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Public School Prayer: How God Lured Me to a Small TexasTown
To begin with, my children already lived here with their mother and stepfather. The varsity football team, the Stephenville Yellow Jackets, was the winningest Texas football team in the 90’s and my sons, along with their stepfather, urged me to come and see these kids play. “They are phenomenal!” I was assured. I went to watch them play as they won the Texas State Championships in 98 and 99. They WERE phenomenal! My youngest son played football at Stephenville High. His underclass teams won district and he played Varsity ball on a team that went to the Bi-District finals his Senior year. This was enough to get me to criss-cross the wide open spaces of Texas from Arlington, chasing after my son’s football games for four years, including quite a few contests right in his home town of Stephenville.
Game by game, the town was growing on me.
Some unusual things were happening there that caught my attention from my apartment in Arlington. For starters, on a Christian radio show I used to listen to, the host, Dawson McAllister, mentioned he would soon be speaking at a rally in…where else? Stephenville! Hmm. Intriguing. Turns out, my kids attended that rally. I found out later, most EVERYBODY’s kids attended.
Another happening that the Holy Spirit used to lure my attention to Stephenville was the war against prayer in the schools, particularly at sporting events and graduations. The reports were on virtually every nightly newscast. I noticed during my brief visits to town that there were many kids wearing a bright yellow t-shirt with the words “I Pray before I Play” emblazoned boldly upon the front. Following are some pieces of articles I found on the Internet, the likes of which I seemed to be hearing regularly back in the late 90’s. They speak for themselves, painting an accurate picture of the climate of those days:
“…the athletic field is rapidly turning into a culture war battle zone, as it did Friday night at a game in Stephenville, Texas, over the issue of school prayer. Education boards and school principals across Texas are struggling with federal guidelines on religious activities, including the ban on official school prayer. Earlier this year, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that some religious references were permissible at school events like graduation ceremonies, but were inappropriate — not sufficiently sacred — during other activities like athletic contests. Jurists ruled that the hootin’ and hollerin’ of a down-home football standoff lacked the “singularly serious nature” of other functions, such as a graduation event.
“That didn’t stop a small group of 15 students on Friday night, though, from smuggling a portable public address system into a high school game in Stephenville, Texas, to lead supporters in public prayer…
“One of the “prayer warrior” students at Friday night’s game told the Stephenville Empire-Tribune paper, “This was not about football, it was about God. We decided to pray for God (sic).” According to an Associated Press report, local high school superintendent Larry Butler said that the impromptu prayer rally did not have support of authorities from the district. “With that being said,” added Butler, “I applaud them for doing something that they feel really strongly about. I think the entire community of Stephenville believes in school prayer.”
“So far, there are no other reports of spontaneous prayer outbreaks at weekend football games. News accounts suggest that most school district throughout Texas are abiding by the Circuit Court guidelines…”
FROM ANOTHER ARTICLE…
“A number of “spontaneous” protest at football games have taken place in Stephenville. Last week, the Board of Trustees of the Stephenville Independent School District grappled with a policy which would permit a student selected by popular vote to deliver a pre-game “message,” provided certain rules were observed. The local Empire-Tribune newspaper noted: “The rules are that the purpose of the message is to encourage good sportsmanship and student safety and to promote the proper environment for the competition… The message may also be used to welcome or greet fans and the opposing team and/or to commend them for their achievements.
“While one board member mused that the new policy “would legally create an open forum for a period of time designated for the message and designate a place for the student message,” another member saw through the obfuscation. Referring to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court decision disallowing pre-game prayer, he told fellow board members: “This is the law today whether we like it or not. Until this is cleared up, I personally think we go against the law if we allow student prayer, or any prayer, before the game…” “
HERE’S ONE MORE FROM ’99…
Students Defy Federal Judge on Prayer at High School Game
Stephenville, TX – The August 27th football season opener for the Stephenville High School Yellow Jackets was not only memorable for the lop-sided victory they had, but also for the courage shown by the student body and the fans in the crowd. A district federal judge had issued a decision forbidding prayer at public school gatherings, even if initiated by students. The students of Stephenville High believe this is a violation of their constitutional right to freedom of religion. The student body not only takes pride in being the defending 4A state champions, but in exercising their constitutional rights.
