'We're gonna have to kill him'

The Rev. Vern Streeter holds a mailer that reads "We're gonna have to kill Him" Friday at Harvest Church in the Billings Heights. The church had planned to mail out 38,000 of the flyers until the United States Postal Service said no.

BRONTE WITTPENN, Gazette Staff

The words typed across the simulated yellow pad are decidedly provocative: “We’re gonna have to kill Him.”

Water marks ring the left corner of the page, and a web address “KillHim.tv” sits toward the bottom. In truth, the single sheet is a promotional piece Harvest Church created for its series of sermons leading up to Easter.

The Heights church, which also has satellites in Lockwood, Plentywood and Butte and Cody, Wyoming, planned to send out 38,000 mailers to the cities it serves. It hoped to draw people to the website for a preview, and to church for the full sermons.

But the United States Postal Service refused to mail the piece. According to the church, local postal officials cited 9.5.5. of the federal agency’s mailability standards.

That section, titled “Matter Inciting Violence,” reads: “Any matter of a character tending to incite arson, murder, assassination, treason, insurrection or forcible resistance to any law of the United States, or containing any threat to take the life of, or to inflict harm upon, the President of the United States is nonmailable.”

An emailed statement released Friday afternoon by the Ernie Swanson of the USPS Corporate Communications Office in Seattle, gave a different answer.

He wrote: “When presented for mailing, this item did not meet mailing standards for a variety of reasons, including mail thickness, absence of a return address, mailing address, no postage indicia and no name of the nonprofit. The mail piece was properly rejected based on those concerns.”

Leann Bennett, communications director for the church, disputes that was the reason. After multiple conversations with local USPS officials, ascertaining the requirements for the mailer, Bennett was told Thursday that the mailer would not be accepted.

“They came back and said it was not mailable,” Bennett said Friday. “They said ‘we’re not willing to put our name on this.’”

'Why they got so mad'

The sermon series deals with four incidents in the Gospels that spurred religious leaders to seek the death of Jesus, said the Rev. Vern Streeter, lead pastor at Harvest.

“These are four pivotal events that caused God-fearing men to decide the solution was murder,” Streeter said. “What I want to do in the series is get some perspective on why they got so mad.”

Streeter can’t resist sharing some of what he’ll be preaching from the pulpit. Jesus’ death didn’t result from a riot gone bad, he said, but was a long, brooding plot that began a year before Jesus’ death.

The religious leaders wanted to hold onto their institutional, political, financial and religious power, Streeter said. Hence the plot — and hence the sentence in the mailer.

“That sentence summarizes these clandestine, illegal back-office meetings the religious elite had,” Streeter said. “Where they looked each other in the eye and concluded ‘we’ve got to kill him, it’s the only way to solve our problem.’ ”

Drawing interest

Streeter admits the marketing piece is edgy. It’s not the first time the Heights church has gone that route to draw interest.

One previous sermon series was titled “One Hell of a Day,” focusing on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion “and what a hellish experience it was for him,” Streeter said.

Another time, Heights billboards proclaimed that “Harvest Church is Full of Hypocrites,” making the ads appear critical of the church.

“But we were admitting that we all have hypocrisy in our lives and others do, too,” Streeter said. “And we welcomed them to join us.”

In the case of this mailer, the church hoped to send out the pieces as single unfolded sheets, “where each person gets that startling headline,” he said.

But that idea was shot down, Bennett said. Normally for these types of mailers, Harvest works with Mailing Technical Services in Billings. MTS handles large mailings and the permits they require, she said.

Bennett sat down with MTS to explore the best way to send the mailer. When MTS approached the USPS with the idea of a flat postcard-like mailer akin to a political flyer, the USPS contacted Harvest and left a voice mail saying the mailer wouldn’t work because it went against the violence section, she said.

Mailing standards

In a conversation with a USPS employee, Bennett discussed different options, including folding and stapling the mailer with the message inside or placing it inside an envelope. Thinking the problem was solved, the mailers were printed and Bennett took them to MTS Wednesday.

“When they went to go process them on Thursday, MTS contacted me and said ‘we’re not allowed to process this, the post office is putting a hold on it,’” she said. “‘They’re saying they never gave approval.’”

So Bennett called the post office to find out what needed to happen next. Did the mailer need to be stuffed in an envelope? Did the postage amount need to change? Could they mail it first class, which is far more expensive than the nonprofit rate?

The final answer Bennett got was the USPS would not mail it. After the USPS released its statement Friday afternoon, Swanson was asked in an email if the content of the mailer had anything to do with the decision.

“I believe the decision was based on not meeting mailing standards,” he wrote back.

Whatever the reason, the result is disappointing, Streeter said, because the church paid $2,000 to print them. Instead, Harvest will find other ways to get the word out, including relying heavily on social media.

The church, which is holding its Easter service this year at the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark, is hoping the series will draw people who might not otherwise attend church on Easter.

“Without these mailers, we lost a major strategy of getting the word out,” he said.

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General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.