We in Big Sandy agree with Mr. Dick's assessment: that the primary reason for Big Sandy's original split from the WCG was doctrine, not governance.
As of this writing in early 2007, the only organization most of us have ever left was the WCG. Most of us in the Church of God Big Sandy are in the same congregation that we formed in 1995, a few weeks before the UCGIA formed in Indianapolis, Ind.
A major question the Big Sandy congregation faced in 1995 was whether--after the formation of the UCGIA--to affiliate with it.
As is made plain in Mr. Dick's letter, the UCGIA is an “international" association, not a “national" one. He states specifically that, “of course, in the US there is no national council," even though several national councils in other countries exist that are affiliated with the headquarters of the UCGIA.
It is the Big Sandy congregation's view that, just as national councils in other countries can affiliate with the headquarters of the UCGIA, so should individual congregations be able to affiliate with UCGIA headquarters. After all, as Mr. Dick pointed out, there is no national council in the United States that governs U.S. congregations.
Further, since the national councils in other lands are expected (wrote Mr. Dick) to write their own “local bylaws," then, in Big Sandy's view, so were local congregations--as separate entities not affiliated with any national council--free to write their own bylaws.
The disagreement over this point was a bone of contention and the major reason for the 1998 split in Big Sandy.
Rules of association
Exacerbating the situation was the lack of the long-promised “rules of association" that would govern the relationship of U.S. congregations with church headquarters.
In a rewrite of UCGIA history, the council of elders decided that the “rules" were meant to apply only to the relationship of the “national councils" to church headquarters and would have little or nothing to do with U.S. congregations.
This was another bone of contention that led to the Big Sandy split. Mr. Dick continued:
“The name selected for the organization in Indianapolis was United Church of God, an International Association. There was no intent to have a 'national association' but an international one. Congregations within each nation are expected to respond to their national council. Of course, in the US there is no national council."
Pertinent to the current discussion is that the “national council" of the church organization in El Salvador was never offered “national association" status with the UCGIA.
The religious organization responsible for conducting religious activities in El Salvador is a corporation denominated Iglesia de Dios Universal de El Salvador. This entity has existed continuously since 1977 (originally as an affiliate of the WCG), and it filed all appropriate documents, including financial statements, receipts and annual minutes and other government requirements, as required by law.
Pastor Herberth Cisneros, longtime elder of the Worldwide Church of God and later the United Church of God, is the person responsible for this organization. Other church members serve as uncompensated board members.
During my trip to El Salvador in late January, I saw the official books, with dates, names, signatures and recordings of board meetings throughout the 29 years of the San Salvador church's existence.
Shaking the tree?
Another interesting question that surfaced in San Salvador in various permutations in the Friday Bible study and at the Q&A session before Sabbath services had to do with contact with ministers, elders or other officials from the “former association" (the UCGIA).
I related my personal experience. After more than 20 years of my association with the WCG, no minister, elder or official of the WCG ever contacted me personally to try to learn why I was absent from weekly services after a near-perfect attendance record.
After four or five months' absence I received a form letter from the WCG office in Big Sandy stating that I would be dropped from the church rolls. Years of support, prayer, fellowship and attendance at Feast sites, church activities, fund raisers and clubs did not matter.
I stated to the brethren in El Salvador that, based on my experience and that of others in Big Sandy who were disfellowshipped, don't expect anything in the way of official contact from the UCGIA.
I am a firm believer in an unwritten beatitude, “Blessed are they who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed."
I hope I am proven wrong on this point and that somebody will contact all these people to thank them for their many years of prayerful support.
The ideal outcome would be for the UCGIA council of elders, based in Ohio, to appoint a fact-finding team to go to El Salvador to contact the pastor and the congregation and become acquainted with some of these people, as I was privileged to do.
Satan has many tools to attack us in our daily Christian walk. Among them is discouragement. In the midst of this group of people, Satan's weapon of discouragement has failed. This congregation is not disheartened. Many are disfellowshipped (or at least think they are), puzzled and stunned. But this will pass. This congregation is poised for growth.
The brethren in El Salvador have their challenges. The country has high unemployment. Many jobs require people to work half a day on Saturday. Many Salvadorians have scars left over from the civil war, which officially ended in 1992, that ravaged many families in the country, taking about 75,000 lives.
