Thursday, November 27, 2008

For what are you thankful?

It's Thanksgiving Day, 2008.

Our nation, our world, our economy, our politics, our brotherhood, and perhaps even your own life, are in disarray, change, flux.

What eternal ideals and anchors remain for you? For what are you eternally thankful? What does Thanksgiving Day mean to you?

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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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