August 2008

Gunman in Arkansas Baptist Building after killing

August 14 2008 by Charlie Warren, Baptist Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A gunman shot Arkansas Democratic Party chairman Bill Gwatney at the state party's headquarters in Little Rock at about 11:50 a.m. Aug. 13. Fleeing the scene, the suspect drove to the Arkansas Baptist State Convention building a few blocks east of Democratic headquarters, then after a police chase of more than 30 miles, was killed in an exchange of gunfire with officers.

Gwatney died at a local hospital of the three gunshot wounds to his chest.

In the Baptist building at 525 W. Capitol in Little Rock, business manager Dan Jordan said, a middle-aged white man in a white shirt entered the building with a gun and ran up a stairwell to the second floor.

When Kirby Martin, the building manager, confronted him, the man cocked the gun and pointed it at Martin.

Martin asked what was wrong and the man said he had lost his job. Martin was able to flee the threat and the gunman went down another stairway and out the front door of the Baptist building. The man did not fire a shot while in the Baptist building.

The building operator had called the police, who arrived soon after the man left the building. The gunman jumped into a blue pickup truck on Arch Street at the side entrance of the building and sped away. Jordan said the police were in pursuit of him as soon as he drove off.

The police chase ended in gunfire near Sheridan, south of Little Rock, during which the suspect was shot and killed. The gunman later was identified as Timothy Dale Johnson, 50, of Searcy, Ark. News reports indicated he had been fired from his job at a Target store in Conway the morning of the shooting.

Emil Turner, executive director of the Arkansas convention, said, "The details and stories will be told for days to come through the local and national media, but the greater story involves the emotional and spiritual needs of those directly affected by these events. Their lives will be marked by painful memories and unresolved questions."

Turner urged prayer for the Gwatney and Johnson families.

(EDITOR'S NOTE — Warren is editor of the Arkansas Baptist News, newsjournal of the ABSC.)
8/14/2008 1:50:00 PM by Charlie Warren, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Belief in hell dips, although some say they've been

August 14 2008 by Charles Honey, Religion News Service

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Ernie Long believes he has been to hell. He can even narrow it down to a particular moment.

His mother was dying of cancer. As she lay on her death bed, he swiped her last $5 and the car keys from her purse, went out and got high. When he returned, she was dead.

Long goes quiet, thinking about it in the chapel of Guiding Light Mission in Grand Rapids, Mich. When he first moved to the homeless shelter, he recalls, he would wake up in the night haunted by what he'd done.

"The shame and guilt engulfed me," he said quietly. "I couldn't stop crying."

Today, Long is an intake supervisor for Guiding Light's recovery program. He believes Jesus saved him from the pit of hell and wants other men to be saved too, here and hereafter.

"I think hell is being in the absence of purpose," said Long, 64, who was addicted to crack cocaine before coming to Guiding Light two years ago. "When I had no purpose, no direction, I actually felt like I was living in hell."

For Long, hell is all too real — a temporary torment in this life, an endless agony in the next. But for more and more Americans, hell is a myth.

In a survey released this summer by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, just 59 percent of 35,000 respondents said they believe in a hell "where people who have led bad lives, and die without being sorry, are eternally punished."

That's down from the 71 percent who said they believed in hell in a 2001 Gallup survey. And it is lower than the 74 percent who said they believe in heaven in the recent Pew poll.

Skepticism about hell is growing even in evangelical churches and seminaries, says one theologian here, a bastion of conservative evangelicalism.

"In a pluralistic, post-modern world, students are having a more difficult time with (the idea of) people going to hell forever because they didn't believe the right thing," says Mike Wittmer, professor of systematic theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.

"That's the biggest question out there right now: 'Would God send someone to hell if they were someone as good as me, but didn't believe what I believe?'"

It was easier to believe in hell 20 years ago when missionaries tried to convert people in far-flung places, Wittmer says. In today's global village, many live next to good, non-Christian neighbors and wonder why an all-powerful, loving God wouldn't eventually empty out hell, Wittmer says.

"I've noticed in the last five years how that view is making inroads even in conservative churches, whereas five years ago it wasn't even uttered or discussed," he adds.

Americans' optimism and tolerance for diversity complements a growing view of God as benevolent, not judgmental, other experts say.

"They believe everyone has an equal chance, at this life and the next," said Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College and the author of Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion.

"So hell is disappearing, absolutely."

But for those who believe, hell can be a terrifying place of eternal punishment or the complete extinction of the soul.

The Pew survey showed the biggest believers in hell are evangelical Protestants, African-American Protestants and Muslims. Sizable majorities of Jews, Buddhists and Hindus — as well as atheists, agnostics, and the rest of the unaffiliated — say they do not believe.

Wittmer holds to a literal Christian view of hell as a place of physical torment. He points to Revelation 14:9-11, where an angel describes the damned burning in sulfur: "And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever."

