Universal Life Goes On

Rev. Kirby J. Hensley and pastor and founder of the Universal Life Church (Bart Ah You / The Modesto Bee)
Rev. Kirby J. Hensley and pastor and founder of the Universal Life Church (Bart Ah You / The Modesto Bee)

The church office is filled with 11 computers, five full-time employees and three part-time workers. They are quietly milking the machines, sending streams of information to one another. The stack of 9-by-12-inch manila envelopes grows throughout the day, nearly two feet high by the time the mailman picks it up. A book and a booklet are nearby, waiting for pickup by UPS and FedEx.

Welcome to the heart of the Universal Life Church, which is most well-known for its late founder, the roguish and provocative Kirby Hensley, and his mail-order clergy certificates. Although several people predicted the demise of ULC after Hensley's death in 1999, it's still going strong under the leadership of his son, Andre. Before Andre took over, Hensley's widow, Lida, was at the helm until her death Dec. 31, 2006.

"We're just here to help people and to provide a service that apparently has been lacking in some churches," Andre said.

That service includes putting ordination certificates, regardless of faith or education, into the hands of anyone who wants one. And many people do. ULC sends out between 8,500 and 10,000 such certificates each month, close to 18 million worldwide since 1962.

About 80 percent of those requesting the free (or for a small charge, a souped-up) ordination form also purchase an additional product, said Andre, 49. It might be something small, like a $3 marriage license, or a $10 book, or a course such as "The PhD in Religion (Doctor of Ph)," for a "minimum donation of $100."

The ministry doesn't bring in much wealth, he said. He gets "about $36,000" annually for his dual role as president and pastor of ULC, and other employees are paid slightly more than minimum wage. The corporation pays no taxes, he added, except for the filing fee and withholding for its employees.

A church service is held Sundays; about eight adults and nearly the same number of children spread out in the sanctuary and share Scriptures and thoughts, inspirational pieces and poems, as well as informal feedback and an occasional song from the kids, who otherwise play up on the platform. Flowers and a photo of Kirby Hensley sit in a place of honor on a table at the front of the pews.

Overall, things seem pretty quiet.

In the beginning

Things never seemed quiet when Kirby Hensley began Universal Life in the garage of his Modesto home in 1962. The former construction worker said he was opposed to churches being exempt from paying taxes, so he started his own church to protest the exemption. He sold his mail-order clergy ordination certificates for $5 each and preached freedom from taxes to folks who would buy them and set up similar churches.

His often outrageous remarks landed him on TV shows such as "Larry King Live," "60 Minutes" and "Donahue," as well as in articles in Time and Newsweek. He believed people created God and didn't believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead. He loved the publicity, good and bad, saying it all resulted in more money coming into his ministry.

Although he couldn't read or write, he memorized large passages from the Bible and dictated books on his views of biblical themes.

Among his more memorable comments:

  • I always stand for freedom, food and sex. That's all there is. It sets people free.
  • Jesus was a good actor.
  • The Bible "is full of lies from one end to the other."
  • It's a thin line dividing genius and idiot. I think I'm on the genius side.
  • We're coming up on the 21st century and there's not one verse of Scripture in the Bible that will take you beyond the 20th century.
  • I believe I was a comedian and two-bit lawyer (in an earlier life) because I've had more lawsuits than anybody.
  • I just want to raise all the hell I can, and get all the kooks and what-have-you as churches; then they (the government) will have to tax them all.
  • In 1968, he ran for president; one of his platforms was "civil treatment for visitors from other worlds." The following year, he ran for governor. In 1984, he declared the birth of a new nation — his church. In 1986, he celebrated his coronation in the "Kingdom of Aqualandia" and offered a combo deal: kingdom citizenship and a ministerial charter for $35.

    Andre said his father "sometimes said things just to start a dialogue. He would make people think."

    Trouble in paradise

    Kirby Hensley battled several government entities in the 1970s and '80s.

    In 1969, he was convicted of violating the state education code for issuing honorary doctor of divinity degrees for $20. The Selective Service folks were irate when the elder Hensley ordained young men so they could avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.

    But his longest, toughest battles were against the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS revoked the church status of about 3,000 "ordained" ULC clergy members in the late 1970s and '80s. The IRS said they were claiming tax exemptions without performing pastoral work or operating a church as defined by the tax agency.

    "They were just churches on paper," Andre Hensley said. "We were glad to be rid of them."

    Then the IRS targeted Kirby Hensley, saying he was operating a business rather than a church. The tax agency said ULC failed to file tax returns in 1978-1980 and pulled the organization's tax-exempt status in 1984. In 2000, the year after Hensley died, the church settled for about $1.5 million. Andre said the church had to sell most of its 20-plus rental properties — purchased with ULC income in the good years — to pay the debt. Part of the deal was that the church would not admit fault and the IRS would not pursue the church again for 25 years, according to Andre, who would not disclose how much is in ULC's coffers.

