published Monday, October 31st, 2011

Chattanooga's Oakwood Baptist Church offers alternative to haunted house

Bethany Contarino dances the part of an angel at Oakwood Baptist Church's Judgment House on Friday. The performance was meant to teach audiences about situations that can lead to teen suicide and how it might be prevented.
Bethany Contarino dances the part of an angel at Oakwood Baptist Church's Judgment House on Friday. The performance was meant to teach audiences about situations that can lead to teen suicide and how it might be prevented.
Photo by Alex Washburn.
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  • photo
    Grady Dishroon playing the part of Jesus looks on as angels mill about at Oakwood Baptist Church's judgement house on Friday. The performance was meant to teach audiences about situations that can lead to teen suicide and how it might be prevented.
    Photo by Alex Washburn /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

A hundred nervous actors, tour guides and security officers scatter throughout the labyrinth of hallways and Sunday school rooms at Oakwood Baptist Church.

In his office, music director Shane Mitchell, set to play a portly Satan in a black velvet cloak and glasses, puts the finishing touches on a set of blue horns on his forehead. Nearby, a mother touches up her son's demon hair.

The five teenage boys who take turns playing the lead character in the Judgment House production, a troubled youth named Russ who commits suicide and is sent to hell for never turning to Jesus, run through lines and laugh about how hard it is to swallow a mouthful of Tic Tacs.

When the crowd outside swells and it's time to start, they bow their heads to pray.

"We just want to be used," one man prays. "Regardless of whether the lines be perfect or smooth, it's whether the message gets out."

The Russes wait for a knock on the door, letting them know when to rush to their scene. A new group comes through every 15 minutes until 10 p.m., and this year they are booked solid.

By Halloween night each Russ will have died and gone to hell more than 30 times.

At least every other year, Oakwood Baptist runs a Judgment House as a faith-based alternative to the monster masks, fake blood and plastic vampire fangs resurrected every October. They get the script from a nonprofit called New Creation Evangelism, practice all month and pray for saved souls.

Depicting damnation and heaven at Halloween has gone out of vogue at a lot of churches. But Hannah Sheetz, a 20-year-old who guides groups through the drama, said it reaches people, especially those who are going to church but need a spiritual shakeup.

Every story is different, but the overall plot is usually something like this: One person rejects the message of Christianity, then somehow dies and is sentenced to hellfire and brimstone for eternity. Another person dies, too, but because he accepted Christ, he goes to a heaven with gold carpet and dancing angels.

This year, the church picked suicide and bullying as a theme because there has been so much about it in the news, said Pat McClendon, 55.

  • photo
    Zachary Owens and Pat Clarke act out a scene between a concerned grandmother and an emotionally troubled teen in front of an audience at Oakwood Baptist Church's judgement house on Friday. The performance was meant to teach audiences about situations that can lead to teen suicide and how it might be prevented.
    Photo by Alex Washburn /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"We try to scare them out of hell," she said.

In the suicide scene, watchers see Seth Goggans, playing Russ, flail on a bed and scream after downing dozens of prescription pills -- actually Tic Tacs.

Then the wide-eyed families shuffle into the church's sanctuary for the judgment scene, where a demon in a black leather trenchcoat takes a screaming Russ to the underworld.

"One day you will stand in judgment," Jeff Atherton, playing God, says to the group, slamming down a gavel.

The audience walks through a hallway covered wall to wall with black sheets. The industrial-strength heater used to drive up the temperature in hell makes some of the kids sweat. Howling and thunder play on a tape in the background.

Everyone crams up along the edge of a metal fence as the Russ character, still played by Goggans, is pulled into the black room and taunted by Satan and his demons.

"Are you guys scared?" one boy says to his friends. "I'm scared."

Russ screams. Satan laughs.

"You are all alone, Russ," says Satan, grabbing at Russ. "You've never known torment, not until now. But now, Russ, it's all you'll ever know."

"Please!" Russ screams as he's dragged off. "Somebody! ... Stop it! ... Stop it! ... Somebody!"

  • photo
    Pastor of Worship and Creative Arts Shane Mitchell prepares himself for his role of the Devil at Oakwood Baptist Church's Judgement House on Friday. The performance was meant to teach audiences about situations that can lead to teen suicide and how it might be prevented.
    Photo by Alex Washburn /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Satan comes up to the fence and looks straight at the audience. His voice comes out in a growl.

"Are you lonely? Do suffer from depression?"

No one speaks.

"Good!" Satan booms. "Then I have done my job very well. Get out of my domain."

Away from the heat, some of the boys shove each other and joke about the scene.

"I thought he was going to jump out and kill me," one says.

As the group is herded to the final scene, the tone changes. Older women put white sashes over their shoulders. Inside, heaven is scented with the smell of freshly baked cookies, and everyone wears white robes and smiles.

Jesus, played by youth pastor Grady Dishroon, greets each person in the group passing through the gates of splendor, touching their shoulders or their cheeks.

