About a decade ago, Dennis Culmer and his wife, Ruth, gave up everything they owned to join a young man who said he wanted to work the magic of the Lord in the black ghetto of Los Angeles.
That man--Eldridge Broussard Jr.--had been the Culmers' minister and Bible teacher since 1975. He was so eloquent, so charismatic, so perceptive about human nature and so well-versed in the Scriptures, Dennis Culmer recalled, that many in their close-knit fellowship believed he had been anointed by God.
Broussard named his group the Watts Christian Center, after the neighborhood in which he grew up. In 1980, after years of holding Bible studies in his father's home and elsewhere, Broussard and his group bought an old bakery at 7700 S. Avalon Blvd. They sold or gave away all their material possessions and moved in.
Their plan was to help their neighbors, and support one another, by living as an extended family, pooling their money and channeling the savings into community work.
"We believed that if we gave to the community," Culmer said, "then God would give to us in return."
When a pipe burst in the home of an elderly woman, the center members fixed it, free of charge. They refurbished the gymnasium at Will Rogers Park at their own expense, putting in a hardwood floor and glass backboards. They formed a 34-team basketball league in which the players were not permitted to drink or smoke or use profanity.
But over the years, group members now say, the Watts Christian Center evolved into a tightly knit, guarded society--a cult, some charge--whose leader controlled all facets of everyday life--from the mundane, such as who would cook and who would do the laundry, to the intimate, such as whether husbands and wives would be permitted to remain married.
The group, which later became known as the Ecclesia Athletic Assn., has now lived commune-style for nearly a decade, in Los Angeles and in Oregon.
They shared their money. Members have sold property, cashed in pension funds and turned over their entire salaries--$60,000 a year, in one case--to support the group. Their clothes also are shared. They ate and slept together in the same room. They raised their children together; many of their children have never had formal schooling.
Broussard made all the group's decisions, and eventually some of the women began to fall in love with him. Ruth Culmer was one.
"They began to look up to Eldridge, as Eldridge can provide anything that is necessary," said Dennis Culmer, who left the group two years ago while his wife stayed. "He became the standard. Instead of Jesus, Eldridge became the standard. He became their messiah."
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people in Los Angeles--public officials, clergymen and the families and friends of those involved--became acquainted with the Watts Christian Center and the Ecclesia Athletic Assn. over the years, and some, especially the family members, now say they had suspicions that something about the group was not quite right.
Concerns Brought Into Open
But it has taken the beating death of a child--Broussard's 8-year-old daughter, Dayna--and an extensive child abuse investigation in Oregon to bring those concerns into the open. And even now, many are reluctant to state publicly what they will say in private.
Culmer is one of the few who talks openly about Ecclesia. He believes his wife has been brainwashed by Broussard and he is trying to regain custody of their three children. They are among 53 children from 18 families who were placed in protective custody two weeks ago in Oregon, where Ecclesia maintained two farmhouses outside of Portland.
Authorities allege that youngsters who violated the rules of the group were subjected to "systematic beatings"--up to 800 strokes at a time, in which their peers were forced to watch and keep count of the lashes. Dayna Broussard died by flogging, and officials say her young friends witnessed the fatal beating. She was buried Wednesday in Whittier, after a funeral her parents did not attend.
Four Ecclesia members are charged with manslaughter in Dayna's death; all have pleaded innocent and are being held in Oregon. In Los Angeles, another two children are in custody and a fifth group member--Broussard's younger brother, Alvin--is accused of hitting a 10-year-old boy in the chest and head with a rubber hose. He is free on $3,000 bail.
Broussard, meanwhile, remains in Oregon. He has refused to grant interviews, although he did appear on the Oprah Winfrey show, where he blamed the death of his daughter on "irresponsible media" and said the child abuse allegations stem from cultural differences between Oregon and Watts.
Denies Beatings, Whippings
He has said that Ecclesia disciplined children through spanking, but never beat or whipped them.
In a recent two-hour interview with Oregon juvenile authorities--a videotape of which was released to the press--Broussard said that because of the pending manslaughter cases against his followers, defense lawyers have instructed him not to discuss how the children were treated.
But he did talk about his goals and philosophies:
"I honestly believe that our program was the program on the horizon that could have brought about an effective alternative to the problem of drugs and gangs in the city of Los Angeles."
Broussard has also said that he resents being referred to as a cult leader, and that such references--especially in the press--have cost his group financial backing and other support.
"I felt that I would eventually earn the support of corporations and people across the country," he told the juvenile authorities. "Along the way, I ran into some difficulties with middle-class America asking inner-city ghetto to immediately be effective . . . while being dumped on by the media as the new cult on the scene."
