There was nothing unusual about a representative of the Boy Scouts of America's national office being invited to speak Friday night at a Fort Worth banquet to raise money for three enduring inner-city troops and honor four longtime Scout leaders.
But what he had to say -- and the way he said it -- surely came as a surprise to many, and no doubt challenged some long-held beliefs on the "very sensitive issue" facing Boys Scouts today.
Willie Iles Jr., the BSA's national director of government and community relations, had spoken at the annual event last year, when he extolled the virtues of Scouting and its long history of developing young boys and helping them transition into manhood.
Growing up in Houston, Iles was a Scout, and he began his professional Scouting career there in 1971, when he was hired by the local council. He knows Scouting well and has a passion for it.
As emcee of the banquet, I was seated next to Iles during dinner, and he hinted that he would address the issue he knew was on everybody's mind: whether gays should be permitted to join the Scouts and be adult leaders in the organization.
At a board meeting earlier this month in Irving, BSA leaders had considered dropping the ban on openly gay troop members and leaders, leaving that decision to sponsoring organizations. But the board postponed a vote until May.
Like many troops, the three for whom we were raising money for camping and National Jamboree trips, are sponsored by churches.
Iles, who pointed out several times that he had no opinion on the matter, proceeded to frame the issue in a historical and biblical context that seemed to forecast the inevitable.
He noted that the 100-year-old organization, which from its beginning was to be "open to all boys," has a history of exclusion. During the years of segregation in the South, the national organization left it up to local councils whether to allow blacks in integrated troops or in separate ones. The BSA finally broke down those barriers.
Forty years ago, the board approved women as den leaders, committee members and national officers. After Cub Scouting was added at the urging of women, females were allowed in 1932 to hold the position of Den Mother.
Of the 1.4 million non-profit, non-religious groups today that directly affect young people, the Boys Scouts is the only one with a written policy to exclude, Iles said. Pointing out that there were 40 words in the Boy Scout Oath, Iles dramatically stopped after reciting only the first 14: "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God. ..."
He asked rhetorically, "What if I have four sons -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? And Matthew is gay?"
Iles, again saying he had "no opinion" on the subject, said there are 16,000 public schools systems in America and there are gay teachers in many classrooms.
"And yet we don't have people running to pull their kids out of school," he said.
In an appeal to the faith-based community, he said Boy Scouts is the country's largest outreach organization, adding, "We're in the outreach industry, not a Bible study class."
It hasn't gone unnoticed that President Obama, like every president since William Howard Taft, is honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America, and he supports ending the ban on gay participation.
When Iles finished his speech, he asked, "How was it?"
"Fantastic," I said. "You've got 'em thinking."
Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays.