About 20 years ago, a group of students at Rhema Bible Training Center met in secret, somewhere under that spinning shield emblazoned with the word “Faith,” before the annual display of Christmas lights could be hung from the trees and buildings and gardens on campus. They’d come up with plan to create something to embellish the display—an inside joke that would mystify a generation.
Head to Rhema on a Friday or Saturday night this holiday season and your toes will roast in your floorboards as you inch along behind a long line of taillights on 71st Street through Broken Arrow, toward the sprawling campus. Eventually, you get a glimpse of the place, glowing in more than 2 million lights. Touring the display is a lot less like a stroll through a winter wonderland than it is being moved through the park by a flow of bodies and baby strollers, shoulder to shoulder over the bridge that serves as the park’s front door, encased in strobing lights. The beats of techno Christmas music pound in one’s ears as the lights blink and flash and roll to the swells of the music. It’s easy to imagine that maybe it’s visible from space, like some kind of sign drawn in the sand by a marooned sailor on a remote beach, but with the soundtrack of a rave at 2 a.m.
A few years ago, as the crowd crawled past dozens of lighted figurines of penguins and snowmen on the west side of the park, my husband shouted to me over the music, “Hey, what’s that face?” He pointed toward what looked like a bust of Pat Sajak or maybe the presidential Jimmy Carter, a helmet of blond hair rendered in a strand of gold lights. Someone in front of us said it was the late Dr. Kenneth Hagin, the north Texan who founded Rhema in 1974. It seemed plausible enough. I asked around for a while after, but with no luck on discovering the model for the mystery face. Turns out, I was asking all the wrong people. Once I finally got around to surveying a former Rhema student about the mystery face, I was let in on the campus secret.
I think the rascally Rhema students would have howled had they heard us. It was their idea to form the lights into a shape that resembled a young instructor at Rhema named Doug Jones. Jones is a legend. He was everyone’s favorite teacher, a man who knew no strangers in those hallowed halls. The students, probably erupting in bouts of giggles as they worked during their secret meetings, also created a likeness of another Rhema instructor named Tony Cook, which disappeared before the lights-on event at Rhema had even wrapped up the year the faces debuted.
“I don’t look like that anymore, of course,” said Jones, now pushing 60, from his office in alumni relations at Rhema. “I used to have that swoop haircut—whoever made it did a great job.”
This year, the location of the Jones bust is just as much of a mystery as its identity has been. It’s missing from where I saw it last, and a weekend recon mission proved inconclusive. Rhema couldn’t even confirm if the lighted Jones had made it out of storage for 2011, and a search by the Jones kids has come up empty, too.
“When my kids go see the lights, they hear people tell who they’re with that it’s Brother Hagin,” Jones said. “And they just laugh.”