by Tim Gilmore, 6/10/2022
The hallways crowd me. I’m 15 years old. I hope, at the start of the school year, I’ve been assigned a top locker. The school requirement that skirts reach girls’ knees doesn’t hide the fact of contours. The rule that boys’ hair can’t touch their ears occasionally results in a student being sent home for a haircut.
The one Puerto Rican girl in the school lives around the corner from me on Andromeda Road. She laughs when I tell her I’d have a brother if he hadn’t died from encephalitis contracted through a mosquito bite before I was born. “How can a bug kill somebody?” she wants to know.
The thing about Jennifer is this self-assertion that comes through her posture. And those incisive intelligent eyes and that smile. I sit next to her in Miss Curl’s math class, 1988 or ’89, and we discuss heavy metal bands. I record some of my compact discs, Metal Church and Anthrax, on cassette tapes for her.
Miss Curl passes back math tests. I haven’t done so well. Miss Curl’s hairstyle, her frilly blouses, the giant frames of her glasses on her hard spare face, make her seem decades older than she is. When she speaks it sounds like she’s muscling a Georgia drawl down her throat with her tongue. “You had a few boners on that test, didn’t you?” she asks. My face flushes. I seem to recall the word also being slang for errors, not just for erections. Jennifer tries to swallow her laughter, almost chokes on it. She stays composed as always, almost.
We hear about rock n’ roll in Chapel on Fridays, in Bible class, and when History and English teachers get off subject. It’s dangerous listening to this kind of music. “Burn out the day. / Burn out the night. / I can’t see no reason to put up a fight.” These songs can make you kill yourself. You can accidentally invite demons into your home. Some rock bands even ensnare demons into the vinyl of their records. “I’m livin’ for givin’ the Devil his due, / And I’m burnin’, I’m burnin’, I’m burnin’ for you.”
Girls hairspray their bangs high. Boys hairspray theirs too, but not upward. Everybody wears acid wash jean jackets. I only have to wear a tie on Friday, the day everyone attends Chapel. At the last school I attended, ties were a daily requirement. Bob Gray, church pastor and school principal, had promised no black people would ever attend his school, but black athletes help the football team win. It’s been some time since Gray called MLK “Martin Lucifer King,” though everybody understands Civil Rights was a Communist plot.
I think about Patti so often and so intensively, it’s like she’s put a spell on me. She writes “Ignore this picture!” across her high-sprayed hair in my yearbook. Her sense of humor is wry, sarcastic, smart. Lying on my bed, I talk to her on the phone, about nothing, about music, about what? All these hours I talk to her, sometimes just hanging out, having run out of things to say. Once when I think she indicates she might have feelings for me, I’m so excited I leave the phone on my bed and smack my forehead on the floor and my skull rattles and reverberates like a bell.
My parents had met at Trinity Baptist Church, but they’d never sent me to the affiliated school. It’s not until after my mother dies when I’m 12 that my father sends me to Trinity Christian Academy. Baptists’ views on divorce being so very strict, my mother had asked Bob Gray if she could remarry after her physically abusive husband had left her. Gray told her God gave her permission to marry the man who’d become my father. In December 1972, she did.
Trinity had only covered up Gray’s sexual abuse of children for a couple decades then; it wasn’t even halfway through. The church and school had just moved from the old location on McDuff Avenue in town to their new expanded suburban campus on Hammond Boulevard.
The few people I really like in ninth grade are smarter kids who all listen to the Devil’s music. Not that we believe it: what the songs supposedly say backward, how listening to bands like The Eagles could make us kill our parents. The school’s information is old anyway. “Stairway to Heaven” came out before we were born, though hearing the song played backward to reveal Robert Plant singing “Here’s to my sweet Satan” and “His path makes me sad” gives me the creeps. Teachers don’t know there’s a band called Lizzy Borden who set to music the old jump rope chant – “Lizzie Borden took an axe, / gave her mother 40 whacks. / When she saw what she had done, / She gave her father 41.”
Fundamentalist Christianity is fascinated with the Devil. Obsessed. In love. Sometimes we hear more about the Devil than we do about Jesus. He’s handsome, the Devil. Even worse, he’s cool. He’s what somebody said about the poet Lord Byron, that he’s “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” He wants to make boys grow their hair long, wear leather jackets and hightop Converse shoes, curse at their parents, listen to Metal Church songs like “Watch the Children Pray.”
