BUENA PARK, Calif. (ABP) — A former Southern Baptist Convention officer said he led Sen. Robert Byrd in the "sinner's prayer" to accept Christ during a hallway conversation during a chance meeting about four years ago in Washington.
"I'm firmly convinced in my mind that he accepted the Lord and is in heaven now," Wiley Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif., and a former second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said about Byrd, who died June 28 at age 92.
Drake said he met Byrd, the longest-serving senator in American history, while on his way to an appointment with the Senate chaplain in the winter of 2006. "As I shared with him I asked him about his relationship with the Lord," Drake said June 28.
Drake said Byrd, a member of American Baptist-affiliated Crab Orchard Missionary Baptist Church known early in his career for fiery sermons he delivered as a lay preacher at a radio station in Beckley, W.Va., answered that he had attended Sunday school as a boy.
"Sen. Byrd, I don't mean to be unkind," Drake said he responded, "but you are getting up in years and when you do leave this world you need to know you are going to heaven."
Drake said Byrd replied that he hoped so and then the preacher asked the senator if he wanted to know for sure.
"I led him in the sinner's prayer right there in the halls of Congress," Drake said.
A lifelong Democrat who went to Washington in 1953 to serve six years in the House of Representatives before winning his Senate seat in 1958, Byrd died in the early morning hours of June 28 after a brief hospitalization in Fairfax, Va.
Born into poverty, Byrd was briefly a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He joined Southern Democrats in an unsuccessful filibuster against the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. Byrd later apologized for both actions, crediting the Baptist church with changing his views on race.
Byrd's racial views came full circle in 2008, when he endorsed Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries for president. He also was a vocal critic of the war in Iraq, denouncing the then-impending U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in a memorable speech in March of 2003.
Drake, who last year made headlines with public comments that he was praying for President Obama to die, called his meeting with Sen. Byrd "a God thing."
"I was very impressed that he was willing to stand and talk with me," Drake said. He didn't know me and didn't have an appointment with me."
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.