Where Angels Fear to Tread

When Kilgore College staged a gay play, administrators learned there were limits to a liberal education in East Texas

Although he plays organ at Christ the King Catholic Church, he also leads the choir at First Presbyterian Church and has busily volunteered to help a number of local Protestant churches over the years. He admits his core religious principles fly in the face of the area's bumper sticker theology and politics.

Pummeled daily with complaints and threats to cut Kilgore College's funding before Angels opened, Holda saw no choice but to defend Caldwell's First Amendment rights and the academic freedoms set forth in the college's accreditation criteria and Policy and Personnel Manual. If he stopped the play, he would go against higher education's bedrock principle and jeopardize the college's future accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Holda told the Tyler Morning Telegraph a week before the play opened, "I don't want to sacrifice our principle of academic freedom for money."

Holda's attitude toward the controversy was important. He was one of only two people who could call a special board of trustees meeting to reconsider Angels. The other was board president Fred Parsons. Neither man decided to make that call, even though Parsons, after attending a rehearsal, couldn't condone the play's sex and profanity. "The right of one of our professionals to do it had to be defended," he said. Holda and Parsons made their decision in the face of some board pressure. On October 8 The Flare reported that three trustees, Gary Burton, Jean McLaurin and Marion Turner, stated they favored a special meeting to discuss a vote to suspend the play.

Raymond Caldwell: "I was accused of perpetrating evil on our innocent youth."
Matt Johnson
Raymond Caldwell: "I was accused of perpetrating evil on our innocent youth."

Randall Brint told the Press he felt that if the board had called a meeting, the trustees would have voted unanimously to halt the production. But in the final days before the board issued its public support for Holda's decision, the trustees learned that Caldwell had enlisted the help of a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union who was prepared to seek an injunction should the board ask him to stop the play. Fearing the college would be damaged by legal controversy, the board backed down. In the end, as Holda and the faculty senate voiced wholehearted support for Caldwell, the trustees grudgingly got behind him.

wDifferent factions opposed Angels for different reasons. Kilgore trustees feared the college pledge campaign would suffer, and the commissioners had their constituents to please. But members of the religious community opposed it on moral grounds and felt they answered to a higher authority. A few days after Bebee's first rumblings, David Bishop, pastor of Faith Baptist Church, posed next to his church marquee. It said, "Say no way to the Gay Play at KC!" On October 8 The Flare ran the photo and a story that quoted Bishop: "According to the word of God, homosexuality is wrong. Parents of kids that go to Kilgore don't pay money to have their young people educated in that lifestyle." Mark McClelland, pastor of First Baptist Church in Kilgore, taped a sermon denouncing the play and placed copies for sale.

Bishop refused to talk to the Press. Secretaries screening for Bebee and McClelland would not take calls either.

Yet attacks by Bebee, Bishop and McClelland reflected only one voice in the religious community. Ministers who didn't condone the play eventually questioned the trio's tactics. On October 10 Riley Pippen, pastor of Highland Baptist Church, spoke out on KLTV against the hatred he felt the ministers expressed. Pippen took the high ground, asking viewers to promote a ministry of love. His plea was a verbal slap at the venom and character assassination of the vocal Kilgore clergy, said Bill Ingersoll, pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

"At first [Bebee and his followers] were reveling in [their cause], but when they were sliced and diced in the media, it created a backlash among the Christian community," Holda said. As the college got besieged, Ingersoll visited Caldwell and Holda to apologize for the trouble other ministers had caused. He regretted that the region's extensive media coverage might damage Kilgore College's reputation. "Those who chose to make the play a public issue didn't think through the consequences," Ingersoll told the Press. He said play opponents should have realized their Bible-waving would jeopardize the college's fund-raising efforts and subject the campus to the wrath of the fringe.

And the extremists did come. Several days before the play opened, groups from nearby Lindale and Mount Enterprise headed to Kilgore, determined not to let First Amendment champions make a mockery of the Bible. Lindale residents from the Church of God - Headquarters in Heaven drove a black bus through campus and displayed signs of protest, The Flare reported. One read, "Dr. Holda -- How evil to blaspheme the savior's name, calling it art!"

On the Sunday before and the Sunday after the play opened, the group also parked in front of First Presbyterian Church, where Holda directs the choir. Members had to walk by a slogan painted on the bus before entering through the church door. It read, "HELLP [sic], GOV. BUSH, CALL THE POLICE!! DR. HOLDA & HIS SEWER-SUCKING SODOMITES AT K.C. HAVE RAPED AND SODOMIZED THE VIRGIN VILLAGE OF KILGORE, TX." (Put off by the Lindale protest, lay officials in the Presbyterian congregation made a formal statement personally supporting Holda and affirming his contributions to the community, the church and the college.)

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