Pasco church says it aids community services, but nonprofits say no money received

By Kristi Pihl, Herald staff writerOctober 3, 2010 

PASCO -- The white-clad missionary solicits donations from drivers at the busy intersection.

The can she is holding out for money has the shield of the Missionary Church of the Disciples of Jesus Christ on it and proclaims, "We fight drug abuse."

Some drivers give her money. Others pass her by. Where does the money go?

The California-based Missionary Church has been in Pasco since 2001, when it purchased a former motel building now worth $150,300 at 1824 E. Lewis St., which has become the group's missionary training center and chapel, and a pastoral house worth $121,800 at 304 N. Owen Ave., according to county documents.

Although the church has been in the Tri-Cities for almost a decade, little information about it is available.

The Missionary Church is not part of the Tri-Cities Pastors Prayer Network, and local pastors whom the Herald asked had not heard about it.

Thelma Zuria, a church senior evangelist, said she couldn't provide an estimate of how much money the church collects from the public. She said 15 percent goes to support the church and 85 percent for services the church provides in the Tri-Cities and surrounding areas.

Because it is a church, unlike other nonprofit organizations, it isn't required to file documents with the state or federal government explaining how its money is spent.

When a church isn't transparent about how it spends its donations, the public can't determine what its money supports, said James Wellman, chair of the University of Washington's comparative religion department and associate professor of American Religion in the Jackson School of International Studies.

"I would go so far to say it's a scam," he said.

Wellman said bad religion can give good religion a bad name.

"They are trying to look as if they are the Salvation Army or the Red Cross," he said.

But agencies such as those two nonprofits report how money is spent on overhead and services, he said.

Zuria said the missionaries take food to the needy, help distribute toys with Toys for Tots and volunteer in hospitals and jails.

The church has donated to the Yakima County Toys for Tots, but has not helped Benton-Franklin County Toys for Tots, those two organizations report.

Pasco's Lourdes Medical Center, Kennewick General Hospital and Richland's Kadlec Medical Center do not have record of church missionaries serving as volunteers. Neither does the Benton nor Franklin County jail nor Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell.

The church also does not appear in the records of those who volunteer through the Benton-Franklin Volunteer Center.

The church has not responded to any of the many calls the Herald has made since three missionaries provided an initial interview. The Herald also has attempted to reach church headquarters in Covina, Calif., but hasn't received any response to multiple calls.

Its pastoral home was purchased for $80,000 and the Lewis Street property for $90,000, according to county documents.

Property taxes will cost the organization $3,571 this year, according to county documents. The church has already paid about $1,785 of that.

The church spent about $16,506 on property taxes and about $1,241 on interest for both properties between 2006 and 2009, a total of $17,747, according to county records.

The Missionary Church does not own any property in Benton County.

In a 2001 story, The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif., quoted a church member as saying the church used about $15,000 a month it collected outside Walmart and other stores to provide services, but wouldn't reveal the total amount the church's fundraising collects.

The national Missionary Church headquarters website also has no details about how much money the church brings in and how it is used. In addition, there are no precise details on the success or locations of its claimed drug rehab programs or any other services.

The church was brought to California by Apostol R. Gonzalez W., who claims, on the organization's website, that Jesus Christ and disciples Peter and John visited his home, which led him to preach.

The Better Business Bureau's records don't contain any complaints about the church's fundraising.

And although the collection can that church missionaries brandish while seeking money lists a claim the donations will go to fight drugs, the Tri-City church does not have a drug rehabilitation center in the area.

Zuria said that's something the church would like to start locally but can't at the Lewis Street building because it's close to a school.

The missionaries of the nondenominational church are volunteers and don't have a job outside of their missionary life, the members said. Alberto Hidaljo, a Missionary Church disciple based in Pasco, said the Lord is their insurance policy.

The white of their uniforms represents purity, Hidaljo said. And they make the missionaries stand out in a crowd and look professional, Zuria said.

The missionaries of the church are organized into different grades much like the military, Zuria said. Those grades are indicated by the shield on the arm of their white uniforms.

A disciple is one of the first grades, while Ofelia Herrera of Pasco is a preacher and evangelist, a higher grade.

Herrera, a local convert to the church, said she was a member for about four years before deciding to become a missionary.

She said she was attracted by how the church sticks to God's work. "They do what they speak," she said.

The church's history in Pasco isn't as spotless as the missionaries' white uniforms.

In October 2005, the city revoked the church's permit for a missionary training center and closed the Lewis Street facility.

The church had been renting out rooms to women and receiving state Department of Social and Health Services funds to pay for the housing, said David McDonald, Pasco city planner. But according to city documents, the organization had a permit for a missionary training center, not community service housing.

Zuria said the church wanted to provide housing, but the Lewis Street property is zoned commercial, so the organization couldn't get a special permit to house families there.

The city also received complaints about the property's condition starting in January 2005. According to city documents, the complaints included no occupancy certificate, debris, junk and tires left in public view, unpermitted auto sales on the property, junk vehicles, auto storage and weeds.

Mitch Nickolds, Pasco inspections services manager, said the organization has since cleaned up the property. And the city restored the church's permit for a chapel and missionary training center there in August 2006.

People call code enforcement to complain about church members asking for donations in traffic and for having people sleep at the Lewis Street property, he said.

However, the organization does have a special permit to allow its students to sleep there, Nickolds said.

And Pasco Police Capt. Jim Raymond said as long as church missionaries do not impede traffic, they can solicit donations on street corners. They are most often seen near Walmart and at the intersection of Court and 20th Avenue.

An internet search for the Missionary Church reveals little other than that Walmart sued the Missionary Church in the superior courts of several California counties in 2001. The corporation alleged the group was seeking donations in front of its stores without getting permission.

Wellman said people should not donate to an organization if they aren't sure how their money is being used and how successful the programs are.

Otherwise, he said, "You are basically giving blindly."

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