That same interconnection has applied to several medical clinics around the world built by Global Mission, according to Donald Folkenberg, the church president's brother. The clinics were turned over to ADRA to operate.
The arrangement obeys "the letter of the law. They're not out there proselytizing," said Folkenberg, a top official of Global Mission. He acknowledged, however, that the effect has been to heighten the denomination's profile with local residents whose lives have been improved through the clinics. "That's a way to what the church is all about," he said. "Spread Christianity and spread Adventism."
Indeed, former Global Mission administrator Hal Butler said officials at his agency and at ADRA sometimes met to plan potential joint projects.
"We would talk about countries where a cooperative thing might work," said Butler, planning director at Global Mission until 1995. "If ADRA went in there first and had some health program or whatever to get things going, we might be able to come in later."
Adventists recognize the need to separate humanitarian and missionary work, Butler said, but there is "no doubt" the dividing line is sometimes blurred. "At times, it's very difficult to separate the two," particularly when church members go to work for ADRA and become "overzealous in trying to bring people to Christianity," he said.
Even when U.S. government funds and ADRA are not involved, the church has toyed with laws prohibiting conversion efforts.
In Katmandu, pastor Deepe Thapa said his Adventist church group, which is separate from ADRA, is registered as a social welfare agency with the Nepalese government, going into villages to talk about hygiene and good eating habits and--if the villagers are interested--"to propagate the Bible."
"If we said, 'We are Seventh-day Adventists and we want to spread the Gospel,' " Thapa said, "the government would not allow it. We have to go in in indirect ways. It may be right, it may be wrong."
In Nepal, a predominantly Hindu state that allows the practice of different faiths but bans conversion efforts, concerns have reached such a sensitive level that ADRA recently suspended some of its operations there after allegations of illegal proselytizing.
ADRA's Nepal operation has been criticized by local activists who contend that the country's cultural roots are being jeopardized by Adventist humanitarian workers using food, medical services and schools to lure new members.
"We are poor, illiterate, hungry people, and by giving allurement, ADRA is proselytizing," said Jogendra Jha, secretary general of the World Hindu Federation. "They do education and health services, but then they start conversions by offering better treatment [to people] if they accept Christianity."
After an investigation, Nepal authorities warned last August that the Adventists appeared to be violating the law by trying to convert "the docile Nepalese people of the village," as one health official said. With a change in administration, however, Nepalese officials have backed away from that stance. U.S. officials there say they are "fully satisfied" with ADRA's performance, recently awarding the group a new $1.8-million child-survival grant.
Even so, ADRA has agreed to break off ties with a school it helped build and a health education recording program it was developing, which opponents accused of broadcasting religious material, officials said.
The withdrawal, according to ADRA officials, was intended as "a token of good faith."
Although the church's rapid growth overseas is a point of pride for the Adventist hierarchy, it is viewed with trepidation, even disdain, by some longtime members in the United States.
Some complain that church coffers here are being drained to support poorer brethren abroad. Moreover, they contend that reforms, such as the ordination of women, have been blocked because of the more conservative leanings and far greater numbers of foreign congregants.
Disgruntled members here also complain that Adventist leaders at denominational headquarters in Maryland have brought embarrassment to the church by failing to exercise strong leadership when overseas congregations have strayed from the religion's principles.
Ethiopia, they say, is a prime example.
Adventists there have turned on one another in a bitter power struggle, forcing the closure of one of the country's largest churches.
A new president was named in late 1996 to lead Ethiopia's 120,000 Adventists, but opponents declared the election a sham. Large-scale demonstrations were held at the main church in Addis Ababa. Protesters drowned out services with loud singing. There have been dozens of arrests and reports of violence between opposing Adventists.
Protesters say they have been particularly troubled by the lack of intervention by Adventist executives in Maryland. But church liaison Maurice Battle said Adventist leaders fear "undermining" Ethiopian authority.
So for now, the gate to the Addis Ababa church is padlocked.
"We're supposed to be peace lovers," Battle said. "Have we not been able to get the principles of Jesus into their lives?"
Part One of this series is on The Times' Web site. Go to: http://www.latimes.com/adventists