Baptists Shocked at News of Misuse of Funds
By Marc B. Geller
November 10, 2006
McAllen — A recently released report detailing the misuse of funds to start up Baptist churches in the Rio Grande Valley elicited shock and relief from members of the region's Baptist community.
During a six-year period spanning 1999 to 2005, three pastors claimed to have started 258 new churches in the Valley using more than $1.3 million from the Dallas-based Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Today, however, as few as five of those churches actually exist, according to an independent investigation the convention commissioned. Many of the churches existed only on paper. Others were Bible study groups that did not qualify for the church-starting funds.
The three pastors accused of misusing the funds are Otto Arango, formerly pastor of Iglesia Bautista Getsemani in McAllen; Aaron de la Torre, pastor of Iglesia Bautista de la Comunidad in Hidalgo; and Armando Vera, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Alianza in McAllen.
"I was actually shocked and surprised," said Danny Price, the pastor of spiritual formation at Baptist Temple in McAllen, of the revelations in the report.
With about 2,500 members, Baptist Temple is among the largest Baptist congregations in the Valley — much larger than its neighboring church, Iglesia Bautista Getsemani, which now has a new pastor.
"Being a neighbor to Getsemani, I'm concerned for their congregation, that they would not lose faith over this, that this would not be something that would cause them to despair," Price said.
"For us, it won't really change how we do business," he added. "Our finances are always open to our congregation. Any member can come in and request a financial statement of where we're at, and we have a budget committee that provides oversight for that."
Price said the revelations "concerned" him on a more personal level as well.
He grew up during the era of the 1980s sex scandals that erupted over indiscretions by televangelists Jim Bakkercq and Jimmy Swaggart. And more recently, he has had friends who were part of the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals.
"And so inherently in me there is a distrust for pastoral authority, but I've never had that before now for Baptists," Price said. "I've always trusted Baptist pastors."
He predicted, however, that Baptist Temple would continue to give to various Baptist groups and to support mission work across the world, as well as assist other Baptist churches with events in the Valley.
"We do large events for our people and for outreaches into the community," he said. "And what I always try to remember is that every dollar is someone's active worship. They gave that to God; they didn't give it to me."
Retired police officer and former pastor Rene Lizcano did not share Price's surprise at the revelations in the report but said he wouldn't have guessed the amount of potentially misused funds was so great.
Then again, Lizcano spent five years conducting his own personal, informal investigation of phantom churches rumored here in the Valley; he gave up on the effort in 2003 after seeing that the Baptist leadership wasn't interested in pursuing the red flags he waved.
Lizcano recalled, in particular, the response he got during a Rio Grande Valley Baptist Association meeting in 2002. He said then-committee chairman Mike Flanagan told him there would be no investigation of so-called phantom missions.
"Man, that was like a dagger to my heart," Lizcano said. "It's like me being a cop and watching a child getting raped and not being able to do anything about it."
By that time, Lizcano had spent considerable time checking out the addresses of the churches listed in the association's monthly reports of new church starts.
"I had information of families that I had interviewed, that their homes were addressed at churches, but those guys had never seen any (church-starting) money," Lizcano said.
At least one of the addresses was for the private residence of a family that was not even Baptist, he said. That particular family was Catholic. Lizcano said the man of the house was surprised to learn his home had been listed as a new church.
"He says, 'I'm not a Baptist. Why are you saying that I have a church here?'"
Now that the misuse Lizcano knew of years ago has finally come to light, the 57-year-old Mission man feels relieved.
"The truth came out, and that's all I wanted," he said. "And now I need to search my heart and find forgiveness for every one of those persons (bearing responsibility for the misuse of funds). I'm not going to judge them. That's something between them and God."
Daniel Rangel, director of missions at the Weslaco-based Rio Grande Valley Baptist Association, referred questions about the church-starting investigation to the convention leadership.
But he did say that the association has not dealt with the three pastors — Arango, de la Torre and Vera — since they broke from the group and established their own Borderlands Association back in 2003.
Rangel said the split occurred when the Valley Baptist group began investigating and questioning the funding requests it was receiving from the three pastors.
"We said, 'Hey, we don't feel comfortable accepting these requests for funds,'" he said, explaining that the pastors balked at the accountability measures the association sought to impose.
"When we came to that point, we said, 'We're not going to accept any more requests for funds,' and they started their own association and continued. And that was over three years ago."
David Montoya, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Mineral Wells and former pastor of First Baptist Church in Donna, has spent years looking into what he refers to as ValleyGate and has extensively reported on the issue in his blog, Spiritual Samurai.
"It's taken me four years to get someone to do something about this," he said.
And Montoya doesn't think the convention's investigation is the end of the scandal.
"I called the Internal Revenue Service and got them on it," he said. "I promise you the IRS is investigating this right now.
"The main fault of this (scandal) does not lie in the Valley, but it lies in Dallas, with the (convention) leadership."
Marc B. Geller covers McAllen and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4445.
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