By Christopher Knight and Matthew Mittan, The Asheville Tribune (NC), August 22, 2000
(AgapePress) – In 1969, Arlo Guthrie stood before thousands of hippies attending the famed Woodstock music festival to proudly announce that, due to them, the highways had been closed. The counter culture had arrived.
Last Thursday night (August 17, 2000) in Asheville, North Carolina, the highways were closed by another large event. This time, thousands of supporters of religious freedoms filled a high school football stadium and blocked every roadway leading into the area for hours. Tens of thousands are estimated to have been stuck on the highways and could not reach their destination–the “We Still Pray” rally.
“I never expected this kind of response,” said Dr. Ralph Sexton of Trinity Baptist Church in Asheville, and one of the organizers of the event. “We had no idea that so many people would turn out.”
The movement “We Still Pray” was started in response to the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding student led prayer at high school football games. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in a statement of dissent, described the ruling as encroaching upon religious liberty. Sexton referred to the courtâ€™s decision as “the final straw.”
He stated, “This nation was founded on the principle of religious freedom, all religions. We have seen the steady erosion of those rights in this country and it was time to let people knowâ€¦ we still pray.” Sexton says that the movement is not about politics of Republican or Democrat but one of standing up for free expression of oneâ€™s religious beliefs, whether it be in a public setting or not.
Based on the turnout for this rally, located just outside the mountain city of Asheville, NC, many citizens agreed. With little publicity and with only a couple weeks notice, as many as 35,000 people were either at the rally itself or stuck on the area highways and local roads.
Friday morning, phone lines into the local talk radio station (WTZY 880AM) were filled with people relating their stories of the night before. Many said that they also were going to attend but heard of the traffic woes and did not dare venture out. Others who managed to reach the stadium related tales of inspiration and commitment. The way in which at least three supporters reached the event is a story in itself.
Bobby Brow and Daniel Edney knew they would never make it by car…not when traffic had been backed up for miles in every direction. So they ran.
For nearly fifteen miles, from Biltmore Square Mall, down I-40 and east onto Highway 74. They parked their car at the mall, one of the nearest places reachable by car with parking still available, and made a dash for Reynolds High School. “It took two hours,” said Brow, “we got here about fifteen minutes after the speakers started.”
“We’re from Body of Christ [a Christian fellowship mission] down on Lexington [Ave. in downtown Asheville],” Edney added.
When the story of their journey was communicated to the masses gathered at Reynolds High School football stadium in Fairview, cheers thundered out.
Meanwhile, coming from the other direction, Mike Morgan was in a similar bind. He wanted to get to Reynolds but was stranded in the immense traffic, well inside Asheville City limits.
Morgan said he prayed, and asked God to open a way to get to the rally. That’s when a man by the name of Ricky Beavers showed up. Beavers recognized Morgan as one of the candidates for County Commission in the upcoming election and offered Morgan his brand-new one-passenger Honda Goldwing motorcycle to use as transportation to the rally. Morgan slowly but steadily worked his way through the grid locked traffic, eventually reaching his destination. Morgan related the exchange with Beavers as, “He said ‘I know who you are, and I trust you with my bike.’ ” The Tribune tracked down Mr. Beavers. He said, “I believe in God, and if Mike had to get there, I wanted him to be there.”
Decked out in black leather, rugged boots and helmets, Charlie Morgan and his wife Penny rode in from Hendersonville, along with their compatriots from the Christian Motorcyclists Association in Hendersonville, “the Master Messengers.” “I’m glad to see this many people out here and more coming to support the prayer at the football games,” said Charlie Morgan.
“It’s great for the community to pull together for something they believe in, especially prayer,” said Amanda Parker, 18. “It’s going to take a lot for churches to pull together, and this shows that you can do that.” Meagan Berlin, also 18 and helping sell t-shirts with Parker, agreed. “I think it’s awesome, because it’s showing where our country’s at, when there’s shootings in schools, and there can be religious things other than Christian religious things in school, but they’re not letting God.” Berlin added, “I’m glad that the community is standing up for it, and that they want it to change. I don’t think they should take the prayer out of schools.”
Even for those unable to get inside the stadium, the rally went forth. Several miles of Interstate and major roadways in every direction were transformed into impromptu worship services, as masses of cars stopped alongside the road. Many people were awash in tears upon the realization of what had caused their being log-jammed in traffic. Prayer vigils popped up along the highway. Some gatherings along the roadways sang songs of praise.
