Longform

Where Angels Fear to Tread

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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.)

When Heritage Baptist Church members picketed the play on opening night, one carried a sign painted with two stick figures having anal sex. Caldwell and others thought this message, and other signs expressing a loathing for homosexuals, were more repulsive than any scene in Angels. W.N. Otwell, pastor of the church in Mount Enterprise that sponsored a protest, disagreed. "I guess it's because their minds are perverted. The stick figure signs had no sexual organs exposed." Otwell also disagreed with a counterprotester who carried a sign claiming, "God Doesn't Hate." Said the pastor: "God does hate. God wouldn't create hell if he didn't hate."

Publicity about the Kilgore College controversy made headlines in metropolitan newspapers across the country as a result of wire coverage in the Associated Press and Reuters. The Australian Broadcast Company contacted Caldwell for an interview. Kushner himself phoned Caldwell on three occasions and sent a letter of support to the students.

But neither the publicity nor the celebrity support could stop the fallout, which continued well after Angels took its final bow on the Kilgore College stage. The Overton-based McMillan Foundation, despite its 40-year relationship with the college, threatened to withhold the remaining $500,000 it had pledged to the school for the year. The gift, already earmarked for completing the Devall Student Center and renovating the Ivan Liberal Arts Building, was saved only after Holda met individually with each foundation trustee.

The college's board of trustees also urged Holda to put a new forum in place, a "notification policy," so college administrators could receive fair warning before controversial student programs reached the public. Though Holda has no intention of using the policy to dismantle the college's principles of academic freedom, Caldwell believes it's a thinly disguised mechanism for censorship.

The big wallop, however, came on October 28, when county commissioners, with one member absent, voted 4-0 to rescind the $50,000 gift to the Texas Shakespeare Festival's 2000 season. "I was disappointed. Therefore, I did what I had said I would do," said commissioner McBride in a faxed statement.

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Cynthia Greenwood