August 2014

Farm owners fined for saying no to lesbian wedding

August 20 2014 by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Religion News Service

Christian farm owners in upstate New York who declined a lesbian couple’s request to hold a wedding ceremony on their property have been fined $10,000 and ordered to pay the women $1,500 each. 
Cynthia and Robert Gifford, who own Liberty Ridge Farm near Albany, rent their facilities for birthday parties and about a dozen weddings each year.
When Jennifer McCarthy and Melisa Erwin, a same-sex couple from Newark, N.J., requested to use the facility for their 2012 wedding, Cynthia Gifford offered the farm for a reception, but not for the wedding ceremony. Weddings typically are conducted on the first floor of the Giffords’ home or in an adjacent field.
“It literally hits close to home,” said the Giffords’ lawyer, James Trainor. He said the farm owners attend a community church and cite their religious belief of marriage between a man and woman for declining to hold a same-sex wedding on their property.


Photo courtesy of Cutler, Trainor & Cutler LLP
Liberty Ridge Farm owners in upstate New York who declined a same-sex couple’s request to hold their wedding at the site have been fined and ordered to pay the couple.

Administrative Law Judge Migdalia Pares of the Bronx rejected the owners’ argument that the farm, which is also their home, is not a place of public accommodation and is therefore not subject to the anti-discrimination provisions of New York’s Human Rights Law.
The decision said Liberty Ridge qualifies as a public accommodation because it regularly collects fees for space, facilities, services and meals, so it cannot be considered “distinctly private.”
“The fact that the Giffords also reside at Gifford Barn,” the decision says, “does not render it private.”
The farmer owners must pay $13,000 in fines and restitution, the agency ruled. Trainor said the Giffords are considering whether to appeal or pursue further legal action.
“Liberty Ridge Farm … has employed gay people and has conducted events for same-sex couples,” Trainor said. “The Giffords’ objection was to hosting and participating in the wedding ceremony itself and not to providing service in general to lesbians.”
McCarthy asked if it was legal for the farm to have a policy not to have ceremonies on the site, and Gifford responded that it was because “we are a private business,” according to the case.
The women, who are now married, filed a complaint with New York’s Division of Human Rights, and the administrative law judge said that Liberty Ridge “unlawfully discriminated against complainants solely on the basis of their sexual orientation.”
“All New Yorkers are entitled to their own religious beliefs, but businesses cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation any more than they can based on race or national origin,” said Mariko Hirose of the New York Civil Liberties Union, lead counsel for the couple.
The farm case represents the most recent legal challenge to private businesses that provide services for weddings but refuse service to same-sex couples.
Last year, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that a Christian photographer could not refuse to shoot gay wedding ceremonies. Even though at the time the state did not officially recognize gay marriage, the court ruled that declining to photograph a gay wedding was similar to declining to work at an interracial wedding.
Most recently, a Pennsylvania bridal shop owner and a bakery owner turned away separate lesbian couples. Pennsylvania started allowing same-sex marriage in May after a federal judge struck down a ban on gay marriage in the state constitution.
Earlier this year, several states, including Kansas and Arizona, considered legislation that would allow people who object to same-sex marriage to cite their religious beliefs as a defense if faced with a discrimination lawsuit. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill in her state; the Kansas bill died in the state Senate.
Public accommodation laws usually don’t apply to private residences, which is why this case is more unusual than previous ones, said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“It is just another case in the many battles in the fight over public accommodation of same-sex marriages,” Winkler said. “If you want to open yourself up to the public, there’s a cost, which is that you can’t discriminate.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Sarah Pulliam Bailey joined RNS as a national correspondent in 2013. She has previously served as managing editor of Odyssey Networks and online editor for Christianity Today.)

8/20/2014 10:22:54 AM by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Evangelicals visit Israel to show support

August 20 2014 by David Roach, Baptist Press

A group of Christian leaders, hosted by National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) President Jerry Johnson, will travel to Israel Aug. 17-22 to show support for the Jewish state’s right to defend itself against attacks from Hamas and other adversaries.

Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Ronnie Floyd was invited to participate in the “Christians in Solidarity with Israel” trip, sponsored by NRB and coordinated by the Israel Ministry of Tourism, but had other obligations. Among Christian leaders scheduled to participate are Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and president emeritus of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Anne Graham Lotz, president of AnGeL Ministries; and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

“I regret I could not be a part of these meetings in Israel due to previously scheduled engagements,” Floyd told Baptist Press in written comments. “It would have been a joy to add my support and prayers for the nation of Israel. Southern Baptists have a heritage of affirming Israel’s rights to exist as a sovereign state in its ancient homeland, having adopted numerous resolutions opposing anti-Semitism and affirming the nation of Israel at our annual meetings.”

The trip will include visits with leaders and citizens of Israel, along with tours of the land, an NRB release stated.


Ronnie Floyd

Johnson said the visit will aim at “countering rising anti-Semitism in the international press and on the streets.”

“This friendship visit will communicate to Israel and to the Palestinians who stand in opposition to Hamas that we, leaders who represent the Christian community, stand with them,” Johnson said in a statement. “It will also show the world that Christians in general support the Jewish people and their right to security. In addition, this visit should serve as an example to all followers of Jesus Christ, specifically encouraging them to pray for the peace of Jerusalem so that the lives of all those living in this region can be secure.”

