Doualy Xaykaothao, NPR
John Lambert, a long-time resident of Grand Valley Farm who is not accused of any crimes, says his family is not a religious cult. He is upset that police and other officials have called his home a compound.
Doualy Xaykaothao, NPR
A view of the swings on Grand Valley Farm. "We have swings that I walk by everyday, that children used to swing in, and they sit silent now," says Raymond Lambert (not pictured). He is one of the pastors accused of multiple counts of statutory sodomy and child molestation.
Doualy Xaykaothao, NPR
The entrance to Grand Valley Farm. Until recently, it was home to about 100 people.
The entrance to Grand Valley Farm. Until recently, it was home to about 100 people. Doualy Xaykaothao, NPR
For decades, the windswept hillside known as Grand Valley Farm — in the extreme southwestern corner of Missouri — was home to a small, tight-knit religious community.
But recently, the farm has gained unwanted attention amid allegations of child sexual abuse. Most of the accusers and the accused are related by blood or marriage. All were members of the small family church.
All of the accused have pleaded not guilty. Of the several cases, only one trial date has been set for early next year. Whatever the outcome of the legal process, life has changed dramatically for members of the community.
'We're Normal People'
The land where the farm sits is part of the Ozark plateau, defined by rolling hills, scenic prairies, rivers and creeks. Perhaps that's why church leaders chose this location to build their nest more than 30 years ago. John Lambert, a long-time resident who is not accused of any crimes, gave me a tour of the 100-acre family farm.
John Lambert has seven brothers and four sisters. Until recently, their community numbered about 100 people. John Lambert says his family is not a religious cult, and he's upset that police and other officials have called his home a compound.
"We're normal people," John Lambert says. "We have our own homes here. We lived our own lives. Yes, we are Christian people — we're Baptists. You know, we're not some kind of cult thing. We never were, never have been involved in any kind of ritual or ceremonial deviant behavior of any kind."
The men in this community built a family church, located at the base of a hill, and 11 homes, scattered off of the steep gravel road. At the entrance is a locked gate. At the top, there's a wooden playground.
"We have swings that I walk by everyday, that children used to swing in, and they sit silent now," says Pastor Raymond Lambert.
Recalling Life on Grand Valley
Raymond Lambert is one of the pastors accused of multiple counts of statutory sodomy and child molestation. He denies the allegations and refuses to speak about them. But he has a lot to say about why life was special on Grand Valley Farm.
"We loved being around one another," Pastor Lambert said. "We used to go play softball, and we would have such a wonderful time. We would go on camping trips and the men would — we would go on hunting trips. We'd do all kinds of different things together. It's just, just part of family."
Music was also a big part of the family. On one recording, children and adults can be heard singing a song called "Lamb of God." The recording was made during one of their previous Christmas gatherings, which were big affairs. The family even had a country band called Centrefire. They owned businesses such as the Southwest Kennel Supply and Grand Valley Kennel.
Amey Burkett, 33, grew up in the religious community. She says she felt blessed when she lived on the farm.
"They preached all kinds of wonderful, inspiring messages, " she says.
She adds, "You would be just on top of the world after a sermon, and it would be just so enlightening and lifting up and very spiritual. And you'd feel so close to God."
John Steib, who is not accused of any crime, also grew up on the farm. He says those who lived there were just backwoods country people, who worked hard, hunted, fished and went to church.
"We didn't get to go do a lot of things that young people like to do," Steib says. "But we had family around us. We were taken care of, didn't have to worry about nothing. If you take away all the sexual, stupid crap, it was a pretty good life growing up."
'Sexual, Stupid Crap'
The so-called "sexual, stupid crap" was allegedly normal behavior for some in this religious community.
Normal allegedly meant stripping naked in front of Raymond Lambert whenever he felt a woman needed to be put in her place. Normal allegedly meant being kissed with tongue by a pastor. Normal allegedly meant believing their pastor was Jesus. And life could have continued this way, except for an accident that tore this religious community apart.
It happened on the Internet. One of the accusers stumbled upon a cult-awareness Web site last year. That led to questions about what was normal. She decided that what was going on was not normal, so she left. And that led Pastor Raymond Lambert to call a series of meetings at the family's fellowship hall.
Kevin Amey, who attended those late-night sessions, recalls the meetings: "He told me before the meeting that when this is finished, you will either be stronger, and you will be here forever, or you will run as fast as you can."
Those meetings left followers shocked.
Amey Burkett recalls what Raymond Lambert said at the meetings: "He just told everybody that he had sex with Peggy and he had sex with Sandy and he had sex with Laura. And he would have sex with us, too, if that's what we needed to keep our souls."
Kevin Amey adds: "He said during the meeting that sex was a man's desire and a woman's need, and that a woman needed to be kept by a man of God. A woman needed to be taken care of sexually."
Talk of a Family Curse
According to those two, and many others, Raymond Lambert talked about a family curse. The curse allegedly involved a grandfather fulfilling the sexual needs of his daughters.
Kevin Amey says Raymond Lambert turned to some women in the church and asked them, "Did your dad ever take you into the woods and touch you sexually?"
"And he made them answer, and the answers were 'yes,'" Kevin Amey says.
According to Amey Burkett, this is what Raymond Lambert said at one of the meetings: "He told my brother, who has three young daughters, he said, 'David,' he said, 'you're not man enough to go upstairs and f—- your daughters, are you?' And he said, 'No, I wouldn't want to.' And he said, 'Well, I am.'"
Amey Burkett alleges that she learned her grandfather, Cecil Epling, slept with several of his daughters, and may have fathered a child with some of them. It was then that she began to question things in her life, sexual things she says she never discussed with other women of the community.
"During these meetings, I started putting all this together and thinking, 'Oh my goodness, my life is a lie,'" Burkett says.
She says for her, there was no choice but to leave everything behind.
"I realized I had to save my children and my whole family, and myself and everything," she says. "And I just felt like a Mennonite girl or something who took off her bonnet. I mean, it was just, like, the most freeing decision I ever made."
Cut Off for Life
Christina Amey and her family lived on the farm, too. She feared for her children's safety, but she was also afraid of what leaving would mean. Pastor Raymond Lambert had described some who left years ago as being one with the devil, so people who did leave were severed for life. Christina Amey didn't know what to do.
"When we were deciding whether or not we were leaving, we knew that that would be something that would happen to us: We would be severed," Christina Amey says. "And, I mean, that's one thing that held me back, I know, because there are people there that I still love. And to know that you're severed from them is pretty, a harsh thing. I mean, you've got to chose whether or not you can keep going like this, and it will be OK, or you're going to be severed."
She and her husband, Kevin Amey, decided to move out. He says it has taken a lot to adjust to a new life, yet for them, there is a new and welcome dynamic.
"We finally belong to each other," Kevin Amey says. "For the first time, we don't have to have some guy standing here, telling me how to treat her, telling her how to treat me, and controlling every aspect of our marriage."
Others share this same sense of empowerment and liberation. But some are finding it tough to be without the community — and without Pastor Raymond Lambert.
"That's what hurts," says Amy Burkett. "But what he did, and what he does — that isn't right. And it doesn't matter how much I love him. I can't let it continue."
Raymond Lambert and his wife, Patty, say they care deeply for all their family members and those in their congregation, including those alleging child sexual abuse.
"Pat and I love them all," Pastor Lambert says. "And we care for every one of them. We've been together so long that I will never be able to be without them. I'll hold them in my heart all the days, no matter the outcome. I love them so."
The accused church leaders are out on bail. Some of the accusers are in seclusion. Families from both sides say until the trials are over, it's going to be difficult to move on with their lives.