Some of the teenagers look terrified when Dishroon moves close enough that they can feel his breath and whispers in their ear that he loves them.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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Rickaroo said...

Hellfire, brimstone, and eternal damnation. Yeehaw! It doesn't get any better than that, folks. That ol' time religion is obviously alive and well in Chattanooga. Disgusting.

A heavenly father so fiendish as to create an eternal hell for his children should be the first to burn in it.

October 31, 2011 at 1:36 a.m.
XGSBoss said...

Great comment Rickaroo!

An invisible friend and a fairy tale book will not cure depression. When churches pull crap like this I forget all the good that some of them might have done. Cheer up or go to hell? Wow, that's a powerful message there.

And don't get me started on if the kid was depressed and alone because he was gay. The church is pretty much the sole reason he would feel suicidal.

October 31, 2011 at 9:59 a.m.
macropetala8 said...

That pic still looks holloweenish. Like something out of a satanic movie or something. Looks like her head might just spend around at any moment and her body will float to the ceiling. LOL!

October 31, 2011 at 10:19 a.m.
sla2010 said...

Wow.

October 31, 2011 at 10:24 a.m.
possibilian said...

Agreed, Rickaroo. I couldn't have said it better myself.... What if I told my children, I love you, but if you don't accept me as the be all end all, then you are going to burn in hell forever... I'm pretty sure putting kids through that kind of emotional torment is enough to make them suicidal. Depression is an illness that you can't "scare" out of people, and you certainly can't "pray" it away. This is mind boggling... I'd much rather my little heathens enjoy their halloween like I did as a kid... running and playing in my costume and stuffing myself full of candy till my belly hurt. Happy Halloween!!!

October 31, 2011 at 11:25 a.m.
EyesOpened said...

As somebody who went through more than once (it was that powerful), I wonder if any of those condemning it attended over the past week, including Ms. Garrett.

The message was not of fear, but of love. We are reminded between scenes that Jesus commanded us to love our enemies as well as our friends (Luke 6:32-33). Unfortunately the youth with which Russ associated did not show him this love, instead shunning him and taunting him about his family's sordid past. After the tragic loss of his grandmother, the only person left in this world who loved him, he took his own life. At no time is his sexuality questioned, the conclusion which XGSBoss seems all too happy to assume.

Unfortunately, Russ had rejected Christ's love, and we were shown the consequences of his decision. Yes, that involved Hell, and, yes, this scene was intense. However, everyone was given the option of skipping this scene in advance. Nobody was forced through this. Scare tactics were not the intention; we were only shown both sides of a story. Russ's side, unfortunately, was the sadder of the endings.

However, immediately after this scene we stood in front of the gates of Heaven, where we were reminded that God did not intend Hell for any of us, rather it was a necessity for Satan and his followers. We all have one major choice in life: accept God's love, or reject it, and in doing so, embrace Satan. We saw the consequences of the first decision, but Russ's grandmother was waiting in Heaven, having accepted Christ even before her teenage years. She was reunited with her husband after decades, and we are told that she now knows no pain, no tears,and no loneliness. This, the final scene, was the ultimate message: God's love. Jesus spoke to us individually, and I do not know what others were told, but it still brings tears to my eyes.

How can we know peace without sadness? How can we know life without death? How can we know love without the absence of love? Juxtaposition is the key here, and without it the message could not have been as powerful as it was.

"We just want to be used...Regardless of whether the lines be perfect or smooth, it's whether the message gets out." This is one of the few lines I agree with in this article. The message indeed got out, a powerful and wonderful message.

October 31, 2011 at 12:59 p.m.
LibDem said...

This is indeed frightening.

October 31, 2011 at 1:52 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

No, EyesOpened, I did not attend the silly spectacle. One need not see it in person to know what the core messsage is: Believe in JC as the one and only messiah or go to hell...forever. I was raised a Christian and know the Bible well. But when I grew up and was able to think for myself and look at both the Bible and the religion objectively, I easily saw what a sham it all is. It is something suited for weak-minded people who are so afraid to accept death as just a natural part of life that they desperately cling to an absurd, primitive belief system that promises them everlasting life... where the cookies are always baking and grandma is serving 'em up with a smile and little Fido that got run over by a car is there, happily wagging his tail.

You say, "How can we know peace without sadness? How can we know life without death? How can we know love without the absence of love? Juxtaposition is the key here." You are so right. But if you believe that, how do you explain the Christian notion of heaven, where everything is perfect and loving and peaceful all of the time, where pain and suffering and death supposedly do not exist? The very notion of such a state of perfection doesn't even make any sense. Yet, that is where you good Christians claim to be going - a place totally devoid of anything that gives existence itself any meaning.

And you claim that your "loving" God gives us the free will to decide our fate. What a joke. Let me see... according to you and your God's way of thinking, I can either accept HIS way or the highway (to hell). Some free will there, pardner! That's not free will, that's a life-or-death order. Believe in me (God) and my son or die. And not only die, but then be resurrected long enough to face the final judgement, and then be cast into hell to suffer for an eternity in the most gruesome manner imaginable. You have got to be kidding me - you honeslty go to bed at night, saying your prayers to a God like that?? And you call him a God of love??

