October 2003

Retired woman missionary to be pastor : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

October 30 2003 by Steve DeVane

Retired woman missionary to be pastor : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003
Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

Retired woman missionary to be pastor

By Steve DeVane
BR Managing Editor
Before Ida Mae Hays retired as an International Mission Board (IMB) missionary to Brazil in 2002, she asked God to give her "a ministry in retirement."

She thinks that prayer was answered Oct. 5 when Weldon Baptist Church in Weldon voted overwhelmingly to call her as pastor.

"I consider Weldon to be my mission field in the U.S.A.," she said in a telephone interview the day after the vote.

Hays will begin her tenure as Weldon's pastor on Nov. 16. An installation service is planned for Nov. 23. She will be the first woman to serve as the church's pastor.

Wayne Martin, the church's previous pastor, retired in October 2002.

A Missouri native, Hays said the people at Weldon Baptist Church have been wonderful. Her call to the church came together like pieces of a puzzle, she said.

"I am excited," she said. "To me, it's just awesome."

Edna Weeks, who led the pastor search committee, said the church is excited about having Hays as pastor.

"We're going to enjoy Ida Mae," Weeks said. "She's going to be good for our church and good for our association."

Hays becomes the second woman pastor in North Roanoke Baptist Association. Joy Heaton is pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Enfield about 12 miles from Weldon.

Hays joins at least three other women who serve as pastors of N.C. Baptist churches. At least four others serve as co-pastors.

Hays and Weeks said they realize the church may face some repercussions for calling a woman as pastor.

The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message says the office of pastor is limited to men. Several N.C. Baptist churches have been criticized for calling women as pastor or co-pastor.

Hays has faced controversy over her ministry before. Just before she left Brazil in February 2001, the First Baptist Church of Paranoa in Brasilia, Brazil ordained her and named her pastor emeritus.

In July 2001, IMB officials called her to a meeting where they questioned her for two hours, she said. As a result, IMB officials asked her to rescind her ordination and pastor emeritus title. "I informed them that I had neither the power or authority to rescind," she said.

Bob Shoemake, an associate vice president with IMB, said that in September 2001, the IMB trustees adopted a statement saying the IMB does not recognize Hays' ordination or pastor emeritus title. In March 2002, the IMB gave Hays missionary emeritus status and thanked her for her service, Shoemake said.

Hays said she performed pastoral duties in Brazil. She worked alongside the pastor and preached during worship services he asked. She also visited members of the church.

Hays said she did not seek ordination in Brazil. The pastor of the church began asking her in 1990 if she would let the church ordain her.

"My pastor kept saying, 'It will enhance your ministry among us,'" she said. "I had to agree with him, but I wouldn't allow it."

Hays supervised the building of more than 30 churches during her time in Brazil. A chapel at a Baptist camp is named in her honor.

10/30/2003 11:00:00 PM by Steve DeVane | with 0 comments

Baptist battles miss heart of issue, educator says : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

October 30 2003 by Steve DeVane

Baptist battles miss heart of issue, educator says : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003
Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

Baptist battles miss heart of issue, educator says

By Steve DeVane
BR Managing Editor
ROCKY MOUNT - Both sides of the Baptist controversy have missed the "genius of what it means to be Baptist," the president of a moderate seminary said.

Tom Graves, president of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, spoke at the opening service of a "Baptist Heritage Conference" Oct. 3-4 at North Rocky Mount Baptist Church.

About 60 people attended the opening session that featured Graves' sermon. About 90 attended events the next day.

Using Jeremiah 31 as the text, Graves talked about remembering the pathway that Baptists have traveled. He asked what should be the "guideposts" for Baptists.

Graves told the group that they had probably heard a lot about what it takes to be a "real Baptist" during the controversy.

One side says real Baptists believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the subservient role of women and strong pastoral authority, he said.

The other side holds that real Baptists emphasize freedom, the priesthood of the believer, the autonomy of the local church and the separation of church and state, he said.

Graves said he wasn't making light of those issues.

"It seems to me something's been lost," he said. "As we battled each other, we've forgotten what it really means to be Baptist."

Graves called for an emphasis on a spiritual encounter that he said is "at the heart of what it means to be Baptist."

"What's important is our relationship with Jesus Christ," he said. "That's been the genius of Baptist life."

Graves told of preaching trips he took while on sabbatical in Zimbabwe. He and the music minister who drove him to the churches would argue heatedly about theological issues all the way to the church, he said. After they arrived, the music minister would lead the music and Graves would preach. At times, everyone present at the service would make a decision to follow Christ, he said.

Once back in the car, the theological debates would continue, Graves said. Those disagreements didn't keep the two from worshipping together, he said.

Graves told about a chairman of deacons coming to his office shortly after he was called to pastor a church. The man asked Graves a number of theological questions. After Graves' answered all the questions, the man said he thought Graves was OK and left after saying, "I'm glad I got to know you."

Graves said the man knew some of the knowledge that Graves had in his head, but not what was in his heart.

