Greater New Bethel Baptist is the church home of the parents of James Byrd Jr. Their son was dragged to his death along Huff Creek Road outside Jasper, Texas, last year in perhaps the most publicized hate crime of the last two decades. The trial of the first of three men accused of the murder ended February 25, 1999, with a death sentence. The two others await trial.
Byrds execution at the end of a 28-foot logging chain attached to a pick-up was a throwback to lesson-killings from before the civil rights movement. It made Jasper the coveted battlefield of the KKK and the New Black Panthers, both of whom came to town to play the murder for all its worth. For area ministers such as Rev. Kenneth Lyons, pastor of Greater New Bethel, one thing was clear: The Jasper churches had to do something.
Not that Jasper is short on churches. The tally from the Yellow Pages is 27 churches for the towns 7,000 citizensLyons estimates the actual number is likely more than double that. Non-denominational, mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Southern Baptists, and Church of Christthe Christian population is legion. When you go out to Sunday lunch in Jasper, almost all the men are in coat and tie. You can bet they just got out of church.