The Unbelievers

Minister James Simmons says he awoke from a coma one day to find himself a gay amnesiac. Some of his Dallas parishioners aren't buying it.

Robbins says she did not ask Simmons for proof of the amnesia story, which fell to other members of the selection committee. It appears that nobody at the church demanded strict proof of a story that had receded into the past.

If anything, Robbins says, Simmons won over the selection committee and others at the church with his personality.

Struggling to define its qualities, she finds an analogy in her avocation as a pet rescuer. "Did you ever have a dog? Well, if he were a dog, he'd be a golden retriever. Very outgoing. Very loving and sweet and caring. Everyone is his friend."

More amnesia? James Simmons told a fuzzy tale to the press and congregation after his hidden past was revealed.
AP/Wide World Photo
More amnesia? James Simmons told a fuzzy tale to the press and congregation after his hidden past was revealed.

The dissidents at the church agree. Simmons' low-key charisma, combined with a highly emotional style, has won him considerable support at White Rock. "He can convince you the color red is blue and vice versa. He has the power to do that," says Blackwell.

At Simmons' private meeting with the congregation, many parishioners passed up their chance to paste him with questions. Instead, they poured out stories of trouble and challenges in their own lives.

"It was amazing to me," Orrell says. "I've never seen people so quickly wooed. People were just ready to commit their lives. It was a little scary."

"He has a very magnetic personality," says one parishioner who was close to the selection process. "The only way to describe it is, in his presence you are in love with him. You are in awe of him, and a lot of people are. I've seen it in myself. I've had to guard myself, because in my heart of hearts, I don't believe him."

Jones, the former deacon, says Simmons likes to weave the good works and kind hearts of others into his life story, which helps blur its improbable facts. "He's very clever, very skilled at taking people through this emotional roller coaster," Jones says. "He will throw out a bunch of facts [about his life], and when he gets to a point where you might start doubting him, he throws in this heart-wrenching, tear-jerking part that has no relevance whatsoever."

That sounded a lot like the approach Simmons used at his news conference, where he peppered his story with thanks and praise for those who helped him during his amnesiac odyssey, including his "four mothers" and "two fathers."

"I want to thank the two who found me [in the junkyard]; I've never met them, but I want to thank them now," Simmons said after opening the session with a Bible verse about a man blind from birth who is put on the earth so God could be revealed through him.

"I want to thank Pastor Brown from West Virginia, who took me under his care in the late summer of '84, Miss Goff from Charlottesville, who took care of me for the first few years of my life..."

As he wrapped things up, he said, "I'm sure there will be questions for the rest of my life about what happened, what will happen, how much [memory] I retained, how much I will get back. I would appreciate your prayers as I go through this next few weeks and months."

If the media didn't get the message they should be praying rather than picking apart his story, Simmons gave them a brief statement the next day, after his first Sunday sermon: "The spirit of the Lord was here. I pray you will continue to pray for me as I make adjustments with my wife and daughter and extended family."

Given the congregation's widespread support for Simmons, opposition is a delicate matter, the dissenters say.

"It pleases me my congregation is so loving and compassionate, but I don't think they see the reality," says Jones, who has been a member since 1995. "The fact is, he is our new pastor, and people are rallying around. It is difficult to question him without questioning people's faith."

Jones and others says the dissenters are waiting for Simmons to present clear evidence, or for new revelations to emerge that might further discredit his story. With no new proof to offer, Simmons has been trying to schedule meetings with known doubters, attempting to bring them around one by one, several sources say.

At present, no criminal or civil legal actions--such as a lawsuit for missed child support--have emerged that would force Simmons to make his case outside the church. Last week, the Social Security Administration said it had conducted a brief investigation into the theft of the rancher's identity and will take no action against Simmons.

Wes Davis, an agency spokesman in Dallas, said the agency has problems with Simmons' story, but the statute of limitations has passed on issues of falsifying records, and a law against identity theft was enacted only two years ago and is not applicable to this case.

Davis said it would be up to the rancher whose tax returns were audited to make a criminal complaint, and he has said he wants to let the matter drop. The spokesman also said the agency would help Beth Cox obtain an "equity and good conscience" waiver to the requirement that she repay the $400- to $600-a-month death benefit she and her daughter collected after Cox was declared dead.

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