New directions for Church Universal and Triumphant

2002-06-15T23:00:00Z New directions for Church Universal and TriumphantDAN BURKHART Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
June 15, 2002 11:00 pm  • 

CORWIN SPRINGS - That was then.

If leaders of the Church Universal and Triumphant could sum up what they want people to know about the church in Montana, it would be to put away the unsavory past so it no longer would color the efforts of the church today.

"Every time all that old stuff comes up again, it stigmatizes us again," church communications director Christopher Kelley complained. "We have moved on."

The difficult times have not been easy to dull. The church made great front page copy from 1981, when it bought a 12,000-acre ranch from billionaire Malcolm Forbes, to 1990, when members flocked to its 800-capacity underground shelter after its leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, said the world would end soon.

The world didn't end, and neither did the bad press. In the 1980s and early '90s, many Montanans distrusted the smorgasbord theology and feared the apocalyptic preparations.

This was a church with a theology that included a little Jesus, some Buddha and a lot of reincarnation. It arrived here under the wings of charismatic leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet, who conveyed messages to the faithful from "ascended masters" that included Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Buddha. The church's pantheon also included Sir Lancelot, St. Francis of Assisi, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Francis Bacon, King Arthur and Merlin the Magician.

Montana was to be the holy home. But if the church had tried to botch its arrival to the state, it couldn't have devised a better plan.

Prophet's husband and vice president of the church, Ed Francis, was jailed for illegal weapons purchases; the IRS revoked its tax-exempt status for two years; the huge underground shelter became an environmental liability when underground fuel tanks ruptured and the church was sued by the state; Park County sued over subdivision irregularities; and Prophet's children publicly turned their backs on the church.

Matters worsened when Prophet, known as Guru Ma, was stricken with Alzheimer's, leaving the church to go through leadership changes reminiscent of a palace intrigue.

"There were a lot of politics," Kelley said. "But that can happen in any big organization."

That was then, he said again. This is now.

Kelley prefers to focus on the church's good works, its "240 spiritual and teaching centers in 40 countries," its array of books and audio tapes, its land deals that benefited wildlife and the public, and its "more open attitude."

The teachings have not changed: All of us can perfect ourselves and, eventually, ascend. How long it takes depends on how hard we work at finding God in ourselves.

But the church's public persona has become more conventional, Kelley conceded. Acceptance as a valid religion is evident and while it may never be mainstream, certain of its New Age principles are finding a larger audience, according to Kelley.

Major bookstore chains carry the church's books, and the church continually upgrades its electronic libraries. Its Web site scores 20,000 visits a month. Between 400 and 500 cards, inserted in "our popular pocket-sized series" of practical guides, are returned every month with comments, suggestions and questions, he said.

Websites: The Web site of the Church Universal and triumphant is www.thesummitlighthouse.org.

The Web site of church critics and former members Kenneth and Talita Paolini is www.factsource.com/.

"We know people who are searching for spirituality are connecting," Lois Drake said.

Drake was named to a joint presidency with Kate Gordon last October.

Sharing the top job is not difficult, they say. Drake's background in advertising and marketing and Gordon's background in business keep "management flowing well," Gordon said.

"Given time and change, society will respond in greater numbers to the church's principles," Gordon said. "That's why we work very hard to get the word out. We don't waste time in-fighting."

Getting the word out also means getting the money in, Gordon acknowledged.

"We had enormous expenses in the past, and we're doing our best to put the church on more solid ground," she said. "We need money, not acreage."

The church has divested itself of about two-thirds of the 33,000 acres it acquired through the 1980s and early 1990s.

"It's taken many years to overcome the early years here," Drake said. "But I feel we're integrating into the community. Part of our mission is to bridge the misunderstandings that were part of those difficult times."

There was always a heavy dose of apocalypse.

The world would end sooner than later, Prophet told her followers. First in 1989. Later in 1990. After neither end came, credibility and contributions both slipped, according to the president who took over after Prophet. Gilbert Cleirbaut said that when the world didn't end, it affected even his belief.

Cleirbaut tried to shore up the foundering church with public admissions that mistakes were made. The church was at fault for its public perception as a cult, he said.

Cleirbaut quickly went about some housekeeping. The church could not afford a staff of 600; it was downsized to 200. The church needed to let go the idea that it could be a community like the Mormons in Utah, building a self-sustaining oasis for its members. The shelter cycle was over, he announced.

When Cleirbaut left, a triumvirate of leaders took over. The church staff continued to decrease and budgets began to improve.

Still, the church was operating in the red, according to its annual reports.

