Hope for Life Baptist Church

by Tim Gilmore, 10/29/2018

1. “Reproach on the Gospel of Christ”

Referring to the pastor whose sexual abuse of children Trinity Baptist Church covered for half a century, Gary Hudson says, “I knew Bob Gray for 30 years. I had Gray speak at Hope for Life that Wednesday night, March 22, 2006. It was the last time Gray preached in a Jacksonville church, the last time he preached anywhere.”

Gary served as pastor for Hope for Life Baptist Church, just west of the Interstate 295 exit on Ramona Boulevard, “just down the road” from Trinity Baptist Church, from 2005 to 2008.

“My church and I were shocked,” he says, “by the local news reports of Pastor Gray’s arrests that aired Friday night, May 19, and consumed that Saturday, May 20.”

Bob Gray

Gary Hudson, who’d devoted his life to the Bible and to preaching it evangelically when he “gave his life to Christ” after watching a televised Billy Graham “crusade” in 1974, felt “determined to attend [Gray’s] first court hearing the following Saturday morning.”

The morning before Gary next preached, he found Bob Gray’s hearing postponed. So he walked from the courthouse to the Duval County jail and asked to visit the famous preacher.

Bob Gray

“I was the only person there to see Bob Gray in jail that morning,” Gary says. “His wife was supposed to come later that day. I waited in a hard-backed chair. Then, from behind the glass, here comes my former pastor and mentor, walking out in orange prison-garb, wearing that same inspiring smile he’d worn behind the pulpit.”

The sight struck Gary as uncanny: the orange jumpsuit, the benignant demeanor. It brought him to tears. He made small talk about how the great fundamentalist and evangelical Christian leader was “getting along” in jail, and Gray said, “This is all about something that happened many years ago.”

Pastors Gerald Fielder, Bob Gray, and Gary Hudson, at Bob Gray’s home, December 2006, courtesy Gary Hudson

“Pastor Gray,” Gary recalls saying, “I just had you preach in my church. My people will want a statement from me, as their pastor, tomorrow morning. Can I get a statement from you to give them?”

Gary says Gray paused, then said, “Tell them I am very sorry I have brought reproach on the gospel of Christ.”

Bob Gray

Investigators would soon gather more than 400 pages of deposition, statements from victims describing how the preacher had raped them when they were six or seven or 10 years old, statements from the preacher saying he sat children on his lap and violated them because he “loved them,” the evangelist saying he’d begun sexually abusing children because his first wife was going through menopause.

But on that morning when Gary Hudson visited Bob Gray in jail, even later when Gary visited Gray, near death, in the hospital, the news was new. He didn’t know what was coming, didn’t yet know what to think. What he heard that morning, Gary says, “seemed like part of an admission, though when I visited Pastor Gray in his home weeks later he vehemently denied all the accusations.”

Hope for Life Baptist Church stands just down the road from Trinity, a humble neighbor, like a sapling in the shade of a tall sickly pine. Gary Hudson had been honored to have Robert Calhoun Gray, who’d preached “revivals” and sermons across the country for decades, take the pulpit in his church. Now Gary felt confused, saddened, though his faith stayed strong.

Looking back, he says, “Gray’s ‘apology’ was not sincere and was deliberately ambiguous,” adding, “Gray could be ‘sorry’ about the reproach of being arrested and the accusations, yet publicly maintain his innocence, which, in the end, is exactly what he did.”

2. “A Bump in the Road,” or “Reason is a Whore”

Gary Hudson says his struggles with faith had nothing to do with witnessing the epidemic of fundamentalist and evangelical preachers sexually abusing children, so many that Jeri Massi published a brief encyclopedia of 100 such cases in 2015 called The Big Book of Bad Baptist Preachers and that Boz Tchividjian, the grandson of the evangelist Time magazine dubbed “America’s preacher,” Billy Graham, founded an organization called GRACE, “Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment.”

Billy Graham preaching in Times Square, courtesy billygrahamlibrary.org

In his 2018 book, Surrender to Reason: New Testament Studies that Disputed Faith, Hudson writes, “This book is not about my Christian experience. It is not a book written out of bitterness with fellow believers. Despite having some bad experiences with a few Christians, both in and out of the ministry, none ever caused me to question the Bible or the Christian faith. I say emphatically that nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing I experienced with believers caused me to question the Bible. It was what I found in the Bible itself and by myself that caused me to question it.”

In 2008, Gary resigned from preaching at Hope for Life, his third church, after only three years. He’d been a pastor for a quarter century.

