Church, Town Feud Continues in Miracle Valley
Miracle Valley, Ariz--"There is one thing about which I am deadly earnest and that is Jesus. He is my life, my business, my holiness, my hobby, my sweetheart, my husband, my wife, my bread, and my meat. I work to please him in the day and dream of his cause at night."
That was the chant repeated one day recently by two black children in a playground adjacent to the Christ Miracle Healing Center and Church here. The children are members of a religious group whose presence in this tiny community has been marked by continual conflicts with local police and townspeople.
The children and their classmates were withdrawn from the local school system in August when the church started its own parochial school--a school which is not yet legal because the church has not provided the required information to local authorities.
Down the road at the Palominas Elementary School, which they used to attend, a special-education instructor who taught them worries about the quality of teaching and health care she believes they now receive.
"Most of those kids were very far behind when they were here," she says. "At the end, before they left, they made up 100 percent of the remedial reading program for nonhandicapped students. There's lots of talk about this thing, but the real concern for me is the children of that church. I know there are not qualified teachers there giving them the kind of attention they need."
Founded in 1958
Miracle Valley is merely a wide spot on Highway 92, three miles north of the Mexican border in Cochise County, Ariz. It was founded in 1958 by Asa A. Allen, a radio and television evangelist, as a haven for his followers.
Today Miracle Valley is an unincorporated cluster of buildings beside the highway inhabited by some 200 whites and the 300 black members of the Miracles Today Church. The latter group migrated here in 1979, mostly from Chicago, where the church was founded.
At first, said a teacher who asked not to be identified, the Miracles Today children fit well into the local school system.
"Their attitudes, when they first came here two years ago, were very good. But when Mrs. [Frances] Thomas [the church's leader] came here last year, they started being less cooperative. They didn't mingle with the white chil6dren anymore. They became preoccupied with prejudice," the teacher said.
"This is just my theory," she continued, "but I think that when she found out this wasn't going to be the land of opportunity she thought it was, she had to divert her group's attention to something else. The way to do that was to constantly say they were being discriminated against."
'Going to Hell'
Soon, according to the teacher, "the children were told not to speak to us. If they started to say something, another would nudge them and say, 'You're not supposed to talk to them.' They used to talk to me but they all clammed up, and I mean all. Some of them got suspended for refusing to answer a teacher. Even the little bitty ones would come in and say I was going to hell because I wore pants, makeup, and jewelry."
The teacher added: "I said, 'You're going to think you're going to hell if you talk about religion in this classroom again'."
Serious confrontations between adult church members and their neighbors began more than a year ago, reportedly after the church people began maintaining armed security patrols around their property to protect it, they said, from thieves crossing the Mexican border.
According to local newspaper reports, there were also several "stand-offs" between church members and outnumbered police officers called out to investigate various complaints. The encounters ended with the officers leaving the scene before a confrontation occurred.
There were also difficulties with the church's rejection of traditional medical care in favor of faith healing.
The group's practices, local health authorities said, resulted in the deaths of four children. The health officials sought a court order that would have allowed the Arizona Department of Economic Security to seek supervision of four of one child's brothers and sisters if they needed medical treatment, but that request was denied by a county judge.
Church leaders aroused more community discontent when they began saying they did not like the way classes were conducted in the Palominas School District Elementary School.
"Here's how they happened to first leave school," one teacher explained. "In June, we have a one-month remedial reading program for which I give tests during May. The firsttime they pulled a mass truancy was the first day of testing. I was pretty upset. I called Mrs. Thomas and told her and she just promised me the world.
"So I said the kids could come back and make up all the testing," the teacher continued. "In early June, they pulled their second mass truancy. I spoke with some of the men below Mrs. Thomas. They said she didn't like the program, so they kept the kids out. This time, I said, 'fine, keep them out'."
In August, citing discrimination, the church officially withdrew its children from the school. That move resulted in a mass-truancy charge against the church by the Cochise County attorney; the case has now been turned over to the state attorney general's office.
Also in August, in response to growing tensions between blacks and whites, some 50 Arizona highway patrolmen and sheriff's deputies moved into Miracle Valley to keep the peace.
Then on Sept. 10, a bomb exploded in a van occupied by four members of the church, killing one person and injuring three others.
Church leaders charge the bomb was an "assassination" by the local sheriff's office, but investigators, who have been working on the case for over a month, say they have a good case against several members of the church in connection with the explosion. The officials add, according to a report in a local newspaper, that it will be some time before any arrests are made.
Townspeople speculate that the church members were going to the nearby town of Sierra Vista to free two Miracle Valley church members who had been jailed on charges of simple assault, interfering with police business, and carrying concealed weapons.
Prior to the explosion, the Arizona Daily Star had reported that church members had bought two cases of "amogel," an ammonia-based explosive, and 150 blasting caps from an Arizona powder company. A church official claims the explosives were for use in mining operations on church property.
The Palominas elementary school was closed for three days following the explosion, and since then, the four buses that carry the school's children have been accompanied by patrol cars.
Subsequently, church members requested
permission to open and maintain their own parochial school, an arrangement that, according to Arizona law, must be made with the local school board.
At the time, school officials expressed relief that at least some of the difficulties with the church would be over. But the school board is still waiting for the church to provide the information required to establish a separate school, including demonstration of compliance with local standards of teacher competency, curriculum, and number and length of school days.
Also pending is state action on the mass-truancy charge against the church.
A spokesman for the church, who would not identify herself, said regarding the requirements for setting up a school, "We're still looking into that stuff."
According to Loran Young, president of the Palominas district school board, how long the church is given before legal action is taken is a matter of judgment. "The laundry list we gave them was fairly comprehen3sive," Mr. Young said. "It may take them a little time to comply. The logical next step is out of the school's hands. In Arizona, it is the school board's responsibility to report those people truant, and then it's up to the attorney general."
Meanwhile, residents of the surrounding area are hoping that authorities will act to resolve the problems. According to a report in a local newspaper the cost of overtime and equipment related to "keeping the peace" in the area has topped $100,000.
"People here are starting to wonder if this is going to go on forever," the Palominas special-education teacher said.
"The police have told us to bide our time. When they go in, that's going to be the explosion to it all. Those people have automatic weapons. People around here have weapons too. This is still kind of the old West and people are always talking about taking the law into their own hands."