The only TV evangelist worth a damn wasnt wearing any of his whimsical hats three Sundays ago at the University Cathedral downtown. He wasnt waving his cigar around, wasnt glaring at the congregation and demanding, "Am I boring you?"
Dr. Gene Scott was sick. Hed just been driven from the hospital, where edema was being sucked from his abdomen. He had cancer. Several years ago hed been diagnosed with it but declined treatment; to him the treatment sounded worse than the disease. Hed said the Lord would take care of it, and that seemed to work.
Now he sat onstage in his pajamas, not moving. Not moving at all, his white-bearded, freckled face blank beneath white hair and translucent sunglasses. No suit. Zippered red jogging jacket. Deck shoes. Alive?
And the joint was rocking, just like always. The painfully ornate old prayer palace quaked along with a dozen musicians blasting gospel beat as Scotts wife, Melissa, the thin young beaut with the yard of dark ringlets, sang. Though never in Melissas league, Dr. Scott also liked to warble. Not today.
A few other preachers did warm-ups and testimonials. One had a strong singing voice and a nice old-pard way of husking the corn: "You hear people say theyve found Jesus. Well, Jesus wasnt the one who was lost." It felt like an audition. But nobodys gonna replace Gene Scott.
Ever caught his show? (Dont worry, its still in reruns six days a week on KDOC-TV, and on radio, plus eternally on the Web at www.drgenescott.com.) If youve seen Scott preach/perform, you know he was different. In recent years he toned down the props, didnt even have phone banks. Just flashed the hot-line number on the screen, alternating with a subtitle advertising his Ph.D. from Stanford.
And that doctorate was no bull. Take it from a slob whos done hard time in the dead-languages graveyard: Scott was a serious philologist who knew his alphas and omegas. Hed start with a scriptural passage, often written on the whiteboard in two or three ancient languages: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac. Yes, Syriac, the tongue of some of the oldest manuscripts. And he would crack open his dictionaries and dig into the roots of words, tell you what kinds of connotations they had such-and-such didnt just mean "flee," it meant "go and seek shelter," that kind of thing. Often he would totally bust the early translators, who had a tendency to make the text fit their preconceived theologies: "Its not in Jesus, its from Jesus!"
Scott told you what the testaments actually said, not what you wished they said. Hed draw circles and arrows all over the place to illustrate syntax and make comparisons. By the end of a show, his whiteboards looked like abstract art. All the while, hed be cracking dry jokes, talking the way a rancher might explain breeding methodology. Guilt and hellfire? Not this cowboy.
"I could tell you a few things about sex," hed say, leering over the top of his specs. He was an entertainer.
But now here was Scott, in his pajamas. All of us the young Annie Oakley in jeans, the middle-aged man in the bad sweater, the black professor, the old Asian couple, over a thousand souls were wondering if he was ever going to move.
When he finally spoke, his voice at first was weak and parched.
"Did you notice the sheep on these pajamas?" he asked. "They remind me of my flock."
Not bad under the circumstances. He sat us down with the slightest motion of a hand wed been mostly on our feet doing the praise/honor/testify thing.
And Scott embarked on an abbreviated version of his instruction, with Melissa writing on the board for him. (Her Greek is tidier than his, anyway.) He laid a little Isaiah on us, about refuge and shelter. Gaining momentum, he gave us a little John, and explained about the Greek verb pisteuo, which means "I trust."
"God doesnt want you to be perfect," he advised. "He just wants you to trust in him."
When he finished, Scotts auxiliaries asked us to stand, close our eyes and stretch out our arms, palms down, toward Dr. Gene and Melissa. We were transferring energy to them, to give them strength and help Scotts good cells fight the cancer cells. It was weirder than singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." But what the hell.
Scott requested a reprise of "The Storm Is Passing Over," and Melissa sang it, nailing a long final note that had good wood behind it. Four guys picked Scott up out of his desk chair, put him in his wheelchair and rolled him off.