“In a darkened graveyard glows a light. / I see it shine there every night. / I know somewhere there’s a hidden door. / There’s an answer here we must explore.” I want to find that door with Jennifer, to explore that graveyard with Patti. There’s a longing for my missing mother in my attraction to rebellious Trinity girls. When Patti signs my yearbook, she writes, “♥ ya” and “Metal Rulz!” Jennifer writes, “Thanx for the Anthrax tape. I’ll cherish it forever.”
My mother had wanted me to become a preacher. Preachers and teachers keep telling us how alluring the Devil is. Even that earliest Sunday School chant made him magnetic in its very defiance. “Down by the river, I took a little walk. / I met up with the Devil and we had a little talk. / I pushed him in the river. I hung him out to dry. / We can beat the Devil any old time.”
Now that we’re adolescents, we’re told we probably can’t beat him at all. So we must try all the harder. There’s an obese boy who calls himself a redneck and says things like “Fuck Christ,” then chortles idiotically in his throat. My friend Scott is convinced the boy’s “demon possessed,” says he must be to breathe the way he does, but I just feel sorry for him.
A strange innocence abides in our rebellious bemusement. What Bob Gray is doing to younger children in his office while we’re in science class hearing that biological evolution is a lie that denies God as creator, we do not know. Several years earlier, Trinity had sent Gray away for “Christian counseling,” but administrators didn’t say why. My 1988 and ’89 Trinity yearbooks show Gray surrounded by children. One photo shows him holding a little girl’s head to the tie that descends his belly, her blond hair in a red headband, his suit-jacketed arm entirely eclipsing her face.
Three decades later, when I write my book Devil in the Baptist Church: Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity, people ask me repeatedly, “When you were a student there, did you know?” The earliest accusations of child sexual abuse date to the late 1940s. I leave Trinity in 1990 and graduate from Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, a public school named for an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, in ’92.
That very year, current Pastor Tom Messer, then-assistant pastor Leonard Willinger, and other male church leaders make a deal with the families of victims who’ve found out about each other, found out they’re not alone, and who threaten to go public. If the victims and their families stay quiet, the church will remove Gray, the pastor who’d grown Trinity into the largest megachurch in Florida by the late 1970s. He’d become a missionary to secular Germany. The Jesus whom they all love and serve will not have his name tarnished.
When Gray comes back to Jacksonville, old and frail, in 2006, a small group of victims have decided they’ll be silent no longer. Bob Gray will die in jail awaiting trial. A decade later, Tom Messer tells me about the “20 or 30 or 40 victims, however many there were,” says such matters are best dealt with in the church, for the church is a family, and accuses “the media” of an “ambush.” When I ask Messer if he thinks he should have contacted authorities, instead of working on a deal to protect Gray, he ends our discussion.
In 2022, the Southern Baptist Convention releases a nearly 300 page report it had kept secret, including more than 700 entries for pastors and church personnel accused of sexual abuse. The report documents victims who spoke out about what happened to them being called “instruments of Satan,” being shamed by male church leaders – most Baptist churches shun the notion of female leaders – and referred to as “Potiphar’s wives,” alluding to an Old Testament Biblical character who makes a false allegation of rape, as deviants “just as reprehensible as sex criminals.”
Leaders at Trinity respond to victims this way for decades, though Trinity never belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention. Like thousands of fundamentalist Baptist churches, Trinity calls the SBC “too liberal,” prefers a lack of affiliation, since Baptist preachers, “God’s anointed” men, are answerable to no one but God. Not belonging to the SBC, such churches are IFB, Independent Fundamental Baptist.
God, Bob Gray believes, secretly grants his pastors special privileges that few others would understand. Depositions later reveal how Gray tells one little girl that what he does to her is God’s reward for him. In the pulpit, meanwhile, he thunders against Civil Rights, abortion, homosexuality, cigarettes, rock music and women wearing pants instead of dresses.
Once in Bible class, Mr. Robinson, whose wife teaches math, says there’s another reason, besides Satanism itself, that people are so captivated by rock n’ roll. It isn’t just what the church calls “the backbeat,” or the “backwards beat,” but the fact that something in the rhythm of rock songs is mathematically sexual. You can’t not listen. I laugh too loudly. It’s less a laugh than a statement. All the football players turn back and peer at me.
Mr. Hurt, who teaches classes on the Bible and Computers, asks us if, should he write and publish a book about the evils of rock music, we would buy it. One student tells him there’s a hip-hop song called “Da’ Butt,” quotes it, “Ain’t nothin’ wrong / If you wanna do the butt all night long,” asks Mr. Hurt what he thinks the song means. A girl on the other side of the class protests. “It’s a dance!” she says, but the boys fall into hysterics.
