Matt C. Abbott
February 26, 2010
Washington Times editor's 'Days of Fire and Glory'
By Matt C. Abbott

Julia Duin, assistant national editor and religion writer for the Washington Times, is one of the few secular journalists who had the guts to write about the Catholic Church's "gay priest" problem during her coverage of silenced whistleblower priest Father James Haley.

Duin's latest book is called Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community. The book, according to her Web site,

    '...is the story of God, sex and power, how a huge 20th century religious experiment in the life of one cleric led to the rise and fall of many. The book traces the journey of Graham Pulkingham, an Episcopal priest who led Church of the Redeemer, one of the nation's fastest growing and most vibrant churches in a Houston slum and left a legacy that lasts to this day. He held thousands spellbound with his Gospel preaching and influenced millions with his daring vision of a compelling, charismatic Christianity made visible by a system of worldwide communities. Yet, Pulkingham hid from his followers a dark double life that he at first resisted, then secretly pursued and finally allowed to twist his personal theology into a gordian knot of accommodation and self-deceit and finally death.

    'Twenty years ago, Miss Duin, then a Houston Chronicle reporter, set out to do a laudatory account of events at Redeemer, only to discover the hidden sins not only of one Houston church but of an entire movement. At its heights, Church of the Redeemer was a place afire. It was a megachurch before megachurches came into vogue. It had everything: an international reputation, fabulous music and joyous worship. It was not only a vibrant center for the Jesus movement that was transfixing the country in the early '70s, but it was the energy center for the charismatic movement, a type of Christianity straight from the exciting miracles of the New Testament book of Acts. Christians who were being 'baptized in the Holy Spirit' within this movement felt they were witnessing the waking of a 2,000-year-old giant and experiencing a renaissance of the glory days of Christianity's beginning.

    'But there was more. Lurking in the shadows of Church of the Redeemer were dark secrets that in time made the church a living symbol of the charismatic movement's rise and decline; of a time when people's desire for God's love and power was shot through with pride, obsession with control and twisted sexuality. It all began in 1964 when Graham Pulkingham, a burned-out Houston clergyman, traveled to New York and found himself transformed by the experience of being 'baptized in the Spirit' through the prayers of David Wilkerson, author of The Cross and the Switchblade and today one of the world's best-known pentecostal preachers. Returning to Houston, the on-fire priest helped lay the groundwork for the Jesus movement. Under his leadership, the church catapulted itself into the communal living movement, creating dozens of extended 'Christian households encompassing more than 400 people in low-income neighborhoods. Through the books and magazine articles describing this remarkable church, thousands of curious babyboomer Christians visited Houston. Artists and musicians from around the world drifted in, creating a new genre of Christian music.

    'Things began to unravel in the mid 1970s after CBS's laudatory hour-long special in 1972 drew overflow crowds, overwhelming the church and its households. Pulkingham traveled to England to extend his influence by planting communities there, but left a cadre of authoritarian elders ruling the church in his absence. These elders began implementing the principles of a ruinous 'discipleship movement' that was also sweeping contemporary Christianity — and devastating lives. The top elder at Redeemer was caught in adultery and the unrelated Jim Jones Guyana tragedy cast a pall over the notion of communal living. The household communities rapidly split up and even though Pulkingham moved back into 1980 to fix up the place, it was too late.

    'Not that Pulkingham was the best one to go around cleaning up anyone's reputation. A husband with six children, he had struggled with a lifetime of homosexual urges. Believing himself rid of them forever after his spiritual transformation in New York, he let himself be enticed back into the lifestyle several years later and began to act on these urges in England. He and his wife moved into separate bedrooms and he began propositioning male followers for sexual favors. In Houston, other followers noticed his theology had taken a decidedly left-hand turn. As more sex scandals — again involving elders — rocked the church, he was forced out just two years after his return. The charismatic movement had reached every corner of the globe by this time, but many of its American originators had turned on each other.

