We were stopped at a rundown liquor store, only a few miles from the Mexican border, when I saw it. My son and I had been driving a lonely stretch of Arizona Highway 92, with little to see except dry grasslands stretching in all directions towards distant broken mountains on the horizon. He was thirsty. This was the only place to get a drink. And yet there, in the distance, was the tattered dome of a church rising from the desolate landscape. I pointed to the complex and told my son, “We’re going in.”
He smiled. We had already trespassed in abandoned houses, a church and heavy mining facilities earlier in the day, so it seemed natural that we would go into this abandoned church as well. As we got closer, we could see that the church was surrounded by tall grass and a number of rundown buildings. The roof of the church looked as if it had been violently ripped off, exposing the great hall that must once have been filled with worshippers. Even though my son and I love exploring ruins together, there was something foreboding about this place. But we were too curious to stay away.
The first building we came to was the cafeteria and meeting hall. The main doors were locked tight, but when we went around back we found a door that had been jimmied open. The kitchen was partially stocked and looked as if it could be ready for service without much work, It seemed like the workers had dropped their utensils and departed unexpectedly and without notice. Inside the main room, a large group of Gothic-style high-back chairs sat neatly arranged for a large gathering. The room was decorated for a fall celebration. Had the participants just left? Maybe they were due to arrive at any moment.
Next we found a school building. In the classrooms the chairs sat as if the students had stood up and left for a fire drill, but had then been lost to some great unknown apocalypse, never to return. Lessons were still written on the chalkboard. The loneliness of the space was heartbreaking. The lives of the occupants seemed to hang on the edges of the all the furniture that their hands had last touched on their way out the door.
Dormitories were left a tumbled mess of personal belongings, alarm clocks, cleaning aids and furniture. Looters had set fire to a few rooms, and smoke damage added to the mood of desperation and abandonment. It was clear that many people had shared these rooms and passed each other socially in the halls. As trespassers, my son and I found it hard not to worry that someone was hiding inside one of them.
What was this place? Why did it hold such an aura of menace? When I got back to my home in Tucson, I started doing research. The more I learned, the more powerful the images I’d recorded came to seem. The emptiness of the compound was the sort you feel when your beliefs are shaken to the core. The fact that it was named Miracle Valley seemed savagely ironic now.
What do you do with your faith when your religious leader is found dead, sitting in a chair surrounded by a pool of his own piss, his luxury hotel room “strewn with pills and empty liquor bottles?” How do you stay a believer when your spiritual shepherd was unable to save himself from his own substance abuse; especially when it was your money that had been funding his addictions? These were the questions faced by members of the Miracle Life Fellowship when their founder A.A. Allen succumbed to acute alcohol poisoning after a particularly heavy drinking and pill-popping binge at San Francisco’s Jack Tar Hotel in 1970.
Growing up in a Catholic family, I had never listened to any of A. A. Allen’s numerous daily radio and TV broadcasts. I wasn’t aware of the Miracle Magazine that he published monthly to highlight the many modern-day wonders for which he took credit. And I never could have imagined that my son and I would one day stumble on the remains of his dream on a trip to explore ruins around Bisbee, Arizona.
My boy likes old mining sites and abandoned buildings. He dreams of finding a forgotten chest of gold in a collapsed mine shaft or an old suitcase stuffed full of gangster cash in an abandoned building. But the “treasures” we found at this complex, at the intersection of Arizona Highway 92 and Healing Way, were both more mundane and more disturbing. We found evidence of what people will do to impose reason on faith, a record of a crumbling order.
A.A. Allen started out as a preacher in the World Assemblies of God Fellowship in 1936. After attending an Oral Roberts tent revival in 1949, Allen found his calling to spread the “miracles” of the Lord. Shortly after witnessing Roberts’ revival he founded A.A. Allen Revivals, Inc. This gave him both tax-exempt status and put him in control of all financial gains from this venture. Then he went on the road in earnest pushing his Healing Revival Campaigns across America. In 1955, Allen took the boldly entrepreneurial step of purchasing a large expensive tent — something he could not really afford — that could accommodate over 10,000 people. Allen had faith in his own success.
