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Aggressive Christianity - "Soldiers of God" have New Mexico town abuzz

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Aggressive Christianity - "Soldiers of God" have New Mexico town abuzz
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"Soldiers of God" have New Mexico town abuzz

El Paso Times, June 25, 1995
By Dan Williams

BERINO, NEW MEXICO - Their neighbors in this quiet farming community rarely see the strangers who bought the old school building across the tracks. But they can't help wondering about the "missionaries" who moved in two years ago.

Is the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps a religious cult? Are members harboring weapons, recruiting and brainwashing children - things they were accused of doing when their headquarters were in California? Or are the self-proclaimed "Soldiers of God" simply people who practice their religious freedom, bake and sell bread and insist on privacy?

Current group members aren't offering any clues, but El Pasoan Bob Heddon, 65, remembers why he beat a hasty retreat after joining the Berino group seven months ago. Heddon, still recovering emotionally from the death of his wife, was looking for Christian fellowship and Bible study. What he found in Berino was something quite different.

Group members wore black uniforms with berets, saluted and addressed each other by military titles.

"There wasn't a Bible in sight," Heddon said. "They had sort of holy roller-type prayer meetings in the mornings and in the evenings where everyone rolled around on the floor and talked in tongues."

No televisions, no radios, no children's toys were in sight at the schoolhouse, Heddon said. The bottom floor was a huge kitchen, where "soldiers" baked hundreds of loaves of bread every morning. The upper floor was full of Wisdom's Cry, a tabloid newspaper published and mostly written by the group's leaders.

Several attempts by the El Paso Times to contact the group by telephone, personal visits and certified mail were unsuccessful. On one occasion, a group member fled into the building when a reporter approached - then declined to answer the door.

Residents in tiny Berino, about 25 miles north of El Paso on Highway 478, may never know exactly what goes on behind the closed doors and heavy-curtained windows of their old red-brick schoolhouse, which closed in the mid-1950s.

Sometimes, they see the "soldiers" out landscaping, tending the garden, loading or unloading two big trucks. Occasionally, group members step out for a morning run or stop by the post office. Dressed in conservative, everyday clothing, some drive to El Paso or Las Cruces, where they sell baskets of bread and distribute literature.

"But mostly, they just keep to themselves," Berino postmaster Ernestina Acosta said. The post office and her home are across the highway from the old schoolhouse. "They're good neighbors, hard workers, very quiet, courteous people."

They're also very private. Neighbors said they had no idea how many people live in the schoolhouse or whether there are any children there. Heddon estimated 10 to 12 people lived there seven months ago, most of them adults, a few in their teens. Eight years ago, the group had 25 to 30 members in Sacramento, California, according to news reports.

The group's leaders, Deborah and Jim Green, call themselves "generals." They wrote and published a tabloid newspaper called The Battle Cry in Sacramento, and now publish Wisdom's Cry in Berino. Distributed free by group members and through the mail, the newspaper criticizes other religions, forecasts impending doom for mankind and calls upon group members, God's chosen "soldiers," to carry on.