Scroll down to read my top stories for The Christian Chronicle, Christianity Today and other national media (2005-present), The Associated Press (2002-2005) and The Oklahoman (1993-2002).
• Fertilizer plant explosion rocks Texas church (reporting from West, Texas): After a deadly blast at a plant owned by a church elder, West Church of Christ members rely on faith, prayer and fellow Christians.
• How the ‘faith-based FEMA’ are helping Moore move on (reporting from Moore, Okla.): As President Obama pledges recovery, Christian volunteers aid Oklahoma tornado victims based on what each denomination does best. With related column.
• Iowa church refuses to die (reporting from Montezuma, Iowa): A 156-year-old congregation epitomizes the challenges faced by many small, rural Churches of Christ. With related story from Beallsville, Ohio.
• Mandela legacy in South Africa: All races worship freely: Anti-apartheid champion’s quest for equality and justice draws praise from leaders of Churches of Christ. With related blog post.
• Financial crisis strikes Southwestern Christian College (reporting from Terrell, Texas): Historically black Christian college seeks donations and prayers to “be able to survive.”
• In Guatemala, a celebration 50 years in the making (reporting from Guatemala City): The Pan American Lectureship returns to the Central American capital where it started in 1963.
• Illegal immigration pits law vs. mercy (reporting from Chicago): One minister’s passion for aliens.
• Black, white and Gray (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.): Civil rights attorney who once challenged Lipscomb University in court receives the Christian university’s highest honor.
• A rocky road for Mexico missions (reporting from Aquiles, Mexico): Amid violence south of the U.S. border, many churches rethink travel plans. But safety concerns fail to deter some.
• Faith, family and ducks: Behind the scenes of ‘Duck Dynasty’ (reporting from West Monroe, La.): For these reality TV stars, “holding Hollywood’s hand” presents a challenge as they endeavor to share Jesus.
• From Rhode Island to Liberia, with love (reporting from Providence, R.I.): Immigrant church in the United States has big dreams for bringing hope and healing to its war-torn homeland.
• Boston Movement growing again after crisis (reporting from San Antonio): A decade after “the roof caved in,” the International Churches of Christ change their leadership structure and discipling approach.
• The war at home (reporting from Camp Lejeune, N.C.): 10 years later, the legacy of Sept. 11.
• Healing a wounded town (reporting from Alsea, Ore.): After a string of suicides, a minister helps bring answers to a small Oregon community.
• Sex, money … pride?: Why pastors are stepping down might surprise you.
• Ministry in Mormon country (reporting from Salt Lake City): For Churches of Christ in Utah, reaching a state dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints poses an immense challenge.
• Saving Sin City (reporting from Las Vegas): Meeting draws preachers, leaders to Las Vegas.
• Faith behind bars (reporting from Harvest, Ala.): Ministries shine light inside prison walls.
• Five years later, Katrina’s spiritual toll lingers (reporting from Mandeville, La.): Beyond physical losses, hurricane’s path of debris left some New Orleans-area churches facing unexpected challenges. With related column from Gulfport, Miss.
• Christian education in hard times (reporting from Newark, Del.): Facing financial woes, more schools closing.
• More precious than gold (reporting from Vancouver, British Columbia): This Canadian city will retain its international flavor long after the Winter Olympics end, as members of Churches of Christ can attest.
• ‘The Rookie,’ Part 2 (reporting from Abilene, Texas): Life of former major-leaguer Jim Morris takes more extraordinary turns.
• Post-apartheid era brings blessings (reporting from Benoni, South Africa): New signs of racial harmony can be seen among Churches of Christ in Nelson Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation.”
• Prosperity Gospel on Skid Row: Difficulties of high-profile pastors may reorient movement — or reinforce it.
• Death among homeless inspires soul-searching (reporting from Edmond, Okla.): Churches across the nation grapple with problem.
• Saying goodbye to Cascade (reporting from Portland, Ore.): In the Pacific Northwest, a small Christian college closes amid a mix of tears and laughter.
• Little church on the prairie (reporting from Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan): In a historically French Catholic prairie town, a 100-member Church of Christ thrives.
• Special needs, special children (reporting from Raleigh, N.C.): Ministry shows love, shares Jesus.
• Training Africa’s next generation (reporting from Accra, Ghana): In Ghana, dream for Christian college materializes.
• Race and the church: Getting beyond the handshake (reporting from Southfield, Mich.): In a city split by racial wounds, Detroit-area church leaders endeavor to promote reconciliation, cooperation through regular fellowship, joint ministry.
• New England’s place of refuge, fellowship (reporting from Raymond, Maine): Like many Christian camps nationwide, Gander Brook nurtures young people, brings together the faithful in its region.
• Presidential race engages students: Youthful Obama creates buzz of excitement for some, while Palin’s selection as vice-presidential candidate energizes others.
• Faith and politics: Members in all 50 states weigh in on presidential election in Christian Chronicle survey.
• Teens eager to show faith by serving (reporting from Mitchell, Ind.): Indiana youth group epitomizes spirt of action seen across the nation.
• Immigration and the church (reporting from New York): Manhattan church reflects melting pot nature of New York City.
• Drugs or Jesus? (reporting from Atlanta): Addicts find hope, healing through recovery ministry.
• Virginia Tech massacre challenges campus minister (reporting from Blacksburg, Va.): After the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history, Seth Terrell faces the biggest ministry challenge of his young career.
• Education as an outreach tool? (reporting from Pottstown, Pa.): Christian school hallways dotted with Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans and even Muslims, Hindus and Jews.
• Rich in spirit, poor in funds for retirement: A sociologist’s study cites low pay, little savings and church-owned homes as factors contributing to ministers’ bleak financial outlooks.
• Lift every voice and sing (reporting from Malibu, Calif.): The Ascending Voice, an international symposium of sacred a cappella music, draws hundreds of scholars, theologians, musicologists and singers to Pepperdine University.
• For congressman, faith provides a foundation (reporting from Washington): The only U.S. congressman who lists his religious affiliation as Church of Christ is a staunch Texas conservative.
• Population outpaces church: The U.S. population is growing. And fast. The nation’s 13,000 Churches of Christ are not. In a nutshell, that’s the challenge facing the fellowship, a Christian Chronicle study finds. First in a series.
• Rural revival (reporting from Newport, Ark.): Once-dying Arkansas congregation discovers new life.
• Surviving the storm (reporting from New Orleans): As Hurricane Katrina roars toward New Orleans, Charles and Angela Marsalis seek refuge at their church. Over the next week, they’ll endure a nightmare that will test their faith.
• Minister’s slaying, wife’s arrest deal double tragedy (reporting from Selmer, Tenn.): Under the glare of intense national media spotlight, small-town Tennessee church mourns preacher’s death and offers forgiveness to his jailed widow.
• At 100-year anniversary of split, ministers exchange Bibles at convention (reporting from Louisville, Ky.): After a century of division, some leaders focus on fostering better relations between instrumental and a cappella churches.
• Churches in living rooms, coffee shops a growing trend (reporting from New York): It’s a movement that a leading pollster suggests could change the face of American religion.
• Marriage group with church ties hit with lawsuit: Bush administration accused of violating the separation of church and state by funding a marriage enrichment organization associated with Churches of Christ. With related story.
• Courage under fire (reporting from Clinton, Mo.): Church member from Missouri — a 22-year-old Army infantryman — relies on his faith and his family after losing both legs in his second tour of duty in Iraq.
• A minister’s escape from sexual addiction: Like a cocaine addict in need of a fix, he’d close his church office door and drown himself in a sea of pornographic Web sites.
• Faithful offer hope, help after Katrina (reporting from Mandeville, La.): A disaster that killed hundreds and left thousands homeless presents one congregation with an extraordinary opportunity.
• After Katrina, Yelton again in the eye of the storm (reporting from Gulfport, Miss.): No electricity. No phone service. No church leaders waiting to greet him at the airport. None of those obstacles could stop this veteran disaster relief volunteer.
• No lights, but plenty of blessings (reporting from Jasper, Texas): Texas church deals with aftermath of Hurricane Rita.
• Rosa Parks ‘changed America’: Her lawyer, Fred Gray, reflects on the “mother of the Civil Rights Movement” after her death at age 92.
• In Kansas, a battle over the origin of the world (reporting from Arkansas City, Kan.): State school board chairman defends his faith and attacks evolution “dogma.”
• Reporter shines light on state’s dark past (reporting from Jackson, Miss.): Church of Christ member Jerry Mitchell’s “dogged investigation of the sins of the past” brings Ku Klux Klan members to justice.
• ‘Lord Byron’ (reporting from Roanoke, Texas): At 93, golf legend Byron Nelson still faithful to God and the church.
• AP exclusive: Condemned Tennessee inmate says government, military control his mind (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)
• AP enterprise: 5-year-old’s torture, beating death brings questions (reporting from Chattanooga, Tenn.)
• Police: Shooting deaths of four, including two high school football players, not random (reporting from McKinney, Texas)
• Texas town prepares for long day of funerals after eight senior citizens killed in church bus crash (reporting from Eldorado, Texas)
• AP enterprise: Click and buy: Internet becomes hot place for used car sales (reporting from Arlington, Texas)
• AP exclusive: Forgotten stock account helps Tennessee man reunite homeless woman, family (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)
Child Protective Services
• AP enterprise: Funding a key issue in Texas’ child protection crisis (reporting from Austin, Texas)
• AP enterprise: Keeping children safe is a fast-paced, high-stress job (reporting from San Antonio)
• AP enterprise: Schools learning new four-letter word: Mold blamed for illnesses, lawsuits and millions in maintenance (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)
• Reaction as U.S. launches strike on Iraq shows nation still divided on war (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)
• Iraq war opponents hold rallies across Tennessee (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)
• Fallen Marine — first Tennessean killed in Iraq war — ‘laid down his life for his friend’ (reporting from Gallatin, Tenn.)
• AP enterprise: Patriotism, sense of duty bind WWII veteran, son killed in Iraq (reporting from Corpus Christi, Texas)
• AP exclusive: Woman who lost father in Iraq loses husband, too (reporting from Dallas)
• Christian groups eager to help in Iraq, but critics wary their aim is conversion (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)
• Kennedy assassination still stirs memories, debate 40 years later (reporting from Dallas)
• Historians see similarities, differences in Kennedy, Bush (reporting from Dallas)
• Experts: Presidency more difficult after Kennedy (reporting from Dallas)
• Some dare to ask: Does Texas need an income tax? (reporting from Dallas)
• Sin taxes: Political genius or unstable way to fund schools? (reporting from Dallas)
• Future president? Three Tennessee politicians play prominent national roles (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)
• Donning camouflage, scoping out doves, Senate candidates campaign with guns blazing (reporting from Kingston Springs, Tenn.)
• President Bush caps final day of 2004 campaign with Dallas rally (reporting from Dallas)
• Crawford, Texas, rallies behind President Bush after hometown paper endorses John Kerry (reporting from Crawford, Texas)
• People of faith ask: How would Jesus vote in 2004 presidential election? (reporting from Austin, Texas)
• Dallas visit offers Bush chance to appeal to Catholics (reporting from Dallas)
• AP exclusive: Son of late officer and others question Bush memos attributed to his dad (reporting from Dallas)
• Former Texas House speaker says he’s ‘ashamed’ for helping Bush get into National Guard (reporting from Dallas)
• AP enterprise: A rarity in Bush country: Voters split on presidential race (reporting from Daingerfield, Texas)
• Texans fight for popular votes in Bush’s home state (reporting from Plano, Texas)
• AP enterprise: American boy and his church share faith, friendship with Mexican orphans (reporting from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico)
• AP enterprise: Children of Holocaust survivors find each other, and find answers (reporting from Southlake, Texas)
• AP enterprise: 25 years later, passions still strong on Southern Baptists’ conservative takeover (reporting from Houston)
• AP enterprise: Payout in Lutheran abuse case totals $69 million (reporting from Marshall, Texas)
• AP enterprise: Megachurches put on megaproductions for the Christmas story (reporting from Plano, Texas)
• Texas priest ‘unlikely leader’ in Episcopal conservatives’ fight against gay bishop (reporting from Plano, Texas)
• From TV sermons to book, pastor Joel Osteen’s influence grows with flock (reporting from Houston)
• AP enterprise: For Texas couple, caring for Sudanese ‘heart kid’ life-changing (reporting from Lubbock, Texas)
• San Antonio archbishop steps into role as leading Hispanic cleric in the United States (reporting from San Antonio)
• ‘SoupMan’ offers food and hope to the homeless in Dallas (reporting from Dallas)
• No doughnuts on Sunday? Churches confront nutrition, fitness (reporting from Grapevine, Texas)
• During Gospel Music Week, Christian music reigns in Nashville bars, nightspots (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)
• Excommunicated Jehovah’s Witnesses speak out on church’s handling of child abuse victims (reporting from Tullahoma, Tenn.)
Sept. 11 anniversary
• AP enterprise: Post-attack volunteerism: Lasting trend or a blip? (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)
• Tennesseans transformed by terrorist attacks (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)
• Small-town Tennessee volunteers help ‘fellow man’ after New York attacks (reporting from Smyrna, Tenn.)
• Amid basketball scandal, Baylor tries to return to normalcy (reporting from Waco, Texas)
• Dennehy case reopens wounds for Baylor basketball program (reporting from Waco, Texas)
• AP exclusive: Car dealer says Baylor coach helped missing player find SUV (reporting from West, Texas)
• Player’s disappearance another blow for nation’s largest Baptist university (reporting from Waco, Texas)
• After 25 seasons, life as Texas Rangers baseball announcer still thrills Eric Nadel (reporting from Arlington, Texas)
• In fight over proposed Cowboys stadium, some ask: Where’s Jerry? (reporting from Arlington, Texas)
• Lottery advocates, foes debate impact on education (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)
• Tennessee lottery supporters look to Georgia as model (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)
• Moral issue or not? Tennessee voters to decide whether to legalize state lottery (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)
• Victorious Tennessee lottery backers ponder next step (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)
• Tennessee hoping to soon keep lottery dollars at home (reporting from Franklin, Ky.)
• Dub it Lottery 101: Tennessee officials seek tips on lottery startup (reporting from Atlanta)
• On Georgia bus trip, Tennessee lawmakers discover the business of a lottery (reporting from Atlanta)
• Marriage and divorce in Oklahoma: In-depth series on Gov. Frank Keating’s taxpayer-funded initiative targeting the state’s No. 2-in-the-nation divorce rate.
• U.S. bishops ask Keating to lead board (reporting from Dallas): Governor to oversee panel on clergy sexual abuse.
• Gay rights group protests during Southern Baptist Convention (reporting from St. Louis): A dozen Soulforce members arrested as SBC president declares the denomination will not compromise.
• Four spot news stories from Sept. 11, 2001: 1. National tragedy bitter reminder for Oklahoma City bombing victims. 2. City’s Muslims fear backlash of blame. 3. Faithful gather for prayer, support across Oklahoma. 4. Oklahoma professor’s daughter witnesses attack, describes scene.
• First woman executed since statehood (reporting from McAlester, Okla.): Two-time killer Wanda Jean Allen dies by lethal injection, despite protests by Jesse Jackson and death penalty opponents.
• Parole rates soaring (reporting from Lexington, Okla.): New members, changed attitudes alter pattern of recommendations, a review by The Oklahoman finds.
• Washed in the blood: Trooper paralyzed by shooting finds new hope.
• Execution day starts early, lasts 18 hours (reporting from McAlester, Okla.): Behind the scenes of capital punishment in Oklahoma.
• Inmates obtain dignity in death (reporting from McAlester, Okla.): Cemetery is final resting place for orphaned prisoners.
• Arbuckle wildfire leaves ruins (reporting from Davis, Okla.): A sign that hung in one mountain cabin warned visitors, “If you’re smoking, you better be on fire.”
• High costs for inmate phone calls questioned: Hefty commissions charged on prisoners’ collect calls pump more than $1.5 million annually into the state Corrections Department, records show.
• Racial tensions compound tragedy (reporting from Wynnewood, Okla.): High school football player’s death may have opened door for hatred.
