Community center for FLDS exiles to open soon

Posted at 7:21 PM, Sep 10, 2013
and last updated 2013-09-11 10:53:45-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- A non-profit organization that helps people within polygamous societies is opening a community center in the Fundamentalist LDS towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz.

Holding Out HELP secured the building for a community center after gaining approval from the town council, made up entirely of FLDS members. Tonia Tewell, the non-profit's executive director, said they hope to open Oct. 19.

"We're going to have a thrift store, food distribution," she told FOX 13. "We're going to have a cafe, kids camps and different kinds of workshops for the adults so they can get more skills under their belts, get jobs and support their families."

Holding Out HELP's community center is opening in the midst of a community in crisis. In recent years, under FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, thousands have been exiled or excommunicated, said church observers. Some have left the church, others have been told to "repent from afar."

"I do think there is a good chance the FLDS Church is fracturing as we speak," Tewell said.

Jeffs is serving a life prison sentence in Texas for sexual assault for taking underage brides. Since he has been in prison, he has issued edicts to followers and revelations to the public at large predicting the end of the world, said Paul Murphy, a spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office.

"There's a lot of things going on in the community that are really disturbing, and we hope that people will do what's best for their children rather than follow some of these things that could be harmful to their children," he told FOX 13.

Murphy said law enforcement tracks rumors within the cloistered community, but it is difficult to prosecute without concrete evidence and witnesses willing to testify. Tewell said prison has made Jeffs a "martyr" to his people.

"He's more powerful now than he's ever been, and he's losing his mind at the same time," she said.

Humanitarian groups who have tried to help those leaving the FLDS Church said that when people leave, they often do so with only the clothes on their backs. FLDS faithful give their property to the church under the early-Mormon concept of a "united order," and it is given out based on wants and needs.

"Fifty percent of that community is most likely displaced," Tewell said. "And that's the people that we serve on a regular basis."

Holding Out HOPE said it was focusing on helping those within the communities, gathering donations to build the community center. They are asking for concrete to finish a parking lot; hardwood to finish a floor; as well as daily essentials.

The group is also hosting a race this Saturday in Draper to raise funds.

"There's been a couple of thousand people who have left within the last few years, and so you're seeing different communities," said Murphy. "Hopefully, this community center will unite all of them."