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End Game

Selling salvation post-9/11


Published October 23, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

A promotional piece inserted recently in copies of The Burlington Free Press bills itself as a "personal invitation to attend a Bible prophesy adventure in the Book of Revelation." The colorful brochure's cover proclaims, "Armageddon now! Time is running out for planet Earth." Another section mentions "world crisis" and promises "Hope beyond terrorism."

This New Testament "adventure" is divided into six weeks of seminar classes, held Wednesdays and Thursdays at the downtown Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall. At the first session, about two dozen men and women of all ages -- though many look like senior citizens -- are seated at long tables. They're here to learn more about Revelation's highly symbolic passages on end-of-the-world phenomena.

Technology thwarts theology when Ben Sosa -- senior pastor of the Seventh-Day Adventist churches in Williston, Bristol and St. Albans -- tries to link his spoken lesson to a malfunctioning audio-visual presentation. Images of celestial beings are precipitously cut off on the big screen at the front of the room.

"These materials are yours if you come to 75 percent of the seminars," Sosa says, referring to the free rulers, pens, ring-binders with educational pamphlets inside and King James Bibles distributed on the tables. "And you'll get a very nice diploma."

OK, but what good are diplomas if Armageddon's just around the corner? Given last year's al Qaeda attacks, escalating problems in the "Holy Land" and the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq, celebrity evangelists have been making dire predictions. The Reverend Jerry Falwell recently warned, "There's not going to be any real peace in the Middle East until one day the Lord Jesus Christ sits on the throne of David."

Many fundamentalist Christians, apparently seeing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in their rear-view mirrors, have been giving moral and financial support to the Zionists. "It is my belief that the Bible Belt in America is Israel's only safety belt right now," Falwell intoned earlier this month on "60 Minutes."

This apparent affection for Jews stems from the conviction that everything is spelled out in the Book of Revelation, which details an ultimate battle between good and evil in Jerusalem. In a literal interpretation of the text, only the "saved" will rise up in the "Rapture," the promised ascension to heaven. Everyone else on the planet will theoretically be destroyed by famine, plagues, earthquakes and worse.

"A great deal of Revelation has already happened," suggests Connie Hallock, a member of Sosa's Williston church who helped organize the seminar. "These are the End Times, which started in the 1700s, but I think we're now seeing signs along the way -- not the final cataclysm."

Meanwhile, Sosa acknowledges that "people are confused and looking for something. As you open the newspaper, watch the news: This guy's shooting in Washington. The September 11 attacks. Are we going to be next?"

That's precisely what bothers Dawn Savard of Winooski. "I don't know what to expect or who to trust anymore," says the 68-year-old grandmother as she waits for the session to begin. "I'm a native Vermonter. I never used to keep my door locked. Where I live now, there are people from India who look like the terrorists. That makes me a nervous wreck."

Even people without foreign-born neighbors seem more fearful these days. And others who lack a particular faith may be seeking the comfort of a conservative, fundamentalist belief system.

Over at the North Avenue Alliance Church, which also serves an evangelical congregation, Pastor Michael Hengle says he witnessed a 10- to 15-percent increase in attendance after September 11, though it dropped off a bit a few months later. "But within the last four or five months it's gone up again," he observes. "Since the beginning of 2002, we've had about 100 new people come to know the Lord. Usually, we have 35 or 40 a year."

Hengle is among those clergy who look to the Middle East for signals. "We do believe the Lord is very clear that what takes place in Israel is key to what will happen to the world," he says. "The Jewish nation is the chosen people of God. But I tell [my congregation] no matter what they read in Revelation, the Lord says that His grace is going to get us through."

In 1985 Pastor Anna Drinkwine founded the non-denominational Victory Center, which meets at the Holiday Inn in South Burlington. She thinks the Book of Revelation only scares sinners. "Some-one living a holy life would be appreciative," says the self-described "no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is preacher."

When it comes to the issue of End Times, Drinkwine theorizes that "God is delivering a wake-up call, like 9/11."

Wait a minute: Osama bin Laden was God's alarm clock? We know that he thinks Allah is solidly behind him. A story in Time magazine last month about the U.S. president's views on the terrorist attacks was equally chilling: "Privately, Bush even talked of being chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment." These days, he seems to perceive this supposed divine intervention as his permission slip to bomb Iraq. Nobody's paying attention to that Bob Dylan anthem from 1963, before he too embraced fire-and-brimstone: "...If God's on our side/He'll stop the next war."

