Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dogwood/Manna Emails and Final Comments

This past Sunday I wrote about a controversy that's popped up in this little burg I live in involving our annual Dogwood Festival and a local church [see blog entry “Why Can't Churches Live and Let Live” on Sunday, April 20, 2008]. I sent a link to said blog to the church via their contact page on their website. I received a response. Below are the communiques between Pastor Delane Hulen, the Director of Ministries at Manna Church, and myself, after which I'll share my final thoughts on the whole thing. I post these here to be fair in giving the church a chance to respond, and I appreciate the candor of Pastor Hulen in clarifying a few things (and I do have his permission to post the emails, by the way). Except for making things fit into the layout of the blog (and fixing two minor spelling errors), I haven't edited his emails in anyway; I've simply copied and pasted them straight in.

First Email from Pastor Hulen – received on April 21

Carlisle,

I appreciate your input and outlook on your blog. It seems, however, that
someone has misinformed you in several areas. I'm assuming that you wish to engage in conversation regarding these issues, thus the email sent to us. I would love the opportunity to give you the truth regarding these circumstances so that your blog can be accurate and informative to those who wish to read it in the future. I look forward to hearing from you.

Delane Hulen
Executive Pastor, Manna Church

My Reply – sent on April 22

Pastor Hulen,

Now, we all know what happens when we ASSUME things don't we? I sent the link so the church would be aware that the blog post existed and there are other view points than their own. However, I am interested in hearing what you have to say. I will admit that I am a bit disappointed that you chose to email me rather than post a reply on the blog itself. I gave you a forum in which to dispute my (and other's) opinion but you chose not to take the opportunity. Why is that?

As for the alleged misinformation, I would love to for you to share with me what you think is the truth. I'll even make sure your response gets attached to the blog for you if you would rather not directly comment on the blog post yourself so that my "blog can be accurate and informative to those who wish to read it in the future."

~ JC

Wow! I sounded a little angry there, huh? Especially that opening remark about assuming things. Then again, I was expecting to have to gear up for an argument, so my apologies to Pastor Hulen if I came off sounding like an ass.

Pastor Hulen's Response to my Reply – received on April 22

JC,

First I want to thank you for your integrity regarding your blog. The reason I emailed you instead of posting is because some we have encountered in the past have taken information we have given and modified it to accomplish their goals. I see that you are not that way and I appreciate it. I have no problem with any and all of this being posted to the web, and any further dialog I would be glad to respond to in that manner. I will say, however, that I am responding to quite a bit lately, so unless contacted I may not be checking the blog consistently.

Regarding misinformation I just feel that there are some facts that the public are not aware of. I’ll elaborate below in relation to their category...

VENDOR APPLICATION – The Dogwood Festival policy has been in place, yet unenforced for at least eight years. We have participated every year for the past several years, as approved vendors (by the Dogwood Board of Directors). Manna has served as both informational, as well as, food vendors in the past. I have the financial records to show the purchases of the agreements. This year we were told (and I have a voicemail recording to prove it) that there were “no churches or political groups allowed to participate”. They reiterated this statement to not only to us but other churches in the city who are willing to testify to the same. The problem stems that they then go to both the city counsel and Observer and state that we COULD be a vendor (after the deadline for application, as well as, after their comments to the church community). Someone is not telling the truth. The bottom line issue is that if an organization tries to pick and choose when to use their policy based on who they do/do not want participating, it becomes discrimination. Discrimination against any political organization or religious institution is a violation of the First Amendment. Take a look at their application for vendors, it starts there. We just need them to decide what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it.

HANDOUTS - Our goal has always been to just bless the people in the city by providing a blessing (free drink, candy bar, etc.). Twice over the years when we were told that there were other vendors selling what we were handing out we changed what we were providing as not to hurt their business (hot dogs, candy bars, eventually to free water).

MEDIA – Neither Pastor Fletcher, any staff member, or any member of Manna that we know of were the ones that contacted the media on this issue. Pastor Fletcher originally was speaking directly with their leadership in order to try and resolve the issue quietly. The media came to us from the beginning because of another person in the city’s complaints. The original goal has been from the beginning to try and resolve this with their board without anyone knowing the conflict existed. To this point the media has misrepresented on multiple occasions both what Manna Church and its leaders have stated, as well as, some of the things that the Dogwood Festival leaders have stated. It’s almost as if someone is trying to cause a fight to break out so they can cover it.

COMPLAINTS – To our knowledge in the several years we’ve participated, there has never been one complaint about anything Manna or one of it’s members have done. Remember, we’re just trying to bless people with a free drink, etc. and show them the love of God in a practical way. The policy was not developed last year based on a complaint about Manna. There have been some religious weirdos over the years that have caused issues, but we have never been part.

We have had several churches and organizations contacting us about picketing and boycotting the Dogwood Festival. Our direction to them has been not to picket or boycott the event because it is a part of who we are as a city. We support it, and even in the midst of this issue, still support it. We’ve told all of our 4,500 member organization not to boycott but to take their families and enjoy it. I’m sure that there will be some crazies there trying to take a stand in the wrong way, but those are the things that give Christians/Christianity a bad name. We support the event, as well as, believe that anyone who has cast judgment on their Board (like the guy who said they’re going to hell for their policies) should be told that if he’s going to represent “the church” in Fayetteville, to clearly state what church he is from so none of the rest of us get rolled into the middle of it. I believe that this thing has taken on a life of its own. You are welcome to review any of the materials we have to validate what I’ve stated. I just wanted you to see things from our perspective. Thanks again for your candor and posting to the website. I would love for my name to be attached.

Delane Hulen
Director of Ministries
Manna Church

Here, now, are my final comments. I have notified Pastor Hulen so that he may continue to respond if he feels the need for further clarification. I will be pulling quotes from Pastor Hulen's email throughout, but they are not intended to be taken out of context, so please make sure you've read his entire response above; thanks. Also, please bear in mind that these are purely my opinions, as was my previous blog, based on what I know of the situation from both the local paper and from sources outside the media.


Regarding the issue of the Vendor Application and the policy baring religious and political groups – even I'm willing to admit that when I was told that the policy has been in place for long time (and I'm not going to argue whether it was 8 years or only since 2001 because it frankly doesn't matter) but only this year did the Festival board decide to enforce it, seems a little bit “knee-jerk.” However, I do know, via the fact that my fiancĂ©e works in the same building where the Dogwood Festival's offices are located and knows their staff personally, I have a hard time believing that nothing was ever said about other avenues of participation for churches and the like. If anything, the Festival's marketing coordinator is known for giving almost too much information rather than not enough. Unfortunately, because the deadline has passed, I'm unable to look up a copy of the application on the website and I see no real need to bother the Festival staff for a copy just to satisfy my blog and all two of my readers (yeah, I know, no one really reads my tripe – and I'm cool with that). I do know, and it is listed on the events section of the Festival's website, that Hay Street United Methodist Church is having a “Hay Day for Missions” on April 25 and 26 as a sanctioned Dogwood Festival event. First of all, “missions” indicates that it is an event specifically meant to be evangelistic in nature (and it's going on for two straight days), and secondly, the information that a church could hold such an event and it be sanctioned as Festival event has to have been available all along or it wouldn't be happening. Perhaps the application needs to be revised to be more clear or maybe during all the stress of going through applications and planning events someone forgot to communicate all the details, but I'm very uncomfortable, and even a touch offended, at the comment “Someone is not telling the truth.” I'm also a little offended that a church would feel the need to save a voicemail or record a conversation, whichever the case may be (I've heard it mentioned in both contexts) in an attempt to offer proof that they think they were lied to.

I must comment on the following statement as I did in my original blog. Pastor Hulen states in his email, “Discrimination against any political organization or religious institution is a violation of the First Amendment.” I will say again, as I said before in reference to Pastor Fletcher's comment that “the policy is unconstitutional” in front of the City Council, it absolutely is NOT a First Amendment issue and to keep saying so is foolish. Frankly, that was the statement during the City Council meeting that really irked the hell out of me and prompted me to fire off that letter to the paper. For clarification, here's the exact wording of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.[http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitution.billofrights.html]

The key word here is Congress; in other words, the government. The Dogwood Festival is not a government agency. It is a completely private non-profit organization, just as a church is. The government can no more tell them who they can and cannot allow into their event than it could a church, mosque or synagogue. Taking this issue before the Fayetteville City Council was inappropriate, in my opinion, because the government was being asked to intervene in a way that could have very easily been construed as a violation of the First Amendment. I'm sorry if that upsets anyone, but you'll never convince me that this was, is or ever will be a First Amendment issue. As a friend commented on the MySpace version of the original blog, “This isn't a first amendment issue, it is a play by our rules or stay home issue” (and that was after he initially started to rebuke me for my rant). Again, they didn't exclude just churches; it was all religious and political groups. Muslims, Jews, Pagans/Wiccans, Republicans, Democrats, those wacky-tree-hugging-hippy-liberals, lobbyists, etc. ad nauseum were all not allowed to have informational booths either. To be discriminatory, they would've had to say, 'yeah, all of them can come, just not the Christians.' But that's clearly not what happened.

