7/20/09 – Living in Alamo Ministries, ‘Almost like a boot camp’

Texarkana Gazette
July 20, 2009
By: Lynn LaRowe

‘Almost like a boot camp’

Ex-Alamo followers say ‘you never have peace in that place’

When his first child died less than a day after birth, a grieving father was reportedly told by Tony Alamo that God was punishing him.

“Tony said the Lord killed my son because I was meddling in his business,” the former Tony Alamo Christian Ministries member said. “I know he’d be alive if we’d just had some prenatal care or gone to a hospital.”

He was 21 when he married a 14-year-old girl.

The baby’s mother, now 26, said she didn’t know something was wrong when she didn’t give birth for nearly four days after her water broke.

“The midwife said he had water in his lungs but he’d be OK,” the woman said of her infant son. “Eighteen hours later my baby was dead. Tony blamed us.”

The man and his wife asked that their names be withheld because they still have family in the ministry. Testimony being given in Alamo’s criminal trial coincides with what the couple said about life in the controversial church. However, the couple’s view of life at the compound sits in stark contrast to a much more parochial and affirming lifestyle and ministry described recently by current members of the ministry.

At 14, the woman asked Alamo if she could marry her husband.

“He turned around and told one of the wives to call (the man) and tell him he’s getting married,” the woman said.

“I didn’t know how old my wife was until our wedding night,” said the man, whose parents brought him into the ministry when he was 11. “And I didn’t know then it was against the law to marry a 14-year-old girl. They don’t tell you stuff like that.”

The man and woman, who’ve stayed together and are raising their family in Arkansas, said most followers are completely cut off from the outside world, especially “baby Christians,” a ministry term for followers with fewer than five years in the church.

“We attended a service in New York. That was on a Sunday,” the woman recalled about first joining the church. Her mother and two sisters, then ages 10 and 7, also attended. “The next Wednesday they had us on a bus to Arkansas.”

The grieving father said Alamo controls the lives of everyone in the group.

“When you come in, it’s almost like a boot camp. You’re not allowed to leave. You have to be supervised all the time by ‘older Christians’ and they’re constantly reporting back to him,” he said. “You can’t work. You stick with the Bible and you pray and you pray and you pray. If you don’t do it, you’re out.”

Many of those who join the church do so because they’ve hit “the bottom of the bucket,” the man said.

“They say all you have to do is serve the Lord and we’ll take care of the rest. He says that everything will be taken care of, but then he treats you like you’re a burden to the church,” he continued. “The way it is set up is that you’re a wretch to be there.”

The couple said new recruits are often moved to a property away from family and other outside ties. Families within the church can be split up at any time.

They said that once while living in a dilapidated trailer on church property in Oklahoma, their daughter was stricken with a respiratory infection so severe she needed to be hospitalized.

“Tony said she got sick because we were sinners,” the woman said. “Since he thought it was us he sent her away to live with someone else in Texarkana. We didn’t see our little girl for three months. She was only 3.”

“You have no parental rights in the church,” the man said. “If Tony says take them away, they’re gone.”

The man said Alamo discourages women from giving birth in hospitals because he doesn’t want children born in the ministry to be documented.

“He says a Social Security number is a gateway to the mark of the beast,” the man said. “There’s been a lot of people who’ve grown up that way. They’re like ghosts.”

The former followers said members are subject to a search at any time, both physically and in the form of “house checks” where other members rifle homes for contraband like money, cell phones and radios.

“You’re not allowed to watch TV or listen to the radio,” the woman said. “I got in so much trouble once for listening to Christian radio. You’re only supposed to listen to Papa Tony. He gives you the true words of God and you’re not supposed to listen to a different preacher.”

The woman said members are not allowed to vote without permission.

“And then if you do get to, he tells you who to vote for,” the woman said. “You can’t even pick your own president.”

Alamo had a way of making it seem like he knew what was best. His word was often accepted without question, the man said.

“He makes it seem like he’s looking out for your soul. In the meantime, it’s just to control you,” he said.

Members are not permitted to leave church property alone and can make phone calls only when supervised by another member, the couple said. Members are expected to “report” each other if there is questionable behavior.

