Closing doors: Small religious colleges struggle for survival

Religion News Service

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Religion News Service

SHAWNEE, Okla. — Duncan Tiemeyer chose St. Gregory’s University because he wanted a faith-based education that would teach him more than how to succeed in a career.

The 550-student Catholic liberal arts college in Oklahoma traces its roots to French monks who moved to Indian Territory in 1875, intent on developing the bodies, minds and souls of Native American and settler children.

“Here, we are taught not only to focus on our five-year plan but also our 100-year plan and our 500-year plan,” said Tiemeyer, 22, a senior business and theology major from Houston. “What are we preparing for? Are we living our lives in a way that is getting us to the next life? Are we going to be able to go to heaven?”

However, the brand of education offered by St. Gregory’s — where Benedictine monks still pray multiple times daily in a chapel beside a cemetery filled with the remains of their predecessors — will come to an abrupt halt at the fall semester’s end.

“It’s just a tragic and sad loss, and I’m grieving for our students and faculty and staff who are working through this loss,” said St. Gregory’s President Michael A. Scaperlanda.

The financially strapped Roman Catholic institution, 40 miles east of Oklahoma City, is just the latest small religious college to close in an increasingly competitive higher education marketplace.

Read the full story.

Religion News Service is a national wire service with more than 100 secular and religious media subscribers, including USA Today, the Washington Post and NPR.


Texas hero risked life to save others

The Christian Chronicle

With the death toll at 26, Stephen Willeford confronted — and shot — the Sutherland Springs gunman.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

Heroes need prayers, too.

Stephen Willeford — the Texan who confronted and shot the gunman who killed 26 people at a rural Baptist church Sunday — could use a bunch of prayers, his close friend John Wood says.

To many, Willeford’s actions outside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs made him a hero.

But the hero, who is described as a faithful Christian, was distraught when he called Wood at his Ohio home right after confirming gunman Devin Patrick Kelley’s death.

“I talked to him immediately after it happened, basically before any of the law enforcement arrived,” Wood — a retired Church of Christ minister and Air Force chaplain — told The Christian Chronicle. “He called me and said, ‘I just killed a man.’”

Texas Department of Public Safety Cmdr. Freeman Martin told reporters that an armed citizen, identified as Willeford, shot Kelley in the leg and torso. However, an autopsy indicated that a third shot — a self-inflicted wound to the head — likely killed Kelley.

Wood had just gotten home from worship at the Xenia Church of Christ in the Buckeye State when his phone rang.

The longtime preacher said he relied on his training in counseling as he comforted Willeford, who has long ties to Churches of Christ.

Read the full story.

First published online, this story appears in the December 2017 print edition of The Christian Chronicle.


After massacre, a prayer vigil

The Christian Chronicle

In a community grieving 26 victims, a Church of Christ opens its doors for service.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

The Stockdale Church of Christ in rural South Texas was enjoying a monthly fellowship meal when the horrible news came Sunday afternoon.

Just a few miles away, a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in the neighboring town of Sutherland Springs had claimed 26 lives and left 20 others wounded.

“We were all eating when everybody’s Facebook and Twitter feeds started to blow up,” said Kenneth Clapp, minister for the Stockdale church.

A member who serves as the justice of the peace for Wilson County — where both Stockdale and Sutherland Springs are located — got a call to respond to the scene, as did several first responders in the congregation.

On Sunday night, the Stockdale Church of Christ hosted a prayer vigil to give its community a chance to pray and grieve together. About 150 people filled the pews.

Pastor Ray Perales from Christ United Methodist Church in Stockdale and pastor Noah Tillman-Young from Stockdale Assembly of God joined Clapp and other local residents in leading prayers at the hour-long vigil.

“A lot of it was praying for peace, comfort, to not let people lose hope or faith,” Clapp said. The shooting affected “people whose names and faces we know. It makes it very real.

“Part of it is, how can we be safe?” added the minister, whose church averages Sunday attendance of 175 to 180. “The answer is, we never truly will be, so we do the best we can. … It’s really shaken people here because there wasn’t anything anybody could do.”

Read the full story.

First published online, this story appears in the December 2017 print edition of The Christian Chronicle.


