WELLS — For most of the last seven weeks, the Grove family of Fayetteville, Ark., has remained in the city of Wells in hopes of leaving with their 26-year-old daughter, Catherine, who moved here this summer to join a religious group known as the Church of Wells.
In three separate interviews Wednesday, the parents, the church’s three elders and Catherine talked with The Lufkin News about the situation.
In the first interview, Patty and Andy Grove said they received a call on July 2 from their daughter’s roommate saying Catherine had sold her belongings and had disappeared from their apartment near the University of Arkansas.
“She was just overwhelmed with fear for where Catherine was and what had happened. We didn’t know what to do,” Patty said, adding that two months earlier their daughter had suddenly quit her nursing job at the university hospital.
Five days later, the Groves said, they received a call from Catherine as they lay in bed “in torment and trauma.”
“It’s 11:30 and the phone rings. It’s Catherine. She says ‘Mom, I’m in Wells, Texas. I’m with a group of people who are taking good care of me. You’re going to see a lot of stuff on the Internet that is bad about them, but don’t believe it,’” Patty said. “I felt like I was talking to a kidnapping victim. They call and you try everything you can to keep them on the phone.”
What Catherine said next only added to her parents’ concern, leading them to believe she had fallen prey to a cult.
“She said ‘Mom, I’m trying to get them to accept me. I can’t listen to you any more. I have to keep my hands over my ears,’” Patty said. “This is my 26-year-old daughter who is one semester short of a Spanish degree and has been through nursing school saying, ‘I’ve got to keep my hands over my ears and I can only listen to my elders.’”
Patty said if she had known then what she knows now, she and her husband would have gotten in their vehicle at that moment and made the eight-hour drive to take their daughter home. Struggling with whether to call law enforcement, instead the Groves waited until the following week to stop in Wells on their way to Catherine’s grandfather’s birthday party in Central Texas. In a phone conversation, Catherine agreed to go with them to the party, but she changed her mind last-minute after her family made the hours-long detour to Wells. That, Patty said, is when Catherine’s evasive behavior — and her parents’ fight to talk to her, one-on-one — began.
In the last month, the Groves said, they have only seen and spoken to Catherine a handful of times, noting that with each meeting she seems to grow more and more distant. They said they originally camped in a tent at Mission Tejas State Park west of Alto until a member of another church in Wells offered to let them stay in his RV in the town of about 800 people. On Wednesday they said they hadn’t seen or talked to Catherine since early last week.
Though the Groves have been in contact with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, aside from checks of Catherine’s welfare, which deputies have done, there is little law enforcement can do because Catherine is of legal age. Attempts to reach the sheriff and chief deputy for comment Tuesday and Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Thinking back over the last three years, the Groves said they believe Catherine met one of the church members in January 2010 while working as a linguist for a Bible translating group.
“That was about when she started saying she didn’t want to go to school any more, when she started failing her classes, she started struggling, dropped out of the choir — all these things,” Patty said. “Then, in the fall of 2011 she said she was going to quit completely and never go back. She had been contacting them since January 2010.”
Welcoming The Lufkin News into one of their homes Wednesday afternoon, the church’s three elders — Jake Gardner, 24, of Dallas, Ryan Ringnald, 28, of Fort Worth and Sean Morris, 27, of Houston — confirmed that Catherine did begin talking to them over the Internet.
The men said their group arrived in Wells on Jan. 1, 2012, from the Dallas/Fort Worth area after being led here by God. Since that time, they have rented and purchased several properties for the group’s roughly 50 members — or 90 to 100 including children, Gardner noted. They also operate the town’s grocery store, the R&R Mercantile, and the Texaco gas station that shares the grocery store’s parking lot.
The men said they preach that the process of being “born again,” as the Scripture teaches, is not a minor event but a miraculous one. They said most Christian churches today do not practice true Christianity, as the Bible defines it.
In the “Our Manifesto” section of the church’s website (thechurchofwells.com), Gardner writes, “In this hour of general apostasy — when the brethren of our Lord (on every hand) are committing themselves in unholy unions with infidels, when the table of the Lord is turned into the table of devils and the temple of God to a house of idols, when pastors, churches and professors define (and approve of) salvation and church behavior different from the book of Acts and the epistles of the New Testament, when there is more leaven in the church than there is sincerity and truth, when the faithful are scattered upon the desolate hills of hopelessness as sheep without a shepherd, when the wicked lift their unholy hands in our assemblies to praise a holy God, and no one thinks twice, no one considers their way — in this hour, I say, it is meet for those whom God has risen up as salt and light, so to salt the corruptions of their generation, and to turn the lights on in that great bedroom of adulteries (i.e. the professing church), if perhaps God would be pleased indeed to stem the tide, seal the breach, and resurrect His standard of righteousness which has long lain without a Church to bear it.”
The church’s elders said Catherine was willing to visit with The Lufkin News, and gave directions to where she could be found. Another church member answered the door at the home and pointed the way to the living room, where Catherine was standing. The woman smiled warmly and apologized for the children’s toys on the living room floor before leaving Catherine alone for the interview.
Dressed in a long paisley skirt and cream-colored cardigan, Catherine smiled sweetly as she introduced herself. After being asked why she had left her old life and why she doesn’t want to see her parents, she paused for more than a minute, appearing to carefully select her words before answering the question.
“At this time I’m seeking the Lord to be saved from my sins, and it’s a very serious time. When I’m around (my parents), they don’t believe it. They don’t want to believe it. Until I am saved, I don’t want to be around them,” she said. “The word of God warns that if anyone tries to tell you something else, to keep yourself from them — to run. I’ve tried to talk to my parents and they were offended. My mom was trying to say, ‘You’re saved, Catherine. Do you think I’m saved?’
“The question is not whether she’s saved. It is whether or not I’m saved.”
When asked if she misses her family, Catherine softly answered yes with a smile and a nod. While the church’s culture seems to be deeply rooted in the family unit, Catherine said she does not see that in her near future.
For now, she said, she spends her days “seeking the Lord, asking questions from people, hearing preaching, singing hymns and praying — crying out to God to help me to see and to hear what is being preached to me.”
“People are saying, ‘She’s crazy,’ but (the church) has been helping me,” Catherine said. “This is the best I’ve ever been. What they teach is from the Bible. I’ve never known anyone who obeyed or who obeys the Bible. They are so pure and innocent. These people are wrongfully being slandered.”
Jessica Cooley’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.