By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
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The two GPI buildings on New York Avenue span some 28,000 square feet. The building behind the main sanctuary houses a small, black-painted upstairs venue called The Attic. A coffee house called Cup O' Jo, where the scented candles on every table give the room an overpowering vanilla odor, sits downstairs alongside the GPI offices. The office door features a yellow bumper sticker: I'M THE CHRISTIAN THE DEVIL AND THE LIBERAL MEDIA WARNED YOU ABOUT.
Pastor Speakman, known everywhere as "Pastor Rich," owned a small tile business before he founded GPI in November 1993. Speakman says he'd always been involved in the lay ministry before he jumped in full time, conducting everything from Christian men's groups (he's a Promise Keeper: "It's a very needed thing, as far back as Christian men have fallen in their responsibilities as husbands and fathers") to a Saturday basketball ministry for youth.
Speakman took over a sanctuary and building previously occupied by the New York Avenue Baptist Church, an adult congregation. He leased the complex from the FDIC, which had acquired the properties from a bank.
Initially, Speakman planned to include adults and kids alike in his new church, which he'd christened God's Place International. The kids would come from STITCHES, a ministry he'd started to operate from the church parking lot. STITCHES--Saving the Inner City Through Christ's Hope and Eternal Salvation--was an attempt to convert kids who hung around the neighborhood. Apparently modeled on those traveling RIF (Reading is Fundamental) literacy programs of the mid-'70s, STITCHES was basically Jesus on wheels.
"We operated this children's ministry out of a 24-foot, hot pink trailer spray-painted with graffiti," Speakman recalls. "We had puppet shows and preachers and played this loud, bass-heavy music out of speakers. We spoke against violence and drugs, basically trying to offer them a choice between Jesus and the world. We always had a crowd listening to us.
"The church that was here before us, I don't think they had much to do with the neighborhood," Speakman adds, noting that the 76010 zip code where the church resides is Arlington's most crime-ridden area. "We started with Sunday services for both adults and the kids we attracted from STITCHES. But when they came out to the parking lot and saw these kids standing on their cars, the adults started to disappear. Finally, in 1995, we switched our focus to music and the young crowd we'd kept."
Approval from church elders in area congregations has been lacking. Speakman says that GPI still isn't well known enough for him to be criticized directly, "but I know there are suspicions in the church community about us. Just like in Jesus' day, there's a lot of backbiting in the Christian church. People don't like that we let the kids who come here smoke and cuss and flaunt their tattoos and Marilyn Manson T-shirts.
"And yet, a couple pastors have told me they envy me. I don't have a board to answer to, no rich and prominent members of my congregation are telling me what to do. In and out of the church, money talks."
Speakman cites Bob Nichols of Fort Worth's Calvary Cathedral as an advisor and a financial supporter, but says Calvary is the only church that's extended a hand of support. (Nichols, who was in Uganda last week dedicating a TV station, could not be reached for comment.) GPI runs not very smoothly on the occasional large private donation, its $5 to $7 cover charge for shows, and a volunteer work force, including Speakman, who claims he earns no salary. (Instead, he earns his keep as a self-employed tile refinisher and private caretaker for an elderly man.) Last September, GPI held a benefit festival with 25 local and national bands that earned a $3,000 profit; it just about covered the back rent.
The FDIC is trying to sell the property where GPI is housed; the asking price is $250,000. Speakman went to the last FDIC auction and bid $150,000 for the site that he'd managed to pull together from supporters, but it was still too low.
"Frankly, any move would be a positive one," he says, realizing that the complex will probably be sold to someone else. He notes that policemen had, just before this interview, busted into an apartment next door and marched out several men in handcuffs. "We know God won't move us until there's a better place," he says.
Right now he believes God has placed him right where he's supposed to be, in a semi-activist stand against what he calls "the pretense of religion."
"When you grow up as a Christian, you develop a relationship with either Jesus Christ or the church," he says. "Too many of us choose the church over Christ, because we want to be identified with a group. But you have to separate yourself from the religious structure to get real."
C. Monkey serves heavily creamed-and-sugared coffee on a table in the winding, musty corridor outside his office at GPI. A jazz fusion tune blares from one of those small, space station-shaped portable stereos. The song originates not from a contemporary Christian radio show, but from the Denton-based all-jazz station KNTU-FM.