All Photos by Giles Clarke
“The pacifists love to quote ‘Thou shalt not kill’ while ignoring all the Bible verses approving of capital punishment,” wrote Pastor John Koletas. “Does that mean we should not kill mosquitoes? Termites? Bugs?”
The pastor published a long list of scripture on his church’s website supporting his position—every word in boldface:
Exodus 15:3 - The LORD is a man of war. . .
Psalm 144:1 - Blessed be the LORD my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight.
Ezekiel 9:1 - . . . every man with his destroying weapon in his hand.
The destroying weapon in the pastor’s hand last Sunday was an AR-15 assault rifle. It was the top prize of the church raffle he had organized. He thrust it aloft in the midst of a sermon, drawing a rhapsody of Amens from the congregants of Grace Baptist Church in Troy, New York.
“If someone wants to come into my house at three o’clock in the morning to kill or rape my wife and children,” he had stated earlier, “as far as I’m concerned they walked into the wrong house. God commands me to defend my family. That’s not the time to turn the other cheek.”
I remembered another time I had heard that phrase, “turn the other cheek.” Hitchhiking through Pennsylvania in my youth, I had been invited to supper by a Quaker couple. The husband told a parable about a Quaker family on the prairie whose house had been attacked by religious bigots. The believers knelt and prayed as their assailants tore their home down around them. When the demolition was complete, the now destitute family brought their tormentors water. They said, “You must be thirsty after all your hard labor.”
I traveled to Troy with British photographer Giles Clarke to enter Grace Baptist’s gun raffle, and to find out how one holy book could have such different interpretations.
Skyscrapers gave way to forests as Giles accelerated up the Hudson Valley out of Manhattan. One-hundred and fifty miles later, we crossed the river and curled down into the heart of Troy. It had once been a major industrial hub, second only to Pittsburgh for its iron production, but now, like its ancient Greek namesake, much of the place was abandoned. On our route to Grace Baptist, we passed five churches with plywood where stained-glass had once been.
The first man we met in Troy was a Jamaican named Terrence. He wore a chest full of chains and dangling medallions: a skull and crossbones, an Eyptian owl, several crucifixes, hands in prayer. He grinned big as he talked, exposing a row of silver teeth.
I asked if he was going to enter the AR-15 giveaway.
“I can’t get a gun license,” he explained, “because I’m mentally ill. They say schizophrenia.”
I asked if he heard voices, and he answered, “Yes. Some good and some bad. I’ve heard God telling me to stay on the righteous path.”
The sidewalk in front of Grace Baptist was covered in thick ice that a team of men and women was working to clear. They had sledgehammers and shovels. I approached a young bearded man in spectacles and offered to help. His name was Daniel, and he said he was expecting us.
The conversation quickly turned to soul-winning—Grace Baptist’s primary pursuit.
“It all boils down to: Where are you going to go when you die?” Daniel preached. “If you are trusting in anything other than Jesus Christ—church, work, being a good person—you’re trusting in something that doesn’t have the power to get you to heaven.”
The Grace Baptist congregation believes in a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible, the only source of truth. “I don’t base what I believe on my feelings. A man’s heart is desperately wicked above all things. I can’t trust in what I feel.”
And then the big question came, as it would again and again that weekend: “Have you been saved?”
There was an urgency to the question that seemed out of place in this quietly rusting town. It was a question that obliterated all the dreary and mundane elements of life: shopping for groceries, brushing teeth, paying bills. To Daniel and his fellow soul-savers, Troy is a city at war, and they are soldiers for Christ—heroically fighting the devil every day for the souls of mankind.
So it was appropriate for these Christian soldiers to be led by a former Marine. Pastor Koletas approached with an outstretched hand and a broad, eye-creasing smile. Even though he now made his living as a court reporter, the Pastor’s handshake was still Marine standard issue: extra firm.
I wanted to know: Would Jesus ever use a gun?
The pastor thought a moment. “I don’t think so, because as God, he doesn’t need a gun. He can command anything, and it would happen. But all of his followers carried swords for three and a half years, and not one time did he tell them to put those swords down. The only time that Jesus told Peter to put his sword back was at the very end. That was because Jesus came to die on the cross to pay for our sins, and he did not want Peter to get in the way.”
“Why did Jesus want them to have swords?”
“For exactly what we need guns for—for personal protection and to protect our liberties… All you have to do is read 1984 to know what’s going on in this country.”
That night, Giles and I downed sake in a gaudy all-you-can-eat sushi bar with rainbow-flashing lights, neon flowers, and metallic wallpaper.
“I got saved today, man!” Giles the atheist exclaimed with a maniacal grin.
