In Waco, fundamentalist neighbors give cult plenty of room
ELK, Texas — On a chilly December afternoon, the whistling winds that sweep the ranch lands of North Central Texas were interrupted by gunfire. Walter Dulock knew that the sound was coming from a nearby farm, home to a reclusive group of religious zealots. But the 67-year-old rancher and country- store owner paid it no mind.
“It was unusual to hear rapid gunfire, but it didn’t bother me,” Dulock said, sitting with his wife behind the counter of the sole commercial establishment in town. “You leave me alone, I leave you alone.”
Dulock’s relaxed attitude, cultivated during 50 years of cotton farming and cattle ranching, is widely held across this austere countryside, and helps explain how many locals ignored the farm where four federal agents and at least three members of a religious cult were killed in a furious firefight more than a week ago.
But people in the area also are likely to tell you that religious fundamentalism and the possession of illegal firearms are about as common here as cowboy hats and pick-up trucks at nearby shopping malls. And that David Koresh, the guitar-playing 33-year-old leader of the cult, fits right in.
Today, of course, the 77-acre tract set between Hog Creek and Elk Road is one of the most intensely observed pieces of real estate in the country.
Since the cold, drizzly morning when 100 armed agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms staged an abortive military-style raid, more than 400 law enforcement officers have surrounded the farm’s heavily fortified compound, waiting for Koresh and more than 100 followers to give themselves up.
Through the continuing standoff, neighbors here and in the nearby city of Waco have said they were surprised to learn of the large cache of weapons used by Koresh against federal agents. Just as they were shocked by allegations of polygamy and child abuse leveled at the rock’n’ roll proselytizer in a local newspaper.
But they nevertheless say it was easy to believe that nothing was amiss on a farm that has served as a haven for religious extremists since the late 1950s, when nearly 1,000 members of a breakaway Seventh Day Adventist sect camped out there to await the second coming of Christ.
“They had a history of being there and a history of being nutty — but never violent,” said Jim Chase, 41, a Waco resident eating lunch in a downtown sandwich shop. “They were out in the country. They didn’t have any problem with their neighbors.”
Religious fundamentalism is a fixture of daily life in these small farming communities, solid with religious retreats used by vacationing families as combination summer camps and prayer centers.
On Highway 84, three miles from the Branch Davidian cult led by Koresh, the turnoff to this small ranching town is marked by road signs pointing the way to four religious centers: Axtell Baptist Church, Retreat Center, Camp Jim Braley and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
In Waco, about 10 miles to the west, evidence of institutional religious devotion in the “buckle of the Bible Belt” abounds, including Baylor University, a bastion of Southern Baptist conservatism.
“Religious fundamentalism is a big part of life in the South,” said Larry Lyon, a sociology professor at Baylor. “The religious conservatives don’t compartmentalize their beliefs like other people. It isn’t something they just pull out Sundays. It affects everything they do in their lives: job choices, the friends they make, even where they take family vacations.”
Perhaps the most unusual religious icon in the city is in what today is the library of a nondenominational prep school. There, a clock face embedded in a cement floor has its hands set at 10:59, one minute before an expected return of Christ.
The Vanguard School, overlooking Lake Waco, has its administrative offices in what once were the headquarters for the religious sect that eventually gave rise to the Branch Davidians led by Koresh.
Ed Davis, the school’s headmaster, has had students paint over the original hell-fire tones with the more-benign school colors: blue, green and white. And he happily distributes a Vanguard student’s history of the clock and the Davidian sect founded in 1929 by Victor Houteff. The sect later moved to the farm owned by Koresh.
But Davis shakes his head in dismay when discussing the bureau’s assault on the Koresh compound. “I would think they’d try something else first — like maybe having one guy go up and knock on the door to deliver the warrant.”
It also is a part of this region’s nature that many local residents, though taken aback upon learning of the weapons store amassed by the Branch Davidians, say they find it difficult to understand a 100-man assault over illegal weapons charges.
“There are illegal guns all over Texas,” said Olga Willingham, 42, a personnel assistant at a Waco retirement center. “Everyone has a gun in Texas.”
Correspondent Dan McGraw contributed to this report.
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