"The whole person is suffering, probably in utter hopelessness, just being absent from God and goodness," says Wittmer, author of Heaven is a Place on Earth.

8/14/2008 1:25:00 PM by Charles Honey, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Texas paper sued (updated Aug. 14)

August 13 2008 by Steve DeVane, BR Managing Editor

The state Baptist newspaper in Texas is being sued for its coverage of controversy surrounding new-church funding.

Otto Arango, one of the pastors involved in the issue, filed suit against the Baptist Standard; the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT); David Montoya; Calvary Baptist Church in Mineral Wells, Texas; the Palo Pinto Association; David Tamez; Dexton Shores; Roberto Rodriguez; Primera Iglesia Bautista; and Eloy Hernandez.

Marv Knox, editor of the Standard, released a statement confirming the suit.

“The Standard denies the allegations and expects to be exonerated,” he said. “However, since this case is pending, we are deferring further comment, based on the advice of our attorney.”
Arango did not return a phone call seeking comment.

An investigation by the BGCT reportedly found evidence that church-starting funds were misused in the Rio Grande Valley. Arango filed suit in Texas District Court on Aug. 6, according to court documents provided to the Recorder by Montoya.

Montoya writes a blog called Spiritual Samurai that covered the church-starting issues. He is also pastor of the church in Mineral Wells.

The BGCT hired an independent lawyer, whose team conducted a five-month investigation that found evidence that funds were misused from 1999 to 2005. The probe found that up to 98 percent of the 258 church starts reported by Arango, Aaron de la Torre and Armando Vera no longer or never existed. The BGCT reportedly provided more than $1.3 million to help support those 258 churches.

Arango told investigators that he received at least $500,000 from the BGCT in honorarium and reimbursement expenses and was also getting about $14,000 a month from associations.

Arango says in the lawsuit that the report found no intentional misappropriation of funds, but instead discovered bad record keeping and ineffective controls by the BGCT.

The suit says that Arango’s success starting churches was “short-lived” when the “BGCT began to question whether the new churches were indeed real churches, or just prayer groups meeting in someone’s home, or even ‘phantom’ church which existed only on paper.”

The pastors were using a church-starting strategy devised by Arango. It called for lay people starting churches in their homes. The plan called for the churches to become larger by growth or by merging with other home churches.

The suit says the BGCT’s records of active and inactive churches did not agree with information from the investigators, causing “considerable doubt” as to the accuracy of statistics regarding the effectiveness of the new church starts.

The report found that BGCT records showed more of the three pastors’ new churches still functioning than investigators could locate. According to the report, BGCT records showed that 100 of the 258 churches were still active, while investigators found that only five still existed.

Montoya, the blogger, said he hopes Texas Baptists can unite in defense against the lawsuit. He said BGCT officials had earlier indicated they would not sue the three pastors because of the cost.

“Well, they’re going to have to spend some money now,” he said.

Montoya said he will not settle. He said he had stopped blogging about the issue in June because he didn’t want to give the impression that he was interested in Texas Baptist politics.

“So I got out, until I got served Monday,” he said.

Arango is seeking unspecified damages. He is suing for libel, slander and defamation, saying his reputation has been damaged by “rumors, insinuations and innuendos.”

8/13/2008 11:24:00 AM by Steve DeVane, BR Managing Editor | with 0 comments

Specialist offers tips to bless others in tough times

August 13 2008 by Judy Woodward Bates, Baptist Press

DORA, Ala. — With fuel prices soaring and real estate foreclosures on the rise, we're living in some pretty scary economical times, aren't we? As believers, how are we to conduct ourselves? Is there a way to sensibly tighten our money belts and still continue to show generosity? Yes.

Cut back where you can and use the savings to bless others. For starters, here a half-dozen simple suggestions:
  • When eating out, order ordinary tap water instead of other beverages. For a family of four, this can make an easy difference of around $400 a year in savings, even if they only dine out once a week.
  • Unless you absolutely have to use your cell phone for business purposes, switch to a prepaid minutes plan that has no monthly fee. For $100, I buy 1,000-minutes and use about a hundred a month, which comes out to $10 a month.
  • Use your GPS or a web site like to find the shortest distance between your home and the places you go. If you discover a route that cuts only two miles each way from your five-day-a-week work drive, over the course of the year, you'll use two to three less tanks of fuel in the average vehicle. Check your route to school, church, and other places, and you may literally find more ways to save.
  • Switch to fluorescent lighting throughout your home. Not only will the bulbs themselves use less electricity, they'll also help keep your home cooler, which means less air-conditioning expense, because they produce much less heat than an ordinary light bulb.
  • Change your home's heat pump or furnace filter at least every three months. A clean filter means your heating and cooling system doesn't have to work as hard, which translate to energy and dollar savings. Keep this on schedule by writing the date on the filter and on your calendar. Depending upon the condition of the filter, you may want to switch to monthly maintenance.
  • In lieu of funeral flowers, why not a memorial gift to a missions organization or to the person's place of worship? Twenty dollars won't buy much in the way of flowers, but it's enough to pay to place four Gideon Bibles.
All around us, unbelievers are watching to see how we and our wallets respond to this toughening economic period. Those of us who know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior need to be setting good examples with every aspect of our lives, including our financial management.

