How a person first comes to believe is called, in the Baptist churches of my youth, your "testimony." And anyone who’s heard very many of these stories knows that most of them are bull hockey, someone’s imaginative reconstruction of what he thinks might have happened or wished had happened or, in the case of some of the preaching professionals, an outright falsehood constructed for the benefit of the unwashed. I once lied to describe my own conversion experience at a Baptist Sunday School class in Carrollton, and I didn’t hesitate to include the humorous aspects, which included a car wreck, a divorce, and the hysterical assertion of a friend that I had become a cult member and needed to be deprogrammed. My presentation was met with dumbfounded silence, followed by the teacher’s suggestion that "I’ll bet a lot of our young people would come listen to you. And if they didn’t know you were going to talk about Jesus Christ, you might be able to surprise them. They think they’re coming to a comedy show, but what they get is Jesus." I resolved, on the spot, never to "give testimony" again.
The process of conversion is mysterious. In Ole’s case, it was instantaneous and permanent, a so-called "Damascus Road" flash of understanding. He would later compare it to the moment when, working for the Air Force, he witnessed a hydrogen bomb explosion that vaporized an entire island. The physical feeling, he said, was similar.
For a time he tried to graft this new life onto his old one. In the fall of 1972, he was part of a small group of Christians who created the Trinity Foundation as the kind of evangelistic enterprise he would later come to hate. (It was named after the first thermonuclear bomb, which had been exploded at Trinity Flats, New Mexico. The members of the group wanted to create the same sort of "explosion of faith.") They tried to buy a television station — Channel 39 — but were aced out of it by Pat Robertson. They promoted a benefit Christian concert — Pat Boone and Andrae Crouch singing for two youth charities — but lost $40,000 when Gibson’s Discount Stores backed out on its underwriting promise. Ole appeared on the Christian talk show The 700 Club — and was permanently banned when he told host Ben Kinchlow that he prayed to God to either send him a wife or stop making him so horny. He hosted a talk show on a Christian radio station in Arlington. He interviewed all the Christian celebrities of the day — Tom Landry, Roger Staubach, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Gene Scott, Jim Bakker, Rex Humbard — as well as non-Christian luminaries like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, football star Jim Brown, several of the astronauts, and frequent guest Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the wacky professional atheist, who became a friend and would always start out by saying, "How did an intelligent boy like you become a Christian?" The show was canceled despite achieving an unheard-of-in-Christian-radio 6 rating. One by one all of Ole’s projects for God came to nothing. By the time I met him, the Trinity Foundation appeared to be comatose. In fact, it was just being born.
"There can be no ministry until there is a body." Thus spake Ole’s loyal secretary, one of the original members of Trinity. This is something he didn’t want to hear. In Christian terminology, "body" is a complex, multi-layered term that means, basically, a group of believers who gather together regularly in the name of Christ. Ole didn’t want a church, and he didn’t want to teach a Bible study. For most of us, the very words "Bible study" make the eyes glaze over and turn the lustiest hearts to stone. Ole, the bon vivant of the Dallas fast lane, was not keen on the idea of group Scripture reading.
He nevertheless knew his secretary was telling the truth. And he assumed, of course, that his weekly Bible study would be attended by businessmen, sports stars, and the luminaries of the Republican Party with whom he had once conspired. Ole was a conservative’s conservative, and his sonorous baritone seemed custom-designed for Ross Perot prayer breakfasts. He did get a few of these guys at first, but Ole was a little too "out there" for most three-piece-suit North Dallas Protestants. For one thing, he could never cure himself of saying "f**k" in the middle of the teaching. "God doesn’t give a flying f**k about that!" was one of his favorite sayings. For another thing, there was the whole issue of his fleabag office, where the Bible studies were held. Anyone brave enough to venture there would likely end up sprawled on a mangy couch next to a raggedy man who looked like his trailer house was recently flattened by a tornado. Far from attracting the business elite of Dallas, Ole had become a magnet for those he sometimes fondly referred to as "the scum of the earth."
"Wouldn’t ’salt of the earth’ be a better term?" I once asked him.
"They need to know they’re the scum of the earth. The church is built from the scum of the earth." And Ole launched into a prolix explanation of just exactly why the scum of the earth provide the loam you need for the Lord’s vineyard.
People don’t come to a Bible study because they feel good. People seek God when they feel really, really bad. Ole’s only purpose in teaching was fairly academic. He intended to work his way, verse by verse, through the book of Romans, thereby duplicating the course of Martin Luther, whose understanding of Romans resulted in his posting the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517 and unwittingly launching the Protestant revolt. But far from being a methodical trip through the intricate Greek of the apostle Paul, Ole quickly found himself plunged into every sort of redneck soap-opera psychodrama since the beginning of time.
The people who showed up didn’t just bring their Bibles. They brought teenage pregnancies, divorces, bad-check charges, warrants, feuds with parents, child-custody battles, drug habits, alcoholism, car wrecks, and more or less constant illness without benefit of medical insurance. All these trauma dramas poured into the Bible study, sending Ole to the passages in which Paul exhorted Christians to embrace their afflictions and glory in their adversity. Oddly enough, in Ole’s view, many of the people with broken-down cars, facing bankruptcy and divorce and considering suicide, didn’t much care for the "embrace your afflictions" message. This resulted in a Bible study that sometimes resembled the best Von Erich wrestling matches at the Sportatorium.
I met Ole during what I call the Fistfight Stage of Trinity Foundation. From my office down the hall, where I sometimes worked late into the night, I could hear the slamming doors, the angry exchanges, and the screeching of rubber as cars made their dramatic exits. On at least two occasions, Ole’s life was threatened by one of his students, and one particular Arkansas-bred proselyte had to be held down bodily on the floor, lest he open a can of whup-ass.
People don’t come to a Bible study because they feel good. People seek God when they feel really, really bad.
Later — at Kip’s Big Boy, at Lucas B&B, at the NFL — I would tentatively ask what might have been happening that night.
"Romans. We’re still studying the book of Romans." he would say.
"What specific aspect of Romans is causing this level of interest?"
"Well, we were talking about your place in the body of Christ. And I told one guy his place was to be a pimple on the ass of the body of Christ. I just said it. It just came out."
"And he didn’t agree?"
"A lot of these people are clinging to their miserable little self-images. They don’t understand that it’s about God. It’s about them, but only the part of them that contains God. They still think they’re special."
Miraculously, most of the people who once wanted to murder Ole — or at least rough him up a little — remain members of Trinity Foundation today, and for the most part are peaceable, non-weapons-bearing elders. One guy, who was convinced Trinity was a cult, would come to every Bible study armed with questions supplied by Cult Watch, a watchdog group that helps parents deprogram children taken away from their families by fanatic religious groups. That same guy is one of the principal leaders of Trinity today.
"I’m not sure you’re not a cult," I said to Ole one night. Sometimes I meant this stuff; sometimes I didn’t. It was the reporter in me. But I wanted to hear what he would say.
"A cult tries to coerce people to stay in the group," Ole said. "I want all these people to leave. I’m trying to get them to go. I tried to leave myself one night, and then I realized that I didn’t own the car I was driving. I had stolen a car. I drove back and ate crow."
It pretty much settled the issue for me — that, and over a 20-year period never hearing him once tell a person what to do. The Baptist teachers of my youth, on the other hand, told me exactly what to do, and reinforced it with warnings that improper behavior would be rewarded with immense suffering in the afterlife.