Longform

The Unbelievers

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"It was kind of a lighthearted moment," recalls Bruce Ryrie, an investor and son of a noted Christian theologian. "Someone asked him if he was gay, and he said, 'Yes, I remember waking up the second day in the hospital, and I kind of had a crush on the male nurse.'

"We all laughed," Ryrie says. "I assumed it was a real memory."

The same day that Simmons was charming the White Rock faithful, who that day voted overwhelmingly to call him to lead the church, a 31-year-old truck driver from Canyon, Texas, emerged from Simmons' past.

Blaine Hufnagle, a chunky young man with a ponytail who was visiting the church, listened to Simmons at the congregational meeting and became certain he knew who was speaking. It was Wesley Barrett "Barre" Cox, a youth and family minister from the MacArthur Park Church of Christ in San Antonio. "I was blown away," said Hufnagle, who remembered Cox as the director of a Bible camp he attended in northern New Mexico. "I thought I had seen a ghost."

Hufnagle contacted Jeffrey Brown, the past chairman of the deacon board who was unofficially leading the search for a new pastor. Behind the scenes, Simmons was reintroduced to his family, who recognized him immediately, although he says he does not recognize them.

A full month went by before the Cox-Simmons story was released to the press, and it did not come out as the account of a long-lost man being happily reunited with wife and child. Beth Cox, who had her marriage annulled nine years ago, asked Abilene Christian University, where the couple had met, to announce on January 8 that he had finally reappeared.

In newspapers across Texas, and in the national media beyond, Simmons was big news, although the validity of his amnesia story was handled with delicate skepticism. "Very strange," NBC Today show host Katie Couric cooed after an airing of the story last week. Co-host Matt Lauer chimed in, "Lots of unanswered questions...and strange circumstances." Even Al Roker, the amiable weatherman, contributed a skeptical "Mmm-hmm."

Simmons soldiered on with a somewhat revised version of his story at a private meeting attended by about 120 congregants at White Rock on January 19 and then at a news conference the next day.

"I know that you want the details, I know that you want documentation," said Simmons at the news conference, with TV lights picking up the brown highlights he's put in his graying hair. "I know that many of you do not believe and that there are skeptics out there. And that's what you'll have to deal with."

The next day, church leaders told the congregation that an overwhelming majority of the deacon board continued to support Simmons as the congregation's new leader. Many said, as they filed out of the church, that nothing short of a miracle had transpired at the plain-Jane, Georgian-style brick sanctuary on Garland Road.

"I've seen all kinds of miracles in life," said Robert Pickett, a hairdresser, after hearing Simmons' sermon that morning on Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. "He was searching for his family for all those years."

"We live our lives by faith," said Jeffrey Brown, who Simmons had appointed as "ambassador" to break the ice with his 80-year-old mother, his sister, brother, ex-wife, and 17-year-old daughter. "We believe that it was God's will that James was called to our church to be our senior pastor. As far as the credibility of his story, we have faith that God led him here and that we basically have witnessed a miracle."

Some of the disbelievers stepped forward in on-the-record interviews over the past week. Others, who would speak only on background, say they are holding their voices, biding time, and praying that a church they care for deeply has not made a horrible mistake.

If you don't believe Simmons' story, they agree, you are left with some pretty disturbing thoughts about the new pastor. The doubters use words such as "pathological liar," "false teacher," and "a very sad and troubled man."

"I don't want a spiritual leader who can't even tell the simple story of his life," says Brad Ford, who leads the church's men's ministry. "The story has so many holes in it, it makes me ask, 'Is he lying? Is he mentally unstable?' This is not the person you want leading you in a job, in a church, in anything. What kind of man would desert his only child?"

Says Jones, "Just think of everyone, his family and friends, who didn't know for years if he was kidnapped or maybe murdered. If you find his story's a lie, then he's a fraud who has left a wake of destruction in his life."

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec