A church makes a special connection with an Orlando victim’s family


A church makes a special connection with an Orlando victim’s family (column from Orlando, Fla.): How a New Jersey congregation came to bless a grieving mother who lost her son in the nation’s worst mass shooting.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

ORLANDO, Fla. — “It’s been a while, man,” said my friend Jose Luis Cintrón, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas.

Thirty years, to be exact.

Sadly, I called after all these years because my friend just lost his nephew, Peter “Ommy” Gonzalez-Cruz, in the mass shooting that claimed 49 lives at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Back in 1986 — my senior year at Keller High School, north of Fort Worth — Cintrón and I were part of a tight-knit group of friends that included his twin brother, Tony, and my brother, Scott.

We roamed the same school hallways. We worked together at a McDonald’s restaurant. On our off nights, we hung out — seeing movies like “Top Gun” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” playing co-ed softball and cruising in our super-cool cars, such as the gray 1980 Ford Pinto with manual transmission that Scott and I shared.

“Those were fun days,” Cintrón said as we reminisced before talking about his family’s unfathomable loss.

This is the third of a three-part series in The Christian Chronicle.

In Orlando, a call for more openness, less fear


In Orlando, a call for more openness, less fear (reporting from Orlando, Fla.): After gay nightclub massacre, showing love to LGBT community a focus at Christian conference.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

ORLANDO, Fla. — Sally Gary couldn’t come to Orlando and fail to visit the site of the gay nightclub massacre where 49 people died.

The founder of CenterPeace, a Dallas-based ministry that provides support and resources for people who experience same-sex attraction, said she felt compelled to pay her respects.

“I can’t imagine being here and not paying homage to the brothers and sisters who lost their lives there,” said Gary, a member of the Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas.

Months before the Pulse nightclub attack, Gary accepted an invitation to speak at the Equip Conference in Orlando — a biennial event formerly known as the Spiritual Growth Workshop.

The nation’s worst mass shooting — in which 53 people were wounded in addition to those killed — provided “a very in-your-face reminder” of the urgency for churches to become more open and less fearful in discussing LGBT issues, Gary said.

Her message to the standing-room-only crowds that filled her three sessions: The person experiencing same-sex attraction isn’t a guy in a rainbow-colored bikini marching in a gay pride parade.

“It’s me,” said Gary, who grew up in the Tenth and Broad Street Church of Christ in Wichita Falls, Texas, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Abilene Christian University.

This is the second of a three-part series in The Christian Chronicle.

After Orlando, Christians eager to learn more about jihad and ordinary Muslims


After Orlando, Christians eager to learn more about jihad and ordinary Muslims (reporting from Orlando, Fla.): In the Florida city where the nation’s worst mass shooting occurred, sessions on ‘Understanding Islam’ draw crowds.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

ORLANDO, Fla. — Months ago, organizers of a biennial Christian conference in Florida invited longtime minister James Moore to tackle questions ranging from the meaning of jihad to how to interact with ordinary Muslims.

Interest in the subject intensified, though, after a gunman who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group opened fire at a gay nightclub not far from the Rosen Centre Hotel, where 2,000 members of Churches of Christ from 14 states and six nations gathered.

Suddenly — and sadly — Moore’s breakout sessions on “Understanding Islam” became much more timely.

“ISIS is on everybody’s mind,” said Moore, using another term for the Islamic State as he spoke at the recent Equip Conference— formerly known as the Spiritual Growth Workshop.

“Islam is a big subject, and we could spend from now until Jesus comes talking about Islam,” he told a crowd of about 200 who came to one of his sessions — which were moved to a larger banquet hall to accommodate the size of the audiences.

After Omar Mateen fatally shot 49 people and wounded 53 others at the Pulse nightclub on June 12 — one month ago — Christians such as Alina Wyder felt a need to become better educated on Islam.

This is the first of a three-part series in The Christian Chronicle.

After a deadly week, a somber Sunday for Dallas churches


In Dallas, a somber Sunday (reporting from Dallas): Christians look to God for comfort and guidance after a sniper kills five police officers.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

DALLAS — A young mother on her way into worship hugged a Dallas police officer providing parking lot security at the Prestoncrest Church of Christ.

Any other Sunday, the scene would not have seemed so poignant.

But on this Lord’s Day, emotions were raw. Anxiety was high.

“It has been a very rough week for us in Dallas, unlike anything we’ve had in a while,” Prestoncrest minister Gordon Dabbs told his congregation before leading a special prayer.

Members of Churches of Christ — like Americans in general — are trying to make sense of the violence and racial tension that have shaken the nation.

Last week started with outrage over the latest police shootings of young black men — this time in Louisiana and Minnesota.

