The Living Church

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The Living ChurchFebruary 26, 1995He's a Walking Contradiction by CHRISTOPHER ROSE 210(9) p. 11

He's a Walking Contradiction
Vaughan Booker Takes His Story of Redemption Around the Country

In short, the Vaughan Booker story goes like this: It's the 1940s and he is a model youth, a child of great promise, good grades and rigorous spirituality. Altar boy. Eagle Scout. He goes on to get a good job, marries a good woman, has good kids.

Then something snaps. They fight. He drinks. He spirals down. It's bad. He comes home in a rage one night in 1967 and puts his Boy Scout skills to work by firing five arrows into his wife's neck and torso. The press dubs it the Robin Hood Murder. He confesses, gets life.

He repents. Becomes a spiritual counselor in prison, studies for the ministry, becomes a deacon. He wins praise and commendations from outside counselors and ministers.

He is paroled in 1982, gets a job, attends a seminary and, 10 years later, becomes an Episcopal priest. He is named rector of Meade Memorial Church in Alexandria, Va., where he preaches the degradation of sin and the plight of modern family; he knows whereof he speaks.

He writes a book, published last November, that tells this story and that's where it stands today: He is Vaughan Booker, priest, author, celebrity, killer. Coming to a talk show near you.

One stop on his city-to-city tour was New Orleans, where he pitched the story to members of the television, radio and print media. To him, it's a story of redemption. His book is called From Prison to Pulpit.

"This book isn't about Vaughan Booker," he insists. "It is a book about everyone in the midst of our pain, our anger, our rage, in the midst of our shame and our guilt. It is a story of how God can reach down and lift us up."

Many folks find solace in this story - a happy ending, the triumph of good over evil, the restoration of faith and hope. To others, it leaves a bad taste. It is chilling, to be sure. How can a brutal killer walk among us like this in vestments, treated with respect and accolades?

It is a walking contradiction, the Vaughan Booker story. He presents the ultimate conundrum.

"What are your views on the criminal justice system?" are his first words at an interview, then, "Do you believe in redemption?"

He had no prior criminal record and has shown no violent proclivities since that autumn night in '67. But . . .

"There will always be people for me and people who are against me," Fr. Booker says. "I have a problem with people who think we must remain in the mire of our sins. There is scriptural precedent to all this. The Bible is replete with people who have - yes - killed, and have repented and returned to the Lord.

"We're told all our lives that if we sin we should repent and turn back to the Lord and better ourselves," he says. "I find that, once you do that, it is not enough for some people, but it is enough for the Lord."

It is not enough for many of Annabelle Booker's surviving relatives, who speak in the book of their lingering resentment. It is not enough for some talk-radio callers who say they want to kill him when he visits their town.

It is certainly enough to draw the nation's attention. The book hit stores in November and everyone from Phil Donahue to the Washington Post has moved in for a closer look. He did 150 interviews in three months.

Fr. Booker is comfortable in the face of cameras and tape recorders, almost cocky. He claims he is no celebrity and seeks no fame, only that his message is too strong to leave undelivered.

"I don't want the focus on me," he says. "I'd rather the focus be on the message, not the messenger. There are many people like me who have been in prison and got out and done well - but they want to live nice, quiet lives. They don't want to talk about what they went through, and that's all right. But I am a repentant sinner and one who knows the power and grace of Jesus Christ."

To an audience of about 100 at the Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans, he explained it this way:

"When you are overwhelmed by grief, by guilt, by shame, then take it somewhere, don't keep it in. Take it to the counselor. Take it to the pastor. Take it to God.

"Everyone has to find their own way. My way was through religion. It doesn't have to be that way for you. It can be through art, through music, through computers even - it doesn't matter what.

"It hurts every time I tell this story," he says. "And I have told it hundreds of times."

Other parts of the story are this: His son was shot to death in the streets of Philadelphia four years ago; his killer has one year left on his sentence.

Fr. Booker has remarried and has reconciled with his daughter by his first wife.

Someone with a gun in his pocket came to Fr. Booker for counseling at the church where he is rector. The man said he was going to kill his wife. Fr. Booker, a man who could touch this story, changed the man's mind.

A man once stuck him up outside a burger place and took his watch and 10 bucks. The robber told Fr. Booker he wanted more money and Fr. Booker said, "I'm a priest - I don't have any more money."

The guy gave him back the watch and cash and said, "God bless you, man."

"Tell me," Fr. Booker says, beaming now. "Does God have me in his loving arms or what?"