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.

And his former disciples begin to realize that for decades, they had been led down a very different path.

Rev. [Charles] Watson and his family were asked to travel with [Rev. Roger Rudin's] Crusade. . . . Rev. Watson and his family and many other families have felt led to sell their possessions and move to the Phoenix area, where there will be a greater promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit than ever before. . . . Folks are moving in from all over the United States day after day and hundreds more are coming. . . . Rev. Watson also expressed himself that he feels in the very near future there will be a number of devastating earthquakes in the United States and that he has come to the revelation that God has already come and is manifested in the flesh and he is expecting the catching away of the Bride Elect. Rev. Watson admonishes all ordained Seed to make their move. Do not tarry--time is running out. Lay aside man-made church creeds and doctrines, repent and seek God for the revelation of the True Word.

--from a Roger Rudin tract, circa 1968

Ruth Stevens hated it when Roger Rudin would stop one of his rollicking sermons to lift up his pants leg.

On his left ankle, Rudin would show his congregation a diseased scar that he blamed on the backsliding of his believers. Because they had all given themselves up to sin, he would tell them, God had plagued him with this putrescent mark.

The thing looked gangrenous, a ragged stain on his ankle that he claimed had the same shape as California's famed San Andreas Fault.

In fact, Rudin claimed, when his scar throbbed or broke open and oozed pus, he knew that the Golden State was about to be hit by an earthquake.

Rudin's record as a prognosticator wasn't good. Years earlier he had convinced many people, including the Reverend Charles Watson and dozens of other Midwesterners, that by 1970 earthquakes would submerge California and make Arizona a paradise. Rudin persuaded his Iowa followers to relocate to Phoenix in 1968 for the calamity, and made Watson his assistant as they founded the Evening Light Tabernacle. (The congregation itself was dubbed the Evening Light Church for Christ, and later took the name Upper Room Fellowship.)

For some reason, California's survival hadn't convinced Rudin that his gifts of divination were faulty. The scar, which had shown up in the 1990s, was a sign from God that Rudin could still portend the future, he claimed.

Stevens preferred not to see it. She says the scar only added to the physical revulsion she felt for Rudin, even during the time she considered him a divine spirit.

In his final years, after his once thriving ministry had fallen, Rudin looked like several caricatures rolled into one: part Vegas lounge act, part revivalist speechifier, part flamboyant queen. Even at 60, Rudin wore the pompadour that he had adopted as a young man. The big hair and gaudy jewelry he wore only added to his resemblances to Wayne Newton, Liberace and fat Elvis.

Watching a 1995 videotape of a Rudin sermon, which is more eye-rolling, gesturing and theatrics than homily, it's hard to believe that anyone considered him a legitimate preacher, let alone the most important religious figure of his age.

But for a small, close-knit group of Phoenicians, that's precisely what he was.

They belonged to an ultraconservative faith with a strict "holiness standard," a code of behavior that prevented women from cutting their hair, wearing makeup, pants, bathing suits or dresses shorter than the knee. Men could not wear shorts. Members could not smoke, drink, dance, gamble. Premarital sex was strictly forbidden. Even sex in marriage was discouraged.

That's because the world was about to end, and it made little sense to bring children into it. Rudin discouraged them from planning far into the future or from educating themselves, telling them that it was a waste of time. Better to ready their souls for the great spiritual migration, which they were required to do by making extraordinary financial sacrifices.

Like their 17th-century counterparts, these modern-day Puritans believed that strict attention to their behavior, and to the behavior of their companions, was a requisite for being the Elect, the few chosen people who would achieve salvation. The rest of us, everyone but the 200 people in Rudin's church at its height, were damned to hell.

Since leaving the church, Ruth Stevens has cut her hair and now wears earrings. She says her short hair would be a sure sign to her relatives in the church that she was headed to eternal damnation.

Such were the consequences of seemingly trivial transgressions, and it's important to keep that in mind, at least to understand the meaning of the look on Ruth Stevens' face when she realizes the function of the rubber tube in her hand.

She and her sister had puzzled over various plastic and rubber items they had found among Rudin's papers. There was a long rubber sheath which, at one end, was shaped like a human mouth. Above the mouth was a black mustache. In another bag there was a large plastic, cylindrical sleeve. And in other bags a length of rubber tubing and a small motor resembling an aquarium filter.

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