For more than a month, Israel has been engaged in a military campaign against the terrorist group Hamas to stop attacks from the Gaza Strip, where approximately 3,000 rockets have been fired into Israel. Palestinian supporters have criticized Israel for striking supposedly civilian targets, but Israel says Hamas has used schools, hospitals and mosques as rocket launch sites and weapons storage facilities, turning them into legitimate military targets. Hamas has also used civilians as human shields, increasing the number of civilian casualties in Gaza, Israel contends.

Among groups to criticize Israel in recent months are the International Committee of the Red Cross, which insinuated that the Jewish state has committed war crimes, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which voted in June to divest church funds from three American companies that do business with the Israeli military.

A global study of anti-Semitic attitudes released earlier this year by the New York-based Anti-Defamation League found that Gaza and the West Bank are the most anti-Semitic places in the world, with 93 percent of the population agreeing with common stereotypes about Jews such as, “Jews have too much power in international financial markets” and “Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars.” The study deemed a person anti-Semitic if he or she said six or more of 11 Jewish stereotypes were “probably true.” Worldwide, 26 percent of people hold anti-Semitic views, according to the study.

Roger S. Oldham, vice president for convention communications and relations with the SBC Executive Committee, told BP that many Southern Baptists support Israel.

“As the birthplace and homeland of our Messiah, many Southern Baptists view the land of Israel as hallowed ground,” Oldham said. “In addition, many Southern Baptists interpret the Old Testament blessings associated with God’s chosen people, through whom Messiah would come, as grounds for extending our blessing and support to the modern nation of Israel.”

The SBC has adopted numerous resolutions supporting Israel, including a 2008 resolution that expressed “appreciation” for the nation and called it “the birthplace of our Lord and a bastion of democracy in the Middle East.” A 2002 resolution supported “the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign state” and affirmed “God’s love for and offer of salvation in Christ to all people, including both Jewish and Palestinian people.”

At least five SBC resolutions have condemned anti-Semitism.

Jim Sibley, former director of the Pasche Institute for Jewish Studies at Criswell College in Dallas, told BP the upcoming NRB trip is important “because Israelis need to understand that evangelical Christians stand with Israel, even in times of greatest difficulty.”

Travelling to Israel involves no significant security risks, Sibley said, noting that “no tourists have even been injured” in the present conflict.

“When many in Europe and in the United Nations have been infected with anti-Semitism and are passionate in their denunciations of Israel, we need to stand with our friends in Israel. They need to know that evangelicals can be counted on,” Sibley, an adjunct professor at Criswell College and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said.

Whether or not they travel to the Middle East, Sibley echoed the need for Christians to support Israel because it produced the Messiah and most of the Bible, maintains the region’s only thriving democracy and has generated some of the world’s “greatest scientific and medical innovations.”

“Christians have every reason in the world to support Israel,” Sibley said.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press.)

8/20/2014 10:13:16 AM by David Roach, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Houston ordinance slated for January trial

August 20 2014 by Bonnie Pritchett, TEXAN/Baptist Press

A judge has set a Jan. 19 trial date for Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (ERO), continuing suspension of the ordinance due to a disputed petition to put the measure to a citywide vote.

Opponents of the ordinance, including a large number of Houston pastors, gathered thousands of signatures on the petition and submitted them to the city for validation in July. They say city officials acted outside of their charter-defined authority in disqualifying a portion of the signatures. City officials have denied the charge and said petition organizers “came to court with unclean hands.”

At least a dozen attorneys for the city and the lone attorney representing local pastors agreed to the January trial date in the 152nd District Court on Friday (Aug. 15) but not before accusations of wrongdoing were leveled by both sides during questioning by Judge Robert Schaffer.

Schaffer, who heard arguments in the lawsuit against the city by opponents of the ordinance, will preside over the jury trial in January. The lawsuit filed Aug. 5 by representatives of the No Unequal Rights Coalition alleges the city’s petition certification process, which resulted in the disqualification of more than half the petition pages, was unlawful and indiscriminate. They sought an injunction to overturn the city’s invalidation of the petition and to force a citywide vote on the ordinance. Attorneys for the city argued no misconduct occurred on the part of city officials but charged that petition circulators were guilty of wrongdoing.

City officials claim the petition gathering process was fraught with irregularities resulting in the disqualifications.


Photo by Bonnie Pritchett
Andy Taylor, the Houston attorney representing local pastors and petition organizers, tells reporters he was satisfied with the suspension of the controversial ordinance pending the outcome of a jury trial in January. Taylor said evidence will reveal the city acted unlawfully in disqualifying thousands of petition pages and the valid signatures on them.

“There are multiple incidences of fraud and non-compliance,” Geoffrey Harrison, an attorney with the Susman Godfrey law firm representing the city, told the judge.

Religious overtones interjected into the proceedings and comments to the media punctuated the battle over the ordinance which gives civil rights protection to individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

City Attorney David Feldman said following the hearing that local law firms were hired to help with the case and that some offered their services pro bono. He justified hiring the additional legal assistance because “we have some pretty powerful opponents.”

