Port Austin Bible Campus
[Letter originally written Sept. 7, with Sept. 12 addition.]
It has been about a month
since our last e-mail to you. Our plans for the Feast of Tabernacles here are
going well. Some of the organic food has been harvested and stored—the rest is
growing well. Finding food the way that God intended it is becoming an increasingly
difficult task with the proliferation of genetically modified crops,
irradiation, and now the FDA-approved addition of viruses to certain meats to
prevent spoilage (see Associated Press story,
We still have not produced another Servant’s News issue since the Jan/Feb, though much original research has been done and several articles are all ready to go. We had hoped that the next issue would be our next communication to you. But something even more pressing has come to the forefront here.
In previous communications, we have only briefly mentioned our court cases and the fire in our dormitory building which easily could have resulted in deaths in the Edwards family or young women staying upstairs. At times, we planned to write these stories in detail in Servants’ News, but at other times, we decided not to do so as they appeared so discouraging. Some people said, “If those things are happening, there must be something wrong at Port Austin—God isn’t with them.”
We indeed hoped to shield others from our troubles and bring out positive articles in Servants’ News and write about the people who have been helped here at the community. When we realized that the cause of the fire, lacking a confession, would probably never be positively determined, we decided not to write a long story with an unresolved ending. We also hoped that our court cases would be over quickly so that we could stop spending many hundreds of hours with them and get on with our ministry. However, we also began to realize that God might have a purpose beyond what we had in mind.
CHURCHES AND MINISTRIES DIRECTLY UNDER GOD
We have run several articles over the past years, including our 62-page, Starting a Local Congregation, showing the importance of organizing a church or ministry directly under God, rather than as a Non-profit Corporation with Internal Revenue Service 501(c)(3) status. During this last year, even the mainstream Republican-supporting Christian organizations, such as Family Research Council, have been complaining about the IRS orders to stop preaching on political or legislative issues. If they do not comply, they loose their tax-exempt status for both future and several prior years, creating huge tax bills which usually bankrupt the organization and cripple their major donors.
Since coming to Port Austin, we have helped about a dozen groups understand the need to organize directly under God rather than using the 501(c)(3) corporation. The latest such instance occurred right in the middle of writing this letter. These groups represent a diversity of churches and ministries, some of them long standing, some newly founded, others recent splits from a larger group. Nevertheless, each one of them seems determined to speak and do God’s will, even if that differs from “mainstream thinking”.
During the process of learning how to represent oneself in court, we sometimes wondered if there would be any purpose greater than solving our immediate cases: Would we set any important precedents to protect religious freedom? Would we be witnesses to governments or nations through the court systems?
Last week, much sooner than expected, we finally realized our most current case now involves a constitutional issue: Does a trustee of a religious trust have the right to represent the trust in court? Norman Edwards has represented the trust that owns the property here at Port Austin in other legal cases, but for whatever reason, the judge on the present case ruled that Edwards could only represent himself as an individual and must have an attorney represent the trust. He cited no law or prior case, but simply said that was his ruling and we could appeal it if we disagreed.
While there are a few other ways we can try to solve the
problem, we will certainly appeal if the alternatives do not work. As far as we
can tell, there is no recent clear case in
Does one need to be a lawyer with many years of experience to set important precedents? No. Many important legal issues have been decided as a result of persistent but unconventional people who were simply willing to see a case through to the end. Certainly one cannot expect a lawyer to fight for the rights of individuals to represent themselves without at lawyer.
Some brethren will probably say, “The world’s court system systems are corrupt, so you should not even expect a just result”. Yes, many corrupt people do manipulate the court systems to produce unjust results. But there are also just people in our courts that produce just results. Good systems can encourage justice, but the “bottom line” always rests with the people in those systems:
“When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan” (Prov 29:2, NRSV).
COMPARISON: COURTS VS. CHURCHES
During these last couple of years, we have been comparing our experience with this country’s court systems and the methods churches use to resolve disputes among brethren. This writer believes that church justice systems are generally worse. Ministers frequently feel no need to have both parties present when they hear the issues, or even to listen to both sides before making a decision. Many churches have no system of appeals whatever, but allow a minister to completely remove a member from his church and his friends simply on the minister’s own authority. Churches rarely have any standards of what is acceptable as testimony or evidence—or how to deal consistently when the same problem occurs more than once. The court systems in this country address all of these things.
