Preach of trust

Since 1968, the followers of the Reverend Roger Rudin had let him run their lives. But after his sudden death last month, the stunned congregation discovered they'd been pawns in a cruel game of deceit, hypocrisy and kinky sex.

People wearing latex gloves sit on the floor of a west Phoenix living room, pulling artifacts from the life of Roger Somers Rudin out of large garbage bags and stacking them in leaning piles.

Court documents. Photographs. Church records. Financial ledgers. Religious tracts. Articles of clothing.

Nearly all of it is intensely personal. Rudin's bank records, his insurance policies, credit cards and other privacies lie strewn around the room.

It is not the memorial service Rudin would have planned.
The Pentecostal minister and former owner of the historic Hotel Westward Ho has been dead three days, but he will receive no obituary. His congregation at the Upper Room Fellowship has planned no ceremony. His body has already been retrieved by Iowa family members.

Instead, a bitter memorial of sorts is conducted by the people patiently sorting his effects into growing piles, piecing together a remarkable life that included three decades of Phoenix history.

Occasionally, one of them stops to point out an interesting item.
On one stack of yellowing pages, there's a surprisingly fresh-looking church brochure nearly 40 years old.

Rudin looks barely out of his teens in a photograph on the 1959 brochure, a squeaky-clean young evangelist from Ottumwa, Iowa, with a firm grip on a Bible and a grin across his face.

In a mug shot on the back of a gym membership card issued 30 years later, the same smile is embedded in a tanned, doughy face lined with age.

Hundreds of envelopes, empty now, sit wrapped in bundles, each marked with the amount of money they once contained, each an offering to Rudin from the people who loved him.

Newspaper articles with surprising news of world events carry scribbled notes in their margins, asking for Rudin's interpretation and wisdom.

Scrawled letters contain panicked appeals to Rudin for money, others threaten him with legal action, and still others appear to be hastily drawn promissory notes and other legal instruments.

There are thousands of papers. Dozens of books and magazines. A man's entire life, stuffed into the garbage bags. After his death, ladies from the Upper Room Fellowship had cleared out Rudin's office and unceremoniously dumped its contents into a trash bin.

Now the bags sit on the living-room floor of Ruth Stevens, who carefully pulls out their contents, item by item, sorting them into categories.

She's surrounded by family members--her husband, a sister, a cousin--who do the same, piecing together the life of a man they had been taught from birth to believe was a biblical prophet.

Almost their entire lives, they had worshiped Rudin as they would a god. They believed their minister had been divinely chosen to prepare his congregation for the imminent endtimes. They had been instructed never to question that Rudin had special powers granted him by an angel of the Lord. He was prescient, could heal with a touch of his hand, and could read the hearts of men. Rudin had ruled the most intimate affairs of their lives, choosing their mates, approving their business decisions, and advising on their travel plans.

His flock believed that his small Phoenix church was the only true church; they were the "Elect," the chosen people who prepared diligently for the great "catching away."

Ruth Stevens in particular believed in Rudin with a simple but burning faith.

Then, two years ago, doubts began to creep into her mind.
If Rudin were such a holy man, why would a trusted member of the church leave the fold and sue Rudin, claiming to have been swindled? Why would he become obsessed with gambling, and urge his flock to gamble often and give him any winnings? Why had Rudin predicted for more than a year that Stevens' husband, Rob, would die, and then, when Rob's health didn't deteriorate, deny that he had ever made the prediction?

For the first time, Stevens and some of her kin began to wonder if there was something to the rumors about Rudin's private life, vague whispers that they had heard for years.

A trip to the county courthouse did nothing to dispel their doubts. They found dozens of lawsuits against Rudin going back 30 years, with accusations of fraud and deceit and dozens of adverse judgments, as well as a recent criminal conviction for drug possession.

When they showed copies of the court papers to fellow church members, they were scorned for investigating the minister; Stevens and her sister, Rebekah Lucas, were branded backsliders and were shunned by other church members, most of whom had family ties to the sisters through blood or marriage.

But that only made Stevens and Lucas more determined to find out the whole truth about Roger Rudin, and they pressed their investigation further.

Then, on May 5, Rudin died, and a few days later the church that he had led for so long discarded his belongings.

Stevens and Lucas recovered them.
Now they sit, scrutinizing the detritus of the man they had believed would lead them to heaven.

Instead, a very different man emerges from the scraps of his history, a man who led a remarkable double life he had carefully kept from the credulous members of his flock.

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