“You’re right!” someone shouted from the crowd of plaintiffs’ supporters, most of whom represented churches working to repeal the ordinance.

Feldman quipped, “They’re powerful in terms of their relationship with God.”

Andy Taylor, of Andy Taylor and Associates, was the lone representative arguing for the plaintiffs, while at least 12 attorneys representing the defendants – the city of Houston, Mayor Annise Parker and city secretary Anna Russell – sat across the table from him and two of his clients. Looking toward the opposing counsel, Taylor referenced David meeting Goliath at the start of the hearing.

Before formal proceedings began, Schaffer pressed Taylor to justify an injunction when a trial on the merits of the case was inevitable.

Taylor argued that the plaintiffs represent all Houston residents harmed by the city’s actions. The summary disqualification of petition signatures by the city attorney’s office was not “legally appropriate” and, therefore, stymied the opportunity for Houstonians to vote on the matter, Taylor said.

Taylor accused Parker of thwarting efforts to put the issue to a vote, claiming “her agenda is more important than their right to vote.”

Parker, a lesbian who in January travelled to California with her longtime partner Kathy Hubbard to get married, has said passage of the ordinance was personal because it was about her. LGBT advocates have rallied in support of the mayor and the fight for the ordinance.

Trying the merits of the case is exactly what Taylor told the court he wanted, as it will determine whether city administrators, Parker and Feldman in particular, acted outside the purview of the city charter in disqualifying more than half of the petitions.

“The charter is very specific,” Taylor told Schaffer. “Our legal case is we did all those things, and Anna Russell so found we did.”

Opponents of the ordinance circulated petitions calling for a referendum in June. Within 30 days 55,000 signatures were collected, and 31,000 were pre-verified by petition organizers and submitted to the city secretary July 3.

Before petition pages were expunged from consideration, Russell’s office had validated 17,846 out of 19,177 signatures, a 93 percent validation rate and more than enough to call for a vote on the ordinance. Feldman’s office, however, reviewed all 5,199 petition pages for proper submission criteria and found “irregularities” with 2,750 pages. In so doing, Russell was left roughly 15,000 signatures to inspect for validation, more than 2,000 shy of the required number to call a referendum. In a letter dated Aug. 1 to city council, Russell stated there were not enough valid signatures to certify a referendum.

“They have fabricated their entire case on a house of cards that has already fallen,” Harrison said of the petition gathering process.

Plaintiffs argued Feldman did not have the authority to dismiss the pages and that Russell’s initial validation of signatures should stand. Taylor told the judge he had evidence showing the criteria Feldman used to dismiss some pages were not drawn from the city charter and were inconsistently applied. He cited one petition page signed and circulated by Houston city councilman Oliver Pennington that had been dismissed because the councilman had used his common name, Oliver, and his legal name, Olin, on the same page.

Taylor also argued the charter article requiring all petition circulators be city of Houston registered voters is unconstitutional, citing U.S. Supreme Court and circuit court rulings.

Repeal of that mandate alone would clear thousands of signatures for validation and “catapult us beyond the required number,” Taylor said.

Among the plaintiffs are pastors, para-church leaders and citizens who have opposed the Equal Rights Ordinance since its introduction by Parker in April. The ERO, passed by city council in May, provides civil rights protections to individuals already covered by city, state and federal law and adds sexual orientation and sexual identity to the list of protected qualities.

As Taylor began presenting evidence for his case, Schaffer asked opposing counsel to meet him in his chambers. Following the brief recess, Schaffer declared both sides agreed to a trial on the merits of the case. The ordinance, which was suspended with the submission of the petitions, will remain suspended pending the outcome of the trial.

“We got everything we wanted,” Taylor told reporters following the hearing.

A win for the plaintiffs in January would put the matter before the city council which could then repeal the ordinance or call for a vote during the next general election in November 2015.

Parker, who was out of town, did not release a statement on the hearing, but Janice Evans, chief policy officer and director of communications for the mayor, said in an email to the Southern Baptist TEXAN, “The petition validation process was fair and legal. The plaintiffs simply didn’t meet the City Charter and Texas Election Code requirements for a voter referendum. From the beginning, we have been confident that the city’s process would be upheld by the courts. Today’s decisions in two courtrooms are further affirmation of that belief.”

In case of an unfavorable ruling by Schaffer, Taylor had also filed suit in the 14th State Court of Appeals asking the court require the city secretary to present her initial validation certification to city council. Justices William Boyce, Tracy Christopher and Martha Jamison remanded the case back to the 152nd District Court.

A press release from the Houston Area Pastors Council, an organization representing more than 300 area churches and an opponent of the ordinance, hinted there may be additional legal action to come that could place the ordinance on the November 2014 ballot.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.)

8/20/2014 9:57:44 AM by Bonnie Pritchett, TEXAN/Baptist Press | with 0 comments

91-year-old longs for next mission trip

August 19 2014 by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press

Dorothy Lockett would like to take a second mission trip to Kenya, but at 91, her daughter won’t allow it.

Lockett’s first mission trip was to Kenya at age 83. She joined fellow members of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Herndon, Va., on a weeklong trip to Nairobi.

“I had my birthday over there. I was 83 when we went … and 84 when I came back,” she said. “I knew they were going on a mission and someone asked me, ‘Would you like to go?’ And I said yes … so, I went.”


