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O little town of Bethel-sham

Folks like Larry Schone and his wife, Ruth, thought 60 miles would be far enough away from Dallas to enjoy the peace and quiet of country life. Now, they've gone and founded a damn town, ensuring that nothing will be quiet for a long, long time.

The Schones and others of their ilk have created what is supposedly the newest town in Texas: Bethel. Population 214, they think. Located about an hour north of Dallas, the town theoretically occupies two square miles along Highway 160 in the southeastern corner of Grayson County. The next town over is Whitewright to the north--home of Carl's Sausage Company and not much else--and the closest big town after that is Sherman.

The area has been known as Bethel since the late 1800s, a nod to the Bethel Baptist Church, longtime geographical and spiritual heart of the community. But it didn't officially become the Town of Bethel until May 3. On that fateful Saturday, residents filed into the church and elected a mayor and two commissioners. More importantly, they voted to incorporate Bethel as a legal Class C municipality under the laws of Texas.

Many little hamlets are known as "company towns" because they are dominated by a single employer. Bethel is an anti-company town, created specifically with the intent of keeping a corporation out. The interloper is North Texas Cement Company, which is looking to build a plant nearby so it can tap into the bountiful supply of limestone that underlies Grayson County. There's a railroad, and few houses or people to get in the company's way. Instead, there's just miles and miles of wide open space.

Coincidentally, the area has been attracting other migrants of late. With their bucolic visions, barbecue grills, and fancy cars, suburbanites have been buying land in and around Bethel, dreaming of a life unencumbered by the crime, traffic, pollution, and other hassles of the city.

One of the newcomers is Schone, a 50-year-old telecommunications worker and Bethel's newly elected mayor, who moved to the area a year ago. Schone was horrified when he discovered that the cement company was trying to buy up some 2,500 acres of nearby land. The image of a dirty, dusty cement plant did not fit at all with the Green Acres lifestyle Schone was seeking when he and his wife bought their modest 10 acres. Something, he decided, had to be done.

So Schone and his fellow travelers formed a group called SWAT--which stands for Save Whitewright And TriCounties--and began trying to convince area farmers not to sell their land to the company. When that didn't work, SWATters led the drive to incorporate Bethel, hoping that maybe an official town could use zoning or some other municipal weapon to block the plant.

But many of the old farmers in the area are about due to retire from the land, and frankly the idea of selling out for about $1,800 an acre sounds right by them. The land doesn't inspire quite the same romantic longing among those who have spent their lives fighting weeds in the milo and castrating calves. Besides, the cement company's money could go a long way toward paying medical bills that have come with old age.

When the old-timers caught wind of SWAT's efforts to stymie the plant, they formed their own group called RIGHT--which stands for Responsible Industrial Growth Helps Texas--and began fighting what they believe is a subversive plot to stop them from selling their land.

The once-tranquil community hasn't seen anything like the battle between RIGHT and SWAT in nigh on a hundred years. The sides have dug in their heels and vowed to fight until the cows come home. Sisters are fighting with each other. Neighbors who have always lent each other a hand in times of need aren't speaking. Death threats have been uttered. The newly elected mayor claims someone has been reading his mail, and the mayor himself has been accused of roughing up a teenage boy. Everybody is spying on everyone else.

Even the Bethel Baptist Church hasn't escaped the fray. After its pastor sided with SWAT and allowed the group to use his church as its de facto headquarters, lifelong church members left his flock.

SWAT beat RIGHT in the May 3 election and created Bethel, but the town's budding revolutionaries are discovering that running a town is a lot harder than founding one.

Shortly after the election, Grayson County officials gladly relinquished responsibility for the roads in Bethel. Now the mayor and his cohorts spend their free time mixing tar and filling potholes, or hauling off fallen trees in a borrowed pickup.

Since one of SWAT's campaign promises was not to impose any taxes, the town has been holding bake sales and spaghetti dinners to raise money for the treasury. Until enough brownies are sold to build a town hall, the council is meeting inside a converted garage.

 

And SWAT is finding that there are all kinds of pesky laws that come along with public service--such as conducting business in the open and letting the citizens know what's being done in their names.