Time runs differently, 33 years later. Faces in my memory bring such deep resonant emotion. But what of the hours and hours, what of the minutes that made up those hours, I spent talking to Jennifer and Patti? What lasts of all those conversations? What of all that time Patti and I hung out on the phone when we’d run out of things to say?
What’s the nature of time to the Devil? I know enough of how time works to know its working eludes me. The Devil, on the other hand, is a trick, a trap, a projection, a distraction.
When the world was newer to me, so was all that any moment brought me, for time had much more to mark. So the hours lasted and lasted. The days formed days unto themselves. Life sufficed. There was all of it before me, and because it lasted as it did – it took forever to make it through an hour-long class when I was hot and bored and my pimples both shamed me and hurt – the rest of my life spanned on ahead without end. I wouldn’t live forever, but there was so much left. The trick comes from the other side, from how little I can actually remember of all I loved of my time with such dear sweet friends.
We’re 15 years old, knowing little to nothing of the world, Reagan years blending to the first President Bush, the fall of the Berlin Wall, all the world we do know cast as spiritual war between God and the Devil, including the U.S.A. versus the U.S.S.R., Republicans versus Democrats, those who believe the unborn have souls from the first moment a sperm cell fertilizes an egg versus those who believe God’s chosen nation had somehow unpardonably wronged black people.
Good-and-evil, we’re taught in Chapel and Bible class and every other class, is simple. It’s a choice. Sometimes the choice is difficult, but that’s why God rewards us. God never gives us a problem we can’t handle. This life is just a test. It’s practice for the next world. At 15, I haven’t yet questioned how such platitudes defer this-world justice.
My mother had said she never wanted to grow old anyway. Her illness gave her the opportunity to testify for “the Lord.” One of her special God-given gifts was the ability to know who the Lord would make president. She’d known it would be Reagan.
As for the Devil, Dennis and Pat Cassell suggest you might call him “Bob Gray.” My 1988 Trinity Christian Academy yearbook is dedicated to Dennis Cassell. In 2016, the Cassells tell me Tom Messer has rebuilt a “bright and shining church” on a “sepulcher” of “sacrificed children.” In 1992, after decades of “service” to Trinity, the Cassells are fired and dismissed when they speak out about how the church has covered for Gray. In 2016, Messer tells me, “I don’t give a rip about people who claim some personal or employment grievance against the church and act like Gray was some turning point in their faith.”
The 1988 yearbook dedication page says, “Mr. Cassell’s teaching career began in 1969 when he first taught in a public school. He began teaching at Trinity in the fall of 1972. In 1973, Mr. Cassell became Coach Cassell when he undertook the responsibility of coaching the football team in its first season. The team emerged from that first season with an 8-2 record. He also coached the basketball team which won the district competition that same year. Mr. Cassell coaches baseball as well. This is his favorite sport.”
More than 30 years later, it’s Dennis Cassell who coins that now infamous phrase, that description of Trinity Baptist Church and Trinity Christian Academy under Bob Gray as the “perfect pedophile paradise.” He dies in 2016, shortly after my book, to which he contributed so graciously and selflessly, is published.
In 1988, the Trinity yearbook staff writes, “Mr. Cassell, it is with great pride that we dedicate the 1987-88 Challenge to you for your sixteen years of faithful service as a teacher, a coach, and a friend.”
If innocent means ignorant, in 1989, in ninth grade, we’re both. In proximity, unknowingly, to such crimes against children, we rebel against church and school leaders preaching against evils much lesser. “I don’t know what I’d do if I had to see another one of those films!” Patti writes in my yearbook.
The movies the school shows us about rock music offer an intensive education, just not the one they intend. We’re learning as much about rock n’ roll history as if we’re reading rock critics Lester Bangs or Greil Marcus. We don’t really believe fans at rock shows unknowingly enact ancient “Satanic” rituals described in the Old Testament book of II Kings, nor that Mick Fleetwood, in his infamous percussion vest performance, is possessed by demons and not just coked out. If we knew what’s happening in Bob Gray’s office, we’d hear differently those Metal Church lyrics, “We watch the children pray, /’Save us, God, today!'”
We laugh, forge friendships, learn to define ourselves, become aware of our own intelligence, grow sickened by hypocrisy. “Listen,” Patti writes in my yearbook, and I do, 33 years later, “I’ll miss you next year but I hope you’ll keep in touch.” Do I? At least at first? Or does survival in the brutal culture of a public high school tunnel my vision? What happens to us? Why will I remember so little of what kindnesses mattered so much? I don’t have answers to these questions.