MOUNT VERNON, Ill. (BP)–Nov. 23, 2004, started out like any other normal morning for Randy Steele, senior pastor at Southwest Christian Church in Mount Vernon, Ill., a town about 80 miles southeast of St. Louis. One of the longtime members of his church was on her deathbed and he planned to spend the day consoling her family. Then the phone rang.
It was the FBI. Steele said they wanted to meet with him personally. After agreeing to a time later that same afternoon, he said his first thoughts turned to his congregation.
“I was wondering what somebody in my church might have done,” Steele said. “So I was in a lot of prayer asking God to give me the right words to say.”
When two FBI agents arrived at the church, Steele said they traded small talk for a few minutes before the suspense got to him and he asked about the nature of their visit.
Their answer stunned him.
“One guy opened a file,” Steele said. “And he said, ‘This is pertaining to a sermon that you preached on Memorial Day.’”
On Memorial Day 2004, Steele was in the middle of preaching a sermon series he called “Life Issues” dealing with controversial cultural issues from a biblical perspective. One such sermon was about abortion and Steele chose Memorial Day to preach about it.
“I shared the number of people who have died in wars versus the number who had died through ‘legal’ abortion since 1973,” Steele said. “I stated that we are in a different type of war that is being fought under the ‘presupposition of freedom.’”
Steele said that he went on to name an abortion clinic in Granite City, Ill., a city just outside St. Louis, and pointed out that they perform as many as 45 abortions per week.
Somebody in the church that day apparently misunderstood Steele’s “different type of war” comment to mean that he was actually calling his congregation to a physical war against abortion clinics, so he or she placed an anonymous phone call to the FBI.
The informant allegedly told the FBI that in addition to Steele calling for a war against abortion clinics, he also said he was willing to go to jail over such a cause.
Steele said that he had spoken about his willingness to go to jail, but that he made those remarks in a different sermon that dealt with homosexuality from the same sermon series.
“I had mentioned a pastor in Canada who had been arrested for speaking about homosexuality in his church,” Steele said. The pastor said he went on to tell his congregation that “if speaking the truth means that we go 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.”
“That was the major gist of why [the FBI] felt like they could come here and look through my sermons,” Steele said.
Marshall Stone, FBI supervisory special agent and media coordinator for the Springfield (Ill.) division of the FBI, was unwilling to speak specifically about the FBI’s visit to Southwest Christian Church, but when asked to speak in general terms about whether the FBI normally looks through pastors’ sermons after receiving anonymous tips about them being a possible danger, he did offer a few comments.
“I don’t know that there’s any case where we would say, ‘This is typical,’” Stone said. “Each complaint, each investigation is followed up based upon facts and specific circumstances of that complaint, allegation or investigation.”
Since there aren’t any typical cases, Stone was asked if FBI agents would make a determination on site regarding whether to examine a pastor’s sermons. He responded in the affirmative.
Steele said that after the two FBI agents examined his two sermons in question, they realized he was not a physical threat to abortion clinics and apparently dropped their investigation.
When asked whether a case like this would be dropped on site, Stone said, “We get complaint calls or allegations all the time — whether it’s over e-mail, telephone or letters. We do a lot of looking into things on the surface to make a determination of whether there’s something we need to be doing and make determinations all the time that there is nothing there that we need to be concerned about or have jurisdiction over. So, technically there’s nothing to drop if it’s looked into without ever opening a formal investigation.”
Steele said he was initially a little irritated that the FBI would ask to see his sermons, especially since he had to take time away from the grieving family in his congregation to answer questions, but he said he has no plans to stop preaching messages that are culturally relevant.
“As a pastor I believe that as Christians we are called to speak the truth no matter what,” Steele said. “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.”
Roger Lipe, senior pastor at Woodlawn Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist Convention congregation, in nearby Woodlawn, Ill., agreed with Steele’s position of speaking the truth in love to a culture that isn’t always going to be tolerant of such a message.
“Just look at what’s happening in our society and what’s happening in Canada — the laws that have been made there — and the pressure on Americans today to enforce hate crime laws,” Lipe said. “Obviously it’s going to mean that someday when you [as a pastor] get into your own pulpit, your own church, among your own people to preach against subjects like abortion and homosexuality and other biblical things that we’ve got to preach on, then there’s probably going to be a price to pray.”
In spite of his admitted initial irritation about being questioned by the FBI, Steele said that after his meeting with the two agents, he printed off the two sermons, handed them to the agents and invited them back to his church hoping that as private citizens they might be interested in hearing the Word of God.
Story provided courtesy of The Pathway, newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention. Lee Warren is a freelance writer in Omaha, Neb.