Corrupt people can still make a good system produce evil, just as good Christian leaders can render righteous decisions in a church group that has virtually no organized system of justice. Nevertheless, there are many Christians who are planning to live and reign with Christ for a thousand years (Rev 20:4), but who know far too little about justice systems, nor have knowledge or experience with what the Bible teaches on the subject.
Furthermore, there are many Christians, today, whose lives have been made easy by the difficult legal work done by those who have gone before us. We do not appreciate their efforts fully and frequently are not even aware of them. Freedom for the individual to decide how to worship God has not existed for most of the world’s history. God did not just one day cause a king or a parliament to grant freedom of religion. Rather, it was won on the battlefield and in legislative halls of nations through the hard work of many, many individuals. The right to keep the Sabbath and work on Sunday was achieved over many years of struggle by Seventh Day Adventists. Still others fought to require the labeling of foods—making the avoidance of unclean food far easier. Even today, many Christian groups are fighting to have states define marriage as the union between one man and one woman—greatly reducing the chances that one of our grandchildren may someday be forced (due to accident, divorce, etc.) to grow up living with a legally recognized “mom and mom” or “dad and dad”.
While other church groups could certainly learn much Bible truth from the Sabbatarian churches, they will probably be more likely to listen to us if we recognize the good work that they have done. It is much easier for one to appreciate someone else’s work when one is trying to accomplish some of the same things.
RIGHT TO REPRESENT ONESELF & CHRIST
The Michigan Constitution gives individuals the right to
represent themselves in court (Article 1, Sec. 13). Michigan case law makes it
clear that corporations must be represented by licensed attorneys (Peters
Production, Inc. v. Desnick Broadcasting Co., 171 Mich App 283, 429 NW2d 654). A
Why is it important to obtain a court decision to allow a non-attorney to appear in court as the trustee for a religious trust? Why not hire an attorney to deal with the legal system and be done with it so we can get on with our ministry? There are very good Biblical reasons for representing oneself:
1. It is the Biblical example. Jesus, Peter, Paul and others could have had Roman advocates represent them—they were available at that time, but they chose to speak for themselves. The Bible promises all believers that they will be divinely given what to say: "You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you (Matt -20).
a Christian is on trial, the doing of God’s will is far more important than
just winning the case. Where would our salvation be if a clever Roman attorney
had negotiated a release and lifetime retirement for Jesus in exchange for
promising that Jesus would not do any more teaching and healing? From an
economic standpoint, that is a good deal—one would expect an attorney to
negotiate such. But it is not God’s will. Similarly, Paul spent two years in
jail when he could have been released by simply bribing the ready-to-accept
judge (Acts 24:27-28). But Paul had a mission in court: “… the Lord stood by
him and said, ‘Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in
3. Lawyers are not simply responsible for just their clients’ interests. They are also responsible as “officers of the court” and are responsible to the “public good”. If a lawyer sincerely believes, possibly after consulting other lawyers or judges, that the “public good” would be better served if his client lost a case, it is legal for him to under-represent the case in such a way to cause it to be lost. This is more likely to happen when there are religious issues involved that lawyers do not understand or subscribe to.
4. Representing oneself greatly reduces the chance of being bullied and/or financially destroyed by attorney’s fees. The cost of lawyers, at hundreds of dollars per hour, can be disastrous for all but the most wealthy clients. Many innocent individuals and organizations are bankrupted by a wealthy entity that files suits which they know that they cannot win, but which will destroy the other party through the imposition of unbearable legal costs defending these charges. While there are penalties for filing frivolous suits, a skilled lawyer can usually find some ground to sue that looks like it has a real basis. For every suit like this filed, there are probably several times more threatened suits. More than once, we have had a situation here where somebody made an unreasonable demand on us and told us that they would file a suit if we did not go along. When we did not comply, and they realized that they would be paying an attorney and we would not, they did not file the suit and let us prevail.
DO GOOD CHRISTIANS STAY OUT OF TROUBLE?
We could say more about the advantages of representing oneself, but we would now like to turn to related questions that people ask us:
Why are you in court at all? If you are a good Christian why are you in so much trouble? Should not you rely on God to deliver you?
We asked those questions of ourselves. We are working to establish a Christian community in peace and love to help Sabbatarian young people, yet we have had strong opposition—both on legal issues and in the regard to the fire in our living quarters. But our study of the New Testament shows that the same thing happened back then. Jesus and his followers were frequently “in trouble”, both with the law and with people trying to attack or kill them. There are not just a few verses about this, but it is a continuing theme.
