Deep inside a cave in the wooded hills of Clay County, Doug Perry stands on thick wooden planks and looks out over a mishmash of old theater seats.
There in the chill and damp, Perry, a big man with a bushy beard and ponytail, sees his new church. This is where they will come to him.
He bends and points through the cracks in the planks that run above strings of Halloween lights and a smoke machine.
“When I preach about the devil in here, I can really make it happen,” he says with a chuckle.
He’s kidding. The floor is a holdover from when the limestone cave served as a haunted house.
But neighbors don’t see anything funny about Perry, 48, and his Fellowship of the Martyrs taking over the cave northwest of Excelsior Springs.
If they knew about Gregory Weiler II, who stayed for more than a year with Perry and then allegedly plotted to blow up churches in Oklahoma, Perry’s quips would fall even flatter.
For years, Perry and his flock of admitted lost souls congregated and lived in a working-class townhouse complex in Liberty. Police knew the route well. The city, Perry acknowledges, will not be sad to see him and his bunch leave town.
The hope is to move to these woods, where the cave will serve as a sanctuary. Worshippers will live nearby in a “tiny house” eco-friendly village, and they will flourish on God’s bucolic grace, cash donations and cave-aged cheese.
That’s the plan.
But first they have to get past those neighbors who have formed a flock of their own and plan to show up a hundred strong Tuesday night for a public hearing at the Clay County Planning & Zoning Commission. They want the commission to reject Perry’s rezoning application.
The matter was tabled at a Sept. 1 meeting. Back then, Perry’s plan was not to connect to a sewer system, but to compost human waste.
“They wanted to use buckets,” said opposition spokeswoman Gail Colvin, who insists the stance has nothing to do with religion.
“We’re all Christian people out here. We just don’t like that he’s using his religion to get around codes and zoning laws.”
Later she acknowledged, too, that neighbors have concerns about the wayward members who come to Liberty from all over the country and a few foreign lands.
On a recent visit to the cave, several men spoke openly about drugs, alcohol and misspent pasts. But mainly they talked about being lost in a spiritual darkness until being rescued by Perry’s charismatic preaching on YouTube, including one in which he faced off on TV with Dr. Phil.
“Last night I went out and prayed that God would kill everybody on the planet,” Perry says, smiling in the video.
Perry claimed McGraw took the quote out of context; he said he was talking about spiritual death. In another video, in which Perry calls for the destruction of the institutional church, he equates American Christianity with an aircraft carrier and says only a really big bomb can change its course.
Weiler came to Liberty in 2010 after seeing a Perry video. After leaving, he allegedly plotted to blow up a series of churches in Oklahoma with Molotov cocktails. A federal judge last year found Weiler, 25, to be mentally ill and ordered him to a facility in a federal prison.
Perry said that he knew Weiler was mentally ill but that he bore no responsibility for Weiler’s actions and is angry that he’s been tied to the crime. Weiler’s family has blamed Perry for what happened.
“I’ve spent all I have to care for the poor, to feed the hungry, to plead with pastors to be more like Jesus, but I’ve never ever suggested to anybody that blowing things up was a good idea,” Perry said this past week.
He added that Weiler would be welcomed back to the group because he is loved.
Perry knows what people think — that the Fellowship of the Martyrs is a cult, it disavows legal marriage, there’s talk of demons, Perry ridicules traditional churches, and everyone lives together as in a commune.
“Catholics move into the woods and people think its great because they’re going to make wine or fruitcake,” he said. “But when evangelical Christians do it, everybody thinks Waco.”
The parcel of wooded land that Perry’s church is buying is 70 acres.
But it’s mainly six acres that are stirring trouble. Clay County zoning documents show the request for “Liberty Farm” is to have the land at 14518 Old Quarry Road rezoned to residential so the church can build its village of tiny houses and bunkhouses.
“A place where people can come to get prayer or rest, a working ecologically friendly farm, a place for a small community of believers to share costs and live together,” the application says.
Perry says the issues of water, sanitary sewer and a traffic study will be dealt with, but he thinks the opposition is more about himself and his followers.
