Schell City, Mo. -- A split within the whites-only Church of Israel has church leaders crying blackmail over a severance package for a departing pastor.
The controversy has pitted a millionaire patron against the board of trustees of this secretive Southwest Missouri church. It has also allowed a rare glimpse into the finances of the church, which believes in racial separation and has consistently been named by watch groups as among the most racist in America.
The patron, Jerry Gentry of Big Sandy, Texas, says he is concerned about the "spin" placed on the story by church leaders. He is threatening to go to federal authorities with what he describes as sensitive tax information about the church if the original severance agreement is not upheld.
Church leaders, however, say the Nov. 13 agreement was coerced and want the return of $120,000 in cash and real estate that was given the departing pastor, Scott Stinson. Stinson, they say, is guilty of "felony theft" and blackmailing the church by misappropriating church records.
The Church of Israel owns about 1,300 acres of land in northeastern Vernon County, according to courthouse records. Most of it is in a corridor along M Highway, west of the tiny community of Schell City. The land is needed, church leaders say, to fulfill the original vision of the separatist colony by offering homesteads to young white families with children. Gentry says he contributed $500,0000 in 1994 to buy land and build two parsonages, among other projects, as a tithe offering following the sale of one of his businesses. He was able to count the donation as tax exempt because he funneled it through a non-profit group called the National Heritage Foundation.
By using a strategy called "donor-advised funds," the foundation offers tax-free contributions to unpopular causes. In two years, according to The Wall Street Journal, it has gone from a basement operation to the nation's 64th largest charity. Many long-standing charities have called for a federal investigation of the National Heritage Foundation's practices.
Last month, he said, he served as the "mediator" between Stinson and the church to formulate a severance agreement. The Nov. 13 agreement gave Stinson the deed to one of the $100,000 parsonages built by Gentry, and an additional $20,000 cash payment from a church safe. It also required Stinson to resign and tell the congregation that "God is calling him to go and raise up a Israelite church in the hinterlands of America."
Stinson declined comment.
Gentry, however, characterized Stinson's decision to leave the church as the result of a "crisis of conscience." As the former chairman of the board of trustees, Gentry said, Stinson was worried that about personal legal liability for decisions made by the church's 63-year-old patriarch, Dan Gayman.
According to agreement, Stinson would remain an ordained minister of the church. Gayman, in turn, would refrain from speaking "negatively" about Stinson, would sell the parsonage for Stinson and keep $20,000 as a commission, and put "the people of his choice" into the house.
The agreement says that Gayman "will get the peace of mind that comes from knowing that he has finally gotten rid of Scott Stinson and his family without having a major crisis" and enjoy having "avoided one of the biggest internal conflicts that could ever threaten the Church of Israel."
Gentry said he felt the negotiations had gone well until receiving a letter dated Nov. 27 from the church's attorney, Kendall Vickers of Nevada. The letter accused Stinson of "felony theft" and demanded that Stinson and Gentry appear before the board.
"We feel a sin has been committed," said board spokesman Gray Clark. "The letter fully expresses the position of the church board of trustees. We have asked for Stinson to come back to the church, appear before the board . . . and return everything he got."
Clark declined to release a copy of the letter because to do so, he claimed, would be "extremely damaging" to the reputations of both Gentry and Stinson. He also declined to reveal details of the settlement agreement, or to state why the board feels the agreement had been broken.
If the trustees truly feel that felony theft has been committed, Gentry said, the board should file a complaint with the local sheriff instead of asking its attorney to write letters.
Gentry, 57, made his fortune in the craft and needlework publishing business and during the early 1980s was the largest single contributor to Herbert W. Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God. He has been associated with the Schell City colony for 12 years, and for the past decade has pastored a Church of Israel congregation in Texas.
Gayman said Gentry stipulated control of most of the 1994 donation, including $200,000 in parsonages and a music and video production addition to the existing church annex that accounted for most of the remainder.
"Jerry has not been a member of this local church," Gayman said, "but a supporter of the national church . . . His beliefs differ radically from where we are." Gentry said he purchased a farm near the church and had planned to move to the colony before a recent divorce caused a change of plans. He said he supported the church financially because he was sympathetic to its belief system, which he said represents a "very different and unpopular view in this world."
Like the Church of Israel, Gentry condemns mixed marriages and homosexuality. But he also believes that blacks, Asians and Jews are "primate races" that were created before Adam, and that the gospel applies only to whites.
"Other races are in no danger of going to hell or are in need of Jesus Christ," Gentry said. "It's not about hate, but about God having a special plan for them. Only Israel needs redemption."
Gentry also believes blacks should be segregated from whites in school and work because, he says, "with an IQ of 80, they just can't do the work. It's unfair."
Like other Identity Christians, Gentry believes that whites are the true Israelites, or the "chosen people" of the Bible. The theory emerged in a 19th Century movement known as British Israelism, but has been embraced in recent decades by elements of the extreme right.
Gentry, who is also the administrator of the church's Web site, said he still considers himself a friend of Gayman and the church, but is tempted to post on the Internet all of the correspondence relating to Stinson's departure. The site he already has reserved for such use, he said, is www.dangayman.com.
The Schell City colony was founded in 1941 by a handful of disaffected Mormons and was originally associated with the Church of Christ (Temple Lot), a group based in Independence, Mo. The church underwent a number of name and doctrinal changes during the next six decades.
Dan Gayman took control of the church following a decisive split that began in 1972.
The church pays taxes on most of the property it owns, according to Vernon County Treasurer Phil Couch, except for one parsonage and a 20-acre complex where the church offices and other buildings are located.
County Assessor Cherie Koshko said the church was allowed only one tax-exempt parsonage under state law. Koshko, who lives in Schell City, said she was unaware the church was not registered as either a state or federal non-for-profit, but believed that state law allowed assessors to determine tax-exempt eligibility on a case-by-case basis.