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May 14 2003 12:00 AM

Outside, Graham's religious critics have their say

Those who entered Qualcomm Stadium through Gate E Thursday evening on their way to hear Billy Graham preach were treated to a sermon of a different kind--courtesy of Tom Elwood, a member of A True Church, whose parishioners don't think highly of evangelists like Graham.

Being heavily outnumbered didn't deter Elwood, who was seated in a chair near the gate, holding a large sign that read, "Graham leads to Hell," and wearing a shirt emblazoned with the slogan, "God is angry every day. Probably at you!" He and a few likeminded friends around the stadium challenged Graham's followers to prove to him that they are truly Christian.

"We're just standing here saying, you know, 'Are you guys Christians?' Elwood told CityBeat, as the line of people heading into the stadium grew longer. "See, the Bible says, 'Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.' So we can tell within five or 10 minutes if a person is saved or not by the answers they give to our questions.

"We start asking them the hard side of the Bible, like Luke 14:26, where Jesus said, 'If anyone comes after me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters and his own life, [he] cannot be my disciple. So we ask them, 'Do you hate your family?' They go, 'Of course I don't hate my family.' Well, then you just denied Luke 14:26, which means you're not a real disciple of Christ."

Elwood and his church, which he acknowledges is "radical," consider Graham a "false teacher," partly because his sermons focus too heavily on warm fuzzies and not enough on the nastier bits.

"These peopleÉ are coming here to hear this lopsided gospel," Elwood said. "See, you cannot preach the love of God without also preaching the wrath of God. [Graham's] not telling people that God hates them and God is angry with them. We tell these people that God hates them, and because we tell them the truth, they hate us, they attack us, they slander us, they throw water at us, they kick us and hit us. I've been spit on. I've been threatened three times preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, and these false teachers, they don't catch this kind of opposition. Why? Because they're only telling 'em what they want to hear."

Determining who's true and who's false is sometimes tricky business.

Carmelo Hammond, who clearly favors Graham's approach, broke into the conversation to warn against Elwood's leanings. "This guy listens to a guy named Darwin Fish, who is a false prophet," Hammond said.

"Correct me!" shouted Elwood, rising to the challenge. "Correct us according to the word. Don't just slander us and walk away like a fool.

"The complacency of fools will destroy them!" he declared loudly and to no one in particular.

Fish, Hammond said, "went against the church before, and he had his chance to repent from that."

"For being right about the Bible?" Elwood countered. "He exposed [evangelist] John MacArthur as a wolf, and he is a wolf--just like this wolf [Graham]."

"There's plenty of literature about [Fish]," Hammond told CityBeat before getting back in line. "You can read up on it."

"Darwin Fish is our shepherd," Elwood explained. "He's our overseer. He's a very humble person. The thing that Darwin was accused of being evil of was being right about exposing a false teacher [MacArthur]. This was all brand new back then. We didn't know that you're not supposed to go to a false teacher and correct him yourself. It wasn't until further down the road we realized that Matthew 7--I think it's Verse 6--it says, 'Do not take your pearls and throw them before the swine lest they turn on you and tear you in pieces.'

"Like Billy Graham," Elwood continued. "We would never sit down and try to correct him. Why? Because he can't be saved. Second Peter, 2:17: He's a well without water for whom is reserved the blackness, the darkness forever. See, Billy Graham thinks he's saved, just like all these people think they're saved."

Graham's fondness for telling half the truth, in Elwood's view, is just part of the problem. The popular evangelist also makes stuff up, his critic charged. "The word of God clearly says--in Proverbs, Chapter 30, Verse 5 and 6--'Do not add to his word lest he reprove you and you be found a liar.' Billy Graham makes two statements that he just makes up, one of which is--he said every person on the earth is going to be asked this question: What did you do on earth with my son Jesus? That is nowhere to be found in the word of God; he simply made that up. The second thing that he adds to the word of God is: What right do you have to enter heaven? That is nowhere, again, in the word of God; he just makes that up."

Elwood has to travel a long way to get to a church that sees it like he does. He drives 210 miles every weekend to worship at a church northeast of Los Angeles. "We simply believe the Bible and follow the Bible, and we are outside of mainstream Christianity," he said. "We oppose it just like Jesus opposed the religion of his day when he went to the Jews and started blasting them for the utter hypocrisy. And that's what we see going on here: utter hypocrisy."

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, Elwood said, were "caused by God--not allowed, but actually caused by the wrath of God. Right in the very beginning of Paul's gospel, he said the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Isaiah 45:7 says 'I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create calamity. I, the Lord, do these things.' But see, people have been brainwashed into believing this God that's different than the God in the Bible."

