Reverend Dorman Owens in May, 1984
We sat in an office in his church in Santee. It was a weekday morning. Phones rang. Children could be heard singing in the student church school. Men and women returned, sunburned, from picketing an abortion clinic.
Dorman Owens, pastor and co-founder of the Bible Missionary Fellowship
"If you go to church," he said, "sometimes the preacher might get up and say something about abortion or homosexuality. Usually, he won't, because he's afraid he'll run somebody off from his church. I've had a lot of people leave this church because of stands I've taken.
“A redneck who loves America, he’ll be excited about the things I say about standing up and loving America and being patriotic and standing against evil. But when I start standing against his booze, he is not going to like that. Then there are people whom the world has programmed to believe that all religion is good, so when I preach against the doctrine of Roman Catholicism or Unitarianism, they are offended.
“Truth of the matter, the world is greatly offended at God. If you just take this book,’’ he touched his open Bible, “and just preach it, just like it is, it is going to be offensive to a lot of people. There are people who are going to be mad.
“Pastors are just people. They like security. I could do the same thing a lot of preachers do. I know how to build a big church. I could have a church of two to three thousand people. I could be drawing $60,000 to $100,000 a year. I know how to do it. But that’s all sinking sand.
“It’s like Moses. The Bible says Moses refused to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. He chose rather to stand with the people of God against Pharaoh and lead them out of bondage. Moses had riches, education, political power. He could’ve been right up there where Pharaoh was. He gave all that up because God had given him His people to lead out of bondage.’’
And that is how Dorman Owens, pastor and co-founder of the Bible Missionary Fellowship, seems to understand his role: he, too, is a Moses. Owens’s “Egypt’’ is the sinful world.
“It’s an urgent situation. People don’t know how close we are to losing this country. The Communists said they would come in and take America over, that our nation will drop into their hand like an overripe fruit.”
In fact, the end is near. “We will be under the domination of the Antichrist. The Bible says it’s going to come to that. Some people are skeptical,” He grinned, then paused and said, “They think it will be in the next ten years.”
No TV preacher sporting Armani and Rolex, Owens lives in a modest house in Santee, earns $22,000 a year, drives a 75 Datsun and a 78 Chevy Impala wagon. Central casting would use him as the honest small-town mayor, the tough master sergeant, or as just a face in the crowd of a Dodge City shootout — medium height, medium build, muscular, rosy complexion, dark-rimmed glasses, graying hair that rises off his wide forehead in a persistent wave. Brown shoes, brown slacks, a beige shirt, open at the neck. A big neck.
His church is one of the growing number of fundamentalist congregations in America. “Fundamentalism,” he said, “means basics. We believe in a literal interpretation of Scripture, that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. We believe in a six-day Creation, the Trinity, Virgin Birth, Blood Atonement, salvation by faith alone, the Resurrection, the Second Coming, Ten Commandments.” As many as 40 million Americans share these beliefs.
On Sundays between 300 and 400 people attend his church’s 9:30 a.m. classes for adults and children, as well as the 10:45 a.m. service. The congregation is twenty-five percent Hispanic, has four black families, six Asian families, several native American families. One-third of the congregation is made up of former Catholics. The average church member, said Owens, is blue-collar. “They are hard-working people whose earnings fall in the range between $15,000 and $20,000 a year. Nothing real high. There are no rich people at all.”
Owens’s “speaking out” has driven away both members and potential converts. To those who remain, it must seem Owens is doing something right.
“In most churches, twenty percent of a congregation tithes. Here,” said Owens, “sixty percent do.”
Dorman Owens was born a few years after the Crash, in windblown west Texas, in a town called Munday. His father was a carpenter and went where the work was, moving his family with him, back and forth — and back and forth again — between Texas and Southern California. Owens went to grade school in California and graduated from high school in Texas. “It was kind of a battle,” he said, “where we were going to settle.”
Behind wrinkles and age spots, the small boy Owens once was shows — the freckles, wavy red hair, jug ears. He would have worn overalls and gone barefoot in summers. There were seven children. There would not have been much left over. There would not have been much.
He was, he said, a “kind of an ordinary boy — played football in high school and did the things that normal boys do, the sinful things that normal boys do — cussin’, profanity, dirty filthy jokes.”
