As midnight approached on March 24, 1998, the residents of Garland tuned in to channel 18 to await God's television debut. If the predictions of new resident/cult leader Hon-Ming Chen proved accurate, the Lord would interrupt regularly scheduled programming at 12:01 a.m. to announce his impending descent on the Dallas suburb in a flying saucer.
After performing a series of arcane rituals in his backyard, Chen's disciples, known stateside as God's Salvation Church, filed inside to receive their holy orders. The 24th became the 25th and the mass of journalists, policemen and residents gathered on Ridgedale Drive fell silent, fixed their eyes on the screen and waited ...
This was not the first time UFOs and religion mingled in Texas. In the bright new future of mid-century America, science had begun to usurp the role of religion, and a savvy crew of regional quacks, con-men and would-be saviors began to give stale theologies a sci-fi makeover in an attempt to ensure relevance.
Yes, Brothers and Sisters, Earth was a failed science fair experiment and the contaminated planet was about to be disinfected like a petri dish in an autoclave. As the the new millennium dawned, the disenfranchised no longer needed to dream about escaping their miserable hometowns. They could become an initiate and leave the planet entirely.
To mark the 16th anniversary of the day God didn't show up on television in Garland, we've put together this short list of UFO religions that appeared in Texas during the latter half of the 20th century. Some burned themselves up in the atmosphere, some fizzled out quietly, but a few hearty mutants made it through the year 2000 unscathed and continue to offer salvation to anyone willing to come up with the membership fees.
God's Salvation Church aka Chen Tao In 1992 atheist college professor Hon-Ming Chen received a message from God suggesting that he pursue the life of a holy man. Not being one to argue with the voices in his head, Chen began studying numerous religious texts before joining a UFO cult in his native Taiwan. After becoming disillusioned by corrupt leadership and excessive dues, he formed the splinter group Soul Light Resurgence Association (SLRA) which would come to be known as Chen Tao/God's Salvation Church when the group began to immigrate to Garland in March 1997.
A bewildering syncretism of Buddhism, Christianity, UFOlogy and Taoism, the apocalyptic SLRA believed Earth had suffered five great tribulations caused by fallen angels called "King Satans," the first of which was a battle waged between dinosaurs 10 million years ago in the Middle East. Each time armageddon occurred God had descended on the Americas in his flying saucer to airlift all living creatures to safety. Chen soon announced that the sixth tribulation was imminent. By 1995 he and his disciples had landed in San Dimas, California, and renamed themselves God's Salvation Church, dogged by accusations that Teacher Chen had hustled followers for upwards of $90,000 a head for a ticket to ride.
In March 1997 Chen paid cash for the house at 3513 Ridgedale Drive in Garland after deciding its name sounded like "God's Land." One hundred-fifty disciples soon followed, eventually buying upward of 30 homes within a 2.5-mile radius of their leader.
At the time Garland was not the progressive hotbed of arts and culture it is today, and many residents did not take kindly to the idea of Taiwanese awaiting the space rapture in their backyard. Most immediate neighbors seemed relieved that church members were quiet and kept their lawns nice, although at least one called city code enforcement to report they were attempting to build a landing pad without a permit. The cultists were in fact building a gazebo.
As 1997 progressed Chen's bizarre proclamations began to garner increasing media attention. In June the church placed ads in several Canadian papers based on his claims that Jesus had taken the form of Abraham Lincoln and now lived in Vancouver. Their query received no response. In September Chen published the book God's Descending on Clouds (Flying Saucers) To Save People in which he predicted that God would descend in the flesh on his house on Ridgedale Drive at precisely 10 a.m. March 31, 1998. Upon arrival the Lord would replicate Himself to meet everyone in attendance and thus initiate the great evacuation. What's more, God would announce his return by preempting all television broadcasts on channel 18 at 12:01 a.m. March 25, bumping a home shopping network on local cable.
By late March the media circus was in full swing, leaving Garland officials scrambling to institute crowd control measures as the neighborhood was overrun by television crews. In the days immediately preceding the Lord's television debut some church members shaved their heads or were seen wading in the creek behind Chen's house. Others excitedly interpreted contrails of passing planes as signs from God and dug a large hole to bury objects they felt would aid future Earthlings.
Midnight struck on March 24, and the assembled crowd waited with bated breath ... and nothing happened. Cable subscribers continued to shop unimpeded.
After about 25 minutes Chen and his now visibly bummed disciples emerged into the front yard to address the hundreds of people massed outside his home. Speaking through his interpreter, Chen reiterated his belief in God despite his failure to appear on TV and reassured everyone there were no plans to off themselves. When asked if he still expected God to descend on Garland at the end of the month Chen replied "I want to emphasize that God's kingdom has already descended, God has already descended... Because we did not see God's message on Channel 18 tonight my predictions of God arriving on March 31st can be considered nonsense." He then said his followers were free to go if they wished and closed by stating "I have never referred to myself as a prophet ... I would recommend anybody not believe what I said anymore."
