Monday, March 18, 2013

Boots, biscuits and Prestonwood Baptist

In Texas, we’ve got a saying: “You can put your boots in the oven, but that don’t make ‘em biscuits.”

That’s what I keep wanting to tell officials at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, as I watch them trying to alter the reality of the clergy sex abuse cover-up scandal that’s engulfing them.

When Chris Tynes’ questions were deleted from Prestonwood’s Facebook page, he scheduled an appointment with one of the church’s ministers. As reported by WFAA News in Dallas, Tynes had “discovered that a former music minister admitted to sexual misconduct with young boys while at Prestonwood Baptist Church more than twenty years ago.”

“Sexual misconduct?” You can see from the get-go the sort of minimizing slant that reporter is going to take. We’re talking about a minister who committed sex crimes against children. Some of his crimes are detailed in this court document; they include the molestation, digital penetration, and oral rape of young boys.

Prestonwood officials kept the secret of its minister’s soul-searing conduct for more than twenty years while the minister, John Langworthy, went right on working with kids at another Southern Baptist church. Last January, Langworthy was finally convicted on child sex crimes in Mississippi.

If Prestonwood officials had taken responsible action when they first heard reports about Langworthy’s conduct twenty years ago, a whole lot of kids could have been a whole lot safer.

So, having read multiple news reports about all this – news reports which implicate Prestonwood officials in a long-time cover-up – Tynes was troubled. It looked a lot like the Penn State cover-up. As a member of Prestonwood, he decided to try to get some answers from church officials.

But Tynes’ appointment to talk about it was cancelled, and the minister’s secretary wouldn’t reschedule. Tynes was being stonewalled.

So, on a weekday, he hung out in the mostly-empty church parking lot, sitting on his car. He was hoping to catch the minister when he came back from lunch.

Church security approached, and Tynes was super-polite. (You can see a video and transcript of the encounter here.) They asked Tynes to leave, and he did. Nevertheless, church officials called the cops, and they characterized Tynes as “possibly violent.”

Crazy, eh? That’s how it is in Baptistland.

Prestonwood officials are trying to turn this scandal into a fluffy biscuit hubbub about an odd-ball church-member so as to deflect attention from what it really is – a big stinky old boot scandal about their own twenty-year history of keeping quiet about a minister who molested kids.

Now they’ve dug in their spurs even more and accused Tynes of making “terroristic” threats. Why? Because while he was waiting in that mostly empty parking lot, he twittered to his friends a photo of the minister’s empty spot with the words “my target,” and then in another tweet, he wrote that he had found “my perfect ambush spot.”

Oh my.

You can read Tynes’ explanation here. He took down the postings right away after a friend suggested they might be misinterpreted. And here are my own thoughts on it.

First, Tynes is an ordinary guy. He’s not a trained and paid public spokesperson, like the lawyers and PR people that Prestonwood hires with its endless supply of offering plate dollars from its 32,000 members. And at least Tynes was prompt in offering an explanation. That’s a lot more than I can say for Prestonwood’s senior pastor Jack Graham, whose long silence only raised more questions.

Second, let’s put Tynes’ comments in Southern Baptist context. This is a faith group that has a long history of using militaristic metaphors in its often over-zealous evangelical efforts.

In fact, not too long ago, at one of Southern Baptists’ premier seminaries, the school president, Paige Patterson, “stormed onto the chapel stage” dressed in a military camouflage shirt and stationed as the gunner in a military fast-attack vehicle. (I kid you not – see this for yourself in this photo.) He then fired off a round of blanks from a .50-caliber Browning machine gun. All of this was to illustrate his message about “taking the hill” as they evangelically targeted the households within a one-mile radius of the seminary.

By the standards that Prestonwood is applying to Chris Tynes, that whole seminary should be shut down for making “terroristic” threats against the neighborhood. Heck, they even put their weapons on display.

And for those of us raised in this faith group, we grew up with “Onward Christian Soldiers” from the time we were two. Every summer of my childhood, in Vacation Bible School, I went “forward into battle” and “marching as to war” as we paraded into the church singing that militaristic song. By the standards that Prestonwood is applying to Chris Tynes, I guess the Bible schools should also be shut down as training grounds for “terroristic” activity.

I hope you see the lunacy in this.

But still, I’ve got to hand it to Prestonwood. They’ve sure got some slick spin-meisters. It takes a lot of time in the saddle to be able to spin the story of a mega-church’s clergy child molestation cover-up into a story that boot-stomps the one church member who dares to ask questions.

But Ben Lovvorn, Prestonwood’s director of administration, stuck with the spin-script. “When it comes to protecting our people, we take that very seriously,” he said.

Whoa. We’re talking about a church that, from all appearances, evidence, and news reports, didn’t take the protection of people seriously at all . . . at least not if those people include church kids and their families.

Prestonwood officials can keep trying to cook up some biscuits, but they can’t alter the reality of what’s already in the oven. That stinky old cover-up boot isn’t going away and, so far, it’s getting stinkier with every word they say.

Update: "Pastor says let God judge accusers," Associated Baptist Press, 3/19/2013 (This is a great summary. It contextualizes the Prestonwood saga and shows how Southern Baptist officials will publicly rebuke others involved in child sex cover-ups but won't hold their own accountable. ABP is a press service that is independent of the Southern Baptist Convention.)