Friday, November 14, 2008

Pentecostal preacher provokes protests of pot pipe peddling

That old maxim taught in Quantum Mechanics 101, the one about how the experimenter always affects the experiment, holds true in the Macro World as well. Yesterday, my observation of a public event led to some strange interactions.

About 4:30 Thursday afternoon, I was driving home from a business appointment in Dawsonville, Ga., about 40 miles from my hometown. As I passed a shopping center with a gas station/convenience store out front, I noticed a large gathering of people lined up along a 200-yard stretch of the highway. I was driving too fast to read most of their signs, but I was able to catch one of them: "Bongs are wrong."

I turned around as soon as I could, and pulled into a nearby bank's parking lot, and took in the scene. Next to the bank was a Chevron station/convenience store. Four or five teenagers were playing catch with a football, and four sheriff's cars were in the parking lot, with a small group of people and the officers standing around. Along the highway were about 80 people, including probably 20 children aged 10 or under, holding paperboard signs. I couldn't read the signs, as their backs were to me, but on several of the signs' backsides, I could make out pro-life, anti-abortion messages. Apparently, the people were into conservation, getting double-use out of their poster paper. (I found out later this group also used to conduct protests outside an adult bookstore a mile further down the road.)

I walked into the store's parking lot, and hearing nothing of interest other than an employee from the nearby McDonald's trying to get a deputy to stop people from blocking access to the restaurant, I went towards the man with the megaphone and his nearby disciples.

"Don't shop at Chevron!," Megaphone Man (later, I found out he was a local Pentacostal Pentecostal pastor) shouted. "You can buy that gas elsewhere," he yelled at people at the gas pumps.

I was wearing a business-suit yesterday, looking quite spiffy in a white shirt and tie. I'd left my jacket in the car. I looked quite out of place, and apparently ominous, in the crowd of sweatshirted, bluejeaned protestors.

"What's going on?," I asked someone in my best blog reporter voice.

"We're protesting this store selling drug paraphernalia," one man told me. I asked if the gathering was impromptu or planned, and who was behind it. Apparently, one or more local churches had been planning it for some time, and it had been mentioned the day before on local TV. Interesting, local TV in Dawsonville would mean one or more of the Atlanta stations, as there is no local TV in north Georgia. Odd, there were no reporters at the event yesterday. Except, well, me.

Apparently, for the past two years, several stores in the area had been selling rolling papers, bongs, and, according to the protesters, "crack pipes." In Georgia, these items can legally be sold to adults by stores holding a license to sell tobacco as long as they pretend they are just for tobacco.

Four of the five stores had bowed to public pressure and stopped selling the offending merchandise, I was told. The Chevron station was the last holdout, and the fundamentalist churches were hopping mad.

"We love you," the preacher shouted at the store, "but we love our children more." This line varied during the event, with "children" sometime being replaced with the word "community."

"Stop killing our children!," the preacher continued.

I politely asked a few questions, and politely listened to the answers, remaining neutral, just wanting to know what was going on. I had no dog in this fight. I don't buy bongs, I don't go to a Pentacostal Pentecostal church, and I didn't need gasoline.

Then one man asked me, "Do you support us?" and I politely replied, "I'm just an observer." Apparently in this particular religious community, you're not allowed to not have an opinion, as I found out soon enough. It's more of that "either you're for us or against us" mentality that was so obvious during the recent national election season, a topic I've been thinking of writing about here on The Taper for the past couple of weeks.

One man proudly beamed, "Isn't it great Christians can come together in civil disobedience like this?!"

A man further down the line told me just as proudly, "We even have a permit for this gathering!"

Some civil disobedience, huh, having a parade permit?

I moved on down the line of people, taking snapshots with my cellphone camera. Everyone was happy to smile and have their picture taken, proudly showing off their signs.

About ten prepubescent girls were doing a series of cheers and a dance routine, singsonging something about Jesus being their "high."

I was about halfway down the line when a woman, probably around 30 years old, someone whom I'd already passed by without photographing, shouted out, "Don't let the man in the white shirt take your picture!"

