God a No-Show on TV

Associated Press/March 24, 1998.

GARLAND, Texas (AP) -- Onlookers, satellite trucks and legions of reporters streamed Tuesday into a Dallas suburb where a Taiwanese religious group awaited God's appearance on television -- an event they say presages his return to Earth next week.

But the appointed hour passed early Wednesday without the promised TV appearance. The group's leader said his faith was not shaken.

"Even though the image doesn't show on television, I don't have any reason to doubt the existence of the Supreme Being, God, in this universe," church leader Chen Heng-ming said through a translator at a midnight-hour news conference.

Police erected barricades and cordoned off a 165-house area in the tree-lined neighborhood, where nearly 140 members of God's Salvation Church are living in various upscale houses. The main house, their leader's, serves as their church.

Church leader Chen Heng-ming, known as "Teacher Chen," had said God will appear on Channel 18 across the country at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday to mark the beginning of his return. In Garland, Channel 18 offers religious-oriented programming; in nearby Dallas, it is a home-shopping channel.

After midnight, the cable channels continued with their scheduled programs. The broadcast channel had only white noise.

Though church members -- most clad entirely in white, with white hats -- have spoken openly about their principles in the past, on Tuesday they politely declined comment as they entered the fenced-in backyard of Chen's house.

"I'm sorry. I can't," one said gently in Mandarin Chinese, smiling as he waved off a reporter.

Implied in the media and police attention is the notion that church members might take drastic or unexpected action if God does not appear. Chen and his followers insist they have no plans to harm themselves and say suicide would violate God's principles.

"They've been model citizens," said Garland police Lt. Don Martin. But, he said, "We would be remiss in our duties if we didn't consider that option."

Chen says God will appear at 10 a.m. on March 31, beginning a new era for a human race he says has lost its way.

The city has mobilized more than 50 police officers and emergency personnel to make sure events proceed with as little turmoil as possible. Police issued press credentials for the neighborhood Tuesday morning and set up what they called a "media corral" near the house.

The group's prophecies come almost exactly a year after the Heaven's Gate sect committed mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Heaven's Gate members said they believed that, if they "shed their containers," they would be picked up by a spaceship hidden by a passing comet. Thirty-eight people died.


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