August 2011

Wanted: Missionaries with accounting skills

August 12 2011 by Laura Fielding, Baptist Press

RICHMOND, Va. — Jake Grece* sits at his computer in Africa answering email from a missionary couple. They have a question about their finances and Grece is their man — an International Mission Board (IMB) missionary working as an accountant.

Today Grece is in the office processing financial reports, sorting expense claims and punching numbers into a database, but tomorrow he and a local pastor will hold an outdoor evangelism service where they will share the gospel with nationals.

Accountants may not be the first image that pops into people’s heads when talking about missionaries, but that’s exactly how Grece, a Nebraska native, answered his call to missions. He uses his financial skills in the office while also focusing on ministering to those around him — whether it’s frazzled missionaries or local villagers.

They are a “missionary first with an assignment to do financial support,” said Lynn Burton, associate vice president for the IMB’s office of finance. “That’s the one thing to always focus on. (On) our job description, the very first line is ‘witnessing and participating in Christian life.’”

IMB missionaries serve as accountants in four financial support centers overseas, taking care of personnel in the Americas, Eurasia, Asia and Africa. Currently, all the centers need more missionaries with the skills to do financial work plus a heart to reach others with the gospel.

The position requires standard duties of a finance worker: reviewing and reimbursing personnel spending, transferring funds, processing expense reports and communicating with personnel who have financial questions or issues.

Burton, who works in the board’s Richmond, Va., office, served for almost 20 years as a missionary in Africa. Though he worked in financial support and administration, he also started two churches, conducted marriage enrichment seminars and taught Bible studies. “Financial stewardship (enabled me to live) in some of the countries,” he said.

Missionary accountants in Africa try to get out of the office at least one day each week to minister to their people groups. While Grece and a local pastor lead a Bible study in a poverty-stricken shantytown, other missionaries work in an AIDS orphanage, teach the Bible through storytelling and volunteer with local churches.

Grece said he enjoys his duties of handling expenses and accounting — a ministry in itself. He likes to help people with their finances, which “takes a lot of stress off their plates, where many live in high-stress areas and ministries already,” he said.

Jeff Whitlow,* an IMB missionary and a New York native, has served in both types of missionary work: strategy and support. After working for two years in South Asia as a strategy coordinator for an unengaged, unreached people group, he moved to Southeast Asia to work in the financial support office. Whitlow also teaches classes at a local seminary twice a week, eating lunch with his students and staying after class to talk with them and answer questions.

Whitlow still has a heart for South Asian people, so in between working and teaching he spends time ministering to Indians who live nearby. He is grateful that his work schedule allows him to be involved in a variety of ministries.

“Even though a lot of people might feel like their predominant role is accounting, there’s still plenty of opportunities to be able to look for opportunities to share, and you have that flexibility to pick and choose what area in particular you want to focus on,” Whitlow said. Burton said he advises accountants to not only work with other missionaries but also to develop relationships with them, minister to them and serve as an encouragement. Whitlow implements this by asking missionaries to send him their update letters and prayer requests.

“When we were on the field and I had a problem, or I needed money for some emergency right away, or I wasn’t clear about something, I knew that I could just call the (financial) office. I knew most of them by name...,” Whitlow said.

Burton likens the different roles of missionaries to the body of Christ: a variety of gifts and a diversity of spirit. “It’s a smorgasbord of gifts but with a holistic focus of using these to impact the countries where they are (living) with Jesus Christ,” he said.

Individuals interested in pursuing missionary service may call IMB’s office of global personnel toll-free at (800) 999-3113 or visit

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Fielding is a summer intern writer with the International Mission Board.)
8/12/2011 6:56:00 AM by Laura Fielding, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

$1M to embrace unreached voted by SBTC

August 10 2011 by Tammi Reed Ledbetter, Baptist Press

GRAPEVINE, Texas — The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention’s (SBTC) Executive Board has granted $1 million from reserve funds to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International missions and encouraged Southern Baptist churches in Texas to “embrace” 1,000 of the 3,800 unengaged people groups identified by the International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“We are a lean machine unencumbered by debt,” declared SBTC President Byron McWilliams, pastor of First Baptist Church in Odessa, after the Executive Board’s Aug. 9 actions. “That makes a huge difference in our ability to do what we’re going to do.”

Calling the SBTC a convention “built by faith by men and women who refuse to accept little vision and well-worn paths,” McWilliams said, “We are unafraid to attempt the impossible.” With over half of the world’s 7 billion people having very limited access to the gospel, the IMB encourages local churches to begin with church-wide focused prayer.

The unanimous actions of the SBTC board came in response to the challenge of IMB President Tom Elliff at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Phoenix to “embrace” the ends of the earth. Concern over the reduction in missionary deployments due to shortages of funds led SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards to suggest sharing a portion of reserve funds.

Members of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention’s Executive Board view a video by International Mission Board President Tom Elliff recapping the call to embrace people groups worldwide for which Christians have yet to initiate church-planting strategies.

Designating the million-dollar gift to the Lottie Moon Offering will help put more missionaries on the field and support those already deployed. SBTC’s board agreed to reduce operating reserves from six months to just under five months in order to provide the grant.

“This is a big decision,” acknowledged administrative committee chairman Gregg Simmons, pastor of Church at the Cross in Grapevine. “At the current rate of growth and level of giving, it’s going to take several years to rebuild those reserves, but I don’t share that with any sense of hesitation. We want to be part of a fresh vision from IMB, have considered this and feel it is a good decision.”

Board members will be updated on further discussions with Elliff regarding participation of Texas churches. While the SBTC’s Nov. 14-15 annual meeting will feature a session on the needs in India, Richards said the convention wants to facilitate Southern Baptist churches in Texas to go anywhere in the world where God calls them to embrace one of these groups. At, the IMB offers guidance on studying a people group’s location and culture and the development of a strategy to reach them with the gospel. An interactive map identifies 3,800 people groups with no active church-planting strategy among them and less than a 2 percent evangelical presence.

One of four Embrace Equipping Conferences will be held in Cedar Hill southwest of Dallas on Oct. 27 at Hillcrest Baptist Church. To register visit or contact (800) 999-3113.

Criswell College President Jerry Johnson, in his report to the SBTC board, also told of the school’s commitment to embrace one of these unengaged people groups with plans for repeat visits by students to the region where a missions strategy will be developed.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Reed Ledbetter is news editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas.)
8/10/2011 7:55:00 AM by Tammi Reed Ledbetter, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Rankin to lead Muslim studies at CIU

August 10 2011 by Baptist Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Jerry Rankin, retired president of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board (IMB), has agreed to direct the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies at Columbia International University (CIU) in Columbia, S.C. Rankin succeeds current director Warren Larson, who will retire in 2012 but continue to serve in a teaching and writing role, according to a new release from the university.

Rankin retired July 31, 2010, after 17 years as International Mission Board president and 23 years of missionary service in Asia, initially in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world.

Rankin brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the area of Muslim studies, said Mike Barnett, associate dean of CIU’s College of Intercultural Studies.

“Dr. Rankin’s decades of service with the IMB are invaluable as we look to the future at the Zwemer Center and consider new venues for Muslim studies both inside CIU’s College of Intercultural Studies and assisting the church outside the university,” Barnett said.

The Zwemer Center offers a curriculum on Muslim Studies, including a master’s degree, and sponsors research, seminars, dialogues and training conferences. Rankin will continue to live at his home in Mississippi while giving direction to planning, administration and implementation of the Columbia International program, the news release noted.

Columbia International University is a private, Christian, multidenominational institution with 1,200 students from 40-plus states and 30-plus countries overseas enrolled in CIU’s five colleges, including the College of Intercultural Studies.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Mark Kelly.)
8/10/2011 7:54:00 AM by Baptist Press | with 0 comments

In war-weary Ivory Coast, churches were a haven

August 10 2011 by William Haun, Baptist Press

BROBO, Ivory Coast — It is the day of Pentecost, and pastor Dabilla Kambou stands smiling in front of an armed soldier at a military checkpoint outside Brobo, the village Kambou wants to enter. The pastor is known for his wide grin that can defuse the most tense situations.

The guard can’t help but smile back as he shakes Kambou’s hand and asks, “Where are you going?”

“To church,” Kambou replies, “for the big celebration.”

A minute later he’s back on his motorcycle and on his way again, still smiling. “That’s nothing,” he says of the easy encounter.