    'By the mid-1980s, both Pulkingham and the charismatic movement had run out of steam as disappointed followers penned books such as Power Religion, Churches That Abuse and Disappointment With God. Insiders who tried to reform the movement — and Pulkingham's church — were largely ignored. Then the PTL and Jimmy Swaggart scandals became double black eyes for Christianity while the 1988 presidential run of the first openly charismatic Christian candidate Pat Robertson politicized the movement. The monastic trio of poverty, chastity and obedience in the lives of early charismatics that had propelled their movement to such heady successes became the three-way trap of sex, money and power. God's love and power, which had transformed Church of the Redeemer, had been perverted to become raw power and sexual desire. Rocketing way beyond its biblical basis, the charismatic Christian movement in the 1990s became fertile ground for bizarre spiritual manifestations, such as believers being overcome with 'holy laughter,' uncontrollable shaking, making animal noises during services and people claiming that God was supplying them with new gold fillings for their teeth.

    'The book climaxes with Pulkingham's betrayal at the hands of the wife of a former lover and the collapse of a new community he founded north of Pittsburgh. By the time he was stricken with a fatal heart attack while caught in the midst of a 1993 supermarket shootout, Pulkingham was disgraced by a decades-long string of homosexual flings, under investigation by his bishop for propositioning some of the troubled men he counseled and on the verge of being defrocked by the very denomination he helped energize for three decades.

    'Julia Duin's investigation of Graham Pulkingham is the final straw that leads to his downfall and ultimately his death. Days of Fire and Glory required 182 face-to-face interviews. It reveals how sex and religion, unhappily tangled, are still the stuff of headlines. The amazing characters, who were gifted people with the best intentions, failed miserably when they allow their faith in God to succumb to the desires of their bodies. Theirs is a cautionary tale that would well be heeded by all for whom the Gospel has become the foundation of their earthly success. Intentional community movements are becoming popular among young Christians and some of the worst excesses of religious authoritarian movements of several decades ago are popping up under new names.

    'However, the book is an inspiration that shows what God once did among an unlikely group of people in Houston and what He can do again.

    'As for babyboomers who lived through the religious movements of the last decades of the millennium, Days of Fire and Glory is a long-awaited validation of their search for God.'

The following is the Prelude to Days of Fire and Glory. Many thanks to Charles Eby of the Crossland Foundation for allowing me to reprint Duin's material.

I was seated in a gorgeous meadow overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Other members of my tour group were wandering about the Mount of Beatitudes but I needed some quiet. For about a year, the Almighty had been suggesting that I write about the Church of the Redeemer, the world-famous Episcopal church I was attending in Houston's East End. The church's legendary personalities had made it a unique juxtaposition of Christian community and charismatic power. And its story had already appeared in several books and on television. But nothing had been written in at least a decade, and I sensed I was to tell the whole story — whatever that was.

Peter the disciple had stepped out on this same lake with nothing but faith to stand on. And that is all I would have. I knew I did not have the endurance and strength to accomplish this awesome task. And the needed financial resources were daunting. Where was I going to find the time for such a massive project? What if I did not finish; did not find a publisher or market; or got stymied by the people at Redeemer itself? What if I lost friends over the writing of this book? And where would I find the money to finance years of research?

And so I asked the Lord for the power to do it. And while gazing at that lovely lake in the mid-morning Israeli sun, an impression sprang instantly to my mind of Him saying, "You shall have it."

And so I began. The Redeemer was set up so that everyone adhered to a strict line of authority. If the parish rector said a project was alright, then it was assumed God was behind it. And so I sought out the three rectors who were in place during Redeemer's period of fame: Graham Pulkingham, Ladd Fields, and Jeff Schiffmayer. All had overseen the church during the 30-year period I was chronicling, which would end up being 1963–1993. Ladd was quick to give his approval, even agreeing to provide a letter on church stationery that I could send to 350 people scattered around the world. Stationed in a parish a two-hour drive away, Jeff said he would not oppose the book and wanted only minimal involvement with it. But the big fish was Graham, and so I flew to Pittsburgh. We spent five hours together on a cold November day. At first, he suggested I make the story into a novel. "No way," I said. "I am a journalist and the truth deserves telling."

He launched into a long discourse on community, saying the charismatic renewal was based upon the "principle of commonality." That is, God's power lay not only in spiritual gifts but in the community they sprang up in. Community was the fulcrum for everything: praise, worship, healing power, and supernatural events. This is how he interpreted Acts 2, the story of the birth of the powerful early church.

