- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

A national campaign is swelling in support of the Rev. David Benke, who was expelled from his post as head of the New York-area Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod for praying at a Yankee Stadium interfaith event after the terrorist attacks on the city.
The "It's OK to Pray" theme, being pushed by Mr. Benke's supporters in the 2.6 million-member conservative denomination, comes as a church review board considers his appeal that he did not commit "syncretism" or "unionism" forms of heresy by mixing with other faiths or non-Lutherans by his public prayer.
"I had adhered to the rules of my denomination. I had sought the approval of my superiors," Mr. Benke, who is on paid leave for the three-to-eight months the appeal might take, said in an interview.
"The other folks are so irritated by my appearance with any people of other religions that they disassociated themselves from the document that gave me permission," he said.
The new president of the denomination, the Rev. Gerald Keischnick, had allowed the Queens, N.Y., pastor to appear at the event. But after a formal complaint from 21 pastors, a church vice president, the Rev. Wallace Schulz, suspended Mr. Benke in July.
While the denomination was founded in the mid-1800s on the principle of not being forced to pray with clergy and churches they disagreed with, the Benke case is being described as the flash point of a bitter denomination-wide political struggle.
In a letter Mr. Benke received last week, a Minnesota pastor compared him with the 450 pagan priests of Baal that the Old Testament prophet Elijah incinerated by fire from heaven.
The pastor said he might ask his Sunday school class, "How many [pagan priests] would have been slaughtered if David Benke was on the mountain? They would have to answer, '451.'"
Such letters, Mr. Benke said, "continue unabated." Meanwhile, his supporters circulate the "It's OK to Pray" theme in posters, letters and e-mails.
The church has long debated how separate it should stay from other Lutherans and other Christians. Last year, the clash within the church was deepened by the razor-thin majority election of Mr. Keischnick as its leader, a moderate who won following a split in the vote of conservative separatists.
The former conservative leader of the denomination, the Rev. A.L. Barry, was expected to be re-elected in July 2001 to his fourth three-year term, but he unexpectedly died of an illness.
The charges against Mr. Benke, some church members said, is a way to punish the less-than-conservative new president, who has two more years in office.
In response to the harsh measure, "The Lutheran Hour," a popular program heard on 1,000 radio stations in the country, suspended Mr. Schulz from his paid job as host of the show.
According to church sources, a procedural panel may allow Mr. Keischnick to overturn the Schulz ruling. But the church board of directors, whose majority is loyal to the late Mr. Barry, is opposing the president's intervention since he gave the permission for Mr. Benke to pray at Yankee Stadium.
"The church is on the verge of splitting apart," said one Lutheran pastor, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Benke, a pastor at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Queens, has been asked not to discuss the case while it is under appeal.
But he said that, in his view, a conservative Lutheran is required to enter religiously pluralistic settings and give a witness to the faith.
"The most important thing for anyone with a deep religious commitment is to present that witness with integrity," said Mr. Benke, who closed his Yankee Stadium prayer "in the precious name of Jesus."
He said his goal is to speak clearly about Christianity in a Queens neighborhood composed of mixed-faith marriages, Muslims and Hindus.
"The difficulty will always be holding in tension the exclusive claims of your religious belief with the need to act in civic harmony with others," he said. "The difference is between being a witness and trying to proselytize."
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Benke joined with Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu and Protestant clergy members in prayers at Yankee Stadium. He had previously been reprimanded in 1998 for joining in prayers in a city interfaith service for the poor.
"I have been working with and around Muslims for 25 years," he said. "I focus on looking for acts of love and mercy, and I find talking about a God of mercy as the best starting point. If you start there, that we believe in a merciful God, you can branch somewhere."
Still, Mr. Benke said he is not shy about expressing his beliefs.
"You have to be willing to articulate your faith," he said. "If you just say nothing, or are so pablum in what you witness to, then that's also losing integrity of the witness. In my tradition, we witness to the Lord Jesus Christ."

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