SAN ANGELO, Texas Pastor Gerald Clark's baritone voice boomed as he strummed his guitar and sang, "I've got peace like a river" with his Baptist congregation.
His subsequent sermon, "Let's Go Fishing With Jesus," fit well with the theme of Sunday's guest speaker a missionary invited to share her insights into the unusual group of neighbors that has dominated the local newspaper headlines here and all the TV news channels.
"I am a missionary to the polygamous people," explains Mary Mackert. "God called me to the FLDS."
A former member of the Fundamentalist LDS Church herself, Mackert is making the rounds in Texas and elsewhere to talk about her past life as a polygamous wife, her insights on the sect, her spiritual conversion to born again Christianity and her new life as a missionary.
"Not only did he save me, but he brought me to a point where I fell in love with my (FLDS) people and their need for the Lord," she told the congregation of about 50 worshippers at the Central Faith Baptist Church.
Born and raised in Hildale, Utah, Mackert said she became the sixth of seven wives to a 50-year-old man when she was 17. "He was older than my father," she said.
"We were told there are only a few good men out there and if you don't share your good man with a sister wife, she'll have to marry a jerk."
Mackert lived in the Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City and eventually ended her marriage of 16 years and the FLDS lifestyle. With the help of an attorney, her five children came with her. She felt compelled to attend a Baptist church in Sandy, Utah, where she was eventually baptized.
"I once made fun of Jesus freaks and now I am one," she joked.
She showed the congregation slides of FLDS leaders, explaining the history of the church and some of its unusual practices. Other pictures depicted her grandchildren who live in her mission area in northern Idaho and British Columbia including grandchildren who have been "cut off" from her because of her attempts to instill non-FLDS teachings.
One photo depicted several young girls "precious little jewels" in long dresses dancing around a maypole. "It just breaks my heart to think what kind of life they'll have if someone doesn't show them the gospel and help them get out of that 'lifestyle,"' she said.
Mackert has another motive for being in Texas, or as she calls it, another phase of her mission. She believes God wants her to care for some of the 462 children that were taken from the YFZ Ranch and placed into state custody.
"I have spoken with (Child Protective Services) and let them know that I would take any and all children that they would allow me to have that aren't going to be returned to their parents," she said.
A Baptist church in Fort Worth has offered to purchase or rent a home for her and any children she may be allowed to care for or even adopt.
"I believe God equipped me to understand what they're going through. I went through that myself, and guided my children as much as I could through it and watched them struggle," Mackert said.
While watching news reports of the raid and the custody battles, Mackert has looked closely for familiar faces. She has two sisters who live at the ranch, at least one former sister wife, a stepdaughter, a niece and possibly others.
"I sit there and I want to take it in and study every feature ... and just soak it all in. It's been so long since I've seen them. ... They're my people. I love them."
Amid many "amens" and rapt attention from the congregation, Mackert asked church members to pray for the FLDS children now in foster care facilities throughout Texas.
"These children have a lot to overcome," she said. "They need most of all to be placed in homes where they'll be taught the gospel of Jesus Christ and released from their religious bondage."
Pastor Clark also called for prayers for the FLDS children and their parents Sunday.
"The sad thing is, especially with these children ... the only hope they have is Jesus Christ. The only hope and peace these women will find is through Jesus Christ. And these men, no matter what you think of them, they need Jesus Christ," he said.
"Pray for Ms. Mary and the people she serves."
Based on the number of smiles, handshakes and hugs, whether to strangers or fellow church members, the small San Angelo congregation couldn't have been friendlier. And their questions and comments about their FLDS neighbors reflected concern based on their Christian beliefs as much as curiosity for the unusual FLDS lifestyle.
But the lines distinguishing the differences between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the FLDS sect, which broke away more than 100 years ago, definitely seemed to be blurred during question and answer segments.
When asked how so many become "converted to Mormonism," Mackert relayed a story of a woman becoming converted to "Fundamental Mormonism" and proceeded to praise aspects of FLDS members.
"Other than the polygamy thing, which we see as immoral, they're honest people, hard-working. There's a lot to admire about them. They're clean, have well-behaved children ... "
"I agree. I've been to Salt Lake," one congregation member interrupted.
Another asked about her "most difficult obstacle in sharing the faith with the Mormons."
"With the FLDS, my most difficult hurdle is just getting an audience with them," she replied. "Just get it (the conversation) off what you believe and what God says."
Why do the women interviewed by the media appear to have little inflection and "appear like zombies?" another asked.
"Well, they kind of are. When you begin to deny your feelings, all of them (their feelings) go," Mackert said, adding FLDS women are taught to "keep sweet" and not get swept up in their emotions.
"Even with children taken from them, it's hard for them to get hold of the emotions it stirs because they're so out of touch with their feelings," she said. "It took months of counseling before I felt feelings at the same time as an event occurred."119 comments on this story
Mackert shared her "testimony" across town at the Baptist Temple later Sunday evening. She's taken her message to churches, groups and college audiences in Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington and other Texas cities during the past week and plans to return next month for more engagements."This phase of my mission is to educate people and also raise the financial support I need to take care of these children, God willing," she said.