an arlington church turned mosh pit ministers to god's lost children
Eleven-year-old Chris Ballew is trying to talk about Jesus. Blood and laughter keep getting in the way.
Chris is giggling in the men's restroom at God's Place International alongside his 11-year-old cousin and fellow Dallasite David Riddle because he's bleeding. Big bubbles of dark red blow out of one nostril, then another, as Ballew attempts to stanch--with a crumpled wad of toilet paper--the flow from an injury he received in the GPI mosh pit.
"I was out there moshing with everybody, and this dude turned around and went wham with his elbow," Chris says, staring at himself in the rectangular mirror above the sink.
"But it was an accident--it was accidental," Chris adds hastily, as he and David giggle at Chris' bleeding image. "I'm OK, man, I'm OK."
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"It looks like you got a moustache, man!" David shrieks with a pronounced Texas twang, and Chris turns to show a perfect square of blood on his upper lip that's somewhere between The Little Tramp and Adolf Hitler.
This is only the second time Chris has been to God's Place International, the East Arlington church that offers three different venues for the national, regional, and local Christian alternative music circuit. The main sanctuary has been transformed into a venue called The Main Room. A Christian death-metal band called Embodyment is currently performing--drums pounding and lead singer doubled over on stage, muttering indecipherable lyrics into the mike with a guttural, Mercedes McCambridge-type voice. Chris, who says he attends rock concerts at churches all the time, has come here with his 30-year-old uncle, a big Embodyment fan. The kid got caught in the crossfire of the twisting, jerking arms and legs of about 150 moshers thrashing away at the edge of the stage.
"I listen to all kinds of music--some Christian, some not," Chris says. "But this is a good place to hang out. They talk about Jesus a lot." He pauses to spit into the sink, the first of three dark geysers during a 10-minute talk.
At some point, he becomes aware that the blood is starting to form a disconcertingly large puddle at the bottom of the sink. He glances at me with new gravity and repeats himself, this time in the sympathetic tones of a defense attorney delivering his case: "They talk about Jesus a lot here."
You'll encounter many 11-, 13-, and 15-year-olds on a typical weekend night at GPI, some of them with older chaperones, but most without. Open for live shows most Friday and Saturday nights (August 1997 has been Saturdays only), GPI has attracted audiences as small as 25 and as large as 1,300.
These adolescents are expert loiterers, dawdling in small groups in the parking lot outside GPI as the summer sunlight fades on a Saturday evening. There are shaved heads and shoulder-length hair of various primary colors and some innovative combinations of the two; there are the ever-present club-kid backpacks that hang limp behind shoulders, containing nothing or not very much; you constantly see faded, tattered blue jeans a few sizes too large and belted at mid-hip. Among the older kids here, the 17- and 18-year-olds, there are pierced appendages and tattoos.
God's Place International is a music ministry aimed specifically at what its 43-year-old founder, Pastor Rich Speakman, calls "the unchurched young," and what his assistant, 25-year-old C. Monkey, calls "street runners"--working-class or poverty-level, mostly Anglo preteens and teens who spend a lot of time away from their (oft-times broken) homes. Using the media of various so-called "alternative" popular styles from hardcore to ska to hip-hop, the nondenominational, nonprofit GPI wants to persuade these kids to form a personal relationship with Jesus.
GPI's preaching is both laid-back and aggressive, delivered in a slangy adolescent vernacular that presents hell as a real threat to young people who haven't even figured out they're gonna die someday. Speakman claims that his unconventional methods have received little criticism from other Protestant churches in North Texas because, constantly short on money and working with kids that most people would like to forget anyway, his unglamorous operation flies below the radar of big, slick local ministries.
And yet, GPI's message is unabashedly provocative: Religion is of man, not the Lord. Most of the trappings, the rituals, the services, the attitudes of American churches, GPI staffers suggest, have less to do with delivering the word of God than perpetuating church bureaucracy.
In the words of C. Monkey, who books bands for GPI: "Religion leaves a bad taste in our mouths."
To understand the motives of God's Place International, you need look no further than the trio of men who operate it. Attitude- and responsibility-wise, they fall rather neatly into a holy, if slightly grungy, trinity: There's The Father, Pastor Speakman, who peers benevolently at his congregation through thick, owl-like specs; The Son, booking agent and assistant operations manager C. Monkey, slightly cocky with a shaven head and ready to correct your characterizations and descriptions of various musical styles; and The Holy Spirit, mountainous Big Dave "Bubba" Cates, the operations manager (read "head of security") who discusses what he believes is the imminent Armageddon, not to mention the hellbound fate of the kids who won't accept Jesus as their personal savior, with a good deal more bluntness than the other two.