El Salvador is known as the Land of Volcanoes, with frequent and sometimes destructive earthquakes.
The country is slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts and extremely susceptible to hurricanes.
I was impressed to learn that, as the smallest country in the region, El Salvador has the third-largest economy in the area. The congregation has many professions represented: architecture, dentistry, the law, accounting and teaching.
Mr. Cisneros expects that the congregation will again sponsor a Feast of Tabernacles site in neighboring Costa Rica in 2007. In time, I'm sure that more details will be forthcoming in the pages of The Journal.
Sabbath services usually begin at about 10 a.m., with Bible study until 10:45. At 11 o'clock services begin, using the traditional WCG format of one sermonette followed by the main message by the pastor.
Refreshments are available throughout, as well as lively fellowship.
This Sabbath day we had to leave early for church. The Cisneroses had to carry a lot of things to services including a laptop, amplifiers, microphones, a boom, cables, a coffee pot, sugar, cream, desserts and paper cups and plates. I had forgotten what it takes to get services started.
A lot was happening at the meeting hall. The choir rehearsed for special music (see a picture of the choir practicing in the January-February issue of The Journal); the audio and video men were setting up their wares; ushers got the people situated; children were trying not to be controlled by their parents; the refreshments were being set up; and all had to be taken care of before 10 o'clock.
Everybody was happy to see each other. I witnessed lots of smiles, hugs and kisses. Many people introduced themselves to me. Mr. Cisneros had already prepared the ground for my impromptu talk at 10 a.m.
Big Sandy mini-history
After he briefly introduced me, I launched into a 20-minute minihistory of the Church of God Big Sandy.
I spoke of how we were concerned in 1995--in the wake of the crack-up of the Worldwide Church of God--to get the Passover properly conducted. Our first Passover took place at the AgPro Systems warehouse in a rural area near Big Sandy, in part of a business owned by Don and Michele Mischnick.
I talked about the joys of realizing that we could once again talk freely about God and enjoy the freedom to sing our favorite hymns, including “O How Love I Thy Law."
I mentioned our attendance in 1995 at the meetings in Houston and Indianapolis of people who were part of the exodus out of the WCG and the setting up of the United Church of God Big Sandy.
After our first church meeting, in March 1995 (the Passover service), and shortly thereafter when we met on the first and last days of Unleavened Bread, we suddenly realized we had to provide a home for a 400-member instant congregation.
I described for the brethren in El Salvador our first couple of years as a congregation. We were always happy to receive new people. We planned for a new home to replace the constant shuffling from place to place, from the building on the rodeo grounds in Gladewater to the Gilmer Yamboree headquarters to the Hawkins High School auditorium and the Winona senior citizens' center.
Every weekend the Big Sandy ordeal of setting up metal chairs, amplifiers, microphones and the coffee service and distribution of songbooks, etc., was similar to what our brethren in San Salvador go through every week.
Eventually plans were brought to fruition and we got into our own building for the first time for Atonement services in 1998. Then we had our first Feast of Tabernacles in our own building.
Later somebody began making tapes of Sabbath services. These evolved into full-service tape duplication and distribution to a mailing list in the United States and a few other countries.
The Hulme era
The memories flood back. I covered the history of a couple of challenges along the way: the departure of David Hulme, the UCGIA's first president; the UCGIA's firing of Dave Havir as our pastor; the letter from Mr. Dick warning of dire consequences; the open Q&A on May 9, 1998, with the members of the UCGIA council of elders in the Hawkins auditorium; and, finally, the UCGIA setting up another Sabbath service at the same time each Sabbath in Gilmer, 12 miles away.
Either Big Sandy or Gilmer
Many had to choose where to attend. For most, it was an either-or situation.
The board faced and met many challenges successfully, including hiring Mr. Havir as our pastor. We were sending out many tapes; we started a Web site (bigsandychurch.org); and we began sponsoring several Feast sites around the United States and eventually other countries.
Today we continue with the same programs. We provide telephonic audio hookups of all weekly and feast-day services, and we send out MP3 CDs that contain sermons, bible studies and seminars.
