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:
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.
By Bobby Ross Jr., Dec. 31, 2009
Ten years ago, I spent the last night of the millennium on Y2K duty at The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City’s major metropolitan daily.
For the next day’s front page, I wrote:
As the planet Earth’s calendars rolled, hour by hour around the globe, to a neatly even Jan. 1, 2000, a computer bug known as Y2K was supposed to wreak havoc on Oklahoma and the world.
But this bug, it seems, had little bite.
The New Year arrived with more of a whimper than a bang, at least as far as Y2K was concerned.
It’s hard to believe that a decade has passed since then.
In keeping with my journalistic DNA, I compiled a list of my personal Top 10 stories of the decade:
• • •
As a child, I dreamed of growing up to be a baseball play-by-play announcer. I never realized that dream. But I did make it to the radio booth — with the earphones on my head during a real major-league game — when I profiled longtime Texas Rangers broadcaster Eric Nadel for The Associated Press in 2003. I also found a way inside the Houston Astros clubhouse (writing first about team chaplain Gene Pemberton and later coach/manager Cecil Cooper) and made it to spring training with the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers, Fla. What a thrill.
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Thirty minutes before welcoming listeners to “the beautiful Ballpark in Arlington,” Eric Nadel and his partner, Vince Cotroneo, swing open the windows of the Texas Rangers’ air-conditioned radio booth overlooking home plate.
A brisk, 93-degree breeze rattles stat sheets and blows open the pages of the “Complete Baseball Record Book.”
And the sounds and smells of the ballpark rush in: the voices of the gap-toothed boys begging A-Rod and company for autographs; the sweet aroma of $1 Hot Dog Night; the wind-blown smoke from the fireworks that erupt after each Ranger home run.
“You don’t have the feel of the game if you don’t open the windows,” said Nadel, 52, in his 25th season calling games for a perennial cellar dweller that has won one playoff game in its history.
• • •
As foreign reporting goes, this is the one country where I have traveled that seemed more like a 51st U.S. state. As a proud American, I mean that as a compliment. And yes, as you study America’s neighbor to the north more closely, you become more aware of cultural and political differences. In 2009, I was privileged to travel to three provinces — Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta — to write stories for The Christian Chronicle’s series on Churches of Christ in Canada. An upcoming reporting trip will take me to British Columbia.
GRAVELBOURG, Saskatchewan — Just off the main highway, behind the Snack Shack Eatery and the GravelBowl Lanes & Billiards, sits the Church of Christ.
A bright green John Deere tractor rumbles down a nearby street as an older couple watch closely from their front porch.
“Everyone Welcome,” says a sign outside the church’s newly renovated building.
In more than a few places in rural Canada, Churches of Christ are dying.
But in this historically French Catholic prairie town, the 100-member church is thriving.
• • •
8. George W. Bush
Here’s another childhood dream I never realized: working as a White House correspondent and flying all over the world on Air Force One. In my time with AP in Tennessee and Texas, however, I covered presidential events, wrote about questions related to Bush’s National Guard service, explored “How would Jesus vote?” and traveled to tiny Crawford, Texas, to report on a furor caused by the Republican president’s hometown newspaper endorsing Democrat John Kerry in 2004.
CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) — Signs at the bank, the cafe and the Bottlinger Grain bins all declare Crawford – the proud home of the president’s ranch – as “Bush Country.”
So when the Lone Star Iconoclast, a tiny weekly that bills itself as Bush’s hometown paper, endorsed Democrat John Kerry, there was hell to pay.
Local businesses pulled their ads and banned the paper from their stores.
“We felt a little betrayed,” said Larry Nelson, manager of the Crawford Country Style, a downtown shop that sells “Luvya Dubya” trinkets and other Bush memorabilia.
• • •
I profiled Joel and Victoria Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Max Lucado, the Ed Youngs and former Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham during my time with AP. For The Oklahoman and later Religion News Service, I wrote about Craig Groeschel and the explosive growth of satellite campuses at Life Church in Oklahoma. For Christianity Today, I tackled stories on megachurch seminaries and pastor training.
