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This time, Jena makes spiritual headlines

 

Karen L. Willoughby

People in ones and twos or small groups pray at the makeshift mourners’ bench in the high school gym in Jena, La., while pastors stand waiting to counsel. A four-day series of revival meetings that began last month at Midway Baptist Church has become a six-day-a-week series of meetings.

JENA, La. (BP) — “You don’t have to explain to the nation where Jena is,” said Dominick DiCarlo Jr., pastor of the Louisiana town’s First Baptist Church.

Last year, Jena High School became a flash point for racial tensions that quickly made national headlines.

During the most tension-filled days, light- and dark-skinned people who previously had discussed the merits of various fishing tackle, laundry powder, and more at Wal-Mart – as folks in the South tend to do – found themselves avoiding each other, looking away as their carts passed.

“What God does in Jena becomes the focus of a nation unlike any other town,” DiCarlo said.

Jena’s Christians now hope the nation sees a community in revival.

“If revival occurred in some little village, some little community that has no national history or memory, a nation would not take notice of it, but they’ll take notice of this,” DiCarlo said, “and I think that may be one of the reasons God chose Jena.”

In what has become a true “protracted meeting,” a four-day revival that began Feb. 17 at Midway Baptist Church in Jena moved into its fourth week and into at least eight churches March 12.

“I never dreamed it would go outside the church,” said Bill Robertson, Midway’s interim pastor, who suggested the church have a revival. The congregation agreed and asked Robertson to be the “guest speaker.” “I was just trying to get the church ready for a pastor,” said Robertson, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s pastoral leadership team.

But after two weeks at Midway, the revival services were moved to East Jena Baptist Church, a facility twice as large, and Sunday night, March 9, the gathering moved to the Jena High School gymnasium with seating for about twice as many as East Jena.

By official tally, about 900 people participated in that service. Many area Southern Baptist churches cancelled evening services so their members could attend. Teens sat in the top row of bleachers; senior adults in chairs on the floor. They started trickling in about 5 p.m.; by 10 minutes before service, about 80 percent of the seating was occupied.

The smell of cleaning solvent and Murphy oil clung to the air, evidence of the work of perhaps 70 people on Saturday. It had been announced at the Friday evening revival meeting that people were needed to help prepare the gym. In addition to removing grime from the benches and restoring shine to the restrooms, some people had built a stage, backdrop, and mourners’ benches – where people could come to and pray.

Services each evening include not only music and preaching, but also testimonies by those with a word from the Lord. Perhaps 80 people have made decisions: professions of faith, recommitments, and several have given their lives in full-time Christian service. At the March 10 service at the gym, several teens and elementary school-age children made professions of faith, in contrast to the majority of adults who had done so in previous services.

Those involved with the revival often say, “It’s not about me.” Robertson, for example, has not been the “guest speaker” for at least half of the services. That role has gone to several men, which proves the point, Robertson said, that this is not about God using one person, but speaking to and through many men and women.

“To me, it’s a difference in the atmosphere, a better difference,” said Pat Taylor of First Jena. “I think the difference is that a spiritual change is taking place in the community ... I think this all is God-breathed.”

Karen L. Willoughby

Revival services at the high school gym in Jena, La., don’t end with a prayer, but with a song “because we don’t want the revival to end,” says Bill Robertson, main revival speaker and interim pastor at Midway Baptist Church.

At the March 9 service, Robertson preached from Jonah 3 about a saving, sobering, and Spirit-led revival.

“I’m going to ask you to obey God,” Robertson said in closing his message, before praying, “Father, would you liberate this part of the service?”

Singly and in twos and threes, people came forward.

Several teenage girls came down to pray; a woman in her 30s approached one of the pastors at the front ready to provide spiritual counsel; a couple approached another pastor, who opened his Bible as he talked with them.

There was no rustling across the congregation, no picking up purses or moving around to prepare to leave. Everyone stayed in quiet contemplation as some among them moved forward in response.

 

To make a difference

One of the men who had helped with the cleaning on Saturday gave a word of testimony. He had led a young man to the Lord who also was helping clean, he said, before getting to his point:

“Jesus Christ’s last words were the Great Commission,” he said. “I have been disobedient to that call. You have been disobedient to that call. How can we sit here and say we’re right with Christ when we’re disobedient to His call?”

Among moments typical of the Jena revival:

• “I’ve been living a lie,” Chief of Police Paul Smith told the congregation at Midway Baptist Church during the Feb. 19 service. Although known across the community as a Christian, he knew God wasn’t first in his life, Smith recounted during a March 9 Sunday School discussion. “Now I know God wants to make a difference in Jena through me,” Smith said.

• One man was out building a fence when God spoke to him, he testified during one of the revival services.

“‘You’ve got to give it all,’ he said to the church,” recounted Sammy Franklin, editor of the local newspaper, The Jena Times, who attended that service. “‘The Lord told me to give it all,’” the man said.

The fence-builder took out a pocket knife he’d had for years, the watch on his wrist, the change in his pocket, and the money in his wallet – including a private stash he’d been saving toward a special purchase – and laid it all on the altar steps.

“The preacher didn’t know what to do,” Franklin said. “We’re experiencing stuff no one has experienced.”

After bowing his head in prayer, that night’s revival speaker told the congregation that if anyone had anything they needed to give up to the Lord, now would be a good time to do so, Franklin continued. Though he wasn’t specifically referring to money, at the end of the service, $6,366.02 plus watches and other jewelry – and the fence-builder’s pocket knife – were spread out across the altar steps.

• “Whenever everything started happening here in Jena, I was one of the biggest heathens here,” one man testified, describing his behavior as despicable, especially since he’d been reared in church.

“I want to apologize to anyone I hurt by my actions,” he said. “I thank God for saving me .... When the Spirit is here, you can’t be silent.”

A chronology of events that started in 2006 can be found at The Jena Times local newspaper website, www.thejenatimes.com. The chronology mentions a pastors’ alliance organized specifically for prayer.

“We have been meeting since December 2006 with intense fervency for prayer,” said DiCarlo, president of the pastors’ alliance. “We wanted to see reconciliation and we were burdened for that to occur between cultures – a white community and a black community.”