Monday, December 31, 2007

2007: a year of patience, stability and prayer

2007 has been a good year. One of deepening relationships, subtle growth and refining priorities. No major drama or chaos. Some excitement and the promise of good things ahead.

Much of the beginning of the year, I spent feeling very antsy. I was coming up on living in Shreveport five years. My boyfriend and I had been dating for more than two years. I had commitments at church and to school. Nothing appeared to be changing. For someone who has lived in 10 cities in her 29 years, this was all too much stability.

I was forced to spend time reflecting on where I am and what I want. That meant I had to force myself to learn to listen when I pray instead of talking. God also tried his very best to teach me patience and appreciation for what I have (I think he would give me a C-).

Apparently, God knew what he was doing. In the last quarter of the year, my boyfriend became my fiance, meaning 2008 will be full of upheaval - the good kind. We'll get married. I'll move (just to Bossier). And a new kind of life will await.

So my resolution for the new year is to maintain a spirit of prayerful patience. Instead of wishing 2008 along, I want to appreciate the moments. It too should be a good year.

New programs for the new year

Steeple Chase Community Economic Development Corp. celebrated a new building and the promise of new outreach programs this weekend.

On Saturday they dedicated a facility at 6339 W. 70th St., Shreveport. The building will be able to house after school, addiction recovery, and GED preparation programs. As well, they hope to have classes for senior citizens. The Rev. Gregory Kirby, CEO of the organization and pastor of Steeple Chase Baptist Church, has talked to me about his work with children and desire for his church to be a center of the community. This new facility certainly holds the promise of bringing that vision to life.

Friday, December 28, 2007

More than a mission

Mack McCarter has what the rest of us are seeking: a purpose.

Every time I talk to him for a story about Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal, I am amazed at his passion and conviction. While he's certainly a persuasive and charismatic speaker, there's always a little extra edge of certainty when he speaks.

As he told me for today's story, "I believe the only reason I’m on Planet Earth is to do what I’m doing now.” How many of us can say that?

He doesn't speak with any sort of conceit. In fact, he always seems a little amazed that all of this has happened and he gives all the credit to God and his staff.

With that spirit, I'm excited to see what what will happen in the next few years as they start the intense fundraising for the National Center. Some new videos are posted on the website, including the Independence Bowl commercial (warning: it will leave you humming for the rest of the day).

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Did you pay attention in church over the holiday?

For your third day of Christmas celebrations, here's a little Christmas Bible Quiz:

It makes you realize how much tradition and legend has woven its way into the Bible. Not all of that is bad, but we should pay more attention to what is really there.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

On the second day of Christmas...

I return to work, refreshed from a weekend with my family in Memphis. This year was the new and improved version of the family gathering.

My brother and I are both getting married next year and we brought our fiances home for a little bit of Haag family tradition. We ate way too many cookies, spent time gathered in the kitchen while Mom cooked, heard new stories of Christmases past and got out for a little sightseeing.

Christmas celebrates new life, and having two new people at the dinner table (and to help do dishes!) made this year's holiday even more special.

For the next few days of this holiday season, I hope you all are able to enjoy many blessings and a sense of renewal as we roll into 2008!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Crosses at Christmas?

Now that all your Christmas decorations are up, I'm curious about a trend I've seen recently: crosses in Christmas displays.

Before Thanksgiving, I even received a press release from a company marketing Christmas crosses, all lit up for your holiday displays. But I wonder if the cross is really the appropriate symbol for Christmas.

I understand the push to keep Christ in Christmas - it's a sacred day for Christians and should be treated as such. So many other symbols are woven into the Nativity story such as the creche, or the star or even a Madonna and child. Is the cross the only symbol of Christ? And if we use the cross as a generic symbol for Christ, does it lose its power as a symbol of Christ's death and resurrection?

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Reaching through the bars

My job allows me to talk to some fascinating people that most people never get to meet. I'm not talking about "important" people like senators and entertainers, but folks like the men in the Lifers' Association at David Wade Correctional Center.

They amazed me again this week with contributions of toys and bikes worth more than $2,000 to various charities in North Louisiana.

These men have committed crimes that resulted in a life sentence. Objectively, at least at one point in their lives, they were not nice people. But instead of dwelling on their fate, they have decided to do something positive with their future. They also provide examples for younger inmates, many of whom will be released to the public again.

Monday the Lifers and AANA (Alcoholics Anonymous/ Narcotics Anonymous) had a program to present their Christmas gifts to the community. A new project allowed them to help more than 30 children this Christmas. This fall the two groups started refurbishing bicycles.

Debra Cody, administrative sponsor of the group, said it took awhile for the project to be approved because of security concerns such as access to tools. It finally happened, and the first few bikes were given to the Boys and Girls Club of Homer in October. Then a couple of Grambling professors got involved, and sent about 130 used bikes to the prison. Men worked on them and managed to have 17 ready to give to the Boys and Girls Club and another 17 to the Providence House.

On top of those donations, they also had money to give from their usual fundraiser of selling handmade bird feeders. Through those sales and other fundraisers the men donated $1100 to Toys for Tots and another several hundred dollars to buy presents for the children at Hope Youth Ranch.

The men are under no illusion that theycan "make up" for what their crimes, but they do show the spirit of repentance and rehabilitation that we all would hope to see from the prison system. And they are thrilled and thankful for the opportunity. Inmate Roy Ates explained it to me a couple of years ago: "We do this because it's the right thing to do."

Photo: Marines pose with toys donated to Toys for Tots. From Debra Cody at David Wade.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Remembering seniors at Christmas

Kids seem to get all of the attention as Christmas, but a few folks out there have taken special time out for senior citizens. Many seniors have great memories of Christmases past, but for a variety of reasons can't be with family now.

Mary Alice Rountree, director of the Caddo Council on Aging told me about her volunteers at Promise Hospital. They normally deliver eight meals to seniors four days a week. Well, for Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, the meals aren't delivered. So the staff took it upon themselves to fix plates in the hospital kitchen and deliver those, so the seniors still got a good meal.

"That's up and above," Rountree said.

A couple of years ago she asked for volunteer help delivering meals on wheels and she said this is just one example of how the volunteers are now more connected to the needy seniors in the community.

"The community is seeing what’s out there," she said. "To many of them it's shocking."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tainted memories

I fell in love with Wrigley Field and the Chicago Cubs because of its purity. For a college student, it was the greatest place to be on spring afternoon.

Wrigley has no parking so everyone takes the El to Wrigleyville and the closer you get to the stop, more royal blue jerseys and caps appear on the train. Walking past the bars, souvenir shops and scalpers, you come to the stadium with its big electronic marquis. It feels like everyone is welcome here -- even though tickets are starting to price some folks out.

Inside, the smell of Chicago-style hot dogs, popcorn and beer fill the air - few gourmet treats here. In the outfield is the old fashioned score board. If you look, you can see the guy that changes the numbers sitting in the hole for the 10th inning. Noticeably absent are the advertisements. They aren't on the scoreboard and no one's figured out how to grow a brand name in ivy so the outfield wall is empty. There's only the Budweiser roof across the street, but that's so quirky it becomes part of the charm. The whole atmosphere was just about baseball.

But apparently, according to today's Mitchell report nine former Cubs were among the steroid users in what some are calling baseball's greatest scandal. In church terms, scandal usually means the acts of one or a few people that discredits the entire institution. It's an apt word here. Somehow Wrigley doesn't seem so pure anymore. The ivy seems a little brown and the beer a little warm.

With that scandal comes our own series of moral questions. What were we seeing? Great athletes? Guys so worried about their stats and performance that they use drugs to supplement their game? Or worse, men trying to take a shortcut instead of actually working out? The fact that most of the guys on the list weren't great stars seems to say the drug route was apparently a waste of time.

Then I wonder how much are we as fans somehow complicit? Do we expect athletes to be like gods - always perfect? Do we put that much importance on sports that they feel compelled to cheat? And do we accept the cheating as part of doing business?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Meet the new pastor

First Presbyterian has called a new pastor after nearly 18 months of searching. I wrote a little about the Rev. Pen Peery in today's paper, but I couldn't include all of what the church told me.

Frank Dodson, chair of the pastor's nominating committee sent me his statement about Peery, now an associate pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Va., to the church and here are a few excerpts:

"If you had told me 11 months ago that I would be standing at this pulpit to recommend a 30 year old to be our next pastor, I’d have said you’d lost your mind.

