WOODVILLE, Miss. - The veins bulge from his neck. Blood rushes to his face as he stomps his foot and passionately shakes his fist.

Fiery, bellowing words engulf the gathered crowd of students listening yet often berating him.

But the Rev. Charlie Kennon, 36, children's pastor of the Consuming Fire Fellowship, says he preaches with love every other Tuesday in Free Speech Plaza.

"People misunderstand us," Kennon said. "They think we're hateful."

To find the roots of the Consuming Fire Fellowship, one must travel the winding Main Street in rural Woodville, Miss. - population approximately 1,200. The congregation of 60 members, formed in the mid-1990s at the home of the Rev. Britt Williams, is based on the Hebrews' biblical passage, "For our God is a consuming fire."

In a world of behavior restrictions, dedicated prayer and defined gender roles, they say their love for God guides the way.


It's 9:15 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 17. Nearly an hour and a half north of Baton Rouge, the Consuming Fire Fellowship gathers not in a church with a steeple but, rather, a modest office space within a small Main Street strip mall.

The place of worship is marked with only a small red sign that reads "Consuming Fire Fellowship" hanging above the covered walkway.

The children's service will begin promptly at 9:30 a.m., but for now, the adult congregation members roam the room reciting soft prayers.

Whispers of "Help me Jesus" and "Praise God" fill the mostly barren room with metal folding chairs and a traditional pulpit.

While their parents pray, most of the children sit quietly in their chairs. Families, particularly the mothers and children, tend to wear matching clothing. Soft floral patterns and pastel colors are popular choices within the congregation.

Kennon approaches the pulpit and begins his children's sermon. Today's discourse is based on Jonathan Edwards' famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" speech.

"This morning, I want to speak about children in the hands of an angry God," Kennon says. "Just because you are young, you are no exception to the wrath and the judgment of God."

There's no singing of "Jesus Loves Me" or holding of hands. Kennon preaches that once past the age of accountability, children are as responsible for their actions as adults. Congregation members, especially children, are discouraged from watching TV, having premarital sex, drinking alcohol or indulging in any fantasies.

He doesn't tone down his aggressiveness for the young crowd that consists mainly of toddlers and elementary-age children, although a few infants and teenagers are scattered amid the rows.

Kennon says the children will face an "awful doom" if they "refuse to surrender to the Lord Jesus Christ." Unlike the common image of fidgety children during church services, the children of the Consuming Fire Fellowship sit stone-still. They meet his words with stoic faces, rarely reacting to his raised voice or pumping fist.

After a 30-minute children's message, the congregation briefly breaks before the main sermon. Some children reach beneath their seats and roll out sleeping mats - in anticipation of a lengthy service.

Williams, 45, leads a brief musical worship before his sermon. As a University student in the 1980s, Williams battled drug addictions before having a "born-again" Christian experience, he said. He then began preaching with his wife in Free Speech Plaza.

There are no hymnals for Williams' congregation members because they have memorized the words to the lively, clap-inducing songs. One church member feverishly runs three laps around the room in a celebratory fashion.

Williams then begins his 90-minute sermon that is a mix of Biblical verses, comments about mainstream Christian churches and a woman's role in the congregation. The service concludes with "laying of the hands" to "heal" congregation members.


In the Consuming Fire Fellowship's summer newsletter, Kennon authored an article about the nature of fatherhood. Kennon writes that "most men today are effeminate, passive and visionless."

According to his article, the decline of masculinity is rooted in "the demonic philosophy of feminism" that has "shamefully given place to women in the military, board room and even the pulpit."

Williams said women should only pursue domestic roles, unless they are single and must provide for themselves. Women are also urged to dress conservatively, covering most of their bodies with loose dresses. Pants are not allowed, as they display a woman's curvaceous figure.

"Culture is wrong," Williams said. "The Bible is right."

Williams said his congregation is often labeled as "narrow-minded" and "Bible-thumping," but they live strictly based on the Bible's principles. He says women and men are "equal" but have different societal roles.

"It's a shame that America would even consider, say, Hillary Clinton being a president. It's pitiful," Williams said. "The culture should blush that it's that blind and that stupid. She's a woman. She has no business governing men."

Becky Gaharan, 33, joined the Consuming Fire Fellowship six years ago. As a divorced mother of three, Gaharan cleans homes and works with her teenage son's lawn business.

"God led me here," Gaharan said.

