God speaks to Doyle Davidson. It is a still, small voice that he not only hears but feels in his stomach. He feels it, hears it, often. He heard it about 20 years ago when God told Doyle he was a prophet and an apostle and a conduit through which God Himself would speak. That’s why, today, when Doyle — a short, fit man of 74 with full but graying hair and small eyes set behind an aquiline nose — stops mid-sermon to blurt out a misogynistic non sequitur about the corruptive influence of women, he follows it up with, “Lord, are you trying to get me assassinated today?” The congregation at Water of Life church in Plano, where Doyle is pastor, laughs. Because the faithful know these aren’t Doyle’s words. These are God’s. And over the years, God has said all sorts of things.
God told Doyle in 1981 that a Jezebel spirit ruled Plano, a spirit of witchcraft that originates in a woman and operates through her to rule men. God told Doyle — he prefers first name only — to inform a married woman named Lisa Staton that she was no longer married to her husband, J.R.—but to Doyle. (Never mind that Doyle himself was married at the time. God’s law is above that of man.) The Statons have since gone into hiding. Yet Doyle has continued to write Lisa e-mails—sexually suggestive e-mails, threatening e-mails, loving e-mails—and post them on his web site. This is, after all, what God told Doyle to do.
God told Doyle — tells him still — that ministries other than his teach heresy. This gets Doyle in trouble with the local religious community and nationally with the television executives who broadcast his sermons. Doyle has been on television since 1984. Today he’s seen on five stations in Dallas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; South Bend, Indiana; Joplin, Missouri; and Springfield, Missouri. Stations have dropped Doyle for statements he made about other televangelists, about how, say, Kenneth Copeland isn’t following the true faith. Doyle even once said a victim at Columbine, a girl shot dead for her Christian beliefs, would have lived if she had had enough faith. And he has often called members of his own congregation “stupid,” “a bitch,” and, worse, “nonbelievers.” But Doyle is unrepentant about all this.
“You see, what I do is exactly what Jesus did. Preach that Gospel,” he says.
It all seems so out of place here in workaday suburbia, on the corner of 18th Street and Avenue P, just blocks from downtown Plano. From the outside, Water of Life looks like a hundred other churches, with its well-kept grounds and marquee sign proclaiming, “Let God Arise!” Inside, visitors are greeted with meaty handshakes on Sunday mornings. Portable chairs sit in orderly rows in front of a stage decorated with potted plants and blue drapery.
But members who’ve left the church call Water of Life a cult and say its doctrines amount to brainwashing. Some fear consequences for having left the fold. One former member has organized a support group at a Garland church for ex-Water of Lifers struggling to escape its grip.
To hear this tests even Doyle’s faith. Testing it more, though, is Dena Schlosser, a church member who attended services sometimes seven nights a week. In 2004, psychotic, off her medication, and thinking she was doing God’s will, Schlosser used the biggest knife in her kitchen to cut off the arms of her 10-month-old baby. The murder and the trial that followed made international news. The media scrutinized the health system that failed Dena, investigating the doctors who diagnosed Dena with postpartum psychosis; investigating Child Protective Services, which had a case file on her. Even Dena’s husband, John Schlosser, came under fire for the role he played in the murder, by working to keep his ill wife out of the hospital and at home with their children.
But one man has largely escaped that scrutiny: Doyle Davidson. After all, John was just following Doyle’s teachings. Doyle is the one who has declared that “medicine is witchcraft” and that physical and mental illness should be treated with prayer.
Now Dena’s family and former church members are calling for a closer look at Doyle and Water of Life. Because, as ex-member Cheryl Parmenter says, “I’m waiting for the Kool-Aid.”
• • •
In the beginning, Doyle was different. “He was real impressive,” Bob Buckner says. The tall, slow-talking engineer and wife Judy were among the 50 or so lapsed Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists looking to form a new nondenominational church in Plano in the spring of 1979. Doyle was one of those auditioning, as it were, for the role of pastor.
