Eldridge Broussard Jr., his father said, was a miracle child.
Irma Broussard had been told she would have no children, that she and her husband would have to carry on the Lord's ministry alone. But then one afternoon, in a back room of the tiny frame house in Watts, a vision bore down on Eldridge Broussard.
"It came on me like a blanket, a heavy blanket, and I couldn't move. I wasn't sleeping, but I couldn't move at all till it was over with," Broussard recalls. He saw Irma holding a baby, a boy, a child that bore his name.
Irma scoffed when he told her about it. "She said, 'The doctor told me I never gonna have no children.' But I knew what I was talking about, because I'd had a vision."
A little over a year later, a son was born.
So it has always been with Broussard and his first-born son, the controversial founder of the Watts-based Ecclesia Athletic Assn.
One afternoon the elder Broussard had a vision of a house sailing over the rooftops of South-Central Los Angeles and settling over his rocking chair at the family home on East 99th Street. The next day, two contractors knocked at the door, wanting to know if Broussard wanted any work done. He hired them on the spot to build a new house right in front of the old one.
It is said that young Broussard, who followed his father into the Church of God in Christ, sat down with his followers one day in 1982 and wept wordlessly for half an hour, then announced that gospel singer Keith Green was going to die.
A month later, Green's plane crashed and burned after takeoff in Lindale, Tex.
"His life has been a miracle life, all through life," the elder Broussard said recently. "But everything he do now, I made him do."
Today, the younger Broussard is at the center of a storm of controversy over allegations that members of his Ecclesia Athletic Assn., an outgrowth of his Watts Christian Center, were responsible for severe child beatings that last month led to the death of his own daughter, 8-year-old Dayna.
Four Ecclesia members are being held on manslaughter charges stemming from Dayna's death. A fifth, Broussard's brother, was arrested in Los Angeles on charges of felony child endangerment.
And Broussard himself, the man who captivated young South-Central Los Angeles families for nearly 10 years with the message that street gangs and drugs and poverty were powerless against their own faith, is now being described as a spiritual dictator whose hold over his followers persuaded them to give up their homes, their possessions, their salaries, sometimes their own families, for the family he called Ecclesia.
"I wanted to be a possible role model for escape," Broussard, 35, a one-time college basketball star, explained at a recent meeting with Oregon social service officials.
"I wanted to find out, why did a prostitute become that? I wanted to know the psychology of a drug addict. . . . I wanted to know why it was hard for our children to learn to read. I dared to believe that my church could come up with a creative and new way to address these inner-city problems."
The idea was to set up a haven in the ghetto for youngsters and adults, a place to share spiritual and economic resources and to discipline their bodies in a program of athletic training and gospel study that would prepare them for the world outside.
Somewhere along the way, some of his former followers say, the plan went astray.
A Change of Focus
Somewhere, they say, the leader they called "El" quit talking about sacrificing for Jesus and started talking about just plain sacrifice. Somewhere they all stopped talking about Jesus and began talking about "El."
"I would consider Eldridge Broussard one of the most dangerous men walking around this country that has a group of people following him," said Dennis Culmer, a close associate of Broussard for nearly two decades who became disillusioned and left Ecclesia in 1986.
"He has no respect for authority, he has no respect for community, he has no respect for family, he has no respect for God. I feel that if he isn't stopped now, the next time will be even worse."
The Broussard family house stands in a neighborhood of neatly tended shrubs and fresh-painted homes protected by locked gates and iron bars. Around the corner, mini-marts and makeshift churches compete for storefront space.
Eldridge Broussard Sr. had a ministry in one of those storefronts. He also had a barber shop a few miles away that he kept open until he was no longer physically able to work.
It was the same for his nine children, he said, going to school by day, working on household chores by evening, praying by night. Between praying and working, he knew his offspring wouldn't have time to go wrong.
"The mind of disobedience is in a child. Foolishness is fond in a child's heart," he said in a recent interview. "When a child loses fear at home, he's not going to have fear anywhere he goes."
A family minister said Broussard's classmates told him that the elder Broussard frequently humiliated the boy with public thrashings, an allegation Broussard does not dispute.
