2013 in review: My Top 10 bylines of the year

 2013

By Bobby Ross Jr.

My Top 10 bylines of 2013:

10. Oh, Brothers!: For Rockies pitcher with 0.28 ERA, there’s a higher calling.

LOS ANGELES — Rex Brothers portrays himself as “just a normal dude.”

Except that he’s standing in the visitors’ clubhouse at Dodger Stadium as he makes this claim — a few hours before pitching yet another scoreless inning for the Colorado Rockies.

“People look at me as an athlete, but I want people to look at me as a normal human being, too,” says Brothers, 25, a left-handed reliever who fires 97-mph fastballs.

A faithful Church of Christ member and former Lipscomb University star, Brothers stepped into Colorado’s closer role in late May after an injury to Rafael Betancourt. The Shelbyville, Tenn., resident has been a top prospect since the Rockies made him the 34th overall pick in baseball’s 2009 amateur draft.

He has compiled amazing numbers so far this season: He has thrown 31 straight scoreless outings covering 29 innings and boasts an ERA of 0.28.

“He’s a great talent,” said Rockies pitching coach Bo McLaughlin, a fellow former Lipscomb player. “From the time we got him, we knew that he was going to help us in the big leagues.”

9. For a Nicaraguan church, a revival: Once-struggling congregation finds new life through the work of native missionaries and their Oklahoma supporters.

MASAYA, Nicaragua — The front door of the Sacuanjoche Church of Christ swings open, and children — 260 of them — stream out of the cramped concrete building with a tin roof.

The boys and girls wear freshly painted T-shirts that declare “God is our faithful provider” in Spanish. They carry Bible-themed crafts and sack puppets with Jesus’ hair colored brown, orange and even blue.

These young residents of Central America’s poorest country — most of whom live in homes with dirt floors — giggle as they dig into plastic goodie bags filled with coloring books, crayons, candy, stuffed animals, toothpaste and toothbrushes.

It’s the final afternoon of Vacation Bible School in a busy neighborhood where bikes, motorcycles, small cars and horse-drawn carts share a street paved with hand-laid bricks.

In recent years, this congregation in the heart of a city of 150,000 — about 45 minutes southeast of Managua, the nation’s capital — has experienced a spiritual and numerical revival.

8. Homosexuality and the church: As society embraces same-sex couples, a Texas conference equips the faithful to respond.

SAN ANTONIO — NBA player Jason Collins comes out as gay and makes the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The Boy Scouts of America votes to allow openly gay boys into its ranks.

The U.S. Supreme Court gives federal recognition to same-sex marriages.

As homosexuality gains increasing acceptance in America, Christians can’t escape the headlines.

But how should members of Churches of Christ — who generally believe God reserves sex for marriage between a man and a woman — respond?

Here in the Alamo City, the Northside Church of Christ hosted a recent “Peacemakers Conference.” The focus of the two-day conference: equipping the faithful to show Christ’s love to everyone — including those who experience same-sex attraction — while maintaining strong convictions on the Bible’s teachings.

7. In Guatemala, a celebration 50 years in the making: The Pan American Lectureship returns to the Central American capital where it started in 1963.

GUATEMALA CITY — Fifty years ago, the Pan American Lectureship was launched in this Central American capital to focus attention on fledgling Latin American missions.

Just a few years before, Jerry and Ann Hill and their two young daughters drove a 1955 Chevrolet 210 station wagon all the way from Pleasanton, Texas — becoming the first Church of Christ missionaries between northern Mexico and the Panama Canal Zone.

The Hills — the first of a team of missionaries who came to share Christ with this nation known for earthquakes, guerrilla warfare and its deep Mayan roots — arrived in 1959.

“The oldest Churches of Christ in Mexico were only about 20 years old,” the late Jerry Hill wrote in “Guatemala: Joy and Crown,” his 2011 autobiography. “The oldest church in South America was seven years old. There were no known churches in Central America.”

