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Melodyland Experiences a Miracle of Another Sort : Religion: The church was facing a financial crisis until it agreed to sell 2.9 acres to the city of Anaheim.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every Thursday morning, they flock to the church that looks like a concrete circus tent, asking the Rev. Ralph A. Wilkerson to summon the healing powers of Jesus Christ to obliterate tumors, mend broken marriages, drive arthritis out of joints, repair faulty hearts.

“Now, Jesus! Now, Jesus! Now, Jesus!” Wilkerson commands, as he touches the face of a worshiper, who collapses backwards into the waiting arms of two suited assistants.

Many of the faithful walk away feeling healed after the weekly “Miracle Meeting” at the Melodyland Christian Center. And recently there has been a healing of another sort under way there, one affecting the health of the charismatic Christian church itself.

Flirting with foreclosure, the church last week agreed to sell a 2.9-acre chunk of its 12 1/2 acres to the city of Anaheim for $4.7 million, providing the desperately needed funds to pay off the bulk of a $4.9-million loan that first came due last year and has been in default since January. The 1983 loan is a remnant of the church’s financial disarray in the late 1970s that led to Melodyland losing title to its own property for three years.

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The city may convert the now- vacant land into a parking structure, possibly as an enticement to Disneyland as the entertainment giant ponders whether to build its next Southern California attraction in Anaheim.

It was the latest upward turn on the financial roller coaster the church has ridden during 22 years spent in its unconventional setting, a former theater dubbed Melodyland because of the musicals, concerts and plays that were staged inside.

Church officials insist that there never would have been a foreclosure sale--that even if the deal with the city had fallen through, alternative financing would have been arranged in time. Still, the city deal appears to transform the church from a debtor on the brink of foreclosure into an enviable landowner.

“Yes, it’s a bit on the miraculous side,” said church elder Robert H. Kuehn, Wilkerson’s spokesman.

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When the bulk of its mortgage is paid off, Melodyland will sit nearly debt-free on its remaining 9 1/2 acres, which the city’s mayor calls “some of the most valuable land in the world.” Wilkerson estimates the land is worth $25 million because it is virtually next door to Disneyland’s anticipated $1-billion expansion.

But that soon-to-be-announced expansion--as well as a provision in the deal with the city that gives Anaheim first crack at purchasing the rest of the church property--raises the possibility that Melodyland in the next few years will leave its home.

“At this point, no, we don’t have any interest in moving. We’ve been here a long time, but we’re open to talk to anyone,” said Kuehn, 61, the day after the City Council agreed to the Melodyland deal. “The sanctuary and the church complex have never been offered for sale, and they are not now. . . .

“If this area is developed by Disneyland and the city, and they want to meet the value of the property and the cost of acquiring a new location that’s satisfactory to us, we’d only want to move if we had something like that. We’re open.”

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Wilkerson refused requests for an in-depth interview, referring all inquiries to Kuehn. But the 63-year-old preacher said enigmatically at the weekly healing session a few days before the deal with the city was approved:

“Don’t believe what you read in the papers. There will always be a church. . . . The people are the church. . . . Just trust me and I will lead you well.”

Religious Magnet

In a city known for an amusement park, sports stadium, conventions and other attractions that draw outsiders, Melodyland has been Anaheim’s chief religious magnet. This was especially so in the church’s heyday in the 1970s, when it had 10,000 members and was one of the biggest and best known independent churches in the West.

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“Melodyland is a definite asset to Anaheim,” Mayor Fred Hunter said. As host to massive revival meetings, Melodyland has brought in nationally known gospel preachers, such as Florida faith healer Benny Hinn, and large crowds have followed.

“Because of Melodyland, this has become a location where gospel preachers come and preach. It has given Anaheim an identity of being a synergism of Christianity,” said Hunter, himself a former preacher. “And that is a direct result of Pastor Wilkerson’s work.”

As for the church’s future, especially in light of the anticipated Disneyland expansion and the city’s interest in Melodyland’s property, Hunter refused to speculate except to say:

“Melodyland will always be in Anaheim. There is such a need for a Christian church of that magnitude.”

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But big churches are expensive to run. Melodyland found that out in the late 1970s when it was on the brink of bankruptcy and had to bring in a general manager to set the church, $8 million in debt, back on its feet.

Even today, the interest-only mortgage payment on Melodyland’s $4.9-million mortgage runs $57,000 a month, and then there are salaries, utility bills, a land lease, repair bills and other expenses. At one point, Wilkerson put up his home in Laguna Niguel as collateral to loan the church money, and “was at risk of losing his house,” spokesman Kuehn said.

The land sale to the city will allow Melodyland to pay off about $3.9 million of its second mortgage, leaving $1 million on its first mortgage, Kuehn said. And that, he said, will be paid off in a couple of years.

