Conor Friedersdorf, an associate editor at The Atlantic, recently named this Observer story one of the best nonfiction pieces of 2010, along with selections from the New Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine and Texas Monthly.
We couldn’t agree more. So we dug the piece out of the archives and re-posted it. The story—by staff writer Forrest Wilder—chronicles the moralist crusade of fundamentalist Christians in Amarillo. The group, known as Repent Amarillo, fashioned itself “the Special Forces of spiritual warfare,” and made shutting down the local swingers club its mission. What happens when radical Christians take on swingers in the Texas Panhandle? A great story.
This story was first published in February 2010
A little over a year ago, Amarillo’s swingers geared up for their New Year’s Eve party at Route 66 Party and Event Rental, a downtown business owned by a prominent couple, Mac and Monica Mead. Few in this conservative, church-heavy city knew about the weekend parties, and the swingers liked it that way. “Everybody in the lifestyle has to be very, very discreet,” says Mac, a leather-skinned truck driver with a shaved head, piercing blue eyes and an earring.
The Meads enforced strict rules at the members-only club: no drugs, no single men, no audio-visual equipment. Most couples, even ones who had been in “the lifestyle” for years, are on a first-name basis only. The location of the club is (or was) “to be kept strictly private.” So imagine the swingers’ surprise when they arrived at their New Year’s Eve bash to find two dozen protesters, local media in tow, holding signs and singing songs. This was a most unwelcome coming-out party.
Some protesters, mostly young men in their teens and early 20s, wore black hoodies and military fatigues. The men, Amarillo would soon learn, were foot soldiers of Repent Amarillo, a new, militant evangelical group that advertises itself as “the Special Forces of spiritual warfare.” Their leader, David Grisham, a security guard at nuclear-bomb facility Pantex who moonlights as a pastor, explained the action. “We’re here to shine the light on this darkness,” Grisham told the Amarillo Globe-News. “I don’t think Amarillo knew about this place. This is adultery. This is wrong. There’s no telling how many venereal diseases get spread, how many abortions.” The goal, Grisham says, was not just to save the swingers’ souls, but to shut the club down.
It’s hard for the swingers to drum up powerful allies in Amarillo, where real men worship Jesus at one of the biggest cowboy churches in the world and conservative politics run deeper than the Ogallala Aquifer. Citizens of Amarillo will tell you, with a certain pride, that their city is the biggest little town in Texas. For all the open space, it can seem like the walls are closing in.
For the past year, this Bible Belt city of 200,000 has been consumed by a culture clash between Repent Amarillo and their targets, a list that includes everything from gay bars to liberal churches. For the Route 66 swingers, Grisham’s “special forces” have been a near-constant presence. Jobs have been lost, families estranged, assault charges filed and businesses shuttered. So far, no public official has stood up to defend these businesses, which operate legally. To the contrary, Repent Amarillo has managed to turn the city’s own laws and employees into an effective weapon. Amarillo, it turns out, doesn’t have the stomach to stick up for gays, swingers, strippers or even Unitarians. Absent a peacekeeper, the conflict might end up being settled the old-fashioned way, frontier-style. “This will not end until somebody gets hurt, either us or them,” one swinger warns.
On a crisp winter night, Mac and Monica Mead lounge at the Route 66 club and recount the strangest year of their lives. The club consists mainly of one room, a clean space with a tiny dance floor and some chairs and tables. Off to one side is a hallway that holds three “playrooms,” each tackily decorated according to a different theme: Oriental, Egyptian (featuring a wall hanging Mac’s son brought back from a tour in Iraq), and jungle. There is an eyebolt in the ceiling of the Egyptian room. Mac says it’s for one of the more popular attractions, a sex swing. Mac chokes up a bit explaining how the place has been a “home away from home” for many. The swingers are a decidedly working-class bunch: truckers, cabbies, schoolteachers and tow-truck drivers—hard-working couples, mostly married, who, for reasons known only to their libidos, enjoy having sex with each other’s partners. They’re mostly middle-aged and aren’t going to win any beauty pageants.