James 1:22 reminds us to "be doers of the word and not hearers only." This means that we continue to give our tithes and offerings. It means that we keep shining and sharing the light and love of Jesus and exemplifying confidence in His immeasurable ability to provide for us, regardless of any economic downturn.

(EDITOR'S NOTE — Judy Woodward Bates is a freelance writer, author, speaker and creator of Bargainomics,

8/13/2008 5:33:00 AM by Judy Woodward Bates, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Candy cane case goes to Supreme Court

August 13 2008 by LaNia Coleman, Religion News Service

The U.S. Supreme Court was asked Aug. 11 to consider whether a fifth-grade student's religious expression on a classroom project can be considered "offensive" and subject to censorship by school officials.

In December 2003, Joel Curry, then 11, made candy cane-style Christmas ornaments with a note that school officials considered "religious literature." The note attached to the ornaments, titled "The Meaning of the Candy Cane," referred to Jesus six times and God twice.

Curry, who copied the message from an ornament at a Christian bookstore, is now a rising sophomore at Heritage High School in Saginaw, Mich.

"It's unfortunate it has to be pushed this far," said his father, Paul Curry. "When children step out in the world, they have to deal with different faiths and religions. It's a good way for teachers to educate students as long as no one is proselytizing or pushing it down someone's throat."

At the time, the boy made the ornaments as part of a classroom project in which students develop and "sell" products. School officials told the youngster to remove the message, even though he received an A on the assignment.

Attorneys filed a lawsuit against the Saginaw School District and the school's principal in 2004, arguing that school officials violated the boy's right to equal protection because students previously had been allowed to sell religious-themed items.

In 2005, a federal judge ruled in favor of the boy, but a three-judge panel for the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later overturned that decision.

The new suit seeks reimbursement of legal fees and clarification of the district's policy on religious speech.

"Penalizing Christian students for expressing their beliefs in the classroom is unacceptable under the Constitution," said Jeff Shafer, the senior legal counsel with the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which petitioned the high court to hear the case.

"The First Amendment exists to protect private speakers, not to enable religious discrimination by government officials. The court of appeals' unprecedented classification of student religious speech as an `offense' worthy of censorship should be reversed."

8/13/2008 2:07:00 AM by LaNia Coleman, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Olympian to teach at Baptist school in Charlotte

August 12 2008 by Baptist Press Staff

BP photo

CHARLOTTE — Jeremy Knowles, a member of the Bahamas Olympic swim team, will start a new job as a fourth grade teacher at Hickory Grove Baptist Christian School in Charlotte when he returns to the United States from Beijing.

"Jeremy can connect. He's got a calling, a God-given natural ability with these students," Henry Ward, head of the 1,055-student private school that is a ministry of Hickory Grove Baptist Church, told The Charlotte Observer. "I've interviewed a lot of teachers, and he's beyond his years in his insight."

Knowles, a 26-year-old native of the Bahamas, is a graduate of Auburn University, where he was an All-American swimmer. He finished sixth in his heat Aug. 11 in the men's 200 meter butterfly preliminaries with a time of 2:01:08, behind Taipei's Chi-Chieh Hsu who won in 1:56:59. Knowles will compete again in the 200 meter individual medley Aug. 13 and in the 100 meter butterfly Aug. 14.

At age 18, Knowles competed in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, and he also participated in Athens in 2004. The Observer said he comes from a legendary Olympic family in the Bahamas, given that his grandfather and great-uncle competed in Olympic sailing and his father Andy Knowles was an Olympic swimmer who now coaches the Bahamian swim team.

The Observer also noted that Knowles is most famous in the Bahamas for swimming 30 miles across open water from Exuma to Nassau when he was just 16. The feat had not been accomplished by anyone except a team of relay swimmers, the newspaper said, but Knowles finished in 15 hours.

At Hickory Grove, Knowles will teach science, math and religion during his first year. He was hired after presenting a practice lesson to students, The Observer said, and Ward described the presentation as a gold medal performance. Before he left for Beijing, Knowles started decorating his new classroom and told his students he would have high expectations for them in the midst of some fun they would have together when he returned.

Hickory Grove Baptist Christian School, on its web site, says its teachers seek to train students in how to have a biblical worldview, and the school's mission statement is "to know Christ and to make Him known through Christian education." All teachers, the site says, "love Jesus, children and teaching."

