North West Arkansas Times interviews The Church in Monett Missouri

The North West Arkansas Times published an article written about us in the July 12th 2008 printing. If you would like to read it we have posted it below, or you can follow the link beow to see it directly at their website.

Words Without Sounds

By Steve Schmidt Northwest Arkansas Times

Posted on Sunday, July 13, 2008

They stand in silence. No spoken words are needed. The signs do all the talking for them, grabbing and holding the eyes of passers-by on Fayetteville's famed Dickson Street if only for a minute.

Anyone who has ever paraded down the street from 9 p.m. and later on a Friday night has probably walked by the collection of portable biblical billboards. Some patrons scoff. Some debate or throw words like spit balls. Others simply choose to ignore.

Those with signs often leave the corner of West Dickson Street and West Avenue by 11 p. m., before any confrontations or debates are further fueled by alcohol.

"We usually try to catch people coming in as opposed to coming out," one of the sign holders said. "We believe our message. That's why we do it."

During those two hours, the men, most of whom wear beards almost as thick as their skin, keep standing, seldom uttering a sound - until now. Two men, one belief Aside from the signs he occasionally holds, David Keeling is not a loud man. The voice that projects from the man with a flowing blond beard is not the bellow of a classic evangelist, but a quiet, agrarian Midwesterner.

In addition to being a cattle farmer and ranch manager, the 46-year-old Keeling carries the title of pastor of the Church of Monett in Monett, Mo., whose members have been preaching on Fridays on Dickson Street for more than five years.

It was Keeling who first started his own church's genesis about 12 years ago, which is about the same time he started growing his noticeable amount of facial hair.

"It's the way God made us," he said of the beard.

The pastor, who was raised Methodist, first started to convert to a more rigid form of Christianity about 20 years ago, he said. He is not sure of whether his first preaching session took place in Springfield, Mo., or nearby Branson. He just remembers standing - against the grain.

"We've had to learn along the way," he said.

In the early'90 s, Keeling met a man who shared the same fervor for fundamentalist Christianity, Kevn Stewart, a 40-year-old garage door salesman. Both men served as pastors in a town just east of Monett called Aurora. From them, the Church of Monett began to form.

"There's been a little nucleus of people in some of the churches we've been around," Keeling said. "There's usually one or two people that are really trying to be serious about following the Lord."

The Church of Monett's congregation consists of about 50 people, some of whom live in small apartments on the church's grounds. The Church of Monett was affiliated with the Mennonite faith for seven years before members were tired of dealing with established rules that they said had nothing to do with the Bible, such as what color your car has to be. Although the members' appearance might look Amish or Mennonite, they enjoy the advantages of modern-day life, with one of the exceptions being television.

"But that's not a written rule," Stewart said. "It's just something none of us want for our families. We also all home school because we don't want the government teaching our children."

Keeling and Stewart said their church is striving for a form of Christianity that all denominations once demonstrated about 200 years ago. They said their goal is to simply live their lives according to the Bible. They claim that other churches have lost their initial focus of serving God and Jesus by giving into too much of an individualistic, and therefore hedonistic and "selfdestructive," mindset.

"The idea behind modern Christianity is basically the end of all things is man's happiness. Man being happy, if you break that down, that's nothing but humanism," Keeling said. "A true Christian actually loses his life to follow Christ. That's what a Christian is all about."

Chris Hammen, a 35-year-old insurance salesman, has been with the church for five years.

"We just got to the point where we were searching for more truth than the church we were attending at the time was preaching or upholding," Hammen said of his family.

Next to him on a recent Friday stood Wilbur Graybill, a 32-year-old selfemployed electrician who moved to Monett more than a year ago from Tremonton, Utah," to join a brotherhood of believers who believe to simply follow Jesus."

Graybill's cousin, Marcus Rohrer, is a church member who is a missionary in Mexico. In fact, for the past eight years, the church has had members and their families stay in two locales in Mexico and one in the Philippines. The church has a Web site with a chat board as a way of communication with its international brethren. Keeling has been to mission trips to other far-off places such as China, Peru, Cuba and India. Welcome to Monett Heading north up Missouri 37, one is greeted by another sign at the city limits of Monett, reading "Monett: Pride and Progress. "The population of the town, which is seated almost equidistantly between Joplin and Springfield, Mo., numbers just fewer than 7, 400.

