Hunting for God By Gayle White
Cox News Service Atlanta, Nov. 12-A couple of Sundays ago when the Rev. Banks Brazell was ready to do the children's minute at First United Methodist Church in Monroe, Ga. a little boy handed him some empty shotgun casings. Each Sunday Brazell constructs a spur-of-the-moment object sermon based on something a child brings. The congregation waited, amused and curious, to see how he would handle this week's challenge.

Brazell looked down at the shells and began to talk about how guns, like many other things, are neither inherently good nor evil. People determine whether something is used to benefit humankind or destroy it, he told the children. For Brazell, 47, the speech came easily. He's a hunter and member of the Christian Sportsmen's Fellowship International, a network of church-based clubs founded by Richard Jordan to provide fellowship for hunters and fishermen.

It's one of several ministries, including Christian Deer Hunters Association, geared to men who'd rather spend Sunday morning in a deer stand than a pew.

Brazell, who has hunted since he was a boy in Warner Robins, Ga., sees no conflict between his hobby and his role as a minister of the Gospel. "I like going out into the woods, getting away," he said. "From a theological point of view, it helps me stay connected to the creator God."

Americans, away from the farm and the forest, have the perception that meat comes sliced and shrink-wrapped, Brazell said, but understanding the cycles of life increases the appreciation for nature. "The fact is that for our life to continue, other life must be taken."

But some people say Christians should not only refrain from hunting, they should not eat meat. "Christian vegetarianism is a way of anticipating the Kingdom of God, when peace will reign supreme," says Stephen Webb, chairman of the Christian Vegetarian Association, associate professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College in Indiana, and author of "Good Eating: The Bible, Diet, and the Proper Love of Animals" (Brazos Press). "What we eat should say something about the kind of God we worship," said Webb, a member of the Disciples of Christ.

Counters Brazell, "If life is life, broccoli probably doesn't appreciate getting taken, either." Brazell came in contact with Jordan and the Christian Sportsmen's Fellowship about three years ago as an associate minister at Cobb County's Mount Bethel United Methodist Church. As the pastor in charge of men's ministries, Brazell was looking for something that would appeal to the outdoorsman.

Jordan, 46, had just the thing. About eight years ago on the opening day of deer season, Jordan had an inspiration that changed his life. Sitting in his tree stand in the quiet of the woods, Jordan says, he felt God telling him to reach out to other hunters.

Today, the former commercial real estate broker and magistrate judge is full-time president of Christian Sportsmen's Fellowship International. The ministry he founded with prototype chapters in seven metro Atlanta churches now has about 15,000 members in almost every state and on four continents. It produces a national magazine available in Family Christian Stores, the country's largest chain of Christian retailers, and a special hunter's Bible with a camouflage cover. ("Use it in your stand and we guarantee the deer won't recognize you," Jordan jokes.)

The fellowship is host to prayer breakfasts at conventions of the National Rifle Association and the Safari Club International and sets up booths at large hunting shows. But its main role is to provide resources and speakers for wild game dinners at churches a woodsy variant of the dinner-on-the-ground that lets hunters and fishermen share their bounty. Some chapters organize hunting and fishing trips and donate game and fish to homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

The organization also is trying to reach youth with wilderness missions, hunting and fishing events for physically challenged children, and a scholastic trap shooting league for private Christian schools. "Christian Sportsmen's Fellowship is not about hunting and fishing," Jordan said. "We're about building relationships."

Dave Dolezal, 51, a chiropractor who is organizing Mount Bethel's next wild game dinner, said he sees growth in both his relationship with God and with other sportsmen through an interest in hunting. "You're out there before the sun comes up and it's dark, and you look up in the sky and see the stars, and you're close to God," he said. "When you see the animals come to life or hear the owls hoot, you're in God's sanctuary. It gives you time to reflect."

But, Dolezal said, "it's fun to be around other people who do the same thing. It's an opportunity to bond from a Christian perspective. You might be hunting or fishing with somebody who doesn't go to church, and you can have a discussion you wouldn't have the opportunity to have in a different situation."

To help with those discussions, an organization called the Christian Deer Hunters Association publishes tracts for hunters to give other hunters. One shows a man dozing on a stump as a big buck walks up to him. The card bears the message, "Will you be ready?" and warns that everyone should be prepared for Jesus' return. Another shows a buck in the bushes a few feet away as two men examine a gun. "He's closer than you think" is the message on a card about how God is always nearby.

"We're seeking to reach men who aren't in church," said the Rev. Bob Franklin of Kennesaw, a Southern Baptist minister who trains missionaries for his denomination. "Hunting is a good way for men to share love of nature, and with it love of Jesus Christ." He encourages the ministers he trains to use the Christian Deer Hunters material with men they meet. When he is in his own deer stand, Franklin, 67, reads devotionals from booklets written by the Christian Deer Hunters Association founder, the Rev. Tom Rakow, who, like Jordan, said he felt called by God to minister to hunters.

Rakow, who lives in Silver Lake, Minn., became a Christian watching a Billy Graham crusade on television after years of teenage rebellion. He had poached his first deer at age 11 and, he said, "deer hunting was my god." One night, struggling with his feelings and his newfound faith, he saw a full moon with a silhouette of a deer, then a fish, then a hand. "They were clouds, but they were supernatural," he said.

He interpreted the images as a sign from God that he should give up hunting and fishing to get his life into perspective. For two years, he didn't hunt. But as he studied the Bible, he came to believe there might be a role for him in sharing the faith with other hunters. From that idea grew a local hunting fellowship and eventually the series of devotional booklets and tracts.

Now, Rakow, 44, believes the images on the moon were God's way of saying there was a plan for his life. He's starting a fisherman's counterpart to the Christian Deer Hunters Association to be called the Christian Anglers Association. He encourages Christian hunters to set an example of respectful sportsmanship by never violating game laws or being greedy. "There exists a higher level of accountability than the Department of Natural Resources," he says.

Rakow's message, like Brazell's children's sermon, is that hunting is what hunters make of it. He, Jordan and others have decided to make it a ministry and target other hunters. As he wrote in one of his devotionals called "Is Your Faith Camouflaged?" "Every deer hunter would like to harvest a trophy some day. . . . Each and every lost soul won for the Lord is a trophy of God's grace." c. 2001 Cox News Service

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