Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin suggested last week on Facebook that clergy critics of his plan to fight crime by assigning roving bands of prayer warriors to walk blocks in West Louisville are probably going to hell.
“I don’t know that we are dividing the races as much as we are separating the sheep from the goats,” Bevin said in a video message June 15. “I think they will understand what I am saying on that front.”
The allusion is to one of Jesus’ parables found in Matthew 25. Beginning in verse 31, the Son of Man “comes in his glory” to separate the righteous from the reprobate as a shepherd separates his sheep from his goats. One group is invited to inherit the Kingdom of God, the other sent away “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Bevin, an evangelical Christian with close ties to leaders in the Kentucky Baptist Convention, said he wasn’t giving offending clergy “the courtesy of mentioning their names,” but he repeated comments attributed to leaders of Empower West Louisville, a coalition of black and progressive white congregations supported by CBF Kentucky, statewide affiliate of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
“The only thing I wish was present was a barf bag in front of my seat so I could throw up,” the Rev. Clay Calloway, founder of the West Louisville Ministers Coalition, told local media after walking out of a meeting where Bevin urged clergy to organize small groups to visit a block in a high-crime neighborhood several times a week to pray and meet with residents for a year as a strategy to reduce violent crime.
The Rev. Kevin Cosby, senior pastor of St. Stephen Church, the largest church in West Louisville, and president of Simmons College, said Bevin’s press conference after the clergy meeting “did more to divide blacks and whites in Louisville than any single event in recent years.”
Joe Phelps, pastor of CBF-affiliated Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, called the plan “an embarrassment to Christianity.”
Phelps said later in an op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal that he used “harsh words” due to frustration in the heat of the moment, but after reflection he stands by the comment.
“I’m embarrassed that non-Christians will assume the governor’s plan, couched exclusively in Christian jargon, represents our only response to violence,” Phelps said. “It doesn’t.”
Since 1997 Highland Baptist Church has observed peace Sunday during Advent by naming and mourning victims of violent murders during the year and placing crosses on the church lawn representing each victim. Over the years Phelps and other clergy have opposed easy access to handguns, given away gun locks, taught dialogue for problem-solving rather than aggression and even hired someone to hammer used guns into garden spades.
“Perhaps this is the extent of the governor’s understanding of Christian faith,” Phelps said. “Or perhaps this is the extent of his capacity to govern. Either way, I was embarrassed.”
Bevin said he was “not going to get into a back-and-forth with leaders of the faith-based community who have come out in opposition to the idea of praying,” using his fingers to indicate air quotes around the word “leaders,” but that he was “a little shocked” by their reaction.
He criticized “these very same people” for trying to “hijack the media” for self-serving reasons by talking to reporters gathered for the governor’s own press conference.
Bevin said he is convinced that prayer walking “will make a marked difference” in reducing the number of violent deaths in Louisville. “I truly believe that it will,” he said. “How can it not?”
“For all the naysayers who don’t want to participate, don’t participate,” the governor said. “But I don’t think there’s any need to mock Christianity or mock people of faith or mock the power of prayer or mock people from other parts of the state you don’t happen to live in, simply in response to this call to action.”
In a press conference June 1, Callaway, an associate pastor at St. Stephen Church, outlined 10 things the West Louisville Ministers Coalition want Bevin to consider.
They include “a more equitable distribution of state government contracts to African-American businesses,” school curriculum “that positively reflects the contributions of black people and black culture” and “reforming gun regulation and legislation that has made it easier to buy a gun in West Louisville than a piece of fresh fruit.”
After Bevin criticized him last week on Facebook, Cosby commented on Twitter that “you cannot pray effectively if you legislate defectively.”
“If you are praying for the poor in West Louisville, how is public policy consistent with it?” he asked the governor.
The next day Cosby tweeted: “I pray that black people praying on the streets of West Louisville may develop the intellectual capacity to discover they are owed reparations.”
In Matthew 25, Jesus says to those entering the kingdom: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
The righteous ask “when did we see you?” in those situations, and the Son of Man replies, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
To those on his left, the king says, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life,” the parable ends in verse 46.
Bevin’s video labeled “how the media purposefully misinforms you” begins with criticism of a couple of editorials commenting on his prayer plan before he turns to dissenting clergy near the end.
Since his election in 2015, the governor has developed a reputation for shutting out major media outlets like the Louisville Courier-Journal and Lexington Herald-Leader while using social media and radio interviews to take his message directly to constituents.