MODESTO, Calif., Feb. 4 -- On a recent sunny afternoon in west Modesto, five women were hard at work at the Universal Life Church's world headquarters. They opened mail from Utah, Virginia, North Carolina, Switzerland, England. Much of it was from people wanting the church's famous free ministerial credentials -- anyone can get them, no strings attached.

It's business as usual at the controversial church, despite the loss of its eccentric founder, the Rev. Kirby Hensley, who died last March at age 87.

Hensley's 76-year-old widow, Lida, now serves as church president, and their youngest son, Andre, 43, is office manager, overseeing a staff of about 10 workers.

"The activities haven't changed," Andre Hensley said. "It's just as strong now as it was 10 years ago or 15 years ago."

Since its founding in 1962, the Universal Life Church has ordained an estimated 18 million ministers around the globe, prompting critics to label it a license mill. To become a Universal Life minister, a person simply has to make a written request. Today, officials say, the church is ordaining 3,000 to 5,000 people a month.

The church's questionable nature brought founder Hensley widespread fame; he appeared on such shows as "60 Minutes" and "Inside Edition." It also brought him years of legal battles with the Internal Revenue Service, which yanked the church's tax-exempt status in 1984.

Born in a poor, rural area of North Carolina, Hensley never learned to read or write, yet he still authored numerous study materials and religious books by dictating them to others.

The church creed is "Do that which is right." Hensley left it up to members to decide what was right for them. The church's followers include Christians, pagans, Wiccans, Buddhists and atheists. "Every living person is part of Universal Life," Hensley once said.

For donations of $20 to $100, members can take correspondence courses he began, as well as receive doctoral degrees on everything from immortality to motivation and biblical studies. Certificates of marriage, baptism and "affirmation of love" -- for couples living together -- are available for donations of $3.

The church finally settled with the IRS last year for an undisclosed amount, but it never admitted liability and still contends that it should receive the same tax status as any other religious group. Universal Life's attorney, Ed Ord of San Francisco, is preparing a request to have the church's exempt status restored. He does not anticipate a fight this time.

With legal battles apparently behind them, Andre Hensley now is concentrating on serving the needs of the church's members -- answering their calls, sending information and preparing church newsletters.

The church remains headquartered at 601 Third St., which has been its home for decades. Sunday services are at 10 a.m. Members rotate preaching duties. Attendance varies from five to 15 people.

Andre Hensley does most of the talking for the church. His mother, who is the organization's official head, is quiet. A sweet-natured, friendly woman, she does not have the exploding energy of her late husband. She was reluctant to take over church leadership.

"I really didn't want to be (church president), but my husband handed me that legacy," she said, explaining that Hensley asked the board to appoint her as his replacement before he died.

But she is firmly committed to his mission of promoting religious freedom for all. For her, the church means "everything except my breath."

Still, some observers wonder if Lida Hensley and her family will have the passion to keep the church running over the long haul.

"As far as I know, none of them have the fervor, the zeal, the evangelical fire that Kirby had," said Lewis Ashmore, a founding member of the church and the producer of "Modesto Messiah," a documentary on his late friend.

Ashmore, who lives in Tehachapi, predicted a short future for the church. "They can coast along, but there won't be anybody to carry on," he said.

Andre Hensley says otherwise. The church will continue, though its focus may change, he said.

In the 1960s, the church received numerous requests for ordinations from men who wanted to avoid the draft. Ordinations peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s, with many people signing up for fun or joining because of the tax benefits and the discounts that ministers received.

Lately though, Hensley said, more people are attracted to the church's philosophy of religious freedom. Some are escaping what they consider to be repressive denominations.

"They're tired of the hierarchy of the church dictating what they have to do to be a minister," he said.

As he has grown older, Andre Hensley has become more interested in the church. As a teen-ager, he did not pay much attention to religion in any form, he said. As an adult, he initially attended more established churches, such as The Salvation Army, as well as Baptist and Pentecostal churches.

Eventually, he got involved in his father's church. Recently, Hensley has turned his attention to his father's writings, he said.

Just before he died, Kirby Hensley told his wife that he thought that he had taught as much as he could on Earth, and was looking forward to helping more people in heaven. "I bet he told me 150 times, 'Please tell everyone I'll meet them on the other side,'" Lida Hensley said.

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