There are some objective things about Pen’s background that assured us Pen could assume the senior pastor position in this church. Second Presbyterian Church is very similar to our church. It’s an urban church, founded in 1845, the same year our church was founded. The congregation is roughly the same size as ours, and its membership is demographically similar. They face many of the same problems we do, including an aging facility.

We discovered that Pen is warm and charming and appeals to people of all ages. The oldest and youngest members of the PNC, were his biggest fans. He has a “presence” in a group setting and is engaging in one on one conversation. Each of us came away from our visits with Pen convinced that he has a love for people.

Pen is a good preacher with a confident, comfortable pulpit presence. Pen believes that worship is the central act of the church and he is "unapologetically traditional" in his worship style. His sermons are solidly grounded in Scripture and our Reformed theological heritage. They are thought-provoking and challenging and encourage the listener to wrestle with Scripture and its meaning for his or her life.

I believe his youth and energy, his new ideas, and who he is as a person will be immensely attractive to everyone, but especially young adults and young families who will see someone in leadership at this church with whom they can readily identify. He will be a strong presence in Shreveport, representing First Presbyterian Church with love and enthusiasm."

Sounds like exciting days ahead. Good luck to First Pres and welcome Rev. Peery.

National tragedy with local ties

The story of the shootings in two Colorado religious organizations continues to baffle me. None of the mass shootings make sense, but at churches and so far apart?

And more interesting, the pastor of New Life Church, where the gunman was eventually killed was from Northwest Louisiana. The Rev. Brady Boyd grew up in Logansport in the Assembly of God church and went to Louisiana Tech. According to his biography, He was saved at a church in Jonesboro and started his ministry at First Assembly of God in Shreveport (now Shreveport Community Church) in the early 1990s. He started out volunteering in the inner city, ministering to a specific neighborhood. As well, he took a job at Evangel Christian Academy, teaching English, coaching basketball and track, and pastoring students.

Several moves later, he took over for Ted Haggard, who resigned amid scandal. That situation already required some support from home for Boyd and his family, but now I'm sure they need even more prayers. As well, the church has links from its website to a place to donate funds to the affected families.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Mea culpa

I read my Hanukkah history too fast and got the dates mixed up. Alexander the Great spread Greek culture to Israel in the fourth century BC. But the Maccabees didn't start their revolution until the second century. Sorry about that!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Taking it to the streets

The pastors seem to be following through with yesterday's press conference decrying the violence that has left three juveniles dead in the last two months.

After covering numerous similar press conferences, I have to admit I showed up a little jaded yesterday and I probably let that show a little too much. After their official statement, something possessed me to ask "what's going to be different this time?" Part of that came from my own frustration with the situation -- I live here to and I'm tired of the violence and the reputation that comes with it.

Afterwards I talked to the Rev. Calvin Kimble, one of the founders of the Pastors on Patrol program, a little more and he said he agreed with me about past rallies. "When you go to these meetings all you hear is the thunder but you don't see the lightning." He promised that this group would produce the work.

Today I got a press release officially announcing the "Enough is Enough - Stop the Violence!" revival service. It will be at 5 p.m. Thursday at the corner of Ledbetter and Hickory Streets.

Happy Hanukkah!

Jews began celebrating the Festival of Lights last evening. The story behind the holiday is pretty amazing.

It goes back to the first ever battle for religious freedom, told in the first four chapters of the Book of Macabees (part of the Catholic Bible, but considered apocryphal by Protestants and Jews). In about the fourth century BC, Syrians took over Jerusalem and defiled the temple. Then the Scripture says: "The king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people,
each abandoning his particular customs. All the Gentiles conformed to the command of the king,
and many Israelites were in favor of his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath." The king further prohibited sacrifices in the temple, circumcision and keeping the Sabbath.

Others would not be taken in so easily. "Women who had had their children circumcised were put to death, in keeping with the decree, with the babies hung from their necks; their families also and those who had circumcised them were killed. But many in Israel were determined and resolved in their hearts not to eat anything unclean; they preferred to die rather than to be defiled with unclean food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die."

Finally a family of five brothers stood up and said no more. Judas Macabeus encouraged his kinsmen to follow despite the odds: ""It is easy for many to be overcome by a few; in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between deliverance by many or by few; for victory in war does not depend upon the size of the army, but on strength that comes from Heaven. With great presumption and lawlessness they come against us to destroy us and our wives and children and to despoil us; but we are fighting for our lives and our laws."

Over the course of a couple of years, Judas kept bringing his small armies of untrained men against the tens of thousands sent by the Syrians -- and he kept winning. Finally they reclaimed the temple, purified it and celebrated for eight days.

In this country, where we take our religious freedom for granted, it's a good reminder. And at this time of year, when Christian Christmas symbols are everywhere, it's also worth remembering that we don't all believe the same thing and that's OK.
Photo: Times file photo

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Happy New Year!

Folks in liturgical churches (Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc.) began a new year Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent.

Twice in the last week, I've given a little presentation on the Liturgical calendar to various church groups, so I thought I'd share some of that with you. The theory behind the calendar is to mark the cycle of Jesus' life and how it reflects in our own. Through the seasons of the church - including Advent, Christmas, Lent (those vary among denominations) - we mark the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Those episodes have direct correlation to our own spiritual journey.

Advent (the word means "to come") starts the year with a time of reflection and penance. It's not unlike the way we start the secular year with reflections and resolutions. But Advent prepares us for the great feast of Christmas, the birth of Jesus.

It's also a time of great cultural traditions. How many of us had Advent Calendars (the best kind came with chocolate) to countdown to Christmas? And many churches broke out Advent wreaths this weekend to mark the four Sundays of the season.

Do you have special traditions for Advent? Even if you don't celebrate Advent, how do you spiritually prepare yourself for Christmas?

Monday, December 03, 2007

St. Mark's update

St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral seems to be making progress in its search for a new dean (that's pastor in non-Episcopal speech).

Last week's bulletin said its parish profile is finished and available for applicants to peruse. The document presents a pretty comprehensive look at the church from demographics to worship styles to outreach ministries.

It would be helpful for anyone looking at joining the church as well. It might be a good thing for every church to periodically put together a similar document to answer some big questions: who are you? what do you do? what do you need? and make sure ministries are all in line with those needs and goals.

At St. Mark's the calling committee is now sifting through applicants. Good luck to them as they continue to search for a new leader!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Teaching vs. brainwashing

I finally had a chance to see "Jesus Camp" this week. The documentary appeared in theaters last year and tells the story of three Evangelical Christian children who go to a summer camp in Devils Lake, N.D.

What is shown is pretty disturbing - even to most believers I think. Kids should be taught about living their faith and avoiding sin, but the services depicted appear to manipulate kids' emotions to the point that some of them are just hysterical. I'm really not sure what 8 and 9 year old kids from middle America have to be so guilty and upset over.

The filmmakers obviously have their own bias. In what I saw of the director's commentary (I love DVDs), they seem to be almost afraid of people committed to their faith. So I had to wonder if the film just showed the extremes.

Regardless, it raises the question, what's the best way to teach children about faith? A fine line seems to separate brainwashing and teaching them so they take ownership of their faith. How do you walk that line?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Church secrets

Catholicism is known for its ability to keep secrets -- sometimes it's understandable. Sometimes it's unnecessary, and sometimes, according to Bishop Randolph Calvo of Reno, Nev., it's funny.

He was trying to make the point about the difference between secrets and confidential information, so Calvo told the story about when he found out he would be bishop.

It was a few weeks before Christmas in 2005 and he came rushing into his office before a pre-school Christmas pageant and didn't even look at his phone messages. His secretary called his attention to one in particular an urgent message from the Archdiocese of Washington DC. Flustered, he called the number and a woman answered "hello."
"Is this the archdiocese of Washington?" Calvo inquired.
"No, this is the papal nunciature."

The papal nuncio (the pope's representative in the U.S.) got on the phone and informed Calvo he had been chosen by Pope Benedict XVI as the new bishop of Reno. All Calvo could do was mumble appreciation. Then came the hard part -- it couldn't be official until a bishop was named in San Francisco, which oversees Reno. And the nuncio let him in on a "papal secret." The announcement would be "soon." Now, Calvo was left remembering his time in Italy where soon could be today, tomorrow or three weeks from now.

Lucky for him the announcement came the next day. Calvo still couldn't say anything. In his first meeting with the new archbishop and other priests, he kept scanning the face of the bishop for any sign that he knew of Calvo's new job. After the meeting, the men met privately, and Calvo finally asked "Do you know something I know?" The bishop knew.

It only got worse as he had to excuse himself from saying a funeral Mass and leave a water main break in someone else's hands all without explanation.

"That kind of secrecy I can't describe," he said.

I can only hope someone around here is holding onto a similar secret...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Denominational bloggers

Just as in secular politics, bloggers are making a dent in conversations about religious politics -- particularly the politics of American Christian denominations. USA Today's Cathy Grossman explores the topic pretty well in a story in today's paper.

I realized how few of these I read -- partly because of time and partly because of lack of knowledge/interest in the minutiae of various denominations (yes, I'm admitting my bias - the politics of churches outside my own is not that exciting to me. I'd rather write about what you're doing with your faith for the greater good). Here's a few I do check:

Catholic: Whispers in the Loggia
Episcopal Church: Drell's Descants (written by a guy in Alexandria)
Evangelical: Evangelical Outpost (not as much a specific denomination as a movement, and theology rooted in that movement)

I apparently need to find a Southern Baptist blogger... Most of the rest that I check are on more general religion topics. So what about you? Any suggestions on good religion blogs?

Praying for quiet in Queensborough

Cold couldn't stop Jesus from coming to Queensborough.

About a dozen hearty folks gathered for Evangelist Melvin Slack's revival at the corner of Alabama and Fredrick last night. The story made the front page today, but I thought I'd elaborate a little more here. It had been a while since I attended a street revival, and it was good to see the preachers' enthusiasm, particularly when they're addressing tough issues like violence in the neighborhood.

I pulled up to hear Slack calling "revival! revival!" through speakers that could easily be heard for a few blocks. The theme of the night was meekness, which both speakers carried through their short talks.

The Rev. Demetrious Young reminded people that meekness also means patience and thinking before we react to the difficult situations in life. He continued and talked about the destructive kind of pride, when we think our way is best instead of God's.

Last night's preacher, the Rev. Terry Wesley continued the theme as he spoke about giving our lives to God. It had also been awhile since I heard that style of preaching - where lots of phrases are repeated, and the preacher almost breaks into song when giving the faithful their charge.

"We've got to put our lives in the Lord's hands. I'm not talking about Mayor Cedric Glover or George Bush. I'm talking about the Lord who made the heavens and the Earth... He took nothing and made the mountains. He took nothing and made the valleys."

"He can build up Queensborough. If he can build up Queensborough, he can build up Cedar Grove. If he can build up Cedar Grove, he can build up Highland."

Wesley encouraged them to rethink their priorities so that more children, like 9-year-old Treveon Hunter don't have to die in the crossfire of grown-ups' business. No one was saved last night, as far as I know, but Slack is praying to see some changed hearts by the end of the week.

If you have a chance, stop by and offer your support and prayers. They'll be at the corner of Frederick and Alabama at 6 p.m. each night.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Careful giving

Instead of spending hours at the mall picking out some gift your mother-in-law really doesn't need, how about making a donation to charity? It's quick, will help someone else in need and doesn't require wrapping.

But don't go giving away your money without some thought. Charity Navigator, a watchdog organization, has an impressive site with information on a ton of national charities and guidelines for how to evaluate whether charities are spending your money wisely. Among the recommendations:

* Charities should spend no more than 30 percent (preferably less than 25 percent) of their income on fundraising and administrative costs.

* Make sure a charity has short- and long-term goals, and evaluates the progress its making. For instance, Providence House's goal is to help families live independently and they can tell you the number of families who are still living on their own years after graduation.

* Feel free to ask questions of the organization's director or board. Look through the annual report and IRS forms. Form 990 is the one nonprofit organizations fill out - and they are required to show it to anyone who asks.

* Once you trust the organization, give to their general fund. Organizations need money to keep the lights on and pay for unexpected maintenance issues -- designated funds don't give them the flexibility to do that.

If you're looking for information on local charities, try Guidestar, which posts 990 forms. Also, if a charity receives more than a certian amount of money from state grants (I don't remember how much off the top of my head), they they have to send their audit to the legislative auditor, who kindly posts them on his website.

Of course, I am a little biased this time of year. If you don't want to do the work of looking at the charities, let The Times do it for you and give to the Joy Fund. We'll collect money (and put the names of donors and their honorees in the paper), and distribute all of it to various organizations to fund their Christmas projects. I'll write stories about as many of the charities as I can and keep you posted on what they're doing with the money. After the first of the year, we'll publish a full accounting of where it all went.

Friday, November 23, 2007

New churches everywhere

New churches seem to be popping up all over town this month. This week's religion briefs list two new Assembly of God congregations and last week, I wrote about a new CME church.

The Rev. David Hoey called to tell me about his church, Rhema Word Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, now meeting in Steeple Chase Baptist in West Shreveport. Hoey had been praying about planting a new church for the last two years. In March, he decided to take a little bit of a sabbatical from his job pastoring Lane Chapel CME. Not long after the bishop called to ask him about planting a new church.

Rhema Word (rhema is Greek for 'living word') is the first black Methodist church between Jewella Avenue and Keithville. Hoey described it as a "contemporary Methodist service" with lots of praise and worship music and no dress code. So far he's got about 50 members -- some from other denominations and some who were unchurched.

"It's been a joy and pain," Hoey said of his first church planting experience. "The joy is it gives you the opportunity to start from scratch. The pain is you're starting with no resources."

Rhema Word is meeting at 3 p.m. Sundays at Steeple Chase, 7016 Steeple Chase Plaza.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

On gratitude

I'm awake - I didn't want to get out of bed because it was warm. I'm walking. I had food in the fridge. I grumbled because we were asked to be at work early this morning, but I have a job. I even like my job. My parents (who are still married) are coming into town today. They'll take my fiance and I out to dinner tonight. My fiance is wonderful - he changes my tires, makes me laugh, controls his temper when he's irritated with me.

In other words, I have more to be thankful for than I could ever put in one blog post. Between my birthday (today) and Thanksgiving (tomorrow), this is the perfect time of year for me to evaluate and be conscious of all those blessings that have come to me through no effort of my own.

But the real question is how do we cultivate that attitude everyday? All world religions endorse thankfulness and even scientists are saying its good for our mental and physical health. So what do you do to keep Thanksgiving part of your everyday life?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thanksgiving outreach

Christian Scientists are using the thanksgiving holiday as a way to remind us to thank God for our many blessings. The church sent me (and I'm assuming a bunch of other folks) a booklet with Thanksgiving Scriptures and readings from "Science and Health," written by the denominations founder, Mary Baker Eddy.

The Biblical passages are perfect for the holiday:

"Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done." (1 Chron. 16:8)

"Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." (1 Thess. 5:16-18)

"Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations." (Psalm 100:4-5)

It also included an invitation to the church's Thanksgiving services which will be held at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the church, 3424 Line Ave., Shreveport.

Here are a few other Thanksgiving services that have crossed my desk:
Cathedral of St. John Berchmans, 939 Jordan St., Shreveport: 9 a.m. Thursday.
Church of the Living God, 1634 Alma St., Shreveport: 10 a.m. Thursday.
Egypt Hill Missionary Baptist Church, 2617 Old Plain Dealing Road, Plain Dealing: 9 a.m. Thursday.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bishop watch: Military edition

To all you Catholics at Barksdale AFB, you have a new bishop. This just in from the Vatican:

Pope Benedict XVI appointed "Archbishop Timothy Paul Broglio, apostolic nuncio to the Dominican Republic and apostolic delegate to Puerto Rico, as military ordinary for the United States of America."

The 55-year-old is originally from Cleveland and was ordained in 1977. He replaces Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, who now leads the Diocese of Baltimore.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dignity for all

Dignity of human life -- all human life -- is the cornerstone of Christian social justice philosophy. In other words, if God created people in his image then all people are deserving of some amount of respect.

I was reminded of this lesson today at Homeless Connect Operation Stand Down. Homeless folks from all over the city converged at the Municipal auditorium in hopes of finding what most of us take for granted. Vision tests, medical exams, haircuts and socks were all in high demand. I watched the guys getting their haircuts and each one smiled the instant they sat down in the chair and had someone pay a little attention to them.

