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.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Purple bracelets, day 3!

Yes, I have been wearing the bracelet for nearly a week, and I've finally made it to Day 3 (and even that is with some creative rationalizing on my part).

This no complaining thing is difficult, especially when people around you are complaining. I've had to really be careful to bite my tongue or find the silver lining. Other times, I just end up chiming in and switching my bracelet.

Now, we'll see if I can get to Day 4...

Monday, August 13, 2007

You know you love them

Maybe you've even been inspired by them - church signs. Beliefnet has a whole gallery of usually funny and sometimes poignant signs from around the country.

I drive by Shreve City Baptist Church on a regular basis, and they usually have something out front that makes me smile on their sign. My favorite was a couple of years ago, when the brick mounting for the sign was damaged. (I can't remember if someone ran into it or what) But the new board still proudly proclaimed: "Sign broke. Message inside."

Congratulations Rabbi Jana

Sometimes in this business, it's hard to be completely objective, especially when you get to know really cool people. Rabbi Jana De Benedetti is one of those people. I've talked to her off and on over the years about all things Jewish, and she's a wonderful apologist for her faith. She's super smart and has a rich but simple spirituality, which she summarized by saying "I see God all the time, and God answers questions all the time."

Last month she was finally ordained a Rabbi, the culmination of a life long dream and the subject of Sunday's living front. She sent me a few pictures from the actual ordination in New York:

The class sat in sort of a circle and, each member of the class lit a candle on a menorah.

With the candle lit, each covered their head for a moment of silent prayer. The head rabbi then approached and laid hands on the seminarian and anointed them with oil, which Rabbi Jana said was an unexpected symbol.

Since she speaks Italian, Rabbi Jana was chosen to translate for her Italian classmate, who was chosen by the class to speak at the ordination. "It was very intense and very wonderful," she said of the experience.

Friday she will officially be installed as the rabbi at B'nai Zion.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Sunday best?

It's hot outside, and that often brings about short skirts and plunging tops even in church. One local pastor mentioned clothing in his bulletin this week (I'll leave out the name because I'm sure he's not the only one with this concern).

He handled it very well. This is one of those sticky issues - do you want to risk offending people or is it more important to set some sort of expectation? He made it clear that he doesn't really care how formal or informal people dress for church, and if a "lost" person comes to visit, he figures they may not know better. But for believers, he says there is a line:

"When dresses are too high or blouses too low, I believe our Lord is dishonored... When there is writing or drawings on our clothing that advertise or in some manner endorse anything that displeases our Lord, I believe he is dishonored."

He just asked folks to think about what they wear, and ask if they think God would approve.

So what do you think? Should the issue of dress be discussed by pastors? And in our informal culture, what is the line?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Liftoff to chills

Lucky me, I happened to get home last night just in time to catch the Space Shuttle Endeavor's launch. The news switched to live coverage, and at 10 seconds to launch they had an up close shot of the sparks firing before the steam started billowing around the rocket, and finally they were off.

A perfect arc of steam and smoke followed them as the shuttle climbed higher and the sky around it got darker. It gave me chills.

I mean, how insane is it to strap yourself to this giant rocket and go to a place clearly not meant for human habitation? Yet, how inspiring. That's why it's appearing here on the Faith blog. Watching the astronauts hurtle into outer space is one of those moments in the course of our secular lives that causes anyone paying attention to pause, to rally around a common goal, and to remember how truly small we are in comparison to all creation.

Photo: Folks in Cocoa Beach, Fla., stand to take pictures and watch the launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour Wednesday. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Purple bracelet, Day 1

Purple, rubber bracelets have become the latest fad in popular religion. Inscribed with the words "A complaint free world," the theory is that the wearer pledges not to complain for 21 days. If they do complain, then they have to switch the bracelet to the other arm and start over.

I'm working on a story about a local church trying it, so I don't want to give to much away. But I also decided to try this trend for myself. My boyfriend has already laughed at me, doubtful that this will work. But that just gives me more encouragement - I really don't want to be the girlfriend that complains all the time!

So here are the definitions/rules I set for myself:

* Complaints are any whining or unnecessary criticism of another person, thing or institution, especially if I have no control over it.

* Honest evaluations or constructive criticism are OK, as long as I don't dwell on the negative. For instance, I'm going to do a restaurant review soon, and I'll have to be honest if the pasta is overcooked, but I don't have to whine about it.

* Only spoken or written complaints count.

* When I catch myself or someone else mentions it, I'll switch wrists.

So far, I've switched it once this morning. Let me know if you've tried something similar and what sort of results you're having!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Fundraising facts

Some interesting numbers came out of a meeting with the United Way of Northwest Louisiana yesterday. We met to talk about a survey of perceived needs in the community. They know what the actual needs are but they wanted to see what the people of the area were most concerned about. Part of this year's marketing strategy will be showing how those concerns are addressed by United Way agencies.

As we talked some interesting numbers came up:
* In 1987, the local United Way raised $3.4 million.
* Last year it raised just over $3 million.
* Both Monroe and Lake Charles United Ways expect to raise more than $4 million this year.
* Their best estimate is that 15,000 to 18,000 people in the 10-parish area contribute to the United Way.
* About 400 people give a total of more than $700,000.
* Caddo and Bossier Parishes have more than 300 social service nonprofits. Only about 30 receive money from the United Way.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Take that Goliath!

Christian toy company One2Believe is releasing a series of Bible hero toys that will be carried by Wal-Marts around the country (including the one on Airline Drive in Bossier and on Bert Kouns in Shreveport).

The toys range from talking dolls that tell their own stories, small figurine sets like David and Goliath, and bigger action figure dolls "that boys will love to play with." The press release touts them as a way to teach children their faith and hopefully turn them into faithful teenagers.

They look pretty cool. I admit I wonder if its a bit too familiar. But I suppose I'd rather have my kids playing with Samson and Esther than figurines instead of some of those terrible things that pass for cartoons these days.

I can almost guarantee I'll see some of them on the auction block at the upcoming Religion Newswriters Association conference next month. We're always looking for quirky religion based items for the silent auction.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Jubilee celebrations

Sorry, this e-mail got a little buried but several Catholic priests with links to Shreveport celebrated big anniversaries last weekend. They are all Jesuits and members of the congregation based in New Orleans.

The Revs. Edward P. Buvens and Hacker J. Fagot celebrated 50 years. And the Rev. Norman B. O’Neal celebrated 60 years.

Fagot and Buvens were among the priests from Ignatius Residence in New Orleans who evacuated to Shreveport following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The folks at Christus Schumpert found room for them in the Bossier hospital and one afternoon they shared stories and memories of living and working here. Many were teachers at St. John High School (now Loyola College Prep).

"We all loved St. John's," Fagot told me. "We're all a little sorry we're not still there."

They were a very funny group of men, always picking on each other and laughing, which was particularly startling to me considering the somber tone of most of those days after the storm.

Here's a little more about the men:

Fagot did his regency (a sort of internship after ordination) at St. John from 1952-54. He taught psychology for years, and then served as retreat director at the Manresa House of Retreats in Convent, from 1994 to 2005.

Buvens was born in 1934 in Montreal, Canada, and attended high school at St. John High School in Shreveport. he went on to spent his active ministry in health care and social work in Houston and New Orleans.

O'Neal is a native Shreveporter, who was baptized at the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans, attended Sacred Heart Cathedral School and St. John High School there. He spent his career as a high school teacher in Tampa, Fla., and at Jesuit in New Orleans.

Photo: The Revs. Herve Racivitch, Charles O'Neill, Ed Buvens and Thomas Culley sit down for lunch at Christus Schumpert Bossier. About 25 of the Jesuit priests were evacuated from New Orleans and are living at the hospital. Robert Ruiz/The Times. 09/14/05.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Re-educating the masses

What would you call someone who believes Jesus was born of a virgin, ascended into heaven and will return on Judgement Day?

A Christian? Yes, but you could also call him or her a Muslim.

These similarities are part of the reason Abderazak Benyahia was so dismayed at the graffiti that defaced the outside walls of the Islamic Association of Arabi Tuesday. A little, white house on Youree Drive, the mosque is usually quiet except at prayer times, when the members -- among them doctors, business owners and engineers -- gather to share in worship of God.

To Benyahia, a former Algerian diplomat, the incident is a way to teach people about Islam. He has seen war, chose to leave his homeland in part to find peace. "I prefer to explain my cause."
He is also adamant that Islam does not endorse violence of any kind, and that according to the Quran, killing one man is like killing all of humanity.

He reminded me that Christians and Muslims look to the same set of holy men for inspiration: Abraham, Moses, Jesus. They add Muhammad, who they see as just a man who was particularly blessed to be the messenger of God.

Thankfully, he said he has never experienced any direct threats or intimidation because of his faith. I believe folks here are mostly good people, who have a great deal of respect for anyone's faith. I hope more of them step forward after this incident.