It’s an hour before suppertime, and the line outside Lone Oak First Baptist Church in Paducah, Ky., is wrapped around the building. The people are waiting for more than a Bible sermon; there’s a raffle tonight. Twenty-five guns are up for grabs.
There’s nothing new about gun raffles in Kentucky, even at a church. Last year, there were 50 events like this one in the state. The Kentucky Baptist Convention says it’s a surefire way to get new people through church doors.
Sunday school teacher David Keele says everyone he knows has a gun. The church giveaways, he says, are a rallying point.
“We’re doing two things here. One, we’re going to talk about the Second Amendment to bear arms. But that isn’t the primary thing,” Keele says. “The primary thing is who Jesus is.”
Inside during the steak dinner, the church band ditched the hymnal for the evening and played “Mustang Sally” instead. These are not worship services. They’re meant to be unintimidating to nonbelievers, although it turns out most of the people here already go to church, if not this one.
In attendance is Tom Jackson, who’s not a particularly regular churchgoer. “I do believe in God and I do believe in living the way that he wants you to live, let’s put it like that,” he says.
Jackson says he believes in turning the other cheek, but also in the right to defend himself and his family how he sees fit. You can turn the other cheek, he says, only to a point.
“[If] somebody kicks your door down, means to hurt your wife, your kids, you — how do you turn the other cheek to that?” Jackson asks.
The dinner drew 1,300 people, packed shoulder to shoulder, chowing down on steak and potatoes. On a stage full of elk heads and stuffed bears, Chuck McAlister gets everyone’s attention.
“I brought a gun with me tonight,” McAlister says. “I know that’s very controversial.”
McAlister is a self-described master storyteller and former host of an outdoor TV show. Southern Baptists in Kentucky recently hired him to be a full-time evangelist as denomination membership has declined.
And he welcomes the controversy; the best seats in the house are reserved for reporters. On stage, he cocks what he calls his most valuable gun.
“It’s a Browning Sweet 16. It’s my granddaddy’s bird gun,” McAlister says.
The family heirloom is the centerpiece of a sermon he’s preached in dozens of congregations now. He talks about scars left in the gun and scars left from sin. The former pastor talks about becoming a man and taking responsibility, and eventually gets around to discussing accepting Jesus Christ.
Along the way, McAlister gets in political jabs.
“There’s no government on the face of this earth that has the right to take this gun from me,” he says to thunderous applause.
In an interview, McAlister says he’s just meeting people where they are.
“If simply offering them an opportunity to win a gun allows them to come into the doors of the church and to hear that the church has a message that’s relevant to their lives, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that,” he says.
But you don’t have to go too far outside the church walls to find questions about the event.
The Machaen family lives across the street from the Lone Oak church. On a recent winter day, Cesar Machaen is lobbing snowballs with his wife and three children. He hadn’t read the signs promoting a gun raffle.
“Real guns? I don’t know what to say,” says Machaen, who was raised Catholic. “You go to church for peace, not to kill or fight.”
Back at the raffle, the actual drawing comes after the altar call, so no one leaves early.
Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, reminds winners that they have to pass a background check before claiming their prize. He also explains that church money wasn’t used to buy the guns.
“These weren’t purchases,” Chitwood says. “These were donated.”
While deer rifles are the big draw here, there are Bibles available, too. They’re stacked up on tables by the stage. Some even come with waterproof pages and camo covers. Unlike the guns, the Bibles aren’t free — they’re for sale.