The Unbelievers

Page 5 of 6

Middleton says Simmons' outward change from straight to gay seems to provide the last piece of the puzzle, the motive for why he would purposely disappear.

"His story is so full of holes...When you take this alternative lifestyle together with all we know, maybe this is what he wants," says Middleton. "That's strictly theory...I don't know a lot about that. I'm just a country boy."

Arlene Robbins, a 54-year-old technical writer and member of the five-member search committee that brought Simmons to White Rock, says finding a minister for her church was no easy task.

"It's very difficult to find an evangelical Christian who is qualified and who is willing to pastor our church," she says. When Simmons found the church's want ad on an Internet site last fall and applied, he seemed heaven-sent.

Officials at the Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, just north of San Francisco, had only good things to say about Simmons, who told them he didn't know his past when he applied for admission in 1991. He also didn't tell them he was gay, believing the school would reject him if it knew. Coming out of the closet only in December, he now describes himself as celibate and gay.

At the seminary, Simmons earned master's degrees in divinity and theology and was elected student body president. He had been hired by the school in 1994 as its housing director and was a seminary instructor at the time he applied at the church in Dallas.

His résumé lists volunteer work as a hospital chaplain and AIDS counselor, in addition to work in prison, senior citizen, youth, and singles ministries going back to his appearance in Charlottesville in 1984. He managed 190 people in catalog and credit departments for J.C. Penney in Charlottesville and Richmond, according to his résumé. It says he won a sales award at the retailer in 1989.

Robbins says she did not ask Simmons for proof of the amnesia story, which fell to other members of the selection committee. It appears that nobody at the church demanded strict proof of a story that had receded into the past.

If anything, Robbins says, Simmons won over the selection committee and others at the church with his personality.

Struggling to define its qualities, she finds an analogy in her avocation as a pet rescuer. "Did you ever have a dog? Well, if he were a dog, he'd be a golden retriever. Very outgoing. Very loving and sweet and caring. Everyone is his friend."

The dissidents at the church agree. Simmons' low-key charisma, combined with a highly emotional style, has won him considerable support at White Rock. "He can convince you the color red is blue and vice versa. He has the power to do that," says Blackwell.

At Simmons' private meeting with the congregation, many parishioners passed up their chance to paste him with questions. Instead, they poured out stories of trouble and challenges in their own lives.

"It was amazing to me," Orrell says. "I've never seen people so quickly wooed. People were just ready to commit their lives. It was a little scary."

"He has a very magnetic personality," says one parishioner who was close to the selection process. "The only way to describe it is, in his presence you are in love with him. You are in awe of him, and a lot of people are. I've seen it in myself. I've had to guard myself, because in my heart of hearts, I don't believe him."

Jones, the former deacon, says Simmons likes to weave the good works and kind hearts of others into his life story, which helps blur its improbable facts. "He's very clever, very skilled at taking people through this emotional roller coaster," Jones says. "He will throw out a bunch of facts [about his life], and when he gets to a point where you might start doubting him, he throws in this heart-wrenching, tear-jerking part that has no relevance whatsoever."

That sounded a lot like the approach Simmons used at his news conference, where he peppered his story with thanks and praise for those who helped him during his amnesiac odyssey, including his "four mothers" and "two fathers."

"I want to thank the two who found me [in the junkyard]; I've never met them, but I want to thank them now," Simmons said after opening the session with a Bible verse about a man blind from birth who is put on the earth so God could be revealed through him.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec