Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Justice Group Pickets a Familiar Location

Samantha Tillich, Staff Writer

The pastor and congregation of Bearlberry Presbyterian Church organize more than a dozen protests each year in their pursuit of peace and justice. Last week, they found an unusual target: themselves.

Bearlberry--the largest Presbyterian church in southeast Montana--keeps a simple mission statement: actively work for peace and justice in Jesus’ name. The church’s Social Justice Committee plans and executes some form of protest at least once a month. Members have written letters criticizing the United States’ presence in Iraq, have boycotted national retailers over issues such as sex discrimination and health care for workers, and have even picketed City Hall.

Recently, the committee decided to take on the porn industry. Local high school students were caught passing around copies of a hardcore sex magazine called Fuzz. The magazine had gained an unusually large underground following at Bearlberry High School, so the committee decided to send a delegation to lodge a protest with the publisher.

Amie Jo Wheaton, chairperson of the Social Justice Committee, had a better idea. “Most operations of this sort are owned--well behind the scenes, of course--by a large conglomerate. The best way to stop this smut is to tell the public who is really responsible. Publicize the real producers of porn, and shame them into action. Who knew it would turn out to be us?”

As Wheaton dove into Fuzz, she was able to trace ownership of the magazine to Paradox Publishing. Wheaton was stunned. Paradox is a small, for-profit company established by the Bearlberry Presbyterian Church to support its peace and justice ministries. The company primarily produces books about peace or the environment. It also puts out a few collections of feminist fiction each year. Somehow, in 2001, Fuzz was added to the Paradox repertoire.

“Obviously,” said Wheaton, “Paradox came to own Fuzz by mistake, but our committee was ready to stay the course with this.” Wheaton and her crew continued their plans to protest, and last Saturday, as mourners gathered for the funeral of Bearlberry Presbyterian’s oldest member, the church’s own Social Justice Committee struck.

More than 40 people picketed on the church lawn with signs such as “Stop the Smut,” “This Church Supports Pornography,” and a misplaced “No More Blood for Oil” banner. The crowd chanted slogans, making it difficult for the church’s pastor, Paul Bigglehoff, to conduct the funeral. The next day, even more protesters gathered during the worship service. By some estimates, there were more people outside than the 200 or so worshippers inside.

On Monday, Bigglehoff held a press conference to address the situation. “As the church pastor, I fully support the committee’s decision to fight the evil of pornography. Yet, as the church’s executive leader and--I’ve just learned--an ex officio member of the Fuzz editorial board, I must make no comment to the charges that the church is peddling porn. Our board will review all the information at an emergency meeting this evening.”

The closed meeting was by all accounts a raucous affair. After nearly three hours of yelling, arguing and a short opening prayer, the group ultimately decided to keep Fuzz. Wheaton, along with most of the members of her committee, was angered by the decision. “Before, we were pornographers unbeknownst to ourselves. Now, we are knowingly producing porn. I may hold back a part of my pledge over this.” Wheaton paused, then thrust her fist straight into the air and said, “And the protests will continue!”

A second press conference the next day did not divulge the reasons the church decided to keep its ties with the porn magazine. The church’s lawyer would only say the board believes it is in the church’s best interest to continue publishing Fuzz, and the church will receive a full-page advertisement in the magazine each issue at no cost. One source who wished to remain unnamed said that Fuzz was the most profitable product Paradox produced. “It pays for all of our peace and justice work and the pastor’s Christmas bonus,” the informant said.

No one is sure how this issue will play out in the church. Someone suggested there may be a need for “porn” and “non-porn” pew racks in the sanctuary. Some have hopes that the magazine will be a great marketing tool. Others wonder if the church can endure the strain of dissension. The future for Bearlberry Presbyterian remains uncertain.

In a final twist to the story, the church received some startling and unrelated bad news. Scot Gorgerson, Bearlberry Presbyterian’s youth pastor since 2001, mysteriously disappeared on Sunday afternoon. A secretary also discovered that the entire contents of his filing cabinet were missing. His disappearance is being investigated as a missing persons report, and no foul play is suspected.


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