By Bobby Ross Jr.
My Top 10 bylines of 2010:
10. Ohio church’s message: Families matter to God.
CINCINNATI – Look around you Sunday morning.
Is there a mom drowning in a sea of credit-card debt? A dad who can’t seem to quit clicking Internet porn? A teen dealing with a hangover or worried about a potential pregnancy?
In the 21st century, the Christian family finds itself under constant siege: Sexual images. Financial debt. Addictions. Busyness. A digital culture that devotes more attention to texting than the sacred text.
What to do?
With the theme “Families Matter,” a recent area-wide conference on marriage and family tackled modern America’s uncomfortable realities. The Northeast Church of Christ, a 500-member congregation just off Interstate 275, about six miles south of Kings Island theme park, hosted the event.
9. To recruit students, Christian colleges casting wider nets.
YORK, Neb. – At 9 p.m. each Sunday, York College students gather at the campus prayer chapel — a restored white church built in the 1880s — for a candlelight communion service.
In fall 2008, when high school soccer player Katie Kynion visited York “on a whim,” that assembly marked her introduction to the small Christian college, which had mailed her a recruiting letter.
“It’s intimate, and they sing songs, and everything’s a cappella, which I was not used to,” Kynion said of the Sunday night service. “They take communion. Someone gives a devotional. And then there are more songs and fellowship afterward.
“I had never been to anything like that before. That was special to me,” added Kynion, a soon-to-be sophomore from Olathe, Kan., about 250 miles southeast of this Nebraska farming community of 8,000 souls.
Kynion exemplifies a growing national trend: She was among more than 2,500 freshmen from outside Churches of Christ who chose to attend a college or university associated with the fellowship in fall 2009. That number represents a 34-percent increase in the last 10 years, according to a study by Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth in Searcy, Ark.
8. Boys of summer: Josh Willingham’s faith, character praised.
WASHINGTON – In an indoor batting cage at Nationals Park, Washington catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez smashed line drive after line drive.
The sweet crack of wood (bat) striking cowhide (ball) reverberated through the Nationals’ clubhouse before a Friday night game with the Florida Marlins.
A few feet away, left fielder Josh Willingham — who bats fifth in the Washington lineup, just ahead of Rodriguez, a future Hall of Famer — awaited his turn at the plate.
Before stepping into the cage, though, Willingham, 31, took time to discuss his faith with The Christian Chronicle.
“It’s huge,” he said of his faith’s importance in his life.
Willingham grew up in Florence, Ala., at the Cross Point Church of Christ — formerly known as the Darby Drive congregation.
“One of the main things I remember, growing up in Florence at Darby Drive, is the church had a really good youth group,” said Willingham, who was baptized at age 12 after returning home from a youth rally. “That played a big hand in the faith I have now.”
7. Facing financial woes, more Christian schools closing.
NEWARK, Del. – Thirty-six years ago, Newark Church of Christ leaders founded Aletheia Christian School and Child Care as a community outreach.
The dream: to educate children and nurture faith in Jesus Christ.
“It enabled us to serve the community, and through that service, it brought people to Christ,” said Richard Duzan, the school’s principal and one of five Newark church elders. “We touched the lives of thousands of kids and their families.”
But in June, the school will close — the victim of rising costs and declining enrollment.
In Charlotte, N.C., the same fate awaits the 24-year-old Providence Christian School — a ministry of the Providence Road Church of Christ — at the school year’s end.
“It hurts us deeply to have to take this action,” said Lee Thrasher, the Providence Road church’s executive minister.
Schools associated with Churches of Christ are feeling the pain of tough economic times. That’s particularly true, leaders say, for schools outside the fellowship’s traditional geographic strongholds.
6. More precious than gold: Finding faith in Vancouver.
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – For two weeks, the world’s spotlight will shine on this coastal metropolis as athletes from more than 80 nations compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Long after the Games end in late February, however, the Pacific Northwest city will retain its international flavor, as leaders of Churches of Christ can attest.
Roughly half the 2.1 million residents of Vancouver and surrounding communities were born outside of Canada and speak a native language other than English.
“It’s like the United Nations,” elder John Clelland said of the multicultural crowd of 150 that worships each Sunday morning at the South Burnaby Church of Christ, east of Vancouver.
Growing up, Belisha Duan accompanied her mother to a Buddhist temple. As an adult, the Chinese immigrant claimed no religious affiliation.
But when a friend invited her to visit the South Burnaby church, she accepted.
“When I came to this church, I felt very warm and peaceful,” said Duan, a real estate agent.
5. Ministry in a multicultural city: FriendSpeak mixes Jesus, conversation.
LOS ANGELES – Just down the street from a Hare Krishna temple and a few blocks from a large mosque, Christians worship each Sunday in English, Chinese, Spanish and Korean.
