Wednesday, January 31, 2007

One house at a time

First United Methodist of Shreveport is the most recent church to commit to building a home in Allendale for the Fuller Center Building on Higher Ground project. Over the course of 12 Saturdays (and just Saturdays), with a total of about 220 volunteers, they expect to work through framing, sheetrocking, painting and landscaping a home.

While that might not sound as impressive as building a house in a week - it sounds like a great model for a local church and local volunteers. I'm sure they could use anyone's help. Any other church who wants to get involved might want to ask how they're doing it.

Street ethics

The biannual survey of homeless individuals in Northwest Louisiana doesn't sound like an exciting story, but it's one of the most interesting ones I get to write. The outreach workers truly exemplify what it means to recognize every person's dignity. And the homeless folks are some of the most resourceful people you will ever meet, despite their addictions and issues.

We could all probably learn something from Danny Hopkins, a man who lives in a camp off of Jewella Avenue. He is content with what he has, asking little of the system. His only income comes from the aluminum cans he collects. When he meets other homeless individuals, he shares what he has. He lives near a store and often walks the carts left in the parking lot back to the front. The employees have offered to pay him something for the service, but he declines, instead considering it a neighborly thing to do. His ready smile has made him friends who look after him.

"One of the reasons I'm blessed is because I give freely from the heart," he said.
Times photo by Mike Silva

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What do you see?

Some people collect stamps or Elvis memorabilia - I collect apparitions. Around my cubicle at work, I have pictures of trees, a turtle and even a Funyun which contain unusual shapes that might resemble Mary or Jesus.

So, how excited was I when my editor passed on our own local version! This one isn't quite the Virgin Mary but these clouds over Grawood Baptist Church in Keithville do seem to form some otherworldly shape. I'll let you make up your mind about what it is...

Monday, January 29, 2007

Battlefield of faith

Today's story about a family Bible is one of the best stories about practical, real faith I've heard in a while (I only hope I did it justice). Three generations of men have taken this Bible to battle. Three of the four men I talked to were all very honest is saying they weren't terribly religious when they left for war.

Sr. Airman Jermey Vickers of Haughton took it most recently to Iraq. I asked him about his religious background and he got a little embarrassed.

He was raised in church, but like many people, he slipped out of the habit when he left home. He joined the Marines, which "was not built around religion." When his turn to go to war approached he said he thought about going back to church but didn't.

"I guess I was too ashamed to go back," he said. "Just because I didn't go (to church) didn't mean I didn't believe."

What he saw in Iraq changed his mind and he and his family have since joined First Baptist Church of Haughton. He admits he still struggles on Sundays, but it would be hard to question his faith.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Weekend at church

With apologies to my co-worker's In Shreveport blog, some of Saturday's best bets for entertainment seem to be church related:

Yoga Day - All Souls Unitarian, 9449 Ellerbe Road, is hosting Yoga Day with free classes in varying styles offered all day. For the full schedule, click here.

Squeaky Clean Comedy Night - First Baptist Shreveport is hosting Bone Hampton (see today's Preview cover story) and their very own Jinny Henson, wife of the church's associate pastor. I've interviewed Henson, and she's fantastic -- very real and very funny. That's at 7 p.m. at the church, 543 Ockley Drive.

Drums of Thunder - a ministry from Waskom, Texas has put together a concert with the Christian/Native American group Broken Walls at 7 p.m. at the Municipal Auditorium. See their Website for more details.

If anyone attends any of the events - let me know what you think. My weekend is still flexible, but if I make it to one of the events, I'll let you know how it went.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

No need to wait

Although he didn't directly phrase it as such, Dr. Phillip Rozeman issued a challenge to the rest of us in accepting an award from the United Way of Northwest Louisiana today. The cardiologist has founded a practice, an education foundation and led the medical services provided by the Red Cross during last year's hurricanes. He is also a member of the Committee of 100, Broadmoor Baptist Church, the LSU-Shreveport Foundation, and others.

Just his example seems to leave no room for the rest of us who say we don't have any time to get involved in the community. In his thank you remarks, he used two quotes that take that challenge further.
First from the gospel of Luke: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."
Then he quoted a young girl who also seemed to have every excuse not to think of the outside world - Anne Frank.

While the Jewish girl hid from the Nazi's during World War II, she wrote: "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Happy Feast Day to me!

I almost forgot. Today is the feast of the Catholic saint Francis de Sales, who was also named the patron saint of journalists.

A priest during the late 16th and early 17th century, Francis set out to evangelize the people of Switzerland. After running to resistance when he knocked on doors, he started writing out pamphlets and slipping them under the doors -- the first religious tracts! He was later named bishop of Geneva, where Francis encouraged spiritual devotion and holiness in everyday working people.

The feast was mentioned in a special message from Pope Benedict XVI with some strong word for those of us in the media industry: "I appeal to the leaders of the media industry to educate and encourage producers to safeguard the common good, to uphold the truth, to protect individual human dignity and promote respect for the needs of the family."

