Mount Vernon preacher shocked by agent’s queries
MOUNT VERNON – As the senior pastor at Southwest Christian Church in Mount Vernon, Randy Steele thought he had encountered nearly every circumstance a minister could face.
The Rev. Steele recently found out he was totally wrong in that assumption, however.
The 32-year-old pastor, who has been a minister for 13 years, received what he called the “shock of his life” last November and is still incredulous about the chain of events that took place.
On Nov. 23 – the day before Thanksgiving – he received a phone call from an agent with the FBI who requested to speak with him in person. After the phone call Steele said he assumed that a member of his congregation might be in trouble.
“I was wondering if maybe somebody in my church might have done something, but still I couldn’t fathom what they wanted to talk to me about,” Steele said. “So I was in a lot of prayer that day asking God to give me the right words to say.”
Steele altered his schedule and agreed to be interviewed and later that same day a pair of FBI agents arrived at the church. Steele said he had a brief conversation with the two agents, what he termed “small talk,” before he finally asked them what they wanted to talk to him about.
“One of the agents opened a file and told me that the FBI wanted to question me about a sermon that I preached on Memorial Day nearly six months before,” Steele said. “At first I just laughed and said, ‘you’re kidding, right?’ and then I could tell by the look on their faces that they weren’t kidding.
“They were in no way abrasive, but the things they started asking me about were specific quotes that I had made during that sermon. I was certainly taken aback by the fact that they had exact quotes and I would say that whoever contacted the FBI had to be at the service.”
Steele said he quickly recalled the sermon was about abortion and was one of a series of eight sermons on controversial cultural issues, such as separation of church and state, homosexuality, gambling, etc.
Highlighting the fact it was Memorial Day, the Rev. Steele said he paid tribute to the men and women who had lost their life in service to their country as a prelude to his sermon. He then shared with his congregation the number of people who have died in all America’s wars versus the number of babies who have died since Roe v. Wade became law in 1973.
“It was a sermon about abortion and what the Bible says about the sanctity of life,” he said. “But it also dealt with how as Christians we need to love and reach out to people and teach them the message of truth about these types of issues.
“I shared the number of people who have died in wars versus the number who had died through legal abortion since 1973. There have been 1 million die in all the wars and more than 43 million abortions – that’s quite a gripping contrast,” Steele said. “I also tied it together by stating that we are in a different type of war that is being fought under the presupposition of freedom.”
During that same sermon Steele also talked about Hope Center, a Granite City-based clinic where he said as many as 45 abortions are performed every week. He said he also talked about how abortion is a $400 million per year business in the United States, when life actually begins and the legal requirements to consider when a person is alive.
“I just shared a lot of those little contradictions to make people aware and kind of open up their eyes,” Steele said.
Steele theorizes somebody in attendance that day apparently misunderstood his comments about abortion being a “different type of war” as a call to wage an actual physical war against abortion clinics. He also believes that person placed an anonymous phone call to the FBI, which prompted the investigation.
“I never heard a single disgruntled word following the sermon,” Steele said. “In fact, I had several people tell me they enjoyed the sermon and appreciated the information that was provided.”
Steele said his church has doubled in size in recent months, making it impossible to know if somebody was actually attending solely to target his sermons.
The informant also told authorities that during a sermon on homosexuality, Steele said he was willing to go to jail for his beliefs, prompting another line of questioning by the FBI.
“I talked during that particular sermon about a pastor in Canada that was arrested for speaking about homosexuality in his church,” Steele said. “I related how that pastor told his congregation that if speaking the truth means going to jail, ‘then by golly, that’s where I’m going to be and I’m going to save you a seat next to me.'”
Steele said the FBI actually looked through manuscripts from several of his sermons and he also voluntarily gave the agents copies of the sermons, which he says support his claim he did not call for violence.
“I sat there with those two agents and we went through it all; I did say some of those things and I made a reference to war, but not in the context that it was taken,” Steele said.
Steele said he took the matter back to his church body at the first opportunity.
“They were shocked, of course I guess that goes without saying, since the FBI was investigating and questioning their pastor,” Steele said. “That’s why I wanted to be open and clear with my church family so that the rumors didn’t get spread around that the FBI was at our church.”
Steele said he felt the two agents were satisfied with the information he provided.
“I asked them where it goes from here and they both told me ‘nowhere,'” Steele said. “They told me that they had to check me out but they also did not feel I was the person that the caller was trying to portray me to be.”
Marshall Stone, media relations spokesman with the FBI in Springfield, would not discuss particular events involving Steele, or even confirm the minister had been investigated, but did talk in general terms about handling anonymous tips.
Stone said he is not aware of any increase in the number of similar complaints the FBI has received but added the agency handles each case on an individual basis.
“Each complaint, each investigation is followed up on based upon facts and specific circumstances of that complaint, allegation or investigation,” Stone said. “Agents will do a minimal level of looking into the complaint to see if, No. 1, there is FBI jurisdiction to do anything about it, and two, to see if there is potential for a federal criminal violation. Those are the first things that agents will try to make a determination about.”
Stone said the FBI is also obligated to follow up on each complaint.
“Sure, obviously if it’s called in,” Stone said. “Whether if it’s by telephone or by letter it is not always easy to determine whether it is legitimate so we have to do something to try and make that determination to tell if it is a legitimate complaint.”
Despite the harrowing experience, Steele said he does not plan to shy away from topics that might be considered controversial or politically incorrect.
“As a pastor I believe that as Christians we are called and it is our duty to speak the truth no matter what,” Steele said. “I don’t think as a pastor that I have an option. I think I have to speak the truth that the word of God teaches; otherwise I don’t have anything to say. And we have to continue to speak that truth in love to all people and to share the message of Christ because it’s the only message that’s going to change the lives of people.”
While acknowledging that he came through the ordeal unscathed, Steele says he has one concern.
“The thing that bothers me the most about this whole thing is that right now the pulpits in America are pretty open to attack,” Steele said. “If somebody wants to call in and make an accusation against a minister for preaching the gospel and call it hate crime they can do it.”
Steele said he did fire off one parting salvo at the two FBI agents.
“I invited them back to our church anytime to hear the word of God,” Steele said.