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Sunday, April 12, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Religious Group Says Fear Of Cult Unjustified -- Pentecostal Sect Plans To Move Into Ghost Town

AP

NORTHPORT, Stevens County - Members of a gospel-singing family that wants to turn a Columbia River ghost town into a religious community will speak at public forums to ease fears that the family is a cult.

Barry and Anne Byrd, founders of the Marble Fellowship Community Church, envision a Western-theme, music-oriented religious community at the abandoned town site six miles south of Northport.

Several dozen homes, small businesses, a ranch to help street kids and a hotel and conference center also are envisioned.

About 15 families have arrived from California, Montana and Oregon to join the year-old church, and more are on their way. That has prompted rumors of a takeover of the small town near the Canadian border.

"We're not going to be second-class citizens," Anne Byrd says. "But we're also not interested in taking over anything - least of all Northport."

The Byrds have offered to speak to the Northport Town Council and other public forums about their plans.

With their 20-year-old daughter, Dannie, the Byrds are known as Watchman on nationwide gospel music tours. They moved to the area in 1973 and founded their church at Marble in February 1991.

A brochure printed by the non-denominational pentecostal church says the Byrds hope to establish a "Christian covenant community," involving "politics on the local, state and national levels," alternative civil courts based on binding arbitration and "an alternative media."

Homes would be privately owned and the lifestyle would not be communal. "Nor are we the least bit cultish or isolationist," they say in the brochure.

Anne Byrd says the pamphlet was intended to allay concerns about communes and cults among conservative evangelical churches. Instead, it gave rise to rumors that the church was a cult with survivalist and racist beliefs.

As for accusations of racism, Barry Byrd says a key portion of the planned community is a ministry to street runaways of all races. A "working ranch" would complement homes where families would take wayward youth under their wings, he says.

Several families came from the Santa Rosa Christian Church at Santa Rosa, Calif. The church was part of a network that engaged in the much-criticized practice of "shepherding" its members - controlling decisions on whom to marry and what kinds of cars to buy.

The Byrds admit they are close friends with Dennis Peacocke, an official of the extremely conservative Coalition on Revival, but they say they were never involved in shepherding.

Peacocke contends the authoritarian practices died when the shepherding movement ended in the 1980s. Members who came from the Santa Rosa Christian Church, of which Peacocke is a member, says they were not pressured to move to Washington state.

The Byrds say they understand people's concerns.

"I would just ask them to give us time to prove what we're up to," Anne Byrd says.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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