His family was not deeply religious. Like most white Texans, they were nominally Baptist, and while his father and mother didn’t go to church often, they sent the children. For him, religion was “something the preacher said. It was, ‘I believe this because my church believes this.’ ”
At nineteen he began to read the Bible. By him on the desk, his own Bible was open, its margins thick with notes in green and blue ink. “When I went into the air force [in 1952], I took my Bible with me and began to read and study it. I came to realize that Jesus Christ was real and he was God and that he died for my sins on the cross. I received him personally. Then everything changed. The rebirth the Bible talks about became a reality in my life.
“And that’s when everybody thought I’d lost my marbles. Through the years, I was fairly popular among my peers. But when I became a Christian and the sin things began to drop away, my popularity also began to drop away. When I began to tell my friends about their need of Christ and their need to turn from sin and receive Christ and have new life, that cut too deeply into their worldly ways.
“The change was not like day and night. It was almost a slow change. I was reading the Bible, and every day there was a change that took place. I became warmer and warmer toward God and less friendly with the world.”
He married before he turned twenty-one, began a family, left the service, and went to work. In the 1958 recession, he and his wife left Texas and moved to San Diego County. He drove a truck for a meat-packing plant. “Lugged beef, one-hundred-, two-hundred pound carcasses. That’s the hardest work I ever did anywhere, heavy, hard work.” Then he quit driving and took part-time jobs; he dug ditches, worked construction, and entered college. In 1971 he graduated from San Diego Bible College.
“It took a long time to get my education,” said Owens solemnly. “I didn’t make it into the ministry until I was thirty-seven.”
Once he had graduated, he said, “I didn’t know what form my ministry would take. At first I was just going to go out on faith and start doing missionary work, house to house, bringing people into the church.” He was going to do this without any salary, “just trust God for whatever money came in.”
His ministry “found” him, he said, when the doctor for whom his wife worked as a receptionist sent him an alcoholic to work with and try to rehabilitate. Owens began to study alcoholism and how to counsel alcoholics.
In 1971 two families, his and another, started what is now the Bible Missionary Fellowship by working with alcoholics. “The welfare department and churches referred them. We took them into our homes. Our family had three or four alcoholics living in trailers in our back yard. We took them in dead drunk and sobered them up. We had ’em with the D.T.’s that saw buffaloes running across the ceiling. One guy was shootin’ holes in his ceiling and through the doors with a bow and arrow. Another guy heard voices, telling him they were goin’ to come and cut him up in little pieces.
“There are people here in our church right now who were part of that early nucleus of alcoholics. One had been divorced from his wife for twelve years. She couldn’t live with his drinking. He became a Christian, they got married again, and put the family back together.”
Church members built a one-story hall in Santee in 1975. Then, six years later, they erected a second, two-story structure. That same year, they opened a tuition-free K-12 school for the church members’ children. It is not accredited and has not sought accreditation. “We don’t take a license from the state, because the state would bring in its controls. The state says we have to have state-trained teachers. But what is the state training its teachers in? Humanism. Evolution.”
The church was expanding, the school begun, when, in late 1983, members of the Bible Missionary Fellowship began to picket an abortion clinic and the adult-entertainment Pussycat Theatre in El Cajon. According to scripture, said Owens, every church has three basic ministries. One is to be the salt of the earth. “Scripture says, ‘You are to stand up and have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.’ When something evil is going on, you don’t stay in your church. You go where sin is taking place. You say, ‘That is sin. God says it is wrong.’ ”
Prompted by an article in the San Diego Union that seemed to him to glorify homosexuality, Owens led 300 picketers through Hillcrest in April of 1984. They carried placards: “G.A.Y. - Got AIDS Yet?” “Repent, Queers,” “Homosexuality Is Unnatural,” “AIDS Is A Curse From God,” and “BATHHOUSES - AIDS Distribution Center.”
After the group saw Hillcrest, “saw how homosexuals were taking over there and plotting their perversion and filth,” Owens said they continued the marches. Along Fifth Avenue and in Balboa Park, church members read aloud from their Bibles and engaged in debates that often turned angry. Carrying American flags and placards, the group also picketed Gay Pride parades. In 1985 a Bible Missionary Fellowship member flew above the parade in a plane from which a banner streamed with the message, “REPENT FAG.” Last year the banner read: “PASTOR OWENS SAYS: AIDS — GOD’S CURSE.”
The congregation also wrote, printed, and handed out pamphlets. In Let's Face It! Gay Is Really Queer, rhetorical questions are posed:
“Isn’t it ‘queer’ that men or women would prefer sex with the same sex?