RIGHTers accuse Schone and the SWATters of holding secret, illegal meetings to plot strategy. Armed with video cameras and copies of the Texas Public Information Act, RIGHTers have taken to storming the mayor's house whenever they see a suspicious number of cars parked in his driveway. RIGHT is also trying to get copies of official town documents, but the city clerk has stashed them in a file cabinet, and she refuses to divulge its whereabouts.

It's improbable that RIGHTers and SWATters will ever reach a consensus on anything, but Grayson County Attorney Bob Jarvis may soon put the whole controversy to rest. He suspects that the election creating Bethel was rigged, and now he's asking a court to dissolve the town.

In a civil lawsuit filed this month, Jarvis claims the town is illegal because SWAT's leaders intentionally drew the boundaries to exclude people who didn't agree with its views on the cement plant.

"Here you don't have a school, you have one church, and two very small businesses. It's an agricultural area out in the country," Jarvis says. "There's really no town there. It's not a town."

And even if the nascent town survives a court's scrutiny, the joke may still be on SWAT. The Town of Bethel is still virtually powerless to stop North Texas Cement. There's plenty of farmland to be had, and company officials say they can easily work around the fitful pocket of resistance SWAT has created.

But no one's letting that minor reality stand in the way of a good old country pissing match.

The trouble began last Labor Day weekend, when Larry Schone received an unexpected piece of mail. It was a letter from North Texas Cement Company, asking if Schone might be interested in selling his land. Schone and his wife had fled Richardson just the previous March, moving to Bethel in hopes of enjoying the peace and quiet of country life. They haven't been disappointed.

In the mornings, they eat breakfast on their back porch and watch the sun rise. In the evening, they adjourn to the front porch to watch it set, a spectacular orange-and-red panorama unsullied by city haze.

Startled by the letter, and curious as to what was afoot, Schone went to the most likely place where he could gather more information--the Bethel Baptist Church. There, he found neighbors who had received the same letter.

Schone thought a community meeting might be in order. Pastor Charles Pierce readily agreed to hold it inside the church. The tiny white building has always served as the community's public meeting place.

Area residents, alerted by flyers Schone hastily prepared and passed out, packed the church the next Wednesday. It was supposed to be a friendly, neighborhood discussion, but there were already signs that trouble was brewing. Someone--Schone doesn't know who--tipped off the cement company, and it sent two representatives to the gathering. It quickly became clear that feelings ran strong on both sides of the issue, and residents left the meeting divided.

Schone and the other antis formed SWAT and began holding weekly strategy meetings at the church. At first, the group tried simple persuasion, hoping it could convince neighbors not to sell their land. SWAT argued that the plant would pollute the air and foul the countryside. It accused the company of trying to sneak into town and buy up land before anyone noticed.

Company officials were quick to dispute SWAT's claim, taking out numerous advertisements in local newspapers and calling up landowners. NTCC spokesman Michael Patterson says the company plans a clean, coal-burning plant that will meet all environmental laws. And Patterson says he's dumbfounded that SWAT is claiming the company tried to sneak its plant into the area.

"We sent out letters--certified letters--to landowners," Patterson says. "If that's not notice enough that a business is interested in coming to town, I don't know what is."

As the months passed, SWAT realized that its message wasn't exactly taking root. A lot of people still seemed inclined to sell their land, and welcome the plant and the 85 jobs it might bring.

The situation demanded more drastic action.

Armed with maps and photos, the core members of SWAT gathered on Larry Schone's back porch on a recent humid Thursday evening to reconstruct their battle strategy to date.

 

"We thought of everything," says David Cason, who is in charge of conducting SWAT's opposition research. Cason is a cellist and his wife, Clare, a violinist. They earn extra money playing at weddings and giving private music lessons. The young couple lives in nearby Pilot Grove, where they hope someday to start an organic garden.

SWAT, indeed, tried working every angle to block North Texas Cement from building nearby. Were there any endangered species around that would qualify the land for federal protection? SWAT couldn't find any. Any historic graveyards or Indian burial mounds? Nope. Wetlands? Hardly. There's nothing in Bethel but rock.

Then the light bulb went on: There was nothing in Bethel, not even a town. If they could create a town, the SWATters figured, then they could pass zoning laws that would keep the plant out of the community.

What those laws might be and how they could be enacted were questions to be pondered later. First, there was a town that needed founding. That task is easier than it sounds.

Under Texas law, all SWAT had to do was draw up boundaries covering no more than 2 square miles and containing at least 200 people. The key was to get enough people into the boundaries without too much land, but that meant drawing a strangely shaped town with little strips reaching out here and there to grab houses and get them inside the limits.

"It doesn't do any good to take fields into the map, because they are not populated," says Clare Cason, the violinist.

"We tried to incorporate everyone who cared," adds Norma Horton, the town clerk whose husband, Bob, is SWAT's president. Although Horton doesn't explain what she means by people who "cared," Schone hastily adds that the mapping was done fair and square.

"We took a map of the county and measured it by the square foot. We looked at where are the people. We had to go any way we had to go to find those people," Schone says. "We excluded no one for no reason. We included no one for no reason."

Oddly enough, many SWAT members don't even live within the town they created. But that isn't stopping them from expecting the town to exert pressure on residents who might be thinking of selling out. "They have a right to sell their land, but nobody who owns the land has the right to do something to harm the environment," Norma Horton says.

Tracy Meisenbach, the assistant town clerk, is a bit more blunt. "It's like protecting a retarded child," she says. "We're protecting them from harming themselves."

Once the lines were drawn, Barbara Wilson, a local real estate agent, undertook the task of going door-to-door and counting heads. In the end, she tallied 214 residents, 100 of them eligible voters. Under state law, 10 percent of the eligible voters must sign a petition asking for an incorporation election. Once SWAT knew who would be included in the town, getting those signatures was easy.

In March, the members of SWAT submitted their petition to Grayson County Judge Horace Groff, who determined that the basic requirements of the law had been met. Groff ordered that an incorporation election be held on May 3.

All 100 eligible voters cast ballots in the election: 72 in favor of the town and 28 against. They also elected Schone as mayor, and Jack Bartley and Mack Williams as commissioners.

SWAT saw the election as not just a landslide, but an irrefutable community endorsement of its opposition to the cement plant. "We put a stake in the ground and said, 'No, you aren't going to come here,'" Bob Horton says, banging his finger on the map of Bethel spread out before him. "Now, we have control over our air; over our water."

Everything about the town, Horton adds, is legal. "Perfectly legal."
Well, not quite.

Shortly after the election, Grayson County Attorney Bob Jarvis started getting phone calls from some of the people down around Bethel. They were complaining that the town limits had intentionally been drawn to avoid them, shutting them out of a chance to vote on incorporation.

Curiously, most of those who felt excluded from the vote were also opposed to incorporation.

After delving into the complaints, Jarvis concluded they had merit--particularly once he saw an actual map of the town. On July 1, Jarvis filed suit in Grayson County District Court, challenging the legality of the election.

"The result of their efforts was a bizarre structure more resembling a stick man than a Texas town," Jarvis wrote in his petition. "Their efforts gave gerrymandering new dimension."

Reached by telephone, Jarvis explains that the county judge was required by law to order the election, and couldn't question the town's boundaries. But now that the election is over, the responsibility of examining the election's fairness has fallen on Jarvis.

 

In his suit, Jarvis argues that some residents were subjected to "arbitrary discrimination" because they were excluded from the town, while others were subjected to "illegal inclusion" in the incorporated area.

Although he's not taking any position on the cement plant, Jarvis says SWAT's attempts to control the election effectively robbed some residents of their right to freely dispose of their property. Jarvis included with his lawsuit a town map on which he circled 22 houses falling just outside the town's boundaries. To him, it's no coincidence that many of those folks left out had one thing in common: They opposed the town.

"What upset me was that they intentionally left some people out who said they were going to vote against it," Jarvis says, referring to the incorporation. "Why do you think the vote was so lopsided?"

One of the few roads in Bethel that is actually paved is Jack England Road, aptly named since Jack England, a 74-year-old retired farmer, lives at the end of it with his wife, Johnnie.

"I'm just a country clodhopper," says England, laughing at his own joke as he shuffles across his living room and gingerly plants himself in a recliner. Under normal circumstances, Johnnie would rise to greet a visitor, but she's recovering from knee-replacement surgery. The knees are healing well, but Johnnie still needs the three-pronged cane standing beside her chair.

