Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

September 20, 2013

Church of Wells: The Elders speak

War of words pits church against the parents of an Arkansas woman

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

WELLS — In many of literature's greatest horror stories, true fear arises on the part of the reader when the author leaves his or her most horrifying elements up to the imagination.

News stories in this day and age can be much the same way. For instance, when labels such as “cult” are applied to ill-defined groups of people without any true background or frame of reference readers and viewers are left to draw their own conclusions — filling in their own background through the lens of their own imaginations.

After all, what could be more harrowing, more horrifying, than a secretive organization conducting thought reform and exploiting members against the backdrop of a small East Texas Town?

Not much. But has anyone really explored or verified if this is, indeed, what the Church of Wells is doing?

The Church

During a recent interview with a Jacksonville Daily Progress reporter, church elders sat down and considered many of these questions. The parents of Catherine Grove, a 26-year-old some believe taken and brainwashed by the church, did not respond to recent approaches for comment.

In Wells, members of the church are dispersed in homes throughout town. Their central meeting building, a white double story house with a balcony with shuttered windows, also houses a couple of parishioners and a small child.

The second story of the building — currently boarded up — is under renovation to become a studio for the group's resident artist. This same artist is working on a wall mural at the grocery store owned by the group.

During a recent visit to the church's main meetinghouse in Wells, elders provided the reporter with a tour of some residences and that grocery store business.

So What is a Cult?

It is most specifically defined as “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.”

Right or wrong, correct or incorrect, an ever-increasing group of people believe that a cult has — for all intents and purposes — kidnapped and brainwashed Arkansas resident Catherine Grove.

Her mother, Patty Grove, recently revisited and retooled some of the words attributed to her in previous stories — terms such as “cult” to describe the church and “kidnap” to describe the situation at hand. Patty Grove has said her family is extremely concerned about her daughter because of “what is going on behind closed doors” with the church.

The Groves recently started what is effectively a public relations campaign in the hope of having their daughter again by their side — despite the 26-year-old's repeated public statements that with the Church of Wells is where she wants to be right now.

Church of Wells parishioners say what the Groves are doing — posting repeated negative comments about them over the Internet, conducting mass interviews with the media to criticize them — is persecution.

But Jake Gardner, one of three elders of the church, said it is persecution he can live with — as long as Catherine Grove gets what she needs from the Church of Wells in terms of saving her own soul.

“This isn't a surprise,” Gardner said of the public criticism. “It's grieving to me that these things have been said against us — with such words as 'David Koresh — Mount Carmel; or Jim Jones — Jonestown. … That these words have been tossed around in relation to us grieves me very deeply. But I am not surprised.”

Elder Ryan Ringnald described the continued bad-mouthing of the church by the Groves as “much injustice.”

“We have been kind … and loving and peaceable toward Mr. and Mrs. Grove,” Ringnald said. “We still love them to this day. But they have been unreasonable and unkind and slanderous and even violent in their words. … Our desire is only for the good of Catherine Grove and that she would have the civil rights under God to pursue the Christianity she so chooses.”

The church elders say they try their best but are prepared for the worst when it comes to reactions. As a matter of fact, Gardner said the Bible teaches true Christians to be prepared to be persecuted.

“We aren't trying to win a popularity contest,” Gardner said. “The gospel has always been counter cultural— against the grain of society and status quo of that generation.”

Not The First Media Scrutiny

Church elders say they doubt they'll ever know if the voraciousness with which the local and national media have covered the Catherine Grove situation as a news story would have been less intense if  not for the May 2012 death of  a three-day baby girl whose parents were members of the church.

After the baby passed away, her parents waited 15 hours to call 911.

That incident also attracted national attention, even though an autopsy later determined the baby died of natural causes. Cherokee County Sheriff's Capt. John Raffield has said the investigation has not been concluded and is still ongoing.

The church elders declined to discuss the incident with the media at that time. To this day, they're still not sure it was the right decision.

Leaving readers to draw their own conclusions can backfire sometimes in a news story. But in fiction, it is certainly an effective dramatic tool. Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, does not describe the actual death of the poor soul forever bricked into a room at the end of the horrifying “Cask of Amontillado.” There is no description of the Blair Witch ever in that respective project movie of roughly the same name.

Was refusal of the Church of Wells to comment about the baby a disservice to readers and viewers?

“I'm really not sure,” answered  elder Sean Morris. “Our main concern at the time was that it might be exploited — in some ways abused — and add pain to an already tragic situation.”

