BRANDON, Fla. (BP)–Tommy Green preaches in the pulpit while people outside scream obscenities, call church members bigots and accuse him of being the Antichrist, but he is unfazed.
The long-time Hillsborough County, Fla., pastor and former president of the Florida Baptist Convention said he believes “when righteousness raises its head, there’s going to be a battle” and whether its homosexual activists or proponents of the adult entertainment industry, churches really should not be surprised when they become a target because they stand for biblical principles.
Green, pastor of First Baptist Church in Brandon, knows what it’s like to take water out to men holding signs declaring Christians to be narrow-minded bigots. He knows what it’s like to hear a self-avowed atheist on public access television ridicule his church and its members — which include elected public officials and a county commissioner. And he knows what it’s like to persevere.
“Our church realizes we have got to stand firm in the truth and we don’t compromise and back down. And at the same time we have the responsibility to love people,” Green said.
The present controversy has been brewing awhile, Green told Florida Baptist Witness. A few years ago, Ronda Storms, a member of the church and an attorney who was elected as a Hillsborough County commissioner, fought against funding for a public access television station which allowed shows containing nudity.
Most recently, Storms took on homosexual activists when she led the commission in a measure June 15 to prohibit the promotion of “gay pride.”
Green, whose service is televised to nearly 35 million households a week, including those up and down Florida’s west coast and Panhandle, said he has publicly thanked Storms for her stand and regularly speaks openly concerning cultural and moral issues.
In a volatile and very public response to Storms’ leadership, an adult entertainment promoter who airs a weekly show on public access television and homosexual activists in the area lashed out by launching an attack on Storms and picketing in front of First Baptist Brandon on Sundays for several weeks since the vote.
Noting two groups of about 20 protestors who appear to distance themselves from each other, Green said “when you engage culture you enrage culture, and when you intersect culture, you are going to incite it.”
Green said the demonstrations have galvanized church members into responding lovingly to the criticism and judgment heaped on them and have not deterred him from preaching the truth.
“I feel that what we are experiencing is what is yet to come,” Green said. “I think that the more our churches are verbal and visible and vocal in regards to the truth, and then when it’s brought to a very public format — as it’s been in Hillsborough County — this is going to be something that our churches are going to face.
“People who have no regard for Scripture, for truth, have no hesitation in lashing out against the church and standing publicly against the church,” he added. “It is a really growing and learning experience, but it hasn’t changed our resolve in any way.”
Green said he doesn’t know how long to expect the protestors to stay and though his church is not unique in its commitment to stand for truth, his church has become the focal point for those who believe Christians are intolerant. Not growing weary, Green said e-mails, letters and phone calls from other churches and individuals in the area have been an encouragement to him.
“You have to believe you can change the world from where you are, or you are not going to change the world that God put you in,” Green said.
Storms in particular has set out to make her mark in pro-family issues. Her husband, David, is a deacon at the church, and she has taken a stand and faced the consequences.
“We are very affirming and very appreciative of her,” Green said. “They have been a very faithful part of our congregation.”
Storms, in a letter to the Witness’ executive editor, James A. Smith, Sr., said she believes Green has led the church “in the front lines of the culture wars.”
Crediting Green’s leadership, she said he returned early from a family vacation when it was announced that activists planned to protest on a Sunday morning.
“I personally have been strengthened to stand in the face of what has become a blistering attack,” Storms wrote. “Though I am far from perfect, I am becoming conformed to the image of Christ as a result of this trial, and I thank my pastor, Dr. Tommy Green, for his role.”
A member of First Baptist Brandon for 23 years, Storms told Florida Baptist Witness the personal attack on her has been up close and personal — with her critics commenting on her physical appearance, including a scarred lip from surgery to correct a cleft palate.
Letters, phone calls and e-mails with filthy words and expressions of a sexually violent nature were tossed at her after the June 15 vote, she said, and a website linking her to the Church of Satan was created without her permission. Only after purchasing several dot-com sites with her name has she been able to try to control some of the more troubling postings, she said. Catcalls when she’s in public and threats concerning her young daughter leave her vulnerable at times.
“This thing has been tough, there’s no question about it,” Storms said. “Really the mouth of hell has opened up.”
A graduate of the University of South Florida, Storms received her Juris Doctorate from Stetson University of Law and is a member of the Florida Bar Association. But despite her credentials, she has been publicly flogged for her leadership and her views by local newspaper columnists and radio talk show personalities. Most alarming, she said, is the “deafening silence of people who say they care about our culture and children.”
Storms said the measure she brought before the council was instigated by displays at public libraries in the area to promote “gay pride” during June’s “Gay Pride Month.” After receiving complaints, Storms investigated the displays and found some contained materials encouraging children to explore their sexuality in chat rooms on Internet sites they were promoting.
“How can you stand and say it is a safe thing to send a child to the Internet to talk about homosexuality, heterosexuality, [or] bisexuality?” Storms asked. “That is not a safe thing to do.”
Warning that many public places might not be the safe places they once were, Storms said it’s alarming that when government officials do their jobs it is seen as hatred, bigotry and discrimination.
Still, when the trying times come, Storms believes she has two choices. One, she can crumble, or two, run to the Lord for shelter.
Storms chooses the latter.
“I struggle with other things that you would struggle with if people attack you or threaten your family, but fortunately, I’m not transformed by those things,” Storms said. “I try and guard my heart.”
Quoting Philippians, Storms said she understands the difference between happiness and joy, and is encouraged by those who don’t focus on the persons who persecute her, but on affirming her instead.
“It is not helpful for people to call and say, ‘This person is a jerk and is mean and horrible,’” Storms said. “People who encourage me hug me and send me cards and notes … and Scripture.”
Scripture, she said, “goes down into the soul and feeds you.”
Although she’s more like Peter than Paul and likely to lop someone’s ear off, Storms said she recognizes the value of a good offense.
“The Bible says out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” Storms said. “There’s something about Scripture.”
Green said words do make a difference and he won’t stop preaching the truth any time soon, despite the presence of demonstrators.
“They have the right to do that as I have the right to stand in the pulpit and preach,” Green said. “These are just the kind of challenges that are making me, hopefully, a … stronger pastor and even more committed to faith and prayer and trust in the Lord than I’ve ever been.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.