Major Cherry Craddock of the Salvation Army told me a story to illustrate this idea of treating people with dignity. When she and her husband were stationed in Altus, Okla., an older gentleman would come regularly for a bag of groceries. With a smile, she would give it to him, always addressing him as "Mister." One day after getting his bag, he paused: "You know," he said "You're the only person that calls me mister."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

North Louisiana resident to lead Southern Baptists

For the first time in a while, the President of the Louisiana Baptist Convention hails from North Louisiana.

The Rev. Mike Holloway, pastor of Cook Baptist Church in Ruston, was elected yesterday to lead the state's Southern Baptists. He was nominated by the Rev. Randy Harper of Bellaire Baptist in Bossier City. Holloway's opponent was our own the Rev. Chuck Pourciau of Broadmoor Baptist.

The Baptist Message, the convention's newspaper, conducted a pretty good pre-election interview with Holloway, asking about his theology and goals for the conference. He also addressed the issues of declining numbers of baptisms in the convention.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Gangster faith

Last week, I picked the "Bee Movie," so this week my fiance picked "American Gangster." It looked like a good story, although probably filled with unnecessary sex and violence. I was pleasantly surprised. Oh, it's violent and has its share of nudity, but it wasn't gratuitous.

What stuck with me more was the strange paradox of faith and life. The movie - set in the late '60s and early '70s - is a classic good cop chasing bad guy kind of deal. The cop has a completely dysfunctional personal life. He's in and out of court battling custody of his son while sleeping with his lawyer. But he's lauded as one of the only honest cops in North Jersey.

On the other hand is Frank Lucas, one of Harlem's most notorious drug lords. He managed to connect with a heroin producer in Southeast Asia, and through military connections smuggled the drugs back to the states. Without the middleman, he could sell better quality stuff for cheaper. He was unashamed about the lives that were destroyed because of his "business." But he still took his mama to church every Sunday. His family appeared healthy and whole. And there was a brilliant scene where his family's festive holiday dinner is interspersed with images of a young woman overdosing on his brand of heroin.

It's an different take on hypocrisy and the contradictions that infuse our own lives. If y'all have seen the movie share your thoughts...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Deck the halls or burn the tree?

It's Nov. 7, red and green decorations have already taken over the stores and holiday bazaars are appearing in the paper's religion calendar.

Also appearing are several women's events to help curb the stress that can come with this time of year. I wrote briefs for three different workshops or speakers today. This is the first year I've noticed this much attention being paid to holiday stress by local churches. Are we really that consumed by too much holiday fluff?

Looking at my life (and I don't even have kids) probably so. Work has already blown into full-fledged holiday mode for me. And I know I've already started shopping with gifts in mind, making travel plans, and filling in the calendar with holiday parties. Another couple of weeks of this, and I can see the potential for wanting to burn down the tree.

What do you do to regain some of the fun and spirituality that Christmas is supposed to bring us?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Clarification from the steeple people

A couple of weeks ago my story about churches meeting in distinctly non-church buildings ran with the headline "Here's the church, where's the steeple?" Well, this apparently upset the steeple manufacturers of the world, who sent me an e-mail. I admit that I laughed at first, but the guy had an interesting point: these new, trendy churches, eventually have a need to be established.

From David England, vice president of sales/marketing for Campellsville Industries: "We find after these churches are established and grow to a sustainable size, they begin to acquire traditional church symbols (such as a steeple or cross) to establish themselves as a church. Many find that their lack of a steeple or cross sometimes leaves them unnoticed in the community, as one pastor who telephoned us said: 'People have been asking if we are an office building or a school, and yesterday someone asked if we were a Pizza Hut.' He was calling to inquire about a steeple for his church."

So what do you think? Does a church need to look like a church?

Friday, November 02, 2007

Non-gift gifts

November and Decembers are quite possibly the most difficult months to be a religion reporter. Just as churches are pulling out all the stops for the celebration of Christmas, religion writers are expected to do the same. I have an idea that could be my best Christmas story yet, but I need some help.

Here's the concept: a series of stories about gifts you could give that don't involve tangible objects. I'm thinking about things like a genuine apology or gratitude. What do you think? And what would you add to the list?

From dairy farm to stadiums

Billy Graham did make it to our North Carolina itinerary last weekend. Just west of downtown Charlotte, a new library and museum dedicated to the evangelist sits in the woods in a gated compound. It's open to the public and the gate guard was very friendly, but I thought it was kind of odd to have to stop and check in before entering.

The major part of the library is in a barn shaped building with a huge window cross. Visitors enter to be greeted by Bessie the talking cow, who tells you a little about "Billy Frank's" childhood on a dairy farm. From there each group is shuffled through a series of rooms with video presentations about different parts of the Graham ministry.

Video of Graham's preaching is prevalent, giving visitors a real first hand glimpse into what he's all about. And for those us of who are younger, you can hear the power and conviction in his preaching from younger days. More interesting to me were the cases with artifacts from his career. They included Bibles he made notes in, letters from people around the world (including presidents) and various awards.

No trip to anything Graham related would be complete with out and opportunity for salvation at the end. The tour truly does give all the credit to God for talents he gave Graham, and spends time recognizing all of the support people who made the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association what it is. So it made sense at the end to continue his tradition and allow people time to speak with a counselor and pray.

Outside you can visit the grave of Ruth Bell Graham, the wife of the evangelist, who died earlier this year. An entire room of the exibit is devoted to her, a daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China who obviously had a great sense of humor. Notice the inscription on her headstone: "End of construction. Thank you for your patience."
It's hard not to be in awe of Graham and what he's accomplished, but I have an even greater respect for him after visiting the museum. I even bought a book about his leadership style (to be shared whenever I get to read it). I know this has been said before, but I was most impressed by how he was able to keep his message simple but powerful. He didn't ignore sin or the need to repent, but he didn't water it down or make Christianity soft either. If you're in Charlotte it's definitely worth the trip.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Honoring all the saints

Happy All Saints Day! Catholic school children around the diocese are no doubt dressed as their favorite saints (and St. George is probably out there beating St. Catherine with his sword on the way into Mass), to celebrate this feast of all those who have gone before us in faith.

I know it's more of a Catholic feast, but I think everyone can learn from the general theme here. It's not just about recognizing those canonized saints, but everyone who has lived their faith and shared it with the people around them before going on to their eternal reward.

Who would you remember as someone who helped shape your faith?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Revival in the streets

I love hearing these words on my voice mail: "We had a drug dealer accept Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior and we're going to get him in a church on Sunday."

Evangelist Melvin Slack called to update me on the "Get Out of Here Satan" revival he's holding at the corner of Booker T. Washington Avenue and Kelsey Street in the MLK neighborhood. His theme almost says it all. He wanted to bring the Good News to that neighborhood, which is too often full of bad news. So he has set up his tent on the street corner and has held services the last couple of nights. It sounds like he's making some progress.

It started Sunday, and he said neighbors were a little hesitant at first. But Monday he "had a whole tent full." He had one man stop by, who heard the service from several blocks away. Attendance is probably helped by the fact that they are feeding people each night.

Services will continue at 6 p.m. today and Wednesday. Today Chaplain Robert Whitaker will preach with choirs from Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church and Jewel Street Missionary Baptist Church. Tomorrow, Slack will preach and Paradise Baptist Church will join the other choirs.

Slack plans to continue the street revivals, with his next one planned for Nov. 11 to 16 at the corner of Fredrick and Alabama in Queensborough.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Hoping to visit Billy

I'm not slacking this time. I'll be off for the next few days visiting my soon-to-be in-laws in North Carolina. While we're there, I'm hoping to drag my fiance into the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. If so, I'll have a full report.

Have a great weekend. Plenty of local churches are having their Fall Festivals this weekend (see Friday's Times for details), so there's lots to do!

Anonymous ministry

A woman carrying three giant bags of stuffed animals came into Schumpert yesterday looking for Sr. Sharon Rambin.

Sr. Sharon works with Sutton Children's Hospital and the woman wanted to make sure the toys got to the children. She's a retired schoolteacher who lives on Toledo Bend and takes it upon herself to bring some light to the children at the hospital.

I didn't ask permission to write about her, so I don't want to use her name, but I was touched by her dedication and enthusiasm. She and Sister laughed a the goofy Halloween toys particularly - Mickey Mouse and Garfield dressed as Dracula. Then the lady left. She felt no need to make a big production out of it. She just did what she could do to help.

