Ecclesia--New Life or Another Cult Invasion?
Near this rural town, 100 miles from the home of the controversial Rajneeshees until their commune’s collapse 18 months ago, a group of black families from Watts have pitched their tents and begun a communal life of farm labor and strenuous physical workouts.
To members of the Ecclesia Athletic Assn., who have given up control of their lives to the man they call “The Coach”--former basketball player Eldridge Broussard Jr.--the relocation is part of a plan to gain celebrity for themselves and to direct young people away from drugs and apathy through “toughness training,” a combination of physical fitness and discipline.
But their new neighbors resent the intrusion on their solitude and the limited water supply and are disturbed by the group’s militarism and what they see as similarities to the Rajneeshees and to the Rev. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple.
The local residents are trying to oust Ecclesia, claiming the group misrepresented itself as a small band of Olympic athletes seeking a secluded site for training and relaxation and then moved 100 people onto an 18-acre farm.
Ecclesia is an outgrowth of the Watts Christian Center, a Los Angeles group founded by Broussard 10 years ago to address the problems of the inner city. Little known outside of Watts, the group moved to Oregon “to fine-tune ourselves” for a return “as celebrities,” according to spokeswoman Carolyn Van Brunt.
Broussard is in seclusion, fasting and refusing to answer questions about Ecclesia from the community or the press, while his followers pick strawberries in silence, and their children, some as young as 4, run laps and do jumping jacks and push-ups.
In a rambling letter to “the Sandy community,” Broussard asked last week that a town hall meeting be scheduled “after I have recovered totally from my 80-day fast . . . and once I have had a chance to get my team of athletes and co-workers in exhibition form.” He said he will answer questions then.
The letter said Ecclesia welcomes scrutiny from the outside. But a Times reporter was refused entry to the group’s headquarters and was escorted at all times during a two-day visit. Van Brunt said she has been ordered not to answer questions and the reporter was not allowed to interview Ecclesia members.
‘Vow of Poverty’
However, an information packet that Van Brunt gave county officials contains a “vow of poverty” signed by Broussard and a similar “application” form for members. In it the applicant agrees to:
“Hereby declare all of my ambitions, desires, past and future commitments, relationships, expectations, assets, gifts, talents and connections under the total control of Eldridge John Broussard, Jr. All of my decisions--financial, social, recreational, educational, dietary, romantic and any not mentioned in the above, must pass his scrutiny and obtain his approval. I relinquish even the rights of decision-making.”
Residents’ concerns about Ecclesia and Broussard--covered heavily by Portland television stations--have only heightened Oregonians’ fears that another cult has invaded their state.
While some neighbors worry about practical matters like the depletion of the spring that supplies the area’s water, others point to the group’s paramilitary aspects--silent drills, lineups by height, marches and talk of disaster preparedness and crowd control--and to its distrust of the outside world.
Members of the Ecclesia commune have little contact with neighbors. Van Brunt explained that while members are welcome to have friends on the outside, “most don’t do it a lot . . . (because) the individual is the enemy of the group.”
Members refuse to send their children to school (home teaching with no credentials is permitted under Oregon law) to avoid exposing them to undesirable values. “We don’t want them to fight their way through, to be exposed to drugs and antisocial things. We don’t want them to be discipline problems, but to grow into responsible, disciplined adults.
‘Pressure to Excel’
Noting that the group is free of drugs, teen pregnancies, gangs and crime, Van Brunt explained: “The peer pressure here is to excel. We live 24 hours a day pushing each other to excel.”
Asked about youngsters who might want to go to college but have no high school degree, Van Brunt said they could take qualifying tests. “But you go to college to get a job, right? And we can guarantee automatic job placement (within the Ecclesia community).”
In the strawberry fields near Damascus, Ore., outside Portland, dozens of Ecclesia followers work nine-hour days, straddling the rows to pick berries and pausing from the backbreaking work only long enough to run to a portable toilet.
The teen-agers work in groups, occasionally taking breaks to jog around the field or practice regimented cheers and jumping-jack routines.
There is no sound but the occasional cry of “bucket up!” Talking or singing would lower productivity, Van Brunt explained.
Together, the pickers will earn about $500 for their day’s work, which pays from 10 to 14 cents a pound. They work steadily, but field manager Perry Nuffer says they are no match for the experienced Mexican workers.
“Obviously it’s not about the finances,” Van Brunt said. “It’s about the discipline and the training and the back muscles. We’re athletes.”
Besides farm duties, older children and adults are also expected to run 10 miles a day, do 1,000 jumping jacks and 500 push-ups.
This day, Broussard’s brother Biff supervises the workers, who will not return to the farm until 10:30 p.m. for a late supper of biscuits and turkey gravy. In the afternoon, the adults will be joined by the children, who have been exercising for several hours at a nearby high school track under direction of 11-year-old Eldridge Broussard III.
Before returning to the patch the next day, members spend the morning exercising and working around the farm, painting the house, cleaning up the property and making repairs.
The youngsters tried to irrigate the newly planted potato fields with buckets and jars of water, hardly dampening the soil.
“They’re sure not farmers,” observed Kenneth Teuscher from across the road, where he raises cattle and grows hay. “I don’t think the way they cleared the land will do them any good. They pushed all the topsoil off.”
Local residents welcomed Ecclesia members at first, offering them advice and equipment. Teuscher lent them his tractor and allowed them to pitch tents on his land. Randy Proctor, who lives down the road, gave them scores of spruce trees to landscape the long-neglected property.
