Click here for the guest column as published in the Waco Tribune Herald, May 13, 2012.
Click here for our response to the WFAA news feature.
Click here to read our point by point response to the Observer article.
Click here to post your comment.
Click here to view ex-members' petition against slander.
The first to present his case seems right,
Till another comes forward and questions him.
– Hebrew Proverb
"A man calumniated is doubly injured—first by him who utters the calumny, and then by him who believes it."
(Click the titles below to view)
Over the past decades, our community has received much unsolicited media attention from both local and national sources. The vast majority of this has been positive—we’ve been featured in and recommended by numerous distinguished organizations and publications, including Southern Living magazine, Texas Highways magazine, Christianity Today magazine, Baylor University’s KWBU public broadcast network, Better Homes and Gardens magazine, Woodwork magazine, the local chamber of commerce, several Texas TV stations, a brief column in the New York Times, and many other newspaper and television pieces. (Click here for links and references)
No one can embrace our nonviolent, nonpolitical, simple agrarian lifestyle with its traditional Christian values and not expect to become the target of some less tolerant social elements, people who attempt to exploit the public media as a tool to further their own agendas.
No one, however, can embrace our nonviolent, nonpolitical, simple agrarian lifestyle with its traditional Christian values and not expect to become the target of some less tolerant social elements, people who attempt to exploit the public media as a tool to further their own agendas. This is most easily accomplished not by openly contesting our actual beliefs on intellectual or religious grounds, but rather by airing sensational, inflammatory accusations. While typically subjective and unverifiable, such accusations nonetheless have a strong shock factor and emotional impact on the public. They also leave a residual taint even if the accusations prove to be false. Unfortunately, media outlets are sometimes all too willing to be drawn in simply because they, too, can profit from “the big scoop” on a sensational story. This proves particularly tempting if the story follows what other journalists call the “law of currency”—that is, if it contains material that is similar to other popular current stories.
The recent article titled Heritage of Abuse in the Texas Observer news magazine (March 2012) and the recent news feature on WFAA Channel 8 TV in Dallas (April 2012) are both examples of this kind of irresponsible, sensational reporting. These stories both came from the same sources, and the reporters were in competition with each other to be the first to “blow the whistle.” The stories feature the testimony of individuals who were once associated with us to one degree or another (many of whom remain anonymous) but who now claim to be exposing physical, psychological and sexual abuse that they and others allegedly suffered while a part of our community. The false accusations even include the allegation that we tolerate and cover up sexual abuse of minors—a particularly volatile charge in the aftermath of the recent Penn State scandal. (In fact, in a promotional email sent to the Observer’s supporters, the editor specifically compares their story to the Penn State scandal.)Back to top
We’ve been open to the public for over twenty years, and we now have well over 50,000 visitors annually.
One of the single most preposterous claims or insinuations made about our community at Homestead Heritage is that we have attempted to hide our life from others. We’ve been open to the public for over twenty years, and we now have well over 50,000 visitors annually. Some of these are visitors to our Homestead Craft Village, which is open six days a week year-round, featuring our craft shops, a gristmill, a cafe and fine gift store. Others attend workshops and seminars in our Ploughshare School of Sustainability or attend one of several special music events. Thousands have made our annual Homestead Craft Fair an annual tradition on Thanksgiving weekend. We also host 4,000-6,000 public and private school children each year for a field trip and tour of our farm. Church, senior and civic groups make frequent visits. University professors bring classes out for tours and field studies on topics ranging from geology and sustainable agriculture to sociology, religion, church history and theology. Seminary graduate classes regularly come to ply our members with questions about our Christian beliefs and our lifestyle. Still others attend our church picnics or join us for meetings and fellowship in our homes. We’ve distributed many books that go into great depth about our teachings and practices. We minister and hold church services and Bible studies in nursing homes, prisons, detention centers, rehab centers and underprivileged neighborhoods, in addition to ministering in area churches not affiliated with us. On top of all this, we’ve generally been quite open to the public media, even allowing TV investigations in the wake of the David Koresh debacle, when we weren’t sure that the current cultural climate would be particularly favorable towards a small, close-knit religious community on the outskirts of Waco!
But in spite of all this, it seems that there are still a few individuals and media personnel who feel it their duty to expose our “grand deception” and inform those hundreds of thousands of duped visitors, as well as thousands of long-acquainted neighbors, family members and friends of our community (not to mention our hundreds of members), of the “terrible truth” about us that they couldn’t see for themselves.
In nine times out of ten, the slanderous tongue belongs to a disappointed person.