Doyle had spent the 10 years previous looking for a way out of his veterinary practice in McKinney. He wanted to preach. God, in fact, ordered him to. But first he needed the preparation. So for 10 years, from 1970 to 1980, Doyle pored over the Bible, working only when he had to feed his family, wife Patti and daughter Kathy.
Doyle came before Bob and Judy one day in 1980 in complete command of the Bible, a man without notes for a sermon, without a degree in divinity, but dang if he couldn’t inspire the faithful to their feet or, when appropriate, to their knees. The young congregation soon agreed: this was the one to keep. In November that year, Water of Life opened its doors.
“And it was a great place to be,” Bob says. Bob and Judy moved recently into a large ranch house at the end of a dirt road outside of McKinney. Sitting in his living room, talking about the early days of the church, Bob says a service could last an hour; it could last two. There was no established pattern. “It was just in the service of God,” Judy says. Doyle often asked parishioners to repeat a verse in a song, the better to draw oneself closer to God. The sermon itself took an hour and a half sometimes, but it was always engaging. “He could explain the Bible better than anybody I’ve ever been around,” Bob says. After the service, Doyle often prayed for the sick among them. “We saw miracles and healings,” Bob says.
Ever so slightly, though, the tenor of the church changed. In July 1981, God told Doyle that an evil spirit ruled Plano, the Jezebel spirit, the manifestation of a pagan prophetess who, in the Old Testament, married King Ahab of Israel and seduced by her wickedness 850 men. Doyle shared the news with his congregation.
“I had never heard of the Jezebel spirit,” Bob says. Few, if any, had.
But within the next few years, to hear Doyle tell it, “I watched that spirit take over almost every person in this church.”
That included his wife Patti. The Jezebel spirit was so strong within her that, Doyle says, “I took her out of my life. God put a sword between us, and that was it.” They would still live together. They never filed for divorce. Doyle provided Patti money, clothes, new cars. But Doyle no longer considered Patti his wife. “Her and I both understood God had split us apart,” he says.
But the parishioners knew none of this. Nor did they know that in 1987 God gave Doyle a new spouse, a young, attractive brunette parishioner named Lisa Staton. They didn’t know of it because Doyle didn’t make it public. “It wasn’t the right thing to do,” Doyle says. But one person he did tell was J.R. Staton, Lisa’s husband. When J.R. asked his wife about it, she said, “J.R., don’t believe him. You know he lies.”
So, just as Doyle and Patti never separated, Doyle and Lisa never legally wed. What, then, to make of this “marriage”? In a word, it was an affair.
“My daughter had the discernment to see it,” Cheryl Parmenter says. “She said, ’Doyle watches Lisa’s butt.’”
Parmenter joined Water of Life in 1983, shortly after her sister’s wedding there. She found in Doyle the authority figure she never had in her indifferent father or alcoholic husband. “I mean, you sit back in church and you’re like” — she takes a deep breath — “you’re impressed. Because he was so sure of himself,” Parmenter says. This charisma, however, kept Parmenter from believing what her daughter thought of their pastor.
But that would change. The signs became more obvious as time went on. By the early ’90s, Doyle and Lisa had taken to leaving church together. One day, Parmenter and her sister got in her car and followed Doyle and Lisa, at a safe distance, into a wooded area. Doyle parked behind some bushes. Parmenter couldn’t see anything but imagined what was happening. How could he? she thought. She had worked in the church nursery for years, even after she suspected her husband of abusing their children. It tore her apart, these times when she could have spared the kids beatings if only she had been home. She had pleaded with Patti Davidson to let her out of work. But no. Patti conferred with Doyle, and he said the nursery was where God wanted her. Parmenter obeyed.
And then, this? Her pastor out in the woods with a parishioner’s wife? Parmenter and her sister screamed at Doyle and Lisa, thinking they couldn’t be identified.
But a few days later, at 6 in the morning, Doyle called Parmenter’s sister. He quoted to her from 1 Corinthians, Chapter 5, and said if she didn’t repent for her sins against his ministry, “I will pray to God to turn you over to Satan for the destruction of your flesh.” (Doyle doesn’t remember making this call.)
