Christian-style ‘American Idol’ holds auditions outside hospital of woman in vegetative state

By Jenny Hills

(Knight-Rider) — Sherri Sanderson has been dead for three days, but hundreds of supporters remain outside of the Florida resting place where the Right-to-Life cause celebre spent her final days. The rest of America may have moved on, but the people here haven’t.

It’s not grief that has the crowds on their knees praying. It’s a chance to become one of the 12 contestants on the new PTL TV reality show “Bethlehem Star,” an “American Idol”-style contest for the devout.

While “Bethlehem Star” will surely be compared to the ratings champ featuring Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Simon Cowell, the show’s producer says the differences are dramatic.

“I like to say that we’ve swapped the scatological for the eschatological,” says Wyatt Duvall, the man behind the new reality TV venture. “At ‘Bethlehem Star,’ we urge our contestants to ask themselves this one simple question – What Would Jesus Sing? If you say, some secular trash by Clay Aiken, I think you need to try again. We may love the sinner, but we hate the sin.”

What the show needs, Duvall says, are true messengers of God, not sinners who lust after gold records and groupies. He adds, “This show is just as much about spreading the Word as it is about carrying a tune.”

While Duvall originally intended to conduct the first of the round of the contest at Pat Robertson’s Regent University in Virginia, the Pinellas hospice center quickly became a more appealing option.

“If the Rapture came today, I bet the ground itself would spring up like a trampoline and the trees would fly out of their roots. There’s just so many of God’s children standing on this soil,” Duvall says. “As sad as it is that our Sherri has passed, we must take some comfort knowing that Americans no longer have to leave their own country to walk in the Holy Land. They can just visit Florida.”

Duvall says that it’s against the show’s policy to talk about contestants before the first episode airs, but he has his eye on one special little “angel” – 14-year-old Sally Postwaite of Moncks Corner, S.C. Not only does Sally possess the kind of looks that Duvall says should make her a fan favorite – all pigtails and freckles – Sally has written a song inspired by the words Sherri allegedly spoke as the feeding tube was removed from her mouth – “I want to live” – words that others claim were nothing more than the reflexive gurgles of a brain dead patient.

“I feel like she speaks through me,” Sally says as she nervously rubs a cross which hangs around her neck. She stares at the ground and shuffles her lily white Keds. “Sometimes, when I’m sleeping at night, Sherri lies down with me. She strokes my hair and tells me that I’m beautiful.”

Theresa Postwaite, Sally’s mother, stands beside her nervous daughter, providing support.. Theresa is an attractive and youthful-looking woman who bears a striking resemblance to Sherri in her happier years. She places her arm around her daughter, gives her an encouraging squeeze and kisses her on the top of her head.

“I’ve heard the tapes over and over again, and it was difficult for Sally to get the pitch just right, but she nailed it. She sounds just like Sherri. It’s a miracle,” Theresa says.

Sally isn’t the only “Bethlehem Star” contestant Sherri talks to. Josh Hazzel says he has spoken with Sanderson on three separate occasions and she insured him that he would win the competition. Josh says the Sherri he was visited by was not the younger vision of beauty seen by Sally, but a vision of beauty nonetheless.

“Sherri looks so angelic,” Josh says. “You know that movie, ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.’ That guy, Master Blaster, when Mel Gibson pulls off his mask, that innocent face staring back at him, it’s the same as Sherri’s.”

Josh takes the comparison even further. He believes the third installment in the Mad Max trilogy actually foretold Sherri’s death. “So even though Mel spares Master Blaster’s life, Tina Turner kills him anyway,” Josh adds. “Sherri’s Thunderdome is our court system. Sherri’s Tina Turner is our activist judges.”

Like Sally, Josh has composed a song about Sherri. It too is called “I Want to Live,” or as Josh likes to call it, “I Want 2 Live.”

Josh picks up a beaten Fender Squire covered in stickers for such Christian-rock heavyweights such as Chevelle and P.O.D., and plugs into a tiny Pee Vee amp powered by a portable Honda Generator. “My God/ Has taken my speech/ Taken my hearing/ Taken my arms/ Taken my legs/ Taken my soul/ Left me with a life in Him,” Josh sings, his throaty growl scarcely audible over the diesel-powered din.

A man wearing a Slipknot T-Shirt walks by. He turns to Josh and says, “Woohoo, Metallica,” and flashes upraised index and pinkie fingers, the sign of the devil.

Josh immediately stops singing. Feedback spills out of the amp. It’s the sound of disappointment. Before the contest is over with, that is a sound that all but one will hear.

While the show will employ Christian music bigwigs Sandi Patty, Michael W. Smith, and Carman to oversee the competition, the trio will not judge the contestants. They will merely offer advice and words of encouragement.

“If there is one thing this tragedy has taught us, it’s that we cannot trust activist judges and their personal agendas. This is God’s competition and it’s important to let the Lord’s people decide,” Duvall says.

Ultimately, Duvall believes “Bethlehem Star” will serve as a beacon of hope in these dark and terrible times. For the folks here in Pinellas that hope just might help them forget the sorrow of the past few days.

“Sherri Sanderson was waiting for a miracle, but it didn’t come,” Duvall says. “For someone here today, that miracle will happen.”