Anti-Gay Video Highlights Church's Agenda

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The graphic anti-gay video widely distributed in Congress and the Pentagon during the debate over homosexuals in the military was produced at a small, fundamentalist church tucked away in an industrial sector of Lancaster in the High Desert.

Antelope Valley Springs of Life Ministries--where security guards patrol the aisles during services and weekday visitors are met by electronically locked doors--has been in the news before. It was the church where television evangelist Jim Bakker was reordained in the wake of the PTL scandal and where he preached his last sermons before entering prison.

But nothing has propelled this 400-member charismatic church, located about 60 miles north of Los Angeles, into national prominence like "The Gay Agenda," a 20-minute videotape that features nudity, public lasciviousness and assertions that homosexuality is unnatural, a sickness and not worthy of legal protection.

The slick, professional tape has reached the highest ranks of government. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, received a copy. So did other members of Congress. The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Carl Mundy Jr., gave copies to other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Marine spokesman said.

Springs of Life officials say more than 25,000 copies of the video have been shipped across the country. Church operators, working from a phone bank two doors down from the sanctuary, take 300 to 500 orders each day from people who have seen segments of "The Gay Agenda" on religious television shows and want their own copies.

"This is an exciting time!" Jeannette Beeson, wife of pastor Tyron Beeson, declared to the congregation on a recent Sunday morning.

"God has called us to save a nation."

The service included upbeat music from the six-piece church band and shouts of affirmation that are often part of charismatic gatherings. But unlike many other fundamentalist churches, the services here are almost as much about social and political issues as they are about Scripture.

And for Springs of Life, a church that had a meteoric rise in the mid-1980s only to suffer a recent defection of much of its congregation, the production and distribution of anti-gay videotapes has been a source of rejuvenation.

The sanctuary, from which the pastors preside over services, looks like a TV talk show set, complete with artificial palm trees, padded chairs, a glass-topped coffee table and silver pillars. Banks of overhead TV lights illuminate it brilliantly.

The set was built for the church's first foray into electronic religion--a weekly cable TV talk show, "The Report: A Righteous Perspective," begun in 1990. Produced by Bakersfield sportscaster Bill Horn, the show featured guests such as Bruce Herschensohn, Pat Buchanan and Lorraine Day, a physician whose views about homosexuality and AIDS run contrary to most of the medical Establishment. In her interview on the show, copies of which the church sells, Day defined homosexuality as "a sexual addiction, not an alternative lifestyle."

For a 1991 episode of "The Report," prepared while debate raged in California over a gay civil rights bill, Horn bought some amateur video of a gay pride parade. He edited together a 12-minute segment that showed nudity, outrageous costumes and raunchiness.

The segment, titled "Sexual Orientation or Sexual Deviation: You Decide," drew interest from prominent figures of the religious right. James Dobson, a Colorado-based psychologist who hosts the nationally syndicated "Focus on the Family" radio show, arranged to have 8,000 copies distributed throughout California, Horn said.

"That's what pretty much launched us on the video scene," he added.

In at least one instance, the tape was used to further a local political argument. The director of an Antelope Valley private Christian school showed it at a meeting of the Palmdale City Council to back his argument that the council should pass a resolution opposing the gay civil rights bill.

"It certainly had an effect," said Pete Knight, who was mayor at the time and is now a member of the state Assembly. "It pointed up some of the various activities in the gay community that are not acceptable from a social standpoint."

The council passed the resolution by a unanimous vote.

Horn, who quit his sportscasting job to work full time for the church, said the church got so many orders for the tape that it ended production of "The Report" to concentrate on making videos. He trained church members to operate video cameras and sent them to West Hollywood, San Francisco and New York to tape parades and other events.

They made a second tape about gay issues, "Civil Rights or Crisis in America?" and then "The Gay Agenda."

With that tape, Springs of Life, which began about 12 years ago as a home Bible study group, came onto the national scene.

Beeson started the group shortly after he and his wife arrived in Lancaster from Turlock, near Modesto.

Beeson, 41, whom everyone around the church calls Ty, was a real estate salesman but had long wanted to preach. "I felt compelled to teach people," he said in a short telephone interview just before he left on a trip to tape material for the church's next video, the subject of which he would not disclose.

Requests for an additional interview were not answered.

Beeson, who mixes a good deal of humor and folksy advice into his preaching, established a following almost immediately.

"He was strictly preaching the Gospel, right down the line," said an early church member. "There was such sincerity in the preaching. No politics, just the Lord."

Beeson's preaching was rooted in charismatic renewal, an offshoot of Pentecostalist Christianity that came to prominence in the 1960s. Charismatics believe that members have gifts of the Holy Spirit, including the ability to speak in tongues.

The fledgling church would get together with other churches in the area for healing services. "We could pray over people and they would be cured of cancer, of back problems," said the Rev. Richard Biddle, who left his position as a pastor with a Baptist church in the area to join Beeson's congregation.

Beeson was ordained by Faith Christian Fellowship of Tulsa, Okla., which requires of its ministers only a strict belief in biblical teachings, a meeting with a regional fellowship representative and the payment of a small fee.

But it was not Beeson's credentials that attracted people. "It was the kind of active church that I was seeking, and so were many others dissatisfied with their own, more passive churches," Biddle said.

The growing group soon left Beeson's living room for a more spacious meeting room in the YMCA, and in 1984, Springs of Life took over its present home, a one-story office building that looks more like an extension of the adjacent storage company than a traditional church.

"Reverend Ty was just a wonderful speaker," said another former member.

In 1987, when Springs of Life membership peaked at about 1,500, Bakker came into its life. Defrocked by his church in Tennessee after an infamous sex scandal, Bakker had settled in Palm Springs with his wife, Tammy Faye.

The Bakkers were no strangers to the Antelope Valley; on several occasions in the early 1980s they had attended marriage counseling sessions offered in a Christian context at Palmdale General Hospital. Bakker first attended Springs of Life in late 1987.

"The pastor arranged for Mr. Bakker to have a new credential as a preacher," said Bakker's lawyer, Jim Toms, who relayed questions about the church to his client. Bakker is serving an eight-year sentence in federal prison in Rochester, Minn., on fraud and conspiracy convictions.

"He said the reception he got there was warm and he spoke in the church several times," Toms said.

The reception outside the church was not always so welcoming. Occasionally, pickets from other churches protested Bakker's appearances. Security became a concern.

"We wanted to take precautions against one of the demonstrators causing a disturbance or blocking traffic," said Bill Pricer, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy and a church member. Pricer oversaw the installation of security devices and organized a security force among church members.

Not everyone inside the church was glad to see Bakker either. Some members, including an associate pastor, left the church over the acceptance of Bakker. More defections came in later years as Beeson's message became more about politics, reducing the size of the congregation to 400 members.

"The Gay Agenda" was released in October in time to bolster the efforts of groups in Oregon and Colorado working for the approval of anti-gay rights ballot measures. Horn said that groups in Oregon ordered 6,000 copies and another 4,000 went to Colorado.

The interest on the part of the military came as a surprise to the church, Horn said. He read a letter that came, just before Bill Clinton's inauguration, from someone he identified as a two-star Army general he would not name. It praised the tape as "a splendid teaching vehicle" and said that it was being looked at by high-ranking officers.

Soon other Pentagon officials were requesting the tape, Horn said.

Sales of the "The Gay Agenda," which costs $13.95, got its biggest boost when it was featured this month on Pat Robertson's "The 700 Club," which claims a daily nationwide audience of more than 1 million. In the 24 hours after the show, the volunteers in the church's phone bank received more than 6,000 calls, Beeson said.

Beeson would not talk in specifics about what the church would do with the money made from sales of "The Gay Agenda." But he said more videotapes are on the way. "People have to make a choice about what they want to embrace," he said. "Our goal is to make sure they have all the information they need."

Gay rights advocates argue that the information in "The Gay Agenda" is distorted.

"If we were to go and shoot video of beer busts in Florida on spring break, we could create a film called 'The Heterosexual Agenda' that would be just as wrong," said Urvashi Vaid, a Washington-based lawyer who has long been active in the gay civil-rights movement. "Gay pride events are like big parties, and of course there is some outrageous behavior. But this is not the norm, any more than spring break."

Last Sunday, Beeson returned to Springs of Life and began his sermon with a reading of Isaiah 1:4 that begins: "Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters; they have forsaken the Lord."

He then spoke for an hour and 45 minutes, nonstop, without notes. The crowd of about 250--mostly white couples appearing to be in their 20s or 30s--listened intently, sometimes encouraging him with a "Tell it!" or "That's right!"

Beeson paced the talk show motif sanctuary, preaching that the nation has lost its moral center.

As he spoke, his image was constantly shown on two overhead video monitors, even though he could be seen easily. But the pulpit looked more grand and spacious on television, and the cameras did not show the empty seats at the back of the auditorium.

Two of Pricer's security men--whose single earphones made them resemble Secret Service agents--stood on each side of the sanctuary.

Beeson took several swipes at mainstream churches for being, he believes, too passive, and he called liberals "godless." He saved his most scathing comments for gays and lesbians.

In talking about lesbians wanting to bear children, he said: "They might want to act like a cow and get artificially inseminated, but you need something from a daddy."

He complained that he had been labeled a bigot because of his views on homosexuality. "I mean, we can't say something is perverted anymore?" Beeson asked.

When the sermon was finished, about 50 children who had been in the church's religious school during the service filed in for a special presentation.

When the teacher called upon this "army of God" to "salute your general," they turned to Beeson and gave him a military-type salute. Then they sang a rousing song, "In This Day, This Hour," written by the leader of the church band.

The end of the chorus, which they sang with gusto, went: "It's us who's taking over, the writing's on the wall."

Times staff writer John Chandler and researchers Joan Wolff and Dennis Clontz contributed to this story.

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