An Ozarks evangelical cult

By Max R. Weller

Part 1

In 2003, I was incarcerated in Missouri DOC. As a first-time offender convicted of lesser felonies (Class C and Class D by MO statutes), I was eligible for parole after serving only 15% of my 5 year sentence. In order to gain parole release, however, an inmate has to come up with a Home Plan subject to approval by the Parole Board.

My home in Lexington, MO was sold while I was in prison, so I needed someplace else to go. At Algoa Correctional Center near Jefferson City, MO I was a GED tutor for other inmates and I frequently attended all kinds of Christian services held there (there were also Jewish, Muslim, Native American, Wiccan, and Buddhist services available). This is where I became acquainted with Rick Mathes, the founder of Mission Gate Ministries. He ran a so-called prison aftercare program in both metro St. Louis and near the small town of Cuba, MO (population 3,000) in the Ozarks. The latter intrigued me, not that I was ever afflicted with religious zeal.

See — http://www.missiongateministry.org/fort_good_shepherd0.aspx

When I met with the Parole Board, I spent about half-an-hour with them; typically, these meetings are pro forma and last about ten minutes. One member of the board said this to me: “Mr. Weller, I’ve reviewed your case and listened to your own account. I have to wonder why you’re here in prison; do you think that your sentence was harsh?” (This is what is called a loaded question). I replied humbly by saying that I let a lot of people down, and I deserved every day of the 5 years I received as a sentence, but that I appreciated the opportunity to leave prison ASAP. This response drew smiles from all of the board members. Anyway, within a week they had approved my Home Plan to go to Fort Good Shepherd in Cuba, MO.

I left Algoa Correctional Center on December 10th, 2003 and took the Greyhound to St. Louis. There, I made a bus connection to Sullivan, MO. At the bus stop there, I was picked up by someone from Fort Good Shepherd. He told me all about his experiences in Missouri DOC as a pimp and dope dealer inside the joint (I never asked him what he did on the outside to get sent to prison) – a real lowlife who had been saved by Rick Mathes.

Yeah, right.

Part 2

Fort Good Shepherd, the prison aftercare program run by Mission Gate Ministries near the small town of Cuba, MO in the Ozarks, actually began as an upscale private resort many decades ago. When I arrived there in December, 2003 the original cabins were being used to house men in the program, most of whom had come there straight from Missouri DOC like me. I was fortunate enough, however, to be placed in one of the brand new Trailblazer cabins (#13); it even smelled of freshly cut lumber inside, and they’d not had time to sweep up the building debris, which I gladly did first thing. It was small, and I shared a bathroom with the adjoining cabin, but I was ALONE! After the experience of prison, being crowded together with hundreds of other men 24/7, this was truly a blessed relief.

The beautiful Meramec River was only a stone’s throw from my front door. See info about this region of my home state — http://www.missourimeramecregion.org/quality.html

The guy who had picked me up from the bus stop in Sullivan, MO was named Ed, and he functioned as right-hand man to Rick Mathes, the founder and self-appointed prophet of Mission Gate. See — http://www.linkedin.com/pub/rick-mathes/16/999/b09 I’ll get into the problems I had with Mr. Mathes in the next installment . . .

The day after I arrived and had settled in, easy enough as I had almost no possessions, Ed took me around to various social service agencies and nonprofits in Crawford County. My food stamp card was activated immediately, and Ed took me to a grocery store in Steelville, MO to stock up on supplies. He also showed me the location of the Parole Office in that city where I’d be reporting on a regular basis. I even obtained lots of almost new clothes from a charitable group somewhere, maybe back in Cuba, but I can’t recall exactly. The clothes were important, because I left Missouri DOC with only what I wore, donated civvies that I’d been given upon my release from Algoa Correctional Center.

What a pleasure it was for me to cook my own food again! (Something I’d been doing since I was only 13 or 14 years old as de facto chef for my family). I made my favorite meatloaf and a broccoli/cheese/rice casserole that night, using donated cookware, and ate like a pig in the privacy of my cabin. I slept as deeply and restfully as I ever have afterwards.