Even while Melodyland was facing its most recent financial crisis, the church has been gathering strength, leaders said.

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Beset by defections among the congregation in the early 1980s, Melodyland today is enjoying “a major comeback,” Wilkerson said in a brief interview. In the last three months, attendance at Sunday services is up about 20%, as is the money in the collection baskets.

Both Wilkerson and Kuehn say they don’t count heads, but Melodyland holds three services every Sunday in its 3,000-seat auditorium. Part of the reason for the rebound is “the times we live in,” the need for spiritual comfort during the Persian Gulf crisis, he said. Another factor, he said, is the recent addition of two familiar and popular ministers. But there’s another reason, as well.

“God’s favor is upon us,” Wilkerson said.

An Earlier Crisis

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But even if it is in the midst of a comeback, Melodyland Christian Center is a shadow of the church it used to be two decades ago. And its current brush with foreclosure sounds minor-league compared to the financial crisis Melodyland went through in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Wilkerson bought the Melodyland property in 1969, moving his burgeoning Christian Center Church of Anaheim into the theater-in-the-round, which had gone bankrupt. Wilkerson rode the crest of the “born-again” movement of the 1970s, and membership boomed. In addition to the massive congregation, Melodyland also had a school of theology, a high school, several counseling centers, a huge paid staff, a television ministry, two aircraft for missionary work and other assets.

But as the church grew, so did expenditures. In the late 1970s, Melodyland was on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1978, Wilkerson brought in Paul Roper as general manager, who took financial control of the church and trimmed the staff, salaries and holdings. Having helped the church recover from a reported $8-million debt, Roper moved on in 1983. (He later entered the spotlight when he negotiated Jessica Hahn’s $265,000 financial settlement resulting from her sexual encounter with evangelist Jim Bakker.)

But it was still not smooth sailing for the church. In 1984, hundreds of disillusioned members defected to form two new churches, one of which--Zion Christian Center of Orange--still exists. The high school also disbanded, and Melodyland lost the school of theology after a court battle.

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In addition to the sanctuary, the church now encompasses a drug and alcohol counseling center, a prayer ministry and hot line that helps pray with people in crisis, a child-care center, and Bible study, Sunday school and other instructional programs.

Melodyland had managed to avoid publicity for half a dozen years. Then last September the church began talking to city officials about selling the vacant property. And public records revealed that last January two notices of default--the first step in foreclosure--were filed against the church, revealing its lastest financial crisis.

The $4.9-million loan, obtained in 1983, came due last year, and despite two extensions went into default in January.

Another notice of default also was filed against Melodyland in January, this one for $200,000 from a developer that had attempted to purchase some of the church property for nearly $10 million. A city building moratorium soured the transaction, and Melodyland contends it does not owe the developer money.

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“On the surface, it doesn’t sound good, but there explanations for all of that,” Melodyland attorney Donald Wall said.

Melodyland officials say the $4.9-million loan was necessary to refinance the church property and consolidate debts. (News accounts from the time say Melodyland was buying back its property from Roper’s Church Management Inc., which in 1980 made an emergency purchase of the Melodyland property to help bail out the church. But Melodyland officials insist Church Management Inc. never purchased the property, although title to it had been transferred to the company --"something that should not have happened,” Kuehn says--and was transferred back to Melodyland in 1983.)

The church now has until early May to repay the second mortgage or find its property on the auction block. Melodyland officials say the sale to Anaheim should be final by then.

‘Healthy Financially’

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Even with the foreclosure deadline, church leaders do not appear nervous.

“I think we’re very healthy financially,” Wilkerson said a few days before the City Council approved the property purchase. “We have far more assets than liabilities. We’ve paid off almost all our creditors. We’re living within our means. The only problem is the ($4.9-million) balloon payment.”

But Kuehn indicated there has been a touch of anxiety.

“We’ve been going through deep waters,” he said. “Sometimes when it’s the toughest, that’s when the challenge comes on. It’s always tough. Sometimes the Lord doesn’t come through until the last minute, but He always comes through.”

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Times staff writer James S. Granelli contributed to this story.

Melodyland: Fending Off Foreclosure

THE DEBT: Melodyland has until May to repay a $4.9-million loan or risk foreclosure on its 12 1/2 acres. Church leaders say the 1983 loan refinanced church property and consolidated debts. The loan was a remnant of the church’s financial disarray in the late 1970s that led to Melodyland losing title to its own property for three years.

THE DEAL: The church has agreed to sell 2.9 acres for $4.7 million to the city of Anaheim, which may build a parking structure on the land. The city also will have options to lease or buy other parcels of Melodyland property.

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THE FUTURE: The sale will leave Melodyland about $1 million in debt, which it plans to pay off in a couple of years. Church elders say they have no intention of moving, but Melodyland may choose to cash in on its land and relocate if Disneyland expands.


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