"They never did have no trouble with my children in school. They didn't follow no gangs; they knew they have to answer to me if they did," Broussard said, echoing many of the assertions his son has made about Ecclesia's children in recent years.
"I told them, don't call the principal, call me," he said. "Right in front of the other kids, sure. I'd go down there and put my feet on his neck and work on his back pocket. . . . I whipped him with extension cords until they went through his clothes."
Eldridge Jr., the oldest, was teaching Sunday school by the time he was 14, and playing basketball every chance he could get. His Jordan High School team was city champion the year he graduated in 1970. Broussard used to have to drag his son home in the evenings from the schoolyard court.
"He cared about playing basketball, mostly," recalls Robert Shallowhorn, a teammate at Jordan who double-dated with Broussard at the senior prom.
Earns Spot on Team
After high school, the younger Broussard went to the University of Oregon, and then Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., where he majored in speech and won a spot as guard on the basketball team.
His college teammates remember him as a boisterous sort, a fellow who would run into the locker room after the game yelling out the winning score. He was also intensely competitive, said Steve Wolfhagen, who played with Broussard on the team in 1972 and 1973.
There was the game in 1973, with the championship on the line and Pacific ahead by one point, when Broussard grabbed the ball with 28 seconds left and ran for the basket. After Broussard missed his shot and two free throws, the other team won the game.
Some team members were angry; Broussard should have held the ball until the clock ran out, they thought. But Broussard was always that way, Wolfhagen said. "Sitting back and holding the ball in some viewpoints is not competing. And Eldridge liked to compete," Wolfhagen said.
The Portland Trailblazers drafted Broussard in the eighth round in 1974 and again in 1975, and team president Harry Glickman remembers that Broussard always brought a Bible to practice to read on the bench.
Broussard was cut before the regular season and returned to Los Angeles the next year for a tryout with the Lakers. He played during one summer league, but failed to make the team, recalled summer league coach Larry Creger.
Even before he returned to Los Angeles, Broussard suspected he wanted to enter the ministry. "I heard no voices. I saw no angels, no supernatural manifestations. I just had a very deep sense that . . . I needed to have something that would give my life some meaning and some purpose that would carry me into my senior years," he said.
"I made this prayer," he said. "Lord, please give me a group of people to work with."
His father remembers Broussard joining him in the church, where the two of them prayed and fasted for three days and nights. "Then he said to me he wanted to be a minister, and I felt, well, he couldn't be nothin' else, 'cause I'm one."
Pastor Charles Bereal remembers the day that Broussard showed up at his Calvary Bible Church and started wooing away some of the church's younger members to his impromptu Bible studies.
Many of those who left the church with him were women, Bereal said.
"His influence was, I would say, seductive," Bereal said. "I would say it was a mostly physical attraction. And I say that guardedly, but I feel that some of the young ladies felt that, well, his attention was centered on them."
Ability to Persuade
All along, however, Broussard had set his sights on Dayna Grant, a quiet young woman from a good family whose intensity and charisma had attracted dozens of youths off the streets and into the Calvary Bible Church.
"She was a very humble type of person, and just by her gentleness, she was able to win many to the Lord, and persuade them to come. I think he observed her ability to persuade just by her gentleness and her loving persuasion . . . and he saw her as someone he could really use," Bereal said.
The couple kept their engagement secret at first, but were married in about a year and started a family. Daughter Dayna's death left them with four children: Eldridge III, 10; Johnny, 7; Shirley-Betty, 5, and Elnando, 4.
By about 1976, up to 300 people were gathering with Broussard at Will Rogers Park for "meetings." There was no such thing as Sunday services; Broussard would feel an urge to preach, and with the aid of phone lists, the entire congregation could be assembled within the hour.
Broussard's ministry then was a message of faith. He exhorted his followers to believe in their own faith as much as they believed in the power of the Lord, and the power of the Lord would be at their disposal.
"His doctrine was that you could have what you desired by faith," Bereal said. "Now, there's nothing wrong with that, but he presented it in such magnitude that they could claim any material object--an automobile, house, furniture--hey, it's yours, just by your faith."
Applying the Teachings
Mark Huey, a follower in the early days who left Ecclesia several years ago, said some took Broussard's teachings deeply to heart. Two followers told of going to the grocery store and filling up shopping carts, believing they would have the money to pay for the groceries by the time they reached the checkout stand.