Satanic Temple billboard protesting corporal punishment rankles Texas town

Religion News Service

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Religion News Service

Arther Culpepper, a sheet-metal mechanic and part-time pastor in the South Texas town of Three Rivers, first noticed the billboard out of the corner of his eye.

He was driving south on U.S. Highway 281 — near the local Dairy Queen — when the message caught his attention: “Our religion doesn’t believe in hitting children.”

The sign was paid for by the Satanic Temple, a national group whose Protect Children Project takes aim at paddling in public schools.

“I kind of thought it was funny,” said Culpepper, who pastors at the nondenominational River of Life Worship Center. “Everybody in America has the right to rent a billboard if you want to rent a billboard.”

Free speech or not, many others in the town of 1,900 — about 75 miles south of San Antonio — expressed shock and outrage at the group’s message, which targets the Three Rivers school district board of trustees’ 6-o vote in July to reinstitute corporal punishment.

“The community is upset, not happy,” said Kevin Mackey, minister of the Three Rivers Church of Christ, which responded on its own sign: “Satan doesn’t own all the signs in (Three Rivers) — don’t let him own you.”

Lyn Means, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Three Rivers, echoes Mackey’s concern.

“I’m very sorry that the billboard has been posted in our town, especially in a city park where families and our children congregate,” Means said. “There’s not really anything I can do about it personally except pray for those people responsible for putting something like that up in our town.”

Read the full story.

Religion News Service is a national wire service with more than 100 secular and religious media subscribers, including USA Today, the Washington Post and NPR.

After media swamp grieving Texas town, one journalist suggests: ‘We can do better’

By Bobby Ross Jr. | GetReligion

Coverage of Sunday’s mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, sparked a must-read opinion piece by Dallas Morning News journalist Lauren McGaughy.

“Dear Sutherland Springs, you deserve an apology from the news media” is the headline atop McGaughy’s viral column.

I want to highlight McGaughy’s powerful words as we dive into GetReligion weekend think-piece territory a little early.

But first, a bit of personal background: My first experience with the national news media descending on a community struck by tragedy came more than two decades ago when the unfathomable happened in Oklahoma City.

On the morning of April 19, 1995, I had just stepped off The Oklahoman’s eighth-floor newsroom elevator when we heard a giant boom and saw billowing black smoke in the distance. I was one of the reporters dispatched to the scene.

In all, 168 people died in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building — the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil until 9/11 six years later.

When I arrived downtown, I parked with no problem. Hours later, I found my car surrounded by news vans and television satellite trucks. This was the biggest news story in the world — and would be for weeks.

Read the full column.

• • •

All of my GetReligion columns (November 2017):

New Orleans church member shot dead after Sunday assembly

The Christian Chronicle

‘He wasn’t out there ripping and running,’ minister says of the victim. ‘He was a good kid.’

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

After Hurricane Katrina, Charles and Angela Marsalis found their calling in New Orleans’ high-crime Hollygrove neighborhood — where both grew up.

The couple started Bible studies for boys and girls on the front porch of a relative’s flood-damaged home, serving snacks and soft drinks in return for the young people’s attention.

Gregory Hawkins was one of the first children to join the group.

“Greg had been with us since we started,” said Charles Marsalis, who baptized Hawkins. “We practically raised him up here.”

But on Sunday — after worshiping at the Hollygrove Church of Christ, the congregation the Marsalises planted after Katrina — the 19-year-old Christian was shot and killed, church leaders said.

Neighbors heard multiple shots about 2 p.m., and when officers arrived, they found a victim with at least one gunshot wound, New Orleans police told The Christian Chronicle. The victim was taken to a hospital, where he later died. Police have not made any arrests or determined a motive, a department spokesman said.

“Greg was one of the quiet kids,” Marsalis said. “He didn’t really bother anybody. He would just go on about his business. If you messed with him, he wasn’t afraid to fight with you. But he wasn’t a kid who looked for trouble.”

Read the full story.

First published online, this story appears in the December 2017 print edition of The Christian Chronicle.


