A Rabid Fundamentalist Column



John W. Cowart

              After a brief conversation, the interviewer rejected me as a volunteer counselor at the upcoming Jacksonville Billy Graham Crusade.

              I felt disappointed, hurt, frustrated -- and relieved.

              Organizers plan to recruit over 7,000 local counselors for what many say, because of his age and health, may be Billy Graham's last major crusade; it's scheduled for November 2nd through 5th, 2000, at Alltel Stadium.

              The former Gator Bowl will  have a standing-room only crowd, including travelers  from all over the country, perhaps from all over the world.

              Although I don't like crowds, I wanted to be part of the action.

              But it looks like I won't.

              The Graham people attempt to carefully train and screen volunteers to work in their crusades. Any wonder? Sometimes religious activities do attract kooks; remember Carrie's mother in the Stephen King novel, or the warden in Shawshank Redemption?

              But, I don't think of myself as a religious kook -- does anybody? I consider myself  a common, ordinary, garden-variety Christian. I attend church most Sundays when it isn't raining. I serve soup at a rescue mission now and then if nobody else shows up to do it. I read a bit in my Bible most mornings when I don't doze off over the begats. I pray most nights when I'm not watching Monday Night Football or the Letterman show. I tithe my income unless I have pressing bills to pay or there's something neat I want to buy. I recycle. I support ecological causes such as Save The Whales; in fact, I have not harpooned a single whale this week. I even "witness" when somebody asks me about my faith though I'm scared of doing that. I believe I'm fairly representative of most modern American Christians.

              How humiliating for me to be turned down as a counselor. One friend laughed till he choked when I told him.  Is there an easier way for me to learn humility than by being humiliated?

              Being rejected should not have surprised me. Since the long-ago time Mary Lou refused to let me unfasten her bra, through many loan applications,  and my years as a freelance writer, I've learned all too much about rejection. Why I could write a Britannica entry on the subject.

              Crusade organizers take pains to train volunteers. Potential counselors must be recommended by their local pastor. They must attend five weeks of intensive classes designed to deepen their own spiritual life and increase their ability to share their faith.

Here's how they told me counseling is supposed to work at the crusade:

Ending his sermon, Graham invites people to follow Jesus. As you walk forward to indicate your decision, you are not just one of the mob. A counselor wearing an official crusade badge joins you for a brief one-on-one talk. First, he will listen to you as you talk about why you came forward.

              Your counselor will share Scripture he's memorized -- the Graham people are big on Bible memorization -- emphasizing God's love.

              He will assure you that no matter what you have done -- no matter what has been done to you -- God loves you with all His heart. "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us," the counselor will quote.

              If God loves us, what's the problem?  Like an arrow with a mind of its own, every single one of us misses the target. We fall short of the glory God intends for us and stick head-first in the dirt. A crying nasty shame, our sins alienate us from the holiness of God. Degradation, depression, destruction  and death result. "The wages of sin is death," he quotes.

              Even so, your counselor will tell you, God writes no one off. He's persistent and vitally concerned for us. "The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord".

              He will quote the verse where Jesus said, "I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in." You will have a great chance to open whichever door you have closed.

              The counselor gives you a free copy of John's Gospel; on the first page he will show you where it says: "To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God."

              The counselor's job is to help you understand the gospel and to make  sure you're not left hanging out there alone after everybody goes home from the stadium and they turn the lights out.

              In my class, the instructor made counseling seem simple enough; I felt that, if selected, I could do the job ok. I'd attended all the training sessions, prayed,  memorized the Bible verses, done most of the homework. So learning that I did not rate a counselor's badge stunned me. I thought and felt a number of things -- many of them not exactly pious Christian things.

              "Screw 'em", was my first thought, "Who needs this hassle".

              I also felt a keen sense of sorrow and disappointment.

              You see, I love Jacksonville. For years I have prayed for a spiritual awakening here. As a native with family roots going back to antebellum times, I really care about the city, its material and spiritual progress.

