Most mornings I join tens of thousands of fellow commuters who live south of Houston for our daily slog along I-45. There are few sources of frustration greater than this dense traffic corridor, but thanks to the absence of zoning laws, there are also few resources better for slow reading. Rather than seeing this slice of highway as a valley of death, why not consider it as a valley of texts? Flourishing along the banks of this great, concrete Nile are elegant copses of signs for the (upscale) malls and weedy patches of decaying signs for the (downscale) strip malls. Among the billboards touting Texas-tough trucks and Texas-sized tacos, you can savor sly logos: “God listens,” boasts our local Christian radio station, while the convenience chain Buc-ee’s reminds us of their clean restrooms with “Don’t worry, P happy.” At other signs we simply shudder. Gentlemen’s clubs? Anything but, we tell our kids.
Welcome to my world of signifiers, where franchises sacred and profane, megachurches and malls, invite exegesis. Several years ago, the evangelical Grace Community Church, with locations in San Diego and north Houston, opened a new storefront not too far from my own neighborhood. With its vast hexagonal buiilding already dwarfing its neighbors—including a Lexus dealership and a former strip club known as Vixxen—the 18,000-member congregation planned to further advertise its presence with a 200-foot cross. That plan was thwarted when the FAA noticed that the proposed cross conflicted with nearby Ellington Field’s flight path.
In lieu of a giant cross, Grace has had to make do with bright billboards emblazoned with blond families plugging their churchly community, cable station and conception of the world. Yet the setback has not stopped Steve and Becky Riggle, the church’s founders and senior pastors, from remaining fixtures on the local news.
Tune in to any of our talk and news stations during your daily commute and chances are you’ll have heard about the city’s proposed anti-discrimination ordinance. In particular, the ordinance is aimed at any business that refuses service on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Paint stores, pawnshops and pulperias—just a few of the plethora of businesses along I-45—could not deny you their services. Should they try, they would be subject to fines as high as $5,000.
As the vote approached, the ordinance mobilized not just the LBGT community and its supporters, but also a number of local megachurches. Second Baptist Church, whose membership of 64,000 beggars the adequacy of the “mega” prefix, and whose several locations lie close along Houston’s major traffic arteries, came out against the measure, with senior pastor Ed Young declaring that the rights of the LGBT community end where the prerogatives of Christian morality begin.
While the Riggles made the same argument, their efforts were both more colorful and more candid. The color came mostly from Steve Riggle during a public session at City Hall a few weeks ago. In an exchange with Councilmember Ellen Cohen, Riggle alluded to the now-legendary predicament of the Oregon baker whose Christian principles led him to refuse to take a cake order from a gay couple. Would it be any different, Riggle asked, if a Jewish baker refused an order for a cake decorated with a swastika? Cohen suggested that it would be different: Nazi pastry connoisseurs are not, like gays under the proposed ordinance, a protected class. When Cohen then asked if a Christian baker could deny service to a Jewish client because Judaism is an affront to his faith, Pastor Riggle realized he was about to slide down a slippery slope and declined to answer.
Becky Riggle barreled down that same slope, however, when she made a separate appearance before City Council. Councilwoman Cohen asked the same question she had posed to Steve: Should a Christian store owner, troubled by a customer’s Jewish faith, be able to deny her service? To general astonishment, Becky Riggle replied: “Yes, I am saying that. But that is not the issue that we’re talking about today.” With a poker face, Annise Parker, Houston’s unflappable gay mayor, then turned to the next speaker.
Of course, many Houstonians—Jewish, gay and otherwise—disagree with the pastor. And her claim that religious faith trumps civil rights and justifies discriminatory practices is precisely the issue. But as I drive by these vast fortresses of faith on my daily commute, I think I can begin to see the Riggles’ view.
Megachurches like Grace and Second Baptist rise along our traffic corridors for the same reason that fast-food restaurants do: where better to advertise one’s merchandise than in front of a massive audience streaming past day and night? And where better to trumpet a transcendent faith than these polluted arteries lined with strip clubs, loan sharks, tattoo parlors, 24-hour video stores and Thai massage spas? Given the apparent corruption of this particular landscape, it’s hardly surprising that these churches become worlds unto themselves. The comfort of these faith-bound cocoons makes their members all the more vulnerable to culture shock. From pre-K to high school, fitness centers to financial advisers, concerts to cafés, members of these churches need confront the world outside the bubble only when they step into their places of work. Like a bakery. Or when they need to find a public restroom. Like at Buc-ee’s.
In fact, for Grace and Second Baptist, public restrooms are very much the issue. In a video released by Grace Church, the Riggles insisted that Houston’s ordinance, which covers transgender individuals, will transform women’s restrooms into hunting grounds for cross-dressing male predators. Rather than P happy, the Riggles warn, P afraid.
I am not so anxious. As I drive along I-45, the countless texts tumbling past the window reflect a world that is, to be sure, often disconcerting. But it’s also a world whose dissonance represents exuberance and tolerance.
Now that the ordinance has passed, I tell myself: P hopeful. And P certain that while the odds are long of finding a clean toilet along I-45, they are even longer of finding a bearded stalker waiting in the ladies’ room.