Revival in Jena?

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CWN.com - JENA, La. - "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."

Revival Meetings Extended

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

"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. 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. Banners from East Jena, potted plants from various churches and two side chairs completed the stage.

Services each evening include not only music and preaching, but also testimonies by those with a word from the Lord.

Professions of Faith

Perhaps 80 people have made decisions: professions of faith, recommitments, and several have given their lives in full-time Christian service. At the Monday, March 10, service at the Jena High School 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.

The meetings have not involved a wholesale flocking of people to the altar; there's no sweeping emotionalism. What is going on is people getting right with God and each other.

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.

"When it's God-breathed, that means God is in control. It's God's Spirit who brought all this about; we can't anybody brag about it. We prayed for a year and a half for a revival, and He starts it up where they don't even have a pastor. "There's no sense of competition," Taylor continued. "There's a sense of excitement, a sense of awe." '

Saving, Sobering and Spirit-led

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 the prodding of God and the soft-spoken "C'mon" as Robertson gently gestured with cupped fingers.

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."

All on the Altar

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. Franklin added that God has spoken to him during the revival as well.

"Like so many others, I got complacent. I was church treasurer. I'd thought that was enough," he admitted.

"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."

"Men are coming for confession of things men ordinarily wouldn't talk about, because we're not thinking of ourselves; we're thinking of Him," said Monty Smith, a member at East Jena Baptist Church for 18 months and a Christian for 29 years.

"When we get ourselves right with God, others see that and get right too." And they are open to "humbling themselves before God and being obedient to what He wants them to do," said Smith, manager of a medical services company.

Smith said God "told me my priorities were totally wrong" through the revival. "Work, recreation, family and then God -- those were my priorities. I had everything wrong. Work was too important to me. I'd work 14 hours a day to not offend anybody. I'd get up early in the morning for my quiet time but would get on the computer instead. I'd tell myself I'd get back to it at lunch, and then at night, but I didn't. "Now God's first," Smith continued. "I know now, if I don't have God first, my life doesn't work right."

"The Lord has blessed us in many ways each night, and we want to come and watch God bless everybody," said 11-year-old Kelsee Weaver, who with her twin sister Kalee, mom Becky and grandma Janis Eubanks, were seated on the gym bleachers during the March 10 service at the high school gym.

They began attending the services when they were held at East Jean Baptist, where they are members. The twins' dad is on a two-month oilfield work assignment in the China Sea off Singapore.

"I just pray so hard every night that this revival will spread across the United States," Kelsee said. "I want people to realize there are people who don't know Jesus." -- Joe Bacle said he had been a Christian since 1973 but when his young granddaughter started asking questions about the Lord, he didn't know how to deal with them.

"I was afraid to try because I hadn't set the example," Bacle said. "I can relate to the people who've said that they'd gotten complacent. There's no more miracle feeling than when you know you're with God. I feel like I cheated myself all these years. I didn't know it but I've been starving for God's Word."

United in Prayer 

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."

About the same time, a group of men also started praying at First Baptist. Their focus: revival.

"The burden on the hearts of those men, it goes beyond the walls of First Baptist and into the community," DiCarlo said. "Last Thanksgiving we had a community-wide thanksgiving service. that was truly a community event. We saw then once again that the larger family of God in the community of Jena ached for reconciliation." Perhaps 500 people -- blacks, whites and Native Americans -- attended that service.

"We saw the need to build a strong bond in the family of God in Jena, and of course every pastor hopes that affects the lost in the community also," DiCarlo said. "I do believe what God is doing currently is that He is addressing His house. I think this is a prelude to a larger event occurring in our parish," which is similar to a county in other states.

DiCarlo recounted that when he and his wife came to LaSalle Parish nine years ago, "we found a church environment -- people knew what to say, the church jargon. Though the jargon was understood and practiced, the absence of unity abounded in the parish -- unity between churches, cultures, communities and between regions in the parish."

Jena itself, with about 3,000 people, has 17 Southern Baptist churches and several Baptist churches that do not affiliate with the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

Yet it's a town so small that it has only one elementary school, one middle school and one high school. Forty or more miles from the nearest interstate highway or major shopping center, it's a self-sufficient town that's 86 percent white and probably 70 percent churched.

The same last names on the rolls of more than one church indicates the possibility of family strife that resulted in some members moving their membership, and one of the most repeated stories of the Jena revival is the apology given by the pastor of Temple Baptist for a fracture in relationship that led to several people leaving East Jena Baptist 70 years ago.

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Karen L. Willoughby

Karen L. Willoughby

Baptist Press

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