Isn’t it ‘queer’ that men reject the fact that God hates Sodomy, for He demanded Capital Punishment for this crime in the Bible? ...
Isn’t it ‘queer’ that Sodomites pervert the body organs to satisfy their un-natural lusts?
Isn’t it ‘queer’ that Sodomites try to blame God for the perverted lifestyle they have chosen. Scientific fact: Sodomites are made, not born!
Isn’t it ‘queer’ that Sodomites cringe at the thought that God is bringing ‘AIDS’ and ‘Herpes II’ upon them for the same sin that God is going to send them to Hell for? ... Isn’t Sado-Masochism queer?
Isn’t it ‘queer’ that normal moral people do not want Sodomites around for fear that they may spread their diseases and pervert or seduce little children? Isn’t it ‘queer’ that Chicken Hawks catch Chickens (Teen-age boys)? ...
Isn’t it ‘queer’ that in Russia Sodomy is unlawful and in America it is promoted?
Isn’t it ‘queer’ that a Sodomite prefers perverted physical sensationalism to happiness, home, children, grandchildren and companionship in old age? ...
But, isn’t it amazing that God still offers to save and change any Queer who will come to Christ? ... Even now God extends His mercy. Will you respond?’’
Owens’s congregation, with their placards and Bibles and pamphlets in hand, have picketed San Diego’s city hall, the county courthouse, homosexual bathhouses and bars, porn shops, and a woman who they allege is a practitioner of witchcraft. Owens has been quoted as calling San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor “ungodly.” Members of his congregation, picketing an abortion clinic, were reported to have yelled, “Butcher shop!” and “Baby killers!” Some fellowship members have been arrested more than once for violating a court order restricting their picketing of an abortion clinic; Owens himself has been arrested four times on the same charges. (Court proceedings and fines alone have cost the church more than $100,000. The money has come from donations and the church’s general fund.)
Reverend Owens and other Fellowship members picketing Womancare in September, 1984
<em>Los Angeles Times</em>
By the mid-Eighties, Owens became a local anti-hero. Hillcrest activist and Scene columnist Nicole Murray called him “the Ayatollah Owens Khomeini of Santee.” Gay Pride Parade organizers described him as the best publicity for the gay movement since Anita Bryant.
Owens himself noted that the news media have not treated him or his group fairly, but he wasn’t complaining. “Why should they like me?” he shrugged. “They’re all liberals, total humanists. They’re not going to give me a break.” After a moment’s reflection, he added, “They can say what they want to, they can like me or not like me, but our people have been effective in bringing issues to the eyes of the public.”
That mainline churches dissociate themselves from Owens’s demonstrations does irk him, however, and he turned rancorous talking about it. “There’s a homosexual church within five blocks of one of the largest churches in San Diego — Scott Memorial Baptist Church — and no one from Scott Memorial has ever gone out and stood on the street and preached to those people and told them they are living in sin. Not only will they not do it, but they criticize us for doing it. They say we are unkind.
“I was on the street, down there one day in front of the homosexual bathhouse. I have a sign I was carrying that says ‘Hell, God’s Closet for Queers.’ A preacher came by, and he said to me, ‘Dorman, where’s your love?’
“I told him, ‘Have you ever gone down to the center of Hillcrest and passed out literature and preached to the homosexuals in Balboa Park that they were going to Hell and that they needed to be saved?’ He said, ‘No, I never have done that.’ And I said, ‘Well, I have. Not just once, but many times. So it seems like I love them more than you do.’ ”
As many as a hundred obscene and threatening telephone calls have come to Owens’s house in a day. “And we’re still threatened,” he said. “Time and time again. Phone calls. You know, ‘We’ve got a contract out on you. We’ve got AIDS patients that are gonna die anyway, and we flipped a coin to see which one of us is gonna wipe you out.’
“The stands we take against homosexuality. Communism, abortion, pornography — we’re working against, probably, the most dangerous people in the world.” There is “suspicion,” Owens continued, “that all the pornography groups are some way paying the mob. When you get into this thing with the mob, you run yourself into some danger.”
Why does he do it? He explained that his actions and those of his church ought to be the norm for every Christian church. But instead, he said, “We have been taught that we are supposed to sit back and let this great nation of ours be taken over by perverts and murderers. That’s what they are. The abortionist is a murderer. The homosexual is a pervert.”
For a literalist, there is no reason to mince words, and Owens doesn’t. “I use the words queer and fag. The word homosexual gives ’em too much status. It’s a clinical word, and that’s what they want, scientific status. The word homosexual gives them that — even though they don’t like it either, and they’d rather be called ‘gay.’ Because homosexual is a clinical word, that makes them almost look normal — because they call us heterosexual.
“I like the word normal," said Owens, not without humor. "We’re normal,” he smiled. “And they’re perverted.”
When he talks with individual homosexuals, he uses blunt language. He recalled a recent conversation with a lesbian. “I told her what a disgrace she was to her Christian parents.” The woman didn’t flinch. Lesbians, he said, “try to be assertive, like a man.” Owens understands homosexuality, on one level, as a perversion of divinely ordained roles. From this perspective, the male homosexual is “a perverted woman,” and the lesbian “a perverted man.” Talking with confrontative lesbians, he said, “I tell ’em, ‘You girls are trying to be men.’ I tell ’em, ‘You want to fight me, just jump on me, we’ll see who’s a man.’
This “perversion,” according to Owens, begins in a home where “normal” paternal/male and maternal/female roles themselves are “perverted.” Thus, said Owens, a mother who is “a dominant person carrying male characteristics” and a father “who is recessive or indifferent” may lead a boy child “to mimic or take on the characteristics of the female.” In reverse, he said, “exactly the same thing is true of the girl.”
Such a child “can be changed,” Owens stated, “if there’s someone to take enough interest to train them out of it. If they go on through and get to be twelve or thirteen, and some homosexual seduces them, then they’re almost immediately, forever, caught up in that lifestyle. Then, he’s captivated by the homosexual. We call them [the homosexual seducers] chickenhawks.”
Owens teaches that as the smoker is addicted to her cigarettes and the alcoholic to his liquor, so the homosexual is addicted to the sex act. “When a homosexual gets into that, he just doesn’t get out of it overnight. Most of them never get out.
“I’ve gotten letters from them. I’ve gone and had breakfast with them and counseled them on some occasions. Some tell me, ‘I’ll never leave this lifestyle.’ One guy told me he was a nonpracticing homosexual but that he’d always be homosexual. He’d quit practicing because of the danger.
“In a way, I pity them. Just like you would a rattlesnake crawling around in a quicksand, you know he’s going through a lot of pain, which he probably deserves. But, nevertheless he’s a human being.
“The fellows who have AIDS, don’t you just know they wish they’d a never in the world gotten involved? That they wish they’d have listened to their mom when she begged them not to get into that or begged them to get out of it?
“The guy who gets it deserves it, I guess.”
Yes, he said, he does pray for homosexuals and for abortionists, as well. “Some I pray that God will either save ’em or kill ’em. Either way, they’re better off. If they are going to continue to destroy human life, there’s no reason they should live. Homosexuals, they’re either the same or worse than abortionists.”
AIDS, said Owens, is a curse from God that has fallen not only upon “perverts” but upon an “ungodly society” He explained that “innocent people are getting AIDS because our government has violated the law of God, which says that the homosexual should be punished by law” To illustrate his point, he turned pages of his Bible to Leviticus, chapter 20, verse 13, and read, “If a man lie with mankind as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.”
“I’d suggest the death penalty,” he said. “There aren’t any choices.
“The life of one of those innocent people is worth more than 500,000 homosexuals. Because this one’s innocent, and that one’s guilty.... Our government has refused to listen to what God has said, and as a result, innocent people are going to die.”
Owens fights homosexuality because he believes homosexual acts and roles defy God’s law. He also believes that those homosexuals who are “prosperous,” “educated,” and “very ambitious” strongly influence American culture. “They are the greatest corrupters of society. They are seeking status in any way they can find it because of the tremendous guilt they carry.”
Homosexuality, abortion, and pornography are weapons in the armory of the Satanic/Communist conspiracy. “Read The Communist Manifesto. You’ll see how Communists purposely bring about perversion of all kinds, especially sexual. They try to get children and young people involved in sexual things.”
Owens stared ahead, as if looking at a scene being played out on a distant screen. “The Bible says there are two major forces, Evil and Good, that Satanic and that operated by God. If that’s true, and it is, then behind the whole scheme is this one mastermind, and that’s Satan.” Returning his gaze to the immediate, he continued, “Satan has been working in America, through different guises, for a long, long time.”
