Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Team Ethan

The pictures of the St. Jude patients along the way are what got me through the St. Jude Memphis Half Marathon last December. Who knew that a few months later I would be writing about and everyone in town would be talking about a new patient?

Ethan Powell, an infant leukemia patient from Shreveport, will have his own teams at this year's race. One group will do the 5K and another will do the Half Marathon (13.1 miles). With four months to go, y'all have plenty of time to train for the half. It's a well run race, and you can't beat the cause. If you want to learn more about Team Ethan, here's the link to the MySpace page.

And to paraphrase Ben's dad, prayer works for running!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Providence House making families

We all know about Providence House's work in restoring homeless families. Well, they also help create families.

A few weeks ago, the transitional homeless shelter received a phone call from Kelly, a mother in Delhi who had nowhere to go with her baby and boyfriend. Only married couples are admitted at Providence House, but the shelter still arranged to take in Kelly and the baby while James, the boyfriend, went to the Shreveport-Bossier Rescue Mission.

The situation apparently made them think and they decided to get married. The shelter staff pulled together all the pieces: dress, minister and cake and the wedding was held in the Providence House living room June 22.

Now, Kelly, James and their six month old are working their way to independence through the Providence House program.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Losing faith

Los Angeles Times religion reporter William Lobdell, is known for some truly amazing journalism. He also did plenty of those amazing stories of faith and overcoming obstacles that we religion reporters live for. He also investigated his share of sexual abuse cases in the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Trinity Broadcasting Network and the opulent lives of its founders and evangelist Benny Hinn.

Last Sunday, he published an essay describing his loss of faith and shift to a new beat. It's a raw, personal account of struggle, and as another religion reporter, its hard to read. I guess I should consider myself lucky.

What would you say to someone, say a friend, who experienced great trials in their faith and eventually lost it altogether?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Harry haze

Sorry, I've been slacking on the blog posts. It's been a busy couple of days in the office, and I've been staying up way too late to finish the Harry Potter saga. Storywise, "Deathly Hallows" was the darkest and most action-packed of the seven books. (And for those of you that haven't finished, no worries, there are no spoilers here)

From a faith/religion aspect, it's chock full of morals and values upheld by most religions. Love, community, commitment, mercy, and a willingness to stand up for what you believe are all critical components of our hero. A Christian idea of self-sacrifice takes center stage toward the end as Harry and his friends fight the dark wizards.

On a deeper level, Harry and friends spend a lot of time considering death and what it means to conquer death. There's also a spiritually fascinating thematic line about the connection between body and soul. As you may know from the sixth book, when a mind/body commits grave evil, the author suggests it has dire consequences for the soul. In this book, the possibility of redemption and justice is explained.

For those of you who have read it, what religious themes do you see? And for those that haven't, I highly recommend it for anyone say 11 or 12 and over.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Behind the veil

I stood and spoke with Sarah Zitterman for several minutes Wednesday night, and I have no idea what she looks like.

All I could tell for sure is she has fair skin and blue eyes that crinkle when she smiles, and she's about 5'6". Her nails might be painted bright red or her figure might reveal that she's had two children or she might have great legs. But all of that was hidden under a flowing gray dress and black veil.

The observant Muslim woman came to speak to the class I've been taking. By her own choice, she covers her entire body aside from her eyes when in the presence of men she is not related to. It forces you to notice that she's very smart and a wonderful advocate for her faith.

As part of her presentation, she talked about it, and said it was one of the first things she loved about Islam before she converted. "It means (the wearer) is protected. She is not judged by what she looks like." In our super-sexualized world that's actually pretty appealing.

I have to admit I was fascinated. Although I have visited the local mosques several times and I even have a scarf to cover my hair when I go, none of the women I have met cover their faces. To see it in person, in this country, surprised me and brought both the silly and sincere questions to mind. Was it hot or annoying? Is it strange to talk through? Why is it necessary to take the requirements for modesty that far?

But her first half-sad, half-funny story about the veil reminded us all not leap to judgements. On numerous occasions, she has been in Wal-Mart only to hear people right behind her talking about her and her clothing because they assume she doesn't speak English. She grew up in California.

"On good days, I turn and say 'May I answer some questions for you?' And on bad days, I don't say anything - hopefully."

Changes at St. Mark's

A bishop will be coming to Shreveport's Episcopal Community as the interim dean (pastor) of St. Mark's Cathedral. He will begin Aug. 19 to take the place of the retired Rev. M.L. Agnew until at least the end of the year.