“Well, Rich back there in the church said, ‘Are you going to go to heaven or hell when you die?’”
“I said, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to go. I sin quite a lot actually.’”
“He said, ‘I can save you from going to hell right now.’”
“I go, ‘How long will it take?’”
“He goes, ‘Couple of minutes.’”
“I said, ‘I’m in!’”
The next morning, we were first in line to enter the raffle. Giles swore giddily that if he won the rifle he would walk into VICE's headquarters and shoot up the ceiling in celebration. I was tempted to write his name on my ticket too, just to increase the odds of seeing him do it.
As we waited for the event to begin, I headed to the refreshments table for doughnuts and coffee. Wandering back through the crowd, I saw a women clutching a Ziploc bag full of shell-casings. She teared up as she explained that they were the last rounds her father had ever fired, during target practice before dying. I talked to Rich about his salvation—how he had led an empty, hedonistic life for ten years before accepting Christ. His rebirth had felt like layers of dead skin falling off. I chatted with a soft-spoken former Marine sergeant about incorporating a literal interpretation of scripture into modern life. “The Bible says if your wife is unfaithful, she should be stoned,” he explained. “Obviously, the law says you can’t do that. How do you deal with that kind of question? I don’t have answers for that.”
Then I heard music—tender, flowery voices singing, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” I sat in a pew and studied the scene before me. An American flag hung behind the altar. There was a simple wooden cross flanked by the words of the First and Second Amendments under which were donation baskets in the form of empty .50 caliber ammunition cans.
The guest speaker, Dr. Bob Grey, took to the podium to a loud round of applause and shouts of Amen from the crowd of 150. The church held twice the number of parishioners as it does on a typical Sunday. The Texan announced that he was in town promoting Rick Perry for president. He called the politician “the greatest man I know!”
Grey warmed up the crowd with a joke about a man’s wife dying on a visit to the Holy Land. The man was asked whether he wanted to have his wife buried there or shipped home. He chose to have her shipped home, saying, “Last time they buried a guy in the Holy Land, he rose in three days, and I’m not taking any chances!” The audience ate it up.
There was a lot of jokes, but each was followed by a serious message, spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down. “Hell is very real, my friends,” he reminded us. “There is evil in the world.”
At hour three, Pastor Koletas took to the podium again to offer us all salvation. “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” As the music swelled, a wave of parishioners surged up the aisles, throwing themselves down before the altar. I saw the Pastor step away from the podium, and I knew he was coming for me.
I had a vision of myself as a child standing in a field, waiting. I had believed with absolute certainty that if I stayed in that field long enough, God would speak to me. I think I even shouted, “I am here!” I waited for hours, as the sun set and the stars came out. I heard nothing. I saw nothing. I left that field, and I never went back.
“Roc,” the Pastor called to me, hand outstretched, “would you like to be baptized just like Jesus was?”
I thought about the child I had been. If even for a moment, I wanted to feel what the Pastor felt, what Daniel felt, even what schizophrenic Terrence felt. I said, “Yes.”
Behind the altar, I stripped and donned a blue smock. A smiling woman gestured to a curtain. I passed through and stood before the congregation. The Pastor was waiting below in a blue pool, up to his chest in water. Like a fly fisherman, he wore waders over his suit and tie. Once again, Koletas extended his hand to me. The water was warm like a bath.
“Bend your knees,” he instructed. “Cross your arms.”
I felt his hand on my forehead. I felt the room swing back. I felt the water rush past my body. And that was all I felt.
I changed back into my suit. Rivulets of water trickled down my neck as I found my seat again. Everyone shook my hand and congratulated me the same way they would soon congratulate the winner of the AR-15.
When it was time for the raffle, Pastor Koletas announced that the church retained the right to disqualify any winner with questionable character.
“If your name is Hussein, or Karim, or Mohammad, you may not qualify! If you are friends with the Missing Link, you definitely won’t qualify!”
“However,” he continued, “if everyone at your wedding sat on the same side of the aisle, you may qualify! If your horse can count higher than you, you may qualify! If you think the last four words to the national anthem are, ‘Gentlemen, start your engines!’ you may qualify!
A young girl was selected to pick the winning ticket. Koletas read the name: Ron Stafford.
As the 42-year-old salesman from Schenectady strode up to receive his prize, the congregation stood and cheered. They were allied with what they believed to be the most powerful force in the universe—a mighty yet intangible God whom none of them had ever glimpsed. Every man, woman, and child was riveted by the sleek, black body of the gun held up before them: power they could see with their eyes and touch with their hands.
Roc’s new book, And, was released recently. You can find more information on his website.