"He didn't know me," Graves said. "He knew what I believed, but he never asked about who I encountered."

Graves called on Baptists to focus again on their relationship with Jesus.

"The focus is on the faith experience," he said.

Ida Mae Hays, a retired missionary to Brazil who was called Oct. 5 as pastor of Weldon Baptist Church in Weldon, led two breakout sessions and spoke during the morning service on Oct. 4. Her message was centered on her call to missions and her ministry in Brazil.

Before she retired, the International Mission Board (IMB) asked Hays to rescind her ordination and title of pastor emeritus, which were both from a Brazilian church. She refused.

IMB trustees later adopted a statement saying the organization does not recognize the ordination or title.

In a breakout session, Hays said she received the IMB's request to sign the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M) about three weeks before she retired. She said she wouldn't have signed.

In May, the IMB fired 13 missionaries who refused the sign the document. Sixty-four others resigned or retired rather than sign.

Gene Scarborough, pastor of North Rocky Mount Baptist Church, spoke at the Oct. 4 afternoon session of the conference. Using Genesis 11:26-32 as a text, Scarborough talked about how the church today is at "some significant halfway places."

Scarborough talked about how Abraham's father, Terah, died at an oasis halfway to the promised land. Many people today throw up their hands in despair rather than having courage to face the future, he said.

The church finds itself in the halfway place of institutionalism, Scarborough said. Some Baptist churches have turned their buildings into idols, he said.

The church is also stuck at the halfway place of talking, rather than taking action, according to Scarborough.

"All or us are sickened by the changes in Baptist life, but how many are willing to attend conventions, speak up to our congregations about the wrongs, encourage our people to be aware of the Fundamentalism which is ruling the day?" he said. "If we are to preserve our heritage, we must do more than gripe among ourselves. We must risk some church turmoil. We must encourage discussion of the issues even if church members may disagree with one another about their beliefs."

Scarborough said talk and action combine to make people grow.

"Talk without action only generates confusion," he said. "Do we quietly let evil reign because we might lose our retirement plan, or do we 'tell it like it is' so people realize we need to get out and vote?"

The church is also stuck at the halfway place of indifference, Scarborough said.

"When our career goals and dreams keep us from doing anything but that which is popular we become indifferent to the truth and the need to be involved in preserving our heritage," he said.

10/30/2003 11:00:00 PM by Steve DeVane | with 0 comments

Campbell professor serving in Iraq : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

October 30 2003 by Susan Welch

Campbell professor serving in Iraq : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003
Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

Campbell professor serving in Iraq

By Susan Welch
Campbell Communications
The orphans in An Nasiriyah suffer from amoebic dysentery resulting from poor hygiene and sanitation. A dangerous stretch of gravel highway used to resupply troops must be confronted almost daily. Age-old tribal and religious differences block efforts to restore peace and provide democratic representation, and the relentless heat can reach 117 degrees in the shade.

These are just some of the challenges facing Col. Michael Larsen, U.S. Army Reserves, on a routine basis. Larsen, who is assigned to Tallil Air Base and Convoy Support Center in southeastern Iraq, was ordered to leave his position as professor of biological sciences at Campbell University to become commander of the 171st Support Group last April. His unit supports British, Italian, Dutch and other multinational forces in five central provinces in Iraq and supplies food, water and fuel to about 500 combat troops in seven locations just below Baghdad.

But that isn't all Larsen's unit does. They meet with local civic leaders and assist in the repair of infrastructure such as sewer, water lines, pumps and roads. They work to supply three orphanages with medicine and other necessities and help to rebuild schools and hospitals.

"We do what needs to be done," Larsen said. "That is why our support of multinational troops is so important. If we are able to logistically support them well and insure their success, it is more likely that more coalition partners such as Turkey, India and South Korea may join the effort. Only then will it enable the U.S. to reduce its forces in Iraq."

Convoy ambushes occur daily, especially near Baghdad, Larsen said. He has been caught in mortar attacks at Hillah and Balad, as well as a small firefight in the Fallujah area west of Baghdad.

"Basically, the enemy, former Ba'ath party loyalists, Fedayeen and others, are terrorists fighting an unconventional war with improvised explosive devices, rocket propelled grenades, car bombs, grenades and small arms fire in ambushes," he said.

Larsen's experience with the Iraqi people has been extremely positive, however. "The people and local leaders are kind, intelligent and hard-working," he said. "Many have vision that has been stifled for decades. Obviously, the impact of the Muslim religion is significant and cultural differences are sometimes a challenge to us as Americans, but overall, we have an excellent relationship with the Iraqi people of our area, and I see us and the coalition being successful."

Larsen's faith in God and the prayers of family and friends have helped to strengthen his resolve. "I do see how God is working through us in this effort," he said. "Living here reminds me of how blessed we are as Americans. It also reminds me of the true costs associated with liberty. In this harsh and desolate land, I appreciate better the fragility of life and the preciousness of all humans in God's sight."

