Controversial foundation speaker comes to Caledonia

By Daniel E. McGonigle

General Manager

The Caledonia Argus

“We were very grateful to have visited Caledonia and found the community to be very welcoming and hospitable to our entire crew,” Keith Becker said following a visit to Caledonia, in part sponsored by area churches that left some students and community members feeling uplifted and moved, while others felt put out and insulted.  “The school administration and staff were excellent to work with and we found the student body to be exceptionally respectful, receptive and engaged during the school day assembly. Further, we felt the students responded very well to the assembly and that many were positively impacted.”

“We should’ve done a better job in vetting the speaker,” superintendent Ben Barton said regarding the speaker who visited the school on Wednesday, Nov. 30 with a penchant for walking the line between the separation of church and state.

Several parents upset by portions of the speech called The Argus to share their concerns, wondering if this was a school sanctioned event.

“For the evening assembly and outreach, we worked with, and partnered with, all churches in the community, including the Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist Church, and again, found their ministers and volunteers to be excellent to work with,” Becker said.

Some students and their parents were concerned about the fire and brimstone nature of the speaker’s message.

Keith Becker, following the death of his brother, Todd, who died in 2005 in a drunk driving accident in Nebraska, later created the Todd Becker Foundation to help spread the word to other teens about the potential consequences of the choices they make. He came to speak to a student assembly mid-afternoon on Wednesday and hosted a non-school affiliated event later that evening which was held in the school gym, but not associated with the school.

The afternoon student assembly was paid by the district. The non-school affiliated event later that evening was underwritten in part by area churches.

In 2010, the Todd Becker Foundation was warned by Americans United for Separation of Church and State that his organization could be held responsible for infringing on the religious neutrality of public schools and the religious liberty of students.

The foundation’s website claims its message has been delivered to 300 different schools in 11 states. Testimonials are given by principals, counselors, superintendents and other education officials in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, among others, regarding the Todd Becker Foundation.

How he came to Caledonia

“In my first year here,” began Barton, “the community came to us as a school concerned that illegal drinking and drug use was getting out of hand in our student population.” So, the district formed a committee to review options to help students who struggle with these issues.

Barton said that one of the things that rose out of those meetings was bringing in a variety of speakers who help tell their own personal stories and share those messages with the students.

David Parnel, who struggled with meth addiction and shot himself in the face, as well as Deputy Tim Felton, who speaks regarding teen drug use and who is from Iowa, are two speakers who came and delivered a message meant for students with the well-being of the students in mind.

Becker was brought here under that same spirit. A former counselor who no longer works for the district, was in contact with Becker and set up his visit.

The current staff, who were not employed by the district when the event was planned and organized, originally scheduled for a date in May, simply carried out the previous agreements and arrangements.

“It ends with me,” Barton said. “I think in the future more questions need to be asked.”

The May date had to be postponed because Becker double-booked. So, the Nov. 30 date was scheduled.

The “message”

“Looking back, I had some concerns after he backed out back in May,” pastor Steve Meyer of Immanuel Lutheran Church said.

Meyer said that Becker asked him and several other area pastors and church leaders to attend this event.

The Todd Becker Foundation reached out to Immanuel and other area churches in an effort to solicit funds for the visit.

“He asked for money to help offset the costs,” Meyer said.

At the time, Meyer said he brought it to his council and the church agreed to support his visit with a $500 donation.

Several members of the foundation also spent the night in the homes of area church members.

But after Becker cancelled in May, Meyer did a simple Google search and found information about the warning by AUSC&S.

Meyer again stated he regrets not saying something to principal Mary Morem or counselor Brent Schroeder on the matter.

But on Wednesday, Meyer went to the school at 12:15 p.m. prior to the afternoon session which the students attended.

Meyer said he and other area pastors were asked by Becker to talk to students and ask the students “what’s troubling them.”

“He told us not to wait for students to come to us, but to go directly to them and ask them,” Meyer said.

According to parents of some of the students, the students went up to Becker following his speech in the afternoon session and tried to thank him for coming.

They were reportedly met with immediate requests regarding the sins they may or may not have committed.

