‘Red Hot Preaching Conference’ echoes Verity Baptist message
Pastor Roger Jimenez implored his congregation at Verity Baptist Church to separate themselves from the ways of a modern, wicked world.
Burn your Harry Potter books. Trash your rock 'n' roll CDs. Don't vaccinate your babies. Stay away from gay people.
"The United States of America is on a rainbow-colored boat, and we've gotta shake that boat up," Jimenez said.
Speaking to some 400 people in an overflow crowd that included dozens of young children staring intently at Bibles and giggling when pastors yelled, Jimenez was met with shouts of "Amen!" and "Let 'er rip!"
Here in the capital of the state that is the vanguard for the so-called liberal resistance, parishioners gathered last month for the Red Hot Preaching Conference, featuring some of the most virulently anti-gay pastors in the country. Jimenez started the conference in 2016 after gaining national notoriety for praising the mass shooting of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
The conference's seven preachers are part of a network of about 30 churches called the New Independent Fundamental Baptist Movement, which, experts on hate and extremism say, is growing and spreading violent rhetoric over the internet in an era when hate crimes against LGBTQ people are increasing.
The conference took place in Jimenez's storefront church six miles from the state Capitol. Several pastors, including Jimenez, had called for the U.S. government to start executing LGBTQ people.
"It's certainly not the case that they're in some out-of-the-way place like small-town Alabama," said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has labeled several New Independent Fundamental Baptist churches hate groups. "They're in major cities like Houston, Sacramento, Los Angeles. They have found inroads in places where you might not expect this kind of extremism."
A New IFB church recently opened in El Monte. Another will open in Fresno in August.
The New IFB Movement was started by Steven L. Anderson, a Sacramento native and the pastor of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Ariz., who garnered headlines in 2009 for telling congregants he prayed for the death of President Barack Obama. A day later, a congregant went to an Obama appearance in Phoenix carrying an AR-15 assault rifle.
Among the pastors associated with Anderson's network is Grayson Fritts, a Knoxville, Tenn., pastor and detective with the Knox County Sheriff's Office who, in June, called for the arrest and execution of LGBTQ people. Fritts took a buyout from the sheriff's office in July and continues to preach.
In Sacramento, most of the pastors were fresh off another event held in June just outside Orlando: the Make America Straight Again Conference.
Jimenez, 33, opened it by saying that although the media depict gay people as "a little flamboyant" and "kind of funny," he believed they were a danger to children. (That belief – also cited by Catholic bishops seeking a scapegoat for sexual abuse by priests – has long been discredited by studies showing no connection between homosexuality and pedophilia.)
"We're not advocating taking the law into your hands, but here's what we're saying: If the government would put them to death, it would make America safe again," Jimenez said. "Here's all we're saying is that when they die, we don't feel bad about it."
On the first night of the Sacramento conference, a stocky man in the crowd wore a T-shirt reading: "To End AIDS --> Leviticus 20:13: If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman ... they shall surely be put to death."
The women wore long hair and long skirts. Many were visibly pregnant or tending to multiple young children. Most families who attend Verity Baptist homeschool their kids, and women are discouraged from working outside the home.
The first preacher was Jonathan Shelley. In January, he replaced Donnie Romero, the founder of Stedfast Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, who resigned after having sex with prostitutes, according to Anderson.
Shelley said the Bible tells women to keep silent in church and called J.D Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, a "wicked false prophet" because Greear once apologized to LGBTQ people, saying Christians have not done enough to stop discrimination against them.
"Here's my apology: Go to hell!" Shelley shouted.
A small blond boy in a dress shirt and tie yelled, "Amen!" in a high-pitched voice, leaning into his father. He clutched a rubber dinosaur toy, walking it along the side of his chair. In the row behind him, a boy with skinned knees and elbows watched the pulpit with his hands clasped behind his head.
Up next was Anderson, a Holocaust denier who gave a rambling sermon against Calvinist theology, which includes predestination, the belief that God has chosen certain people to go to heaven before they're born. He thanked God for the ability to "reach the masses" through the internet.
Two young men told a Los Angeles Times reporter they moved from out of state to be near a New IFB church after binge-watching Anderson's sermons on YouTube. Anderson and his acolytes often complain about being "censored" from YouTube. The New IFB Movement uses Gab, a Twitter-like platform favored by far-right users including white nationalists, and several other social media sites.
Anderson's rhetoric has gotten him banned from 33 countries. In May, he became the first person ever banned from Ireland under the country's exclusion powers. In 2016, he was deported from Botswana, which decriminalized gay sex in June, after saying on the radio that gay people should be stoned to death.
The New IFB Movement is a 21st century offshoot of the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, which emerged in the 1940s as a response to growing liberalism in large American denominations, said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania who has studied fundamentalism.
"They're tiny, but they're loud," Fea said. "They like to yell; they call it hard preaching. They're not afraid of hell. It's fearmongering, but they don't see it that way. They see it as, they're the only true believers and everyone else has compromised their faith."
Homosexuality remains divisive among people of faith. The United Methodist Church this year tightened its ban on gay clergy and same-sex marriage, a decision that could split the denomination. In June, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution discouraging the phrase "gay Christian" because it considers same-sex attraction a "sinful desire."
On Day 2 of the Red Hot Preaching Conference, Pastor Manly Perry, a balding man with a thick Texas accent and ill-fitting suit, fantasized about a future "millennial reign of Christ," in which Jesus rules the earth for 1,000 years. He said he will "never have to worry about King Jesus tweeting that he stands in solidarity" with LGBTQ people. Perry said he did not vote in 2016 and was disgusted by President Donald Trump once posing with a rainbow flag.
He joked that he keeps a rifle called his "S.A.D. Weapon" – Sodomite Apocalypse Defense – and envisions a day when gay people surround his house like zombies, trying to get in to avoid God's wrath. His children, he said, recently laughed at a transgender person in Walmart, and he hopes they hate LGBTQ people as much as he does.
"I feel so sorry for the LGBTQ kids in those congregations because you know they're there," said Lorri L. Jean, chief executive of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Many homeless LGBTQ youth who seek help at the center come from religious families who shunned them and suffer from deep-rooted depression, she said.
She said that if she could speak to LGBTQ children in New IFB churches, she would say: "Just hang on until you're old enough to not have to go anymore, and then, if you want to go to a church that will accept you and love you, there are plenty of them."
On Day 4 of the conference, hundreds of attendees went "soul-winning," knocking on people's doors to talk about salvation.
Jimenez's wife, Joann, 33, walked along Acacia and Alamos avenues with her well-worn King James Bible, slipping past driveway gates and ignoring a No Soliciting sign. A teenage girl with pink headphones in her ears talked to Joann Jimenez through a screen door because she was baby-sitting. "Uh, I'm Catholic," she said.
A man in a hat reading "Jesus Is My Boss" was cleaning his truck in his driveway when Joann Jimenez approached and challenged his Catholic faith. Polite but flustered, he kept saying, "We have Bible study."
Jimenez prayed on the porch for salvation with Veronica Vaez, an 18-year-old in a pink T-shirt that said "Angel Baby." Jimenez handed her a DVD called "Psychopath Reprobates" featuring her husband's preaching.
"If I never see you again, I'll see you in heaven," she said.
Joann Jimenez described reprobates as people who have been rejected by God. All people sin and can be saved, she said – except those who commit certain "unnatural" sins like homosexuality, pedophilia and bestiality. (That belief is not shared by mainline Christian denominations.)
The Jimenezes started Verity Baptist from their living room in 2010. Their six children, like all kids at the church, sit through service with the adults. Joann Jimenez said churches that send their kids to Sunday school are "dumbing down the message."
Her kids saw hundreds of protesters outside their church in 2016 after Jimenez praised the Orlando shooter. She told them, "The world is not supposed to like us. The world hated Jesus."
Spenser Fritz, a gay man, sued Jimenez, the church and a parishioner, saying Jimenez's anti-gay sermons inspired the parishioner to shove him during the protest.
In the ongoing lawsuit, Fritz said he saw "a small child, no older than 5," peering through the door at protesters. Fritz smiled and waved, hoping to show the child that gay people are not dangerous. A congregant, he alleged, saw Fritz and whispered in the child's ear. The child then started pretending to shoot Fritz.
On the final day of the conference, a choir sang: "When America was founded, she was strong and pure and good, and her leaders on their knees were not ashamed to call on God. But our nation, in her pride, has turned her back upon the right."
Roger Jimenez said his congregation will knock on every door in Sacramento. They plan to stand outside public schools this fall to evangelize to young people. They keep getting kicked off YouTube, he said, but they'll keep starting new channels, putting "hard preaching" out into the world.
"We can't win them all," he preached. "But we can warn them all."