IN THE 1960S, Michael Rooney was a DJ for a small radio station in Mora, Minnesota, and he couldn't stand local pastor Donald Alsbury. But Rooney had to see him regularly, because Alsbury spoke on a talk show at the same station. He'd go on air and discuss the Bible, Jesus, and the way to live with God running through your soul.
As a side job, Rooney worked at the local theater as a projectionist. He'd feed film through the machine and sit back as it flickered images out to the masses. It was free entertainment for Rooney, but the films got old after the first or second showings, so in the crammed confines of the projection room, he'd pull out a book.
One night, he opened up the Bible.
He began to read passages that said stuff like: "And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me."
It made him shake his head. He knew that he could present something such as Mark 8:34 to a dozen different religious scholars and get a dozen different interpretations of what it meant. But he kept at it. Night after night he waded deeper into the text. Then he realized there was someone who knew what it all meant. It was the guy he couldn't stand: Pastor Donald Alsbury.
"I was struggling with the Bible," Rooney says. "He knew all the answers."
The good Pastor Alsbury came from the traditions of the Missouri Synod of Lutherans. At the age of 23, he realized its teachings were wrong. "Bullshit artists," he would later say of other religious scholars. At that point in his life, Alsbury had an experience in which God began to flow through him. It compelled him to undertake a mission to create a community in which his children could live under the correct observance of God's teachings. It would require followers to cast away their current lives. This included selling off all their financial assets, savings, homes, property, cars, and clothing. That act would become the mortar of his new community.
Rooney started to talk with Alsbury regularly. This led to convincing his wife, Patricia, that becoming part of this new community and following the good pastor was the way. In 1970, along with several other families, the Rooneys moved into a communal setting in Mora and began to follow Alsbury's teachings of God.
So began Christ's Household of Faith.
And so began the Rooneys' marital problems.
Patricia had difficulties with the religion. She was forced to adopt a drab wardrobe. She was required to continually produce children. She had little to no control over her daily life. And something about Alsbury gave her misgivings. For the next several years, she would drop in and out of Christ's Household.
On one occasion, Patricia left and took her four children to live with her sister in the nearby town of Cambridge. She did this without the consent of her husband, and he didn't appreciate it. He later went with a few other Christ's Household members to get his kids back, storming into his sister-in-law's home.
"They held us down on the ground," says Patricia. "We were in the middle of a birthday party. And then they hid the kids in different homes of the members."
But Patricia didn't back down. Instead, she made a plan. She soon appeared at Christ's Household's schoolhouse and took her children back.
"What she doesn't tell you," says Alsbury, "is that her brother-in-law was outside the schoolhouse with a machete in his hand, telling anyone that if they tried to stop her, they'd have to deal with him."
The capture and recapture of the children ended with two Christ's Household members being found guilty of trespassing. The kids stayed with Patricia. Eventually, Michael decided to leave the church and return to his family.
"There was a whole variety of reasons," he says. "My marriage was troubled and I had my kids and I wanted to make it work."
When Michael returned to Cambridge, he made amends with his brother-in-law and took up work at the local machinist's shop. This went on for a couple of months.
During this time, Christ's Household of Faith started to move its home base to St. Paul. The church bought an old Catholic schoolhouse in the Summit/University neighborhood and set it up as the base of operations.
Not once during this time did Michael think about the church. "It was no longer a part of my life," he says.
But then it happened: God compelled Michael to return to Christ's Household. And eventually Patricia, once again, agreed to follow him.
The choice didn't sit well with her. In addition to her previous concerns, she now faced strained housing arrangements. She found herself sharing various homes near the schoolhouse with a rotating cast of families. One morning, Patricia awoke to find a couple at the foot of her bed, speaking in tongues.
Patricia also disliked the Sunday services where worship sessions would be held all day long—that is, unless the Vikings were on.
"Yeah, I suppose that's true," says Alsbury with a chuckle. "But we'll also stop it for other things. Like last week we ended early for a women's night. Now, be sure to know we don't do it all the time. Only, say for instance, like this weekend with the Eagles/Vikings playoff game."
Football policy aside, Patricia found it particularly disturbing to watch other members administer corporal punishment to her children. She recalls a moment when her son John was working on the church's farm in Hugo. The boy picked up a cherry tomato and chucked it at another kid. A male supervisor caught him in the act. "He took John away from the others and began to beat on him, slamming his head against a steel pole," says Patricia. "And when I tried to stop the man from hurting my son he told me not to interfere with discipline and pushed me out of the way."
Christ's Household members responded to the allegation in disbelief: "You need to understand that Pat has a problem with veracity," says Alsbury.
Patricia had had enough of Christ's Household. She was tired of living on a rung lower than the men, tired of having babies. She and Michael had already had 10 children together, and Christ's Household doesn't believe in birth control.
"I just couldn't have another," she says.
In 1987, Patricia left Christ's Household. She filed for divorce and received custody of four of her children.
The next year, a Ramsey County judge ordered Michael to pay child support and spousal maintenance: $650 and $250 per month respectively. The court estimated that Michael's work for Christ's Household was worth $24,000 a year.
But Michael wasn't able to pay. Christ's Household paid him a stipend of only about $6.50 every other week. So over the next several years, payments to Patricia came in sporadically, a result of Michael taking a part-time job as a pizza-delivery driver and some "benevolence" given out by Christ's Household for care of the children.
In September 1990, under the direction of its lawyer, Christ's Household began to pay the county $105 a month for support. But by the end of the year, Christ's Household discovered it could be held in contempt for not paying Michael's full obligation required by the state, so it discontinued the payments.
In January 1991, a Ramsey County referee summoned Pastor Donald Alsbury and three other community elders to appear before the court. In his decision, the referee gave an ultimatum to the members:
"There are four minor children here who are going to receive their child support, and there is a Petitioner here who is going to receive her spousal maintenance, and if it's not paid, then we are going to come back to court later in the spring on the issue of contempt, and it's going to get more expensive for Christ's Household of Faith; and there are two, maybe three, maybe four men in this courtroom who are going to spend a good portion of the summer in the Ramsey County Workhouse if these children do not get their support and that's the firm Order of this Court."
Christ's Household chose to fight.
And now, after three rounds of appeals, two rejections from the Minnesota Supreme Court, one from the U.S. Supreme Court, and close to $729,000 in legal fees, Christ's Household and Michael Rooney are still battling the state over its insistence that the father and his church must pay to support his children and ex-wife.
LAST MONTH, Patricia sat down for brunch at the local Perkins in Cam-bridge. Once a town known for itspotato factory, it's now a hub for big-box retail stores. Its history as a place of Swedish ancestry is evident from the inhabitants inside the restaurant. Blond-haired men with lineman-sized bodies squeeze into the booths.
Patricia has a thin build and talks only when she can't avoid it, often struggling to remember exact dates. Alongside Patricia is her son John, a wide-shouldered man in his late 30s with a set of safety glasses perched atop his hat, and her brother-in-law Bob Skawski, wearing a flannel shirt and owning a hearty appetite. Both men have callused hands from years spent inside the machinist's shop. Sitting across the table is their attorney, Joseph Schmidt.
They begin to talk about the court case with disgust. "It's pretty simple," says Skawski. "You have kids. You better take care of them. And if you don't then you better pay for their well being. That's the law. Plain and simple."
Without the spousal support, Patricia worked two jobs at the machinist's shop to survive. At 5 p.m. or so she'd leave the office and clean the shop. "Those were my jobs," she says. "They kept me busy, working 50 to 70 hours a week."
When they get to discussing the actual court case, the details get shaky. They begin to stumble through the 20-year history. Several times Bob interrupts the conversation to make sure they're all talking about the same court appearance.
Their court saga started when Ramsey County issued the ultimatum for payment back in 1991. By the following winter, after three separate judgments, the Minnesota Court of Appeals granted an evidentiary hearing to determine what exactly the church owed to Patricia and the children. This hearing wouldn't be held until 2002, 11 years after the order.
"About a decade of nothing," says Skawski. "The case just sat there while Patricia went about working herself to the bone. And it wasn't until I talked to a friend who knew Joe that we got something going."
Schmidt nods his head humbly. The Minneapolis lawyer works privately in an old, rug-covered office downtown. It's a second-floor suite just above a Buca Di Beppo Italian restaurant. The cackles of lunch-goers can be heard echoing through his walls. He has a short gray beard and glasses. And on this day, he has on thick hiking boots, giving him the appearance of a liberal-arts college professor about to go backpacking.
"When I told him about it," says Skawski, motioning to Schmidt, "he told me that he felt he could win the case. So we worked out a payment plan and, well, here we are today."
From 2001 to 2007, Schmidt battled top-flight corporate lawyers that Christ's Household paid to help in Michael's defense. The battles bounced between the state and appellate courts. Every ruling but one went in favor of Patricia.
Yet the amount owed to her continually changed. One ruling said the calculation of the unpaid support should go back only to 2001; another ruled that Christ's Household had already met its financial obligation (by this time the church had paid nearly $35,946 to Patricia). But Schmidt wanted a ruling that retroactively billed Christ's Household for all unpaid sums back to 1990, and he wanted the ruling to take into consideration interest on the unpaid amount while also reevaluating the income of Michael Rooney if he were working outside Christ's Household.
Schmidt determined, with the help of independent consultant Dick VanWagner, that Michael's salary in October 2004 could be estimated at $55,600. "And that's being conservative," VanWagner adds.
Christ's Household owns and operates numerous for-profit companies revolving around home renovation and construction. They're also a wholesale distributor of silestone, which is used to make kitchen countertops. In addition to its businesses, Christ's Household owns 42 properties in St. Paul's Summit/University neighborhood, according to Ramsey County property records. The combined value of all properties is estimated to exceed $10 million.
The riches allowed the church to fight the case to the bitter end. Lawyers for Christ's Household appealed the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court; both declined to hear it.
By 2008, the Court of Appeals finally rendered the judgment Patricia sought against Christ Household. Eighteen years after the first court case, with nearly every imaginable avenue in the state court system exhausted, the appellate court granted Patricia $234,945.