After the child died, the church issued the following statement:

“We desire the sermon preached at the memorial service of Faith Shalom Pursley to suffice as a response to the many reports given (public and private). This sermon was preached to the purpose to answer the questions surrounding the the death of Faith, and various beliefs of the church which have been deemed (by the general public) everything but moderate. This is our humble stance upon these matters.”

Sean Morris declined to discuss the baby's death any further.

The Catherine Controversy

Catherine Grove sought out the church after baby Faith passed, elders say. They contend Grove learned about the church online and made plans to visit and learn about parishioners on her own.

Grove's journey to Wells essentially began in July, at which point she fell off her parents' radar for a week.

Catherine Grove later telephoned her parents, letting them she was all right — but added she would be staying with the congregation of the Church of Wells for the immediate future. The Grove parents followed and the current situation began.

The Groves have made it clear that they oppose the church and want their daughter back. At their behest, Cherokee County Sheriff's Department deputies have spoken with church members and with Catherine Grove at least three times. They have come to the conclusion she is not being held against her will nor has she been brainwashed.

The Groves have gone on Facebook and created a special page (membership 2,475 as of Friday)  dedicated to their opposition to the church. There have been many disparaging comments about Church of Wells members posted on that page; several have been posted by people purporting to be family members of the church elders.

The strategy of Grove family against  church members is simple: Hurt them financially. The Groves have urged the public to boycott all aspects of the Church of Well's store at 502 Rusk Street in downtown Wells,  which includes the gas station/grocery store/lumberyard /lawn service.

Ironically, the parents are doing this at the exact same time they are also trying to raise cash donations so they can afford to stay in town and continue their campaign against the church.

And as it continues, many people from throughout the United States find themselves absorbed into this snowball of criticism.

"This is not a church," one out-of-state reader fumed  in an area publication. "This is three average Texas college mates with rich parents and entrepreneurial backgrounds, with a cool idea and some iPhones. ... I admit that I don't even want to glorify it as a 'cult.' It's the new Amway."

A former member of the Arlington congregation described the group on TV as “kind of cultish.”

The Church In the Community

But what is a cult? A group that promotes exploitation? Thought reform?

Many reporters have used terms such as  “cult” and “compound” in regard to the Church of Wells — invoking images of the Branch Davidians, Heaven's Gate, or even the Manson Family.

The very definition of "cult" is a derogatory term for religious groups whose beliefs or practices differ from the norm, yet there is not a clear or consistent definition.

Perhaps techniques used in writing horror stories need to stay there. In his book "Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field," contributor Julius H. Rubin contends that the term "cult" has far too often been used to discredit certain groups "in the court of public opinion."

And who are these Church of Wells parishioners?

Believers, certainly.

Many are street preachers, aggressive evangelists out to save souls.

As of the 2010 census there were 790 people in the town of Wells. According to the elders, the Church of Wells has roughly 50 parishioners living in 20 dwellings around town. The church itself was moved from Arlington to Wells and followed by so many members because it was more profitable to create jobs in East Texas than scour the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex for them — many times to no avail.

The in-town businesses are co-owned by church members. In addition to the store, there is a lumberyard, a saw mill and a land scapeing business. Also, food is available to be delivered from the store to any local residence.

There has been a lot of scuttlebutt on the Groves' Facebook page regarding Wells residents who don't want the church in their town. But for all intents and purposes, the only real grocery store in town in church-affiliated. It was not immediately clear if there are any competing paper mills in the area, but the one affiliated with the church is very prominent.

This shop, R&R Mercantile, has the appearance of being much smaller from the road but has a very deep design with lots and lots of room. Management reports a huge meat clientele — people from all about town and beyond.

In addition to selling groceries, the church's local grocery store does good business as a gas station and even has special days during which discounts on fuel are available.

"East Texas is big on diesel trucks like loggers use," a store manager said. "The sawmill we have in back is relatively new. We have a lot of specialty items.

Elders of the church often preach on campuses such as Stephen F. Austin State University. Each enrolls in at least one class there so they will be allowed on campus.

They see theirs as an educational path they can help provide to other believers. They say it comes from a lack of essential instruction in other religions. They worry that many practice what they describe as "Church-Ianity," which is more of a country club than a real place to worship.

Elders go as far as the describe other Christian church as "asleep."

“We never heard the essentials of the gospel,” Elder Sean Morris said.  “This is our path, so that others will know the truth of the scripture.”

As for Catherine Grove, who elders said was declining to be interviewed, there is much work to be done, Sean Morris said. She seems to be fine physically and emotionally but is still working on her spiritual health.

“She isn't doing spiritually well,” Morris said. “It has been a great grief that the media has misrepresenting her condition.”