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Devil of a time for evangelist

The usual collection of ghouls and goblins was expected to haunt the streets of San Francisco on Wednesday night. Two ministers and some 7,500 of their "prayer warriors" also planned to be out, for some exorcising.

This was no trick or treat. This was spiritual warfare.

Pagans, witches and costumed gays were coming out to greet Texas televangelist Larry Lea.

Lea was ready to respond with his prayer army.

The controversial Christian preacher said San Francisco is "famous for sin and satanism. We're going to rid it of its evil immorality."

Lea and San Jose minister Dick Bernal planned to lead a "Prayer Breakthrough" for the city they say is plagued by homosexuals, crime, witchcraft and general sin.

Lea and his army have marched before, conducting noisy prayer marathons to defeat "territorial spirits" he says hold sway over particular cities. Last summer, Lea turned out 6,000 exorcists in Anaheim for a three-day rally to "inflict serious damage" on the forces of darkness in Southern California. Nearly 7,000 believers showed up to help him "clobber the devil" in Chicago, where they brandished imaginary swords and spoke in tongues.

But Lea's Halloween crusade in San Francisco _ his "spiritual warfare" _ sparked protests by several groups who were organizing to speak against him.

The New Earth Temple, a bastion of witchcraft operating out of a small apartment, planned to be there.

So did an ad hoc organization called GHOST: Grand Homosexual Outrage at Sickening Televangelists.

"His message is, "Perverts are bad, and we're going to destroy perversity,'

" said GHOST organizer Mark Pritchard. "People in San Francisco want a chance to stand up against fundamentalists. Larry Lea has made himself a convenient target."

"They'll end up in the hell they deserve with their narrow-minded views," said Sister Missionary DeLight, founder of the 11-year-old Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco. "I think it's scary that they think we're a real threat to society."

DeLight, who is a man, was dressed in a nun's habit and curled fairy shoes and held a wand during a pagan ceremony Tuesday across from Brooks Hall, where Wednesday's prayer service was scheduled.

Later Tuesday, city workers washed sidewalks in front of Brooks Hall to erase at least one dozen red, spray-painted threats that said: "Kill The Christian."

Tim Lavender, vice president of the Larry Lea Ministries, denied the Christians hate homosexuals and others with different lifestyles.

"We're not here to pray against the gays or any group of people," Lavender said. "We are here to pray for a return to traditional values. . . . This is an opportunity for all Christians to come together."

Lavender said the "so-called peace-loving" people in San Francisco who oppose the religious right have been calling Lea and Bernal with death threats since the prayer event was announced in September.

Lea said his militant rhetoric has been misunderstood.

"Our purpose is prayer, spiritual warfare," Lea said. "We are not here to cause a physical riot of any kind. We're not going to bash anyone's party."

Bernal also spoke out for Lea's mission.

"We're praying to God for people, all people, and against the powers of darkness," Bernal said. "The ultimate goal is to save the fallen angels of the city from Satan, from evil immorality."

Concerned about a street confrontation, organizers of the rally scrapped plans to march around the area where Lea was to speak.

That change was made after local church leaders, including P.T. Mammen, president of the San Francisco Association of Evangelicals, warned Lea's group that Halloween night might not be the best time for noisy evangelicals to hit the streets of San Francisco.

"I told them that evening there are other communities that plan marches," said Mammen, who endorsed Lea's crusade after the march was called off.

GHOST was going to hold a "peaceful, legal demonstration and celebration of San Francisco's religious diversity, tolerance and freedom," organizers said.

Meanwhile, Eric Pryor, the high priest of the New Earth Temple, an emporium of witchcraft run out of a small Geary Street apartment, was organizing a pagan protest and ritual.

"We came to the United States to escape religious persecution," said Pryor. "The witch hunts are over, and I, for one, don't intend to be burned at the stake."

Gay rights groups planned to protest outside Brooks Hall against the praying masses inside before marching several blocks to the primarily gay Castro District for the annual Halloween street party.

An estimated 300,000 revelers were expected to camp it up in the district. Police barricaded 15 square blocks instead of the usual four and a stage was set up on Market Street to lure partiers away from the most crowded areas.

"This is just good clean fun for us, a celebration of our lifestyle," said Joe Van Es-Ballesteros, organizer of the drag extravaganza.

But Lea believed it was much more.

"This is not just kids having fun," Lea said. "There is actual worship of the devil."

Lea, who distributes "prayer army dog tags" and has donned military fatigues in previous crusades, said Halloween was selected to launch his three-day assault on evil and sin because, according to legend, demons are strongest at that time.

"Anyone who has done any study of satanism knows this is the high holy day of the satanic church," Lea said. "We just thought that was a good time to come and for Christians to pray.

"This is not a battle between me and them. It is a battle between God and the powers that lead people from a real faith in Jesus Christ."

Starhawk, San Francisco's best-known witch and goddess movement leader, said Lea has it all wrong.

"Halloween is our ancient, sacred holiday but has nothing to do with the worship of the devil. It is worshiping nature and the turning of the seasons. It is a time when your ancestors return, and you set out food and lights for them," she said.

"It is a beautiful holiday."

Janet Christian, coordinator of Bay Area Pagan Assemblies, an umbrella group formed 18 months ago in response to more frequent attacks on the New Age movement by conservative evangelicals, said she is concerned that "the Christian right is getting more militant in their response.

"We're tired of them trying to force their beliefs on us," she said.

"How would Larry Lea feel if on Christmas, their holiest day, we decided to surround his church and outpray him? They wouldn't stand for it."

_ Information from Associated Press and the San Francisco Chronicle was used in this report.