When Salvation Army volunteer Donald Whittington first arrived at the scene of the Mount Carmel stand-off, he was amazed at the contrast he saw.
“I really noticed the irony between the beauty of this place and the ugliness of what is going on here,” said the 64-year-old Tyler resident, who came to Central Texas with fellow Tyler resident Roy McClish.
Both came to man the Salvation Army’s mobile food truck near Mount Carmel and to serve hot drinks and sandwiches to the press and police camped out here.
The two, who consider themselves to be good Christians, question the religious fervor of their one-time Tyler neighbor, Branch Davidian cult leader Vernon Howell, who once preached in their town.
Howell and about 100 of his followers have been holed up in the compound since Feb. 28, when Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents attempted to raid the compound.
“He said he’s in there waiting for a message from God before he comes out. I’ve got news for him. He’s never going to hear from God,” McLish said as he handed a cup of hot chocolate to a reporter who, in turn, held up a dollar.
“Your money is no good today,” McLish told the man, a reporter from Miami. “Send it to the Salvation Army wherever your home is.”
Though Salvation Army volunteers are now collecting donations for some $1,200 in food they have given away so far, their donation jar was shut down by local sheriff’s deputies for a few days, Whittington said.
“They didn’t like the see-through container, and it took us a while to get another,” he said.
McClish, a 65-year-old retired landscaper, said he tries not to judge Howell.
“But he’s using people who believe in him, and he’s using the children as a shield. Any man that does that is, to me, just a coward,” McClish said.
Whittington, a retired maintenance worker for the Michael’s Craft Store in Tyler, said he tries not to judge, either. But, he said, it is difficult.
“I know I have no right to judge the man. It is God’s job to do that. But in my eyes, I don’t care who he says he is. Vernon Howell is not a Christian,” Whittington said.
Mount Carmel, not really a mount at all, lies between fields dotted with farm houses whose yards are filled with rusting machines, piles of rotting timbers and groves of flowering dogwood.
Serving 500 per day
It is a military-style compound alone on the otherwise serene farm-to-market road winding east about 10 miles out of Waco through the mud bottoms of Tehuacana Creek, where egrets and blue herons prey on flooded fields.
“It’s so beautiful out here, and so ugly,” Whittington said. “Vernon Howell best lay himself down and plead with God for mercy.”
Whittington and McClish said the Salvation Army is serving nearly 500 people per day. Those coming to the trucks are reporters, camera and sound crews, and police officers, they say. All show gratefulness for the service, they said.
Jerry Smith, 38, of Waco said Salvation Army members feel as good about the service as those they feed.
“They all want to give donations. Some of them said they don’t know what they would have done if we weren’t out here,” Smith said.
“Some of the press people have to stay here because it’s their job not to miss anything. Some absolutely cannot leave, have no relief and could get into trouble,” Smith said.
15 gallons of coffee
Whittington said the Salvation Army has been giving out about 15 gallons of coffee a day.
“We’re also giving away about 60 cups of hot cocoa, dozens of cases of soda and about 10 dozen doughnuts.”
McClish said the organization has distributed pizza, chicken salads, and candy donated by local businesses like Panther Pizza, Crispy Golden Fried Chicken and Wal-Mart. Also, the two said, much of the food has come from individual area residents who have baked various dishes.
In May, McClish will celebrate his 35th year as a volunteer in the canteen. Whittington said he has volunteered since his retirement two years ago.
“I do it because God wants me to do it,” Whittington said. “I do it because it makes me feel good. I certainly don’t do it because I need something to do.”