• • •
Parmenter left the church. It wasn’t just that she perceived the call as a threat. She’d had enough of his dogmatism. “What Doyle taught,” Parmenter says, “was ’If you come against me and my ministry and my teachings, you’re coming against Jesus. I’m speaking God’s words.’” He was a prophet, lest it be forgotten.
Bob Buckner, too, discovered this. “In one sermon, Doyle said it didn’t rain before the time of Noah. And the Bible doesn’t say that,” Bob says. Genesis 2:6 talks of a mist that “watered the whole face of the ground.” After Bob pointed it out, Doyle, from the pulpit, discussed how someone had questioned him — was wrong to question him. “He was looking at me the whole time,” Bob says.
Which is why he said nothing when Doyle anointed him one of Water of Life’s 12 apostles in the late ’80s. Bob felt unnerved by a church of 200 needing such grandiose titles. But God had told Doyle he would one day have a ministry like Jesus’. “You basically were going way out on a limb if you questioned anything Doyle said,” Bob says. “Some of us may have questioned him, but we kept it to ourselves. What Doyle said was law.”
And the law said to listen to Doyle’s sermons on cassette tapes. That’s what Deb Purcell did. She joined the church in the early ’90s, not long after graduating from college, not long after her father died. A slender woman with high cheekbones, Purcell possesses an alacrity and eloquence that enable her to talk in complete paragraphs. Nevertheless, she was untethered and unsure of her future in those early years, wanting “something to belong to,” she says. Like others, she found stability and authority in Doyle Davidson. Every day, she read the Psalms out loud, as Doyle said. Listened to the tapes in the car, as Doyle said. Fasted when Doyle said. Even married someone within the church, as Doyle said. “That was how you were going to become a Christian,” Purcell says. “Wrap your life around this.”
Schlosser’s family and former chuch members are calling for a closer look at Doyle Davidson and Water of Life. Because, as ex-member Cheryl Parmenter says, “I’m waiting for the Kool-Aid.”
Even if it meant excluding family. Because Purcell’s sister in Austin didn’t follow Doyle’s teachings, and because people outside the church were a negative influence, Purcell missed her sister’s wedding. She missed her nephew’s funeral. She visited her mother in Nebraska three times in nine years. Before Water of Life, Purcell drove home four times in a year.
“You’re taught that you need to be washed with the water of the Word,” Purcell says. “You are at the same time washing your brain of all critical thinking skills.”
Besides family, books were seen as another outside influence that ought to be eliminated. Brandy Stark, 14 when she joined Water of Life and unhappy about it from day one, was a voracious reader. Stark’s mother, a child of the ’60s forever atoning for her past, brought her to the church in the mid-’90s. For six years, Stark attended Water of Life against her will. For six years, too, as a salve to her depression, Stark ate. At one point, she had as much as 300 pounds on her 5-foot-6 frame. But she found strength in her books. Before Water of Life, her mother had always encouraged Stark’s reading habits. But after joining, things changed.
“If she saw me reading anything,” Stark says, “she would say, ’You are just wasting your time. You’re wasting your life. There’s only one book you need to read.’” Church members who visited Stark and her mother were “appalled” at Stark’s library, she says. Not at the titles, mostly history and English literature. “Just the sheer collection,” Stark says. “They would only have the Bible.”
On Sundays Stark would be the one sitting with her arms crossed, expressionless, while her mother screamed and other women rolled on the church floor, cleansing themselves of their Jezebel spirits. “It made me sick to my stomach,” Stark says. After leaving the church, she lost 150 pounds.
By the late ’90s, Doyle’s messages became even more strident. He preached that medicine was witchcraft and illness could be prayed away. Science was a falsehood. And mental illness was nothing more than demonic possession.
• • •
Dena and John Schlosser joined Water of Life shortly after moving to Fort Worth from Chicago in 2000. A neighbor had recommended the church to the young couple. (They were both 32.) The Schlossers watched some of Doyle’s sermons on television. Even though attending services meant driving 100 miles roundtrip, they wanted a sense of community that the church could provide.