Of course, I immediately turned around, walked in front of her, and said, "Say cheese."

Before I could snap her photo, she screamed at me, "You take my picture and I'll sue the pants off you!" I can't recall the last time I saw anyone flare up with so much anger so quickly.

From out of nowhere, a self-appointed bouncer [see top photo] stepped in front of her and said, quite menacingly, "Don't you take her picture!" I took his instead.

This man, whom I found out later was an off-duty sheriff's deputy, spent the rest of the time I was there walking along behind the line, watching my every move, like one of those big security guys you see standing in front of the stage at a rock concert.

Why would a woman standing along a public highway, supporting a cause by waving a sign, think she wasn't fair game for being photographed? It was attention she and her fellow sign-wavers were seeking, wouldn't you think?

I meandered on down the line, snapping more pictures of the protesters without protest. Like before, the sign-toters smiled and waved their signs as I walked by.

I went back to the parking lot and leaned against my car, still fascinated by what was going on. My workday was done, so I just kicked back and watched the show, pondering how interesting it was that two tenets of our national way of life were clashing here, free speech vs. free enterprise.

Cars and trucks were zipping by on the highway, many slowing to repeatedly blow their horns. One car slowed, beeped, and then "burned rubber." Immediately, an unmarked law enforcement vehicle took off after him, and pulled him over still within sight.

More people were showing up to participate in the event, and parked near me. A few cordially greeted me as they walked by. A couple of older gents stopped and chatted with me. One told me the man with the megaphone was Ricky Stepp, the pastor of a local ministry known as "The Father's House." (Google it — I'm not giving them a free link. The pastor's website shows that he has two congregations, one in Dawsonville and one in Toccoa, Ga. His evangelical churches are affiliated with the donation-supported Crown Financial Ministries, which teaches scripture-based home-budgeting, as well as with A Beka Book home-schooling curriculum programs which teach creationism to its students. That fact might also explain the many misspelled words I saw on their hand-printed signs.)

And still, the Bouncer stared at me.

On the highway, a pickup truck slowed, and its youthful passenger shouted to the crowd, "Fuck you crazy Christians!"

Other than the foul-mouthed passenger, most passersby seemed to be honking their horns in agreement with the protesters.

Suddenly, the man (he was no older than 25, perhaps much younger) who had asked me earlier if I supported them walked up to me. He introduced himself, and proffered his hand to shake. I shook his hand, and told him my first name.

"And...?," he replied.

"And what?"

"Most people who introduce themselves to me give me their first and last names."

"Do they?," I responded, and left it at that.

He then asked me, quite seriously, assuming he already knew the truth, if I was the attorney for Chevron. See what wearing a dress shirt and tie in north Georgia will do to you/for you?

I told him, "No, I'm just passing through and found this interesting."

I'm certain he didn't believe me.

We chatted for a couple of minutes. I asked him if he was a Baptist, and he proudly said, "No, Pentacostal Pentecostal."

What began as a discussion of the meth problem in north Georgia (not that bongs in a convenience store have much to do with crazy meth addicts blowing themselves up cooking the stuff or killing themselves using the stuff) quickly turned into him ranting about how "God's will as given in the Bible must be done before the end times." I stopped paying attention. He clearly had already made up his mind about everything, and discourse and communication became impossible. Besides, in his mind I was an unrepentant, sinful, lying lawyer intent on "killing the children."

He went back into the crowd, and probably reported me to the pastor and the bouncer as being Chevron's on-the-spot attorney.

Too bad he didn't see the Masonic emblem on the back of my car. What would he have thought then?

A man from the protest line shouted at me, "Brother, do you want to hold one of our signs?!"

"No, thank you," I replied.

From the parking lot came a young man of maybe 22, an educated, nerdy-looking guy, talking on his cell phone. I couldn't help but overhear his part of the conversation, which went something like this: "We should all take off work right now, get our "Bongs not Bombs" t-shirts, and get over here."

