A long shadow
Growing up on a cult compound shaped three siblings for life
(Editor’s Note: Last year WORLD aired Truth Be Told, a four-part podcast exploring a story of power and abuse in a sleepy Southern community. The following account is adapted from that investigation.)
IN THE LATE 1970s, the Rev. David Earl King purchased 58 acres of land along a ribbon of rural blacktop near Jayess, Miss. His wife and their passel of children accompanied him there, as well as an Apostolic congregation seeking a fresh start a few county lines away from old troubles. The spot became known as “Valley of the Kings.”
The group’s charismatic worship and plain style of dress stood out in the community, and some locals still call the place a compound, even though different owners now occupy the sprawling blond-brick house at the center of the property and stacks of office furniture fill the two-story church building out front. Compound, however, is a word with connotations. Maybe that’s why in 2001 King’s defense attorneys filed a motion to prohibit use of it during his criminal trial. Even today Bill Goodwin, the prosecutor who put King in prison, hesitates to label the group’s leanings as those of a cult, preferring to call them “fundamentalist” instead.
But a trio of siblings who grew up on the property have a different take. They’re comfortable using both cult and compound as they talk about Valley of the Kings, and they lace the words into conversations about their past with frequency and firmness. As they do, an obvious, though unspoken, truth emerges. The Gipson sisters may have escaped Valley of the Kings, but decades later they’re still trying to leave it behind.
SPRING BRINGS rising water levels and a host of canoeing enthusiasts to the Okatoma, a muddy Mississippi tributary Choctaws once called “Shining River.” After she left Valley of the Kings, Joanna Lawrence, the oldest of the Gipson sisters, built a business near its banks cleaning houses for residents who don’t have time for mopping. On a fresh March morning, she’s seated beside her sisters in her own kitchen. The smell of just-cooked hash browns hangs in the air. A box of doughnuts lies open on the counter.
It doesn’t take long to see the sisters’ mark of kinship isn’t so much resemblance as it is their easy talk around the table and the knowing glances that pass between them as freely as the doughnuts. Part of that comes from shared childhoods going door-to-door, and parking lot-to-parking lot, selling candy. Candy was the compound’s bread and butter. Church members made peanut brittle back at Valley of the Kings while the Gipsons and others worked a three-state sales territory stretching from Monroe, La., to Mobile, Ala.
“I remember being left in Jena, La., by myself when I was 9 years old,” recalls Lawrence, now 51. “We’d have about $70 worth of candy in our baskets, a heavy load for a child, and if people didn’t want to make a purchase, we had to ask them for a donation.” Not meeting their $40 sales quota meant no evening meal, maybe even a beating from their mother or King.
The sisters grew up peddling peanut brittle six days a week in the summer, and every Saturday during school terms. In between, they did their lessons, worked the compound’s row crops, and attended church gatherings. Lots of church gatherings. The preaching at Valley of the Kings grazed the gospel but was skewed—a false “faith-plus salvation,” with the plus being unquestioned obedience to the pastor’s rules. Members couldn’t wear skirts without pleats or shoes taller than 1½ inches. They couldn’t listen to secular music, watch television, or read novels. They couldn’t trust outside ministers.
Thus, Valley of the Kings was closed off, a nearly self-sufficient farm with its own school, housing, and social circle. The sisters shared a mobile home with their mother, Adra Gipson, on a back section of the property, and it’s Adra the sisters hold responsible for their tumultuous upbringing.
Valley of the Kings was closed off, a nearly self-sufficient farm with its own school, housing, and social circle.
Iowa native Adra Anne Heetland met her husband, Larry Gipson, in the military. She was a D.C.-based secretary for a Navy chaplain, and he was a Marine who served in Vietnam. They married and settled in his Mississippi hometown where they welcomed four children in six years, but according to the couple’s daughters, Larry was unfaithful, and that led Adra to seek something deeper outside her marriage. She believed she’d found that something in King’s church.
By 1975 Adra’s new beliefs had caused her to isolate herself and her children from all of their extended family, and when King eventually encouraged her to leave her husband, she did. Then, when he suggested her husband should die, Adra took her pastor’s words literally. One morning as her children watched, she shot Larry Gipson outside the front door of their home. He lived. Adra went to prison.
But that didn’t end her entanglement with King. When she completed her sentence two years later, Adra collected her children and moved to his newly established enclave in Jayess.
Lawrence says as a child she knew something wasn’t right with her mother’s relationship with King, even though it was platonic: “She wasn’t dumb. She was brainwashed. That’s the only thing I can lay it to.” Lawrence also felt the weight of responsibility for her younger sisters. “I remember holding them close. Mama was the adult, but she couldn’t keep us safe. She couldn’t make wise decisions.”
Customers along their candy route tried to help. Sometimes King punished the girls by withholding food, and middle sister Leah Lofton, 50, remembers a week when she could only have bread and water. “Mom would go into a building to sell, and I’d go into a different one. My friends would have something ready, like a piece of chicken or a Little Debbie. God sent people to nourish me, and it’s been that way all through my life.”
