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Taking a knee

Centralia players surround Kennedy, in blue, after they prayed following their game against Bremerton. (Meegan M. Reid/Kitsap Sun/AP)

Meegan M. Reid/Kitsap Sun/AP

Kennedy

Photo by Deena C. Bouknight

Lifestyle

Taking a knee

In Bremerton, the 50-yard line has become a test of faith

At the Oct. 16 homecoming game between the Bremerton Knights and the Centralia Tigers, everyone was waiting to see what happened after the final score was tallied.

A month earlier, the Bremerton, Wash., school board had ordered high-school football coach Joe Kennedy to stop his seven-year tradition of praying silently at the 50-yard line after each game. When Kennedy first began praying, he did it on his own. Then a few players joined him. After a while, most of the players, along with some parents and cheerleaders, and occasionally players from opposing teams, joined him.

None of this was a problem until this fall, when the school board declared the postgame prayer a breach of the First Amendment. At an Oct. 15 board meeting Bremerton alumnus Wesley Bonetti, who hosts an Atheist Nomads podcast, spoke against the prayer, and the board unanimously reaffirmed its position.

At the game Bonetti sat in the front row of the stands and told me Kennedy has “been warned. What he’s done is against the law.” Many students at the game thought differently. Near the hot dog stand senior Ahneisha Ellison said, “He’s been doing it so long, I don’t know why it’s a problem now.” Another senior, Oceola Lee, said, “All the kids who pray with him do it voluntarily.” 

Many parents of players were not sure why the school board saw a problem. Paula Guerrero, mom of #56, said, “My son goes out every time. It doesn’t hurt anybody,” because Kennedy “just walks and everybody walks with him.” Theresa Circulado, mom of #3, said Kennedy “goes above and beyond his duties as a coach and a friend to the parents,” sometimes helping players with expenses: “That’s just the kind of man he is. … He’d give the shirt off his back.”

What would Kennedy do today? As the last few seconds of the fourth quarter ran down, local reporters prepared to move onto the field. Bremerton had lost. Kennedy walked to the 50-yard line and went to his knees. A cluster of Bremerton blue and gold uniforms joined him. Then Centralia orange and white uniforms came from the other side of the field. Then cheerleaders came. Soon fans streamed from the stands. A mother pushing a stroller jogged over. 

Kennedy prayed silently, then broke away from the crowd and walked toward a quiet corner. A knot of reporters and photographers walked backward in front of him, asking questions and snapping pictures. Kennedy responded with tears in his eyes. Two attorneys trailed him.

Later, he told me about his background: Adopted at birth by a couple at first unable to have children, who “didn’t need me anymore” once they started having children of their own. Bounced around foster homes and boys homes. Restless and angry, he struggled in school and then joined the Marines, where he served 20 years and saw combat.

Kennedy developed faith in Christ after getting married. He first turned down Bremerton’s offer to coach football, but the next year agreed to consider it. One night, around midnight, he flipped through television channels and came across Facing the Giants, a Christian movie about a football coach who lives out his faith. “I just dropped to my knees and lost it,” Kennedy said.

He took the job, in part, because Bremerton has many single-parent families: “I knew what it was like trying to grow up [without a father figure]. Every year there’s some kid who keeps me coming back. … It’s just these young men, and seeing them become something incredible.”

He said he loves watching them grow up, graduate, and start families of their own.

Kennedy said he was at peace with his decision to pray. The Bremerton School District, though, was not, and threatened to discipline and possibly fire Kennedy for praying after the game: “You may not engage in demonstrative religious activity, readily observable to (if not intended to be observed by) students and the attending public.” Kennedy on Oct. 26 said he would pursue legal action against the school district.

For an update, see “High school coach put on leave after refusing to stop on-field prayers.”

Hands and feet

Seventy-six-year-old Kay Stafford thought her 40-year-old frame business was safe when torrential October rains brought historic flooding to her home near Columbia, S.C. Her business was located in an old bank building in the state capital, but its steel construction and bulletproof glass meant that water filled the shop to the ceiling until a padlocked door gave way: Webb Rawls Galleries lost at least $75,000 in paintings, equipment, frames, and unfinished work.

Stafford despaired, but her pastor sent church crews to help. “People poured in,” she said. “They asked me, how can I help? Most of them I didn’t know because our church is so large. They rolled up their sleeves, tromped in the mud, shoveled, carried, and began helping me sort out what to throw away and what to keep.”

At another business, Forest Lake Gardens, floods washed away thousands of plants and dumped so much mud on the site that it had to be removed with a Bobcat. But parents and youth from a local church arrived to clean up scattered shards of broken pottery. “I and other small businesses right here are just amazed,” said owner Joseph McDougall. “Churches, customers, friends, family—they just all came.”

Stafford added: “I have hope because of how I’ve seen people respond to this disaster.”