After Harvey, ‘churches have done far more than the government’

The Christian Chronicle

Two months after the storm, Texas minister reflects on disaster relief and lessons learned.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

BEAUMONT, Texas — Tony Williams is tired.

However, he insists he’s not burned out.

Two months after Hurricane Harvey, the Westgate Church of Christ — where Williams serves as the preaching minister — remains active with disaster relief in this southeast Texas city of 120,000.

“It’s tiring, but I think it’s something we can continue to do because the need is great,” Williams said. “And I think the cause of the kingdom is blessed through being able to reach out in this way.”

Technically, Harvey was a tropical storm, not a hurricane, when it reached Beaumont. Nonetheless, the rain — 26 inches in 24 hours — proved devastating as thousands of structures flooded.

At first, the 150-member Westgate church focused on distributing food and emergency supplies, including tractor-trailer loads full of items provided by Nashville, Tenn.-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort.

Later, the congregation shifted to housing and feeding Christians who came from across the nation to help gut, clean and restore deluged homes. To coordinate the volunteer teams, the church turned to the Churches of Christ Disaster Response Team, known as DRT.

Read the full interview.

First published online, this story appears in the December 2017 print edition of The Christian Chronicle.


18 vans, 150 volunteers, 465 miles, one goal: to help Harvey victims

The Christian Chronicle

‘These people are amazing,’ says an Iranian immigrant grateful for the love shown after his family’s home flooded.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

HOUSTON — The homeowner was shirtless and sweating.

He was still angry — he admitted that much — over the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey two months ago.

But he was curious, too, about the strangers who showed up in white vans in his neighborhood and raked trash and debris from his barren yard.

“They came all the way down here for this?” he asked, intrigued that these Christians drove 465 miles to serve victims of a storm that dumped a record-breaking 52 inches of rain on the nation’s fourth-largest city.

A slight smile formed on the man’s face.

“I usually tell people from Oklahoma to head north,” he joked.

These days, though, southeast Texas can use the help — even it comes from across the Red River.

Emotional scenes of boats rescuing Lone Star State residents from flooded homes have faded from television screens. But for thousands who lost possessions and livelihoods, needs remain immense.

That’s why the Edmond Church of Christ — a 1,200-member congregation north of Oklahoma City — felt compelled to send help.

Read the full story.

First published online, this story appears in the December 2017 print edition of The Christian Chronicle.


Five reasons why churches should invest in security cameras

Christianity Today

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Church Law and Tax

A mother accused a Sunday school teacher of molesting her young daughter. But the crime never happened — video from a church security camera proved the accusation false.

A couple broke into a church intent on stealing the Sunday offering. But a camera captured their faces — and the surveillance footage was used to identify both and link them to a string of burglaries.

Both real-life scenarios point to the benefits of church security cameras in a world in which such technology is readily available and increasingly affordable.Here are five reasons all churches should consider investing in cameras, according to security and insurance experts.

1. They can deter criminals, including sexual predators.

“If I am a burglar or I am someone interested in doing some type of a sexual act with a child, I’m going to go to the path of least resistance,” said Scott Figgins, vice president of underwriting for Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company. “I’m going to go to the church that doesn’t have a very secure facility. . . . It’s just the common nature of those seeking to do bad things that they will go after the easiest targets.”

David White, senior risk control consultant with Church Mutual Insurance Company, echoed Figgins’s thoughts: “Cameras are great for deterring crime. Bad guys don’t want to get caught, and if there’s a chance they’re going to get caught, they’ll go to a softer target somewhere.”

Read the full article.

This article appears on the website of Church Law and Tax, a publication of Christianity Today.

For survivors of Tennessee church shooting, healing will take time and patience

The Christian Chronicle

‘You don’t ever get over those things. You just learn how to get through them,’ says a minister familiar with tragedy.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

The gunman took the love of Mavy Stoddard’s life.

She refused to let him take her hope.

“God’s been good to me,” said Stoddard, whose husband, Dorwan, 76, died when a would-be assassin opened fire on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords outside a Tucson, Ariz., supermarket on Jan. 8, 2011. “My faith got me through all this without falling apart.”

But even now — nearly seven years after the Arizona attack in which six were killed and 13 others injured — Mavy Stoddard breaks down sometimes.