Photo courtesy of Dorothy Lockett
Dorothy Lockett, a member of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Herndon, Va., took her first mission trip at 83 to Nairobi, Kenya. She is now 91 and lives in Sterling, Va.  

“They were talking about going back on a trip this year and I was telling my daughter. I said, ‘I want to go back to Africa,’ and she said, ‘You’re not going;’ because I’m 90 years old, I take medication, so she says I don’t need to go,” Lockett told Baptist Press before her latest birthday. “But if I had the chance, I’d go back again.”

During Lockett’s young adulthood in Meridian, Miss., she was a member of First Union Baptist Church. The church was occupied with the turbulent civil rights struggle at the time, she said, and not focused on international missions. Lockett moved to Sterling, Va., 17 years ago to live with her daughter Eldna Smith.

“But I think now if I were able, that’s what I would like to do, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t have done more,” she said.

Lockett said she enjoyed her missions work in Kenya. The group stayed in a hotel and had a driver for local transportation.

“There was a revival, we attended it and we went out … to minister in other churches there. They split us up and different ones went to different churches,” she said. “We worshipped with them. We worshipped with a church full of women one time. It was just like being in church at home. They were listening and participating. The music was just wonderful.”

Lockett doesn’t recall the trip being rugged, but she said a stranger helped her down a steep hill.

“We supply wells for them over there. And we went to this one place where there was a well and we had to go down a steep hill. But there was a woman that came to me … and she helped me down the hill and up the hill. She stayed with me the whole time I was there,” Lockett said. “And you know, we just kind of bonded. And … I bonded with [the driver]; his name was Peter. He was very sweet to me; he’d just take care of me.”

It’s important to take mission trips, she said, “to share Christ, just to carry the Word.”

“I just believe I am led by God to do things,” Lockett said. “Everyone is shocked that I get around as well as I do. But I do good for my age.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is general assignment writer/editor for Baptist Press.)

8/19/2014 11:04:46 AM by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

N. Korea detainee’s family pleads for release

August 19 2014 by Rachel Lynn Aldrich, WNS/Baptist Press

The family of an American man detained in North Korea for “anti-state” crimes has apologized to the country and pleaded with officials to show mercy and release him, saying in a statement that they are desperate for him to return home.

Jeffrey Edward Fowle, 56, is from Miamisburg, Ohio. His wife and three children appeared at a newscast Aug. 12, but didn’t speak. Attorney and family friend Tim Tepe acted as their spokesperson, reading their statement and answering questions while they sat nearby. He said the family was not answering questions out of fear of compromising Fowle’s situation.

The State Department re-emphasized its commitment to Fowle’s release last week, but the Obama administration has not had any success getting the North Koreans to release another American detainee, Kenneth Bae, 45, who was arrested in November 2012 as he was leading a tour group in one of North Korea’s special economic zones for foreign investors. A Christian, Bae was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for plotting to overthrow the government.

Tepe said Tatyana Fowle, Jeffrey Fowle’s 40-year-old wife, and their family are struggling to survive financially. Fowle told her on a recent phone call that he was afraid the benefits from his job at the city streets department would run out soon.

“The kids miss their dad. That’s the bottom line,” Tepe said. Tatyana “is having to be mom and dad at this point for the past three months. ... I hear the desperation in her voice to get Jeff home.”

Fowle was detained sometime after arriving in North Korea on April 29 for what the country said were hostile actions that violated his tourist status. It is suspected that he left a Bible in a nightclub in Chongjin.

Tepe said Fowle was not on a church mission, but on a vacation tour in the country.

In February, the North Korean regime released Australian missionary John Short, who was arrested earlier this year for evangelizing. Short apologized to the government and begged for his freedom on a video released to the international media.

North Korean officials said they are preparing to bring Fowle and another American detainee, Matthew Todd Miller, 24, of Bakersfield, Calif., before a court. They have not specified what actions on the part of the Americans is considered hostile or illegal. The country has also not indicated what kind of punishment they might face.

Tatyana Fowle and her three children have written to President Barack Obama to ask for his intervention. They also reached out to former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Tepe said only Bush responded, though they have received assistance from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, and former congressman and United States diplomat Tony Hall.

The U.S. has no diplomatic ties with North Korea and no embassy there, but has offered to send a human rights envoy to Pyongyang to seek a pardon for the detainees. The U.S. State Department works with the Swedish embassy in North Korea in cases like this. A small number of U.S. citizens visit North Korea as tourists every year, something the State Department strongly discourages.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Rachel Lynn Aldrich is a writer for WORLD News Service. Used by permission.)