Every Christian knows about Jesus undeserved scourging and crucifixion. But how many realize that the religious and political leaders wanted to kill him at least twelve times prior to this? (See Mat ; ; 14:5, Mark ; Luke 13:31; John ,18; 7:1,19, 25; -40; .)
During those same years, Herod had John the Baptist unjustly imprisoned and killed for pointing out the sins of national leaders (Matt ). The religious leaders of the day wanted to have Lazarus put to death because he was an inconvenient living proof of the power of Jesus (John 12:9-11). Jesus warned that this kind of trouble would continue after his resurrection:
"But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues.... And you will be hated by all for My name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt , 22).
"Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake” (Matt 24:9).
You can read about some of the attempts to imprison and kill the early believers in Acts 5:33, -60; 8:1, 3 and 12:2-4. Paul was the subject of at least 13 attempts to kill him (Acts 9:22-26, 9:29; 16:16-24; 20:23; 21:11; 21:30-32; 23:12-13; 24:26; 27:42; 28:16; 1Cor 15:32; 2Cor 1:8-9; 6:4-5). It is interesting that Paul was persecuted by the Roman government at the urging of the religious leaders, and yet at other times, God used the Roman government to rescue Paul from the religious leaders. Paul summarizes his sufferings and uses them as proof of his service:
“Are they ministers of Christ? — I speak as a fool — I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (2Cor 11:23-27).
WHY CHRISTIANS GET INTO TROUBLE
Why do things like this happen to Christians? Why do servants of God end up in so much trouble? God’s way of life exposes the evil of this world’s ways and systems. It also produces contentment, love, prosperity and freedom. False political and religious systems cannot continue to deceive their followers in the face of such an example. So they make false accusations and then try to prosecute based upon them. Indeed, those who simply listen to the gossip of the day—read the papers—are often not sure who is right. Observe what happened to Jason and other new believers after a successful preaching of the gospel:
“But the Jews who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar and attacked the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city, crying out, ‘These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. Jason has harbored them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king—Jesus.’ And they troubled the crowd and the rulers of the city when they heard these things. So when they had taken security from Jason and the rest, they let them go” (Acts 17:5-9).
The continual persecution and false accusations did have an
effect on the first century church. Even though they, like we, had studied the
“At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them. But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear. And I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion” (2Tim -17).
We realize that our work is nowhere near the scale of the apostle Paul’s, nor are our trials as great. However, we hope that brethren will realize that this kind of trouble is simply a part of creating Christian works. One of the Sabbath messages preached recently at PABC came from Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. If we are to have the love of God in our hearts, we need to learn to love others, even though they may be trying to destroy us. Christ forgave the men that nailed him up (Luke ). He did not have to fear what men could do to him because he was within the will of his Father. Our time at Port Austin has been a wonderful opportunity to learn to live within the will of God, to depend on him, and to learn to stand up for what is right without being vengeful.
This letter is already quite long, but we feel we need to present more detail concerning some of the adversity we have experienced. Therefore, we will briefly summarize some of the difficulties we have experienced and the eight court cases that have resulted. (If anyone doubts the veracity of these things, we will gladly provide case numbers and court contact information.)
The March/April 2003 Servants’ News’ contained an article by Norman Edwards about the need for a place to educate non-denominational Sabbatarian young people. At the time, Terry Williams was interested in helping with this project and made a trip with Edwards to a Bible Sabbath Association conference for just that purpose. In the fall of 2003, the Port Austin property was offered to Edwards for sale by its owners. They had known him since the year 2000, believed he would be a good steward of the property and trusted that it would be used to serve God.
During the spring of 2004, other men expressed interest in helping with the project. The plan was for Edwards, Williams and these other men to sell their homes, move to the property, as some did in Acts 2 & 4. Edwards was going to continue his publications and manage the educational aspects to be undertaken. Williams was going to manage the farm and the senior citizens program. Another man was to manage the facilities and others were to develop local industries where students and other residents could earn money as needed.
The property was purchased by a trust formed for that and
other purposes on
Things went smoothly for the first month or so, but quickly deteriorated as the other men set about driving a wedge between Edwards and Williams by issuing false accusations and attempting to discredit Edwards, and flatter Williams. The other men and Williams began to hold meetings without Edwards knowledge. During that summer, Edwards sold his house and moved his family and ministry in its entirety to Port Austin where he spent much time repairing campus facilities, conducting a two-week music camp, and dealing with various other business responsibilities of the new project.