Before the opening kickoff, one of the students of Stephenville High grabbed a microphone and led a “spontaneous” prayer. Several students joined the young man on the sidelines, but what was even more powerful was the fact that not some, but all of the people in the stands stood up, removed their hats and joined in the prayer. Local news stations were there to cover the game and questioned the police and high school administrator as to what they planned to do about the “illegal” praying. There was no response from the police, but the high school administrator simply said that no actions were to be taken against the students. School officials also pointed out that since the school had not officially sanctioned the action, it could not be held legally liable for what happened.
The federal judge, upon hearing about the public prayer, said that the prayer was in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. Some supporters of the students pointed out that the Constitution does not demand separation of church and state, but guarantees that there will be no laws made establishing any official religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Students interviewed said that they planned to pray publicly at their next game.
One thing that most local reports on the event failed to mention was that it was not just the Stephenville students and supporters, but their football adversaries as well that stood up to be counted. The Weatherford High School Kangaroos, and all their fans, honored the brave individuals that dared to challenge the edict of a federal judge by standing with them during the prayer. With reporters scouring the crowd for an opposing view, not one person was found whom the prayer offended. Still the judge finds this act illegal and irresponsible!
What happens going forward from here depends on how determined the judge is to force his will on the people, and how determined the citizens of Stephenville are to defend their constitutional rights. For one night at least, this was seen as a victory for Texans in the exercise of their rights. As for Weatherford High, it was the one bright spot in a night that resulted in a 34-7 loss to the Yellow Jackets.
MORE SCHOOLS IGNORE FOOTBALL PRAYER BAN
North of Dallas, Celina high school football fans prayed before a football game with a Christian school. The apparently coordinated prayer by fans, football players, cheerleaders, and band members violates the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ban on school football prayers because football is not properly solemn enough for God.
Rev. John Mark Arrington, pastor at Lighthouse Full Gospel Church in Garland distributed 250 T-shirts with the slogan, “Celina Bobcats Pray Before They Play.” Arrington want students to obey “God’s law,” which justifies the growing rebellion of evangelicals against the U.S. Constitution.
In Stephenville, students brought their own sound system to football games and delivered a religious message using the equipment. There was no report that school officials took any action to prevent it.
In Midland, student-led prayers at football games still happen. School officials said the prayers would continue until someone filed a lawsuit to make them stop.
FINALY, THIS FROM U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT…
To pray–or not to pray” by Robert Bryce.
U.S. News & World Report, Sep 13, 1999 (Vol 127, No 10). Page 26.
Joel Allen and Alan Ward, two Stephenville, Texas, high school students, refused to be denied the tradition that surrounded their school’s football games. So to circumvent a federal court order barring use of a school’s public address system for prayer before high school football games, the two students borrowed a small speaker system and led the crowd in prayer, much to the fans’ delight.
The court ruling that affects Stephenville, Texas, handed down in February 1999, by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has revived a national furor over the place of prayer in public school events. The court’s decision stated that student-led prayer during graduation ceremonies is allowed, but prayer during events such as football games is not since they do not represent a “solemn” enough occasion.
This latest ruling is one of several conflicting federal decisions on school prayer in recent years. In July 1999, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an Alabama school district could not ban student-initiated prayer at school activities, even when attendance of the event is mandatory.
The Fifth Circuit Court’s decision will most likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, some school districts in Louisiana and Texas say they will hold a moment of silence in lieu of prayer. Others vow to ignore the ruling altogether.
YOU GET THE PICTURE.
I was fascinated, waiting with baited breath for the next act of civil disobedience to come from the kids from this li’l ol’ town in Texas I’d never heard of until my kids moved there.
Finally, I became very ill and was faced with a difficult decision. I had to leave Arlington, a place I’d lived for 14 years and a Church of which I was a Charter Member and Assistant Pastor as well as a good-paying job where I held a prestigious position. But I couldn’t bend over to load my dishwasher, walk a flight of stairs or carry groceries to and from my car. I needed my children’s help.
Stephenville, here I come!
Crippled and in pain, finding a job was nearly impossible. I came very close to filing Medicaid papers and becoming a ward of the state. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Where God guides, He provides and He regularly sent ravens to take care of my needs. My old college roommate lived in Dublin just 12 minutes away. He directed a publishing company to contact me as they needed an illustrator for a series of children’s books. That job alone, a job I could do from my kitchen table or even from propped -up pillows, was enough to help me make ends meet. Between chapters, recipients of my weekly email Bible broadcasts would occasionally come through with a love offering.