There are many former members of our community who still maintain friendly, respectful relationships with us. In fact, many of them are quite incensed at all the inflammatory accusations of other former members who now claim that they have the “inside story” on our community life that they’ve “escaped” from. These friendly former members have also expressed their disappointment that their positive testimonies about our community have been all but ignored by the media. Some of them even asked us to make available to them some way to protest this public mischaracterization of our community by the media, so we created an online petition for these former members to sign. It has 85 confirmed signatures as of this writing. (You can view the petition at: www.homesteadheritage.com/petition)
As in any substantive relationship, such as a marriage, to become a full member of a community such as ours requires a deep commitment to a challenging but rewarding way of life. When someone then fails to keep this commitment and either leaves or is asked to leave, it can be as soul-wrenching as a divorce. Even when someone has grown up enjoying the benefits of such a community, but decides not to commit to being a member, they know that they are choosing to walk away from a life that many say they envy. The temptation then becomes strong to justify their decision by making what they abandoned look bad. This then leaves them seeming like courageous victims who can be blamed for nothing except not leaving sooner. But such blame-shifting often obscures the reality and can lead to bitterness. To the fox who has failed to reach them, the grapes must be dismissed as sour. Some who have followed this path of blame-shifting rather than assuming responsibility for their own failures have even incited others outside our community with their bitterness (fortunately only a few) and turned friends into adversaries.
To the fox who has failed to reach them, the grapes must be dismissed as sour.
Our firm stance against ethically and socially dysfunctional behavior, as well as our refusal to let it remain unchecked within our community, has been greatly appreciated by those who remain part of us (and even by many who have left, as well as family and friends never a part of our community). Nonetheless, certainly some have indeed chosen to deny responsibility for their own behavior and thus prefer to blame us instead. They seem to feel that if they can just convince everyone (even themselves) that the community they left is a sinister, corrupt and dangerous place, then their own choices will be justified.
We have no general principle against giving media interviews, and we’ve given dozens of them in the past on a wide range of topics, including our history, beliefs, way of life and even answering criticisms. But since we’ve become quite familiar over the past few years with the motives and agenda of some disgruntled former members whose testimony these stories were being built around, we were concerned from the beginning that this particular story line would benefit no one and yet had potential to harm many.
An investigative journalist has already written an extensive feature story on us that highlighted the accusations of some of these same ex-members. The angle of that story was slated to be just as the Observer reporter described his story to us. Yet not only we, but also all those who know us well, were very disappointed with the results. The article contained scores of inaccuracies, included numerous totally unsubstantiated and inflammatory accusations and subjective impressions, omitted a lot of essential facts, failed to mention documented evidence that we gave the journalist, did not include any testimony from ex-members who are favorable towards us (of whom there are many), and, in spite of every assurance we received of total objectivity, contained subtle editorializing that weighted the story against us. The end result was an article that could perhaps have appeared “fair” and “balanced” to an uninformed reader, and yet was viewed as a travesty by those who knew the truth, both within our community and without.
We’ve always discussed with anyone on a personal level any questions on any topic, provided they were asked respectfully and they didn’t become an inquisition.
We’ve always discussed with anyone on a personal level any questions on any topic, provided they were asked respectfully and they didn’t become an inquisition. But we were concerned that countering in a public media forum a laundry list of false, sensational accusations and distortions would, at best, simply lend credence to a characterization of our community that was misleading in the very framing of the questions, not to mention as a whole.
In the case of the Observer, our concerns were only heightened by the fact that the reporter had invested at least two months of his time interviewing these hostile ex-members before ever contacting us at all. So, rather than jumping right into an interview, we asked the reporter instead for a meeting in which we could discuss these and other concerns about his story line. He flatly refused. Moreover, only then, on a Saturday night, did he inform us that the deadline for his story was the next Monday afternoon! (He told several people he was in a hurry to release his story before WFAA released theirs.) After two months of listening to slander about us, what was at most two days of a token hearing for us going to accomplish except perhaps to bulletproof his attack against us and allow him to claim he gave us a “fair hearing”?
We were concerned that the impression of unbiased, even-handed reporting that would have been facilitated by our cooperation in a dialogue directed and edited only by those committed to this misleading story line would not bring the viewer closer to the truth.
In regard to the WFAA news story, we felt that the reporter’s methods and manner in pursuing this story demonstrated a bias and commitment to a preconceived story line. In this case, too, the story was pursued for weeks without our hearing from the reporter at all. We finally initiated contact with him in order to express our concerns. Through this and the numerous subsequent attempts to communicate our concerns with the reporter and upper management through email, phone and a lengthy personal meeting, the responses we received only increased our concern that the reporter’s goal regarding an interview with us was, at best, only to give an appearance of “fairness” and “balance” that would lend credibility to his predetermined story line. We were concerned that the impression of unbiased, even-handed reporting that would have been facilitated by our cooperation in a dialogue directed and edited only by those committed to this misleading story line would not bring the viewer closer to the truth.