I know all kinds of these people exist - please share them in the comments or e-mail me (

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Healing light

Even after their deaths, Drs. Alice and Joe Holoubek will continue offering comfort to the patients at Christus Schumpert Health Center.

Two stained glass windows that were part of their personal chapel were dedicated at the St. Mary Place hospital this morning. Family, friends and hospital employees gathered for prayer and remembrance in the admitting area where the windows now have a permanent home.

Although it was cloudy outside, the beauty of the windows in the admitting room shone. Bronze tinted background glass adds warmth to the space, where so many people wait for sad news. Each one features four panels with symbols of faith, marriage and medicine.

"These were the guiding principles of my parents' life," said Martha Fitzgerald, daughter of the well-known physicians.

The Holoubeks served the Shreveport community for years as doctors and ministers in their own right. They were devout Catholics, who attended Mass daily and gave presentations about the physiological aspects of the crucifixion. Particularly later in life, Fitzgerald said their home chapel was a place of peace and refuge for them.

Dr. Joe worked with his daughter-in-law Stephanie Coffman Holoubek to design the windows, and she made them. She was amazed to see them in the hospital, where they could catch even more sun.

"They have found their true home," she said.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Extra from the General Superintendent

An Assemblies of God church is usually a good bet for some good preaching, and the General Superintendent of the denomination did not disappoint Sunday when he visited Central Assembly of God in Haughton. The Rev. George Wood is also a lawyer, so his preaching style was fairly measured with a good bit of scholarly exposition. But being a Pentecostal, he knows how emotions play into developing faith, so he told several moving stories of conversion and redemption.

After the service Wood was kind enough to answer a few questions about his goals for the denomination, since he was just installed as its leader two weeks ago. Here's a few responses that I couldn't fit in the paper:

"One of my goals is investing in the next generation. Of the 2.8 million members, 1.1 million are under the age of 25. This whole matter of transmission of faith is important. We have 60,000 high school seniors - how can we retain them while reaching others?"

And he challenged churches to break outside of their walls to serve the community. He spent three hours on Saturday with a boxcutter working for a local mission project in Missouri.

"The church must get in the street and show the love of Christ. The non-Christian world gets tired of Christians telling them how to behave. We need to use words, but we earn that by our deeds."

Baptisms in the denomination are down slightly from 10 years ago, although attendance and membership is up about 2 percent -- a fact Wood put as "nothing to brag about."

"That's one reason I want to plant new churches. It's the most effective way to grow."

The 66-year-old pastor also mentioned a few of his firsts. He is the first son of missionaries, the first lawyer to be elected general superintendent.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A week of observations

Sorry I've been absent for the last week. It hasn't been lack of topics, just lack of time. Election season always keeps us hopping, whether we normally cover politics or not. So here are a few thoughts I meant to get to and didn't...

* The Louisiana Prison Chapel Foundation has released a CD of gospel songs recorded by inmates at Angola. Unfortunately, the sampler they sent me was corrupted but I trust it's some pretty good stuff, and the money all goes to build chapels at prisons throughout the State. Visit to purchase one or learn more about it.

* Starbucks pastors - this is my new category of preachers. It's made up of those folks with brand new churches, or churches without traditional buildings who have no office to call their own. So we've had our interviews at Starbucks. More than that though - they see Starbucks as a model for how to spread the message of Jesus - interesting stuff.

* Night to Honor Israel - last week's Christian/Jewish event was pretty impressive. Shreveport Community Church was nearly full and the music and preaching was inspiring. Not everyone buys the message though. I heard from a Rabbi who is very skeptical of the movement. Rabbi Samuel Stahl of a reform congregation in San Antonio said the efforts can often be bigotted about Muslims and he can't shake the fact the many of these Evangelicals expect him to convert at the Second Coming of Christ. Local folks all seemed on board, but it's something to think about.

I'll be working much of the weekend with the election and the visit from the president of the Assemblies of God - I should have stuff from him to post Sunday or Monday. And then I'll try to be better about my routine.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Great ghosts!

You haven't disappointed me so far. A few of you have been brave enough to send in your own stories of strange supernatural occurances, and they've been great. I've got strange smells, opening and closing doors and sounds -- all unexplainable. And no, I don't think you're crazy.

Also interesting is everyone that has told me their stories says they are Christians, and they're trying to make sense of their experience and what they've been taught about death.

I could still use a few more to flesh out the story. Please send me your tales of mystery and I'll put them together for a piece in a couple of weeks. My e-mail is

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Honoring Israel

Christians will sing Hebrew melodies. Jews will pray in a church while charismatic Christians raise their arms in worship. A representative of the Israeli consulate and an internationally known Evangelical pastor will speak.

Tonight's A Night to Honor Israel event promises to be a fascinating blend of cultures as Evangelical Christians and Jews come together to pray for the preservation of the state of Israel. The movement started with the Rev. John Hagee, pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and the keynote speaker for today's event. He takes the idea to show support for Israel from several Scripture verses, particularly Genesis 12:3: "And I will bless them that bless thee and curse him that curseth thee; and in thee shall all nations of the earth be blessed." The "thee" refers to Abraham and his descendants (which I might mention also includes Muslims).

Last years event was fascinating on a cultural level and was a pretty exciting worship service. If you're interested in attending, here are the details:

A Night to Honor Israel
7 p.m. Oct. 9
Shreveport Community Church, 5720 Buncombe Road, Shreveport

I'll have a full report in tomorrow's paper Times and probably some more details here on the blog.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Prayers for the four-legged ones

Times photographer Val Horvath got some great shots of the annual Blessing of the Animals at Church of the Holy Cross, Episcopal, this weekend. It is done at churches around the country in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is Oct. 4. I've never been to a blessing (my cat needs something more along the lines of an exorcism to be normal), but it always brings out the animal lovers looking for an extra dose of protection for their four-legged friends.

St. Francis is one of Catholicism's most popular saints, often pictured surrounded by animals. And there are some great stories of him communicating with animals, even one where he stopped a wolf from attacking people in a village. Because of those associations (whether true or legendary), he became the patron saint of animals.

I find interesting that he's one of the few inter-denominational saints. His humility and his calling to "Build up my house" has also been taken as a model by Protestant churches. I received an e-mail last week about a new book, "Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale," by the Rev. Ian Morgan Cron, founder of non-denominational Trinity Church in Greenwich, Conn. And I've heard plenty of people refer to his famous quote: "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words." Sounds like a model for anyone's spirituality.

Photo: Lucy, my cat in need of many prayers. Do you think St. Francis could have stopped her from destroying my furniture?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Supernatural encounters? Please share!

Call them ghosts, spirits, angels or demons, it seems like everyone has a story of some sort of encounter with the supernatural.

At the weekend's conference, author Christine Wicker told a story about her father. As a child, one of his neighborhood children died mysteriously and was buried on a hill near his home. One day while playing outside, he saw some figures wearing what he thought were choir robes around the grave. When he asked his mother about them, she said no one was there.

On a spookier level, we also heard from Guillermo Fuentes of San Antonio Paranormal Investigations. He had all kinds of stories about lights turning on and off, mysterious balls of light and objects moving for no apparent reason.

So that got me thinking - what are your supernatural experiences? Please e-mail me at with your story and your name (I promise you aren't the only one) and I'll work them into a story for later in the month.

Megachurch vocabulary

Megachurches make up only one half of 1 percent of all churches, but they have a huge influence on the culture and ministerial approach of modern churches. So I was intrigued by some new vocabulary I heard over the weekend in a panel about megachurches. We heard from a minister at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio (where prominent author Max Lucado is pastor) and Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas. And here are some of their words:

Inspotainment - inspirational entertainment. Friendship West is building a huge complex where they can host movies, theater and activities for family.

Communicator - formerly known as a preacher.

Pastor of Assimilation - that staff member in charge of making sure new members find a place in the church beyond their favorite pew.

By the way, the commonly accepted definition of a megachurch is a Protestant church that attracts more than 2,000 people to Sunday services. There's more to it than that, but that's a pretty good start.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Kind of funny, but really sad

What would you do in Roy Peter Clark's case?

From a writing standpoint, this is a really wonderful little essay. I just hate what it says about the state of the church or many other institutions, for that matter.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Bishop watch from a very good source

One of the highlights of the RNA conference was a panel featuring Rocco Palmo, author of the Whispers in the Loggia blog. I've referred to him before, but Palmo is a 20-something from Philadelphia who has somehow managed to befriend of all kinds of higher ups in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. They tell him all sorts of news and he tells the rest of us.