Gaharan was raised as a mainstream Christian. So when she decided to join the Consuming Fire Fellowship, her family and friends expressed concern and even labeled it a cult, she said.

"I was on the way to hell," Gaharan said. "But now me and my children aren't on our way to hell. They're going to hear the truth."

Gaharan said it's often difficult for secular or career-oriented women to understand women playing a submissive role in family life.

"It's often seen as bottom of the barrel," Gaharan said. "But it's a glorious cause."


Grace Williams, 8-year-old daughter of Britt Williams, said she likes "everything" about the Consuming Fire Fellowship. Grace's mother, Bridget Williams, 37, home schools Grace and her eight siblings.

Britt Williams said the church promotes home schooling so children can receive a full and proper education.

"You wouldn't subject your children to [outside schools] if you believe it to be dangerous," Britt Williams said. "The Bible says that beginning of wisdom and understanding is the fear of God. And they've removed God from the equation."

Grace Williams said English is her favorite subject, and she wants to be a "Christian and a keeper at home" when she grows up. Being a home keeper means "to stay home and not go to work and cook for my husband and to home school," Grace Williams said.

In addition to schooling, Grace Williams helps her mother tend to her youngest siblings and cook meals during the day.

On this Sunday, the congregation has gathered for lunch at a member's home. Gallons of spaghetti sauce are needed to feed the tables of children and parents. Britt Williams said although most families in the church do have many children, the church does not take a stance on birth control.

Grace Williams describes her large family as "fun" and plans to have as many children "as God wants [her] to have."

Micah Williams, 15, is the oldest child in the Williams family. He first appeared in Free Speech Plaza as a 6-week-old baby.

"I love it. I've done it all my life. I came out there as soon as I was born," Micah Williams said. "It's normal to me."

Bridget Williams said her children enjoy going to Free Speech Plaza to pass out religious materials.

"We're accused of brainwashing our children and not letting them think for themselves," Bridget Williams said. "But that's so contrary to the truth."

The children are not scared any "more than MTV can scare them," Bridget Williams said.

"Are they concerned about our children? Truly?" Bridget Williams questioned. "I would venture to guess almost 50 percent if not more of those women kill their babies in their wombs, or at least agree that it's OK. They don't care about my children. They support abortion."

Micah Williams said his general impression is that "most people" don't like his congregation because they preach Biblical truth.

"It is the truth," he said. "It's the outright truth. LSU is probably where I get the most questions."

Micah Williams said people often asked if he is embarrassed when he appears in public dressed in the same apparel as his siblings. But he said he's never known another life, so he considers his family life to be normal.


When the Consuming Fire Fellowship arrived Tuesday, members congregated at the War Memorial on the Parade Ground to organize before moving to Free Speech Plaza. Unlike usual Tuesday demonstrations, Consuming Fire Fellowship members were approached this week by LSU Police.

According to Maj. Lawrence Rabalais, LSUPD spokesman, they were mistaken for abortion protesters and reported. An officer was dispatched to the scene and spoke with the Consuming Fire Fellowship.

Because of the incident, the Consuming Fire Fellowship was referred to Lyn Taylor, a coordinator in Finance and Administrative Services, for registration. According to Taylor, all off-campus groups are encouraged to register and the purpose of registration is not to restrict the group.

"The registration is just so that we will know who the groups are that are on campus," she said.

Britt Williams said Consuming Fire Fellowship members have been arrested "many times" for public preaching. But he said the Tuesday incident was a rare occurrence.

"In nearly 20 years of public evangelism at LSU we have rarely had difficulty with the authorities," Britt Williams said.

But he said campus police later told him that scripture banners could no longer be used because "the interior poles used for support could double as weapons."

Britt Williams said the congregation's University future will be "bannerless."

"I certainly hope these things are not a sign revealing a different tone regarding our ministry by the University," Britt Williams said. "We will see."

When Kennon preaches atop the raised walkway in Free Speech Plaza, he compares his actions to a father saving his child from a burning house.

Kennon said his facial expressions and actions may seem harsh, but if one observed a man trying to save a burning child, he would have the same expression. He said his actions are an attempt to save the lives of University students.

"If someone doesn't realize they're lost, they'll never seek a savior," Kennon said. "Men are having to see themselves as they are in the light of the Gospel."

Daniel McBride, contributing writer, contributed to this report.

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-----Contact Amy Brittain at abrittain@lsureveille.com

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