It was starting to get dark, so no one would have noticed his t-shirted friends anyway. The bullhorn preacher called his flock back into the fold, i.e., a large huddle, where they all joined hands.

I overheard one young man say to another as they were walking back to the preacher, probably in response to a car that had flashed its headlights at them, "Lord! Blind them!"

"They're already blind," his partner replied.

As I expected, the hand-holding huddle held a prayer, the words of which I could not make out. Perhaps they prayed for me, too, the "man in the white shirt."

A megaphoned "Amen!" accompanied each participant's shouted "Amen!," and the crowd erupted in applause. Several horn-honks from cars who had been taking up space in the Chevron's parking lot filled the air.

As the crowd broke up, one man shouted to me, "We love you, brother!"

I got in my car and drove home.

Images: A protest rally at the corner of Ga. 400 and Ga. 53 in Dawsonville, Ga., November 13, 2008. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Update, Nov. 25: This article has been revised to correct the spelling of the word "Pentecostal."

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  1. "Lord blind them." "They're already blind." Perhaps they DID see your Masonic emblem!

  2. Yeah, they'll probably be protesting outside the next local lodge meeting. But they'll have to buy new posterboard; both sides of their current signs are already filled with their "love."

    — W.S.

  3. According to the book, Psychiatric Diagnostic Treatment: excessive speaking in tongues and overzealous religiosity may cause mindless periods of paranoia, which can be exacerbated by localized methamphetamine abuse, affecting the collective unconsciousness of the feeble minded.
    Recommended Treatment: Under no circumstance allow the patient near poster board or mega-phones. In extreme situations of psychotic breakdown, isolation may be necessary, transfer patient to one of the numerous cults located in Texas.

  4. Well, Georgia is the near the new mason/dixon line which has moved south. This indicated by Prince Hall recognition in N.Carolina. End Timers often mistake progress for the end times. Same as the idea of a new secular order, to them, is evil, rather than all mankind as brothers.

  5. I have seen this group near the outlets in Dawsonville. I usually give them the finger as I'm driving. Just detest the fundamentalists.

    As a Libertarian who reluctantly voted for the "other black guy" (Bob Barr), legalizing drugs and taxing them like everything else would bring a great new source of revenue to the country at a time we need it.

    It has been argued that the only reason Russia has not ended up in total civil war is because the Communist black markets became the new free market generating tax revenue to support people once dependent on the state for their existence.

  6. A wonderful report...I'm sure GOD must enjoy a good sideshow just like the rest of us.

  7. This is a perfect example why I have nightmeres about the south.

  8. To play the Devil's advocate, we might try to understand these people and their concerns. They are probably telling the truth when they say they are concerned about drug abuse in their community. It's tough to question their motives when they are trying to protect their children, however misguided that might be.

    I belonged at a young age to a Pentecostal church (the term being applied over a significant range of organizations). The church was clearly not the one shown here, as it was 'verbotten' for women to wear pants or cut their hair or wear makeup and for men to have facial hair or wear short sleeves. I found ultimately that I could not in good conscience believe much of what they had as core to their dogma.

    Still, it is worthwhile to remember that they are people with their own concerns and views of the world. I admire the dedication to their views.

    I am not saying these people are wrong or right. They have their reasons for believing the way they do. Much of it is fear I assume (not necessarily wrong). A better approach to people like this is to find a level of understanding, and if possible some common ground.

    As to selling bongs, you could protest practically every store around. My friends have turned every imaginable item into bongs-soda cans, apples, etc. While I never have used drugs, I do think the prohibition of pot is silly given the fact alcohol is legal.

    These individuals would likely be interested in seeing prohibition return, but morality cannot be legislated and remain morality.

  9. I don't have any comment about a lawful protest, these protesters, and their right to the free exercise of their particular religious beliefs. However, I do have to say that these bongs or other drug-paraphernalia sold at gas-stations and mini-marts might be a problem. It probably, in fact, contributes to vice and drug-use in the community. I have a personal experience with this.