    Sprouting family roots

    Andre said that despite his legal problems, Kirby "was a great father.

    "He was already 42 when I was born. We didn't go camping; we didn't go fishing; we didn't play baseball. But we went on the road for (church) conventions, that kind of thing."

    His parents differed greatly in their religious faith, he said with a chuckle. Kirby, who began preaching in Baptist churches before he was 20, later developed his "do that which is right" mantra. He boasted that he had Christians, pagans, Wiccans, Buddhists, Satanists and atheists in his nationwide church.

    Lida, on the other hand, grew up in a small North Carolina community with only one church in the area — Brethren.

    "My mother was really different," Andre said. "She was raised in the Brethren church and later believed along the lines of Baptist. She didn't really talk about religion much; she took a back seat to my father."

    Andre said he "has some ideas different than he (Kirby) did about the Bible."

    He said while growing up, he attended The Salvation Army church and visited other denominations, including Baptist and Pentecostal. He took a decade off from religion after he turned 18, he said, before returning to his father's church.

    "I believe Jesus came and died for our sins," he said, "that he was God's child, sent here to be the manifestation of all of our sins. I believe in the Trinity. I believe the (holy) spirit is still around. Everyone is on the board — some people are closer to God. Some are closer to the devil. But we're all taking the road."

    He doesn't believe Jesus is the only way to heaven. "I think there's good in all religions," he said. "I don't believe that God just provided for Christians and nobody else. Others may call it by another name — Allah or Buddha. It's still a higher form that we don't understand."

    And he believes his father "is way ahead of me" regarding spiritual understanding. "He's on a different path than I'm on," he said.

    A recent Sunday church service was surprisingly full of biblical passages and included a sermonette by a congregant that could have been delivered in many evangelical churches. Andre said at its height in the 1980s, the church attracted about 100 people. That's down to about eight adults, seven children and a mastiff, a large dog that sat quietly except for barking when a stranger entered the church.

    Andre and his sister, Manzanita Lowarch of Ripon, who is on the board of directors, are the only two Hensley children involved with ULC. Their two half sisters from Kirby's first marriage and their brother, who lives in the late Hensleys' old Modesto home, aren't part of the operations. But Andre's daughter, Kalena, and one of his two sons, James, work part time in the office. Andre has worked there off and on since he was a teenager.

    He admitted he doesn't walk in his dad's fiery footsteps. "I may not be the preacher he was, but the operation of the church is something I want to keep going," he said. "It was my father's passion and it was our lives growing up. Our whole lives revolved around the church. It became mine because it was something they were so passionate about. It touched so many people's lives. I don't want that to end."

    A snake in the garden

    There have been some challenges in recent years, Andre said. The economic downturn hasn't had much impact, slowing business by only about 10 percent.

    "And our overhead is very low," he said. "We own the building."

    But there have been other challenges, such as the 2007 decision by a Pennsylvania judge to annul a marriage officiated by an Internet-ordained ULC minister. The state was threatening to disallow any such marriages, past and future.

    "We won that case, but there are two others that haven't been heard yet," Andre said.

    Part of the problem, he said, is that there is a separate Universal Life Church, called ULC Monastery Storehouse, headquartered in Seattle. Run by a man who calls himself "Brother Martin" (his real name is George Freeman), the Washington organization broke away from the Modesto headquarters several years ago.

    Andre accuses the Seattle group of stealing a ULC-authorized Web site based in Arizona. Freeman, in a phone interview Wednesday, in turn accuses the original Arizona ULC president of financial abuse and said the Modesto folks refused to deal with the situation. A civil lawsuit is pending.

    "It's quite difficult and causes confusion for our ministers," Andre said.

    'They don't understand'

    Andre said the biggest obstacle ULC faces is "the people's misconception of the church."

    And what's that misconception?

    "They don't understand the doctrine," he said. "Ours is the Golden Rule, to do what is right. Every person interprets that differently."

    The church helps the community, he said. It has donated to The Salvation Army and area food banks, he said. He said ULC sometimes helps people pay their utility bills. Andre demonstrated his "do what is right" policy when Robert Alvarez, 51, recently stopped by to ask if he could work for the $50 he needed for new clothes for a job he said was to begin the next day.

    "I've been looking for work for a year and a half," Alvarez said as he was raking up leaves and small limbs before mowing the grass outside the church. "This is my third time (asking ULC for help). A lot of pastors don't understand. I'm not asking for a handout. I'd rather work for it."

    Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or

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