The Unbelievers

For Bill Jones, it was the "biggest weakness" question that first had him wondering about job candidate James Simmons.

Simmons was interviewing to become the new senior pastor at the White Rock Community Church, and someone popped him the old job-interview standby. He answered, "I guess it's that I'm a workaholic," recalls Jones, a former deacon in the mostly gay and lesbian congregation. "My partner and I rolled our eyes and said to ourselves, 'Oh puh-leeze.' We do a lot of interviews in our regular jobs. When you hear that answer, red flags should be going up. This person is telling you they're a liar."

From the start, there was a lot to question. At a series of private meetings before Simmons was called to the pulpit in a congregational vote, he told church members a remarkable tale. Sixteen years ago, he had suffered a beating that left him with total amnesia, an event that cut him off from much of his past.

The story sounded fishy, Jones recalls, but several church leaders in charge of the vetting process assured him there was proof that the story checked out.

Well, not exactly.

The congregation and a fascinated public soon learned that the 49-year-old Simmons is actually Wesley Barrett "Barre" Cox, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances from a West Texas farm road in the summer of 1984. He had left behind a wife, a 6-month-old baby, and his position as a youth and family minister at an evangelical San Antonio church.

That Cox would re-emerge as Simmons is remarkable, but not nearly as startling as the fact that a personable, outwardly straight evangelical minister would vanish and reappear years later as a personable, openly gay evangelical minister.

It is astonishing now because Simmons is sticking to his amnesia story without being able to produce any evidence to back up its basic facts, and a considerable number of the 350 active members at White Rock appear to believe it. Many call it a "miracle" that Simmons has finally found his past.

With Simmons moving into the pulpit to deliver sermons the last two Sundays, the church is presenting a united front behind him, taking the unusual step of hiring a publicist to spin his story to a skeptical press. But behind that facade, a core of active members--at least 20, and as many as 40--say they have witnessed not a divine manifestation, but a poorly told, shifting tale they find impossible to believe.

The proof, they say, is ringing in their ears, in the story they heard Simmons tell in private meetings with the congregation in December and in the story he tells in public today. They shared their doubts about Simmons with the Dallas Observer, which is telling their stories for the first time.

Many first heard James Simmons' tale at a casual December 9 brunch attended by about 40 of White Rock's most active members, a meet-and-greet designed to introduce Simmons as the leading candidate to head the church. Over coffee and English muffins, Simmons outlined his fascinating past.

The congregation had been looking for almost a year and a half to fill its pulpit with an evangelical Christian in the theologically conservative Southern Baptist or Church of Christ mold. There was another requirement, too. The new head minister needed to be gay, or at least ready to lead a flock made up mainly of gays and lesbians who practice the born-again faith in which they were raised. In a world where those two paths seldom cross, the sharply dressed, subtly charismatic minister from Mill Valley, California, filled the bill.

At the brunch, hosted by architect Jeffrey Brown at his McKinney Avenue condo, Simmons told a story he had been telling for years. He recalled how he had been found in Memphis in the summer of 1984, the victim of a severe beating that left him without a trace of memory. Several children playing in a wrecking yard had found him, bloody and comatose, in the trunk of an abandoned car.

"He told us he had to be trained to walk, talk, and eat again," says Brian Orrell, a computer consultant who runs the church's Web site. After listening to Simmons, Orrell and others came away with the impression that he had worked with police, the FBI, and newspaper reporters in Tennessee and beyond to find his missing past. "He said he was angry and frustrated that his family hadn't been searching for him," recalls Jones, a business analyst who was born again at the church in 1995. "He sounded like it was their fault."

Simmons told his tale the next day at a general meeting of the church congregation, and he layered on another detail about the Memphis hospital where he supposedly awoke.