Maries County pastor sees run for sheriff as an act of faith

Thursday, May 31, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:10 p.m. CDT, Friday, June 15, 2012
Maries County Chaplain Mike Bonham is running for Osage County Sheriff. The way Bonham sees it, ministers are in the world to make a difference, and he said that being sheriff would be a way to use his God-given potential to take on societal problems.

*Mike Bonham started in law enforcement in 1989. In the early 1990s, he changed paths and worked in the transportation industry, but he returned to law enforcement in 2009. An earlier version of this story misstated his work history.

MARIES COUNTY — On Sunday mornings, Mike Bonham preaches from the pulpit of a small Christian church in Belle, down in Maries County. 

On weekdays, he sits behind the wheel of a law enforcement vehicle or at a desk in the sheriff's office in Vienna — he's the Maries County chaplain.


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Now, Bonham, 49, is running for Osage County Sheriff.  

Some see Bonham's endeavor as a conflict — how can a pastor be a sheriff? 

Logistically, the answer is simple: His church is in one county, his home and campaign in another.

But the rest of the answer is more complicated than that. 

As a chaplain who's also the pastor of a church, he's already the subject of relentless teasing: His fellow deputies joke about people "getting caught by the chaplain," and Bonham laughs along with them. The jokes highlight what some see as a tension between faith and law enforcement. As a chaplain, the two are merged.

But a sheriff's primary role isn't a spiritual one.

As a pastor, he strives to speak in the "language of love" and knows how universal it is. Can that language be effective when he's in his lawman role? He believes the answer is yes.

But Bonham said some ministers don't think he should run and have told him so; they think ministers should be separate from the world. 

"You're always going to have people for and against," he said. 

The way Bonham sees it, ministers are in the world to make a difference. Talking to him, it's clear he feels an almost physical anguish about the problems of drug abuse and hopelessness in the communities he would serve. Being sheriff would be a way to use his God-given potential to take them on. 

The hard part is getting there — winning the election. Bonham has until Aug. 7 to prove to Osage County that he's the man for the job. But self-promotion doesn't come naturally to him. 

When he's preaching, it doesn't matter how many people are in the room — two or 2,000, he is confident and enjoys what he's doing because it's not about him. It's about his belief. 

*Getting in front of a group and telling them why they should vote for him is a different story. Bonham started in law enforcement in 1989; in the early 1990s, he changed paths and worked in the transportation industry, but he returned to law enforcement in 2009.

He has a binder full of certificates and credentials, but it's hard for him to talk about that. It goes against his Christian values: He's supposed to promote Christ, not himself. 

"You're putting yourself in the marquis lights, and I'm not a marquis lights kind of person," he said.

The campaign trail

Drivers entering Osage County on Highway 63 are greeted by a blue billboard with a picture of Mike Dixon, one of Bonham's fellow Republican candidates. Small signs for another Republican candidate, Rob Relford, pop up every now and again. Bonham's also dot the landscape, solid red on the green grass, with his slogan: "The strength of authority is integrity." 

His wife, Glenda Bonham; 16-year-old daughter, Lauren Bonham; and 17-year-old son, Keegan Bonham, support the campaign, even though it would mean Mike Bonham would have two full-time jobs: pastor and sheriff.

To Lauren Bonham, the campaign process is familiar: "It's just like high school," she said. "You never get out of it." The process reminds her of campaigns for friends running for homecoming royalty. 

The simple red signs are about as bold as Mike Bonham's campaign gets. He has a Facebook page and a website, but no billboards and no newspaper ads. He's relying on relationships and word of mouth. Grassroots, he calls it. 

And at that level, everyone knows there's a drug problem in the part of Missouri where he works. He talks about it often but says it's not about "cracking down" but building up the community.  A sign reading "Life or meth" is taped to the side of his desk.

In 2011, Missouri had the highest number of methamphetamine incidents in the U.S., topping the chart at 2,058, according to a report from the Drug Enforcement Administration. The state has had the highest number of seizures in the nation since 2001, according to a report from the Missouri Foundation for Health.

In Maries County, there were 17 incidents last year, according to a Missouri State Highway Patrol report, which cited numbers from the National Clandestine Laboratory Seizure System. This spring, the city of Belle — the city where Bonham's church is located — passed an ordinance making it illegal to sell pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient for making methamphetamine, without a prescription. 

Maries County Sheriff Chris Heitman said though other counties reported higher numbers, 17 is high for a county with a low population — 9,176 people in 2010, according to Census Bureau data. Neighboring Pulaski County had the same number of meth lab incidents in 2011 but has a population more than five times greater: 52,274. To make matters worse, he said, heroin is making a comeback

Boone County — population 162,624 — had only seven meth lab seizure incidents last year. 

For Bonham, fighting drugs isn't just about the drugs — it's about community culture, mindset and decisions. Hope is part of it, too. 