During Ivory Coast’s nearly nine-year-long civil war, most encounters at military checkpoints were intimidating. Soldiers would all but strip search civilians and rummage through their bags for weapons and anything of value. Individuals found suspect often were beaten, jailed and sometimes executed.

Photo by William Haun

Believers in Brobo, Ivory Coast, sing and dance at a multi-ethnic celebration of God’s provision during their country’s divisive civil war. “We have been studying the Book of Acts and we wanted to eat together, fellowship and worship in agape love like the disciples used to,” deacon Arnaud Kouassi Brou says.

Kambou would make the nearly 20-mile journey from Bouaké to Brobo every month by bicycle. Otherwise, traveling in a personal motor vehicle almost guaranteed he would be accosted and have the vehicle commandeered by soldiers.

“It was hard,” Kambou says, shaking his head. “The war didn’t do any good for our country, but good things did happen during the war.”

Those good things are the reason for the celebration he is attending at Brobo Baptist Church. Throughout the war, the congregation not only preserved, but thrived.

Deacon Arnaud Kouassi Brou explains his congregation’s decision to set aside a day of jubilation: “We wanted to stop everything and give thanks. We need to recognize all that God has done.”

In 2003, Brobo was flooded with refugees from nearby Bouaké, Ivory Coast’s second-largest city. International peacekeepers had established Brobo as a demilitarized zone, and it became a safe haven for people fleeing the fighting between government and rebel troops.

Brobo Baptist Church had over a dozen new believers who wanted to be baptized, but they had no pastor. So they called on Kambou, who pastors a Baptist church in Bouaké.

That long bicycle ride to baptize 15 men and women was the first of many as he became their “honorary pastor.” Kambou returned once a month to preach, often baptizing new believers after the Sunday services.

“I baptized the majority of the members of their church,” he says. “They were people who fled the war zones. They had no idea they would encounter Jesus here.”

Photo by William Haun

“The war didn’t do any good for our country, but good things did happen during the war,” says Ivory Coast pastor Dabilla Kambou, who made monthly bicycle trips to Brobo Baptist Church to nurture its ministry in the community.

Kambou soon began holding leadership training workshops with the church’s deacons and elders. He was impressed by their wisdom and passion for their church.

“They’re such smart people. I just needed to help them develop a vision [for the church] and then they ran with it,” he recounts.

The group focused on keeping the church unified during the ongoing, bloody strife. They met with the village chief and the mayor to establish that they had no political interest. “We supported neither one side nor the other; we were there for our community,” Brou says.

One community project the church spearheaded was the construction of a mill for the village to process rice and corn. “People often say that Christians don’t do anything but pray,” Brou laughs. “We want to show them that in addition to prayer, we attend to the social needs of the community.”

Kambou was amazed by their initiative. “It wasn’t an idea I gave them. They came up with it on their own through the wisdom they received from God,” he said. “He opened their eyes to ways the church can reach out.”

In early 2011, Ivory Coast erupted with violence once again, and it had a profound effect on Brobo. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the commercial capital of Abidjan and headed into the country’s interior. Villages like Brobo saw their populations double, even triple, as residents of the city sought refuge in their ancestral villages.

“The months were a time we will never forget. It was such a difficult time,” Brou recalls. Despite the difficulties, the church remained strong and members took care of each other.

“If someone had two kilos of rice, he’d give one kilo to another. If someone had some yams, they would share them. We spent the two months unified as a church,” Brou says.

He points to scripture as the inspiration for their thanksgiving celebration on Pentecost. “We have been studying the Book of Acts and we wanted to eat together, fellowship and worship in agape love like the disciples used to.”

Christians around the world remember Pentecost as a day the unifying power of the Holy Spirit was made evident. On this Pentecost in Brobo, the Spirit moved again, bringing believers from different denominations, ethnic groups and political parties together for the unified purpose of glorifying God.

Brobo Baptist Church invited representatives from all the other evangelical churches in the area to praise the Lord and share a meal.

