Searching for Souls in Wells, Texas
by Leah Caldwell
November 26, 2013
“I never took eternity seriously again until we moved down to Wells, Texas.”
—Carolyn Wiegand, 11-year-old member of the Church of Wells
Gertrude Hearne’s front porch faces a wooden house painted light blue. On a September morning, a lawnmower drones nearby as a young woman wearing a long skirt lugs a bulky stroller, baby inside, up the blue home’s front steps. The young woman is a member of the Church of Wells, and we watch her from Gertrude’s darkened home, curtains shut tight and screen door open. The light-blue house across the street is the last place residents recall seeing Catherine Grove after she came to the East Texas town of Wells—population 769—to join the Church of Wells.
Inside Gertrude’s living room, an oversized Bible is open on the coffee table and an aging chihuahua sits by her side. Here in this room the 84-year-old widow used to occasionally host youthful missionaries from the church who knocked on her door. She would serve them coffee, and they would offer to bring her groceries. Eventually she had to tell church members they were no longer welcome in her home. “I was nice to them before they kept bothering me and telling me that I’m going to hell,” she says.
Since the evangelical church came to town in 2011, there’s hardly a resident who hasn’t been preached at, sometimes several times a day. It’s hard to miss the women of the church, wearing long skirts and pushing their strollers down the streets, and the men, riding bikes along central Rusk Street, where abandoned brick buildings are overgrown with grass. A Church of Wells member owns the town’s only grocery store, the R&R Mercantile, whose wide aisles are sparsely stocked with Pringles and Chef Boyardee. The R&R no longer sells cigarettes or lottery tickets.
For as much as the church proselytizes, few locals have joined. Only one pre-church Wells resident, the wife of a former Wells mayor, is known to be a member. Another resident, Lanetta Houghton, said she told church members she’d like to attend a service, but was told that she “can’t just come. There have to be studies first.”
The Church of Wells is one of many unrelated evangelical churches that have sprung up across the United States since the 1990s, born of discontent with mainstream Christianity and desire to live a “true” Christian lifestyle. “The antichrist reigns today in professingly godly, Christian America,” one Church of Wells elder has written. Many Wells residents consider themselves Christians, but the Church of Wells does not believe they are saved. The suspicion is mutual.
In May 2012, a Church of Wells member’s 3-day-old baby died of natural causes. The family didn’t call 9-1-1 until the conclusion of a 15-hour prayer session following the death. Then rumors began to spread that the church was buying up more property in town, promoting arranged marriages and converting the town’s youth. The word “compound” eventually entered conversations.
Some residents consider the church a “nuisance.” Others believe it may be more nefarious, with an “endgame” that could be destructive. Then there are those who state their fears bluntly: that the Church of Wells is a cult—“Jim Jones stuff,” as Lanetta Houghton says.
The Church of Wells’ revival is not going as planned, especially not since the recent “Catherine Grove controversy,” as the church calls it. Gertrude has posted a handwritten sign in her front yard: “Catherine, your Mom and Dad love you and they are still in Wells and want to see you.” Some nights, a volunteer from the neighboring town of Rusk drives Wells’ residential streets broadcasting the same message with a loudspeaker. Since July, Catherine’s parents have been living in an RV parked just a block from R&R Mercantile, refusing to leave until their daughter comes home.
On July 2 this year, Catherine, 26, left her apartment in Arkansas in the middle of the night and took a bus to Lufkin, about 20 miles from Wells. Andy and Patty Grove received a call from Catherine’s roommate letting them know that their daughter, and all her belongings, had gone missing. Catherine left no clue as to her destination.
Catherine had been at somewhat of an impasse, having left behind nursing school and a job at LifeWay Christian store in Little Rock and briefly moved back home with her parents, both full-time missionaries. It wasn’t until July 7, at 11:30 p.m., that the Groves received a call from Catherine saying she was in Wells. According to Patty, Catherine said, “Don’t worry, I’m here with a group that’s taking good care of me.” Patty thought to herself, “Maybe this is a good place for her.” But that assessment would change dramatically after she and Andy arrived in Wells, where they encountered a wall of opposition to their attempts to contact Catherine. Church members said they feared the Groves would “kidnap” Catherine.
The church maintained that Catherine was “seeking the Lord” and did not want to see family or friends; her cell phone, now unreachable, had been deemed a source of “evil communication” by the church. The Groves were baffled as to why they had to ask anyone’s permission to see their daughter. They were issued a criminal trespass warning against visiting the R&R Mercantile. Patty and Andy hunkered down in a brown and cream-colored RV owned by a Wells resident, parked in the lot of another local church. Each day the couple is in Wells they learn a little more about the church their daughter joined.
