It has not been a good time for ministers and their families lately in the media. Within a couple of hundred miles of where I live one awaits trial for the murder of his wife. Another who was accused of child abuse at a church camp committed suicide. Another confessed a long-term adulterous relationship. The wife of another disappeared while attending an inspirational meeting. This is now thought to have been a runaway.

“What is going on here?” we ask. Is there a disconnect between the gospel that is preached and the lives lived by ministers and their families? Perhaps we can take some comfort in the fact that the world is still shocked when ministers sin.

The report last week, however, of the sentencing of three young men for the arson of nine rural churches in West Central Alabama takes note of two of three ministers whose faith and lives need to be shared widely. Each one has witnessed boldly and truthfully about the values which motivate the Christian life. There is some positive news about ministers still.

Walter Hawkins has pastored the Dancy First Baptist Church for nearly a decade. He also works at the Mercedes auto plant at Vance. Pastor Hawkins was raised in Tuscaloosa and was saved, taught and mentored at First African Baptist by the late Dr. James Ellis.

While the fire investigators were still at Dancy, and the acrid smell of smoke hung over the church, he spoke of the needs for forgiveness and the for prayer for those who had set his church on fire. Before the day was over the Gospel phrase, “Forgive them for they know not what the do” appeared on the marquee sign at the church.

Pastor Hawkins had no idea at the time who the arsonists might have been. But he had learned well the principles of Christian discipleship and lived by them in this time of crisis.

In the months since, Brother Hawkins has constantly demonstrated the depth of his faith and Christian character. After funds had flooded in, and after hundreds of volunteers had worked to rebuild and expand the Dancy church, he declined a six-figure offer of additional funding, declaring that the needs of his church had been met but that another one of the burned churches still was in great need. The prospective donor thanked him and gave his money to the other church.

The Birmingham News article about the sentencing of the arsonists by the federal court quoted Pastor Hawkins as saying: “We love them. The Bible teaches us about forgiveness. If we don’t forgive, our heavenly Father will not forgive us for our trespasses.”

What a Christian testimony. What a man. What a minister of the gospel. What a testimony. How counter-culture. I am glad that Pastor Walter Hawkins is a friend of mine.

Pastor Bob Little came into my life about a week after the fires. His church had been burned to the ground. He had grown up in Galilee Baptist Church near Panola, Ala. Like most of his peers, he left for the big city as soon as he could. There he worked and went to college. About a decade ago he answered God’s call to ministry. Soon he was asked to supply at Galilee and then to be pastor. He came home.

Panola, like thousands of rural villages across America, has dried up. Once it had several general stores, physicians, and restaurants. A railroad line serviced Panola, and the annual cotton crop was processed in a gin before being sent to yarn mills. Today, only a small post office and a K-8 public school are in operation there.

Pastor Little had dreamed of moving his church into the town and developing programs and ministries to revitalize Panola both physically and spiritually. The fire made the move necessary.

Hundreds of volunteers have come. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been donated. A 10,000-square-foot building has been erected. Health, tutoring and youth ministries have been identified and await the opening of the new building. Galilee will become a “seven-day-a-week” church this summer.

Like Pastor Hawkins, Little spoke to the judge asking that justice be tempered with mercy as much as was possible. He declared that he and “the members of his congregation”, according to the Tuscaloosa News report, “had put the incident behind them and wish the best for the men.” Little added that most of his adult members are parents, and their hearts go out to the parents of these young men.

The third minister of a burned church who has witnessed strongly to the gospel in responding to this tragedy has been Jim Parker of Ashby Baptist Church. Like Galilee, his congregation is relocating and building back with added space for expanded ministry. He has visited the arsonists in jail and ministered very effectively to their families, as well.

Given the “bad press” that many ministers and their families have been receiving, let us not forget the vast majority have been faithful to their call and labored diligently–often with more that one job–and have tended well to the folk that God has given to them.

I give thanks for these men. I believe that you join me in this, also.

Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.

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