On the radio

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Believers at the Overcomer commune in Colleton County live according to preachings of controversial leader

CANADYS — Their prophet speaks.

"I am the sign! Can I say that? I have faith enough to believe it."

Brother Stair is the Last Day Prophet of God.

Brother Stair is a sinner.

"I'll tell you what happened! I committed adultery with two women here! And I went to the people and apologized."

That was nearly six years ago. About 40 members of this reclusive Christian commune just north of Walterboro lost faith in their prophet and left. Accusations were flung about. Charges were filed. The authorities swooped in. Ralph G. Stair, then 68, was arrested and jailed for 77 days, eventually pleading guilty to two reduced charges of assault and battery.

His loyal followers at Overcomer Ministry farm and his radio listeners around the world were bereft.

But some continued to walk with Stair, and in the years since 2002, the community has tried to regain its footing.

Today, about 70, including nine children, live in this secluded place, growing their own food, making their own clothes and worshipping together on Saturdays in the Tabernacle. Residents include people of all ages, black and white. Self-sufficient, they survive by faith and hard work, even under the glare of scrutiny.

Their self-imposed exile, odd ways and controversial leader who preaches that the end of the world is upon us have fueled the flame of public concern and prompted numerous investigations by law enforcement officials at taxpayers' expense.

Who, exactly, are these reclusive end-of-times Christian farmers?

The commune, tucked in this corner of rural South Carolina just beneath Interstate 95 in Colleton County, is austere, featuring few amenities. Mobile homes and handmade houses provide nominal shelter from the elements. Rows of clotheslines extend from the laundry room. A refectory offers space for communal meals.

In an adjacent kitchen — well-equipped with a refrigerator, cupboards, food counters, a large cast-iron oven and stove top pieced together by the residents, mixing tools and other accoutrements — several women prepare the large daily meal.

The Overcomer community is both a place of its time and a place that functions oddly outside of time.

"This is the LAST generation!" Stair has exclaimed, his words posted on the Overcomer Web site. "THIS is the generation that God is going to POUR out His Wrath upon. I'm telling you that Christ IS coming! ... We haven't got any time Left."

And so the 20-year-old community is rooted in the present, ever on the lookout for the Messiah, ready for the imminent ecstasy of salvation.

Yet this is a farm like so many others that have been organized throughout history. It is an assembly of people who, for various reasons, have mostly removed themselves from the world, even if the world has a tendency to burst in on them unannounced and uninvited, resident Joseph Cline explains.

"When you have a great light, you draw a lot of bugs," Cline says. The great light is Brother Stair and his message of doom.

The message is everything

Aside from Jesus Christ and the promise of the Second Coming, the radio operation at Overcomer farm is everything. The agrarian life this community has embraced serves to support the broadcasts. Brother Stair spends hours at a time, whenever the spirit moves him, riffing on apocalyptic themes, the dissolution of the world's great political powers and the miracle promised by Christ's return.

Residents take a vow of poverty, giving their material wealth to the commune. A dress code requires modest attire, just as the Bible instructs. Men wear long pants and shirts with collars; women wear long skirts that cover their legs.

The priorities are the work and the Word.

"We don't put too much stock in worldly things," Cline says. "So we don't put too much money in them."

Cline, a former rock-'n'-roll musician, may be the only resident here with air conditioning, perhaps because his home is nearest to the gate and Cline tends to serve as the community receptionist. Another resident jokingly refers to Cline's modest home as Overcomer's Taj Mahal.

The day begins before sunrise. The farming is done during early morning hours. The planting, irrigation, harvesting or upkeep are usually finished by 9 or 10 a.m.

The crops are plentiful and include okra, peppers, cucumbers, garlic, onions, eggplant, spinach, carrots, pumpkin, broccoli, chard, collard greens, tomatoes, peanuts, watermelon, cane sugar, bananas, blueberries, grapes and various citrus. The excess is sold at a shed by Augusta Highway.

In the midst of the blueberry patch, a pole rises toward the heavens. A speaker is mounted at the top, and Brother Stair's aging tenor voice rings out. The speaker serves two functions, Cline says. It allows men and women in the fields to listen to the message, and it enables them to monitor the radio signal. Should the speaker go silent, it means the words of the prophet die at his microphone.

Stair spends hours at a time in the studio. Even his preaching in the tabernacle is sent out to the world beyond. The church and the radio studio are solar-powered. Just beyond a hand-dug, rainwater-filled ditch euphemistically called the "Long Pond" lies the photovoltaic panels — eight of them, each with six segments capturing sunlight and storing the energy in an impressive battery array housed in a nearby structure.

