ATHENS—The estimated 5,000 people who attended a rally in support of an embattled nativity scene in Henderson County heard more than just sentiment bemoaning the efforts of secularists to remove religious symbols from public spaces.
They also heard the gospel.
The Saturday (Dec. 17) rally in Athens took place more than two weeks after the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), at the behest of an anonymous Henderson County resident, sent a letter to county officials stating that the religious display on the courthouse lawn was in violation of a United States Supreme Court decision and should be removed from county property.
County Judge Richard Sanders and a majority of Henderson County commissioners have opposed moving the nativity scene, which is owned by a civic group called Light Up Athens.
“We stand here today because we believe in the One whom the nativity scene represents,” proclaimed Robert Welch, pastor of Rock Hill Baptist Church in nearby Brownsboro, who went on to explain the Christian meaning of the incarnation.
The babe in the manger, Welch said, was “fully God, fully man.” He was also “the Lamb of God” who took on the world’s sins, Welch proclaimed as the crowd erupted in applause. “And 2,000 years later he is still the Lamb of God.”
“This baby was called not just to be the Jewish messiah but was called to be the Savior of anyone who would call upon him to be saved—whether black or white, male or female, young or old, rich or poor, educated or uneducated…. The nativity is the greatest gift ever given.”
The nativity is joined on the courthouse grounds by other Christmas-related displays, mostly non-religious. Sanders said the county’s attorney had reviewed pertinent cases and found Henderson County to be in compliance with federal law.
After asking area pastors in the crowd to raise their hands, Welch invited the crowd to “grab one of these men by the hand” to learn how they might begin a relationship with Jesus Christ.
On Dec. 16, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote a letter to Sanders expressing his support for the county and offering to write a brief on behalf of the county should FFRF follow through on its threat to sue for the nativity scene’s removal.
Erick Graham, pastor of Sands Springs Baptist Church in Athens and a fifth-generation Henderson County resident, told the crowd that he hoped the rally marked a new beginning for cooperation among area pastors.
Graham lamented the county’s social ills, with high rates of methamphetamine use, teen pregnancy, child abuse and domestic violence.
Despite those, he said he had never been so proud to be from Henderson County.
“We stand in the gap today between those who have gone before and those who have yet to come, between our ancestors and our offspring,” Graham told the crowd. “Many have been asking, ‘What can we do?’ Until now our response has been ‘Pray and show up for the assembly.’ But today is just the beginning. Everything changes today.”
As the applause quieted, Graham called on churches to unite across denominational barriers to push back the spiritual darkness in the county. To date, “we have been wiping the runny nose of someone in cardiac arrest,” said Graham, alluding to the county’s spiritual and social ills.
“Though we don’t all agree on every doctrinal issue, we do agree that Jesus is the answer” to the problems the area has, he said.
Nathan Lorick, pastor of First Baptist Church of Malakoff, closed the rally with an appeal for Christians to no longer be “the silent majority” but rather to “take America back to a place of spiritual health and vitality” where “the truth of the Bible was not a mere afterthought but instead a foundational basis on which we live.”
“This is our heart today,” Lorick said.
Such a task is not accomplished by militant activism, Lorick emphasized, but through caring for the needy, protecting children, “and giving every child the right to live,” Lorick added to loud applause.
“It’s done,” Lorick said, “by daily being proactive in service and humility. Standing up to the things that are robbing our children of a future. This is how the message is heard—by putting action to our faith.”
One of the few references to FFRF during the rally came from Welch, the Brownsboro pastor. The atheist group sent a banner of its own to Henderson County that read, “At this season of the Winter Solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but a myth & superstition that hardens hearts & enslaves minds.”
Welch responded, “My friends, this is what the nativity states: At this season of Christian celebration, let faith prevail. There is one true God. And there is a devil, and there are angels. And there is a heaven and a hell. There is a supernatural world. Religion is not myth. It is not a superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds. But the gospel of Jesus Christ breaks the hard heart … and frees the mind that surrenders to him.”
“This is what the nativity stands for and this is why we stand,” Welch said.
The East Texas display is one of a dozen nativity scenes that the non-profit Wisconsin-based FFRF is working to eliminate.