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Courageous stands carry a price for 30-member church in Canada

PINCHER CREEK, Alberta, Canada (BP)–Members of Heartland Christian Community Church knew the price they would pay if they spoke up on certain issues in their small town. But they did it anyway.

“Our society badly needs believers who say, ‘This is what we stand for,'” said Murray Pura, pastor of the three-year-old congregation in Pincher Creek, population 3,700, in the southern ranching country of Alberta, Canada, near the Waterton/Glacier National Park.

“What a difference Christians who speak up can make — even just a few of them,” Pura said.

Among great things accomplished by members of Heartland, a congregation affiliated with the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists:

— A lawyer in the church influenced the school board to come up with a policy on what videos should be shown in the local schools.

— Three nurses in the congregation spoke out on issues of health care. Some members were instrumental in establishing a women’s shelter.

— A alcohol-free alternative to the town’s longstanding alcohol free-for-all for high school grads.

In these and other cases, jobs were threatened, business suffered and friendships were lost.

After spending most of his life in large cities, Pura, 46, settled with his wife and two young children in Pincher Creek in 1997 to establish a Southern Baptist church. Within weeks he was asked to be a regular columnist in the Pincher Creek Echo, the town’s weekly newspaper.

Sensing God’s leadership, Pura accepted, seeing it as an opportunity to build bridges and as a platform of influence for good. Little did he know the town would soon be plunged into one of its most difficult eras.

The first issue to rock the boat began with the death of an 11th-grade student in a single-vehicle accident. Nothing was made public about the circumstances of the boy’s death but autopsy reports indicated alcohol was a factor in the accident. When Pura tackled the drinking and driving topic in his newspaper column, he quickly discovered he had threatened one of the area’s sacred cows. He began to receive threatening phone calls at all hours.

The second issue to shake the town also involved drinking and death. A 19-year Royal Canadian Mounted Police veteran, Mike Ferguson, responded to a call in the wee hours of the morning. He arrested 26-year-old Darren Varley for public intoxication and brought him to the station lockup. Within a few hours the young man was dead — shot twice with the officer’s gun. There were no witnesses.

The RCMP officer, who said he acted in self-defense, is a member of another Baptist church; the young man, a Pentecostal. Thankfully, this has not resulted in all-out hostilities between the two churches.

The details of what happened last October on the night Varley died will not be revealed until the case comes to trial but his family has clearly expressed their sentiments already. They believe their son was murdered.

Ferguson appeared in court May 2 and was charged with second-degree murder. One-half of the courtroom was filled with Varley supporters; Pura and four others from Heartland were the only people who showed up to stand alongside Ferguson and his wife.

“Because the majority is silent, the minority in town who spew vengeance and hatred get away with a lot,” Pura said.

Believing a man is innocent unless proven guilty, Pura has used his weekly column to express the hope that others would keep a level head and let the justice system do its job.

Although Pura has received many calls and letters of encouragement from people in the town — church members and others — no one has wanted to publicly speak out against anything remotely connected with the Ferguson case or the use of alcohol. Fear of reprisal is too great. The only people to join Pura in his moral quest have been the stalwarts who form the backbone of tiny Heartland Church.

“The core group of 30 gives me their total support,” Pura said. “We speak up on issues that hurt people and hurt the town. Members write letters to the editor.

“We do not hate the people who are different from us,” Pura said. “That’s the first thing people say — that we don’t love because we disagree. I think it’s important for people to see we love them even if we disagree.”

In the face of opposition, Pura and his church members continue to stand and be counted, with a strong sense of purpose in their stance. Said Pura, “God has a way of turning things around when you take a stand.”

And the example he gives is the tremendous victory local Christians experienced when Pura helped plan and carry out Pincher Creek’s first-ever alcohol-free after-graduation party in June 1999.

However, regardless of last year’s hugely successful “Dry Grad,” opposition has increased to the point where this year’s graduation class may not be able to match the Dry Grad turnout of 1999. People who contributed money or prizes — 20 corporate sponsors donated several thousand dollars — or who spoke out in favor of the 1999 Dry Grad party felt the consequences in their own pockets. Businesses were boycotted, jobs were threatened and friendships were lost.

“To get others to stand up and be counted isn’t easy. It’s hard to watch people compromise their faith because of their pocketbook,” Pura said.

For years, Pincher Creek has offered only one choice to graduates for their after-grad festivities — “Safe Grad,” a drinking party. Parents organize the party with full support from teachers and the RCMP. Graduates are “locked in” the rodeo grounds, given as much liquor as they want and allowed to “party til they drop.” Parent volunteers drive them home after breakfast the next morning. What makes the party “safe” is that no one is allowed to leave or drive a vehicle while under the influence.

“What kind of precedent does this set where kids see that their parents and even the police approve of minors drinking to excess?” said Pura, who has continued to speak out in his newspaper column against the faulty notion that an alcoholic free-for-all is the best way for emerging adults to celebrate the biggest night of their lives.

Year after year, non-drinking students felt the pressure to conform was too strong to buck. Until last year.

Ryan Plesco, a 12th-grade member of Heartland Church and a non-drinker, asked Pura for help. Plesco and his girlfriend were the first to take a stand and say they wanted an alternative to the traditional booze-fest.

Two students grew to 20 as graduation grew nearer. On the big night, one-third of the graduates were whisked away in limousines to a nearby city. They spent the night bowling, swimming, hot-tubbing, mini-golfing, winning prizes and eating in a restaurant kept open just for them.

They had a blast.

“It’s amazing how much fun you can afford when you don’t have to spend the money you raise on alcohol,” Pura said when he heard complaints from the Safe Grad group who wanted to know why they had no limos.

But Pura’s involvement did not come without a price. In the months leading up to Grad, he received numerous phone calls at all hours containing obscenity and even death threats.

Looking for support among the brethren, Pura approached the local ministerial alliance. In private session, they unanimously opposed Safe Grad. Publicly, they were silent. When asked why no public statement was ever made, they said they “were unable to agree on the wording,” Pura recounted.

As plans for Dry Grad began to take shape, the Columbine High School shootings on April 20, 1999, gripped everyone’s attention. Shock turned to horrified disbelief when one week later a copycat killing took place in a school one hour from Pincher Creek, in Taber, as a 15-year-old student walked into the hallway with a loaded shotgun and shot two fellow students. Jason Lang, son of Taber’s Anglican minister, Dale Lang, died.

In the wake of the high school shootings, Pura began to fear something bad might happen to the graduates who had chosen the Dry Grad option. One of them had already had his school locker kicked in and defaced.

“It’s hard to describe our state of mind,” Pura said, recalling those dark days. Deciding to take the threats seriously, he contacted the RCMP.

Mike Ferguson traced the calls and uncovered the culprits. But when the police asked Pura if he wanted to press charges, he said he did not.

“I just want to talk to them,” Pura told the RCMP.

A meeting was arranged. “I explained to the teens that when people disagree with one another, they talk about it, they don’t make death threats,” Pura said. The calls stopped, and one of those “culprits” is now a friend of Pura’s.

Has taking a stand on such a divisive issue hurt Heartland’s ability to evangelize?

“We ‘save’ so many people but make such little difference in our society,” Pura reflected. “I can only construe we are not discipling people to take up their cross. We are trying to combine taking a stand with speaking the truth in love. In order to be ‘salt and light’ Christians must not be afraid to stick their necks out. Keeping silent — as the organized church in Germany did when Hitler began systematically killing Jews — simply emboldens the bullies and marginalizes the believers.”

    About the Author

  • Connie Cavanaugh