MIRACLE VALLEY — Once home to a Bible college, a cult, a bombing, a shooting and a police brawl, Miracle Valley can be a transformative place.
The small place with a complicated history where the border and the San Pedro River meet is known mostly for its revivalists and broken promises. Its stories have been cataloged extensively in two books by William R. Daniel, that tell of the 300-member church that came from Chicago in 1978, led by Pastor Frances Thomas, and in four years took run of the place over police, making national news.
Today, the flat strip of Highway 92 between Sierra Vista and Bisbee, stretched between two mountains, lies parallel to the border three miles south and perpendicular to the San Pedro.
West of the river, the highway intersects a street called “Healing Way.” A Bible college, which closed for good in 1995, peeks out from the highway. On the other side of the road is a neighborhood a bit larger than 300 acres.
At the edge of that neighborhood is a furniture store, with space for rent, that was once the Christ Miracle Healing Center and Church, or CMHCC, and the center of a cult, which is separate from the Bible college — other than the fact that the cult’s founder attended there.
Flowing north out of Mexico, the river can’t be seen from the road, yet a line of trees is visible, a healthy green scab on an otherwise sandy-colored surface. Miracle Valley is the closest place to where the fertile river first enters the U.S., besides Palominas, which shares a school with Miracle Valley, and whose name, bestowed by Father Kino, translates to “land of the doves.”
Part of the CMHCC’s belief system held God’s law above man’s, meaning that if an officer of the law stood in the way between a believer and his worship, members were taught to do whatever was necessary to help themselves. Members sped past county deputies in their cars before turning off into the twists of the neighborhood, where other members helped them hide and threatened police.
At the local public school, teachers noticed how some days the students who were children of members behaved like zombies. A six-year-old boy died painfully from a strangulated hernia when Pastor Thomas refused to let his parents seek any treatment other than a faith-based one. Several other children died after that under similar circumstances.
The income of members went for the most part directly to the CMHCC.
The Southern Arizona Bible College refused to affiliate with the church across the street because of its radicalism, raising tension in the area between the all-black church and the surrounding residents. Eventually the church formed its own armed police force, and started putting up roadblocks on the highway to stop people who passed by.
By 1981, the frustrated Cochise County Sheriff’s Department had enough, and, though the state refused to provide backup, the Arizona Criminal Intelligence System Agency searched the church’s trash and found evidence that they had been buying dynamite with plans to blow up buildings and bridges in the county.
When one of the members was caught and arrested, a group loaded up a van with weapons and a bomb to bust the man out of the Cochise County Jail. The group made it only part way down the road when the member who was arming the bomb accidentally blew himself up.
One morning the following year, a fight broke out that grew to a melee, between about 200 church members and one-fifth as many deputies. What began with fists, rocks, hammers and handles from tools, finally turned to guns. As William Thomas, Jr., 33, Pastor Thomas’s son, went to turn and pull for his .30 – .30 revolver, Deputy Ray Tatcher fatally shot him in the side. Auguster Tate, Thomas’s father-in-law, 52, went to pull for his gun and the deputy shot and killed him, too.
Ten members were arrested, and within a week the rest made a caravan back to Chicago. Afterward, Cochise County gave up on prosecuting 30 indicted members because the case was too expensive.
The cruciform shape of the neighborhood radiates outward, but with a water tank at its center, which was added in the last 10 years, in place of an altar. Today, some houses flaunt trampolines, others are trailers. Some have windows boarded up, and others have horses and children playing with dogs in the front yard. Some shrubs and trees look overgrown, but one house’s cactus garden was carefully manicured.
Even now the neighborhood is mostly unpaved roads. Deliverance Way is paved. As is Healing Way. Axe Head Drive is dirt.
The replacement of street names in Miracle Valley since it was last in the news seem to embrace the place’s history while distinguishing from its past. First Avenue became Olive Avenue; Second became Faith; Third became Joy. Loaves and Fishes Drive became Honeysuckle, Chariots of Fire became Sandstone.
“There [is] no middle class here,” according to the cashier at Miracle Valley’s gas station, Canyon General. Of the 80 or so transactions that take place in the store daily, Canyon General only gets around 25 customers. They’re the kind of people that come buy one beer and walk home. Drink it. Come buy a second beer, and go home.
Many are families with kids and on food stamps. An ordinary purchase is a bag of chips. Those that have more money drive to Walmart in Sierra Vista for groceries.
The heat in Miracle Valley can also be vision inducing.
Highway 92 itself is a strange route, running along a man-made border and into a natural one. A second path between Sierra Vista and Bisbee, is a shorter drive and further north.
Outside the tabernacle at the Bible college, Luis Bettencourt, stood 12 inches deep in a hole in the dirt bent over looking at some machinery that controls water. He is the latest owner of the land with a mission of revival, to start a community for the people here.
Before Bettencourt, Gilles and Diane Langevin from Canada bought the area in 2012, Melvin Harter owned what was here for 10 years, before that the Southern Arizona Bible College, and the Miracle Valley Bible College, and A. A. Allen – the televangelist and mercurial, Pentecostal preacher that first settled here and named the place in 1958. His dramatic videos can still be seen on YouTube and he died of alcoholism in 1970.
Bettencourt said he tried setting up one of Allen’s old revivalist tents that is supposed to be able fit 20,000 people under it, but the wind in the area proved too strong. Two images appear to set Luis Bettencourt’s mission into motion.
One is from a yearbook, a photograph of his brother, in front of a fireplace in the boy’s dormitory of Southern Arizona Bible College in Miracle Valley. Bettencourt’s brother graduated from the college in 1989, he said. The dormitory is difficult to get into now, because piles of charred wood, once the buildings foundation, block its entrance.
The second image is a mural lit by sunlight — because of holes in the roof — painted on the east wall of the tabernacle, with Jesus standing on the surface of a raging river holding up his arms, angels surrounding him, “I Am In The Midst Of You.” Weeds grow up out of the concrete in front of the painting, and up toward the sky.
Devon Confrey is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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