Fast-forward to a recent Sunday: The Pan American Lectureship celebrated its half-century milestone by returning to this sprawling metropolis of 3 million people where it began in 1963.

To mark the occasion, busloads of Guatemala’s faithful came together for a joint worship assembly — some traveling hours from remote rural areas.

Ann Hill, now 81, sat on the front row of a national convention hall the size of a U.S. football field, barely able to contain her emotions.

6. Financial crisis strikes Southwestern Christian College: Historically black Christian college seeks donations and prayers to ‘be able to survive.’

TERRELL, Texas — Southwestern Christian College, a historically black college associated with Churches of Christ, faces a financial crisis.

The sudden loss of $500,000 a year in federal funding has exacerbated long-standing financial difficulties, top administrators told The Christian Chronicle.

“This has crippled our recruiting capabilities and several vital operational needs,” said James O. Maxwell, vice president of institutional advancement. “Please pray for us that we might be able to survive this crisis.”

Jack Evans, Southwestern’s president since 1967, voices confidence that God will provide the funds necessary for Southwestern to survive and thrive.

Asked if the college might be in danger of closing, Evans replied, “That’s been an issue ever since we’ve been in existence. … I have just worked here based on the faith that it would get better, and I still believe it. I don’t live under the threat or the fear of closing.”

Southwestern has 172 students this semester — down 24 percent from an enrollment of 227 five years ago.

Evans blames the decline on a poor economy and changing societal values.

5. How the ‘faith-based FEMA’ are helping Moore move on: As President Obama pledges recovery, Christian volunteers aid Oklahoma tornado victims based on what each denomination does best.

MOORE, Okla. — At the edge of the disaster zone — just across the street from the decimated Moore Medical Center — teens and adults in cowboy hats cook smoked sausages outside the Central Church of Christ.

This group of volunteers drove 430 miles from Denver City, Texas, southwest of Lubbock, to prepare meals for victims after last Monday’s EF5 tornado destroyed 1,200 homes and killed 24 people, including 10 children.

Inside the church, worshipers — many wearing bright orange “Disaster Assistance” T-shirts — at the Sunday service maneuver around ceiling-high stacks of emergency food and supply boxes delivered on a tractor-trailer by Nashville, Tennessee-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc.

The church’s marquee sign along Interstate 35 normally grabs drivers’ attention with catchy Bible verses and witty sayings.

But now it declares simply: “Disaster Relief Center.”

Even as President Barack Obama consoles victims and promises the government’s assistance “every step of the way,” the so-called “faith-based FEMA” is already out in force — from Mennonite Disaster Service chainsaw crews to Samaritan’s Purse debris cleanup teams to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance pastoral counselors.

In a visit Sunday to this devastated Oklahoma City suburb, Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has registered more than 4,200 people for direct assistance and approved more than $3.4 million in direct aid.

4. Social justice vs. kingdom work: At a national meeting of youth ministers, the key role of the local church is emphasized.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Love Jesus.

Tolerate the church.

At a time when Americans’ confidence in organized religion has hit a 40-year low, that mindset seems particularly prevalent among younger Christians.

At the recent National Conference on Youth Ministries, Scot McKnight — one of the keynote speakers — challenged what he described as the modern tendency to lift up social justice efforts as “kingdom work.”

“It’s like a tsunami, beginning to overtake the church, and the church is losing significance in local communities because Christians are devoted to changing the world through the political process,” said McKnight, a prominent evangelical New Testament scholar and popular blogger.

Showing compassion, feeding the homeless and working for peace are good causes, but kingdom work involves introducing people to Jesus and his church, McKnight told 285 youth ministers from Churches of Christ in 30 states.

That message struck a chord with some of the youth ministers who gathered at the Crowne Plaza Colorado Springs — in the shadow of Pikes Peak.

3. 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.

Bullets came flying at Alan Martin as he stepped off a Cape Town, South Africa, bus after a Wednesday night Bible study.

Martin, now dean of the College of Biblical Studies at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City, grew up in a segregated church and faced violence and oppression during the apartheid era.

