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Concerns raised over Louisiana Baptist team’s past visits to Welsh school

22 September 2023


One of the visitors from Louisiana addresses schoolchildren

One of the visitors from Louisiana addresses schoolchildren

INVESTIGATIVE reports by The News Movement (TNM) and ITV Cymru Wales, in the form of a documentary film, have raised concerns about what was being presented to schoolchildren during the decade of annual school visits by First West Baptist Church (FWBC), Louisiana, to Bridgend, in south Wales.

The visits were first made, by invitation, in 2008, in response to community anguish after 20 young people in the town, aged between 15 and 28, took their own life over a two-year period (News, 20 February 2008). The exchanges became known as the Bridgend Louisiana Partnership (BLP).

Alwen Sleath, a reporter for TNM, was seven at the time of the deaths in her home town, where a community had been “left grieving and looking for answers”, she says in her documentary film. “My dad was a teacher in a Bridgend school at the time, and he remembers the panic.

“Bridgend really started to have a bit of a reputation. As soon as you met anybody and you said you worked in Bridgend, they made the emotional link. It was a really worrying time.”

Asked how the schools had responded to the deaths, and what action they had taken, her father, Darryl, remembered: “We did reach out to external agencies and any group that really could offer some support — helplines, and charities that could offer emotional support. We were open to help from anywhere, really.”

Ms Sleath remembers the church visiting her school when she was 11, and the impact that the team, led by an associate pastor, Pastor Mark Fenn, had made. “They were the first Americans I’d ever met. . . They all walked into our assembly with matching red polos on, carrying guitars, and I immediately assumed they were famous. . . They would perform concerts for us, and bring in entertainers like bodybuilders and football freestylers. I even remember asking one of them for their autograph.”

Those with less positive memories of the visit included Will, a pupil at another Bridgend school. He recalled dealing with issues of sexuality at the time, and challenging the team on the views presented on issues such as equal rights and same-sex marriage. “I was thinking, they’re not representing me — they’re actually against me. I was very upset and angry,” he says in the documentary.

He complained to his head of year about what he had heard. The whole year group was assured that the team did not represent the school. “But they still showed up the next day; we were still forced to go through those lessons,” Will says.

“I think, if anything, they’ve definitely pushed queer people right back into the closet by saying things like that, and by openly saying that we shouldn’t have the same rights. So that’s definitely not going to help suicide prevention, is it?”

Kate, from the same school, when interviewed, spoke of the team’s annual show in the pavilion, attended by pupils from the different schools. “You knew what you were kind of in for . . . singing, a good night, but also with some Bible verses. . . You kind of just chill out for those bits, I suppose, if you’re not religious,” she reflected.

“But, towards the end of the night, they suggested, ‘Let’s everyone close their eyes. . . OK, raise your hand if you’ve converted, like you’re going to join our religion.’ I remember looking around and thinking, ‘Wow! You’ve just got such a hold of these people.’”

FWBC is affiliated to the conservative Southern Baptist Convention. The documentary confirms that they were invited into schools after the success of their first visits, to run cultural days that would give children positive experiences. The partnership continued until 2018.

Team members were high-school teachers, who were invited to speak to pupils in lessons. Dr Varuni Rathkey, a biology teacher at the school attended by Ms Sleath, said that, in the early years of the partnership, it was presented as low-key — an opportunity for the visiting teachers to “talk to us about how their lives were over there.

“They’d always come in to one of my lessons, usually a science lesson. I think, first of all, they started talking about how their school was — a quite gentle approach — but then they would go into obviously why they thought . . . certain sciences being sort of a lie, basically.”

Creationism was one such reference: “I had actually asked that they didn’t come into my classroom, because it made me feel quite uneasy,” Dr Rathkey said. “The [visiting science teacher] would say, ‘This is what I teach to my children,’ and then look at me and ask if I’d anything to say . . . kind of goading. . .

“It’s just misinformation. I’m a teacher, and I’m there to educate my pupils. Whatever beliefs I have, that has no relevance on what I have to teach in the science curriculum; so it goes against my beliefs as a teacher and and my role as a teacher.”

The documentary-makers asked the school attended by Will and Kate why the visits were not stopped after the complaints, but were told that there was no record of any. They said: “The First West Baptist Church told us that homosexuality was never one of [its] teaching topics in the schools. If that subject was addressed at all, it was strictly in response to a direct question from one of the students, and was answered with the permission of the teacher.

“They say that an answer from one of our team would have been given in kindness, respect, and honesty from a biblical perspective. They also say that in no way was a gay student ever demeaned, and holding a different worldview does not qualify as homophobic.”

ITV Cymru Wales contacted FWBC for a response to the allegations. Pastor Fenn said that their content was based on requests and approval of the teachers, and that the school safeguarding guidelines were completely honoured. “We received no complaints about our visits, and the fact that heads invited us back should be evidence that not only did we not do or say anything inappropriate, but we added value.”

The team visited 20 schools, as well as churches, youth groups, and homes for the elderly. Pastor Fenn said: “We were able to expose about 12,000 people to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and saw over 200 decisions for Christ. That was just explosive growth.”

On TNM’s website, Ms Sleath concludes: “What a church believes is completely up to them, but schools in Wales have a duty to protect their children; and in this case, they didn’t. Schools have safeguarding policies, which include promising to treat all children fairly and report all incidents of homophobia.

“But from what we’ve been told, the schools broke their own rules by not taking these complaints seriously, and allowing the visits to continue despite knowing the church’s views.

“The initial purpose of these visits was to help a community that was vulnerable and looking for solutions. And, while the visits may have begun with good intentions, teachers and pupils in Bridgend have been let down by the people who should have protected them.”

A spokeswoman for the Church in Wales said that an approach was made by the team from First West Baptist Church to church schools in Bridgend, but that contact was not sustained.

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