We also provide streaming video and audio of our weekly services through the Web site. Many brethren around the United States and Canada can tune in to our services. We receive many letters telling us that what we provide is helpful.
To God the Father and Jesus Christ we give the thanks for what has been accomplished.
After the brief history, Mr. Cisneros opened up the floor for me to answer questions from the audience.
Many were interested in our outreach programs, in which our pastor travels as guest speaker to visit many conferences and independent congregations.
I explained the concept of dependence on God, independence from external organizations and interdependence with other congregations.
In Big Sandy, I said, we don't want to be a home office, headquarters or umbrella organization. We just want to help and contribute in whatever way we can to the creation and nurturing of an independently functioning congregation.
We have ties with many other groups in the United States and Canada. We assist young people who want to serve and teach in Thailand under the auspices of the Legacy Institute headed by Leon and Gloria Sexton. We also assist smaller congregations by providing Feast sites around the United States and elsewhere.
Brevity is a challenge
I found it difficult to briefly explain everything Big Sandy has gone through.
In America the history and beginnings of the Church of God Big Sandy are more or less known. Outside of this country many have perceived that we are a “rebel" congregation that split from the UCGIA organization because of a lack of desire to submit to authority.
This perception, of course, is not accurate.
I realized that the promulgation of this misperception was probably our fault for not coming out with a data sheet and background of the Church of God Big Sandy: who we are and what we do.
The Q&A session went a little longer than the time allotted, but Sabbath services continued (without a sermonette) after a short intermission.
The San Salvador church choir sang with great joy and set the appropriate mood for the holy Sabbath day.
After services came more questions, and more acquaintances were to be made.
The brethren in San Salvador invited Dave Havir to visit as well (they can provide translation from English to Spanish).
They requested that we help in publicizing their Feast of Tabernacles, to be held this year in neighboring Costa Rica.
As usual, American brethren's generosity helps with hotel accommodations and with the meeting-hall expenses.
After services many people came to visit at the Cisneros home. We engaged in conversation and partook of family-style food and fellowship for the remainder of the Sabbath day.
Touring on Sunday
On Sunday both of Mr. Cisneros' daughters, a son-in-law and four granddaughters took me to see the top of the volcano on the outside of the city.
We climbed to the top and we saw the black-burned earth as a result of lava spewing out of the volcano.
We also saw the site of the mud slides and the area of the 2001 earthquakes that devastated a broad area.
We stopped along the road and saw many wild coffee plants growing under the shade of broad-leaved plants and other vegetation cultivated on purpose to provide shade for the coffee plants.
We got back to the house, had lunch and prepared to embark on another social visit, this time at the home of Jose Parada.
The occasion was that a group of people would gather and phone in to offer Mr. Parada congratulations on his 80th birthday.
We visited with him, his wife, Teresita, and a couple of his children.
One of his sons, Herbert Parada, lives in Chile while working as a dentist. Another, Roberto Parada, is married to Barbara Nickels, daughter of the late Richard Nickels of Gillette, Wyo., founder of the Giving & Sharing ministry.
Roberto and Barbara Parada reside in Oregon.
Mr. Parada and Veronica Ruiz were two of the original young dentists in San Salvador who made good use of the dental equipment donated through Victor Kubik's LifeNets ministry.
End of the visit
We spent Monday discussing ways of working together, studying the possibility of establishing a future IglesiadeDiosHispana.org Web site and of setting up bank accounts to be able to receive donations from the United States.
We briefly discussed the distribution of audio cassettes and printed materials to Spanish speakers.
Mr. Cisneros has already spoken on timely topics such as “What is the meaning of disfellowshipment?" and “What is the church's commission?"
I answered more questions about organization, board operations, the setting of budgets and topics such as the aging of congregations and the ministry, working with youth and organizing Feast sites.
It was obvious to me that we share a lot of interests, the most important of which is the preaching of the gospel to a world that is increasingly more secular, more obsessed with the self and more immoral than ever.
We will continue to work with this congregation in the next few years.
The return trip was uneventful. After arriving back in Texas, I reported my findings and plans to the Church of God Big Sandy's congregation and board.
Many have expressed the desire to help our brethren in Central America. Stay tuned as we publicize opportunities for many more people to help.