That same year, he was arrested for driving drunk in Knoxville, Tennessee. This event was the last straw for the Assembly of God organization which then pushed Allen to resign from their ministry. During this same time, he also resigned from the Voice of Healing association in whose magazines he had been a regular contributor since 1950. When his drinking became too much to hide, Allen pulled out of all organizations that he had initially looked to for support. Instead, he began to rely solely on his growing popularity and his own organization in which he held absolute financial control.
When Allen jumped bail on his drunk-driving arrest, he claimed that the charges were nothing but “a trick of the devil to try to kill his ministry.” He and his supporters claimed that all the drinking and corruption charges lodged against him were nothing but malicious slander. For governments and religious movements alike, staying on a war-footing increases solidarity in your ranks. Americans fighting their “War on Terror,” politicians in the former Soviet Union at war with everyone within and without, followers of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple fleeing to Guyana and David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians barracading himself and his followers into their Waco, Texas compound: all relied on followers coming together to fight against what were perceived to be common enemies, real or imaginary.
This is why allegations of corruption and misdeeds by Allen were discounted within the Miracle Life Fellowship, as persecution not only of Allen himself, but of all his supporters and followers as well. Indeed, even now there are currently numerous websites devoted to conspiracy theories meant to debunk the official accounts of Allen’s life and death.
Who doesn’t dream of a happy miracle that will change their life forever? Allen wrote in his booklet, Power To Get Wealth. How You Can Have It! that the key to financial success could be found in Deuteronomy 8:18: “It is He that giveth thee power to get wealth.” Allen added, “Christ came to do away with the works of the devil, and one of the works of the devil is POVERTY!” Capitalizing on this promise, Allen began selling “prosperity clothes” which were anointed with his mysterious “Miracle Oil.” Allen sold these handkerchiefs for $100, a very large sum in 1958. He promised to forever change donors’ fortune with this act, claiming he could command God to “turn dollar bills into twenties.” No matter how you do the math, you’d be a fool not to purchase one of the these prosperity handkerchiefs, right? After turning just five dollars into twenties, everything else would be free money!
The miracles Allen promised didn’t stop with financial success. He ran TV commercials declaiming, “See! Hear! Actual miracles happening before your eyes! Cancer, tumors, goiters disappear! Crutches, braces, wheelchairs, stretchers discarded! Crossed eyes straightened! Caught by the camera as they occurred in the healing line before thousands of witnesses.” Allen often matched his wild promises with wild style, wearing outlandish outfits such as a lavender suit with white patent leather boots. What the commercials didn’t tell you was that Allen’s hired “goon squads” violently prevented all independent photographers and reporters from documenting or testing the validity of his purported miracles.
The concept of faith-healing is interesting from a scientific standpoint. Even if Allen was guilty of questionable practices, an understanding of statistics would suggest that, given the vast numbers of people who attended his revivals, many actually found the “miracle cures” that they came looking for. Current research has shown that even when using mainstream commercial pharmaceuticals, more than 50% of their effectiveness comes from the placebo effect. Our bodies work in mysterious ways, especially when we have strong faith and belief in the cure. It begs the question, “What does truth matter when even a lie can heal you?”
The land that Life Fellowship International Bible School was built on was given to Allen in 1958 by Urbane Leiendecker, a young rancher. God reportedly spoke directly to Leiendecker as he sat alone in his pickup truck one night looking up at the stars saying “My son, from this place the Gospel shall go out to all the world…with signs, wonders and miracles.” A short time after this visitation, while Leiendecker was attending the 1958 Great A.A. Allen Winter Camp Meeting in Phoenix Arizona, God again spoke to Leiendecker saying, “This is what I have asked you to do with your range! This is the purpose for which I have ordained it and told you to give it to Brother Allen.” Within days, A. A. Allen Revivals, Inc. was named the sole owner of Miracle Valley.
