In Arms' Way

Phil Arms once saved Ron Garner from a life of sin. Garner tried to return the favor when confronted with evidence of the preacher's drug use. But Arms viewed it as just a Judas kiss.

Phil Arms is in bad shape as he takes the pulpit of Houston Church on the morning of Sunday, January 9. He shifts his weight back and forth from his right leg to his left, sips from a glass of water and dabs at his face with a white handkerchief. He puts on a pair of dark sunglasses, takes them off and puts them on again. "I have a problem," he begins, "in fact, several this morning." One is an abrasion on his right eye that, he says, has had him weeping all morning. Another is that his voice is going out. On top of that, he feels ill. But Phil Arms's real problem this morning is more spiritual than physical. He has been accused of sinning against the church, and that finger-pointing has doused the preacher's usual hellfire and brimstone style. This morning, he's supposed to be contrite. He's supposed to be standing atop the green carpeted steps of the altar confessing to his congregation that he has become addicted to prescription painkillers and has taken money from the church coffers in order to finance his habit.

Three days earlier, Arms's right-hand man, associate pastor Ron Garner, and two other staff members confronted the church leader with these accusations, asking him to repent and resign his position. Garner, with the help of Arms's wife, had spent more than a month gathering evidence against his boss. And on this morning, he was prepared to address the church body himself, but Arms had insisted on speaking. This was to be expected: Arms rarely let the associate pastor preach much anyway. Arms was the voice of Houston Church.

The preacher speaks slowly with a rich Southern accent, punching certain syllables and pausing for dramatic effect. Sometimes, when the Holy Spirit moves him, he speeds things up in a flurry of charismatic emotion. The rest of the time, though, it's easy to get lost in the hypnotic melody of his many, many words, particularly since he seems reluctant to get to his point. After proclaiming the specialness of Houston Church, lamenting the false accusations that have befallen other pastors, pointing out that nobody's perfect, reminding everybody of his multiple cluster migraine headache attacks and criticizing Garner and the other men for how they've handled the situation, he gets down to it, sort of.

The shorter Arms (left) made the taller Garner squat down in their photos together.
The shorter Arms (left) made the taller Garner squat down in their photos together.
The shorter Arms (left) made the taller Garner squat down in their photos together.
The shorter Arms (left) made the taller Garner squat down in their photos together.

"I had been taking pain relievers," Arms tells his followers, "that after using them over a long period of time, as all of them do, they begin to lose their effectiveness Š which necessitates an additional one in order to compensate for the first one or the second or the next that isn't working." As for the alleged theft, a subject that he introduces with "incidentally, a side note," Arms says the long-standing operating procedure is that he pays back any unaccounted-for petty cash at the end of each year.

That's it. No tears, no pleas for forgiveness, no Jimmy Swaggart "I have sinned" moment of truth. And why should there be? To hear Arms tell it, he has some health problems and may have taken too long to pay back a few dollars of petty cash. There's no scandal in that. A member of the crowd shouts out, "Thank you for being so honest!" and the flock bursts into spontaneous, standing applause.

At his post by the piano, Garner is seething with outrage, trying not to let it show to the true believers lest they cast him in the role of Judas. When Arms finishes speaking, Garner heeds his call to lead the church in a song, just like he does at the end of every worship service. "Oh, Lord, your tenderness," he sings, "melting all my bitternessŠ." But the bitterness isn't melting. By the end of this Sunday's service, Ron Garner wants to add another sin to the list of Phil Arms's crimes against God and church: lying.

Garner was once a sinner, too. He and his wife, Sheila, played country music in Houston's honky-tonks, and they didn't shy away from the heavy drinking and drugs that went along with the musician's life. Sheila says Ron was always bucking responsibility. When she got pregnant, he wanted her to have an abortion.

Sheila wouldn't, and that presented a problem: How would they bring a baby into a life like this? Who would care for it when they were wasted at 3 a.m.? How would they afford a family? The Garners had hoped to become famous country musicians one day, but they weren't there yet. Sheila had to spend her days working as a secretary, and Ron delivered ad contracts for a Yellow Pages-type directory company.

It was in his car, on a delivery, that Ron Garner heard God speak to him through the voice of Phil Arms. Ron was in the habit of listening to radio talk shows on his trips, and he stopped on a conversation between Arms and a man from Jimmy Swaggart's ministry. They were hitting Ron where it hurts, talking about music, music that glorified God. Ron began to wonder what his music was accomplishing, what he was accomplishing. When he got home that evening, he told Sheila that he wanted to go to the church that Arms was starting as an outreach of his revival-based ministry. Sheila was shocked: "Church?" she asked.

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