Retired Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin believes in miracles.
“I’ve seen too many of them” not to, he told a nearly full ballroom at the Hilton Vancouver Washington on Friday morning. The occasion was the 13th annual Clark County Mayors’ and Civic Leaders’ Prayer Breakfast, which is organized by the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship in America.
Boykin’s keynote speech focused entirely on his Christian faith and the way prayer and the Bible have seen him and the soldiers he’s commanded — most of them — through battle.
Controversy erupted over the choice of Boykin earlier this week due to his previous denunciations of Islam. Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, who was to host, wound up boycotting the event, and none of the Vancouver City Council attended. Most Clark County mayors also stayed away; many told The Columbian they already had other plans.
The word “Islam” did not cross Boykin’s lips during his speech on Friday morning.
“I thought maybe you came just to see if I would going to say anything stupid,” he quipped at the start. Just to get anything controversial out of the way, he added that he has left the Republican party and now is an independent, that he is still a “Washington Redskins fan,” presumably despite any Native American sensitivities about the use of that name, and that he stands “firmly with the state of Israel and the Jewish people.”
After those remarks, Boykin’s speech was all about the way his faith has helped him and other soldiers through some of the deadliest situations anyone can imagine — and how sometimes even the most faithful must accept tragedy and the mystery of grace.
Despite the controversy over Boykin, attendance appeared to be only slightly less than the approximately 700 who attended 2013’s event, which was held in the same ballroom.
Outside, about two dozen protesters, including state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, stood on the sidewalk outside the Hilton Vancouver Washington with signs before the event got underway. Other protesters included the Rev. Brooks Berndt of United Church of Christ in Hazel Dell and a pastor from Camas.
“They say this event is about building unity and community, but it’s the exact opposite of that,” said Kelly Keigwin. “It’s very upsetting that they’d bring in anybody so opposite.”
The protest organizer was Erica Marchbank, a local Democratic and gay activist. Marchbank said the organizers of the event showed a “lack of responsibility. We should be sending a message of other than intolerance.”
But inside, community organizer Patty Maggiora said the event was important to attend “to come together in prayer for our civic leaders,” and that it was an “agree to disagree” type of situation.
Tom Iberle, the executive director of the Christian homeless outreach ministry Friends of the Carpenter, said: “All the Muslims I have known have been peace-loving community leaders who care deeply about Clark County. Islam isn’t a religion of hate. That’s a misrepresentation.”
Inside the ballroom, visitor Michael TerBush of the Full Gospel Men’s group of Tualatin, Ore. told The Columbian that “Muslims should be exterminated. It’s a demonic theocracy, not a religion.” Its holy book, the Koran, is full of archaic, barbaric punishments and practices, he said.
Could you find those same sorts of admonitions in the Bible? Yes — “but the God of the Bible is the real God,” TerBush said.
In 1978 Boykin was invited to volunteer for a new, super-secret Delta Force that was being put together at Fort Bragg, N.C. He did what ever God-fearing Christian man does when confronted by such a huge decision, he said: “I called my mother.”
He got the crucial go-ahead. While he was training for the unit and doing things like carrying 75 pounds across 40-mile marches through the mountains, he said, it was prayer that got him back on track again when he got lost. In fact he was the first trainee to make it to the finish line, he said.
In 1980, he was getting ready to fly into Iran as part of a secret mission to rescue 52 hostages who were being held in the American embassy. He led the group’s prayers before their helicopters took off. The helicopters stopped in the desert about 100 miles from Tehran to refuel — and that’s when everything started to go famously wrong, Boykin said, due to confusion and vertigo, darkness and dust. One helicopter crashed into another and there was a “huge fireball” with 45 men “hopelessly trapped” inside, Boykin said.
“There was nothing I could do,” he thought at first. But that wasn’t true. He prayed hard for God to “spare these men,” he said — and “through the flames came 45 men, jumping out into the desert. I saw a miracle. A powerful miracle,” Boykin said.
In 1983, Boykin insisted on leading prayers before another mission — this one to fly Black Hawk helicopters into the Caribbean nation of Grenada with troops to stop Cuba and the Soviet Union from building airstrips there.
Boykin was hit in the chest and shoulder by anti-aircraft fire. In the end, he added, his Black Hawk came away with 54 holes and kept flying. It was another miracle, he said.
Boykin also mentioned his very devout sister, who died at age 49 despite her own faith, and an Army doctor who nearly died — should have died — after a mortar attack. Boykin was holding his hand and wouldn’t let go even when the man’s signals had all flat-lined and a nurse asked him to give up. Today, Boykin said, that doctor has raised four children and taught Sunday school. He knows his life was saved by a miracle, he said.
“You either believe we serve a God of miracles or you don’t,” he said.
Week of controversy
On Monday, word started spreading about Boykin’s reputation as a firebrand who has garnered negative press and protests from civil liberties groups for his remarks about Islam — and other comments on a wide range of topics — going back over a decade.
In various interviews, speeches and writings, Boykin has said that the war on terrorism is a Christian war against Satan. He has called Islam is “a totalitarian way of life” that “should not be protected under the First Amendment.” And he has said that President Barack Obama’s “identity is more with Islam” than with Christianity.
His remarks and reputation were underlined this week by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national group with a state office in Seattle. A letter co-signed by the director of that office and by Dr. Khalid Khan, a trustee and spokesman for the Islamic Society of Southwest Washington, which has a mosque in Hazel Dell, appealed to Leavitt and other local mayors to see to it that Boykin was dropped from the event.
That didn’t happen. But Leavitt, who was supposed to introduce other Clark County mayors as the event’s host, announced on Wednesday that he would boycott the breakfast. Mayor Ron Onslow of Ridgefield attended, but said he would walk out if Boykin started insulting Islam.
Besides the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship, other major sponsors are the Christian Chamber Northwest and Serving Our Neighbors. The Clark County YMCA was initially a sponsor, but withdrew its support this week after controversy came to light. No government agencies sponsored the breakfast, though public officials and government employees were in attendance.