Harnessing the sun in this way ensures that pumps will always run to irrigate the crops and that Stair's voice will never be silenced in the event of a standard power failure.

In the event of such a failure, Cline's computer might shut down, the lights would go dark, the laundry machines would stop working, but through it all, the prophet would keep preaching.

Mark Hodgson, 25, and Dave Mull, 46, are the technicians who keep the broadcast going.

In a small equipment-filled building near the Long Pond, Hodgson, who has lived here for more than six years, says the broadcast is delivered to Pittsburgh by a satellite uplink. From there, it's transmitted to 25 stations throughout the United States and to Israel. Shortwave radio enables listeners in Germany, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to hear Brother Stair.

A decade ago, Brother Stair could be heard on 120 stations, Hodgson says. Overcomer Ministries has collected letters of support from people in 192 countries, he says, and many of them include financial contributions. The commune receives thousands of letters a year.

In a good month, its collections can reach $100,000, money used to pay for annual expenditures of about $1 million, according to Stair. In recent years, the farm has failed to break even, spending more to sustain the operation than it takes in from loyal listeners.

Mull says he's been a follower of Brother Stair since 1996. The commune has been his home for 3 1/2 years.

"I'm a believer in what he preaches," Mull says. "The world is in such bad shape right now."

In the quiet of a recent humid morning, Christopher Landry, the resident horticulturist and self-proclaimed Overcomer "fanatic," describes his journey from Texas A&M University, from which he graduated with a degree in economics, to the Christian farm in Colleton County.

Landry worked on a ranch while he was still in Texas, learning about plants and greenhouse operations. Then he worked at a publishing house in Dallas that required his presence on Saturday, the traditional Sabbath day, a day of rest he preferred to observe but couldn't.

In 1983, he was saved. It wasn't a particularly dramatic event, Landry says, more like a conviction affirmed.

"No one had to beat me over the head to believe the Bible. I took it literally and easily, but didn't know how to live by it."

One day, an acquaintance who was a Seventh-day Adventist asked Landry if she could find a job at the publishing company, and he warned her about the requirement to work on the Sabbath.

"God said (to me), 'Did you hear your own words?' That day I tendered my resignation."

Landry had heard Brother Stair on shortwave radio in Medina, Texas, a tiny crossroads town of a few hundred people.

"Everything he preached I already believed," he says. "I saw an opportunity to practice my faith in an environment that's not antagonistic to it. ... I believe Western civilization is going down the tubes. I'm a risk-averse person; I like to get out of the way when the fist is coming."

The troubles

Many outsiders don't think well of the Overcomer farm, authorities say. They think the people who live there are a bunch of religious zealots. They think members of the community are part of a cult whose leader has brainwashed his followers. They think Brother Stair is a white supremacist, a pervert, an extortionist. They think he runs a slave-labor camp.

The authorities — the State Law Enforcement Division, Colleton County Sheriff's Office and county coroner — have raided the farm several times, sometimes in the middle of the night, Stair and other residents say.

Sometimes the visits are prompted by disgruntled former residents who claim they were abused or exploited, Stair says. But no one is a captive here; anyone unhappy with the lifestyle can leave. And this has happened, Stair says. He even has returned some money to those who decide, sometimes after years on the farm, to abandon the prophet and his message.

He doesn't want trouble.

But in August 2001, Brother Stair made "an involuntary and partial disclosure regarding sexual battery against several young adult women who were 'Stair believers,' " according to a SLED case file. Stair says he apologized to the community for two adulterous affairs.

SLED's criminal case against Stair lists several accusations, including criminal sexual conduct, breach of trust and unlawful burial. The case file reveals that former members of the community accused Stair of intimidation and financial wrongdoing.

Last July, after he pleaded guilty to two reduced charges of simple assault and battery, the case was closed, according to SLED. He was sentenced to time served. Now, a civil case is pending.

Stair and his supporters say many of the allegations have come from people who found the going too tough at the farm and saw an opportunity to take advantage of someone easy to demonize.

The first of the troubles came shortly after Stair established Overcomer Ministry in the late 1980s. A stillbirth prompted an investigation then, too, though no charges were filed. The baby, three weeks overdue and 11 pounds, failed to get enough oxygen during a prolonged birth and suffocated, according to news reports.

No doctor was involved in the birth. The residents of the farm say they distrust and shun doctors. They attribute illness and death to God's will.

In December 1993, another child died several weeks after its birth, but the death was not reported to authorities, according to the SLED investigation. A search warrant was secured for the purpose of locating the grave and exhuming the body for an autopsy.

Then, a little more than a year ago, another stillbirth. On the gnat-ridden path between the fellowship hall and laundry room, Brother Stair points to the house where it happened.

The father was a trained medic. But the baby's grandmother was unhappy, according to Stair and Cline. She called the authorities and tried to get her daughter to seek medical attention.

"(Sheriff's deputies) would come out in the middle of the night demanding to see the mother and verify whether she was still alive, causing no small amount of stress," Cline wrote in an e-mail.

Eventually, the mother went to the hospital for a C-section, but it was too late, Cline wrote.

The county coroner automatically orders an autopsy of anyone who dies at Overcomer farm.

Daily bread

In the kitchen, a group of women prepare for the day's big 3 p.m. meal. Cline's wife, Cyndie, is making the bean cakes and eggplant-tomato salad. A row of fresh, whole-grain bread sits on a ledge.

The community, which raises a few goats and cattle, makes its own cheese, mayonnaise, butter, cottage cheese and sour cream.

Breakfast is served at 7:30 a.m. after work in the fields is well under way. School starts after breakfast, and the community-taught children get a break at noon and finish before dinner. Leftovers from the big meal are made available after the evening prayer for those still hungry.

While the men mostly perform the hard labor and the women mostly do domestic chores, the community is not averse to employing people according to their particular skills, Landry says.

"We promote the biblical roles of men and women," he says.

Rebecca Hodgson, 22, is Mark Hodgson's wife. She is helping 6-year-old Natasha Leer make sour cream. Natasha, sitting at a counter, turns the contents round and round in the bowl.

Rebecca Hodgson says she has been visiting Overcomer farm since 2002 and got married this past May. She says she's used to the Christian environment and rural lifestyle; it's how she grew up. When she was 15, she tried to kill herself, she says. Her father heard Stair on the radio and that gave him an idea: perhaps Rebecca would benefit from the ascetic life of the commune.

On the radio

The gnats swirl around Brother Stair's neck. He is tall and wiry, donning a thick white beard. His speech is high-pitched and direct. He is sure of his message but occasionally will rely on a follower to identify the specific passage of Scripture he alludes to.

"If somebody wants to know how to make it right with God, I'll show him," Stair says.

Repent. Change your ways.

Brother Stair is a marathon preacher. He can spend hours in the solar-powered broadcast studio without food or drink. He gets carried away; he loses track of time. His record is 11 hours at one sitting.

He is not interested in proselytizing, he says. It's not converts he seeks but, rather, faithful Christians who are not yet aware that the Apocalypse has begun to cast its shadow over the ends of the Earth, he says.

Brother Stair is adept at manipulating the technology. He adjusts the 16-track mixing board, logs on to the instant-messaging feature on the computer, opens his oversized Bible to the Book of Revelation and ensures the telephone answering system is functional. Multivitamins are stacked on a nearby table. A bottle of Fixodent sits to one side.

He is railing against corruption, society's dependency on the almighty dollar. He is predicting the imminent end of times, for once the world's two superpowers crumble, so shall man's reign on Earth. He is preaching about the glory that accompanies Christ's coming. The Soviet Union fell apart in 1989. Now the United States is compromised, its borders permeable, its influence diminished, its markets globalized.

And religion is susceptible to global markets, too, the nondenominational prophet says. Institutional religion is corrupt. It provokes Armageddon.

"That's why they hate us out there! We don't buy and sell. ... Love of money is the root of all evil, not fornication."

And that allusion to his own sins puts him on the defensive.

"I confessed my sin, never justified it," he says. "The Lord said to me, 'You're dealing with a generation of immorality, and you are not different than anyone else.' "

Then he turns to the computer and exchanges a quick greeting with a faraway listener, first asking for his identity. Some messages come from pranksters, or worse, he explains, so Brother Stair always dips a toe in the water before taking the plunge.

The reply comes. It is from a true follower, Brother Stair decides, then types "God bless you friend."

"There is nothing more confusing and more complex than religion," Brother Stair says. "The end is coming, and the only future you have is in Christ."

Members of this community firmly believe that future can be secured here, in the fields, under the hot sun, fending for themselves, putting their trust in the Lord and supporting their prophet as he sends out his message across the airwaves.

"This," Brother Stair says, "is the good life."