Spouses reporting each other, parents and children telling and the “two by two” policy kept members in line, the couple said.

Different forms of punishment exist for breaking rules, they said.

“If you miss services you might get put on a two-week fast. Sometimes you might be on a fast, ‘off bucks’ and ‘off driving,’” the man said.

“Bucks” is a term used to describe a weekly allowance Alamo would allot members.

“It was usually about $20,” the man said. “Once Tony had them come and search our house and take every coin. He makes it so hard for you to leave because you have nothing. You are totally dependent. Most families there have like four or six kids.”

The couple said life is different for an “inner circle.”

“If you’re one of the people out there getting big donations and then turning around and selling them for a 100 percent profit, you get a nicer place to live and a new vehicle,” the man said. “But most of the people in the church live below the poverty line.”

When a member needs clothing, toothpaste or another necessity, it must be put on a list and approval from Alamo is needed to get the goods.

“He’ll make you feel bad for putting stuff on the list,” the man said. “He’ll say you’re just sponging off the church. You’re always working or going to services. You have a job and then you have to do watch.

“You’re constantly getting in trouble, getting put out and then you have to beg your way back in,” the man said. “You never have peace in that place. It makes it where you can’t stop and think.”

“Often, you’re up to the wee hours, pulling watch, putting literature together and then your regular work,” the woman said, admitting that when the church’s number dwindled after Alamo’s incarceration, women and “even the pregnant sisters” had to take “watch duty” in addition to their regular jobs. At tax time, her husband said, he would be required to sign a return that indicated he owned a print shop and had lost money in the business. When he received an IRS refund check, he signed the back of the check and the money went into the church’s coffers.

The woman said that when she married at 14, she was forced to quit school a few weeks shy of finishing the ninth grade.

“They said, ‘If you’re old enough to get married, you’re old enough to go to work,’” she said. “They immediately put me into baby-sitting and kitchen work and then I started teaching kids. They had me teaching third grade and under. That’s what I did most of the time I was there.”

But things were different for girls invited to live in the house, the couple said.

“He called it ‘office work,’” the woman explained. “But it meant you were going to be one of his wives.”

The woman said her sister, who’s now 24 and the only member of her family to remain in the ministry, became an Alamo wife when she was 12.

“I never really saw her again after she went down there to Tony’s house,” the woman said. “The only times I was allowed to visit her we had to be supervised by one of the other wives.”

Alamo was the only person who had satellite television, the couple said.

“Down there it was like a carnival,” the man said. “They had the pool, TV and movies you hadn’t seen. It was very enticing to the girls.”

The man said the parents of girls who go to live in the “School and Mission” in Fouke, Ark., where Alamo occupies a bedroom, are treated preferentially.

“There was a time when I was in the church that I would think it might be OK for one of my daughters to be with Tony because your life would be a little bit better,” the man said.

The last time the man was kicked out, his wife was pregnant with their third child.

“I asked them to inform him when the baby was born. They didn’t do it for like eight days,” the woman said. “They didn’t know I was still keeping in contact with him. I was sneaking him in when I was doing night watches and letting him see the baby, see his kids.”

The woman said she stayed in the church a little longer than her husband because she didn’t know how else to provide for her children.

When she did leave, her husband borrowed a car and drove to pick her up.

“One night I didn’t go to church and I took the first watch,” the woman said. “There were brothers on the property and they called Tony. Other church members were there in a couple of minutes. We were loading up our kids’ furniture and few of the other things we’d bought with our bucks during all the years we were there. They loaded it all off the vehicle. Tony said we could only take our clothes and a couple of our kids’ toys.”

Because their “bucks” had once been church owned, anything they bought with them was, too.

The man said he relied on the kindness of a friend to help him get on his feet well enough to support his family and get them off church property.

The couple has now bought a house and each has a car.

When asked why they chose to stay together, the husband said, “I love her.”

“We’ve been through so much together,” the wife said. “I can’t see it any other way.”

In: 2009 - (Trial year), Eye Witness & First Hand Accounts of Abuse

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  1. Snow White Says:

    Am praying for u, was myself with church for over 30 years, if i can be of any help please e mail me

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