|A Season for Justice
Becoming a Culture Warrior
I had never seen teenagers so on fire for God.
Only a week before, my wife and I had been living in New York City. I was slaving away in a large law firm, working seventy and eighty hours a week on multimillion dollar commercial lawsuits, while my wife Nancy lived the life, as she called it, of a "well-financed single person." She shopped at Macy’s by herself, went to Broadway plays by herself, and attended church, usually by herself. It was only our first year of marriage, and the situation was quickly becoming intolerable. We had to leave.
The decision to leave was easy, but knowing where to go was difficult. Nancy initially thought Los Angeles would be exciting, primarily because she had grown accustomed to New York’s shopping options and knew that L.A. stores rivaled the Big Apple’s. I advocated Denver. I knew the pace there was slower, and I love to ski.
Faced with a decisional impasse, we did what we should have done from the beginning—we turned to God. After praying, sharing our insights, and praying even more, the answer became clear. It was Christmas of 1996 when we realized that the stores on Rodeo Drive and the ski slopes of Colorado would be left unscathed. Instead, we packed up and headed south to my hometown of Georgetown, Kentucky. This decision was so averse to our natural inclinations that we knew God must have had a purpose for the decision. And we were right.
Georgetown was where we saw the teenagers. It was the first weekend in March 1997 and Nancy and I were standing next to my parents, anxious about our first visit to a new church. Trinity Assembly of God in Georgetown was allegedly in the midst of a revival. My parents were "youth sponsors" for the church youth group and told us amazing stories about teens being saved every week, causing the youth group to grow (in a small church of around three hundred members) from thirty teens to more than eighty. More than anything else, they told us of the kids’ incredible zeal for God.
|I was skeptical. I knew teenagers. I had been one only nine years before, and I remembered what "zeal" meant to me. Zeal meant church attendance, abstinence, and no dates. Zeal meant being occasionally moved by a devotional song. Zeal did not mean any real, palpable joy in church, and it certainly did not mean effective evangelism.
My skepticism was undiminished when, at the beginning of that first visit, the church’s pastor asked the congregation to stand so that the teens could come into the sanctuary "and pray for the adults." I smirked. I wonder whose brilliant idea that is, I thought. Probably a youth pastor simply trying to impress, trying to whip up some fervor in his too-cool-for-words flock.
What happened next shook me to my core. I heard some noise in the back of the church and turned to see an amazing sight. Dozens of kids, many of them weeping, some of them trembling violently, were streaming into the sanctuary. They took their stations at the end of each pew and, with outstretched arms and pleading faces, asked each adult if they needed prayer. Within seconds, dozens of adults left their seats and embraced these kids, begging for just a small slice of the joy, hope, and redemption these teenagers were so obviously feeling. The air was thick with emotion and a real sense of the presence of God.
My mind was reeling. I had never in my entire churchgoing life seen devotion that extreme and emotion that intense. Why don’t I feel that? Could I ever feel that way? We stayed long after church was over. We talked to the pastor and to my parents. This time, we listened without the filter of skepticism and disbelief.
Trinity Assembly of God had a passion for youth ministry. Stanley Holder, the pastor of this small church, had a vision that one day soon two hundred young people would worship together at Trinity. Pursuing that vision, the church had poured its resources into reaching the community’s children. The goal was not to siphon other church kids from less dynamic youth ministries into Trinity’s fun and contemporary worship. Instead, the goal was to reach those who never went to church, those who were lost in the abyss of drugs, alcohol, and hopeless sexuality.
|Trinity succeeded. Beyond its wildest dreams. By mid-1996, it was clear that the small church’s sanctuary and classrooms were simply not adequate to meet the demands of a growing ministry. Sometimes sixty or more teenagers would pack into a small, sweaty classroom, eagerly soaking up the Word. As teens were set free from the chains of sin, news began to spread and even more kids began to come. Not waiting on invitations or evangelism, Georgetown’s teenagers were filling every available space, and by the late fall, there was literally no more room at the inn. Something had to be done.
