Today I’m going to share a story from Bob Beckett’s Commitment to Conquer (Chosen Books, 1997). Beckett was (and remains) the pastor of the non-denominational, charismatic Dwelling Place Church in Hemet, California. When he and his wife moved to the area in the 1970s, they began what would be a decades-long struggle with strategic-level spiritual warfare (against territorial forces). Part of that process included helping various groups reconcile the burden of past sins. Beckett details the major reconciliation between the local indigenous American Indian peoples, the Soboba, and representatives of a water company that were blamed for damaging Hemet’s water supply. Here’s Beckett’s account of how the water supply was damaged:
When I first arrived in Hemet, it did not strike me as a lush valley with great agricultural potential. The Hemet valley was a dry, arid place that looked and felt like a desert. But I came to discover that this had not always been the case.
The valley, I learned, had once had plenty of water. In fact, the name Hemet is an Indian word meaning “hemmed in by trees.” The valley had been so fertile that great orchards grew twelve hundred feet up the hillsides, all fed by natural springs. I have seen photographs of ranchers getting water in the early 1990s. A rancher would go out into his field with a pipe three or four inches in diameter and jam it [into] the ground. Soon water would start bubbling up through the pipe and he could water his cattle. That is how high and easily accessible the water table around Hemet once was.
But during the 1930s, a water company decided to export water from the valley out to the surrounding communities. In order to do this, officials of the company needed to construct a water line, either built over the mountains or drilled through the mountains. The decided to drill. But company engineers miscalculated the direction of the pipe through the mountain and mistakenly tapped the underground water table, which did not legally belong to them.
Water gushed out of the mountain day after day, month after month. In fact, for more than a year, billions of gallons of water flowed out of the mountain. Company officials told ranchers and local residents that they were trying to stop the flow of water. But they were accused of diverting the water down a riverbed and selling it in neighboring Riverside and Orange Counties at a tremendous profit.
By the time the flow was stopped, the water table had been destroyed. The orchards began to die and ranchers were left hard-pressed. The worst agricultural destruction of all happened on the Soboba Indian Reservation. The Sobobas lost their only source of livelihood as the ground dried up and seemed to die.
So angry were the Sobobas at the water company that they called on their tribal shamans to curse the company and the workers on the water line. As the shamans began their curses, company workers actually began to die under inexplicable circumstances, including through bizarre accidents.
From a well-watered community in the San Jacinto mountains to a desert community ravaged by the loss of its water table. It’s a narrative that I imagine largely resonates with other experiences in the west, except for the part at the end where the water company’s workers are cursed. I imagine that more often the ranchers or native peoples attack the water lines–at least that’s the Hollywood version, right? Just before a stranger rides into town and saves the day.
Unfortunately, fifty years go by instead. Hemet is dried up, and the relationship between the remaining Soboba, the remaining ranchers, and the water company festered. In Beckett’s assessment, the unreconciled sins from the water incidents were “a major unhealed wound–a complex problem with sin on both sides that affected our community greatly.” In 1991, Cindy Jacobs, a spiritual warfare specialist associated with Generals of Intercession and the Spiritual Warfare Network, arranged an opportunity for representatives from each party to meet and put the past behind them:
A Soboba Christian living on the reservation, along with the sister of the tribal chief, came to the solemn assembly to represent the tribe. They were seeking forgiveness for the curses of their shamans on the white man, so that as that sin was remitted, they would gain legal spiritual authority to break the curse. A current employee of the water company, a Christian young man, came to extend forgiveness toward the Sobobas and ask forgiveness for the sins of his company that had caused the problem in the first place…. As the Sobobas and the water company representatives embraced and the tears flowed, I could feel the power of the enemy breaking. Sins on both sides had been washed away by the blood of Jesus, and Satan’s legal right in the situation had been removed.
So what happened next to the water in Hemet? To the Soboba community? To the water company? As you might expect, a series of spiritual victories is projected beyond the reconciliation. A bible study sprang up on the reservation and later Soboba representatives went to other local native communities to share the Gospel. One of the grandchildren of the elders that cursed the company even converted and joined the Dwelling Place congregation. And the water?
How has God healed our land? Through an incredible restoration of water in our valley! We have enjoyed record rain levels in the years since the sins were remitted. While the water table is not back up to its original levels, the water in the streams, according to the forestry workers who manage the San Bernardino National Forest nearby, flows better than it has since the 1930s.
And something even more miraculous shows how the blessings of God has [sic] returned (as God promises in 2 Chronicles 7:14) to the physical [emphasis in original] land that was defiled through this sin. In 1995 Southern California was allocated funds to produce the largest single water reservoir in all of California. This reservoir, they promised, would be larger than all the bodies of fresh water in Southern California put together. And where did the authorities choose as the site for this largest manmade body of fresh water in Southern California but our community of Hemet! What a miracle! A geologist told me that this reservoir, which is now under construction, will increase the level of the water table substantially.
There’s a lot that’s packed into this brief story. It only takes Beckett four pages to tell it all (and I haven’t left much out). I’m scheduled to speak with Pastor Beckett soon about his work in Hemet. I’m not sure that this story will make the cut in the 30 minutes I get with him, but it does open some interesting mental doors. First, there are surely a number of accounts from the 1930s. There may be ranchers or the relatives of ranchers who remember what happened. There may be employees from the water company and the company’s records. There are also likely to be Sobobas who have heard the stories or lived through them (like the convert mentioned above). In brief, the echoes of this event would seem to persist.
Even if you were to reject Beckett’s Christian understanding of reconciliation, his work has revealed a substantive and persistent core of memory about this event and its repercussions for the community. Moreover, many of the claims wouldn’t be too difficult to verify: the original shallowness of the water table, the ineptitude of the engineers, the sale of water to other counties, the aridification of the area, the return of the water, the arrival of the reservoir, and so on. There are facts and then there’s the way folks remember it happening. They needn’t be the same nor does one preclude the other. Historical memory means different things to those who use it. Beckett was telling the story within his larger account of the spiritual struggles of Hemet (and how his congregation addressed them with techniques I’m studying). So this version of Hemet’s experiences in the 20th century is just one side of the story. But it is also a highly revealing beginning. Go on and tell me what you see.