For ten weeks bands of parishioners gathered nightly at First Baptist Church of Maine, New York, to pray for the safe return of their pastor, Donald LaRose. The 34-year-old minister disappeared on Tuesday, November 4, under mysterious circumstances involving suggestions of foul play by Satan worshipers. As of late last month he was still missing. The prayer meetings, however, ended abruptly at mid-month when the official board of the 150-member church announced it had terminated the pastoral relationship.

Head deacon William Brigham, a printer, said an extensive investigation indicated that LaRose had planned his own disappearance. Yet authorities and private investigators were unable to establish any motive. LaRose was in good health, family members and close friends told CHRISTIANITY TODAY that they had noted no changes in his personality, there were no major hassles at church, and his wife Eunice said there were no family tensions (the couple have two daughters, ages 10 and 13). He had little life insurance, he was abreast of debts and taxes, he had told his family and friends he was happy in the ministry, and no amorous connections were uncovered. Neighbors described him as “the happiest man on the street.”

“We’re at our wit’s end,” said Adam LaRose, the minister’s father, a business executive in Reading, Pennsylvania.

In a statement issued to the news media, Eunice LaRose appealed for her husband to return home. Despite the problems caused by his sudden disappearance, she said, “we can work things out.”

LaRose grew up in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area, where he attended the large Calvary Independent Church with his parents and sister. After graduating from Moody Bible Institute, where he met Eunice, he returned to Lancaster to work with the Youth for Christ organization. Next he entered the Christian radio field and worked at stations in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Maryland. He then moved to Syracuse, New York, where he became an executive with WMHR-FM, a station he helped to organize. After nearly five years, he left as a result of a dispute over business strategy. In October, 1973, he accepted a call to First Baptist in Maine, a village northwest of Binghamton. The church is loosely affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptists.

Last October LaRose’s name appeared in local news stories in connection with a series of messages on the person and work of Satan. The talks were given at he mid-week services on Wednesday nights, and they were advertised in a widely distributed newsletter that the church publishes.

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As the series progressed, LaRose reported to state police that he had received threatening letters and telephone calls. The letters, postmarked from Maine, were pasteups of words cut from printed sources. Investigators later determined that the cutouts came mainly from issues of Broadcasting, a secular trade magazine published in Washington, D. C., and the church’s newsletter. (LaRose was one of Broadcasting’s few subscribers in the Binghamton area.)

Said one letter: “REV. LAROSE: For blasphemy against Satan I condemn you to the wrath of Lucifer, son of the morning, ruler of this world, and victor over all opposing forces.”

Another announced that “for continual public blasphemy against Satan, the most high Lucifer requires your blood as a sacrifice so your rip-off can be stopped.”

At least one of the threatening telephone calls was answered by ten-year-old Joyce LaRose.

Pastors of two neighboring Baptist churches reported they too were getting similar notes and telephone calls. The calls, said Pastor Harvey Sumner of First Baptist Church in Vestal, sounded like tape recordings played into the telephone. In all, there were ten calls, most of them taken by his wife. The voice came through in low, gutteral tones, saying that Satan was upset by Sumner’s preaching. During an interview, Sumner, 37, was asked if the voice tones resembled what happens when a tape recorder is played on weak batteries or deliberately slowed down. “Exactly,” he replied.

After LaRose disappeared the letters stopped coming to the other two ministers. The last letter received by Pastor Derwin G. Hauser of Bethel Baptist Church in Vestal arrived the day after LaRose disappeared. It had been postmarked at 10:30 A.M. on November 4.

November 4 was election day. LaRose accompanied his wife that morning to a polling place. Something odd was happening, he commented to her. He said he had received a phone call informing him that one of his church members would be operated upon in an Endicott hospital. When he went to the hospital earlier that morning, he said, he found that no operation was scheduled for the parishioner.

After voting, Mrs. LaRose proceeded to her part-time job at a school cafeteria, and the minister said he was going to get a haircut.

At 12:20 PM. church secretary Beida Lawton looked out the office window and saw LaRose on the church parking lot. It was the last time anyone remembered seeing him that day.

When he had not returned home by 7:00 PM., Mrs. LaRose and church members began checking area hospitals and country roads. The next day police found his 1970 station wagon abandoned in an urban renewal area of Binghamton, near the bus station. Because of the sensational Satanism angle, the story of LaRose’s disappearance got national news coverage.

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Hauser told reporters that there were indeed Satanist activities in the Binghamton area and that he knew of a witches’ coven there. He declined to specify where “because of the risk.” (Police said they knew of no such group.) Sumner meanwhile purchased a revolver.