A homemade quilt with pictures of country homes stitched into its patchwork gives the room an aura of antiquity. In fact, there are no modern appliances or fancy electronics in the home, even though the Englands own more land than anyone in town--400 acres to be specific. They stand to make a killing if North Texas Cement buys their land.

The Englands were some of the first landowners company officials contacted, and the couple jumped at the offer to sell their land for $2,000 an acre. In September, the Englands signed an agreement giving NTCC exclusive rights to buy their land for a year, in exchange for a cash payment of 10 percent of the expected closing price.

Since they weren't opposed to the plant, the Englands never bothered to attend any of the SWAT meetings down at the church. So the Englands had no idea the SWATters were planning to create a town until the day the election was ordered.

The Englands would have opposed the town, but they didn't get the chance. Their house didn't make it inside the boundaries. It is one of the 22 houses cited by Jarvis in his lawsuit. Jack England says he's sure the couple was excluded because everyone knew they wanted to sell their land to the company.

"All they're trying to do is take our land rights away," England says, his voice rising to a bellow. "This has always been open country. I don't think it's right for outsiders to come in here and tell us what to do with our property. Those people are just slapping me around."

Although the Englands have a lot of land now, they didn't when they first moved into the area in 1942. Over the years, as land became available, they snatched it up and slowly expanded their farm. "We nearly starved to death trying to raise cotton here," England says, drawing a nod of agreement from Johnnie. Eventually, England switched to wheat and milo because the crops fared better in the mean, dry heat.

For more than five decades, England was at the mercy of Mother Nature, hoping she'd be kind enough to enable him to put food on the table. She most always was, but the couple never had any money to speak of. They finally paid off their last loans just two years ago.

"We've got the land. We've got no money. We're getting older. Social Security won't hardly pay our drug bill," England says. "I always told my wife we were investing in the land, and when we get older and want to sell it, we can reap the profits."

Now that time is nigh, and the Englands don't appreciate a bunch of newcomers trying to shut off their only source of retirement money.

Their community has always been close-knit and friendly, the Englands say, united by the Bethel Baptist Church. Jack even helped install the church's plumbing system some years ago. But the couple won't set foot in the building now.

"We're God-fearing people. We believe in God, and we're trying to live right," England says. "I don't believe in cutting your neighbor down like they're doing to us. We used to go to church down there. We can't go there no more. They don't want us."

 

Johnnie nods her head in agreement, adding that she and Jack always considered Pastor Pierce a friend. Until now. "We saw him up at Wal-Mart, and he just walked right by us," she says.

Jack England says he was particularly upset last October, when one representative of SWAT asked him for a contribution. When England declined, he says the man threatened to shoot him. (England filed a complaint against the man, but no charges were brought as a result of the incident, according to Jarvis.)

"It's neighbor against neighbor. Family against family. It's a sad situation," England says. "Somebody could get hurt." Leaning forward in his chair, England says he rejects SWAT's argument that the plant will pollute. And he takes personal exception to SWAT's accusations that people who sell land to the company will be responsible for ruining the environment.

Rising from his chair, he shuffles toward the back door, his heavy work boots barely leaving the brown carpet. A smile spreads across his narrow face as he eyes a field of milo, which begins a few feet behind his house and covers several hundred acres of land.

"If I thought it would harm anybody, I would have never signed the option," England says. "I've lived here my whole life. The land means a lot to me. I worked it. I plowed it. It's in my blood. I love the land."

Even if attorney Jarvis loses his civil case against Bethel, the U.S. Justice Department is waiting in the wings to scrutinize the town's legal status. In a letter dated May 29, 1997, the department's civil rights division informed the town's leaders that they had failed to jump through a very important legal hoop. Before holding the election, SWAT should have provided the department with proof that the election would not violate any civil rights laws.

The election is not valid without the department's blessing, according to the letter. (A department spokesman could not be reached for comment.)

When the subject of the Justice Department letter is raised, the people gathered on Schone's back porch grow strangely quiet. Feet begin to tap. Lips purse. Norma Horton's face turns apple red: The town clerk, keeper of the city's records, wants to know how the letter became public knowledge.

Nobody, she says, except for her, the mayor, and a few others knew about it. Since no one officially asked her for a copy of it, she surmises that someone must have broken into the mayor's mailbox and stolen it.