8/19/2014 10:51:58 AM by Rachel Lynn Aldrich, WNS/Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Islamic militias continue spread beyond Middle East

August 19 2014 by Fredrick Nzwili, Religion News Service

An Islamist group has gained ground in the northeastern Libyan city of Benghazi, declaring it an Islamic territory and raising fears that radical Islamist militias may spread in the rest of Africa.
The declaration from Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia movement mirrors the rise of the Islamic State in northern Iraq and Syria. The two militant movements share similar goals.
The prospect of more fighting and the possible disintegration of Libya, the country where NATO allied forces helped topple strongman Moammar Gadhafi in October 2011, sent chills throughout the nation.
“I think this is a risky way to go,” said Sheikh Saliou Mbacke, a Senegalese Muslim leader who is the coordinator of Inter-Faith Action for Peace in Africa.
“It hinges on the failure of the governments, lack of democracy and poor and unequal distribution of resources,” added Saliou.
These latest actions reflect the growing influence of Islamists in Africa, where militants are challenging existing governments.
In the Central African Republic, Seleka Islamic militants want to divide the country into an Islamic north and a Christian south. Boko Haram militants have issued a similar call in Nigeria.
This has put religious leaders in a bind and strained calls for coexistence, said Sheikh Juma Ngao, a Kenyan Muslim leader who is involved in interfaith actions.
So far, Christian leaders in Libya have vowed to stay, even if the country spins out of control.
“I intend to stay even if only one Christian is left,” Roman Catholic Bishop Giovanni Martinelli of Tripoli told the Fides news agency.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Fredrick Nzwili is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. For more than 15 years, he has written about religion, politics, peace and conflict, development, security, environment and wildlife.)

8/19/2014 10:43:08 AM by Fredrick Nzwili, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

In missions, pastor says, ‘Don’t despise small beginnings’

August 19 2014 by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press

Pastor James Graham of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and his wife Gloria were heading home one May Sunday when they heard on the radio the latest news of more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.

Pulling into the driveway of the couple’s home in Herndon, Va., Graham received a call from longtime friend James Dixon Jr., pastor of El-Bethel Baptist Church in Ft. Washington, Md.

“He said, ‘Man I think we need to go to Nigeria.’ So he said it first. And I said, ‘Man, flesh and blood did not reveal that to you.’ And so that’s how we got to Nigeria,” Graham told Baptist Press. “While the Southern Baptist Convention was taking place in Baltimore, he and I were in northern Nigeria.”

The two African American pastors have taken joint mission trips for nearly 20 years, teaching their congregations the importance of simultaneously ministering locally and internationally. Joined in Nigeria by Lincoln Brownell Jr., former president of Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary and current leader of Go Ye Ministries in Liberia, they met with 300 Nigerian Christian pastors and prayerwalked Abuja, Chibok and other northern communities.

“It was very encouraging to them,” Dixon said. “They galvanized those people just that fast. We didn’t have time to make any plans. When the Lord put it on our hearts we left; we got on a plane and left and went there.”

Islamic extremists Boko Haram kidnapped the schoolgirls in April and has led subsequent attacks on Christians and moderate Muslims, according to news reports.


Photos courtesy of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church
James Graham, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Herndon, Va., preaches to orphans and Sudanese refugees in Kenya.

“We knew it was risky going over there, but we just felt that we needed to go,” Dixon said. “Believe me, their lives in that northern area are in jeopardy, especially Christians over there. But they’re determined to stand together and protect themselves, and protect their faith.”

Graham, called to pastor Mount Pleasant in 1995, shared about his personal desire to help fulfill the Great Commission.

“I believe that God would have us to reach the uttermost,” said Graham, who took a church team to Haiti just two months after he began his pastorate. “And the people here have just embraced that, ever since I’ve been here.”

Throughout the years, Mount Pleasant Baptist has formed many partnerships in missions around the globe. Two of those partners have included the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board. In addition to ministry partners in the United States, Nigeria and Haiti, the church has partnerships in Kenya, Benin, Ghana, South Africa and Liberia.

Within Mount Pleasant Baptist’s diverse membership of 2,800 are African Americans, Anglo Americans and first-, second- and third-generation immigrants from about 25 countries, including Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Panama, Antigua, Kyrgyzstan, Guyana, Haiti, France, Chad, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Barbados, Italy, India, Kenya, Montserrat, Trinidad, Congo, Jamaica, the Ivory Coast and Eritrea, according to the church’s website.

“I think our church is what it is primarily because of two things; we serve a great God and we got great people,” Graham said. “That’s it.”

Mount Pleasant makes inroads in countries by forming partnerships with and training indigenous missionaries there. One of the church’s longstanding partnerships includes churches in Kenya. What started out 15 years ago as an evangelistic outreach to help build churches has grown to include constructing water wells in west Kenya, feeding Sudanese refugees, supporting orphanages for refugees in Juga, and efforts to serve the Pokot peoples near the Ugandan border. Mount Pleasant takes a missionary team to Kenya once a year, Graham said.

Graham participated in a significant prayer crusade in Kenya during the 2007 Kenyan political crisis. While on vacation, he saw a news report of the turmoil there. Moments later, he received a call from Dixon.

“When I heard the voice of the Lord say you’ve got to go to Kenya, I remember having this conversation,” he said. “… James Dixon calls and says, ‘Man, what you up to?’ I said, ‘Man, I’m down here on the beach … and the Lord just told me [I’ve] got to go to Kenya.’ And he said, ‘Well, who [is] going with you?’ I said this is not a church thing; the Lord just told me I got to go. He said, ‘Well I’m going.’”

Brownell, who had experienced 30 years of Liberia’s civil unrest, also called and offered to help in Kenya. Graham contacted ministry partner Moses Wang’ombe, bishop of Great Commission Churches in Kenya.

