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Haggard bares his soul in note to congregation

Times Staff Writer

In the hush of a Sunday morning, believers grieved, struggled and forgave as their pastor, the Rev. Ted Haggard, confessed his sins.

“I am a deceiver and a liar,” Haggard told 9,000 of his followers in a letter read from the pulpit of New Life Church by one of his spiritual mentors. “There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life.”

Men wiped at their eyes. Women clung to one another. A grandfather hugged his baby grandson close, rubbing the boy’s small back. Haggard had founded this church in his basement. He had grown it to a congregation of 14,000. He had guided them to God and helped them triumph over sin, and he had done it always with a smile, ever exuberant, ever strong.

They wept to hear what he’d been hiding.

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“For extended periods of time, I would enjoy victory and rejoice in freedom,” Haggard wrote. “Then, from time to time, the dirt that I thought was gone would resurface, and I would find myself thinking thoughts and experiencing desires that were contrary to everything I believe and teach.”

A male prostitute in Denver came forward last week claiming that Haggard had visited his apartment almost monthly over the last three years for sex and drugs. Haggard at first denied it. Then he said he bought meth from the man, but threw it away. On Sunday, he said this: “The accusations that have been leveled against me are not all true, but enough of them are true that I have been appropriately and lovingly removed from ministry.”

Having resigned the presidency of the National Assn. of Evangelicals and been dismissed as senior pastor of New Life, Haggard said he and his wife, Gayle, “need to be gone for a while.” He pledged to put himself under the guidance of several pastors who will help him work toward restoration.

“Please forgive me,” he wrote. “I am so embarrassed and ashamed.... I am a sinner. I have fallen.”

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Then the Rev. Larry Stockstill, a Louisiana pastor, read aloud a short letter from Gayle Haggard. She said her heart was broken, but she promised to stand by her husband.

“For those of you who have been concerned that my marriage was so perfect I could not possibly relate to the women who are facing great difficulties, know that this will never again be the case,” she wrote, evoking a ripple of laughter. “My test has begun; watch me. I will try to prove myself faithful.”

The congregation rose as one. For a long minute, they stood, applauding, sniffling. Interim senior pastor Ross Parsley bounded to the podium. “Listen,” he said, “we all feel worse than we did a week ago. But we were worse off a week ago. Today, we all are more obedient, more repentant, more transparent than we’ve been in a long time.”

Here and there in the vast sanctuary, members of Haggard’s congregation called out: “Amen.”

Afterward, in the lobby, many worshipers echoed Parsley’s words. Some were angry at Ted Haggard; many were bewildered. But all said that their faith was not shaken; it was renewed. They would hold fast to all Haggard had taught them over the years, including his preaching that homosexual behavior is an affront to God.

“He believes that what he taught us is true,” said Carol Groesbeck, 61.

“I don’t think there’s anything that needs to be reevaluated,” said her husband, Jim, 61, an elder at New Life Church. “We know what we believe, but it’s difficult to live that out. That’s not just Ted’s struggle. It’s our struggle.”

Michelle Gatson, 37, said she felt reinvigorated by the service after a week that left her so spent, all she wanted to do was “be lying on the floor at home, crying.” A member of the choir, she said she found healing in the songs of praise -- praise not for any man, but for God. “I love my pastor,” she said. “But I’m glad I didn’t put my faith in him. He’s human.”

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Added Ian Kallenbach, 26: “I hope he can deal with his demons.”

Stockstill -- who has been the Haggards’ personal pastor for years -- said he saw only relief in Ted Haggard’s face when he informed him on Saturday that he was being removed from his position at New Life.

Haggard had been struggling for three years to balance his duties as pastor with his high-profile role as head of the evangelical association -- a job that raised his political profile and got him invited to the Oval Office and in on conference calls with the White House.

Haggard had tried to carve out time to reflect and to write his books by secluding himself now and then in a Denver hotel. That is apparently when he first contacted the prostitute, Mike Jones, who advertised as a masseur in gay magazines.

Haggard alluded to this period in his letter, saying that his pride had prevented him from seeking counseling; he hadn’t wanted to disappoint those who loved him. “When I stopped communicating about my problems,” he wrote, “the darkness increased and finally dominated me.”

As thousands of New Life members poured into the church for the second morning service, an usher bustled through the lobby carrying fresh boxes of tissues into the sanctuary. Children, released from Sunday school, raced toward the church coffee shop for goopy cinnamon rolls and giant chocolate muffins. A few TV crews milled about, filming interviews.

In the church bookstore, a father leaned against a display of Haggard’s books and read aloud to his children from “Letters from Home.” Published in 2002, the book is framed as a letter to the two oldest of the Haggards’ five children, who were preparing for college at that time.

In a section called “Live as if there are no secrets,” Haggard listed powerful men brought down by lust or lies, including presidents Nixon and Clinton and the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart. “Major leaders have lost their positions of influence because of what they did alone in a room,” he wrote.

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“Please don’t ever fall into the trap of believing that you can do something in secret, even when you are far away from home,” Haggard urged his children. “This is a lie, and it will always come back to haunt you.”

stephanie.simon@latimes.com


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