The Church of Wells is mostly—though not exclusively—young and white. There are 56 adult members, dozens of whom are pictured on the church website looking like chipper undergrads—a parent’s dream image of wholesomeness. The church’s three “elders”—Sean Morris, Jake Gardner and Ryan Ringnald—all white men in their 20s, are dressed in button-down shirts, grinning widely for the camera. (A news commenter on HLN’s Dr. Drew On Call show labeled them “the church of the hot boys.”) The trio formed the Church of Wells, originally called the Church of Arlington, in 2010 while street preaching across the United States.
Videos of the charismatic trio’s preachings are full of confrontations: with drunken revelers on Halloween, Catholics after Mass, and Staten Island Ferry passengers at 2 a.m. In a video of the latter, Ringnald preaches to a tired and captive audience. “Excuse me, sir, nobody wants to hear your voice,” one passenger responds. Another pushes Ringnald, who continues to preach, unfazed by his audience’s alternating indifference and anger.
These young church elders appear to thrive on conflict; their self-described first-century lifestyles wouldn’t be complete without “Pharisees” persecuting them. They’ve branded Wells pastors like David Goodwin, of Falvey Memorial Methodist Church, “false prophets.” Competing churches are dismissed as “seeker-friendly” and easy on sinners, when sinners should be chastised.
“If they had come in here and had crazy beliefs, I’d [accept them], but they attacked, telling people they’re not saved,” says Goodwin, who joined eight other local pastors in signing a media statement questioning the new church’s aims in Wells. “It took everything I’ve ever learned and every experience I’ve ever learned from my father, a Hells Angel, to keep my cool.”
Wells is no stranger to religious movements imposing their visions of salvation. Since its founding in 1885 as a stop on the Kansas and Gulf Short Line Railroad—and its boom days as a state prison coal camp in the 1890s—Wells has hosted a short-lived Mormon community, the Church of Christ, itinerant preachers, brush arbor revivals, Methodists, Pentecostals and Baptists. Some of these churches survived, others faded away, and a few were laughed out of town.
In the 1974 book Between Two Rivers, perhaps the only written history of Wells, resident author John Cravens writes wryly about a preacher who “decided to reenact the miracle of Jesus walking on the water” in Wells, only to have the planks he’d placed underwater sawed in half by local boys. “The embarrassed minister had a pretty difficult time getting out of the deep water while his audience laughed at his failure to perform one of the great miracles of biblical times.”
The atmosphere today seems less lighthearted. At the Wells Interfaith Pantry, where local churches—not including the Church of Wells—distribute food to residents once a month, Pastor Goodwin introduces me to a packed room as a reporter writing a story on the Church of Wells. Everyone groans. Whether it’s at me, the idea of a story, or the church, I can’t tell. An older man who doesn’t speak much hovers near me while I talk to people. I ask him if he has any thoughts on the church. “Don’t like ’em,” he says.
The Church of Wells’ doctrine doesn’t differ wildly from those of the town’s other churches; they believe the Bible is the literal word of God and that Jesus died for mankind’s sins. Yet their interpretation of such beliefs and the requirements those beliefs demand is exceptionally strict. Anthropologist James Bielo, author of Emerging Evangelicals, says of the Church of Wells, “There are strong expectations about being part of this community, so it’s not just about saying something, asking Jesus for his forgiveness—it’s more than that. There’s community moral and social expectations of how you’re going to live. They see themselves as modeling that way, that path. And so they want to invite everyone to come, but unless people are willing to totally give themselves over…”
In testimonies on the church’s website, members express disgust with the hypocrisy of mega-churches and the commodification of Christianity. According to church website testimonials, a good number of the church’s members considered themselves devout Christians before joining the church—though at least one was a Rastafarian—only to realize one day that they were practicing a “false Christianity” embraced by their families, friends and American culture at large.
Kristin Pursley, the mother of the baby who died in 2012, writes on the church website, “My mom insists that she loves God and has for many years, but her passion rather revolved around entertainment and trips to Disney World.” Kristin’s husband Daniel, 37, adds, “It became overwhelmingly apparent to Kristin and I…that Disney was an idol in their life.”
Stephanie Bailey, a member in her 20s, devotes more than 1,300 words in her online testimony to an argument over Eminem with her professor at a Christian university. The other half of her testimony is devoted to the HBO program The Wire. Yet another church member credits her revelation to the sinfulness of the movie Transformers.
Many seekers see the Church of Wells as an opportunity to escape sinful worldliness. The church’s “Doctrine of Judgment” holds that separation from the world—even from family and loved ones—is a prerequisite.
Elders make repeated use of the following bible verse: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” Elder Sean Morris quantifies the conflict on his blog: “Number of Parents in good relationship = 50. Number of Parents who are ‘against us’ = 35.”