Looking for a break?

First United Methodist Church in downtown Shreveport will be hosting their first midweek lunch and service today for the business community. They promise a short service to provide a break from often cutthroat business world and renewal for the journey. If you're interested, it will be at noon in the multimedia room of the church's new Education building.

I'll have my story about the event posted on The Times website by mid-afternoon, and if there's extra inspiration that doesn't fit in the story, you can find it here.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Interfaith exploration

I should warn y'all that my next few months of blogs could be filled with lots of "Did you know?" trivia. For my masters program, I'm taking Church History, and just because I've always been curious I'm enrolled in a six-week Hebrew class at B'nai Zion Congregation. Both are full of lots of interesting tidbits.

The Hebrew class is an introductory course that teaches the language by using the first chapter of the book of Genesis and the Ten Commandments. Regardless of the material, the make up of the group is interesting itself. For our first class, instructor Dr. Jana De Benedetti (also the spiritual leader of B'nai Zion), surveyed the room and declared that she was the only Jew in the room -- no one contradicted her. As well, most of the group are lay people.

Pretty cool. Good for Shreveport that we're willing to cross those religious lines and learn from each other. And good for the faithful who want to embrace the original language of their holy text and make it their own.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Faith in the Saints

Sports always seems to draw a form of religious devotion, and it seems to be even more magnified when your team is the Saints.

The coverage of yesterday's NFC championship game, included plenty of references to faith and destiny. In one of The Times forums, a poster asked if it was OK to pray for a football team? Commentators talked about how this team united a city. I was particularly fascinated by the subtle idea in many discussions that the cosmos owed New Orleans some bit of happiness after Hurricane Katrina.

By now, we know how those prayers were answered, and Saints fans get to employ another spiritual virtues for next year: hope.
Photo by Greg Pearson/The Times

Friday, January 19, 2007

Questions about Faith #1

This first question comes in a round about sort of way. My friend Tom mentioned my blog on his, with a question about all the symbols in the banner of this blog. So I figured I could at least explain that. Honestly, I was kind of surprised at the explanation for some.

From left to right:

Hindu "Om" - said to be the primordial sound that is said to represent God.

Jewish Star of David - It use as a symbol of Judaism began in the Middle Ages and it said to represent the shield of King David, though little proof of that can be found.

Buddhist Dharmachakra - literally means "the wheel of transformation" representing the eight-fold path of the Buddha

Christian cross - represents the method in which Jesus was killed.

Taoist Taijitu - illustrates the concept of yin and yang, that two opposing but complementary forces are found in all natural things.

Muslim Star and Crescent - While its association has little to do with Islamic theology, its use by the Ottoman empire has linked the star and crescent with Islam.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sad news

One of the most faith- and joy-filled people whom I had the pleasure of interviewing recently, died last night. Johnny Ray Davis, 29, was part of my Christmas story about families who bought their first homes through the Building on Higher Ground project in Allendale.

Johnny Ray met me at the door with a huge smile. He was excited about the home and even more excited that he was recently baptized a Christian. In August, he got sick and lost the use of his legs during a four month hospital stay. But that couldn't crush his spirit. "I don't need nothing but my life and God," he said.


A Google search for "prayer" turns up 84 million hits. And I heard recently that a good percentage of people online are looking for religious-related material.

So, at the suggestion of a friend I thought I would start a periodic link feature. We'll start with prayer. I'll list a few sites that I've found, and if you have particular Web sites that you find helpful/interesting, please add them to the comments box.

Beliefnet prayer circles - You'll probably see me refer to Beliefnet regularly. It's on my list of daily Web sites to check and includes something for people of all faiths. But they also have a huge number of prayer circles for particular needs. Join in or add your own request.

Sacred Space - A group of Irish Jesuits run this site. Their daily prayer leads you through a 10-minute scripture reflection.

World Prayers - A collection of prayers from all sorts of traditions. Spin the prayer wheel and you'll never know what you'll find.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Signs of life

I looked back at the last couple of New Orleans posts and they sound a lot more depressing than I really felt - especially compared to my April trip. Signs of life and sheer New Orleanian determination are everywhere. To close out the trip, here's a few observations:

* Volunteerism continues. 50 of us went down from my church to help rebuild. We replaced a group of more than 20. At least two other churches from Shreveport were in town the same weekend.

* True faith abounds. Many of these folks have been let down by every institution they trusted, but they sang their hearts out in Mass: "Come my here, my Lord." I cried.

* Three babies were baptized in church Sunday morning.

* When the pastor asked how many people planned to return to their homes in the next month, several hands went up.

* A car displayed THREE bumper stickers: "I (heart) St. Bernard"

* The attitudes of people have shifted from shock and despair to perseverance and hope.

* St. Gabriel (the church where we stayed) had raised $1.3 million toward rebuilding its church campus -- without asking the parishioners for any money.

* Church volunteers were working on more rebuilding projects than demolition.

* Trash is being picked up.

