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.

According to Shine, the pastor did "gift" the church with $5 million of equity in the building it is operating in. (The attorney says the property at 7500 Eldridge was appraised at $6.2 million and has a $1.2 million mortgage.) But the expansion land and the money, Arms has taken with him to support his still intact ministry and, possibly, a new church.

Ron is trying to start a new ministry as well, but without the financial backing. God hasn't told him to start a church quite yet, so he and Sheila spend their time trying to book appearances at different African-American churches around town. The Garners' music and message seem to cross cultural boundaries. "Black people love us," says Ron. "We're so welcome in black churches. I think it freaks them out when these white people come in to preach and singŠ.It's really neat." But the main goal of Glorybound Ministries, which includes several former members of Houston Church, is to access the "unchurched" by appealing to their needs for love and acceptance, or even food and clothing.

Ron Garner wants to reach a lost soul, just like Phil Arms reached him. His religious experience with Arms might have turned sour, but it hasn't soured him on religion. He has managed to separate the man from the message. "You've got the false and you've got the real," he says, "and you don't throw out the real because you've got the false. Because we got bad policemen, we don't throw out the whole police force. Because we got bad lawyers, we don't throw out the whole law office."

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.

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Ron Garner and his family are well turned-out for a recent Saturday-night gig at The Point Christian Outreach Ministry in a strip mall in northwest Houston. Ron looks the part of the evangelical preacher in a flashy double-breasted suit and a red silk tie, his hair moussed back and up into a TV-ready pompadour. His tanned and freckled 13-year-old son, Ryan, has imitated the hairstyle. Sheila is channeling a little bit of Tammy Faye Bakker, with peroxided curls piled on top of her head and thick mascara clumped around her eyes.

Sadly, it's past time for the service to start, and there's no one in the 100-seat hall. It's hard to find people who want to be saved these days, and Ron is certainly not the only fundamentalist preaching game in town. Besides, it's Memorial Day weekend. The Garners and their band set up anyway, perhaps realizing they have to pay their dues in empty rooms like any young act. When an African-American teenager with gold-capped teeth takes a seat, Sheila can hardly control her excitement. "Oh, praise be," she says. Throughout the course of their performance, about ten more members of The Point's congregation filter in.

The crowd may be small, but it is enthusiastic. To these worshipers, the Garners are white folk with soul, both spiritually and musically. They play jazzy, bluesy, rocking gospels, hymns with honky-tonk piano solos. Ron throws in an Elvis-inspired "We-e-ell" as he goes to town on his keyboard, Sheila sings with her face scrunched up like a country-music diva, and Ryan gets in on the action, too, belting out a Christian-rock duet with his mother. They even have some cheesy between-song banter worked out: "You ain't gonna hear that one at the Presbyterian churchŠ unless we're there," Ron jokes.

But when he starts to preach, he's serious as salvation, and the fire in his delivery is reminiscent of the pastor he watched for 13 years. Ron bounds about the front of the strip-mall hall, preaching his message for the evening: that Christianity of late has been too much about condemning and not enough about comforting, too much about stoning and not enough about saving. Relaying the scene in the Book of John about the adulteress who is brought before Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees, Garner throws imaginary stones at the crowd, shouting with each one. Homosexuals! Drug addicts! Adulterers! Drunkards! In the Bible, Jesus answered the accusations, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." And Garner speculates on the scene that followed Jesus' profound words. Thunk, thunk, thunk. The scribes and the Pharisees must have let their heavy rocks fall to the ground one by one. That, says Garner, is what we should all do.

But there is one stone that Ron Garner will not drop. There is one stone for the man who saved him, the man who introduced him to Jesus, the man who kept his family together, the man who gave him a new career, the man who betrayed him, the man he hopes he never becomes. That stone he will throw with all his might.

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