“We didn’t buy this food here,” Brou says as he proudly points to the dozens of covered pots in the church. “Each church member prepared food and brought it to share with everyone.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Haun is a long-term volunteer who works alongside the International Mission Board’s global communication team. To see more photos and video from Ivory Coast, visit

Related story

In Ivory Coast, church begins to heal
8/10/2011 7:37:00 AM by William Haun, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

In Ivory Coast, churches begin to heal

August 10 2011 by William Haun, Baptist Press

ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST — The air is filled with a nauseating, thick, black smoke. Three months ago, the smoke came from gunpowder and vehicles set ablaze — along with horrific “necklacings,” modern-day lynchings in which a victim is burned alive when a gasoline-filled tire is placed around him and set on fire.

Today, however, the plumes of smoke are from dozens of dilapidated 16-passenger vans known as “gbakas,” each filled to capacity and speeding up and down streets that once were battlefields, laced with potholes, but now bustling with activity once again. Street vendors mob vehicles stopped at red lights and press their wares against the windows. City workers in orange hazard vests busily sweep trash out of the roads with straw brooms. Bus stations are crammed with travelers bringing merchandise both into and out of the city.

Earlier in the year, Abidjan’s commerce came to a standstill and the streets were empty as people hid in their homes to escape the violence. A noon curfew was imposed, and even then only those most desperate for food and water came out in the mornings.

Photo by William Haun

Baptist pastors have been preaching on love and forgiveness for the violence that has plagued Ivory Coast.

The battle for Abidjan lasted for months between fighters supporting the winner of last November’s presidential election, Alassane Ouattara, and government troops backing the former president, Laurent Gbagbo.

When Gbagbo refused to step down, bloody urban warfare spread across Abidjan’s neighborhoods, taking the lives of at least 3,000 people. The fighting culminated with U.N. intervention on April 11 of this year when the presidential palace was bombarded and Gbagbo finally surrendered.

The months leading up to that fateful day were incredibly difficult for Abidjan’s populace — no matter which (if any) political candidate they supported. The city’s water supply was shut off and food prices tripled as a result of the siege.

Edith Vilquin*, a resident who works as a house maid, spent her life’s savings to feed her family during the lockdown. “If my children had gone out in the streets they would have been shot,” she says. “I’m an old lady, so the militants left me alone.”

She raises her hands above her head and says, “This is how I walked. For a month, this is how we all walked.”

Like Vilquin, most residents of neighborhoods overrun with soldiers fled to areas with less direct violence, with a well-established Baptist church in one such neighborhood opening its doors to refugees from churches across town.

“At one point we had over 60 people here at the church,” Joseph Armoo*, the church’s pastor, says. “They slept in our Sunday School rooms and we shared our meals.”

The refugees included other Baptist pastors and their families.

“I can’t stress how much of a blessing our brothers and sisters in Christ were,” Baptist pastor Kouame Pacome* recounts.

His neighborhood saw some of the worst fighting during the crisis. His church facility closed after looters took all its furniture, musical instruments and even lighting fixtures. Pacome and his wife hid in their home for weeks before finally fleeing to Armoo’s church. During the month he spent at his newfound refuge, he never went without food.

Photo by William Haun

Crowds gather around newsstands daily in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to read the latest headlines about their government in transition. The country plunged into violence after the disputed presidential election in November 2010. In April 2011, the former president surrendered and the fighting finally dissipated. 

“I had three meals a day, every day. It was amazing,” Pacome says. Although his church members were displaced across the city, they went to great lengths not only to telephone and check up on him, but also to send money and supplies.

Armoo credits God with providing for the people taking refuge at his church compound. “Every day, someone would show up to give us help. One day, a Christian woman showed up at the gate with a bunch of mattresses for us.”

On other days, believers would come by and give them money to buy food. “It was by the grace of God that we survived this!” he exclaims.

The refugees came from neighborhoods and ethnic groups known to support opposing sides of the conflict. Yet they shared their meals and lodging together.

“Your blood family is a gift from God. It’s good, but it has its limits,” Pacome says. “There is death, there is old age, there is separation ... but your family in Christ is eternal.”

As the new government calls for reconciliation among the population, believers are seeing an opportunity to reach out.

“The church’s message has always been one of reconciliation. A person who gives himself to the Lord becomes a new person,” Armoo says. “After all,” he continues, “we are supposed to be different. The time is now to show the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian.”