Phase two – no grace at all

“Thank you for attending this life-changing event! IMPORTANT NOTE: Although this event is being held in a public school, it is important to note that the school is simply allowing the Todd Becker Foundation to use this facility as it would with any other outside organization. With that in mind, the views, opinions or message conveyed during this event by the Todd Becker Foundation do not necessarily represent the views of this public school. Furthermore, the public school in which this event is held is in no way endorsing or sponsoring this event. All questions, concerns or criticisms of this event should be directed to the local churches, who are sponsoring this event or to the Todd Becker Foundation directly. We hope you enjoy this powerful, life-changing event and welcome any questions you may have.”

The previous statement was read aloud by Becker prior to the start of “phase two.” It was also handed to each person attending inscribed on the back of a playing card sized card.

The tone then changed, according to one witness who attended the evening session.

“If you consume alcohol or drugs or have sex and are underage you are going to hell,” Becker is reported to have told the crowd.

“If you are a homosexual, you need to come down from the crowd get down on your knees and give your life over to Jesus, or you will go to hell,” another witness said.

This was the message that Keith Becker is reported to have delivered to a crowd of 100 to 150 students, clergy and community members in the Caledonia high school gym, according to Meyer.

“According to the Bible, Jesus Christ is the only way to have forgiveness of sin and eternal life,” Becker said.  “This is clearly stated in John 14:6. Our desire is to be faithful, with truth and love, to proclaim God’s word to a lost and hurting world. This is not “my” solution or a solution that we came up with; this is God’s solution, according to the Bible.”

As phase two began in the gym, the lights were turned down and a spotlight focused on Becker. The crowd was asked to gather closely in the middle of the bleachers and were implored not to leave.

Gym windows were covered with construction paper and a sign was posted on the gym doors that read “Do not open until 9 p.m.” “He didn’t want anyone to leave because he said he didn’t want to be interrupted,” Meyer noted.

“We cover the windows simply to restrict light which might be distracting or would interfere with our lighting system,” Becker said.  “As you would expect at any event, or even a movie theater, outside lighting can blur or ‘wash’ images on our projection screens. We post signage on the doors simply to control where and when people enter—no different than any other public event.”

“Any wrong decision that anyone has made at any point meant you were a sinner and were going to hell, and I don’t agree with that message. There was no grace at all,” Meyer said.

Becker told the crowd that if you’ve had sex that you can again be a virgin by repenting your sins, Meyer would say.

“That is not an idea that comes from my mind, but rather from the Bible,” Becker said. “To quote the same scripture that I quoted during the evening session, 2 Corinthians 5:7: “This means that anyone who becomes a Christian, becomes a new person. The old life is gone, a new life has begun.” So yes, in God’s eyes, they are virgins once more! Isn’t that exciting—that we can be free and new, and have a fresh start?”

Becker’s nearly three hour message came following a concert by the band “Chye.”

Becker is reported to have “shouted” the message and was “visibly upset” when only one person in the crowd came down to repent her sins, according to the parent of a student who was in attendance with their student.

That evening and into the next day, The Caledonia Argus received several phone calls from community members concerned about what their 15-16-and 17-year-old students had just witnessed.

While none wished to speak on the record, the consistent message spoke to a lack of tolerance and confusion by their respective students.

When asked if he believes in the separation of church and state, Becker replied: “I believe that the state should not be legislating religion, either for or against.  We certainly work very hard to maintain a proper respect for the boundaries that must be kept during a school day assembly.”

Becker invoiced the school for $3,170 of which the school paid him $1,200. The district received a grant in the amount of $500 to help offset the cost.

Meyer wasn’t sure how much other churches in the area contributed to bringing the Todd Becker Foundation into the community, but he felt it was similar to the $500 Immanuel Lutheran gave.

The school district has already begun the process of creating a “vetting policy” regarding the speakers they bring in to address their students.

“Many students have indicated that the message moved them and resonated with them in a positive way, however I am sick if even one of our students felt that they were not in a safe place.” Barton said. “We want to be a safe and welcoming place for all students. In hindsight we didn’t do enough research and vet him as we should have.”