by Tim Gilmore, 11/5/2021
His gentleness was as integral to his demeanor and personality as the bleak rigidity of Calvinist Christianity was to his faith. While a student at Collins Road Christian Academy when I was 10 and 11 years old, I learned that what I’d previously learned about God “hating the sin, but loving the sinner” wasn’t true; God hated the sinner as well. Yet Chris Pappas, pastor of Collins Road Baptist Church and principal of its school, moved with a strange fluid grace, spoke softly, cared for the fewer than 100 students, Kindergarten through 12th grade, as though they were his flock, he their shepherd. He was always smiling, somehow both tough and radiant.
I last spoke with him near the end of September 2020. He was as kind and gracious as I remembered. I wondered when the school had closed, couldn’t imagine I couldn’t have known. Closed for almost 30 years, Collins Road Christian Academy stayed timeless, motionless in my mind, as had that whole time of my life: my mother’s terminal illness, my first deep crushes on girls, my not realizing how small was my whole world.
So too is the church smaller than I’d remembered. It was here I came in second in the school spelling bee. It was here we gathered for “Chapel” every Friday to hear Chris Pappas preach. It was here we attended the funeral for little Marco West, one of two black children in the school. I’m ashamed I can’t remember how he died. It’s here that I attend Chris Pappas’s funeral this Tuesday morning. He was 83 years old and had pastored this church for 43 years. He died of Covid-19.
This is the building where I learned who Frank Zappa was. I’d already been taught that rock ’n roll was the Devil’s music. I’d never heard of Zappa until that Friday morning sermon we were told the musician had defined his whole purpose as destroying America’s youth. I don’t know when he supposedly said this. I didn’t know about his destroying a car with a sledgehammer. Nor about Nanook, the “naughty Eskimo.”
The church holds 33 pews, one for each year of Christ’s life, in three rows. The hymns pour forth over the dark blue carpet, the rich blue stained glass windows and the pews lined in dark rich blue carpet. “He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock / That shadows a dry thirsty land. / He hideth my life in the depths of his love / And covers me there with his hand.”
I know every word of these hymns. I know the Bible verses. Yet I don’t feel any real connection here. Maybe I’d thought that 1985 would greet me at the door, the Chris Pappas whom I spoke with on the phone, who remembered my friend Jeremiah’s death in that car accident when we were 11 years old. I’m a stranger here. I almost feel other than white. The boys wear those short sleeved button-up shirts, highwater dress pants.
The men wear austere beards. The women wear ankle-length dresses and long hair. I don’t remember so many fundamentalist Christian women wearing headscarves. And that’s because I didn’t know Mennonites had joined the congregation. In 1991, Faith Baptist Tabernacle of Levy County, Florida, led by Pastor Richard Harding, Chris Pappas’s friend for half a century, merged with a Mennonite congregation. Soon Mennonite families joined Collins Road as well.
“When peace like a river attendeth my way, / When sorrows like sea billows roll, / Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say / It is well, it is well with my soul.” I also hear Zappa singing, “Watch out where the huskies go / And don’t you eat that yellow snow.”
Pastor Richard Harding preaches for 45 minutes, then says he’s about to start preaching, that he hasn’t been preaching yet, he’s just been talking. A fundamentalist funeral is a sermon, replete with Original Sin, the threats of Hell, and the reminder that “Many who profess to be saved do not really know the Lord Jesus.” To be “saved” means being saved from hellfire and damnation.
Harding says he and Chris Pappas first met at Lucifer Rice Seminary. Scattered laughter. He means Luther Rice Seminary in Lithonia, Georgia, founded on the Southbank of Downtown Jacksonville in 1962. I don’t quite get the Lucifer joke. It reminds me of Pastor Bob Gray at Trinity Baptist Church calling MLK “Martin Lucifer King,” but I can’t quite read Harding’s tone.
He stands in the pulpit over the casket that holds the body of his longtime friend and says, “Well, he died.” He lets a silence ensue and linger. He quotes a verse from the Old Testament book of II Kings about the prophet Elisha “falling sick with the sickness whereof he died.” Even Chris Pappas died, Harding says. “God sent him the sickness.” He doesn’t mention the sickness was Covid-19.
“He said in the hospital he still had messages he wanted to preach so he thought he’d have a longer life,” Harding says. “Well, God had other ideas.” Then he addresses the children in the congregation: “God appoints our time of death, boys and girls, and guess what? He’s even appointed yours, young as you are.” But it’s not Chris Pappas in the casket, he says. “Somebody told me, ‘It doesn’t look like Pastor Chris.’ I said I know it doesn’t. They don’t know how to comb his hair right. I almost went out there and got my brush out of my car and fixed it myself.” More scattered laughter. The point: it doesn’t look like Chris Pappas, because it’s not, because the preacher is in Heaven.