At times during the conflict, and even after the U.N. intervention, the fighting seemed on the verge of becoming religious. The U.N. Operation in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) reports that heavily armed troops raided the premises of a Jesuit institution on April 17. One of the soldiers reportedly stated they were attacking under the perception that the Catholic Church supported their opposition’s forces and was being used to hide weapons. UNOCI notes that not a single weapon was found.

This prompted Muslim and Christian leaders to meet at Armoo’s church to discuss how to ease such tensions and dispel harmful rumors.

Many neighborhoods selected both religious and ethnic leaders in their communities to form “reconciliation committees.” François Gico*, another Baptist pastor who sought refuge with Armoo, is on one of these committees.

“I’m happy, even proud, to be a part of the community leadership with Muslim imams,” Gico says. “We have to work together to help keep the peace.”

Both Gico and Pacome have since returned to their respective neighborhoods and their churches are holding services once again, with attendance slowly returning to pre-conflict numbers as members return to the city.

“It’s by the grace of God that we are alive,” says Gico, who had a brush with death when a stray bullet came through the church office roof and struck beside him.

It is with that realization that Gico and the other pastors have been emphasizing the importance of evangelism to their congregations. “Yes, we are hurting,” Gico says, “but in Jesus, people can still have hope.”

“After all,” Pacome says as he holds up his Bible, “if God allowed us to live through this ordeal, then He has a mission for us.”

*Names changed.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Haun is a long-term volunteer who works alongside the International Mission Board’s global communication team. To see more photos and video from Ivory Coast, visit

Related story
In war-weary Ivory Coast, churches were a haven
8/10/2011 7:26:00 AM by William Haun, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Religious restrictions increased for 2 billion

August 10 2011 by Lauren Markoe, Religion News Service

A third of the world — about 2.2 billion people — live in nations where restrictions on religion have substantially increased, according to a new report.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study, released Aug. 9, also shows intolerant countries growing more hostile to religious freedom, and tolerant ones growing more accommodating.

“There seems to be somewhat of a polarization,” particularly in countries with constitutional prohibitions against blasphemy, said Brian Grim, the primary researcher of the report. “When you have one set of restrictions in place then it’s easier to add on.”

Among those nations with the greatest increases in government religious restrictions, ranked from most to least populous, were: Egypt, France, Algeria, Uganda and Malaysia. Among those nations where government restrictions declined, ranked from most to least populous, were: Greece, Togo, Nicaragua, Republic of Macedonia and Guinea-Bissau.

The report, culling data from 198 countries and territories from 2006 through 2009, also measured social hostility toward religious groups. North Korea, one of the most repressive regimes, could not be included for lack of reliable data.

Researchers collected statistics before the Arab Spring, but said the report may shed light on this year’s uprisings across the Middle East.

“It’s indisputable that increasing levels of restriction were part of the overall context within which the uprisings took place,” Grim said. “Whether they were the trigger or they were just part of this trend in societies is difficult to tease apart at this point.”

As other reports on religious freedom have found, it is scarcest in the Middle East and North Africa. But Europe, the study noted, has the largest proportion of countries where social hostilities related to religion rose. In France, for example, women are barred by law from wearing face-covering veils.

More than other groups, Muslims and Christians suffered harassment based on their religion. But Pew researchers noted that together, these groups comprise more than half the world’s population. Smaller religious groups that suffered disproportionately, the study found, included Jews. Representing less than one percent of the world’s people, Jews were harassed in 75 countries.

Overall, about 70 percent of the world lives in nations with significant religious repression — a figure that matched that of a similar study Pew undertook two years ago. But the nations in which religious repression is increasing tend to be populous, the study’s authors noted.
8/10/2011 7:20:00 AM by Lauren Markoe, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

New NAMB role seeks to boost ethnic involvement

August 9 2011 by Mike Ebert, Baptist Press

ALPHARETTA, Ga. — A new role created by the North American Mission Board (NAMB) will help the entity maintain a strong focus on minority ministry needs and facilitate leadership opportunities for minorities throughout Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) life.

NAMB president Kevin Ezell created the role of presidential ambassador for ethnic church relations shortly after messengers at the SBC in Phoenix voted to approve a recommendation citing the “need to be proactive and intentional in the inclusion of individuals from all ethnic and racial identities within Southern Baptist life.”

Ezell has named Ken Weathersby to fill the role.