Back inside the Perkins restaurant, Patricia, John, and Bob finish up their plates. The conversation goes silent before Bob speaks up and says they didn't take the news with much joy. After years of court cases, they're jaded. And for good reason. While the judge ordered Christ's Household to pay, Patricia has yet to see a cent.
FROM THE STREET, the headquarters of Christ's Household looks likea building designed by Tim Bur- ton. Wrought iron fencing pens inthe front courtyard while the faded red bricks show the battle scars from Minnesota winters.
Inside the main study, a warm room with tall ceilings and filled with leather-bound religious textbooks, Michael Rooney, decked out in dark-blue Crocs and a leather jacket, sits on a brown sofa. In a recliner next to the couch is Pastor Donald Alsbury, his bald head and white beard offering a bright contrast to his black-and-gold long-sleeved polo. Both men have laptop computers resting on their thighs.
"Wait a second," says Alsbury. "I think I got it."
"Yep. Same here," says Rooney. "I got a connection."
"Just trying to figure out our wi-fi," adds Alsbury.
In the room with Alsbury and Rooney are two other church members: Dennis Simonson, a plump man with a trimmed goatee, and behind him at a solid wooden table, Dan Murphy, a bald man with a yoga build. He's curled over a laptop.
"I'm what you would call the scribe, I guess," says Murphy. "I'll be taking notes of tonight's conversation."
Just to the right of Rooney is Steven Aggregaard, a skinny and youthful-looking man. He's the latest corporate attorney for Christ's Household of Faith.
"Just so you know the procedure," he says, getting the attention of the men. "Everything you say in these types of situations will be on the record."
The men nod and Pastor Alsbury begins to speak without interruption for what seems like a half-hour. His sentences flow into one another effortlessly and make full use of his deep, baritone voice. Entire passages of the Bible roll out of his mouth from memory. He tends to point with his right index finger when addressing a serious issue. And he pauses regularly to ask rhetorical questions, lightening his tone and kicking up the very last syllable of whatever word he's chosen to end on.
While he speaks, Rooney and Simonson silently relax on the couch. It looks as though they're listening to music. They nod every so often at punctuations in his sentences. And when Alsbury finishes his thoughts, Simonson chimes in to translate. "What he's referencing is the book of Acts 2:33-47," he says. "To really understand us it'd be an important section to read."
Alsbury nods approvingly. The 76-year-old pastor has experienced God flowing through him for the last 53 years. A cane rests near his chair. But while his body is weakening, his mind is strong. He says the main issue for continuing the 20-year court battle is the church's effort to protect its way of life.
"Basically," he says, "it's a matter of who we are and what we do versus the county decision to tell us who we are and what we do. An easy way to think of it is the relationship between Caesar and God."
Adds Simonson, "Throughout history, true Christians have faced situations where they had to choose between being faithful to their beliefs or obeying the edicts of government."
"What I'm telling you is Jesus had the opportunity to deny his faith but instead chose to state the truth," says Alsbury. "If we abide by the state's definition of us, then we deny who we are."
Eleven days after the verdict came down ordering the church to pay $234,945 to Patricia, Christ's Household filed a new suit at the federal level. But this time, Michael Rooney was not part of the case, nor was Patricia. It was Christ's Household versus Ramsey County. The suit had the church, for the first time, in the role of plaintiff. It was now arguing that if Ramsey County enforced the state court's ruling, it would infringe on the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner will have nothing to do with this argument. In her response to the U.S. District Court, she urged the dismissal of the entire case.
"With the exception of one district court judge's order in 2006, which was reversed by the appellate court, every district court order has rejected Plaintiff's First Amendment claims," she writes. "The Court of Appeals, too, addressed Plaintiff's First Amendment claims in a published opinion, and found them without merit."
Gaertner believes the case should be dismissed, arguing that the district court lacks the jurisdiction to even take the case.
Mostly though, her words suggest that the suit is a way for Christ's Household to get around the issue of paying child support and more or less overturn the state court's ruling.
Of course, this is not how Christ's Household sees it. The men are very specific in their intentions not to rehash any of the state court issues. In his own U.S. District Court filing, Aggregaard writes, "Christ's Household of Faith simply had no reason to litigate any enforcement-related issue until it had exhausted every last remedy related to liability." Again and again, he reiterates that the suit is only about enforcement.
Back inside the study, Alsbury continues to talk. The conversation moves to lighter subjects, such as church members' love for basketball and the talented musicians the school develops.
While this happens, Rooney surfs through his computer. The 20-year court hearing for him is like a cloud that never leaves. "It's always there," he says. "Overall it's been a spiritual blessing, even though I know it's impacted other community members."
Since the start of the litigation, all four children Michael was responsible for have grown, and some have their own families. Two of the children chose to return to Christ's Household of their own free will.
As the night progresses, it becomes apparent that the overriding issue is that Christ's Household does not want to pay Patricia because she betrayed the church's teachings. "They will have to take the money from us," says Alsbury. "We will never pay a dime to a person who denied her oath to marriage and her community—a covenant breaker? It's out of the question."