Sunday, August 29, 2010

Black Churches-- After Katrina

In New Orleans, Black Churches Face a Long, Slow Return
The New York Times, by Samuel G. Freedman

NEW ORLEANS — Five minutes past 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday this month, which is to say five minutes past the time the worship service was supposed to start, Shantell Henley pushed open the front door of her pastor’s house in the Lower Ninth Ward. She entered the living room to find a gospel song playing on the stereo, two ceiling fans stirring the sticky air and 25 folding chairs for the congregants waiting empty.

“Am I late?” she asked the pastor, the Rev. Charles W. Duplessis.

“No,” he replied, smiling. “We’re Baptists.”

His joke, though, could not dispel the truth. The problem at Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church had nothing to do with any Baptist indifference to punctuality and everything to do with Hurricane Katrina, even as its fifth anniversary on Aug. 29 approached.

Having lost his house and his church to the broken levees in the Lower Ninth, Mr. Duplessis had managed by grit and will and fathomless faith to reopen in early 2009, using his rebuilt home to replace the sanctuary he couldn’t afford to replace, the sanctuary that had stood in some grim coincidence on Flood Street.

He installed an electric piano and a computer with a projector. He collected several dozen copies of the Baptist Hymnal. He put out weekly editions of the church bulletin; he put up a lawn sign declaring, “Our Church Is Back!”

What was not back was the bulk of his congregation. Of the 120 members before Hurricane Katrina, only 40 had returned. The rest were still strewn across the map — Alabama, California, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas. And Mr. Duplessis could not in-gather the exiles, as the Bible commands, because most of the Lower Ninth remained a ruin of buckled roads, cracked foundations and swamp grass six feet high.

“It’s church — it’s serving the Lord,” Mr. Duplessis, 59, said in an interview in his house. “If I linger on what I don’t have, I can’t see what I do have.” He paused. “But I know this isn’t where God wants us to be.”

In his plight and his persistence, Mr. Duplessis represents the experience of churches, ministers and congregations throughout the Lower Ninth. While the fifth anniversary of Katrina offers much reason to celebrate New Orleans’s revival, this neighborhood that once thrived with a black working-class of homeowners and churchgoers continues to stand as a desolated disgrace.

As every level of government has failed to restore more than a fraction of former residents to habitable homes, the black churches have tried desperately to return through a combination of sacrifice, insurance and charity. And anyone with an even cursory understanding of African-American life knows that without vibrant churches, the Lower Ninth can never truly rise again.

Where about 75 churches operated before Katrina, barely a dozen have been able to reopen, according to the Rev. Willie Calhoun, a local minister who has closely tracked the process. Even among those churches that have rebuilt, what were once congregations of 150 to 200 now number in the dozens. The monthly intake of tithes and offerings, previously $20,000 or more, has fallen to the low thousands.

“You got those that are still struggling to come back,” said Mr. Calhoun, the assistant pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church, “and you got those that came back but the congregations are so small they’re struggling to keep their doors open. And without the churches, you got no community.”

East Jerusalem, for example, has only $55,000 of the $150,000 it needs to replace the church building that was destroyed when the floodwaters propelled a house into it. In an especially perverse touch, which several other congregations have faced, New Orleans officials are requiring the church to buy land for off-street parking, as if the pressing problem of the Lower Ninth is traffic gridlock.

“I remember that film — ‘build it and they will come,’ ” said the Rev. Hall Lanis Kelly Jr., 62, the pastor of East Jerusalem. “I believe in that. The Bible tells us, you plant the seed, God will do the watering. But we sure thought that in two, three years, we’d be back.”

The Rev. Michael Zacharie did get back, rebuilding Beulah Land Baptist Church for nearly $400,000 with a combination of savings, insurance money and a grant from Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief organization. On the Sunday in early 2009 when he rededicated the trim red-brick sanctuary, Mr. Zacharie preached to only 50 of the 400 pre-Katrina members. Etched in the church cornerstone were the names of four who had died in the flood.

“We were determined to come back so we could be the light shining in the darkness,” Mr. Zacharie, 54, said in a phone interview. “We want to be there for anyone that needs comfort, counseling, compassion.”

Such balm in Gilead has long been the mission of the Lower Ninth’s black churches. When Mr. Duplessis first inspected the wreckage of Mount Nebo’s building — pews tossed aside like toothpicks, chunks gone from the roof, the rear wall knocked loose — he also learned that several boats had been tied to the steeple. With 20 feet of water around, the second floor of Mount Nebo was, in more ways than one, a sanctuary.

