El Paso’s sprawl is monolithic. I grew up in a suburban neighborhood chiseled into the northwestern foothills of the Franklin Mountains. It was one of those model home subdivisions where stucco greige and terra-cotta roof tile co-mingle with xeriscaping and date palms to create a community of miniature haciendas, all owned by their respective Dons and Doñas. There are hundreds of little subdivisions like this scattered about town, all with soothing names like “Colinas del Sol”. I doubt that most of these developers have a working grasp of Spanish. They tend to pick a theme, use the noun in the theme to name the subdivision, and then use that same noun to preface an adjective for the street names, so you’ll get whole areas of town named something like “Los Cielos” with street names in the vein of: Cielo Azul, Cielo Verde, Cielo del Sur, Cielo del Mar, Costa Cielo, etc. Invariably, most of the subdivisions names are gibberish, but they sound pretty, don’t they?
It is here amongst the seemingly endless subdivisions and strip malls of the far east side where I met Pastor Brown who had just been ordained Bishop the day before, and he and his wife Sonia agreed to let me sit and chat with them for a spell.
Sonia is a petite, cheery woman, endowed with what my mother would call “a pageant smile”. Bishop Brown speaks with the affect of practiced warmth and clarity that comes with his profession- going before a crowd of hundreds to deliver a sermon three times a week.
I was limited to the kinds of questions I could ask, obviously, due to the ongoing legal battle, and the possibility of criminal charges on the horizon. So, I kept things to a personal and theological level.
BishopBrown’s site doesn’t offer many clues as to who Tom Brown the man is:
“Tom Brown was one of the best-kept secrets in the body of Christ, until his recent national exposure. He was featured on the national television network, MSNBC, in which they did an hour-long documentary on his ministry of deliverance, and they showed his success in dealing with the spiritually oppressed. People who saw it have said of Tom, ‘remarkable man’, ‘I like your style’, ‘You have an obvious love and compassion for people’, ‘You lifted up Christ’, and ‘You are performing as the Apostles did’. [EMPHASIS HIS] The El Paso Times has also featured his ministry of exorcism. His also appeared on a two-hour documentary on the History Channel and on ABC 20/20. He has now become one of the most famous deliverance ministers in the United States, receiving over 700 invitations a year.”
And then there are pull quotes, like this, “Kenneth Copeland calls Tom ‘the bread basket of El Paso.’ [EMPHASIS HIS] ‘Just as Jesus took a little boy's lunch and fed a multitude, God has taken Tom's ministry and has fed tens of thousands of people the Word of God.’”
So that’s why I drove for an hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic (hey, TX-DOT, when are you going to finish repaving the loop?). To find out who Tom Brown the man was-outside of a court docket and a few sound bites on the 10 o’clock news.
“I was born and raised right here in El Paso. I was born at Southwestern General Hospital on March 30, 1963. And I haven’t lived anywhere else in my life. I grew up in the lower valley in El Paso. I went to Ramona Grade School. At that time it used to be K-8th grade now they’ve broken it up, they don’t have junior high, so you could imagine we were very close to all our friends cause we started from K all the way to 8th grade and developed really strong friendships at Ramona grade school. Then I went to Riverside HS for two years then my sister- who’s one year younger than me, both of us, we experienced a lot of discrimination at the time so we understand what it means, I can imagine what minorities face all the time.
“I’m white there’s a little bit of Hispanic blood, but as you can look at me it doesn’t really show up too much. I do have- I believe it’s only 1/8 Hispanic. My great grandmother was Mexican Indian. She was the short, chubby, Hispanic Indian. So my great grandfather did marry a Mexican Indian. And he had some silver mines as I understand in Mexico, but when the revolution came he got kicked out and therefore our family, that’s how they came here to be here in Texas…
“Well, you know I did experience discrimination, though, because I was one of the few Caucasians. I was one of the few Anglos, you know. And I handled it. I handled it. I did the best I could. But my sister, she obviously experienced a lot of discrimination too. And so both of us would come home crying. We literally would come home crying and we couldn’t understand why people hated us, because of the color of our skin. So that at least gave me the perspective of minorities. In a real sense I’m a minority in El Paso, so I can imagine what it’s like to be Hispanic living in Tulsa for example. I can understand an African American living in almost any city other than cities with a big African-American population. I can understand. It’s real. There’s just no doubt about it. God used that experience to teach me a little bit about what it’s like being a minority and what other’s have to face too..