Elwood summed up: "We're basically doing counter-evangelism. We're giving people the real, hardcore truth of God's word. See, God is not only a god of love and mercy and patience and kindness and long-suffering gentleness and all that. He's also a god of hatred, a god of wrath, a god of judgment and burning indignation."

~ ~ ~

Inside the stadium that night, as has been exhaustively reported by the local media, particularly the Union-Tribune, Graham brought his mission to tens of thousands of appreciative fans. He preached the basic themes: love, sin, repentance, judgment.

"God loves you," Graham told his audience. "No matter what you've done, where you've been, what's the color of your skin, what language you speak, God loves you."

He did not mention the sort of distaste for Jews that he expressed to President Richard Nixon one day in the Oval Office. Graham was caught on tape complaining about the damage the Jews were doing to the country, and he suggested Nixon do something about it.

Graham has said he doesn't recall saying those things to the President, but on Thursday night, he acknowledged that he's not perfect. "None of us here can live the Christian life," he said. "I can't. I've tried. I have to have the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart, who has regenerated me and made me a new person inside and outside."

A few thousand people gave their lives to Jesus Christ the Graham way that night after his talk. They poured onto the baseball field and subjected themselves to "counseling." Hundreds of badge-wearing volunteer counselors questioned each person, determining the level of their faith, reading scripture, jotting down phone numbers and addresses, telling them they'd be receiving follow-up phone calls and, ultimately, praying with them.

A man at the microphone admonished volunteers not to give Billy Graham literature to anyone who had not first been counseled. There was also reading material, comic-book style, specially geared to children.

Outside, as Graham's followers were streaming back to their cars, a young man was doing some counseling of his own, although in a much more passive fashion. Using a Hebrew name, Yediydyah, with long, blonde hair, wire-rimmed glasses and a wispy, partial beard, handed his organization's literature to whomever accepted it.

The polar opposite of Elwood, Yediydyah spoke softly about his disagreements with Graham-style Christianity.

"It's a false unity," he said. In Graham's world, "people canÉ be separated from each other, live alienated, lonely lives and come here and confess the name of Jesus, as if that has the power alone to bring people into real unity.

"The way I see it, it's almost like a spell that's being cast on people--it's an illusion," he said. "Because real unity produces more, produces a life together, a life where people take care of each other on a daily basis, not a thing where you meet together on Sunday and talk about God. It's a real daily experience if people have real love."

Yediydyah seemed reluctant to utter the name of his organization, The 12 Tribes of the Commonwealth of Israel, almost as if protecting it. He said the group has "communities" around the world that "live like the believers did in the Book of Acts."

The idea is to live and share in common with members of the "clan," he said. His clan, residing in a large house on a farm in Vista, includes roughly 40 people. Yediydyah lives in the "single brothers" room with six other unmarried men.

Like a commune, one might say.

"Not in the sense of the communes of the '60s," he was quick to correct. "The communes of the '60s--somehow they ruined the reputation for people living together. People think it has to be drug use and a lot of immorality, just run-down places where nobody knows whose children's whose.

"We think that there needs to be a restoration on the earth because humanity's in a state where, you know, it's like there's so much chaos and confusion and destruction and decay that people barely know what's real and what's normal anymore."

The clan's individuals call themselves "disciples." They believe in "the God of Israel and we believe in the Messiah. We use his Hebrew name, 'Yahshua,' which means, 'God is powerful to save,' Yediydyah said.

Few would be surprised where Yediydyah first came across members of The 12 Tribes: at a Grateful Dead show in Philadelphia. He said it was during a time when he was looking for answers.

"I talked to everybody--every Christian I meet, every Hare Krishna I meet, every Buddhist, every person who'd talk about the alien ships coming--everybody I meet, I talk to them and see if there's any substance behind their doctrine," he said. "I didn't want to settle for just some empty sales pitch. You see so many people who just get sold when they're young, even sold on the dream of fame and fortune. People get sold on it, and they end up being 50, 60 years old and they look back at their life and somehow these great ideals and their dreams never panned out. It was like an illusion."

Referring to the stadium, he said, "We know we're not going to change what's going on in there, but we know that there's people who have a longing to know God in their heart, but they don't want to just settle for a god that they don't know. They want to know a god of love that produces a real effect, produces a consequential love, a love that's not empty and is not just a bunch of talk or a bunch of words but it actually produces a life of unity, where people can be saved from their sins."

Shown a copy of Elwood's literature, which starts off with the words, "The Lord kills even babies (Hosea 9:16). Repent!" Yediydyah wasn't impressed. "I have not seen this one, but I have seen many like it," he said. "I think that's also a gross misrepresentation of the heart of God."



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