And so he has persevered in his living room. On this particular Sunday, the faithful finally did arrive, a dozen by 10:15 a.m., nearly 25 by 10:35. Mr. Duplessis preached from the Book of Joshua, all about determination. He conducted a baby blessing. And he joined his people in singing lyrics that were almost unbearably freighted with double meaning:

“Storm clouds may rise

Strong winds may blow

But I’ll tell the world wherever I go

That I have found the Savior and he’s sweet, I know.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cult Leader Arrested In Utah

*Story spotted on “Religion News Blog”

2nd Fromberg Sect Leader Arrested

FROMBERG — A leader of a transplanted Utah religious sect accused of raping a 15-year-old girl was arrested in Wyoming Thursday after peacefully surrendering to law enforcement officials, a day after a fellow church leader was arrested at their compound near here.

Terrill Dalton, 43, was arrested on a warrant issued by authorities in Salt Lake City on two counts of first-degree rape. Dalton is the president of the Holy Ghost of the Church of the Firstborn of the General Assembly of Heaven, a group of former Mormons who fled Utah last year after federal authorities raided their headquarters.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Marshals Service went to the church’s new headquarters near Fromberg looking for Dalton and Geody Harman, who describes himself as First Counsel of the church.

Harman, 37, was arrested at the property on a Utah warrant charging him with the rape of the same 15-year-old girl. Dalton could not be found.

On Thursday at about 4:45 p.m., the Hot Springs County Sheriff’s Department arrested Dalton near Thermopolis, Wyo. Acting Montana U.S. Marshal Rod Ostermiller said he was picked up after calling authorities, telling them where he was and then surrendering.

The warrant out of Utah asked for a $250,007 bond. Dalton is being held at the Hot Springs County jail and an extradition hearing had not been set for him as of 9:30 p.m.

Harman remained Thursday in the Yellowstone County jail on a $250,007 bond. The reason for the unusual amount was not known. He has yet to make an initial appearance in court, and it is unclear if he has been assigned a public defender. Harman can challenge the warrant or agree to waive extradition proceedings and be returned voluntarily to Utah.

Dalton, who claims to be the Holy Ghost and the father of Jesus Christ, would have been arrested on the warrant if he remained in Montana, Ostermiller said.

A man came to the door Thursday at the church’s rental property at 605 Bridger-Fromberg Road surrounded by three young boys.

“We have no comment,” the man said as he ordered the boys back into the house. He declined to give his name.

A “for sale” sign has been placed on the property, which was the scene of a murder in May 2009 when a 66-year-old man shot his 43-year-old son in the back during a dispute. The sign lists Realtor Tera Reynolds as the agent.

Reynolds said Thursday that the house has been for sale for little more than a year and was placed back on the market about two months ago. The church members living on the property have a month-to-month rental agreement, Reynolds said. She declined to identify the property owners.

A neighbor, Valerie Wichman, said news of the arrest Wednesday traveled quickly. Wichman was interviewed by The Gazette in March and said then that she was concerned about her new neighbors.

“I knew eventually it was going to happen,” Wichman said Thursday of the police activity at the property the day before. “There are bad people in the world, and we have some right here.”

Wichman said she has seen numerous children and young girls on the property, and she is concerned for their welfare in light of the allegations against the church leaders.

“It’s pretty unreal that this is allowed to go on,” she said.

According to the arrest warrants, the girl told Utah authorities that sometime in 2005 or 2006 she was told by Harman and Dalton that she would be “blessed” for having sex with them.

Members of the church fled from Utah to Idaho last year after their large home was raided by federal authorities. The raid was conducted to investigate claims of child sexual abuse and assassination threats against President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush and Thomas S. Monson, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Church members began moving from Idaho to the Fromberg property last September. Harman told The Gazette in March that he did not know how many people lived on the property but said the number was about 16, including his wife and nine children.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Just updating to say I will soon be undergoing a medical treatment which may involve some difficult side effects. I will not likely post for the next couple of weeks.

Update II: I canceled my medical procedure for now, and made an appointment with my doctor to discuss other options.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Teen Participation In Youth Groups

Forget the pizza parties,' Teens tell churches
By Cathy Lynn Grossman and Stephanie Steinberg, USA TODAY

"Bye-bye church. We're busy." That's the message teens are giving churches today.

Only about one in four teens now participate in church youth groups, considered the hallmark of involvement; numbers have been flat since 1999. Other measures of religiosity — prayer, Bible reading and going to church — lag as well, according to Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif., evangelical research company. This all has churches canceling their summer teen camps and youth pastors looking worriedly toward the fall, when school-year youth groups kick in.

"Talking to God may be losing out to Facebook," says Barna president David Kinnaman.

"Sweet 16 is not a sweet spot for churches. It's the age teens typically drop out," says Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, which found the turning point in a study of church dropouts. "A decade ago teens were coming to church youth group to play, coming for the entertainment, coming for the pizza. They're not even coming for the pizza anymore. They say, 'We don't see the church as relevant, as meeting our needs or where we need to be today.' "

"I blame the parents,"who didn't grow up in a church culture, says Jeremy Johnston, executive pastor at First Family Church in Overland Park, Kan.

His megachurch would routinely take 600 teens to summer church camp, he says, "and many would be forever changed by that experience. But this summer we don't even have a camp.

"Remember, 80% of kids don't have cars. Their parents could be lazy or the opposite — overstressed and overcommitted. If parents don't go to church, kids don't, either."

Don't forget the overcommitted teens themselves, the recession and growing competition from summer mission trips, says Rick Gage of Go-Tell Youth Camps, based in Duluth, Ga.

Registration fell 22% in 2009 but stabilized this summer with 2,000 middle- and high-school teens at five camps in four states. Attendance peaked in the late 1990s at 5,000 teens, Gage says.

Chris Palmer, youth pastor at Ironbridge Baptist Church in Chester, Va., says its youth group enrollment slid from 125 teens in 2008 to 35 last winter.

He pulled participation back up to 70 this year by letting teens know "real church, centered on Jesus Christ, is hard work," Palmer says. "This involves the Marine Corps of Christianity. Once we communicate that, we see kids say, 'Hey, I want to be involved in something that's a little radical and exciting.' "

Rainer agrees. He says teens today want Scripture, they "don't want superficiality. We need to tell them that if you are part of church life, you are part of something bigger. The church needs you, too."

But first, they have to find the kids.

Sam Atkeson of Falls Church, Va., left his Episcopal church youth group not long after leaving middle school.

"I started to question if it was something I always wanted to do or if I just went because my friends did," says Atkeson, now 18. "It just wasn't really something I wanted to continue to do. My beliefs changed. I wouldn't consider myself a Christian anymore."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Elephants--Trunks of Discernment?

Video of Jessica Bentley (Todd Bentley's wife and former mistress) discussing a dream in which Oral Roberts appears along with wild elephants (chorus please). Key to the dream is discernment--huh? And with enough head shaking to give elephants a run to the hills. Where was the wild dodo bird? Perhaps it could symbolize abundance and prosperity will try to take flight into your life soon. Watch the video if you can stomach it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

More Greed & Error On The Horizon

*Watch out for the launch of the Horizons Television Network, and keep your money in your pockets!

Cash for Eastside church spent on luxuries

The son of one-time prominent pastor faces charges of wire fraud
By Jon Murray

Five years after Wayne Taft Harris Jr. borrowed nearly $500,000 from a religious group to build a church, weeds and brush still cover the land on a secluded block on Indianapolis' Eastside.

Federal authorities say Harris, the son of a prominent late Indianapolis pastor, skipped out on the loan and moved to Texas after spending about $145,000 on a Mercedes-Benz, a mink coat and a Christian bookstore and its inventory.

A federal grand jury in Indianapolis indicted Harris, 36, this month on two counts of wire fraud. Convictions could bring a maximum 40-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine, prosecutors said.

Harris lives in the Houston area, where he has been working to start up an online Christian TV network, but he will have to return to Indianapolis to face the charges.

He missed his initial court date Tuesday after what court officials described as a miscommunication. The hearing was reset for next Tuesday.

Public defender Michael Donahoe said Harris will enter a plea of not guilty at next week's hearing.

Attempts to reach Harris on Tuesday were not successful.

Harris' father, the Rev. Wayne T. Harris Sr., was the well-known and sometimes controversial pastor of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Indianapolis. He died of heart disease in 2000 at age 46.

The younger Harris received the $482,000 loan in 2005 from Third World Missions of Merritt Island, Fla., according to the indictment.

The group handles financial matters for associated Christian organizations that run Bible schools and mission trips outside the country and provide assistance for AIDS orphans in Africa. One revenue-generating program makes loans for church facility construction and then plows the interest into its other missions.

Without a dime repaid, Third World's founder says, Harris has directly affected the cash-tight missions' ability to help people.

"He just took off and just kind of disappeared," Bob Bland said. Bland's efforts to visit Indianapolis and track Harris down were unfruitful. "We should not have given him the money."

