Tom Schumacher knew something was afoot when U-Haul trucks from all over the country began to be dropped off at his dealership daily by members of the Church Universal and Triumphant.
Other members of the controversial church, which three years ago moved its headquarters from California to this valley just outside Yellowstone National Park, have kept Schumacher busy renting his trucks for local hauling.
Business has been brisk all over town. Stores report runs on clothing and blankets. Survivalist gear--sleeping bags, ammunition, rations and radiation suits--has gone fast. Pharmacists report that church members are ordering up to a year’s supply of “maintenance medication” for heart ailments and other illnesses. At banks, members are closing accounts and taking early withdrawal on IRAs, despite a 10% penalty.
“It’s bizarre,” one bank official said. “They don’t want to wait, they want it now--and they want it in cash.”
The reason? The Church Universal and Triumphant, a worldwide New Age church, and its thousands of members are preparing to go underground in case of a nuclear holocaust. And, according to their leader, Elizabeth Claire Prophet, who claims to be the reincarnation of Queen Guinevere and Marie Antoinette, that could come as soon as April 23.
Consequently, church members, often with their belongings in tow and nowhere to stay, are arriving here from all over the country to be near the member-owned underground bomb shelters that honeycomb the hills near the Gallatin Mountain Range.
Others are scurrying about in freezing weather and occasional snow flurries to stock those facilities, loading water, church-produced dehydrated food, furniture, supplies, heating oil and personal belongings into shelters estimated to hold as many as 2,500 people.
Trucks, trailers and cars are traveling up and down U.S. 89 from Livingston to a 756-person bomb shelter just north of Yellowstone Park, and to about 45 smaller shelters that can house up to 125 people each.
Members are selling personal possessions--cars, furniture, real estate. The church itself last week sold the 60,000-square-foot building in Livingston that housed its massive printing facility, with a two-year agreement to lease back two-thirds of the space.
This stepped-up activity has made the church’s already skittish and sometimes hostile neighbors in Gardiner and Livingston increasingly apprehensive. And it has fueled rumors about the church’s intentions.
There were erroneous reports that the church was preparing to go underground this week. Some local residents insist that Prophet has told her followers to be prepared to go underground indefinitely, nuclear strike or not. Others say Prophet has ordered church members to liquidate their property and turn it over to her.
Church Vice President Ed Francis, Prophet’s husband, dismisses the rumors as “preposterous.”
“The shelters will be used only if there is a nuclear war,” said Francis, whose wife is known to followers as Ma Guru. “Why would anyone want to live underground if they didn’t have to?”
Members agree and say rumors that they are planning to use the shelters this week or next are completely unfounded.
“There’s no way I’m moving underground unless I have to,” said Margarat Cocche, 47, a nurse from Bozeman who, like many members, has quit her job and moved to Livingston to be nearer the bomb shelters in case of a nuclear disaster. “I want to go back to work and get on with my life. This just seems like it’s practical. If you believe in certain things, you prepare for it.”
Members say they are preparing for what the church says are the dangerous months of March and April, in particular April 23, when, according to church spokesman Murray Steinman, Prophet predicts that a “dark cycle ends.” Members believe the recent events in Europe, the easing of tension, the emergence of new democratic governments and the fall of the Berlin Wall are actually signs of doom.
“We feel that what appears to be taking place is not necessarily what’s going on,” said Brad Tisdale, 36, of suburban Washington, D.C. “We feel that (Soviet President Mikhail) Gorbachev is consolidating his position. We just feel that the risk of a nuclear strike is greater now than it has been in the past.”
In the shelter being overseen by Tisdale, foam bedding was stacked in the hallway in preparation for occupancy. Prospective residents have written their names on beds. Children’s toys, books, tables, clothing and other personal belongings are stuffed in sleeping pods. Storage areas are filled with five-gallon buckets and boxes containing dehydrated squash, kale, carrots, turkey, beef and other food. Tisdale, who said the facility is a few weeks away from inhabitation, said he is still trying to work out bugs in the facility’s generator.
The church’s 756-person shelter is close to completion but still lacks a waste water treatment system. Park County officials who inspected it early this week told the church that neither the main facility nor the 45 other shelters can be inhabited until permits are obtained for waste water treatment.
All the activity has brought an economic boom to tiny Livingston, whose economy has suffered from the loss of 1,000 jobs with the closure of Burlington Northern Railroad’s locomotive and freight car repair facility in 1986. Local merchants say business is suddenly up 25% in the midst of what is usually the slow season.
“It’s almost as good as Christmas,” one merchant said.
But some have expressed concern over what will happen with all the new church residents if a nuclear disaster doesn’t happen.
One Chicago family of seven arrived during a snowstorm Wednesday with its belongings packed into a rented trailer hauled by the family station wagon. In response to Prophet’s prediction, the children had been taken out of school, and the mother and oldest daughters had left their jobs. They said they had nowhere to stay, and they did not know how long they would be in the area. They had expected to stay in a shelter, but it was not yet ready.
Steinman, speaking for the church, said such families will have to make a way for themselves like everyone else.
“We believe that everybody should be self-sustaining,” said Steinman, speaking for the church. “Some will stay and be part of the working economy, and the others will just have to leave and go back to where they came from.”