|Seventeen years ago, Leland Jensen built a bomb shelter in the basement of his Stephens Avenue home. It was not an idle task--the leader of the local Baha'is Under the Provision of the Covenant predicted that tensions in world affairs were about to culminate in a nuclear holocaust.||
Before his death in 1996, Leland Jensen led a sect of Baha'i in Missoula. His warnings of nuclear holocaust never panned out during his lifetime.
The moment of truth was to be 5:55 p.m., on April 29, 1980. While many Missoulians took Jensen's forecast with humor (including numerous downtown businesses, which held End-of-the-World sales during the week leading up to the projected apocalypse), others joined him in preparing for the war. As Jensen readied his home, filling the window wells and the first floor rooms with sand and thousands of pounds of rock, about 80 Baha'i members toiled over a makeshift shelter in a warehouse basement near the train yard on Missoula's Northside.
As the afternoon wore on, things were not coming together as smoothly as the Baha'is had planned. Members raced the clock, flushing rust out of the water system with just minutes to spare. Workers put the finishing touches on a safe room in the middle of the basement for the children. As the clock ticked down, they frantically poured wet sand between walls of plywood that were nailed to two-by-fours. As the weight of the sand increased, the plywood walls popped off.
At 5:55, the frenzy of activity ceased and all became subdued. No one spoke for a few hours.
A non-believer, University of Montana sociology professor Robert Balch, joined the group for their doomsday watch. When Balch first entered the shelter, he says, people came up to him and said-- "So you're just here to do research, eh?"--the tone of their voices insinuating that he might just be hedging his bets, taking cover with them in case the bombs began falling. Then, as time passed and nothing happened, people began to avoid making eye contact with him.
"They became acutely embarrassed," he says.
By 11 p.m. the last of the faithful abandoned the shelter and went out to eat at a downtown restaurant. Jensen declared the fiasco a "fire drill."
For years, Missoula and national media have gotten voluminous press releases from Jensen's group, predicting bombings, assassinations and the dawning of a New Age. The local Baha'is have been featured on national television a number of times, including a tongue-in-cheek special a few years back when Michael Moore (of Roger and Mefame) sent his TV Nation camera crew to Missoula to talk with the group.
But as the millennium draws near, the Baha'is aren't alone in their fears of widespread war and devastation. Many Americans share the Baha'is' pre-occupation with matters Apocryphal, Balch points out. And despite comparisons to the folks who went out in varying degrees of blazing glory at Waco and in Heaven's Gate, Balch says that Missoula's Baha'is are non-violent, not self-destructive, and may actually be becoming more church-like.
The original Baha'i faith holds that throughout history, God has sent messengers, such as Christ, Mohammed and Buddha, in a progressive series as man evolved spiritually and intellectually. The Baha'i founder, Baha'u'llah, taught that there is only one God who has been called by many names. Worldwide, the Baha'i faith has five million adherents in 123 countries.
From her office near the United Nations complex, Baha'i spokesperson Pamela Zivari distinguishes between two groups.
The Missoula sect, she emphasizes, is not connected to the international Baha'i faith in any way, even though they may teach some of the same beliefs.
"I trust people will investigate and not confuse the two," she says. "We see the future of the human race as very positive. We believe we will achieve world peace, although that may include some unpleasant events."
Like many other groups concerned about millennial disaster, the Missoula Baha'is have been very explicit as to the particulars of those unpleasant events. The predictions of violent destruction never sat well with the original Baha'is, particularly because they always seemed to end up at Ground Zero.
In a 1994 interview, Jensen said that the original Baha'is broke a covenant in 1957, by refusing to recognize the successors picked by Baha'u'llah to lead the group before he died in 1892. This is what compelled him to branch off with his own group. Jensen fought and won a court battle in the 1960s to use the Baha'i label as part of his sect's name. What followed were nearly three decades of peculiar predictions and preaching, before Jensen died at the age of 81 in 1996.
The warnings, issued forth in the form of press releases, and often via a cable access television show, include a prediction that Saddam Hussein would be assassinated with U.S. backing, provoking an Iraqi nuclear attack against New York City. U.S. retaliation would galvanize the Russians, touching off a nuclear holocaust. All cities with more than 100,000 people would be destroyed.
The most recent press release elaborates, saying that "Madeline Albright (who is not bright at all) has already sworn, on Larry King Live, to nuke Baghdad and all Iraq off the face of the earth when they destroy New York. This will alienate Russia, China and the East and all the Muslim world making Saddam Hussein a religious martyr in the eyes of the Muslims, and like the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand that sparked off the powder keg of World War One... will be the spark of thermonuclear obliteration for all western material civilization as we know it, destined to arise like the phoenix from out the burning fiery flames of its own making... and redeem all mankind to the everlasting Kingdom of God for the true second International Baha'i Council/Universal House of Justice of Baha'u'llah."
Although the Baha'is say the war will last only an hour, the world's troubles won't be over yet. A comet or meteor will then crash into Earth, causing massive earthquakes and a shifting of the planet's plates. Half of those who survive the nuclear blasts will perish in this catastrophe, as North America slips into the Tropics.
The safe havens will be at 3,000 feet. Missoula could turn out to be one of the last best places after all.
The survivors will elect an international peace council–headed by an anointed male descendant of King David–and life will proceed without today's social problems. But all this trouble can all be avoided, they say, if the peace council is elected now--hence the Baha'is' constant warnings to the world.
Although he was raised in a traditional Baha'i household in Wisconsin, Jensen's conversion to his own brand of Baha'i belongs in the realm of supermarket tabloid headlines. After serving a stint in Montana's Deer Lodge state prison for molesting a teen-age girl who was under his chiropractic care, Jensen declared himself to be Jesus the teacher (as opposed to Jesus Christ). Borrowing from the Bible, the Koran, medieval soothsayer Nostradamus, Native American mythology and pyramidology, Jensen began teaching and gathering followers.
