EMELLE, Ala., July 19 (RNS)--Luke Edwards portrays himself as a visionary shepherd, one who freed his Pentecostal flock from welfare and led them to greener pastures at a west Alabama commune.

The people scratched their way to success through farming and other enterprises. They built their own school and took in needy children. They lived simply and purely, rising by 4 a.m. and spurning such vices as smoking and strong drink.

But the story of Holyland, as the Pentecostal commune is called, is far more complex.

It has amassed assets worth at least $11 million, including airplanes and limousines as well as a shopping center, motels, restaurants, and other businesses across Alabama and Mississippi. But as its wealth grew, some residents left, saying the organization prospered because of their free labor and miserable living conditions.

And as Holyland dispatched teams across the country to solicit donations for "abused kids," some youngsters who grew up at the commune say they were sometimes denied food and whipped with horse straps.

And, as it preached the gospel of peace, it left behind a trail of bad blood, including accusations of sexual impropriety, run-ins with government 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 as I've ever seen on deception."

Edwards, 74, discounts any complaints. If anything, he said, more churches should follow his lead. "If I thought I had another four or five years to live, I'd spend it doubling what I do right now," he said.

Admirers say Edwards is empowering poor blacks, practicing what others only preach.

"He's an economic force to be reckoned with," said Greene County tax assessor John Kennard, who has known Edwards 20 years. "I can say he's effective in what he's doing."

Still, Edwards acknowledges that controversy has been a constant companion for those living on his remote 55-acre compound near the Mississippi line.

In 1990, the organization was cited for more than 100 child-labor infractions. In 1991, a former secretary won a $650,000 judgment against Edwards in a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct and mind control. In 1993, a Holyland runaway triggered a state child-abuse investigation. In 1998, four children died in a fire that burned the girls' dormitory. In 1999, a second accidental fire sent the boys' dorm up in flames. This year, a Holyland deacon was acquitted of assaulting a teenager who once lived in the commune.

Adversaries have branded the organization a cult, a fraud, a modern-day plantation with slaves. Among the most strident critics have been Edwards' own children, who compare him with cult leaders Jim Jones and 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 a hustler."

But two decades of accusations have not broken Holyland's stride. Edwards said prosperity proves his organization's virtue. "We're not hurting anybody," he said. "We're trying to do something for ourselves."

But unfavorable attention over the years has had an effect. While Edwards once carted reporters through Holyland, he now refuses access, saying commune residents no longer trust the news media.

Instead, Edwards arranged a four-hour interview at an almost vacant subdivision his group is building in Eutaw, Ala. Sitting in a 16-room house that is supposed to become a retirement home for his flock, Edwards sported his trademark look: a sweat-stained cowboy hat, faded work clothes, and a ready smile.

Yet he deflected even the most routine questions. He guessed that 200 people live at Holyland, but said he doesn't know for sure. He doesn't know how many children attend the commune's school, how much his organization is worth, or where it gets most of its money.

"We don't look at worth in money and land. We look at it as opportunity that we can help someone," he said. "One day we might just decide to try to figure that out, get some appraisals. But we don't even look at it as being ours. It's the church's."

Edwards keeps a better count of what he calls his "enemies on both sides of the aisles," including prejudiced whites and jealous blacks.

"You ain't ever seen a black man do what I do," said Edwards, a staunch Republican with a fourth-grade education. "I've been a challenger all my life.... They say I can't run a business, and I say I can. They say, 'I'm not going to finance you.' I say, 'I'll finance it myself.' I would not let being poorly educated and black stop me."

He's labeled the "living legend" in a framed portrait that hangs in his organization's office in Meridian, Miss. But most people just call him bishop.

The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Edwards was still a child when he began musing about poverty's chains. The thoughts germinated as Edwards became self-proclaimed pastor to poor black congregations, first in Michigan and later in Mississippi.

At Christ Temple Church in Meridian, almost every parishioner was on welfare when Edwards went into business to provide them jobs--using the church members' food stamps as seed money to go into such enterprises as meat processing and peanut-brittle sales.

Reach Inc. was formed in 1977. In 1978, the commune at Emelle sprang to life, offering the workers shelter, food, and clothes in place of a paycheck.

