Tag: year in review
By Bobby Ross Jr.
As a journalist, I am obligated to love year-end lists — and make my own.
So here are my top stories, blog posts and columns of 2015, along with my favorite pics.
Journalists love year-end lists.
This is mine.
Via Twitter, some of my top stories, blog posts and columns of 2014, along with a personal tweet or two:
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.
By Bobby Ross Jr.
My Top 10 bylines of 2012:
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — At a hotel a mile west of Walt Disney World’s main gate on U.S. Highway 192, aspiring princesses and little boys with Mickey Mouse ears fill up on scrambled eggs and cereal on a Sunday morning.
In a banquet room next to the breakfast buffet, children and parents in shorts and tennis shoes gather to worship God before spending the day at Epcot, Magic Kingdom, SeaWorld or Universal Studios.
A sign in the lobby of the Baymont Inn & Suites lets guests know that the weekly service of the Maingate Church of Christ starts at 9 a.m.
“It’s nondenominational,” one of the handful of permanent members tells a tourist from Scotland who inquires about the assembly. “Come on in.”
A 7-year-old ministry of the Concord Street Church of Christ in nearby Orlando, the Maingate church offers vacationing Christians a convenient place to sing and pray.
“We love it,” said repeat visitor Norma Pitts, a member of the Fairhope Church of Christ in Alabama, who was staying at Disney’s BoardWalk Villas with her husband Martin and children Colin and Cori. “The message is usually real inspiring. The singing is good.”
LAUREL, Md. — People of all political persuasions are welcome at the Laurel Church of Christ.
Politics is not.
“Believe it or not, it almost destroyed this church at one time because we’re so close to Washington,” said adult Bible class teacher Stew Highberg, who retired from the Air Force and works for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“The politics of the president and the House and the Senate would creep in,” explained Highberg, a former Laurel church elder. “So we had to put a moratorium on it. You’ll get booted out of here if you start talking politics.
He was joking about that last part. Mostly.
More than 300 people worship with this fast-growing Maryland church: Roughly three-quarters work for the federal government, the military or a government contractor or have a family member who does.
“We figure we can try to convince people they’re wrong politically, or we can try to persuade them to follow Jesus,” preaching minister Michael Ray said. “We pick Jesus.”
SAN ANTONIO — Ten years ago, a crisis gripped the International Churches of Christ — once known as the Boston Movement.
Long-simmering concerns over the movement’s top-down hierarchy, aggressive discipling techniques and sectarianism seemed to threaten the ICOC’s future.
Steve Kinnard, teacher and evangelist for the 3,000-member New York City Church of Christ, recalls that period as a “time of discipline” by God.
“We got haughty. We got a bit Pharisaical in our attitude and our approach,” said Kinnard, a Freed-Hardeman University Bible graduate who joined the movement in 1981. “God said, ‘You guys need to stop for a minute and rethink some things.’ Now, I think we’re in a much better place than we’ve ever been.”
In what ICOC leaders characterized as a milestone moment, 17,800 believers filled the San Antonio Spurs’ basketball arena for the recent World Discipleship Summit.
Men, women and children from 96 nations came together as the ICOC — a global discipling movement with roots in mainline Churches of Christ — openly acknowledged past sins while voicing a renewed commitment to reaching lost souls.
GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Envision a crowd at a rock concert — a mob of frenzied fans lined up hours early waiting for the doors to open.
Picture the scene at a national political convention — a throng of party faithful with crazy hats and colorful signs.
Imagine the audience at a “Let’s Make A Deal” game show taping — a sea of zany outfits and costumes.
Mix all that together. Throw in a huge dose of agape love. And you begin — begin — to comprehend the scene as 12,147 teens and sponsors from Churches of Christ in 27 states converge on this mountain resort town.
The big draw: a “little youth rally” called Winterfest.
“Winterfest is a like a shower after a really long, hard day,” said Cana Moore, 18, a member of the Patchogue Church of Christ in New York, whose youth group made an 800-mile, all-night drive to attend. “You feel refreshed and cleansed, and it gives you a renewed energy.”
SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — Folks in the Green Mountain State like their economy syrupy sweet.
The rural, thickly forested New England state produces 39 percent of the United States’ maple syrup.
The state’s 626,000 residents are less sweet on religion: Vermont ranks as the nation’s most secular state, according to a 2012 Gallup poll.
Just 23 percent of Vermonters characterize themselves as “very religious,” while 58 percent say they are “nonreligious.”
“As soon as you say church, people here don’t want anything to do with it,” said Gabriel Nelson, a deacon for the Springfield Church of Christ in the state’s southeast corner. “They just have this impression that Christians are these Bible-thumping crazy people.”
