With open arms

Gallant, Alabama, US --I wasn't really expecting to be welcomed into the church of Roy Moore. Especially by his siblings.

The firebrand Republican candidate in a crucial race for the Senate in the US state of Alabama did not exactly have a warm relationship with the press. To Moore and his supporters, the reporting of accusations that he molested minors decades ago was a “witch hunt” by the “liberal media elite.” As a member of the media (and a Frenchman on top of that!), I did not wait to be greeted with open arms.

Nine women have accused the 70-year-old Moore of pursuing them when they were teenage girls and he was a local district attorney in his 30s, including one who said he groped her when she was 14 and another who said he assaulted her when she was 16. Even before the accusations, the former chief justice of the Alabama supreme court was a controversial figure for his battle to publicly display the Ten Commandments.

The accusations against Moore have meant that the race in Alabama was turned into a nailbiter of a contest. The state had not sent a Democrat to the US Senate since 1992, but suddenly Moore's opponent Doug Jones had a shot at it -- and ended up winning.

For a month before the election, journalists had descended on Sundays on the First Baptist Church of Gallant, a rural house of worship that Moore has attended for the past 25 years. And the Sunday before the election, I was among them.

Attorney Gloria Allred (R) and Beverly Young Nelson hold up a drawing of Nelson when she was younger during a press conference on November 13, 2017, in New York, alleging that Roy Moore sexually assaulted Nelson when she was a minor in Alabama. (AFP / Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

You always feel guilty a bit as a reporter when news dictates that you have to descend on a place and interview people who were minding their own business.

Moore was not in attendance the Sunday that I came, so we were left to question others in the congregation of what they thought about the election, and him. When I saw a woman park her car and head toward the church, I approached her. “It’s all a bunch of lies,” 64-year-old Nancy Barksdale told me when I asked her about the allegations against him. Then she added: “I’m Roy’s sister.”

That left me dumbfounded. For some reason, I didn’t think about the fact that Moore’s siblings all live in Gallant and would likely be at the church.

Eventually the congregation went inside, leaving us journalists to mill around in the parking lot.  Then a few members came out and invited the journalists to come inside, without the cameras.

Tom Brown, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Gallant, at the door of the church on December 10, 2017. (AFP / Jim Watson)

I’m a bit taken aback. To these people we are out to destroy a man they love and admire. Yet here they are, welcoming us at the small entrance, shaking our hands. I don’t get the feeling that the welcome is staged or a tactic.

One of the worshippers, Toni Martin, takes me under her wing. "I've never talked to a reporter before," she tells me. She also turns out to be Moore’s sister, at 58 years old, the youngest. I settle close to her and Nancy for the service.

The church is small and intimate and has a warm feeling, accentuated by the red  velvet coverings of the pews and the altar. The sunlight pours in through stained glass windows. Children fool around during the hymns. The theme of the day is Corinthians 9:15 "Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!"

The service is delivered by Tom Brown, who has been a pastor here for 25 years. He is dressed in a black suit, purple shirt and striped tie, carries a glass plastic cup of water in his hand and speaks into a head-mounted microphone, like a rock singer. The only allusion to politics that he makes to the 75 people in attendance is an announcement that on election night, a bus will be available to take congregation members to Moore’s headquarters.

Roy Moore campaigns in Midland, Alabama, December 11, 2017. (AFP / Jim Watson)

After the first hymns, the worshippers greet and hug each other. Their smiles and goodwill are contagious -- I find myself shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries with some dozen people. People ask me my denomination. I tell them that most Christians in France are Catholics. Toni tries to elucidate the evangelical tradition to me: "We believe the Bible is the exact word of God."

As the church empties, I bring up her brother. I have the feeling that the fact that I have just spent an hour among them has made them more comfortable talking to me.

"He is one of the most godly men I know," Toni says of her older brother, the eldest of five siblings. "He's like the leader of the family."

"It's been very difficult because we know Roy as a person. We know the accusations are not true. We support him through prayer."

Roy Moore and his wife Kayla in Midland, Alabama, December 11, 2017. (AFP / Jim Watson)

I don’t end up getting a scoop. But I get a glimpse into why the people who have known Moore for years, not just his family, are so loyal to him despite the allegations.

As the pastor told reporters after the service: “It’s tough, guys and it’s tough for his mother, 90 years old. I want you all to think about that okay? You all condemn Roy Moore all you want to, okay, that's fine. I know you're just doing your job. But you all need to think about the fallout to his family, okay?"

In the end, I’m very glad that the church members invited me in. It gave us both an opportunity to discover and learn about each other -- they had an opportunity to tell me that Moore was a “good man” and I had an opportunity to tell them that not all media were “fake.”

(AFP / Jim Watson)


Ivan Couronne