Let Freedom Ring
Just when we get to know a city and become friendly with the locals, it's time to leave. We're off to the Mississippi Delta for a week or so. We stayed in Jackson longer than expected because yet again, we found a diverse group of people and organizations to interview. Over the past week, I met with:
*Members of the Young Republicans and Young Democrats of Mississippi
*Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillin
*Young inmates at the Raymond Jail in Raymond, Mississippi
*The Mississippi Democratic Party
*The Mississippi Republican Party
*A doctor who works at the only abortion provider in the state
We've also been spending quite a bit of time attending church, which is an integral part of the community's history and culture. At the more conservative churches, the question is not, "Do you go to church?" The question is, "What church do you go to?" After telling a woman at a progressive African-American church that not everyone at home goes to church, she jokingly asked, "What do San Franciscans do on Sundays?"
I haven't gone to church regularly for a very long time and am not used to seeing churches on every corner, but after spending two months in the so-called Bible Belt, I've become interested in finding out what draws people to a particular church and comparing and contrasting religion and sermons. Some churches have left me feeling like a hopeless sinner trapped in a dark confession box, while others have left me feeling inspired and hopeful.
This past Sunday, we attended services at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Anderson United Methodist Church and First Baptist Church (most churches have three services per day). First Baptist, a predominantly white church, had a special evening service called, "Let Freedom Ring," complete with a 30-piece orchestra and 200-person choir. Songs included "America, I Can Still Hear Your Song," "Stars and Stripes," "Salute to the Armed Forces," and "I Believe in America."
The 3,000 seat church was packed with patriotic families wearing red, white and blue. Thomas Hamill, author of "Escape in Iraq: The Thomas Hamill Story" joined Pastor Stan Buckley on stage to talk about his kidnapping ordeal in Iraq. "This isn't about the weapons of mass destruction," he said. "It's about the kids. Hopefully they'll grow up to be free." After thanking President Bush for having the courage to spread freedom, the crowd gave Hamill a standing ovation.
The First Baptist Church itself is larger than most places of worship, but unlike mega-churches, it actually looks and feels like a church rather than a stadium. First Baptist offers something for everyone, including children's ministry, college ministry, women's bible study, activities for singles, international mission trips and day camps. The church employs over 100 people.
Following the "Let Freedom Ring" event, I interviewed Senior Pastor Stan Buckley and a few attendees.
Stan Buckley, 38, First Baptist Senior Pastor
Do you bring politics into regular church services?
We have two former governors, a Supreme Court justice and lots of other state and federal officials in our church. We don't focus on politics. We would never try to endorse a political candidate. That's not our focus; our focus is to proclaim the gospel. We have people of all political persuasions here. As a church, we don't ever try to push any type of political agenda, particularly from the pulpit. I would never do that, but I will speak on social issues certainly.
Abortion. Not what I think, but what I believe scripture says about abortion. What does scripture say about racism? Whatever the issue may be, what does scripture have to say about that? If scripture addresses it, we'll say it. Wherever that falls on someone's political platform, who cares? I don't care.
Was this an unusual event tonight? Or do you often talk about the war, the troops and supporting President Bush?
This was our annual July 4th presentation. It's a pretty conservative group obviously here in the south. We don't talk about that every week. Our main issue is not to support President Bush. I think Tommy Hamill who was a guest speaker said something about President Bush. You would never hear anyone from our pulpit say anything about politics or a candidate other than to pray for him which scripture tells us to do. We have a lot of people who are serving in the National Guard in Iraq and Afghanistan, so sure, we want to show support for them. The idea is not that God loves us more than other countries, but we believe we do have certain freedoms and that God was obviously instrumental in the development of this country. We're just trying to teach the word and I don't care whose platform that falls down on. The reality is, what we believe scripture teaches on issues such as abortion would tend to fall in line with the Republican platform, but if it was a Democrat, that'd be fine too.
And many Republicans are pro-choice and many Democrats are not.
Exactly. We believe what the word says and that's what we teach. Period.
How does that influence your politics?
Again, as the pastor of a church, I would never in eight million years, preach from the pulpit. This church, in particular, has a strong history of being non-political. We don't do voter guides and all of that. A lot of churches do, but that's not gonna happen here. Again, we've got governors and Supreme Court folks of all persuasions.
Did you vote for Bush?
I've heard a lot of people say they voted for Bush because he's a "good Christian man," but I don't know of any president that wasn't Christian.
Well, he's a little more open about his faith and in the south that's important for a lot of folks because faith is not just something you do on Sundays. It's who we are. Before I was a pastor, I was a lawyer, but I was a believer point blank. That's appealing to a lot of people. He (Bush) talks about his faith and believes that his faith is real and so that's attractive to them.
Did you like Clinton? He often talked about his faith.
Yes he did. In fact he was a Southern Baptist as we are, but what he did on social issues didn't seem to match up with what he professed to believe and that was really bothersome. The whole adulterous and abortion issue was bothersome. Don't claim to be a Southern Baptist and hold to those items of faith, but do something else and say, well it's OK because this is politics.