The grand jury indicted Harris on July 7, and he posted a $25,000 bond July 16 after surrendering in Houston, records show.

A close friend of Harris' father expressed dismay at the news.

"When I saw that, it kind of hit me like a bolt of lightning," said Elder Lionel T. Rush of Greater Anointing Fellowship Church of God in Christ. "I was devastated. . . . I still have an affinity for the father. You always want your friends' children to do well."

Rush said he had not kept in touch with the younger Harris. He recalled that Harris served as interim leader at his father's church after the elder's death.

A few years later, in 2003, Harris and his wife, Verlisia, filed incorporation papers for Kingdom Builders Faith Church.

Verlisia Harris, who also could not be reached for comment, is not accused of wrongdoing in the indictment.

The indictment says that just two days after the loan money came through in August 2005, Wayne Harris used $39,000 to purchase the Mercedes in the name of Ever Increasing Kingdom Christian Center, listing himself as the CEO.

In September 2005, Harris dissolved Kingdom Builders and registered Ever Increasing Kingdom Christian Center as a nonprofit religious corporation, the indictment says.

That name has been displayed for years on a sign posted at the proposed church site at 29th Street and Euclid Avenue.

Federal court records show that in October 2005, Harris and his wife filed for personal bankruptcy.

In the following weeks, the indictment says, Harris spent $105,000 of the loan money to buy a Christian bookstore in Carmel under another name, KingdomComm Ministry Resources. The store has since closed.

He also is accused of using $500 of the loan money toward a man's mink coat with Versace buttons costing $2,000.

The indictment does not say what happened to the rest of the loan money, estimated at $337,000, but Bland was growing suspicious.

Harris sent a fax meant to falsely reassure the mission group in early 2006, the indictment says. The fax blamed an unnamed staff member for misspending the money and said church members had raised more than $70,000 toward payments.

Since then, Harris has moved to Texas. Known in Houston as W. Taft Harris, he has been working to launch Horizons Television Network, which its website says will broadcast inclusive Christian programming online.

It's unclear whether his wife joined him in Houston. The Rev. Mark Downs said Tuesday that Harris took a leadership position last year in a fledgling Pentecostal Christian church group geared toward gays and lesbians; Harris has lived with a male partner, he said.

Downs, a pastor at Heights Presbyterian Church in Houston, said his church allowed Harris' church group and media startup to use its facility until a dispute arose over rent and other issues.

Downs said he had the facility's locks changed after Harris refused to move his operations out of the building.

"He had a lot of good skills," Downs said, calling Harris media-savvy and a powerful speaker. "The problem is that he used them to take advantage of people."

Monday, August 2, 2010

Pastor Targeted In Dagestan

Slain Pastor Brings New Ministry Questions In Dagestan
Mission Network News

Dagestan (MNN) ― Thursday's public murder of a pastor in Dagestan has distressing overtones.

North Caucasus Network confirmed that gunmen opened fire on the 49-year-old senior pastor of an evangelical church in central Dagestan, Russia, around 6:30 pm local time on July 15. He died a short time later from his wounds.

This is the latest in a series of incidents causing growing concern over the government's increasing scrutiny on believers and church activity.

Reports on the deteriorating situation are scarce. Todd Nettleton with Voice of the Martyrs explains that Dagestan appears to have "slipped under the radar." "Because it's a Federal Republic of Russia, we group it in with Russia, and we don't think of Russia as being 'restricted,' so we kind of overlook the level of persecution that happens in some parts of Russia."

The immediate impact of the pastor's death may be severe. Nettleton says, "You can imagine the 'chilling effect' of having your pastor shot in the head outside of the church building. This is also a church group that has had a very effective ministry with drug addicts, the social work, the work in the prisons."

Dagestan, 98% Muslim, is situated on the Caspian Sea in the North Caucasus region. The country remains one of the economically poorest republics of Russia.

NCN reports that Dagestan continues to suffer under the competing factions of a complex global jihadi movement. Collaborative efforts of the global Church have a long-standing history of blessing families in Dagestan.

It's not surprising that the church faced threats and increasing pressure. The pastor was a convert from Islam. In such a high Muslim population, he would have been considered an apostate.

Nettleton says in many strict Muslim cultures, an apostate can be punished by death. However, the pastor's example was clear. Despite threats, he lived and died as a Christ follower.

"Pray that the Holy Spirit will give them courage and boldness even in the midst of this loss--that they will boldly go forth and represent Christ in their communities."