The local pastor who drew widespread criticism for praising the Orlando gay nightclub massacre attracted more than 200 people to the opening of his Sacramento area conference, which this week offers high teas for women, laser tag, miniature golf and “soul-winning” neighborhood forays to convert residents.
At the heart of the “red hot” event: fiery sermons from preachers who share Pastor Roger Jimenez’s views against gays and modern society at large.
The conference at Verity Baptist Church in North Natomas has drawn visitors from as far as New Zealand – and plenty of families. Thursday night’s opening sermon included a dozen young children sitting at the foot of Arizona preacher Steven Anderson, whose church is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In the windowless main room, maroon-coated ushers doubled as security, keeping the media away from congregants, passing offering plates and making sure everyone had a copy of the Bible to follow along. A temporary air conditioner fought to keep up with the heat of the crowd, and choleric sermons touched on end times, homosexuality and media bias.
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“We’re not lukewarm. You know what I mean,” said Jimenez, greeting the audience and promising a second air conditioner in the following days.
Jimenez drew national attention in June when he praised the killings of 49 people in an Orlando gay nightclub in a Sunday sermon just hours after they were shot. His sermon went viral after it was posted online, shocking a nation still trying to process the tragedy.
Jimenez preached that execution of “Sodomites” was sanctioned by the Bible, sparking large protests at Verity. While the controversy largely died down, some activists have continued to protest at the church’s Wednesday evening service and are planning a demonstration Sunday morning, when Jimenez will deliver his closing sermon.
On Thursday evening, several protesters stood on a grass median about 20 feet from the door of the church with signs, and Mayor Kevin Johnson last week issued a statement declaring that “Sacramento does not have a welcome mat for hate.” Others in the LGBT community have urged friends to ignore the conference to deprive the preachers of attention.
One of the protesters, Dusty Arnold, said he is bisexual, Christian and an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church. He believes the message of Verity Baptist runs counter to the biblical command to love one another. Along with friend Don McCormick, Arnold launched the “Kiss Away Hate” campaign to counter what he considers hard-line preachers’ messages of hate.
For many in the LGBT community, Arnold said, “it is hard to go to church and feel accepted.”
Thursday night’s preacher, Anderson, is pastor of Tempe, Ariz.-based Faithful Word Baptist Church and perhaps the most controversial figure at the conference. He is a Sacramento native with a large internet presence that includes hundreds of sermons, documentaries and other videos. Some have been viewed more than a million times, and he faced his own media storm in 2009 after promising to pray for the death of President Barack Obama.
A table at the conference offered souvenir DVDs and USB drives with Anderson’s sermons.
Anderson said that he has either “influenced” or taught the other three pastors who headlined the conference, and that they share an ideology they believe is unpopular because it is unforgiving of sin.
Anderson hit the recent controversy head-on by cautioning congregants that the half-dozen LGBT protesters outside would “love to come in here and rip us apart.” Members of the Verity congregation who would not provide their names said they support Jimenez and believe his sermons are truthful if uncomfortable.
A theme of isolationism flowed through Jimenez’s remarks and Anderson’s sermon, highlighting the insular nature of this loosely affiliated network of independent churches whose pastors share allegiance to Anderson and a penchant for the literal interpretation of the King James version of the Bible.
“We are living in the days where the wicked despise those who are good and now it’s even getting to the point where even mainstream America is starting to despise those who are good,” Anderson told the crowd to applause and amens.
Anderson lived in Citrus Heights and Elk Grove before moving to Roseville as a teenager, where he graduated from Woodcreek High School, he said. He attended Regency Baptist Church in Orangevale. It was there, he said, that he first met Jimenez when he was 20 and Jimenez 16.
Anderson criticized the media during his sermon for focusing on the pastors’ views on homosexuality. He said he preached 156 sermons a year and about three of those were about homosexuality, but the issue was “being crammed down our throat” and couldn’t be ignored.
“This fight has come to us, and you know what I say: Bring it on,” he said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights group, has condemned Anderson for hate speech against Obama, gays, Jews and women using birth control. In 2014, SPLC determined that Anderson had tricked Arizona rabbis into appearing in his documentary attacking Judaism.
“To my mind, there is no doubt that Steven Anderson and people like (him) are poisoning people’s minds out there and helping to justify actual murder,” said Mark Potok of the SPLC.
The conference runs through Sunday.