From the July day they arrived in Wells through late August, Andy and Patty Grove met with Catherine a handful of times, but only in the presence of church members, and once with a sheriff’s deputy in attendance. The most memorable of those encounters occurred Aug. 2 at the home of church member Heidi Keyes, mother of deceased serial killer Israel Keyes. Israel killed an estimated eight people across the United States starting in 1996. He visited Wells before his arrest, in 2012, to attend the wedding of his sister, who like her mother is a Church of Wells member. Heidi, who raised Israel in the Mormon faith, then adopted Amish beliefs, acted as interlocutor between the Groves and their daughter.
For about 12 hours, the couple sat in Heidi’s home with Catherine and elder Ryan Ringnald while the latter preached. Patty later said that as the night advanced she became “confused in my own mind how to talk to my daughter; I was being influenced by them.” After the meeting Patty concluded that Wells was not a “good place” for Catherine. At the time of this writing, Patty and Andy have not seen or heard from Catherine since Aug. 19.
As the Groves tell me this story, standing outside their RV, a young woman with light-brown hair walks by, wearing a long tan skirt and pushing a stroller. Though she passes just a few feet away, she doesn’t acknowledge us. Patty identifies the girl by name, age, and husband. Several Church of Wells members live on this block. Minutes later another female church member walks by. Then, as if to alert us to their presence, unseen church members begin to sing unrecognizable lyrics from afar. Their voices, light and falsetto, seem to come from the surrounding trees.
Catherine signed an affidavit on Sept. 23 attesting that she did not want contact with her family, and confirming that she is “at liberty” to contact anyone at any time. “I affirm that my ability to make decisions is not being hindered in any way,” she writes.
Catherine is an adult, after all, and the Church of Wells has been accused of nothing illegal. The local sheriff has checked in with her multiple times. Supporters of the Church of Wells contend in online forums that the issue is a matter of overprotective Christian parents shielding their “quivering daughters” from the world. Elder Jake Gardner condemns the idea, prevalent in “conservative, home-schooled, Christian America,” that “a converted daughter should obey her unconverted father’s will even when it is contrary to the will of God.”
Yet there is no shortage of support for the Groves, especially in Wells, and among other estranged parents of church members who also believe the group is a cult. One mother, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me her adult son joined the church and moved to Wells in 2012. She believes the church appealed to her son and his wife because “they felt they could live out a Christian life without all these sins in their face.” Though her son has not been “cut off” from her—she texts him and he sometimes responds—she says he has undergone such a transformation that it’s nearly impossible to have a conversation with him about daily concerns. Such matters have become trivial in light of the “burden” he feels for his mother’s soul.
On Oct. 23, the Church of Wells broadcast its latest evidence of spiritual transformation, a video titled “The Testimony of Salvation and Baptism of Catherine Grove.” The soft-spoken Catherine, who looks and sounds younger than her 26 years, describes her spiritual journey for an audience of dozens of church members and is then submerged in a lake. Elder Sean Morris then speaks to the crowd for several minutes, explaining “what she meant.”
Soon after her baptism, Catherine sat down for a video interview with a local reporter. He asks, are your parents enemies of God? “They very likely are,” she says.
The Church of Wells is housed in a two-story wooden structure sinking under the weight of more than a century of use. A pair of dirty green Converse shoes, a cooler and a barbecue pit share space on the dusty porch.
When I knock on the door, church member Jesse Morris answers wearing jeans and a black T-shirt. From inside, he calls one of the church elders on the phone. They can’t meet with me today, he tells me, but maybe next week. I try to make small talk about the history of this building—it’s one of the oldest in Wells, formerly home to a Baptist church on the first floor and a Masonic temple on the second. He says he doesn’t know much about it, just that a relative of his owns it now.
My subsequent emails and phone calls to church elders went unanswered until one night I sent Sean Morris an email asking about one of his blog posts. He replied: “Did you understand what was being said, seeing that there was scriptural and metaphorical language being used?” After several more emails discussing scripture, I asked again for an official interview and received this response:
“We are engaged in much labor for the gospel of Christ, and we loath to get any more entangled in the media (which often grievously misrepresents things) however, if you have any questions or desires for personal reasons (like your own soul’s standing before God, and how to be saved from God’s wrath on judgment day), we would be glad to answer them ‘off the record.’”
Wells is surrounded by ghost towns. Denizens of defunct towns like Cheeseland either relocated or died, but Wells has remained on the map with a near-steady population of several hundred. The arrival of the Church of Wells, its members coming from all over the country, was unexpected. Like missionaries in a foreign land, the church arrived with little concern for the town’s “carnal” reality, only for its residents’ eternal souls.
In the video interview following her baptism, the reporter asks Catherine if she sees herself staying in Wells for a while. “All of us are going to heaven,” Catherine answers. “This isn’t our home. Wherever we go, God is going to be with us. We don’t have to worry about earthly things anymore.”