Knowles' wife Heather, whom he met at church in Auburn, said her husband is humble despite being an Olympic athlete. He doesn't often brag, she said.

"You've got to drag things out of him," Heather Knowles told The Observer.

(EDITOR'S NOTE — Compiled by BP staff writer Erin Roach.)

8/12/2008 11:08:00 AM by Baptist Press Staff | with 0 comments

Sturgis outreach leads to 1,300 decisions

August 12 2008 by Diana Bricker, Baptist Press

BP photo by Connie Little

Monty Schrunk of St. Louis takes a few minutes to read his Bible and pray for volunteers who are sharing their testimony during the 68th Annual Sturgis Rally in South Dakota.

STURGIS, S.D. — Tears told this tale.

One couple past the first flush of youth came to Sturgis, S.D., to escape the ordinary. Winning a new Harley would have been the ultimate Sturgis souvenir, so they agreed to listen to a Christian testimony for three minutes to get in the drawing for the bike they were standing next to on Sturgis’ crowded Main Street.

It was a bronze metallic 2008 Harley Davidson 105th Anniversary Deluxe Edition Softail with a black and tan leather seat, which stood at the entrance of the large “Sturgis Bike Give Away” tent.

Holy Spirit began working and tears began rolling down the woman’s cheeks as she prayed to receive Christ. As she prayed, tears formed in the eyes of her husband and he echoed the words she had just said.

They looked at each other. “We need to pack up and go home and start living a Christian life,” she said.

These were two of at least 1,365 decisions for Christ during the intentional evangelism thrust at the 68th Annual Sturgis Rally Aug. 4-9.

Sturgis, billed as the “world’s largest motorcycle rally,” draws about 500,000 visitors to the Black Hills area of western South Dakota each August. Many are people garbed in biker attire who in “real life” are doctors, lawyers, teachers and other sorts of professionals. Many others live closer to the edge of society; some belong to gangs of outlaw bikers.

Each year, the sidewalks up and down Main Street are filled past capacity with motorcycle enthusiasts. Open tent fronts beckon buyers to every conceivable vendor in the heart of this normally quiet town.

Nearly four years ago Jim Hamilton, executive director of the then-new Dakota Baptist Convention (DBC), envisioned an intentional evangelistic outreach at Sturgis that would involve volunteers from across the nation to share their faith with whoever would listen, and those who listened could enter a drawing to win a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

“People are walking away from Sturgis with Jesus in their hearts and He is going to begin to change their life,” Hamilton said during a momentary break from sharing his testimony during the third year of the Sturgis outreach. “We have been obedient witnesses in a place that desperately needs it.”

Not everyone leaves with Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, Hamilton acknowledged. Some say, “That was a good story” or “I’m at a different place in my life right now.”

It is not up to us to save them,” said Buck Hill, one of the Dakota convention’s regional team leaders. “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to draw them and then God to save them. We are called to spread the Good News. That’s what we do in Sturgis.”

This year, some 160 volunteers from across the United States told more than 5,000 people their personal testimony of the difference God made in his or her life, with 1,365 people asking God to forgive them and for Jesus to live in their heart and guide them.

Churches, associations, state conventions and the North American Mission Board all help the Dakota convention pay the $55,000 cost of the evangelistic thrust in Sturgis. That might seem like a lot — and it is especially to the Dakotas, which is the newest and smallest state Baptist convention — but it comes down to about $40 per profession of faith, said Garvon Golden, one of the Dakota convention’s sharing Christ team leaders.

“And that doesn’t count the strengthening of the faith of the volunteers, who endure hot weather, long hours and little sleep,” Golden said. “We’re very grateful for the volunteers, as we are for those who partner financially with us as we reach out in this unique way to do God’s Kingdom work.”

Story after story was shared of what the Holy Spirit did “under the tent” during Sturgis 2008.

BP photo by Connie Little

Jim Hamilton, executive director of the Dakota Baptist Convention, rides down Main Street in Sturgis, S.D., followed by Phil Pilgrim, a Georgia Baptist Convention ministry consultant.

One man, after hearing a three-minute testimony, said, “Where can I pray that prayer? Could you write it down so that I can pray it right now?”

A young man came to sign up for the motorcycle in the morning, listened to a personal testimony and left the tent saying he wasn’t ready to pray to receive Christ. He was handed a tract titled “Is it working for you?” and the Gospel of John. He returned later in the evening to say, “I kept thinking about this all day, it just wouldn’t leave me alone. I am ready to pray that prayer.”

A man stopped by the tent visibly troubled. After hearing a three-minute testimony, he said, “Just 10 minutes ago, I received a call from back home. My daughter was injured in an accident. She has a broken arm and broken bones in her face. I am a Christian and was asking God to send someone for me to pray with.”

