March 25, 1998 in Nation/World

Sect Members Wait For God To Appear On TV With Heaven’s Gate Suicides In Mind, Police Keep Watchful Eye On Group

Ted Anthony Associated Press

Onlookers, satellite trucks and legions of reporters streamed Tuesday into a Dallas suburb where a Taiwanese religious group awaited God’s appearance on television - an event they say presages his return to earth next week.

Police erected barricades and cordoned off a 165-house area in the tree-lined neighborhood, where nearly 140 members of God’s Salvation Church are living in various upscale houses. The main house, their leader’s, serves as their church.

Media from around the world have gathered to cover the Taiwanese group, whose members say they came to Garland because it sounds like “Godland.”

Church leader Chen Heng-ming, known as “Teacher Chen,” has said God will appear on Channel 18 across the country at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday to mark the beginning of his return. In Garland, Channel 18 offers religious-oriented programming; in nearby Dallas, it is a home-shopping channel.

Though church members - most clad entirely in white, with white hats - have spoken openly about their principles in the past, on Tuesday they politely declined comment. “I’m sorry. I can’t,” one said in Mandarin Chinese, smiling as he waved off a reporter.

Implied in all the media and police attention is the concern that church members might take action if God does not appear. Chen and his followers say they have no plans to harm themselves and suicide would violate God’s principles.

“They’ve been model citizens,” said Garland police Lt. Don Martin. But, “We would be remiss in our duties if we didn’t consider that option.”

Chen says God will appear at 10 a.m. on March 31, beginning a new era for a human race he says has lost its way.

The city has mobilized more than 50 police officers and emergency personnel to make sure events proceed with as little turmoil as possible.

The group’s prophecies come almost exactly a year after the Heaven’s Gate sect committed mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Heaven’s Gate members believed that if they “shed their containers,” they would be picked up by a spaceship hidden by a comet. Thirty-eight people died.

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