By Bobby Ross Jr.
My Top 10 bylines of 2011:
DUNCAN, S.C. – Southeastern Children’s Home cares for neglected and abused children on a 50-acre campus overlooking the Smoky Mountains.
Boys row out in a boat to catch bass and bream in a spring-fed pond. A beekeeper teaches girls how to cultivate honey.
The home’s residents ride horses as part of therapy and enjoy swing sets, basketball goals and a volleyball court.
As the Christian child-care agency meets physical needs, it fulfills a more important mission: sharing Jesus with children and families, executive director Robert Kimberly said.
“We’ve had eight of our kids become Christians this year, and so it’s been wonderful,” Kimberly said.
Yet he and many colleagues across the nation question if Churches of Christ are as passionate about caring for children in need as they once were.
In a survey of 20 children’s homes in more than a dozen states, The Christian Chronicle found widespread concern about declining church support amid trying economic times and shifting ministry priorities.
HELENA, Mont. – Welcome to the Gunslingers Church of Christ.
But that characterization might not be too far off in describing the Lord’s body in this Wild West state capital over the past 25 years.
In a Big Sky community founded with the 1864 discovery of gold, personal disputes, doctrinal issues, allegiances to ministers and sins by leaders all have contributed to repeated church splits and hurt feelings.
“I think it’s been like, this is kind of the Old West, and if we don’t like something, we’re going to draw our gun and shoot,” said Jerry Botts, who joined the ministry staff of the Rocky Mountain Church of Christ eight years ago. “And that’s not the nature of Jesus.”
On a recent Sunday, however, Helena’s three remaining Churches of Christ came together under an open-air tent to make a fresh start — as a single, merged body.
At the construction site for what will become the newly named South Hills Church of Christ, about 170 men, women and children sat in folding chairs overlooking the cloud-covered Rocky Mountains.
Noisy tractor-trailer rigs buzzed along Interstate 15 as church members shared blue and maroon hymnals and gold and silver communion trays. The mix of colors reflected the coming together of the 125-member Rocky Mountain Church of Christ, the 50-member Helena Church of Christ and the 25-member Big Sky Church of Christ.
SHAWNEE, Okla. – Out of his racing uniform, Trey Canard seems an unassuming presence, especially for someone known for performing high-speed, bone-jarring exploits in front of 30,000 to 60,000 fans.
However, the toughness and quiet confidence of the 5-foot-6, 150-pound Canard shine through as he reflects on his motorcycle racing career and the long list of injuries he has overcome.
“Yeah, I’ve broken my wrists four times,” said the 20-year-old professional motocross racer, the reigning national champion in the sport’s 250 class of smaller cycles. “I’ve broken my collarbone twice. I’ve broken my femur.”
That’s not to mention nagging little injuries involving fingers and toes, ankle sprains and “stuff of that sort.”
Given all the painful spills, what keeps him climbing back on the bike?
Must be the thrills, right?
Yeah, that’s part of it.
But for Canard, the passion to race goes deeper than that.
CEDAR GROVE, Tenn. – “Danial Ross. Born: 1791. Died: 1842.”
The name and the dates on the tombstone jump out at me immediately.
My grandfather, father, brother and I have driven out to this middle-of-nowhere cemetery in rural West Tennessee on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
Leaves crumble under my sneakers, and the sun bears down on my balding head, as I explore this piece of my family’s past.
At first glance, I tell myself this could be any old country cemetery. The ugliness of faded plastic flower arrangements and skinny, branch-exposed trees strikes me. I smell dust and see weeds and wonder how often anyone ventures out to this seemingly forgotten patch of God’s green earth.
Yet, I sense that I am experiencing something significant, that somehow this is sacred ground for me.
LAS VEGAS – Go ahead. Snicker.
Leo G. Gay has heard all the jokes.
When fellow Christians find out he’s from Sin City, the wisecracks start.
“I get questions like, ‘Do y’all accept chips in your basket?’” said Gay, minister of the North Las Vegas Church of Christ, about nine miles north of the famous stretch of hotels, casinos and resort properties known as “The Strip.”
The largest Church of Christ in Nevada, the 320-member congregation where Gay preaches hosted the recent 48th annual West Coast Preachers and Leaders Forum. The forum, started in San Francisco in 1964, rotates to a different city each year.
Amid the bright lights of an entertainment capital known for its slot machines, quickie wedding chapels and X-rated nightlife, about 300 Christian brothers and sisters came to study the Bible and focus on the theme “The Kingdom of God.”
SALT LAKE CITY — To Mormons, the Salt Lake Temple — a magnificent granite structure built in the 1800s — stands as a sacred icon and monument of pioneer faith.
For the 14 million adherents worldwide of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Temple Square represents “Jerusalem and Mecca and Shangri-La all rolled into one,” said Latayne C. Scott, a former Mormon.
