WEST MONROE, La. — Gasps of excitement wash over a crowded classroom at the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ as Phil Robertson arrives for Sunday school.
Seventy pairs of stargazing eyes follow the bearded, camouflage-clad Duck Commander as he shakes hands with fans, thanking a couple from Canada for sending their ducks down south.
The reality television star carries a well-worn Bible, the thick binding held together with duct tape, as he takes his seat facing the audience.
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“Y’all looking at me saying, ‘That’s about the raggedyest-looking Bible school teacher I’ve ever seen in my life,’” Robertson tells the class, a mix of yuppies in suits and shiny shoes and rednecks in faded jeans and mud-caked boots.
“God does not look at outward appearances, the clothes on your back,” the 67-year-old church elder adds as he opens his Bible to John 3:16 and begins sharing the Gospel.
— which set a reality TV record
with nearly 12 million viewers of one episode last year — has made celebrities out of Robertson, his wife Kay, their four sons, their daughters-in-law, their grandchildren and even Phil’s quirky brother, “Uncle Si.”
All the Robertsons are longtime, active members of the White’s Ferry Road church,
which meets just a few miles from the Duck Commander/Buck Commander warehouse in this northeast Louisiana town of 13,000.
The church itself has shown up at least a half-dozen times on the show, touted by the A&E Network as following a Louisiana bayou family as they operate a thriving duck call and hunting accessories business while staying true to family values.
Like his father, oldest son Alan Robertson — the clean-shaven member of the clan who describes himself as a “Jacob in a family of Esaus”
— serves as a church elder.
“The biggest challenge is also the biggest opportunity — just the influx of people that come to services,” said Alan Robertson, who stepped down
as one of the 1,500-member congregation’s ministers in 2012 to help run the family’s burgeoning business. “Sometimes, it’s overwhelming.”
Alan Robertson, third from left, dares to be different. He's pictured with his brothers Willie and Jase, father Phil, uncle Si, brother Jeptha and duck call makers Justin Martin and John Godwin. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY ALAN ROBERTSON)
‘THIS IS THEIR CHURCH FAMILY’
Two police cars parked outside the church building and a dozen-plus members trained to help with security testify to the changes — and frequent out-of-town visitors — brought by the Robertsons’ success.
“We have people come in from all states, and it’s OK, even though some people say, ‘Well, that’s just not right,’” Kay Robertson said after posing for a photo with a family from Alabama. “But when you come here, you’re going to hear the Gospel of Jesus, and you’re going to hear everybody worshiping, praising God. So how can that be bad?”
Jase Robertson immerses Brandon Hooks for the forgiveness of sins at the White's Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La. (PHOTO BY LORI EASTERLY)
On a daily basis, the church’s three secretaries — including an extra one hired to help with the flood of “Duck Dynasty”-related calls and emails — hear from fans touched by the show.
“I always tell them that it’s a possibility that Phil won’t baptize them or that one of the Robertsons won’t baptize them, but somebody here will,” secretary Luanne Watts said.
Some don’t understand the true meaning of baptism until arriving and studying the Bible, secretary Lori Easterly said.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, my word, I’ve never heard it like that,’” Easterly said.
Average Sunday morning attendance has jumped by more than 100 since “Duck Dynasty” premiered, church leaders said.
Even in an auditorium filled with 1,100 to 1,400 worshipers, depending on the number of visitors (and if there’s a tour bus that Sunday), it’s impossible to miss the bearded celebrities, their wives and children.
Elder and worship team leader Tommy Inman, front, sings with the praise team at the White’s Ferry Road church. “Duck Dynasty” family member Missy Robertson, second from right, is a member of the team. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
wife of Jase Robertson, lends her voice to the praise team as the congregation sings a cappella hymns, including “Listen To Our Hearts,” “Father, We Love You” and “Shine on Me.”
The church’s Celebrate Recovery
addiction recovery ministry draws roughly 400 people each Friday night. The congregation’s willingness to embrace people with “hurts, habits and hang-ups” can be seen in the typical 20 to 30 minutes of special prayers for people who come forward to express specific needs each Sunday.
When they’re in town, Phil and Alan Robertson join fellow elders in placing hands on those people and lifting them up to God.
On occasion, minister and elder Mike Kellett must remind guests to refrain from taking photos of the Robertsons during the assembly.
“This is their church family. Let them enjoy their church family,’” Kellett said one Sunday, joking that he and associate minister Trent Langhofer would be down front to sign autographs after the service.
“We keep it light if we can because we’re honored that people would come,” the preacher said. “It’s not too bad, but it is a challenge every now and then.”
