By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Sheila was fat with pregnancy at the first Sunday service of Houston Church in 1986. Both she and Ron had been taken to Baptist churches on occasion as kids, but they had never been very religious. "We never heard the Gospel," she says. "I mean, we weren't ready. We heard it, but it doesn't make sense to somebody who doesn't have ears to hear it. It just sounds like a bunch of religious mumbo-jumbo."
On this day, though, on the verge of their son's birth, the Garners were ready to hear it; and Arms was certainly ready to preach it. "He had that fiery delivery, and he was passionate about what he was saying," remembers Ron. "That's why people are drawn to cults. I mean, Jim Jones was passionate about what he was saying. And these people are sick and tired of religion, dead stuff. They wanted to get with somebody who believed something, even though it was totally wrong. I think that was the draw."
The Garners immersed themselves in Houston Church, attending every service, getting saved, even giving up music. "God gave us a purpose," says Sheila. "Instead of wandering, meandering out there in a world, not knowing where we're going or what direction, all of a sudden we had a purpose, and we had a direction. And we were pursuing that."
God also gave them jobs. Ron started working for Arms full-time in 1992 as the praise and worship director. He handled the ushers, the parkers and the greeters. He went on hospital visits, organized trips to Israel and taught Sunday school. He counseled parishioners in need and even became licensed within the church as a minister. Arms asked the Garners to go back to music, this time using their talents for good rather than evil. In 1994 Sheila started working in the church office as well. In 1996 Ron was elected to replace a deceased member of the board of directors of Phil Arms Ministries, the church's nonprofit umbrella organization that Arms had started in the early '70s.
Their marriage was thriving, they were making a good living, they had friends who shared their beliefs, their son was growing up with a solid moral foundation. They were happy, and their happiness seemed to hinge on Houston Church. So when Arms asked Ron to quit teaching his Sunday school class after it got too popular, Ron agreed. When Arms made Ron squat down in photos so that the pastor would look taller than the associate pastor, Ron dutifully slumped his shoulders and bent his knees. Ron even swallowed his pride during a meeting with Arms at a Randalls coffee shop, when the pastor drew a tiny dot and a large circle on his notepad.
"Do you know what this is?" Ron remembers Arms asking.
"No," Ron answered, figuring it was a rhetorical question.
"That's you," Arms said, pointing to the tiny dot. Then he pointed to the big circle and said, "That's me."
Arms was weird, Sheila and Ron recognized that. But prophets of God are allowed to be a little strange. Sheila describes their unquestioning faith in Arms as "the fog." The entire congregation was shrouded by it to some degree. That's why, the Garners say, churchgoers often gave Arms their pain pills to ease his migraines. It was an honor to be asked to help the pastor, to be closer to he who was closer to God. Ironically, it was those who got close to Arms who began to question his methods.
The Garners claim that twice in the late '80s and again in 1994, inner-circle staff members confronted Arms about financial discrepancies, drug addiction or both. (Levern Jordan, the associate pastor who the Garners say confronted Arms about his drug addiction, refused to talk to the Houston Press about his reasons for leaving Houston Church in 1994.) The Garners, who hadn't yet risen through the ranks of the church staff, didn't believe any of the allegations at the time. According to Sheila, Arms explained the flurry of false accusations with the line, "I'm so godly that the devil is trying to take me over." Arms always won the conflicts; the accusers left the church destroyed and disgraced. In retrospect, the Garners think this was because the accusers didn't have enough evidence to support their claims. So once Ron and Sheila got close enough to Arms to begin to see the truth, they vowed they would not make the same mistake.
Ron's suspicions started in 1998 when he was helping Arms build his house, a two-story country colonial affair for which, he points out, Arms borrowed $359,000 from the ministry to finance. Arms had an office in a barn on the property, and the two of them conducted house and church business from there. They were almost always together.
Ron noticed that Arms was under a lot of stress from working on two major projects. Arms was acting more strangely than usual, and making frequent but short trips out to the water hose. Was he just thirsty? Well, maybe, but what Ron saw reminded him of the pill-poppers he had seen in his days as a musician. A short time later, Arms's wife, Suzanne, came to Ron for counseling. She was concerned about her husband's drug use. In fact, Ron says she had been trying to get him to quit taking painkillers for years before she finally decided she needed help. Arms had begun preaching erratically, manipulating scriptures for his own purposes ("Do not touch God's anointed") and directing his sermons at his wife.