Hydrate Thy Neighbor

Pastors and protesters vie for the title of "tolerant."

click to enlarge PRESSING THE FLESH: Bell Shoals' Rev. Forrest Pollack greets protesters outside his church. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
PRESSING THE FLESH: Bell Shoals' Rev. Forrest Pollack greets protesters outside his church.

First come the TV news trucks.

The reporters jump out, microphones in hand, with their cameramen in tow, ready for some raucous protest footage.

Then the improvised church security guards appear. They range from older deacon types to members of the F.A.I.T.H. Riders, a Christian motorcycle group wearing their trademark black leather vests emblazoned with Harley-esque logos.

"We just hope there's no violence," a bald churchgoer in a fuzzy yellow shirt tells me as I follow him to the protest site in front of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon. "You have to be prepared."

Next, the out-of-town speakers arrive. People like Marty Rouse, the Human Rights Campaign's national field director from D.C. and Barbara Leavitt of Naples, the ex-wife of a gay man who was convinced by his church he could become straight by marrying a woman.

"If God made us in His image, he doesn't make mistakes," she says. "Not the God I believe in."

Following them are the representatives of Equality Florida. Dressed in purple, they march up the sidewalk with signs like "I am not an agenda" and "Hate is not a family value." Executive Director Nadine Smith sets up a podium on the church grounds.

At the same time, pastors from churches across Florida conclude their meeting inside the church and file out to watch the protesters.

Picture the scene: 70 Bible-carrying pastors facing 50 or so sign-carrying protesters, with several reporters hovering about. Faces stern; muscles tensed. Thunderclouds gathering overhead.

Then a funny thing happens: Everyone starts acting nice.

It's the first day of the Family Impact Summit, a three-day gathering of evangelical Christians and far right-wingers from across Florida. They've come to listen to such die-hard conservatives as former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, former presidential hopeful Gary Bauer, Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and John Stemberger of Florida for Marriage. (The formerly family-friendly Ted Haggard and Larry Craig were not invited.) They sign up for workshops on "The Homosexual Agenda" and "What Christians Must Know of Islam." With lunches included, of course.

The conference is the brainchild of Terry Kemple, former director of the Christian Coalition of Florida and Florida's Right to Life and president of the Community Issues Council, a local organization seeking to unite the church community against such perceived threats as gay marriage and bikini bars.

And what better place to have this conference, expected to bring in 250 to 300 attendees, than the 7,000-strong Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon. The same congregation that attempted to suppress Gay-Straight Alliances in public schools and backed the vitriolic Ronda Storms in her moral battles on the Hillsborough County Commission. The site of previous conferences that sought to energize Florida's born-again political base.

When news of the summit spread to Equality Florida, demonstrators organized activists from various local and national groups.

"They are at the highest levels of government to push their message, and that's why we have to fight it," says Wayne Besen of Truth Wins Out. "This [summit] is about discrimination and spreading antigay views."

But instead of bringing the "God Hates Fags" crowd, Bell Shoals' senior pastor Forrest Pollock let the media know they would be handing out bottled water to the protesters. Oh, and free access to the church's bathrooms.

"Let's make sure we speak in love and then we can let the Holy Spirit speak through us," Pollack prays with the crowd of pastors on the steps of Bell Shoals. "If the Tampa Bay region sees these pictures, we want them to see us to be kind."

Pollock launches into I Corinthians 13, a Bible passage that speaks about love: "It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs."

And with that, he advises parishioners not to speak to the media, and they wheel out a cooler full of bottled water.

On the sidewalk, Equality Florida supporters do not chant, and only one protester heckles, yelling curses at Pollack and his flock. The speakers — like Rev. Harold Brockus, retired pastor of St. Pete's Good Samaritan Church and Rev. Phyllis Hunt of Tampa's Metropolitan Community Churches — criticize the church for intolerance but rarely raise their voices. Soon, there isn't even a clear dividing line between protester and protested. Parishioners mingle with gay rights activists. Both sides refrain from debating each other. Equality Florida brings out their own bottled water to give to parishioners. Both sides even end up joining in the heartfelt gospel song, "This Little Light of Mine."

"You know, we don't hate the sinner," says Joe Pottle, one of the security guys. "We just hate the sin."

As the protest winds down, Equality Florida's Nadine Smith allows the Bell Shoals pastor to speak at the podium. He complains protesters have judged his church too harshly and invites them to a Sunday service.

"You said we are saying hate-speech, and yet as I have introduced myself to you, I have been called dumb, I have been called a man who copulates with his mother, I have been called a serpent," he pleads. "Who here is exercising hate-speech? We love you."

As the skies begin to pour, and the crowd disperses, Smith remains unconvinced.

"It doesn't matter how gentle a veneer you put on," she says. "The kind of messages that this summit is intended to deliver, the kind of de-humanizing discrimination that this gathering brings to our community, cannot go unanswered."

I bring up the water. Obviously that shows they care, right?

"When you have to put out a press release saying you're offering water," she says, "that's an image problem."

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article referred incorrectly to the organization represented by Tony Perkins.

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