"If you did not get this letter from me, you got it from a person who broke federal law," Horton exclaims, snatching a copy of the letter from a reporter's hand. The tension is amplified when Muffin, the Schones' dog, begins yapping from inside the house. Heads turn, the members of SWAT exchange knowing looks, and Schone springs out of his seat and rushes to the front door.

In his absence, someone explains that every time SWAT meets at the mayor's house, the neighbors come rushing over with video cameras, demanding to be let in and claiming they have a legal right to be there under the state's open meetings laws.

With only three members on the Bethel council--Schone and the two commissioners--abiding by state laws governing open meetings is pretty tricky. If Schone and just one commissioner get together and start discussing town business, that's a quorum. By law, their discussion must be open to the public, and announced in advance.

Of course, it's even trickier since commissioners Jack Bartley and Mack Williams are also members of SWAT and attend the group's meetings. That's why neighbors--and particularly RIGHTers--keep running over to the mayor's house anytime they see a car belonging to one of the commissioners parked out front.

Donna Lucas and her husband, John--who ran unsuccessfully for one of the commissioner seats--live just down the road from the mayor. Shortly after the election, Lucas says, she spied a commissioner's car, along with those of several SWAT members, parked outside the mayor's house. Lucas, having obtained a copy of the Texas Public Information Act, suspected that the men were talking about town business. She promptly called the mayor's house to ask what was going on.

"I asked them if they were having a meeting that I was not aware of," Lucas says. "He said it was a private SWAT meeting. I said, 'In other words, I'm not invited.'"

Lucas, who says she can take the cement plant or leave it, argues that when members of SWAT gather at Schone's house, they are illegally conducting town business in private. "If SWAT is who actually formed this town to keep the cement plant out, and they still have SWAT meetings, is that not business of this town?" she asks.

 

While they proudly admit that incorporating the town was part of SWAT's strategy, and that using the town's powers to fight the cement company is part of their plan, group members--remarkably--still maintain that SWAT meetings are private--even when the mayor and one or both of the commissioners are present.

"When we have executive meetings and we're talking about technical strategy, we don't exactly publish notice in the paper," SWAT's David Cason says.

But the organization's attempts to separate its private agenda from the town council's agenda are only thinly veiled. Letha Saltzman says that since the election, she hasn't missed a single official council meeting. Since there's no city hall, the meetings are being held inside the garage of the Chuck Williams' real estate company, located across the street from Saltzman's trailer home on Highway 160.

Saltzman's grandson records each meeting with his video camera so she can play it later for her husband, Lewis, who is battling cancer and doesn't get out of the house often.

Retrieving her television remote control from a table covered with prescription medications, Saltzman begins playing a tape of the June 23 meeting. On this day, the council was supposed to select a mayor pro tem and choose a bank so it could open a town checking account. But those two items were tabled. Instead, the council apparently voted to annex a stretch of Jack England Road--leading up to the England residence.

But there was no discussion of the plan or explanation for why the land was being annexed. Instead, Williams made a motion to approve the item, and Schone seconded it and said "all in favor." Both men said "Aye," and the motion passed. (Bartley was not at the meeting.)

"I can't make no head or tail of it," Saltzman says, shaking her head in disgust.

Like the Englands, the Saltzmans have signed an option to sell their land to North Texas Cement. When Lewis Saltzman fell ill with cancer, he sold off his cattle and no longer had any use for the 24 acres. "What good is that gonna do me?" he asks, pointing out the window at the land behind the trailer. "The price they offered us for this place right here, there's no way we could turn it down."

The Saltzmans say they never knew about the drive to incorporate Bethel because they never attended any of SWAT's meetings. Although SWAT included a portion of their front yard in the town's boundaries, Letha Saltzman says she didn't know that until after the election had been ordered. "They did it all behind our backs," she says.

A member of RIGHT, Saltzman has armed herself with a copy of the Texas Public Information Act. Duped once, Saltzman says she is now intent on keeping track of all SWAT activities. During the June 23 meeting, she instructed her grandson, Bobby Freeman, to keep his video camera rolling as long as Schone and Williams were discussing town business.

