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Citizen Staff Writer

A ministry runs afoul of Cochise County rules in its attempt to offer day care and elder care on a site with a bloody past.


Citizen Staff Writer

MIRACLE VALLEY – A group led by a Pentecostal minister from Ohio has opened a Bible college here on the former campus of a Chicago ministry that came to a violent end in the mid-1980s.

The new group wants to run day- and elder-care facilities, along with the college.

But Cochise County officials say Ohio-based Melvin Harter Ministry Inc. needs special-use permits to build what it wants on the site, about 100 miles southeast of Tucson.

The officials are understandably leery. The Chicago group’s ministry ended in gunfire when three of its members were killed in a shootout with county deputies.

Rev. Melvin Harter said his group of fundamentalist Christians poses no threat, and that a Bible school and the other facilities the group wants on the property is “grandfathered” in on zoning rules approved before the current zoning restrictions.

“We love the Lord and want to share that with people. We’re not some kind of cultish group, not isolationists. We believe we’re in the world, but not of the world,” Harter said.

“We try to say we’re classical Pentecostalists, the original, old kind. We believe in separation from worldly things: no drinking, no smoking, this type of thing. No dancing, no card playing. We don’t play lottery, nothing related to gambling. We don’t do anything that might create lust in people.”

Miracle Valley has been home to religious fundamentalists since 1958, when an evangelist bought 2,400 acres in the valley and gave the area its name.

The land has changed hands several times through the years, but had not been used as a ministry for nearly 20 years, since the members of a black Christian church from Chicago packed up and left the site.

At the time, church members said they were harrassed by sheriff’s deputies and by local white residents of the rural area who didn’t like having the urban black parishoners nearby.

The conflict exploded in a deadly shooting Oct. 23, 1982, between local authorities and members of The Healing Center and Church.

Three church members were killed – one the son of the church’s leader – and two church members and five sheriff’s deputies were injured. The shootout brought Gov. Bruce Babbitt and the Rev. Jesse Jackson to the area to try and broker peace.

A tour of the Miracle Valley campus reflects years of neglect.

A ceiling panel hangs haphazardly inside the office reception area. Once-lush lawns have dried to brown, and weeds encroach on the crumbling edges of the paved entryway.

Exterior paint is peeling on building trim, and the once-resplendent, multicolored dome on the church, visible for miles, is muted and in need of repair.

Reaction among area residents to news that the property is home to a new group that intends to refurbish the property ranges from “I didn’t know that” to “I don’t care one way or the other.”

Jeff Schwarz, 50, who lives two miles east of the college campus, recalled hearing gunfire during the violence of 1982.

“When we got up in the morning, we could hear all the gunfire. By the time we left, they had sealed the highway off . . . and virtually every sort of law enforcement officer, including Border Patrol, just flooded in this area. It was pretty wild.”

But Schwarz said he has no opinion “whatsoever” about another Christian group taking over the property.

Urbane Samuel Leiendecker, who donated nearly two square miles of property for the original Bible college in the 1950s, said he has chatted with Harter about reopening the college. “He even asked me to live on the property, but I turned him down,” said Leiendecker, 78.

Jeannie Hawkins, 40, lives about a mile west of the campus.

“I don’t have any concerns about it reopening,” she said. “I haven’t heard of anybody talking bad about reopening the Bible college.

In the newest effort to bring religious training to Miracle Valley, Harter said the only resistance he has seen is from county officials.

The group bought the property and 15 buildings in the quiet, grassy valley for $650,000 in August 1999.

Harter’s group then filed papers with the county seeking permission to build the Miracle Valley Bible College & Seminary, the day-care center and an assisted-living facility for senior citizens.

In May, the group got a zoning permit to operate the assisted-living facility and a day-care center with 10 children.

“It’s like pulling teeth over there,” Harter said. “It took 18 months for a zoning clearance that in the past, wherever I’ve been, should take 15 minutes.”

But the group has no permit for the Bible college.

Harter said he disagrees with Jim Vlahovich, director of the Cochise County Planning and Zoning Department, on whether the new owner is “grandfathered” in for land use as a Bible college.

County officials have said that because at least 12 consecutive months passed when no Bible college was operated on the property, the present owners have no right to the land’s grandfathered status.

However, the county hasn’t taken any action to close the college.

“We’re probably going to let dust settle a little bit for now,” Vlahovich said. We’re trying to work with them. We’re not trying to shut them down.”

Harter said obtaining the special-use permits the county wants could take as long as 18 months, which would put the church out of business in Miracle Valley.

“Basically, what it is, they drag us along, hoping we’ll go bankrupt,” Harter said.

