Sunday, June 15, 2008

Waco, Part 1: The Place - the Branch Dividian Compound

Waco is located about 2 hours south of the Dallas/Ft. Worth area in Texas. I'm staying with the Banks family, who served overseas in Venezuela for several years before continuing their work from Redlands, California, and now Waco, Texas.

We're a few miles outside the city on a large 9-acre ranch. Mowing the entire place took the better part of a week, including not only the yard but the pasture where their daughter's horse, Diamond, roams. And it needs to be mowed once a week as well.

It's blazing-hot most of the day, and the humidity wraps around you like a warm blanket. We're within walking distance of a grass airstrip and long country roads which make for nice evening walks and bike rides.

My Visit to the Branch Dividian Compound

So if anyone's heard of Waco, the first connection that's drawn is to the standoff between the Branch Dividians under David Karesh and the FBI/ATF teams in 1993. There were a number of events that snowballed into a 51-day siege of the members holed up in their complex. It ended in the tragic burning and death of 76 people (mostly women and children) in their complex.

There's plenty of information about the events that unfolded over those months, but I was largely unaware of the controversy surrounding it. So I decided to go visit the site and explore the setting and see for myself what the story was about.

The Branch Dividian complex is within biking distance of where I'm staying, so Saturday morning I biked down the Double EE Ranch Road and through the gates of the Branch Dividian complex. A large gnarled tree looms upward at the center of the entrance, shading a short wall of bricks that commemorate the deaths of the men, women, and children who died on the day of the fateful fire. Their names and ages are listed, some prefixed by the designator "Aborted Fetus" or "Infant" as some of the babies actually died in the fire during childbirth.

(Not really sure why I'm smiling in this picture)

Further into the compound is a beautiful pond surrounded by lush greenery, with several rows of small trees planted in rows (also in memory of those killed, I heard). I biked up to the small chapel building, which rests on the original site of the complex that was destroyed in the fire. I noted there were cars out front, and I knew this to be the building that housed some of the history of the area, so I opened the door to look around.

Stupid, foolish Brendan. I walked in on a small group of people who all turned around and rather brusquely notified me I was interrupting their service. In a sudden rush I realized what a complete idiot I was - of course. They were Seventh-Day Adventists. They met on the holy Sabbath, which biblically would have been Saturday. I knew this of course, but my mind hadn't made the connection until I stepped into the small chapel building.

I flushed and closed the door. I stood outside for a few moments debating what I should do next. I don't know what I was expecting, but it didn't really look that different from any other church. I think, actually, I was expecting something more like a Mennonite-type setting, with head-coverings and conservative dress. That wasn't really the case. There were drums, instruments, and a projector and laptop. Everyone was dressed very casually and there actually a few kids. There were only seven people, though. While I was trying to figure out what to do, the only adult male from inside came out and asked me a few questions. He was running the powerpoint but when I saw him closer I noticed he had one bummed eye. He was very polite as he tried to figure out what I was doing there. I apologized for interrupting their church meeting and explained I'd forgotten that they met on Saturdays, and he made a light-hearted joke about that being the scriptural day to meet, and invited me to come look around while they finished their Bible lesson.

And so there I was, standing on the very ground where 15 years ago 76 people had burned to death and 4 ATF agents were killed in a standoff against each other, browsing over their history and reading the story of that fateful day. When their Bible study was over, some of the members explained to me their perspective on what had happened. I'll try to repeat it as accurately as I remember.

First, what happened at Waco is an "object lesson" of what happens when people follow a man instead of God. Vernon Howell (renamed himself to David Koresh) brought God's judgment on himself and the community which was enacted through the U.S. government. According to the man who was talking to me, he'd been one of the elders higher up in the denomination who pointed out that Koresh AND all their previous prophets had predicted a fiery downfall and Koresh was claiming if for himself. This was at one of the Branch Dividian board meetings. Koresh put his arm around the man and smiled, saying "This man speaks the truth. But watch what they're going to decide about me." And then the Branch Dividian board proceeded to place all their trust and devotion in Koresh and his claims to be the "Lamb" that would open the book in Revelation. According to the church's interpretation of the scriptures and even Koresh's understanding of himself, his claims would lead to violent destruction. And so, he embraced his role in the prophecy and his followers did as well.

Rather grim, I'd say. They note, however, that this pattern is repeated over and over, and one reason they keep telling the story is in hopes that other groups will learn from their experience and always look to God for guidance - never a man. They pointed out that similar things are STILL in the news about Texas - such as the mess the courts and the other group is in now about returning the kids to their families or taking them away.

Another interesting thing they explained to me was that the Holy Spirit was the "second Eve." As the first Eve was drawn from the first Adam, so the "second Eve," the Holy Spirit, was drawn from Christ, the second Adam. The Holy Spirit is the feminine expression of God that is passed on and "rebirths" in the church. Since man has no way of "passing on" anything, it was done through Eve and it is done through the Holy Spirit.

Interesting stuff. Largely drawn from Revelation and Ezekiel. They were very hospitable and kind, especially after I'd barged in on their service. And it was nice of them to talk to me. It surprised me that all the "dirty laundry" of this incident was right up there on the walls of their chapel, as a part of their history - not to defend it but kind of as a "confession."

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