WELLS, Texas – When members of a small evangelical congregation were arrested after disrupting services at Lakewood Church in June, it was the first time many in the Houston area heard of the Church of Wells.
When Channel 2 Investigates began looking into the church's background, we discovered the incident at Lakewood was not the first members of the church had been to Houston in their quest to save souls from damnation, nor were they strangers to controversy.
The Church of Wells is so named because members live in the east Texas town of Wells, which is 17 miles outside of Lufkin and has a population of 769 people.
The church's website is filled with videos documenting members preaching at college campuses, on street corners, in front of businesses and outside of other churches. One video shows members screaming, "(Jesus) sees your sins and he will judge you on that day," at people leaving Montrose-area nightclubs.
The videos also show church members getting into numerous confrontations with those who take issue with their impromptu sermons. The church's motivation for public spectacle and controversy is seemingly revealed through Bible quotes and excerpts from sermons written by evangelist Leonard Ravenhill, who died in 1994.
The excerpts from Ravenhill posted on the church's website revolve around the belief that they must face persecution in order to be true Christians.
"When we get to heaven dear brother, God isn't going to ask you where your diploma is; he's not looking for medals, he's looking for scars," Ravenhill said during one video excerpt.
During a video entitled "The New Testament," church members juxtapose a passage from the Book of Matthew with pictures of a confrontation with residents of Wells. "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," the passage reads.
Church members also make it clear they take issue with some pastors of mega churches. After six members of the church were arrested and charged with trespassing and disrupting a public meeting at Lakewood, church elder Jacob Gardner, 27, told reporters he believes pastor Joel Osteen is spreading a false message.
"We are convinced that the judgement of God is coming to Lakewood Church," Gardner said following a court appearance.
Gardner made similar allegations against the pastor of the Times Square Church in New York.
"I do not believe the main problem in New York City is the homosexual, or the drug abusers, or the prostitutes, or the homeless," Gardner said during a video posted on the churches' website and entitled "Times Square Church Exposed." "I believe that the main problem in New York City is the church."
Controversy first began swirling around church members in 2012. Officials in Cherokee County investigated allegations church members spent hours praying over another church member's dying baby before dialing 911. The child died, but no members of the church were ever charged with any crime.
The following year townsfolk became increasingly leery of the group when an Arkansas couple came to town searching for their daughter, Catherine Grove. The family said their daughter left Arkansas and joined the church with no explanation.
When Patty and Andy Grove traveled to Wells, they said church members would not let them see their daughter. Patty Grove told reporters at the time when she went to see Catherine, she was greeted by two members of the church.
"Mr. and Mrs. Grove, we have reason to believe that you're going to kidnap your daughter, subvert her from our teachings," Grove said she was told.
Grove told reporters she did finally speak to her daughter over the phone.
"Mom and dad, I can't listen to you anymore. I have to keep my hands over my ears and I can only listen to my elders," Grove said in 2013.
At that time, Gardner told reporters Catherine joined the church willingly and chose not to see her parents. Gardner offered a biblical explanation to support his claim.
"When Christ calls a man, if he has his allegiance to his family first of all, or to his job first of all, or to his earthly possession and riches first of all; that allegiance must be cut, it must be severed or that man cannot truly bow the knee and worship in adoration in true service to the Lord, Jesus Christ," Gardner said in 2013.
Catherine Grove emerged the following year and gave cryptic answers to reporters when asked about her well-being.
"If you want to talk with Catherine, she's dead," Grove said. "I've been crucified with Christ."
Grove emerged again in April of this year when she dialed 911 from the side of Highway 69. This time the call was answered by the Angelina County Sheriff's Office.
"Um, I need some, I need somebody to pick me up," Grove is heard telling a dispatcher during the call.
Capt. Alton Lenderman told Channel 2 Grove never made any allegation that she was a victim of a crime.
"She said she needed a ride to a shelter is what she said," Lenderman said. "She said she didn't want to talk to anybody, she said she just needed a place to stay."
Lenderman said Grove gave no real explanation as to why she dialed 911 before leaving the Sheriff's Office with her parents. Grove eventually returned to the Church of Wells. Lenderman said since Grove was an adult, there was little the Sheriff's Office could to intervene.
Tension between residents of the town and church members boiled over in 2014. Many in the town took issue with church members' aggressive rhetoric during an annual homecoming parade.
"God would never step out of line and tell a child that is 4 years old she's going to hell," a resident is heard telling a church member following the incident.
A church member denied specifically telling a child she was going to hell, but added, "At the age of the knowledge of good and evil, she needs to know she's going to hell and she needs to know how to be saved."
This collection of run-ins prompted residents of the town to boycott the church's store and gas station, eventually forcing it to close. The church now supports itself through a lumber yard operation in a nearby town.
Tensions between townsfolk and residents seem to have eased in the past year, but the harsh feelings have not faded.
"They told me I was going to hell. I told them, 'No, I'm not going to hell, you going to hell if you don't get out my yard.' We stopped it at that," said Cleveland Bradley.
Bradley and other residents said church members now largely keep to themselves as they work on completing a wood-frame church in a sparsely populated portion of Wells.
"We didn't want all that attention on our town," Eva Alexander said. "We basically just wanted it to be quiet again."
Many town residents declined to talk about the church on camera but made their feelings known nonetheless. When Channel 2 first arrived in the town and asked a woman where the church was located, she replied, "Oh, you mean the cult."
Gardner declined to speak with Channel 2 on camera. At first, he said he would need to pray and talk with other church members before deciding whether he would speak on camera. Gardner later sent us an email saying his attorney in the trespassing case "highly warned against proceeding with the interview."
The members of the church charged over the Lakewood incident are scheduled to be back in court later this month.