The Culver Palms Church of Christ, one of the nation’s most diverse congregations, sits at the intersection of motion picture studios and apartment buildings housing immigrants from all over the world.
“Free English Conversation,” says a sign outside the church, facing a busy street shared by motorists and homeless people pushing carts.
The sign advertises “FriendSpeak,” a ministry used by roughly 300 Churches of Christ to help internationally born neighbors improve their English skills using the Bible.
At Culver Palms, Angela Manassee coordinates the outreach effort, which she said helps church members interact with immigrants and expose them to Jesus.
“A lot of people are just newly on the scene and struggling with the language, trying to improve (their English skills) so that they can improve their work situation,” said Manassee, wife of Culver Palms senior minister Mark Manassee.
When Sylvia Spencer applied at World Vision’s U.S. headquarters near Seattle in 1995, she described herself as a committed Christian.
Asked on an employment form why she wanted to work for the international humanitarian aid organization, Spencer wrote, “Because I would love to work for an organization dedicated to carrying on the Lord’s work!”
Another World Vision employee, Vicki Hulse, mentioned her 15 years as a Christian in a résumé attachment when she applied a few years later.
“I recently moved to this area and would very much like to find a place of employment with a Christian organization where I could be of value,” Hulse wrote.
Both women signed statements affirming their Christian faith and devoted a decade to World Vision, which serves impoverished children and families in more than 100 countries.
But in November 2006, they and colleague Ted Youngberg were fired. Their offense, as determined by a corporate investigation: The three did not believe that Jesus Christ is fully God and a member of the Trinity.
“They are deeply religious Christians,” said Judith Lonnquist, a Seattle attorney who filed a federal discrimination lawsuit on their behalf. “They just don’t have the same beliefs that World Vision espouses.”
That is the problem, said Steve McFarland, chief legal officer for World Vision.
3. Life of ‘The Rookie’ Jim Morris takes more extraordinary turns.
ABILENE, Texas — Go play catch with Jim Morris.
The Jim Morris, that is.
The one whose real-life story Dennis Quaid portrayed in the 2002 Disney feature film “The Rookie.”
Mikey Weisinger, a teenager new to a Christian children’s home in Medina, Texas, about 225 miles south of Abilene, had seen the movie on cable television.
So he knew the story of Morris’ incredible journey from small-town science teacher and baseball coach to major-league pitcher.
Weisinger, sent to live at the group home because of family problems, didn’t know what to think of the man tossing baseballs back and forth. Was this a photo op for a celebrity? Or was Morris genuinely interested in him?
It didn’t take Weisinger long to figure out the answer.
2. Five years later, Hurricane Katrina’s spiritual toll lingers.
MANDEVILLE, La. – In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Tammany Oaks Church of Christ organized a mammoth relief effort that encouraged Christians across the nation.
Yet the long-term ramifications of the nation’s costliest natural disaster proved less inspirational for the once-thriving congregation.
Five years later, the church in this suburb just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans deals with the physical and spiritual debris: loss of key members scattered across the nation, turmoil after the storm that contributed to a church split and questions over the shrinking flock’s future.
“There’s certainly the disaster that goes beyond the disaster,” said Stan Helton, minister of the Tammany Oaks church for a little more than a year. “I mean, imagine trying to restart a congregation with elders who are just totally worn out from trying to get their own houses built, helping as much as they can, managing chaotic processes at this building.”
Since Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005 — killing more than 1,800 people and wreaking an estimated $81 billion in property damage — the spiritual toll has been high.
“I am aware of several churches that experienced splits and more because of differences of ministry and direction,” said Fred Franke, a former church elder who organized a Katrina relief effort called Operation Nehemiah, which eventually separated from the Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ in New Orleans.
1. Faith behind bars: Ministries shine Christ’s light inside prison walls.
HARVEST, Ala. – Robbery. Murder. Child molestation.
The six inmates seated in state prison chaplain Charles Baggett’s office on a recent Wednesday earned their lengthy sentences.
David, Jackie, Michael, Rodney, Tim M. and Timothy W. were condemned to Limestone Correctional Facility, a medium-security Alabama prison, to pay debts to society.
But here, in a world of razor-wire fences, tattooed arms and six-digit inmate numbers, these violent criminals came to believe that God sent his only son to pay a debt for them.
They found faith — and hope — in Jesus Christ. Now, these brothers in Christ teach, preach, lead singing and work hard to share what they discovered with other inmates.
“All of y’all are going to be wearing white one day, too. We just got a jump-start,” joked Rodney, referring to the white prison garb stamped with “Alabama Dept. of Corrections” in bold black letters that identifies Limestone’s 2,400 inmates.
With 2.4 million people behind bars in the United States, jail and prison ministry affords tremendous opportunities for sharing the Gospel, said attendees at the recent 37th annual National Jail and Prison Ministry Workshop.