Among the believers

My 2013 encounter with the leader of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas

The gates at the entrance of what remains of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

Note: I wrote this piece in July 2013, shortly after meeting the current leader of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas. The piece was never published and has languished on my computer ever since. With 2018 marking the 25th anniversary of the 1993 tragedy, I thought some may find it interesting. (No hard feelings if you don’t.)

or all I know, you may be a Jesuit spy.”

Charles Pace levelled this accusation at me half-jokingly, after we had been discussing the 1993 Waco tragedy for more than an hour. Pace is the leader of a group of Branch Davidians based in Waco, Texas, on the same land where a raid by U.S. federal agents led to the death of more than 80 Branch Davidians in 1993.

I met Pace — who also goes by his spiritual name of Joshua Solomon Branch — at his church back in 2013, during a trip to the Lone Star State. A few days prior, I had learned that a business trip would be bringing me to Dallas in the coming week. Having never been to Texas, I flew to Dallas several days in advance so I could incorporate some tourism to my business travels. I quickly realized, however, that aside from a few museums, Dallas did not have much to offer to a tourist in quest of local colour.

Which led me to Waco. Waco stands halfway between Dallas and Austin, and has more notoriety than any other Texas town due to the events of 1993. (A local Wacoan might quibble with the term “Waco tragedy” — the Davidian site is actually 15 miles outside of Waco, near a small community called Elk. However, because nobody ever refers to the “Elk massacre” — unless discussing a particularly bloody hunting trip — I’ll stick to the prevalent terminology.) Due to my interest in religious sects and the vivid memories I have of watching scenes of the 1993 tragedy on television as a child, I was determined to see where the standoff took place. Upon my arrival in Dallas, I rented a car and drove down to Waco.

The roots of the Davidian movement trace back to the 1930s. The movement began as an offshoot from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a protestant denomination that emphasizes the second coming (advent) of Christ. Victor Houteff, its founder, believed that Christ’s return could only occur when a small number of Christians had been “purified”, and that he had been anointed by God to conduct this cleansing. In 1935, he moved from Southern California to Texas with thirty-seven followers and established the Mount Carmel Center, near Waco. After Houteff’s death in 1955, his wife Florence took over the leadership of the group and soon after prophesied that Armageddon would occur on April 22, 1959. Hundreds of Houteff’s followers from across the United States and Canada sold their possessions and came to Waco to witness the end of times. But April 22, 1959 came and went, and the Lord was nowhere to be seen.

Following this epic prophecy failure, the Davidian movement split into different factions. The most significant faction to emerge was the Branch Davidians, led by a West Texas businessman named Benjamin Roden, whose theology emphasized the significance of the restored state of Israel. After Roden’s death in 1978, his wife Lois took over as leader of the sect.

In 1981, a young man named Vernon Howell moved to Mount Carmel and quickly gained influence in the community by displaying a thorough knowledge of the Bible. Lois Roden took him under her wing (and is also rumoured to have gotten him under her sheets), and soon after Howell starting claiming he was a prophet. This caused friction with George Roden, Lois Roden’s son and heir apparent, and the two entered into a power struggle. The Roden/Howell conflict would last until 1987, when Howell emerged as the new leader of the Branch Davidians following a shootout between his and Roden’s followers. Two years later, Roden would be imprisoned in a mental institution for the axe murder of a fellow Davidian who claimed to be God’s chosen messiah.

Howell, who would later change his name to David Koresh, lead the Branch Davidians until 1993, when he and his disciples met their tragic fate. To this day, a handful of survivors of the 1993 tragedy still follow Koresh’s teachings and await his resurrection.

Finding the Branch Davidian site is not an easy task. There are no signs directing visitors to the site, and the road that leads to it is unpaved and surrounded by vast agricultural lands. Despite these complications, my quest came to fruition when I caught sight of the gates of the property, which are still adorned with Davidian symbols.

I guardedly entered the site and parked my car near the entrance. Silence reigned on the property on this scorchingly hot Texas afternoon. I had read that the handful of Church members who live on the site had a healthy reserve of guns and ammunition, so I initially stayed near the entrance of the property, where a memorial to the victims of the standoff sits underneath a large tree. After viewing the memorial, I decided to foray deeper on the property (hesitating only briefly to contemplate my fate in a state with one of the most expansive “castle doctrine” laws in the U.S.), where a church sits atop a small hill. I was determined to get a glimpse of the building that serves as a temple for the last few remaining adherents of the Branch Davidian movement.

