The best selling author of "I'm OK -- You're OK" has found a Wheaton evangelist that he says is not okay.
Dr. Thomas Harris, who wrote the psychological self-help book that sold 10 million copies, bases his diagnosis on a June 15, 1979, speech by lay minister Larry Tomczak before a Jesus '79 rally in Chico, Calif.
Tomczak said, "Years ago there was a book on the market called 'I'm OK -- You're OK.' People said that's a wonderful book, new psychology, new things to follow. Most people today don't know the author of that book committed suicide about two years ago, and yet people are still practicing some of his philosophies."
Harris said there was just one problem with Tomczak's speech: "I happen to be alive. It was very destructive to me in an emotional way. Having someone say I was dead was like being shot in the heart."
As a result, Harris is suing Tomczak and his church -- The Gathering of Believers -- in a $19.5 million slander action filed in California.
The suit is the "most challenging situation of my life," said Tomczak. A courtroom loss, he said, would throw his church and family into financial ruin.
The 31-year-old Tomczak, who claims that Jesus Christ called him to preach the gospel, is a father of two and a cofounder of the Gathering of Believers, a charismatic Christian church in suburban Maryland. Sitting in the kitchen of his modest brick, street-side residence in Wheaton, Tomczak said, "I asked him (Harris) to forgive me three times. He just said he'd have to discuss it with his lawyers."
Although Harris currently lives and works in Sacramento, he is a former Washington area resident who once worked here as a consultant for the Montgomery County school system during World War II and at St. Elizabeths Hospital in 1947-49.
Richard Gay, Tomczak's lawyer, accuses Harris of filing the lawsuit to promote the sale of a forthcoming book.
However, Richard Hodge, Harris' attorney, denies the charge of huckerstering, saying, "This is in no way a publicity stunt."
Tomczak, according to testimony he gave in an Oct. 2 deposition filed with U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California, has admitted to announcing the early demise of Harris.And he conceded that he had not read the book and did not know the author's name at the time of the Chico rally.
On page 537 of the deposition, Hodge asked Tomczak if he had said: "Most people today don't know that the author of that book committed suicide two years ago, and yet people are still practicing some of his philosophies." Tomczak responded: "Yes, sir, I made that statement."
Afterward, in the interview, Tomczak said, "I though it was true. I really did. It's a simple as that." He said a fellow evangelist had told him during a private conversation in August 1978 that Harris had committed suicide.
Gay said he plans to fight the suit by proving that Harris, a well-known author, is a public figure and not a private citizen.
"If the judge agrees, then Harris will have to show malice," Gay said.
Hodge, Harris' lawyer, and Gay said a ruling that says authors are public figures would set a judicial precedent.
"It also involves the issues of the free exercise of speech and religion," Gay said.
Harris said the suicide allegation has harmed his reputation as a practitioner of the theories -- outlined in "I'm OK -- You're OK" -- that each person has competing personalities vying for attention.
Tomczak's church -- The Gathering of Believers -- is an offshoot of the Take And Give (TAG) ministry that Tomczak and C. J. Mahaney, 27, led after TAG began in 1969 in the Rockville living room of Lydia Little.
"The whole Jesus thing was really flying high," said Little, speaking of that time, when TAG was a home Bible-study group. It quickly attracted 150 members.
The group then moved to area churches and schools to accommodate a burgeoning congregation of more than 2,000 members before disbanding at Christ Church in the District of Columbia on Dec. 11, 1979.
At the end, Little said, TAG had grown from a penniless group to a church taking in more than $60,000 a year in donations.
And Tomczak -- a Euclid, Ohio, native; a former AFL-CIO employe; ex-drummer in a rock band called the Lost Souls and the author of his autobiography, "Clap Your Hands" -- was its leader.
But it ended when he and Mahaney, a self-avowed cheater in high school and dabbler in drugs before he was "saved" at age 18, claimed that they were told by God to disband TAG and start anew.
Now, three neighborhood branches of the Gathering of Believers meet on Sunday mornings in rented rooms at suburban Maryland schools (John F. Kennedy and Albert Einstein high schools and Parkland Junior High).
The congregation has 500 followers and a $400,000-a-year budget, according to administrator Robert L. Robison.
On the first Sunday of each month, the entire congregation meets at what they call a "corporate revival" at Wheaton High School on Dalewood Drive.
The services comprise charismatic preaching, faith healing, speaking in tongues, praying and singing in concert with a nine-piece, rock-and-roll-style band in the Wheaton auditorium. Buoyant believers dance in the aisles while Tomczak, Mahaney or one of five other elders exhort the congregation with sermons against premarital sex, non-Christian rock-and-roll and abortion.
In the auditorium, to the left of the stage, a young girl translates the service for the deaf persons in the audience.
Tomczak describes the church's following as young, with most members in their 20s or 30s. Many are like suburban Maryland resident Elaine Grefenstette, who was reared in the Roman Catholic Church. She says she prefers the boisterous and unorthodox meetings of the Gathering of Believers to her past affiliation.
"This is a way to know the living Christ," she said.
In addition, the church publishes a newspaper for parishioners and has a private school with 50 students that meets in the former Frost School in Aspen Hill.
Seven elders, including Tomczak, are on full-time salaries from church collections and tithes. Charles Thompson, the Gathering's finance director, declined to reveal the amount of their salaries. However, he said, "It's much less than the average head of a household in Montgomery County earns."
The Gathering's goal, said Robison, is to live a communal life style, apart from "American individualism," a dream that may hinge on the outcome of the lawsuit.