“Just this last Sunday, I spent 15 minutes crying and feeling sorry for myself,” said Stoddard, 82, who lived despite suffering three bullet wounds. “But 15 minutes is all I will allow myself anymore.”

For survivors of the recent mass shooting at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tenn., healing will take time and patience, said Stoddard and other Christians who have experienced past tragedies.

“I would tell them they need to load up on patience and mercy and grace,” said Les Ferguson Jr., a minister whose wife, Karen, 44, and son Cole, 21, were shot to deathin the family’s Gulfport, Miss., home on Oct. 11, 2011.

Melanie Crow, 38, was killed and seven other Burnette Chapel members wounded — including minister Joey Spann — when a masked gunman targeted the congregation Sept. 24.

To members’ shock, the man arrested by police — 25-year-old Emanuel K. Samson — was someone they knew.

Read the full story.

This story appears in the November 2017 edition of The Christian Chronicle.


‘The leprosy in my neighborhood is addiction’

The Christian Chronicle

Coleman Yoakum, director of Micah 6 Community, reflects on the challenges and opportunities of inner-city ministry.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

PONTIAC, Mich. — “You can’t be a Christian and do drugs. You know that, right?”

Actually, Coleman Yoakum didn’t know that.

Yoakum grew up in an unchurched household in rural Arkansas. He had this crazy dream: He’d go to film school, make movies and fund an expensive drug habit.

But in high school, he came to live with a youth minister named Mac Sandlin. Sandlin introduced the teen to Jesus, steered him right — on drugs and other matters — and encouraged him to attend Harding, the Christian university in Searcy, Ark.

“Mac seemed to have a pretty cool life, so I decided, ‘I’ll be a Bible major,’” recalled Yoakum, who had trouble passing his first theology test, which asked students to list all 66 books of the Old and New Testaments.

More than a decade later, Yoakum, 30, frequently hangs out with drug addicts.

Five years ago, he and a group of friends from Harding moved to the Detroit area to launch Micah 6 Community. Through endeavors such as a fresh food store and community gardens, the inner-city ministry works to improve lives in a neighborhood hard hit by the automotive industry’s demise. The church Micah 6 Community planted meets in the back of the small food store.

“Our congregation is about 45 people who are all struggling with addiction in some way,” said Yoakum, who never did drugs despite flirting with the idea. “We’ve also recently launched a second service that doesn’t allow children to come in order to be a place that the sex offender community is allowed to attend.”

Read the full story.

This story appears in the November 2017 edition of The Christian Chronicle.

First beatification Mass for U.S.-born priest and martyr draws thousands

Religion News Service

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Religion News Service

OKLAHOMA CITY — In the final step before sainthood, a missionary from Oklahoma slain during Guatemala’s civil war has been beatified — the first U.S.-born priest and martyr to receive such recognition by the Catholic Church.

An estimated 20,000 Catholics waited in long lines to attend the special Mass on Saturday (Sept. 23) celebrating the Rev. Stanley Francis Rother, who was shot to death by three masked assassins who entered his rectory in 1981.

“In a period of grave social and political turbulence in Guatemala, Father Rother lived as a perfect disciple of Christ, doing good and spreading peace and reconciliation among the people,” said Cardinal Angelo Amato, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints and gave the beatification homily.

“His martyrdom, if it fills us with sadness, also gives us the joy of admiring the kindness, generosity and courage of a great man of faith,” Amato told the crowd that filled the Cox Convention Center arena and several overflow rooms.

Declared by Pope Francis, Rother’s beatification means that the priest — who was 46 years old when he died — lived a holy life, is now in heaven and may be publicly venerated.

At Saturday’s ceremony, the church declared that the slain priest lives in heaven and intercedes with God on behalf of people on Earth. As a result of the beatification, Catholics now will refer to him as “Blessed Stanley Rother.”

In an apostolic letter read in Latin by Amato and English by Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, Francis praised Rother as a priest and martyr “who was driven by a deeply rooted faith and a profound union with God, and by the arduous duty to spread the Word of God in missionary lands.”

For Rother to become a saint, a miracle involving his intercession must be verified, Coakley said.