“My father was a bar owner. He was a bar owner until he suffered strokes and couldn’t do it anymore. My mother when she was younger, was a barmaid, so that’s of course how she met my father, but since then my mother really came to the lord and when she came to the Lord, then she of course brought my sister and I to the Lord… My father was officially baptized Catholic. My mother was Baptist. But neither of them were practicing Catholic or Baptist at the time. Religion and Church didn’t really fit in.
“He called himself, even though he was a Catholic, he called himself and atheist. So when I became old enough to talk to him about religion and god, he said he was an atheist. That he didn’t believe that God existed at all.
“My grandfather was an unsophisticated atheist. He also considered himself an atheist as well. In the end I brought both my father and my grandfather to our Lord Jesus Christ. And they all came and accepted the Lord. And they all came with weeping and tears of repentance, and that’s how I was able to turn anybody around.
“So I was around six to seven years of age before my mother had her awakening to God. My mother and my step father felt that the baby was going to be born deformed. The doctors didn’t really have much hope. They were certain there was going to be some kind of deformity with my brother. And so they prayed that he would be born normal and healthy, and so that’s when they started going to the church of my step father’s choice. And he grew up in an Assembly of God church, which is the world’s largest Pentacostal denomination in the world. So they started attending the Church and that’s when they started taking my sister and I to church there. And since my grandmother was officially a Catholic, and my grandfather was an atheist Catholic, nobody was taking us to church, so my mom would pick my sister and I up from my grandmother’s house, where I lived and they would take us to church on the weekends.
“I wouldn’t say you’re Pentacostal until you’ve had a Pentacostal experience. I was just a kid going to church like most kids. I had no experience with God whatsoever. I went to Sunday School, I went to church, but nothing really sunk into my thinking and nothing really touched me until one day when my mother gave me my very first bible in 1980, I believe. I still have my first two Bibles- King James and the Living Bible. And that’s the first time I’d really read the Bible, and I read the gospels and I fell in love with Jesus. When I started reading the gospels, its like this man, Jesus was the most awesome man in the world and I was falling in love with him and when I got to the book of Romans and read how it is to be saved. All you have to do is trust in him. It’s not your works. And when it hit me- that just by simple faith I gave my life to Christ, and that’s when I had an experience. Later on I got baptized in the Holy Spirit. I started speaking in tongues. I got various gifts manifest.
“Yes, I’d say I’m Charismatic and Orthodox. What I’d say is I’m Evangelical in doctrine, Charismatic in practice and now I’m Anglican in ordination. So it’s all of it. It’s not that you have to be one or the other. It’s a combination of everything that makes you who you are.
“I love all the prophets, but there are some like Joseph, some people don’t even think he’s a prophet, but he was- he knew he was going to be in charge of Egypt next to pharaoh. I love his life because here’s a man who had so much injustice brought to him, but yet he had a magnanimous spirit. He wouldn’t be bitter to anyone who persecuted him. And he was always kind to every one. Even people who were against him. I draw a lot of inspiration from Joseph. I draw a lot of inspiration from Jeremiah, because he saw the impending disaster that was coming to the Nation, and yet nobody would listen to him. They threw him in jail because the kings and the governors thought that he was messing up their plans. And in a sense that’s maybe how I look at my role with government, too, is as a prophet I’m supposed to speak to those leaders and they hate me for it but I love my City and I love my country and deep in my heart I know they’re on the wrong path. So yeah, I draw inspiration from Jeremiah a lot, so those two.
“There’s other great prophets. David. Daniel. Daniel thrown into the Lion’s Den. What one scripture? That’s a tough one. There’s so many wonderful scriptures to draw inspiration from…
“Yes I think we should be taking care of the poor and taking care of other people, but we got to remember the Gospel is still about the salvation of souls. We can do everything we can to make our world a better place with laws and trying to work with government to help this or that but until our heart is changed nothing really changes. So salvation is the still the first and foremost thing. Do I believe that God wants to bless us? Yes, but to be a blessing, not to be greedy. I do believe God promises salvation. I believe he promises to keep us healthy and heal us until it’s time for us to die…I believe God wants to take care of all of our needs. And I believe some people called to be super blessed so they can really do something with their money to help spread the gospel and help needy people.
