The people scratched their way to success through farming and otherenterprises. They built their own school and took in needy children.They lived simply and purely, rising by 4 a.m. and spurning such vicesas smoking and strong drink.
But the story of Holyland, as the Pentecostal commune is called, isfar more complex.
It has amassed assets worth at least $11 million, includingairplanes and limousines as well as a shopping center, motels,restaurants, and other businesses across Alabama and Mississippi. But asits wealth grew, some residents left, saying the organization prosperedbecause of their free labor and miserable living conditions.
And as Holyland dispatched teams across the country to solicitdonations for "abused kids," some youngsters who grew up at the communesay they were sometimes denied food and whipped with horse straps.
And, as it preached the gospel of peace, it left behind a trail ofbad blood, including accusations of sexual impropriety, run-ins withgovernment agencies, and soured business deals.
"It looks like it's all noble," said Tommy H. Graham of Hattiesburg,Miss., who never got full payment for a 322-acre farm he sold to Holyland in the 1980s. "But it's just a front. The bishop's as good asI've ever seen on deception."
Edwards, 74, discounts any complaints. If anything, he said, morechurches should follow his lead. "If I thought I had another four orfive years to live, I'd spend it doubling what I do right now," he said.
Admirers say Edwards is empowering poor blacks, practicing what othersonly preach.
"He's an economic force to be reckoned with," said Greene County taxassessor John Kennard, who has known Edwards 20 years. "I can say he'seffective in what he's doing."
Still, Edwards acknowledges that controversy has been a constantcompanion for those living on his remote 55-acre compound near theMississippi line.
In 1990, the organization was cited for more than 100 child-laborinfractions. In 1991, a former secretary won a $650,000 judgment againstEdwards in a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct and mind control. In1993, a Holyland runaway triggered a state child-abuse investigation. In1998, four children died in a fire that burned the girls' dormitory. In1999, a second accidental fire sent the boys' dorm up in flames. Thisyear, a Holyland deacon was acquitted of assaulting a teenager who oncelived in the commune.
Adversaries have branded the organization a cult, a fraud, amodern-day plantation with slaves. Among the most strident critics havebeen Edwards' own children, who compare him with cult leaders Jim Jonesand David Koresh.
"Jim Jones had nothing on Luke Edwards," said Brenda Garris, 53,Edwards' oldest child. "My father is a mastermind. He's always been ahustler."
But two decades of accusations have not broken Holyland'sstride. Edwards said prosperity proves his organization's virtue. "We'renot hurting anybody," he said. "We're trying to do something forourselves."
But unfavorable attention over the years has had an effect. WhileEdwards once carted reporters through Holyland, he now refusesaccess, saying commune residents no longer trust the news media.
Instead, Edwards arranged a four-hour interview at an almost vacantsubdivision his group is building in Eutaw, Ala. Sitting in a 16-roomhouse that is supposed to become a retirement home for his flock,Edwards sported his trademark look: a sweat-stained cowboy hat, fadedwork clothes, and a ready smile.
Yet he deflected even the most routine questions. He guessed that200 people live at Holyland, but said he doesn't know for sure. Hedoesn't know how many children attend the commune's school, how much hisorganization is worth, or where it gets most of its money.
"We don't look at worth in money and land. We look at it asopportunity that we can help someone," he said. "One day we might justdecide to try to figure that out, get some appraisals. But we don't evenlook at it as being ours. It's the church's."
Edwards keeps a better count of what he calls his "enemies on bothsides of the aisles," including prejudiced whites and jealous blacks.
"You ain't ever seen a black man do what I do," said Edwards, astaunch Republican with a fourth-grade education. "I've been achallenger all my life.... They say I can't run a business, and I say Ican. They say, 'I'm not going to finance you.' I say, 'I'll finance itmyself.' I would not let being poorly educated and black stop me."
He's labeled the "living legend" in a framed portrait that hangs inhis organization's office in Meridian, Miss. But most people just callhim bishop.
The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Edwards was still a child when hebegan musing about poverty's chains. The thoughts germinated as Edwardsbecame self-proclaimed pastor to poor black congregations, first in Michigan and laterin Mississippi.