HILDALE, Utah — Tonia Tewell and Kerri Webber open the back of a trailer and grab plastic bags filled with mac and cheese, packages of toilet paper and some winter coats.
They stuff a car parked here on the Utah-Arizona border with supplies, hugging a couple of teenage boys before sending them on their way. Then, it’s off to another stop. The women, with the non-profit group Holding Out Help, are delivering necessities to people ousted from the Fundamentalist LDS Church.
“Lots of the families have been kicked out of the united order and so they don’t have access to the supply house any more,” said Webber. “So we’ve been able to bring down supplies from some generous families in Salt Lake City.”
Ex-FLDS members and church observers say an increasing number of people are either leaving or being kicked out of the polygamous sect. Under imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs, (who is serving a life sentence for child sex assault related to underage marriages) faithful members have reportedly had to adhere to new conduct rules and dietary restrictions, while preparing for the end of the world. Hildale’s only grocery store mysteriously closed, then re-opened for a day, then closed again. The nearest market is 45 minutes away, a huge burden for many who do not have cars.
Families are also being separated, ex-members claim, as Jeffs orders people to be exiled. In some cases, wives and children are “reassigned” to other men.
“So many of the families have been split up and destroyed,” said Dan Wayman, an ex-FLDS member. “I know that there’s many families right now, many children that have been separated, their fathers have been sent out. Then later on, the mothers are sent out. They’re sent away and they leave their children behind.”
Those who leave are cut off from the “united order,” an early-Mormon philosophy where property, food and other supplies are put into a common pot and doled out according to just wants and needs. Many also lose jobs, which are provided by the church.
Non-profit groups like Holding Out Help, who work with those in Utah’s polygamous communities, call it a “humanitarian crisis.”
“It’s a very sad situation. Once they are kicked out of there, they’ve lost their communities, their families, usually their jobs,” said Webber. “The cars are titled over into the trust, homes are titled into the trust, so when they leave, they literally leave with just the clothing on their back.”
Wayman, who said he was excommunicated nine years ago, is trying to help those in his community. He obtained a foster care license to take in teenage boys who have either been excommunicated or have left.
“I’ve got six right now in foster care, and a lot of the kids from the community come by, too,” he told FOX 13. “They need a place to go, somebody that can listen to them and help them.”
Holding Out Help insists it is politically neutral on the issue of polygamy itself, but is trying to step in to provide assistance for people in need in Hildale and neighboring Colorado City, Ariz. The non-profit group said it would like to see the current legal battle over the United Effort Plan Trust settled with a way for people to keep their homes.
“We have moms, single moms, with three and four kids that are in a spot
where they’ve not been able to pay back taxes and are not able to make
ends meet, are not able to feed their kids,” Webber said.
At the home of ex-FLDS member Mark Knudsen, they helped him craft a resume to find work. Knudsen left the FLDS Church a year ago; his family remains in the faith.
“It’s hard to get back on your feet when your whole lifestyle changes,” he told FOX 13. “And they’ve given a lot of help besides the food today and whatnot. In giving, well in my case, the courage to do it.”
Holding Out Help said it currently has a waiting list for people seeking housing assistance in the Salt Lake City area. The group said it is also in need of donations since the grocery store closed of toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, deodorant, toothpaste and non-perishable food.