Then he paused. A book, he said, had enormous implications. He was not sure how much he could say; what pastoral confidences he might breach. He turned to me. If the book is neither an exposé nor a souped-up, glamorized rendition of earlier books on Redeemer, then what was it, he asked? What criteria would I use? If the criteria was sin — as in an exposé — he was not interested.

"Neither am I," I said.

Had I only known.

But, unsuspecting, I innocently told Graham that God had only directed me to write the thing. How and why was yet to be determined. Graham then posed a second challenge: did I not lack the theological depth and insight to write such a book? "If you are going to report," he said, "you will need to interpret and analyze."

The big unanswered question was where I'd find the time to write such a book. I had no grants or fellowships. I was working full-time as a religion reporter for the Houston Chronicle, one of the country's largest newspapers. Two years before, I'd written a short book on sexual purity. It had taken me every free weekend for seven months. This Redeemer book would take 10 times the time and energy, and my newspaper was not accustomed to granting year-long book sabbaticals.

Three months later, my employer suddenly fired me — with no explanation. After I emerged from my tailspin, I realized that I now had several months in which to start this book before I left Houston to move to a seminary across the Ohio River from Graham's home. Here is where I would get the master's degree that would provide the theological underpinning I needed.

And so, a year later, in September 1990, I began showing up once a month at the manse of Graham and his wife, Betty Jane, to hear once again of what God had done at Redeemer. I was already driving about the country and putting significant money into long-distance calls to locate former members. I was digging into my theological studies three miles away across the river. The next two summers were spent camping out in Houston to interview more people.

I began to unearth not only the glories of Redeemer's history but also its terrible secrets. And then it was the summer of 1992, one of the coolest and rainiest on record in Pittsburgh. The night of August 10 was uncharacteristically hot and stuffy. I was sweltering in a non-air-conditioned second-floor apartment in Ambridge, a small town 20 miles north of Pittsburgh, making my way through a doctoral thesis on Redeemer for the University of Houston. At 9:30 p.m., the phone rang.

On the other end was Graham's familiar, clipped voice. Graham was an architect of a unique spiritual awakening begun in the 1960s in the United States that became one of the world's most potent religious forces. For 2,000 years, the Christian church had tried various ways of returning to the glory and power of the book of Acts, a time when Jesus's followers converted 3,000 people in a day and healed every ailment they ran across. Despite isolated revivals, Christianity never equaled the glorious achievements from those first years after Jesus's resurrection. Centuries of division and separation among Christians had taken their toll.

Then, inexplicably, a divine grace of mammoth proportions was poured out around the world on all Christian traditions. It was more radical than just another revival. It was a seismic shift in the nature of Christianity. The supernatural "gifts" of the Holy Spirit were reappearing, and the church seemingly was reawakening, Rip Van Winkle-like, from a 20-century slumber. People were combing through Scripture to find all sorts of coded references to an empowerment, a gift, a baptism in the Holy Spirit that the early church had known all about. How had this gotten lost through the centuries? Church of the Redeemer, positioned squarely in the beginning of this U.S. revival, uniquely contributed to the renewal's internationalization.

First, it was the coffeehouse in downtown Houston that Graham founded on the "hippie trail," linking the east coast and California and running through the southern states. It became the model for Christian coffeehouses around the country. Then, perhaps even more significant, it was the community — a network of 400 people living together, by the dozens, in homes, sharing salaries, preaching the Gospel, and transforming their low-income neighborhoods.

Then it was the music, primed by artists and musicians who drifted in from around the world, wedding guitars and drums to spirituality to create contemporary Christian songs that spread to churches everywhere. CBS' laudatory hour-long special on the church in 1972 was only one of the admiring bouquets tossed at Redeemer's feet.

Shortly after that, Graham moved to England in a bid to spread his influence to the seat of the Anglican Communion. In his absence, a cadre of elders started imposing draconian rules, and the spiritual freedom that had distinguished Redeemer's life quickly died. A top elder was caught in adultery, and the unrelated Jim Jones Guyana tragedy cast a pall over the entire notion of communal living. The households split up over a period of a few months and by the time Graham returned in 1980 to clean up the place, Redeemer was a spiritual ruin.

