PALESTINE — In a split-log meeting house of a religious commune, children quietly learn their daily lessons while three women, faces bare of makeup, chop vegetables in an adjacent kitchen.
The group living in the piney woods near Palestine hardly seems like the seedbed of a jihad between rival prophets, but more like a gathering of back-to-nature fans.
Led by prophet-leader Vernon Howell, the group was run off from its former home near Waco at gunpoint by a rival prophet, George Roden, two years ago.
At its “temporary base,” Perry Jones, spokesman for the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, called to people throughout the piney woods, and opened the doors of makeshift plywood boxes that serve as homes for the misplaced group.
They are one of the remnants of Mount Carmel, a religious commune established in Waco in 1935 by V.T. Houteff at Lake Waco. After Houteff’s death in 1955, the group sold its lakefront property and moved to a site near Elk.
Houteff’s wife, Florence, predicted the Kingdom of God would be established in Waco in 1959. When it was not, the Branch Davidians emerged to take leadership of the movement’s remnants.
Litigation and controversy have surrounded the group since that time. In 1985, a rivalry between Howell and Roden for the leadership of the group culminated in Howell’s group being forced off the property at gunpoint. Howell himself already had left, and Roden took over the Elk property.
Howell’s group established a temporary base near Palestine. Although the Elk property was threatened with foreclosure for back taxes since 1968, Howell led an armed group back into Roden’s camp, and a 45-minute gun battle ensued. Since then, the taxes have been paid by Howell’s group.
Roden, a 49-year-old house mover and presidential candidate several times, calls Howell a hippie. Roden claims his mother, the former leader of the group, bestowed the prophetic gift and leadership upon him. He recently filed a brief in the Texas Supreme Court that wished AIDS upon the justices of the court.
Howell is a 28-year-old musician. The commune believes he has the message of the seventh angel prophesied in the book of Revelation, who predicts the beginning of the end of times. Howell, who prefers the title of Bible teacher, claims Roden has a mental defect.
Eight members of the splinter group led by Howell engaged in a 45-minute gun battle with Roden on Nov. 3, and have been charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
All eight have been released on bond. A pretrial hearing is set for Friday and a trial date set for Jan. 25 in 54th State District Court.
Nevertheless, Jones feels his Palestine-based group has been portrayed in recent press reports as if members are part of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Howell’s group, which wishes to reclaim its home near Elk, now call Rodenville, has found a temporary haven in the woods east of Palestine. Reports from Palestine law officials that “they’re living in boxes” are not far off.
The 5-by-7-foot plywood boxes contain small wood-burning stoves bought on sale from Payless Cashways. There’s room for a few adults to stand and a loft for sleeping. Light comes from kerosene lamps. There is no insulation.
“Our heads are warm, but our feet are cold,” Jones said.
Each box has its own private bathroom — a plastic bucket.
Catherine Matteson, a Davidian elder wearing a knit cap and scarf, said outsiders do not matter to her.
“I’m just waiting for things to progress,” she said. “I’ve searched all my life, and my life is pretty long—I’m glad I found it,” she said.
Believing that the Kingdom of Heaven is on the horizon, the Branch Davidians are pushing their evangelistic efforts. They believe music will be the vehicle of enlightenment. They have opened a music studio in Waco to make an album under Cyrus productions, and they hope to do videos.
“The whole world’s going to hear about it, and it’s going to be through music,” Jones said.
The Davidians’ pilgrimage from Mount Carmel hit them hardest physically, members said.
“Last winter was rough,” Jones said.
“We used to put hot water bottles at our feet,” Matteson added.
About 20 children 3 through 16 live at the camp and go to the commune school led by Sheri Jewell. School usually is held in a converted school bus without wheels near the meeting house, but because of the cold weather, school moved indoors where there is a wood-burning stove.
Chores are divided among camp members, Jones said. Behind the meeting hall, a young man draws water from a makeshift water tower. Nearby is an outdoor “playpen” fashioned from slats made of tree-bark, with a giant umbrella for shade. Near the rim of plywood boxes hangs a tire swing.
Despite these rustic touches, the camp is a curious mixture of wilderness and modern living. A former airport shuttle bus, white and glaringly contemporary, contrasts with the old, battered converted school bus.
Old couches are arranged in concentric circles in the middle of the camp for outdoor meetings. Weight-lifting equipment is piled near handmade chin-up bars. Automobiles of various makes and year models spot the camp perimeter. A small log structure in the center of the camp contains the commune’s only telephone.
