By Jim Schutze
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Despite their eccentricities, by 2000 the Webbs had gone from strangers in a community dominated by a handful of old families to leaders. In 2002, Joanne was chosen to present hometown American Idol star Kelly Clarkson with an award from the chamber.
But beneath the façade of friendliness burbled malicious gossip. Did you see Joanne's new tits? I heard she bent over at Wal-Mart and you could see her panties. They're always throwing wild parties. Did you hear they got kicked out of Cana Baptist?
In whispers at the Country Café, at the Safari Hair and Tanning Salon and in the pews at churches, people began trading tittle-tattle about the couple's sex life, their "alternative lifestyle." When word got out that Joanne was selling "sex toys," Perkins and a handful of decent people knew something had to be done.
Nasty Little Town
From its inception, Burleson has seen schisms between conservative and liberal Christians.
The town was founded in 1881 by Parson Henry Carty Renfro, who named it after his mentor, Rufus Burleson, president of Baylor University. But late in life, Renfro embraced "free thought," brought to Texas in the mid-1800s by German intellectuals seeking liberty from political and religious oppression. "Freethinkers" refused to accept the authority of church leaders or scripture. Accused of "advocating and preaching the doctrine of infidelity," Renfro was booted out of the ministry and the Baptist church in 1884.
Even after his death a year later, Renfro was controversial. Though the Baptist hierarchy insisted that Renfro had renounced his liberal heresies before succumbing, his family claimed otherwise. But Baptists had the last laugh. Today, of the 55 churches in Burleson, 18 are Baptist, far more than any other denomination.
Burleson has always been a conservative town, but city leaders privately admit that in the past, it also had a reputation as a racist town. People joke that the only high school football game in Texas with no black players on the field is when teams from Burleson and nearby Joshua compete.
Those outside the usual Christian denominations can also feel like outsiders. Spears, a Mormon, says she's experienced religious discrimination. In the 1990s, fundamentalists, led by Gloria Gillaspie, tried to ban some textbooks. Others on the school board tried to control twirlers' uniforms and even dictate a sculptor's art. Some critics deemed the genitalia of a bronze elk in front of the new high school too large and lifelike.
One longtime resident says she got so sick of Burleson's narrow-minded powermongers that she moved to Joshua. "Burleson is a nasty little town," she says. "If you're not one of the chosen people, they're going to do everything they can to get rid of you. It's a competitive viciousness, like a virus. It's in the churches, in the schools, in the chamber and in the town. It's eating away at them."
In 2001, when the Webbs left Cana Baptist, the Burleson grapevine kicked into overdrive. The problems at church had been building. Some churchgoers were appalled by Chris' collection of advertising memorabilia from the '40s featuring Vargas-type girls--once brazen, now antiques. Word got around that Chris had been showing some teenagers around the house when he opened a closet door, revealing a glimpse of Joanne in a nude photo. (Joanne says Chris liked to take her photo in Playboy-type poses.) But the Webbs say this never happened. An adult friend touring the house insisted on seeing inside closets, spotted a photo and asked, "What if teenagers saw them?"
But the central conflict came down to spiritual authority. Cana Pastor Charles Stewart, under pressure from other parishioners, told Chris he had to rein in Joanne. "She needed to pull her hair back and wear longer skirts," Chris says. The pastor said the Webbs had a "spirit of sensuality" and needed to come under his authority or leave.
Authority is an explosive issue among Southern Baptists. The wife is under the authority of the husband, and the husband is under the authority of the pastor, who is under the authority of God. "It's one of those black lines between moderates and conservatives," Chris says, and denying their God-given sexuality to submit to the pastor's authority was not an option.
The Webbs seemed to have drawn their own black line; many other religious couples have great sex lives but choose to keep it to themselves.
Their old friend Castro saw in Chris a determination to be a martyr for the cause of sensuality. "I told Chris, 'How hard is it for Joanne to wear her skirts three inches longer?' I tell him you're not happy unless people are pissed off at you. He could never make the connection that it was his choice. It was like they were trying to convert everyone to their way of thinking. It was absolutely a losing battle."
The heartbroken Webbs left Cana.
At about the same time, Chris went into partnership with home remodeler Michael Hughes. A year later, C&M Construction set up office in a strip center next door to the Safari Hair and Tanning Salon run by Hughes' wife. But within a few weeks, the Hugheses' already troubled marriage had combusted.