By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
A tent city rises from the parched, fire ant-infested ground several rows back from the stage. A woman sleeps in one tent with a thick tome over her face; not a Bible, but the collected works of P.G. Wodehouse. In another tent a woman methodically fills a wading pool with water bottled in gallon jugs and hauled in via a toy wagon as her toddler splashes. Selah is on stage. Their bass player and his neon-orange Mohawk bob to the beat.
"We're fellow believers," says Brook Grisham, who is pulling a wagon stocked with handheld mister fans and stuffed toys, hoping to sell the stuff to tent-dwellers. His hair is dyed lime green. Celebration Freedom is thick with commerce. Around the stage are rows of vendor booths plying everything from Christian business directories to jewelry to Christian hockey to T-shirts with slogans like "Darwin Lied" and "My Ancestor Was Not a Monkey." The No. 18 Interstate Batteries stock car, driven by Bobby Labonte in the NASCAR Nextel Cup series, rattles and chokes not far from a CareNow medical center booth offering free patriotic tattoos.
Motorcycles are being raffled off, too, one of them an exotic chopper in the Bluegreen Resorts booth. "This one is 12 feet long," says Paul Van Hook, pointing to a color poster behind the chopper on display. "You need a Wal-Mart parking lot to turn the thing around in." The choppers are part of a "What would you do with $50,000?" promotion, he says. "We give you the cash, and you can get this bike, that bike, a Hummer, whatever. You can buy Twinkies with it if you want."
Near the entrance to the Celebrate Freedom spread is a plywood skateboard course with ramps, curved walls and steel bars. Kids skate around the course while hip-hop music throbs from a flock of black speakers stationed around its perimeter. A sinister red and black poster shills for the King of Kings Skateboard Ministry. The music stops abruptly, and those speakers pulse with the ascending and descending cadence of spiritual oratory. "Before long, I began to be sponsored," the speaker booms. "Ultimately, I was sponsored by some of the biggest skateboard companies in the world."
It's the voice of Jay "Alabamy" Haizlip, who was among the world's top professional skateboarders in the 1980s. He's standing on a raised wooden platform in the middle of the course, waving a skateboard. The tattoos on his arms seem a part of his tie-dyed shirt depicting a cross. His dark hair is flecked with gray. He tells of how he started doing drugs at age 11. He tells of how at 15 his neighbor chopped him a fat line of cocaine on her glass coffee table and rolled a hundred dollar bill for him, urging him to take a snort. "I said, 'Wow, this is the greatest stuff I've ever done,'" he says. "All I did every day was wake up, go surfing, come home, get high, eat, go skateboarding, party all night in Hollywood. That was my life." Then he got strung out and went to prison. After getting out of the slammer, he discovered Jesus through a chance street encounter while on his way to score some cocaine. After he finishes his story, Alabamy, a minister in Southern California, asks the kids to bow their heads, raise their hands and come forward to display their faith. Kids seep from the crowd and flow into the center of the course, huddling around the platform. He raises his skateboard above their heads, as if conferring a blessing. "This is the gnarliest thing you're ever going to do," he says. They bow. They pray. --Mark Stuertz