Dallas • Midway through his 15-minute testimony at the National Rifle Association’s annual prayer breakfast Sunday, retired major league first baseman Adam LaRoche took off his sweater.
Underneath, LaRoche — who hit 255 home runs in a 12-year career — sported a black T-shirt with a message that drew cheers from the firearms-friendly crowd of about 1,300.
“Jesus loves me and my guns,” it said.
“Don’t get me wrong: Jesus is all about love, grace, mercy,” said LaRoche, 38, an evangelical best known for walking away from a reported $13 million contact with the Chicago White Sox in 2016 after the team asked him to bring his son into the clubhouse less often.
But that doesn’t mean Jesus “was a pacifist and always carried a white lamb around and tiptoed through life avoiding controversy,” he added. He pointed to Scriptures such as Matthew 10:34, in which Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
The event came two days after President Donald Trump made international headlines with a splashy, campaign-style speech Friday at the NRA’s 147th annual meeting. More than 80,000 attendees assembled from Thursday through Sunday.
The smaller Sunday-morning gathering — a $40-a-plate affair advertised as “a time of inspiration and encouragement” — took place mostly out of the media spotlight.
Despite the prayer breakfast’s lower profile, the Christian crowd that filled a ballroom at the Omni Hotel in downtown Dallas represented “such a nucleus of the NRA,” said Donna Hyde, a 68-year-old grandmother and matriarch of three generations of lifetime NRA members. She wore buttons with messages such as “I’m the NRA, I Voted.”
“It’s about God, country and the protection of our freedoms,” said Hyde, of Mabank, Texas, about 55 miles southeast of Dallas. “We don’t think we can be good Americans without this core value of Christian faith in Christ that gives us our freedoms of everything, and that’s what the NRA is.”
A top donor delivered the opening invocation.
“Lord, we put our faith and trust in you and not in governments or militaries or our own technology or even the strength of our own arms,” said Joe Gregory, a charter member of the NRA’s Golden Ring of Freedom, made up of $1 million donors.
“Still, we humbly ask you to direct and bless our efforts against those who would seek to take away those freedoms,” Gregory added. “Empower us to protect the peace of our homes and ensure the safety of those defending the homeland overseas and deliver us from despots of tyranny.”
Besides LaRoche, the NRA’s 20th annual prayer breakfast featured Dove Award-winning producer Scotty Wilbanks, who sang “I’ll Fly Away” and “Lord, I Need You,” and retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Oliver North, who mixed war stories with spiritual lessons in a 45-minute keynote address.
North became a household name during the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. The Fox News Channel commentator described how when each of his 17 grandchildren turns 14, he gives them a box with a label that says, “If you learn to use everything in this box, you’ll never go hungry, you’ll never be lost and you need fear nothing.”
The box contains a Bible, a compass and a 20-gauge shotgun, which he teaches them how to take apart and use for hunting, he said to applause.
“I want my grandkids to say that Granddad was a person who taught me how to fight the good fight, how to finish the race, how to keep the faith,” North said, using biblical imagery. “You see, that’s the most important lesson of all: We’re in a fight. We’re in a brutal battle to preserve the liberties that the good Lord presents us.”
After recent mass shootings at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a country music festival in Las Vegas and a high school in Parkland, Fla., the NRA meeting drew protests from some students, celebrities and a group called Faith Forward Dallas.
“Will they pray for the souls of people killed by guns?” an anonymous Twitter account called NRABoycott asked before the breakfast. The person responsible for the account declined to comment.
On Friday, the NRA honored Stephen Willeford, who used an AR-15 to stop the Sutherland Springs gunman, who killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church in November 2017.
“A madman came into the church,” Willeford said. “I responded to what God told me to do. The Holy Spirit took care of me, watched over me.”
Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Roman Catholic, told the NRA crowd that day that the problem isn’t guns but rather “hearts without God. It is homes without discipline and communities without values.”
But at Sunday’s breakfast, no mention was made of the mass shootings or the victims.
“I’m sure it was just an oversight,” said Judy Ligon from Gun Barrel City, Texas, about 60 miles southeast of Dallas.
She stressed that NRA members have devoted considerable time to prayers for victims, both in their home communities and earlier at the Dallas meeting.
While Ligon said she understands the point of LaRoche’s T-shirt message, she would not agree with it entirely.
“Jesus loves me, and Jesus loves you,” the home health-care nurse said. “He loves people, not inanimate objects. Inanimate objects were invented and created, just like medical technology, for our use. But God gave man wisdom to invent those things.”
Her view of gun ownership and faith?
“I don’t feel like God has a problem with me having a gun,” she said.
Hyde, meanwhile, said it’s unfair to attack the NRA or place more limits on gun ownership because of mass shootings.
“If you’ll look at the NRA, this is your core, law-abiding citizens,” she said. “We follow the law already. The guy holding the gun, doing those things ⅛in the Parkland massacre⅜ - he was already breaking the law.
“You pass more laws. Who is going to abide by the laws? The law-abiding citizens. Now, does that make sense?”
Another breakfast attendee, NRA certified instructor Edward Sparks from Ormond Beach, Fla., said he started a group at his home church for riding motorcycles and shooting guns. The pastor, David Sharp, gave him permission as long as he had a Scriptural reason for the group, called Scoot and Shoot.
Sparks said with a chuckle that he turned to Psalm 144:1: “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle.”
Jesus was a teacher who sent out his disciples with power - like a firearms instructor, Sparks said.
“In my congregation, I take little old ladies and make them armed and dangerous,” he said. “As one told me, ‘Now that I’ve taken instruction from you, I fear no one. But they should fear me.’”