According to the recollections of former followers of Broussard and the families and friends of those who remain in his group, the story of the Watts Christian Center begins about 1975, with the return of Eldridge Broussard Jr. from college.
Decides Upon Ministry
Although Broussard had played basketball at Pacific University in Oregon with hopes of a professional career, by the time he returned to Los Angeles he had decided to follow his father's footsteps and become a minister. When he preached at his father's church, he was an immediate hit.
At 22, he appealed especially to young people. Women found him attractive and men admired him for his basketball talent. Although not yet ordained, he drew more people to the Church of God in Christ than did his father.
As a preacher, young Eldridge was unconventional. He began holding Bible studies in his father's home--on short notice, often very late at night. People would come at the drop of a hat. They were amazed at his ability to memorize the Scriptures.
But there was more to his preaching than memorization, one early follower recalled. He had an ability to dissect the Bible, to pick it apart line by line, and apply it to a broad spectrum of real-life situations. He was so good that people tape-recorded him. And he needed no notes or written commentaries--it was all in his head.
Said former Ecclesia member Mark Huey: "He was a living commentary."
Soon, the small Bible study groups attracted dozens, and then hundreds, of people who packed the elder Broussard's home and, later, Will Rogers Park.
Following Takes Dive
But at some point after Broussard's 1976 ordination, his ministry changed from one that espoused material success through faith to one that espoused poverty as the route to redemption. His following plummeted. The Bible studies--now down to about 25 people--moved back to the senior Broussard's home.
Most in the group were young and single. Many, like Broussard, had graduated from Jordan High School in Watts. They were turned off by gangs and drugs and, according to one woman who was involved then, "spending a lot of time around each other because of our particular belief in Jesus Christ."
The group grew close through their studies. Some of the members fell in love and married. Some "opened their homes," as they called it, to others in the group. Four families moved in with Huey and his wife. Broussard and his wife, Dayna, moved in with the Culmers.
Culmer, who was one of the oldest in the group, explained:
"Most of those kids did not have jobs at the time. Since they couldn't make it on their own, many of them moved into apartments with each other and they began to care for one another, and . . . they would come together and praise God for allowing them to have this type of relationship."
Sometime in 1979, Broussard decided the group needed a building, a place that could serve as a home, a spiritual center and a headquarters for the Watts Christian Center, which that year received federal tax-exempt status as a church. Broussard envisioned establishing businesses there to bring in money, and founding a Christian school for the group, whose members were beginning to start families.
Purchases Former Bakery Site
On March 4, 1980, the Watts Christian Center purchased the former bakery at 7700 S. Avalon Blvd.. The building cost $168,000. Broussard's father, who handled the center's finances, said the group made a $45,000 down payment.
Some charge that the elder Broussard pressured people into selling their property and belongings and turning the money over to the group. Among them are Culmer, who cashed in a $13,000 pension fund, and Hope Hendrick, whose sister, Faith, sold an apartment building and gave the Watts Christian Center the profit--about $20,000.
"I felt it wasn't her," said Hope Hendrick, who owned the property jointly with Faith. "They persuaded her to get the money . . . I think there is something wrong with the fact that they took every penny and (did not) put anything aside for her."
James Porter, a friend of Hope's who handled the property transaction for her, said the elder Broussard "tried to pressure me into signing this property over to them," saying he knew Hope, who had been part of the group and left, "would want for us to have this property."
But Broussard Sr. maintained that everyone who donated did so voluntarily. "Nobody pressured them," he said.
When as many as 100 members of the Watts Christian Center moved into their building sometime in late 1980 or 1981, family life began in a fairly conventional fashion, considering that they were all using sleeping bags and that husbands and wives had little or no opportunity for privacy.
Shelf for Family Belongings
Said former member Paulette Huey, Mark's wife: "Other than money, everything else was like normal. I still got up in the morning and got my kids together." Clothes were labeled, she said, and each family had a shelf for its own belongings.
But soon, clothes became communal. Paulette Huey recalled having to stand in line each morning to wait for someone to hand her an outfit for the day.
At certain times, Paulette Huey said, the group would enter "seasons of survival" in which members had to find food for the group without buying it. They scoured the inner-city looking for avocado and orange trees.
Her husband recalled that Broussard wanted the group to be prepared for anything. He would rouse members at 3 a.m. for "red alerts," in which they were required to dress and roll their sleeping bags in three minutes. Those who failed to meet the deadline had to stand with their noses against the wall.
Everyone had specific tasks within the building. Many of the men were asked to quit their "secular jobs," as they called them, so that they could work at refurbishing the old bakery. Women were assigned to do the laundry, to cook or to care for the 50 children.
