The sun was setting as I landed at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. “Welcome to Houston” said the voice over the in-flight PA system as the chimes of hurriedly switched on cell phones began chirping like summer birds.

Having flown from central valley California I was already accustom to hot weather, but the air is thick with humidity down here in the Bible belt and even though I was ready for it, it still managed to take me a little by surprise on this dimming September evening.

My friend Shae was meeting me at the airport, but oddly enough though I would call him a buddy Shae and I had never actually met. We’re ‘internet friends’, an entirely modern notion in these days of great distances being shrunk by wonder of digital technology.

United Airlines had somehow managed to further damage my already battered luggage so now the extendable handle wouldn’t extend meaning I had to awkwardly hobble around with the bag while Shae managed to somehow become somewhat lost while trying to locate the parking lot.

Once in Shae’s Mustang we put the roof back and headed off into the Houston night to meet up with Clayton and my internet sparring partner, Reece. But before we got to Rudyards English style bar (not at all English by the way) Shae announced we would be making a slight detour. “I want to show you something really freaky.” He said in his slow motion voice.

Ordinarily I might worry if someone I had never actually met announced they wanted to show me something Freaky, but Shae is a man in the throes of starting church called the Refinery in Baytown, Texas. A Tattooed musician, driving an open top Mustang, and not fearful of the so called ‘bad words’, he is one might say, a modern man of God.

The freaky thing that Shae considered a ‘must see’ for a visiting man from England were a collection of Presidents heads hidden away behind some utterly forgettable industrial building near a Target store. Lined up next to each other like criminals in a mug shot book, the men that have lead America stood in stoney faced silence as if waiting for a sentence to be passed. Shae didn’t know what they were for but I later learned that they were the work of local sculpture, David Adickes, for a ‘Presidents Park‘ in Williamsburg, Virginia. Shae wasn’t wrong though, in this lonesome forgotten setting and shrouded in darkness, the Presidents as grandiose as they may have been, looked thoroughly freaky.

At our destination for the evening we met up with some fellow internet ‘blog buddies’ Clayton and Reece. I had been looking forward to meeting Reece for quite some time because in the last few months since I had come to know him (as much as one can know someone they meet online) we had publicly locked horns on more than one occasion. He would often take jabs at my age from his much older and far more conservative perspective. In turn I would throw back comments equally aimed at ruffling his feathers. Our bouts were well known among our mutual friends and so our meeting proved to be something that many people asked me about. “So how did meeting Reece go?” They would ask. My answer was always the same. “Oh fine, he’s a really nice bloke.” I’d say, even though at one time Reece himself objected to me calling him a bloke. But truly the man was in person nothing like I imagined he would be. Online he is a fire-starter not afraid to throw out shocking comments that might, and sometimes do, offend people. I had imagined him to be a huge man, capable of injuring a bear or at the very least hurting its feelings. But as he met us on the sidewalk I was surprised to see a tall, white haired and bearded man who looked like he would be as amiable as he indeed turned out to be. “Assalamualaikum, brother Reece.” I said, knowing his unfavorable feelings about Islam. “Hey now, none of that.” He replied, in a Texas accent he later attributed to his age and lone star state upbringing.

Clayton, Reece, Shae and I chatted, exchanged stories and drank beer for a while. Eventually Reece took off leaving us to find an excuse for another beer which this time we accompanied with flavored cigars from my collection of cheap Phillies Blunts. The night passed as quickly as those kind of evening always do so we finished up our beers and went on our way. Shae decided that we should take a detour on the way back to his place and go via the yellow painted Baytown suspension bridge. Driving over any kind of suspension bridge at night in an open top car is always just a cool experience, I can’t really tell you why, it’s just something you have to experience yourself some time.

The next day I met Shae’s wife Jessica and there three kids Evan, Olivia, and Aidan. We headed out for breakfast then, at my request, we went to see the Lakewood mega-church at the former stadium of the cities basketball team. This wasn’t some spiritual pilgrimage, but more a visit to a religious circus where the prosperity preaching Joel Osteen is the main attraction for thousands who flock each week to listen to his feel good sermons delivered in the pearly white smile style of many an American motivational speaker and streamed on the internet for the world to watch. The vast building was impressive in many ways, but in the city which lies on the edge of Americas so called ‘Bible belt’ I couldn’t help feeling that this was a fine example of what I call ‘churchetainment.’ that is to say church wrapped up in the kind of slick glitz and glamor that America has grown accustom to consuming on a frightening scale.

Inside the vast arena thousands of seats faced a large stage area on which the pulpit stood. Behind that was a sunken area for the musicians and on either side a stairway stage for the choir to sing their Texan hearts besides a faux rock waterfall feature and in front of a backdrop of fluffy clouds set against a heavenly ‘blue’ sky. At this level and under a vast bank of lights suspended above, the church felt more like the stage for concert on the farewell tour of an aging country singer who needs the distractions of a cheesy show to divert attention away from the fact that they’re just not as good as they once were.

Had I not considered it to be a wholly insulting thing to do to my Christian friends around the world, whose invitations to visit their churches I have always politely and steadfastly declined, I might have gone to watch one of his three Sunday services just to see for myself the clockwork performances that the Joel Osteen camp have now perfected. After all, I might not appreciate his work, but there’s still something fascinating about watching any great performer live.

We all hung out a little more that afternoon before Shae dropped me off at Karen and Albert’s house for this years comically titled ‘Xangbang’ which I’ll write about in another post.

Presidents Park
Amusing history of the Presidents heads
Lakewood Church, Houston
Joel Osteen’s official website
Joel Osteen : True or false?
Business Week : Joel Osteen interview
Larry King interviews Joel Osteen
Texas Monthly : Prime Minister
What I think of Joel Osteen
Me doing a Joel Osteen impression at Lakewood
Shae Cotter, Jessica Cotter, Clayton, and ‘Sir’ Reece