Faithful Connection

Bethel Baptist Church shares ties and troubles with the Kenneth Lay family.
Thursday, July 22, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:05 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The Old Testament’s Job is a virtuous, upstanding man forced to suffer through continual misfortune. Even through his trouble, Job maintains his piety.

The Sunday morning when the Rev. David Casto gave his sermon from the book of Job, he considered himself a living example of the story. That October 2003 day he told his Bethel Baptist Church congregation that he had been diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer, proof, he said, that even the righteous suffer.

After the service, Ken Lay, who had been sitting toward the back of the sanctuary, admitted to Casto that he too felt a bit like a modern-day Job.

“He drew that parallel himself,” Casto said. “He told me he that he had learned a lot from the book of Job.”

Until that day, Casto had only known the former CEO of Enron Corp. through his family’s prominent contributions to Bethel Baptist — a renovated sanctuary bearing Lay’s mother’s name, a classroom dedicated to his father — a former Bethel pastor, and their two,modest graves outside the church doors. Casto knew Lay through the annual donations he made to pay for church improvements. He knew him as a generous former congregant whom he sometimes saw on the news — a regular person who’d simply fallen on hard times.

Now, as Lay, 62, faces federal charges of fraud and insider trading relating to the energy company’s collapse, the small, white Baptist church on the south end of Columbia that still receives his donations faces the ethical questions involved in accepting them.

Lay helped Casto throughout his suffering, and Casto isn’t about to abandon his friend, with whom he frequently corresponds. Lay continues to find strength and trust in God, often mentioning his family’s religious ties during national media interviews and appearing with his Houston pastor at press conferences. That’s why, Casto said, he has never felt a moral or ethical conflict in accepting Lay’s gifts or his legacy to the church.

“As far as taking money from someone who has done something wrong, we do that every Sunday,” said Bonnie Cassida, also a pastor at Bethel. “As far as we know, any money we have received from him has not been stolen or made in a fraudulent way.”

The afternoon of Casto’s Job sermon, Lay, a board member of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, offered to fly Casto to the clinic for treatment. Lay paid for the plane ticket and Casto’s hotel accommodations. For a week, Casto said, he became friends with a man who was nothing but hospitable and genuine, even though his company’s collapse had drawn national attention.

“I asked him, ‘How do you live like this?’ and his reply would be that he faced each day as it came, just as I did with cancer,” said Casto, who has been a pastor at Bethel for three years.

When some of Bethel Baptists’ congregants were financially hurt after the value of their Enron stocks plummeted, though some were upset, no one really had a sense that Lay was responsible for their loss, Casto said. When rumors of the indictment began to spread, the congregation didn’t flinch.

“It wasn’t a blip on their radar screen,” Casto said. “It was just a grief, like when someone at church has an illness, it’s a grief we all share.”

The church has been sharing both grief and joy with the Lay family for nearly 50 years. Lay’s father, Omer, became a pastor at the church in 1959, after the family moved to Columbia a year earlier from Rush Hill.

Ruth Martin quickly became a friend and a neighbor to the Lays. Going to church helped her get to know “Kenny,” who was always quiet, she said. Omer would remind people that he only had to reprimand his son once — when he was playing around a fire. It probably wasn’t his fault, she said. His friends had put him up to it.

“Ken was always trusting of his friends,” Martin said. “He was raised in a family where he was taught to trust.”

And trust, Casto said, is part of what it means to be a Christian.

A recent Bethel Banner, the church’s newsletter, highlights a telephone conversation between Casto and Lay, but Casto said he never brings Lay into his sermons or announcements during services. Those times are reserved for worship.

Cassida said everyone makes mistakes and everyone has failures — the church is in no position to pick and choose which ones are worse or who to denounce. Everyone, she said, has an equal place in the church’s prayers, from Enron stockholders now in hardship to Lay himself.

Both pastors said that following the church’s policy, they couldn’t disclose the extent of Lay’s contributions for privacy reasons. But Cassida said Lay has made it clear that as long as he is able, he will continue his philanthropy. And even if he winds up in a jail cell, the church will pray for him and thank him for his contributions.

Cassida said what’s most important is that the church uses the money ethically. She said Bethel always trusts and assumes the best about its donors.

In recent conversations with Casto, Lay has maintained his innocence, and Casto doesn’t consider him otherwise. He said Lay always jokes that he is doing fine “for a guy who has gallows being built outside his office.”

In the end, he said, a greater power knows the truth and will decide where to place blame.

“The truth will come out,” said Casto, looking toward the large wooden cross that serves as a backdrop during services. “And as Jesus said, the truth will set you free.”

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