Harter said county officials once seemed enthusiastic about his plans.

“When we first came (to Arizona) in the spring of 1998 to look over the property, we went to the county, and they seemed very supportive of our ideas,” said Harter, a native of Cleveland, Tenn., who began preaching on street corners at age 11.

He intends to pair the Bible college – with a projected enrollment of 320 – with the day-care and assisted-living programs to train ministers and fulfill a need in the community for those services.

Harter said his organization includes a half-dozen churches, most in Ohio, affiliated with other independent Pentecostal churches in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

Vlahovich said the delays in moving the project forward are not the county’s fault but Harter’s for not providing timely documentation when he applied for zoning variances.

Harter also suspects there might be some resistance from Cochise County’s heavily Mormon population in approving his plans.

“Well, I’ve heard that it might be, but I don’t know that to be true,” he said. Vlahovich said it is not a question of religion but simply a point of law.


- 1958 – Fire-and-brimstone, faith-healing evangelist Asa Alonzo Allen acquired 2,400 acres in an open valley south of Sierra Vista and dubbed it Miracle Valley. He had been successful with tent-show revivals around the country. He sponsored twice-yearly revivals at Miracle Valley that attracted as many as 3,000 participants.

Allen had a massive church and Bible college complex built on the property: 15 block buildings in all, including one office structure to accommodate 175 employees who produced and distributed his books, tapes, lesson plans, prayer cloths and radio programs on 70 radio stations, and handled his 300,000-member mailing list. The church received 55 million pieces of mail annually. The college had 100 students. Annual income was estimated at nearly $2.5 million.

- 1970 – On June 16, Allen, 59, died in a room at the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco. Death was from acute alcoholism, an autopsy found. Allen’s associates tried to continue the ministry, but it failed, mired in court proceedings involving claims of misused funds.

- Mid-1970s – The property was acquired by another religious group, and sporadic attempts were made to begin another religious operation. Periodic seminars, church services and encampments were held on the land.

- 1978 – The first of a number of members of the Chicago-based Healing Center and Church, founded in 1962 by the Rev. Frances Thomas, began arriving on the land. She was one of an estimated 10,000 ministers ordained by Allen. From the start there was mistrust and dislike between the tough, urban Chicago transplants and set-in-their-ways, rural Cochise County residents.

- Late 1980 – A series of racial slurs, burglaries and vandalism – each side blaming the other – prompted church members to establish an armed security force to patrol the property.

- 1981 – The deaths of four children, whom state officials said might have survived had the fundamentalist church members not refused to administer medication, prompted authorities to try unsuccessfully to place other children there under state supervision. Church members refused.

- Mid-1981 – Cochise County deputies were met with physical resistance as they tried to serve church members with traffic warrants. Then-Sheriff Jimmy Judd conferred with Gov. Bruce Babbitt and the head of the state Department of Public Safety. Increased patrols by law officers were established.

- September 1981 – A dynamite bomb exploded in a van driven by church members, killing one and injuring two others. Other bombs were found in the van, leading to speculation the church members might have been headed to Sierra Vista to free two other church members arrested the same day.

- May 1982 – Gov. Babbitt intervened to arrange the surrender of 14 church members wanted on traffic warrants.

- June 1982 – Church members filed a $75 million suit, claiming civil rights violations by eight county officials.

- October 1982 – Church members wielding bats and clubs fought off deputies trying to serve traffic warrants. Three dozen law officers returned the next day to try again, and more violence broke out. Two church members – including Thomas’ eldest son – were killed, and two were injured. Five deputies were hurt. Nineteen church members were indicted in shooting-related incidents. Many church members returned to Chicago.

- May 1983 – Church members vowed they would not return to Miracle Valley.

- February 1984 – County officials dropped all charges against church members. Later, a $500,000 out-of-court settlement was announced in the church members’ $75 million lawsuit against the county.

- November 1987 – A church member paralyzed from a bullet wound in the shootout dies, apparently of complications from that wound.

MAP: Miracle Valley

Source: Tucson Citizen

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1982 file photo

A history of Miracle Valley, where a fire-and-brimstone preacher purchased land in 1958, and where in October 1982 a shootout with deputies left dead three members of a Chicago group’s ministry, including Augusta Tate (right).

1980 photo by GARY GAYNOR/Tucson Citizen

From left: William Thomas Jr., assistant pastor of the Christ Miracle Healing Center and Church, and the Rev. Francis Thomas, the church’s founder. Most members have since returned to Chicago.

Photo by PAUL L. ALLEN

Rev. Melvin Harter says his Miracle Valley Bible College & Seminary poses no threat to the people of nearby Sierra Vista.

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