“I think messengers sent a clear signal in Phoenix that they want to see a broader spectrum of ethnic involvement in the SBC,” Ezell said. “This new role will help facilitate that.”

Ken Weathersby is NAMB’s new presidential ambassador for ethnic church relations.

Weathersby most recently served as associate vice president for ethnic mobilization at NAMB. He has previously served in leadership positions in NAMB’s church planting and evangelism areas as well. He has also served in an evangelism leadership role with the Tennessee Baptist Convention and pastored churches in Baton Rouge, La., and Cincinnati.

“All of us need to be doing whatever it takes — as our president, Kevin Ezell, says — to reach all peoples,” Weathersby said. “So I’m asking ‘How can we strengthen what we’re doing? How can we plant more churches? How can we show we value everyone and that we all need to work cooperatively?’”

Weathersby’s role will be fully funded by NAMB, but he will spend part of his time working with the SBC Executive Committee as it seeks to implement recommendations made by the Executive Committee’s ethnic study workgroup regarding ethnic involvement in SBC life.

Based on a motion presented at the 2009 SBC annual meeting in Louisville, Ky., the Executive Committee workgroup examined “how ethnic churches and ethnic church leaders can be more actively involved in serving the needs of the SBC through cooperative partnership on the national level.”

On Feb. 22, the Executive Committee approved a 10-part recommendation that was presented at the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting in June. Messengers voted overwhelmingly in favor of the recommendations that asked for greater accountability regarding increased diversity in leadership and participation of ethnics in the SBC.

“I am so excited about this joint endeavor with NAMB in which we will encourage our ethnic brothers and sisters to new levels of cooperation and mission involvement,” said Frank Page, president and CEO of the Executive Committee.

“Ken Weathersby is a dear friend and a man whom I respect deeply,” Page said. “He is uniquely qualified for this position and I will enjoy every moment of working with him.

“Having worked with him at the North American Mission Board, I know his heart and his ability. This is a win-win for Southern Baptists!”

Weathersby says a key part of his role will be to forge and strengthen relationships with Southern Baptist ethnic fellowships. He hopes that will lead to more ethnic involvement in SBC life.

“As we have more involvement, hopefully we will have more ownership,” Weathersby said. “That includes responsibility and accountability. Promoting our missions offerings and the Cooperative Program and holding up the value of our missionaries — all of these are part of our responsibilities.”

Since NAMB’s formation in 1997, the entity has led Southern Baptists to place an emphasis on ethnic church planting. More than half of all SBC churches planted or affiliated with the SBC since 1997 have been African-American or ethnic.

“NAMB will not take a step back from ethnic church planting,” Ezell said. “At the same time, we are asking our ethnic churches to take a step up in supporting the Cooperative Program and our missions offerings.”

Paul Kim, pastor emeritus of Antioch Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass., made the motion in 2009 which called on the SBC to study how ethnic churches and leaders could play a larger role in SBC life.

Kim said he was “very pleased” to hear of the creation of the new position and Weathersby’s appointment to it. He said it “demonstrates a commitment from the SBC” to the historic “Affirmation of Unity and Cooperation” document signed by entity leaders, state executives and ethnic fellowship leaders at the Executive Committee meeting June 13 and presented to messengers during the Executive Committee report at the SBC annual meeting.

“It will be the beginning of a journey ... to work together as equal partners for His kingdom to strengthen our beloved denomination, which has a rich spiritual heritage in its history rooted on the bedrock of missions,” Kim said.

With NAMB’s new Send North America church planting focus and IMB’s new assignment to assist in reaching people groups in North America, Weathersby believes the timing of his new role is opportune.

“It’s an appropriate time for Southern Baptists to continue to highlight the importance of reaching all people with the Gospel and having all ethnic representation in the convention,” he said.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Ebert is vice president for communications at the North American Mission Board.)
8/9/2011 7:35:00 AM by Mike Ebert, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

States scramble to find prison chaplains

August 9 2011 by Yonat Shimron and Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service

RALEIGH — In the two months since North Carolina’s legislature laid off most of its prison chaplains, Betty Brown, director of prison chaplaincy services, has been crisscrossing the state searching for volunteers who can attend to the religious needs of Native American, Wiccan and Rastafarian prisoners.