Some would say the same about Bush considering he's pro-death penalty and pro-war.
I believe scripture addresses that. Scripture, I believe, allows for the death penalty. In fact, in Romans Chapter 13, Paul said it's the government's responsibility to wheel the sword against evildoers. Not for me to do it. Not for you to do it. But that's the role of government. I know you get into all those issues of who usually gets the death penalty based on who they killed and race issues, but scripture allows for it. If Jesus had said no death penalty, guess what I would be? I would be no death penalty.
There are many different interpretations of the Bible. Divorce is a sin according to the Bible. Slavery was justified by using the Bible.
Sure, but just go to scripture. Scripture allows for divorce for two reasons: adultery and if you have an unbelieving spouse. So that's what scripture says so that's what I believe.
What about the war?
If we believe that they are harboring terrorists or doing something that can bring us harm, that's the big debate. Were they really? Everybody agrees on the Afghanistan issue because that's where the Taliban was. This one is a little more difficult. Bush has some problems on this one. There's no question and people who support him will acknowledge that. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Was Hussein a great guy? No. Was he destroying people? Yes. Did Bush know there were no weapons of mass destruction? Well if he didn't, that's highly problematic. Most people around here would probably say we want to support the troops regardless. Because they like him on the social issues, they want to give him the benefit of the doubt on this. Because he's your guy. You want to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Have you heard about the Downing Street Memo?
So you're open to considering that Bush didn't tell us the truth about the war?
Certainly. Certainly. I want to be objective about that. Either he did or he didn't. I just haven't been convinced yet. I'm open to being convinced.
As far as the troops goes, the VA just announced a billion dollar shortfall for healthcare and many groups have found that this is a bipartisan issue. Democrats vote to increase benefits and Republicans vote against it.
That's a fiscal issue. They probably see it as more taxes and more money being spent.
Well with a $200 billion military budget, you'd think they could set aside money for decent healthcare.
I agree. I'm saying maybe that's their thinking. Maybe it just hasn't resonated. Have you heard much about this? Are people talking about it?
It's not getting much attention.
I guarantee if you let people know about it, they'll rally for the veterans.
Where do you get your news?
I'm a voracious reader.
Do you have any favorite sources?
I'm a fan of Fox news obviously, but I read our statewide newspaper. I go from USA Today to Fox News to more conservative radio such as American Family Radio.
How many members does this church have?
Between 8,000 and 9,000. They don't all show up obviously every week.
How many does the church seat per service?
About 3,000. This is extraordinary. Back in 1989, they did a $22 million renovation and expanded it tremendously. Across the way, there's a $14 million, 160,000 square-foot Christian Life Center complete with basketball courts, with racquetball, with a three-story climbing wall, workout facilities and 40-something aerobics classes each week. We have a 13-person counseling organization. We have two full-time PhD Christian counselors on staff, plus about 10 or 11 part-timers. They're all certified by the state.
Counseling for individuals?
Drug, alcohol, marital...any subject that you can imagine. Any need you would have, this church would hope to meet it regardless. We do a lot of inner city ministry as well. In the downtown area, we went in and took over an apartment complex that turned into a crack house. The owner turned off the electricity. There was no running water. There were six murders in seven months in this predominantly African-American community. We went in and at first, they wouldn't sell it to us. So we'd pray and pray and pray. He still wouldn't sell. Finally, after intense prayer, he called and said, I won't sell it, I'll just give it to you. On the bottom half, there's now a dental clinic. On the top, they built dorm rooms. We have groups that come from all over the country. About 500 to 1,000 come and do mission projects. We've teamed with Habitat for Humanity. We've redone 60 homes down in that area. In addition to that, on the other side of the apartment complex, we have an after school program with brand new computers. We're not just doing what I call parachute missions, where you show up, give everybody a turkey, feel better about yourself and leave. We've invested about $2 million in there so far. We just finished a brand new multi-purpose building complete with a gymnasium and a full-time kitchen. We have six people who work full-time down there so we're committed to being down there. This church elected to stay downtown and be a downtown church whereas most leave and go out to the suburbs. We have a half a million-dollar budget every year, just for that alone. When we decided to build this $14 million facility over here for our Christian Life Center, the pastor before me had the wisdom to say, if we're going to do that, we're going to dump a million downtown. We go all over the world. We hit every continent. We hit Antarctica this past year on mission trips. We send 400-500 of our own people out. I led a team of 29 down to Trinidad. We took two dentists and dental students and did all kinds of dental work and worship services. We go to Africa, Asia, you name it. We go all over the world doing mission work with people of all political persuasions.
Where does your funding come from?
Our people give. We don't do fundraising. This just happens to be, for whatever reason, an affluent church. But these are people who use what they've been given for kingdom purposes, which is exciting. The offering today was probably $120,000. We teach to give 10 percent of your income. Some give a lot more than that.
$120,000? For one Sunday?
Yes, that's about average.
