Group in collision to move to area
The Family, which lost 5 members in collision near McKinney Falls, rents house in Round Rock
By Starita Smith
Despite the devastation of a traffic accident near McKinney Falls State Park that killed or injured 11 of its members, a Christian-based evangelistic group is planning to move to Round Rock and proselytize in Austin.
Thomas Oehler, who said he has been an ordained minister in the Family (formerly the Children of God) for 25 years, announced plans to move part of the New Orleans group to the Austin area to establish another mission here. Oehler said before the accident, he and some other Family members had decided they would leave New Orleans soon. The group travels from place to place living in various communities while members try to spread their religion, sometimes going door-to-door as the teen-agers had done in Austin before the accident.
Austin's response to Oehler and other parents with injured or dead children prompted members to decide they should live here to give back to the community, Oehler said.
But a permanent welcome may not be waiting for them. Their future Round Rock neighbors worry that too many people will be living in a single-family house and that the peace in their neighborhood will be disturbed by efforts to get them to join the Family.
Cyril McInnis, who owns a rental house in Round Rock, said Louis Karkames, another member of the Family, signed a lease to rent his property at 1006 Walsh Lane. Karkames mentioned during their first telephone conversation about the house that a daughter had died in an accident.
Victoria Karkames, 14, died in a July 16 wreck after the van she was riding in with 10 other members of the Family went through a stop sign at McKinney Falls Parkway and Burleson Road and broadsided a pickup carrying aCedar Creek couple, according to police reports. Oehler and his wife, Carolyn, lost two daughters, Precious, 15, and Katrina, 14.
Six people, including Rhonda Lynn Harris, who was in the truck, and two other teen-age Family members in the van, died in the accident.
Everyone else who was in the wreck was treated at Brackenridge Hospital. All have been released from the hospital except Jesse John Wickenheiser, 18, the driver of the van. A hospital spokeswoman said he remains in serious condition.
The investigation of the wreck continues, and no charges have been filed, said Michael Burgess, an Austin Police Department spokesman.
Oehler and Karkames realize that some would wonder why they would want to live so near the scene of such recent devastation.
"The idea first came to me, and I started talking to other people about it," Oehler said. He told his friends: "You know, people have been so sweet to us, isn't there something we can do to give back to them?"
Oehler said he and his wife and the Karkames were guided through prayer to live in Austin. They plan to share the Round Rock house with seven surviving Oehler children and six surviving Karkames children as well as Family members who will visit from time to time.
Oehler and other Family members are hoping that Central Texans will support their missionary work by contributing household goods, food and a van to replace the one they lost in the wreck, he said in an open letter to the people of Austin.
But Round Rock may not offer the welcome that Family members received in Austin. Some believe the group is too large to live in one house, especially one on a quiet, residential street, and others worry about possible attempts to foist a religion on them.
McInnis, who said he wasn't told exactly how many people would be living in his house, was stunned by the news.
"Seventeen people are going to be living here? He (Karkames) told me they were going to be living here one group at a time, not all at the same time. This is a big house, but they can't all fit in here," McInnis said, of the two-story four-bedroom dwelling where he has lived for more than eight years.
"I'm disappointed at the plan to rent it," said Sally Fisher, a Walsh Lane neighbor. "I'm sure the children would tear it up."
Fisher and another neighbors said they weren't excited about having missionaries in the neighborhood either. She and a Hindu neighbor said they don't meddle in others' religious lives, and they don't like it when people attempt to meddle in theirs.
Oehler said, however, he is encouraged by the generosity of the people of Austin. In his open letter he thanked rescue crews, hospital and Ronald McDonald House staff and the congregation of Redeemed Christian Fellowship Church, which loaned the Family its facilities for the mass funeral last week, for their help.
Jack Hammans, an elder at Christian Fellowship, said the church simply made a humanitarian gesture.
"We would have done this for anyone even if they were nonreligious," he said. "We have no connection with them, and no intentions of doing anything with them" after they move here.