Dozens of veteran preachers and one legendary Arkansas Razorbacks football coach gathered Monday in Mabelvale for Retired Ministers' Appreciation Day, pausing to enjoy prayer and pulled pork sandwiches with other longtime preachers of the gospel.
El Dorado-based Swamp Angel Ministries organized the 23rd annual event, which featured an invocation from Pastor Ronnie Morris, district superintendent of the Assemblies of God, and an Amen-inducing sermon by Andrew Thompson, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale.
Ken Hatfield, who compiled a 55-17-1 record while leading the Razorbacks to six consecutive postseason bowls, sat right up front. Along with a dozen other members of Thompson's congregation, he made the journey from Northwest Arkansas, arriving without a minute to spare.
"We made it here exactly at kickoff," Hatfield said.
The Springdale contingent came to support its pastor, a Spirit-led "man of God," the retired coach said.
"It's an honor for him to speak. I know that it's an honor for us to be on the same team with him," Hatfield said.
El Dorado First United Methodist Church Pastor David Bush, the ministry's president, said politicians often make appearances at the luncheon.
"We've had senators, governors, lieutenant governors," Bush said. "Gov. [Asa] Hutchinson's been three times," he noted.
It's less common to have Razorback royalty.
"We're especially excited about Coach Hatfield being here," Bush said, calling him "the winningest coach in Arkansas football history by percentage" and "a great Christian man."
"He's been one of our sponsors, year after year," Bush said.
When they were alive, former Razorbacks Athletic Director Frank Broyles and former Razorbacks men's basketball coach Eddie Sutton made donations as well, though they weren't able to attend the meal themselves.
Hatfield, a 79-year-old Arkansas native, was a gridiron standout for decades but a Methodist all his life.
BAPTIZED AND SAVED
His mother and grandmother were organists at First Methodist Church in Helena. Hatfield was baptized and saved there. He kept the faith after fame and fortune found him.
In Fayetteville, he was a member of the national champion 1964 Razorbacks team, earning first-team Southwest Conference honors.
The nation's top punt returner for two consecutive years, Hatfield's 81-yard return against Texas on Oct. 17, 1964, helped the Razorbacks defeat the defending champion Longhorns in Austin, 14-13.
As the Razorbacks coach from 1984 to 1989, he led his teams to victory more than three-fourths of the time.
Throughout his life, Hatfield has emphasized not only football but faith.
In 1965, at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock, he shared his testimony during the annual meeting of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and in 1989 he appeared on stage at War Memorial Coliseum with evangelist Billy Graham.
He stayed after the meal was over Monday, shaking hands and talking about football with fellow sporting enthusiasts. Long after the final "Amen," he was still smiling and posing for photographs.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE DAY
For Bush and many others, meeting Hatfield was one of the highlights of the day.
A longtime pastor himself, Bush and his wife, Joanie, helped launch Retired Ministers' Appreciation Day more than two decades ago. Since then, it has been a nearly annual event.
"We missed one year because of covid," Bush said.
While the gathering is ecumenical, one denomination is predominant at the meal.
"It's 80% Methodist; 20% everything else," he said.
Retired ministers of all stripes, and their spouses, are welcome.
"It's not a liberal or conservative thing; we have every theology of the rainbow here. We've got a lot of different denominations," Bush said.
During the pre-meal invocation and blessing, Morris thanked God "for the high and holy calling" that has been given to ministers of the gospel. Afterward, he emphasized the kinship he feels for others who have answered the call.
"I go back a long ways with David Bush and Joanie. He invited me, and I was thrilled to get to come," he said. "I'm a kingdom guy. I'm grateful for the Assemblies of God. They bless me. But this is about the kingdom of God."
DESPITE MEDICAL EMERGENCY
Mabelvale United Methodist Church served as this year's venue.
Three Sams BBQ and Catering prepared the food, doing so despite a family medical emergency that forced the restaurant to close its doors all week.
"They did a great job, especially the banana pudding. That's my drug of choice," said Al Henager, a retired Evangelical Presbyterian minister from Benton who attended.
Other than the food, the most enjoyable part of the program could have been the music.
The retired preachers and Coach Hatfield belted out "Victory in Jesus," "Power in the Blood," "He Keeps Me Singing" and "I Surrender All," among others, summoning verse after verse without ever opening a hymnal.
In his sermon, Thompson thanked the ministers for "carrying out faithful careers in ministry devoted to preaching the gospel, and seeking out and saving the lost."
"I'm entering my 22nd year in ministry this year, and I look up to all of you," he said. "I'm so grateful for the witness and the example that you have provided."