CORPUS CHRISTI, TEX. -- Only one city in the new world is called Corpus Christi. Local legend holds that it was named by explorer Alonzo Alvarez de Pinada when he ventured into the coastal bend of Texas on June 24, 1519 -- a time when Catholic Spain celebrated the festival of Corpus Christi. Nearly five centuries later some people who live here are consumed by the city's holy message, taking it beyond history to the realm of spiritual symbolism. It is no coincidence, they say, that the nation's most impassioned abortion debate rages in a city with a name that means Body of Christ.

This is the city whose Catholic bishop excommunicated two parishioners for facilitating or performing abortions. It is where the sheriff decorated his office with posters of crushed fetuses, joined protests outside abortion clinics and announced that his deputies would never arrest antiabortion demonstrators. It is where dozens of police officers belong to a group seeking a "conscience clause" that would protect them from being ordered to make such arrests. And it is the voting ground for a first-of-its-kind referendum on an amendment to the city charter that would state that "human life begins at conception."

How did Corpus Christi, an otherwise laid-back resort and port city of about a quarter-million residents that has rarely been at the center of political activity in Texas, let alone the nation, emerge as a hot spot for the antiabortion movement?

According to Rex Moses, who runs an antiabortion protest group here known as Body of Christ Rescue, "Our city's name is not accidental. It is the highest truth that all of this is happening here. God took Corpus Christi and assembled the cast."

There are, of course, other perspectives. Tony Bonilla, lawyer, chamber of commerce president, practicing Catholic and member of one of the city's most active and progressive Mexican American families, dismissed Moses' symbolism as nonsense. "I think instead of spraying the holy waters," Bonilla said, "it sounds to me as though some people are drinking it."

Whether chance or some higher power assembled the cast in Corpus Christi, the characters are certainly intriguing, none more so than the man with a name as felicitous as his city's: Moses. Rex Moses, 35, was born in Corpus Christi, went to a Lutheran elementary school and Southern Methodist University, then came to Austin and by his own account excelled in the fast-paced world of financial consulting. In some interviews Moses has said he was earning $100,000 a year managing retirement accounts. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, he upped the figure to "at least $250,000."

In any case, he gave it up, converted to Catholicism and has devoted his life to the abortion issue. Moses said his life changed one day in the summer of 1988 when he heard that a Florida woman had been sentenced to five years in jail for attaching herself to an abortion suction machine as an act of protest. "When I heard it, I concluded she was crazy and went back to work," Moses recalled. "Then two minutes later, it struck me: She wasn't crazy, I was."

Twice that July Moses traveled to Atlanta to be with the antiabortion demonstrators in Operation Rescue who were blocking that city's abortion clinics. He returned the second time determined to conduct a similar operation in the capital city of Texas. His first "rescue" mission in Austin was on Oct. 29, 1988. With a band of a few dozen loyal followers, Moses conducted protests week after week for the next year.

His perspective on abortion gradually changed. "At first I thought I was rescuing little babies, or rescuing myself," he said. "But then I began to see that legalized abortion was not just an attack on unborn babies, it was an attack on the church, on every Christian's willingness to love his neighbor as he loved himself. Children were simply caught in the cross-fire. When children die, the Devil loses his grip on them, but he retains his grip on us."

Seeing his battle as one against the Devil, Moses became ever more zealous. He was arrested for obstructing clinics several times in Austin, and served nine days in the county jail. But his tactics started to concern leaders of the Austin clergy who happened to share his opposition to abortion.

During a protest in May 1989, Austin police officer Leo Enriquez was injured when one of Moses' 300-pound Austin Rescue compatriots went limp as Enriquez tried to lift him into a police vehicle. The officer sued Austin Rescue and was awarded $750,000 in damages by a local jury. Another jury ordered Moses' group to pay $587,000 in damages to the Ladies Center, an abortion clinic that was one of Austin Rescue's main targets.

Moses, who says he had divested himself of the money he made in his previous life, scoffed at the awards. "Suing me is totally a recreational activity," he said. "They won't get any money because I don't have any." But Moses did have time, and he still owes at least two months of his life to the county jail in Austin; he is out on appeal from a 1989 conviction on public obstruction charges.

'A Certain Hypocrisy'

In December of 1989 Moses left Austin for his hometown, Corpus Christi. "The only reason I left is because the clergy in Austin was no longer supportive of my activities," Moses said. "In the early going there was a lot of support, but the stress of people going to jail was too much for them. Some people don't like you to go out and do good when good involves cost."

The consensus among the Austin clergy was slightly different. They viewed Moses as a publicity-hungry newcomer who seemed flighty and immature.

The scene in Corpus Christi was altogether different: It was as though everything was set up in anticipation of Moses' arrival. He found spiritual support from Bishop Rene Gracida of the Corpus Christi Diocese, financial support from local developer and lawyer Cliff Zarsky, and even law enforcement encouragement from Nueces County Sheriff James Hickey.

It was Hickey who first brought Corpus Christi into the national abortion debate in January. After several sessions with Moses, the sheriff placed on his office walls graphic posters of fetuses being aborted. He also announced that he would not stop protesters from blocking abortion clinics because it would be "abetting murder." His position on selective enforcement of the laws was endorsed by Gracida, who commended Hickey for his "courageous and unequivocal statements."