Two bikers who came to the tent informed a volunteer, “We are Christians; the Holy Spirit laid it on our hearts to come and pray with you about the evil that wants to stop this ministry.” Thirty minutes later, an unruly biker came in, his dog in tow, and began to disrupt the outreach, but to minimal effect.

Training for the volunteers was provided prior to the rally through online presentations posted to the Dakota convention’s E-quip web site. Evangelist Ronnie Hill of Texas and the DBC staff also led training each morning at Black Hills Baptist Church in Whitewood, S.D., about 18 miles southwest of Sturgis.

“All of this would not be possible without the volunteers and partners who have taken this ministry from the vision of one leader to a group of leaders to a national level,” Hamilton said. “Folks who are physically not able to be at the rally are obedient witnesses by praying and by giving to the Southern Baptist Convention Cooperative Program, which helped fund this through the North American Mission Board.

“God has called all of us as a family of Southern Baptists to impact the lostness that we see here in Sturgis,” Hamilton said.

Volunteers from 14 states were involved in the effort, including a team of seven chaplains from the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

Three biker groups also participated: Freedom Biker Church, F.A.I.T.H. Riders and Set Free Churches. The leather vests of the Freedom Bikers, yellow shirts of the F.A.I.T.H. riders and the slogans on the Set Free Bikers shirts helped stir interest among passersby, with the biker volunteers then directing people to a person ready to share the gospel.

“The webcam was extremely useful this year,” added John Little, one of the Dakota convention’s church planting strategist. “We were able to have a connection with folks in other states by having them go online to This enabled churches and family members to visibly participate by praying. They could see ministry happening as it unfolded.”

Every year the ministry has grown, with it comes unexpected and very welcome outcomes.

“We were blessed with a good group of volunteers,” said Golden, co-coordinator of the Sturgis Bike Give Away Ministry. “The training has been more effective and we have seen the result of this by the number of people who prayed to receive Christ.”

Ministry partner leaders echoed the value of trained volunteers with the following statements:

Hill, of Ronnie Hill Ministries, Fort Worth, Texas: “The opening advance team was already in place so that new trainees could get right to work. We had more seasoned volunteers and, with the expanded time that the tent was open, we were able to witness to more people.”

BP photo by Connie Little

The hubbub in the Dakota Baptist Convention’s tent fades to the background for those who are praying to ask God to forgive them and for Jesus to come into their hearts and guide them.

Phil Pilgrim, of F.A.I.T.H. Riders Motorcycle Ministry, Georgia Baptist Convention: “I saw this year’s organization had vastly improved. The advantage of pre-training on E-quip and the power of prayer to fight the spiritual warfare made a difference. There was a unified presence with the churches, biker groups and individuals who volunteered.”

Buddy Newsome, national director of F.A.I.T.H. Riders from Lakeland, Fla.: “Being able to see the engagement of the three-minute testimony under the tent and the decisions that happen right before you built on the excitement for our group. We had six weeks of training before we came up here. We wanted to be prepared.”

Curt Isle, a Christian author from Dry Creek, La.: “It was exciting to see hearts engaged and the Holy Spirit change lives right in front of you as you pray with someone that you just met.”

Buck Hill of the Dakota convention: “Volunteers were bending over backwards — from the Oklahoma chaplains, to the F.A.I.T.H. riders, to our DBC family — to help wherever needed. It was neat to see so many willing to help out.”

The Oklahoma chaplains walked the streets of Sturgis for the second year.

“This year, we didn’t have to look for opportunities to minister to vendors,” said Don Hunter from Moore, Okla. “We had vendors that came out of their spaces to ask us to pray with them. One guy said, ‘Where have you been? Last year you prayed for my business and it was profitable. I need you to pray with me this year!’ We could hardly make it down the street without someone stopping us and asking us to pray for them and with them.”

The busy Sturgis outreach concluded with the bike giveaway at 1:08 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 9, in the sweltering 95-degree heat, with a standing room only crowd under the ministry tent. Hill, with his 3-year-old son Jake by his side, shouted out the name from the winning ticket: “Aaron Scott of Billings, Mont., you are the winner!”

After no one in the assembly responded, Hill called the cell phone number on the ticket. “Hello Aaron? Where are you?” After three back-and-forth phone calls because of weak cell phone coverage, the crowd was informed that the winner was in Hulett, Wyo,, a 90-minute bike ride away.

Aaron Scott was grinning from ear to ear when he arrived to take ownership of the bike. “I have never won anything like this in my life!” he exclaimed.

Scott, who said he’s a Christian and member of Home Church in Billings, Mont., said, “Everywhere that I ride on this new bike, I will be able to share how this Harley was used to win over 1,300 people to Christ.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Bricker is a regional reporter for the Dakota Baptist, newsjournal of the Dakota Baptist Convention.)