Owens traced the conspiracy’s beginnings back to philosopher John Dewey and educator Horace Mann, who brought progressive education into public schools; he also blamed progressive education. “Situation ethics, the doing away with absolutes,” said Owens, “was anti-God, humanistic.” Owens explained humanism: “It is the idea that we — humans — are all, and there is no God, that there are no absolute morals, and so anything you think is right, is.”
He went on to explain that this “anti-God” and “humanistic” philosophy then “spilled over into the churches.” It created an atmosphere that encouraged an ecumenical movement in which all churches are drawn together into one and, as the price for unity, give up doctrinal purity and the principle of Biblical inerrancy and infallibility. The ecumenical movement, he said scathingly, “includes Unitarianism and even Bob Schuller [the founder and pastor of Garden Grove’s $18 million Crystal Cathedral] as being Christian. Eventually, they’ll include the Jews and Mohammedans!”
As Owens sees it, a “humanist, anti-God” philosophy now permeates national life and has destroyed the nation originally established by our forefathers. Said Owens, “This nation was founded upon freedom of Christianity. When we say ‘religious freedom,’ we are not talking about your coming in to practice any kind of religion you want. Our country was never founded for freedom of Muslims, unless Muslims can live under the law as it is propagated by scripture.” America, he added, was meant by its founders to be “an entity all its own and separated from other nations. When Solomon began to bring in his pagan wives, then Solomon began to practice pagan things.”
Another of the three basic ministries of the church as laid down in scripture, according to Owens, is “to tear down strongholds, false philosophies, and teachings. We are to go to those strongholds and point out to them the falseness of their teaching, tell them they are leading people astray, that Jesus Christ is the only truth.” As an example, Owens said, “It is our responsibility to let the Jews know they don’t have the truth, same with the Mormon Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Roman Catholics, the Unitarians, the atheist, the agnostic, the evolutionist.”
About the Roman Catholic Church, Owens was adamant. “There’s nothing you could say about the Catholic Church that’s too bad to say. If you just get an encyclopedia and look up its history, you’ll learn it’s probably one of the bloodiest of organizations history has ever seen. Look at the Spanish Inquisition, the popes who had their paramours and prostitutes. That was the rule rather than the exception. The Catholic Church has always been a corrupt organization and contrary to Scripture.”
He talked about Unitarians with grim good humor. “They are just plain Satanic in everything they do. They are very busy.... They are forever into something. You know all this ecology thing? That’s all Unitarianism. The people who are against strong government, they’re all Unitarian system.... The psychological world of today is taken over by Unitarianism. Carl Rogers, he was one, Carl Sagan. Rogers was probably the most prominent psychologist in America. He was nothing but a Unitarian, a one-worlder and new-ager.”
Participants in the conspiracy of which Satan is “mastermind and chief planner,” Owens listed homosexuals, the National Organization for Women, proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment, the Democratic Party (“totally un-American, unpatriotic, against God, for humanism”), “doves” and “no-nukers,” pornographers, abortionists, humanists, atheists, agnostics, liberals, witchcraft organizations, the Unitarian church, “the whole new-age system,” “one-worlders,” the World and National Councils of Churches and denominations who belong to these councils. “Their philosophies are all the same. The no-nukers are exactly the same as the homosexuals. They all agree with each other.”
What will happen to Owens if the Satanist/Communist conspiracy he fears, in fact, triumphs? “If Russia takes over, I’ll be among the first to die. So will all other fundamentalist pastors.”
Owens never wonders if he’s wrong. “Nope. There’s no possible way I could be wrong. No way. Over the years, I have tested this,” he touched his Bible. “I have proved this book in my life a million different ways. I’ve compared it to every other different philosophy. Nothing else works. This is it. I’ll stake my life on it.”
What did he believe would have happened to him had he not become a Christian? “I can only say what happened to some of my relatives that were raised in the same way I was raised. Their lives are all devastated. Many of them are drunks. Their families are broken up. Divorced. Their kids have gone bad. Whereas, on the other hand, I’ve been married to the same wife for almost thirty-four years. I have three sons, all of them committed Christians. One’s a pastor in Ramona. One is general manager for a large construction company. One’s working his way up in Alpha Beta. I have three great daughters-in-law, all committed Christians, and four grandsons. I had no trouble with my kids, no drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no homosexuals, no adulterous acts.”
