The Rev. Richard Offer, a burly apostolic preacher, stepped down from his pulpit at the House of Prayer for All People Church last fall and ventured into the Anne Arundel County schools where five of his children were enrolled.
He could not have been more upset if he had wandered into Sodom or Gomorrah on a Saturday night.
Shameless young girls were done up like "harlots" in bracelets and heels. Young boys cussed and crushed out cigarettes. Lovestruck couples toured the hallways arm-in-arm. Teachers lectured on evolution and reproductory matters. And in the high school Offer saw the lockers where dogs had sniffed out dope during a recent drug bust.
It was all evidence of what he had suspected: The ways of the sinful world had seeped into the public schools. After much prayer, Offer, who says he has been crusading for a quarter of a century against fornicators, whoremongers, dope addicts, drunkards and the many other faces of the devil, decided he had no choice but to heed the Lord. He withdrew his five children from county public schools.
"The word of God says one thing, and the law of the land says another," said the pastor who was born in rural Maryland in 1934 and born again 25 years later. "The things that are going on in the schools are not according to God's word."
Unfortunately God's words, as the reverend understands them, contradict laws and policies sacred to the Anne Arundel County Board of Education and the state of Maryland, which require all children between 6 and 16 to attend regular instruction or receive alternatives.
Last month, after five of his nine children had missed 112 days of school each, Offer was summoned before Maryland district court judge George M. Taylor, who placed him on probabtion and ordered to send his school-age children back to school or face $28,000 in fines -- $50 a day for each day the children had missed.
Fine or no fine, Offer, a self-employed pastor who laid the bricks of his two-story church, is not about to return his children, aged 7 to 15, to public school.
"We don't mind suffering if we have to suffer to do God's will," he cried as his eyes fell shut, his head tilted back and his pulpit voice rose in a righteous tremor. "For 25 years I fought, I stole, I lived in sin and I went to jail before I got saved. I didn't have half the trouble with the law I'm having now trying to do what I think is right. Education don't deliver a man from doing wrong. If the only people who got in trouble was those that had no education then I'd fall right down on the floor this instant and say stomp on me. What they're trying to force on me is as useless as me giving you a rattlesnake to lay down with and telling you he's gonna be your friend when he's half-hungry."
"Amen," sighed his wife Nora.
She and Offer have raised nine children in their small house in Edgewater, Md., 30 miles east of Washington, he cutting wood for the winter, she hanging out the laundry in a yard strewn with chairs, rusty drive shafts, mothballed cars, a cement mixer, and a gold roadside-gospel bus.
The family's life centers on sin-free living and religion. At home they gather around the organ to sing hymns. The girls don't have boyfriends. At The House of Prayer for All People Church a few miles away, the family attends services, sings in the Crusade Choir and undertakes missions in a 1 1/2-ton flatbed truck with a loudspeaker, a plywood cab, and "Halleluia Jesus We Call It Holy Ghost On Wheels" painted on the side.
Faced with the judge's order to return his children to school, Offer has decided he will try to comply by starting a school of his own. Barnabas, Lisa, Leslie, Mark and Pam Offer, along with six other children from three church families unhappy with the public schools, now attend classes in the basement of their father's church.
The school system is still investigating the truancy of the Offer children, and Anne Arundel County States Attorney Warren Duckett says, "We're prepared to take the case back to court if the local or state school boards are not satisfied."
Though school attendance is required in Maryland, the law doesn't specify what kind of school, and under a measure passed in 1975, religious schools are exempt from state board of education certification if they should so choose.
The state, which will certify private, religious and military schools if the schools request, has been asked to certify all but about 200 church schools, according to Maryland education officials.
"Reverend Offer has a lot of freedom to establish a local school under state regulation," said David C. Osborn, a specialist in accreditation with the Maryland Department of Education.
The students at the new school are studying an Accelerated Christian Education curriculum which is used in more than 4,000 Christian schools around the country, according to Wiliam Russel, an A.C.E. consultant in Maryland. It offers Pilgrim's Progress and other books with "a Christian content and a moral character" which is not to say Catcher in the Rye.
Two of the four instructors at the school are Samuel Offer, 20, and Richard Offer, 23. The brothers, along with their sister Essy, completed secondary educations in Anne Arundel County Public schools, graduating before their parents decided the moral atmosphere at the Central Avenue Educational Complex two miles up the road had deteriorated.
Where the preacher sees vice, school principals and administrators see virtue. "Obviously I think we have high moral standards in our schools," said Anne Arundel County Public School Superintendent Dr. Edward Anderson. "Over the last few years I've noticed a drastic change in the attitudes of youngsters. They're more serious, they're working harder. Every year we have one or two parents who don't want their child to associate with human beings."
"It's not that I'm holding my children back," said Offer. "They're getting educated. They can read, write and count."
"They get out in the world," said Nora Offer. "We've been to Washington, Baltimore, and New Jersey on missions. They're not dumb to the fact of what's going on out there. They go door-to-door telling people about the Lord. We want to see everybody saved. Everybody's got to get on the Lord's side and not go to the lake of fire."
"I'm not holding my children back," Offer said again. "They have teachers who know how to teach the truth and what life consists of. They'll be able to raise their own children and be happy."