February 1999 Issue
On God's Assignment
by Trennis Henderson
Much has been written lately about ministering to victims,
families, and communities in the wake of school violence. But what about
ministry to the perpetrators of such attacks?
That is the ministry challenge - and opportunity - facing Greg Kirksey,
president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.
Kirksey, a former Arkansas Baptist pastor, began serving in August as
director of Covenant Connections at the Alexander Youth Services Center,
a juvenile detention center associated with the state's Department of Youth
Services. He describes Covenant Connections as a national pilot project
"between the juvenile detention facility and Boys and Girls Club of
America to bring the community and the corrections effort into partnership."
Although "I didn't know what I would find" in the new ministry
position, Kirksey added, "I knew I was there on God's assignment."
Ten days after he started working at the Alexander facility, the two
boys convicted of killing four fellow students and a teacher last year in
Jonesboro were transferred to Alexander. The deadly March ambush at Westside
Middle School - one of several school shooting rampages during the past
year - prompted widespread media coverage throughout the nation.
Describing Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, as "two
of the most notorious killers in the history of this state," Kirksey
said their actions "have left scars on Jonesboro that will last for
Sharing some of his ministry experiences during his state convention
presidential address in November, Kirksey said former DYS director Paul
Doramus asked if he would consider serving as "those two Jonesboro
"I choked with emotion because somehow I knew in the back of my
mind that was why I was there," said Kirksey, who also is a volunteer
chaplain in the facility's serious offenders unit.
Emphasizing that "I don't want to minimize the pain or hurt in any
way that they have inflicted upon that community," he added, "I
don't look at Mitchell or Andrew as monsters. Jesus was not willing that
any should perish."
Comparing ministry among juvenile offenders to Christ's ministry example
of healing a leper, Kirksey explained, "The world saw a leper; Jesus
saw a man who needed to be touched."
Although "I am absolutely stunned at the hatred in our world,"
he declared, "I am even more stunned and ashamed of the meanness in
our churches. ...We banish people, we isolate them, we shun them because
they don't fit into our world. They are not our kind. ...We must guard against
becoming hard and cruel. If anything, we need more of the grace of compassion."
In his first meeting with Mitchell Johnson, Kirksey was introduced as
a Baptist pastor who had recently joined the staff. He said Mitchell's immediate
response was: "You are the answer to my prayer."
"I said, 'Mitchell, what do you mean by that?' He said, 'When I
came, I asked if there was a preacher or a chaplain that I could talk to
and they said we didn't have one. So I started praying that God would send
somebody that I could talk to about Him and you are the answer to my prayer.'"
Reflecting on that experience, Kirksey asked, "Who is going to reach
out to a love-starved guy like Mitchell if not the Christian community?
Where does he turn? Where does he go if he repents? Is there any hope or
is he damned forever? Has he committed the unpardonable sin? Do we throw
him in the Dumpster for life, for eternity?"
In a recent president's column in the Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine,
Kirksey said some people expressed concern that he was "leaving the
ministry" when he moved from the pastorate to his current position
"It is troubling because it reflects a narrow perspective of ministry
held by a growing number of Christians," Kirksey wrote. "If we
continue to confine our Christianity to Christian radio, Christian television,
Christian businesses, and Christian gatherings, we will eventually choke
the gospel to death."
Since beginning his work with juvenile offenders, "I have never
felt more deeply immersed in ministry, nor more needed than I am on that
campus," he declared. "Daily I am with boys and girls in trouble
who regularly ask me for a Bible or some other help with spiritual guidance.
Many of them have hit bottom, with nowhere else to turn and no family who
cares. They are the 'throw-aways' in our disposable society."
Describing himself as "part of God's salvage team sifting through
the broken pieces of young lives," the state convention president said
he is pleased that God "has strategically located me in a place far
removed from the squeaky clean atmosphere many associate with ministry,
to work with juveniles for whom the gospel really is good news."
Insisting that today's church "is missing a grand opportunity to
proclaim the gospel to our nation," Kirksey told the state convention
crowd, "Grace is something that is easy to talk about and sing about
in church. It is easy to study and teach, but when we personalize it and
we put a face on it, then it becomes another matter. We say, 'Not in this
instance,' and we begin to make it a conditional thing.
"When you make grace conditional," he warned, "that is
not New Testament."
Trennis Henderson is editor of the Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine.
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