After Allen died, the property changed hands many times. First it went to Reverend Don Stewart. After taking charge, Stewart was immediately hit by Allen’s brother-in-law with allegations of embezzlement and pocketing offerings from revivals. Stewart moved up to Phoenix and tried to sell the school. He gave up in 1975 and leased the college to the Hispanic Assemblies of God organization for one dollar a year for twenty years, essentially giving the property away.
This new group turned out to be somewhat militant in actions and beliefs and preached what locals referred to as “anti-white doctrine.” The group had repeated hostile and violent confrontations with neighbors and utility workers. In 1982, law enforcement was called in. An armed standoff ensued that ended with two group members and one deputy shot dead. In the same year, an arson fire caused substantial damage to the administration office and a large warehouse on the property.
Stewart received a one million dollars insurance cash-out settlement from the insurance company. To avoid a prolonged legal battle with the Hispanic Assemblies of God organization, who still held a twenty-year lease on the property, he gave them the property as-is with the agreement that they would maintain a bible school on it for an additional twenty years. After receiving his one million dollars, Stewart walked away with more money than he could have gotten though any legitimate sale. The arsonists were never caught.
The Hispanic Assemblies of God organisation occupied the premises for precisely twenty years after receiving the property from Stewart, thereby honoring their legal commitment. Then, in 1999, they sold the complex to the Harter Ministries who began teaching classical Pentecostal theology. This organization found it hard to make money with this approach. Within ten years, this new bible college was destitute and unable to meet expenses. In January, 2009, banks foreclosed on the property and it was vacated by force of court order. This explains the Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations strewn throughout the compound, traces of what would be the final celebrations in Miracle Valley.
I wonder what the devotees felt while celebrating their last New Year’s Day in the complex. Did the weaker in the group sneak off to buy liquor across the highway? Did they huddle together praying for a financial miracle that would save their school? Were they making plans for what they would do if the school was lost? Or did they find denial in their faith?
A.A. Allen is quoted saying, “Again and again, when my head was splitting and my frayed nerves let me shake visibly with a ‘hangover’, I promised myself I would never go on another again. But when night came, I was right back there…the life of the party! A confirmed drunkard!” After dedicating his life to spreading the Lord’s Word, Allen said, “No more dances! No more liquor! No more cigarettes! Desire for them had vanished, and a new joy and peace had taken their place.” What had filled his new life was money, power and a devoted following. Life on the road, fancy clothes, throngs of fans — it all had to be exciting.
In the adminstational offices, the ghost of Allen still lingers. You can imagine not only the financial power Allen had at the apex of his career, but his isolation. What did Allen think when he sat up alone at night? How did he deal with his personal crises of faith? Looking out through the north-facing windows in the Dome of Faith at night, the lights of the liquor store beckon from across the field. Did he send a faithful assistant out for liquor when the pressure of being A. A. Allen became too great to bear, or had he successfully kicked his alcoholism as he claimed (despite the fact that after his death, the coroner concluded following a 12-day investigation and autopsy that Allen died from “liver failure brought on by acute alcoholism”)? Does it even matter anymore?
God is reported to have told Allen, “I say unto thee I have ordained this place [Miracle Valley] and if thou wilt trust me, there shall no evil befall this place. There is no power that can destroy that which I have ordained. If thou wilt believe that I am the God of all flesh, that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever, no evil shall befall this place, no destruction, because the hand of the Lord is upon this place and surrounding this place. I shall protect it from all the powers of evil and all the powers of man, for I, the Lord, am the power of all powers. There is no power but of me, saith the Lord, and I shall protect, I shall keep, and I shall save throughout the Millennial Age, saith the Lord.”
After my son and I emerged from the last building, we heard the sounds of glass shattering and other materials being smashed. The sun was going down, and darkness descended around us. We rushed through the central grounds of the compound and saw two carloads of teenagers wielding sledgehammers. They were smashing windows and breaking down doors. We were done exploring and didn’t want to confront them. As we quietly walked out toward the main highway where our car was parked along Healing Way, we heard the sounds of continued destruction punctuated by riotous laughter. No one was protecting Miracle Valley on this night.