HIGH ON AN ALLEGHENY FOOTHILL OVER THE NATIONAL Freeway in Frostburg, Md., a handmade billboard announces the mission: "Noah's Ark Being Rebuilt Here." Out of sight from the highway, behind what remains of theCaterpillar-scarred hill, a long, pocked stretch of flat earth reveals the work of the Rev. Richard Greene and God's Ark of Mercy Ministries and the Lord Himself. For the length of a football field and a half, thick concrete pillars and anchors disappear into the ground at regular intervals. They are old, surrounded by scrawny weeds and dry dirt, rusting a bit here and there, unattached to any more glorious structure.
It has been 13 years since The Vision, but the new Noah's ark is only a $450,000 foundation -- 70 concrete pillars and a toolshed. In a town Ripley's once singled out for its extraordinary number of churches, a good little congregation has been torn asunder. A preacher who abandoned prosperity for a depressed mountain town has become a globe-trotting celebrity, a regular on the televangelism circuit, star of radio and video. Townspeople who looked up the hill with scorn see their skepticism melting into mercenary curiosity these days. Folks here need jobs: The ark may look silly right now, but there's serious talk about the town becoming Arkland USA -- amusement rides, hotels, real live tourists.
Richard Greene had given up his lifelong dream of becoming a missionary in Africa or Asia to take the $5,400-a-year job as pastor of Frostburg's Church of the Brethren. About a year later, in April 1974, he began to receive instructions every night in his sleep. He called them his "visits." They were like dreams, only more vivid, seared in his memory, detailed directives from God Himself.
Richard, He said -- He called the preacher Richard on those nights -- "As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be before the coming of the son of man. As there was an ark, there shall be again. Build it, Richard. And tell the world that I love them."
Give me a very large break, Pastor Greene thought. I can barely run one of my church's smallest ministries, a flock of 70 people in a narrow valley that time left behind. Now I'm supposed to build an ark?
The Lord was patient. He took Richard back in time, showed him Noah building the original ark, let him see the faces of people watching the strange construction project.
Richard was unimpressed. "I saw people were laughing at Noah, and God said, 'Richard, they're going to laugh at you too.' I saw the people pointing to Noah and then taking their fingers and making crazy signs, with their fingers doing circles around their ears."
God assured Richard He had no flood in mind. After all, He had promised He would never again destroy the Earth with water. The Lord realized He had some persuading to do. He turned to visual aids.
In night visions, the Lord took Richard inside his new ark. There, on a large video screen, He projected scenes of Noah's ark. They were 3-D movies. With Sensurround. Great for the flood scenes, action-packed with earthquakes, lawlessness, even clips of modern-day famine in Bangladesh, floods in Honduras, the Watts riots and the 1967 Israeli war. All in living color.
"It was just like 'Update News'!" the pastor says.
Richard Greene is not a stupid man. He had, to this point, lived a straight life, maybe ate too much, definitely lacked much material wealth. One year earlier, he had left a $15,000 job as a General Motors engineering analyst to move to the mountains. To make ends meet in his new home, he moonlighted as a registered nurse at a local hospital. Yes, he was a spiritual man, but he also chose to eat and raise a family. Through April, May and June, he lived with his nightly visions and never told another soul, not even his wife.
"I know how Billy Graham and Oral Roberts were called crazy. If I told 'em what I seen, people would say, 'Was you eating carrots or radishes?' "
If he had to go public with this vision stuff, Richard wanted proof. Lord, he said, if this is serious, send me an artist, so I can at least show a picture of this thing to the congregation. Two weeks later, a man he had never seen before came along and volunteered to draw Richard's vision. The man, Alvin Lewis, lived over in Cumberland, but, as Greene tells it, he somehow knew that a minister in Frostburg needed drawings of an ark.
Well, not quite, Lewis says. "One of his men came over and asked me if I could do some drawing for them. I'd never heard of Rev. Greene, but I liked the idea. I do believe in visions. I don't think God speaks to you in an audible voice, but I do think he gives you ideas. We are His tools."
And God said unto Noah . . . Make thee an ark of gopher wood . . . The length of the ark shall be 300 cubits, the breadth of it 50 cubits and the height of it 30 cubits . . . with lower, second and third stories shalt thou make it.