              When I was a Boy Scout I took part in the 50 Years Of Progress pageant at the Gator Bowl in 1951. Dressed as an Indian in moccasins and feather headdress, my chief concern was trying to keep my anatomy inside my breech cloth while frantically dancing around a teepee on the 30 yard line. Did Indian braves really wear those things? I felt sure the crowd was laughing at me. So embarrassed I swore I'd never go into that stadium again!

              But that pageant generated in me a deep love for Jacksonville, its history and its potential. As a writer, one of my favorite subjects is local history, and I've published dozens of articles about it.

              As I grew up Mayor Haydon Burns filled in the mud flats to renew Jacksonville's waterfront. I felt that Jacksonville was really on the move when a shining new Sears store replaced the whore houses, tattoo parlors and pawn shops along Bay Street.

              I loved the hometown spirit generated by the various buzz words and slogans applied to our city over the years: Gateway to Florida; the Quiet Revolution; Billion Dollar Decade; Bold New City Of the South; The Yates Manifesto; Colt Fever; the Renaissance Plan; the Better Jacksonville Plan. Back in the 1800s, promoters termed Jacksonville as "The Winter City In Summer Land" and even as "The Gayest of Gay Cities!"

              Yet, with all the promise of material progress, I have felt a hollowness in lives around me. Maybe I'm just projecting, but I don't think so.

              Crusade chair Ginger Soud said, "Many are experiencing empty lives, unfulfilled  dreams, and feelings of insignificance... Many people say that they know something is wrong, but they have no solutions".

              Past spiritual efforts here appear to fizzle -- more or less. Much energy has been expended with few results. For instance, evangelists D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday, pioneers of the crusade format, conducted meetings here. And  hatchet-swinging temperance leader Carry Nation raided a Bay Street saloon. Recent efforts include Here's Life Jacksonville,  Evangelism Explosion, the Jesus Video Project; and the advent of Channel 47 as a Christian TV. Hardly anyone in my block ever even heard of these endeavors.

              That's why my heart just leapt when I learned that Billy Graham chose Jacksonville for a crusade. Surely this is what I have been praying and longing for all these years.

              Even though I get extremely uncomfortable in crowds, I wanted to take part, to see with my own eyes the power of God which I've heard is often manifest in these crusades. I wanted to see souls saved, marriages reconciled, addicts delivered, people awash in the realization of God's love... and I also wanted my own faith vindicated, validated and strengthened. I have faith solid as Jello. One of my favorite verses is where the man tells Jesus, "Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief."

              But they rejected my application -- I suspect with good reason.

              First, when the interviewer told me I did not make the grade, guilt nagged at me. After all, there are few sins I haven't already done, want to do now but am chicken, or may still do yet; all the returns aren't in yet. Who needs another hypocrite?  Christ deserves a better representative.

              Maybe, this was like the biblical Judge Gideon, who culled his army from thousands to only 300 warriors and still sconked the Midianites. Ok, I reluctantly admitted, if Almighty God, King of the Universe, wants to evangelize Jacksonville, He just may possibly be able to manage without John Cowart's help -- or Billy Graham's either for that matter.

              But, along side those thoughts, relief washed over me. You see, while in theory I love people, in practice I can hardly stand to  be around them. I feel so claustrophobic in a crowd that I cringe. My skin crawls.    I even feel choked,   trapped and panicked in the Publix checkout line.

              Even so, I'd steeled myself to become a counselor because I feel these meetings are more important to our city than the Super Bowl -- at least they are likely to draw more actual attendance. But I dreaded the prospect of attending myself.

              I regarded the project like changing a messy baby diaper: you don't like doing it, but you do anyhow. When I said that, the interviewer, bless him,  decided my attitude made me unsuitable as a counselor... That made me so damn happy! Like when I was in the army and they sent the other company into battle. I was trained, I was there, I would have gone, and I would have fought -- but I was so glad that I didn't have to.

Handle On Rejection by Daniel Merriam

Billy Graham will just have to muddle through without me as a counselor. Thank God! But I'm won't be left out altogether. My pastor will let me  use our church van to drive the elderly to Alltel. I get to stay outside away from crowds in the parking lot where I'll puff my pipe and pray for the peace of Jacksonville.

                                                          That I can do.


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