Meet the sheriff
A denominational split spurs a lifelong journalism lesson
For the last 73 years of my life, June 7 has always been “Meet the Sheriff Day.” The reason may explain why WORLD’s editorial stance has, through the years, tended to be a bit feisty. Early childhood experiences can have a profound effect.
The setting was a small church on a gravel road in rural eastern Iowa. The church’s pastor was my father, Max Belz. Dad was newly excited about the gospel and had sold the prospering family grain business so he could go to seminary, train for the pastorate, and lead this little congregation in its evangelistic outreach to the Cono neighborhood.
There was a fly in the ointment. Along the way, Dad had sensed a dangerous drift toward theological liberalism at the Presbyterian seminary where he had enrolled. The very Biblical truth quickening the Cono church he served was being downplayed at the seminary.
So Dad boldly told his denomination supervisors that he would not be returning to the seminary and the congregation was likely to transfer its affiliation to a more conservative denomination. As part of that process, the church had invited Dr. Carl McIntire to visit, speak, and help Cono’s leaders sort through their options.
McIntire was an acknowledged leader of a growing movement among conservative Presbyterians. Through the Christian Beacon, his weekly newsprint tabloid, he featured a firebrand fundamentalism and thrived on this kind of conflict.
McIntire flew in from New Jersey on Monday, June 7—ready for his assignment. McIntire asked for a few minutes for a quick nap, and it was while he slept that Emery Hart, the sheriff of Buchanan County, showed up with startling orders. They forbade McIntire, my dad, and all the church members from entering the church that evening. “They say the denomination owns the property, and the judge agreed with them,” said Hart, who had a reputation as a sincere leader of a Pentecostal church in the county seat. “They wanted me to serve these papers at supper time, in order to disrupt the whole evening’s plans. But I wanted to give you a little help, and this gives you time to change your plans.”
Amazingly, it also gave the Iowa media time to catch the story. Radio stations across the state reported on the bully denominational honchos exiling people from their own church. By that Monday evening, attendance at the McIntire rally, which probably would have been 40-50 people, ballooned to several hundred people—including a horde of reporters who never would have bothered with the original event.
A landmark Cedar Rapids Gazette photo the next day featured the dismayed congregation standing on a lot across the street from what they thought was their property. I say “landmark” partly because the picture got some national circulation from the Associated Press and partly because I am hunched in the lower right corner of the photo.
McIntire himself went back the next day to New Jersey to devote most of that week’s Christian Beacon’s front page to his column titled “Meet the Sheriff.”
And one little boy standing on the edge of all this was getting his first lesson—however unstructured—in practical American journalism. It’s a lesson I ask a sovereign God to help me revisit every year, but especially on June 7.
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