State police officials early in the case cautioned the public against jumping to conclusions. They said there was no solid proof that the minister had been abducted. Some press stories left the door open to the possibility of a hoax.

The church posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to the pastor’s safe return or $5,000 for the whereabouts of his body. It also spent thousands of dollars on private detectives. Private investigator Charles Reagan of the Michigan-based Finkler Detective Agency turned up some of the key evidence that led to the church’s decision to fire LaRose (and to withdraw the reward offers).

It was discovered that LaRose had purchased carry-on flight luggage at a Sears store last July. In September he got $675 in cash advances from a bank through the use of credit cards. He also cashed in $3,500 worth of stock in the Syracuse radio station. Mrs. LaRose knew nothing of these transactions. The day before he disappeared he gave her $60 of his $235 weekly paycheck for household use, as was his custom. It was also his custom to deposit the remainder in the bank, but the deposit was not made. Thus at the time he disappeared he could have been carrying at least $4,350, all legally his.

In an interview, Reagan said there were other “minor” shreds of evidence suggesting that LaRose had arranged his own disappearance, but both he and Deacon Brigham declined to divulge them.

At month’s end the authorities (including Federal Bureau of Investigation agents working quietly in the background), LaRose’s family, and his friends were still pondering the two main questions: Where is Pastor Don LaRose and why is he missing?

LaRose is nearly six feet tall, weighs 190 pounds, is a bit paunchy, may wear glasses, and he has blue-gray eyes and light brown hair, a prominent dimple on his chin, and a freckle or mole near his left eye.

A tragic sidelight in the case involved fundamentalist leader Carl Mclntire and an anti-Satan rally he and his followers held in front of the Maine church on January 3. Mrs. LaRose and First Baptist’s leaders tried to discourage McIntire from coming, and they said they would not participate if he came. But McIntire said the rally was a demonstration against Satan on behalf of all Christians, and that it would kick off his group’s Revival ’76 program.

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En route to the rally, one of McIntire’s five buses overturned near Binghamton, injuring twenty persons. Ten were hospitalized with fractures and cuts; three suffered spinal fractures. Among the latter: Franklin Faucette, 75, dean of McIntire’s Faith Seminary in Philadelphia.


Right To Life

Tens of thousands of citizens from across the nation gathered in Washington, D. C., on January 22 to observe in protest the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling that permits abortion on demand during the first six months of pregnancy. The day began with a “National Prayer Breakfast for Life,” involving mostly Protestant prolife people. Church leaders at the breakfast pledged their participation in nationwide campaigning this spring “to rouse church members to action.”

Next came the “March for Life,” when thousands (mostly Catholics) marched from the White House to the Capitol. Spokesmen said the demonstrators would work at trying to persuade Congress to pass a constitutional amendment forbidding abortion. They also served notice that candidates for public office will be asked where they stand on the issue. Such pressure has already caused havoc in some candidates’ camps.

Many marchers were children. One seven-year-old sported a sign saying, “I’m glad I wasn’t aborted.”

Serving For Life

Last February cattle broker Pete Bekendam of Chino, California, got an unusual phone call from Episcopal clergyman Gerald Walcutt, prison chaplain at the nearby California Institute for Women.

“The chaplain called me and said he had a request for a baptism; it had to be by immersion, and he had no facilities,” recalled Hekendam for reporter Connie Kirby of The American Baptist. “He was wondering if I could find a water trough of some sort.”

The person requesting baptism: Susan Atkins, 27, the Manson Family cultist who is serving a life sentence for her part in the 1969 Tate murders.

Bekendam went to a farm-supply store and picked out a metal tank used for watering animals. It was about two feet deep.

The baptism took place on Sunday, February 23, under a tree on the front lawn of the prison chapel, said Bekendam. He and his wife, members of First Baptist Church in Pomona, an American Baptist congregation, were among the handful who were invited to witness it. Officiating was Methodist minister Sarge Wright, who had known Ms. Atkins in her childhood in San Jose, California. Ms. Atkins stepped into the tank and Wright asked, “Daughter, do you know what this means, that your sins are forgiven, everything you’ve ever done?”

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“Yes,” said she, and then she was baptized.

Later, she and Carol Bekendam became good friends, mostly through correspondence. Ms. Atkins told how she had received Christ in September, 1974, while reading a Bible in her cell. Fearful of skepticism should it become known, she confided her conversion experience to only a few persons.