“I want you to get as many pastors and bishops from as many different tribal groups as you can,” Graham recalled telling Wang’ombe. “Set up prayer points in different areas, and we’re just going to come … and we’re just going to pray.

“That’s what we did,” he said. “We met with pastors and encouraged them and went out to Nakuru and some other places where a lot of the stuff had taken place, and we prayed. We got an opportunity to go in and pray over the area where they were holding the negotiations.”

As the three were preparing to leave Kenya, Graham expressed disappointment that the crisis continued.

“I said, ‘Lord, You done sent me here; nothing has happened.’ As soon as we said that, a guy came running around saying they signed the peace agreement. It’s those types of things that get us into countries to partner. … We develop indigenous partners and develop trust and relationships and from there we do things.”

In Liberia, Mount Pleasant has partnered with Brownell’s Go Ye Ministries to donate water wells, distribute food, and establish leadership institutes. Mount Pleasant recruited an indigenous church planting couple in Liberia, brought them to Herndon for training, housed them, provided a stipend and insurance, and recommissioned them back to Liberia to plant churches there. The church continues to send the coupl a stipend.

Mount Pleasant partnered with the Baptist General Association of Virginia, other churches and private donors to ship to Liberia about 250,000 slightly used textbooks from Virginia public schools. The books supplied 300 schools, Graham said.

Church members actively participate in missions, with teams of 8-10 people participating in three or four outreaches a year, Graham said.

“We have a lot of people exposed to missions; not as many as I’d like to see, of course. I would like to see far more. I would like to see us be able to post more young couples like we’ve done with the young couple in Liberia,” he said. “But you know we’re faced with resource challenges just like every other church, so we try to manage the resources that we do have very tightly, and just follow the lead of God.”

Mount Pleasant has funded missions using church and individual resources, incorporating cultural education into outreaches.

“The thing that we’ve seen work the best is the philosophy of, ‘If you get there, then we take care of your needs while you’re there.’ Of course, that too became very costly. We dropped back from that, but I think that we’re probably going to reinstitute that, because it helps us to mobilize people.”

For the most part, he said, members pay their own way, but the church will cover all expenses of team leaders. Churches should not let finances deter them, he said.

“I just think to whom much is given, much is required,” he said. “As God blesses you, you go ahead and bless others, and don’t despise small beginnings. Start. You can start with one person.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is general assignment writer/editor for Baptist Press.)

8/19/2014 10:23:41 AM by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

The Bibles are back: Navy lodges scuttle removal plan

August 18 2014 by Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service

The Gideon Bibles are going back in the Navy’s nightstand drawers

In June, the U.S. Navy ordered housekeepers at thousands of Navy-owned guest lodges near U.S. and international bases to remove the Bibles and any other “religious materials” from their rooms. Scriptures would remain available on request.


Photo courtesy of Official Navy Page from United States of America MC2 Timothy Walter/U.S. Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lt. Cmdr. Jose Arana, maintenance officer for Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 9, stands at attention during a change of command ceremony in the squadron’s hangar at a Naval station.

But public outcry, prompted this week by a social media alert from the American Family Association (AFA) and protests by the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, led the brass to reverse course Friday (Aug. 15).
Now, the Navy’s “religious accommodation policies with regard to the placement of religious materials are under review,” Navy spokesman Cmdr. Ryan Perry wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes, the daily military newspaper. Meanwhile, the Bibles (New Testament and Psalms but no Hebrew Bible) will be tucked back into nightstand drawers.
AFA President Tim Wildmon rejoiced on the association’s web site: “This is great news!”
A letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) prompted the original order to remove the Bibles. The atheists proposed that the Navy offer Bibles and other texts – including an atheist treatise, “The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible” – on request at lodge front desks.
“The bottom line is that the Navy’s preferential treatment of Bibles … shows an unconstitutional preference for Christianity over all other religions and over nonreligion,” Sam Grover, the atheist group’s staff lawyer, told Religion News Service Friday (Aug. 15).  “We are confident that ultimately the Navy will revise its policy to conform with the requirements of the Constitution, which each Navy service member has sworn an oath to uphold and defend.”
FFRF is not only pressing the Navy for change. Grover said the group has sent a similar letter to the Air Force, which removed the Bibles from its lodges in 2012 and returned them after a similar outcry.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Cathy Lynn Grossman is a senior national correspondent for Religion News Service, specializing in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics, and manager for social media.)

8/18/2014 12:44:59 PM by Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Sturgis bike rally volunteers move into ‘devil’s playground’

August 18 2014 by Karen L. Willoughby, Baptist Press

Closer to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally’s bar scene and with an extra three-hour nightly shift, Baptist volunteers nearly tripled the professions of faith recorded last year.

The Dakota Baptist Convention-led outreach – with its popular giveaway of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle – gave 120 volunteers from at least 20 states and Canada 3,654 opportunities to share three-minute testimonies, up from 2,141 last year, leading to professions of faith by 513 people, up from 178 in 2013.

“It was a wise decision that Garvon [Golden, DBC executive director] had, to move locations,” said Buck Hill, the convention’s missions director. “It put us deeper into the jungle, into the devil’s playground.”

