By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
What a shame, someone said. You can go any minute.
Well, said one buddy, at least if he died on the way home, he'd be going to Heaven.
Not me, said Scott, and all his chums turned to look at him.
Why not? they asked. You're a nice guy.
Scott explained that you have to accept Christ to go to Heaven, which was a notion he'd gotten from Mary. He finished his beer then and risked his eternal life getting home, and when Mary announced that she was taking the children to church on Sunday, Scott told her not to leave without him.
They went, and they kept going. It felt good to hear someone speak firmly, to learn what you had to do to make everything all right. At the end of each sermon, Bisagno called all sinners down. Scott resisted the call for months until he could resist no more. He leaned over and kissed his wife. "I'm going," he whispered, and with tears in his eyes and his knees shaking, Bill Scott went to be born again.
He was still learning about his new faith a few weeks later when he leaned forward in his seat and said, "Do you know why Baptists don't have sex standing up? Because they're afraid someone will think they're dancing."
He chuckled softly at that. Baptists seemed like fun people to him, and he seemed happy with his decision. Accepting and becoming Christ had broadened his social circle immensely, and with his afterlife assured, Bill Scott was able to drink beer in peace.
He can do that, can't he? For a moment, he looked scared again.
"God says don't commit adultery, but I don't know if God says don't drink beer. Does he? Don't Baptists have a reputation for drinking? I thought they did, but it's certainly not why I chose the religion."
Between sinful histories and the straight and narrow existences they lead after being born again, Baptists divide their lives in two. In Brother John Bisagno's old life, he was a jazz musician.
"What's it going to be, Johnny, jazz or Jesus?' his conscience asked him when he was young. As he wrote in his book Young Man with a Horn, the answer for five years was jazz.
He had been playing the trumpet for about a year in his Oklahoma high school band when someone asked him to sit in with a dance band. And that's when he started down the road "which for many has been a road of no return."
When he played "that crazy jazz," all the young scholars began throwing off their ties and shoes to wiggle to the music. Bisagno became wildly popular. He had a hot rod with the words "Hot Lips" painted on the side. He had "anything a teenage boy's heart desired," except peace. Something in his upbringing told him it was wrong making those people rub together like that, and so after his freshman year, Bisagno found himself in a camp for young Christians. He rode in with an empty heart and rode out with joy, and just like that, the trumpeter became the evangelist.
At his revivals, he passed out Young Man with a Horn. "A dancing foot and a praying knee never grow on the same leg," he wrote, and a jazz club, with its "stench of liquor, cheap perfume, cigar and cigarette smoke, the sweat of hot bodies, Black, White, Chinese and Mexican" is "the very heart of Hell."
In 1965, Bisagno became pastor of a small church in Dell City, Oklahoma. Four years later, it was the largest Baptist church in the state. When he came to First Baptist in 1970, the membership was about 3,500 and dropping. Looking on the church as "a kind of corporation," Bisagno governed with "the executive approach," he said. He delegated authority to the best men he could find, including one Gerald Ray, minister of music, and he focused his own efforts on maximizing resources toward long-term growth.
"If you don't stretch higher than you can reach, it isn't faith," Brother John told his flock. When he asked them to build a new church away from downtown, they agreed to pay the $8 million for that. In 1981, four years after it was completed, he told them it was too small, and nearly unanimously, his flock agreed to a plan that would require 20 percent of their incomes for two years.
"They're a very, very responsive congregation," said Brother John.
Where the Katy Freeway meets the 610 Loop, First Baptist Church is a long brown-brick complex now that looks something like a packing plant. The Worship Center has banked seats like a stadium and holds 4,000 people. There's a Garden of Eatin' cafe, along with a bookstore and bowling alleys and basketball and racquetball courts. Church programs include a course called "Master Your Money" and weight-loss classes in which you ask God to help you control your appetite.
All of these accessories are designed to make life at First Baptist very comfortable and inviting. The world may be dying, but First Baptist calls itself "A Church for Our Times," and 21,000 have found refuge there. The most remarkable quality of these members is their sameness. For blacks and Hispanics, for Cambodians and Eritreans, First Baptist has planted 40 mission churches in the city since 1985. As for itself, First Baptist remains almost entirely white -- an orderly, well-ventilated retreat that is the antithesis of Bisagno's jazz-club hell.