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Seminary staffer ID’d as missing man, pastor of homosexual-friendly church

DALLAS (BP)–A staff member of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary who resigned effective Dec. 31 has since been identified as:

— the new pastor of a self-described “evangelical” church in Dallas which seeks “to spread God’s Word to the Gay and Lesbian Community,” according to its Internet site.

— a Church of Christ minister from San Antonio, Texas, named Wesley Barret “Barre” Cox who was reported missing in 1984 and has a wife and 17-year-old daughter in Nashville, Tenn., area. Cox was declared legally dead seven years later.

— a person with the same name, birthday and Social Security number of a Texas Panhandle rancher who was audited by the IRS in 1987 and 1989 and received FBI advisories to note in his credit files that someone was using his Social Security number, according to a Jan. 11 article in the San Antonio Express-News. Both men are Texas Tech graduates but attended the university at different times.

The individual, known as James Simmons at Golden Gate Seminary, received a farewell party at the Southern Baptist-affiliated seminary Jan. 5.

Simmons, 49, had served as housing director at the Mill Valley, Calif., campus, earned two master’s degrees and was twice elected president of the student government association in 1993 and 1994.

Arriving at Golden Gate in 1991, Simmons told of having had amnesia since being beaten and left for dead in the trunk of a car in junkyard in Memphis, Tenn., and having been found by some children playing there. He told of adopting James as his first name because the family that initially befriended and cared for him as “John Doe” had been studying the Bible’s Book of James. He told of taking his last name while later living in Charlottesville, Va., of being hired as a busboy at an Italian restaurant and staring out the window at a sign that read “Simmons Hardware” when his employer asked his last name for his employment records, the San Antonio Express-News recounted.

As of Jan. 11, a northeast Dallas church which states its membership at “currently about 700 men, women, and children; gay and straight of every race,” was giving notice on its Internet site: “White Rock Community Church is pleased to announce we have found a new pastor. James Simmons will be joining our congregation as the new head pastor in January 2001. Please keep him in your prayers during the following months as he makes the transition to his new home.”

Simmons is slated to become the church’s pastor Jan. 21, according to the website.

On Jan. 11, however, an unidentified group of church members were holding a meeting. The church’s associate pastor, Dean Bishop, did not respond to Baptist Press’ faxed inquiry about Simmons’ status.

Bishop was quoted by the San Antonio Express-News Jan. 12 as saying, “We still remain very positive” about Simmons, describing him as “a very nice person, extremely so. Winsome and knowledgeable about doctrine [and] Scripture.” Bishop told the newspaper he believes that Cox will answer questions from church leaders and the media when he arrives in Dallas during the week of Jan. 15. “I’m sure he’ll be happy to set up a press conference with anybody,” Bishop was quoted as saying.

Golden Gate Seminary’s vice president for public relations, Cameron Crabtree, told the Abilene Reporter-News in a Jan. 12 article that if Simmons had been an open homosexual he would not have been permitted to study or work at the seminary. Students and staff are expected to maintain, “mainstream Christian conduct and character,” Crabtree said.

Crabtree said he and others on campus had known Simmons since 1991. “The person we’ve known … was a committed, passionate person about faith who was seeking to make connections with God and to serve people to his [God’s] benefit,” Crabtree said.

Crabtree told the San Antonio Express-News that Simmons’ references had been checked, and, “There was no reason not to give him a chance here.”

Simmons did not tell anyone at Golden Gate the name or location of the church he would be leading as pastor, except that it was “back east,” Crabtree told Baptist Press. And Simmons mentioned that someone from his past may have recognized him at his new church, Crabtree said.

Acknowledging the unfolding details of Simmons’ life as “a compelling story, no doubt,” Crabtree told the Abilene newspaper, “We just hope for the best for him. There are radical transitions ahead for all involved. That’s in the Lord’s hands.”