    I coach sports at my local playground. After a game, I took my son and a few of his team-mates to a nearby mini-mart/gas station in my neighborhood to buy them drinks or icees since the playground's concession stand was closed.

    While at the mini-mart, I witnessed a stream of crack and meth addicts flow into the store where the store owner sold them glass pipes, steel wool, wooden dowels, and lighters as part of a package deal. He also might have been selling them illegal product too. In any event, all of his "bong" customers were apparently on their merry way to work a shift at the local shipyard and were wearing their welding gear while making these purchases. These drug addicts could barely drive out the mini-mart without striking a pedestrian or a car along the way and one of these "winners" almost collided with the children under my care and my own car. Of course, I has a police report filed.

    In any event, I am sure that I was entirely mistaken about the whole event and these fellows and that these glass pipes, steel wool, wooden dowels, and lighters were being used for lawful tobacco use by pipe smoking connosuiers who decided, for a brief moment, to set aside their cool and smooth smoking Meerschaum or aromatic wood pipes in favor of a straight glass pipe. ;-)

  10. If you've ever had someone you care about t-boned in her car, severely injured, and almost killed by someone on meth you might look differently on the issue. Granted, alcohol can do the same or texting while you're driving.

    People have the right to assemble for a protest, whether we agree with them or not. I'm all for it. I understand as well that they have legitimate concerns.

    While I do not agree with everything they represent, I support their right to say it. I do not support the 'right' of people to injure others through intention or mental incoherence due to self-inflicted chemical abuse. That is just wrong.

  11. Brother WS, just an "fyi," but it is spelled "Pentecostal" and not "Pentacostal." Thanks.

  12. Why, in the land of left coast liberal wackery doesn't this ever happen in L.A.?

    Next they'll protest apples and tin cans, as I've heard they too can be made to smoke the "devils weed".

  13. I think if the issue here is pot, it is not a valuable way to spend their time protesting. Marijuana is not the problem, and filling the jails with users is not effective. Pot, imo as a non-user, should be legalized.

    If, on the other hand, the main concern is Methamphetamine, the concern is at least warranted. Meth is a terribly destructive drug:

    While it is not a concern what people choose to put in their bodies, it is a concern for the safety of the community. It creates hazardous waste and endangers lives-the users and those around them.

  14. The 'End of Times' stuff is entirely B.S. Of course, it's been hailed throughout the world, and the latest is the Mayan calendar crap (so proudly hailed at the bottom of this blog). Here's some food for thought on the 'End of the World Mayan style' (or the weak 'change of consciousness', which is terribly uninteresting and impossible to quantify)'

    Is the world gonna end? Hell yeah.
    Is it that big of a deal? No one knows.
    Thousands have gotten the date wrong before, and will continue to do so to profit off of gullibility.

  15. I am a christian, and too many things you may have mentioned do not seem very christian, at least in the way some of those so called god following people may have acted. And judgement of who someone is, of course is made by only by god, not humans. so I sure hope they are not looking at you and thinking unrepentant sinner. that would be sin in of itself. Thing is most christians have never actually read the bible, they just listen to what other people tell them. (pastors, friends, family, television, CNN....) and allow themselves to be fueled by disillusionment and ignited by misguided zealous missions. Hey good luck to all you guys in the lodge, I could never join up because its contradictory to Christians beliefs. But I sure do wish the best for you and your persuit of true knowledge and truth, not some covered up, revamped version, intended to manipulate rather then inform.

  16. In a recent report I had to do for my Criminal Justice Program, I found that in Northern Michigan when people ran out of Crack Cocaine for a short period of time, they resorted to drinking battery acid to get a similar "high." It became a rather widespread trend for a while. Essentially, addicts will find a way to satiate their cravings regardless what is taken away from them, or to what they are denied access. All be it a moot point since cannibus is not addictive nor deadly. Alcohol is far more dangerous and habit forming.

