The Faithless

Page 8 of 9

There was no formal notice, just an abrupt cessation of payments: After eight years of living in a remote province, learning the language in order to translate the Bible into the people's native tongue, Davidson's time in China came to a rapid halt.

Valley Cathedral was cutting off Davidson's financial support.

He and his wife and their four kids packed up their bags and flew back to Phoenix.

As November turned to December and Christmas approached, the situation at Valley Cathedral had grown increasingly bleak. A group of 115 members held a "town hall meeting" at the Pointe Hilton Resort at Squaw Peak to discuss concerns; for more than two hours, members — and former members — shared stories and expressed anger about Combs.

Only one person spoke in Combs' favor. Three trustees who still served on the board were in attendance, but only one stood up to introduce himself. None of them spoke.

After the meeting, one of its organizers, 79-year-old Neal Dooley, called Combs to request an appointment to talk about the meeting. Combs initially seemed interested — but when Dooley called back to pin him down on timing, he instead got a call back from a trustee saying the meeting would not take place. Ever.

(The cathedral's attorney, Tiffen, denies that this phone call took place. She says Combs was willing to meet with Dooley but that Dooley "refused to tell Pastor Combs the purpose of the meeting or who would be attending.")

It was around the same time that Dooley learned that the church's food bank had been forced to cut its hours in half because of a lack of volunteers. But when he attempted to remedy the situation, he was given a stern instruction that he could only get volunteers from among the church membership.

Even after he agreed to that stipulation, when Dooley showed up for work, he was told to go home.

The week before, Dooley had sent out a letter summarizing the town hall meeting, letting the membership know that Combs had rejected his attempt at a meeting. And so when he showed up at the food bank, Dooley was told that the trustees had changed their minds.

"I don't want you in there," he says he was told, "but if you've got other members . . ."

Dooley ended up standing outside the shuttered food bank, handing out Fry's gift cards that he'd purchased with his own money. In just one shift, he says, he had 13 takers.

Dooley's kids have tried to convince him to move on. But he's incensed by what he sees. "We don't live in a dictatorship," he says. "This is an orderly world! And I'm not gonna put up with a dictatorship!"

Still, even Dooley admits that it's hard to sit through services. He sees the empty pews, feels the presence of the missing people, sees the unrest roiling beneath the church's fine veneer.

"It's a dead church," he says. "I went there a week ago and I saw the empty chairs where the choir used to sit, and I just sat there and cried."

At that service on December 3, the one where Neal Dooley found himself crying, the congregation is much smaller than the 500 people who sat here six months ago. Much of the church staff is gone, including the longtime worship leader. Most seemed to disappear without a trace — one week they're there; in the next, they'd never existed.

The choir used to fill 50-some chairs behind Combs' pulpit. But this week, there are just 17 people seated there, and they don't lead anything, even their traditional song during the offering. In fact, before the offering, while the congregation is distracted with greetings, they appear to have quietly slipped out of their robes and rejoined the congregation.

Even with the choir mixed in, the giant cathedral still feels half-empty. Multiple pews have been roped off, and few others contain more than a parishioner or two. And this service, at 9 a.m., is the only one they're holding on Sundays anymore: The 11 a.m. and Saturday evening services have been stopped for lack of interest. (There's also one Spanish service, however.)

Pastor Combs tells his congregation that the church needs $7,000 a week just to stay open — $16,254 a week to make payroll. The week before, according to the bulletin, they got just $9,771.

But Combs seems to have a forced cluelessness about how bad things have gotten.

"What we're praying all through 2006," Combs explains, "is for $35,000 to spend on ministry." He notes that it's double what they're currently getting. (It is, in fact, more than triple.)

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske