LOWELL — Keith Pettis bowed his head as the congregation he led in song and Scripture clustered around him in fervent prayer.
About 30 people attended a Tuesday night justice rally for Pettis, the pastor of New Life Church who is accused of molesting a 12-year-old girl. The Rev. Troy Montgomery made an emotional plea for support, his baritone barks rattling the small sanctuary at Pettis’ 128 Robbins St. church.
“We do not care what the naysayers say,” Montgomery said. “We are here to do one thing: To support him irregardless of what the outcome is.”
Civil rights activist John C. Barnette of True Healing Under God Ministries spoke for more than an hour, urging those in attendance to suspend judgment and stand beside the embattled pastor.
Barnette wants at least 42 people dressed in black to attend the 42-year-old’s trial. He also asked for the support of nine pastors — one for each criminal charge Pettis faces.
Pettis, of 8604 Catawba Cove Drive outside Belmont, was arrested Aug. 21. He is accused of sexually abusing the 12-year-old girl in August 2006 and September 2008, fondling her on Sept. 20, 2008, and forcing her to perform a sex act on him on Feb. 1 of this year, according to arrest warrants.
He was charged with three counts each of sex offense and statutory rape/sex offense and one count each of first-degree sex offense with a child, attempted sex offense and taking indecent liberties with a child.
Pettis was released Aug. 21 on a $50,000 secured bond, according to detention officers at the Gaston County Jail.
A probable cause hearing had been scheduled, but was canceled because Pettis was indicted by a Gaston County grand jury, said District Attorney Locke Bell. Pettis’ trial date has not been set.
Pettis has been behind the pulpit for 15 years, Barnette said. He continues to work as New Life Church’s pastor and leads Sunday worship services.
Barnette said he and Pettis were boyhood friends in South Carolina. He believes the pastor has been falsely accused.
“This is my brother, not only by nature, but by spirit,” he said. “My spirit tells me innocence, and that’s what I’m fighting for.”
Relatives and church members should support Pettis even if they entertain doubt about his innocence, Barnette said. He compared the pastor to O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of the murder of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in a controversial 1995 verdict, but later held responsible for the killings in a wrongful death civil suit.
Barnette believes Pettis will be exonerated, but he said the community should support him regardless of his trial’s outcome.
“What if he is guilty?” Barnette said. “The truth of the matter is we’ve still got to pray, pastors of Gaston County. We’ve still got to raise him up.”
Pettis did not speak during the rally and did not answer questions afterward on the advice of his attorney, Larry Hoyle.
Montgomery, the pastor of House of Shammah on U.S. 321 South, said fellow Christians shouldn’t pass judgment on Pettis.
“We will not bite and devour our own,” he said. “I believe it is time for us to come together and support him irregardless of what you think. I believe that at the end, the truth will be revealed.”