This was the ninth year for the intentional evangelism ministry in which “catchers” encourage passers-by to enter an oversized venue to listen to one of the “witnesses” tell about how life changed since the volunteer came to know Jesus Christ personally. The pivotal question: “Has anything like this ever happened to you?”

The reward for listening: a chance to win a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

In previous years, the DBC’s evangelism tent was on a corner lot on Main Street across from the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and about four blocks from the center of the bar scene. This year it was indoors, one of several “vendors” under one roof. The others: a tattoo parlor, leather goods sales and the like.


Listening to a three-minute testimony qualified Sturgis bikers for a chance to win new Harley.

Its location was strategic – across the street from a liquor store and adjacent to a bowling alley that becomes a party hub when the small town of about 6,600 residents hosts nearly a half-million bikers, wannabes and gawkers for what this year was the 74th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Less than two blocks from the evangelism venue were two of the biggest drinking establishments in Sturgis.

The majority of the rally activity extends about six blocks down each of three streets in the center of Sturgis.

“Just to show the impact we have, one guy came to us showing a faded and wrinkled playing card that we hand out, with the plan of salvation on one side and a prayer asking Jesus to be the boss of their life,” Hill said. “He asked for a new card, saying he prayed that prayer every day, and one of the volunteers asked him if he had ever made the decision to put his life in Jesus’ hands. This year he didn’t just pray the prayer; he prayed to receive Christ.

“Another guy came in with a worn-out token,” Hill continued, referring to a round token about the size of a half-dollar that had Sturgis Motorcycle Rally 2011 on one side and two websites on the other for follow up, www.sturgosbikegiveaway and We haven’t given them out for a couple of years. It was so faded from him rubbing it that you could hardly read the words on it anymore. That token was so important to him that he found us in the new location, just to get a fresh one.”

The stories ticked off Hill’s tongue.

“A guy who got saved early in the week brought his brother back later in the week,” the DBC missions leader recounted. “But the best story happened three times. We did a 7-10 p.m. shift this year because we knew we’d be more in the bar scene. One night nothing was happening, and about 10 minutes to 10 I said to Morgan [Medford, Dakota’s church planting catalyst], ‘Let’s wrap it up.’ But Morgan said, ‘Let’s wait a few minutes.’

“At straight-up 10 p.m., three people prayed to receive Christ,” Hill said. “The next night, the situation was reversed. It was raining and no one was out at 9 p.m., and Morgan said, ‘Let’s go.’ We were exhausted. We [Hill, Medford and volunteer Bob Clardy of South Carolina] hadn’t had more than six hours’ sleep for 10 nights in a row, and most nights it was four or five.

“But I said, ‘No, let’s wait a few minutes,’ and literally we were shutting up the tent and people were still coming in. One got saved at 5 after 10. Each night it seemed like right at 10 p.m., people were getting saved,” Hill said. “Friday night, it was 10 after 10. The catcher had told the guy we were closed but Bob [Clardy] said, ‘Let him come in.’ After he prayed to receive Christ, Bob was in tears. ‘What if I’d said no, that we were closed,’ Bob said.

“Ultimately we realized we were trying to dictate the time God could work, instead of letting God dictate it,” Hill reflected. “It was more of a spiritual battle this year than I’ve experienced the last couple of years.”

In addition to the “catchers” and “witnesses,” other volunteers assist in a variety of related tasks, including chaplains who minister to the nearly 1,000 vendors, city employees who handle the daily 55 tons of trash collected, police and fire personnel; shuttle bus drivers who transport volunteers to and from area churches where they bunk for the week and; church site workers who minister to the volunteers; and those who keep ice on hand to keep water cold for the volunteers.

Chris Riddick of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia convention, which partners with the Dakota Baptist Convention was one who served in a support role, writing a database program that will enable Southern Baptists across the nation to follow up with the names of those who made professions of faith in Sturgis.

“Each evening I was logging in around 65 names – names that were forever changed; names that would go back to their friends and family and share how God’s love was changing them,” Riddick wrote on his personal blog. “Some names would bring back their children and others to the tent so that they could hear the stories of how Christ changes lives and gives purpose.

“I heard that one stopped caring about the bike giveaway altogether and walked away saying he had received so much more than the value of a free Harley,” Riddick continued. “We made sure he was still entered.

“The stories I heard each day of people being connected to a volunteer who had been through very similar tragedies were nothing short of miraculous,” Riddick blogged. “Cancer survivors. Substance abusers. Broken homes. The abused. Military veterans who’d served in the same regiments. I sat back and watched a beautiful puzzle being assembled with pieces that were created and distributed around the globe decades ago.”

Among those who made professions of faith were people from 41 states, five provinces in Canada and one from Australia.

Two volunteers returning to Virginia – Dallas Mills and Norman Booze – were in the midst of a pack of motorcycles in West Virginia when Mills’ bike went down and Booze’s bike hit it. Mills had torn rib cartilage, broken bones and a totaled motorcycle. Booze, meanwhile, was uninjured and his bike was not seriously damaged.

It was only the second accident involving volunteers over the nine years of the evangelism ministry at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Larry Gibson of Wilsonville, Ala., was killed on a road trip in Wyoming on his way home from the rally in 2011.

Plans are already being made for the 75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally during the first week of August 2015 and the 10th annual intentional evangelism ministry.