"Don't ever take someone's hope away from them — ever," he said. 

He recently had an arrested man in the back of his patrol car. The man had fled from law enforcement, then crashed his car into his mother's house. Deputies found methamphetamine in his car. As Bonham drove, the man kept saying, "My life is over." 

"No, it's not," Bonham told him. They talked about decisions and the future. Bonham didn't preach at him — he doesn't like to "beat people over the head with a Bible." 

The pastoral role

From the outside, Grace Family Worship Center doesn't look like much of a church. The building used to be a car dealership showroom, as evidenced by the large windows. Inside, it has traditional church characteristics with rows of wooden pews, Christian tapestries and other decorations. 

Before the service and Sunday School, Bonham sipped coffee and chatted. He spoke almost gingerly.

"I had to yell twice this week — it really took a toll on my voice," he said. 

As the service began, Glenda Bonham picked up a guitar. In a rich, country bluegrass voice, she led the congregation in song. Her husband stood near her, his hands raised in worship. The congregation sang softly. 

Bonham then stood behind the pulpit and preached to the seven people gathered, including his wife and daughter. Keegan Bonham couldn't be there because he was helping clean up after his high school prom. 

Mike Bonham took up the topic of the decision to follow Christ and the decisions that come next. His law enforcement side did some talking, too, as he spoke about how people make life and death decisions every day.  

Sometimes, the congregation is larger — 10, even 20 people. A few Sundays, only one person has shown up. But numbers don't matter to him — he'll keep preaching until no one comes, but he doesn't think that will happen because the numbers are growing. 

Sticking with it even when no one is there is about "faithfulness," he said. 

Living in the overlap

No matter what role he's playing, Bonham strives to be an example. The way he sees it, he's doubly in the public eye — he's law enforcement and a pastor. That would continue if he were elected sheriff. 

Lauren Bonham said her dad's win would make her "a double threat" — she's already a pastor's daughter, and she could become a sheriff's daughter, too. Her dad has teased her about getting into trouble, saying she'd have to go out-of-state to raise Cain, because so many people know her in Maries, Osage and surrounding counties.

She's not worried, though: "I'm a pretty good kid," she said.

Mike Bonham doesn't go to bars or drink alcohol, and he doesn't curse. He doesn't want to do anything that could hurt his reputation or his "witness" — the way his life exemplifies his faith.

"I don't apologize for what I believe," he said. "One sip, one smell, hurts the witness."

Being a Christian example is important to him in every facet of life — even when he makes traffic stops and arrests. 

Just as doctors have a bedside manner, he said law enforcement officers have a "roadside manner." Bonham's is light. He thinks that's his pastoral side coming out. When he pulled over three young men for not having license plates, he arrested one of them for violating parole. By the time he left the other two at the scene, they were laughing about breaking the bad news about the ticket to grandma. 

But the job requires hard gear shifts as on the days — about 15 of them a year — when Bonham has to carry out a death notification. Then, his role is comforter.

He has an intensity about him when responding to serious incidents. 

"He's a go-getter," Heitman said, observing that most people of Bonham's age and experience are more laid back. "He's like a young guy once we get in a situation." In one instance, Bonham held someone at gunpoint after a high-speed 50-mile chase and a foot pursuit. 

He was also part of the emergency response team that went to Joplin. 

"It's weird what you remember," Bonham said.  

He was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and he still remembers the smell of death. 

Joplin smelled like pine and natural gas. 

Heitman, who also went to Joplin, took pictures of what he saw, and one hangs on his office wall. A cross stands out among the wreckage of a church. He has other crosses in his office, too. Like Bonham, he sees the intersection of faith and law enforcement. 

"There's moments in law enforcement when you notice there's got to be someone else there," Heitman said. He's had an experience that proves it to him — in April 2005, a bullet hit his face during an armed robbery. It took two surgeries to repair, but he made it out alive. 

Even without experiences like that, Heitman said Christian values align with much of what he does. 

But not everyone feels that way. 

One of those people is Mike Dixon, an opponent in the race for Osage County Sheriff. Bonham has taken offense at a remark Dixon made on the Osage County Republican Club Facebook page that seems to imply that there are even more bad apples among clergy than in law enforcement.

"To bring clergy into it, it was a direct shot at me," he said. "That just is a little bit uncalled for." 

Although Bonham said he wants to make sure other clergy see the post, he doesn't plan to retaliate. After all, he said, Christ didn't fight back when he was being accused before his crucifixion. 

And ultimately, winning the campaign doesn't matter — he doesn't think he's going to. What matters to him is how God is using him at this moment in his life. 

"The truth of the matter is that the Lord has me here at this time." 

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Carrie Durkee May 31, 2012 | 9:08 a.m.

Wonderful job kellie!!!! Really well written and beautiful visuals.

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