Read the full story.

Religion News Service is a national wire service with more than 100 secular and religious media subscribers, including USA Today, the Washington Post and NPR.

Disfellowshipped decades ago, Pat Boone insists he ‘never left’ Church of Christ

The Christian Chronicle

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Pat who?

As Pat Boone stepped to the microphone at the recent Religion News Association national conference, not everybody recognized him.

“I know who you are,” Boone, 83, said a fellow speaker told him. “I thought you died.”

The crowd of religion news journalists gathered in Music City — myself included — laughed.

Decades ago, Boone was a household name — a pop singer for whom Elvis Presley opened in the mid-1950s. A star in record, film and television work, Boone had a “squeaky clean image” and “was known as an actor who wouldn’t kiss a woman on the screen other than his wife,” as Los Angeles Times religion writer John Dart noted in a 1994 story.

For members of Churches of Christ in the 1950s and ‘60s, Boone was a big deal because he was one of us.

“A native of Donelson, Tennessee (a suburb of Nashville), a graduate of David Lipscomb High School, and a former student at David Lipscomb College, Boone grew up in the very bosom of Churches of Christ and, at twelve years of age, was baptized by M. Norvel Young,” Restoration Movement scholar Richard T. Hughes wrote in his 1996 book “Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America.”

Read the full column.

This column appears in the online edition of The Christian Chronicle.

‘The next life is a new life’

The Christian Chronicle

Why refugee Christians from Vietnam put a lien on their house to buy land for a church.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

HOUSTON — For many American churches, a Sunday potluck might feature casseroles, buckets of chicken and salads with crushed chips on top.

At the Vietnamese Church of Christ in this ethnically diverse metropolis, fellowship meals happen differently. The meal is a gateway of sorts, introducing visitors to the culture of a church community that doesn’t seem in a hurry to eat and get on with the day.

The main dish is prepared on site, and the menu rarely varies because it’s so anticipated by those who attend: seasoned spare ribs, rice, noodles with fish sauce, salad and homemade desserts.

Outside the Northwest Church of Christ’s youth room, where the Vietnamese congregation meets while raising money for its own building, men set up canopies emblazoned with Houston Texans logos to provide shade from the searing sun. They huddle underneath and prepare the beef in stages, thinly slicing ribs and marinating them with a blend of traditional Vietnamese seasonings.

These ribs are laid upon a sizzling grill, hot flames hissing at the contact. A breeze carries the tantalizing smells inside the crowded room where Hung Nguyen preaches, causing children to whisper excitedly to each other.

The youngest children babble in a blend of Vietnamese and broken English, while school-aged youngsters have a mastery of the language that comes from immersion in Houston-area public schools. Some of the adults speak both English and Vietnamese. A translator — sometimes one of the children — helps bridge any language barriers.

The tantalizing meal does the same, giving church members a way to engage their guests in conversation beyond what can happen in moments snatched before or after worship when everyone is looking at the clock.

Food is a universal language, as the saying goes. Showing hospitality is Scriptural.

Read the full story.

This story appears in the October 2017 print edition of The Christian Chronicle.

Don’t take the bait: What Pat Robertson said about Las Vegas isn’t really news

By Bobby Ross Jr. | GetReligion

A headline from The Onion, of all places, went viral Monday after the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

In recent years, the “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” story has become a staple of the satirical newspaper.

When there’s a major tragedy, here’s another thing you can count on: Pat Robertson opening his mouth.

So yes, Robertson weighed in on Las Vegas. Was there any doubt that he would? But is there any possibility that what he said amounted to actual news?

Probably not, as a million (only slightly exaggerating) past GetReligion posts make clear.

“The key is that there are so many people within evangelicalism who are — for better and for worse — more interesting and influential than Robertson at this point in his career,” GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly wrote way back in 2005. (That same year, published another excellent Mattingly piece on this subject, titled “Excommunicating Pat Robertson.”)

The good news is this: My Google news search found very few mainstream news organizations jumping on the latest Robertson quotes. But the Huffington Post — which still does some straight news reporting — was among them.

Read the full column.

• • •

All of my GetReligion columns (October 2017):