As I was heading towards the entrance of the church, a Davidian emerged from the building. I introduced myself, explaining that I had read a lot about the Waco tragedy and expressing the hope that my presence on the site did not cause any inconvenience. The Church member, an African-American named Simeon, reassured me that I was welcome to look around and asked where I was from. His face lit up when I informed him that I was from Canada. “Our leader hails from Canada,” he told me, asking me to follow him so he could make an introduction. I complied with his request, as a refusal to meet with the leader of the sect would certainly have cast me as an undesirable on the Land of the Chosen.

The church was a very simple structure with a sober décor typical of most fundamentalist Christian churches. It was built in the late 1990s with monies raised by radio host / conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who held the federal government and Clinton-era Attorney General Janet Reno responsible for the death of David Koresh and his disciples.

Upon entering the church, Simeon introduced me to a short, pudgy man sporting an artificial leg. The man, Charles Pace is the leader of the congregation that counts approximately 20 members. Pace was born in Ontario, Canada and studied in a Catholic seminary. However, he quickly became disillusioned with the Catholic faith and left the seminary to pursue Bible studies in the United States, which ultimately led him to Waco, where he joined the Branch Davidians in 1973. Pace does not harbour much sympathy for David Koresh. They clashed when the then twenty-four year-old Koresh asserted his leadership over the congregation in 1984, with Pace labelling him an “apostate prince.” Shortly after, Pace defected from the sect and moved to Alabama, only to return to Waco in 1997, four years after the tragedy.

Pace is a gregarious man, and seemed genuinely happy to meet a fellow Canuck interested in the history of the Branch Davidian movement. Noticing my French-Canadian accent, he asked if I was a Roman Catholic, to which I responded contritely in the affirmative, fully expecting Pace to launch a salvo against my papist ways. And indeed, he did, by mounting an attack on the Catholic Church that even most conspiracy-theorists would find a little wild-eyed. Among Pace’s claims were that all national governments were puppets of the Vatican, and that the Federal Reserve Bank was controlled by the Holy See. Catholicism and Islam were one and the same, and Jesuits, whom Pace particularly despised, had written the Koran to undermine true Christianity. Pace believed that the last four presidents of the United States, from Bush Sr. to Obama, were the four beasts of Revelation, and reserved most of his scorn for Obama, whom Pace accused of planning to impose sharia law after destroying the U.S. Constitution. However, despite his pessimistic prophesying, Pace remained an optimist: Christians would ultimately be victorious in the coming civil war that would pit them against the devil-worshipping New World Order types, thus paving the way for the second coming of Christ. In the meantime, Christians needed to amass weapons and keep their powder dry.

Our conversation lasted more than two hours. Yet despite his conspiratorial beliefs, Pace was a genuinely likeable fellow. As I ended our conversation, he stood up, gave me a hug, and invited me to come back to visit on my next trip to Texas. (My RSVP is pending.) As I was signing the book of visitors, committing the cardinal sin of writing down my real coordinates, Simeon, who had been mostly silent during my conversation with Pace, took a $20 bill out of his pocket and started to fold it before my eyes. I quickly realized that he was not making an origami duck for me. Rather, Simeon was pulling a popular trick among 9–11 conspiracy-theorists, who believe that a certain folding of the bill shows burning images of the twin towers. I feigned a smile, gave him an “I-can’t-believe-I-was-so-naïve-for-so-long” look, and quickly stepped out of the church.

As I left the church and walked towards my rental car, I could not help but think that one of the Church members might have siphoned the gas out of it, thus forcing me to stay the night in Waco and be subjected to hours of indoctrination. Luckily, my fear was unfounded, and likely a byproduct of spending two hours with a conspiracy theorist. I drove down to Austin, where I had planned to spend the night. As I was approaching the city, I saw signs that read “Keep Austin Weird”, a famous slogan used to describe the Texas political and cultural capital, which stands out as an island of liberalism and iconoclasm in a State known for its conservative politics. After spending the afternoon in Waco, however, Austin just looked plain normal.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Paul Beaudry

Lawyer based in Calgary, Canada. Interested in politics, tech policy, golf and North Korea. And absolutely nothing else.