The first week in my cabin was rent-free. After that, I’d have to pay $70 per week, which would be paid in cash at the Friday Night Fellowship held in the Grand Poobah’s Lodge. The food was good and abundant, which made it almost bearable to sit through an hour or so of Rick Mathes droning on about the One True Path To The Lord — following Mathes, naturally. Ed let me know ahead of time, as he did with all of the other “disciples” in the program, that Rick didn’t like anyone asking questions about his teachings. 

Those of you who know me can see where this is heading.

Anyway, to pay the rent I had to get a job. A few of us went over to a private employment agency which helped Mission Gate disciples; we promptly got work at a book bindery (packing & shipping department) in Owensville, MO. The starting wage was $7.93/hour, and there were typically a few hours of overtime each week. No benefits, of course, because we were “temporary” workers. I was healthier back then, and could handle the physical demands of lifting and carrying and stacking boxes of newly-printed books on pallets. Lots of women from surrounding communities also worked there, and they accepted us despite our lowly status as ex-convicts. Mission Gate let us use an older van to commute to work, about 20 miles each way, and I think I chipped in about $20 a week for gas. Cost-of-living was very modest in the small town of Cuba; had I stayed there, I probably could have rented a decent single-family home with 2 bedrooms (and front and back yards) for no more than $400/month. 

Part 3

Legal Waiver of Tenant Rights

I’d never even heard of the concept until such a document was presented to me by Mission Gate Ministires, and I was required to sign it in order to be accepted into the program at Fort Good Shepherd in the idyllic Ozarks countryside. What it boils down to is this: You agree to abide by any and all rules of the program (your landlord, in effect), and the program can evict you for any reason at any time without notice. You are now a peon, a vassal, a serf . . . Without any legal recourse whatsoever.

These legal waivers of tenant rights have become standard across America in many, many programs which claim to be helping people in need to make the transition back to being so-called productive citizens again. Of course, all this does is create a childlike dependency on the program and its leaders, leaving program participants completely unprepared for life in the Real World.

Are you beginning to get the picture of Mission Gate Ministries as a cult? To wit:

1) A charismatic leader in Rick Mathes;

2) Recruiting followers who are vulnerable, in this case inmates who need a Home Plan in order to be released on parole;

3) Isolating followers in a remote area like rural Missouri, and controlling their contacts with outsiders;

4) Gaining control over them with rules of conduct that ordinary citizens are never subject to obeying;

5) Using God/Jesus to justify anything the leader says and does.

At Fort Good Shepherd rules included a 10PM curfew every night, no alcohol/street drugs, no unapproved visitors, attendance at the Friday Night Fellowship to hear the wisdom of Rick Mathes (no questions, please), homework from the Mathes lecture, attendance at Sunday morning services at a local church (preferably Baptist or Pentecostal), two hours weekly of maintenance work on the grounds of FGS, payment of $70 in cash weekly as a fee for program participation (clever legal euphemism for rent), unannounced inspections of living quarters and personal belongings, and any other rules created at the whim of the Grand Poobah.

Mission Gate Ministries did good works in the community, in particular their Christmas gift-giving to the poor people of Crawford County. We serfs made many trips to St. Louis (about 100 miles each way) in an old delivery truck to pick up wrapped presents, which had been donated by folks there, and bring them back to Fort Good Shepherd. When the time came to distribute these at festivities held in Steelville and hosted by FGS, I had the wonderful experience of seeing the joyful faces of little kids and the tears of gratitude from their poor parents. One lady said to me as she wiped her eyes: God bless you for doing this, I lost my job last month and my kids wouldn’t have had any Christmas if not for you folks!

Interesting, the way that good and bad were commingled in Mission Gate Ministries.