8/12/2008 8:08:00 AM by Diana Bricker, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Franklin team helps church get into new building

August 12 2008 by Mike Creswell, BSC Communications

BSC photo by Mike Creswell

At 82, Coweeta Baptist Church member B.L. Cannon was the oldest team member serving in Scranton, Pa.

SCRANTON, Pa. — Paint and dust flew as an 11-member team from Coweeta Baptist Church in Franklin worked five days to help a new Baptist congregation ready a new building for worship.

Hemisphere Church's new storefront building was still not complete when the tired Coweeta crew headed homeward Aug. 1, but "We are far ahead of our schedule because of this team's work," said Hemisphere pastor and church planter Michael "Sunny" Sunseri.

Crystal Norton and Kristin Hooper suspended the usual teen concerns over chipped nails and imperfect hair as they joined Coweeta pastor and team leader Davis Hooper and other team members in rolling paint onto the future sanctuary's walls.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Coweeta member B.L. Cannon looked much younger than his 82 years as he pulled old wires from a wall to prepare it for new drywall. "I'm just having a big time. Anything we can do to help other people, that's what I'm here for," Cannon said.

Sending out mission teams has become routine for Coweeta over the years, Hooper said. "I've been so glad that North Carolina Baptist Men have started these partnerships. It gives us a chance to not only send our money through the Cooperative Program but also to go out and work on some hands-on missions. We do a lot of local missions," Hooper said.

"But this gets us out and gives our youth, especially, a flavor of different cultures in different parts of the world and what's going on, rather than just our little niche of the world," he said.

"This will be my church!" said happy Hemisphere Church member Raietta Garramone, who came to work on the building. "I think they are absolutely fantastic. I've never seen people work as hard as they do," she said of the Coweeta team.

"It's a humbling experience to watch these people give up their time to sweat for the Lord in a place where they will never see the fruit of their labor till one day in heaven. I appreciate them so much. I can't wait till it's my turn to give in this fashion. I really appreciate these people very much," said Debra Ross, one of the 12 charter members of Hemisphere Church when it started two years ago. Ross joined the Coweeta team in painting the sanctuary walls.

Originally the Coweeta team was going to work in a local park, but just ahead of their arrival, Hemisphere Church members were able to lease a storefront building in northern Scranton, a few blocks from their original meeting place. That first meeting place has become too small as the church membership has grown into the 20s, with 10 more people headed to church membership.

BSC photo by Mike Creswell

Harvalyn Elam, left, helps Katie Jo Kennedy replace a paint roller. Katie Jo has served on many missions trips through World Changers.

A building's drywall and paint are a small step in Sunseri's vision of starting a multicultural congregation to reach out to Scranton's increasingly diverse ethnic groups. Scranton's African American population has increased by 25 percent in recent years, while Hispanics have grown by 75 percent, Sunseri said. Already Hemisphere's membership includes half a dozen different language/cultural groups, including Sunseri's wife, Marichelle, who came from the Philippines when she was two.

The newcomers are changing the city, whose population is 93 percent Roman Catholic, he said. Sunseri, who grew up as a Catholic in Ohio, was 27 years old before a pastor showed him in the Bible that salvation depends on God's grace and not personal works.

"It was a total surprise to realize that it's not something I can earn or deserve, but it's something that Christ gave as a gift and by faith you accept that. And the good deeds that you do are because you love Jesus and have a relationship with Him, not because you have a religion. That's news to people in this area," Sunseri said.

After he completed his university studies, Sunseri worked 10 years as a financial planner; after he and his wife became followers of Christ, a call to Christian service followed in 1995. They moved to Scranton so Sunseri could attend the Baptist Bible Seminary in nearby Clarks Summit.

Sunseri already sees similar churches being planted around eastern Pennsylvania. He said the church is grateful that another North Carolina Baptist team will come soon to work more on the new building. "I'm beginning to understand the accent," he said with a laugh.

8/12/2008 5:32:00 AM by Mike Creswell, BSC Communications | with 0 comments

Hamas leader's son says only gospel can transform

August 11 2008 by Mark Kelly, Baptist Press

LA JOLLA, Calif. — When a volunteer from the United Kingdom met a young Middle Eastern man in Jerusalem's old city and invited him to a Bible study, he had no idea he was talking to the son of a key figure in the Hamas terrorist organization.

And while the volunteer surely hoped Masab Yousef would hear the gospel and accept Christ, he had no clue how that invitation — and Yousef's decision for Christ four years later — would eventually reverberate throughout the Middle East and perhaps even the world.

"These guys were just going out and asking people to come for the Bible study," Yousef told Baptist Press. "I didn't even understand his English. He was talking to me by signals, and I understood the invitation from his signals."