Your eyes might be open, EyesOpened, but you don't seem to be seeing any the clearer for it if you're willing to beleive in such Christian nonsense and worship such a petty, vindictive, mean-spirited tyrant of a God as that.

October 31, 2011 at 3:18 p.m.
EyesOpened said...

I'm so sorry to read that Rickaroo. I see that you opened this article with an opinion already formed, and I can do little to change that.

I on the other hand, came here to see if anybody else who attended had commented, and I was disappointed when those who did not witness it themselves were condemning it.

It is easy to call me weak-willed or afraid of death. It is easy to call my beliefs primitave and absurd. But why? What purpose does that serve other than trying to try to justify your own beliefs? And why would you need to do that if you're so certain?

I will leave it at that, as I have more important things to take care of than online arguments. If anybody would like to discuss the matter further, however, I would be more than happy to make myself available.

October 31, 2011 at 3:51 p.m.
XGSBoss said...

Perhaps Eyes, we are saving people, just like you are saving souls in your eyes. We see the truth, you see your truth. We want the truth spread, you want yours spread. We have heard your message, and have no need to keep hearing it again and again.

And we are winning. Xtian numbers are down and atheists continue to rise.

October 31, 2011 at 4:10 p.m.
LibDem said...

I once read a quote from a minister who said the thing he most looked forward to in heaven was catching the winning touchdown pass. So, you know you're going to catch it and it's the winning touchdown. Doesn't that take a little of the excitement out of it? After you've done it a few thousand times, don't you kind of get bored? Don't you kind of want to take the bus tour of hell just for a change?

October 31, 2011 at 4:18 p.m.
PacoBongers said...

Tell a wealthy Christian that he or she needs to give away all money to the poor. Point out that Jesus gave such instructions to at least one rich man. The Christian will reply, "Oh, no! Jesus didn't mean for ALL Christians to give up their wealth! It only applied to that one person at that one time!"

Weirdly, Christians can't apply the same logic to the parts of the story where Jesus tells people that Jesus is the only way to salvation. It's obvious Jesus didn't mean he was the only way for everyone, everywhere in the world, for all of the rest of history--he was the "only way" for the particular crowds he was speaking to at the time. Nonetheless, modern Christians twist it to imply that ALL people, everywhere, must believe the exact same thing or suffer eternal damnation.

Why? Because for Christians, living with no money would be difficult--so they don't take the anti-wealth parts of the New Testament very seriously. But belief costs nothing; belief is a simple mental effort, so they take the "belief" parts to the extreme.

October 31, 2011 at 4:20 p.m.
EyesOpened said...

Again, no arguments, but a few questions.

I'd like to thank everyone for helping reinforce my original point.

Suppose I was bigoted towards a certain cultural group. Somewhere, there is a festival held over a weekend celebrating this group. Certainly, I have no intention of attending this event. Why would I? I can't stand the group. However, if a certain newspaper published an article covering it, would I be justified in commenting on it? How about mentioning how horrible it was? What if I began taunting the group involved?

This leads me to my first question.

XGSBoss, you mentioned that atheists were saving lives. How so? This implies that religion is inherently evil, but I don't see how any belief system that focuses on making moral choices can do anything but benefit society. What do you or anybody else stand to gain from trying to steer a Christian, Taoist, Muslim, Pastafarian, or whatever from their beliefs?

LibDem, "most" is the keyword. The minister is not looking forward to the same Monday Night replay for all eternity. I'd enjoy it regardless of any precognition. Can't think of anybody who wouldn't. Can you?

PacoBongers, I agree. Have you read David Platt's Radical? He covers the topic pretty thoroughly in an easily read book. Shouldn't be more than a weekend read if you decide to look into it.

Hope everyone had a fun night of Trick or Treating!

November 2, 2011 at 12:10 a.m.
mswitch said...

to all you atheists..you make me sick and you need to keep your stupid comments off of something that is good and pure like the work of our Lord and one day we christians will be up in heaven with Jesus our saviour and yall will be burning in hell with demons all over you wanting a drink and then you will be calling out to God ...you know its fine to enjoy halloween with the kids getting candy etc but children need to be taught real life also the truth is Jesus died on the cross for all of our sins i didnt see satan doing anything to save people ...thats all i gotta say yall really are a waste of time..oakwood you done a great job on judgement house it has saved a lot of peope and brought them closer to God thank you!!!!

November 2, 2011 at 8:26 p.m.
papadawg47 said...

Isaiah 30:21 This is the way ,walk in it..Oakwood continue to spread His word.

November 2, 2011 at 9:28 p.m.
Tristinec said...

That girls name is not Bethany. Check your facts next time.(:

June 17, 2012 at 2:48 a.m.
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