Leader Suspends Ecclesia Activity in Surprise Move
While declaring that “I am not a cult leader,” the founder of the controversial, Los Angeles-based Ecclesia Athletic Assn. announced Tuesday that he is “suspending the activities” of his group--one month before four of his followers will stand trial in Oregon in the beating death of his daughter.
At a press conference outside the group’s farmhouse in rural Clackamas, Ore., Eldridge Broussard Jr., according to wire service reports, said he will close down the organization’s facilities, both in Oregon and Los Angeles, and has asked his members to “distance themselves from me.”
The announcement came as a surprise to Broussard’s 25 followers, who have been living communally for at least a decade. The group’s spokeswoman said members learned of Broussard’s decision at the same time as the news media.
“Right now I can’t even quite (explain) the emotions,” said spokeswoman Carolyn Van Brunt in a telephone interview from the farmhouse. “I’m just trying to put the pieces together. . . . Right now, it’s just kind of a shock.”
At the news conference, Broussard also said he would like to meet with evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who lost their television ministry amid a sexual scandal in 1987.
“I need to publicly take a stand in the defense of Jimmy and Tammy Bakker,” Broussard said. “I have some things to say, both to his congregation, and to Jim and Tammy.”
Broussard also complained--as he has in the past--that allegations that Ecclesia is a cult have cost the group financial support.
“We are being squeezed out from all sides,” he said.
Broussard, calling upon Oregon officials to clear his name by conducting an investigation to prove the allegations untrue, declared, “I emphatically say I am not a leader of a destructive cult.”
Ecclesia has been the focus of an intense child-abuse investigation in Oregon since the death of Broussard’s 8-year-old daughter, Dayna, in October.
Four Ecclesia members--Willie Chambers, 35; Constance Jackson, 37; Frederick Doolittle, 28, and Brian Brinson, 30--are charged with manslaughter. Trial is set for Feb. 6 in Clackamas County Circuit Court.
In the wake of the child’s death, Oregon authorities took protective custody of 53 children living at the Ecclesia farmhouse.
Although Broussard maintained he had brought the children to Oregon to train them to Olympic heights through a disciplined regimen of religion and athletics, authorities said the youngsters, whose parents are all Ecclesia members, were subjected to ritualized beatings.
About 20 of the group’s members are living in the Oregon farmhouse. The rest reside in South-Central Los Angeles in a converted bakery at 7700 S. Avalon Blvd., where Ecclesia has a variety of business ventures, including a pizza parlor and butcher shop.
The members are financially and emotionally dependent upon the group, which Broussard founded as the Watts Christian Center in the mid-1970s. Some have been members since they were in their teens.
Only a handful of the members have what they call “outside jobs,” and most have little contact with relatives or life outside of Ecclesia.
In recent years, according to former members, Broussard has made all the group’s decisions.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Broussard said the Clackamas farmhouse is up for sale. He did not say what will happen to the Avalon Boulevard building or to another farmhouse the group has maintained in Sandy, Ore.
Van Brunt, meanwhile, said she did not know where the members will go.
“These parents are going to have to go wherever they go and figure out whatever they are going to do with their lives at this point,” she said. “It’s up to each individual person or couple. We’re deciding what we want to do on our own. . . . I too am making up my mind about where I’m going to go and what I’m going to do.”
This is not the first time that Broussard has announced the possible dissolution of his group. In July, 1987, at the funeral of a group member who collapsed and died at the Oregon farm, Broussard said he was suspending Ecclesia’s operations and would take a “leave of absence” from his ministry.
Thus, the mother of one Ecclesia member said Tuesday that she is skeptical that the group will, in fact, break up.
“I’ve heard that before. I don’t believe it,” said Mary Stanton, whose daughter and son-in-law, Deborah and Walter Barnett, have been Ecclesia members for about a decade. “I don’t believe that my daughter and her husband will be dropping it that fast. It’s going to take them a long time.”