“You want to go with me?” Dad asked.
“Yeah! Can I?” I responded with childlike enthusiasm.
“Get your things together and we’ll be leaving early in the morning.”
The year was 1977 and my dad, Don Wildmon, had just left the pulpit of First United Methodist Church in Southaven, Mississippi, to form what was then known as the National Federation for Decency. He had witnessed a moral decline in America and felt called by the Lord to do something about it. So he founded NFD (now American Family Association.)
One of the primary ways to grow an organization is by getting before people and convincing them you have a cause worth supporting. So in 1977, that’s what Dad did. Yes, he traveled by plane some (when he could afford it or when an invitation included airfare), but most of the time – early on anyway – Dad got in his old green Buick and drove to his destination. Sometimes, when school wasn’t in session, he would invite me to go along. For a kid 14 years old, the idea of traveling to new parts of the country was very exciting.
So mom helped me pack a few items and off Dad and I went to Atlanta, Georgia. From Southaven, just across the Tennessee state line from Memphis, this was about an eight-hour trip. I often carried games I could play by myself when we went on these journeys. And Dad and I would talk about where we were going, what he would be doing, and finally about my favorite subjects – the St. Louis Cardinals and Mississippi State sports. He didn’t follow the Cardinals religiously like I did, but he did know enough about the Bulldogs to talk for a while. Mostly he just listened to me. I also remember when some 1950s music would come on the radio how I would give him a strange look, and he would laugh and sometimes sing along. Then I would give him an even stranger look because while Dad was a great preacher in my eyes, his singing left a whole lot to be desired. A whole lot. Still does. Sorry, Dad.
When we got to Atlanta we found our host church. I can’t remember what night of the week it was, I just know it was summertime in the Deep South, and it was very hot and humid. The church had about 150 people packed in and the doors open in the back. It was also the first time I had ever been in a Pentecostal worship service with tambourines and all. I sat near the back as Dad delivered his message. Dad was very energetic behind the pulpit – as Methodists go anyway – and the “Amen(s)!” and “Praise the Lord(s)!” and, my personal favorite, “Come on(s)!” did nothing but enhance his vigor. Dad, a lifelong Methodist, was right at home with our Pentecostal brothers and sisters. Me? The closest thing I had been exposed to that was anything like that worship service was at youth camp at Camp Lake Stephens – singing without hymnals, moving around, a little loud, hands lifted high. Why, this seemed like a…seemed like a…pep rally for a Mississippi State football game to me. “Can they do this in church?” I thought. “Is this OK with God?”
But what struck me that night in 1977 as much as anything was that these folks were connecting with Dad’s message. His sadness for the moral decline in America was their sadness. His longing to try and do something about it was their longing. Dad said what the problems were and what – as he saw it in those days – the answers were. That if we were to have any hope for America, Christians – above all people – should rise up and be the salt and light Jesus said we should be in Matthew 5.
After the service, the church gave him an offering. Many people gave him their individual home addresses and said, “Send me your newsletter, I want to support you, Brother Wildmon.” And so the ministry grew and gained influence. Who really knows, but perhaps you are reading this today because someone who was at that worship service in Atlanta supported us way back in the early days.
We’re still fighting. We’re still moving ahead. We’re still defending and promoting Christian principles. I see so much more we can do with your support and the Lord’s leading in these coming years.
Nowadays, Dad and I rarely ride the highways together to far off places so he can speak to groups. In fact, he doesn’t travel or speak much any more. After 20 years of beating that trail, one does tend to tire. But the message for a better America where morality and virtue still matter continues to connect with hundreds of thousands of people of all different stripes.
Thank you for your support of AFA. Now, let’s roll up our sleeves and get back to work.