In one of the bluest of the blue states, believers with a theologically conservative understanding of the Bible’s teachings face a challenge converting friends and neighbors.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In the bustling core of Rhode Island’s capital, Liberian immigrants crowd into a simple white building with “Providence Church of Christ” painted in fading red letters above the front door.
On a blue-sky Sunday, men clad in button-down shirts and women sporting colorful African headscarves greet each other in a concrete parking lot surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Tall trees adorned in bright green anchor a sprawling urban cemetery just beyond the fence, casting shadows over the church building as vehicles zip by an auto-parts store and appliance business across the street.
Giggling children — most born in the United States after their families fled two decades of civil war — scamper to the basement for Bible class.
More than 4,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean separate the refugees from their west African homeland, where women were raped and children turned into “killing machines” in fighting and ethnic cleansing that claimed 250,000 lives.
Despite the fresh starts they have made in America, the hearts of these devoted Christians remain in Liberia — amid the orphans who wander the streets begging for scraps and the villagers still grappling with physical and psychological trauma.
WEST MONROE, La. — Hollywood, meet the real Robertsons.
A&E’s hit reality series “Duck Dynasty” has made celebrities out of Duck Commander Phil Robertson, his wife Kay and their bearded, camo-clad sons Willie, Jase and Jeptha, not to mention “Uncle Si,” Phil’s younger brother.
As the network portrays it, the series — whose Season 1 finale drew 2.6 million viewers — follows a Louisiana bayou family living the American dream as they operate a thriving duck call and decoy business while staying true to their family values.
For the Robertsons, those values relate to the grace and salvation found in Jesus.
But for the show’s producers, the family’s strong Christian faith seems to be an uncomfortable storyline — one frequently chopped in the editing room.
“They pretty much cut out most of the spiritual things,” Phil Robertson, a one-time honky-tonk operator who gave up his heathen lifestyle in the 1970s, told The Christian Chronicle. “We say them, but they just don’t run them on the show.
“Hollywood has run upon the kingdom of God, and there’s a rub there,” said the Duck Commander, a tenacious personal evangelist who has brought hundreds of souls to new life in the Ouachita River. “Well, we have to be as harmless as a dove and as shrewd as a snake in the way we deal with them.”
AQUILES, Mexico — A year ago, Bethany Gibbs raised more than $2,000 to buy Spanish-language Bibles for 350 families in this remote mountain village and nearby communities.
Gibbs, then a high school senior, eagerly anticipated sharing God’s written word with Mexican friends she had made on two previous mission trips here.
But safety concerns south of the U.S. border prompted her home congregation — the Edmond Church of Christ in Oklahoma — to cancel its planned trip.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Deborah Gibbs, Bethany’s mother. “She didn’t know if she’d ever get to come back.”
Turf wars between drug cartels have claimed more than 50,000 lives in Mexico since 2006, even as President Felipe Calderon has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police to combat criminal organizations.
The violence, which includes kidnappings, carjackings and innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire, has caused many Churches of Christ in the U.S. to rethink Mexico missions.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Forty-five years ago, civil rights attorney and preacher Fred Gray filed a lawsuit that exposed deep divides between black and white members of Churches of Christ.
The 1967 lawsuit challenged the transfer of more than $400,000 in assets from the closed Nashville Christian Institute — a school that trained hundreds of future black church leaders — to David Lipscomb College, a higher education institution with a history of racism.
On a recent Friday night, that same Christian college — now known as Lipscomb University — presented Gray with an honorary doctorate of humane letters, the highest award the university bestows on an individual.
“It is not every day that you file a lawsuit against an institution and that institution later sees fit to honor you,” Gray, 81, told a crowd of 500 that witnessed the ceremony in Lipscomb’s Allen Arena.
Who, Gray asked, would have thought such an honor would be possible for an Alabama boy who grew up in a shotgun house with no running water?
CHICAGO — On a dark street, a mother weeps.
At 4:45 a.m., she stands outside a two-story brick building surrounded by razor wire, her sobs drowning out the drum of machinery at a nearby factory.
The Spanish-speaking woman just said goodbye — through a glass panel at a federal deportation center west of Chicago — to her son Miguel, an illegal immigrant from Mexico.
A minister wearing a beige overcoat and a black knit cap rushes to comfort the mother and pray with her distraught family.
“This is why I come,” says the minister, Bobby Lawson, who pulled a white church van out of the Park Forest Church of Christ parking lot in Matteson, Ill., at 2:53 a.m. that Friday. “These families are getting ripped apart.”
Across the nation, debate rages over U.S. immigration policy — with Americans split on whether to crack down on illegal immigrants or create an amnesty process for undocumented aliens.
In the 2011 fiscal year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a record 396,906 immigrants — 55 percent of whom had been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, according to the Obama administration.
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.
By Bobby Ross Jr.
My Top 10 bylines of 2010:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.