Editorial: A decaying Feast site speaks

The writer, a longtime Church of God member, has attended 40 Feasts of Tabernacles, many of them at the site described in this article.

By Bill Stough

LONEDELL, Mo.--I stared at the parking lot with great astonishment. Many thoughts and feelings that are hard to express overwhelmed me. I was standing on the former Feast property of the Worldwide Church of God at Lake of the Ozarks, Mo.

The property represented a big part of my family's life. The huge asphalt parking lot is breaking up as weeds and grass grow through the pavement. The picnic area where we had spent much time was roped off with "Keep Out, Unsafe" signs. The stand where church members sold food is collapsing. It too has a "Keep Out, Unsafe" sign.

This former Feast property is owned by Columbia College, but most of it is unused and has been left to decay. The site used to be a major location for the Feast of Tabernacles sponsored by the Worldwide Church of God. It averaged an attendance of 5,000 to 8,000 people per Feast, and one year 15,000 of the brethren attended here.

What happened? Surely I was looking at something dramatic. How could this place that played host to the Feast of Tabernacles for decades end up a collapsing ruin?

I remember the days of 40 years ago when I began listening to The World Tomorrow on radio when I lived in San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif. The story of how I came upon "this way" is like that of so many others who would become part of the Church of God. It can't be explained in human terms. I perceived a divine calling.

In those days, in the 1950s and early '60s, the "work" was alive. The World Tomorrow could be heard everywhere. A trucker driving across the Plains of the United States could hear the voice of Herbert W. or Garner Ted Armstrong anywhere he went.

Ships at sea could tune in. A life emanated from those programs that existed nowhere else. What was occurring in people being called has to be explained divinely in spite of the flawed speakers and others doing "the work." No one who has experienced being called will ever forget it. God was there.

An American petroleum worker was concerned about the purpose of life. He thought deeply as he walked across a windswept oil field in Saudi Arabia when a Plain Truth magazine blew before his face and opened to a certain page. He stared at the article on that page, and it began to answer his questions.

That's the way it was in those days. Now I am shocked as I stare at the old Feast grounds fast being reclaimed by nature. What happened?

Back to 1960

I remember my first Feast of Tabernacles, in 1960 at Big Sandy, Texas. In that year the WCG operated only one Feast site for the United States and Canada. Seven thousand people came.

During a service a song leader delivered a flattering introduction of Mr. Armstrong, who then, from the lectern and over the PA system, read him the riot act. He said he didn't want or need that kind of introduction. He said he hated flattery. God, he said, was the one doing the work, not he, and we'd better grasp that.

Not many years later such flattery would be such an integral part of Mr. Armstrong's introductions that it became an embarrassment. He no longer corrected the song leader. People with adoring looks on their faces would jump to their feet and applaud for five minutes when he entered the hall.

I remember the zeal for God at Ambassador College, Pasadena, when I enrolled in 1960. I remember the talks in the dormitory with Art Craig and Ken Westby about how to apply God's Word in our lives. The campus was alive; anyone stepping onto the grounds could sense it. We hungered for God. In many ways we had a primitive knowledge, but God was King, not the church.

The church was growing everywhere in many ways. I used to stand in the beautiful lower gardens at night and be impressed with the peace that could not be explained physically. I'd wonder how such a small campus of so few acres could impact the world so strongly. A vast work was going out from there that was having a dramatic impact.

Feast properties were needed to accommodate the growing number of people attending. Sites were bought and buildings were erected at Lake of the Ozarks; Wisconsin Dells, Wis.; and Mount Pocono, Pa. A new and larger building was erected at Big Sandy. Other sites were rented in many locations because tens of thousands of members poured in.

Change happens

Yet something was starting to go very wrong. The whole church at Pasadena in the early years loved to volunteer to send out mailings. Our regular crews delighted in working overtime for free. We wanted people to know about God. People tackled jobs because they were dedicated.

Things began to change. Dedicated managers were forced out by people playing politics who craved prestige, power and money. Mr. Armstrong was changing too. He began to love to be praised, and he surrounded himself with yes men. When his first wife, Loma, died, so did her check on his humility.

Now throughout the church power, prestige and money were lauded as proof of success. Ministers' status and ranks within the ministry became all important. A caste system grew up within the church. Men who loved power began to strive for position and succeeded in their strivings. People with the dedication to God were pitched out of the church at every turn, and no appeals of that course were acted upon.

This sad state of affairs became the norm before 1970 arrived, and it continued only to worsen.

These attitudes were infecting the local churches, and people's values were being corrupted. The church was held up as the object of loyalty and dedication.

"Bob" is a typical example of a person who was called.

Bob has his eyes opened to the Scriptures. Christ starts to work with him and convicts him of his sins. Bob used to have "carnal" goals. He used to lust for power and prestige at work. He lusted for money and the things it could buy.

He begins to realize that those goals are cheap and shoddy. Bob wants to be transformed. He wants his sins forgiven and to become a new creation in Christ. He becomes genuinely humble from the heart.

He contacts the church. He attends services, then seeks baptism. His minister baptizes him.

But Bob also becomes part of the Church of God community. He sees people seeking ordination and getting it. People seeking power are recognized as chief servants. The environment and minister teach him that if he is to be worth anything in the church he too must learn to serve.

"Learning to serve" is a code for "seeking power," so he begins to seek it. After all, hasn't God placed him there to learn to do things God's way from those God has placed in positions of authority?