The answer was the Spirit Life Center, a multipurpose building that served as Sunday school building, worship hall, and activities center for the growing youth ministry. The Spirit Life Center was not fancy or even particularly expensive by the standards of most churches, but it strained Trinity’s financial resources to their limit. Trinity was no suburban megachurch. Its members, though hardly poverty stricken, were not the collection of doctors, lawyers, accountants, and entrepreneurs that populate so many of America’s affluent, evangelical congregations. Trinity was a hardworking, blue-collar church. Many of the members gave well beyond their tithes, and many of them supplemented their financial gifts with invaluable sweat equity.
In January 1997 the Spirit Life Center opened, and it was an immediate success. By late February, Wednesday night youth worship services were averaging more than eighty teens, and more than twenty kids had given their lives to Christ in that month alone. In March, attendance topped ninety. In the local high school, other kids joked that Trinity "ran" the school and marveled that one youth group could draw members of virtually every social clique in the county. Cheerleaders and baseball players worshiped next to farm boys and science fiction geeks. Even the formerly impenetrable color barrier began to crack as the Spirit Life Center welcomed African-American worshipers and speakers.
Although Nancy and I were fascinated and blessed by the youth revival, we were also confused. We clearly felt God’s call to come to this town—to this very church—yet there seemed to be no need for a lawyer in the midst of such an outpouring. Never before had I seen a ministry so successful, so complete.
|Then came the telephone call. It was late March 1997 and I was sitting at my desk in my new law firm, working on yet another allegedly "significant" piece of commercial litigation, when my secretary told me that my pastor was on the phone. I was a little surprised. He had never called me at work.
"Hey, Pastor. What’s going on?" As I talked, I flipped through some deposition transcripts.
"We might have a problem."
"What is it?" I put down the transcripts.
"Well, I really don’t think it’s that big a deal, but I wanted to call a lawyer, and you’re the only one at the church."
I laughed inwardly. Being the only option is hardly a ringing endorsement.
The pastor continued. "You know our neighbors, the Smiths (not their real names), don’t you?"
I knew the Smiths. They lived in the only home near Trinity, a large house located about fifty yards from the Spirit Life Center. A line of trees and a fence separated the church from the Smiths’ property, but they were still relatively close. "Yeah, I had Ms. Smith in eighth grade English . . . a good teacher."
"That’s what I hear. Anyway, they’ve always been opposed to having a church next to their property. They were against our church when it was first built, and they opposed the Spirit Life Center. Because they complained, the county required us to build that fence at the church. I don’t think they wanted to have to look at our new building."
"Well, Mr. Smith has been calling lately, complaining that they can hear the worship music from the Spirit Life Center. He says it’s so loud that it rattles his windows. In fact, he says he’s complained to the Board of Adjustments, and there’s a hearing scheduled for next month."
|The meeting started well enough. Approximately two hundred church members were present, including fifty teens from the youth group. The pastor and individual church members spoke, describing all of the things that the church had done in response to Mr. Smith’s complaint. I spoke and described the legal framework. But the real highlight of the meeting was provided by the teenagers. Several of them gave profoundly moving accounts of how their lives had been changed by the Trinity youth ministry. One young woman described her previous life in witchcraft, others described lives full of alcohol, violence, and hopelessness. One teenager brought down the house when he stood up, surveyed the court-like surroundings of the meeting room, and declared, "I always knew I’d end up in court; I just thought it’d be as a criminal." I concluded Trinity’s case by asking the board not to impose an illegal "cone of silence" on a congregation that was doing so much good. It was a powerful presentation.
The Smiths spoke next. They distorted the facts, took statements out of context, and spoke with much anger and passion. They attacked me, the pastor, the youth pastor, and even my father. It was terrible to endure, and it became even more uncomfortable when I noticed that several members of the board were nodding throughout Mr. Smith’s speech, often glaring at the pastor and at me.
When Mr. Smith finished, I rose to rebut his statements but was cut short. "It’s late," said the chairman, "and before the meeting, I promised Ms. Smith that this wouldn’t take long." He smiled at her. It was then that I knew we were doomed.
