The Rev. Buck Hill is filling a pulpit Sunday in Miller, South Dakota, which was vacated in an unusual way.
The Rev. Joseph Raleigh was arrested Oct. 24 in Blunt in a law enforcement sex sting and remains in jail in Pierre facing state and federal charges that he tried to pay for sex with someone he thought was a 15-year-old girl.
Raleigh had been pastor of First Baptist Church in Miller since July 2013.
He resigned within day of his arrest, said Hill, who is missions director for the Dakota Baptist Convention that includes 55 Southern Baptist churches in South Dakota and about 40 in North Dakota.
Hill got a call from leaders of the 35-member First Baptist, where Raleigh had worked for a big ranch owned by members, as well as served as pastor.
Raleigh, 34, and his wife came from Ohio, where he was ordained by a congregation. He served about five years at a church in Hysham, Montana, before coming to Miller in 2013.
Hill said the Southern Baptist Convention, nationally and regionally, does not tell the independent and autonomous congregations in its association what to do. But when church members ask for help, he’s there, he said.
First Baptist was poised to fire Raleigh based on his arrest, but his resignation allows them to better minister to his family, Hill said.
“There’s a parsonage there and she and their children live there,” he said.
He met with the congregation’s leaders within days.
“Their first question was what do we do next? How do we minister to the family? Because we know that even if he’s found not guilty, he’s probably not coming back to the church. And he won’t be at his next hearing until next year. So they want to make sure they take care of the family. And they are going a good job of it.”
Hill, who lives in Aberdeen, preached that first Sunday in Miller that Raleigh was behind bars.
His sermon included the story of Jesus telling the woman caught in adultery that He did condemn her, and asking the crowd of her accusers to throw stones if they are without sin.
“It was on forgiveness and grace,” Hill said of the sermon. “Regardless if (Raleigh) is guilty or not guilty, the Bible says we are compelled to forgive him.”
There also are practical things to get right, about any liability the congregation might face in Raleigh’s arrest and the relationship still there with Raleigh’s wife and their children, who still attend the church.
“I talked to the leadership about how there is an obligation that the church should have to make sure she is taken care of. So there has been an outpouring of from all the churches in the Dakota Baptist Convention to make sure if she needs help, she will be taken care of.”
Hill has some experience in these things.
Timothy Thompson, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist in Mobridge was charged with last year with having sexual contact in 2008 with a boy, then 16, from the congregation. Thompson had left the area and apparently followed the boy to Denver two years ago, Hill said. A jury in Selby acquitted Thompson just last month, three days, in fact, after Raleigh was arrested.
But when the congregation learned of the accusations, it asked Hill to come in, fill the pulpit and help them heal from the scandal.
“The church in Mobridge actually became stronger because of what happened,” Hill said. It wasn’t quite as intense, as Thompson had left the area some time before.
“I think it took the scales off their eyes. Tim was a very charismatic person, the kind who could talk birds out of trees. He was just a great communicator and they loved it.”
But after seeing the accusations from fellow church members – there were other stories about Thompson, too, and congregation members consider Thompson guilty of bad behavior with the boy – church members saw Thompson’s gifts in a different light, Hill said.
“They realized they had let a man dictate everything that happened. They realized they need to be doing more for the congregation, be more accountable, have more scrutiny in calling the next guy.”
“Sometimes we get into this idea that we live in our town, and hey, we go to church and everybody in church should be upstanding and upright, and this thing sort of busted their bubble. The church is susceptible to the things the world just like any other group. So they are stronger now they are aware of what a sinful world we live in.”
Hill also knew William Guthrie, the Presbyterian pastor in Wolsey, South Dakota - where Hill served a Baptist church for years – sentenced in 2000 to life in prison for murdering his wife. He worked with Guthrie and preached in his pulpit.
“So when I heard about Joe, was I surprised? No, but I was sickened. Just like when I heard about Timothy Thompson. How do we get to this place, where this stuff happens?”
Hill says such experience makes him see grace and forgiveness as the essential message of the Christian gospel.
Because it’s needed by everyone, he said.
“Sin is sin, the Bible says. We as humans tend to number them, but in the Bible, God says sin is sin. In that first sermon in the Miller church, I asked the one without sin to stand up. No one did.”