Unity — across cultures and religious faiths — was the unofficial theme of the 2015 Iron Sharpens Iron conference that brought about 150 men together at Istrouma Baptist Church.
The conference, sponsored by Gulf South Men on March 21, was designed to bring together men from a variety of Christian faith groups to help them become more godly church leaders, fathers, husbands and sons.
Men from Southern Baptist and Missionary Baptist churches rubbed shoulders with Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and non-denominational “community” church members from as far away as Morgan City, throughout the day.
“We had a very significant mix and I saw guys bonding very readily. That is a sign of God’s hand in this,” said the Rev. Mark Lubbock, a Methodist pastor and executive director of Gulf South Men, a team from various denominations and Louisiana locations. “God is doing something big here!”
Iron Sharpens Iron is the largest Christian men’s organization in the U.S., Lubbock said, and this was just one of five conferences underway on that particular day. Over the course of a year, thousands of men will attend more than 60 conferences held in almost every state.
The group is named after the Bible verse in Proverbs 27:17 — “As iron sharpens iron so one man sharpens another.”
Both of the conference’s main speakers were African-Americans — Ray McElroy, a former NFL player and current chaplain for the Chicago Bears, and T.C. Stallings, who once played for the Calgary Stampeders and is rising star in Christian films, such as “Courageous” and the upcoming “War Room.”
Lubbock said he deliberately scheduled them to “bridge the racial divide within the church” and to “appeal to young men of all ethnic groups.”
One of those young men, 15-year-old Joshua Paul Granier, of Prairieville, was with his dad, Victor Canada, and attended McElroy’s morning session entitled, “All or Nothing.”
“I like how he got passionate and he wasn’t afraid to ask us questions like what we think about different issues,” Granier said.
“It’s amazing to see a bunch of guys from all kinds of work and all races open up and get more engaged with the Lord and think about what they need to do to have a better life for their families,” added his dad, who said they attend Hebron Baptist Church in Denham Springs.
Alex Keys, who came with a group from Star Hill Baptist Church, said he appreciated the Christian brotherhood.
“The kingdom of God is not limited to skin color or how tall or how short you are. For us, now, is to be about doing kingdom work,” Keys said. “The problems in our society run so deep now that it is time for the church to do something about it. That’s what draws us here — the partnership.”
Todd Shupe, a member of St. Andrews United Methodist Church, called the conference “amazing,” adding that he was going to “take some tools and techniques” back to improve his church’s men’s ministry as well as his family and marriage.
“It’s really cool there is a wide range of men at this meeting. It’s diverse, racially, in age, in denominations and guys from all over the South,” Shupe said.
Ed White, who attends New St. John Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, said he was also pleased with the mix, especially in the 16 break-out sessions designed to help the men become better fathers, sons and husbands.
“It is about Christian brothers sharing common struggles,” White said. “When you sit in a class you’re not talking about ‘this is what a white man goes through’ or ‘this is what a black man goes through.’ Everybody can relate to what they are all going through.”
McElroy, who played cornerback for the Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions from 1995 until 2001, told the men to “Meditate on the Messiah” based on the Matthew chapter 14 story of Jesus walking on the water to the disciples in their storm-tossed boat.
“Jesus went to them — not away from them,” McElroy said. “He told them not to be afraid and when Peter heard Jesus say ‘come,’ (to me) he moved courageously and got out of the boat. Nobody walks on water. But if Jesus says so, yes you can!”
McElroy called a half dozen men onto the stage to illustrate how problems in life, just like a defensive line, can be overcome.
He charged into them like a running back, but they held strong and blocked his forward progress.
“We need to stop trying to fight through and just let God do it,” he said, then leaped into their outstretched arms. “When we do that very thing that was pushing against us, God will use that to lift us up,” he said as they lifted him high.
Stallings told the men his story of how a series of seemingly unrelated events divinely worked out for a dramatic change of careers from football to owning a gym to a successful career in acting.
He outlined a formula for success, all based on a series of scriptures that, if followed, will result in God’s blessing on a man’s life.
To illustrate his point, he showed a slide of his badly smashed SUV, an accident that could have killed him. He wears the key as a reminder of how temporary life is.
“We all need to think eternally,” Stallings said. “We have no shot clock in life. We don’t know when the game is up.”
Rev. Jeff Ginn, host pastor of Istrouma Baptist Church, summed it up afterward: “The Scripture says, ‘Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity’ (Psalm 133:1). Iron Sharpens Iron is one of those events that brings that verse into reality. Men from diverse churches, cities and backgrounds united around the Lord.”