One woman used to fill up a soapy wash bucket on Sundays and go out to wash the Mercedes-Benz she believed would magically appear, he said.
But some followers began to notice that the only one prospering was Broussard, "and he was getting it from us, through tithes and offerings," Huey said.
Broussard noticed the same thing, Huey said, and began to have doubts about his own teachings. The doubts took hold when a vision came to him about one of the leading proponents of faith ministry whom he saw sprouting the horns of a devil.
"He said he didn't know what to make of it, but it slowly came to him that something was wrong with the doctrine," Huey said.
The clincher, he said, was the day one of the follower's babies died and Broussard went to the cemetery to try and bring the child back to life.
"He stayed out there at the graveyard, and nothing happened," Huey recalled. "Eventually he sent the people away and he stayed there at the graveyard, and he kept crying out to God to raise the dead until he got hoarse."
Shortly thereafter, toward the end of 1977, Broussard abandoned the faith ministry, temporarily disbanding the Watts Christian Center, and members started leaving "by the 50s," Huey said.
'Straight From God'
But a core group of about 25 followers remained, under a ministry that preached poverty as a virtue and focused on traditional gospel teachings. "El would speak to us, and it would seem like it was coming straight from God," said Paulette Huey, Mark Huey's estranged wife, who has also left Ecclesia.
Broussard began to sense that it was he who was becoming the focus of his followers' adoration, some ex-members said.
Huey recalled that he once wrote out the words to the prologue of the "Superman" television show ("Faster than a speeding bullet . . .") and posted them on a wall, substituting Broussard's name for Superman. Broussard was furious, ripping the verses down.
"He told us not to give him any praises. He was trying to direct us toward the Lord," Huey said. " ' Don't do that,' he said. He was afraid. He was aware of what could happen to him if pride got in the way, and he was afraid."
Somewhere, according to interviews with several former Ecclesia members, that began to change. Discipline became stricter, for adults and children alike. Athletic prowess became more important then gospel teachings.
And Broussard became increasingly the focus of all of their lives.
"He would sit down in meetings sometimes, and he would talk about his days in Portland, when he was a basketball player," Culmer recalls. " 'When the clock would be running out they would give me the ball,' " he remembers Broussard telling the group. " 'This movement can only survive if I lead it.' "
"He got into a lot of people's minds by actually making promises to people by telling them, like if you had a gift for tennis, he would tell you he believed you were the best tennis player he had ever seen in his whole life," Culmer recalls. "He made you feel like you were somebody."
Becoming the Standard
Eventually, Culmer said, "He became God to them. He became hope. . . . He became the standard. Instead of Jesus, Eldridge became the standard. He became their Messiah, their deliverer."
And even as he became more of a spiritual focus for his followers, many say Broussard's biblical convictions seemed to wane. He began leaving the Watts Christian Center house more often, occasionally, some members alleged, taking female members with him and leaving his wife behind.
One day, he issued an order that every book in the center would be thrown away.
"We filled up two good-size dumpsters with them," Huey recalled. "He said the books were detrimental. He said one guy writes about it this way and one guy writes about it that way, and it's confusing."
Broussard himself, who declined to be interviewed, has said frequently in the past that he blames Ecclesia's problems on the media's inaccurate portrayal of the organization as a cult. He said he believes the strict discipline and athletic standards for which he has been criticized are the only way to assure that members will have the strength they need to survive in a harsh world.
Mimicking child welfare specialists at the meeting last week with social service workers, Broussard screwed up his face and said: "One of them told me, 'I feel that child abuse is skin tissue damage.' And then the other one say, 'I feel that child abuse is anything that causes bodily harm.' "
Broussard boomed at the audience, "I feel that child abuse is to give a child an unprepared start in life, where we have them so soft and so unaware and so unclear about the hardships of life that they cannot stand against any suffering, knowing suffering is going to be a fact of life."
But Paulette Huey shook her head. "Regardless . . . a child is dead," she said.
"I still think that back then, in the early days, he was anointed, he was sent from God," she said. "But now, the spirit is gone. He's a regular man now. He's just regular."