Bob begins to transform again: back to the very ways he repented of when Christ was working with him. Only now he seeks the same goals within the church that he had sought outside. He has become carnal in the service of God. The church has replaced Christ.

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are" (Matthew 23:15).

Punishing the publican

Jesus loved the publicans and rebuked the Pharisees. He loved the woman who washed His feet with her tears, and He forgave her sins.

But the church set up ways to promote the Pharisee and punish the publican. The church looked better if it had outwardly righteous members.

Would God want to call people into such an environment? Disfellowshipping and threats of disfellowshipping became a tool to keep people in line. This effectively prevented many people from trying to resolve conflicts with ministers because they knew the result would be retaliation against them.

Sometimes someone would sound a warning that something was seriously wrong, but the result was always the same: The warnings were ignored, and many times the whistle-blower was retaliated against.

Some were fired, "laid off" or disfellowshipped for pointing out problems.

At some point I realized the church was no longer the one I had been called into.

"A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed--without remedy" (Proverbs 29:1). "He who covers his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy" (Proverbs 28:13).

God is merciful, and within this church resided thousands of people who really did seek to serve Him directly, but the system itself was perverting many who bought into the values of the leaders.

Jesus, in Luke 13:6-9, spoke of how God hopes and works for repentance. He told the parable of the fig tree. The caretaker wanted to cut down the tree, but the owner wanted to give it one more year. "If it bears fruit next year," he said, "fine! If not, then cut it down."

Evil at the Feasts

God never intended for the feast days to became part of the system of control used by an abusive church. He intended them to be a time of joyful worship. Instead, at the Feast of Tabernacles ministers would laud and praise Mr. Armstrong and each another. When political changes masquerading as biblical doctrine came more rapidly into the church, they would use sermon time to loudly proclaim their agreement with it.

I used to go to the Feast because I believed it was what God wanted, but I began to hate many things about the Feast: the caste system; the arrogance of superiority when we compared ourselves with "the world"; sermons that preached church government and did not correctly handle God's Word.

My wife and I began the practice of walking out on sick sermons, which remains our practice.

The feast days also became the time to reward by ordination those who had figured out how to play the system. Some of the most spiritually unwell people I've ever known were ordained on feast days in outlying congregations.

I remember an incident at the Feast at the Lake of the Ozarks. The WCG by this time (the late '70s or early '80s) was in the hands of the court-appointed receiver through the action taken by the State of California.

The Feast sites were linked by satellite, and Stanley Radar, an evangelist and church attorney who had a great deal of influence with Mr. Armstrong, was speaking.

Mr. Rader began to whip up the audience in its hostility toward the State of California. People jumped up and shouted things from their chairs in support of Mr. Radar. The crowd appeared to be getting out of hand. I stood and took my young son and started to leave because it looked as though a riot were about to start.

At that point Mr. Radar ended his speech and things calmed down, but I felt the crowd was about to become physically violent. I felt an evil in the air we were breathing, but I kept these thoughts to myself.

Years after this incident, while I was talking to a good friend about memorable moments at Feasts, he brought up the event I just described. He also felt that violence was about to occur. He had never told anyone either, and I had not talked to him about it previously. I wasn't the only one who could see what was happening. It wasn't my imagination. Do you think this is what God intended the Feast to be?

The sheep instinct

People in the Churches of God can be so sheeplike. If people would stand up against wrongdoing, their leaders would have no power to institute evil things. People give the ministers the power they have by obeying whatever they say and supporting them financially.

Many people saw the drift in those days but would take no stand against it. The same thing continues. Ministers hold the greater blame for these sins since they practice abusive power, but they have that power only because the members won't stand up and stand out. It's more comfortable to be in a church, have friends and not rock the boat. Was Jesus a weakling who drifted with the flow? Should His disciples drift?

A time came when God put the ax to the tree. The new Churches of God, spawned since the death of Mr. Armstrong, in 1986, obviously want to continue the same system. But the system perpetrates a spiritually unfruitful life in members.

As I stood on that old parking lot at the Lake of the Ozarks, I was shocked as I felt I was seeing the hand of God.

I remembered what God said He would do to Israel if the Israelites turned from Him to idols. He said He would turn the land into desolation, and people from other lands would stare at the desolation in disbelief and ask, "Why would God do this to His own people?"

"Because they forsook him and worshiped other gods," was the consistent answer. (See Jeremiah 18:15-16 and many other scriptures.)

Christianity is not "my church, right or wrong." It is not supporting a church and forgetting God. That is idolatry. It is not the feeling of pride that we have it all and the world must repent or God will kill everybody.

Within the Churches of God are real Christians, and Christ wants them back. He wants us loyal to Him. We are the bride of Christ. A husband gets jealous when others take his place.

Our God, who doesn't change, described how He would deal with Israel if Israel forsook him. He has done the same to us. Many people see Satan in all that has happened, but could it be that God allowed these events to happen? We should see the hand of God and return to Him.

When I was called, God called me as an individual to get to know Jesus Christ. I listened to a radio program, but no church or minister existed in my area. I was alone. I learned to pray, and God became real to me.

God wants us to know Him, pray to Him and trust only Him . God wants each of us to return to Him.

When I stood on that old parking lot, fast being reclaimed by nature, remembering the huge Feasts that occurred here, I realized that something incredible happened. Could Jesus Christ have allowed the destruction because of our sins?

He is our Savior and desires us to return to Him and be close to Him--each of us as individuals.

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