Friday, July 27, 2012

The Gospel of Wealth

Joel Osteen runs up to the stage, past the big golden globe, quickly enough that if you blink it's as if he appeared out of thin air. We’ve been standing for forty minutes, listening to pumping, jubilant music from a band of seventeen musicians, and now we are primed for the drop in volume for a still, small voice. Osteen closes his eyes and speaks. “We are living in the ages to come.” His twang-tinged speech is powerfully naked, bouncing off the walls of the former basketball stadium where we’ve come to see him preach.

He wears a blue checkered shirt, no tie, and shiny black shoes. He stretches out his arms on both sides and works his palms and fingers, contracting and expanding, as he continues to pray in a pulsing rush of ‘Thank you’s’ and ‘I hope that’s and ‘I pray for’s’ Osteen has an intoxicating cadence. He presides over one of the largest congregations in the U.S. This is a Saturday night service, one of the least attended of his many weekly gatherings, and there are still thousands of people, thousands of arms waving, thousands of voices in earnest unison.

Osteen’s sermon tonight is about personal prosperity. He tells us we must “make room for increase,” that God has big plans for us, but only if we let our expectations grow to accept those plans. He tells us Jesus’ parable about not pouring old wine into new wineskins. He tells the story about the widow who Elijah instructs to “borrow not a few” vessels, which God fills miraculously with oil. The biblical verses are flashed on the bottom of the two story tall screen. A few people turn to the relevant page in their bibles, brought from home, since there are none in the pews.

Then he tells us about a man who fishes, throwing back all the big fish and keeping only the small ones. The reason, met with a surge of laughter, is that the man only owned a ten-inch frying pan. He just couldn’t fry a big fish. Osteen uses the frying pan as a motif as he gives more contemporary examples. There’s the man who bought a house he couldn’t afford, who after years of prayer and worries that he wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage, is left millions of dollars by a relative who has passed away and he never even knew existed. That man, Osteen quips, had a bigger frying pan, a more cultivated ability to take the things God wanted to give him.

Many in the audience, or at least those seated near me, are new. The regulars, who come to this church every week, seem to enact the emotions subtly implied by Osteen’s face. So, for instance, he smiles and they laugh. When he’s slightly indignant, they’re really indignant. When he winces with a single tear (“Here I go, I’m gonna do it, ya’ll”), a few begin to cry.

When his sermon ends, the band strikes up again; three guitarists, three keyboardists, two drummers, four horns, too many singers to count. A quarter of the audience, perhaps to beat the traffic, is already leaving, past the big golden globe, back out into the world. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

First Setting

The Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center is made of right angles of concrete and glass and rises up nine stories like a spaceship fastened to the side of the older, more ‘historic’ stone courthouse in central Austin. It sits between the commerce of downtown and the quiet residential streets to the west, where most of the historic homes have become law offices with phrases like ‘BAIL BONDS’ and ‘JAIL RELEASE’ in letters bigger than the names of the lawyers. Walking to the courthouse, I recognized the image of a man behind bars advertising jail release from a smaller poster in the bathroom of a bar on 6th street.

Around 9am there’s a long line at the metal detectors. Nobody is dressed ‘business casual.’ Lawyers and employees are in formal suits, as are people dressing to impress the judge or jury that might sentence them or a loved one. The rest are dressed on the extreme side of casual: shorts, T-shirt, dirty sneakers, really big jewelry. You might wonder how often someone shows up for sentencing on a drug crime with a big marijuana leaf emblazoned on their shirt. According to these comments, often.

I stood in line and ascended six stories in an elevator where an old, jolly lawyer with a thick drawl chastised a young woman complaining about parking. “Well if you’d gotten here early, you could have parked in the street now couldn’t you?” She nodded with deference. He smiled knowingly.

Immediately outside the elevator, I saw four television cameras standing in silent wait. Today, there might be news, or there might be nothing, but each had to be there as a sort of insurance that the others would not get the scoop first.

On April 6th, an Austin police officer named Jaime Padron was shot around 2 a.m. A man named Daniel Brandon Montgomery was booked at the Travis County Jail hours later, and has been indicted for capital murder. The D.A., Rosemary Lehmberg, has not decided yet whether to seek the death penalty.

If she does, it will be the first death penalty case of the year (or next year, if they wait to go to trial). It will be the first death penalty case for the shooting of law enforcement officer since that of David Lee Powell a decade ago, for a shooting in 1978. After three trials, Powell was executed in 2010. Will Montgomery face execution in 32 years, in 2044? Will there even be a death penalty then? Or will Montgomery be fast-tracked? Or will Lehmberg choose not to seek death, thereby angering many police officers, thereby seeming soft on crime and imperiling reelection efforts?

Inside the courtroom, absolute silence gave way to the hushed din you might find at a sedate dinner party as court-appointed lawyers called out the names of their assigned clients with a kind of faux-intimacy, ‘Edward?’ ‘Elizabeth?’ “We gon be on TV,” chirped a woman. A reporter with swept grey hair looked up from his I-pad and smirked.

The walls are grey, sound-insulated, and spongy. The benches have forest green padding. To the right and left of the austere judge’s bench are inspirational office posters with photographs. They read, and show, 'freedom' (american flag), 'working together' (jets streaming red, white, blue exhaust), success (waves crashing on rocks) and 'leadership' (clouds, snow on mountains).

An old woman reads the newspaper. A middle aged man with a mustache clutches a baseball cap. Some people have masked, blank looks. Others have looks of horror and worry. There is a feeling of grinding routine. The bailiff, a woman with a tight bun of brown hair and a slight swagger likely due to all of the equipment on her belt, announces to those standing, "Ya’ll in the back have to find a place to sit. I know it’s hard, but just squish in."

At around ten, Montgomery is led into the courtroom, shackled and wearing thick stripes of grey and orange. He looks disheveled. A big man nervously pumping his leg and wearing athletic shorts leans over to me and asks, “Is that the dude who shot the cop?” I nod. ‘What’re you here for?” I ask. “Dope case. No big deal.”

Montgomery stands there silent as his lawyers and the prosecutor, a big silver-haired fellow named Bill Bishop talk with Judge Brenda Kennedy just loud enough that you can make out the subject but not loud enough to actually connect one sentence to another. There is a lot of ritual here. “Are you aware of what you are charged with?” Judge Kennedy asks him. “Yes ma’am.” The lawyers talk of subpoenas and sharing materials. The reporter with the I-Pad takes a picture with his I-Phone.

Five minutes later, Montgomery is led out, the reporters leave, and the courtroom ebbs back to its normal daily grind of small cases and pleadings and adjudications. It’s shocking, just as an aside here, how candid people are in an essentially public space. A court-appointed lawyer spoke with a man and woman about the man’s DUI charge, explaining that he could plead guilty for probation or face jail if convicted. “He’s an alcoholic!” the woman announced to everyone in ear shot, her voice bouncing off the stone floor. “He needs to go to jail!”

Seven hours later, in Huntsville, a man named Yokamon Hearn was executed for a murder committed in Dallas in 1998. A UN Special Rapporteur named Christof Heyns released a statement through the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, arguing that Hearn suffers from a ‘psychosocial disability’ and therefore should not be executed. As I left the courthouse, back down the six stories and out of the stone spaceship, I could not feel farther away from the United Nations.