by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2014
It’s been more than 40 years since Trinity Baptist Church moved from its original inner-city McDuff Avenue church campus to its rural compound west of the city.
But if you stand on the decades-old carpet before the empty stage and think about all that happened, you know this fundamentalist Baptist church fomented and sheltered evil (a word I almost never use), right here where you stand, for decades.
The plaque on the front of the “sanctuary” dates the dedication of Trinity Baptist Church to 1952, the pastor’s name W.L. Hambrick, the word “sanctuary” as poisonously ironic as it can be.
Hambrick was gone in two or three years, and Robert Calhoun Gray, Jr. led this small church in the neighborhood of Lackawanna through an accumulation of power that would make it Jacksonville’s first “megachurch” and would grant him as pastor authority he himself would compare to that of God.
In 1956, Bob Gray, a 30 year old preacher with growing rock-star power in his own circuits of influence, stood before and above his audience with an Elvis Presley poster in one hand and an open Bible in the other.
Nearly 60 years later, this Southern mano-a-mano seems ludicrous since everybody knows of Elvis and only as many people know of Bob Gray for his sexual abuse of children as for his religio-cultural jousting with the King of Rock ’n Roll.
But Bob Gray understood the workings of power. He understood how the Roman Empire after persecuting early Christians made Christianity the first world religion. He played both hands. If you believed in Jesus Christ, you were “persecuted,” but if you did not, you were “lost.” So his sermons and the church’s pamphlets began, “My friend,” before condemning you to Hell, then offering himself and the church, and by extension though expressed as sole purpose, the Good Lord Jesus.
Bob Gray began his empire on McDuff Avenue. He came down to the stage from the upper level. Nearly every Sunday night, he baptized new converts in the fount behind stage, then disappeared inaccessibly, and thus more powerfully, into his office in the Sunday School Building reached by second-story walkway behind the Sanctuary.
When Bob Gray died in prison in 1997, only 21 women and one man had filed charges of sexual abuse from when they were between five and 10 years old, while scores of children since 1949 had claimed he’d molested them. At least one of them committed suicide.
Gray told one little girl, “I am like God in this church and you are just a little girl.”
Trinity grew greatly through its “bus ministry,” a program begun in the late 1960s that encouraged “bus captains” to compete for how many “visitors” they could bring to church. Pastor Jack Hyles of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana began the “bus ministry movement,” and Trinity quickly followed.
Bus captains, led by men like Wally Beebe, “Mister Bus,” sought out children throughout the week, along their designated routes, in order to pick them up on Sunday mornings to bring to church.
Wally Beebe moved from Jack Hyles to Bob Gray and, between the two pastors he served, left a long line of abused children in his wake. Buses picked up ragamuffin children from poor neighborhoods on Sunday mornings whose mothers were happy to have a babysitter for a few hours. They brought them to the church site where exciting things happened—for them, ice cream and live goldfish-swallowing, but for teenagers at night, burnings of the demons in pyramids of rock n’ roll albums.
Lance Collins, later sometimes known as John Todd, was a young evangelist who preached against the Satanism of rock music. He was later charged with child molestation and convicted of rape.
The preachers and musicians who moved from church to church throughout those years were the rock stars of their own fundamentalist Baptist circuit. They had countless of their own groupies as well.
Since the mid-1970s, however, that closed circuit of right-wing fundamentalist Christian power has fought desperately to sustain itself through scandal after scandal that so tragically illustrates the complete lack of human empathy that power offers the powerful.
Lester Roloff, a frequent guest speaker at Trinity, ran a “home for girls” in Texas, where parents in Baptist churches from all across the Southeast sent their troubled daughters. When his “Rebekah Home for Girls” ran afoul of Texas authorities in defense of Roloff’s brutal interpretations of the Biblical injunction not to spare the rod and spoil the child, Southern fundamentalists called the resultant 1979 standoff “the Christian Alamo.”
Fifty years after allegations of Bob Gray’s sexual abuse of children first surfaced, the City of Jacksonville finally took these assertions seriously and arrested the preacher who’d once been bigger than the city.
When Trinity removed to its own westward rural cult compound off Interstate-10, Bob Gray and his administrative underlings had cemented their insular power. If this weren’t the power of God and his inner sanctuary, what was?
Across the decades, Trinity Baptist Church colluded with numerous teachers and preachers and bus ministers who hid crimes of rape and child molestation and abuse beneath the cloak of divine leadership.
Against such claims as these, those charged pleaded guilty–
of Bob Gray “French-kissing,” fondling, and showing his penis to children,
of Jack Hyles’s son molesting young girls and claiming his father set his example,
of bus captains that came to pick up girls and touched them and pressed themselves against them,
of the lawsuit filed by the parents of a 12 year-old “retarded” girl, whom Hyles’s bus ministers picked up for more than six years, and whom multiple witnesses saw molested, beaten, and gang-raped while church leaders guarded doors.
When Jack Hyles’s good friend Bob Gray found the decades of molesting children catching up with him, Trinity Baptist Church supposedly sent him to secular Germany to become a missionary.
By then, Trinity Baptist Church had covered up a half century of Bob Gray molesting children.
For decades, Trinity Baptist Church, under its long-time second-in-command Pastor Lenny Willinger, protected Bob Gray and allowed him to continue to molest little girls and boys.
For decades Trinity brought traveling evangelists to host revivals and speak against the evils American society foisted against itself, while more than a dozen such fundamentalist church leaders, including Bob Gray, Lester Roloff, Jack Hyles, James Hyles, Lance Collins / John Todd, Joseph Combs, and Jack Schaap faced serious charges of sexually abusing children.
Sometimes Bob Gray told the children he abused they were God’s gift to him, and sometimes he told them he was like God and they owed it to him.
If only Bob Gray had always looked to his worshipers like the old buzzard the police finally arrested. But he was powerful, charismatic, red-blooded, vigorous, virile, tumescent, and imperial.
Cont’d at Marietta: Gray’s Grave.