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Why Gainesville church celebrates patriotism with Sunday service
A color guard representing the branches of American military stand at the front of the congregation on Sunday, July 1, at Lakewood Baptist Church during a patriotic service. Photo courtesy Amy Leonard.

Many in Hall County got a head start on their July Fourth patriotism in an unexpected place: the pew.

Ken Brown’s body was in church this past Sunday at Lakewood Baptist Church, his ears listened to the sermon, his eyes were on his pastor and the congregation — but his spirit was stepping off of a jet in Columbia, South Carolina. It was 1969, an he was arriving home from Vietnam.

“There was nothing, there was no reception at all. It was just bad stuff — nobody wanted to speak, nobody wanted to say hello, everyone kind of turned away from you,” Brown said on Tuesday, June 3.

But at Lakewood on Sunday, at a “patriotic service” set each year for the Sunday of Independence Day, that moment from ‘69 was alive in Brown again. Instead of isolation, community. Instead of cold shoulders and cutting glances, thanks. 

“When I get up and walk across the floor to my flag, the United States Marine Corps flag, a feeling comes over me like I’m proud to be a Marine, I’m proud to be an American, and I’m proud of my church,” Brown said. “It really means a lot.”

Patriotic services are a mainstay in Southern Baptist and other evangelical Christian churches. The overt displays of patriotism — gatherings of military flags before the congregation, recognition of veterans and active duty military, singing of anthems and marches — aren’t about putting country over God, said The Rev. Tom Smiley, leader of Lakewood Baptist.

“We always do it not to worship America or even to worship freedom, but we do it to thank God for the gift of America because we believe God has used this nation greatly to help proclaim Jesus to the nation,” Smiley said.

For Brown, who spent three years in the Marines fighting in Vietnam, the event has reinvigorated his faith each of the past 15 years he’s been a member of Lakewood Baptist.

“This brings out the Christianity in you because it’s showing the love and the faith that people have in you today, and not just in you but that God is performing — as young and old veterans, we have something to fall back on,” Brown said. “A good group of people honoring our service as we honored them when we did our job.”

And a group of people to fall back on is becoming a ever-critical need for veterans in the United States. With appalling rates of suicide, homelessness and mental illness, veterans and the care available to them have been a fixation for American politicians and activists for years.

For Adam Hicks, who served for 10 years in the Navy, six on active duty and four while attending the Naval Academy in Maryland, the patriotic service reminded him of the strong bonds of community that remain available to veterans who need only seek it out.

“We celebrate the Lord that we serve. It’s important to be respectful of our country, but it’s not a service that lifts people up over the Lord,” said Hicks, who grew up in South Hall. “For me, it’s the big sense of the community both as a body of believers and as a body of Americans. That’s the key thing — our Christian faith is about living in community.”