But many in the community were outraged. "Here you have the top law enforcement official saying he would not enforce the law," said Virginia Pursley, director of Planned Parenthood of South Texas. "He chose to be a law enforcement official. He took an oath that he would enforce the laws. And now he is saying he cannot enforce a law? Can he pick and choose? Tomorrow he might not like the color purple. To me he is promoting lawlessness and anarchy."

The Corpus Christi police chief, Henry Garrett, was caught in the middle. He disagreed with Hickey's policy, but did not want to exacerbate the situation by arresting antiabortion protesters all the time. In the year since Moses arrived, Body of Christ Rescue has conducted 22 protests. So far there have been no arrests.

Six months after Hickey publicly joined ranks with the antiabortion movement, Gracida intensified the Corpus Christi drama. On June 1 he excommunicated 32-year-old Rachel Vargas, director of a local women's clinic, for what he called "sins against God and humanity." Vargas was shocked and disheartened. She said the bishop had never met her, never heard her story, did not know how many women she had talked out of abortions. "In an earlier time I would have been burned at the stake," she said. The national abortion rights movement was alarmed, saying Gracida's action was unprecedented and marked a new effort by U.S. Catholic bishops to silence church members who voiced pro-choice views.

Gracida, a self-described "shy, retiring introvert," said he was merely following canon law and did not want to become a national figure. In fact his excommunication of Vargas was not unprecedented: He had taken the same action against physician Eduardo Acquino in February for performing abortions, but Acquino had kept quiet about it until the Vargas controversy erupted.

Acquino had been represented by attorney Bonilla in a lawsuit in which he charged that antiabortion protesters picketing in front of his house had given his wife, Mercedes, ulcers and forced her to take sedatives, while doing even more damage to one of his children, who underwent intense psychiatric treatment and was held back a year in school. Acquino won an $810,000 verdict.

While Acquino declined to comment on his excommunication, Bonilla said, "I find it incredible that the Catholic Church would refuse to give communion to an employee of a clinic and a doctor who practices his profession while at the same time giving communion to Mafia leaders who kill and ruin lives on a daily basis. There is a certain hypocrisy in that kind of attitude."

The excommunication controversy stirred up both sides. Antiabortion groups rallied around the bishop and used the energy of the moment to force a referendum on the "human life amendment" to the city charter, which will be decided by the voters Jan. 19. "It won't change the law on abortion, we knew that from the beginning," said Tracy Cassidy of the Human Family Committee, the referendum's sponsor. "But it will force people to stand up and take a side on the most important issue of our time."

One of 15 antiabortion groups supporting the amendment is Officers for Life, a federation of 50 law enforcement officers in Corpus Christi who oppose abortion. The group's president, Ruben Rodriguez, a 34-year-old electronics specialist in the sheriff's department, said that along with the referendum the officers were collecting data on the abortion views of politicians and seeking to extend what he called the "conscience clause" to protect officers. Texas statutes allow medical personnel who oppose abortion to refuse to participate in medical proceedings involving abortions without being reprimanded or fired.

"We are trying to extend that to peace officers who realize that by arresting pro-lifers they are indirectly contributing to murder of the unborn," Rodriguez said. The group has published a booklet that relates the abortion debate in Corpus Christi to the Nazi Holocaust and to slavery in the decade before the U.S. Civil War. "Today, police officers in America are under orders to force an expectant mother through praying rescue workers so the woman can arrange to have her child killed," the pamphlet argues. "Should anyone obey that order?"

Bishop Gracida says no. And in the booklet he wrote: "The officials who assisted in the apprehension and return of runaway slaves and those guilty of the Nazi crimes are not the proper models for today's Christian peace officer." His statement further splintered the city's factions. "You don't see many Catholic clergy rushing to his defense on that one," said Amanda Stukenberg, director of South Texans for Choice. "Even people who are not pro-choice are distressed that the leader of their church is calling for anarchy."

Rex Moses had actually arrived in Corpus Christi hoping and expecting to get arrested and spend most of his time in jail. He thought he would be a martyr for the cause. But because no one in the city seems intent on putting him in the slammer, he is concentrating on the human life amendment and a program called Project Gabriel, in which several antiabortion churches are promising to offer counseling, housing and financial aid to unwed mothers who decide against abortions.

"I don't think we'll ever stop abortion," Moses said. "But we can save some lives and grow closer to God. It would be arrogant of me to say we will stop it. There is too much evil in the world and too much recreational sex."

For Tony Bonilla, the pain comes from watching his church move away from him in what he sees as a one-dimensional and misguided mission.

"Our family was born and raised Catholic, but it is a very frustrating period in our lives," Bonilla said. "To see the leader of our church taking these positions, following this so-called Moses, going out of the mainstream -- it's painful. It raises questions about whether our church has lost touch with the changing times. There are millions of homeless in this country, there are millions of children born who need food and clothing, and millions more who are abused. You would think the church and its leaders would concentrate on those problems, rather than disrupting the peace and tranquillity of a community that has already suffered enough."