A large-screen TV, which the Meads occasionally glance at, displays the surveillance camera on the parking lot adjacent to the building. The lot, owned by the mayor’s husband, has been the staging area for most Repent protests. It’s also used by Route 66 patrons. Since the owner hasn’t objected, Repent members can use the space, which puts them in direct contact with swingers and their vehicles. Repent has been at every swinger get-together in the last year—32 times, according to Monica’s tally.
After the New Year’s party, Repent tried to get authorities to shutter the club, first suggesting to local law enforcement that the Meads were running an illegal brothel. When the cops showed no interest (on-premises sex clubs are legal in Texas), the group filed complaints with the fire marshal and the city’s code-enforcement division. As in many cities, Amarillo code enforcement is primarily complaint-driven. While it makes a certain amount of sense to focus on violations being noticed by the public, this case shows how easily the system can be manipulated. The city did find some minor violations, like the lack of separate-sex bathrooms. The club was shut down for five months while the Meads sank $20,000 into bringing the building up to code.
In June, when the building reopened, Repent Amarillo became an almost-constant presence, shouting through bullhorns, blasting Christian music, haranguing club members, following swingers in vehicles and sticking video cameras into people’s faces. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has been called out twice. Police records show that nearby businesses have called frequently with noise complaints. Repent even showed up on occasion when the Route 66 building was rented out for non-swinger events. “They have been here every time we open our doors, regardless of what kind of functions we have, whether I’m down here doing maintenance, cleaning, whatever,” Mac says. “They don’t have a life. Well, I guess we are their lives. We’re their blood. At three or four in the morning, we’ll open the door, and there they are. They come waddling out of their vehicles with their cameras.”
At first, the swinger community was mystified by the attention. On the 60-some hours of surveillance footage the Meads have, a swinger can be heard telling a Repent member that the swingers haven’t done anything to bother them.“You’re going to hell, and it bothers me,” Grisham responds. “What bothers me is you’re going to hell.”
Perhaps the most insidious tactic Repent uses is trying to destroy the reputation of the swingers. In Amarillo, people can be ostracized over a whiff of impropriety. On one tape, Grisham directs followers to get the license-plate numbers in the Route 66 parking lot. “A new couple can be here three or four hours,” says Mac. “Whenever they leave, the Repent Amarillo group will call them by first and last name, know where they live, know where they work, just within a very few hours.”
Randall Sammons says he was fired from his job of 13 years in August after his boss learned Sammons was a swinger from another employee, a Repent member. He believes he’s now as good as blacklisted in Amarillo. “I’m screwed at finding a job,” Sammons says. Russell Grisham, David’s 20-year-old son who has a conviction on his record for hacking the computer system at his high school, has posted the names, photos and workplaces of swingers on the Internet, including one man whose wife works for a school district. (“Family-wise, it will kill both of us,” the man says.) In at least two instances, Repent members called swingers’ employers. Mac, meanwhile, is still far from the come-to-Jesus moment Grisham wants. “This group claims to be Christian,” Mac says. “Sir, I am a Christian. I believe in the God almighty, but I do not treat people the way they treat us or others.”
In December, the Meads tried to get an Amarillo justice of the peace to issue a “peace bond,” which would have required Russell Grisham to forfeit money posted with the court if he continued threatening behavior. The judge, Debbie Horn, said at the end of a three-and-a-half hour hearing that she didn’t have enough evidence to issue the bond. While the authorities’ hands-off attitude is mystifying to some in Amarillo, Norris, the city attorney, says the city’s inaction is easily explained: Nobody’s done anything illegal. “Both camps have pressed my office to use the power of government to shut down the other one,” he says. “The swingers want me to shut down [Repent]. Repent wants me to shut down the swingers.” He adds, “The First Amendment is alive and well in Amarillo, and Amarillo is strong enough to allow everyone to have free speech.”
It’s debatable whether all of Repent’s actions are legal. In January, six Repent members showed up at a weekend swingers party at the private home of Cristal Robinson, Route 66’s attorney. During the party, Robinson says the group trespassed on her property and tried to block cars from entering the driveway. She called the police. Sheriff’s deputies showed up, followed not long after by a state trooper.
