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Church sings at Macon City Hall

WARNER ROBINS, Ga. (BP)–For the last three Christmas seasons, Westside Baptist Church’s choir has sung at shopping malls in Warner Robins, Ga., and in neighboring Macon, located about 80 miles south of Atlanta.

On Wednesday, Dec. 5, they will shift locations to perform a 30-minute concert at noon in Macon City Hall’s council chambers.

Gordon Powers, minister of music at the Southern Baptist church, asked for permission to do the concert after learning that Macon Mayor C. Jack Ellis had hosted a Ramadan service at city hall in early October.

Powers pondered how, “With everything said about separation of church and state he [Ellis] was able to do this. I wasn’t outraged, but I feel we as Christians give up our rights. Unless we … stand up more often and say, ‘We as Christians have a right to do this,’ we lose our voice.”

Westside pastor Wayne Dorsett agreed, saying he isn’t intimidated by a Ramadan service being held at city hall, but equal treatment rightly opens the venue to Christians.

“I believe in the freedom to worship,” said Dorsett, Westside’s pastor since April 2006. “As mayor, I applaud [Ellis] for being a man of faith; I wish it was the Christian faith. But I give him credit for expressing his faith. That gave us the opportunity to express our faith.

“Our members are thrilled,” the pastor added. “They see freedom of religion the same way I do. They’re not clamoring for other faiths to be shut up. They’re clamoring for a chance to express our faith.”

Ironically, Ellis, who leaves office Dec. 11, once professed belief in Christ. Several news media outlets, including USA Today, reported that Ellis converted to Islam in December 2006.

“There are Muslim women in this community that are afraid to wear the head scarf because they’re afraid they’ll be ostracized or laughed at or even ridiculed,” Ellis told a Macon TV station the evening of the Ramadan service. “We need to get beyond that.”

After seeing the televised report, Powers said he e-mailed Macon’s city hall to request permission to use the chambers but didn’t obtain it until after following up with a phone call two weeks later.

Westside’s Dec. 5 choir program will include the familiar carol, “Joy to the World.” However, the music minister said it will span Christ’s birth to His resurrection, including the song, “I Believe in a Hill Called Mount Calvary.”

“God did so many things to make [the city hall concert] happen; it’s neat to see what God did,” Powers said. “I hope people come out of there feeling God’s love. My church is pumped up about it.”

Among those who are excited is longtime choir member Marilyn Vance, business manager at Westside Baptist Academy. Vance said it isn’t often that a church has this kind of opening.

“I think the fact we have been given an opportunity in a secular situation … it still feels different to me,” said Vance, whose husband once served as interim music minister at the church. “That’s unusual.”

The concert has allowed staff members at the church’s school to invite students’ parents — some who are not Christians — and to explain the concert’s importance, Vance said.

“The fact we have an opportunity in a government setting is the thing,” Vance said. “They look at it in a different light.”

Choir member Bob Smith noted that the choir has appeared in other public arenas, such as malls, the Georgia State Fair and retirement homes, so the Dec. 5 city hall concert isn’t “out there” like it would be for some churches.

Smith, the son of former missionaries to Bolivia, where the government is cracking down on Christian activity, said it is important that Westside take advantage of the chance it’s been given.

“We’ve been given an opportunity to be a voice,” said Smith, a civilian employee at an Air Force base in Warner Robins. “It is important I be obedient to the opportunity.”

Powers hopes to see a crowd flock to the service. He has invited SBC President Frank Page, officials from the Georgia Baptist Convention and nearly 100 churches in the area.

Powers also promoted the event during the choir’s appearance on a local TV station Nov. 25 and advertised it in a monthly Christian newspaper.

The music leader hopes so many church members show up that the chambers will be packed and the overflow can form a prayer circle around city hall.

“Christmas is about Christ,” Powers said. “We do a lot of things around this time of year, but I hope people will see an outpouring of Christ. I also hope it will provide an awareness of what we can do if we just will.”

Tim Millwood, director of missions for the Rehoboth Baptist Association, sees excitement brewing among the 57 member churches.

Twenty-five pastors who attended the monthly pastors’ luncheon Nov. 20 expressed pleasure and pledged prayer support for the concert, said Millwood, who will offer the closing prayer at the concert.

“We can’t push our way into these opportunities,” Millwood said. “They’re rare. But when they come up, we should walk through that door.”

Dorsett, Westside’s pastor, said he hopes news of the concert will generate support not just from numerous congregations but also of a church’s right to express faith publicly.

“I also hope to see is we demonstrate to the people there – the mayor, officials and all the people who work there -– Christian love and support,” Dorsett said. “We want to be good citizens. Good citizens support and encourage their local government.”
Ken Walker is a freelance writer based in Huntington, W.Va.

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