Most religious denominations welcome visitors, trying to draw new members into the fold. The Christian Identity movement's conference held last weekend in Branson, Mo., seemed designed to keep outsiders out.
The conference, "Songs for His People," was touted on an Internet site. It gave the location as Branson but did not name a specific site. A reporter called organizer Norm Farnum of Galena, Mo., to register.
Farnum asked the reporter, whose married name is of Spanish origin, why someone of her ethnic background would want to attend.
"We have a controversial message that may offend someone like you," he said.
Farnum told the reporter he would check her background and call back.
"Before we just invite folks we don't know, we have to check them out," he said. "We might come on in a cliquish way, but with all the people out there, we just have to be sure."
Several days later, Farnum left a message for the reporter saying she could attend and added, "I hope I didn't inconvenience you too much with my line of inquiry."
But Farnum never gave the exact location of the conference. When the reporter and a colleague arrived in Branson on Feb. 24, there was no information about the event at local ticket and tourist information sites. Also, Farnum never mailed out the reporters' tickets, for which $40 had been paid.
The reporters discovered the location by repeatedly driving down Highway 76, Branson's main strip. One small sign at the Lodge of the Ozarks simply stated "Welcome, Songs for His People."
On Friday, the two reporters went to the lodge, gave their names and were admitted with no problems. The two did not identify themselves as reporters, in hopes of not altering the event. They planned to identify themselves if they were asked, or if they decided to interview conference participants.
But they did not conduct any interviews. They simply observed, took notes of the presentations and bought Identity literature.
By Saturday, both reporters felt they were being watched. On several occasions, they believed they were being photographed.
As the reporters were leaving the conference Saturday night, Farnum and two Identity leaders, Ted Weiland and Michael Peebles, followed them down a narrow hallway to the steps leading to the hotel's lobby.
Weiland asked the reporters if they would mind talking with him and his associates. The reporters agreed and Weiland suggested they all go into a private meeting room. The reporters said they would prefer to talk in the hotel lobby. The Identity members agreed.
The leaders said the two had been watched and "seemed suspicious." The reporters volunteered the information that they were with the Post-Dispatch.
The three Identity members began firing questions at the reporters about their motives for attending the conference, how they had heard about it and what they intended to write.
Weiland said the gathering was not about racism and added that the group had little in common "with the likes of the KKK and Thom Robb."
When Farnum then told Weiland that Robb, the Klan's grand dragon, was in attendance, a visibly irked Weiland said, "Well, there's nothing we can do about that."
The reporters then asked whether they could interview the three Identity leaders. They refused.
Weiland said they would not comment because the media had treated the movement unfairly in the past.
And, he added, "We don't know your morals."
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