A drive down Broadway Street would reveal a town both full of family restaurants and taquerías mixing in a setting of a Norman Rockwellesque Americana combined with industry that mirrors the austerity of surrounding geography. At a time of national economic uncertainty, any Monett native will say that the town has twice as many jobs as people, most of the bluecollar variety.

Ralph Scott, an 80-yearold retired teacher who has lived in Monett for 67 years, mentioned that his town bought a street sweeper in 1955 and has used the same machine every night to keep the city clean.

"There's not many towns that take that kind of pride," Scott said.

About six weeks ago on a Sunday, Scott talked with members of the Church of Monett after they preached outside his own place of worship, the town's First United Methodist Church.

Scott said in spite the fact that "they're different," he does not "have any trouble at all with them."

"They work," he said. "There's a bunch of characters [elsewhere in town ] who don't. I guess they pay their taxes and obey the speed limit. … I don't agree with everything they agree on but they are sincere."

Scott said he has heard of a string of humanitarian work done by members of the Church of Monett. There was the time they put a roof on a handicapped man's house. They helped another handicapped resident move using a collection of pickups. Keeling said one of the men who stay at the church apartments is a recovering drug addict trying to change his ways.

The exact year of when he first came to Fayetteville escapes Keeling's memory: either six or seven years ago. He had made it a point to visit surrounding county fairs. When he realized that the Washington County fair sat on enclosed property as opposed to a main street of a small town affair, he kept driving. After taking a left turn he eventually bumped into Dickson Street.

Keeling said that compared to Springfield and Branson, Fayetteville tends to have a considerably more liberal crowd, often leading to more debates and conversation. Sometimes, up to 15 people, most of whom are what Keeling might label as "humanistic Christians," take time to talk. Other nights, not a soul stops moving.

Although Travis French, a Siloam Springs resident who confronted the group on a recent Friday, disagreed with their platform, he respected their intrepidity.

"That's what makes America beautiful," he said. "They have the right. There's something exotically beautiful about the way they stand with no shame, no pride, no nothing. It's an actual act of beauty that they have the courage to stand out here, the three of them, in a street full of drunks. It's an ultimate act of courage, no doubt about it."

Carey Wallace of Fayetteville said she talked with them on New Year's Eve in 2006. Now she chooses to keep walking.

"That was at a point where I thought I needed to debate with them where really there was no point," she said. "I've just learned myself, if you're a Christian, just let people be and accept the world as it is.

"I think they're just trying to get under people's skin. If you believe in God, why not spread the word, but I don't see the point in pointing the finger because if you're a Christian than you're not supposed to judge as it is. " No'immediate fruit' The church has a few of what it would call success stories - one of its Philippine missionaries once was into the drug scene in Springfield - but that's not its main purpose, Keeling said.

"We're not about immediate fruit," he said. "We are trying to be a representative of God to bring God's glory. Man has offended God and we're just calling man to repentance. Whether anyone hears us or not. … Our responsibility is to be messengers and declare as opposed to just gaining fruit."

"Most [people ] think we're protesting something. They think we're against them, condemning them," said John David Stewart, the 18-year-old son of Kevn Stewart. "That's not what we're trying to do. We're trying to get them to follow the Lord instead of turning them off, but that's what they think we're doing."

Keeling added the words of another passer-by who once stopped to talk with him.

"He said, ' Those signs you are holding are like mirrors. … People don't hate you. They come and yell at you but actually they're seeing themselves and they hate that. ' Usually out of all the people, there will be people complaining and not liking it, but usually somewhere in the middle of the night there's someone that comes up quietly and says'Thank you for caring for us. ."

After standing with Kevn Stewart in front of the Walton Arts Center a shade past 11 p.m. one recent Friday evening, Keeling reported a conversation with a young woman.

"She said she would have been ashamed if her parents saw her here [how she was dressed ] and she hadn't even thought of that," Keeling said.

Moments later Keeling's thoughts were interrupted by another girl strolling down Dickson Street with her friends.

"Hi ? We're just going to take a picture with you. Is that cool ."

No answer. Instead he returned to his initial train of thought. The girl and others gathered around him. Keeling's face implied this was not the reason he and four others made an hourand-a-half trip in a Chevy Venture minivan.

"Did you get the sign ? … Oh, don't turn the sign."

Amid camera flashes, Keeling turned and drooped his head to the side away from the commotion. His sign followed suit. It was time to go home.