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Reveille is at 4 a.m. Adults come through the dorms turning on

June 21, 1997

Reveille is at 4 a.m. Adults come through the dorms turning on lights, rousing youngsters from beds where as many as three sleep at a time. There are chores, then breakfast in the cafeteria.

From 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., children ages 8 to 18 go to Christ Temple Academy, the Holyland’s one-room school. Preschoolers, all wearing red tops, are in another building.

Students clad in dingy white shirts and navy blue pants or skirts sit at long tables completing photocopied sheets, their work areas separated by partitions. There is no discussion, no laughter. Some children look up as strangers enter, but most heads stay bowed.

Many older students begin ``vocational training″ at age 16; they go to work in one of the Holyland’s numerous businesses.

``There’s nowhere else I can manage a motel at 19 or 20. There’s nowhere else I can decide I want to fly and take flying lessons,″ said Tina Lipsey, 25, who pilots the group’s airplane, a four-seat Cessna.

But the results of the Holyland’s austere educational program are mixed. Children placed in public schools after leaving the compound were about three years behind, according to notes from a 1993 meeting of state officials over concerns about the Holyland.

The Labor Department, acting on a tip from a former resident, levied $43,500 in fines for 82 illegal child workers at Holyland businesses in 1990. The government allowed the penalty to go unpaid after Reach Inc. _ a tax-exempt arm of Edwards’ organization _ filed for bankruptcy in 1991.

A state probe found 129 child-labor violations, with children as young as 14 doing construction work and slaughtering cattle. Edwards’ explanation: He was unaware of the law, and children no longer perform these tasks.

Holyland residents receive only room and board for their work. A few outside employees are paid, but not always enough. Federal inspectors seven years ago ordered a Holyland restaurant to reimburse employees $27,000 in unpaid overtime, but again bankruptcy shielded the group; it paid only $9,600.

The Holyland’s businesses are not its only moneymaker. There is also the group’s panhandling system, known as ``The Route.″

Vanloads of adults and children are sent on the road for weeks at a time to ask for money outside stores nationwide. A former resident tells of soliciting in distant states at age 13 from dawn until after dark.

``I remember New York because we went to Niagara Falls,″ said the ex-member, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Happy though he is at the Holyland, resident Donald Ruffin said he commonly spends two to three weeks away from his wife and three children soliciting donations. He calls himself a salesman.

Gail Walker, who left the Holyland with her three children in 1994, said the begging always is in the name of helping abused children.

``If you use the words `abused children,′ it gets their hearts,″ said Mrs. Walker, who once collected $1,800 in a week.

While church members once sold peanuts outside area stores, panhandling proved effective, too. Former residents estimate revenues of more than $300,000 a month, a total far higher than the official tally. Reach Inc. claimed only $156,924 in annual income in 1991.

Edwards defends the solicitations. All proceeds, he says, go to youths living at the compound.

You want to believe this friendly little man in work clothes. A cowboy hat on his head and a Mississippi GOP membership card in his wallet, Edwards makes strangers feel like friends.

To his flock, he is an awesome presence. Members call each other brother or sister, but Edwards is always ``the bishop″ or simply ``he.″

An aide calls Edwards the nation’s only true black leader, and the office decor bears out her belief: A photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. is dwarfed by a portrait of a smiling Edwards.

Edwards denies the group is a cult of personality, as some former members claim. Mildred Dial, who lives a few miles away and sells gasoline to Holyland residents, says ``they’re just good, Christian people. People who aren’t familiar with them think they’re a cult, but they’re not.″

Living with Edwards, according to members of his flock, makes it easier for them to get to heaven. ``He’s concerned about us every day,″ said Donald Ruffin, 28.

But others see a more sinister side.

Former Holyland resident Gloria Roberts and her husband, now divorced, won a $650,000 verdict after they filed suit, accusing Edwards of mind control and trying to seduce her.

The allegations were similar to those of former members and of some of Edwards’ relatives, including daughter Brenda Garris, who say he has added to his flock by fathering dozens of children by Holyland women. Edwards acknowledges 18 children _ nine each by his first and second wives _ but denies having any out of wedlock.

Black businessman George T. Craig of Tuscaloosa is trying to recoup $308,000 he contends he lost after bringing in Edwards’ group as a partner in his sewing factory. Craig said he somehow lost control of his company and that its machines were removed before he knew what had happened. ``They’re swindlers,″ he said.

Many who dwelled in the Holyland have left, but Edwards can’t recall the name of anyone who departed on good terms.

Phillip Williams, a founding member of Reach and its first president, lived at the compound with his wife and three children, but moved out after only a year.

He tired, he said, of seeing people work like slaves for nothing but a place to live.

``I have a lot of admiration and respect for the bishop,″ Williams said. ``I’m just saying there’s a better way.″