After the meeting ended, the 15-year-old Freeman took his camera off of its tripod, but didn't turn it off. The choppy, hand-held footage he recorded wheels around the room for a few minutes, capturing people's feet as they leave the building, before finally settling on a shot of Schone's crotch.

The camera's microphone continues to record the muffled conversation for a few moments--until Schone apparently notices that its red ON button is still aglow.

"I can't believe you did that," Schone says, his voice rising. "You step out of here and be done."

What happened next is a point of dispute, but Saltzman claims that Schone pushed Freeman out the door. On the video, the inside of the room suddenly turns to blue sky as Freeman exits the building, exclaiming "I'll report this, sir."

Later that night, Freeman filed a complaint against Schone with the Grayson County Sheriff's office, claiming that the mayor assaulted him--an allegation Schone denies. No charges have been filed in the case.

In recent weeks, Saltzman says, she has filed two Freedom of Information Act requests, demanding access to all official city documents. In part, Saltzman wants to know how much money the council has raised, where the money comes from, and how they are spending it.

So far, she says, her requests have been met with wry suggestions that she make a contribution to the new town council. "Asking me to donate money to this town, to me, is like hanging a man and asking him to buy his own rope," Saltzman says.

 

Town leaders have been holding bake sales and spaghetti dinners to raise funds, and assistant town clerk Tracy Meisenbach is supposedly using her personal checking account to write out checks for city business. Meisenbach claims that money donated to the town is not a matter of public record. She says Saltzman's requests to examine the town's finances will have to wait until a budget is drawn up, and no one's sure when that will be.

As far as access to the town's records, Norma Horton says she'll handle each request for information according to the law, which she is still studying up on. But for now, Horton won't say what kind of official town documents even exist, or where they are.

"The city file is in the possession of the town clerk," Horton says, crossing her arms across her chest. "That's me."

The 100-year anniversary brochure for the Bethel Baptist Church describes the church's mission, in part, as helping parishioners "avoid all tattling, backbiting, and excessive anger." Like anything else is going on around Bethel these days.

A brick historical marker in front of the building informs passersby that the church has served as the "focal point" of the Bethel community since it was founded in 1884. Its members, in turn, have been loyal to the church.

The church sanctuary is aglow on a recent Sunday, the light of the noon sun filtering through 17 stained glass windows. Individual church members donated each of the pastel-tinted windows to memorialize loved ones. The red Bibles stuck behind the oak pews were also donated. In fact, almost everything in the church was donated or built by its members.

Rejuvenated by hymns and the word of God uttered during the weekly Sunday service, a cluster of churchgoers cheerfully makes arrangements to meet later that night for a fifth Sunday celebration. Every month in which there is a fifth Sunday, the members of Bethel Baptist and two other local churches get together and "just sing."

There is also much talk about the upcoming Fourth of July fish fry--everyone, Pastor Charles Pierce assures, is welcome to come on down to the church. There'll be volleyball, a baseball game, music, and, of course, plenty of fried fish. But some members of his flock will probably not partake in the festivities.

During the 32 years he's been pastor, Pierce says, the congregation has survived tornadoes, sickness, and death. But it has never been confronted with an issue as divisive as the incorporation of Bethel and the debate over the arrival of North Texas Cement.

"There is absolutely no way in my mind that I had any idea that the feelings would get to this level," Pierce says. "As people will listen to me, I will tell 'em that I was just trying to take care of the interests of the church. I wasn't trying to hurt anybody."

Dressed in a cool, sky-blue summer suit, Pierce speaks in a low, raspy voice that's getting frail with time, trying to explain why he lets SWAT meet in the church, effectively giving them the church's sanction.

As he learned more about the cement company, Pierce says, he concluded that a plant would destroy the community and, therefore, the church. "It [the plant] upset this pastor immensely, so that I was ready to get into this fight personally," Pierce says. "There is no way in my mind I can have this in the back yard of our church and have that church continue to survive for another 112 years."

In the last 10 months, the church has effectively become SWAT's headquarters. In addition to holding regular meetings there, SWAT has used its spacious kitchen to whip up fundraising dinners.

"We felt we would be more effective as a group within the church if we let SWAT lead the way for us. I selfishly used another body to get the church heard," Pierce says. "I do not think that they [NTCC] will listen to a little old rural church. They have underestimated this little old rural church--we are going to continue to fight."