By September, the other men made in clear that they were not going to implement the original plan. In regard to payments for the property being purchased by the trust, Edwards had made $60,197, Williams $85,140, and the others had contributed $0.
About this time, the paperwork for the trust was ready to be signed and recorded. Additionally, the purchase agreement for the property had to be redone to correct an erroneous parcel description and other flaws. The party selling us the property requested that some of the other men should not be included in the project because their writings violated a contractual obligation to avoid anything that would “result in the probability of waste” to the property. Edwards met with Williams and the two agreed that a serious problem with the other men existed, but Williams declined to accept Edwards’ proposal that only the two of them serve as the trustees.
Looking to God to resolve the extreme difficulties of the moment, Edwards had prayed that if Williams would not accept trusteeship, that he would go to the seller and ask if they would accept a single trustee, something they previously had said that they did not want to do. Edwards went on to pray, that if that the seller would not accept one trustee, that he would leave the project to serve in another ministry somewhere else. As it turned out, the seller took the initiative and suggested that Edwards be the single trustee. The trust paperwork was completed with one trustee and a replacement purchase agreement was signed by him.
Williams and the other men were informed of these things on
Sometime in the middle of November 2004, one of the other men told Bill Buckman that unnamed people in the local community had made threats on Edwards’ life and that Edwards had been protected only because these other men continue to live on the Port Austin campus. As the other men were not using the property for its stated purposes, nor paying rent or utilities, Edwards asked them to leave. They moved to a building across the street, which one of them had personally purchased. Williams remained on the trust property and Edwards hoped to find a way to work things out.
The former airbase water and sewer system that we use is shared with other nearby houses and businesses. Since our seller operated this system, we continued to operate it after we purchased it, collecting money for water and sewer usage and defraying the expenses of operation. The other men refused to pay for any of these services and told the other users that we were making a big profit from running the water system which was simply not true. They used a variety reasons for claiming that they had no obligation to pay us. We were forced to start small claims court cases against two men. Our case against one of them who was a non-owner was dismissed. We eventually won a judgment against the other man and collected the back water and sewer fees that he owed.
MORE ON OUR TRIAL BY FIRE
Before the fire department arrived, Edwards and his son went around to the back of the building to move the four kerosene containers further away, but two of the four kerosene containers were gone. About this same time two unidentified individuals were seen in the darkness near the building. It took the firemen about half an hour to extinguish the fire, but one of the fireman indicated they were having more trouble than expected and asked at least twice where the shutoff to the gas meter was located. They were assured that there was no natural gas service to the building! More about that later. We did ask the firemen and everyone else present if they knew where the missing kerosene containers might be, but no one had seen them.
The building was quarantined until the state police arson investigator arrived. He determined that the fire started in the store room where it was first seen, but could not ascertain the cause. There were no electrical appliances plugged into outlets in that room. The circuit breaker to that room had not tripped and it was later determined that a heater that shared the same circuit breaker was still operating properly after the fire began. The next week, we hired a private engineering firm that specialized in investigating electrical fires to see if they could determine the cause. The investigator removed and disassembled an electrical outlet that was near where the fire began. He filed a report, but unfortunately it was less than we had hoped for as it contained a number of errors, some serious, which the author refused to correct. Some time later, we ended up taking the company to small claims court and received 60% of the fee back. Unfortunately the investigation cannot be redone.
Later in the spring, as we began to clean up and remove some of the debris, the remains of the two missing kerosene containers were discovered in the hall near the door. While there is no proof of the cause of the fire, we surmised that the individuals seen near the building at the time of the fire picked up two of the kerosene containers and through them back into the hallway, hoping to accelerate the fire. We further surmise that the same individuals had intended to turn “rescuer”, alert the occupants to the danger, and pass themselves off as heroes. But when the occupants discovered the fire on their own, their plan was thwarted.
Emphasizing again that this is still speculation, it seems obvious that anyone who would be willing to throw ten gallons of kerosene into a burning building might well be the person who set it on fire. Also, this burning kerosene explained why firemen thought there might be natural gas in the building. But again, there is still no definitive proof of what happened.
The contents of two rooms and part of the hall were completely destroyed by fire. This damage, coupled with extensive smoke damage to the rest of the building is estimated to be about $30,000. Thankfully, the ministry office was virtually undamaged. The Edwards were able to relocate to another building on campus and gradually cleaned and reused some of the smoke-damaged furnishings.