HOUSTON (AP) — On their first date, Joel Osteen and his future bride, Victoria, went out to watch a Houston Rockets basketball game at the team’s home, then called The Summit.
Two decades later, the fast-growing megachurch that Osteen pastors is spending $78 million to turn the Rockets’ former arena – later renamed the Compaq Center – into its new spiritual home, with 16,000 seats, two waterfalls and plenty of television cameras for Lakewood Church’s nationally broadcast services.
The 41-year-old minister chuckles at the coincidence as he stands in the arena where true love was born and where he predicts as many as 100,000 people will someday worship every weekend.
“God’s got a sense of humor,” Osteen said, talking over the buzz of heavy machinery transforming locker rooms into children’s classrooms. “I never dreamed as a kid that this would be our place.”
• • •
My Christian Chronicle colleague Erik Tryggestad is the world traveler and international reporting expert on our staff, with datelines from more than 25 countries on his resume. But this summer I had the opportunity to travel to Africa twice — first to Ghana and then to South Africa — as part of the Chronicle’s “Global South” series. What an amazing experience.
ACCRA, Ghana — Through an open window, the familiar voice came.
From a blaring television at an auto parts store next door, President Barack Obama’s recent speech to Ghana’s Parliament drifted into the Nsawam Road Church of Christ auditorium.
“America will be with you every step of the way, as a partner, as a friend,” the nation’s first black president said.
In his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office, Obama promised U.S. support to help Africa build a better political and economic future.
At that exact moment, several hundred Christians were gathered inside the Nsawam Road church building to celebrate a different kind of partnership — one with eternal ramifications.
“As significant as Obama’s visit is … what we’re doing has a far more staggering impact for Africa because we’re dealing with souls,” said Deon Fair, a member of the Richardson East Church of Christ in Texas and a key figure in efforts to develop a Christian liberal arts university in this small coastal nation.
• • •
While Canada and Africa were new to me, I have made a number of trips to Mexico over the years — both personally and professionally. For AP, I joined a charismatic church group that spent a week at an orphanage in Juarez in 2004. For the Chronicle, I followed a Missouri church group as it built a church north of Saltillo in 2008 and ventured to Tijuana in 2009 to report on church mission groups’ concerns about border security.
TIJUANA, Mexico — Three times a week, San Diego resident Steve Mock crosses the U.S.-Mexico border to teach preaching students in this violence-scarred city of about 1.5 million souls.
Mock, an instructor at the Latin American Christian Institute in the heart of Tijuana, recognizes the dangers involved.
“I mean, I’m aware of it,” said Mock, a member of the Canyon View Church of Christ in San Diego. “There were almost 900 people murdered in Tijuana last year. But most of them are drug cartels fighting each other.”
Still, Mock said he understands why a number of American church groups canceled annual spring break mission trips to Mexico, while other congregations reassess scheduled summer efforts.
“I have not tried to talk anybody out of it who made the decision not to come this year,” Mock said. “I mean, I still go on. I don’t worry. … But it would just be a disaster if some student or some college kid or parent was shot in the crossfire somewhere between gangs.”
A 2-year-old offensive on drug traffickers by Mexican President Felipe Calderon has caused gang violence to surge along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border and claimed more than 7,000 lives in the last 15 months. The 843 killings in Tijuana last year were more than twice 2007’s total of 337.
• • •
4. Capital Punishment
During my time as the state prisons reporter for The Oklahoman, I witnessed four executions. My most memorable story involved a case of an inmate whose execution did not draw much media attention. I decided to use this case as an opportunity to write about a “typical” execution day in Oklahoma. With AP in Tennessee, I interviewed a seven-time convicted murderer and was scheduled to witness his execution before he resumed his appeals at the last minute.
McALESTER, Okla. – At 6 a.m., before the sun has time to scale the towering white walls of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Roger James Berget opens his eyes.