The board deliberated, in a huddle, for no longer than four minutes. The verdict was delivered: Trinity was ordered to adjust its use of the Spirit Life Center so that "no sound whatsoever" could escape its walls. To enforce the board’s order, the county building inspector was told to monitor Trinity’s use of the building. If the board’s orders were violated, he was to padlock its doors shut. If Trinity wanted to continue to use the Spirit Life Center, the board explained, it would have to be completely soundproofed.
|We were stunned. The order was so draconian, it was impossible to comply. Even if the teens sang without the accompaniment of instruments, the sound of their singing would drift out the buildings’ windows or through a door as it swung open and shut. The bouncing of a basketball caused faint noise outside the center. Under the literal terms of the board’s order, any sound that escaped the building was illegal, even if that noise did not reach neighboring properties. The implication was clear: the Spirit Life Center, a $300,000 building and the cornerstone of Trinity’s youth outreach efforts, had to be shut down.
I cannot recall a more humiliating, devastating moment in my career. I had let the pastor down. I had let the church down. Most importantly, I had let the teens down—the very ones who had given me more hope and spiritual inspiration than they would ever know.
The days and weeks that followed were even worse. With inadequate seating and facilities, attendance at youth worship plummeted and the teens were demoralized. Many parents in the community refused to allow their children to attend Trinity, convinced that the church had to be doing something wrong for the board to react so strongly. I felt so much shame that I could hardly even look at the pastor or any of the other congregants.
Ten days after the board’s decision, the pastor invited me to meet with the church’s deacons. We met on a Wednesday night, after a particularly dispiriting youth worship service. The pastor began the meeting by looking directly at me and asking, simply and abruptly, "What can we do to change this?"
I felt the deacons’ eyes on me, the newcomer to their church, the legal captain who had just driven the ship straight into an iceberg. Flushed with embarrassment, I answered the question as honestly as I could. "I think our only option is to file a lawsuit. I’ve looked at the law, and the only way to appeal their ruling is through the court. We don’t have an opportunity to ask the board to reconsider, and, even if we did, you saw their faces—they enjoyed ruling against us. We’re not getting anywhere with that board. We can either file a lawsuit or live with the decision."
|I could see some of the deacons cringe. Churches are not and should not be in the litigation business, and I knew that they had no desire to become plaintiffs. I could see that other deacons had their jaws set. They wanted to fight. But before they fought, they wanted to know their chances. One spoke up. "Would we win?"
"I don’t know. The law is on our side, and we’ve done all the right things, but the courts of this country are man’s court, not God’s, and injustice happens all the time. I don’t know if any of you have ever been involved in lawsuits, but I can tell you that they’re not pretty. They sometimes take years, they can be bitter, and I can almost promise the other side will do everything it can to make this church look unreasonable, dishonest, and unchristian. I’m not telling you not to do it, and I will take the case if you want me, but I do want to tell you what to expect."
There was a long silence. Each man was sobered by the decision before him, and each man, I could tell, wanted only to do God’s will. The pastor spoke next.
"Ever since the meeting last Monday, I’ve been praying and studying Scripture. At first, I didn’t really even consider a lawsuit or challenging this in any confrontational way, but then I remembered Paul. When he was being beaten by Roman soldiers, he stopped the beating by asserting his rights as a Roman citizen. That assertion set in motion an appeal process that took him all the way to Rome, and Paul used those years to not only write much of the New Testament, but also to witness to every judge he appeared before. I believe God is calling us to stop this legal beating, and we’ll appeal all the way to Rome if we have to."
The pastor took a breath. I saw heads nodding around the room.
"But that’s not all we should do. We have an obligation, as ministers of the gospel, as Christians, to love our neighbor—to do everything we can to make this right with the Smiths. We’re fighting the government’s decision, not the Smiths, so I want us to soundproof that building. I know it’s not really possible to make it completely soundproof, but we can do better, and we will. I don’t care what it costs. It is the right thing to do, and we should do this—regardless of what you think about a lawsuit."
|It was at that moment that the decision was truly made, although no vote was taken until several days later. It was at that moment that the pastor beautifully and courageously stated what Christians in adversity should do—fight injustice but love people.