The possibility of legal difficulty for Simmons, or Cox, could arise; identity theft is a federal crime that can be prosecuted in the district where the alleged theft occurred, the San Antonio Express-News noted. The newspaper also reported that records show Simmons as using a second Social Security number while living in California the past 10 years. The Abilene Reporter-News quoted a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Amarillo as saying that cases of stolen identity or theft of a Social Security number are investigated by the FBI or the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General.

Among other details of the Simmons case:

— Simmons’ earlier identity as Barre (pronounced Barry) Cox was first noticed Dec. 10 by a former church camp acquaintance when Simmons preached at White Rock Community Church prior to being called as pastor, the Canyon (Texas) News reported.

The camper’s mother informed a Canyon couple who had been close friends with Cox’s parents of Simmons’ sighting at the church. The couple verified Cox’s identity and notified his 80-year-old mother who now lives in east Texas, the Canyon News reported.

— The Abilene Reporter-News noted that Simmons has spoken by telephone and written to his former wife and daughter, but has not yet met with them in person. The marriage was dissolved after Simmons, or Cox, was declared legally dead. Neither spouse has remarried. Simmons also has reunited with his mother and his siblings, the newspaper reported.

A news release issued by Abilene Christian College Jan. 8, which was the first public word of Simmons’ reappearance but before other details about his life had emerged, recounted that his daughter, who was six months old when her father disappeared, would blow out the candles on her Jan. 1 birthday cake each year, making just one wish: “Let this be the year they find my dad.”

On Jan. 1, her 17th birthday, she received her first call from her dad, wishing her a happy birthday. The college’s news release said Simmons had just been told he had a daughter in Tennessee but had no memory of his family.

The San Antonio Express-News recounted that Simmons’ late father, Wesley Cox Sr., a prosperous rancher and oilman, traveled more than 10,000 miles in search of his son in the year after his disappearance. “I still think he’s out there, he’s healthy and someday he will have to come back home,” the senior Cox told the newspaper at the time.

— Simmons, or Cox, disappeared on July 12, 1984. Cox had been recently hired as youth minister for MacArthur Park Church of Christ in San Antonio and was completing a doctoral dissertation in art education at Texas Tech University.

His vandalized 1976 Oldsmobile was found abandoned on a desolate farm road near Tuxedo, Texas, about 50 miles northwest of Abilene. His clothes and belongings were scattered about the scene, the San Antonio Express-News recounted.

The newspaper reported at the time that a Rotan, Texas, police officer had told of spotting Cox walking along a road around 3 a.m. the day Cox’s car was later abandoned. Cox said he had run out of gas, and the officer helped Cox refuel his car. The officer noticed a small motorcycle in the trunk, which later was not recovered with the car.

— Of Simmons’ account about being beaten and left for dead in Memphis, the Abilene Reporter-News recounted that Memphis police can find no record of such the case. Neither of two Memphis hospitals, Baptist Memorial Health Care and Regional Medical Center at Memphis, had records of treating Simmons for his injuries and trauma in 1984, which he said had entailed a two-week coma, learning to walk and talk and enduring medical and psychological treatments to restore his memory.

“If he was taken to a hospital, we would have been notified,” Memphis police detective Vince Higgins told the San Antonio Express-News. “If a person is found beaten and the injuries are not consistent with an accident, hospitals in this area are required to notify us. That’s compulsory.”

If Cox was unable to identify himself, Memphis police would have checked his description in a national computer database, called the National Crime Information Center, which was widely in use at the time, Higgins told the newspaper.

— The Abilene Reporter-News reported that Simmons referred to homosexuality several times during his Dec. 10 sermon at White Rock Community Church, which could be played from the congregation’s website. Speaking on fear and faith, he mentioned that, “We have a fear of coming out.” During a prayer, he said, “Dear Father, help us to see [you] as forgiver to our inmost, unknown secrets. … I ask that you bless the messenger today. I ask that you forgive him of his sins, for they are many.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: JAMES SIMMONS THEN and JAMES SIMMONS NOW.