Not much was known about Iglesia ni Cristo's plans for the small town of Scenic when the church purchased most of the land four years ago.
But recently, a picture of the religious group that bought a South Dakota small town, and the group's plans for the future, have become a little clearer. A new pastor who arrived in South Dakota recently shared one openly stated goal: to build a house of worship and try to establish a strong regional membership.
The Philippines-based church, the name of which translates from Tagalog to English as "Church of Christ," purchased 46 acres of land in Scenic in 2011, paying $700,000 for the properties. The land makes up nearly the entire town, including a gas station, store, museum and bar. Scenic is a small town about 45 miles southeast of Rapid City.
Since then, Iglesia ni Cristo has not filed any building permits, nor has it stated plans for the land or filed for tax-exempt status. The church has, however, started administering services for its followers and others.
"We have started services in the Scenic Community Hall on Thursdays and Sundays," said Jose Ventilacion, a minister in the church. "We thought it would be best to start by reaching out to people and build from there."
The group's ties to South Dakota began with a number of Filipino-American military members who were stationed in Rapid City and were practicing Iglesia ni Cristo members. When it bought the land, some people who live in the area were worried the church was a cult of some sort, and that uncertainty led to concerns over the town's future.
Ventilacion arrived in Rapid City in April. He says that since he was not involved with the purchase of the property, he could not speak to the full extent of the plans the church has for the area.
"We want to build a house of worship for the people, but we need to build our membership first," Vetilacion said. "Attendance has gone up little by little, but we're at 10 or 15 members so far living in Sturgis, Deadwood, Scenic and Rapid City."
One member of the congregation, Fred White, said that he never found the answers he was looking for as a Lutheran, but with Iglesia ni Cristo, he said he's never short of one.
"There's not a question about God I can ask that they can't open the Bible to and find an answer to," White said. "You can't really beat that."
White has been a member of Iglesia ni Cristo for 21 years since joining a Bible Study group in Oakland, Calif., in 1994, and his faith has taken him to Scenic, where he's the caretaker of Iglesia ni Cristo's land and a deacon in the church.
White's wife, Rosalina, said that while she initially wondered what Scenic could hold for the church, she has found the area "very peaceful and beautiful."
"People might wonder what we see in this land, but there's always potential," Rosalina said. "Our first church in the Philippines was seen as a worthless rice field with no potential, but we built a church there."
Another member, Luby Muir, said that she felt God wanted them to come to Scenic.
"God always has a time and a place for us and a purpose that none of us understand until he lets us know," Muir said. "Of course, we're curious! That's only human."
At their Thursday night worship services last week, Ventilacion spoke powerfully about the church taking on God's mission, comparing their small numbers to the Israelites being chosen "not because you were great in number," but rather "because The Lord loved you."
There were only seven members at the services in the small Scenic Community Center, but what they lacked in number they made up for in passion, singing along to the hymns and reacting, sometimes with tears, to the sermon by Ventilacion.
Their numbers are far greater across the world, however. In the Philippines, Iglesia ni Cristo is the second-largest Christian church after the Catholic Church and has about 2.25 million members. The church has ministries in 100 different countries. In the United States, Ventilacion estimated they have members and services in up to 40 states.
"They're a highly visible group," said Dr. Jay Gonzalez, a professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco and a published author on the subject of Filipino religions. "Their churches all have a very specific architecture, and they're very involved in outreach. They take care of their members very well."
The Iglesia ni Cristo was founded in 1914 by Felix Manolo, whose grandson Eduardo runs the church today. Manolo split from the Catholic Church after finding what he believed to be discrepancies between the scripture and Catholic teachings.
The primary difference is the Iglesia ni Cristo's belief that Jesus, while the son of God, was not himself God, but a mediator for his teachings. The Holy Spirit, the other part of the Catholic trinity, is seen as a power of God rather than a deity.
There has been some rivalry between the churches since the split. The Iglesia ni Cristo, which calls itself the "one true church," believes the Catholic Church is an apostate. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, frequently refers to Iglesia ni Cristo as a cult.
"That is the common misconception about us," Ventilacion said. "There's a connotation that we are a secret group, catering just to our fellow members. That isn't true. We have moved around the world to teach the Word to Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike."
Gonzalez, the expert, said he thinks the cult label is an exaggeration.
"When you're growing up Catholic in the Philippines, your parents tell you they're not a true church or that they're a cult," Gonzalez said. "But I don't see it. I'm Filipino, I'm Catholic, and I see a similar outreach, the services they do, the good deeds they want to do. It's just another church."
Regarding what Iglesia ni Cristo might have seen in the small near-ghost town of Scenic, Gonzalez said it might not be terribly different from what they do worldwide.
"They seek out the underprivileged and move into their communities to take care of any needs they might have," Gonzalez said. "It's hard to say for sure, but when they buy land in the Philippines, it's usually part of an outreach movement."
Iglesia ni Cristo has begun holding services at 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays and 10 a.m. on Sundays, and will hold a question and answer session at 6 p.m. Friday, July 17, at La Quinta Inn, 1416 N. Elk Vale Road, Rapid City.
"We've extended invitations to anyone who might be interested, and we've extended invitations to some of our Native American friends who were living on the nearby reservation," Ventilacion said. "Anyone who wants to learn about us is welcome."