“One of our deacons may tell us that one of our families is having to struggle right now, and they’re faithful to the church, we’ll go out and surprise them and help them. Some members may ask directly for help, and so if they are a faithful member and they have been supporting the church, we feel that they have the right to have the church help them, because they’ve been giving towards the church. Sometimes though you have people who see the church first as a charity i guess, and they’ve never really been supportive of our church or any church and we just don’t have the funds. But for the members of our church we absolutely will help them. Whether it’s paying their rent, utilities. You know, helping them out.
“I’d say about 1500 active people that attend the church. What I would mean is about 1500 people who would attend at least every month or so. The average church attendance, maybe half show up on a given Sunday. So on a given Sunday, you’re looking at about 7-800 people who would show up. And that includes children too. Within all three services. We have a 9, 11 and 1:30 for Spanish.
“Most of our members are Hispanic- about 75%-80% of my members. So I’m a minority in my own church. But really our demographic is so similar to El Paso. What you see in the average grocery store or restaurant is what you’re going to see at word of life church. Since you’re going to see mostly Hispanic, you’re going to see mostly Hispanic at our church. We probably have a higher percentage though of African-Americans then maybe the population of El Paso. But outside of that it’s the same demographics.
“We’ve always grown. I think the military has made us grow a little bit faster. I can see more military now. But we were growing prior to that… Whether we’ve grown despite all the negative publicity- I should say, in spite of the negative publicity. Or have we grown because of positive publicity. People appreciate what we did. In fact all the time. I can’t go to a restaurant, a supermarket, a mall where I’m not stopped every five to ten minutes by people. We just had breakfast at Village Inn, and before we could leave a gentleman comes up and says, “Pastor Brown, thank you for supporting us.” and I just had to shake is hand…This happens all the time, everywhere I go. I almost didn’t get involved because I was afraid of hurting my church, and God-forbid that I hurt my church, because my church is my first priority. But we’ve grown so, whether it’s because of it or in spite of it, I don’t know.
“[Brown is asked to] About 500 [speaking engagements] a year. I would imagine most of them are charismatic churches [that] invite me. But most of them are from developing countries, and I can’t afford to leave El Paso and go over to Africa or India or Pakistan and to cover all of my way. It’s very expensive and then I leave my church. So I’ll limit my overseas trips to say, two times a year. No one pays me anything. I just do it. Personally I don’t derive any income from any of my speaking engagements. We just put it right back into the church, and that’s it. It’s just my volunteer effort to help out our congregation.
“Our church does pretty well. Again, whatever books sell, it goes right back into the church. I don’t get any money from it. The only money I get is from the royalties. In fact we just got a royalty check. So I’ll get a royalty check from our publisher and that is the only thing I’ll keep is a royalty check. And my publisher is selling a bunch of books. Do you have the check? I’m looking at how many books sold. I’m looking at about 3-700 books a month of one of my books and then 2-500 of my second book per month.
“My church pays me a salary. I’m an employee of Word of Life Church and so is my wife. No, we get paid a salary.
“All right let me just say this. Is the real reason for the recall. It’s not because of the domestic benefits mind you, it’s because they overturned the will of the people. If I thought providing domestic benefits had been cause for a recall I would have thought we should do it from the beginning. But once they overturned it, I considered that act to be very undemocratic. And because it was such an undemocratic act, I thought, and others agreed that a recall was appropriate. It would only be because it was an undemocratic act by them by overthrowing the will of the people. To me, that’s what it’s all about with the recall…to overthrow the will of the people was a grave act- you undermine the confidence that people have in their own vote and I think that’s not good for El Paso that already has a low voter turnout, and you undermine their ability to actually have a say. We’re going to have less voter turnout and less voter turnout means less money coming from Austin and less support of El Paso, so we’ve got to make a stand and say El Paso has got to have a voice. If we can win in the Texas Supreme Court and have a voice, then you know what then I think we’ll have a better turnout with voters things are going to be better…I’m doing this because I think it’s best for El Paso that voters really feel strong that their vote does count.”