Two years ago on Super Bowl Sunday, Pentecostal preacher James McAbee was getting into his car after services when he heard a commotion. He saw two men break a window and enter a church hall that was being renovated.
McAbee called 911. The dispatcher said it would take officers at least 11 minutes to respond.
He lingered outside for a moment, frustrated.
“I could hear them snapping the lumber and carrying the sheet rock,” McAbee said.
The pastor drew a .380 pistol he wore in an ankle holster and burst into the hall to find two adolescents.
McAbee, who’d had a troubled youth, saw himself in the pair. He lowered his gun to offer some fatherly advice, but the older one, a 17-year-old with two outstanding drug warrants, rushed the pastor with the pointy end of a broken 2-by-4.
“I got my gun back out in time,” McAbee said. “He froze in his tracks. I said, ‘Son, you better not move or I’ll put one right in your watermelon!’ “
The pastor held them until police arrived.
When the teens agreed to a court-ordered program, McAbee did not press charges. He told reporters he was glad he hadn’t shot them — but he was also glad he’d had his gun.
Word spread. McAbee, 36, became known around the industrial Texas Gulf Coast city of Beaumont, east of Houston. Strangers picked up his tab at restaurants and approached him at gas stations and Wal-Mart to pose for photos and talk about guns.
Soon he had a nickname: Triple P, the pistol-packing pastor.
Just after dawn one recent Saturday, Pastor McAbee strapped a Glock .40 to his waist and drove deep into the East Texas pine woods to Dirty Harry’s shooting range.
He began teaching gun classes shortly after he earned his nickname, and cites Scripture that he says justifies the classes: Psalm 144:1, “The Lord has trained me for battle”; and Luke 22:36, in which Jesus instructs the disciples to arm themselves.
He was expecting more than 100 people to attend his latest class, mandated by the state for concealed handgun licenses.
Students’ shooting skills varied. Some had grown up hunting. Others had never fired a gun and recoiled at the kick as shell casings flew through air tinged with gun smoke. A few had trouble finding ammunition because of increased demand, and had to borrow from classmates.
McAbee, with his crew cut and black bulletproof vest, was a stocky, affable presence. He showed them how to grip their guns, avoid the bite of the slide, take aim and shoot their paper, people-shaped targets. He would grade their accuracy.
“Is the line ready?” McAbee called out. “Let’s lock and load!”
The class costs $50, free for teachers. In recent months, McAbee’s business has tripled and he’s trained more than 1,000 people.
Guns were a normal part of McAbee’s life. He was raised in the small town of Clover, S.C., where his grandfather took him hunting. His mother worked in law enforcement and carried a gun.
One day at the range, his mother accidentally shot and partially paralyzed herself. McAbee was 9. He grew up caring for his mother, and the stress took a toll. As a teenager he started using drugs and stealing to feed his habit.
When he was 18, McAbee was caught breaking into an elderly neighbor’s house. He was convicted of burglary, aggravated assault and battery, and served 2 years in a maximum-security prison.
There, McAbee felt called to preach. His grandfather sent him a leather-bound Bible. After McAbee’s release, he was ordained by the Assemblies of God, married and had children.
But McAbee felt incomplete. He twice applied for a pardon to clear his record.
In 2008, his mother again wounded herself with her own gun. Weakened by the shooting, she died later that year.
McAbee’s attitude about guns was unchanged: “Don’t blame the tool.”
The next year, McAbee’s pardon was granted. Afterward, he exercised as many of his rights as he could: He became a notary, voted, bought a rifle and went deer hunting.
“I wanted to see what it felt like to be like everybody else,” he said.
McAbee was hired three years ago as pastor of Lighthouse Worship Center. His church faces the interstate in a low-income neighborhood where gun crimes and celebratory gunfire are not uncommon.
In his office, McAbee lined a shelf with bullets, some collected outside the church. Across from his desk hangs a paper silhouette, his most recent target — a perfect score.
Next to his desk, he posted a picture of President Barack Obama. McAbee respects him. But the day after Obama was re-elected, the pastor bought an AR-15 assault rifle for $989 because he was concerned about new gun control legislation.
“If the thugs are going to have one, I’m going to have one too,” he said.