Like forbidden dissenters in some intolerant land, a couple hundred families took refuge in a church basement in Washington yesterday for a morning of dangerous television. So controversial were the images that the Bush administration wants its underwriting money back. So subversive was its plot that the local public television station refused to air it.
Drinks were served: juice boxes. And hors d'oeuvres: Goldfish crackers. Faces were painted, and balloons were twisted into ladybug hats.
Did we mention that a plurality of this revolutionary audience was younger than 10?
The sheets of 160 stick-on nametags at the door of Church of the Pilgrims Presbyterian -- those radical Presbyterians! -- ran out quickly, and an additional 100 or more had to be improvised with masking tape. The army of strollers and car seats and diaper bags kept coming to the big gothic church at the corner of P and 22nd streets NW.
They had come to see a television cartoon rabbit by the name of Buster. In the 40 episodes of the show "Postcards from Buster," Buster and his dad, an airplane pilot, fly around America visiting real kids and learning about their regions, cultures and religions.
The dangerous episode being shown yesterday is called "Sugartime!" and in it Buster visits kids in Vermont. He learns about making maple sugar, milking cows, buying cheese. He shares a Jewish Shabbat meal. But what makes the show so scary for some adults is that some of the kids on the show live with two moms. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, say those nervous adults.)
Nevertheless, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings wrote to PBS last month: "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode." She asked for the Education Department's $160,000 back.
PBS decided not to send the show to its stations because, said programming co-chief John Wilson last month, "it was an issue best left for parents and children to address together at a time and manner of their own choosing."
Ninety-four of PBS's 349 stations, covering 53 percent of households, decided to air it anyway, obtaining a feed directly from the producers at WGBH in Boston.
But you couldn't see it in Washington. "We agreed with PBS that the program issues should be addressed at a time and place of the parents' choosing," said Mary Stewart, vice president of communications for WETA. ("Buster" usually airs on WETA weekdays at 3:30 p.m.)
Believing that their government and their public television station had let them down, some angry Presbyterians took programming matters into their own hands.
"We decided what is best for our community and that is to give parents the choice to have their children view this episode," said Diana Bruce, a church member who is married to a man (not that there's anything wrong with that) named Bart Oosterveld. They have two children, Emma, 3, and Sebastian, 1.
Church of the Pilgrims has 150 members, is a More Light Presbyterian congregation, one of 109 churches in the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) that dissent from the church's ban on ordaining gay officers. At a time when religion is often cited against homosexuality, the Rev. Jeff Krehbiel, the pastor, said congregations like his must embrace families of all types "not despite our Christian convictions but because of our Christian convictions."
A church member's sister living outside San Francisco TiVo'ed "Sugartime!" when it aired there. She burned it onto a DVD and sent it to Washington.