By Bobby Ross Jr.
My Top 10 bylines of 2013:
10. (tie) Higher costs, tighter regulations spur changes for children’s homes: Ministries associated with Churches of Christ move beyond simple residential care.
CLAREMORE, Okla. — On pastureland overlooking a neighbor’s grazing cows, Hope Harbor Children’s Home cares for a dozen boys and girls in two large, modern group homes.
Founded in the aftermath of World War II, the former Turley Children’s Home — which relies on financial support and food pantry donations from Churches of Christ — has provided residential care for 65 years.
But like many Christian children’s homes across the nation, Hope Harbor has expanded beyond simply housing, feeding and educating at-risk young people on its northeast Oklahoma campus.
Embracing new opportunities to serve, Hope Harbor operates an off-site family counseling center, organizes parent-training seminars at churches and even goes inside jails and prisons to teach inmates how to be better fathers and mothers.
“Our mission is to restore hope and to equip children and families for lives of meaning and purpose,” said Ralph Richardson, Hope Harbor’s executive director. “Everything that we’re doing still fits within that mission.”
10. (tie) Arkansas enacts new church gun law: Church of Christ ministers, leaders divided on measure.
Packing heat in the pews — or pulpit — has won the overwhelming approval of Arkansas lawmakers.
The Church Protection Act, which Gov. Mike Beebe signed into law Feb. 11, is drawing mixed reactions from leaders of the state’s more than 700 Churches of Christ.
“I don’t like it at all,” said Ken Jackson, minister for the Lewis Street Church of Christ in Little Rock, citing problems with gangs and crackhouses near the church. “We live right in the middle of where all the crime takes place. We’ve had some issues with former members coming in with guns.”
The Lewis Street church has posted “No Weapons Allowed” signs at its doors.
However, Richard Akins, minister for the Bono Church of Christ in northeast Arkansas, supported the law’s passage.
“I fully understand the theology of ‘turning the other cheek’ and the kingdom not being ‘of the world’ so that Jesus’ servants need to fight,” said Akins, whose congregation has not decided whether it will permit weapons.
“But I don’t think Jesus would apply those principles to a lunatic shooting up a church or to an angry or drunk ex-husband thinking a church assembly is a surefire way to locate and dispatch his hated ex-wife,” the Bono preacher added.
For Akins, the key is that the law gives churches the option of allowing concealed handguns and deciding who — if anyone — may carry weapons on their premises.
“A person should be allowed to carry a firearm in a church that permits the carrying of a firearm for personal security,” according to the measure passed 85-8 by the House and 28-4 by the Senate.
10. (tie) Delaware church inspired to feed hungry families: Increasing number of Churches of Christ operate thriving food pantries.
WILMINGTON, Del. — The Cedars Church of Christ found an interesting way to revive itself.
Oh, frozen meats and fresh fruits and vegetables helped, too.
Less than a year ago, the 120-member congregation in this city of 71,000 souls had a small food closet that served a few dozen families a month.
But then church members Will and Amber Cash — alarmed by the prevalence of hungry families in Delaware — felt moved to do more.
“In rough numbers, one in four people in the state of Delaware experience hunger in some fashion,” said Will Cash, 33, citing the 242,000 residents served by the Food Bank of Delaware in a recent year.
“So when I saw that, I got really passionate about it … and I don’t feel like we can do enough,” added the middle-class father of two. “Our faith demands that we stand up and help the people that we live near and around.”
9. (tie) Rich, in name and spirit, in rural Ohio: Despite sacrifices, minister reaps a harvest of blessings with a 200-year-old congregation.
BEALLSVILLE, Ohio — Just after 9 a.m. on a recent Sunday, the well-worn tires on Jeff Rich’s 2003 minivan crunch over a gravel road full of twists, hills and narrow lanes.
Already up for hours, the Beallsville Church of Christ minister just finished leading worship for a half-dozen residents of the Monroe County Care Center.
“He’s wonderful,” said Gladys McDougal, 92, interviewed in her wheelchair. “I’ve never seen such a man.”
After leaving the nursing home, Rich stirs up a cloud of dust as he drives through farming and coal-mining country to pick up folks for the church’s regular assembly.
“Good morning, Paul!” the minister says as one man climbs into the van. “How’s your mother? Her knee doing any better today?”
For more than a dozen years, Rich has preached full time for this southeastern Ohio church — a 100-member congregation that meets in a large, red-brick building just off State Route 145.
It’s no cushy preaching job, by any means. But Rich treasures the peace and presence of God he has found in a part of rural America others might see as depressed or declining.
9. (tie) Oh, Brothers!: For Rockies pitcher with 0.28 ERA, there’s a higher calling.
LOS ANGELES — Rex Brothers portrays himself as “just a normal dude.”
Except that he’s standing in the visitors’ clubhouse at Dodger Stadium as he makes this claim — a few hours before pitching yet another scoreless inning for the Colorado Rockies.
“People look at me as an athlete, but I want people to look at me as a normal human being, too,” says Brothers, 25, a left-handed reliever who fires 97-mph fastballs.
A faithful Church of Christ member and former Lipscomb University star, Brothers stepped into Colorado’s closer role in late May after an injury to Rafael Betancourt. The Shelbyville, Tenn., resident has been a top prospect since the Rockies made him the 34th overall pick in baseball’s 2009 amateur draft.
He has compiled amazing numbers so far this season: He has thrown 31 straight scoreless outings covering 29 innings and boasts an ERA of 0.28.
“He’s a great talent,” said Rockies pitching coach Bo McLaughlin, a fellow former Lipscomb player. “From the time we got him, we knew that he was going to help us in the big leagues.”
8. For a Nicaraguan church, a revival: Once-struggling congregation finds new life through the work of native missionaries and their American supporters.
MASAYA, Nicaragua — The front door of the Sacuanjoche Church of Christ swings open.
Children — 260 of them — stream out of the cramped concrete building with a tin roof.
Wearing freshly painted T-shirts that declare “God is our faithful provider” in Spanish, the boys and girls carry Bible-themed crafts and sack puppets with Jesus’ hair colored brown, orange and even blue.
These young residents of Central America’s poorest country — most of whom live in homes with dirt floors — giggle as they dig into plastic goodie bags filled with coloring books, crayons, candy, stuffed animals, toothpaste and toothbrushes.
It’s the final afternoon of Vacation Bible School in a busy neighborhood where bikes, motorcycles, small cars and horse-drawn carts share a street paved with hand-laid bricks.
In recent years, this congregation in the heart of a city of 150,000 — about 45 minutes southeast of Managua, the nation’s capital — has experienced a spiritual and numerical revival.
7. Homosexuality and the church: As society embraces same-sex couples, a Texas conference equips the faithful to respond.
SAN ANTONIO — NBA player Jason Collins comes out as gay and makes the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The Boy Scouts of America votes to allow openly gay boys into its ranks.
The U.S. Supreme Court gives federal recognition to same-sex marriages.
As homosexuality gains increasing acceptance in America, Christians can’t escape the headlines.
But how should members of Churches of Christ — who believe God reserves sex for marriage between a man and a woman — respond?
Here in the Alamo City, the Northside Church of Christ hosted a recent “Peacemakers Conference.” The focus of the two-day conference: equipping the faithful to show Christ’s love to everyone — including those who experience same-sex attraction — while maintaining strong convictions on the Bible’s teachings.
6. In Guatemala, a celebration 50 years in the making: The Pan American Lectureship returns to the Central American capital where it started in 1963.
GUATEMALA CITY — Fifty years ago, the Pan American Lectureship was launched in this Central American capital to focus attention on fledgling Latin American missions.
Just a few years before, Jerry and Ann Hill and their two young daughters drove a 1955 Chevrolet 210 station wagon all the way from Pleasanton, Texas — becoming the first Church of Christ missionaries between northern Mexico and the Panama Canal Zone.
The Hills — the first of a team of missionaries who came to share Christ with this nation known for earthquakes, guerrilla warfare and its deep Mayan roots — arrived in 1959.
“The oldest Churches of Christ in Mexico were only about 20 years old,” the late Jerry Hill wrote in “Guatemala: Joy and Crown,” his 2011 autobiography. “The oldest church in South America was seven years old. There were no known churches in Central America.”
Fast-forward to a recent Sunday: The Pan American Lectureship celebrated its half-century milestone by returning to this sprawling metropolis of 3 million people where it began in 1963.
To mark the occasion, busloads of Guatemala’s faithful came together for a joint worship assembly — some traveling hours from remote rural areas.
Ann Hill, now 81, sat on the front row of a national convention hall the size of a U.S. football field, barely able to contain her emotions.
5. Financial crisis strikes Southwestern Christian College: Historically black Christian college seeks donations and prayers to ‘be able to survive.’
TERRELL, Texas — Southwestern Christian College, a historically black college associated with Churches of Christ, faces a financial crisis.
The sudden loss of $500,000 a year in federal funding has exacerbated long-standing financial difficulties, top administrators told The Christian Chronicle.
“This has crippled our recruiting capabilities and several vital operational needs,” said James O. Maxwell, vice president of institutional advancement. “Please pray for us that we might be able to survive this crisis.”
Jack Evans, Southwestern’s president since 1967, voices confidence that God will provide the funds necessary for Southwestern to survive and thrive.
Asked if the college might be in danger of closing, Evans replied, “That’s been an issue ever since we’ve been in existence. … I have just worked here based on the faith that it would get better, and I still believe it. I don’t live under the threat or the fear of closing.”
Southwestern has 172 students this semester — down 24 percent from an enrollment of 227 five years ago.
Evans blames the decline on a poor economy and changing societal values.
4. How the ‘faith-based FEMA’ are helping Moore move on: As President Obama pledges recovery, Christian volunteers aid Oklahoma tornado victims based on what each denomination does best.
MOORE, Okla. — At the edge of the disaster zone — just across the street from the decimated Moore Medical Center — teens and adults in cowboy hats cook smoked sausages outside the Central Church of Christ.
This group of volunteers drove 430 miles from Denver City, Texas, southwest of Lubbock, to prepare meals for victims after last Monday’s EF5 tornado destroyed 1,200 homes and killed 24 people, including 10 children.
Inside the church, worshipers — many wearing bright orange “Disaster Assistance” T-shirts — at the Sunday service maneuver around ceiling-high stacks of emergency food and supply boxes delivered on a tractor-trailer by Nashville, Tennessee-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc.
The church’s marquee sign along Interstate 35 normally grabs drivers’ attention with catchy Bible verses and witty sayings.
But now it declares simply: “Disaster Relief Center.”
Even as President Barack Obama consoles victims and promises the government’s assistance “every step of the way,” the so-called “faith-based FEMA” is already out in force — from Mennonite Disaster Service chainsaw crews to Samaritan’s Purse debris cleanup teams to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance pastoral counselors.
In a visit Sunday to this devastated Oklahoma City suburb, Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has registered more than 4,200 people for direct assistance and approved more than $3.4 million in direct aid.
3. Social justice vs. kingdom work: At a national meeting of youth ministers, the key role of the local church is emphasized.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Love Jesus.
Tolerate the church.
At a time when Americans’ confidence in organized religion has hit a 40-year low, that mindset seems particularly prevalent among younger Christians.
At the recent National Conference on Youth Ministries, Scot McKnight — one of the keynote speakers — challenged what he described as the modern tendency to lift up social justice efforts as “kingdom work.”
“It’s like a tsunami, beginning to overtake the church, and the church is losing significance in local communities because Christians are devoted to changing the world through the political process,” said McKnight, a prominent evangelical New Testament scholar and popular blogger.
Showing compassion, feeding the homeless and working for peace are good causes, but kingdom work involves introducing people to Jesus and his church, McKnight told 285 youth ministers from Churches of Christ in 30 states.
That message struck a chord with some of the youth ministers who gathered at the Crowne Plaza Colorado Springs — in the shadow of Pikes Peak.
2. Iowa church refuses to die: 156-year-old congregation epitomizes the challenges faced by many small, rural Churches of Christ.
MONTEZUMA, Iowa — Snow coats the ground as Pauline Ell arrives for Sunday worship on her 89th birthday.
A bitter wind brushes Ell’s curly hair as she steps out of her daughter’s car and into the little white church building where she has worshiped her entire life.
Corn and soybean fields and a cemetery where generations of deceased members rest in peace surround the West Liberty Church of Christ.
The 156-year-old farm church traces its roots to 1857 when settlers began meeting in a log house. Later, the congregation assembled in a renovated barn. In 1867, the church building that still stands was erected. The cost: $1,200.
For Ell, this Lord’s house where she grew up warming her hands by a wood-burning stove holds a lifetime of memories.
As a young girl, she often rode to services in a horse-drawn sleigh.
“My dad would put straw in there, and we’d get down in the straw and cover up with a quilt,” she said. “Sometimes, the drifts would be so bad the horses couldn’t even get through. So my dad would put two, three, four shovels in the sled, and we’d all get out and shovel snow ahead of the horses so they could go.”
In 1880, West Liberty’s membership roll listed 229 names. In 1933, a gospel meeting yielded 30 baptisms and 10 restorations. In the 1960s, annual Vacation Bible Schools drew truckloads of children from miles and miles away.
But in more recent times, the Iowa congregation — like many small, rural Churches of Christ across the nation — has struggled to survive.
1. Explosion rocks Texas church: After a deadly blast at a fertilizer plant owned by a church elder, West Church of Christ members rely on faith, prayer and fellow Christians.
WEST, Texas — The auditorium lights flickered.
The glass doors flew open.
West Church of Christ minister Ernie Albrecht was sharing Wednesday night devotional thoughts — focused on Ezekiel and the need for Christians to stand up and be strong in their faith — when a loud boom rocked the pews.
“For a moment, I thought, ‘Man, Jesus is coming!’” Albrecht said later. “It was a scary moment because it was like, ‘This may be it.’”
Albrecht finished his remarks, and deacon Shorty Harkins — who brushed off the noise as thunder — stood to lead the invitation song, “There Is Power in the Blood.”
Harkins had asked elder Donald Adair, an 83-year-old farmer and owner of the West Fertilizer Co., to say the closing prayer.
But in the dark auditorium, Harkins did not realize Adair had received a phone call a few minutes earlier and quickly left. Unknown to the congregation, Adair had learned that the fertilizer plant had caught fire.
“Oh, no!” a few members had heard Adair’s wife, Wanda, mutter on the way out.
Outside the church building, a giant plume of smoke filled the still-bright sky — the result of a massive explosion at Adair’s fertilizer plant that killed 15 people and wounded more than 200.
“It kind of looked like a mushroom cloud,” said Harkins, a longtime resident of this north-central Texas town of 2,800, known for its Czech culture and kolache pastry shops. “It was about a mile and a half over there to it.”