But in 2000, Yousef, who now prefers to be known as "Joseph," was an open-minded 22-year-old Muslim, clean-shaven and dressed in jeans instead of the traditional garb of Palestinian Arabs. Despite his preference for Western ways, Joseph was the eldest son of Hassan Yousef, a prominent lawmaker in the Palestinian parliament, and as such the heir-apparent to his father's position of influence in Palestinian circles.

That simple, almost anonymous invitation to visit a Bible study eventually transformed Joseph's life, and now he is sending shock waves throughout the Middle East as he publicly declares his faith in Christ. He may be the best-known Muslim to ever publicly announce his decision to follow Jesus.

"Sometimes we don't know the importance when we go out to invite people to come to Bible study," Joseph said. "Sometimes we think this is wasting time. This guy had no idea who I was.

"They studied the Bible with me and figured out who I was only five months later," Joseph said. "They got to know me and even got to know my father. He invited them to our house, and they had no idea that he was one of the top leaders of the Hamas organization."

Joseph said he agreed to attend the Bible study because he was curious.

"I didn't have enough knowledge about Christianity. I was open-minded," he said. "I never had in my mind in that moment that I would go this far, to become a believer. I had studied history and thought this would be a good chance to study, to meet new international people and see what they are saying. It was definitely not about Christianity."

Joseph's story is a powerful reminder that followers of Jesus Christ should share the gospel freely and never miss an opportunity to invite a stranger to church, said Matt Smith, the pastor of Barabbas Road Church in La Jolla, Calif., which is hosting Joseph as he announces his faith in Christ to the world.

"He was invited to a Bible study — to me this is profound," Smith said. "Some guy didn't know who Joseph was. This guy was just a normal Christian. He wasn't an apologist. He wasn't a specialist. He was just a normal Christian who invited someone to a Bible study.

"In the Bible study, they didn't try to argue," Smith said. "They just shared the love of Christ, and he went home and read his Bible. This is such a testimony to all us Christians that we need to present everyone with the simple gospel. This is a call for everyone to stand out."

Smith, 29, leads a young congregation in one of the most affluent and highly educated cities in the United States. Smith said the church, which launched in February 2008 and now draws about 75 people to weekend services, knows that the truth of the gospel and the power of loving service to others can penetrate even the hardest, most skeptical heart.

"When he was exposed to the word of God, the Holy Spirit did a work on him and look what happened," Smith said.

Joseph came to the United States because his decision to follow Jesus meant losing his life in Ramallah on the West Bank. As the son of a senior Hamas leader, he has been unable to find work in America and depends on the generosity of Barabbas Road members to get by.

"Just to stop and think for a minute about announcing your Christianity; you feel sick immediately because it's crazy," Joseph said. "You're not just saying goodbye to a religion, to a tradition. You are saying goodbye to a culture, to a civilization, if you can call it that. Even the process of taking your skin off your bones might be easier than saying goodbye to your mother and to everybody, especially when you are a well-known figure in your society and everybody has high expectations that one day in the future you will be one of the leaders.

"Suddenly you are starting from scratch and canceling everything you have in society," Joseph said. "But when it started, I was ready for any circumstances. I thought about the worst conditions that could happen as consequences after my announcement. But — and I tell you this is a miracle, this is how God works — you carry the cross and rely on Him completely and He takes care of everything.

"This may be the first case that a well-known Muslim just goes to the public and says, 'I am a Christian,'" Joseph said. "Many Muslim sheiks, many Muslim imams may be converted to Christianity but they keep that a secret. They didn't announce it because it is very embarrassing for them and for their families. They were afraid for their lives.

"But I decided to declare Jesus in front of the world, so He declares me in front of the Father," Joseph said. "That was the main reason. I am going to be just worshiping God in a very special way by doing this.

"When Jesus says 'carry your cross and follow me,' it wasn't to put a cross on your shirt and keep walking the street."

The power that transformed his heart and gives him the courage to publicly declare his faith in Jesus is the only hope for an end to the violence that plagues the Middle East, Joseph said.

"I have met politicians. I have met presidents and prime ministers. I have met all the leaders of that region," Joseph said. "None of them have a magical solution for this issue. They are leading people but they don't know where they are going.

"Even if they have a way out of this endless circle of violence between the two nations, none of them have the courage to do it," he added. "Both sides have many parties and every party has its own agenda. There are no strong leaders in that region who can make brave decisions."

The real path to peace in the Middle East, Joseph said, is the same path — the only path — a human heart can follow to find deep, lasting peace.

"Jesus is not going to give them a political solution, but He has changed me, and He can change those people to a better people. He can teach them how to forgive, how to love," Joseph said. "Everybody on both sides is hurt — not only Israelis, not only Palestinians. If we can teach them how to forgive and move on and love their enemies, for the next two generations, we can build a new leadership for both sides to be able to live together.

