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.