Reverend Owens appearing in the contempt trial between the Birth Control Institute and Owens, January, 1985
<em>Los Angeles Times</em>
On a recent Sunday morning, Fords and Dodges and Chevys, Datsuns and Toyotas, station wagons and sedans and pickup trucks, few of them late models, lined the parking lot. There were bumper stickers that read, “JESUS ON BOARD,” “There’s nothing GAY about being QUEER.” Inside the Bible Missionary Fellowship, located on Prospect Street in Santee, one of three adult Bible classes met in a brown-carpeted basement room. The young woman and her husband beside me have been members for several years. They explained that they had searched for a church home, going to one church after another, until they found what they wanted, here.
On a blackboard behind a lectern, the day’s lesson, “Abortion and the Christian,” was outlined. The school’s advanced-math and computer-science teacher was the morning’s teacher; he was a heavyset man in his thirties, wearing navy-blue slacks, a white short-sleeved shirt with six pens in the pocket, and navy tie. He was substituting, he explained, for “Brother Pierre, the school administrator, who is away at a naval-reserve meeting.”
Fifty men and women, young to middle-age and most in couples, turned their faces upward toward him. The men were dressed in jeans, slacks, open-necked shirts, and knit pullovers. Some wore cowboy boots. Beards and mustaches outnumbered the clean-shaven. Tattoos scrolled around several bare arms. Women’s faces, generally, were clean of cosmetics. Hair tended to be worn long, softly curled. Their dresses — print cottons and jerseys — fit modestly.
“What does the Bible say about the unborn?” the teacher asked. “There’s not a commandment that says. Thou shalt not have an abortion.’ Many liberal clergy say that the Bible doesn’t say anything about abortion.
“Imagine,” he suggested, “that you are on a picket line at an abortion clinic. A group gathers. A debate begins. How would you prove that the Bible has something to say? What are you going to say to them? Are you going to be able to give them examples? Are you going to have some examples written in your Bible?”
A reading list for study of the abortion issue was given. One title suggested was the The Constitution: The Delicate Balance. “It is not a Christian book,” the teacher warned. “It is not Biblical in its content. It was written by liberals.” As he pronounced it, the word liberals seemed a synonym for outer darkness, the cursed beyond all cursed. He asked the group to turn to Luke, chapter 1. “Here is the first of many references I will give you to prove that the Bible makes no distinction between the born and the unborn.” In Luke the babe “laughs in the womb.” His eyes flashing, his voice fierce, the instructor asked, “Could a blob of flesh show emotion? Is this ‘babe’ something the doctor could excise with the scalpel?” Bibles, some of them in tooled leather cases, lay open on laps. A fretwork of handwritten notes ran between lines of print. Work-hardened fingers turned pages. Attention was perfect. The material the lesson offered was a life-and-death matter. This was a room filled with people who felt themselves to be in a state of siege.
As the hour progressed, the teacher posed more questions, his voice ironic and harsh. He recounted that in his reading, he had discovered studies that showed the unborn child begins to learn in the womb and asked, “If the child in the womb can learn, why shouldn’t we take the knives out of the hands of these doctors?”
The Bible, he iterated, makes no distinction between the born and the unborn. “But,” he said to the group, whose faces were tense with attention, “a day before you’re born, a doctor can go in there and cut you to ribbons. Strange, how a couple of days can make a big difference!”
Sunday morning’s service started promptly at 10:45 in the sanctuary, a large structure bereft of decoration. To the accompaniment of a spinet piano, a hymn was being sung. The congregation, led by a songleader, sang spiritedly.
Wearing, again, brown slacks and an open-necked beige shirt, Owens gripped a pulpit on which a shield is affixed. “God Can” has been lettered on the shield. Owens greeted the congregation.
“Praises” were asked for, and a clean-cut man in his twenties, an appliance repairman, stood up. On his job, he had made friends with a woman with marital problems. She and her husband could not settle their differences, and they had split up. The young man talked with the wife, counseled her, and prayed. “Today, the couple is back together, their marriage healed. They are both working in a nuclear plant at twelve dollars an hour. I just want to praise the Lord for working in that situation ” The congregation applauded.
A woman who teaches in the church’s school pulled herself up to her feet. She smiled tremulously and touched a hand to short, baby-fine hair. “I’m not wearing my wig,” she said, explaining that her recovery from cancer and chemotherapy continued to go well. “I just want to praise the Lord and to thank all of you who have prayed for me.” The applause was loud.
