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.

Rudin's followers believed that Rudin had not only followed Branham as a prophet but had superseded him, for Rudin's dire visions were more imminent than those of Branham. In the late 1960s, Rudin claimed that he had foreseen not only the destruction of California but of the entire country by earthquakes. An angel, he claimed, had told him that the only safe place would be Phoenix.

Ernie Bohi, Patricia's cousin, was convinced. Bohi tells New Times that the other Pentecostal ministers in the Ottumwa, Iowa, area were impressed by Rudin's gifts--he seemed to be able telepathically to read what churchgoers had written down in prayer requests--and Bohi thought it a sure sign of Rudin's powers when, as Rudin was recruiting families for his Crusade, a small earthquake did roll through Ottumwa.

In 1968, Ernie Bohi and dozens of others sold their farms and houses and moved to Phoenix in preparation for the looming rapture. Rudin had set a deadline for the calamity: By the end of 1970, earthquakes would pull California into the sea and inundate Florida with tidal waves. And, as a newspaper account later described it, Rudin had also seen in a vision that following the quakes, "The area of the already-raped land then was ravaged by giant ants as tall as 14 trees and birds with four-mile wingspans."

About 200 people assembled in Phoenix for the quakes. Bohi says that the congregation met every weeknight, praying and preparing. His wife kept their children out of school, thinking that school was useless with the world ending.

As the end of 1970 neared and California and Florida remained unharmed, however, Bohi and others began to get suspicious. Bohi had not only given $30,000 to Rudin out of the sale of his farm but had also paid thousands more for bonds to purchase a building on McKinley Street they named the Evening Light Tabernacle. He didn't like thinking that he'd been taken.

Rudin, sensing trouble, announced that he would regain their confidence by traveling to the Holy Land and performing a miracle: He would reveal a hidden compartment in Egypt's Great Pyramid. Seventeen members, including Bohi, traveled with Rudin on a 25-day trip that took them through Chicago, London, Rome, Naples, Cairo, Nicosia, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Zurich and Paris. It was a tense (and expensive) vacation, and Rudin was unable to pull off his miracle. "He came gasping for air out of that thing [the pyramid] like the rest of us. He didn't prove a thing," Bohi says.

Embarrassed that he had given up prime farmland (later it would balloon in value, leaving Bohi out of a million-dollar profit, he says), Bohi wanted his money back. He and several others would spend the next two years suing Rudin, claiming that the preacher had defrauded them by lying about the value of the bonds he had sold them. Bohi would eventually win several judgments against Rudin. Bohi also denounced Rudin as a fake in the church, and about 70 of its 200 members left the congregation; many, including Bohi, eventually returned to the Midwest.

But if Rudin's attempt at endtime prophecy had flopped, by 1970 he'd already recruited another source of believers who would make up the backbone of his church for the next three decades. And he had one man to thank for that.

Gilbert Pedroza was a Phoenix resident and Branham follower who fell deeply under the influence of Rudin. Before long, he had recruited many members of an extended Mexican-American clan made up of three main families. Pedroza's children--including his daughters Ruth Stevens and Rebekah Lucas--would be raised under a strict holiness standard, prepared for the end of the world, and suffered few of the doubts that had caused their Midwestern counterparts to turn away from Rudin.

An evangelist from no particular sect, Rudin answered to no other church, and was under no doctrinal yoke. Over the next 20 years, he would develop an idiosyncratic belief system that his followers accepted as the word of God. Increasingly, as the '70s unfolded, Rudin's message would mix Bible prophecy with numerology, New Age beliefs, and astrology.

But mostly, Rudin's theology ran on cash.
"'Buy faith,' Roger would tell us," Stevens says. "He would tell us to put off paying our mortgages or rent and give him the money and the Lord would bless us a hundredfold." Stevens regrets now that she often pressured her brothers and sisters to keep up their payments to Rudin.

Her brother, Gabriel Pedroza, says that two years ago, when he still attended, he grossed $2,300 per month and gave $500 of it to the church, or about twice as much as a normal "tithe." Other church members gave similar amounts; records show that Rudin kept a careful eye on each member's offerings. A general ledger from 1989 indicates that the church was able to raise more than $160,000 that year from a membership which by then had dwindled to only about 50 adults. Rudin paid himself more than $80,000.

Other records show that congregants turned over control of property and cars and made large loans to Rudin. Frantic handwritten notes from members desperately asking for payments on those loans lie among the piles of Rudin's papers, as do various liens and default notices on the properties the minister controlled over many years.

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