State legislators had assumed volunteer ministries would jump in and help prisoners meet the ritual and devotional needs of their faiths. But so far, that hasn’t happened.

“It’s been tough locating volunteers for those faith groups,” said Brown, whose department lost 26 full-time prison chaplains as part of an effort to close a $2.6 billion state budget gap.

Across the nation, religious life behind bars is changing as correctional departments face budget cuts along with other state agencies. Some states like North Carolina have seen outright cuts. In other states, vacancies due to hiring freezes mean no replacements for chaplains who die or retire.

Gary Friedman, spokesman for the American Correctional Chaplains Association, said his organization distributes brochures to explain to legislators mulling cuts the benefits of retaining correctional chaplains.

“Chaplains are getting caught up in all these budget reductions and staff reductions,” he said. “It’s going on all over the country.”

Some states, such as Texas, were able to spare chaplains in the budget negotiations. But in other states, prison chaplains are seeing increasing workloads in tough economic times, even as the religious diversity of inmates continues to grow.

In California, where about 130 prison chaplains are currently employed, there are three dozen vacancies.

At the California Men’s Colony, a medium- and minimum-security prison in San Luis Obispo, Rabbi Lon Moskowitz, the Jewish chaplain, is helping fulfill the duties of a Muslim chaplain who died a few months ago.

“Twice a month ... I oversee their Juma prayer,” he said.

During Passover and summer solstice observances, he said, some Jewish and Native American inmates were unable to attend communal events due to lockdowns in their yards prompted by budget-related shortages in guards.

“They had to observe their religious service within their assigned housing unit,” said Lt. Dean Spears, a spokesman for the facility.

Indiana’s prisons — which have nine vacancies among 37 chaplain positions — have had similar restrictions when overseen by skeleton crews at times when inmates might have attended chapel, said Stephen Hall, director of religious services for the Indiana Department of Correction.

When there’s a drastic cut in chaplains, as in North Carolina, questions arise about everyday religious concerns as well as special or weekly observances.

“Lay people tend to think chaplains perform services on holy days,” said D. Craig Horn, a North Carolina legislator who opposed his state’s chaplaincy cuts. “My view is a professional chaplain adds stability and has a tremendous impact on promoting calm and providing prisoners with counseling and direction.”

A onetime church volunteer who helped prisoners prepare for the world outside, Horn also knows that volunteers aren’t trained to do the kind of interfaith work that chaplains provide daily — whether it’s kosher meals for Jews, prayer rugs for Muslims, or sage and sweet grass for American Indians to burn as they offer praise to the Four Winds.

Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, said chaplains are the ones most likely to help inmates after riots, rapes and other traumatic incidents or to facilitate special requests — like a phone call from a relative near death.

“For the safety of the institution, it’s important that persons going through those horrible situations have someone to help them to defuse the situation,” he said. “Otherwise, tension can get really high or out of control.”

Nolan said his evangelical organization — which also has faced its own staff cuts due to the economy — urged volunteers to contact legislators and fight for the Texas chaplains.

With North Carolina, there simply wasn’t time: “It was a done deal before we could mobilize anybody.”

But the well-being and safety of prisoners aren’t the only reasons to keep chaplains. There are legal issues too, state prison officials say.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 puts government agencies on alert that they can’t get in the way of the free religious practice of prisoners. With no professional chaplains left in North Carolina’s medium and minimum-security prisons, that legal requirement has become the biggest headache for Brown, the prison chaplaincy director.

Some worry the civil rights of prisoners may be violated by volunteer Christian ministries who, however sincere, may also be motivated to make converts.

“Inmates have a right to practice their faith while they’re incarcerated,” said Mark Reamer, a Roman Catholic priest who has celebrated Mass at a Raleigh prison for the past 16 years. “Chaplains ensure a certain fairness.”

Tom O’Connor, a former Oregon prison chaplain who runs the company Transforming Corrections, said chaplains have to advocate more effectively about their contributions — not only supporting inmates but mobilizing volunteers and helping with re-entry programs that can reduce recidivism.

“Most of these prisoners are going to get out,” said Horn, the North Carolina state legislator. “We don’t want them to come back. That would be a lousy investment. The state of North Carolina needs to protect its investment.”