Perry, the son of a preacher, grew up in the area, graduated with a double major from William Jewell College and later received a master’s degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He ran a furniture store for a while and enjoyed success, but he knew something wasn’t right.
“I was running from God,” he said. “He wanted me to quit and work for him.”
Soon he was holding prayer meetings in his furniture store and feeding the homeless.
He walked away from his business, started his Fellowship of the Martyrs, began posting videos on YouTube and soon had viewers knocking on his door. One of the first to arrive was Rusty McAlister, who came several years ago from Birmingham, Ala.
“I left behind a good job and brought enough clothes for four days and I’m still here,” said McAlister, 57. “I came to get my deliverance from Doug.”
Funded by donations from people all over the world who watch the YouTube videos, Perry’s flock operated a thrift store, a soup kitchen and an agency called Liberty Disaster Relief.
Some troubled souls appeared.
“We know Mr. Perry and, yes, we’ve had interaction with his group over the years,” said Liberty Police Capt. Andy Hedrick.
Perry has called police himself. Bounty hunters, too. Even child welfare authorities.
There was also the married couple who came from Texas and heard Perry’s take that legal marriage was meaningless. Their marriage ended, and the woman ended up with another church member.
Perry, not one to be shy about criticizing government and the church establishment, found himself ostracized.
“Several pastors would throw me out if I showed up on a Sunday morning,” he said. “I have more than once had parents of young people coming to visit who called the police and were told that we are a cult.
“But I believe demons are real. And when you try to do something beautiful, someone is going to try to stop you.”
That talk doesn’t warm up the neighbors near the cave.
“But if they stay on their side of the fence, I won’t have any problem with them,” said one man who asked that his name not be used.
And his wife?
“That’s something else,” the man said with a smile.
A yellow metal sign at the entrance to the cave on Old Quarry Road says: “Remember … Jesus said to love your neighbors.”
“That’s directed at us,” Gail Colvin said on a recent day.
She and her husband live on a nearby hill. It’s old family land. Her husband, Jim, grew up there. Like most nearby, their place is neatly kept.
“Have you seen that place down there?” she asked.
The dirt lane dips low before coming up to the cave area. Clutter abounds. Old cars and tractors, pieces of a discarded greenhouse. Perry said a pile of heavy plastic McDonald’s billboards will be used to line a pond for exotic fish.
Ransom Hohorst, 76, sauntered up, helped with his walking stick. He came three years ago from Louisiana.
“Cajun country,” he said.
His life had been empty. Then he came across a Perry video. He called and got Perry’s wife, Cindy, on the phone.
“I started crying,” he said.
“Come, Ransom,” she told him.
“It was God speaking through her,” he said.
Matthew Clary, 32, came from Texas. He drove a tank in the Army, about died in a fire, sank into a coma, woke up blind and knew he had to get to Liberty.
His vision is back.
“This is where I’m supposed to be,” Clary said.
James Mead, 31, came from Ohio. Drugs and alcohol about did him in.
“I was in the darkness and the Lord told me that if I drank again, he’d kill me,” Mead said. “I knew I had to leave because if I stayed in Ohio, I’d go back to the world.
“People here don’t look at me like I’m loony.”
In a video, Perry says of Mead: “We’ve had spies and witches come to do harm — and they could talk a good game, but they wouldn’t wash feet. James will lick the dirt off your feet if the Lord tells him — without hesitation.”
Others come and go.
Cindy Perry looks over the bunch like a mother hen.
“It’s a great feeling to watch them grow,” she said.
The women mind the thrift store in Liberty.
Both sides now await Tuesday’s hearing. Perry hopes to convince the commission that his group can meet all the requirements.
Colvin and other opponents think Perry will try to use religion to skirt the law. Attorneys have cautioned her and other opponents that the case is not about religion.
“We didn’t even get to talk last time because it was tabled,” Colvin said. “Doug Perry did talk. And after all the emphasis that this was not about religion — that’s all he talked about.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182