Dena and John were raised Catholic, but their faith had lapsed over the years. They met as college freshmen in upstate New York. They were both heavyset and a bit reserved. They shared a core group of friends. It took a year before John asked Dena out; he liked how caring she was. Dena once called the Illinois version of Child Protective Services after watching a mother spank her child in a grocery store parking lot. The couple married in 1990, and Dena graduated a year later. John, never much liking school, didn’t finish. The computers he fiddled with, though, helped land him jobs with software companies. By the time the Schlossers moved to Fort Worth, he was earning almost $100,000 a year and could afford a 3,000-square-foot home in an upscale neighborhood.
Dena had always worked odd jobs — a desk clerk at a hotel, a social director at a nursing home — but quit working in Fort Worth. For one, she didn’t like confrontation. If a maid was stiffed on pay or a nursing-home resident handled too forcefully, Dena walked out rather than say anything. But she also had her own children to consider. So Dena stayed home and cared for her daughters, 5-year-old Breana and 2-year-old Kelsie.
Dena loved her children with a special passion, perhaps because she had barely survived her own youth. Dena had excessive fluid on the brain at age 8, most likely the result of an earlier childhood injury. The condition, known as hydrocephalus, required seven surgeries in which doctors drained the fluid from Dena’s brain: three surgeries shortly after it was diagnosed in Chicago, where Dena and her family lived at the time; four more in junior high in Houston, where the family moved for her stepfather’s work. These were risky procedures. Dena came out of them clumsy and withdrawn. Dena’s mother, Connie Nicholas, a vivacious, petite woman with an almost desperate bond to her only daughter, considered Dena fortunate to see her 18th birthday.
As a result, Connie never raised her daughter to be independent. After she moved out, Dena phoned frequently, even more after Connie developed Parkinson’s. Dena would call to ask, “What should I make for dinner?” She’d call to get her mother’s opinion: “The red one or the blue one?” And later, after she started going to Water of Life: “Let me tell you about Doyle.”
Connie and her third husband, Mick Macaulay — an erudite, fast-talking Canadian with big shoulders and a Ph.D. in counseling — listened as Dena gabbed on endlessly about Doyle: how Connie and Mick should watch his sermons online, how they should listen to his audio tapes. And, intrigued, they did. But what the Macaulays saw and heard disturbed them.
By 2001, Connie’s Parkinson’s had advanced, slowing her movements. She and Mick visited Dena from Chicago, where the couple lived, in part due to the illness but in equal measure because of their suspicions of the church.
They saw its effect immediately. John lost his job early that year and took unemployment. The Macaulays worried about the couple’s financial state, but Dena didn’t. She said God would provide. “The big recurring theme was God’s direction in all things,” Mick says. Yet by July the couple needed money. Lots of money. All told, the Schlossers received about $35,000 from Dena’s biological father and from the Macaulays. A sizable chunk of it, Mick Macaulay later learned, went to the church. Doyle talked a lot about the reciprocity of Luke 6:38: “Give and it shall be given unto you.”
The church changed the Schlossers in other ways, too. During one visit in 2002, Breana had a cough, and Connie, a nurse, brought over some Robitussin. Dena dropped it in the garbage can. “We don’t use that,” she said. “We use prayer.” During another visit, Connie discovered the Schlossers went to church not only on Sunday, but five, six, sometimes seven times a week. With an hour drive each way, the girls got to bed some nights at 10:30. On these nights, they sometimes went without dinner.
Connie worried about her grandchildren’s welfare. “What are you doing? They’re young children,” Connie asked, calling one night from Chicago. “They’re hungry. They’re not getting their dinner.”
Dena said, “God has not directed me to do anything other than what I’m doing.”
So Connie called Doyle, told him he needed to talk with Dena about the kids. Connie claims Doyle said she was a heathen infected with the Jezebel spirit. “And women who stand in opposition to me have been known to disappear,” he allegedly said. (Doyle denies making that comment.)
“Are you threatening me?” Connie asked.
“Women who stand in opposition to me have been known to disappear,” Doyle repeated.
Connie slammed down the phone.
• • •