MY FOXHOLE, MY RULES
The preppers you’ve seen on TV tend to look similar: rural Americans, typically white, conservative, distrusting of government and Christian. And although you’ll find most of those attributes in any given prepper conglomerate, it’s the little decisions that can drive them apart.
“That’s a major problem,” says Gene Louis, a New Jersey expat who attended his first meetup in 2013 after moving to Springfield to begin ventures in real estate brokerage and digital marketing. Plus, Jersey is expensive, and he doesn’t like the fact that its residents don’t pump their own gas. “You don’t know what people are going to define as a threat, don’t know what people at survival meetings are going to talk about,” he says. “You can’t prepare for 100 percent of what’s on that list—well, you’d need to be Donald Trump to afford to.”
What’s on the list depends on which faction of preparedness you practice, pre-Y2K prepper and Seventh-day Adventist Church pastor Craig Wiles tells me. There are preppers, who anticipate an event like an ice storm or an EMP; there are survivalists, who arm themselves to face an enemy like a tyrannical government; and there are homesteaders, who grow their own food and practice self-sufficiency.
And now, there are Democrats. Fear of the Trump administration is largely responsible for an urban and liberal renaissance within prepping; left-leaning Facebook groups and urban prepping YouTube channels brim with freshly paranoid Americans who attend the same expos, talk the same shop and wipe with the same bulk supply of toilet paper as the conservatives who voted the other way. That said, I met no openly liberal preppers in Springfield.
Nor did I meet any non-Christians. Blame it on geography if you like—one longtime resident told me that Springfield is, after all, full of “flaming fundamentalists”—but is a common religious philosophy necessary for a post-apocalyptic society to survive?
To answer that question, I found myself in the Siloam Cafe in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, seated across from Martin Fletchall, a disabled veteran who says God called him and his family to the Ozarks from Montana. He prefers to be called Fletch. Fletch is in his 40s, wears a white beard, a camouflage hoodie and matching hat and orders toast, eggs and steak, which costs less than $4. He agreed to meet me after a few weeks of exchanging emails and vetting that I wasn’t actually a “social justice warrior.”
Fletch runs the YouTube channel OzarksTactical Homesteading, the description of which reads, “Liberty-minded, faith-based, pro-Second Amendment, pro–home school.” He posts videos on prepping and reviews tactical gear from his property somewhere in northwest Arkansas. Occasionally, Fletch records rants in the car. The mainstream media and Walmart door greeters—the “door gestapo”—are recent targets of his iPhone manifesto. He’s gained more than 5,000 subscribers since launching the channel in 2011.
For an hour and 50 minutes, we talk a lot about liberty. The world according to Fletch hinges on the rhetorical question, “Is this going to give me more liberty, or less liberty?” He also assures me that his group isn’t just white guys running around in the woods with guns. “In my sphere of influence, there are Asians, there are blacks, Native Americans; a person’s race has absolutely nothing to do with anything,” Fletch says.
Religion, however, has everything to do with prepping—there are things about your faith that affect the way you live, Fletch says, offering me an example. “Today, a great deal [on the menu] was the special you had,” he says. “Every one of the specials had pork in it. Well, depending on your belief system and where you’re coming from, Dan, you could’ve made several decisions about me.” He’s right; I could’ve thought he assumed the breakfast was on me, so he ordered the most expensive dish on the menu. And those assumptions, he says, can break up a group. “If 99 percent of the people in your group don’t eat pork, and you bring in some person eating a ham sandwich next to you, that’s going to cause some conflict.”
Fair enough, but are such assumptions totally inescapable? I ask him what would happen if, say, a man in a turban approached the group asking to join—how would he be received? “Before we got to that point,” he says, “we would’ve asked qualifying questions about what he believes, so we would probably never be in that situation.”
And that’s how the Springfield prepper meetups fell apart. Metaphorically speaking, Dr. Shealy brought a ham sandwich.
FOLLOW THE LEADER
“I’m actually responsible, indirectly, for the end of the meetups,” Dr. Shealy tells me inside his Springfield clinic off Chestnut Expressway, and not just because he thinks the earth is more than 6,000 years old. (Andrew: says you can’t trust anyone who believes that.) He sports a red crewneck, navy blue sweatpants, a stretchy metal watch and rectangular glasses. The 85-year-old—he’s more energetic than most people half his age—specializes in holistic medicine; the first thing he asks me is my birthday, and do I know what my astrological sign means. On my way out, he asks if he can hug me, and when I oblige, a toothy grin pulls wide the spritely doctor’s cheeks. “I believe it’s an important part of human contact,” he says.
Later that day, the 69-year-old Janet Randall also confesses to sabotaging the group. She was at the first meetup, and between clanks and frothy whirs from the espresso machine at the Starbucks on Glenstone Avenue, I learn how Brutus got rid of Caesar. From Randall’s, Dr. Shealy’s, Allen’s, and Louis’ accounts, here’s what happened: One day last year, during Finelli’s pneumonia hiatus, Dr. Shealy brought in a spiritual healer, as he had for years without complaint.
It was, however, the first spiritual healing session since Andrew: took over. Andrew: is a Mennonite, hardly a contemporary sect of Christianity—the denomination is currently split on whether homosexuality is a sin. Andrew: believes Christians are being persecuted in the United States today, and the “sodomites” are lucky. Because they “don’t have children,” he says, the Department of Human Services can’t take their kids away, like they did his first daughter 30 years ago when the 22-month-old burned herself on a range stove and Andrew: refused to take her to the hospital because he doesn’t trust doctors. I asked what he meant by sodomites. “The gay community,” he says. “The scripture calls them sodomites, so we have to be honest. They’re not gay at all; usually they’re very unhappy.”
Anyway, one Monday in February 2017, Dr. Shealy brings in Mas Sajady. He’s a Minnesotan spiritual healer, and he treated Randall earlier that day. Randall beat Dr. Shealy and Sajady to the meetup and fawned over the treatment’s effectiveness, calling it magic and devilish—words that don’t sit well with Andrew:.
After Sajady and Dr. Shealy left, Andrew: condemned their witchcraft and announced a vote to the group. “Should Dr. Shealy be banned from our meetings?” Randall remembers him asking. “I was afraid to look around, afraid to look whose hands were up.”
Louis says most of the room didn’t vote, but of those who did, three voted for Dr. Shealy’s ouster and one voted against. Finelli’s status was never voted on—current members say he’s welcome to come back—but Finelli’s impression was that they’d made their choice about him, too.
“How do I tell Dr. Norman Shealy that he was voted out of the meetup?” Finelli asks, rhetorically. “So I told him on-air. I said, ‘Dr. Shealy, they had a vote, and you were voted to be barred from the meeting.’ And he kind of laughed, and I said don’t get all excited, they banned me, too.” He holds no grudges; he says he’s actually glad it happened. Now he knows how his students really felt.
If the group became indifferent to Finelli’s leadership prior to his ouster, he became just as frustrated with their complacency. Preppers began ignoring his strict no cell phone rule. Few took concrete steps to be more prepared over the years, he says. He’d set out to develop independent thinkers, not apathetic disciples. “I mentioned to the group that at some point, Vinny may not be available,” Finelli says. “So be prepared at a moment’s notice.” That’s why he feels like he failed: He left the preppers unprepared.