Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

April 15, 2014

Religious lines drawn: Protesters met by members of Church of Wells

April Barbe
Jacksonville Daily Progress

WELLS — Other than a few community members' voices that rose above the crowd, the protest Saturday against the Church of Wells remained peaceful.

About 1:30 p.m., as the march was planned to begin, a group of about 30 Church of Wells members walked silently down US Hwy. 69 toward the group of protesters.

Community members with various signs and orange "Wells" shirts met across from the former Dairy Queen near the highway.

Bibles in hand, the church members stopped across the highway from the protesters. Elders Sean Morris and Jake Gardner leading the way, they crossed the busy highway together.

Community members and Church of Wells members then talked in various groups about religious issues concerning the town.

"We had heard about the protest against our church, and we are just seeking peace," said Church of Wells member Randall Valdez.

Valdez and his wife, Stephanie, are from the Abilene area. Valdez said he has been with the church for the past six years. He is the manager of the church-owned R&R Mercantile in Wells.

"The Lord tells us to love ... our hope is this (meeting) reaches the town and shares why we believe what we believe," Valdez said.

The protest was planned this past week after members of the Church of Wells arrived at the Wells Homecoming Day parade on April 5 and began to "street preach." Some residents expressed concerns about the blunt preaching in front of nearby children at the parade.

During the event, two men began fighting with three Church of Wells members, causing injuries to all three, according to the Cherokee County Sheriff's office report. No charges were filed.

"We really do care for people," Valdez said.

However, many residents of Wells have not acknowledged the church group's "love." Instead, they have witnessed what some may call blunt and loud "street preaching."

Past incidents involving Church of Wells members include criminal trespass warnings, an arrest at an East Texas religious event and an investigation of a baby's death that was not immediately reported to officials because Church of Wells members were praying over the deceased baby.

In 2013, a new Church of Wells member brought the group into the media spotlight — Catherine Grove.

Grove, 27, left her home in Arkansas, to the dismay of her parents Andy and Patty Grove. Her family has since become a nationally-known voice against the church. Grove's parents recently appeared on an ABC News Nightline special about the Church of Wells. The Groves claim Catherine is being held against her will.

On Saturday, Grove looked to be OK, physically. However, she remained with Preethi Morris, the wife of Elder Sean Morris throughout the protest.

Grove and Preethi Morris at one point stood in front of several media crews.

Preethi Morris spoke softly about the beliefs of the Church of Wells, while Grove stood nearby and smiled. Eventually, questions began to bombard Grove.

After much prodding by the media and a few community members about her well-being, Catherine spoke briefly.

"It's not about me. I'm dead," Grove said. "If you want to talk to Catherine ... Catherine is dead."

A member of the media asked Grove what she meant by this statement.

"I've been crucified by God. I just want to ex halt the Lord Jesus Christ, not myself," she responded.

Grove did not speak after the statement, although questions continued to be directed to her.

The Daily Progress asked Grove if she wanted to tell her parents she loved them or that she was OK?

Grove briefly looked toward the questioner, and quietly dropped her head as her cheeks flushed slightly. Her eyes also watered slightly afterwards, but she said nothing.

After about an hour-and-a-half, the group began to disperse. Many of the Church of Wells members returned to the R&R Mercantile.

The religious lines clearly drawn in the East Texas soil.