• Winners & Losers: School choice in Oklahoma: An investigative series based on a computer-assisted reporting project and two months of school visits and interviews.
• ‘They were in the house that’s gone’: Victims flood hospitals after killer tornadoes in Oklahoma City area.
• Violence: Who’s to blame?: In the wake of a seeming epidemic of school shootings, society looks at media, entertainment sources.
• Chartering new territory: Choice school scandals worry educators.
• Colorado residents mixed on charter schools (reporting from Castle Rock, Colo.): Experience there offer lessons for Oklahoma.
• Sources: Schools chief fighting to keep his job: At least three board members oppose extending his time with the Oklahoma City district, several central-office administrators and sources close to the board say.
• Test exemptions hide flunking schools, critics claim: Roughly three out of 10 Oklahoma City students exempted from high-stakes standardized testing, records show.
• Bus rides’ integration role nearly over: After a quarter-century, Oklahoma City slams the brakes on the last vestige of court-ordered desegregation.
• DHS investigator battles to keep day care safe: High caseloads make fulfilling state inspection requirements difficult, state records show.
• A tale of three cities: Little Rock, Ark., Oklahoma City and Topeka, Kan., were desegregation battlegrounds.
• Dying to be thin: Husband, children struggle with loss of anorexic mom.
• Elvis Presley (reporting from Memphis, Tenn.): Faithful hordes still swarm the King’s castle 20 years after his death.
• Priest who killed himself carried unknown burdens: The Rev. Edward Joseph Moras’ spirituality and simplicity touched parishioners, but he was unraveling inside.
• 8-year-old’s death rattles Oklahoma (reporting from Little Axe, Okla.): The hell that Shane Alan Coffman endured pushes child abuse to the front of the state’s collective conscience.
• Tears, prayers, bells, headlights offer tributes: Coverage of first anniversary of Oklahoma City bombing.
• Enthusiastic crowd greets president (reporting from Edmond, Okla.): In Oklahoma to commemorate the first anniversary of the federal building bombing, Clinton touts anti-terrorism legislation as he addresses thousands.
• Wounds to community’s soul may be slowest to heal (reporting from Edmond, Okla.): Ten years ago, Edmond’s name became synonymous with a tragic event — seemingly forever linked with the post office rampage that left 15 dead. With sidebar.
• Busing still provokes emotions: Many seek end to crosstown schools.
Oklahoma City bombing coverage
• Neighbor cares for boys when mom doesn’t return: The children had clung to hope that Army recruiter Lola Renee Bolden, a 40-year-old single parent, survived the bombing. She did not.
• Somber vigil taking toll on families: For a third straight day, family members of Rick L. Tomlin and scores of other missing bomb victims maintain an excruciatingly familiar routine: wait and hope.
• Child’s ready smile, affection remembered: Upon arrival at the federal building daycare that tragic morning, 15-month-old Danielle Nicole Bell opened her eyes and leaned her head against her mother’s chest.
• ‘It just makes you scared’: A week ago, thunder meant thunder. Today, for Oklahoma City schoolchildren, thunder sounds like a bomb.
• Injured fight to rebuild after bombing: Those fortunate enough to survive begin the difficult task of rebuilding their lives.
• Compassion, closure draw record crowd: With rescue efforts over and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building’s remains soon to be demolished, visitors view a somber piece of history.
• Sightseers still drawn to bomb site: They come with cameras, pain and respect. They’ve seen it a thousand times in the news, but still they come to see it in person.
• Six miracle children reunite: Youngest bomb victims attend Christmas party.
• Road to justice: Behind the scenes of a high-profile, double-murder case unlike any in Oklahoma history.
• Serial killer Dahmer slain in prison: Mass murderer found peace, Oklahoma minister says.
• Number of elections questioned: The way some Oklahoma voters see it, the ballot box should come equipped with a revolving door.
• Although rare, Edmond killers attention-getters: The extraordinary nature of recent homicides puts community in the spotlight.
• Taxpayers foot bill for Edmond council: Officials contend it’s the opportunity for training, not tourism, that attracts them to the friendly skies.
• Nightmare comes true for parents: Daughter killed by speeding driver who had just left a bar.
• Edmond police chief quits; severance package questioned: My first story for The Oklahoman makes Page 1 above the fold.
By Bobby Ross Jr., Dec. 31, 2009
Ten years ago, I spent the last night of the millennium on Y2K duty at The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City’s major metropolitan daily.
For the next day’s front page, I wrote:
As the planet Earth’s calendars rolled, hour by hour around the globe, to a neatly even Jan. 1, 2000, a computer bug known as Y2K was supposed to wreak havoc on Oklahoma and the world.
But this bug, it seems, had little bite.
The New Year arrived with more of a whimper than a bang, at least as far as Y2K was concerned.
It’s hard to believe that a decade has passed since then.
In keeping with my journalistic DNA, I compiled a list of my personal Top 10 stories of the decade:
• • •
As a child, I dreamed of growing up to be a baseball play-by-play announcer. I never realized that dream. But I did make it to the radio booth — with the earphones on my head during a real major-league game — when I profiled longtime Texas Rangers broadcaster Eric Nadel for The Associated Press in 2003. I also found a way inside the Houston Astros clubhouse (writing first about team chaplain Gene Pemberton and later coach/manager Cecil Cooper) and made it to spring training with the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers, Fla. What a thrill.
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Thirty minutes before welcoming listeners to “the beautiful Ballpark in Arlington,” Eric Nadel and his partner, Vince Cotroneo, swing open the windows of the Texas Rangers’ air-conditioned radio booth overlooking home plate.
A brisk, 93-degree breeze rattles stat sheets and blows open the pages of the “Complete Baseball Record Book.”
And the sounds and smells of the ballpark rush in: the voices of the gap-toothed boys begging A-Rod and company for autographs; the sweet aroma of $1 Hot Dog Night; the wind-blown smoke from the fireworks that erupt after each Ranger home run.
“You don’t have the feel of the game if you don’t open the windows,” said Nadel, 52, in his 25th season calling games for a perennial cellar dweller that has won one playoff game in its history.
• • •
As foreign reporting goes, this is the one country where I have traveled that seemed more like a 51st U.S. state. As a proud American, I mean that as a compliment. And yes, as you study America’s neighbor to the north more closely, you become more aware of cultural and political differences. In 2009, I was privileged to travel to three provinces — Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta — to write stories for The Christian Chronicle’s series on Churches of Christ in Canada. An upcoming reporting trip will take me to British Columbia.
GRAVELBOURG, Saskatchewan — Just off the main highway, behind the Snack Shack Eatery and the GravelBowl Lanes & Billiards, sits the Church of Christ.
A bright green John Deere tractor rumbles down a nearby street as an older couple watch closely from their front porch.
“Everyone Welcome,” says a sign outside the church’s newly renovated building.
In more than a few places in rural Canada, Churches of Christ are dying.
But in this historically French Catholic prairie town, the 100-member church is thriving.
• • •
Here’s another childhood dream I never realized: working as a White House correspondent and flying all over the world on Air Force One. In my time with AP in Tennessee and Texas, however, I covered presidential events, wrote about questions related to Bush’s National Guard service, explored “How would Jesus vote?” and traveled to tiny Crawford, Texas, to report on a furor caused by the Republican president’s hometown newspaper endorsing Democrat John Kerry in 2004.
CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) — Signs at the bank, the cafe and the Bottlinger Grain bins all declare Crawford – the proud home of the president’s ranch – as “Bush Country.”
So when the Lone Star Iconoclast, a tiny weekly that bills itself as Bush’s hometown paper, endorsed Democrat John Kerry, there was hell to pay.
Local businesses pulled their ads and banned the paper from their stores.
“We felt a little betrayed,” said Larry Nelson, manager of the Crawford Country Style, a downtown shop that sells “Luvya Dubya” trinkets and other Bush memorabilia.
• • •
I profiled Joel and Victoria Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Max Lucado, the Ed Youngs and former Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham during my time with AP. For The Oklahoman and later Religion News Service, I wrote about Craig Groeschel and the explosive growth of satellite campuses at Life Church in Oklahoma. For Christianity Today, I tackled stories on megachurch seminaries and pastor training.
HOUSTON (AP) — On their first date, Joel Osteen and his future bride, Victoria, went out to watch a Houston Rockets basketball game at the team’s home, then called The Summit.
Two decades later, the fast-growing megachurch that Osteen pastors is spending $78 million to turn the Rockets’ former arena – later renamed the Compaq Center – into its new spiritual home, with 16,000 seats, two waterfalls and plenty of television cameras for Lakewood Church’s nationally broadcast services.
The 41-year-old minister chuckles at the coincidence as he stands in the arena where true love was born and where he predicts as many as 100,000 people will someday worship every weekend.
“God’s got a sense of humor,” Osteen said, talking over the buzz of heavy machinery transforming locker rooms into children’s classrooms. “I never dreamed as a kid that this would be our place.”
• • •
My Christian Chronicle colleague Erik Tryggestad is the world traveler and international reporting expert on our staff, with datelines from more than 25 countries on his resume. But this summer I had the opportunity to travel to Africa twice — first to Ghana and then to South Africa — as part of the Chronicle’s “Global South” series. What an amazing experience.
ACCRA, Ghana — Through an open window, the familiar voice came.
From a blaring television at an auto parts store next door, President Barack Obama’s recent speech to Ghana’s Parliament drifted into the Nsawam Road Church of Christ auditorium.
“America will be with you every step of the way, as a partner, as a friend,” the nation’s first black president said.
In his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office, Obama promised U.S. support to help Africa build a better political and economic future.
At that exact moment, several hundred Christians were gathered inside the Nsawam Road church building to celebrate a different kind of partnership — one with eternal ramifications.
“As significant as Obama’s visit is … what we’re doing has a far more staggering impact for Africa because we’re dealing with souls,” said Deon Fair, a member of the Richardson East Church of Christ in Texas and a key figure in efforts to develop a Christian liberal arts university in this small coastal nation.
• • •
While Canada and Africa were new to me, I have made a number of trips to Mexico over the years — both personally and professionally. For AP, I joined a charismatic church group that spent a week at an orphanage in Juarez in 2004. For the Chronicle, I followed a Missouri church group as it built a church north of Saltillo in 2008 and ventured to Tijuana in 2009 to report on church mission groups’ concerns about border security.
TIJUANA, Mexico — Three times a week, San Diego resident Steve Mock crosses the U.S.-Mexico border to teach preaching students in this violence-scarred city of about 1.5 million souls.
Mock, an instructor at the Latin American Christian Institute in the heart of Tijuana, recognizes the dangers involved.
“I mean, I’m aware of it,” said Mock, a member of the Canyon View Church of Christ in San Diego. “There were almost 900 people murdered in Tijuana last year. But most of them are drug cartels fighting each other.”
Still, Mock said he understands why a number of American church groups canceled annual spring break mission trips to Mexico, while other congregations reassess scheduled summer efforts.
“I have not tried to talk anybody out of it who made the decision not to come this year,” Mock said. “I mean, I still go on. I don’t worry. … But it would just be a disaster if some student or some college kid or parent was shot in the crossfire somewhere between gangs.”
A 2-year-old offensive on drug traffickers by Mexican President Felipe Calderon has caused gang violence to surge along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border and claimed more than 7,000 lives in the last 15 months. The 843 killings in Tijuana last year were more than twice 2007’s total of 337.
• • •
During my time as the state prisons reporter for The Oklahoman, I witnessed four executions. My most memorable story involved a case of an inmate whose execution did not draw much media attention. I decided to use this case as an opportunity to write about a “typical” execution day in Oklahoma. With AP in Tennessee, I interviewed a seven-time convicted murderer and was scheduled to witness his execution before he resumed his appeals at the last minute.
McALESTER, Okla. – At 6 a.m., before the sun has time to scale the towering white walls of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Roger James Berget opens his eyes.
Not that Berget, Oklahoma inmate No. 98711, has any choice.
Eighteen hours before his scheduled execution, correctional officers stand over the condemned murderer and order him to wake up.
The officers strip-search him and make him shower in his shackles before giving him new clothes – a prison shirt and jeans – in which to die.
After he dresses, they lead him up the hill from the underground, death-row “H-Unit” to the main part of the penitentiary.
Inside the prison infirmary, he’s X-rayed to ensure he has no contraband on him – or in him – that he could use to hurt himself before the state can carry out his court-ordered lethal injection.
Berget, 39, a pale, thin man with a short, scruffy beard, a ponytail and tattooed arms, has spent the past seven days in a solitary “high-max” cell, away from fellow prisoners while awaiting his date with death.
After the X-ray, he’s taken back down the hill and placed in a special holding cell next to the execution chamber.
• • •
When the war started in 2003, AP dispatched me to a church in Nashville where members prayed as President Bush announced the U.S. attack. Later, I covered war protesters and the funeral for the first Tennessee soldier killed. Often, with AP in Tennessee and Texas and even after joining the Chronicle, the duty fell on me to interview loved ones of young men — and women — killed in action. In one case, I discovered that a young woman had lost both her father and her husband in the war. The story that sticks out the most to me concerned a World War II veteran in Corpus Christi, Texas, who lost his son in Iraq.
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) — Esequiel Perez never bragged about his service in World War II. If anything, the soft-spoken veteran downplayed his role.
“I didn’t go into too much combat or anything,” says Perez, 77.
Yet his children – Yolanda, Rosa Anna, Sandra, Joel, Debra, Hector and Zeke – grew up knowing that their father had done his part to defend the world, and why.
In the Perez family, soldiers’ sacrifice was honored and the nation’s freedom celebrated. Memorial Day and the Fourth of July were times for reverence. When the children erected a flag pole in the front yard, Esequiel welcomed it – but warned that the Stars and Stripes must not touch the ground and should be illuminated if flown at night.
“That’s how proud my dad is of this country,” said Rosa Anna Garza, 48.
He also wanted an easier life for his children than he had – he still had nightmares involving foxholes and blames grenades for his hearing problems – so he never pushed them to join the military.
For No. 6 child Hector, though, the Army beckoned.
• • •
Just six years after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which consumed my Oklahoman colleagues and me for months and even years, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought back all kinds of emotions. We dealt with those emotions by focusing on the news and writing about the terrible events of that day, this time from hundreds of miles away. I produced four stories on Sept. 11, a day that will remain forever a giant blur in my mind. Later, I wrote about Oklahomans reaching out to New Yorkers. With AP in Nashville, I did a package of 9/11 anniversary stories in 2002.
The scene looked so familiar. Too familiar.
The smoke. The chaos. The rescue workers.
Gary Woodbridge, whose wife, Ronota, died in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, had seen it all before.
“Watching some of the video of them trying to save people and help people, a lot of it reminded me of what we saw in Oklahoma City,” the Guthrie man said. “The only difference… is the patches on the uniforms say New York City instead of Oklahoma City.
“I kind of feel like it’s an attack on America instead of what (Timothy) McVeigh did on the government… Emotionally, it’s kind of hard.”
For Woodbridge and others who experienced the bombing – the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil until Tuesday – the latest tragedy brought all the horrible memories flowing back.
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The costliest hurricane to strike the United States — and one of the deadliest — occurred just months after I joined the Chronicle in 2005. In the immediate aftermath, I flew on a private plane with Don Yelton and others from WFR Relief Ministries to survey damages in Louisiana and Mississippi. A few months later, I returned to New Orleans to report on the still-immense needs among church members. In all, I made a handful of visits to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast after the storm. My one-year anniversary story featured Katrina survivors Charles and Angela Marsalis, who relied on their faith as they overcame the storm.
NEW ORLEANS — “Girl, you better get out of town!”
Angela Marsalis’ mother made it clear what she thought her daughter should do that weekend as Hurricane Katrina — a Category 5 storm packing 160 mile-per-hour winds — threatened a direct hit on New Orleans.
In a perfect world, Angela — a substitute teacher who helped each day with an after-school program at church — would have done exactly as her mother urged. She, her husband, Charles, and their boys would have joined the clogged procession of vehicles fleeing the tempest predicted to make landfall Monday morning.