But that welcome turned to wariness and finally hostility, residents say, when Ecclesia’s numbers swelled and members failed to keep promises, didn’t return loaned equipment and made contradictory statements to neighbors and county officials.
“I’m opposed to the sheer numbers and the fact that they’re missing something in continuity of what they’re doing and saying,” said Proctor, a lifelong resident of the area and vice president and director of the Clackamas County Bank in nearby Sandy (pop. 3,078).
“Last spring when we noticed we had new neighbors--there were only about six then--we’d stop and introduce ourselves when we saw them jogging up and down the road,” Proctor said. “And one of them says, ‘We’re a group of athletes up here for training, to work out, grow potatoes, kick back and cool out.’ I told him they’d picked a good spot for that, that we like to kick back too, and we chuckled over that. They left the impression that they were affiliated with the Olympics, which I thought was great since we’ve got a ski team up on Mt. Hood.”
Asked whether residents oppose the newcomers because they are black, Proctor bristled. “I’m offended at the suggestion that (the opposition) is racial. I saw what they looked like from the first when I rode up on my motorcycle to offer them the trees. . . . I’ve double-questioned myself and I don’t think that’s the issue at all.”
“They said they were training for the Olympics, going to run in the Cascade Run-Off and figuring to get a half-million dollars in supplies off Nike,” Teuscher added. “They’re supposed to be basketball players, but there’s not even a hoop over there.”
No member of Ecclesia actually competed in the 1984 Olympics, although the group was one of many involved in community relations activities surrounding the games, according to a spokesman for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee.
Van Brunt said several members are training for the 1988 Olympics in basketball and track, but most are aiming for the 1992 and 1996 games. She said the group abandoned its plans to enter the Cascade Run-Off after Nike, the Oregon-based athletic shoe company, which sponsors the race, declined to support them.
“They wanted to enter 85 members for free,” said race director Chuck Galford. “When I said I couldn’t do that, they suggested we hire them as entertainment, to cover the $10-per-runner entry fee. They finally showed me a videotape which consisted of a lot of talking, but all they did were synchronized jumping jacks, which just didn’t fit in with what we do.”
Van Brunt accused Nike of “letting us down after we moved up here counting on their support.”
Last month at the Sandy farm, Ecclesia pitched five large tents, brought in 12 portable toilets and began fixing up a vacant farmhouse on the land, owned by a Los Angeles woman for whom Ecclesia promised to build “a mansion,” according to documents on file with Clackamas County.
Broussard also moved his headquarters from Watts to another farmhouse on seven acres in the nearby town of Clackamas, where members are trying to raise chickens, vegetables and fruit trees.
In recent weeks, 35 neighbors who live near the Sandy farm signed a complaint against Ecclesia, and dozens of letters opposing their presence have been received by Clackamas County Planning Director Dominic Mancini.
A public hearing on Ecclesia’s application for a temporary permit to erect “housing for an athletic training camp” is scheduled for July 8 before the Board of County Commissioners.
Opponents cite zoning laws, a limited water supply, drainage problems, traffic congestion and, most of all, a fear that Ecclesia will alter their quiet life style and try to take over the neighborhood.
“This large group entering a rural community is reminiscent of the way the Rajneesh entered Wasco County,” wrote one resident in urging that the temporary permit application be rejected. “The city of Antelope and Wasco County will never be the same. I do not want this to happen here.”
In his letter to “the Sandy community,” Broussard addressed those fears:
“I must defeat this cult spirit that surrounds us and me, right here in Sandy or it will follow us wherever we go. I went through this once before, after Jim Jones maniaced (sic) his way into national attention and now the Bog Wan (sic) once again pulls me under scrutiny. . . . Why would we choose a state that is not yet healed from one unfortunate situation of group madness to be the site of our intentions if they were even remotely identical to what has already occurred?”
He added that although he was ordained by his minister-father in the Church of God in Christ, Ecclesia is not a religious entity.
Van Brunt said Ecclesia’s roots go back to the Watts riots of 1965 when, as a 13-year-old, Broussard watched the National Guard come into his neighborhood.
An all-city basketball player at Jordan High School, Broussard attended the University of Oregon and Pacific University in Forest Grove, where he was a star basketball player. He was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers, but did not make the team. He returned to Los Angeles to start what he envisioned as “an athletic national guard that would do preventive work, without guns,” Van Brunt said.
Broussard began to see life as “an athletic contest” that the strongest, fastest and most disciplined win, and dreamed of creating a cadre of super-athletes who would serve as role models and start free recreational programs throughout the country.
“They would not necessarily be the best in whatever sport, but they would have an athletic mentality about life which would cause them to attack whatever they went into more tenaciously than the kids up and down the street,” Broussard told a reporter three years ago.
Broussard began recruiting followers about 10 years ago to Ecclesia and its sister organization, Watts Christian Center (whose name has now been changed to El, Inc.).
By the mid-l980s, Ecclesia had bought and renovated a large bakery on Avalon Boulevard as its living and training quarters, and refurbished the gymnasium at Will Rogers County Park, where it ran a 32-team basketball league. Plans also called for Ecclesia to build an international athletic center in Equatorial Guinea in Africa, a plan that Van Brunt says is now on hold.
“We plan to come back to Los Angeles, but we’re coming back as celebrities,” Van Brunt said. “We’re not just another little Boys Club.”
As for when, “Only Eldridge knows,” she said. “It’s his dream. He knows things I don’t know yet about where we’re headed.”
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