Gary Hudson with Jerry Falwell at Trinity Baptist Church, 2006, courtesy Gary Hudson

Surrender to Reason makes no mention of Bob Gray, no mention of the evangelist Jerry Falwell—co-founder of Liberty University, where presidential candidates seeking the evangelical vote launch their campaigns—who called Trinity’s coverup of Gray’s abuse of children “a bump in the road,” no mention of the worldwide Catholic Church child sex abuse cases involving hundreds of thousands of victims.

Gary Hudson’s book marches verse by verse through the Book of Romans in the New Testament, analyzing the Apostle Paul’s reasoning, finding it often circuitous, showing where Paul calls faith “reason,” but condemns reason that questions faith. “To abandon reason for any belief,” Gary writes, “is neither moral, nor safe for conscience.”

Martin Luther

As an epigraph, he quotes the 1566 Table Talk of Martin Luther, where the father of the Protestant Reformation says, “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”

Gary asks his readers to consider why those who speak for God would treat with such contempt our capacity for reason, which leads us to question unjust authority and search for the truth.

3. Into his Gates with Thanksgiving

Along the tall chain-link fence beside the interstate highway, a slightly crooked cinderblock cross catches the waning daylight. The church sanctuary stands locked and empty most of the week.

The gates to the compound bear signs instructing visitors, from Psalm 100:4 to “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving and into His courts with praise.”

The wind plays with an empty Taco Bell bag and a black cat slinks low around hedges beneath lonely crepe myrtles.

Gary doesn’t remember what Bob Gray preached in the final sermon of his long, influential, and pedophiliac career. The Florida Times-Union quoted Gary in its May 28, 2006 story, “Spiritual Legacy in Question,” saying, “Our faith is in the Bible, not in the men who preach it.”

“That continued to be my position,” he says, “until my own studies of the Bible convinced me otherwise.”

Gary remembers how some members of the church worried most about the scandal’s effect on “the fate and financial future of Trinity Baptist Church,” while others predicted legal charges brought against Trinity Pastor Tom Messer and other administrators for orchestrating the church coverup.

“Friends of mine in the ministry said things like, ‘This proves Gray was never truly converted,’” Gary says, “a belief that personally appealed to me as the strict ‘genuine conversion’ preacher I was. Several of my own church members were ‘converted’ and re-baptized under my ministry at Hope for Life. I wasn’t a simple ‘pray the prayer and presto’ kind of preacher.”

Gary Hudson works for himself full-time in Tallahassee now, repairing guitars and other stringed instruments. He’s 63 years old, happily remarried. It’s been 35 years since he was first ordained to preach. He’s repaired more than 5,000 guitars in the last few years, “working for professional musicians out here on the Panhandle, from Lake City to Pensacola and up into Alabama and Georgia.”

Back in the empty field around Hope for Life, the temperature drops as the light falls. Where Bob Gray preached the last sermon of a half-century career not even a breeze stirs the leaves on the pavement. Where Gary Hudson read the Book of Romans inside-out and the Apostle Paul tied reason in knots, only the slurring of highway traffic breaks the present silence. Behind the brick walls, chandeliers hang stolid above unyielding church pews.

“I never told anyone in my church I thought Gray was guilty,” Gary says. “I said that everyone should reserve judgment for the trial and let the facts speak for themselves.”

Gary Hudson and other preachers discussed “strategies” to convince Gray to convert to God before it was too late, before the man who’d preached to millions and sexually molested countless children burnt forever in Hell.

Bob Gray, courtesy Florida Times-Union

Gray never went to trial. He died in jail, having suffered from Parkinson’s and a bad heart. Tom Messer, who ran the last of several Trinity Baptist Church coverups for Gray’s pedophilia through the decades, never was charged. Messer has referred to “20 or 30 or 40 victims, however many there were,” while decades-long church member Pat Cassell believes, “There were hundreds of kids, hundreds of victims.” Whether or not Bob Gray converted to the faith he’d preached for decades and upon which he’d built one of the largest Baptist churches in Florida by the 1970s has no bearing whatsoever on the suffering he brought the world and is, therefore, totally irrelevant. Gray’s dead; his victims still suffer.

Gary Hudson, 2012

A couple hundred miles west of Hope for Life, Gary Hudson, “the busiest guitar tech in the Panhandle,” describes himself now as “a very happy peace-loving non-believer.” His book is “dedicated to all I have influenced to believe in the Christian gospel.”