Reporters -- in smaller numbers than the week before -- turned up the morning of the 31st to pick the bones of the story clean. At 10 a.m. Chen, accompanied by the few dozen true believers, spoke to the crowd. He asked everyone in attendance to shake their own hand and then proclaimed that everyone was God, therefore he had descended and multiplied enough to greet everyone personally. Chen then stared directly at the sun before explaining that a mere mortal would have been blinded, a stunt who's impact was severely reduced by the resulting bout of uncontrollable blinking and squinting. He then revealed that his followers would be leaving Garland by May 10 and gave onlookers 10 minutes to crucify or stone him to death. No one obliged, likely because everyone who would have taken him up on the offer was in the process of moving back to Taiwan.
Heaven's Gate aka Total Overcomers Anonymous aka Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM)
Right around the time God's Salvation Church was beginning their move to Garland all but three members of Marshall Applewhite's Heaven's Gate were busy committing mass suicide in their mansion in San Diego, California, effectively dissolving a cult that had spent much of its formative years in Texas.
Native Texans Marshall Herff Applewhite Jr. and Bonnie Lu Nettles -- collectively known as "The Two" -- founded the group that would become Heaven's Gate after meeting at a drama school in March 1972. After a short-lived attempt at running a New Age bookstore and teaching center in Houston, The Two decided to take their apocalyptic show on the road, slowly gathering a "crew" who resonated with their particular brand of sci-fi theology.
In keeping with the beliefs of many 20th century UFO religions, Applewhite and Nettles taught that ancient astronauts had seeded planet Earth with homo sapiens in the hopes that some would eventually advance to a level above human. These same extraterrestrials would return and induct the spiritually evolved (i.e. the ascetic disciples of Applewhite and Nettles) into the ranks of their flying saucer crews, saving them before the whole planet was "recycled."
The Two preached about their impending physical ascension throughout the '70s and early '80s. Despite losing an eye to cancer, Bonnie Nettles, confident in her own immortality, refused to undergo treatment and died under an assumed name at Dallas' Parkland Hospital in 1985. Unfortunately for their disciples Nettles' untimely death conflicted with an integral part of the original teachings. Applewhite was forced to revise his theology and began claiming that the flesh was merely a vehicle for the spirit, a tenet that would eventually provide the justification for the group's suicide 12 years later.
Heaven's Gate members were living in a communal mansion in San Diego when Applewhite, now referred to as "Do," announced that Bonnie Nettles had returned to pick them up in a flying saucer accompanying comet Hale-Bopp. In late March 1997 the crew began to prepare for their final exit, recording smiling goodbyes to their families reassuring them that they were acting of their own free will and excited to finally evacuate a planet they despised.
Beginning somewhere around March 24 members donned black uniforms, fresh Nike sneakers and armbands reading "Heaven's Gate Away Team." After placing $5.75 in their pockets to cover intergalactic toll, they began evacuating Earth via a cocktail of booze and downers with an asphyxiation chaser. On March 26 police were tipped off anonymously and found the bodies of Marshall Applewhite and 38 followers on bunk beds throughout the mansion, bringing an end to the religious movement he and Bonnie Nettles had founded in Texas 25 years earlier.
Association for the Understanding of Man (AUM )/Project Starlight International (PSI)
Described as a gifted psychic or a hustler depending on who you ask, Ray Stanford and his twin brother, Rex, grew up in Corpus Christi during the zenith of post-war UFO mania. By the time he was 16, Ray began to receive telepathic messages from "space people," losing his close-encounter cherry in 1955 when he, Rex and a friend were paralyzed by a flying saucer outside of Brownsville. Ray and his brother soon authored a number of books about their experiences with titles like Look Up and From Out of This World before setting out to spread the psychic gospel throughout the Southwest.
Settling in Arizona in the early '60s, Ray continued to refine his psychic abilities and founded the initial Association for the Understanding of Man (AUM) and created Project Starlight International (PSI) in hopes of developing methods for communicating with UFOs. In 1964 AUM members constructed a circle of flashing lights in the desert to attract spacecraft.
By the mid-'60s Rex had had enough of flying saucers and split to pursue a parapsychology degree. Ray left the first AUM in 1967 for reasons that remain hazy and headed back to Texas. After landing briefly on San Antonio he moved to Austin and founded the second, nonprofit and tax-exempt incarnation of AUM on March 22, 1971. From the capital he continued to channel voices from beings he referred to as the "White Brotherhood" as well as from other entities including "The Watchers," UFO-piloting extraterrestrials who were willing to hold forth on virtually any subject broached by his growing cadre of followers. (It is interesting to note that least one AUM document offers a caveat from Stanford stating "The Association for the Understanding of Man and I make no claim that these 'brother' discourses are in fact given by members of the so-called 'White Brotherhood' or even that they with certainty come from real entities distinct from my own conscious mind.")
