WBVN was given permission to reprint this article which was originally published in the Feb. 9 edition of The Southern Illinoisan
FBI QUESTIONS PASTOR’S SERMON:
BY JIM MUIR
MOUNT VERNON – As the senior pastor at Southwest Christian Church in Mount Vernon, Randy Steele thought he had encountered nearly every circumstance a minister could face.
The Rev. Steele recently found out he was totally wrong in that assumption, however.
The 32-year-old pastor, who has been a minister for 13 years, received what he called the “shock of his life” last November and is still incredulous about the chain of events that took place.
On Nov. 23 – the day before Thanksgiving – he received a phone call from an agent with the FBI who requested to speak with him in person. After the phone call Steele said he assumed that a member of his congregation might be in trouble.
“I was wondering if maybe somebody in my church might have done something, but still I couldn’t fathom what they wanted to talk to me about,” Steele said. “So I was in a lot of prayer that day asking God to give me the right words to say.”
Steele altered his schedule and agreed to be interviewed and later that same day a pair of FBI agents arrived at the church. Steele said he had a brief conversation with the two agents, what he termed “small talk,” before he finally asked them what they wanted to talk to him about.
“One of the agents opened a file and told me that the FBI wanted to question me about a sermon that I preached on Memorial Day nearly six months before,” Steele said. “At first I just laughed and said, ‘you’re kidding, right?’ and then I could tell by the look on their faces that they weren’t kidding.
“They were in no way abrasive, but the things they started asking me about were specific quotes that I had made during that sermon. I was certainly taken aback by the fact that they had exact quotes and I would say that whoever contacted the FBI had to be at the service.”
Steele said he quickly recalled the sermon was about abortion and was one of a series of eight sermons on controversial cultural issues, such as separation of church and state, homosexuality, gambling, etc.
Highlighting the fact it was Memorial Day, the Rev. Steele said he paid tribute to the men and women who had lost their life in service to their country as a prelude to his sermon. He then shared with his congregation the number of people who have died in all America’s wars versus the number of babies who have died since Roe v. Wade became law in 1973.
“It was a sermon about abortion and what the Bible says about the sanctity of life,” he said. “But it also dealt with how as Christians we need to love and reach out to people and teach them the message of truth about these types of issues.
“I shared the number of people who have died in wars versus the number who had died through legal abortion since 1973. There have been 1 million die in all the wars and more than 43 million abortions – that’s quite a gripping contrast,” Steele said. “I also tied it together by stating that we are in a different type of war that is being fought under the presupposition of freedom.”
During that same sermon Steele also talked about Hope Center, a Granite City-based clinic where he said as many as 45 abortions are performed every week. He said he also talked about how abortion is a $400 million per year business in the United States, when life actually begins and the legal requirements to consider when a person is alive.
“I just shared a lot of those little contradictions to make people aware and kind of open up their eyes,” Steele said.
Steele theorizes somebody in attendance that day apparently misunderstood his comments about abortion being a “different type of war” as a call to wage an actual physical war against abortion clinics. He also believes that person placed an anonymous phone call to the FBI, which prompted the investigation.
“I never heard a single disgruntled word following the sermon,” Steele said. “In fact, I had several people tell me they enjoyed the sermon and appreciated the information that was provided.”
Steele said his church has doubled in size in recent months, making it impossible to know if somebody was actually attending solely to target his sermons.
The informant also told authorities that during a sermon on homosexuality, Steele said he was willing to go to jail for his beliefs, prompting another line of questioning by the FBI.
“I talked during that particular sermon about a pastor in Canada that was arrested for speaking about homosexuality in his church,” Steele said. “I related how that pastor told his congregation that if speaking the truth means going to jail, ‘then by golly, that’s where I’m going to be and I’m going to save you a seat next to me.’”
Steele said the FBI actually looked through manuscripts from several of his sermons and he also voluntarily gave the agents copies of the sermons, which he says support his claim he did not call for violence.
“I sat there with those two agents and we went through it all; I did say some of those things and I made a reference to war, but not in the context that it was taken,” Steele said.
Steele said he took the matter back to his church body at the first opportunity.
“They were shocked, of course I guess that goes without saying, since the FBI was investigating and questioning their pastor,” Steele said. “That’s why I wanted to be open and clear with my church family so that the rumors didn’t get spread around that the FBI was at our church.”
Steele said he felt the two agents were satisfied with the information he provided.
“I asked them where it goes from here and they both told me ‘nowhere,’” Steele said. “They told me that they had to check me out but they also did not feel I was the person that the caller was trying to portray me to be.”
Marshall Stone, media relations spokesman with the FBI in Springfield, would not discuss particular events involving Steele, or even confirm the minister had been investigated, but did talk in general terms about handling anonymous tips.
Stone said he is not aware of any increase in the number of similar complaints the FBI has received but added the agency handles each case on an individual basis.
“Each complaint, each investigation is followed up on based upon facts and specific circumstances of that complaint, allegation or investigation,” Stone said. “Agents will do a minimal level of looking into the complaint to see if, No. 1, there is FBI jurisdiction to do anything about it, and two, to see if there is potential for a federal criminal violation. Those are the first things that agents will try to make a determination about.”
Stone said the FBI is also obligated to follow up on each complaint.
“Sure, obviously if it’s called in,” Stone said. “Whether if it’s by telephone or by letter it is not always easy to determine whether it is legitimate so we have to do something to try and make that determination to tell if it is a legitimate complaint.”
Despite the harrowing experience, Steele said he does not plan to shy away from topics that might be considered controversial or politically incorrect.
“As a pastor I believe that as Christians we are called and it is our duty to speak the truth no matter what,” Steele said. “I don’t think as a pastor that I have an option. I think I have to speak the truth that the word of God teaches; otherwise I don’t have anything to say. And we have to continue to speak that truth in love to all people and to share the message of Christ because it’s the only message that’s going to change the lives of people.”
While acknowledging that he came through the ordeal unscathed, Steele says he has one concern.
“The thing that bothers me the most about this whole thing is that right now the pulpits in America are pretty open to attack,” Steele said. “If somebody wants to call in and make an accusation against a minister for preaching the gospel and call it hate crime they can do it.”
Steele said he did fire off one parting salvo at the two FBI agents.
“I invited them back to our church anytime to hear the word of God,” Steele said.
At the beginning of each year, in anticipation of the next, I think about not just one thing, but many things come to mind. Of course, being an expert on none of the things I think about leaves me with the comfort that no matter what I think, I won’t be asked my opinion about most of them and I won’t be responsible for the “way the world turns out.” But I think about “things” just the same. So here goes my, in no particular order, “things” I’ve been thinking about this month.
Terror! Oh, I know everybody’s thinking about it, but I was watching The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers over the holidays and just noticed the similarity between the choices in the fiction and the real choices America (and really the world) faces today. We have many of the same options that Middle Earth had. King Theoden was for running off to the next fortress instead of facing the problems head on. His allies, Aragorn, Gandalf, and the others (Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin) were for more of a direct confrontation with the “Orcs”…taking it to them you might say. Much like that “King of Rohan” of fiction, we can tempted by “man-wisdom.” It stands in contrast to Godly-wisdom much of the time and seems to run to a temporary comfort rather than a future good. “Man-wisdom” tends to hide and hope that trouble goes away. Maybe the terrorists will get bored with terror and just pack up their bags and go home. Maybe their “fanaticism” will wane and they’ll decide to give up “their life of crime.” Maybe they’ll take up gardening as a hobby. I suppose, with a little “man-wisdom,” you could think terror will go away by simply boycotting it. It is so ironic that a peaceful people choose to “fight a war on terror,” but sometimes to preserve the peace we will experience “fighting” in the defense of it.
Light is much more powerful than darkness! I remember going to Mammoth Cave several times as our daughters were growing up. Each time our tour guides always did the same thing inside the cave. They turned off all the lamps and just let us, and 50 other people, set in the dark. I mean really dark! Pitch Black! Not the dark that we’re accustomed to, dark influenced by starlight, streetlights or the moon to brighten the evenings. Then the guide would light a candle and the whole room was brightened. WE could see everyone and everything with only that candlelight! It was very impressive moment and illustrates a likeness to the “Light of the World.” Just a little Light illuminates the place where It is present, no matter how dark it is! Now, you can’t say that about darkness. Try taking a little darkness into a room that’s lit. That darkness just can’t dispel the light. Darkness is less powerful than Light! As America (and our friends) tries to make a difference in the world, we need to support this effort to dispel “this present darkness.” We shouldn’t grow “weary of doing good.” Even if we’re small in number, the “goodness” of our cause is stronger than terror. As lonely and as criticized as we are, we must do the right thing to have any chance of bringing the Light to the dark “cave” we all live in. It can be tough, it can be unpopular, it can be dangerous, and it can be tiring, but I think the effort is important. So terror is one of the things I’ve been thinking about.