  17. You may be right. I don't know if meth is quite the same as crack. Of course, battery acid is legal and cheaper. Maybe we should just sell them that next to the soda. You're positive alcohol is worse for you?

  18. i wrote my master's thesis on illicit substances users and how they use the internet for health information. i have quite a strong view on drugs and their place in society.

    i won't go into it even a little here, but i will say this: cannabis is still, even in this year of 2008, considered an evil and harmful drug, across almost the entire world.

    yet i have seen personally, myself included, and anecdotally, people's lives completely destroyed by alcohol.

    as an ex-opiate user, it may seem strange to hear me say this, but prohibition and criminalising the user and the substance is, and excuse my crudeness, completely fucking retarded.

    these lemmings of the religious right have hindered the progress of my generation, and previous generations, for too long, in so many different ways.

    they need to take a good look not at themselves, but the world around them. and accept the love that flows so utterly freely all around them from those with open hearts.

    if you don't want your kids to smoke cannabis, fine. raise them with an open heart and a zest for life and perhaps they won't.

    on the other hand, they my just find substances like cannabis to be one of the more rewarding gifts from this our mother earth.

    nb: i haven't touched any substance besides alcohol for a very long time.

  19. I don't have issues against cannibus. I think that, while I do not partake, it should be legalized. I agree with you there Crow. I have friends that use it legally for medical reasons and others that use it illegally. I even know some good brothers who fight for legalization, and myself have voted for it. I do question the 'not addictive' crowd, as I've known many that acted addicted.

    On the other hand, I don't see pipes like those described as strictly serving the cannibus users. In our area, these types of pipes are used as often for meth as for cannibus. On that matter I disagree with you. It is true that alcohol can ruin lives, but likewise meth can ruin lives. Meth is highly addictive. I do think that is a legitimate concern for these individuals.

    Actually, I must have missed any mention of cannibus in the article. Not saying that is not a concern of the protesters, but it is not mentioned. Why is it assumed then that their main concern is pot?

  20. I think y'all are crazy! Cannibus is just plain wrong, not to mention immoral and unethical, and anybody who partakes should have their head examined - preferably from a lab bench. I have no idea what the world is coming to when otherwise rational people can simply talk about cannibus as if it were just some other lifestyle choi...

    What's that?

    Canibus isn't the same as cannibalism?


    Never mind.

  21. If the article was written better and the reporter had asked some specifics, we might know that the protesters were concerned about cannibus or meth or all of it. Practically anyone can see that meth is more damaging than cannibus. Pot and in certain situations cannibalism is fine. It's pretty worthless reporting all-in-all.

  22. Although I don't agree with how the reporter was treated or the attitude of the people,I do agree with the protest.I have a brother,a sister,and a brother in law who have destroyed their lives as well as 5 neices and nephews who have been destroyed by the addictions that their parents have.I think the government is baiting the weak like someone would bait a rat.Our government is hypocritical by allowing this stuff to be so easily found and by selling alcohol,cigarettes,bongs,pipes,and tobacco.It should all be illegal because all of it destroys lives.I can understand their anger about how are government is allowing these things to be sold as legal when if you get caught with them in your vehicle you will be arrested.This is how are government is benefiting from making this stuff legal to sell.All of these addicts are going to be paying alot of money to be in jail and probations.While in turn the children are growing up without the love and care of their parents.Then the children learn the same behaviours of the parents and they see it is as simple as going to the grocery store or convienance store to get the stuff they need to have this habit.Jails and prisons are not the answer they need to quit making it so easily accessable.But this will never happen because the people did not stand up for what was right when it was time to stand up for it

  23. It's interesting, that (over) a year after this post, I should stumble on an article written about the church I attend, and have attended for over 10 years.

    Even more interesting, is that I did not participate in this protest, but I do happen to have "insider" information on the purpose of it.

    I feel the need to clarify that THE purpose for this church to protest the sale of said drug paraphernalia was based on the extreme use of Methamphetamine in the North Georgia Region.

    It had little to do with pot, or "the devil's weed" as one commenter affectionately implied.