Even though this was a perilous situation, we believe that God provided a spirit of peace to those experiencing it. Nobody panicked during the fire, no one had lingering fear or other aftereffects from it. All acknowledged that God had been with us during that ordeal. Sometime after, we agreed that dealing with the reality of the fire was less stressful than dealing with the false accusations mentioned previously in this letter.
MORE COURT CASES
Moving on to other subjects, the local tax assessor denied our request to be exempt from property taxes. This was partly because the local tax assessor was unfamiliar with religious trusts (they are familiar with 501(c)(3) corporations), and partly because of false accusations asserting that we were not doing any religious work, but that we were a sham trying to evade taxes. Therefore, we ended up with two court cases that are still in progress, that will ultimately determine our property tax status.
After several months of having Williams refuse to negotiate how we could reimburse him for all or some of the $85,140 that he voluntarily gave to make land payments, we wrote him and told him that we would unilaterally begin a repayment plan if he did not respond. He ultimately did respond through an attorney and negotiations with the attorney continued into the summer of 2005. Through his attorney, Williams asked to be reimbursed for numerous expenses as well, many of which appeared to have nothing to do with this project. Finally, in November of 2005, he filed lawsuit against us. Even now, we have yet to receive any copies of receipts or checks documenting items for which he wants compensation.
The judge in this case allowed Norman Edwards to respond on behalf of himself and the trust in both the initial pleadings and in the pretrial conference. At that conference, the judge said that he did not know if Edwards could legally represent the trust and asked Williams’ attorney to file a motion if he wanted to challenge it. No motion was filed. At the pretrial conference, no chance for discussion was permitted, no laws or cases were cited, but the judge simply stated that Edwards could not proceed on behalf of the trust because “it is the law”.
Williams continues to store a complete household of his furniture and personal possessions in the best living space on the campus. He pays no rent or utilities and stays there only a few days out of the year. After trying unsuccessfully to discuss the issue with him for a year, we were forced to file another court case in an effort to evict him. This case was put on hold and is subject to resolution of the other Williams’ case discussed earlier.
As if this were all not enough, we had a largely frivolous case filed against us this spring by a party who had paid $10 to the county clerk for an “assumed name” certificate with a name similar to ours, who then later claimed that all of our property should be awarded to them by the court because of this. We were able to have this case dismissed with a motion for summary judgment, which only cost us $20. Recognize, if we used an attorney, this probably would have cost thousands of dollars.
In spite of all these trials, we believe that our Father is furthering His purposes here and that He wants us to continue. As each month has gone by, we have had little or no idea of where our $4348—now $5000—monthly payment was going to come from. But most of our payments have been made on time, in spite of this continuing uncertainty. Even now, we don’t know where our payment, due on the 15th of this month, will come from. We have stated frequently that we are an operation based on faith. If our Father sends it, we will continue this ministry here. If not, we will find someone else who can use this place in His service.
A few months ago, one of the PABC members was attending a women’s prayer meeting and met a woman who told her something interesting. Years ago, when the Port Austin airbase was closing, various uses were proposed for it—some of which would have been a bad influence on the community. A group of Christians got together and prayed that God would use it for His glory. We certainly feel that this prayer has been answered to date. We pray that he will continue to answer this prayer.
We hope to write more soon. Please do not hesitate to contact us with questions or offers to help. May our Father bless and strengthen all of you. Enjoy His Feasts!
—Norman Scott Edwards
Update to the Previous Letter and Request for Prayer
The reason that there are little or no published cases about this basic subject is that over 100 years ago, people representing themselves in court as trustees was more common and most attorneys and judges knew that it was not contrary to the law. Today, there are many attorneys and judges who have never encountered the situation. They are familiar with corporations and other entities which must be represented by attorneys and assume that an individual can only act on his own behalf and no other.
If Terry’s attorney is successful in his motion to strike all the defendant’s pleadings, his next step is likely to ask for a default judgment—to claim that since there has been no answer filed to his suit, that he is entitled to get everything that he asked for without the court ever considering the facts of the case.
We are confident that God will work this out one way or another. He has said: “If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still” (Eccl 5:8, NIV). “Many seek the ruler's favor, but justice for man comes from the LORD” (Prov 29:26).
Our next court date is
[Later update: God did answer the prayers of people and the judge ruled that the pleadings would stand. A request for Leave to Appeal was sent to the Michigan Court of Appeals to determine if a church trust can be represented by its trustee.
—Norman Scott Edwards
Port Austin Bible Campus (offerings can be made out to this name)
PO Box474, Port Austin, Michigan 48467-0474
e-mail: PABC@portaustin.net tel:989-738-7700