Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
I made a trip to Fouke on an overcast Thursday in November to sit in on a town council meeting and attend one of the church's daily prayer-and-dinner sessions. After checking out the Alamo-funded park — a modest turf with a gazebo and playground equipment — I took a walk up to Alamo's storefront church. The space is not exactly welcoming. A security guard, apparently unarmed, asked what I needed. After I explained who I was, he summoned Ben Edwards, a member of the church and the town council, a short, somber-looking man with a stiff moustache and salt-and-pepper hair. Edwards emerged from the building and asked for my card. After going back inside to make a phone call, he returned and invited me in.
Except for 20 or so enlarged portraits of Tony Alamo hanging on the walls, the interior looked as if it could be any community-center dining room. Edwards was laconic — he said he wasn't authorized to grant interviews — but he showed me to a table full of Alamo pamphlets, picking out the highlights.
Afterwards I dropped in for a service at Alamo's church. In a conventional sanctuary next to the dining hall there were four sections of pews. Single girls and women sat to the far left; families had the next section to themselves, and men and boys filled the remaining two. The most striking thing about the congregation was how young it was. Among the 40 people present, only 10 were adults.
One of these was Bill Wattles, a scrawny man who joined Alamo's ministry in the 1970s after a struggle with drug addiction. We made friendly chit-chat. Like Edwards, he led me to the pile of Alamo tracts I had seen that afternoon and stressed that they were “footnoted,” as if Alamo's references to his former tracts offered proof of credibility.
Wattles said he didn't know how many people live on the Alamo property — no one I asked would even give a ballpark figure — he was effusive about Alamo's revelations from God. We talked about the church's doctrine, although Wattles passed on a question about what might happen if Alamo were to die. He seemed ignorant of the child-bride charge. “There's always people accusing people,” he said.
After a while we were approached by Buster White, a church member recently indicted for selling counterfeit sneakers. White said I would have to speak with his lawyers about the case, but that he could certainly talk about the Lord. White asked if I was Jewish; a discussion between White and Wattles on the topic of Semitic noses ensued.
If not for the absurd banter — and, more obviously, the many children unaccompanied by parental figures — the dinner would have seemed like a typical potluck supper. Everyone appeared to be chatty and happy. Several people introduced themselves with a smile, and the boys in the group were particularly eager to approach me with a hello. The girls, however, kept mostly to themselves.
I approached a table of young girls, one of whom held an infant in her arms. As they began, shyly, to tell me their names, Edwards, who had been brooding alone for much of the meal, hopped up and insisted that he had something to show me. He drew me towards a wall-photo of a police officer monitoring several youths and began asking questions of obscure purpose. “Who you think the guy in the picture with a camera is? See those kids with long hair there?”
Before he could get to his eventual point — that the Alamo church is frequently persecuted — Buster White sprang back over to where we were standing. “We're not allowed to conduct interviews. The interview's over. Phone's for you, Ben.” With that, he hustled me out the front door.
Where was Tony Alamo during all of this? When I called before my trip, the church receptionist said an interview might be possible, but she couldn't confirm. Edwards said he was busy writing. He never appeared.
My only interaction with Alamo was an unpleasant phone exchange the next day, during which he sarcastically called me “big man,” and not so sarcastically called me a phony, for having the temerity to ask Bill Wattles — a parishioner of the Tony Alamo Christian Church, where the minister prays, “I'm thankful for Tony Alamo, a man that God himself has risen up” — whether he considers his pastor equivalent to God.