According to the church bulletin, Bishop Gethin Hughes, 64, was born to a faithful family with a love of the ministry. His father was a minister and his two brothers are also priests.

He studied at Exeter University and Wycliffe Hall Theological College in England, and Seabury-Western Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He returned to Wales for ordination and service in a suburban parish.

In 1969, with his bride and new daughter Hughes and his family settled in his wife's hometown of Los Angeles. Over the next two decades he worked his way up the ranks of the church while serving various parishes in Southern California.

He was elected the third bishop of the Diocese of San Diego in 1991. In his 14 years there, he served 53 congregations and opened new ministries particularly for the Hispanic community. Church attendance increased 30 percent during his tenure and he established ecumenical and interfaith relationships with other religious communities.

For the national church he is on the Board of The Anglican Digest, and since 1997 has been Chair of the Episcopal Church Building Fund.

He retired in 2005 and moved to Buellton, Calif., with wife, Lenore.

Welcome to Shreveport Bishop Hughes!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Painting God

Truly otherworldly talent:


I wish the story would have talked a little more about her faith journey - its great she believes in God, but what does that belief mean to her? And what about her mother, formerly and athiest? But before I go too Get Religion on you, enjoy the video...

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Save this one

Please, save Isaac Ain's obituary from today's paper - especially if you have children. Ain, a local Holocaust survivor who died over the weekend, didn't talk about his experiences very often. I can't imagine the pain that the memories must have brought to his mind. But to me, that was more reason to make sure it made it in the paper one more time.

The stories of the Holocaust are most often seen as haunting, horrible tales of inhumanity. They are also stories of great triumph and faith.

Sadly, we're losing the first hand accounts of those stories everyday as survivors die -- luckily of old age. And the experiences are much more compelling coming from their mouths. We can't afford to forget what happened, and we must keep telling these stories to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Monday, July 16, 2007

In the jungle

Mission trips always make great stories. Unfortunately, local churches tend to go on too many cool ones for the amount of space we have. Luckily, the blogosphere has no such restrictions. So here's a particularly impressive tale from Baptist Tabernacle Church:

Nine people went to the jungles of Brazil, where a missionary sponsored by the church ministers to people in the city of Manaus and also to villages accessible only by the Amazon River. The group helped organize a church in the mid-sized city of Urucara, near Manaus and then spent two days traveling the river on the Millers houseboat bringing medicine and Bibles to people in the villages.

In each village they held a Kids' Club in the afternoon and a service for adults in the evening.
"We gave out 200 gift bags, dispensed medicine and gave out Bibles to people that have never owned a copy of God’s Word," said the Rev. Mike Landry, pastor.

They shared some pictures with me:

Children in the village of Urucara. They were starting to look through their goodie bags brought by the missionaries.

What it's all about: children look through their new Bibles. According to Landry, the people of the villages have little or no religion at all. Brazil in general is largely Roman Catholic.

The Millers' houseboat, anchored on the river near one of the villages. The Shreveport group lived there for two days sleeping on hammocks and spreading the gospel.

A man rowed his canoe out to the missionaries so he could traded oranges for a Bible. "It meant so much to him to have a copy of his very own of God’s Word."

Shreveporter Jonathan Lindsey with an anaconda. I'm trusting he had some extra prayers. I don't think the folks at Baptist Tabernacle are usually snake handlers.

Lessons from Hogwarts

Faith and the religious community has been part of the Harry Potter series since it became wildly popular about 10 years ago. Early on, many churches protested since it centers around a boy wizard. That uproar died down as folks started to examine it as a parable or fairy tale centered around the battle between good and evil, or pure love and selfishness.

As I watched the latest movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, some other subtle themes seemed to rise to the surface.

* Truth - The story is set around the conflict between Harry and others who believe the evil wizard Voldemort has returned and those who are still in denial. Despite some amount of physical and emotional pain because of his knowledge, Harry doesn't give up on the truth.

* Community - I love this particular story because it so parallels teenage development. Harry is now about 16 and like many teenagers, he is convinced the world revolves around him. And of course, no one else understands what he's going through. But he has to realize that he can't do it alone. Friends and mentors -- community -- are necessary to become the person he is supposed to be.

If you're looking for some other faith angles, try Beliefnet or the Dallas Morning News blogs.
I have a feeling the conclusion of the series, to be released in book form on Saturday, will have even more religious overtones. I'll let you know when I finish it...