Then on Thursday night, a protest over those shootings turned violent when a sniper opened fire, killing five Dallas officers and wounding nine other officers and two civilians.

After the massacre in downtown Dallas, ministers such as Dabbs scrapped originally planned Sunday sermons and came up with new ones. Dabbs decided to focus on “what it means to be salt and light for Jesus in the midst of a divided and angry culture.”

Related story:

•  As gunfire rang out, Dallas church member ran for his life (reporting from Dallas)

These stories appear in the online edition of The Christian Chronicle.

GetReligion: July 2016


Links to posts by Bobby Ross Jr.

After a home run, a baseball player looks to the sky — might something religious be occurring? Published July 1.

On the day after Fourth of July, four Godbeat developments you’ll want to know about. Published July 5.

Christian universities put on ‘shame list’


Christian universities put on ‘shame list’: Gay-rights organizations target federal funding and NCAA ties of schools with traditional biblical beliefs.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

Revoke Christian universities’ eligibility for federal student financial aid.

Strip their membership in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

That’s what major gay-rights groups would like to do with higher education schools that espouse traditional biblical beliefs on sexuality and gender identity.

“Some voices are calling for Christian schools to be expelled from the NCAA, and others are calling for Pell Grants to be denied to students who attend our universities,” said Bruce McLarty, president of 6,000-student Harding University in Searcy, Ark. “These attacks seem to be coming from every direction these days.”

At Harding, students received $54 million in federal loans and grants last year — 45 percent of the university’s total budget of $120 million.

It would be a major loss if the government ever took away students’ access to federal funding.

“My hands shake as I write those numbers!” the Harding president said in an email. “The good news is that the largest part of that figure is from loan money, and that can be replaced even if at a higher cost (interest rate) to students.”

Related story:

•  The challenges facing faith-based universities (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.)

These stories appear in the July 2016 print edition of The Christian Chronicle.

Christians sing, pray at memorial site after Orlando massacre

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Church members show love after Orlando massacre: Christians sing and pray at memorial site after gay nightclub targeted.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

After Sunday’s terrorist attack on a gay nightclub claimed the lives of 49 souls, a dozen members of three Orlando, Fla.-area Churches of Christ brought flowers — and prayers — to a memorial site for the victims.

“Together we #prayforOrlando,” said a poster signed by members of one of those congregations, the Concord Street Church of Christ.

Gunman Omar Mateen, who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, targeted not just the LGBT community but all of Orlando, said Meghan Hone, who coordinates the Concord Street church’s Sonshine Street children’s ministry.

“It doesn’t matter if this terrorist shot up a nightclub or a Walmart or a gas station,” said Hone, a mother of three. “He could have walked into anywhere. This was an act of terrorism right here in my city.”

Hone, a professional opera singer, said she wanted to show love for the gay community and grieving loved ones.

“Because of my work in local performing arts, I have a lot of friends in the gay community,” she said. “I’m sure some believe that Christians don’t care about them, and we do care about them. A lot of people in the world and sometimes even other Christians have a hard time understanding that you can love and deeply care about someone even if you don’t endorse what they believe in.”

This story appears in the July 2016 edition of The Christian Chronicle.

‘We really want to be there for people who are victimized’


‘We really want to be there for people who are victimized’ (reporting from Nashville, Tenn.): As campus sexual assaults make national headlines, one Christian university works to create awareness and empower victims to step forward.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Lately, Kathy Hargis can’t turn on the television news without seeing another report of a sexual assault on a university campus.

From the case of a former Stanford University swimmer who attacked an unconscious woman near a dumpster to the furor over Baylor University’s mishandling of rape allegations against football players, the issue has jumped into the national spotlight.

“Unfortunately, there have been way too many headlines,” said Hargis, associate vice president for risk management and compliance at Lipscomb University, a 125-year-old higher education institution associated with Churches of Christ.

Hargis coordinates the 4,700-student university’s adherence to federal Title IX regulations on prevention and reporting of sexual harassment and misconduct.

Just a few months ago, Lipscomb — where 983 females and 555 males lived on campus this past school year — organized a sexual assault awareness week that included a prayer walk and an opportunity for victims to share their stories.

“To be honest, I think Christian schools struggle with it. It’s not a popular topic to talk about,” Hargis told The Christian Chronicle in an interview at the Bennett Campus Center. “But I think it’s very needed … to really have an open discussion.”

This story appears in the July 2016 edition of The Christian Chronicle.

Finalists named for Religion Newswriters Association national awards — and I made the list


By Bobby Ross Jr.

The Religion Newswriters Association has announced the national finalists for its “Awards for Religion Reporting Excellence.”

I am honored to make the list again this year.