Part 4 

My cousin and her husband are Latter-day Saints (Mormons). This is only significant because it so deeply offended Rick Mathes, founder of Mission Gate Ministries and Grand Poobah at Fort Good Shepherd in the Missouri Ozarks.

After my arrest in Lexington, MO on September 30th, 2002 I was held in the Lafayette County Jail. (In fact, I spent the first twenty-four days in a tiny holding cell and once went six days without being able to shower). My cousin sent me a very kind letter; although she remembered meeting me when she was about 9 years old and I was only 2, to me she was a stranger. I responded to her missive, asking her to send me a copy of The Book of Mormon which I’d always intended to read but had never before found the time. We continued our correspondence all during the time I was in jail and then in Missouri DOC, and it was a great morale booster for me, as the only other person who wrote to me was an attorney/fisherman friend of mine from Washington County, KS.

The Latter-day Saints study groups were among those I regularly attended while in prison, along with those of other Christian denominations. I found much of LDS doctrine refreshing, but mostly I was impressed by what these folks had accomplished against tremendous odds and by the emphasis they placed on the importance of family.

BTW, Missouri has a history of persecuting Mormons; e.g. — http://www.quaqua.org/extermination.htm

When I was released on parole in December, 2003 my cousin and her husband made plans to visit me at Fort Good Shepherd around the time of my birthday in January. They arrived on a Saturday morning, having driven all the way from Memphis, TN. I’d been scheduled to work overtime at my job in Owensville, but got the day off at my fervent request.

My cousin and her husband, through no fault of their own, were rudely greeted by Rick Mathes at the Grand Poobah’s Lodge where they stopped to announce their arrival as required. For reasons known only to Mathes himself, he decided to engage them in a theological debate upon learning that they were Latter-day Saints. They politely declined to be thus engaged; I’ve never known any Mormon, including youthful missionaries, to be disrespectful of others’ religious beliefs (another point in their favor).

Anyway, my visitors made their way down to my cabin where we chatted a bit before driving to Rolla, MO to visit Wal-Mart. It was my birthday, and some household supplies were a most welcome present from my cousins. They only briefly mentioned the strange encounter with Rick Mathes, and seemed mystified by it rather than angered. By this time, his bigotry was no surprise to me.

According to Mathes himself, he was raised as a Catholic. Then he saw the error of their ways, so he became an Episcopalian. That didn’t stick, either. He became a Methodist, a Presbyterian, a Pentecostal, and finally a Baptist in turn. Only the latter two groups of believers, Mathes said, would escape the Fiery Torments of Hell. Mormons, in his view, ranked almost as low as Muslims, and Mathes advocated in one of his Friday Night Fellowship lectures that Muslim-Americans of today should be interned like the Japanese-Americans in World War II.

Scary stuff, although I never saw any stockpiles of weapons and ammo at Fort Good Shepherd.

Conclusion

It was now the middle of January, 2004 and I’d been at Fort Good Shepherd about five weeks. I’d seen a few of the serfs who couldn’t stay sober or who violated the 10PM curfew get evicted; because of the legal waiver of tenant rights we’d all signed, they were simply ordered to pack up their stuff and go immediately or the Crawford County Sheriff would be called to arrest them as trespassers. Very Christian attitude on the part of Grand Poobah Rick Mathes.

I foolishly thought that it wouldn’t happen to me, because I didn’t drink and I preferred to spend free time in my cabin rather than cruise around the tiny town of Cuba, MO (population 3,000).

I’d been attending required Sunday morning services at a local Pentecostal church, which I chose to satisfy my curiosity about Holy Rollers. I was disappointed not to witness any snake-handling or strychnine-drinking, but there was speaking-in-tongues. I don’t believe these were any tongues as spoken by people anywhere on earth in everyday communication, because I could detect bits of German, French, Spanish, etc. in the midst of the gibberish.

I’ve never been a fan of the Apostle Paul, but I think he was right on the mark when he stated in one of his letters to the wayward that he’d spoken in tongues more than anyone, but he’d rather speak five words in church that everyone could understand than 10,000 words in an unknown tongue. I also pointed Paul’s comment out, chapter and verse, on one of the homework assignments I turned in to Rick Mathes.