This was the second meeting of “We Still Pray”, but “this is the first public one,” said Dr. Ralph Sexton. “We had an organizational one at the church” in July. An item of frequent mention regarding the first meeting was what some described as a momentous, continuing roll of thunder that echoed out across the valleys surrounding Asheville at the very time that the meeting inside spoke of divine inspiration for this cause. Even those who were not at that meeting, but live in Asheville, remember the clap of thunder. One resident said, “Yeah, I remember that. It was one huge, long lasting, rolling thunder that just came out of nowhere. It was the only one that there was. There weren’t any others after it either. It shook every building in the city. It never rained or anything. Pretty weird, huh?” Another resident, not associated with the group, had this to say, “My son and I were in the kitchen and I distinctly remember that. We both just froze. It scared me. I thought there would be a mushroom cloud or something. I’ve never heard thunder like that before. My husband and I even talked about it that night when he got home from work”
No such thunder appeared Thursday night however. Any resounding echoes would be left to the cheering crowds and the guests at the podium. Speakers at Thursday’s rally included James Walker of Biltmore Baptist Church, Christian and constitutional legal expert David Gibb, and event organizers Randy Burton, Ralph Sexton, and Wendell Runion. The entire event was broadcast by two local Christian radio stations and also through streaming audio on the Internet. Lively gospel music was also provided.
Donnie Parks, Chief of Police for Hendersonville, NC, talked about the importance of his Christian faith, and how inseparable it is from his identity as a public servant. “There is nothing in our Constitution that prevents us from praying in public. I am also asked ‘How do I separate my belief in God from my job?’ ”
“And my answer is simply this: I don’t,” Parks replied, to cheers from the crowd. “The fact that I believe in Jesus Christ and I live for Him is a threat to no man. It assures each and every person that I deal with that I will be fair, I will be moral, and I will be humble.”
Parks then led the rally in prayer, asking for a continuing dialogue of prayer. “It is our way of acknowledging You, and that we need You. Father, we thank You for our community. Help us to say that we can no longer be silent, as some try to take away this right to pray. But Father it’s our silence, our sleepiness, that has led us into this situation. Help us to see and cause others to see, Father, that there can no longer be silence, and that we still pray. Lord, search our hearts and make them pure. Show that those who do not know You show their hearts by their actions, so must we. Help us, Father, to see all things through Your eyes, so that You may come and color all that we see. Give us the strength, the courage, and the wisdom in a Christ-like manner, to be the agents and soldiers that You have commissioned us to be. Father, we ask these things with great faith and great expectation, in the name of Your Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
U.S. Representative Charles Taylor, who was in the area for a separate meeting, made time to speak at the event. “I wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to show that I believe that we still pray is still an important function,” Taylor said. “It’s our tradition. It gives a spiritual comfort to all of us.
Pastor Wendell Runion, one of the group’s organizers, said that “We Still Pray”, contrary to the beliefs of some, is not out to force others into religious expression. “The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of speech, and that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or that Congress should not establish religion,” saying that a state-sponsored church should be the last thing a Christian wants.
Sexton says that he hopes all of the media attention that this unexpectedly large showing will generate nationwide may eventually lead to some sort of action on the part of Congress to “protect our liberties from any further deterioration.” He sites specifically House Joint Resolution 66, which would allow for prayer on public property. When The Tribune asked about the resolution’s chances of becoming an amendment, Taylor was optimistic. “It can certainly be positive,” he said. “If the people band together, you can do it. I’ve seen constitutional amendments passed before, and this is doable if we stick together and stay after it.”
As further fodder behind his concerns, Sexton sited numerous situations were he feels there is a frontal assault on religious freedoms. He told of a student in nearby Henderson County who was told by a teacher that she would have to wear her “WE STILL PRAY” T-shirt inside-out for the remainder of her school day due to its religious overtones. He sited the case involving Catawba County, NC, where a cross symbol was targeted for forcible removal from the County Seal if not done “voluntarily”. (The County Commissioners recently voted unanimously to defy the removal order.) He relayed that, in response to a recent decision by a local City Council to discontinue invocations before meetings, protesters were ordered to move across the street from the “City Hall” because they were not permitted to pray on public property. He also referenced the taking down of the Ten Commandments in Courthouses, a document he feels is at the very root of American law and justice. “Last year we had a student taken into a principal’s office in a surrounding state and told they could not read the Bible on an hour-long bus ride, on a public school bus.” His list went on.
Organizers and participants in the movement hope that people across America will join their cause and sign “grievance petitions” to give to Congress. They also hope that further rallies can be organized in communities all across America.
After the rally, Sexton spoke about the future of “We Still Pray.”
“The next thing is we work on the petitions, and spread the word through the web and rallies in other cities, and declare that we still pray.”
Sexton was also profusely appreciative of the efforts that went into making the rally a success. “We’re very thankful for the community showing their support. We’re humbled by that, and we’re very careful to thank the Lord for His watchcare.” Sexton thanked the Buncombe County School Board and Reynolds High School for providing the facilities for the event. “To all the people in the community who showed up, we’re humbled by that, and we’re very thankful.”
Locally, “We Still Pray” is encouraging people to attend local high school football games next week (opening day) and stand to partake in “spontaneous prayer.”
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