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Ecclesia--New Life or Another Cult Invasion?

June 22, 1987|LOIS TIMNICK | Times Staff Writer

SANDY, Ore. — Near this rural town, 100 miles from the home of the controversial Rajneeshees until their commune's collapse 18 months ago, a group of black families from Watts have pitched their tents and begun a communal life of farm labor and strenuous physical workouts.

To members of the Ecclesia Athletic Assn., who have given up control of their lives to the man they call "The Coach"--former basketball player Eldridge Broussard Jr.--the relocation is part of a plan to gain celebrity for themselves and to direct young people away from drugs and apathy through "toughness training," a combination of physical fitness and discipline.

But their new neighbors resent the intrusion on their solitude and the limited water supply and are disturbed by the group's militarism and what they see as similarities to the Rajneeshees and to the Rev. Jim Jones' Peoples Temple.

Misrepresentation Alleged

The local residents are trying to oust Ecclesia, claiming the group misrepresented itself as a small band of Olympic athletes seeking a secluded site for training and relaxation and then moved 100 people onto an 18-acre farm.

Ecclesia is an outgrowth of the Watts Christian Center, a Los Angeles group founded by Broussard 10 years ago to address the problems of the inner city. Little known outside of Watts, the group moved to Oregon "to fine-tune ourselves" for a return "as celebrities," according to spokeswoman Carolyn Van Brunt.

Broussard is in seclusion, fasting and refusing to answer questions about Ecclesia from the community or the press, while his followers pick strawberries in silence, and their children, some as young as 4, run laps and do jumping jacks and push-ups.

In a rambling letter to "the Sandy community," Broussard asked last week that a town hall meeting be scheduled "after I have recovered totally from my 80-day fast . . . and once I have had a chance to get my team of athletes and co-workers in exhibition form." He said he will answer questions then.

The letter said Ecclesia welcomes scrutiny from the outside. But a Times reporter was refused entry to the group's headquarters and was escorted at all times during a two-day visit. Van Brunt said she has been ordered not to answer questions and the reporter was not allowed to interview Ecclesia members.

'Vow of Poverty'

However, an information packet that Van Brunt gave county officials contains a "vow of poverty" signed by Broussard and a similar "application" form for members. In it the applicant agrees to:

"Hereby declare all of my ambitions, desires, past and future commitments, relationships, expectations, assets, gifts, talents and connections under the total control of Eldridge John Broussard, Jr. All of my decisions--financial, social, recreational, educational, dietary, romantic and any not mentioned in the above, must pass his scrutiny and obtain his approval. I relinquish even the rights of decision-making."

Residents' concerns about Ecclesia and Broussard--covered heavily by Portland television stations--have only heightened Oregonians' fears that another cult has invaded their state.

While some neighbors worry about practical matters like the depletion of the spring that supplies the area's water, others point to the group's paramilitary aspects--silent drills, lineups by height, marches and talk of disaster preparedness and crowd control--and to its distrust of the outside world.

Members of the Ecclesia commune have little contact with neighbors. Van Brunt explained that while members are welcome to have friends on the outside, "most don't do it a lot . . . (because) the individual is the enemy of the group."

Members refuse to send their children to school (home teaching with no credentials is permitted under Oregon law) to avoid exposing them to undesirable values. "We don't want them to fight their way through, to be exposed to drugs and antisocial things. We don't want them to be discipline problems, but to grow into responsible, disciplined adults.

'Pressure to Excel'

Noting that the group is free of drugs, teen pregnancies, gangs and crime, Van Brunt explained: "The peer pressure here is to excel. We live 24 hours a day pushing each other to excel."

Asked about youngsters who might want to go to college but have no high school degree, Van Brunt said they could take qualifying tests. "But you go to college to get a job, right? And we can guarantee automatic job placement (within the Ecclesia community)."

In the strawberry fields near Damascus, Ore., outside Portland, dozens of Ecclesia followers work nine-hour days, straddling the rows to pick berries and pausing from the backbreaking work only long enough to run to a portable toilet.

The teen-agers work in groups, occasionally taking breaks to jog around the field or practice regimented cheers and jumping-jack routines.

There is no sound but the occasional cry of "bucket up!" Talking or singing would lower productivity, Van Brunt explained.

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