By Steve Rabey
Religion News Service
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (RNS) Colby Rockhill was one of the 14,000 members of New Life Church who saw founding pastor Ted Haggard dramatically fall from grace in a 2006 scandal involving gay sex and drugs.
Yet Rockhill never gave up on Haggard, even after he resigned the pulpit of New Life and the presidency of the National Association of Evangelicals. So on Sunday (June 6), Rockhill was one of about 150 fellow believers who met in Haggard's barn for a "launch party" for Haggard's new church.
"Through it all, I just wanted to see him work through all this," said Rockhill, who believes Haggard's trials and tribulations give him a deeper perspective on forgiveness and redemption.
"I believe we're all fallen, we're all sinners. Seeing how he has handled his situation makes me trust him, because he's been open about it."
It's the kind of warts-and-all approach that seems to be working for Haggard, 53, and his co-pastor wife, Gayle, also 53, as they try to rebuild their ministry from the ashes of a scandal that rocked the evangelical world.
"This is a church for people like me, people who know everyone needs a break," Haggard said Sunday.
Joe Hopkins, who described himself as a recovering drug addict, said he felt "a connection" with Haggard.
"I know where he's been, and I know what he's been through," said Hopkins. "This makes me trust him more because he admitted what he did."
After months of rumors, the Haggards, with TV cameras in tow, unveiled the new St. James Church last Wednesday, saying the church was named after the New Testament book that teaches "faith without works is dead."
"Because of the difficult time Gayle and I have had for the last three and a half years, we had many who told us they loved us, which was encouraging, but we so appreciated those who demonstrated their love for us in practical ways," Haggard said at the press conference. "The slogan for St. James Church is 'doing our faith.'"
Many of the people attending Sunday's launch party have been members of New Life, which is located a little more than a mile away. Some are long-term Haggard supporters who are part of a 30-member group that's at the core of the new church.
"We were waiting for Ted to start a new church," said Ed Barker, a New Life member since 1996. "Yes, Ted sinned," added his wife Ilda, a New Life member since 1985. "So do all of us."
Frank Serpe, a former New Life staff member who has known Haggard since 1984, said Haggard's problems have served to deepen God's calling on his life. "God has called Ted to show this city how to take care of people," Serpe said. "And if you haven't sinned, then throw the first stone."
While some reporters were barred from the meeting, Haggard could clearly be heard from a distance telling his flock that "love covers a multitude of sins." He explained that the church will take offerings to be shared with fellow members.
Haggard's new church will embrace an open-door philosophy that could raise eyebrows among some evangelicals. The former evangelical icon has said he supports equal civil rights for gays and lesbians, even though he will bar openly homosexual members from leadership positions.
"Democrats, Republicans, Independents and those who go to Tea Party rallies. If you are straight, gay, or bi, I want to walk through the Scriptures with you," Haggard said at the press conference that launched the new church.
"If you are black, white, Hispanic, Native American, or a confusing combination, you are welcome here. If you have a friend or family member who struggles, St. James is for you. Adulterers, ex-cons, everyone is welcome."
With the restriction on gays in leadership, Joe and Jan Narracci were left a little disappointed. "This church is making qualifications that I don't think Jesus made," said Joe Narracci, who with his wife counsels gay and lesbian Christians who struggle to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation.
Haggard will host an organizational meeting on June 13 to see how many people are still committed to being a part of St. James, and plans to host the church's first official gathering in a rented space on June 19.
"This was a resurrection party for me," Haggard said after Sunday's gathering. "I am out of the grave. And we are rolling."