The man who has led an effort to spread Christian influence in public schools and city government for 25 years is calling it a career.
Ken Owen, 74, said that God told him last year it's time to retire as president of Christian Community Concerns, an organization that has fought such efforts as gay marriage, adult bookstores in Lodi and the opening of the city's cardroom.
The group has also promoted prayer at City Council meetings, posting The Ten Commandments at City Hall and establishing a Christian voting bloc in Lodi and elsewhere in San Joaquin County.
"It's reflecting what's happening at the national level as well," said retired Lutheran Pastor Bob Mattheis of Lodi. "I think he had the ear of the fundamentalist, evangelical community."
Owen suffered a mild stroke in February 2010, causing him to take a six-month leave of absence from the organization as he recovered. He says that God told him last summer to not only retire as president of Christian Community Concerns, but disband the organization.
"I think my instructions from the Lord is to shut the ministry down," he said. "If someone wants to start it up again, they can do it under another name."
Lodi City Councilman Larry Hansen, who has known and worked with Owen since 1985, when Hansen was a Lodi police captain, said he will miss Owen's contributions to the community.
"I have appreciated his support, and I think it is a huge loss for Lodi that his organization goes with him," Hansen said. "We could agree to disagree sometimes. He never made you feel like I was less of a person if I disagreed with him."
Born in Arkansas, Owen lived with his family in Salem, Ore., before they moved to Lodi in 1948, when the city had 5,000 residents. He noted that you had to take a two-lane road from Lodi to Sacramento in those days.
Owen has had a state landscaping license since 1965 and will continue his role three days a week as a landscape contractor at his church, Century Assembly.
An atheist before finding the Lord
Owen was actually an atheist until finding the Lord in 1971, when he stopped fishing on Sundays and went to church instead, and he stopped drinking, gambling and swearing. A few months later, he quit smoking as well.
Owen founded Christian Community Concerns in 1985, when he got a calling from God to exert a Christian influence in the community and noticed an increase in homosexuality, abortion, pornography and sexual promiscuity in American society. He added a Stockton chapter in 1994 and later expanded it to include all of San Joaquin County.
Owen has run the group since that time through a low-profile board of directors. The board includes Adam Cobarrubio of Lodi, Century Assembly's men's ministries director and board member of the San Joaquin Valley Men's Ministries; Greg Cross of Lodi, who attends Westside Assembly; Abraham Mackey of Stockton; Pastor Theo Pope of Manteca; Sandra Miller of Tracy; and Jackie Arrington of Elk Grove.
"I've known Ken and his family for 30 to 40 years," said Kevin Suess, associate pastor at Vinewood Community Church. "I think where Ken has really made a contribution is to bring to light legislative issues that might have gone under the radar or unnoticed."
Mattheis, who admits he's considerably more liberal than Owen, acknowledges Owen's contributions to the community.
"I disagree with almost all his positions, but he brought together a Christian message, compassion and concern for the community," Mattheis said. "I think his stands on gay marriage and abortion are out of line with the majority of people, but that doesn't negate the positive things he's done."
Fighting for morality
Owen frequently attended Lodi City Council meetings when moral issues were on the agenda. The most recent issue came in 2009, when the council agreed to allow prayers before meetings after an out-of-state atheist organization argued that prayer should be banned at government meetings.
Owen also led fights against a cardroom being allowed on Cherokee Lane and adult bookstores to be operated in Lodi. He also supported Proposition 8 in 2008, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
He's also organized Lodi's celebration of the National Day of Prayer, held each May at the All-Veterans Plaza off Pine Street, and began a "Keep Christ in Christmas" campaign. But he says that one of his greatest contributions is distributing a voters' guide every two years.
Asking candidates about moral issues
The voters' guide, begun in 1990 in Lodi and expanded to include Stockton in 1994, featured a questionnaire in which political candidates ranging from Congress to local city councils and school boards are asked questions based on moral issues like abortion, homosexuality, and separation of church and state.
For example, candidates for county sheriff were asked whether people should have the right to bear arms, and what their position is on adult bookstores.
School board candidates have been asked whether schools should teach abstinence only; whether they believe creation and evolution should be in the curriculum; whether Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving should be called by their traditional names; and if students should be allowed to read the Bible and pray on public school campuses.
In recent years, some 25,000 to 40,000 voters' guides were distributed countywide.
"I think our voters' guide influenced our culture more than anything I did," Owen said.
Due to Owen's stroke, the voters' guide wasn't published for the 2010 elections.
Trying to keep Christ in Christmas
The "Keep Christ in Christmas" campaign focused on four basic components:
- Encouraging retail clerks to wish customers a "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings," and for customers to ask store owners and managers to say "Merry Christmas."
- Requesting that public schools allow traditional Christmas carols and plays emphasizing the birth of Jesus Christ.
- Telling Lodi city officials to feel free to express themselves religiously in public.
- Asking churches and merchants to display a "Keep Christ in Christmas" poster.
"There's no question he has a passion for our community and a passion for the local church," Suess said. "The things he has put his hands on have been for the general good of the people."
Hansen added, "He definitely saw his role as a calling. He has certainly earned the right to retire and enjoy the rest of his life at a slower pace."
Contact reporter Ross Farrow at firstname.lastname@example.org.