Not that Berget, Oklahoma inmate No. 98711, has any choice.
Eighteen hours before his scheduled execution, correctional officers stand over the condemned murderer and order him to wake up.
The officers strip-search him and make him shower in his shackles before giving him new clothes – a prison shirt and jeans – in which to die.
After he dresses, they lead him up the hill from the underground, death-row “H-Unit” to the main part of the penitentiary.
Inside the prison infirmary, he’s X-rayed to ensure he has no contraband on him – or in him – that he could use to hurt himself before the state can carry out his court-ordered lethal injection.
Berget, 39, a pale, thin man with a short, scruffy beard, a ponytail and tattooed arms, has spent the past seven days in a solitary “high-max” cell, away from fellow prisoners while awaiting his date with death.
After the X-ray, he’s taken back down the hill and placed in a special holding cell next to the execution chamber.
• • •
3. Iraq War
When the war started in 2003, AP dispatched me to a church in Nashville where members prayed as President Bush announced the U.S. attack. Later, I covered war protesters and the funeral for the first Tennessee soldier killed. Often, with AP in Tennessee and Texas and even after joining the Chronicle, the duty fell on me to interview loved ones of young men — and women — killed in action. In one case, I discovered that a young woman had lost both her father and her husband in the war. The story that sticks out the most to me concerned a World War II veteran in Corpus Christi, Texas, who lost his son in Iraq.
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) — Esequiel Perez never bragged about his service in World War II. If anything, the soft-spoken veteran downplayed his role.
“I didn’t go into too much combat or anything,” says Perez, 77.
Yet his children – Yolanda, Rosa Anna, Sandra, Joel, Debra, Hector and Zeke – grew up knowing that their father had done his part to defend the world, and why.
In the Perez family, soldiers’ sacrifice was honored and the nation’s freedom celebrated. Memorial Day and the Fourth of July were times for reverence. When the children erected a flag pole in the front yard, Esequiel welcomed it – but warned that the Stars and Stripes must not touch the ground and should be illuminated if flown at night.
“That’s how proud my dad is of this country,” said Rosa Anna Garza, 48.
He also wanted an easier life for his children than he had – he still had nightmares involving foxholes and blames grenades for his hearing problems – so he never pushed them to join the military.
For No. 6 child Hector, though, the Army beckoned.
• • •
2. Sept. 11, 2001
Just six years after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which consumed my Oklahoman colleagues and me for months and even years, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought back all kinds of emotions. We dealt with those emotions by focusing on the news and writing about the terrible events of that day, this time from hundreds of miles away. I produced four stories on Sept. 11, a day that will remain forever a giant blur in my mind. Later, I wrote about Oklahomans reaching out to New Yorkers. With AP in Nashville, I did a package of 9/11 anniversary stories in 2002.
The scene looked so familiar. Too familiar.
The smoke. The chaos. The rescue workers.
Gary Woodbridge, whose wife, Ronota, died in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, had seen it all before.
“Watching some of the video of them trying to save people and help people, a lot of it reminded me of what we saw in Oklahoma City,” the Guthrie man said. “The only difference… is the patches on the uniforms say New York City instead of Oklahoma City.
“I kind of feel like it’s an attack on America instead of what (Timothy) McVeigh did on the government… Emotionally, it’s kind of hard.”
For Woodbridge and others who experienced the bombing – the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil until Tuesday – the latest tragedy brought all the horrible memories flowing back.
• • •
1. Hurricane Katrina
The costliest hurricane to strike the United States — and one of the deadliest — occurred just months after I joined the Chronicle in 2005. In the immediate aftermath, I flew on a private plane with Don Yelton and others from WFR Relief Ministries to survey damages in Louisiana and Mississippi. A few months later, I returned to New Orleans to report on the still-immense needs among church members. In all, I made a handful of visits to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast after the storm. My one-year anniversary story featured Katrina survivors Charles and Angela Marsalis, who relied on their faith as they overcame the storm.