Friday, July 13, 2007

Everyone's issue

Roxann Johnson, CEO of the YWCA, shared an alarming anecdote with me yesterday. On more than one occasion she has approached local pastors asking for support of the shelter for domestic violence victims operated by the organization. They have not exactly blown her off, but they have referred her to the church's women's ministry to get what she needs.

Excuse me? If men are the ones are beating their wives, isn't that a men's issue?

So she was thrilled to see about 100 people, many of them male pastors, attending a training session yesterday to teach faith based organizations about domestic violence and how they can help victims in their churches. And as one minister said, the abusers need prayer and ministry too. It's not a pleasant issue, but it does affect people from all segments of society.

Minister Charlie Davis, of Red Chute Church of Christ and organizer of the event, put it well: "That's what the church should be talking about -- things that aren't comfortable."

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Local boy makes priest

A former Shreveporter and son of the former Times editor has been ordained a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Fort Worth. You can see a story about the Rev. Raymond McDaniel Jr. and his journey from First Baptist Church to St. Patrick's in Fort Worth's diocesan magazine.

'Go and do likewise'

After talking to friends and church members, I wish I had met Mr. Waller, who gave his life while trying to help a neighbor.

"He was always smiling, always happy, always waving," friend Terri Gilmer said. "He just taught you how to love no matter what."

Mr. Waller was a faithful church member, and I think he would be pleased if we read a little Scripture in his memory. In his honor, here's the story of the Good Samaritan from the Gospel of Luke:

(A lawyer) asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply, Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper.

'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Public sin

The news about U.S. Sen. David Vitter and the "DC Madam" has brought up one of my favorite moral theology questions. When is a sin just a weakness and when is it hypocrisy?

Every religion agrees that people should strive for perfection but will ultimately fail. So does that make us all hypocrites or are we just weak -- and we all have our own weaknesses?

UPDATE: One of my favorite blogs, Get Religion, has looked at the question a little more in depth. Let me know what you think...

Mission time

Broadmoor Baptist just returned from its annual mission to Cordoba, Mexico, where they work with the Mexican-Indian Training Center. Part-time photographer and church member Chesley Roberts went and documented the trip in this photo gallery.

Please check it out. The church choir went, so the missionaries were able to serve people physically in a medical clinic and spiritually through some massive revival services. I hear it was absolutely tremendous.

Monday, July 09, 2007

New meaning to committment

My job leads me to some truly remarkable people. Robert and Thelma Tobin certainly rank up there with some of my favorites.

Next week they will celebrate their 76th wedding anniversary and I wrote about it for today's paper. Lots of people don't even live that long, but they are happy and healthy and look at each other probably the same way they did in 1931. Despite their trials, my guess is part of the reason they succeeded is because divorce just simply wasn't an option. They committed themselves to the relationship and that was that - no more discussion needed.

I also asked them about divorce rates today. Mr. Tobin agreed it was problem. "It leaves the community on shaky ground. When you have stout families, you have stout communities."

We can all learn something from their example.

A geranium in your hat

I'm not sure Barbara Johnson was ever a speaker in the Women of Faith tour when it came through Shreveport, but I'm sure her humor influenced the tour for years to come.

She died last week and the PR folks are just releasing her obituary. Here's a piece:

Award-winning Christian author and Women of Faith Speaker emeritus, Barbara Johnson died July 2nd, 2007, of cancer. Diagnosed with a brain tumor in early 2001, she valiantly fought central nervous system lymphoma for six years, as well as adult onset diabetes. During her final illness, she amazed the publishing world by adding four more titles to her long list of best sellers, including a poignantly humorous book about her cancer, Plant a Geranium in Your Cranium.

Known as the “Geranium Lady” after her book Stick a Geranium in Your Hat and Be Happy, Barbara won the hearts of millions with her trademark wit and humor formed in the fire of adversity. One of Barbara’s favorite humorists to emulate was Erma Bombeck. She was also known in many literary circles as the “Christian Erma Bombeck.”

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Faith and freedom, step 2

The other day I wrote about freedom of choice and how valuable that is when it comes to religion. So the next question becomes how do we handle that freedom when confronted with people who believe differently?

Most of us come for a religion with explicit commands to spread the word and bring others to the fold. That must be balanced with a respect for those who believe differently. After all, if God doesn't force us to love him, who are we to force others into our faith?

This Christian-Muslim relations class I've been taking has examined this very issue of interreligious dialogue and how to approach it with charity and without compromising your own religious integrity. Here are some of the guidelines we discussed, some of which come from the book "Meeting Other Believers" by Cardinal Francis Arinze:

* Belief in freedom of choice so that people may practice faith according to their own conscience.