Indeed, I’ve come to Chris Pappas’s funeral to honor his memory, but find few echoes of the man I once knew. It’s the same church nave and narthex, the same stained glass, but it’s not the same church. Maybe I thought I’d find the children I called my friends back then. Maybe I thought I’d find the older boy with dark thick slicked back hair who mocked Chris Pappas by pretending to be so enthusiastically devout that the preacher praised him in Chapel while other boys giggled. Maybe I thought I’d find the 11 year old boy I’d been, with his deeply broken heart, and comfort him.
Mennonites in the congregation or not, Harding’s message is recognizably fundamentalist: “Most people in our day who live the Christian life are not saved.” And: “When you’re 12 or 13 years of age, you begin to learn how wicked you can be. When I was that age, I prayed the prayer and joined the church but I was as lost as I could be and some of you sitting there and looking up at me are the same way.” (“Lost” means the opposite of “saved.” It means damned.) And: “I talked to a boy yesterday, seven or eight years old, and told him how evil his heart could be and he agreed with me.” And: “The extent to which you love the world is the extent to which you do not love God!” And: “On Judgment Day, many a person is gonna be ashamed because they weren’t ashamed when they should’a been ashamed.”
Harding compliments his friend in ways that can sound backhanded. “I’ve known preachers that got into trouble and lost their reputation, but Chris Pappas was the most underappreciated preacher I’ve ever known and I’ll tell you why. It’s because he knew and loved the Bible.” I grew up having that expectation of persecution inculcated. Love God and the world will hate you for it.
When I last spoke to Chris Pappas, little more than a year ago, for the first time in three and a half decades, he remembered me. He remembered my mother’s death. He remembered the death of my friend Jeremiah. I partly feared his bringing up my 2016 book Devil in the Baptist Church: Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity and assuming it equally bitter toward all Christianity. Gray was the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, where my parents met in 1972, and principal of Trinity Christian Academy, where my father enrolled me after my mother died and I left Collins Road. Trinity spent 50 years covering up Gray’s sexual abuse of children. Pappas told me the book was courageous and fair. “I could always tell something was wrong with Bob Gray,” he said.
It’s true Pappas’s theology seemed in some ways more extreme even than that of other fundamentalists. When my mother died, my father removed me from Collins Road, having decided the school was “almost like a cult.” Coming from a man who gave his allegiance to larger cults like Trinity Baptist Church, that was strong judgment. Harding says, “Most of the pastors in Jacksonville considered Chris a heretic because he believed in the Bible, but they’ll know one day!” I’ve never attended a funeral where the eulogist called the deceased a perceived heretic.
At the end of the service, several men stand and share reminiscences. Chris Pappas took over Collins Road Baptist in 1978. One mourner says he’s been a church member for a long time, 24 years, and I realize I haven’t been inside this church for 36 years. Gone is Chris Pappas. Gone is my childhood. Gone even are the two school structures that moldered empty out back for years, a fire eventually destroying them in 2019. Their remnants still stood when I visited the campus on a whim a year ago, but as Richard Harding is proud to say of his friend, “He took those buildings down himself.”
Gone are the cheerleaders of 1985, with their hair sprayed large, their culottes, because it was sinful for women and girls to wear shorts (or short skirts or pants), their Collins Road Christian Warriors shirts. Gone is my overbite, the braces on my teeth and my bowl haircut.
Gone is the constant fear of Communism and a clash with the Soviet Union supposedly predicted in the Bible, the “prophetic speculation” that such tension formed a “tangible indicator of the coming of the Antichrist, the Rapture, the Battle of Armageddon, even the Apocalypse itself.” So writes my former Collins Road schoolmate, Mark Graham, now a professor of history in Pennsylvania, in the preface to his 2006 book News and Frontier Consciousness in the Late Roman Empire. “Preachers claimed that ancient prophecies involving Israel, the armies of Gog and Magog, and the ‘Great Bear from the North’ were literally being fulfilled before our eyes.”
But the fear and insularity and the prophesying and the persecution complex persist. So also persists the belief that the way to Heaven is hard. As the Book of Matthew says, “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
A mourner stands up from the pew in front of me, tears streaming down her face. As a child she’d said “the salvation prayer” and been baptized twice, but still didn’t know she was “saved.” So she came to Chris Pappas as a teenager and told him she thought she was saved, but wanted to know that she “knew the Lord.” And he told her to go home and open the Bible and to prostrate herself before God and he would show himself to her. So she did, she said, and God did.
Coming from a childhood saturated with such sermons, being in the presence of one now makes me want to engage in “sin.” Maybe drink a bottle of Scotch, drop some f-bombs or listen to Frank Zappa. Since today is three months without a drop, the first of those options isn’t about to happen. The child I was when I attended Chapel here on Friday mornings lives on in me. His insecurities persist, his strange sensitivities, but gone is the sense of his small world’s entirety. Gone now also is this towering, smiling, knowledgeable, mysterious, wise and heretical authority figure from that same gone whole world.