From a front pew, a man in middle age, a gardener, rose and turned to scan the faces around him. “When my car went out last week,” he said, “right across the street, there was a place to fix it.” He didn’t have enough money, though. His boss loaned him some, but his car needed even more work. When he got his paycheck, he found that it took his entire week’s rent to pay for the most recent work on the car. But his landlady trusted him. Then he was able to put in some overtime, enough to pay his rent. At every juncture, the Lord was there for him. He had been scouring junkyards for used parts, and he found just the parts he needed and was able to buy them at a good price. “I want to praise the Lord,” he said, his head bowed, “for the means to fix my car and keep it running.”
Next a younger man, a carpenter and a teacher in the Sunday young people’s class, stood. Pale, with blond hair and mustache, he offered his praise to the Lord “for a second chance.” His boss, he explained, is “very obese. We were driving in the truck. I said to him, ‘I’m glad I’m going to Heaven. You can go too.’ My boss said, ‘Sometime you’ll have to show me that.’ ” Days passed, the young man said. With the days, opportunities to witness to his boss passed too. He didn’t take the opportunities, he said; he was too embarrassed, too shy, afraid to come forward.
“I should have tried,” he continued, his voice breaking. “The first time I was able to give him a witness” — he put his hand to his forehead and began to weep — “my boss was in his office. He was having a heart attack. I asked God to give me one more chance.” Other eyes in the congregation became bright with tears. “My boss is home now, recuperating. I just want to thank the Lord for 'giving me a second chance.”
A man in gray pants and white shirt, an electrician, stood. “I want to thank God for my daughter Pamela, who is on the honor roll this grade period, and for my wife.” Eyes turned toward a blonde teen-ager. Pamela, he explained, had been in the public schools. Since fall, though, she had been enrolled in the church’s school. “It’s been hard, a real struggle.” he said. "Pamela has had three to four hours of homework every evening. She really got in there and worked. Her mother helped.” There was applause. Pamela smiled, embarrassed, at the girl next to her.
"I have a second praise,” continued Pamela’s father. "As you all know, we go door-knocking on Thursday evenings. We’d been going to apartments. But we decided we would also begin to go to houses. We went that first night in fear and trembling. But we had some successes. I know, that in door-knocking, we plant some seeds. It’s what keeps me going every week, doing this.”
Owens then asked the congregation to shake hands with the people on either side of them and to greet their friends. They stood, hands outstretched, and circled through the sanctuary, hugging, kissing, patting shoulders, and clasping hands.
On my left was a woman named Joanne whom I had met two days before. She had been one of the group that had come back sunburned from picketing an abortion clinic. Like the couple next to me in the Bible class, she, too, had gone to many churches before she found, here, what she wanted.
The offering was taken up. Owens led a prayer for "Christians behind bars, on foreign missions, in Soviet Russia.... Our nation sits on the brink of disaster,” he said. "Help us not to be asleep.”
The soloist, the ebullient blonde wife of a marine, announced she would sing "Jesus Will Come Again.” “He is going to come again. It’s not a joke,” she said. "He will”
Standing behind the pulpit, ready to preach, Owens gazed slowly across the congregation. "I’d like you to find your Bibles,” he said. "Ask the Lord to speak to you and reveal his will to you. Be attentive.”
The third chapter of Genesis was the morning’s text. "Man has been here for 6000 to 10,000 years. God created man recently.... We have a young earth, 6000 to 10,000 years old........ God created Adam on Day Six.”
Joanne opened her Bible. Photographs of her teen-age sons are pasted at the bottom of a page. The text has been criss-crossed with notes. In front of us, a young husband placed an arm around his wife’s shoulder. She snuggled against him.
"People ask me,” said Owens, "‘Do you really believe that story?’ I tell them, ‘I don’t find it difficult to believe.’
" ‘But isn’t it like folklore?’ some will ask. I tell them, ‘It’s not near as farfetched as believing a serpent turned into a man!’ ”
From the congregation came several subdued "Amens ”
Owens then told the story of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib. "I believe that story literally” he said. Adam’s rib led Owens to discuss differences between men and women. "She — the woman — has a tendency to care more and quicker than a man. He is more rigid.”
To the women in the congregation, he said, "The joy and fulfillment of your life will not be in a career. It will be in your husband.... That is God’s plan.”
The final hymn began, and Owens gave the call. "You who want to give your lives, who want to be saved, come forward.” He said it quietly. His eyes searched the congregation. "We’ll help you. Will you come? As we wait?”