During the proceedings, a velvet bag for donations was passed twice. Im not a man of faith, and Id never given a dime to a TV evangelist before. This time, though, I gave more than a dime. And my wife can nag till kingdom come, but Ill never tell how much.
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Tracking GodzillaUnder a steady downpour,
one day before a 425-pound tiger is fatally shot near the Reagan Library, Lieutenant Chris Long, an exhausted 25-year vet of the California Department of Fish and Game, leads me down a muddy trail on Day Creek Ranch in Thousand Oaks. We stop at a black nursery bucket. He lifts it and unveils the first discovered track. Its huge. This was no mountain lion, says Long. We walk on with our eyes peeled, and he points down to a thin veil of rainwater streaming over a series of enormous paw prints; the cats stride is 51 inches long. Suddenly in the chaparral above we see a flash of gold and then two camouflaged trackers on ATVs, armed with tranquilizer guns and rifles, hauling ass. Long runs to a clearing, lifts his binoculars and shrugs. Just dogs. The feds brought in trained lion dogs. You have one Godzilla cat roaming around free, Long was told when he contacted USDA biologists after the first print was found and measured. Since then, Fish and Game wardens have worked around the clock with expert federal trackers. The best in the business, says Long. But how could this happen in the first place? North of Day Creek Ranch is a clump of tony homes and one double wide, leased by a couple with a big-cat fetish. On January 31, Long tranquilized a 90-pound Siberian lynx that led him to Abby and Emma Hedengran. The couple had 22 cats altogether nine lynx roamed free as indoor pets; there were servals and caracals in plastic dog carriers, a snow leopard in a slightly larger cage and, in a converted horse trailer, three African lions and two Bengal tigers. The animals were permitted, but their storage was neither humane nor up to specification. On February 9, Long gave the women 72 hours to remove the animals or face charges, and by the 12th all 22 had been relocated. Thats when it got spooky. On February 15, Luis Romo, Day Creek Ranchs affable caretaker, saw a wildcats tail disappear into the bush, exactly where Im standing with Long. The next day the cat was seen again this time chasing a herd of cattle to the doorstep of the Reagan Library. After that, five teams of expert trackers began sniffing, snooping and slogging through the unrelenting rain. They set traps and searched via helicopter equipped with an infrared detection system. One local, would-be hero used live goats as bait. Didnt work out so well for the goats, but the coyotes loved it. The Hedengrans strangely deny involvement, though they have an extra permit for a tiger, are the only ones in the area who trade captive wildcats, and probably have over $50,000 invested in the animal. This isnt the first time an exotic, carnivorous feline has prowled Thousand Oaks. In the early 60s, a black panther escaped from Jungleland, a wild animal park and studio concession, home to MGMs Leo the Lion. Eventually the panther was found and killed. As Long and I walk and search, I fear and somehow know that the same fate will meet this scary, beautiful beast. The next day, in a ravine bordered by a school, soccer field and shopping center, thats exactly what happens. A tracker kills the tiger with a powerful .338-caliber rifle. For days I had wondered and worried about this animal who turned the suburbs back into a wild savannah, and now, after two and a half weeks of freedom which must have been filled with exhilaration, confusion and fear it was all over with two quick shots from 200 yards. It was a sad day, Long said later. Sad for the tiger and for the person who had to shoot it. The public outcry was fierce, but a spokeswoman from Fish and Game told journalists around the world that had the trackers tranquilized the tiger, it might have run, disoriented and pissed, into a populated area, and it takes 10 minutes for the drugs to work. Most people think you can whip out a tranquilizer gun and shoot the thing, said Long, who also explained that weather and topographical conditions further hampered efforts to tranquilize. But thats just not the case. Its way more involved than that. This week, a necropsy revealed that the tiger had been declawed and weighed 350 pounds, not 425 as reported in the original news stories. Fish and Game continues to investigate the Hedengrans, and charges will likely be filed. But that won't help a willful tiger who sought and found freedom, and inevitably paid for his owners' sins.