'I WAS ... A SINFUL SCUMBAG’
He’s a tenacious personal evangelist who has brought hundreds of souls to new life in the Ouachita River.
“I was an evil man, just a sinful scumbag, before I ran up on him,” Robertson tells the Sunday school class, writing the name of Jesus on a whiteboard and circling it.
“I’m just glad I’m out from under it,” he says of his old way of life.
“I’m glad you are, too,” Kay Robertson chimes in from the audience.
Dan and Betty Ann Stovell from Canada pose with Kay Robertson after Bible class. In the upper left, Jep Robertson greets Texan John Morgan. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
Upon hearing the voice of “Miss Kay,” four children from Texas seated on the front row — wearing “Happy! Happy! Happy!” shirts and Duck Commander hoodies bought at the warehouse store — twist their heads around.
The Morgan and Morris families made a special trip from Kingwood, Texas, near Houston, to see the Robertson family’s hometown and eat frog legs and crawfish at Willie’s Duck Diner,
owned by Duck Commander CEO Willie Robertson.
“They’re just good people that we can relate to,” said John Morgan, a Southern Baptist father of three who praised Phil Robertson’s Bible knowledge.
Dan and Betty Ann Stovell from Beamsville, Ontario, heard about the class while shopping in the “Duck Dynasty” section of a West Monroe department store.
“I was amazed at how very well informed he is and how he is so dedicated to his Bible studies,” Dan Stovell said of Phil Robertson. “I was truly impressed. There was no pulling the wool over his eyes.”
’PLAIN, BLUNT MAN WHO LOVES GOD’
Phil and Kay Robertson renew their wedding vows on an episode of “Duck Dynasty.” Their minister son Alan — “the beardless bro"— officiates the 2013 ceremony witnessed by millions of television viewers. (PHOTO BY KAROLINA WOJTASIK, A&E NETWORK, COPYRIGHT 2014)
Back in December, Phil Robertson found himself at the center of the nation’s culture war after he characterized homosexuality as a sin in an interview
In the Sunday school class, Robertson alludes to the controversy as he reads from Acts 2 and reflects on the 12 apostles. All but John died for their faith, he tells the class — an idea propagated by Christians in the second and later centuries.
The Bible itself refers only to Peter and James the son of Zebedee dying as martyrs, said Jeff Peterson, a New Testament scholar at Austin Graduate School of Theology
in Texas. The book of Acts tells how all the apostles suffered for the faith, but not how the others died.
Given the sacrifices the apostles made, Robertson brushes aside the criticism he has endured.
“You really believe I’m worried about that?” he says.
Korie, Willie and Si Robertson approach the White’s Ferry Road church building during the “I’m Dreaming of a Redneck Christmas” episode in 2012. (PHOTO BY ZACH DILGARD, A&E NETWORK, COPYRIGHT 2014)
Kay Robertson said the family has received thousands of letters in support of her husband.
While she’d prefer he use less colorful adjectives, the elder’s wife said he’s simply “a plain, blunt man who loves God.”
Alan Robertson and Mike Kellett shared the preaching duties at the White’s Ferry Road church for eight years. Both still serve as church elders. (PHOTO BY LYNN McMILLON)
“He’s trying to get as many people to heaven as he can, and he’s doing it any way he can,” Kay Robertson said. “The man asked him about sin … and he made a list of sins.”
“Duck Dynasty” remains the top cable show on Wednesday nights, but ratings have slipped.
Robertson’s remarks “shifted the show from something that people outside of Southern and rural areas might watch out of curiosity and intrigue into a brand identified with a particular worldview that large swaths of America will not support or condone,” said Craig Detweiler, a communications professor and pop culture expert
at Pepperdine University
in Malibu, Calif.
But rather than a backlash, the 5.2 million viewers for a recent episode likely reflect
the normal quick shelf life for a reality series, said Joe Adalian, West Coast editor for New York
magazine’s pop culture site Vulture.
“Whatever the cause, ample data argues in favor of the theory that ‘Duck (Dynasty)’ has passed the point of being a weekly Nielsen phenomenon and is now simply a really big hit,” Adalian wrote for Vulture.
The Robertsons know the show won’t last forever.
But as long as the cameras roll, they intend to keep entertaining Duck Nation.
“While we’re on TV and able to have a platform to get the Gospel out, we want to do that,” Alan Robertson said.
Duck Commander and church elder Phil Robertson, left, prays at the end of a Sunday morning Bible class that he teaches at the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La. The other bearded fellow is Robertson’s friend Dane Jennings. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)