Because we're so focsed on the war, we rarely address the issue of poverty, which is a huge problem. Do you think it's the church's responsibility to address that problem rather than the government's?
The church has a responsibility and we have neglected that. The church is focused on evangelism and not those social issues of feeding the poor. We've been commanded to look after the poor, but we've dropped the ball. I don't think it has anything to do with the war. This country has enough resources and our churches have enough resources. We're just not doing it.
Glenn Hollman, 40, Frame Houses
(I sat next to Glenn during the event)
What draws you to this church?
This one is a good one because there are a lot of activities to plug into.
But you don't come here weekly? You go to different churches?
I grew up at Oak Forest Baptist Church. Now I'm a member of North Minister Baptist.
What are the major differences between the churches here?
Attitude. Different churches seem to have their ways of thinking and it's their way or the highway.
How does going to church shape your politics?
I think we have freedom of religion and that's the most important thing to me. If I felt like people were telling me how to believe, I would be weary. God loves everyone the same.
Some churches have said, you're not a Catholic if you voted for Kerry or you're not welcome here if you didn't vote for Bush.
Please! Give me a break.
Are you a Democrat or Republican?
Democrat, but I'm for our country and I support our president. We elected him.
Did you vote for him?
I take that as a no.
I'd vote for a Yellow Dog before I'd vote Republican.
I've noticed that a lot of churches here have very different priorities. Some focus on new buildings, while others focus on outreach.
I agree. We're supposed to help the less fortunate. I'm a member of North Minister and in two weeks, I'm going to Honduras to build homes for people. We got it good here.
Do you go to church every Sunday?
If I don't, I feel like I missed something. I was raised in a Christian family.
Lynn Dongieux, 79, Sings in the Choir at the First Presbyterian Church
(Lynn came to First Baptist for the "Let Freedom Ring" event)
What draws you to the First Presbyterian?
The theology. I have grown very spiritually there. Our ministers all lead us into growing spiritually.
Does the pastor bring politics into the church?
No, just basic moral principles.
Like what the Bible stands for. The Ten Commandments and growing spiritually so you can apply these in your everyday life.
Does your religion influence your politics and how you vote?
Yes it does.
In what way?
I believe in God and Jesus Christ his son. I would vote for someone who follows his principles and guidelines and wants to establish our country according to that philosophy. That's what our country was based on. I don't think they teach that in school anymore. People left other countries to come here for freedom of religion. They were persecuted for worshipping Christ and so they came here and that's what established this country. And it grieves us older people to look back and see what's taking place. This country is free and open to everybody. People want to come here because of what we have done and established in this country. Don't try to change it. Either accept it or leave. That's my philosophy.
Do you think people are trying to change that?
Yes, I do.
Can you give me an example?
Listen to the media. They're trying to slant things. They are very negative. They never talk about the good that is taking place in our country. They're letting people know about all the influences that are coming in and they're not trying to reinforce the things that made this country so wonderful.
What makes you a Christian?
That's the spirit of God. It's there for everybody, but you have to be aware of when it is there and you have to accept it.
Does First Presbyterian do any outreach to the community?
Oh yes. We have a tremendous mission and are constantly preparing people for this. We do outreach of all kinds.
At tonight's event, Thomas Hamill talked about the importance of supporting the war and President Bush. Do you feel the same way?
Yes. God intended for human beings to be free, not to be under tyrants and for human beings to be mistreated. President Bush is a very spiritual Christian man and acted based on the information that had been given to him. People have to remember that this was about 9/11. He didn't want anybody else coming into our country. If he didn't do something, he would have been criticized. He wanted to protect our country.
Thomas Wiley, 54
How long have you been coming to this church?
What draws you to this church?
The variety. It's a Bible-based church.
What issues are most important to you when it comes to the church?
That they base their doctrine on the Bible and biblical principles.
How do you feel about bringing politics into the church?
The church is not a political organization at all and it really shouldn't be. Our views on politics are flavored by our faith, but the church is not a political organization.
Was today unusual? Or does the war come up on a regular basis?
It comes up.
What is the consensus about the war?
I think it's mixed. You can see the good and the bad and I think overall it's positive in that we want to support what our president is doing.
Does your faith greatly impact your politics?
Yes, as a Christian and a member of the church, my whole life is shaped by my views on Christianity and my views on what life is all about. In the political arena, you can't separate the two.
Are you a Bush supporter?
Yes. I support him because I like his political views. To me, the Republican view of things is if you don't work, you don't eat, whereas the Democratic view is that the government is there to help and that doesn't work. That's why I tend to align more with the Republicans because capitalism works. The idea of working for what you get works and when people don't work for what they get, things fall apart. There's a balance in everything.
How do you feel about giving benefits to the military?
I think we need to support them in every way we can. They're not paid enough. Police officers aren't paid enough. I think the more we can do for our soldiers and police officers, the better.
Have you been keeping up with the VA's funding problems? They're a billion dollars short for healthcare.
I haven't heard about that. That's not good.
Coming up: an interview with Anderson United Methodist Church worshippers and pastor Joe May.