Related story
Prominent prison ministry fires 72, citing economy
8/9/2011 7:28:00 AM by Yonat Shimron and Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Prominent prison ministry fires 72, citing economy

August 9 2011 by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service

Prison Fellowship, a prominent evangelical ministry to inmates, has laid off dozens of employees, citing the faltering economy.

A total of 72 staffers were let go as part of a restructuring that included new leaders as of July 18. Jim Liske, a former pastor in Michigan, began as CEO and Garland Hunt, a former Atlanta pastor, is now president.

“Like many nonprofits in the wake of this economy, Prison Fellowship has had to deal with shrinking resources and rising costs,” said Frank Lofaro, executive vice president of the ministry.

The ministry was founded in 1976 by ex-convict and Nixon aide Chuck Colson. Lofaro declined to disclose the current total number of Prison Fellowship staffers.

“Prison Fellowship is not focusing on its recent staff reductions but rather on the new season it is embarking on for the ministry,” Lofaro said in a statement.

The ministry, which turns 35 this month of August, works with about 8,500 churches and 14,000 volunteers to support prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.

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States scramble to find prison chaplains
8/9/2011 7:25:00 AM by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Arlington church goes deep in Muslim community

August 9 2011 by IMB staff

ARLINGTON, Texas — Jason Thibeaux said he wasn’t really afraid of Muslims. But he definitely didn’t love them, either.

“I was indifferent to Muslims, and that broke my heart,” he said. “That was almost the worst scenario — that I would treat them as though they weren't even there. You go have your life, and I'll have mine, and hopefully we never interact.”

But Thibeaux, Sunday School director of Lake Arlington Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, began to notice God at work in his heart. He started noticing Muslims. His community was full of them.

God “very much convicted my heart,” Thibeaux said. “(My attitude) needed to change and I needed to do something since He'd brought them here to my back door. I needed to be a part of His mission here locally in making sure that they got to hear the gospel.”

A young Kurdish girl wearing a Froot Loop necklace and handcrafted bracelets she recently made in a weekly crafts time hosted by members of Lake Arlington Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.

So he and his Sunday School class — which had been focusing on missions — decided to build relationships with their Muslim neighbors in Arlington.

“We (the class) had some really good discussions about what is missions and, you know, it's not just those who do it as a career — it's us. It's supposed to be us, at least,” Thibeaux said.

Thibeaux began training to teach ESL, and he and his wife and another Sunday School member connected with a local ministry to begin classes in an area of town where a number of Muslims lived.

At first, no one came. For weeks.

“That was somewhat heartbreaking,” he said.

But then they began to see children coming, and though some won’t participate when the group shares Bible stories, some will. “Some of them are getting it,” Thibeaux said.

Todd Virnoche says the same thing.

His kids participated in Lake Arlington’s backyard Bible clubs and came home saying they couldn’t believe the mission field was so big in their own hometown. “They were surprised that kids hadn’t even heard of Jesus and they were living here in Arlington, Texas,” Virnoche said.

Since then, Virnoche and others have been knocking on the doors of their Muslim neighbors, taking them school supplies, giving them financial help, teaching them English.

Kurdish children play kickball with members of Lake Arlington Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas during their weekly Sunday afternoon recreation, crafts, and Bible story time.

When one little girl, Joanne, got critically injured in an accident, Virnoche went nearly every day for 72 days to pray with the family in the hospital. She lived, and because of his investment of time and relationship, she and all her family and friends welcomed him in as a close friend.

“There was a trust that was established there by God’s grace — the fact that we (the church) were able to be there and to help and minister to them a little bit, Virnoche said.

Thibeaux said that long-haul relationships are what they are all about.

“The thing that's been different about this is it’s not just an event to build up to. It’s not just ,‘OK, I'll take a week off work and I'll do my duty of missions and then I'm through,’” he said. “It's really been a thing where God said, ‘You're here, I brought them to you. Why not love them and make that part of your life?’ We're called to love them. God's brought them here, He's put us here for a reason. It's not an accident. We're supposed to love them because they are our neighbors.”

For more information on how to reach your Muslim neighbors with Christ’s love, visit offers a two-week small-group study and an eight-day prayer guide for use with the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this September. It also offers sermon outlines, feature stories and videos and additional resources.

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American Muslims hopeful about life in the U.S.
8/9/2011 7:11:00 AM by IMB staff | with 0 comments

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