Apartheid — an Afrikaans word meaning “the state of being apart” — was a government policy of segregation and racial and economic discrimination against non-whites.

“When I became a teenager, I became aware of apartheid. I just saw the discrimination, and I saw the unfairness,” Martin said as he reflected on anti-apartheid champion Nelson Mandela, whose Dec. 5 death at age 95 drew tears and condolences worldwide.

Like admirers around the globe, the roughly 30,000 members of Churches of Christ in South Africa celebrated the legacy of Mandela, who served as the nation’s first black president from 1994 to 1999.

In today’s South Africa, Christians of all races — including blacks, whites and “coloreds,” as those of mixed races are known — can worship together freely. That’s just one legacy of the life of Mandela, who had Methodist roots and wrote in a 1975 letter, “Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps trying.”

2. Iowa church refuses to die: 156-year-old congregation epitomizes the challenges faced by many small, rural Churches of Christ.

MONTEZUMA, Iowa — Snow coats the ground as Pauline Ell arrives for Sunday worship on her 89th birthday.

A bitter wind brushes Ell’s curly hair as she steps out of her daughter’s car and into the little white church building where she has worshiped her entire life.

Corn and soybean fields and a cemetery where generations of deceased members rest in peace surround the West Liberty Church of Christ.

The 156-year-old farm church traces its roots to 1857 when settlers began meeting in a log house. Later, the congregation assembled in a renovated barn. In 1867, the church building that still stands was erected. The cost: $1,200.

For Ell, this Lord’s house where she grew up warming her hands by a wood-burning stove holds a lifetime of memories.

As a young girl, she often rode to services in a horse-drawn sleigh.

“My dad would put straw in there, and we’d get down in the straw and cover up with a quilt,” she said. “Sometimes, the drifts would be so bad the horses couldn’t even get through. So my dad would put two, three, four shovels in the sled, and we’d all get out and shovel snow ahead of the horses so they could go.”

In 1880, West Liberty’s membership roll listed 229 names. In 1933, a gospel meeting yielded 30 baptisms and 10 restorations. In the 1960s, annual Vacation Bible Schools drew truckloads of children from miles and miles away.

But in more recent times, the Iowa congregation — like many small, rural Churches of Christ across the nation — has struggled to survive.

1. Explosion rocks Texas church: After a deadly blast at a fertilizer plant owned by a church elder, West Church of Christ members rely on faith, prayer and fellow Christians.

WEST, Texas — The auditorium lights flickered.

The glass doors flew open.

West Church of Christ minister Ernie Albrecht was sharing Wednesday night devotional thoughts — focused on Ezekiel and the need for Christians to stand up and be strong in their faith — when a loud boom rocked the pews.

“For a moment, I thought, ‘Man, Jesus is coming!’” Albrecht said later. “It was a scary moment because it was like, ‘This may be it.’”

Albrecht finished his remarks, and deacon Shorty Harkins — who brushed off the noise as thunder — stood to lead the invitation song, “There Is Power in the Blood.”

Harkins had asked elder Donald Adair, an 83-year-old farmer and owner of the West Fertilizer Co., to say the closing prayer.

But in the dark auditorium, Harkins did not realize Adair had received a phone call a few minutes earlier and quickly left. Unknown to the congregation, Adair had learned that the fertilizer plant had caught fire.

“Oh, no!” a few members had heard Adair’s wife, Wanda, mutter on the way out.

Outside the church building, a giant plume of smoke filled the still-bright sky — the result of a massive explosion at Adair’s fertilizer plant that killed 15 people and wounded more than 200.

“It kind of looked like a mushroom cloud,” said Harkins, a longtime resident of this north-central Texas town of 2,800, known for its Czech culture and kolache pastry shops. “It was about a mile and a half over there to it.”

Top 10 of 2012: Click here.

Top 10 of 2011: Click here.

Top 10 of 2010: Click here.

Top 10 of the 2000s: Click here.

Top 10 of the 1990s: Click here.