Professional religion journalists approached him with a little awe and fascination and a slight undertone of jealousy. As Michael Paulson, Pulitzer-prize winning reporter from the Boston Globe, put it: "Rocco, who are you?" After the panel, I introduced myself, especially since I talked to Palmo around the time Shreveport Bishop William Friend retired. Palmo was a very gracious young man, who does love his church.

I also had a few seconds to pick his brain about recent bishop appointments. The good news is he said the time between retirements and appointments is getting shorter. As well, Palmo said the Papal Nuncio, Pietro Sambi (who is sort of the gatekeeper in the process - he sends the nominations to Rome so the Pope can pick a new bishop) is adamant about getting bishops who are pastors as well as administrators. In other words, he doesn't want guys who spent six months in a church and the rest of their careers locked up in the diocesan offices.

The bad news is we probably still have to wait for an appointment in Little Rock before Shreveport becomes a priority.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Back and refreshed

I admit I was feeling pretty burnt out before I left for San Antonio last week. But I'm back! I had a chance to reconnect with colleagues, take stock of our industry, and remind myself why I do what I do. And I've got several good story ideas, which y'all will see trickling out over the next few months. My blogs for this week will also probably reflect what I heard...

The weekend reminded me of the importance of retreats whether for your spiritual, personal or professional life. Modern society moves so fast and we're under constant pressure to move forward. Too often, we forget to step off the path and remind ourselves where we're going.

How do you handle burnt out?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Eschatology, ghosts and forgiveness

No one could ever say the Religion Newswriters are single-minded. We've talked about a little bit of everything in today's sessions. Some of them will make great stories for when I return. Others will make good blog items. And still others are just short observations that I share now.

* Many people believe in or claim to have experiences with ghosts or the paranormal. But many of those same people are church goers with beliefs in heaven and hell. How are the two things reconciled?

* In a panel on the end times, Darrell Bock of the Dallas Theological Seminary argued that the strange images in the book of Revelation is not the first century author trying to make sense of 21st century life. Instead he said the book uses standard images and symbols of the time. Of course, Jesus could return at any time so we should be ready. More on the eschatology panel later - fascinating stuff....

* A counselor who specializes in forgiveness said forgiveness can only be achieved after someone has grieved - it is rarely an automatic response. It comes from a place where we realize we no longer want to be part of the hurt.

* And I'm coming home with a stack of books. All of them look fascinating if you're interested: "Mormon America" by Dick and Joan Ostling; "Faith in the Halls of Power" by Michael Lindsay; "Jesus Freaks" by Don Lattin and "Not in Kansas Anymore" by Christine Wicker

Opening thoughts

Thursday was a truncated daty of sessions and a great welcome speech fromt he archbishop of San Antonio. He reminded us that the story of faith is the story of America. He also said what we do as religion reporters is needed in today's materialistic world. He said something along the lines of "you remind people that there is more to life than buying things."

I know I needed that reminder of why what I do is important, so it was good to hear.

I'm about to head down to hear from a professor at Rice University and then we have a session later on ghosts and spiritualism -- fun stuff. I'll report back as I can.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Upcoming stuff

If you read any other religion reporter blogs, they'll probably look strikingly similar over the next few days. We will all be meeting in San Antonio for the annual Religion Newswriters Association Convention.

I can't wait. It's a great time to catch up with other folks int he industry and get some great story ideas. This year's agenda includes discussions of eschatology, growing Hispanic churches and some preview of next years election.

As things strike me, I'll try to post. And I'm sure I'll return with some great ideas for the paper.

The Supper quilt

Apparently a quilted version of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" will be on display at the Red River Quilter's show this weekend. The show will be held 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday at Riverview Hall.

Sounds very impressive - I'll hate to miss it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Religion on the campaign trail

State races don't necessarily attract all of the religious values talk of national races. But you will hear occasional comments that actually seem to reflect what the candidates really believe because it's part of their language. The only candidates I can speak for are those I've written about and covered: House of Representatives in districts 8 and 9 and gubernatorial candidate Walter Boasso.

In House 9, both candidates are Catholic - a pretty rare thing for the district which includes much of rural Bossier Parish. Richey Jackson told me that he feels God is leading him to run for office and that every night he prays for the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, piety, fear of the Lord, and fortitude. His opponent, Henry Burns carries God with him in his personal motto: "Give God the credit and put feet to your prayers."

The House 8 candidates mentioned their churches, but not really anything substantial.

When I do these sort of stories, I like to ask people what they're reading. Candidate Walter Boasso took a minute - he said he doesn't have much time to read now. But the last book he read was the ever popular: Purpose Driven Life and he also mentioned enjoying a book I had not heard of, "Deer Hunting with Jesus," which is really about class struggles in rural America.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Shreveport's own martyrs

This fall marks the 134th anniversary of the terrible Yellow Fever epidemic that swept through Shreveport infecting more than 2500 and killing 759 people.

Among those killed were five Catholic priests who ministered to the sick at Holy Trinity Catholic Church. Monsignor Earl Provenza, now pastor of the church in Downtown Shreveport paid tribute to them in his Masses this weekend. One of the dead, Fr. Pierre, was the first pastor of the church. A couple of the other priests came from out of town against the advice of others, but they felt a stronger call by God to be here for the people.

Here's a clip from a diary entry written by the Rev. Joseph Gentille, the second pastor of the church:

(Father Pierre's) young Assistant, Father Isidore Queremais, who was laboring under the dreadful disease Consumption, was the first to pay his tribute to the epidemic. On the 15th of September he died. Father Pierre followed his assistant on the 16th of September. His death was a public calamity. He was beloved and esteemed by all.

Death was not yet satisfied. Father Biler, Chaplain to the Sisters at St. Vincent's, stood alone on the ramparts....

Rev. L. Gergaud parish priest of Monroe arrived in time to assist poor Father Biler who on the 26th of September answered the call of the Savior and received the reward of his Christian charity and heroism. Father Gergaud ministered to the wants of the plague stricken on by four days. Yellow fever struck him dead on the 1st of October 1873.

Father F. LeVezouet came from Natchitoches in time to assist and console dear Father Gergaud. Out of five one was yet standing animated, worn and he fell, but before falling had entreated Most Rev. Bishop Perche of N.O. (New Orleans) to send help and assistance. He fought the dreadful disease until he himself could be anointed. Then he breathed his last Oct. 8th, 1973.

The five priests are immortalized in stained glass and in portraits in the
church. Provenza told me no one has ever taken up their cause for sainthood, but it sounds like a worthy one to me. What better example of Christian charity than to serve regardless of the cost?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Allendale renewal

Off and on all week, I'll be out in Allendale checking on the progress of this years Millard and Linda Fuller Blitz Build. Relying on volunteer labor, the second annual event will build nine new houses and refurbish five in the neighborhood.

Perhaps most remarkable is that these 300+ volunteers have come from all over the country with their churches and other groups to work. If you want to see more about the work and the people that will live there, check out The Good Work, a blog that photographer Shane Bevel put together (and I have contributed to).

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Happy Ramadan!

The new moon also brought the first day of fasting for Muslims today.

For 30 days, they will abstain from food or drink during daylight hours. It's a difficult fast, but one they believe will be rewarded for.

Fasting has become a more popular devotion among people of all faiths. What do you think about the practice and what benefits can be gained?

To all of our Muslim readers, I wish you a blessed month.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Happy New Year!

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown today.

My story, which runs tomorrow, looks at the demographics and the future of the Jewish community in Shreveport. It was a hard, sad story to write. The Jewish congregations are vital, spiritual places and members are active in the wider community, and I wanted to make that clear. In fact, I was floored when I heard there are only 400 Jews in Shreveport - I knew it was a small group, but I didn't think it was that small. But the reality of the numbers means they might not be able to maintain their facilities and structures for very long. Read it - let me know what you think could be done.

With that said, the story doesn't discuss the particulars of the holiday very much, so I thought I would add some of that here. Rosh Hashanah begins 10 days of reflection and repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement on Sept. 22. They are explicitly mentioned in the Bible (Leviticus 23:23-32) and are the most important holidays in the calendar. The period is commonly referred to as the High Holy Days.

The holiday begins festively, with apples and honey being one of the preferred foods to symbolize a sweet New Year. Services are characterized by the blowing of the shofar, or rams horn. The shofar calls to mind the Kingship of God and his eventual judgement of people.