"Now, as it is, there is no hope for them but Jesus. It's that simple."

8/11/2008 3:30:00 PM by Mark Kelly, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Highland women face amazing challenges

August 11 2008 by Dianna L. Cagle, BR Assistant Managing Editor

BR photo by Dianna L. Cagle

"The fierce competitor in you comes out," said Cherry Gay, seen here after capturing a guinea chicken. "You don't even know yourself until you compete in something like that." For photo gallery, click here.

Adrenaline pumping. Brains whirring. Sweat pouring.

Ladies from Highland Baptist Church recently raced to an amazing finish as part of a Woman's Missionary Union (WMU) event.

The Raleigh church organized the "Amazing Race" for its WMU on July 26. With six legs, the eight two-women teams scampered all over the community in an effort to complete various tasks and take home the grand prize by finishing first.

"I had a blast during it," said Tina Barbour. "The No. 1 thing we learned is to read our

Barbour and her partner, Kim Wheeless, were well behind the other teams after the first leg because they didn't fully read their instructions.

"I can't believe we skimmed over that," said Barbour about the list of required food items to collect during that round. She and Wheeless, who called their team "DaWinners," mistakenly collected all 17 items on their list, even though the instructions said to collect 10. After arriving at the pit stop more than an hour behind all the other teams, "We had no choice ... we had to eat the squid," she said.

The other choice was to search through 10,000 craft sticks to find a stick with their
corresponding team number. Comparing the texture of the squid to a combination of wood and leather, Barbour said the worst thing was the smell, which hit you before you even got to the room. Competitors were allowed some water to help get the substance down.

Of course, none of the competitors knew exactly what they were going to have to eat until they arrived at their destination.

Megan Page thought the first leg was the toughest.

"It was hard, we were in a hilly neighborhood," she said. Page took part in the race with her mother, Kaye Kelly. Together they called themselves the "Dynamic Duo."

Kelly said she ate her first squid, "but I didn't like it."

Based on the hit television show, "The Amazing Race," leaders at Highland took great care in planning each of the tasks. The hit reality television show challenges teams to race around the world against other teams to arrive at pit stops first and avoid the possibility of being eliminated.

"We want to win," said Cherry Gay, part of the Island Racers. "We're a little competitive."

After finishing the food challenge, Gay said the "key to that was to eat tiny bites."

BR photo by Dianna L. Cagle

Sarah McCain, 15, left, and her mother, Pam, search through 10,000 craft sticks to find one with their number on it. The mother/daughter duo called themselves The McChicks and wore matching outfits.

When faced with the next challenge of listing the books of the Bible in order, at first the Island
Racers wanted to go in and list them straightaway, but they remembered the minor prophets like Obadiah might mess them up. They took the paddle boat detour to get help with that challenge.

"We were in full gear; we were running," said Gay. "The fierce competitor in you comes out. You don't even know yourself until you compete in something like that."

Melandie Matthews was a last-minute substitute as Gay's partner in the race, but Gay said they both gave it their all. The paddle boat detour gave the Island Racers an edge and brought them a first place finish at the end of the third leg. A couple in the church allowed the use of the paddle boat in their pond for the race.

Racers had a mandatory lunch break before tackling the next three legs.

Given a five-minute head start, the Island Racers ran through hallways at the church to get to the courtyard where one member of each team was asked to capture a guinea chicken. It took Gay a little more than five minutes to retrieve her prey.

Even though they went into the fifth leg with a lead, Gay and Matthews quickly got behind. Their task: to build a section of a wheelchair ramp for a ministry at the church.

"We got really upset when we got behind," said Gay, who said she spent time after the race figuring up how many holes they pre-drilled and put screws in — 104.

With four teams working feverishly on ramps, DaWinners took the lead at the fifth leg and raced back to the pit stop to receive their sixth and final assignment: a Sudoku puzzle followed by an obstacle course.

"The people who did this are really creative," Matthews said.

Peggy Barbee, who led the team that planned the race, said this event was definitely a learning process.

"I almost wish I wasn't in charge of it so I could participate," she said.

After handing out awards to winners of each leg of the race and the spa package and lunch for DaWinners, Barbee said she hoped the ladies took something away from the race.

"Every day each of us runs the real amazing race which is spreading God's word," she said.

The race has been inspiring to Barbour on another level as well.

After not being able to move well the next day, she and her family are now riding bikes together at least four times a week.

She hopes more will get involved next year.

"I just thought it was awesome how it played out," Barbour said, "but in the end ... everything we did was to glorify God."

During the day, volunteers were recording the event for posterity. The ladies will view the video this month.

A photo gallery from the day is available here.

8/11/2008 10:38:00 AM by Dianna L. Cagle, BR Assistant Managing Editor | with 3 comments

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