After careful deliberation in light of all this, we felt that the truth would best be served by offering our response in a different context—that of our own website, where we could avoid submitting our answers to the editing of those whose values and perspective on fairness and other matters differ so greatly from our own.
The Observer and WFAA both made sexual abuse of children central to their stories, yet they failed to mention this very pertinent fact: in every case of abuse we’ve ever encountered, it was our ministry that exposed and reported the crime. The omission of this fact is so glaring that it's hard to explain it in any other way than a deliberate attempt to distort the truth.
We find our spiritual roots in the 500-year-old peace-loving Anabaptist tradition, which stresses simplicity and an absolute commitment to nonviolence. Nothing could be more grievous to us or antithetical to our entire way of life than innocent children abused by criminally cruel and selfish adults.
For our nearly forty-year history, our church ministry has always condemned and never tolerated any physical, psychological, mental, emotional or sexual abuse of anyone, much less abuse of children. Criminal behavior of any kind is expressly forbidden. We find our spiritual roots in the 500-year-old peace-loving Anabaptist tradition, which stresses simplicity and an absolute commitment to nonviolence. Nothing could be more grievous to us or antithetical to our entire way of life than innocent children abused by criminally cruel and selfish adults. All our church members, as well as family, friends and neighbors who know us and our children well, and even numerous former members of our community, would attest to the truth of this statement. (In fact, 85 former members have signed a petition protesting any media story that would associate our community with such behavior.) The only exceptions to this good testimony find their source in a few disgruntled and dishonest people who we’ve put out of our community because they would not live according to our freely chosen values and morals.
Jesus said that it’s not the well who need a physician, so we’ve always made it our goal to try to help those who need it most. At the same time, we’ve wanted to protect our children from the social ills so prevalent in today’s world. Given the realities of human nature, it is admittedly sometimes more than difficult to do both, and we are very aware that this calling to reach out to dysfunctional individuals and families makes us vulnerable to their personal failings, and, consequently, we’re also vulnerable to malicious attempts to smear our whole community’s reputation with the personal failures of those we’re trying to help. Out of the thousands of people we’ve reached out to help over almost forty years, we’ve encountered the heinous crime of pedophilia four times. All the perpetrators came to us originally from broken homes or dysfunctional backgrounds, and none were ever in a leadership position of any kind in our church. Only two were ever even members of our church, and one of these had had his membership revoked almost a year before we learned of his crime. In every case, law enforcement can verify that it was our ministry that revealed the crime and made sure it was brought to the attention of legal authorities. They can also verify that we fully cooperated with their investigations. In the very first case eight years ago, there was regrettably a delay in reporting (due in part to an individual’s ignorance of mandatory reporting laws), but during that time the perpetrator did not further abuse the victim—a fact that was verified by all subsequent law enforcement investigations (including CPS, the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office) and is reflected by all court records from the case. Nonetheless, when the situation was brought to the attention of our eldership board, it was reported to law enforcement immediately, along with a full disclosure of the delay. There was no such delay in the subsequent cases. (For more detail, see our Response to the Observer)
For the sake of the innocent victims and families involved, we’re very grieved that these painful situations are being rehashed in the media just to lend credence to an agenda to characterize our whole community as abusive.
For the sake of the innocent victims and families involved, we’re very grieved that these painful situations are being rehashed in the media just to lend credence to an agenda to characterize our whole community as abusive. Our concern for the privacy of the victims is another reason we declined an invasive interview on this topic. In every case, our church ministry and community have been very involved in meeting the practical, emotional and financial needs of the victims and their families.
Back to top
We simply hope that we might be known not according to what Gandhi once called the “drain inspector’s report”—the behavior or stories of those who have rejected and departed from our way of life. Rather, we ask that we be known by the fruit and behavior of the hundreds of us who actually love and enjoy our community life.
We believe the very purpose of the church is to reach out to all who stand in any need of God, especially to those with broken lives, in order to bring them the hope of change and renewal. Yet it’s also our duty to maintain as pure and safe an environment as possible within which to raise our children. And this obligates us to expel not only criminal behavior, but also anyone who repeatedly exhibits any socially destructive behavior that endangers or hurts others. This is exactly why we asked most of those who now accuse us to leave. We’re painfully aware that our firm stance makes us vulnerable to bitter blame-shifting. But even if we’re slandered and misrepresented because of it, we hope to stand firm in our commitment not to compromise our Christian mission.
We simply hope that we might be known not according to what Gandhi once called the “drain inspector’s report”—the behavior or stories of those who have rejected and departed from our way of life. Rather, we ask that we be known by the fruit and behavior of the hundreds of us who actually love and enjoy our community life. We’re open to the public year-round, and we invite you to come visit us, ask questions, meet our children and see for yourself. But please come as an inquirer and not an inquisitor, a fellow human being and not an already deeply biased judge and executioner, a guest and not an invader.
Back to top