LAKE CITY, Fla. -- For the first time in nearly 30 years, the members behind a controversial church in Lake City are talking.
"People need to hear once and for all the truth," said 28-year-old James Burbach, the senior pastor of what is now called Mountain Top Ministries.The name change happened last year well after Burbach's grandfather Charles Meade, the founder of the church, died.
"I decided to make it more about the message and not as much about the man," said Burbach.
Charles Meade founded Meade Ministries decades ago and moved his members to Lake City in the early 1980's.
The group, then known as the end timers, has not spoken to the media since.
"We've never given an answer and so everybody has built this tower all on lies. And so today, we are here to tell you who we are and what we are about and let people decide what they want to believe," said one pastor.
Burbach and a team of six other church leaders agreed to open their doors and answer any questions.
They also offered a tour of their massive worship center with its marble floors and seats for 2,000.
They say most of what has been said of them is not true, including the shunning of medical care.
"Many people think we tell people you can't go to the hospital. Another perception that we have never once told people," the group noted.
But the men do stress they put their trust in a higher power.
"My youngest daughter at that time 7, 8 years old and she had fallen while riding her bike and done something to her elbow and it was twisted. It about made you sick to look at it. As a parent, I looked at that and thought well the Lord has healed me on everything I've ever gone to him on before and here's this little girl what am I gonna do? I could take her in...maybe have to cut her open....would that be the best? And for three days, I looked at that and prayed and prayed, and you can be sure that I understood that I knew the ramifications if I didn't give her medical attention and something didn't go right and what that would mean. But in three days, she got a healing, she got a miracle. So, as a parent did I do the right thing or the wrong thing? I will stand before the Lord someday on that. When you know God can heal, sometimes it's a push, sometimes it's a fight," one pastor shared.
The pastors say they have never told members what to wear or drive. And the reason many have Cadillacs is the car was Meade's favorite.
"Around here, when somebody likes something everybody likes that too. We like to do what other people do. The Cadillac has nothing to do with our religion. I drive a Range Rover now," said Burbach.
Church members live near one another, many in upscale homes.
They own a number of businesses from real estate development to construction. They said they do most of their work and make their money outside of Lake City.
They also said there is no pressure to tithe a certain amount. Members give to the church what they can.
"The Word says the love of money is the root of all evil. We work hard for what we have," said Burbach.
We asked the pastors why parents Roger and Vonda Peterson have been cut off from their children and grandchildren. The Peterson's shared their story with First Coast News in 2008.
They said they have not spoken to their three daughters in more than 20 years. They've called and even sent mail. The calls, they say, weren't returned. The mail was sent back unopened.
After our stories originally aired, the Peterson's were notified by others one of their daughter's died.
"We'd love to be with our family. We would love and it's not just beliefs you would separate yourself from it. It's when they hate you so much because you are standing on a word or on a message, and they separate. What do you do? We would never tell somebody not to have contact with their family," said Burbach.
When asked why former members tell a different story of babies dying because of no medical care, girls being married off at 14-years-old and how some call it a cult, Burbach replied, "That is kind of where a lot of stories come from is ex-members and people that hate you."
As for the number of teens married under the age of 18, Burbach said, "I don't keep track. As far as my boys go, I will get them married when I want. Personally, I would probably marry them off between 18, 20. I believe they should get married if they need to. I used to take pictures at high schools. You want to talk about a problem is all these young girls coming up pregnant....it's my belief they should get married if they want to get pregnant. Maybe some people would call me crazy for that."
Burbach admitted he married at the age of 17.
As for the future of the group, it will soon open its own private school. They said it won't be religious based.
Most children are home schooled now. They said that is just a choice. As is their way of life. While some say it is different, they are OK with that.
"You are looking at people with sound minds. We are not a brainwashed people."
First Coast News