The plans generated lots of talk in the neighborhood. These houses aren't cheap — Salman paid $707,000, according to county records — and everyone was used to a certain bucolic feeling. Nobody liked the idea of church basketball games, loud Christian pop music, and a long line of cars coming in and out.

When, at a neighborhood association meeting, one neighbor told Salman he didn't like the plan, Andrea and Mike Julius watched Salman grow visibly angry.

It made a bad impression.

Suzanne and Michael Salman, with their four little girls, can't understand why every hoop they jump through seems to lead to another.
Giulio Sciorio
Suzanne and Michael Salman, with their four little girls, can't understand why every hoop they jump through seems to lead to another.
Andrea and Mike Julius are worried that the backyard church could have a serious impact on their neighborhood — and their property values.
Giulio Sciorio
Andrea and Mike Julius are worried that the backyard church could have a serious impact on their neighborhood — and their property values.

"It was clear at that point what we were dealing with," Andrea Julius says. "I don't want to say someone who seemed possessed, but not a cool-headed person."

Tom Woods remembers thinking the same thing. When neighbors complained about how his project would affect their property values, Woods says, Salman was dismissive.

"He gave us a lecture on the fact that all of us were going to make money on our property, and if we were true Christians, we ought to be willing to sacrifice a little bit," Woods recalls. "You can imagine, a few guys in the audience were all over him for that.

"That meeting is where the real animosity started. He made no effort at being conciliatory or cooperative. That really united the neighbors against him," Woods says. "He was his own worst enemy."

After Salman's comment about their property values, the neighbors were asking, "Who is this guy?" It took only a simple background check to get everybody really talking.

Salman, they found out, had a prison record: He was an ex-gang member who'd done time for a drive-by shooting.

They learned, too, that even after getting out of prison and becoming a pastor, he'd been booked on a misdemeanor for impersonating a police officer. According to court records, a girl from Salman's fledgling congregation was fooling around with an older boy; at the parents' request, Salmon went over to the boy's house and pretended to be a cop to scare him.

That didn't sit well with the neighbors. Neither did a document that showed up on the county recorder's Web site. In 1994, Salman had filed paperwork claiming that he belonged to the Embassy of God. That meant, the document claimed, that he didn't need to follow United States law.

While strange, that idea was actually popular with some fringe segments of Christianity at the time. An Oregon man started it by claiming that true Christians were exempt from the laws of earthly governments. In his thinking, they shouldn't face so much as a traffic ticket if they were caught speeding. Just as ambassadors from other countries have diplomatic immunity, so should "ambassadors" from Heaven. (When judges across the country disagreed, soon enough, the movement's popularity faded.

So that document circulated the neighborhood, as did the police report from Salman's arrest and the files from his divorce. They weren't exactly relevant, but they were certainly worth a chuckle.

"One neighbor got all the records together and made it available to anyone who wanted them," says Tom Woods. "And when you read all this stuff, you really start to wonder about the guy."

Michael Salman is sitting in his spotless den on a sunny December morning. His wife, Suzanne, pours glasses of iced tea; their two youngest daughters play quietly. They have two more daughters under the age of 8 and a fifth child on the way. They're hoping, understandably, for a boy.

The couple is more than happy to talk about the events of the past year. They know the neighbors are against them, but, as they describe it, they've faced nothing but one hassle after another for what ought be a fairly simple plan.

They have the land, and the neighborhood's zoning allows for churches. Why, the Salmans wonder, have things gotten so complicated?

"I want what is fair and right," Michael Salman says. "It's our property. Why should people be able to tell us what we can and can't do? I don't tell them they can't have horses. How can they tell me I can't have a Christian congregation?"

Salman is 5-foot-8 and built like a fireplug. Born in New York City, his family moved to northeast Phoenix when he was young. His parents are from Jordan.

But, like a small minority of Jordanians, the Salmans aren't Muslims. He was raised Catholic — sort of. "We went to church on Sunday and we lived in this world on Monday," he says, laughing ruefully.

Being a pastor isn't his full-time job. Salman works at a family-owned credit-card processing company; his wife, in addition to raising those four kids, is a licensed real estate agent.

But that's not the part of their life that the Salmans are talking about this morning. Instead, Salman talks about how he became a Christian, a journey that includes his time in prison. He talks about his criminal history without self-consciousness or even much prodding. It's his testimony, and he's clearly used to sharing it.

After graduating from Paradise Valley High School, Salman says, "I was a real rebel. I got involved in gangs. And then I found myself on the wrong side of the law."

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