And then again, the end of the world might not be far off. That expectation may not be as pronounced now, but the catastrophe of Sept. 11 shows how right the church was to build its shelters, Gordon said.

"The shelter is there for emergency backup. If we need to use it, we would include our neighbors, not just our members," she said.

Until then, however, the church would operate above ground, in the light. It completed some exemplary land deals, one with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and one with the federal government. Both protect wildlife habitat. Sen. Max Baucus praised the church when the latter deal was completed, calling its members "good neighbors, doing good work."

The church relinquished its hold on one of its subdivisions, Glastonbury, turning control over to the landowners and allowing nonchurch members to buy.

The church's new affinity for the conventional may be in the recent purchase of the oldest church building in Livingston for use by the local CUT congregation.

"We couldn't have come up with a better building," board president David Lewis said.

Mistakes were made by church critics, too. It was widely believed that when church faithful arrived in Park County, they burdened public assistance programs. Figures from the state Department of Health and Human Services show little variation in costs for programs like welfare and food stamps after hundreds of church members arrived.

"There never really was a major impact, according to the department's Hank Hudson. "That was a myth. They sought little economic or public assistance."

Nor did they require intervention by the Department of Family Services.

"I know because I was head of state Family Services then," Hudson said. "We didn't get a lot of referrals, certainly no more than we did for any other community."

And while troubles with Uncle Sam were headlined, the resolution that cleared the church was not. It was big news when buried fuel tanks for the huge underground bunker ruptured. It wasn't big news when the church won a lawsuit against the tank manufacturers, nor when the state lauded the church cleanup as "exemplary," Kelley said.

The bad news dissolved over time. Most fears did, too. Church adherents didn't seize political control in Park County. Church-owned businesses did not pressure other shops.

In fact, some of the most successful businesses appear to be models of economic development. John Fanuzzi's Golden Ratio Woodworks, a manufacturer of upscale massage tables, is a major employer in Park County. Its annual sales top $7 million a year while 90 people earn above-average wages.

"I've evolved in the church. I'm probably not as active in the church while I'm more active in pursuing spiritual goals," Fanuzzi said. "Bottom line, what we all need is love and as far as I'm concerned we don't need dogma. The church has allowed me to mature and free myself to be myself."

Andrew Field's publishing business is another success story. Relying mainly on Internet connections, it handles print jobs and serves as a middleman between customer to printers. Fifty people are employed, and 95 percent of the business comes from outside Montana.

"Like Mormons in Utah and Catholics in many places, people associated with the church are just people, and seem to be integrating well with their adopted community now that the first wave of notoriety and controversy has passed," Field said.

David Lewis owns Paradise Artworks Gallery & Framing. While not as large, it has been a steady contributor to the economy.

"We've deposited over $3 million in local banks over the past six years," Lewis said. "We did $200,000 over the Internet last year. It's the type of business Montana says it wants, pulling dollars from outside into the local economy."

The businesses are not fronts for the church or major financial backers, Fanuzzi said.

"I help when I can and when I want to," he said.

That attitude is fine with the new presidents.

"My husband is not in the teachings. He drinks beer. He doesn't decree. And he's a fantastic guy," Gordon said. "We're not after believers as much as we want to reach the soul searchers. They're the ones who will eventually come to our teachings and see how right the teachings are."

There are still problems to deal with, but they are not unlike those other organizations have. Some former members threaten lawsuits. The membership differs about directions for the future. Some, including Fanuzzi, miss Prophet.

"At least we had a strong leader," he said. "You need that just like a business needs a strong CEO."

Some insist that the church will not recover from its past mistakes. One of these is Kenneth Paolini, who left the church 15 years ago but has a Website devoted to tracking the church critically.

"CUT is irrelevant in the greater picture of religion and society. CUT is in a shrinking stage," Paolini said in an interview. "They will eventually reach an equilibrium. They will be like their forebears, the I AM movement or Theosophical Society, who are still around, but they are small, quirky organizations with a few devoted members. Like them, CUT has seen its heyday."

And he is skeptical that the church will change.

"Can a leopard change its spots? Maybe, but Montanans can draw their own conclusions about a group that has teachings that include things like 'chocolate is the deadliest poison on the planet,' and children born to mothers who 'use' chocolate will have 'fetal chocolate syndrome,' " he said.

Drake and Gordon say that as long as they head the church, they will pursue new dreams.

Someday there will be a fully accredited liberal arts college at Corwin Springs, they say. Someday there will be a healing center at La Duke. Someday the church's electronic networks will expand the worldwide community.

And someday, we will all ascend.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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