Today, the group's businesses stretch at least as far east as Tuskegee, Ala., and as far west as Weir, Miss. Recent additions in Demopolis include a gas station and a large shopping center.

Some commune residents are transported to those businesses daily. Others go to the group's farms, raising emus, row crops, and livestock. Some stay on the commune to work with toddlers or children in Holyland's private school. And at any given time, some also travel the country, setting up outside stores like Wal-Mart to solicit money for "abused kids."

The group lists abused children as its primary work of charity. But by all accounts, that work has fallen by the wayside. Holyland once routinely took in outside children, many of them with legal or behavior problems. But the number of outside children has dwindled now to a handful.

The money collected for abused kids is pooled with virtually all other income, including business revenues and church offerings, to pay for expenses or business activities, said Atlanta accountant Zora Meyers, whose clients include Holyland.

Edwards said at least some of the Holyland profits go to charity such as free food or hotel rooms for the needy. And all of the money goes for a good cause, he said, with every business, acre of land, and piece of equipment a training ground for his disadvantaged parishioners.

But despite the accumulated wealth of Holyland enterprises, most of its residents live in a ragged-looking compound that features mix-and-match mobile homes and dorm buildings. Their lives follow rigid rules and routines. Even their free time is restricted. Adults don't have cash or cars at their disposal.

Edwards said his life is no different from others on the commune: He is provided nothing more than basic necessities, including a trailer home and a car as needed. "I don't own a teaspoon of dirt," he said.

He said he rises at 2 a.m., takes a load of workers to Demopolis, and spends much of his days overseeing construction of the Eutaw subdivision.

Already, the Greene County subdivision houses Holyland children since their dorms burned. This past year, the children were bused to Emelle for school. Next year, Christ Temple Academy will move to Eutaw, Edwards said.

At least some of the commune's adults will also move into the subdivision's row of attractive brick homes, a reward for more than two decades of work, Edwards said.

"We made a short-term sacrifice for long-term gain," he said. "We could not afford to start in a brick home. We had to start in a less expensive home."

Grady Jennings, who spent decades at Holyland, left dissatisfied six years ago. "I felt I could do better than that," he said. He now lives in his own brick home in Meridian. Though he works two jobs, he still feels better off than when he worked for free for Holyland.

Recently, he was joined by another Holyland exile, Clifton Dawson Jr., an 18-year-old who also thought life on the commune would offer him endless labor and no reward.

Indeed, Phillip Williams, the first president of Reach, left after concluding the Holyland organization was a "racket" that traded welfare for a different kind of bondage and poverty.

Only Edwards and his close associates--those with access to cash and a measure of freedom--seemed to enjoy the benefits, Williams said. "The trickle-down effect wasn't going to the individual," he said. "I saw only a certain handful of lives were improving."

Former residents now in their 20s say virtually all their childhood friends left Holyland, some bitter and openly critical of Edwards.

Lakisha Davis Herr of the Detroit area said she remembers frequent whippings from childhood and full-time free labor as a teenager.

Edwards dismisses the idea Holyland children are mistreated and said people can take one look at today's young residents and know he is telling the truth.

"They're going to see a group of well-balanced children playing and having the time of their life," he said. "And you can look at their skin and tell whether they've been abused. You can look at a child and tell when there's something wrong."

While interviews with commune children were not permitted, Edwards contends the group's treatment of children has been reviewed repeatedly with no finding of wrongdoing.

Although the commune was required to change its practices after the child-labor case, it sued and regained custody of a teenage runaway who triggered a child-abuse investigation in 1993. A deacon accused of striking a Holyland teenager more than 20 times was acquitted this year in Sumter County, Ala., courts.

While he lambastes the government, Edwards is careful to say Holyland is not headed for a cataclysmic showdown like Jonestown or Koresh's Branch Davidians. He said his people have no reason to leave the home they share in the serene Alabama countryside.

"We can sit out in the afternoon. We're not worried about any burglars coming in, taking stuff from us," Edwards said. "We don't have to worry about our kids fighting in the streets. We've never had any killings, or police have never had to come in and raid for drugs, for 20 something years. We're proud of that kind of record. We're happy people."

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