JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Christian Examiner) – Marking his first visit to an evangelical church other than his own since becoming the GOP vice presidential candidate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence visited First Baptist Church Jacksonville, Florida Sept. 19, where he shared details about his own spiritual journey and talked about the urgency of prayer and the need for voter savvy in morning worship.
"In these troubled times at home and abroad — these challenging times for American families — it's still true that if His people who are called by His name, will humble themselves and pray, we will again hear from heaven and I know and I know and I know, He will heal our land," Pence told a large crowd in a question-and-answer session with the church's pastor, Mac Brunson.
Seated just a few rows from the front of the cavernous 7,700-seat auditorium, Indiana's first lady, Karen Pence, sat with Brunson's wife Debbie, while the preacher posed broad questions to the politician – beginning with a request for Pence to share his personal testimony.
"I'm a Christian, a conservative and a Republican," Pence quipped, "in that order."
RESPONSE TO A WEEKEND OF VIOLENCE
Looking out over the lively audience that had erupted in applause, Pence drew a breath before talking about the weekend terror attacks in New York and New Jersey.
"Obviously we're all troubled, we're all troubled in our hearts by the events that took place in New York last night, yesterday in New Jersey and yesterday in Minnesota," Pence told the congregation.
Withholding any labels early Sunday since there was an ongoing investigation, Pence encouraged prayers for the wounded, the investigators, and the first responders who would be exposed to the "acts of violence."
"Prayer and vigilance is the order of the day," Pence said. "And it is how Americans have ever bravely responded to such acts, whatever the cause — whether it was terrorist attacks, whether it was inspired by terrorists abroad as you experienced here in Florida not long ago, or whether it was home-grown violence — we urge prayer and vigilance."
'I GAVE MY LIFE TO JESUS CHRIST'
Pence told the congregation in Jacksonville that he was "blessed" to be raised in a home where his family had a strong faith and was in church every Sunday. College was a turning point, however, and gave him the opportunity to walk away from that faith – and into a group of friends who were members of a non-denominational fellowship group.
"I found that something was missing as I came up," Pence recalled.
An older friend, now a pastor in Indianapolis, inspired him initially to "be Christian," Pence said. He talked with his friend about the Bible and the claims it had for him "personally."
He also greatly admired his friend's cross and asked for a catalog in order to buy one for himself. "That was before you could order everything on your phone."
"I was gonna be Christian," Pence said. "He turned and looked at me and said, 'You know, you've got to wear it in the heart before you wear it around your neck.'"
Just a few months later at a Christian music festival at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, Pence said he heard one preacher after another "not talk to me so much about what Jesus had done to save the world, but what Jesus had done, he'd done for me; and my heart broke with gratitude and I gave my heart to Jesus Christ."
Painting a vivid picture of what it was like to be at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on 9/11 when terrorists stuck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York City, Pence said he assembled his staff for a "quick prayer" before directing them to move away from the building before he walked onto the Capitol grounds in an erstwhile effort to "report for duty."
Later Pence would discover that if the plane headed for the Capitol had not crashed in Pennsylvania, he would have been directly in its path.
With "half of the sky ... filled with mud-brown columns of smoke billowing out of the Pentagon, jet aircraft flying at low levels, sirens everywhere [and] pandemonium," Pence said he stood still and thought of Jeremiah 26:3, "The Lord will surround in perfect peace the man who will trust Him."
The 57-year-old father of three, said he had an unusual assurance that everything would turn out OK.
"I had peace in the midst of that pandemonium, and I'll carry that the rest of my life," Pence said. "The peace that even in the midst of that, that God's grace was extending not only to my whole family but to this nation and in the 15 years that have followed I truly do believe that His grace has continued to protect our nation and it ever shall."
PARTICIPATE AND PRAY
Noting his father is a combat veteran who served in Korea, Pence said it is the duty of American citizens to consider the importance of the national election, to pray and to vote.
"It is our duty to participate and to pray and the choice in this election couldn't be more clear on the issues regarding the sanctity of life, the freedoms enshrined in our Bill of Rights, and even all the choices about national security and a stronger America in all the world and a prosperous America at home," Pence said.
Noting he and his wife have prayed with Donald Trump, his running mate, the GOP nominee for president, Pence called him "a man who was raised in a family of faith."
"He's got a faith in God, faith in the American people," Pence said of Trump.
Despite any debate, however, Pence encouraged the congregation gathered to become active in Florida in the election and to pray.
Pray "for all of those who are in public service; whatever their politics, whatever their philosophy of government; because I really do believe that at the end of the day that participation is important," Pence said, "prayer even more so."