    More so- please understand that there are MANY people that come to The Father's House

    (a.k.a Christ Fellowship Church)

    that have, in the past, and maybe even in the present, struggle(d) with severe drug addiction.

    Their passion is that of 'first hand' experience, whether it be self, friend or family member that has had a strong hold to the meth-world.

    Imagine, if you will, being an overcomer of an addiction such as that related to meth, and walking into a store, innocently buying a pack of gum and buying a few gallons of liquid gas... to have the instruments you once used to get high, staring at you... tempting you... calling out to you...

    I've never struggled with Meth addiction, but honestly- and I'm sure this is a very muted comparison, having struggled with an addiction to nicotine, it's really challenging to walk into a convenient store and not say "And I'll need a pack of...."

    Sure. Alcoholics have the same struggle. They shouldn't walk into a liquor store, or a bar lest they be tempted.... I wonder, though? Why do you NOT find the beer case at the front of the store? Why isn't their a mini-cooler holding 16 oz. Sam Adams bottles for easy access?

    I don't think prohibition is a constructive direction...let's learn from our past (Hello 1920's) and (shall I shock you all) I don't think marijuana is ANY different than alcohol. I actually truly believe that it's reversed. Alcohol in excess can have much more SEVERE damaging effects than the afore mentioned green-bagged 'drug'.

    Having reread myself, I hope I'm not coming across as defensive, or anything other than "Love Ya Brother". Oh, Darn. That WAS sarcasm. My editor isn't working at the moment... you'll have to excuse me. ;-)

    All joking aside, you are correct sir, if we're gonna talk about brotherly love, let's not be like Ms. Sue Your Pants Off lady. She could have asked sweetly, and had Dude in the White Shirt chosen not to respect her wishes, she could have simply turned her back to him. Silly-ness is what this is.

    The truth is- people are people. Christians can be mean, nasty, JERKS... just like the rest of the world. I try NOT to be. I try. I try. Can I clarify again that I TRY. But seriously??? I don't always succeed.

    I love Jesus. But I'M not Him. I'm not perfect. I'm not awesome. I'm not flawless. I have bad days, I have bad weeks, I have potty mouth that escapes from time to time, and by-golly-gosh-darn-it... I get FIRED UP and spew off stupid ridiculousness.

    And speaking of Dude in the White Shirt;

    Sir, I understand the passion surrounding this post. It's really frustrating to see protesters of a religious order spouting out a bunch of stuff we can't understand or don't quite agree with. You asked enough questions to get enough information to support your biased opinion of the protest, but you did not do enough home work to determine the WHOLE truth behind it.

    Chevron was looking to make a few extra dollars at the expense of a community striving to get Meth out of their city. Not pot. Not alcohol. Meth.

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. I see that this was written a long time ago, however I feel it important to add something to this. Ricky Stepp is a recovered drug addict and alcoholic. He now goes into prisons and rehabs helping the people that we have thrown away. When he says that he loves you he actually means it. I know him personally. He and his family drove three hours one way every Firday to help people on the cherokee reservation with drug and alcohol problems.For almost seven years he never took a day off. They came into our community and showed us nothing but love and kindness. Most people look at us like we are nothing, but he and his family changed our small community. People still talk about him and get excited when he comes back. You painted him as a fanatic. If that is what you "think" you saw, well then that is your opinion. But, I would like to ask you a question. When is the last time you went where no one else wanted to go and reached out your hand to help? His life is devoted to reaching these people with love.

  26. Seeing as I pasted by the SAME protest, clearly someone misprinted A LOT of facts, but then again what does the "so called" media do. Turn something into something they want readers to see and believe, never minded the truth behind it. Just their point of view. I wish there was some "true unbiased" "reporters" out there, that stated things as they are/were and not putting their liberal views in place instead.
    All I know is that because of that protest that Chevron STOPPED selling the things. And several members of the community commended all involved and stopped buying from them till they stopped.
    Maybe one day people like you will get a clue. But then again look at our country, no wonder!


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