Those members who did hold outside jobs--there were eight of them, including three Los Angeles firefighters--turned over their entire salaries. Some had their paychecks deposited directly into the Watts Christian Center account.
Residents noticed their new neighbors and did not seem to mind. After all, said neighbor Carol Hamilton, when you live in South-Central Los Angeles and "you have an organization that's not dealing drugs and they're improving the property, you're pleased."
By 1982, with the Los Angeles Olympic Games two years away, Broussard's focus had changed from religion to athletics. He began to talk about life as an athletic contest, as a series of hurdles to jump. If children, through intense training and strict discipline, could be taught to view life that way, Broussard reasoned, then they could succeed in leaving the ghetto without turning to drugs and crime.
Thus, the Ecclesia Athletic Assn. was born, with Broussard as "chief spokesman and head coach."
"Ecclesia Athletic Assn.," the group's literature states, "consists of 20 adults and their 50 children who have been cultivated with the understanding that the contest of life requires very deliberate strategies, especially in the black community. They're accustomed to hard work and hard workouts. Rising between 3 a.m. every morning to run and perform precision calisthenic drills, they can do between 1,000 to 5,000 continuous straight jumping jacks; hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups; American and Chinese splits."
Broussard had big ideas for the Olympics and for his young athletes. They would get corporate sponsorship--enough for them to move out of the building and back to conventional family life. They would receive an official endorsement of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. And once they had gained recognition, they would branch out into other cities--even other countries--to implement "the Ecclesia Plan."
Ambitious PR Program
Broussard began an ambitious public relations program that included refurbishing the gym and starting the basketball league. He went to high schools to preach his stay-off-drugs-through-athletics message. He tried to drum up press attention. Brad Pye, who was managing editor of the Los Angeles Sentinel, a black newspaper, recalled that Broussard became angry when a certain story ran on the sports page, instead of the front page.
Notables visited the Watts Christian Center, both local--such as Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn--and national, such as Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee President Peter Ueberroth, football great O. J. Simpson and basketball star James Worthy. Broussard persuaded a businessman to set aside property in Equatorial New Guinea, where he said Ecclesia would build an international center to train African athletes. He persuaded the Boston-based sportswear company, New Balance, to donate nearly $50,000 worth of goods, including 1,600 pairs of basketball shoes, which Broussard gave the players in the league.
"I thought he was telling us a very straight story and had a strong message for the inner-city kids," said George Birdsong, the salesman who helped arrange the New Balance donation. "It was very uplifting."
But others were beginning to wonder about the group, and county officials said they sensed community resentment. People thought it odd that the children lined up with military precision and that the young ones--as young as 3 or 4--engaged in such heavy workouts.
'Behavior Totally New'
Andrew Jackson, assistant regional recreation director for the county, said Ecclesia's "behavior was totally new in this community" and that people were "resentful and fearful of the unknown."
John Bevilaqua, then vice president of communications for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, said he thought that "maybe it was being overdone . . . the regimentation, the discipline that Eldridge was trying to propose."
"There was never anything you could put your finger on," he said. "But there was something that we were uneasy about."
So uneasy was he, in fact, that Bevilaqua fired his liaison to the black community, Carolyn Van Brunt, because he felt she had "more than a professional interest" in Ecclesia. Van Brunt joined the group, and remains as Ecclesia's spokeswoman.
The Olympics came and went without any endorsement and some who lived in the converted bakery began to grow disenchanted when it appeared that their plans were being put on permanent hold.
As for the children, Broussard claimed he was running a Christian school in the building.
Recently he issued a 25-page "account of the methodology and intent of our educational program," which states that the school's "curriculum develops the athlete-entertainer, who personifies discipline and perseverance from a profound spiritual foundation." A syllabus lists books and course work in philosophy, sociology, psychology, history and other disciplines.
Course Work Dwindles
Former members say that although there had been some formal course work for a time, it quickly dwindled. Complained one man who visited a relative in the building: "I'd look in the library or the educational room and the books had dust on them. So how much learning could be going on?"
State and local officials have no record of Ecclesia or the Watts Christian Center filing an affidavit, as is required by law, to establish a private school. (After the group moved to Oregon, Broussard proclaimed it "a traveling school" which was not suited to registration in one place.)
And Los Angeles Unified School District officials, who are responsible for enforcing truancy and compulsory attendance laws, said they had no idea that a large group of children had been taken out of the public schools by their parents, or in some cases, never enrolled.
Ecclesia also began a variety of business ventures--a health food restaurant, a silk-screening shop, a sportswear store--but none seemed to last.
As time passed, those connected with Ecclesia say it appeared that Broussard was assuming more and more control. He prevented members from reading newspapers or watching television. He barred them from seeing their families. When their friends and relatives asked them questions, they said they were not qualified to answer and referred all inquiries to "El." When visitors came to the Watts Christian Center, they could not see the sleeping quarters and were required to wait in the hall.
Women Forced to Choose
It also became apparent that some of the married women in the group were falling in love with Broussard, and that he had more than a passing interest in them. One former member recalled a lineup in which Broussard asked those women who wanted to remain with their husbands to stand behind them, and the women who were interested in him to stand behind him. Most of the husbands were left standing alone.
Eventually, Broussard presented seven couples, the Culmers included, with divorce papers from the Dominican Republic. It is unclear how many signed.
To question Broussard, former members say, was to risk being ridiculed--or worse, being shunned by him. And when Eldridge shunned a member, the whole group followed.
So by the time Broussard ordered his followers to throw away their religious books, nobody asked why. When he began to use profanity, no one complained that it was not the Christian way.
"We saw a lot of people lose their own identity," said Shelly Volk, a Phoenix minister who, while counseling an unwed mother, placed her child with the Watts Christian Center. Volk eventually pulled the boy out of the group, and said that when the child returned home, "he was referring to El more than the Lord Jesus."
For adults, leaving was more difficult. They could not return to their parents, who had cautioned them about becoming involved in the first place. And without their economic independence, there were few places they could go.
"He isolated them geographically and he isolated them emotionally," said James Porter, the friend of Faith and Hope Hendrick. "That's how Faith was when I saw her. Her mind was jelly. She couldn't make decisions."
Hope and her sister, April, said they were especially concerned that Faith, who suffered from epilepsy, was not taking her anti-seizure medication. At times, she told them she did not want to ask Eldridge for the money to buy it, or that she believed she could get along without it.
Faith died in July, 1987, at the Ecclesia camp in Oregon. A coroner ruled the cause was natural with a blood clot in the lung. She was 30.
Hers was not the first Ecclesia death. In January, 1986, the son of Broussard's younger brother, Alvin, died after his parents found him, barely breathing, inside the Avalon Boulevard building. The boy was just shy of 2 years old. A coroner ruled the death was the result of an acute infection of the upper respiratory area.
Shortly after Alvin's baby died, Broussard decided to move Ecclesia to Oregon. The group spent the summers of 1986 and 1987 there, ostensibly to train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics and prime themselves for a return to Los Angeles "as celebrities."
Culmer said that before going to Oregon, Broussard asked the members to sign contracts relinquishing their rights of decision-making to him. Broussard, however, has said no one ever signed.
Group Stays in Farmhouse
The group spent its first Oregon summer in Clackamas, about 20 miles southeast of Portland, in a farmhouse that belonged to friends of Broussard. The next year, an Ecclesia member bought a farmhouse in nearby Sandy. It was at the Sandy farmhouse that, authorities say, Dayna Broussard was beaten to death.
Because Ecclesia is so secretive--and because the members interviewed had all left by the time the Oregon camps were established--little could be learned about the Watts Christian Center's activities these last two years.
It is known, however, that the group sparked controversy in Oregon, where residents complained to authorities that the children--who worked long hours in the fields picking strawberries in silence and were required to do calisthenics in the hot sun--were being treated too harshly.
But authorities said there was nothing they could do; they checked on the children and found no evidence of abuse.
Discipline for the children was always strict, and corporal punishment--a paddle on the rear end--was the norm. Bishop Ralph Houston, who said he is a "spiritual adviser" to Broussard, said his notion of discipline "came from the biblical text--spare the rod and spoil the child."
Only one person--J. C. Tubbs, who has sued Broussard over a business deal gone sour--described incidents in which children were brutalized:
"They hit 'em upside the head with a mop handle. I mean, they were brutal. I'm not telling you anything that somebody told me, I'm telling you what I seen with my own eyes.
"I seen one hit a little girl on the legs with a stick and the stick had a nail in it, and there was blood streaming down her legs, and he said to her, 'If you had stayed in line like you was supposed to, you wouldn't have got that.' He just let the blood run down."
Others interviewed, including Culmer and other former Watts Christian Center parents, said the discipline occasionally crossed the line into what they believed was excessive, but that it was nothing like what Oregon authorities describe.
What will happen to the children now remains unclear. Oregon authorities say they are still investigating and do not know when, or if, the children will be reunited with their families. Culmer, for one, said he wants his children back.
"I told the authorities I did not want my children released to my wife or to anyone in that group," he said. "To give those children back to those people would be to give them back to Eldridge."