In the fall of 1961 the Radio Church of God held its first Feast of Tabernacles at the Blythe Arena in Squaw Valley (home of the Winter Olympics skating events just a year earlier.)
The week long gathering brought up to 10,000 church members to Squaw Valley every fall, until the Blythe Arena collapsed in the early 1980s. While North Tahoe folks saw the annual visits of the Radio Church of God (later changed to the Worldwide Church of God) as a much needed boom to the slow fall economy, it turns out the church was an unorthodox and controversial organization, with many ex-members referring to it as a cult.
Rod Stollery, who in 1961 helped his parents put out the then fledging Tahoe City World, remembers the church’s first visit to the area. “The merchants weren’t expecting much business from them,” said Stollery. When the owners of the Alpine Liquor and Sporting Goods left town for what they thought would be a slow week, Stollery took over the shop. “We were quickly inundated by church members who were fond of liquor. We sold out in two days and had to have a truckload sent up from the valley … needless to say, the event was an economical godsend to the area.”
The event would be front page news in the Tahoe City World every year, and a full page spread inside welcomed the church to town with a map showing church members Tahoe’s recreational opportunities. The paper was also full of ads from local businesses welcoming church members to Tahoe City’s finest dining and shopping establishments.
Cheryl Bechdolt Balbuena back then was a waitress in her family business, The Tahoe Inn (At the current location of Blue Agave). It was an inn, bar, and had two restaurants. “We were crazy slammed for ten days. The girl church members always wore modest dresses and no makeup, and the men wore sports jackets and ties. They were nice, but kept to themselves. And were really bad tippers, sometimes they didn’t tip at all.” In fact, the slogan around the restaurant was “Oh, no, The Godders are coming. We are going to work and not get paid,” said Balbuena. (“The Godders” was the universal locals’ term for the members of the Radio/Worldwide Church of God).
The Radio Church of God was the brainchild of Herbert W. Armstrong, who founded the church in 1933. He also founded Ambassador College, a religious school in Pasadena, and was a controversial pioneer of radio and television evangelism whose show, “The World Tomorrow,” eventually aired on 382 television stations. Armstrong preached against doctors, saying they were pagans and that only God can heal. He stood against all holidays, cosmetics for women, and long hair on men. And he trained his ministers to believe that their church was the only true Christian church and all other churches were satanic.
Members were required to tithe 10 percent of their annual income to the church and an additional 10 percent to be spent at the annual Festival of Tabernacles, much to the benefit of Tahoe businesses. Meanwhile the church owned hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate in Pasadena, including several lavish mansions occupied by the Armstrong family.
While Armstrong preached fervently against adultery and homosexuality, the church was rocked by scandal when his son, fellow preacher and assumed heir to the head of the church, Garner Ted Armstrong, was accused of having sexual relations with hundreds of women, many of whom were students at Ambassador College. He was married at the time.
In The Broadway to Armageddon, a book written by former minister of the Worldwide Church of God, William B. Hinson, Ambassador College Dean Al Carrozzo was quoted, “Herbert Armstrong had known about Ted’s sexual shenanigans from the very beginning. Ted admitted to having affairs with over 200 different women.”
According to William F. Dankenbring, who spent 30 years as a member of the church, “At the Squaw Valley Festival in 1971, Garner Ted Armstrong preached a sermon entitled “What the World needs now is Love, Sweet Love,” Then Ted spent that very night in the arms of his mistress, Gail, who was an Ambassador College Student, and the stewardess of his Falcon Jet. They were shacked up in a Lake Tahoe cabin on the south shore.”
In 1972, Ted Armstrong was kicked out of the Worldwide Church of God. In the next few years, a slow transformation of the church began that accelerated with the death of Herbert Armstrong in 1986. The new head of the church, Joseph Tkach, began to evolve the church to more of a mainstream evangelical focus and changed the name to Grace Communal International.
While the goals of the Worldwide Church of God were certainly controversial, many long time Tahoe locals still fondly remember how the “Godders” helped North Tahoe businesses get through the deadly quiet days of fall.