It came to Expoland, just a few miles from my home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, a place that usually hosts county fairs, livestock auctions, Mennonite quilting shows, doughnut fries and barbecue fund-raisers in a building that is, essentially, a huge white-painted warehouse with exposed steel beams, a stage at one end and an invisible but incessantly droning heating system. Forty to 50 people were scattered among the 300 available seats when I sat down in the back.
The Rapture, to be totally clear at the outset, is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, a time at the end of history when true believers’ spirits will be “exalted to a knowledge of divine things.” This may sound like a good thing, Jesus being about love and hope and forgiveness in the four Gospels (which I happen to have read several times myself), but evidently, it is not.
In fact, I learned that I have been entirely wrong about this Jesus guy all these years. Jesus was no wishy-washy hippie, not the little limp-wristed tender boy you see in pictures. He was tough. He did not like lots of different kinds of people, especially homosexuals. The Second Coming, according to the seminar literature, will coincide with horrible tortures, pestilence and plagues visited upon “perverts, reprobates, pagans” and those who have not accepted the Christian Lord as their personal savior.
The speaker for the night was an evangelist named Tony “the Tiger” Mavrakos, a self-proclaimed bodybuilder and Seventh-Day Adventist reverend from Glendale, Md. The official title of the sermon was “Can Gays and Lesbians Go to Heaven?” and this, even in the pamphlet, was rhetorical, because obviously, according to Mavrakos and his skinny, mustachioed introducer Tom Sharply and the Northwest Evangelical Institute, they couldn’t.
Mavrakos came in late; things didn’t get started until almost 45 minutes after the announced time of 7:15 p.m. He was bespectacled and bearded, plump and bulky and sweating, wearing stiff-looking khakis and loafers. The devil had made Mavrakos’ teenage daughter get into a car accident back in Maryland, totaling one of his two cars and the back end of somebody else’s car. His daughter and the woman whose car she hit were OK, though, he said into the stage microphone, breathing hard from the hurry.
Many in the congregation audibly praised God for this. Mavrakos thanked them: “Amen, praise God.” But the car — man, the car was a goner, he said; that damn devil. “The Tiger” wiped his brow and hiked up his belt buckle in an x-treme way that actually separated his testicles on either side of the pant seam (a habit that at first was comical and later wince-inducing), and implied that he had a hard time making a living because he didn’t have his own church. No church is ready for Mavrakos. So his church is on the Internet, where he gives cyber-sermons and takes prayer requests via e-mail.
Mavrakos sticks to the letter of the Bible, and most churches nowadays in America, he says, are afraid of hurting people’s feelings, or upsetting some liberal, politically correct agenda. In fact, the “liberal agenda” has polluted churches, ruined them. Moral relativism is turning us away from biblical truths. “The church,” Mavrakos yelled, “was supposed to go out into the world. The world wasn’t supposed to come into the church!”
He then launched into a tirade about Jerry Falwell’s recent “caving in” to pressure from “perverts” when he allowed openly gay Christians into his church in Lynchburg, Va. (luckily, also near my home). Anyway, the point seemed to be that, because he refused the liberalism of contemporary mainstream Christianity (and yes, he seemed to be calling Falwell a liberal), a totaled car was a big deal — the devil at work, trying to stop Tony from preaching the Truth by giving him a good one right in the insurance premium — because Mavrakos wasn’t made of money like some of these hotshots on TV. He struggled for his God.
The devil had also made the beltway “extra crazy” tonight, “full of idiots,” and Mavrakos told us that sometimes he had to pull over to the side of the road and ask God to help him calm down when driving around Washington. It made sense that people were crazy, though, since these were the End Times and the devil was everywhere. “But that didn’t make that old devil any easier to take. Oh no.” Mavrakos looked like he wanted to kick over the huge podium — and he could have done it — but he wasn’t going to let the devil win. Not tonight. Because he had a vital message.
After another 10 minutes or so of seemingly riffing on whatever came into his mind while people in the audience began to fidget, Mavrakos got to the vital message. He asked if anyone had ever heard of Matthew Shepard. About half of us raised our hands. He smiled sarcastically, sighed. A few people near me in the back — three women in business suits and a couple in sweat pants, the man wearing a black, No. 3 NASCAR hat — shook their heads and sighed, clearly disgruntled by the thought of Matthew Shepard.
Mavrakos said that another man in Little Rock, Ark., was attacked by a band of homosexuals and murdered and sodomized the very same week that Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyo. “Why didn’t you hear about that?” he asked. He looked around, checking our faces, extending the pause. “Because the information you get in this country,” he yelled, “is skewed toward the left, toward an agenda that loves homos and sinners and sick, sick perverts and hates God-loving Christians! The media in this country is all owned by a few big corporations. Did you know that? That every bit of information you get from the mainstream media is controlled by only a few people. Do you think these people love God? Do you?!”
He had a point, I thought, about media ownership.