The two law-enforcement groups apparently had different ideas about how to handle Repent, according to a Potter County incident report. The state trooper took photographs of the Repent vehicles and filled out suspicious activity cards, which go to the state’s intelligence center. The deputies, on the other hand, dismissed Robinson’s account and left Repent to carry on.
Meanwhile the trooper stayed nearby. Deputies later received a report that the DPS trooper was “harassing” Repent. The deputies returned to find four “extremely upset” Repent members. “Big John” Leinen complained to the deputies that the trooper had treated them “like some sort of terrorist group.” Grisham claimed that the trooper had assaulted one of his people and broke a piece off the group’s video camera. The trooper told deputies he had observed Repent going through Robinson’s dumpster and asked why the deputies “didn’t write the protestors [sic] a citation for ‘disturbing the peace’.” The deputy answered, “because they aren’t disturbing the peace.” Deputies asked the trooper to leave, and no tickets were issued.
The swingers were mystified: How did Repent find out about the party? The invited guests had been carefully screened; the event hadn’t been advertised online; and Robinson’s home is miles outside of town. Grisham claims he has an “inside source” but will say nothing more. With law enforcement on the sidelines, swingers have retaliated in other ways. Assault charges are pending against Monica Mead after Russell Grisham claimed he was assaulted outside the club. Mead contends she accidentally fell into Grisham. Charges were also filed against swinger Phillip Roark, who admits to slapping a video camera held by Russell Grisham.
Meanwhile, Repent has put the Meads on the brink of bankruptcy. Since the protests started last year, the Route 66 building has been rented just three times, forcing the couple to put it up for sale. For Repent, God had delivered a victory. The group snatched up a Web site the Meads had let lapse, Route66SwingersClub.com, and turned it into a call for “adulterers” to “Repent or Perish!”
If it weren’t for the giant wooden cross over the porch, the Grisham house would be indistinguishable from the other middle-class homes on the quiet street. Inside, visitors are greeted by a tidy, if somewhat shabby, interior. I interview Grisham and his fourth wife, Tracy, a pleasant, moon-faced woman whose bangs hang in her eyes, and Leinen, who asked to videotape our interview. Later, several men in their teens and early 20s show up dressed in camouflage pants. They sit staring at laptops and don’t say much.
In person, Grisham is friendly and polite. “I was a sexual sinner before I got saved. I got saved seven years ago. Prior to that–yeah, I’ve been to strip joints and porn shops. I’ve done all kinds of things,” he says. “We understand the destructive power of sin firsthand. We’ve lived it. We’ve walked in those shoes.” These days he’s celebrating Repent’s victory over the swinger’s club. “We felt it was like the tip of the spear for sexual immorality for the devil in Amarillo,” he says. “So we went after that specifically, and we exposed it so it would wither and die. And it has.”
Repent has made it clear that its crusade won’t end with the swingers. Last January, community theater group Avenue 10 was set to open Bent, a play about the persecution of homosexuals during Nazi Germany. The day before opening night, the fire marshal, police and code enforcers showed up, tipped off by a Repent associate, according to Sirc Michaels, co-founder of the theater. Avenue 10 didn’t have the right permit for holding events, and the space was shut down.
What’s next for Repent? They’ve posted a “Warfare Map” on the group’s Web site. The map includes establishments like gay bars, strip clubs and porn shops, but also the Wildcat Bluff Nature Center. Repent believes the 600-acre prairie park’s Walmart-funded “Earth Circle,” used for lectures, is a Mecca for witches and pagans. Also on the list are The 806 coffeehouse (a hangout for artists and counterculture types), the Islamic Center of Amarillo (“Allah is a false god”), and “compromised churches” like Polk Street Methodist (gay-friendly).
As I’m preparing to leave the Grisham house, Russell announces that CNN has called and asked for a live interview. In January, Repent caused a stir when the group rolled out BoycottHouston.com, a Web site that urges economic sanctions against Houston because the mayor is gay and a large Planned Parenthood building is being built. In the Bible, Jesus commands his disciples to spread the good news of the gospel throughout the nations. It remains to be seen whether Pastor Grisham’s slightly less uplifting message will resonate outside the High Plains.