May 17, 2021

BREAKING VIEWS: Let Them Pray or Send Them Away?

(Disclaimer: The following submission does not reflect the views or opinions of The Heard Citizen, its staff, or its sponsors, and is solely the opinion of the individual writer)

To Heard County Citizens:

With the intent of full disclosure (especially for anyone reading that doesn’t know me), my name is Russ Massa and I’m not personally a Christian.

However, I am a life-long resident of Heard County and I have visited about 150 or so churches in my 48 years with many of those being located right here in Heard County.

But unlike most people around here, I’ve never really been married to any particular church. Honestly, I’ve never even had a serious relationship with a particular church. In fact, most of that list of 150 churches consists entirely of “one day sits” if that makes any sense.

A lot of people ask me if I’m not a Christian then why do I go to church? Actually a few different reasons. Most of them I have been invited to, and I really do find the similarities and differences between different churches to be very interesting. I also just enjoy it as the people are always very nice and the topic of creation, death, etc. has always fascinated me.

From the standpoint of me writing this opinion piece — it’s why I think my voice could be useful in this situation.

I don’t have a church of my own so that bias is eliminated from my thought process. But I also don’t mind going to different and even sometimes very unique churches. I know they can be very positive for many people so therefore I’m also not biased against churches as a whole.

I am writing this after visiting the Sunday service at Encounter Ministries on January 26, 2020 in Carrollton. I plan to explain to the best of my ability and in as much detail as possible what I saw, what I experienced, and how Encounter Ministries compares to other churches I have visited in Heard County.

I also plan to try and separate some of the facts from the myths that are obviously floating around the community as this topic comes up for discussion at the BOC meeting Tuesday night. Click here for more details on that.

The Encounter

I had my nephew, Whit Pope, a 16-year-old Heard County High School student tag along. Whit is pretty open-minded and a typical good kid that makes good grades and goes to church here in Heard County. We did have a little trouble finding the location which was partially my fault for not asking more questions before going.

I carefully planned this visit as — for lack of a better term: “sneak attack.”

I really wanted to just drop in on the service unannounced, not for malicious reasons, but because I just wanted a more accurate gauge of what a typical Sunday service is like there.

It was located in an industrial park and was not the typical ‘church’ one thinks about with a big steeple on top, but honestly that’s not unusual at all in 2020.

I was suspicious because there was no sign for the church and did get a little bit worried at this point.

Other than many family funerals, I think this was the very first time Whit and I have attended a worship service together.

I was imagining it would be geared mostly towards teenagers and having a younger person’s perspective might be helpful.

So to update, here we were at an unmarked building in an industrial park and I was at least mildly concerned, but we parked and we headed on in.

The Entry

Once inside, we heard music playing and my worry was that we were late (it was only 10:50 AM) and it was supposed to start at 11:00 AM.

The first person I saw is a familiar face from Heard County (Jan) and she gave me a big hug and another younger guy greeted me as well. The music turned out to actually be live music which I’ve seen at church many times — but perhaps not usually on Sunday mornings.

Jan assured me that we weren’t late,and they were just doing a sound check so that made me feel better. She gave us a welcome card to fill out which is typical of most churches I’ve attended.

Then another friend, Cheryl Mock Clark, who is a big part of wanting to bring this project to Heard County, welcomed us and helped us find a seat. This was not super easy because the place is not really that big and there were a lot of people there — maybe 50 or so I would say.

I know Cheryl and her husband Rusty (who is also in attendance) because we all went to school together even if during slightly different years.

For what it is worth, every single person I have spoken with or dealt with during my coverage and research of this story speak very highly of Cheryl and Rusty.

I and others especially appreciate their support of our Brave Nation which also in fair disclosure is a big part of the reason I wanted to come and see this service for myself.

It seemed like the least I could do for these guys as I continued to hear more and more opinions about them from people who had never been to their actual place for worship.

Best Seat in the House

As luck would have it there were still a couple of seats open in the middle of the congregation which I thought was good.

My seat in particular was perfect because I was sitting next to one of everyone’s all-time favorite Heard County people, Jan’s daughter Logan.

I don’t want to delve too much into Logan’s personal life, but just for those that aren’t familiar with her, she is a young lady that has struggled mightily with health issues during a large part of her life — especially multiple seizures that have caused much damage to her both physically and mentally. She has gone through brain surgery — but despite all of this, she is so perfect.

Although Logan might prefer you say she is so ‘purrfect” because she does love animals — I mean folks, she REALLY loves animals.

I know this because she is on my Facebook and almost every one of her posts are always about animals.

I mean check out this photo below of Logan with that horse! I’ve never seen her look happier! Heck even the horse looks kind of happy! LOL…

At this very moment during that service, I was quickly able to justify to myself that the proposed Encounter Ministries Petting Zoo is a worthwhile venture — even if it ONLY helps this one extremely special person.

Everyone in the Brave Nation that has met Logan can attest to this being a fact — she has such an amazingly positive spirit that is absolutely undeniable.

The property for this project is zoned agricultural and I don’t believe I’ve heard many complaints about the Petting Zoo aspect of the project.

Logan really does probably love all the animals in the world more than some people love their own siblings and parents.

I’m told they would have many types of animals such as donkeys, goats, miniature pigs, lemurs and possibly even a zebra among other types of farm animals.

The Petting Zoo made it very clear to me why these folks’ hearts are intent on this particular location — it is absolutely perfect and even has a small pond.

Diversity

I was really shocked by the diversity of the people I saw there. I had anticipated a younger, more youth-oriented crowd but I was completely wrong on that. I had even joked to my nephew on the drive up that I hoped I wasn’t going to be the oldest guy there. I was not even close to being the oldest or the youngest.

Those 50 or so people were truly from all walks of life – young and old, multiple races, rich and poor, blessed and suffering. I think this is amazing — but I know for a fact that many people in Heard County don’t agree with me.

I know some of the people who are against this project are against it for this very reason — they are not comfortable with people who are different from them in any way.

Religion is still a very segregated part of life in the south and I am pleased to report that it looks like all can feel very welcome here even if nowhere else.

I could tell based on all the churches I’ve been to that there were a few people here that would probably not feel comfortable at any of those other churches — even though I know in most cases they would be very welcomed and loved.

Also, some people have in mind that many individuals in this congregation are bad people or have spent time in jail or broken laws. I don’t have background checks on all of them but I mean there are people like that every single place you go.

I’m sure you  could easily go to the fanciest church in most any town and probably pick out a few folks with some felonies — maybe even right there on the front row.

The Worship Service

Honestly, the general structure of the service was just like most other churches I’ve attended.

The music started it off and it was really good. I don’t know much about music, but I do know what I like in my ears and I think my musician friends would be impressed by the level of talent.

I knew one of the founding band members Anna Maddox already. I met her when when she was a contestant on West Georgia Idol several years ago. I have followed her Facebook page ever since and I have always been impressed by her.

I believe she also teaches a class called ‘Worship The Weight Off’ which I think maybe combines worship and exercise possibly?

One oddity I did notice was that they never took up an offering.

My mother always told me that as a visitor you should give at least $5 to the offering when they come around, but it wasn’t until I got home that I realized my money was still in my shirt pocket. They may possibly just do it differently here than at other places.

The Preacher

Kevin Raines ‘brought the message’ as they say and no one can deny he is a phenomenal speaker. He preached from the Bible and delivered the message in an entertaining way that everyone seemed to really like.

He talked and joked about his wife a lot which is something I notice that all ministers seem to do. He also had a young son who was in attendance as well, but most of the kids headed to a different place after the music for a children’s service.

The No. 1 most surprising thing for me about the entire visit was the sheer seriousness of all those in attendance. Many had notebooks out and were taking very detailed notes as if they were in a chemistry class.

This service seemed to kind of combine Sunday school and preaching in my opinion which I found very unique.

Kevin even spoke a bit about himself being prone to binge eating which my Facebook followers know I can personally identify with… LOL … I am thankful to know I’m not the only person in this world that eats fruity pebbles in a giant bowl with a big spoon.

I watched these people in the congregation intently the entire time I was there and they were the most impressive part for me.

No offense to any other churches I’ve visited but you could just tell what these folks have going on is very genuine and sincere — at least in my observation.

The alter call was similar to others I’ve seen in that it lasted quite long time which again impressed me even as a nonbeliever. I do understand the gravity of what that situation is and how important it is. I would think it might be overwhelming, and seems like something that should not be on a certain ‘schedule.’

I don’t know what time it was at this point but I’m certain if I were at a Baptist Church they’d have been on their second piece of fried chicken by then… LOL

The service ended up lasting about two hours. We left at about 1:15 but some of that was just me staying around to say hello to everyone afterwards.

Kevin’s mom Sherry Kagey is the co-founder and was very nice and welcoming to me. She also seems to be very well-respected by the community from everyone I have spoke to on and off the record.

Kevin Raines has always been very cool to me too in the few times I’ve met him.

I know many are very apprehensive about him and his past, but I’m able to see how some of these people might be able to identify more with someone who admittedly has dealt with many of the same issues that they have so I see that as a positive.

Kevin’s not shy about his past and a very open person, but ultimately when it comes to the minister of a church it’s really the members of that church that need to decide who lead them — that just makes sense to me.

Kevin has legions of support in the community that he probably doesn’t even realize among those that have taught him in school, been friends or classmates with him, and worked with him at various places.

I would not be surprised if Kevin feels ‘called to preach’ after hearing the way people always spoke so highly of his late grandfather, Rev. Luther Nix Raines. My own grandmother and many others were big fans of him.

“Preacher Raines” as I always heard most people refer to him was a well-known minister in the Church of God. He organized and built the Franklin Church of God right here in Franklin and pastored there two different times.

The Zoning Ordinances

This is certainly an aspect I am not an expert on but I do think there is a lot of confusion about what is actually happening at this meeting and involving the property pictured above.

The group is not trying to change the zoning of the property but rather to get a Special Use Permit exclusively for that property. It’s really not as unusual as people might think. No zoning ordinances would actually be changed if this was approved.

Church zoning used to be a non-issue. Places of worship were allowed “as of right” under municipal zoning codes in residential districts.

Imagine in the 1930’s, when many U.S. cities initiated zoning, many households walked to worship services and to school, and it wasn’t considered disruptive at all to have a place of worship or a school in a residential district.

To deal with traffic and commotion these days, many municipalities have started to add stipulations to allow church zoning in residential districts. Most common among these is requiring a special use permit or a conditional use permit.

Strictly speaking, a special use permit merely requires an additional level of scrutiny, namely a public hearing and recommendation from the planning commission, and then another public hearing and action by the governing body — in this case our Board of Commissioners.

Honestly, I think almost every church in Heard County is right next to homes — even larger churches who have youth groups and other activities. I’ve never noticed any traffic issues or problems with those.

Now granted, this proposal indicates some lodging similar to Rock Ridge so there may be different concerns in regards to that that might be warranted.

Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act

From the aspect of law, zoning in general can be a touchy issue in regards to places of worship.

In the United States where religious rights free speech rights and property rights are especially strong, places of worship got an additional layer of protection with what is known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act or RLUIPA of 2000 which “protects the ability of religious institutions to freely carry out their missions and allow their members to exercise their religious beliefs through the construction and use of property for religious purposes.

Section 2(a) of RLUIPA bars zoning restrictions that impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise, unless the government can show that it has a “compelling interest” for imposing the restriction and that it is the least restrictive way for the government to further that interest.

This provision can apply to individuals holding prayer meetings in their homes, as well as to institutions, such as churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, religious schools, and faith-based charities.”

I feel like if there were ever a time to give someone the benefit of the doubt it should probably be to a church. I think many just want to stop a church that they don’t agree with which can ultimately set the stage for other churches they do agree with to face similar issues.

I know Heard County is a place where the second amendment to the Constitution is revered, and I do 100% agree with that, but I’m not so sure the first amendment is appreciated nearly as much.

I personally think it is so important that the entire Constitution should be respected.

My Final Opinion

I know this has been quite a long read but I wanted to share my personal thoughts as Russ Massa the citizen and not as the local media.

I fully believe in not blurring that line so I do just want to be clear once again this is just my own personal opinion as a resident of Heard County.

To be honest, like many of you were, I was very skeptical about this project when I first heard about it and even after the first meeting in 2018 when it didn’t pass. But also I am skeptical about everything and every one. It’s a necessary quality in this line of work.

After talking to a lot of people and citizens about this I began to feel differently. I have spent a great deal of time looking into this. I listened to all the public speakers at the first two meetings in 2018 and I did feel a couple of the opposed had genuine and heartfelt concerns.

I also feel like many others were and are just rejecting the idea because of obvious racism, homophobia, and even just simple discrimination against a church who brings the word just a bit differently than they might be accustomed to.

But is that not what our country was founded on — the freedom of religion and expression? I’ve just not seen a lot of what I consider to be legitimate concerns to try and stop this proposal.

I understand that property owners have rights but also we have to remember that these folks own this 90 acres  and have rights as well. That’s a heck of a lot of land. It would probably take me three months to cut it with my push mower… LOL

In my overall opinion, it seems like an ideal location for this project. You could basically throw a rock and hit the city limits of the Town of Centralhatchee.

There are only a couple of houses I see that could really be affected and one is not even built yet across the road from the location. I do think the opinions of those two people are important and everything should be done to prevent a negative impact on them.

I spoke to John Arp today, the future resident of the house being built right across the street from the ministry.

Arp stated, “I’ve known Ms. Sherry a long time and I am not opposed to what they are trying to do. I may not attend the church myself, but I do admire that they are trying to help people.”

My hope is that all those involved in the decision making are reading this with an open mind.

I only felt the extreme need to post this after visiting yesterday and realizing the fact that many people are against something that they really just don’t know anything about.

There are definitely many people in this community that would benefit from this if it these guys follow through with the plans they are proposing — and I do honestly trust that they will if only given the opportunity.

I’m not a Christian but based on the many sermons I have heard at all the other churches right here in Heard County and the literally thousands of Christians who have witnessed to me, giving these people a chance to fulfill their dream would be not only the “most Christian thing to do,” but even more importantly, the most neighborly and “Heard County” thing to do.

There are about 80+ churches in this community and I’ve probably been to about half. They all do things differently and believe in different ways, and worship in different ways, and are led by different types of people, but one thing they do all have in common is the “right to exist.”

I swear I did go to Encounter Ministries yesterday with an open mind. The only thing I declared to myself beforehand was that I would share my thoughts with you no matter what they turned out to be and that is what I’ve tried to do here today.

I’m obviously not a super religious person and I’m not qualified to say what is the best kind of church service, but I can say of all my visit to all 150 of those churches in my lifetime the one I attended at Encounter Ministries yesterday was my overall favorite.

I had expected to be disappointed, but was open to coming out of the service at least supportive.

Shockingly, I found myself sitting there almost overwhelmed by my sweet little friend Logan and was soon just “rooting” for this endearing group of people and their vision — much the same way that the crowd in the Houston Astrodome did for the Bad News Bears when I was just six years old.

“Let them play! Let them play! Let them play! Let them Pray!!!”

Thank you so much for your time,

Russ Massa (Franklin, GA) 

Comments

  1. Judy Massa says

    Very good opinion ,I think they should be able to do what they want to on their on land.

  2. Russ I totally agree with you. I’m wondering if people are assuming that all kind of people with addictions will be staying there and wondering around all hours of the day and nite causing mayhem. I live down frolona rd and if I hadn’t grown up here I would have never know lg groups of people where there at time.

  3. Thank you Russ Massa for taking the time to visit Encounter Ministries yesterday and for writing this report the truth and unbiased opinion. LET THEM PRAY🙏🙏🙏✝️✝️✝️❤️❤️❤️🌹

  4. Beth Burgoon says

    Thank you Russ, for your well-thought out and researched reporting. You are an inspiration.

  5. Councilman Bo Almond & Sarah says

    Thank you Russ for your opinion.

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