My cousins had taken me to the LDS services in Rolla, and I met the two young men serving as missionaries in the territory which included Cuba, MO. When an older couple from rural Steelville offered to pick me up at Fort Good Shepherd every Sunday morning and take me to Rolla, and then return me to FGS after services, I gladly accepted their offer. These were the sort of kind and sober people I wanted to associate with; in addition, I decided to have the missionaries visit me once a week to answer my questions about LDS beliefs and how I might possibly fit into that church.

I’ll point out here that I’ve never been too excited about doctrine per se — instead focusing on the actions of believers. The Mormons I saw practicing their faith impressed me greatly.

I could tell that Ed, the Grand Poobah’s right-hand man, wasn’t happy when I told him that I’d invited the two LDS missionaries to visit me at FGS on a weekly basis. But, he said it would be OK. (Gee whiz, it’s not like I was trying to sneak a very attractive co-worker, who was somewhat enamored of me, into my cabin for a little horizontal mambo; I still remember her).

Thus, the beginning of my end at the Mathes cult started innocently enough. I think that I’d had about three weekly visits from the LDS missionaries when the ax fell.

One Friday evening towards the end of January, I got home from work and grocery shopping to find Ed waiting for me at my cabin. All he said was, “Rick wants to speak with you up at the Lodge.”

Rick Mathes was preparing for the Friday Night Fellowship, and had a tray of tater tots and a spatula in his hands when Ed and I walked into the kitchen. He addressed me as “Mark” instead of Max, and continued to do so throughout his tirade against me. I feared that tater tots might start flying everywhere; the man was shaking so much with anger! He informed me that the Mormon missionaries were “unapproved visitors.” He then denounced my homework because I tended to quote chapter and verse from the Bible on various topics he’d assigned to us, and I did so especially when Rick’s teachings didn’t line up with scripture. He yelled at me, “I have a Ph.D. and I’m the teacher, you’re the student!”

He continued on for a few minutes, never reciting a single instance of actual wrongdoing on my part.

Finally, he announced that I must leave Fort Good Shepherd by noon the next day (generous of him) or else I’d be arrested for trespassing. Then he told me, and I’ve never forgotten how incongruous a statement it was under the circumstances, “You’re excused from tonight’s Fellowship.” When I got back to my cabin, I borrowed my neighbor’s cell phone and called my parole officer first, and then my cousin back in Memphis, TN to tell them I’d been booted out of Fort Good Shepherd, apparently for associating with Latter-day Saints and for using the brain the Good Lord gave me.

My parole officer was absolutely on my side, and didn’t seem surprised by the outburst of Mathes. He called Rick on my behalf, and more or less told him that Max Weller would be allowed three full days to vacate FGS premises — or Mission Gate Ministries would no longer be welcome at any facility operated by Missouri DOC.

As it turns out, with all of the money I’d saved from work I was able to move into the historic Wagon Wheel Motel on what used to be Route 66 in Cuba, MO. It looked like the sort of seedy place that might have welcomed 1930s gangsters traveling from Chicago to LA. But, the price was right at $120 or so per week. Of course, without any way to commute to my job in Owensville I had to quit. As I recall, I spent about three weeks at the dump, and I continued to receive the LDS missionaries as my guests and as my friends; they were flummoxed that this sort of bigotry displayed by Rick Mathes still existed in Missouri in 2004.

Lucky for me, there was a woman in the Rolla LDS congregation who was a parole officer there. She introduced herself one Sunday morning, and told me about a couple of places down in Springfield, MO (population 100,000) that would accept me into a prison aftercare program. I got on a Greyhound and wound up at the Salvation Army facility for men there. Also evangelical, but not corrupted by someone like Rick Mathes . . .

See — http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/allah.asp 

(Originally published on July 28, 2011).

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