NEW ORLEANS — “Girl, you better get out of town!”
Angela Marsalis’ mother made it clear what she thought her daughter should do that weekend as Hurricane Katrina — a Category 5 storm packing 160 mile-per-hour winds — threatened a direct hit on New Orleans.
In a perfect world, Angela — a substitute teacher who helped each day with an after-school program at church — would have done exactly as her mother urged. She, her husband, Charles, and their boys would have joined the clogged procession of vehicles fleeing the tempest predicted to make landfall Monday morning.
But Charles — who worked 12-hour days on a tugboat yet still volunteered most mornings at a Christian outreach center — had just spent $2,000 to fix the family’s blue 2000 Dodge Caravan, wiping out their bank account.
Jittery over the calamity that could befall the bowl-shaped metropolitan area, Angela begged her husband: “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
But her practical side knew they lacked the cash to keep their gas tank full. They simply could not afford to heed the mayor’s mandatory evacuation order.
By Bobby Ross Jr.
The 1990s: I graduated from Oklahoma Christian University, married the love of my life and welcomed my three gifts from God into the world.
Oh, and I got paid to write newspaper stories.
With full knowledge that I’m probably leaving out a few important ones, my Top 10 stories of the decade:
10. Garth Brooks: 1992
My wife, Tamie, and I covered Garth’s afternoon news conference in Oklahoma City, then were surprised to receive press passes to the concert that night. I wrote a front-page feature for The Edmond Evening Sun.
OKLAHOMA CITY — A few hours before Garth Brooks’ sold-out concert at the Myriad Friday night, a bearded man resembling the country music superstar strolled into an interview room.
He was wearing a baseball cap, warmup shirt, sweatpants and tennis shoes — customary off-stage attire for the Oklahoma native.
Still, without his trademark black cowboy hat, bright western shirt and boots, it was difficult to tell if it was really him.
Then, he flashed that happy-to-be-an-Okie smile. Hey, that really is Garth!
Later, Brooks would compete with 14,500 screaming, boot-stomping fans to see who could bring the house down first.
With the hometown sensation running, jumping and dancing around stage as he belted out hit after hit and the crowd matching his decibel level with ear-piercing shrieks and applause, it didn’t take long for the house to fall.
• • •
9. Shane Coffman: 1996
This story involved the child-abuse death of an 8-year-old boy, and his age is undoubtedly why I still remember this case. I was the lead writer on a 3,500-word Sunday feature on the boy’s death.
A haunting feeling that he could have done more — that he somehow could have rescued 8-year-old Shane Alan Coffman from the hell where he lived and died – grips the Rev. Sunny Stuart.
The Baptist pastor’s voice cracks as he reflects on the Shane he knew:
The blond-haired boy who hopped and skipped off the church van each Sunday morning. The bright child who at age 5 memorized a difficult Scripture and proudly accepted a new Bible. The would-be third-grader so hungry he dug other children’s scraps out of the garbage after eating his own school lunch.
Then there was the Shane who showed up at vacation Bible school with whip marks on his legs.
“I’d like to say to these little children,” Stuart said of Shane’s surviving five brothers and sisters, “I didn’t desert you, I just didn’t know where you were, and I’m sorry.”
He paused to regain his composure, then added, “And I’m sorry I didn’t do something more to find you and protect you and help you.”
• • •
8. Road to justice: 1994
This was a behind-the-scenes account of the journey by detectives who investigated a high-profile, double-murder case unlike any in Oklahoma history.
Detective Theresa Pfeiffer’s mind replayed fast forward the horrifying images and excruciating events.
Her head spun. Her heart thumped faster. Her knees felt suddenly weak as the veteran detective of 10 years clicked briskly toward Judge Thomas C. Smith’s courtroom.
Just a moment earlier, a game of “UNO” had occupied the Edmond police investigator’s time. The colorful playing cards had helped divert her thoughts from the most extraordinary criminal case of her life – and the pending verdict.