A million or more attendees are anticipated, according to various news reports. At least 200 volunteers will be needed for the evangelism outreach, Hill said. Registration forms are available on the ministry’s website: after January 2015, but check out the Sturgis Bike Giveaway Facebook page for updates during the rest of this year.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press.)

8/18/2014 12:35:05 PM by Karen L. Willoughby, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Ferguson cleanup organized by church planters

August 18 2014 by Tobin Perry, NAMB/Baptist Press

When The Passage Church partnered with local church plants to clean up a St. Louis suburb following rioting, looting and heated protests that erupted there late last week, they weren’t doing anything new.

“We bring in anywhere between 8 to 15 mission teams every summer to serve the cities of Florissant and Ferguson – putting on block parties and reaching out to the community,” Joe Costephens, who replanted The Passage five years ago on the border of the two St. Louis area suburbs, said. “So when this came up, I called some church planting buddies, and said, ‘Hey we want to bless our city, let’s do a cleanup day.’”

Thanks to social media and a growing brotherhood among Southern Baptist church planters in metro St. Louis, Costephens and his colleagues mobilized between 100 and 200 people to clean up embattled Ferguson before participating in a prayer service Aug. 13 at First Baptist Church of Ferguson.

Problems in Ferguson, Mo., began on Aug. 9 when an unarmed 18-year-old African American man was shot and killed by a police officer. After a day of relative peace the next day, a crowd grew unruly that evening and the situation turned violent with businesses looted, vehicles vandalized and confrontations with police.


Photo from The Passage
Joe Costephens, pastor of The Passage in suburban St. Louis, talks to Ferguson, Mo., residents during a cleanup project he organized along with other Send North America: St. Louis church planters.

As tensions increased in Ferguson, Costephens connected with four other church planters he had developed friendships with through Send North America: St. Louis and Plant Midwest event, a quarterly meeting for church planters and other Christian leaders in Missouri and Illinois. The church planters mobilized their congregations to help clean up Ferguson and look for other ways to serve the community. A few tweets by one of The Passage’s members led to local news coverage and more than 100 people pitching in to help in the cleanup effort.

“What started out as a couple of church plants trying to get together to clean up the streets turned into a great turnout – 120, 150, 180, I really didn’t get a great count – from all over St. Louis,” Costephens said. “We walked the major streets of Ferguson with trash bags. People from all different ages and backgrounds picked up trash and debris off the streets just to help beautify the city.”

Costephens’ Passage Church is also helping to organize a school supply drive for residents of Ferguson, particularly those in the Canfield Green apartment complex, where the shooting took place.

Todd Genteman, a North American Mission Board church planting apprentice who is starting Apostles Church on St. Louis’ north side, participated in the cleanup project and said the Ferguson residents he met were appreciative of the group’s efforts. Residents urged visitors not to get the wrong idea of their community, saying outsiders had initiated much of the violence.

“Honestly, the response we got was overwhelmingly positive,” Genteman said. “We were walking up the streets of West Florissant, where a lot of the activities happened, picking up trash on the side of the street, helping the businesses that had been looted. And the whole day we were out there, people were driving by and honking. At bus stops, people were giving us high fives and hugs.”

Kenny Petty, an African American pastor who started The Gate in St. Louis in 2012, had opportunities to share his story with Ferguson pastors before the prayer service at First Baptist Ferguson. Petty grew up 10 minutes from Ferguson and, at age 19, watched a police officer shoot a friend multiple times in front of him. He said anger and hate grew in him stemming from that incident. Eventually Petty served time in jail, but in retrospect he said he is grateful because jail kept him from seriously hurting someone.

“I understand the anger, the hate and the violence that can come from an unredeemed heart,” Petty said. “While I was incarcerated, the gospel was presented to me – I had been antagonistic about the gospel and the Bible – but the gospel was presented to me, and my life was radically changed. That heart of hate and violence turned into a heart of love.”

Noting the lack of racial diversity in many of Ferguson’s strong churches, Petty offered pastors his help in engaging the community’s majority African American population. Petty’s church is about 20 minutes from Ferguson.

“I want to come alongside of them,” Petty said. “I want to bring some of my guys. We have plenty of young men, African American young men who are being raised up with part of their DNA to be on mission and engage the community. We’ll come out there, and we’ll help you bridge the gap.”

Send North America: St. Louis city coordinator Noah Oldham sent interns from his church, August Gate, to the cleanup effort and hosted a prayer meeting at his church Aug. 13. During the prayer meeting he explained to his congregation – and a number of visitors – how to view the Ferguson events from a gospel perspective.

“We closed with hope,” Oldham said. “We said, ‘We know, God, You’re not done here.’ We sang ‘God of This City.’ We had everyone break up in groups and pray for all the things they want to see the city become. They may not even see it as possible to see those things happen, but we asked them to be bold. People were just crying out, asking God to change the city in huge ways.”

Oldham asked Southern Baptists to pray that God would use the tensions to show people in St. Louis their need for the gospel and pray for church planters God has called to reach the city.

For more information about how your church can push back lostness in St. Louis, visit

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board.)

8/18/2014 12:23:49 PM by Tobin Perry, NAMB/Baptist Press | with 0 comments

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