But Charles — who worked 12-hour days on a tugboat yet still volunteered most mornings at a Christian outreach center — had just spent $2,000 to fix the family’s blue 2000 Dodge Caravan, wiping out their bank account.
Jittery over the calamity that could befall the bowl-shaped metropolitan area, Angela begged her husband: “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
But her practical side knew they lacked the cash to keep their gas tank full. They simply could not afford to heed the mayor’s mandatory evacuation order.
• • •
By Bobby Ross Jr.
The 1990s: I graduated from Oklahoma Christian University, married the love of my life and welcomed my three gifts from God into the world.
Oh, and I got paid to write newspaper stories.
With full knowledge that I’m probably leaving out a few important ones, my Top 10 stories of the decade:
10. Garth Brooks: 1992
My wife, Tamie, and I covered Garth’s afternoon news conference in Oklahoma City, then were surprised to receive press passes to the concert that night. I wrote a front-page feature for The Edmond Evening Sun.
OKLAHOMA CITY — A few hours before Garth Brooks’ sold-out concert at the Myriad Friday night, a bearded man resembling the country music superstar strolled into an interview room.
He was wearing a baseball cap, warmup shirt, sweatpants and tennis shoes — customary off-stage attire for the Oklahoma native.
Still, without his trademark black cowboy hat, bright western shirt and boots, it was difficult to tell if it was really him.
Then, he flashed that happy-to-be-an-Okie smile. Hey, that really is Garth!
Later, Brooks would compete with 14,500 screaming, boot-stomping fans to see who could bring the house down first.
With the hometown sensation running, jumping and dancing around stage as he belted out hit after hit and the crowd matching his decibel level with ear-piercing shrieks and applause, it didn’t take long for the house to fall.
• • •
9. Shane Coffman: 1996
This story involved the child-abuse death of an 8-year-old boy, and his age is undoubtedly why I still remember this case. I was the lead writer on a 3,500-word Sunday feature on the boy’s death.
A haunting feeling that he could have done more — that he somehow could have rescued 8-year-old Shane Alan Coffman from the hell where he lived and died – grips the Rev. Sunny Stuart.
The Baptist pastor’s voice cracks as he reflects on the Shane he knew:
The blond-haired boy who hopped and skipped off the church van each Sunday morning. The bright child who at age 5 memorized a difficult Scripture and proudly accepted a new Bible. The would-be third-grader so hungry he dug other children’s scraps out of the garbage after eating his own school lunch.
Then there was the Shane who showed up at vacation Bible school with whip marks on his legs.
“I’d like to say to these little children,” Stuart said of Shane’s surviving five brothers and sisters, “I didn’t desert you, I just didn’t know where you were, and I’m sorry.”
He paused to regain his composure, then added, “And I’m sorry I didn’t do something more to find you and protect you and help you.”
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8. Road to justice: 1994
This was a behind-the-scenes account of the journey by detectives who investigated a high-profile, double-murder case unlike any in Oklahoma history.
Detective Theresa Pfeiffer’s mind replayed fast forward the horrifying images and excruciating events.
Her head spun. Her heart thumped faster. Her knees felt suddenly weak as the veteran detective of 10 years clicked briskly toward Judge Thomas C. Smith’s courtroom.
Just a moment earlier, a game of “UNO” had occupied the Edmond police investigator’s time. The colorful playing cards had helped divert her thoughts from the most extraordinary criminal case of her life – and the pending verdict.
Even as the jury’s deliberations stretched past 11 hours, she saw no reason for alarm. The jury had plenty to digest. The eight women and four men had endured a nearly five-month trial.
Prosecutors called it the longest in Oklahoma County history.
Jurors had listened to 79 witnesses and 74 taped segments from testimony before a grand jury convened earlier. They had seen two videotapes and 452 pieces of evidence.
Pfeiffer had witnessed the entire trial, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, from a seat at the prosecutor’s table.
The stress and the pressure, the sacrifice and the personal toll of a high-profile, double-murder case unlike any in state history had failed to catch up with her.
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7. Tale of three cities: 1997
As Oklahoma City prepared to dismantle its crosstown busing program, I traveled to Little Rock, Ark., and Topeka, Kan., for a special project on school desegregation then and now.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — At Principal Rudolph Howard’s high school, contrasts abound.
Howard’s 1,800-student school serves, in his words, the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich, the worst of the worst and the best of the best.
Academically, the inner-city school produced 23 National Merit Semifinalists last year – 22 more than the Oklahoma City School District.
But structurally, the mammoth tan brick building – the largest school in America when built in 1927 – desperately needs $6 million in repairs.
Nearly two football fields long and five stories high, this school towers over a dilapidated, crime-ridden neighborhood.
A block away, drive-by gunfire killed an 18-year-old last month.
Yet, for many of Little Rock’s elite – including Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 10th-grade daughter – this is the school.
“There’s a lot of people who finagle to get their kids in,” said Sam Blair, the guidance department chairman. “We really sort of manage to attract students from the entire central Arkansas area.”
Such is historic Little Rock Central High School, 40 years after President Dwight Eisenhower sent 1,200 soldiers to help nine black students integrate the school – and change a nation.
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6. Anorexic mom: 1997
This was a 3,700-word Sunday feature on a family’s experience with a mom “dying to be thin,” as the headline put it.
Snapshots of two women – one Steve Duty married and one he buried – rest side by side on the living-room table.
One set of photos shows a beautiful prom date. A picture-perfect bride. An all-American wife and mom.