I was living from miracle to miracle until I received a call from my old college pal informing me that the local Chamber of Commerce was in need of a receptionist. I did not even know what a Chamber of Commerce actually did but I was feeling miraculously better, well enough to have applied for work at a local dairy reading the ear tags on cows just the day before. Funny, I can’t recall a job interview where a prospective employer asked if I’d mind occasionally getting “splattered with manure.” (I replied that it sounded like my last job. He didn’t laugh.) Any way, I went right to The Chamber and I’ll be there 5 years this July 7th. It’s a great job and the Lord has allowed me numerous opportunities to tap into the spiritual roots of the community from my position.
UNITY IN THE COMMUNITY
At the Chamber, I’ve been privileged to work for and with wonderful Christian people. Several years back, one lady I worked with had the idea of putting on an event that would give teens something to do after school ended in may. as we brainstormed, the event evolved into “The Extreme Thing.” In no time, other church members and ministers jumped on board. In the end, we had 29 churches involved, 9 bands, bouncy toys, organized games, 1,000 attendees and several ministers. The event was closed by a wonderful Church of Christ choir and their pastor. It was awesome!
In 2002 and 2003, I organized a July 4th parade entry which I called “The Declaration of Dependence.” I designed a T-shirt and matching banner and about 50 Christians suited up and took part. The next year, over 150 Christians took part from 11 different churches – including Hispanic Churches. We had the largest entry in the parade that year.
One day, a man from the Assembly of God Church took me to lunch. He had an idea for a door to door prayer ministry he called “Operation Jesus.” I designed a logo for a T-shirt and, in the past two years, hundreds of participants have prayed for virtually every dwelling place in town. We’re about to start over and the numbers of participating churches is increasing every time we go out.
A young Youth Minister from the Disciples of Christ had the vision to organize an event he called “The Unity Conference.” In the end, hundreds of believers attended from various denominations to listen to seven different ministers speak on a variety of subjects and worship together in song with several church worship teams. I was honored to have been one of those who ministered. Just a few months ago, I actually preached the Sunday morning services in that same church on two consecutive Sundays.
My own ministry has expanded to include opportunities to speak at the high school and the local college where I recently participated in a panel discussion on homosexuality in a grad level counseling/psych class. Last Sunday, I completed my 6th and final week of teaching at the First United Methodist Church. I’ve been invited back. The Pastor called me at work just today to thank me for “sharing my gift” with his congregation. Nice man.
The pastor from the local Cowboy Church – a Baptist group that has blossomed to 500 members in its first year – has asked that I come and teach the Cowboys about the cults. Though I’m not Baptist, I have taught too many times to count at the Sunday meetings of the local Baptist Ministry. I attend a weekly house church meeting that includes several Pentecostals, some Baptists and a couple of Catholics. We’ve prayed together and ministered to others and have seen miracles and spiritual gifts in operation.
Jesus prayed that we would be one as He and the Father are one. Unity commands a Heavenly blessing.
THAT’S MY STORY…
That’s how I got to town and what God’s shown me in the mean time. Has it been without its trials? Hardly. Aside from hate mail via my computer, I once visited a woman in the county jail and even helped arrange her release. She later accused me of a crime and filed a restraining order against me. Not only did that case never make it to trial, but that woman has been sent to the state jail for another crime. On top of that, there have been a few people who wouldn’t allow their kids to sit under my teaching because they learned I’ve been divorced. At least no one’s shooting.
Oh, one last bit of good news is this: I moved to a cabin in the woods and, when I met my wonderful wife, Barbara, we not only moved here and love it, but we bought a Victorian home in town that my parents moved into from Las Cruces, New Mexico and are managing as a rooming house. We call it Vanderbilt Place. Barb is a registered nurse and got a job at the hospital located just 2 blocks from my downtown office at The Chamber. I see all 4 of my kids, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren regularly. I can recall the times that I was always so all alone and sickly.
I’m not sure what it is the Lord is doing here in this wonderful little town but, knowing Him, I know it’s gonna be great! I encourage anyone reading this now to grow where you’re planted, regardless of circumstances. I’ve learned that anything we can see with human eyes is subject to change. Even at my sickest, I was mailing Christian Gospel tracts to Middle Eastern-sounding names from the phone book on the chance the recipients might be Muslim. I made it to the letter “J” as I recall. My stamp-licking tongue wasn’t broken, after all. Later, a dear friend gave me a good used computer and my email ministry was on its way. I STILL only type with one finger (40 wpm, not bad, huh?).
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