By Bob Allen
The pastor of a Georgia Baptist church at the center of controversy over a mass baptism on a public high school football field says he regrets not informing the local school board in advance, but he believes the media is missing a bigger story.
Pastor Kevin Williams of First Baptist Church in Villa Rica, Ga., gave an extended interview with Atlanta television station WXIA Sept. 3 after the Carroll County School District said they were investigating whether the religious service held prior to football practice Aug. 17 violated state or federal law.
Williams, a graduate of Liberty University with a doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., told the NBC affiliate that he believed the baptism was in bounds, because it was voluntary and not during the school day.
“If there’s anything I could … go back and change, I’d have probably talked to the school board, because they had no idea that this was happening,” Williams said. “There was never any intent to cause a problem.”
Williams said the whole thing began when the church helped a group of students attend a Fellowship of Christian Athletes conference, and 23 of them committed their lives to Jesus Christ. Thirteen of them were baptized on a Sunday morning at the church in a special service called Gridiron Day attended by football players from two high schools.
Fifty more people came forward during the invitation, one of them an assistant coach at Villa Rica High School. In planning their baptisms, Williams said, the coach asked if, because of his love for the game, if it would be OK for him to be baptized on the football field.
“And I said: ‘Well, as long as we follow the rules. It can’t be during school. It can’t be at a practice. It has to be independent. It has to be voluntary for the kids.’ We all knew that. Everybody involved knew that,” Williams said. “So we thought we’re doing what we need to do.”
Williams said a couple of the teenagers indicated they would also like to be baptized on the field, but it ended up being 18. Williams said his son took video of the service and posted it online to share with church members, prompting complaints from outsiders including the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis.
“I think there’s a bigger story that I think a lot of the news media is missing,” the pastor said. “In that baptism, if you see the video, there’s African-American kids, there’s white kids, there’s Hispanic kids, and they’re all jumping up and embracing each other, and everybody’s clapping and applauding. This is inspiring. This really bonded them together.”
Williams said the ceremony has had “kind of a strange effect,” because after losing its first two games, for the Villa Rica football team “it’s almost a feeling like they’ve won the state championship.” It’s a welcome piece of uplifting news, he said, following three years of bad news including a murder, student suicides, and deaths from illness and a drowning accident.
“This is a positive thing,” he said. “It’s been very positive. It’s bonded them together. This was never any intent to cause any problems with the school, but it’s just kind of developed what it’s into. The reason I’m sharing this is really the school had nothing to do with it. This was really us.”
While believing the baptism service was by the book, Williams said he disagrees with court rulings that a school employee on school grounds cannot participate in religious activities with students.
“I don’t agree with that at all,” he said. “That may be some rule that they have, but that’s not any rule that I go by. I go by the Bible. That’s what I follow. That’s my guidelines. I do want to respect always the laws of the land. I do. I want to respect that, but I have a higher power that I answer to.”
Williams said he understands the controversy, but in his mind “this was a free act” on the part of everyone involved.
“This country, if I’m correct, was founded on the freedom of religion, not from religion,” he said. “So I’m pretty sure I’m right on that. And this was a free choice this coach made and these athletes made. This was their choice. Nobody coerced them. Nobody forced them. They just did it.”
“To me it’s just freedom, but we’ve made all these crazy laws that are trying to keep people from being able to do anything,” he continued. “Like I said, if I had talked to the school board and the school board or anybody from the school — because I know all those guys, and I love them. I know the superintendent. I know the principal. I know the coaches. I know all of them. If they asked me not to do it I would have obliged not to do it, but it was asked and we obliged, and we did it. I don’t regret doing it. I don’t regret the baptisms at all, but if it’s caused them any problems, that I was never trying to do.”
Williams said before he entered the picture as pastor of First Baptist Church, a group of men in the community was already thinking about doing something for the youth. As a pastor, he said, “I believe everybody needs the hope of Christ,” but it’s up to each individual to say yes or no.
“I think there’s a bigger story,” he repeated. “With all the craziness going on in our country — with this Black Lives Matter movement and cops being killed, the racial tension there seems to be in certain areas of the country — I think it’s a good thing that you see different culture backgrounds — African-American, white kids, Hispanics — all doing the same thing and all standing together, hugging each other, crying together, coming as a band of brothers.”
“It’s unified them,” he said. “It’s unified them in a special way. I think that’s probably been the best thing to come out of it.”