, the Beechners say. They recall one Sunday, soon after the family began going to its first church after Homestead Heritage, when their oldest son’s name was called by the pastor at the end of the service.
He was being called to the stage to receive an award for Bible memorization. But because of his time at Homestead Heritage, he assumed he was being called out for discipline and started shaking, they say.
“It triggered a visceral reaction,” Bob says.
Francie Barcus says she experienced the same sort of emotional turmoil. Only recently has she reached the point where she can bear to cut her hair or wear pants. For so long, she was programmed to believe such actions were offenses against God, she says.
Those with family still in the group have it the worst, the exes say. Communication largely ceases between those who are in and those who are out, they say.
That’s the case with the Crows. Becky’s only daughter — Jeremy’s sister — remains with the group, married to one of founder Blair Adams’ sons. Jeremy’s in-laws are also members.
When they first left, there was an exchange of a few letters and telephone calls, Becky and Jeremy say. But such exchanges were only designed to draw them back into the group. After they started speaking out against Homestead Heritage, communication stopped.
The fact they’re now speaking out in a more public way will probably destroy any chance of a relationship with those loved ones, the ex-members say. Time and again, they have seen the aggressive way in which Homestead Heritage deals with criticism, either by claiming persecution or engaging in character assassination.
The exes can list off a litany of examples. But because most of the situations weren’t recorded in any way, they know it’s their word against the group’s.
However, there are two documented examples that they cite as proof of a pattern.
One is a booklet the church group published in 1993. It was produced in response to the criticisms of Susan Armstrong, the woman who Homestead Heritage claims first alerted Watchman Fellowship to its existence.
The situation began when Armstrong sent a letter to various home-schooling organizations criticizing Homestead Heritage’s literature for its theological stances. Homestead fired back with a response that is nearly 100 pages long.
Much of the defense mounted in the booklet is similar to the defense Homestead Heritage is using against its current critics. Some of the language is near verbatim to the statements members gave the Tribune-Herald in recent interviews.
For example, the document asserts Armstrong is trying to label them with a “yellow star,” alluding to the badge Jews were forced to wear under Nazi rule. It warns that Armstrong’s criticisms might be the first volley in a broader doctrinal witch hunt. They say all Christians should be wary of what Armstrong is doing — a tenet of their current argument.
Another striking example of how Homestead Heritage tries to silence critics, ex-members say, is a document titled “Response to Clinton Elder.” It was penned in 1994 after a man by that name wrote a letter to church leaders outlining his problems with the group.
The complaints listed in the letter are much the same as those voiced by ex-members now. That’s important, the exes say, because Homestead Heritage officials claim no one had such problems with the group until Phillip Arnn of Watchman Fellowship started manipulating people a couple of years ago.
The document is also important because it demonstrates the ferocity with which Homestead Heritage responds to criticism, the ex-members say. At well over 200 pages, the response addresses Elder’s claims point by point. But it also includes a catalog of various sins the group claims Elder committed, reaching back as far as grade school.
Even more galling, the ex-members say, the book was required reading for all followers at the time.
Elder, who is 54 and still lives in the Waco area, says the book was hurtful. Many of the men who helped write it had known him since junior high school, he says.
Elder readily admits many criticisms about him in the book are true. But some material is either untrue or taken out of context. More importantly, some material was gleaned from confessions he made to church leaders, he says.
Because of that, Elder decided to bring legal action against the group. He didn’t want to destroy it, he says. He simply wanted to send a message that it shouldn’t disclose personal details about its members.
The matter never went to court. When Elder and his attorney met with Homestead Heritage members, a monetary settlement was reached. Because of the terms of that settlement, both Elder and church members say they can’t disclose the amount.
During a recent interview, Elder said he wanted to make it clear he did not give the Tribune-Herald a copy of the group’s response. The ex-member also said he wanted to keep his comments about Homestead Heritage limited, though there is a lot he could say.
The main thing Elder wants to communicate to the public, he said, is that the group hides its true nature from outsiders. While he disagrees with the group on points ranging from dietary rules to doctrine, that’s not really what troubles him, he said. People are free to believe what they want, just as he once did.
But engaging in deception as Homestead Heritage does to gain new members is wrong, he said.
“I just want people to have full disclosure,” Elder said.