To all my Jewish friends, I wish you many blessings.
Photo: Rabbi Foster Kawaler, of Congregation Agudath Achim, blows a shofar. Times file photo

Monday, September 10, 2007

Truth, freedom and very slow justice

In the Gospel of John, Jesus said: "the truth will set you free." He did not warn that this could take 20 years.

Herbert Whitlock, of Paris, Ill., was convicted of a murder he did not commit in 1987. This weekend, he finally has reason to hope that he might see the outside of a prison cell and get to play with his grandson. Why do I care about this and what does it have to do with faith?

To make a long story short, as a college senior in 1999-2000, I enrolled in an Investigative Journalism class. Our professor, David Protess, was known for taking on cases of people who had been wrongfully convicted and were waiting to die either in prison or at the hands of the state. Several of those men have been released. He gave my team the case of Whitlock and Randy Steidl, who supposedly killed newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads in the small town of Paris, Ill., about 200 miles south of Chicago. The two were stabbed more than 25 times each supposedly because of a drug deal gone bad.

The case had numerous holes in it then and our nine months of investigation only confirmed them and brought up a few new ones. We saw problems at all levels of the system: ineffective counsel, shoddy police work, and overzealous prosecutors (and that's being nice). Unfortunately, none of it led to the real killers, and while we helped bring some attention to the case with the help of CBS's 48 Hours and Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, we graduated without any real justice for Herb and Randy.

I've prayed for them over the years and three years ago we did have reason to celebrate. Randy was released. The appeals courts finally saw the shoddy evidence that managed to convict him and sent the case back for retrial. At that point the prosecutors realized it had no evidence to to retry him, dropped the case and set him free. Since the two men had separate legal counsel and ended up on different tracks in the system, Herb languished.

That brings us to last week, when the 4th District Illinois Appellate Court granted a new trial for 61-year-old Herb! The court cited ineffective counsel and the fact that the state had not shared all evidence with the defense. All of the evidence they mention was available long before we ever started looking at the case seven years ago.

When I got the news from my professor, I was in shock. Our system of democracy requires a lot of faith - not in God, but in the system -- and I think all of us involved in this case were beginning to lose ours. Nothing seemed to be working even when it was obvious to anyone looking at the facts that a grievous wrong had taken place here. In fact, we're still a little hesitant to get too excited. I'm trying to trust in a higher authority now, that truth will prevail for Herb and he will soon walk free.

Sadly, it still leaves us with a gap in justice. Dyke and Karen Rhoads have been dead for 21 years, and the state seems to be no closer to finding their killer than they were in July 1986.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Orthodox rising

Visiting St. George Greek Orthodox Church is a full sensory worship experience.

Incense hangs heavy in the air filling your nostrils and clouding your eyes. Icons with pictures of saints and scenes from the Bible remind you of the purpose of this place and engage your mind with their stories. Congregational prayers and chants delight the ears and elicit response from the parishioners. Gestures and postures (crossing oneself, bowing, standing, kneeling) keep the body active and connected with the rhythm of worship.

It's easy to see why people have fallen in love with the worship, and the church has doubled in size in three years. My reporting led me to some fascinating folks, who have really prayed and studied to find this new church home. Jason Foster had even made a career out of their Southern Baptist faith.

Converting to Orthodoxy meant he and his wife had to ask themselves some hard questions and grapple with issues of salvation theology, Mary, the saints, the Eucharist. That's not easy stuff to understand, and it was compounded with negative reactions from some friends who just didn't understand. "They think we worship Mary and worship icons," Ashley said. Of course, neither of those things is true, and they're hard to explain if people don't want to hear it.

The Fosters stay confident because they have studied. They are also thankful for their Protestant upbringing and its high view of Scripture that has informed their belief. Talking to them made me wonder if I would be willing to face that kind of criticism for my faith.

Have you ever faced those sorts of criticisms? How do you handle it?

Photo: Sunday liturgy at St. George. Shane Bevel/The Times

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Demon fiction

I finally had a chance to read Dr. Bruce Hennigan's novel, "The 13th Demon," and I was at once creeped out and impressed by the story.

It's not a book I would have normally picked up on my own, since its more in the horror/suspense realm, but since I had written about Hennigan and the novel, I wanted to see what it was all about. The book traces a man Jonathan Steel, who has severe amnesia but a great sense of faith. He goes on a quest to fight a particular demon.

When we talked, Hennigan said he had a hard time getting the book published because it was too Christian for secular publishers and too dark for Christian publishers. I can certainly see the dilemma. The story is not always pretty and simple, like you might think of Christian fiction. Hennigan's descriptions of the demonic are frighteningly graphic, but appropriate to the story. He also deals with the many ways we are tempted. One of his goals was to convince people of the real, physical presence of demons and angels in the world, and I think he made a very good case.

It's a great story and well written, so I would encourage any adult to read it. Hennigan promises a whole series around the character of Jonathan Steel, and I look forward to the next one. If you have read the book, please share your thoughts...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Religion on vacation

Sorry I bailed last week. Things got to be a little nuts around here and then I left town Thursday to see some from friends in the DC/Baltimore area. And of course no vacation is complete without a few religious insights. Unfortunately, technical and security issues prevented me from taking pictures, but here are some thoughts...

When my friend Tom lived here, we frequently attended daily Mass together, so when I visited him in DC the pattern continued, but on a slightly more extravagant level. Thursday, we toured the John Paul II Museum and then wandered down to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, just in time for Mass. The building is beautiful and that day's service was celebrated in the crypt chapel, in the basement. The ceiling was low and everyone participated so it felt like a big crowd but in an intimate setting.

Tom is now a Pentagon employee, so Friday he gave his fiancee and myself an unofficial tour, ending at the site of the 9/11 attack. A memorial is there now with the names of the deceased and a chapel was built as a place of silence and worship. At the front of the room is a stained glass window with pictures of an eagle and the building and the words: "United in Memory September, 11, 2001." It truly feels like hallowed ground, knowing that so many people died in the floors above in service to their country. Mass is held there daily, and it was comforting to see men and women come in uniform to take that time out of their day to pray.

Both services reminded me that God is everywhere - we just have to look for him.

Monday, August 27, 2007

From Louisiana, with love

After years of sending money and prayers, a group of members from several Louisiana Methodist Churches made a mission trip to First United Methodist Church of Ekaterinburg, Russia, in June. Broadmoor UMC Director of Communications Angela Cason made the trip and wrote about it for the church newsletter:

"The group spent several days in Ekaterinburg leading Vacation Bible School and doing yard work and minor repairs around the church, including painting and repairing cracks in the walls, but the true success of this mission is the relationship-building that takes place with not only members of the church, including Pastors Olga Kotsuba and Tatyana Tomakh, but also with people in the community.

Whether visiting an orphanage for children with special needs or helping the church distribute food packages to shut-in members of the church, the group assisted those of First UMC of Ekaterinburg spread the love of Christ.

'God is in this church, and the love just spreads out wherever we go,' said Carole Boudreaux, of Asbury UMC in Lafayette.

Visiting one of the church’s pensioners, the group brought the elderly lady what most Americans would consider to be the barest of necessities. Inside her cramped apartment, the woman sat on the couch and wept, making the sign of the cross with every small item she was presented – small bags of rice and sugar, cooking oil, packets of tea, laundry soap, along with a piece of fruit and a small chocolate bar for treats. For this woman on a fixed income, there were not enough words to thank the mission team. Likewise, the missioners had a hard time describing the blessing of this visit."

Here are some of Cason's pictures from the trip:

Carole Boudreaux (right), of Asbury United Methodist Church in Lafayette, visits with a shut-in member of First United Methodist in Ekaterinburg, Russia. The mission team, along with the pastors of the church, delivered food items and other necessities to pensioners with low, fixed incomes.

(right) Sharon Dubard, of Sweet Gum United Methodist Church in Lake Charles, visits with a boy at an orphanage for children with special needs in Ekaterinburg, Russia.

(left) Members of the congregation at First United Methodist Church in Ekaterinburg, Russia visit with each other before the start of worship service on June 17.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Mega-church camp

More than 500 young people descended on Grambling State University in July for the annual North Louisiana Youth Encampment led by the Rev. Benjamin Blake. I've heard about the camp for years, and this year they sent me a little recap of the week - it sounds like a pretty amazing experience for the kids.