Lewis, a designer, drew up plans for an ark built to biblical specs. The cubits translated to 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high. The ark would be made of laminated wood beams, anchored by massive concrete pillars poured 16 feet into the ground. The ark would not float.
Nor would it house animals. That wasn't part of the vision. Except, Greene says, inasmuch as we all act like animals.
The earth was corrupt before God and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt . . . And behold I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh . . . and every thing that is in the earth shall die.
Such a time is coming again, this time in the form of a messiah, Greene says. "In the days that were before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage," the New Testament says. The handwriting is on the wall, Greene says. We eat today like never before, he says, noting that the number of restaurants in Frostburg has increased sevenfold in a decade. Drinking, drugs, divorce -- all signs of the impending Second Coming.
Emboldened by such truths, worn out by a month of fasting and praying, Greene swallowed hard and, drawings in hand, faced his flock one Sunday in the little white church on Beall Street. An ebullient man with perfectly parted hair, squinting eyes, a fleshy face and a super-close shave, Greene made his pitch. This would be a million-dollar project, a massive, ark-shaped hull of a three-story, full-service church complete with Christian grade school, Bible college, medical clinic, food and clothing collections for the poor, broadcast studios and conference center. The 70-member congregation's vote was unanimous: fulfill the vision.
The money, Greene assured his people, would come. The Lord would provide. He left out this part: TV would help. The preacher left his grimy mountain hamlet and cast himself onto the evangelical airwaves. "The 700 Club," "The Jim and Tammy Show," Jan and Paul -- he did them all. He even got his own radio show, "The God's Ark of Safety Hour," on WFRB in Grantsville, Md. Sharing the vision, he called it.
"As God provides, I build," Richard told the world. He provides slowly. So far, the ark has cost about $450,000 in labor and materials. Last year, the ark fund collected $56,495, up from $45,018 the previous year. Not bad, but the latest estimate of the ark's cost is $5 million, five times the original prediction. The money dribbles in, mostly in $10 gifts, but sometimes from the likes of Howard Demory, a farmer in Charles Town, W.Va.
When Demory wasn't tending to his 500 acres and 125 head of cattle, he watched lots of Christian TV. And he gave away a lot of money, mainly to "The PTL Club."
"About seven years ago, the Lord led me away from Jim and Tammy -- I didn't know why, I just followed His word," Demory says. "My wife saw Dick Greene on television, and the Lord led me to give him $10,000 and then another $10,000 the next year and $70 a month since then. He is a dedicated man, genuine and true, and the Lord is seeking that kind of man. The only thing I have qualms about is Dick never asks anybody for money. He just waits for the Lord to lead people to him. At that rate, it might take him more than his lifetime to complete the ark."
Demory has faith. He continues to give to the ark fund. He has, however, received this tip: "We gave quite a bit to Rex Humbard ministry and the Lord has stopped us." Watch Humbard, Demory says, for he may be next to fall.
Greene says that since a local bank turned him down for a construction loan a decade ago, he has relied exclusively on gifts, which arrive in envelopes from Virginia and Georgia, Australia and Zimbabwe. continued on page 46 continued from page 26
"People just feel moved to contribute," he says. "The Lord leads them to us. Like you. You came here and we did not know you, but now you will write about us. And when you leave here, God may tell you to leave $20 behind." Or he may not.
For those who are not moved by the supernatural to give, Greene has developed a few motivational tools. There's a 25-minute video version of the preacher's Vision. A monthly newsletter. And cassettes and records with Greene's word.
However they learn of the ark, volunteers are always there to collect food for Greene's pantry for the poor, and donate tools and bulldozers, even as they gave some of the land under the ark. Greene originally bought three acres on the edge of town, hard by the highway. When the building plans came in, Greene realized he needed another acre. The farmer who sold him the original three acres, a 77-year-old non-believer, had said he would never sell another acre. Greene asked the Lord for guidance.
"Richard, ask the man not to sell you the land, but to donate it," the Lord said. Greene did as he was told. The farmer laughed his head off.
Then the farmer donated the extra acre. True story. The farmer's daughter-in-law confirms it. "He said he'd never do it, but he did," she says.
"I don't question the Lord's ways," Greene says.
The preacher spends several months a year on the road, traveling the nation in his small mobile home, hopping about the globe to distribute Bibles and see the sights. In the last couple of years, he's hit China twice, Israel, the Netherlands, England and Jamaica.
Back home, it hasn't been quite as much fun. All those travels, the preacher's flashy gold watch and, most of all, the painfully slow construction pace gradually wore down the trust and love of the brethren.
Greene pays himself $17,000. Money for his travels comes not from ark funds, but from other contributions. "If someone gives us a gift, and it is not for the ark, I will use it for my work," Greene says. "God said He shall supply all my needs. I have some of the finest clothes. But I don't buy them. People drive miles to bring me a suit."
He drives a new, but hardly extravagant Pontiac J2000. And he lives across from the country club, but in a modest clapboard house overlooking the mobile-home park. No matter -- once the rumors were out there, it was hard to stop them.
Frostburg has learned not to trust its institutions. Two major area employers, Celanese and Kelly-Springfield Tire, shut down recently. So as costs soar and Greene accelerates his globetrotting, it's understandable that each departure sparks reports that he is gone forever, with all the money.
"But I always return, and none the richer," Greene says.
Within a couple of years after the visions, folks in town were openly skeptical of the pit on the hill. When it rained, and mud refilled the holes dug by volunteers, the jokes came thick and fast. Some of them weren't funny. The Greenes found egg on their house, garbage in their yard, threatening letters in the mail.
Greene's visions also changed his style of worship. He added tambourines, drums and healing. He specialized in back ailments, seemed to have a knack for straightening kinks and relieving strain. (Actually, Greene says, he has no healing power; rather, it is the ark site that has proven to be handy with bronchitis, cancer, heart problems and all those backs.)
By 1981, the rift in Greene's church -- over money, the ark, the cures and the music -- was too deep to heal. The congregation voted to split. Those who stayed with Greene moved into a storefront in the strip shopping center next to the McDonald's. The loyalists, some of whom believe Greene has squirreled away $1 million, kept their building and hired a new pastor.
At denomination headquarters in Elgin, Ill., ministries officer Robert Faus says the Church of the Brethren had become "a little leery of the whole ark project. We had a problem with Richard advertising himself as a Church of the Brethren minister even after he left. He did drop that after people got on him." Greene's charismatic style didn't sit well with the mother church either. "As a church, we do want to be influenced by the spirit," Faus says, "but we are a fairly straight worship service."
No matter, Greene says. With no denominational ties, he is free to involve other Christians in the ark. He needs the help. Every winter, he plans for progress. By summer, it's clear there is not enough money.
Undaunted, Greene reckons Noah took 120 years to build his ark. The Bible doesn't say that, but Greene has calculated the figure from various bits of Scripture. Greene hopes to finish the ark in less than a century -- after all, Noah didn't have power tools. But the preacher stands ready to wait.
That can breed resentment in a town where six stores on the short Main Street have gone under this year. As Frostburg's economy crumbles, more eyes turn to the preacher on the hill. Richard Greene's ark of safety could be Frostburg's salvation.
"Reverend Greene is kind of like the town's eccentric uncle," says Elvis Jones, a psychology professor at Frostburg State College. "Actually, it's astounding how many people don't even know about the ark. For those who do know, well, there is fallout from the PTL kind of things. But he doesn't seem to be a crackpot. And it could turn out to be something tremendous."
"It could be a great tourism attraction," says Nanci Bross, executive editor of the Frostburg Journal. "Jobs -- that's what people are excited about more than the spirituality."
Thunder claps ring across the valley. A drizzle turns suddenly into a storm of dense white water. Greene has to be interrupted and told to move out of the rain.
"I know people are laughing," he says. "After all these years, and it wasn't done, some of the people lose their vision. A lady in the community called me, and she said, 'If that ark was of God, it'd be done by now.' That broke me and I went to my Bible, and I found where it was said that God is patient and long-suffering. He told me to just keep on keepin' on."
As he stares down the row of concrete pillars, Greene stands just barely out of the storm, as the water rises. ::