On March 23, the Grace Baptist Church on Fourth Avenue will hold a public discussion with the conversational topic "Does the Bible defend my right to keep and bear arms?"
An online letter written by Pastor John Koletas states "We have decided to hold a special service honoring hunters and gun owners who have been so viciously attacked by the antichristian socialist media and anti-Christian socialist politicians the last few years. Our country was built with the King James Bible and the gun. To show our support for the many hunters and gun owners, we have decided to give a free NY-modified and legal AR-15 to one qualified individual. The winner has to attend the morning service, be at least 18 years of age, have a legal driver's license, and be able to pass the background check for buying a weapon. Grace Baptist Church reserves the right to refuse anyone of questionable character for whatever reason from winning the free NY-modified and legal AR-15. Oakwood Trading Post on Route 40 in Troy will be doing the background checks and the transaction will be at their gun store the following day."
Brian Olesen with the Oakwood Trading Post said the business on Oakwood Avenue in Troy has supplied similar guns for similar events in the past, but this is the first time they are doing this for a church event.
When reached on Thursday, Koletas, who leads the congregation of approximately 200 members, emphasized that he did not think the giveaway was controversial since a law-abiding citizen would be receiving the gun. He explained that anyone over the age of 18 who attended the March 23 event could enter their name for free to win the gun.
"I feel for our gun owners," said Koletas, noting that his church had never done such a contest before. He also had never heard of other regional churches doing this type of giveaway but he had heard about such events in the southern states.
Koletas says that the response on the church's end "has been overwhelmingly positive."
However, Olesen observed that "This has created a bit of controversy," after receiving calls from about two dozen people in favor of the gun being offered and calls from about three people against the incentive. He said he felt that the people against it were mainly confused about how the transaction would take place. The church, he said, has already paid for the gun and the taxes. The person selected at the event would have to pass an FBI background check which will take three to five business days.
The semi-automatic gun, he added, is valued at approximately $700 and will come with a 10-round magazine.
While guns have been used as giveaway prizes before, area residents were torn about having the event take place in a church.
"I think that it's a great idea that for once a big figure such as a church is willing to step forward and support the idea of the right to bear arms which is what our earlier presidents fought so hard for - our Second Amendment," said April Coffey of Albany.
However, one neighbor of the church, who wished to remain anonymous, felt that people do not need to own guns like the AR-15. "We received the post card in the mail Tuesday. I was very disturbed by the post card. I do not feel that this has anything to do with religion whatsoever. I usually don't get involved in conversations about church or politics, but this really appalled me. There is no reason that anyone needs to possess a gun like the one being given away besides our military," she said.
The event will include a speech by state Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, R-Melrose, and Evangelist Dr. Bob Gray, Sr. from Texas will be preaching, according to a flyer on the church's website.
"These are law-abiding, church-going people," said McLaughlin. "I don't see the controversy. The gun is NYSAFE Act compliant."
He pointed out that many churches do Las Vegas-style nights, though he noted that the gun prize was "unusual."
McLaughlin spoke at the church about one year ago about the NYSAFE Act.
Randy Harlow of Troy attended the Grace Baptist Church for eight years, until he was about 18 years old.
"The church was very radical," said Harlow, who has not been to a service there in about a dozen years. "It was loud and would definitely keep you awake. They preached a state of mind and how to look. People would look down on you if women didn't wear dresses and men didn't wear ties. But they never talked about politics or gun rights when I was there."
Harlow said he remembered multiple services where the pastor talked about being arrested many years ago for preaching in public.
As for the legality of the giveaway, Troy Police Department's Captain John Cooney said it was legal.
"We recognize the uniqueness of the gun giveaway and expect full compliance by the Church relative to all applicable rules and guidelines attached to the matter. We balance our oversight with respect of the Second Amendment rights provided to our citizens; the United States Constitution is the foundation of the work we do," Cooney said in a statement.
The church's pastor, in a letter to "relatives, friends and acquaintances" on the event's site online said that, for the past 27 years, the church has served the community by providing transportation to the church, and having free community meals for Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, and Good Friday.
Troy resident Nora McDowell said she felt that the event was "offensive, especially (learning about it) on Ash Wednesday."
The free event, sponsored by the Oakwood Trading Post, is slated for 10 a.m. on March 23. The church is located at 612 Fourth Ave. in Troy. On-street parking is available and seating inside the church is limited to approximately 300 persons.