As for the the Media, to which Pastor Hulen comments, “To this point the media has misrepresented on multiple occasions both what Manna Church and its leaders have stated, as well as, some of the things that the Dogwood Festival leaders have stated. It’s almost as if someone is trying to cause a fight to break out so they can cover it.” To that I will say AMEN! I can't argue with that in any way, shape or form. It's right on the money! It's part of the reason why I've posted his emails in their entirety (even the parts I disagree with) because I'm certain that not everything that has been said has been reported by the so-called “impartial” media. As I said above, I know at least one of the Festival staff members and I don't even think he was ever even interviewed.

As for the complaints that lead to the Festival board's decision to start enforcing a policy that was already there, well, again, it's probably a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. I accused Manna Church of being the church responsible, and that was irresponsible of me, and for that I do offer my apologies. I fell into the trap of assuming that Manna caused the complaints because they were guilty of giving away free food in conflict with the food vendors (which Pastor Hulen mentioned in his email). But, in case you missed it in Pastor Hulen's email, they did stop when asked to do so, so kudos for that. Pastor Hulen stated, “There have been some religious weirdos over the years that have caused issues...” Well, every religion has those, including (and maybe even especially) my own, but you can't judge a whole group because of a few over zealous people who might have questionable motives.

Once again, I applaud Pastor Fletcher's comments before the City Council that he didn't agree with the terrible things people were emailing to the Festival staff and Pastor Hulen's comment, “I’m sure that there will be some crazies there trying to take a stand in the wrong way, but those are the things that give Christians/Christianity a bad name. We support the event, as well as, believe that anyone who has cast judgment on their Board (like the guy who said they’re going to hell for their policies) should be told that if he’s going to represent “the church” in Fayetteville, to clearly state what church he is from so none of the rest of us get rolled into the middle of it.” I don't share Manna's religious beliefs, and frankly have never been really comfortable with so-called “Mega Churches” with thousands of members. But that aside, that's not what this has been about. I respect all beliefs and believe that God speaks to each of us in a multitude of ways and voices, we need only shut up and listen for it. The point of religion, any religion, is to speak to a person's spiritual needs, period! But, that's a topic that isn't relevant to this issue, so I'll leave it at that.

Bottom line, the Dogwood Festival's board obviously needs to review their policies and procedures for vendor applications for next year, but frankly, churches need to stop and think about how it can end up reflecting on them when/if they complain (especially when it's brought to a public forum at a City Council meeting). I can see where both sides could have handled this whole thing better , and both sides have caught a lot of undue flack for it too. Alas, it's to late to review the policies for this year and the Festival staff and board have moved on to making sure this year's Dogwood Festival goes smoothly with the vendors and entertainment they already have. Hopefully, everyone else can move on as well and just enjoy the festivities. I would like to again thank Pastor Delane Hulen for his candid emails and for granting me permission to share them on my blog. So, this weekend, April 25-27, load up your family and/or friends in the car, head to downtown Fayetteville and the surrounding area, and have a great time! Just save me some barbecue and beer!

~ JC

Holy Crap! This has to be the longest blog I've every posted! According to OpenOffice Writer's word count feature, it's 2,920 words including the emails I've copied and pasted into it. Now, if I could only get this much inspiration to finish those two novels I stared five years ago. :-)

This Sunday, April 27, 2008: a special blog post titled “The Lunatic Who Runs the Asylum: 20 Questions with Jimmy 'The Deez' Calhoun”; Jimmy is the author of the blog Jabberwocky Asylum and has some great changes and additions to his site in the works. I recently sent him 20 questions about his blog, his life and his vision for the future and will be sharing this “interview via email” with all of you on my regular weekly blog post and get off my soapbox for a bit.
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