Folklore is a time-honored tradition filtered through generations as a way to preserve the mythology of a region from one generation to the next. It also helps keep the fires of local scandals and speculation flickering at a slow burn.
Rumors of the atrocities committed by Reverend Robert Gray against dozens of children lingered in Jacksonville like the shadows cast by Gray in the fundamentalist Baptist community. His name was whispered by parishioners through the church halls and he was revered by students of the school as a boogeyman.
“Several people have gotten in touch with me that said ‘I wasn’t one of Grays’ victims but I was in the church for so long’. I want to have space for whoever is there and needs to say something.”
By shining a light into the city’s darkest corners, author Tim Gilmore made peace with the contradictions of his childhood experiences by facing them head on. His stories expose the truth behind local tragedies, eulogizing the humanity in some, denouncing the demons in others.
“I grew up here and I wrestled, as I think a lot of us who grew up here did, with the place and that’s how I’ve come to really appreciate it,” he says. “There are just so many stories out here.”
Gilmore’s newest book “Devil in the Baptist Church” traces the timeline of abuse from 1949 until Gray’s resignation from the Trinity Baptist Church in 1992. Gilmore follows the legal channels leading to the first indictments for capital sexual abuse, the skin crawling depositions with police detectives, admissions of love for his young victims and Gray’s untimely death that robbed them of a legal victory against a pastor and a pedophile who preyed under religious protection.
A reading, interactive discussion and book signing will be held at 7pm Thursday, Sept. 22 in the UNF Art Gallery Founders Hall, building 2, room 1001. Gilmore says he hopes that the event will generate some discussion and provide a platform for who have freed themselves from an oppressive stranglehold.
“I definitely want to have dialogue. Several people have gotten in touch with me that said ‘I wasn’t one of Grays’ victims but I was in the church for so long’. I want to have space for whoever is there and needs to say something.”
Growing up and realizing that the world is much bigger and different than the world painted by the fundamentalist church, Gilmore says he struggled with the conflicting shores of his youth. Trinity Baptist Church referred to itself as “IFB”- or Independent Fundamental Baptist – separate from the Southern Baptist Church. As an “IFB,” parishioners were taught everything that existed outside of the church walls was the work of the Devil.
“They had this line that talked about being in the world but not of the world. They talked about the world as though everything outside the church was the world and everything in the world was not to be trusted. The leader of something like that has extraordinary power that nobody can really question,” says Gilmore.
“My parents met at Trinity Baptist Church. They were going to another church by the time I was born but I did attend the school. I had a pretty fundamentalist upbringing and Gray was always this huge figure. Everybody in the little world I knew had heard of him. He was a giant in that little world. I wrestled with so much from my childhood and when Gray was arrested in 2006, as shocking as it was, part of me wasn’t surprised. He’s always been looming back there.”
The challenges of tracking down a demon in the belly of the Bible belt were evident. Gilmore expected to face resistance from the leaders of the church who took over after it was announced that Gray would leave his home at Trinity Baptist for mission work in Germany. He started small, writing a few pieces here and there. And as his work progressed, he unearthed more pieces of the disturbing puzzle.
“I think I started from the things I always heard about him and talking to family members. I know people who remember Bob Gray talking about Martin Luther King and him calling him Martin Lucifer King,” says Gilmore. “In 2006 and 2007, there was just a ton of stuff released in the news. There are depositions. From there, I just started reaching out to people who had been mentioned in some of the news stories, people who had been at the church for 25 years and put their whole lives to that church and worked at the school. I went in multiple directions at once.”
“I’ve written a lot of different kinds of things but I think doing this kind of writing is how I made peace with Jacksonville. There are definitely some repugnant stories but there are also some beautiful stories, too. This just isn’t one of them.”
Gilmore also looked for clues in Gray’s old sermons, which used to be much easier to find than they are now. Gray served as the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church for 38 years. When he left in ’92, he had created what is widely considered among to be the first mega-church. Together, the church and the school occupied over 140 acres. The molestation accusations date back more than 40 years before many of the victims were 10 years old. Over 20 women came forward with claims against Gray. Many charges were thrown out of court because the statute of limitations has expired but Gray was arrested in 2006 and charged with several counts of sexual battery. He died in 2007 before his accusers would face the accused in court.
“I was surprised that’s one people until very recently still held the line that all this stuff was the devil’s lies no longer thought that. I did not run into anyone who was still trying to protect Gray,” says Gilmore. “He used to be championed all over the place but nobody champions him anymore,” he says. “If you go to the church website and type in ‘Bob Gray’, you get nothing.”
The stories came quickly but incrementally. A conversation with one person would lead to another, each story revealing a new layer. Gilmore says he was stunned to find that the veil of religious protection Gray enjoyed for so many years seemed to have finally dissipated. One uniquely enlightening conversation was conducted with current pastor Tom Messer, who took over in 1992 when everything almost came to light. Gilmore says he was surprised that he would speak with him and even more surprised by some of the things that he said.
While Messer never publicly admitted the abuse allegations against Gray, he did acknowledge them in a backhanded kind of way. “He said things like ‘Trinity was a family and that what happened was a family squabble and it didn’t concern anyone else’. I was floored. I really, really was. I was floored that at once he did acknowledge privately that Gray did do these things and then he acknowledged that there were lots of victims. He said, referring to the number of victims, whether it was 20 or 30 or 40 or however many there were,” says Gilmore.
“It’s a lot of work but the work pulls you along. You talk to one person and that leads you to another and so on. I’ve written a lot of different kinds of things but I think doing this kind of writing is how I made peace with Jacksonville. There are definitely some repugnant stories but there are also some beautiful stories, too. This just isn’t one of them.”