I’ve been thinking about people a lot lately. I’m concerned about Christians’ lack of observing the emotional toll on people around them. While we all have different problems we face, there’s universality to much of what I see. It seems that all people are “stressed” at some level. It reminds me of a teaching we broadcast by Bill Gillham a few years ago. The Gillhams had a program on WBVN called Lifetime Guarantee. One of the subjects dealt with our emotional condition and how we can get “bent out of shape” so easily and stay there! While being confronted by stressful situations, our “feelers” go to “10″ on a scale of “1 to 10.” Bill illustrated how our “feeler” (our emotional well being) gets stuck. The needle on his “feeler meter” gets buried at the highest mark. Bill put it like this, using the threat of a bear on a camping trip as motivator, “Bears eat meat, you are meat; running is an option, but bears can run faster than people. However, you could be running while generating more options; climbing a tree’s no good, since he’d just eat you in the treetop. Then you see a cabin in the woods and you dart into the cabin.” Your feeler is doing one thing and one thing only: it’s generating an emotion we all call FEAR! And even after you reach the safety of the cabin (a cabin made of logs, bolted together; built like a fort!) your emotions are stuck on 10! The problem is you don’t know you’re safe. Even though you are safely inside the cabin, as the bear tears at the wall and raises all kinds of havoc, your “feeler” still remembers thinking “bears eat meat, I am meat!” Every stimulus just peaks the needle even more. If fact, if you don’t watch out, you might be perfectly safe but die of a heart attack because you don’t benefit from your safety. If you benefited from your safety you could do the next thing, believe your safe and trust! That’s were we are today! Stressed and forgetting our safety in Christ. In this time, in the condition we find ourselves in, we need to “lean in on God”.
The (1) terror, (2) the pressure of the culture, (3) the difficulty in relationships, and (4) the distractions of this world have established a lot of us at a level “10″ and we’re stuck there! We get accustomed to that “10″ feeling and forget how to get the meter down in the lower levels. We need to be aware of the emotional “meter reading” of others. We live in a time when any thing said casually, carelessly, could get a big reaction from our friends and family. Even when there’s no threat there at all, people can feel threatened. We stay in that “9 to 10″ range. If we’re not careful we’ll assume that “10′s” are natural feelings to stay at. Ten’s become the norm! Because of all the stress, it doesn’t take much to bury the needle. We need to be more observant of the world around us and understand the environment people live in and how that affects their emotional responses. We all need to be more careful. People are at “10′s” all over the place, and as believers, as spiritual people, we need to recognize and interpret the condition of the world we live in and apply the Gospel attitude with care and knowledge. Well, that’s the second thing I’ve been thinking about.
Next, as we begin our 16th year in broadcast ministry I’m thinking “beginnings.” Actually our beginning. How close are we to the original purpose we began with in 1990? Are we still relevant today? How do we begin to increase the amount of ministry in direct proportion with the increased need of believers for encouragement? Relevancy is an important factor for ministry. Fifteen years of CCM and 89 WBVN concerts and still going is a great testimony for us, but is the radio ministry still valuable to people who listen. I did a little research and found that CCM is the fastest growing “genre” in America. Four out of 10 adults listen to Christian Radio each week, that’s 75 to 80 million people per week. Amazingly, one-third of Christian radio listeners do not claim to be born again! Thirty-two percent of the listeners are college students. Seventeen percent of adults that do not attend a church or are not affiliated with a denomination listen regularly. Thirty-eight percent of the “Baby Boomers” listen. Importantly, Christian Radio gives “life-style” stewardship and expresses “core-values” at a time when most broadcast media want this country to live “above God” not live “under God.” WBVN’s not just entertainment; its more than that. We have about 15,000 people that tune in each week and WBVN ranks in the middle of all broadcasters (secular and Christian) in this listening area. Those facts encourage us of our relevancy. They encourage us to continue to encourage you.
Lastly, I’ve been thinking about this quote because it was the most encouraging quote I read in 2004. It’s from Dwight Lyman Moody, and in the times we live in, it offers some comfort to Believers. “Someday you will read in the papers that Moody is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now. I was born of the flesh in 1837; I was born of the Spirit in 1855. That which is born of the flesh may die. That which is born of the Spirit shall live forever.” I really don’t have much to add to that. In this time of trouble, almost a “Jacob’s trouble”, to know this one truth encourages me. Terrorists and bears are not much of a threat to people that believe like Moody. This life’s pressure is only a moment in the time and as believers we’re “timeless.” No thing can separate us from the Love of God; nothing set against us can destroy what is eternal. God Bless and we look forward to being an “Encourager” for the Body of Christ for year number 16…