* Be knowledgeable about your own faith. Nearly all of the arguments against religious dialogue (that it would cause people to question their beliefs or lead to relativism or syncretism) can be refuted if those participating in dialogue are strong and knowledgeable about their own belief.

* Maintain a clear religious identity. Sometimes the temptation might be to downplay those elements of religion that set you apart from those you're talking to. But be firm and proud of what you believe - anyone who wants to learn about your religion would expect that. Arinze puts it well: "Christians who... would like to hide their Christian identity or at least to de-emphasize it, seem to be saying, without words, that Christ is an obstacle or embarrassment to dialogue."

* At the same time, be prepared to look at your own faith critically. I don't mean to attack your beliefs, but acknowledge those teachings that might seem difficult or contradictory to those who do not share your faith. Also realize where your tradition as an institution has failed. As a Catholic, I have to admit that the Virgin birth of Jesus is hard to grasp and that the Inquisition was probably not the finest moment in church history. But we can talk about those things constructively.

* Knowledge of the other religion. It's impossible to have truly constructive dialogue without knowing something of the other religion. If you're unclear on the basics, look them up or make that known and ask the person you're talking to before jumping to conclusions.

* Finally, perhaps most importantly, bring with you an attitude of love and respect. My job has led me to conversations with all kinds of folks who believe differently than I do, and going into those conversations with a genuine respect and curiosity has made up for all kinds of stupid questions and unintentional, but possibly insulting, remarks.

Friday, July 06, 2007

What took so long?

Any "signficant" date these days seem to bring some prophecy about the Second Coming of Christ or the apocalypse. Now 7/7/07 has it's own prophecy here. I had never heard of these folks before, so I don't know what else to say...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

He said that?

As I've watched churches grown and change in Shreveport, I have been fascinated and sometimes saddened by the lack of ethnic diversity in the vast majority of congregations.

It's especially obvious in neighborhoods that were once predominately white and are now predominately black, which led to the story in today's Times. The white churches will eventually sell to black churches -- often of the same denomination. And the black church will grow. So here, you've got folks with no theological difference but they can't seem to make it work.

In my reporting, the Rev. James Jenkins, Regional strategist for the Louisiana Baptist Convention (that's the Southern Baptists) said one of the most radical things I've ever heard on the subject of race, culture and church.

"There's no such thing as a multicultural church."

Say what? What about Word of Life Center or the Jehovah's Witness congregations or the Catholic parishes that have folks that come from different cultures? He clarified saying you can have multiethnic churches, meaning people who don't look like each other attend the same congregation. But "in any church there is one culture."

The more I thought about it, it makes sense. Jehovah's Witnesses and Catholics have a culture of their own that can -- at least for an hour on Sunday -- transcend racial divisions. Other churches tend to adopt the culture of the members. If those members come from different places, Jenkins said one group always wins.

Or maybe they can find a third way. From what I know of Word of Life, members are drawn by the pastor and charismatic worship. It's a basic message of Jesus.

So what do y'all think? Do you agree with Jenkins? How do we bring folks together to worship? Or does it even matter?

Monday, July 02, 2007

Faith and freedom

Yesterday's official readings for Catholic churches around the world focused on freedom -- particularly meaningful in this country as we gear up to celebrate Independence Day. The Old Testament reading and the gospel passages both centered around stories of people and their freedom to choose (or not) to follow God's call. And the second reading, from Galatians, tied together the ideas of freedom, service and love.

"For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love." (Gal. 5:1, 13)

Freedom and service at their face seem some how opposed to each other. If we are in service, we submit our own will to the needs of others, which contradicts the idea of freedom, right? Not when the choice to serve is made willingly and out of love. Pope Benedict XVI put it better than I ever could in a weekly address (read here for the complete text):

Luke the Evangelist tells of how Jesus, 'When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.' (Lk 9:51). In the expression 'resolutely' we can glimpse the freedom of Christ. He knows, in fact, that in Jerusalem, death by the cross awaits him, but in obedience to the will of the Father he offers himself for love. It is in this, his obedience to the Father, that Jesus fulfills his own conscious choice motivated by love.

Who is more free than the One who is Omnipotent? But it was a freedom he didn't see as arbitrary or as one of dominion. It was one he viewed as service. In the process, he "restored" what freedom means, otherwise it would remain 'empty' opportunities of doing or not doing something. And so in the life of man, freedom brings with it a sense of love.