While the church board deliberated, the senior partner of my law office, an honorable and decent man, allowed me to represent the church pro bono, for free. With his blessing, I was able to devote several days and nights to drafting a complaint, writing briefs, and preparing motions. When the deacons finally made their decision, I would be ready. And this time, there would be no overconfidence. This time, I would throw myself on God’s grace, not my own education or abilities.
Four days later, on Sunday night, the board made its decision. The next afternoon, Trinity Assembly of God filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky against the Scott County, Kentucky, Board of Adjustments. The battle was joined.
We Can and Will Define How You Worship"
Less than a day later, I received my first telephone call from the media. Apparently, the local newspapers frequently reviewed recent case filings, hoping to find something interesting to report, and this case qualified. The reporter was polite and inquisitive, and by the end of the conversation, I truly believed that she was sympathetic to our cause. The next morning’s newspaper confirmed my hopes. A front-page article described Trinity’s dilemma and accurately stated our position. The county refused to comment, leaving our story the only one available to the public. I was more than pleased. One of my greatest fears was that Trinity would be perceived by the public as litigious or arrogant for filing its suit. So far, so good.
Over the next few days, the media calls came pouring in. Most of the local television stations did reports from Trinity, and all of the area newspapers carried accurate, sympathetic articles. In the months that followed, newspapers nationwide would report on what was going on in our small church. Wary of the "liberal media," I was enormously gratified by its response.
|Unfortunately, the media coverage was a two-edged sword because it caused the county to dig in its heels. In the first court appearance of the lawsuit, the county’s attorneys claimed our account of the board hearing was flawed and even produced draft hearing "minutes" that purported to show what "really" happened. They claimed our suit was utterly without merit and should be dismissed. Fortunately for us, the judge was not convinced by the county’s arguments and urged it to agree to allow Trinity to reopen the Spirit Life Center while the suit was pending. Within ten days after the suit was filed, the Trinity youth group was praising God once more.
However, spiritual battles are not won so easily. In fact, the battle had just begun. Three times in the first two weeks after services resumed, youth worship was interrupted by visits from the county police—acting in complete defiance of the judge’s order. Each time, they firmly asked that we "turn the music down." Each time, the youth complied with police requests and resumed worship as best they could. An atmosphere of fear and intimidation pervaded youth services.
Events soon took a turn for the worse. While Trinity’s leaders debated their response to the sheriff’s harassment, I went back to the board of adjustment, hoping to describe to the board members the extent of our comprehensive soundproofing work. I was allowed to speak at the end of their monthly meeting. They sat, stone-faced, while I detailed the thousands of dollars that Trinity was spending and outlined the progress of the work so far. I was not expecting a warm reception, but I must admit that I was utterly unprepared for what happened next.
At the conclusion of my remarks, one of the board members (I will call her Ms. Collins) grabbed the microphone. "Mr. French," she said, "before you sit down, I want to say a few things to you." She was scowling.
"Certainly." I had promised myself that I would be courteous no matter what happened in the meeting, and I would not allow her spite to disturb my calm.
|"I’ve read the newspapers, and I want you to stop lying about me and this board."
"Ms. Collins, I never—"
She cut me off. "I read what you said, and you can’t defend it. I’m doing the talking right now, and you’re going to listen. I know you have a federal judge on this case, but I don’t care. I don’t care what any court says, your church is going to have to do what we say."
"But . . ."
My attempt to interrupt only inflamed her. "You know, what burns me is that you people pretend to be godly, but I think maybe you need to spend more time on your knees and less time making music. If you had, none of this would have happened."
When she took a breath, I was able to utter a quick response. "Ms. Collins, with all due respect, this board cannot define how we worship God."
Her response was quick and chilling. "We can and will define how you worship."
The meeting ended almost immediately after Ms. Collins’s final statement. I remember walking outside with my head swimming. These people hate us, I thought. Only complete and total victory will free us from their control. We must win this case. The next Wednesday, I reported Ms. Collins’s statements to the rest of the church. Some church members were shocked and saddened, others were outraged, but each of them came to the same conclusion that I did. We had to win.
|Excerpt from A Season for Justice: Defending the Rights of the Christian Home, Church, and School by David French
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