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Fleecing of the Lambs

The Assemblies of God mean business

By Traci Hukill

THE AIR INSIDE the church auditorium is stale and rich with the smell of wooden pews and cinder-block walls warming in the afternoon sun. Underfoot, garish lime carpet silences footsteps, and near the pulpit last Sunday's white flowers wilt under a stained glass dove's watchful eye. In three days, the 150 members of Templo Juan 3:16 will file in with children and grandmothers to sing hymns in Spanish, fidget through a sermon and pray. They'll pray for ailing uncles and difficult neighbors, for their cars to keep running and their bosses to mellow out. Most of all, though, they'll pray that next week, and in all the weeks ahead, they'll be legally permitted to come back and do it all over again.

Templo Juan's story reads like a fairy tale with a sour postmodern ending. In 1954, Puerto Rican emigré Felipe Morales founded a church in East San Jose. Six years later he and his Spanish-speaking flock, many of whom possessed no more than a grade-school education, joined the Assemblies of God, the same church that spawned funding professionals Jim and Tammy Bakker. Using money earned from tamale sales and endless fundraisers, the congregation bought its own building and property on Capitol Expressway. It even incorporated, going nonprofit in 1976. Everything was going swimmingly.

Then one July day in 1995, church member Dail Simons reluctantly produced a thorn he'd spied in Eden two years prior--a sex video lying on a table in the church with a UPS label addressed to longtime pastor Morales. Now, in a courtroom battle slated for Feb. 24, the people of Templo Juan 3:16 stand, inexplicably, to lose their church and all its assets--valued at $1 to $2 million--to the wealthy Assemblies of God, all because of the untimely appearance of a skin flick.

Frank Ybarra's husky tenor immediately identifies him as a congenial kind of guy, an ideal church spokesman. "I see the powers that be of the Assemblies of God coming in and taking advantage of the congregation," he ventures. Indeed, the road from discovered video to seizure of property is anything but straight and narrow. When Simons found the video, still taped shut, his first thought was to keep his discovery to himself. After two years, though, he took his little Pandora's box--a video of adults having straight sex to bad music--to a member of Templo's board of directors. Though no evidence that Morales ordered the video ever materialized, the mere implication of impropriety was enough to call in the district's big gun--in this case, one Rev. Sam Sanchez, assistant superintendent of the Pacific Latin American District of the Assemblies of God.

In what must have been one of the most self-conscious porn parties in history, several of Templo's board members viewed a portion of the tape, presumably to verify its contents. Several days later, on July 12, Sanchez called a meeting with local Assemblies officials, Templo's board of directors, Simons and Morales. Though he now calls it a coerced confession, Morales conceded that he had ordered the video. The panel strongly recommended that Morales--now in his early 60s--retire, and he complied. The process divided the congregation, with 20-30 people leaving Templo Juan, and 150 choosing to stay.

"We believe the Bible is the final authority, and the Bible says if anyone is found guilty, confront him in private, and if he repents, there it stops," complains Ybarra, who now serves on Templo's board of directors. "[The Assemblies] said, 'We recommend he retire; don't ask any more questions.' "

COUNSEL BARRIE LAING insists that Assemblies of God is not after the money. Yet in a fax dated Sept. 25, district personnel toldWells Fargo (Templo Juan's bank) that the congregation was experiencing internal dissension. No matter that the district's name appeared nowhere on the account or that it had never contributed to Templo Juan's coffers--the letter had the desired effect of freezing the account, and the church was compelled to open a new one at a different bank. Unbelievably, the same thing happened not quite a year later in August 1996, this time because, as the Assemblies argued, part of the congregation should not have full access to funds that rightfully belonged to the entire group.

"We believe that until there [is] a determination about who the true church is, that one side or the other should not be using that money for partisan purposes," Laing says. "The basic split is within the one congregation. It's not a congregation versus Assemblies of God."

Templo Juan followers, however, claim the Assemblies have stuffed over $100,000 into the district's war chest in order to win this fight.

"It smacks of politicism right to the top," Ybarra says. "If [Assemblies of God] aren't interested in the truth of one man, what are they interested in? The only thing we could come up with was the property."

BILL CLAYTON, Templo Juan's attorney, sounds weary as he fields questions from his office in the final days before the Feb. 24 hearing. "The relationship between the Assemblies of God and the church cuts to the heart of the matter," he states matter of factly. "Are [the Assemblies] advisory, simply there to recommend measures and join in fellowship, or can they come tromping in there, suspend a vote, suspend board members and even threaten lawsuits?"

A resolution passed by theAssemblies a few years ago states that if a church has been assisted by the district and then drops out, the deeds of the church should contain a transfer-over clause to the district. Besides betraying a possible preoccupation with money, the resolution rests on the condition that the district must have "assisted" the church, a condition Templo Juan denies ever existed.

The few Assemblies people who were willing to talk with Metro--most refused--vaguely affirmed the resolution's existence but none of its particulars. Juleen Turnage, spokeswoman for the General Council, claimed to know nothing about the upcoming hearing. And opinions about whether the Assemblies are a hierarchical church or whether congregations have independent polity vary. Monday's court proceeding will barely scratch the surface of the tangle of ecclesiastical and mundane laws at issue here. But one thing is certain: The congregation at Templo Juan will be praying like gangbusters this Sunday.

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From the February 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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