The youth came from places as far as Port Arthur, Texas for the weeklong event. They lived int eh dorms and studied Scripture, attended worship and crafted their own talents to serve God. Various speakers, including the Rev. Fred Lowery of First Baptist - Bossier, hoped to inspire and motivate the young people. A final talent show with a mass choir, praise dancers, drama and gymnastics to celebrate Blake's 80th birthday.

A number of young people also committed their lives to Christ by the end of the week. "The praise that went up in the name of Jesus was extraordinary," the release said.

Sabbath Correction

The ultimate hazard of religion reporting is confusing various theologies. I did that in post about Rabbi Jana's installation, and she kindly corrected me and now I'll pass it on to you:

In the song opening the Sabbath, the image is the congregation as the groom and the Sabbath is the bride, eagerly awaited by the faithful. "Traditionally, we even stand during the last verse, turn toward the door, and imagine the bride entering the room, like in a wedding," she said.

Catholic theology flips that around, seeing the church as the bride of Christ, so I mixed it up. Sorry! It's a pretty cool image either way.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

God and CNN

CNN's Christiane Amanpour has put together a three night series of stories titled "God's Warriors." Each one focussed on devout members of a different religion: Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

According to the press release: "Amanpour reports that during the last 30 years, each faith has exploded into a powerful political force, comprised of followers – “God's warriors” – who share a deep dissatisfaction with modern society, and a fierce determination to place God and religion back into daily life and to the seats of power."

They sent me advance copies of the documentary, and it was pretty fascinating. I watched the piece on Christianity and Judaism, because the militant arms of those traditions are sometimes overlooked. The piece on Christianity is particularly noteworthy because it includes the last interview with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. She does a decent job of walking the fine line between portraying her subjects as more devout than most without making them seem crazy. She also confronts people with criticisms of their movements, and everyone gets a chance to explain themselves.

If anyone out there watches, let me know what you think. It airs at 8 p.m. today, Wednesday and Thursday.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Post-installation thoughts

Rabbi Jana De Benedetti put together a beautiful service for her installation as rabbi of B'nai Zion. Here's a few details I noticed but couldn't work into the story:

* During the installation prayer, De Benedetti stood under a prayer shawl, which was held up like a chuppah, which is usually used during weddings. The chuppah symbolizes the home that a couple will build together. During the installation, De Benedetti saw a spiritual home being built for the congregation.

* The prayer shawl itself had tree branches on it and the Hebrew inscription "It is a tree of life." The "it" referred to Torah (to Jews, the law; to Christians, the first five books of the Old Testament). Since Torah is actually a feminine noun, De Benedetti said the inscription could also be translated: "She's the tree of life."

* The phrase also reminded her that God gave us choices, but if we keep to God's law, it gives us life.

* As they began the standard Sabbath service piece of the evening, candles were lit and a beautiful prayer was sung welcoming the Sabbath. "We welcome Shabbat as if we were the bride and Shabbat was the groom." Shouldn't we all look forward to worship that way?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Time to fire up those hurricane prayers

According to the 1 p.m. forecast, Dean looks like its getting stronger. We're not in the "cone" right now, but he's got a long way to go and anything could happen. I figure we're better off praying it just miraculously dwindles on its own instead of praying it hits someone else...

Here's one of the prayers I found earlier in the season:

Father, all the elements of nature obey your command. Calm the storms and hurricanes that threaten us and turn our fear of your power into praise of your goodness. Amen.

Crossing military and religious lines

Another of my favorite people, Dr. Don Webb -- Welsh gentleman, Methodist minister, former president of Centenary College and former officer in the British Navy -- sent me a wonderful anecdote the other day.

This week is the 60th anniversary of Pakistan's independence. The nuclear power and its government's relationship to Islamic fundamentalists has been giving our government and presidential candidates some amount of heartburn. But Webb has a different take: "Surely we've an opportunity to reach out across religious and political lines, to rejoice with them? My own early experience with Pakistanis was enlighteningly positive -- and enabled me, much later in life, to relate contentedly and constructively with local Muslims."

In 1947, Webb was a mine sweeping officer in the British Royal Navy. While his ship was being repaired, the Navy gave him a bit of a break assigned him as a liaison officer to a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Onslaught, which was a gift to the Pakistan Navy. He was to help train the Pakistanis on the ins and outs of their new ship, and spent several months in the English Channel and North Sea.

"It turned out, I was the only non-Muslim -- the only pink-skin! -- aboard: talk about differences! But we’d no time for them. We needed to become a good crew. So we did that.

The ship’s Gunner was Lt. Khan. We became friends -- and soon, so close that our differences of color and religion became obscured in our affection. I was accepted by officers and crew as a shipmate: life aboard Tugril was happy and effective. Then, Tugril went back to Pakistan, I back to mine sweeping…"
Photo: Dr. Webb from Times archives

Thursday, August 16, 2007

High Holy Days of Elvis

Elvis died before I was born, so to me he's always been more of an icon of cultural history than a superstar attracting throngs of screaming girls.

I learned otherwise, when I spent a summer in Memphis. It was 1999, the summer before my senior year of college, and I was an intern in the features department at the Commercial Appeal.

Toward the end of July, my editors started handing out assignments for "Elvis Week," the week around the anniversary of his death. My story was a look at Elvis on the web, where I found a number of wacky fan sites and the First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine. It's a spoof, but it got me thinking about the devotion of Elvis fans, who maintain a sort of adoration usually reserved for saints or other bona fide religious figures.

On the night of Aug. 15, at the urging of co-workers, my friends and I wandered down to Elvis Presley Boulevard to the annual candlelight vigil, and were amazed, bewildered and kind of weirded out by what we saw.

The blocks in front of Graceland were closed off. In the street, adoring fans had established shrines, with candles surrounding pictures of the deceased King. Elvii (we decided that was the plural of Elvis impersonators) mingled with the crowd. A somber, silent line of people snaked up the driveway of the mansion toward Elvis's grave. It was all so bizarre, we had to get in line.

Lining the driveway were big flowered wreaths, like the kind usually seen at funerals. They came from all over the world: from New Jersey to Brazil. As we approached the grave, the grief was real. Middle-aged ladies still cried as if he had died two days ago, not 22 years. They left flowers and teddy bears. We didn't quite know what to do, so we stopped and tried to look appropriately mournful.

The vigil went on all night, and does every year. Last night's 30th anniversary attracted more than 50,000 people, who made this pilgrimage to honor their hero. The candles, the tone, the pilgrimage, the emotion -- without a doubt it was the most religious, non-religious event I have ever attended.

Plenty of folks smarter than me have studied this phenomenon of celebrity worship, but it make me wonder why? Why do we cling to dead celebrities, and how do we choose which ones get this sort of treatment?
Photo: Since my pictures were pre-digital, here's one from the AP. Paulette Stone of Jackson, Mo., lights candles at a street shrine to Elvis Presley on Elvis Presley Blvd. in front of Graceland during the vigil marking the 30th anniversary of his death. Presley died Aug. 16, 1977. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Purple bracelets, day 3 (again)

Today's paper carries the whole story of the purple bracelets and the Complaint Free World idea. In today's world, where sarcasm and cynicism have become the norm, I think anything we can do to encourage positive thinking is a good thing.

And I'm still struggling along with my own experiment. I have certainly learned to pay more attention to what I'm saying, and I guess that's the first step. The next is actually implementing that censor.

Several people have asked me where to get the bracelets, and you can go to the link above and order them for free.

So what do y'all think? Is it a worthwhile experiment or unrealistic?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Even the eggplant will cry out?!

My new favorite God-in-nature sighting: an eggplant from Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

See for yourself...

Thanks to the Bible Belt Blogger for this one.

Pagan Pride Day grows

This year's Pagan Pride Day will have a bit of a somber tone, as the community remembers remember Ken VanLieu, an active member who died this year.

His wife, Trixie Davis, an organizer of the event said he always dreamed of having a Pagan event for Shreveport-Bossier City. He attended several events selling silver jewelry that he made, and he wanted a similar event here to better educate the public about Paganism.

VanLieu would probably be pleased. About 500 people are expected to attend this years event to be held this weekend. Davis particularly encouraged non-Pagans to come and learn and correct any misconceptions they might have.

Several speakers will address various aspects of the religion. And they also hope to highlight the family side of the religion with a baby blessing ceremony on Saturday.

The event will be held from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, 9449 Ellerbe Road, Shreveport.