Even as the jury’s deliberations stretched past 11 hours, she saw no reason for alarm. The jury had plenty to digest. The eight women and four men had endured a nearly five-month trial.
Prosecutors called it the longest in Oklahoma County history.
Jurors had listened to 79 witnesses and 74 taped segments from testimony before a grand jury convened earlier. They had seen two videotapes and 452 pieces of evidence.
Pfeiffer had witnessed the entire trial, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, from a seat at the prosecutor’s table.
The stress and the pressure, the sacrifice and the personal toll of a high-profile, double-murder case unlike any in state history had failed to catch up with her.
• • •
7. Tale of three cities: 1997
As Oklahoma City prepared to dismantle its crosstown busing program, I traveled to Little Rock, Ark., and Topeka, Kan., for a special project on school desegregation then and now.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — At Principal Rudolph Howard’s high school, contrasts abound.
Howard’s 1,800-student school serves, in his words, the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich, the worst of the worst and the best of the best.
Academically, the inner-city school produced 23 National Merit Semifinalists last year – 22 more than the Oklahoma City School District.
But structurally, the mammoth tan brick building – the largest school in America when built in 1927 – desperately needs $6 million in repairs.
Nearly two football fields long and five stories high, this school towers over a dilapidated, crime-ridden neighborhood.
A block away, drive-by gunfire killed an 18-year-old last month.
Yet, for many of Little Rock’s elite – including Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 10th-grade daughter – this is the school.
“There’s a lot of people who finagle to get their kids in,” said Sam Blair, the guidance department chairman. “We really sort of manage to attract students from the entire central Arkansas area.”
Such is historic Little Rock Central High School, 40 years after President Dwight Eisenhower sent 1,200 soldiers to help nine black students integrate the school – and change a nation.
• • •
6. Anorexic mom: 1997
This was a 3,700-word Sunday feature on a family’s experience with a mom “dying to be thin,” as the headline put it.
Snapshots of two women – one Steve Duty married and one he buried – rest side by side on the living-room table.
One set of photos shows a beautiful prom date. A picture-perfect bride. An all-American wife and mom.
The other depicts a frail, 45-pound figure in a wheelchair – a living skeleton near death after a six-year battle with anorexia nervosa.
Duty knew both women well.
They were one woman. But in his mind, they never will be.
“This was a woman who apparently had everything – beauty, perfect shape, a great home, a great family,” Duty said of his green-eyed high school sweetheart. “She was a sweet, kind, giving person.
“But as much as she loved her children, as much as she loved me, she was sucked into this illness and let it control her.”
My mom, Tracey Duty, died at age 33 from anorexia nervosa. This is a disease where a person starves and exercises themselves to lose weight. Tracey thought she was fat and wanted to do something about it. She was never fat. In fact, the most she ever weighed was 112 pounds and she was 5 feet, 2 inches tall.
– Excerpt from an essay by Josh Duty, 13
• • •
5. Pope John Paul II: 1999
When the editors assigned me to cover the pope’s visit to St. Louis, it marked the beginning of my specialty in religion reporting. I wrote four front-page stories about the trip.
ST. LOUIS — By 4:56 p.m. Tuesday, the arena where the St. Louis Blues play hockey seemed loud enough to drown out a few thousand jet engines. But this was no sporting event.
As an all-day party neared its crescendo, 20,000 arm-waving, hip-shaking, foot-stomping young Catholics jammed to the ear-busting lyrics of dc Talk, a superstar contemporary Christian rock group.
“What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus Freak?” the group sang, as the beat of drums and the strum of electric guitars reverberated throughout the Kiel Center.
Amid a gigantic kaleidoscope of flashing cameras, fluorescent crosses and “JP II, We Love You” banners, it appeared this place couldn’t get any noisier.
Then again, that was just the warm-up act.
The main attraction on this night was a white-haired, 78-year-old man with a hunched-over neck – a solemn-looking fellow dressed in white with a gold cross hanging over his heart.