The women around the table have been talking pretty matter-of-factly until this point, but the mood changes when Lawrence produces a stack of Polaroids, including one from 1979 that shows their oldest sibling, Shawn, with his shirt tucked in tight, an arm draped around Joanna’s shoulder. That’s when they soberly bring up another layer of the Valley of the Kings story—the leader’s sexual abuse of young males.
“Mom literally gave our brother to King when Shawn was 10 years old,” Lofton explains, emotion affecting her voice. “I remember King telling her she wasn’t qualified to raise a boy.”
Shawn went to live in the compound’s main house and even got a new last name—King. Authorities used that name some 20 years later when they made arrests at the compound. A jury soon convicted the Gipsons’ brother, as well as the elderly King, in a sexual abuse trial involving a boy in their church.
ALL THREE of the Gipson sisters were long gone from Valley of the Kings by that point. Each of their escapes was individual and harrowing.
Lawrence made three attempts to leave before achieving success at age 20. After crawling through a field of briars in the middle of the night, a friend picked her up as planned. In time, a Pentecostal preacher’s wife took her in and made her part of her family.
The other sisters faced additional challenges. Both were married. Both were mothers. They managed to leave, but Lofton remembers feeling despair as she and her children settled into a domestic abuse shelter. Then, during a church service, a preacher’s words nudged her on. “He reminded me that God had carried me through every difficult time in my life. I couldn’t have survived if He hadn’t.”
But their new life had some steep learning curves, starting with employment. “I had no idea how to apply for a job,” Lawrence says. “I could read, of course, so I filled in everything on applications, but I didn’t really understand the concept of getting a job.”
They encountered communication gaps when people referenced something from movies or TV. They faced custody battles and counseling sessions. Financial hardships. Threats on their lives.
But in time, the Gipson sisters went on to start businesses and earn college degrees. They bought their own homes. If they suffered from their past in any obvious way, though, they say it’s been their relationships. They have four divorces among them.
One relationship has remained strong, though, despite the false teaching they were under so long, and that’s their relationship with God. The sisters say their story—every part of it—testifies to His faithfulness.
“As early as first grade, I realized what I was being taught was wrong,” Lofton says. “I started praying then, asking God to show me what was right. He did.”
The Valley of the Kings school required Bible reading—Genesis through Revelation twice before graduation—and Lawrence points to that as a means of bringing her to a true knowledge of Christ. “Having a personal walk with the Lord made all the difference, being able to read the Bible for ourselves and work out our own salvation.”
Ironically, the sisters point to their peanut brittle sales as a saving grace, because they learned there was life outside Valley of the Kings. “It gave us a window on the world,” says Lofton. “When we were ready to leave, we knew it wasn’t that scary.”
But even as they took flight, their mother remained firmly entrenched. Adra Gipson only left Valley of the Kings when a burst appendix and failing health forced her to. Assisted by her daughters, she lived her last years outside Valley of the Kings. One Sunday while Lofton was cooking dinner, Adra came to her with questions. “She asked, ‘Did I abuse you? Was I really that mean to you?’” remembers Lofton. “My sisters heard it and told her, ‘Yes, you were,’ and she burst into tears. She asked me to forgive her, and I did, but that parent-child bond, I couldn’t re-create it.”
That was Adra’s singular instance of contrition. The sisters still struggle to explain how their mother got under King’s spell and why she stayed under it, but something happened at the end of Adra’s life that gave them some insight. She was on her deathbed at the VA Hospital in Jackson, Miss. It was Christmas Eve, and one of her childhood friends called. The sisters watched in surprise as Adra sat up in bed and started to babble, started trying to talk to him.
“We still don’t understand it because we’re there, we’re talking to her, and there’s nothing. No verbal communication in days,” Lawrence admits. “We realized then that Mom’s life had revolved around pleasing men, whoever that man was in her life at the time.”
That was 2015. Two years later, David Earl King died in prison at the age of 83. Lawrence says when she heard the news, she cried, not because he was dead, but because her mother didn’t live to see it. “Maybe if she’d lived long enough to see him die, she could have been free mentally, because she never truly was. Even when she’d been out 15 years, he still had some hold on her.”
At that moment the conversation pauses. Someone opens a phone and pulls up proofs from their recent “sister shoot.” They’re good photos. In one, the morning sun bears down through a thicket of trees and lands on faces turned toward each other talking, laughing. It also lands on coordinated clothes with on-purpose navy blue, a color that represents strength. Power. Bravery.
Those qualities show up when the Gipsons speak of skills gained during a hard upbringing, like sewing, gardening, and carpentry, and when they describe a survival attitude that’s made them into capable problem solvers. But a simple statement made in the midst of it all is hard to shake: “Being raised in that environment cast a long shadow over our lives.”
Rising from her chair, Lawrence credits God for preserving their lives and their love for each other. “He has turned a lot of our ‘situations’ into strengths,” she says quietly, and her sisters, nodding, agree.
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