My portfolio in the Magazine News Religion Reporting category includes these stories from The Christian Chronicle: “The broken soul of Baltimore,” “God, guns and keeping Christians safe” and “San Bernardino massacre puts focus on Muslims.”

Winners will be announced at RNA’s annual conference in September.

June 2016: GetReligion


Links to posts by Bobby Ross Jr.

In this journalistic desert, abortion supporters thrive while pro-life advocates go thirsty. Published June 2.

Exiles in their home country? A deep dive into the changing status of evangelical Christians. Published June 3.

Town fighting transgender bathrooms has rattlesnakes and cougars. What about religion? Published June 7.

Surprise! An abortion story from a major newspaper that doesn’t favor pro-choice side. Published June 8.

A family of 10, a 25,000-mile road trip and a ghost the size of the Grand Canyon. Published June 9.

Black, white and vague: trying hard to decipher Southern Baptist racial unity efforts. Published June 10.

What offensive thing did Texas politician say after Orlando, and WHEN did he say it? Published June 13.

After Orlando shooting, Chick-fil-A opens on Sunday to help — did the news media ignore? Published June 14.

Why a wounded Orlando survivor begged God to ‘take the soul out of my body.’ Published June 15.

Euphemism in the news? We debate ‘abortion care’ terminology in front-page report. Published June 16.

At anniversary of Emanuel AME attack, hometown newspaper provides more amazing coverage. Published June 20.

Journalism 101 lesson: What’s wrong with this story on challenged Mississippi law? Published June 21.

Yes, we’ll keep defending journalism essentials, even when faced with ‘so-called’ impartiality. Published June 22.

Major oops! NPR discovers that the Rev. Billy Graham is, in fact, NOT dead. Published June 23.

The key to understanding the Supreme Court decision on Texas abortion restrictions. Published June 27.

Compassion vs. conversion: surprising insight on why these evangelicals welcome refugees. Published June 28.

Concerning the dozens dead in Istanbul: Why religious affiliation of victims matters. Published June 29.

In this Bible Belt state, Democrats call hot-button issues a ‘smokescreen’

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In this Bible Belt state, Democrats call hot-button issues a ‘smokescreen’ (reporting from Oklahoma City): Even some Republicans in GOP-run Oklahoma say that abortion and transgender bills are a distraction.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For The Washington Post

Some public schools are starting summer vacation several days early. Others are contemplating a four-day week to cut costs. And more than 200 teachers in Oklahoma City were handed pink slips in March.

But instead of addressing a burgeoning budget crisis that threatens public education and other critical state services, Oklahoma lawmakers have been busy debating proposals to criminalize abortion, police students’ access to public bathrooms and impeach President Obama.

With more painful cuts to come, Democrats are accusing the GOP-controlled legislature of creating a “smokescreen” to distract the public from an estimated $1.3 billion shortfall caused by declining oil revenue and years of big tax cuts. Even some Republicans have criticized the focus on social issues as frivolous.

“They run this stuff out there because it excites the base,” Keith Gaddie, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, said of the social-issues bills. “But nobody ever banked on the public also looking up and saying: ‘You know, we like schools. We like hospitals. We like roads. We like to have stuff that works.’ ”

Oklahoma is among eight states facing serious budget shortfalls after a two-year drop in oil prices that radically curtailed revenue from the oil industry. Also contributing to Oklahoma’s budget crunch are years of income-tax cuts and corporate tax incentives, especially for oil companies. Last week, Reuters reported that oil industry lobbyists secured one of the lowest tax rates in the country, a tax break that deprived the state of $470 million last year alone.

This story appears on Page A3 of The Washington Post.


In a red state, the culture war shifts

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In a red state, the culture war shifts (reporting from Edmond, Okla.): Voters still care about traditional values, but there is growing anger over underfunded schools and crumbling infrastructure.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Religion News Service

EDMOND, Okla. (RNS) In one of the reddest of the red states, appeals to traditional values have long resonated with many voters.

But while lawmakers in this Bible Belt state of 3.9 million have been debating proposals to criminalize abortion, police students’ access to public bathrooms and impeach President Obama, Oklahomans are increasingly concerned about a burgeoning budget crisis that threatens public education and other critical state services.

The crisis has led some public schools to start summer vacation several days early. Others are contemplating a four-day week to cut costs. And more than 200 teachers in Oklahoma City were handed pink slips in March.

State Sen. David Holt, an Oklahoma City Republican, said he was “ashamed” of the hours spent debating transgender restroom use at the expense of his constituents’ real concerns.

“Oklahoma is a very socially conservative state, and I have always supported the types of bills that have come to the legislature, because my constituency largely wants me to,” Holt said. “But while students in my district were quite literally marching in the streets to the Capitol to plead with the legislature to do something about how the budget shortfall will affect their schools, we were addressing something that virtually no one had contacted me about and that was arguably not a pressing issue.”