By the mid-'70s AUM boasted hundreds of dues-paying members. Thanks to sales of Stanford's books and audio tapes as well as a series of generous donations, the next generation of Project Starlight International was in full swing by 1975. A UFO observation station was constructed in the Hill Country outside Austin and PSI began to acquire increasingly sophisticated equipment to monitor the skies near Lake Travis. Technological requirements were often dictated by Stanford's space brothers, who reportedly had expensive tastes. A new light circle was constructed. Soon personnel in custom white jumpsuits (thought to help reflect infrared radiation from potential UFO laser blasts) were hoping for a contact several nights a week.
After several years of fruitless sky watching PSI began to fade out. A reportedly disillusioned Stanford eventually refused to act as a conduit for any further transmissions alien or otherwise and parted ways with AUM and Project Starlight by the early '80s. Ray Stanford continues to make sporadic appearances on UFO-related programs and has gained some notoriety recently as an amateur paleontologist with an uncanny knack for locating fossilized dinosaur tracks.
The Outer Dimensional Forces (ODF)
After being contacted by extraterrestrials in the early 1960s -- and numerous disputes with local officials over taxes -- Orville T. Gordon changed his name to O.T. Nodrog and transformed his lumber yard into The Armageddon Time Ark Base of the Outer Dimensional Forces, a 3.5-dimensional outpost that still occupies a piece of prime real estate next to the Walmart in Weslaco.
Notable for their longevity and distinctly anti-government bent, The Outer Dimensional Forces believe that the Bible contains a factual account of extraterrestrial visitations although its contents have been perverted by mainstream Christianity to suit its own negative agenda. ODF members insist they are not an apocalyptic UFO cult. They claim to know exactly what these crafts are and why they're here.
Nodrog claimed that YAHWEH the creator established Time Station Earth as a kind of spiritual retreat for humanity and gave them 6,000 years of free moral agency to get their collective heads together. Unfortunately time is up. Much of the human race has squandered this opportunity by entering into congress with the Beast (The U.S. government), the Harlot (The Church) and through the willful misuse of technology.
Because of these transgressions the current incarnation of Earth is believed to be condemned. Soon YAHWEH's son Yahshua Hamashiaa will arrive with his fleet of five-dimensional Time Ark Service Modules and initiate Armageddon or "S-Day". The chosen 1 percent willing to embrace the ODF's teachings will be airlifted out of Texas the night before Yahweh activates the Sixth Seal of Revelations. On that fateful morning the Time Ark Service Modules will shift the Earth's poles six-degrees, destroying the continents and creating a new Eden for evacuees along the former site of the Texas/Mexico border.
The Outer Dimensional Forces are still operating in some capacity, although direct interaction with the public seems to be limited. Outside of their webpage and a possibly non-affiliated Youtube channel, most information concerning the group comes from news reports. Most of these focus on their sporadic conflicts with various law enforcement agencies and the local government, particularly the 1985 pipe bombing of the mayor of Weslaco over attempts to develop a shopping center on ODF property. It is unclear whether the man known as Nodrog is still alive and there are rumors that he's buried somewhere on the premises of The Armageddon Time Ark Base. For more information visit: www.atabase.info.
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The Church of the SubGenius Arguably the most successful of all the UFO religions, the Dallas based Church of the SubGenius boasts a cosmology so baroque and contradictory that it is all but impossible to elaborate on it. A minimalist description of their mythos holds that Earth is in the thrall of a vast extraterrestrial conspiracy aimed at depriving humanity of a Tao-like substance known as "Slack," thus preventing a chosen few from leading charmed lives of effortless leisure.
These chosen few, referred to as SubGeniuses, are said to have descended from an ancient race of yetis and will eventually triumph over The Conspiracy thanks to the teachings of the church and its founder J.R. "Bob" Dobbs. Early church literature predicted that beings from Planet X would descend on Earth on July 5, 1998, and rescue all dues-paying members in flying saucers prior to the destruction of the planet. When this failed to occur, church leaders posited that Dobbs may have gotten the date wrong and the non-arrival of aliens has been celebrated on the date since.
Thirty-five years after Ivan Stang, Phillo Drummond and the man known as Dr. X published their first pamphlet in Dallas, The Church of the SubGenius continues to soldier on beneath the standard of Dobbs' enigmatic smile. Although often referred to as a parody of religion or performance art, others have described the church as a legitimate philosophy capable of "masking genuine wisdom in the guise of utter bullshit," the rare satire that manages to function in the same capacity as its targets. The whole thing could be an elaborate joke, but maybe you're the punchline. Visit www.subgenius.com.