Iglesia ni Cristo and a ghost town

Natashya Gutierrez

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MANILA, Philippines – The Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) has made international headlines for their purchase of Scenic, a South Dakota ghost town. More than the actual acquisition – which is surprising in itself – most of the buzz is generated by the fact that the church is completely mum about their plans for the 59 parcels of land that they bought for about US$800,000 or P34 million. 

They are so secretive about it that not even Twila Merrill, the former owner of the Scenic property, knows INC’s plans for the deserted town, according to David Olsen, the real state agent of the Merrill family, as reported by the Associated Press.

INC spokesperson Bienvenido Santiago refused to speak to Move.PH over the phone, saying that no statement has been released by the church regarding the issue. Staffers were also silent.

Headed by Eduardo Manalo, the Filipino Christian group enjoys geographical and political clout. Its chapels — known for their fanciful forms and unique spires — can be seen in practically each province in the Philippines. It was in the US (Honolulu and San Francisco) where the INC set up its first congregation in the early 1970s. 

Today, they are now in at least 90 countries in the world. Iglesia followers also go to schools that INC has built, notably the New Era University based in Quezon City which has branches in key cities in the country.

INC also claims to have 2-3 million bloc-voting members, the principal reason why national and local candidates court the support of INC leaders every election. 

Why South Dakota?

While INC has built temples around Asia and the US, the purchase of Scenic has raised eyebrows. In those places with temples, there is a significant population of Filipinos. The same cannot be said for South Dakota.

Many are speculating what the church that claims to have millions of members worldwide, plans to do with the old Western town. Similar acquisitions have been made in the past by other entities for religious and spiritual purposes.

In 2006, Catholic philanthropist and billionaire Tom Monaghan started building a town in Florida on 5,000 acres of what used to be vegetable farms. The town of Ave Maria was built to create a Catholic haven, a community that would reflect traditional Catholic values. 

Today, a giant cathedral stands in the town grounds, surrounded by businesses, restaurants and even a golf course. Street names include Pope John Paul II Boulevard and Annunciation Circle. It is centered around Ave Maria University, a deeply conservative and traditional Catholic college, which boasts students from 31 different countries.

A similar plan was announced in the same year by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an octogenarian who founded transcendental meditation. Yogi purchased 1,000 acres of land in Smith County, Kansas in 2006. He planned to build a community on a former soybean field, with buildings that would allow for mass meditation. Today, he has, or is building, meditation capitals in the Netherlands, Iowa, West Virginia, Manhattan and India.

Whether the INC plans to use the Scenic land for the same conquests is unknown. What is clear however, is that the largest independent church in Asia is steadfast in establishing a more global presence, from Bulacan to South Dakota, regardless of the price tag.


Most of the reactions on Twitter regarding the South Dakota transaction were of shock and confusion. 

Twitter user Joc de Leon (@jobdeleon) said, “I don’t know what to make of this,” while Rishita Nandagiri (@rishie_) was more succinct. “Um. What.,” she wrote.

Miguel Santos (@migs_santos) was more surprised about the church’s financial status. “Whoa! They got lots of money if they can buy an entire town!,” he tweeted.

Santos’ comment is especially fitting given the church’s ongoing construction of Ciudad de Victoria or City of Victory in Bulacan, a complex that will include a university, convention center, medical facility, housing, chapel, and a 50,000-seat stadium – one of the largest in the world – by the time it opens for INC’s centennial celebration in 2014.

Believers of the church on the other hand, expressed their joy and faith on the unofficial Iglesia ni Cristo Facebook page. While news of the transaction was only picked up by major media outlets in the last two days, administrators of the page shared the news as early as October 3, via a link to Rapid City Journal, which reported the acquisition that day.

INC followers celebrated the purchase even if plans for the abandoned town have not yet been revealed, 

Facebook user Girlie Panotes Bellen shared her jubilation upon hearing the news. “Umaangat na talaga nag kalida ng INC!!! (The quality of INC is truly improving!) Praise be to GOD!,” she wrote.

Arnold Vibora Quinto also commented on Facebook, “Naghihirap ang mundo pero tayo patuloy na umuunlad (The world is suffering but we are continually succeeding),” he said.

Another expressed her pride of being a member of the church. “INC is a silent billionaire,” wrote Jenelyn Tumacder. “I’m proud I’m a member of it, I could say that I’m contributing a part in those billions… Go INC go! Sa Diyos and lahat ng kapurihan (To God be the glory)!”

Earlier, it seems that a negative comment regarding the acquisition had been deleted from the wall by administrators. The wall posts replying to the comment were still present however, all of which strongly defended the church’s decision to buy the land.

In an apparent response to the deleted comment, Jean Lesly Lumaban wrote on Facebook, “Wag kang magsalita kung hindi mo alam kung ano ang ginagawa samin ng tagapamahala. Lahat ng ginagawa nila ay para din sa aming mga ka-anib ng Iglesia ni Cristo kaya wag ka na magsalita ng ganyan dahil wala ka namang alam (It is not for you to say such things because you are not aware of what our leader has planned for us. Everything they do, they do for us who are members of Iglesia ni Cristo. Just keep your mouth shut because you don’t know).” 

Ria Tubesa echoed her sentiment, “Korek… Huwag mangahas di mo alam. Kawawa ka naman. (Correct…don’t assume, you don’t know. Poor you.)

Another believer, Aisa Rose Ramos,  shared her personal prophecy on the INC wall. “Titingalain ang INC… malapit na nga (INC will be looked up to very soon)!,” she wrote.

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.