The whole image is that of a peaceful, 1960s-era commune whose members are enjoying communion with nature.
Although the Davidians realize many consider their group on the fringe, rather than mainstream, critics do not offend them, they said.
“They are not offensive because we can understand why people are like they are,” Jones said.
The group’s beliefs center around the “harmonizing” of all the prophecies of the Bible. They observe the seventh day—Saturday—as the Sabbath, and do not use “unclean foods”—alcohol, tobacco and non-medical drugs. They also are vegetarians “by choice, not by faith,” Howell said.
The Seventh-day Adventist church claims it has no present association with the Branch Davidians prophecies.
“Many of us were members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but we were disfellowshipped,” Jones said.
The rivalry between Howell and Roden began in 1981 when Howell came to Mount Carmel. He was readily accepted by the Mount Carmelites for both his eagerness to learn about the commune’s beliefs and his ability to keep the community buildings in repair.
Howell was the crux of the commune split, with friction between Howell and Roden starting as early as 1983.
“We accepted that Vernon Howell had a prophetic message,” Jones said. “All of us, except George, that is.”
After a fire destroyed a $500,000 administration building and press, the rivalry between Roden and Howell became critical. Roden claimed Howell set the fire. But Jones maintains the fire was a “judgment of God” on the group.
“No man set that fire,” he said.
But Roden carried out what he said was divine judgment of his own. He said he ordered Howell and his followers off the grounds at gunpoint, and since then has changed the name of Mount Carmel to Rodenville. Roden says seven families still live in the community. The entrance is blocked by barricades.
In an interview with Fox cable network, Roden said the barricades are designed to protect Rodenville just like “the White House.”
“It’s to prevent car bombs from blowing up me or any of the people here,” he said.
Eventually, Howell led the group to establish their base in Palestine. Then last year, Roden exhumed a body from the community cemetery at Rodenville. According to Roden, he was moving the cemetery.
But Howell’s group claims Roden issued a challenge to resurrect the body, and that whoever resurrected the body would be the uncontested leader and prophet of the group.
“There is a time for those kinds of things,” Jones said. “In Daniel 12, God told Daniel that the righteous would be resurrected. But God did not mean in a situation like Rodenville, which we prefer to call the Mount Carmel Center.”
When the group found that Roden really had exhumed a body, feelings ran high, Jones said. Jones himself has an infant son buried in the cemetery.
They researched state laws about corpse abuse and went to the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office with complaints, Howell said.
However, the sheriff’s department, which has been out to the Mount Carmel community several times over the last few years, regarded the group as a harmless nuisance, Howell said. They were instructed to get pictures of the body. When they returned with a picture of a casket draped with an Israeli flag, they were told to get pictures of the actual body.
So the members decided to go onto the property and get pictures of the body, Howell said. They brought camouflage fatigues on sale at K-Mart, and entered the compound looking for the bones, Howell said.
“So why the guns?” asks Jones, anticipating a question about why peaceful people, whom he said are opposed to war, would be involved in a shoot-out with a rival religious group.
“We didn’t go in this with our eyes closed. The sheriff had been patrolling the place for a while because of George’s reputation with guns,” he said.
Roden claims the group was out to assassinate him, and held them off with gunfire until the sheriff’s deputies arrived.
“They were coming to kill me, and they knew I’d kill them,” he said. “. . . What you have with Khomeini against Israel, you got with Vernon Howell against me.”
Since then, the group has been selling cassette tapes of a song Howell wrote about the incident. It’s called “Madman of Waco.”
The lyrics say the men risked their lives for the Lord in an attempt to win back the land for the old women and children in their group, and that they didn’t mean to harm anyone. Proceeds will go toward funding the men’s defense.
“We’re not rich like the Southern Baptist Convention,” Jones said. “We’re not even as well off as a small Baptist church. We are just poor people.”
“The seventh angel is out to save people,” Jones said, referring to Howell’s message. “All people will have a chance to enter the Kingdom of God, they believe. All nations are to be invited. There will be no difference between male and female, Jew or Gentile, black or white. Anyone can be saved who accepts God’s mercy and repents.”
The only unforgivable sin, they said, is rejecting God’s word. Many in Christianity’s established churches may be guilty of that sin, they said.
But for now, members of the religious community in Palestine hope to return to their homes near Elk.
“This is all temporary,” Jones said. “We’re hoping to get back home.”