Ben Sosa joins the chorus of doomsday adherents. "We believe in a spiritual Israel that will rise up at the end," he says, adding a proviso that would surely be music to Dubya's ears: "Some of the prophesies we'll be touching on in the seminar are about how the U.S. will play a role in the End-Time prophesies."

Two days after the World Trade Center collapsed, Jerry Falwell and fellow ideologue Pat Robertson publicly proposed that America "deserved" 9/11, that it was God's retribution for abortion, homosexuality, feminism and other liberal notions.

"No, Satan did 9/11," Drinkwine contends. "But guess who's coming back soon? Jesus Christ."

Although most evangelists are certain that the resulting Rapture will only accommodate the saved, she points to a loophole in Romans, Chapter 2 that would protect people never exposed to the Gospel. "It says God'll judge 'em by their conscience," Drinkwine notes.

Like a born-again Oprah Winfrey, she's got her own TV program -- "Victory for You" on channel 15, a cable-access station. When discussing Jesus, Drinkwine even sounds something like the ebullient afternoon talk-show host: "I don't bring people into a religion; I bring them into a relationship with Him. He was so radical, girl. He's awesome."

Pastor Ben Sosa, 31, probably would agree with Anna Drinkwine's assessment of Christ. "Many Christians just use His name, but don't have a personal experience with Jesus," he says.

That's how it was for Sosa in his teen years. Raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist in the small Mexican town of Montemorelos, he turned into a sort of party animal as he grew older. Then, while studying chemical engineering in college, he attended some religious meetings that changed everything. "I felt challenged to do God's work, the work of a preacher. Before that, I was looking for happiness, but it was only the kind that lasts a short time."

After quitting secular school, Sosa enrolled in a seminary. When he graduated, the plan was to become a missionary somewhere overseas. "But I was invited to be a youth pastor in McAllen, a Texas border town where everyone spoke Spanish," he recalls.

In 1996 Sosa was transferred to Michigan, where he learned English and discovered snow. Vermont beckoned four years later.

The Revelation Seminar, which he taught previously in his native language, now includes a few tongue-twisters. When telling the VFW Hall crowd how Jesus appeared to the apostle John, Sosa says that "the Lord was wearing a golden griddle" -- he means girdle, of course. His verbal description is illustrated on the screen by an ethereal figure with upraised arms, sporting a white gown that has a wide yellow band above the waist.

Some of the pictures that flash by are bewildering, such as the one in which Jesus lays healing hands on a man dressed in a business suit. There are other perplexing messages during the presentation. An instructional pamphlet in the ring-binder vows, "You will identify the scarlet woman." Sosa mentions "a mysterious woman standing on the moon" and "the great harlot." Are all three the same person?

Even more baffling is his passing remark that sounds like a sci-fi movie: "When will God's colossal space city come to Earth?"

These puzzles don't seem to trouble Sheri Senesac, a 37-year-old Colchester resident drawn to the topic of End Times. "I read the Left Behind series," she explains, referring to best-selling books that dramatize the bleakest Biblical prophesies. "I want to know more about Revelation. It does make you wonder."

Sosa assures any wondering seminar participants that all will be revealed, so to speak, by the last class. With any luck that will come before the big biblical blow-out. After all, the seminar pamphlet advises that Revelation was "written especially for our times -- the last days of Earth's history."

The pastor talks of "things that will come to pass, shortly." During a brief prayer, Sosa may be thinking of Eternal Life rather than the next

October morning when he pledges, "God is offering a great tomorrow."

An apparently inebriated man in the classroom jumps up and asks, apropos of nothing, why the Virgin Mary was permitted to "disappear into heaven, without having to go in a coffin, like everyone else. Is she so much better than us?"

A patient Sosa replies, "Sometimes it's difficult to understand God's ways."

After muttering a few Hail Marys, the drunken inquisitor also disappears -- through a door. He'd better hurry and get off the sauce to qualify for the Rapture, because the clock is ticking. But no one claims to know the Christian countdown's specific deadline.

"Jesus is coming," Sosa later says, "but it's impossible to understand how soon is soon."