By then, the charismatic renewal had peaked across the rest of the country. But nowhere in the United States had it burned with such intensity as it had at Church of the Redeemer, where the New Testament repeated itself for a glamorous decade. People came there from all over the world, much like they did to the Azusa Street revival in the early 1900s to see the book of Acts in action, to experience the eternal, haunting quality of the music, to drink in the power and love of God.

When I first encountered Redeemer in 1986, mostly smoking embers were left of its original fire. It was the waning of an era. Times had changed, goals were reached, prophets had died. Traditions crept in, with bureaucracy replacing the Spirit. Leaders became set in their ways, and sin, I discovered, ruined this spiritual block party.

Redeemer was based on a movement that promised so much, but got easily corrupted. And yet, at its base, there was a shining reality that had set 120 people on fire on the first Pentecost. A generation of baby boomer Christians, converted and baptized in the Spirit during the 1960s and 1970s, could not deny this core experience. Just as a mind once stretched by a new idea can never go back to its original dimensions, so their spirits could never return to their previous levels. Any effort to do so ended in misery, for it was impossible to refold the gossamer wings and crawl back into the cocoon.

When I first met Graham, he was the most vibrant personality I had encountered in many years of reporting. His baptism in the Spirit had revealed to him an intimacy with God that, in the early years of his charismatic ministry, he shared with all his heart to thousands, if not millions. They too longed to drink from that same well.

Then a shadow arose. Only God knows the whole story, but what I found was the best story I could gather through years of shifting through church records, all of Graham's writings, dozens of tapes, and face-to-face interviews with 182 persons, including nine bishops, many clergy, and numerous hidden, humble people.

Graham was still on the other end of the line. I had not been able to finish my research because, at the core of my narrative was a deep secret involving him. I had to know what it was. Twice, when I had asked him about it, he had denied involvement in any impropriety. That July, I showed up at his office with the name of a man: Richard.

"Julia," he was saying over the phone, "I need to ask your forgiveness. You know the question you asked me about Richard? Well, there's truth in that. Richard is talking and I need not pretend."

I grabbed a note pad and began scribbling. Over the next half hour, he finally revealed his secret. Thirty years before, he had experienced God's love and power. Years later, he had allowed it to become power and desire, and now he was at the greatest crisis of his life, with the sand in his human hour glass fast running out.

I could see the beautiful edifice of this man's reputation shattering, thousands of sharp splinters landing in Pittsburgh, Houston, Colorado, England, and wherever people knew of the beauty that was once Graham's ministry at Redeemer. James Clark, the writer of the dissertation sitting on my lap, had called Redeemer "a unique and priceless laboratory" for the testing of the charismatic thesis. It was a laboratory like none other, with many spills, many broken laboratory dishes, and a few chemical explosions. And now here was a nuclear bomb.

Graham, I thought, how could you? There never was a beauty quite like Redeemer's. Those who have left there have never found anything quite like it elsewhere. The book of Acts really did come alive there, and for a few short years, Houston had been a glorious spiritual Camelot.

The power of the Holy Spirit had been like dawn, leaping over Houston, its powerful rays streaking across an azure Texas sky, its light turning a sea of skyscrapers into the bejeweled walls of a celestial city.



Related links:

"Journalism Is War: Father James Haley, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and the 'sexually-active priest' crisis"

"Child Molestation by Homosexuals and Heterosexuals"

© Matt C. Abbott

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

Click to enlarge

Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


(Note: I welcome thoughtful feedback from readers. If you want our correspondence to remain confidential, please specify as such in your initial email to me. However, I reserve the right to forward and/or publish emails – complete with email addresses – that are accusatory, insulting or threatening in nature, even if those emails are marked confidential. Also, please be aware that RenewAmerica is not my website; RA's president and editor is Stephen Stone, who can be reached here. I'm just one of RA's columnists, for which I'm very grateful. I don't speak for the other RA columnists, so please don't email me to complain about what someone else has written. Thank you and God bless!)

Subscribe

Receive future articles by Matt C. Abbott: Click here

More by this author