If it was loud before, the decibel level exploded at 6:36 p.m. That’s when Pope John Paul II rode onto the arena floor.
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4. Elvis Presley: 1997
Traveling to Graceland and producing a package of stories on the 20th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death remains one of the highlights of my career.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Goose bumps formed just below James Hubert’s earphones as he followed the Graceland Mansion tour group into the dining room.
As Priscilla Presley recounted on audiotape how Elvis Presley chomped southern cooking, played poker and swapped stories in this room, the Lawton man passed from commercialized present to nostalgic past.
Suddenly, there at the head of the eight-foot table, Hubert could see him.
“Man,” Hubert said, “Elvis walked through here eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich.”
The king of rock ‘n’ roll left the building 20 years ago.
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3. School choice: 1999
As the education reporter for The Oklahoman, I wrote numerous stories on the school choice movement, from vouchers to magnet schools. One of those stories involved traveling to Colorado to report on that state’s experience with charter schools. In 1999, I won a two-month fellowship from the Education Writers Association to investigate school choice in Oklahoma City. I teamed with database editor Griff Palmer (now with The New York Times) on this project.
Just as private schools have always done, Oklahoma City’s newest public schools have become a haven for the wealthy and well-educated, a study by The Oklahoman has found.
The numbers suggest that the district’s 5-year-old school choice movement – which has coincided with the dismantling of court-ordered desegregation – has produced a two-tiered system: one academically elite, middle-class and disproportionately white; the other struggling, poor and mostly minority.
No longer are paying expensive private school tuition or moving to the suburbs the only options for those who want to escape Oklahoma City’s beleaguered, poverty-ridden schools.
Today, they can choose public schools such as Classen School of Advanced Studies, a school with top-notch orchestra, drama and ballet programs, a college-caliber core curriculum and strict admissions standards.
From Boston to San Jose, Calif., the free-market approach is immensely popular, but some here in Oklahoma City fear that the school district is catering to the powerful and well-to-do while leaving others behind.
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2. Oklahoma tornadoes: 1999
I’ll never forget driving through a raging thunderstorm — with tornado warnings still in effect in the Oklahoma City metro area — to interview tornado victims at a hospital. The death toll that night hit 44.
Outside Hillcrest Medical Center, sirens wailed as ambulances kept arriving Monday night.
Frazzled medical workers helped old men and women, heads and knees covered with bandages, into wheelchairs. Nurses and doctors rolled bloodied babies and young children inside on stretchers.
As the television boomed with reports of deadly tornadoes, Tony Lawson sat in the emergency room – sweat and shock covering his face.
“Luckily, it just went over our house, but it took our daughter’s house,” Lawson, 39, said.
Lawson found his daughter, grandson and a friend amid the remains of their destroyed home. He rushed them to the hospital and wasn’t sure how badly they were injured.
“All I know is they were in the house that’s gone,” he said.
The scene was repeated Monday night at hospitals throughout the Oklahoma City area. At least nine were confirmed dead by hospitals, and more than 350 patients were treated.
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1. Oklahoma City bombing: 1995
I had just stepped off the eighth-floor newsroom elevator when we heard the boom and saw the smoke in the distance. In all, 168 people died in the bombing — the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil until 9/11 six years later.
Thirteen-year-old Ricky Hill and his brother Jonathan, 11, waited up late Wednesday hoping to hear from their mother.
Even as they drifted off to sleep, they clung to hope that Army recruiter Lola Renee Bolden, a 40-year-old single parent, had survived a thunderous bomb blast.
But her call never came.
The boys’ distress turned into a real-life nightmare about 1 a.m. Thursday.
That’s when three men and a woman, all clad in their best Army green, arrived at the door with the horrible news.
Neighbor Mechelle Murray, a single parent with children herself, had taken in the next-door neighbor boys when their mother failed to return home.
Even while calming Ricky and Jonathan, Murray had feared the worst.
“I immediately thought, Oh my God, Renee works in that building,’ ” the 38-year-old accounting student said of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.