“I myself wore a silver charm of the Salt Lake Temple around my neck for many years,” said Scott, author of the Zondervan book “The Mormon Mirage” and a member of the Mountainside Church of Christ in Albuquerque, N.M.
On a recent morning, a dozen teenagers from Texas made their way to the center of Utah’s capital city to tour the Mormon world headquarters. The teens’ aim: familiarize themselves with the region’s predominant religion before starting a weeklong mission trip here.
The youth group came from the 1,200-member Sunset Church of Christ in Lubbock — a West Texas congregation with more members than all the Churches of Christ in Utah combined.
“I wanted the Texas kids to get a perspective” on Mormon life, said Mike Wiist, minister of the Murray Park Church of Christ, a 100-member congregation just south of Salt Lake City that hosted the group.
WEBB CITY, Mo. – The Joplin tornado’s path of destruction can be seen all along Range Line Road, where a Home Depot, Walmart and other businesses lie in ruins.
Yellow “Caution” tape and shreds of wood flutter in the breeze amid bulldozers clearing debris and smashed vehicles abandoned after the May 22 twister that claimed 158 lives and left thousands homeless.
Drive a little farther, though, and a different scene unfolds.
“Disaster relief distribution,” say the bold black letters on a portable sign pointing residents two blocks off the main road to the Mt. Hope Church of Christ in Webb City, just north of Joplin.
In the shadow of the church’s white steeple, cases of bottled water are stacked outside the family life center, alongside boxes of all-purpose cleaner and diapers.
Inside the building, volunteers sporting red “Churches of Christ Disaster Response Team” T-shirts fill grocery sacks, help victims pick out shoes and blankets, prepare meals for chainsaw crews and provide stuffed animals for children whose families lost all their belongings.
ALSEA, Ore. – At the little white church off the two-lane blacktop, the front door stays unlocked all the time — just in case a passerby needs to use the restroom.
Through the windows of the Lobster Valley Church of Christ, a 40-member congregation started by pioneer loggers a century ago, minister Brian Leavitt can look out and spot deer, elk and an occasional bald eagle. Up the hill, sawmill and dairy workers rest in peace in a cemetery deeded to the church by a founding member.
“When I first moved here in the ’90s, we were still digging the graves by hand,” said Leavitt, 54, a retired U.S. deputy marshal. “It was kind of a time where you do a little decompressing and a little sharing.”
Leavitt, his wife, Chris, and their five children moved to this Oregon Coast Range community — 40 miles from the Pacific Ocean — about 15 years ago. They live on forestland dotted with colorful lilies and irises and frequented by black bears and cougars.
“It’s a pretty remote area, but it’s gorgeous,” said Leavitt, whose backyard overlooks a creek that runs into the Alsea River and serves as a swimming hole for salmon and steelhead.
Amid the beauty of wildflowers and wildlife, the ugliness of violent death gripped the tight-knit people of Alsea in 2009: Three suicides in three months shook the community.
“It took us to our knees,” Leavitt said.
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – On a Sunday afternoon, the high-pitched chatter of boys and girls playing fills the home of Marine Staff Sgt. Ahmal Coles and his wife, Whitney.
In the living room, the children’s parents and other grownups share Christian fellowship and sing hymns such as “Worthy is the Lamb” and “I Will Call Upon the Lord.”
This weekly small-group meeting brings together military families from the Roosevelt Drive Church of Christ, a 200-member congregation in nearby Jacksonville, N.C., just outside the main gates of this massive Marine Corps base.
The casual gathering — with homemade cookies and iced tea — takes a serious turn when the time comes for prayer requests.
“I would say I’m probably wound up a little tight right now,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Tim Harrison, a Roosevelt Drive member since 2008. “I’ve got a lot of stress because I’m about to leave.”
In about a month, the baby-faced Harrison will kiss the pretty young woman in the breezy red dress — his wife, Lindsay — goodbye and fly off to war.
TUCSON, Ariz. – Until a clear, crisp Saturday morning erupted in gunfire outside a Safeway supermarket, few had heard of the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ.
Desert terrain and mountain ranges surround this city of 550,000, about 60 miles north of the Mexican border, where the 120-member congregation meets in a red-brick building shaded by palm trees.
A familiar face only to his friends, relatives and church family, 76-year-old Dorwan Stoddard served Jesus in obscurity — taking charge of maintaining the 50-year-old church building and leading the benevolence ministry with his wife, Mavy.
“He was a hero to his church family,” pulpit minister Mike Nowak said.
But in an instant, he became a hero to millions and propelled the Mountain Avenue church into the national spotlight.
On the morning of Jan. 8, the Christian couple had gone to meet Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a “Congress on Your Corner” event. When a would-be assassin opened fire as the Stoddards waited in line, Dorwan tried to protect his wife and was hit in the head, witnesses said.
“His final act of selflessness was to dive on top of his wife, sacrificing his life for hers,” President Barack Obama told the nation.