About the same time lawmakers considered the bathroom bill that drew Holt’s concern, a group of pastors pushed for the adoption of legislation that would make it a felony to perform an abortion.

“God’s word tells us very clearly that he’s for life, that he knit us together in our mothers’ wombs,” said one of the clergymen, Blake Gideon of the 4,000-member First Baptist Church in this affluent suburb north of Oklahoma City.

This story appears on the Religion News Service wire.

Does ‘turn the other cheek’ apply to a baseball brawl?

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Does ‘turn the other cheek’ apply to a baseball brawl?: After Rougned Odor’s now-famous punch of Jose Bautista, ministers and other church members debate whether a Christian can — or should — cheer for on-field violence.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

“Turn the other cheek” sounds so simple in Sunday morning Bible class.

The concept becomes a little more difficult when you’re a rabid Texas Rangers fan, sitting in the stands with 41,000 other cheering spectators, as a big-time baseball brawl breaks out.

That was the case Sunday afternoon for Travis Akins, young adults minister for the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City.

Akins, his wife, Laura, and their four children were enjoying the Rangers’ dramatic, come-from-behind win over the Toronto Blue Jays when a hit batter, a hard slide and the now-famous “Baseball Punch to End All Baseball Punches” occurred.

“I was into it,” Travis Akins said of Texas second baseman Rougned Odor’s pummeling of Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista. “Not the punch necessarily, but the whole atmosphere and the emotion of the moments. My kids … were wondering what was going on and why Dad was screaming.”

A few Christian Chronicle readers may recall that your friendly correspondent is a longtime Rangers fan. I first wrote about my love of God, family and baseball for the Chronicle a decade ago. And I’ve mentioned it a time or two since.

I was in the stands for the Texas-Toronto games on Friday and Saturday nights, but when the benches cleared Sunday afternoon, I was at the Keller Church of Christ for my nephew Nick’s graduating senior celebration.

However, when I heard about what happened, my Rangers fan adrenaline certainly surged.

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

He pitches with heart — a brand new one


He pitches with heart — a brand new one (reporting from Goddard, Kan.): Kansas high school senior calls life-saving transplant “an absolute gift from God.”

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

GODDARD, Kan. — It’s a picture-perfect afternoon for baseball as Josh Oakley steps to the mound: blue sky, soft breeze and 71 degrees.

Fifteen family members — two parents, four grandparents, three of Oakley’s five older sisters and six nieces and nephews — cheer as the high school senior delivers his first pitch.

The Eisenhower Tiger’s white-and-baby-blue jersey — with No. 10 on the back — covers a footlong scar down his chest.

That scar helps explain what makes this start so remarkable: Less than six months earlier, Darrell and DeVona Oakley’s youngest child — their only son — received a new heart.

“It’s an absolute gift from God to still be able to play this game,” said Josh Oakley, 18, a member of the Northside Church of Christ in Wichita, about 15 miles east of this suburban community of 4,600.

When the Kansas City Royals began their World Series-winning postseason run this past October, Josh Oakley lay unconscious at Children’s Mercy Hospital in that same Missouri city.

His family feared they just might lose him.

This story appears in the June 2016 edition of The Christian Chronicle.


Coming soon: worship at the movie theater

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Coming soon: worship at the movie theater (reporting from Torrance, Calif.): California church planters embrace their Church of Christ heritage but say ‘franchising’ a traditional approach won’t reach lost souls.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Christian Chronicle

TORRANCE, Calif. — When EPIC Church launches in this Los Angeles-area city of 150,000 souls in August, it won’t meet in a building with wooden pews or a steeple.

Rather, church planters hope to connect with postmodern seekers by conducting services in a movie theater in one of America’s largest shopping malls — perhaps while the expected summer blockbuster “Ben-Hur” plays next door.

“What better place to tell the story of restoration than the temple of our culture?” said lead planter Matt Raines, 38, who previously served as senior minister for the Chula Vista Church of Christ near San Diego.

“It’s the Agora — the marketplace of this little part of the world,” added fellow planter Jeff Brimberry, 23, who grew up in the Westover Hills Church of Christ in Austin, Texas, where his father, Don, serves as an elder.

EPIC — sponsored by Kairos, a church-planting ministry associated with Churches of Christ — will emphasize the importance of baptism and celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly.

“There’s a reason those two pieces are still here 2,000 years later,” Matt Raines said.

But even though the church planters stress their love and appreciation for their heritage, they don’t intend to “franchise” a traditional Church of Christ. They must, as they see it, be open to new approaches to reach a new generation with the good news of Jesus.

This story appears in the June 2016 edition of The Christian Chronicle.