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Preaching on Bourbon Street 

Frank Etheridge on the controversial church that's suing the city of New Orleans over a street-preaching ordinance

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click to enlarge The doorway of the Vieux Carre Assembly of God. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

  In an Assembly of God General Presbytery proclamation last revised in 2001, the church defines homosexuality as a sin "because it is disobedient to scriptural teachings." This proclamation begins by stating: "Increasing political and religious advocacy for homosexuality has prompted us to restate our position on this critical issue. ... This reaffirmation of truth has become all the more urgent because writers sympathetic to the homosexual community have advanced revisionist history interpretations of relevant Biblical texts that are based upon biased exegesis and misinformation."

  Gros decided upon returning home from Mexico in 2009 that he had made his last trip and looked for his life's next direction. "I prayed and asked God, 'Please do with me what you will, Lord,'" Gros recalls.

  A fellow recovering alcoholic, Pastor Gregory Pembo (formerly a liquor store owner in the French Quarter) was the first pastor of the Vieux Carre Assembly of God. While the building was initially used as a place to offer coffee, a bathroom and other hospitable gestures to those encountered on French Quarter streets, the building soon began holding worship services in the space.

  In 2002, Pembo filed a lawsuit against the City of New Orleans challenging its recognition of domestic partnerships in employee benefit packages, saying his litigation sought to stop a "domino effect" of social deterioration. In 2009, a state appeals panel upheld the city's domestic-partner policy. That same year, Pembo suffered a brain aneurysm while dining with friends at Deanie's Seafood. Though Gros recalls Pembo "wore a smile on his face" as he was taken from the restaurant and into an ambulance, he was in a coma by the time he reached University Hospital and later died. Gros then took over as pastor at the church.

Sunday services with Gros begin at 10:30 a.m. That's roughly five hours after pimps and prostitutes flee sunrise in an area of the French Quarter that often operates as a de facto Storyville. It's an hour when straight women sip eye-opener mimosas at the Good Friends Bar, a block away, where rainbow flags fly year-round from the cast-iron balcony. It's also the same time services start a block downriver at the Vieux Carre Baptist Church, generally known among Quarter residents as a liberal-leaning, inclusive church. A sign posted on the Baptist Church's front door features a large megaphone, often used by street preachers and a flashpoint for all sides of the aggressive-solicitation ordinance. Under the megaphone, it reads: "Jesus never had a conversation with anyone with one of these. What makes you think you will? Go home and try it on your neighbors, coworkers and friends."

  Inside the Assemblies of God, 10 worshippers sit scattered on five rows of wooden pews in two columns, under two ceiling fans, in a room with two columns, three rows of hanging ceiling lights, half of which have burned-out bulbs. The group includes several natives, a young man from Albuquerque whose father was a missionary and a woman from San Francisco that's long called New Orleans home. An elderly couple is visiting from the Black Hills of South Dakota, the husband's smartphone interrupting the church's quiet with audible chatter about the day's NFL action.

click to enlarge The Double Play Bar is next door to Gros' church. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

  Gros' sermon is as stream-of-conscious as his prayer from the preceding Wednesday. He hopes the service "will strike your heart and help you" as he explains to those in attendance that he's going to take them "to a fiery furnace — the Book of Daniel." Speaking in front of a wooden pulpit that sits on a raised stage before a wall of purple velour curtains, Gros regularly interjects "Amen" and "Hallelujah" into his remarks, which includes these notions:

  "Homosexuals going into the schools, teaching their homosexual agenda ..."

  "We have to go through the fire, we have to go through the storm ..."

  "Preaching on the street is the only way to preach it to those that need it ..."

 "This country couldn't even nominate a Christian to run for president. We have a Mormon ... and the other guy is in question."

   Later Gros adds he's switched to eating only organic food — "You'll find me and my wife shopping at the Whole Foods on Saturdays" — since he was diagnosed with liver cancer. He finishes the service by simply saying "I love you" before shutting off the microphone.

Absence from the following Wednesday evening prayer merits a phone call from Gros. "This is Brother Paul," he says on the voicemail before ending it, "May God bless you. See you Sunday."

  The next Thursday morning, Gros answers his cellphone at his home on the West Bank, where he and Meriya will be hosting friends for dinner later that evening. He says he doesn't make it across the river to church very often anymore. "Not since I got sick," he says, referring to his liver cancer.

  Doctors told Gros there was too much cirrhosis for chemotherapy or radiation. Surgery removed a portion of Gros' liver. "I'm here, ya know?" Gros says. "So, it was successful. I was fortunate in that the cancer was concentrated in a good place on my liver, on a skinny tip off the end, so they were able to remove the cancer without taking too much of my liver.

click to enlarge Pastor Paul Gros in his church. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

  "Any time you want to talk, we can talk, ya know," he says. "I just pray that everything works out for you."

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