Among Jensen's chosen forums is the Missoula Cable Access Television station. For a few years now, Missoulians have had the chance to watch members of the local Baha'is on TV every Friday evening.
|These days, the main spokesperson is Neal Chase, formerly Jensen's right hand man. A serious young man with dark hair who dresses in a navy blue suit and tie for the TV cameras, the 32-year-old is married, has a three-year-old daughter and works as a manual laborer, often employed to hang sheetrock. He attends the University of Montana part-time and is working towards a mathematics degree. Chase discovered Jensen's group when he was trying to make sense of world hunger and despair.||
Victor Woods and Neal Chase host a four-hour theological discussion on MCAT Friday nights.
[Photo: Jeff Powers]
"When I was 19 years old I saw the world had a problem," he said. "And I went on a search for the return of Christ. Jensen was the only person who taught that the meaning of Christ was a person who was a direct descendant from the sperm of King David."
The association of King David and the Messiah was a strong draw for Chase, who was raised in a Jewish family in Connecticut. Jews believe the Messiah will be descended from King David, he says, and so Jensen made sense to him.
"We are not a cult at all," Chase said. "We all have our own homes, we all have families. If you want a cult, take 12 people, put their money in one basket and wander homeless with a guy named Jesus Christ."
|In Jensen's absence, the group (which claims 200 adherents and 75 core members) is run by a 12-person committee--a temporary board of directors, Chase says, who will step aside if the world decides to elect a peace council. Among those holding a leadership role within the group is Beth Jaffe, who used to own and operate the Java Jungle located at Missoula Public Library.||
Baha'i musicians Victor Woods, Beth Jaffe, and Kay Woods sometimes go to local hospitals to play for patients.
[Photo: Jeff Powers]
Jaffe says she heard about Jensen's group while canoeing down the Yukon River. She listened as a Baha'i explained Jensen's teachings while they drifted through the wilderness. At the time, Jaffe was on a spiritual quest of her own. Her curiosity aroused, Jaffe began sitting in on discussion groups when she returned to Montana.
Jaffe, Chase and others interviewed all profess to having normal lives beyond the Baha'is; they don't spend every waking moment poring over documents for evidence to back up Jensen's prophecies. They like to watch basketball, discuss boxing, read and go to movies, just like everyone else.
Even Balch, who says that the group has cult-like tendencies, says he doesn't think there's any danger that the local Baha'is will become involved in violence, or meet a suicidal end like the Heaven's Gate cult. Balch, who garnered national attention a couple months ago for his knowledge of Heaven's Gate, has spent much of his life studying cults. Such groups tend to move in one of two directions, he says. They either become encapsulated and isolated, or more open. The Baha'is, he says, are headed in the latter direction.
"They are beginning to do charity work," he said. "And they have formed a choir."
Like many churches, the Baha'is hold their weekly services on Sundays. They meet in a house on South Third Street for an hour, with around 20 to 30 worshippers in attendance. A volunteer host leads the service, which includes prayers and singing. The main talk focuses on the 12 Baha'i principles, including the independent investigation of truth, equality between men and women, and world peace.
Members are free to question the lecturer after the presentation. There are no confessions and members are not asked to donate money.
But Chase doesn't feel comfortable with the 'church-like' description. "We don't have any paid clergy," he said. "We don't have any clergy at all."
Missoula's Baha'i members closely follow political news from the Middle East for signs that their predictions are close at hand. They often link affairs in countries like Israel, Iraq and Syria to prophecies in the Book of Revelations. In this they are not alone.
Pentecostal Christian groups also keep close tabs on the Middle East. Many Americans believe, among other things, that the Battle of Armageddon is imminent, and will bring an end to the world as we know it. The Earth's human inhabitants will either rise up to Heaven or sink into Hell.
Mainstream Christians themselves are divided over just what the "end times" mean. Most Protestants and Catholics believe human history will continue as it has until the second coming of Christ. Mainstream denominations tend not to focus on destruction and the Apocalypse. They interpret the Book of Revelation as having predicted the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
But plenty of smaller churches favor a literal interpretation of the Bible. They believe that "Tribulation," a period of war, earthquakes, and comets will precede a "Millennial Kingdom," which will last a thousand years until eternity begins. The last defining battle of the nations of the world will be fought in the valley of Megiddo, which is about 60 miles north of Jerusalem--thus, their interest in Middle East politics.
Many of these churches can be found in Missoula--Seventh Day Adventists, Four Square Gospel Church, First Church of the Nazarene and the Church of Latter-Day Saints, just to name a few.
But don't add Missoula's Baha'is to that list. During the 1994 interview, Jensen emphatically stated there will be no end to life on Earth. He held nothing but contempt for those who believed in the Apocalypse.
"Don't include me with those crackpots," he said.
In Jensen's absence, Chase seems at ease on the MCAT broadcasts. Well-versed in the Bible, he goes head-to-head with callers who challenge him on his interpretations of scripture. But Chase knows how to play the call-in game, and often cuts people off mid-argument.
Every week, about a half dozen viewers phone the program during the two hours devoted to live calls. Chase says this is an indication that hundreds of people tune in, at least for part of the show.
Scripture rolls off Chase's tongue like lines from the mouth of an actor reciting Shakespeare. He quotes the word of God, confident that listeners have not only memorized the passages, but also literally believe them.
His own role, however, is merely that of spokesperson. God has given him a responsibility to warn others, he says, so that they have the chance to change their ways before it is too late.
"I'm not a prophet," he says. "I don't have dreams or see visions. But I believe in the prophets."