For nearly a year Mrs. Bekendam kept the secret. One day she and a group of students were discussing Helter Skelter, the recently published book about Ms. Atkins. “I know Susan now,” she told the young people, “and the Susan I know is not the Susan Atkins of Helter Skelter—she’s different now.”

Some of the students listened, some were skeptical, said Mrs. Bekendam. She recounted the conversation with the students in a letter to Ms. Atkins, who earlier had expressed her distress over the book’s release.

“I’m glad you can share my joy with others,” replied Ms. Atkins. “I know it must do something to the hearts and minds of those who hear it, even those that are cynical. The Lord is working in their hearts too, and I’m so thankful to be used of God in this way. The hours I spend in Bible study and prayer each day strengthen me to meet the glares and gazes of those who are so skeptical but who want to know what it is that has brought about a change in my life.”

Does Susan Atkins seem resigned to spend the rest of her life in prison?

“She says whatever Christ has for her is what she wants,” replied Mrs. Bekendam to reporter Kirby. “She is [occupied] with Bible study now and shares in her letters about witnessing to other women in the prison.”

Excerpts from Ms. Atkins’ letters:

“I’m learning that love is the most important soul winner. It is the most highly prized gift of the Spirit, and without it I am as nothing in God’s hands. I found, though, that not many here [in prison] want love, or a better way to put it is that they don’t know how to receive it [because] it isn’t something given away in here. It comes as a strange thing to them. But love is patient, kind, and long suffering, and I pray that God will work out a plan so he can love through me.

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“There are several Christian women in here, but they are living what appears to me to be a joyless and defeated life. I know by the grace of God what causes this, but unfortunately no words are effective enough to give them the “umph” to get up and claim their victory. Only by showing them that it is possible will they ever see it.”

Do the Bekendams believe Susan Atkins is genuinely converted?

Replied Mrs. Bekendam: “I think her own words speak better than anything I can say.”

Good News (For Some)

Good News, the evangelical movement that liberals in the United Methodist Church wish would go away, is instead growing in strength and influence. At the annual meeting of its thirty-three-member governing board last month in Texas, a budget of $275,000 was adopted—$125,000 higher than last year’s. Executive secretary Charles W. Keysor of Wilmore, Kentucky, who edits the ten-year-old Good News, the journal of the movement, reported a 20 per cent increase in circulation last year and a switch to a more frequent publication schedule (the magazine will now be a bimonthly).

The Evangelical Missions Council, an offshoot of Good News organized in 1973 to press for evangelical emphases in United Methodist missionary work, by unanimous vote of both groups became the missions task force of Good News. It will hire a full-time staff person and operate on a $50,000 budget this year, as proposed by EMC chairman David Seamands, a former missionary to India who is pastor of the United Methodist Church in Wilmore (home of Asbury College and seminary).

Other personnel additions, including a full-time associate editor who will double as associate executive secretary, were authorized “in order to meet the growing requests for services performed by Good News for evangelicals across our church,” commented outgoing chairman Paul Morell, pastor of the 3,200-member Tyler Street Methodist Church in Dallas. He was succeeded by Pastor Ed Robb of the 2,120-member St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Lubbock, Texas.

A fund for theological education “will be started this year to secure a legitimate voice and influence for scriptural Christianity among United Methodist seminaries and seminarians,” stated Chairman Robb, who has been calling for “major reform” in UMC seminaries.

The directors previewed page proofs of new materials prepared by Good News for training in youth membership and confirmation. These materials are part of an alternate curriculum voted into existence by Good News after the denomination failed to go along with a request to produce curricula materials with the kind of evangelical slant Good News wanted.

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Good News has a political-strategy unit that is preparing for the UMC’s quadrennial general conference this spring in Portland, Oregon. The denomination’s social-action unit has announced it will propose an in-depth study of sexuality. The proposal as it now stands, however, in effect would also delete from church policy a strong position against homosexual behavior. This is something the Good News people want to prevent. They hope to field a caucus of evangelical delegates for the conference. A “team of evangelical observers” will be active at Portland, too, said chief strategist Robert Sprinkle, head of United Methodist Outreach Ministries in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The board named a member of its executive committee, Mrs. Helen Rhea Coppedge of Atlanta, to head a task force “to probe issues connected with feminism and the church.” Said she: “We will be seeking a biblical understanding of women’s identity and place in the church and society.”

Only one resolution was passed by Good News. It commended the UMC’s global ministries board for its opposition to use of missionaries by the Central Intelligence Agency, and it went on record favoring the proposed Hatfield bill in Congress which would prohibit such CIA-missionary links.

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