TUMACACORI — An alternative and controversial religious group is leaving the Sedona area's vortexes for what it says is equally sacred space — a 165-acre ranch in this rural community south of Tucson.
The Global Community Communications Alliance purchased the Potreros Ranch along the Santa Cruz River for $4.8 million in March, and is in the process of moving its headquarters and 100 members — ranging in age from babies to their 80s — to the property.
The group, which says it has federal tax status as a nonprofit religious organization, also recently bought land along East Rio Rico Drive in Tubac for $580,000.
By all appearances the group forms a contented, peaceful community, but it has drawn the ire of some critics who say its leader, Gabriel of Urantia, exerts too much control over members, who surrender their financial assets when they join.
A parent and grandparent of two members says Gabriel, who claims that celestial beings speak through him, turns his followers against their families and other outsiders.
As a result, some Tumacacori residents have voiced concerns about the move.
Mary and George Hemminger, who live in the historic Rancho San Cayetano across from Potreros, are hoping for the best. But Mary says it worries her that the members don't have financial independence.
"I'm concerned about anyone who might be taken advantage of," she said.
Group members counter that prospective members must live with them six months before considering a lifelong commitment.
"The benefit of giving up your money is that you get so much more from everyone else," said Taranta Baldeschi, 45, who is living at the Tumacacori ranch and has been part of the community for 14 years. "But I know the majority of the world lives according to making a living, so we seem different."
They say critics are judging them for being outside of a mainstream society that's focused on materialism. Believing in self-sufficiency, members grow their own organic food, raise livestock, and practice what they call ecological living.
They are against uncontrolled growth and say that is one of the main reasons they are leaving Sedona — an area that has exploded with homes, shopping centers and restaurants since the group formed in 1989.
Officials with the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office say they have no record of problems with the group in Sedona.
Yavapai County Supervisor Chip Davis, whose district includes the group's largest property, says members have been consistently well-mannered advocates of environmental protection. "My encounters with them have all been positive," he said. "They've been active in the community in a good way."
Celestial beings cited
The group bases its worship on The Urantia Book, a 2,097-page work published in 1955 that claims to have been presented by celestial beings as a revelation to the planet Urantia, which is Earth.
Its members say they follow Jesus' example, though they don't believe in some tenets of Christianity, including the Immaculate Conception.
They say their leader, Gabriel, is in contact with celestial beings who speak through him with revelations, which he's putting into a series of books called the Cosmic Family volumes.
His followers, who are from all over the world, are not referred to by their birth names but rather by "spiritual names" that represent a higher self.
Gabriel declined to be interviewed, but sent the Star prepared, e-mailed statements about the group and its mission.
"This ministry works with all peoples who are somewhat damaged by society, i.e., divorce, struggling to make a living, troubled teens, and/or temporarily emotionally distraught for whatever reason," he wrote.
"Tumacacori/Tubac will become the spiritual mecca of Western civilization," Gabriel added.
He previously said that about Sedona, but now says greed has marred Sedona's uniqueness.
"Sedona has become an overdeveloped tourist attraction and a lot of the people aren't very real. The whole Tumacacori area is nice and people are so friendly. I'm excited. It will be cool to build and garden there," said 16-year-old Amadon Dell Erba, who was born in the community and is Gabriel's son.
Kazarian K-Zar, 29, has lived in the community since he was 16. "I definitely felt led by God. This is what I've been called to do with my life," he said. "Leaving is an issue that doesn't concern me. I'm not concerned about having things. I know whatever God needs me to have, I'll have, whether it's here or somewhere else."
Similarly, 28-year-old Torrea Vinyard says she grew up believing she would be a Catholic nun. But when an older nun advised that she was meant to do something different with her life, Vinyard began praying and searching for something else.
"My prayers were fulfilled," she said. "I heard from God. The Urantia Book expands more of who Jesus is."
Once lived in Tucson
A Pittsburgh native who was raised Catholic, Gabriel lived in Tucson during the 1970s and operated Son Light Ministries here, under the name Rev. Tony Delevin. He told the Star in 1979 that he was sharing Jesus Christ with street people.
Until recently, he referred to himself as Gabriel of Sedona, and his group was called Aquarian Concepts.
Gabriel, now 60, felt an immediate spiritual connection with Potreros Ranch, his followers say, made even more powerful by the fact that it is adjacent to Tumacacori Historical National Park and ruins of the mission established in 1691 by Jesuit Father Francisco Eusebio Kino.
A lush property that includes five houses, a swimming pool, a barn and a pond, Potreros is now undergoing a transformation into a working farm. On a recent Friday, members were planting vegetables in one section, while inside the main ranch house older children sat down to school lessons and younger children played in the preschool area.
A few members stayed in front of the house, tending to pristine and colorful flower gardens. "We believe gardening is very healing," said Centria Lilly, who identifies herself as the group's liaison minister.
Earlier this year — before the ranch sale was final — several residents of the Tumacacori area met with alliance members at Wisdom's Cafe & Restaurant, hopeful, some said, that they would convince the group to go elsewhere.
The number of people that will live on the property — 100 and possibly more — was an issue, though 6 acres of Potreros is already zoned for higher-density housing, allowing for nearly 11 attached units per acre with no restrictions on how many people can live in them.
Now that the property is sold, local residents are less willing to talk critically about their new neighbors and instead are just trying to get along with them.
"I know a few people told them they weren't welcome, but their reaction was very calm, very professional. Now that the sale has gone through I haven't heard anything. They are nice people, and they don't appear any different than a lot of the new people moving into the area," said Herb Wisdom, owner of Wisdom's, a common meeting place in the unincorporated community of Tumacacori. The 2000 census placed the population of Tumacacori and nearby Carmen at 569.
"I hope it all works out," Wisdom added. "We're too small to not get along."
The move to Tumacacori is expected to eventually relocate the alliance's various nonprofit businesses to Southern Arizona — a recording studio and performance venue called Future Studios in downtown Sedona; a moving and landscaping company; a tour company; a health clinic; a legal clinic; and a publishing company.
The group plans to use the Tubac property for an art gallery and office for its spiritual-tour company.
The fact that just 100 people are able to run the various businesses and programs is a testament to their disciplined lives, said Lilly, who calls the community "a well-oiled machine in terms of being productive."
The group earns money through its nonprofit businesses and book sales. It also solicits donations from the public. On one video on the Web, dating to the Sedona days, it says that "finances are desperately needed" to build a school for the group's children. "Please help us," the children chime in on the video.
Much of the group's assets are in real estate.
Yavapai County records show the group owns 19 properties in the Sedona area, which the Assessor's Office assigns a total full cash value of $6.8 million for the 2007 tax year, and $9.2 million for the 2008 tax year. At least 12 of the properties, including its largest — the 15.2-acre Avalon Gardens — are on the market for a total of $19 million, real estate listings show.
Property values have skyrocketed in Sedona. For example, the group bought Avalon Gardens for less than $1 million in 1994 and it's now on the market for $7.7 million.
Hurt by criticism
Many members say they are weary and hurt by criticism, particularly in media coverage that has landed them, among other places, on the national television program "Dateline NBC" in 1998 and most recently on the cover of Sedona's Red Rock News.
The group responded with a 167-minute Web cast April 19 titled, "Media Misrepresentation: locally and nationally."
Some critics, including a California parent, Janet Helminiak, say the group wants its members together in a remote location to avoid scrutiny.
Helminiak says she hasn't spoken to her 36-year-old son or her 11-year-old granddaughter — both community members — in more than two years and she blames the community for turning both of them against her.
She says she reluctantly dropped a lawsuit to try to gain custody of her granddaughter after spending tens of thousands of dollars and more than two years in the courts.
Among her concerns — denied by the group — are that her granddaughter is being educated only in group doctrine and will never be able to leave because of a lack of opportunities.
John Thurstin, 79, a former group member, says Gabriel believes he is the reincarnation of Moses, St. Francis of Assisi, George Washington, Alexander the Great and Mozart, among other people — and some of those are claims Gabriel made on "Dateline."
Thurstin left the group in 2005 after living there 13 years.
He says Gabriel uses the title of "Planetary Prince," and says members are told that, if they do not obey Gabriel, they will die. Though Thurstin denies it, group members say he is angry and making false claims because he wanted to lead the group.
Lilly speculated that the newness of the group's faith may be the reason people are less willing to accept their beliefs.
"Historically anyone who is different is looked down on and persecuted," concurred Fane, a group member who uses one name. In his 60s, Fane has been in the community for 11 years and joined with his wife and two children.
"Jesus had the same problem," Fane said. "He was new and people weren't willing to accept him."
Eighteen-year-old Hamael Campbell says that, for him, the group has meant happiness. When Campbell finished high school in Tempe he went on a spiritual journey and ended up in Sedona.
His younger sister moved to the community this month, though she must wait until she's 18 to consider a commitment to it.
"This is real. It resonates in my soul," Campbell said. "I started crying when I met the people here."
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• Many of group's enterprises moving to Tucson area.
• Other spiritual communities in Southern Arizona.