[This story is based on reports from MSNBC and the Dallas Star-Telegram, dated March 25 and 26, 1998.]
Garland, Texas -- At 12:01 a.m. CST on Wednesday, March 25, God was to make His television debut across the land. In Garland, God would appear on Channel 18. So declared Chen Hon-Ming, spiritual leader of God's Salvation Church, better known as the Taiwan UFO Cult.
For Chen's small flock of followers, this long-awaited event was to be the harbinger of a bigger event one week later, on March 31, when God would physically enter the body of Chen.
But, by all accounts, God missed His big appointment on TV. Nothing happened.
It was a queasy moment for quite a few nervous or curious city officials and news reporters who wondered how Chen and his followers might react. No one could ignore the fact that almost one year ago to the day, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult had committed suicide in answer to their own unusual spiritual expectations.
But spokesmen for Chen Hon-Ming have said all along that his group is completely different from the Heaven's Gate people. Suicide is out of the question, no matter what does, or doesn't, happen.
Independent religious scholars had already noted the group's anti-suicide stance. "Teacher Chen makes it very clear that suicide, far from advancing your spiritual development, retards it," said Lonnie Kliever, chairman of the religious studies department at Southern Methodist University.
"If really nothing happens, that might be a change of God's plan," Chen's spokesman Richard Liu said at about 10:30 pm Tuesday night. The street in front of Chen's house, closed to traffic, was teeming with television reporters, including a large contingent from Taiwan television networks.
And when God didn't show, Chen's followers did not become visibly upset. No one went berserk.
But undoubtedly more surprising to many was Chen's own response later that day. Chen Hon-Ming publicly conceded that his prophecy should be considered "nonsense" and promised to take responsibility for financial losses caused by the no-show.
The 42-year-old former professor from Taiwan had led about 140 Taiwanese followers to resettle in the Dallas suburb of Garland, Texas, partly because the name sounds like "God-land." The group's beliefs blend Buddhism, millennial Christianity and UFOs.
God's divine manifestations, first on TV and then in the person of Chen himself, were to be forewarnings of the "Great Tribulation" which Chen predicts will occur in 1999. During this time, a global nuclear war will decimate much of the human race. But Chen's followers can be rescued by UFOs, he said.
The UFO rescue is to take place from the beach of Lake Michigan in the city of Gary, Indiana. Chen and his followers went to Gary earlier this year to begin preparing the landing zone.
Now, it appears, all of those predictions and preparations are in question, Chen himself says he does not expect God to take over his body on March 31.
"Because we did not see God's message on television, my predictions of March 31 can be considered nonsense," Chen said through a translator at a press conference held on his front lawn. "I would rather you don't believe what I say any more."
But he also told journalists to "keep watching." And he said he still believed that a time of tribulation was coming.
Chen emphasized that his followers were free, as they had always been, to find their own routes to happiness. He also pledged to "take responsibility" for the financial losses they sustained by giving up their jobs, though he did not elaborate. Chen said he would remain in arland and continue his spiritual studies and teachings as God directs him.
Lonnie Kliever said he expected many of the Taiwanese church members to remain in the United States because they believe North America is a "paradise" that will be spared from future tribulations.
Besides, Kliever said, it's not that unusual for new religious groups to deal with prophecies that fail. "In fact, virtually every belief at some time or another deals with failed prophecy," he said.
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