Pierce stresses that his number-one concern is the church, not town politics. And he maintains that SWAT's presence in the church isn't interfering with its spiritual mission. But Pierce's decision to open his sanctuary to SWAT has placed him--and the church--on one side of the political fence.

In the process, Pierce is losing some of his faithful followers.
Laura Joe Alexander has stopped attending services at Bethel Baptist Church. Eighty years old and a lifelong resident, she ardently opposes the town that has been created. "I'm a dedicated Christian, and I feel like Christianity should be in the community of Bethel, not the town of Bethel," Alexander says.

 

If Alexander's living room is any indication, family is important to her. The room's walls, the end tables, the piano, all are covered with neatly framed photographs. A large photo of her late husband, Manuell, dominates one wall. There are also dozens of pictures of the couple's three children, and their children.

The only family member whose picture is not on the wall is Barbara Wilson, a SWAT member and Alexander's younger sister. A couple of years ago, Alexander's children finally convinced her to stop farming, her life's work. Alexander was reluctant to give it up. Working the land, she says, made life worth living.

When North Texas Cement Company officials contacted her last fall, Alexander thought it might be a good time to sell. Soon she realized her decision would disrupt her life in ways she couldn't imagine. She didn't know that her sister and other members of SWAT were planning on incorporating the town--until her sister casually mentioned the plan one day over the telephone. In the course of the conversation, Alexander says, she learned that she wasn't included in the town, though a portion of her front yard was. Hard feelings ensued. "Whenever I see her, I don't say anything about it, and she doesn't mention it to me," Alexander says.

Alexander believes her sister deceived her about SWAT's intentions. She also believes that SWAT's claims that the cement company will ruin the land amount to little more than scare tactics. "A sister to come up and tell things that are untrue does have an effect on you. But she's still my sister, and I still recognize her as my sister," Alexander says. "I think she's acting tacky, but as far as a sister relation, that's fine."

Alexander downplays the sore feelings running in the family (her brother is Mack Williams, a newly elected commissioner), but her hands begin to quiver, and her knees shake. Clearly, the subject is unsettling. Worst is SWAT using the church as its meeting place.

Bethel Baptist has always been a part of Alexander's life. In fact, she says, her and Barbara's great-grandparents were among the families who helped found it. "They started out with just a prayer meeting, and they grew to be a strong Baptist church," she says. "But things in life are a whole lot different these days."

The brochure that details all of the significant history of the church contains many references to Laura Joe Alexander. She's been the organist, and president of the Women's Missionary Union. But she is most proud of her work in securing the church's historical marker, a symbolic tribute to the church's significance to the community.

Although she has known Pastor Pierce for ages, Alexander says, he has turned cold to her ever since she made it known that she doesn't oppose the cement plant. When she had a minor surgery earlier this year, Alexander says, the pastor didn't bother to call her.

But Alexander was especially hurt last April, when she buried her brother, James Preston Williams, who now rests alongside his ancestors in the cemetery next to the church. "Normally, when there was a death in the family, they came around for condolence. I was at the funeral, and the pastor didn't come to see me," Alexander says, fighting back the tears. "Is that the way a pastor is supposed to act?"

Alexander is still a member of the church, but she has stopped attending its services because of the debate over the town. She joined another church instead. "I miss seeing my friends in the church, but if that's the way they're gonna act, I can make friends somewhere else," Alexander says. "I have made friends somewhere else."

When Larry Schone answered his telephone last week, his voice was filled with resignation. The previous evening, he had finally found a lawyer to help him fend off Bob Jarvis' legal challenge to dissolve the town, but he was reluctant to discuss the merits of the lawsuit.

"The town is still in place. Nothing has changed," Schone says.
But the mayor's energy for this unusual experiment in democracy appears to be waning, and his defiance is unconvincing.

Bethel's days as a town appear to be numbered, and Schone clearly isn't looking forward to hunkering down on his porch and soaking up this particular sunset.

"I wish [the town] would calm down. I'm very worried about some people's health," Schone says. "I know my blood pressure has doubled and tripled."

The line grows silent as Schone pauses, contemplating the gravity of the situation. He can only hope that, one day, he won't be the most hated man in town.

 

"It's an interesting story," he says. "I wish it didn't exist.


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