* Everyone who went on the trip will continue to talk about the experience. In the words of Sunday's Old Testament reading: "For Zion’s sake I will not be silent,for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her vindication shines forth like the dawn and her victory like a burning torch." (Isaiah 62:1)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Emptiness and renewal

Concrete piers stand as gravestones to the houses they once supported and the lives once lived around them in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

Eight months ago, crumpled houses filled the lots of the neighborhood. Since then the bulldozers have been through removing houses that had no chance of repair. A few piles of lumber are left -- we cynically speculated they are there for the tourists. Visitors were left with a clear view of the new levee holding back the waters of the Industrial Canal.

In a strange way, the empty lots sprouting green grass spoke of a possibility for renewal. It was time to clear out the old and oppressive remains of Katrina's destruction.

One family seemed to take hold of that idea. In the middle of this empty space, stood two FEMA trailers defying anyone who would say the land should be a strip mall, housing project, or anything other than they neighborhood they loved.

One house at a time

I've never met Lawrence Winnier. But I know he owns a home in the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood of New Orleans, where he's lived with is wife of more than 50 years. He's an amateur photographer and faithful Catholic. He volunteers at Tulane University's hospital. His wife liked decorating with the color pink. He shops at Wal-Mart and reads the newspaper. And like many of us Louisianians he had a box of Mardi Gras beads that he couldn't bring himself to throw away. He has great faith in people.

I learned all those things this weekend when I and a dozen other complete strangers threw away the contents of his home - from bed sheets to sheet rock. Hurricane Katrina brought 6-8 feet of water into the middle-class neighborhood, and he hasn't been able to afford the $3,000 to pay someone to gut it. His children have both passed away. So like many people in New Orleans he counted on the compassion of church groups to do it.

That shared faith in each other and God seems to be one of the few things working in New Orleans.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Heading south

I know I just started this blog, but I'm taking the next few days off for a mission trip with my church to New Orleans. So I should have plenty to add on Monday night or Tuesday.

The trip should be fantastic. I was there in April with Broadmoor Baptist and was trully amazed. The destruction just defies language. Here's some of what I saw:

The first photo is from St. Bernard Parish and the second is from the Lower 9th Ward. We can only pray that some things have changed.

I know several other churches are also taking advantage of the long weekend to do some mission work there as well. I'd love to hear your stories when you return!

Faith with risks

In my story today about Michael Harrelson, I described just one of the risks he has taken in his spiritual journey. He and his wife are also one of the only white members of Steeplechase Baptist Church, an active church in West Shreveport.

They were afraid at first that the members wouldn't welcome them, but they felt such a kinship with the pastor, the Rev. Greg Kirby, that they knew God wanted them there. Rev. Kirby put it well.

"They are very genuine in their Christian faith, and they are not hindered by many of the barriers that so many confessing Christians seemed to be hindered by. Even the simple fact that they are members of our church. There are many anglo churches that would have welcomed them. For them to be at our church, suggests that they are not hung up on many of the traditions or norms (of society)."

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Goodbye to a Friend

I meant to go to Bishop William Friend's farewell Mass on Monday as just another member of the faithful. But too many things struck me to leave them all in my head.

Young and old, black and white, people packed the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans. All of the "important" people were there - priests, sisters, even the mayor. But the vast majority were just normal, faithful Catholics who wanted to honor their leader one more time. It was a powerful testament to his 27 years here.

As Bishop Friend stepped up to the altar and turned to look at the congregation, he was obviously touched. His voice shook as he assessed the crowd thanking them and saying "it is a gift." He talked little about himself, but focused on the reading of the day, which was the baptism of Jesus as told by Luke. He encouraged the people to continue their work of justice, ecumenism and evangelization. In the style that endeared him to so many, he made big ideas simple: "God loves you beyond measure. He invites you to love him. He invites you to love each other."

With that this crowd of everyday people gave him a standing ovation. While one could argue that bishops are supposed to have profound things to say, the people are certainly not obligated to react like this.


One of the things I love about my job as religion reporter is getting to hear the stories of how all of you live out your faith -- whatever that might be -- on a daily basis. Unfortunately, a lot of those stories don't always make it in the paper for a variety of reasons. Here are a few of the topics I hope to explore in this forum:

* Stories of faith – Short anecdotes from people I meet on the beat who are doing extra because of their beliefs. In interviews, I also frequently hear anecdotes about survival or revelation that people attribute to God and those could find a home here.

* Experiences of faith – As a religion reporter, I get to visit religious services in traditions that a lot of people never see. I hope to elaborate on those experiences in ways that stories don’t necessarily allow. As well, I see a lot of religion in movies, books and pop culture that could be mentioned.

* Questions of faith – this is the “ask the reporter” section. Lots of you have good questions about why Baptists do this or what Muslims believe about that. I may not have the answers, but I know people who do. I'll be happy to find them.

As always, I love to hear what's on your mind. Comment often, or if you want e-mail me at

Nearly every religion teaches that God is present everywhere. Together, let's find out if that's true.