The other depicts a frail, 45-pound figure in a wheelchair – a living skeleton near death after a six-year battle with anorexia nervosa.
Duty knew both women well.
They were one woman. But in his mind, they never will be.
“This was a woman who apparently had everything – beauty, perfect shape, a great home, a great family,” Duty said of his green-eyed high school sweetheart. “She was a sweet, kind, giving person.
“But as much as she loved her children, as much as she loved me, she was sucked into this illness and let it control her.”
My mom, Tracey Duty, died at age 33 from anorexia nervosa. This is a disease where a person starves and exercises themselves to lose weight. Tracey thought she was fat and wanted to do something about it. She was never fat. In fact, the most she ever weighed was 112 pounds and she was 5 feet, 2 inches tall.
- Excerpt from an essay by Josh Duty, 13
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5. Pope John Paul II: 1999
When the editors assigned me to cover the pope’s visit to St. Louis, it marked the beginning of my specialty in religion reporting. I wrote four front-page stories about the trip.
ST. LOUIS — By 4:56 p.m. Tuesday, the arena where the St. Louis Blues play hockey seemed loud enough to drown out a few thousand jet engines. But this was no sporting event.
As an all-day party neared its crescendo, 20,000 arm-waving, hip-shaking, foot-stomping young Catholics jammed to the ear-busting lyrics of dc Talk, a superstar contemporary Christian rock group.
“What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus Freak?” the group sang, as the beat of drums and the strum of electric guitars reverberated throughout the Kiel Center.
Amid a gigantic kaleidoscope of flashing cameras, fluorescent crosses and “JP II, We Love You” banners, it appeared this place couldn’t get any noisier.
Then again, that was just the warm-up act.
The main attraction on this night was a white-haired, 78-year-old man with a hunched-over neck – a solemn-looking fellow dressed in white with a gold cross hanging over his heart.
If it was loud before, the decibel level exploded at 6:36 p.m. That’s when Pope John Paul II rode onto the arena floor.
• • •
4. Elvis Presley: 1997
Traveling to Graceland and producing a package of stories on the 20th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death remains one of the highlights of my career.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Goose bumps formed just below James Hubert’s earphones as he followed the Graceland Mansion tour group into the dining room.
As Priscilla Presley recounted on audiotape how Elvis Presley chomped southern cooking, played poker and swapped stories in this room, the Lawton man passed from commercialized present to nostalgic past.
Suddenly, there at the head of the eight-foot table, Hubert could see him.
“Man,” Hubert said, “Elvis walked through here eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich.”
The king of rock ‘n’ roll left the building 20 years ago.
• • •
Just as private schools have always done, Oklahoma City’s newest public schools have become a haven for the wealthy and well-educated, a study by The Oklahoman has found.
The numbers suggest that the district’s 5-year-old school choice movement – which has coincided with the dismantling of court-ordered desegregation – has produced a two-tiered system: one academically elite, middle-class and disproportionately white; the other struggling, poor and mostly minority.
No longer are paying expensive private school tuition or moving to the suburbs the only options for those who want to escape Oklahoma City’s beleaguered, poverty-ridden schools.
Today, they can choose public schools such as Classen School of Advanced Studies, a school with top-notch orchestra, drama and ballet programs, a college-caliber core curriculum and strict admissions standards.
From Boston to San Jose, Calif., the free-market approach is immensely popular, but some here in Oklahoma City fear that the school district is catering to the powerful and well-to-do while leaving others behind.
• • •
2. Oklahoma tornadoes: 1999
I’ll never forget driving through a raging thunderstorm — with tornado warnings still in effect in the Oklahoma City metro area — to interview tornado victims at a hospital. The death toll that night hit 44.
Outside Hillcrest Medical Center, sirens wailed as ambulances kept arriving Monday night.
Frazzled medical workers helped old men and women, heads and knees covered with bandages, into wheelchairs. Nurses and doctors rolled bloodied babies and young children inside on stretchers.
As the television boomed with reports of deadly tornadoes, Tony Lawson sat in the emergency room – sweat and shock covering his face.
“Luckily, it just went over our house, but it took our daughter’s house,” Lawson, 39, said.
Lawson found his daughter, grandson and a friend amid the remains of their destroyed home. He rushed them to the hospital and wasn’t sure how badly they were injured.
“All I know is they were in the house that’s gone,” he said.
The scene was repeated Monday night at hospitals throughout the Oklahoma City area. At least nine were confirmed dead by hospitals, and more than 350 patients were treated.
• • •
1. Oklahoma City bombing: 1995
I had just stepped off the eighth-floor newsroom elevator when we heard the boom and saw the smoke in the distance. In all, 168 people died in the bombing — the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil until 9/11 six years later.
Thirteen-year-old Ricky Hill and his brother Jonathan, 11, waited up late Wednesday hoping to hear from their mother.
Even as they drifted off to sleep, they clung to hope that Army recruiter Lola Renee Bolden, a 40-year-old single parent, had survived a thunderous bomb blast.
But her call never came.
The boys’ distress turned into a real-life nightmare about 1 a.m. Thursday.
That’s when three men and a woman, all clad in their best Army green, arrived at the door with the horrible news.
Neighbor Mechelle Murray, a single parent with children herself, had taken in the next-door neighbor boys when their mother failed to return home.
Even while calming Ricky and Jonathan, Murray had feared the worst.
“I immediately thought, Oh my God, Renee works in that building,’ ” the 38-year-old accounting student said of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.