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A Fries pastor and the Galax Downtown Association are now on the same page when it comes to Christmas parade rules.
The downtown merchants' association tried to head off what officials mistakenly understood to be a threatened boycott of its annual parade over rules that were interpreted as banning or limiting religious floats.
Pastor Ben Haga of Grace Baptist Church, on the other hand, says he never called for a boycott, despite what others heard or misunderstood.
(Both GDA officials and The Gazette were contacted by people who believed there was a ban on religious floats in the parade and that Grace Baptist was boycotting.)
He said he mentioned a potential boycott from his pulpit if — and only if — there were indeed restrictions on religious displays.
This statement came after what Haga called a more careful reading of the parade rules, which raised some concerns. Parsing the language of some of the rules led him to worry that the GDA was taking Christ out of Christmas.
Those concerns have now been addressed and both parties are eager to move on.
In a letter sent to both GDA Director Jennifer Davis and The Gazette this week, Haga apologized for any misunderstanding. “Yes, we made a mistake and we are truly sorry. I want to commend the Galax Downtown Association for taking a stand for Christ in Christmas. It comforts us to know that you have this commitment and that it will be carried forward; keep up the great work that you are doing for Galax.”
Davis said last week that the perceived boycott perplexed GDA members because the rules clearly state that there is a category for religious entries and floats are required to carry a Christmas theme — not a generic “winter” or “holiday” theme.
She said she was further confused because Grace Baptist had entered floats before — its float, done by the church's senior citizens, won the top prize last year — and church members had signed the entry form containing the exact same rules as this year.
Davis said rules haven't changed in at least a decade.
“It is true that entries have been signed in the past by representatives of the church,” Haga wrote. “This was the first time that I had gone over the rules personally, and there were some things I had concerns with, or rather the way some things were stated. I now understand.”
Haga said he took some of the rules out of context, but after talking with Davis on Oct. 9, and felt he got an acceptable explanation. “At the end of our conversation, I felt we had effectively dealt with all the issues.”
Davis said the GDA was anxious to get an explanation in the newspaper as soon as possible because others took the rumor and ran with it. “Several churches have contacted the GDA office via e-mail and phone calls regarding the boycott of the parade, in addition to citizens addressing our downtown merchants in their stores/restaurants threatening a boycott of all merchants associated with downtown Galax.
“The GDA felt we needed to put a halt to the rumors before there was any further damage.”
For that reason, Davis said she contacted The Gazette before speaking with Haga, who at that point hadn't returned her calls. By the time the article was published, Davis and Haga had reached an understanding.
The pastor took issue with Davis' statements in a Gazette article that she hadn't been able to reach anyone from the church to explain the situation. Davis said she had spoken to a church officer about the issue before talking to the newspaper, “and we did feel confident with the outcome of the meeting that we had answered her questions," but Davis still felt the need to meet with Haga, “since he had addressed the congregation with his concerns."
(The Gazette also attempted to reach Haga on Oct. 8, but a call and e-mail were not returned. Haga said he never received either. His letter to The Gazette arrived via e-mail on Oct. 13.)
Haga said it is important for any church to take a stand when there is the possibility of religious discrimination. “Due to the world attacks on Christianity today, it is very important that we remain on guard; unfortunately I let mine down.”
The pastor feels some good can come out of the situation. “This may be a good time for the GDA to review and rewrite the rules for those entering a Christmas parade so that there is not the possibility for misunderstanding in the future.”
Now that he and the GDA have talked, Haga is pleased to discover they share similar values. “We applaud the GDA for taking a firm stand on upholding our country’s core religious beliefs.”
“We really appreciate the fact that Pastor Haga has sent us a letter and feel satisfied with the outcome in this matter,” Davis said. “We look forward to the 2009 Christmas season.”
Haga also praised his dedicated church members, adding that “unfortunately they have a pastor who is human and in his zeal to do what is right, has fallen into the trap of human error. If anyone is to be judged, it is this pastor and not Grace Baptist Church.”
The irony of the situation is that, boycott or not, Grace Baptist won't have a float in the Galax parade this year. A church event was previously scheduled for that same day, Haga said.