“Do you know what it is when a few corporations control everything?” Tony said. “I’ll tell you what it is: The big C.”
Ah, I thought: Corporate consolidation? Complete commodification? Capitalism?
The middle-aged women near me were nodding their heads and taking notes. In fact, everyone there seemed to be in total agreement with this seriously wrong definition.
I taught English at the University of Virginia in 1997-98, and the teacher in me wanted to stand up and clarify our terms, explain that communism, as defined by Karl Marx in the 19th century and even by your basic “Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary,” was actually an ideology positing that the goods in a society should be “owned by all and equally distributed,” essentially the opposite of the wealth and power consolidation Mavrakos was speaking of, which Marx himself warned about. He seemed to be using the word “communism” for no better reason than that it connoted all kinds of bad stuff to conservative Americans. He spit the word with the same harsh tone that he used for “homosexual,” “liberal” and “Falwell.”
But then he got away from the liberal coverage of the Matthew Shepard case and back to Matthew Shepard, the “pervert.”
“What those two boys [Russell A. Henderson and Aaron J. McKinney] did was awful,” he said, lowering his voice. “They deserve everything they get. No question about that.” Silence from the small crowd. He then went on to explain that God indeed works in mysterious ways. “Matthew Shepard was a practicing … an open … an admitted homosexual. Does that lifestyle go without consequence? Can you openly defy God and escape all punishment?”
A lot of head-shaking, more sighs.
“He sees all things,” said Mavrakos. “His knowledge is infinite, and it is arrogant of us to assume his forgiving nature. The God in this book,” he said, standing in the middle of the stage, tapping the cover of his Bible, was capable of great anger over sin. More nodding from the crowd. An elderly woman who sang a long, a cappella version of “Jesus Is Love” while we waited for Mavrakos to arrive shouted, “Amen!”
He went from Matthew Shepard’s taunting God on to the predictable — and I thought all but extinct — argument that AIDS was a scourge upon sinners, a righting of a human wrong through divine destruction and suffering, somehow ignoring the fact that a large number of AIDS sufferers were heterosexual, living in the Third world, hemophiliacs, recovering drug addicts, people who contracted the disease from transfusions during surgeries, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, infants, Christians, even Seventh-Day Adventists, I imagine.
“I don’t hate gays,” Mavrakos said in regard to this. “I pray for them, and I pray every night for the sick. I’ve even had a few homosexuals in my house. I’m trying to save them, that’s what I’m here to do tonight. Maybe some of you out there are struggling with this issue, with your animalistic impulses. But I can’t defy God. I can’t save anyone, including myself, from the judgment of God. You must repent.” He tapped the Bible again. Sweat was beginning to ring the armpits of his jacket. “You reap what you sow.” He shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, It’s not me; it’s God. Sorry, AIDS sufferers; sorry, Matthew Shepard.
Even the military had decided to be “tolerant” toward the “perverts and reprobates.” “The Bible doesn’t teach tolerance,” Mavrakos said. “Please point out to me where it says anything about tolerance, where it says, Do what you want, live how you want. Point it out to me!”
Laughs from the ladies in front of me.
“Now Bill and Hillary Clinton have this … what is it? Don’t say, don’t know? Don’t ask, don’t speak? Anyway, they have a policy about ignoring gays in the service, saying it’s a private matter. It makes me sick,” he said, his spittle heading for the empty first row.
The Tiger ended the evening with a close look at what scripture says about homosexuality, which was so confusing I’m still trying to make sense of it. He showed passages on an approximately 10-by-10-foot screen using an overhead projector that he controlled with a remote. At the top of each sheet was written “X-treme Spiritual Awareness.”
His method was to pull up biblical passages, most of which, in Romans and Corinthians, were written by the apostle Paul, the punitive voice of the New Testament. However, of the eight or so passages he brought to our attention, only one passage in Romans actually mentioned men being with men, and that one somewhat cryptically. All the others simply mentioned sin or lust or debauchery, but in no way were they explicitly about homosexuality, and frankly I was confused as to how exactly he was arriving at this conclusion. But maybe it was me, because the rest of the place, again, was doing that grand, unified head-nodding thing. They were in a darn good mood.
We ended with a booming song of hope and praise, love and forgiveness, a triumphal dedication to the everlasting compassion of Jesus, our Savior. Mavrakos stood at the podium, bloated and red, beaming in delight at his hard-won knowledge of God’s mind. I looked at the singers standing around the room: men and women, young and old, about 80 percent white and 20 percent black. There was the group of professional-looking women near me, a well-dressed elderly couple in front of them. The NASCAR guy and his wife were hugging each other and swaying.
Behind me, leaning against the concrete wall, were two little girls, maybe 7 or 8, in bell-bottoms and thick-soled skater shoes with fake tattoos of crosses on their forearms. They were smiling at one another, each one missing a couple of baby teeth, singing about the Truth and the Light at the top of their lungs.