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.
"I was into Black Flag and the Butthole Surfers and Jane's Addiction when I was a teenager," he says. "I'd take roadtrips from Abilene into Dallas and Austin and hit all the clubs. I've since become a jazzer. I took jazz flute for six years, stopped playing, but now I've started up again."
C. Monkey looks a bit like Michael Stipe with his shaved head, angelic eyes, and lean, narrow-waisted frame. He clearly loves music, correcting me when I confuse rap with hip-hop and inaccurately compare one Christian band's style with Marilyn Manson's. Based on a previous interview with someone else, I'd said that a band called Spy Glass Blue was a Christian version of Marilyn Manson, but their real model, C. Monkey insists, "is David Bowie. They play what we call 'fag rock,' which is a joke, you know, on what people expect out of the whole androgynous thing." He's open-minded enough to admit, "I like Marilyn Manson stylistically. I just think the bro needs to be saved."
He grew up in Abilene and relocated to Dallas three years ago "flipping tacos" with the Taco Bueno corporation. He calls Abilene "an economic chug-hole: You make enough money to survive, but not to escape." His enthusiasm for serving the kids who attend God's Place International originates from his own secular club days--and also from his disgust with underage Abilene kids' hanging-out options.
"I saw the youth that wasn't being ministered to. They flocked around a gay club in Abilene called 'Just Friends.' You should see what was going on there."
He charges ahead, without detailing precisely "what was going on there." "The deal was, there was no place else to go; churches weren't spending the time to find out what appealed to these kids."
C. Monkey won't apologize for the ragged, occasionally dirty-mouthed hipness of GPI. "You have to change your message with the culture. A lot of kids think going to nightclubs, to live music places, is cool, so we need Christian nightclubs. But in order for it to look legit, you gotta do your homework."
Fine, but what if a young patron--say, a Jewish kid--asks for direction, but says can you hold the God stuff, please?
"We say we're not the ringleader here--God is. I know I'm not smart enough to have an answer to problems like drug addiction or teen pregnancy. But I know someone who does, and I'm happy to introduce them to him."
Big Dave Cates, who describes himself as "over 30 but under 50," is a couple of inches taller than 6 feet 3 and as big around as a major Sears appliance (washer, dryer, etc.). He breathes heavily throughout a sit-down interview in his office, where he fields calls from local bands who want to submit tapes to GPI, the first step toward an audition to play there.
With his shoulder-length, graying brown hair and rectangular specs, Big Dave looks like a biker sage. But he bristles at being identified as a "biker," which he claims applies to a lawless subculture of motorcycle riders that includes the self-proclaimed "one-percenters," or those who've spent time in prison.
"I came here a year and a half ago from a biker church in Hurst called Freedom Christian Fellowship," Cates says wheezily. "A friend of mine was volunteering here and asked me to help, so I did."
When you park your car in the lots behind the main sanctuary at GPI, you can see that most of the individuals who patrol here are friends of Big Dave's--men and women with long hair, bandannas rolled up and worn across the foreheads, reflective sunglasses, leather vests, chains hanging off their belt loops. They are a constant, stern-faced presence outside, and Pastor Rich sings their praises this way: "Occasionally, we have gang members show up here, because of the neighborhood. Gang bangers don't care about police, but they're sure afraid of bikers."
Big Dave himself patrols the concert rooms, looking for signs of trouble. And just how much trouble brews at God's Place International on a typical Saturday night?
Arlington police Sergeant James Hawthorne, who was recently a patrol supervisor in East Arlington, says that phone calls to the police from or concerning GPI have been rare. "Over a 10-month period, I'd say we got maybe two calls," he says. "And as well as I remember, one of them was from parents who thought their runaway might be at the entertainment they provide. God's Place International isn't a trouble spot for us."
Says Big Dave: "We have a strict policy--no drugs or alcohol allowed on the premises. But sometimes kids show up drunk or stoned. If they get rowdy, I drag 'em in here and make them call their parents, or sometimes we deal with it before the parents find out. I don't kick people off the property unless I have to, because I don't like to send a young person out into the night messed up. I also won't say we've never had guns here, but if I see it, it's mine."
Big Dave insists that most of the problems are standard hormonal soap-opera fare--boyfriend-girlfriend spats or rivalries between the new sweethearts of exes.
Tragically, last May, a teenage couple whose male half attended GPI "every weekend for about six months," according to C. Monkey, became a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. Before 14-year-old Gary Dean shot himself and his girlfriend, 15-year-old Angela James, in his own bedroom at his parents' house, the pair left a tape-recorded message explicitly comparing themselves to Shakespeare's doomed pubescent paramours. Reports indicate that when the bodies were discovered, two songs by the Doors--"Riders on the Storm" and "The End"--were programmed to repeat in Gary's CD player.
Not only did Big Dave, Pastor Rich, and C. Monkey attend Dean's funeral at Arlington's Fielder Road Baptist Church, they held a memorial service on a Tuesday night, which about 80 kids attended. In typical GPI fashion, they let the kids say pretty much whatever they wanted, providing a mike and a podium. One kid reportedly went into a tearful, profanity-laden rant against his dead friend Dean.
"I don't count successes or failures," Big Dave says. "I think the fact that we're here ministering to the kids like this is a success. But there are some kids we just can't reach. We lost Gary.
"There's an urgency to this place," he adds, "because, in my opinion at least, the end of the world is near. Now, I'm not predicting a date or anything crazy like that. But the Bible says you won't know the day, you'll know the season. I read the Book of Revelation, and most of the prophecies have been fulfilled. I don't want to see a single one of these kids go to hell."
When Big Dave says "we lost Gary," he is clearly referring to something more than the teenager's suicide. In his mind, Dean's torment didn't end with death.
Hell, or at least a fiery end of the world, may also have been on Dean's mind when he shot himself and his girlfriend. His recorded message indicated that he didn't want to "live to see the new millennium." If GPI passes along warning of an imminent Judgment Day to the young patrons, might this have added to the confusion and despair of an already troubled young man?
Pastor Rich denies that God's Place International attempts to inculcate young people with a fear of damnation. "These kids have enough negative stuff in their lives already without us preaching hellfire and brimstone at them," he says.
Upon hearing of Dean's pre-millennium tension, Pastor Rich says, "I think Gary was misinformed. The millennium is something Christians look forward to--the millennial reign of Christ. There's a seven-year judgment period beforehand in which Jesus reforms the earth."
But can you really expect a 14-year-old to keep his eschatological terminology straight? Speakman dismisses the implication by pointing to Dean's own conversion. "At the funeral, Gary's father said that [Gary] had become a Christian," Pastor Rich says. "I don't worry that Gary's in hell. They said that he and Angela were playing two songs by the Doors. Well, Jim Morrison killed himself. It's that spirit of suicide running through his music and Kurt Cobain's that worries me."
In The Attic, where the ceiling is covered in black plastic, a beefy guy in a yellow security shirt is trying to get the kids riled up before Not For the Crowd, a ska band from Southern California, takes the stage. All of a sudden, he lets out a piercing, "are you ready to rock?" style hoot and leaps at the shiny black ceiling, one hand over his head.
The kids at this show are a considerably more mannered bunch than the reckless moshers who thrashed around at the Embodyment show. They have their own style of movement to the tight, danceable reggae beat of ska. It's called "skanking," and the gyrations are friendlier, less frenetic, more self-consciously goofy.
As a bearded guy sits at the soundboard munching on a Dairy Queen burger, Not For the Crowd position themselves before the microphone. This dapper bunch, wearing thin black ties and white shirts and jackets with padded shoulders, drove 24 hours straight to play here. They kick into their first tune, and with a horn section--two trumpets and a sax--providing fat, full color, the audience begins to loosen up and move to the bouncy music. They slow down only long enough to join the bandleader, a guy with a high-pitched voice and mutton-chop sideburns who looks barely old enough to drive, in a sing-along: "Oh great day, oh great king, how I love to worship you, I sing."
Outside, kids dawdle in packs in the parking lot or sit alongside the edge of the sidewalk with their sneakers in the gravel, confirming that GPI is as popular for its late-night hangout-ability as for its eclectic music. Here's what 13-year-old Travis Denham, a puny, jar-headed chatterer in a diaphanous Chicago Bulls T-shirt, would be doing on weekend nights if it weren't for God's Place:
"I'd be out busting stuff up. Throwing bowling balls through people's windows, pulling out mailboxes, that kind of thing. We tied somebody's mailbox to the back of a truck and pulled it out of the ground. But I got caught. The girl across the street has a camcorder, and she just has to tape everything."
Christian Shannon, a strikingly handsome security volunteer in a backward baseball cap, white undershirt, and black slacks, displays the tattoos he had before he became a Christian, and the ones he got afterward. This 22-year-old former Sex Pistols and Ramones fan (he's got a tattoo dedicated to the Ramones on his leg, but he won't lift up his trouser leg because "it's cheeseball") traces a finger across his forearm to emphasize one of his latest, a colorful sacred heart with flames shooting out one end and a devil's pointed tail curving out of the other.
"That symbolizes the deceit of religion," Shannon says. He won't elaborate much on the anti-Catholic overtones of his skin art, but referring to Catholicism specifically and the ecumenical body in general, he says, "There are all these rules and rituals. There's too many. Worshiping isn't about following a rule book; it's a heart thing. There are only two rules to being a Christian: 'Love your neighbors as yourself' and 'love your God.'" Similar comments from two kids waiting to see Embodyment were "I was Catholic before I became a Christian," and "I used to be Catholic, then Jesus came into my heart."
There's no Catholic-bashing from center-stage, however. C. Monkey, Pastor Rich, and Josh Yates, the 23-year-old leader of a Sunday-afternoon service called "Young Visions," give little impromptu sermons--exhortations, really--and lead prayers between sets. Yates is a bassist for a rockabilly band called The Calicos who's currently studying at junior college with an eye toward becoming a public school teacher. When The Calicos opened for Not For the Crowd, he played his instrument in stocking feet, white undershirt, and what appeared to be oversized flannel boxers.
"Life's about more than getting drunk and getting laid," he tells about 150 kids, and surprisingly, most of them have stopped talking to listen to him. Then he senses a presence in the room. His eyes closed, his slicked-back, sort-of pompadour gleaming under the spotlights, he delivers a warning to Satan himself: "I should've kicked your ass out of here a long time ago, punk. We're not wussy Christians."
The one Christian phenomenon that all four operators of GPI single out for criticism--and a few smirks, rolled eyes, and snorts of disgust--is the church youth group. It's a symbol, in their eyes, of how much American Christianity has failed today's youth by talking at them, not with them. The Word, they say, isn't being expressed in the vernacular of youth culture.
As an example of "the youth groupy thing we're trying to combat," Pastor Rich cites Jimmy Swan's decision to hire a retired NFL player, William Ewing of the Pittsburgh Steelers, to co-host last June's Tooth & Nail Christian music festival. Speakman, who attended the show and was--along with the kids--seriously underwhelmed by Ewing, says Swan, the area's premier alternative Christian music promoter (see sidebar, "A little child shall lead them"), "shouldn't have bothered."
"Most kids in that audience didn't care about the NFL; they'd sooner listen to a guitarist with purple hair," Speakman says. "You find out this stuff if you ask. But they don't ask, they just preach. Youth group leaders don't understand that hellfire and brimstone produces rebellion. Most youth pastors are paid for what they do, so once again, they have to get approval for what they say from above."
Speakman claims to identify with the kids he serves, because during the '60s, "before I became a Christian, all my concert experiences were about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll...at least, what I can remember of them." He conducts a tour of the newest GPI venue called The Dungeon, where, starting in September, they plan to hold raves and concerts with Christian industrial acts, but we have to walk through a room with no working lights to get there. Pastor Rich, flashlight in hand, stops in the darkness to spotlight a framed pencil drawing of him done by his wife in the late '60s; Speakman's hair and beard are as long and full as Jerry Garcia's in his last days. Instead of pupils, his wife has drawn stars in his eyes.
Next to the illustration is a full-length mirror propped against the wall and, above it, a spray-painted message with an arrow pointing down to the mirror. On the edge of Speakman's dim, shifting flashlight beam, the painted words look slightly sinister, like Manson family graffiti. I ask him what the message says.
He aims the flashlight squarely at the words: FAIREST CHILD OF GOD. It takes a second to process what that, the arrow, and the mirror all mean. But Speakman, one step ahead, shines his flashlight directly into the mirror, blinding us both.
"'Fairest Child of God,'" he reads. "That's you.
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