Larsen predicts American forces will remain in Iraq between three and five years in order to defeat the terrorist factions that continue to threaten coalition forces and the Iraqi people, and to assist in rebuilding the economy and the nation that has already begun.

"Some day the people of Iraq need to be able to answer the question, 'How are we better off today compared with life under Saddam?'" he said.

10/30/2003 11:00:00 PM by Susan Welch | with 0 comments

CBF-funded searchable missions database unveiled : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

October 30 2003 by Lance Wallace

CBF-funded searchable missions database unveiled : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003
Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

CBF-funded searchable missions database unveiled

By Lance Wallace
CBF Communications
ATLANTA - Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary professor Todd M. Johnson introduced the World Christian Database, a user-friendly, searchable database, Oct. 9-10 on the seminary's campus in South Hamilton, Mass., as part of the 2003 Paul E. and Eva B. Toms Lectureship on the status of Global Christianity and World Missions.

Funded initially by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) as a tool to help identify areas of greatest need in the world, the World Christian Database is an online version of what currently exists in print in the World Christian Encyclopedia. This new tool was created by Johnson, director of the newly established Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell, in coordination with Breuer & Co., a Boston-based data management firm. It will be maintained, updated and expanded as a part of the ongoing work of the Center.

"This is truly a landmark achievement in facilitating the spreading of the gospel around the world," said Daniel Vestal, CBF national coordinator. "As we seek to be the presence of Christ in the world to the most neglected, we now have better tools to assess who are the most neglected and where they are located. We are grateful for Todd Johnson and his work, and his willingness to partner with us in the continuing search for ways to answer God's call."

The database will also have a subscriber-based service called Multi-Objective Decision Analysis that allows for in-depth research, such as selecting, designing and managing a wide variety of questions and queries about people groups, countries, cities and other geographic designations.

The Fellowship's Global Missions initiative had prepared to develop such a resource for its own use. However, when global missions co-coordinators Barbara and Gary Baldridge along with a CBF task group learned of Johnson's work, they decided to sponsor and support Johnson's effort.

"The World Christian Database provides us with a relevant, user-friendly tool for sorting through Christian and secular research data for identifying the most neglected in all parts of the world and in all segments of society," Baldridge said. "Congregations will be able to discover who the most neglected are in their own communities. Missions agencies will be able to discover who the most neglected are globally, using the criteria they choose as relevant and meaningful."

10/30/2003 11:00:00 PM by Lance Wallace | with 0 comments

Louisiana College trustees tighten faculty hiring process : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

October 30 2003 by Lacy Thompson and John Pierce

Louisiana College trustees tighten faculty hiring process : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003
Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

Louisiana College trustees tighten faculty hiring process

By Lacy Thompson and John Pierce
Associated Baptist Press
PINEVILLE, La. - Louisiana College trustees adopted new policies that give trustees more direct involvement in faculty hiring and make affirmation of Southern Baptists' controversial doctrinal statement an official part of the hiring process.

Since 1997, prospective faculty members have been asked informally if they would teach "in harmony" with the Baptist Faith and Message statement, school officials said. The new policy makes affirmation of the more conservative 2000 version of the statement an official policy.

"This simply represents an enhancement of the process we already have, " said trustee Ed Tarpley, pastor of Alpine First Baptist Church in Pineville, La.

Trustee leaders said the action, adopted during a September executive session, does not affect current faculty members and does not reflect dissatisfaction with current policy. Rather, the change was made to ensure the "Christian" character of the Pineville school, which is owned and operated by the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

However, fellow trustee Wayne DuBose, pastor of First Baptist Church in Minden, La., said the changes "raise the bar a little bit" for prospective faculty.

Previously, trustees have had final approval on new faculty members who were recommended by President Rory Lee and other administrators. But the new policy gives the trustees' academic affairs committee the option of a face-to-face interview with the candidate.

Also prospective faculty will receive a copy of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message and a letter clearly defining the college as a Christian liberal arts school "owned and operated by cooperating Southern Baptist churches in Louisiana."

"Not every person who teaches at LC is required to be a Southern Baptist," the letter states, "but every teacher must reflect a certain faithfulness to teach within the doctrinal tenets of our convention."

To assure that faithfulness, prospective faculty are asked to return a signed affirmation that they have read the full text of the Baptist Faith and Message, will agree to teach in harmony with and not contrary to the faith statement, and will agree to meet with the trustee's academic affairs committee for a question-and-answer session if requested.

The policy change calls for a written yes or no response to the doctrinal statement and asks candidates to put in writing their personal understanding of a Christian worldview, specifically detailing their view on the sanctity of human life, the sanctity of marriage and family, and creation.

The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message was significantly changed from the 1963 version. The most noted changes include the removal of a statement declaring Jesus Christ as the criterion for interpreting Scripture and the addition of a prohibition against female pastors. Drafters of the new statement deny accusations that the revised document is a creed, although they define it as an "instrument of doctrinal accountability."

The statement was used as a requirement for all SBC missionaries earlier this year, resulting in at least 77 resignations, retirements and terminations.

10/30/2003 11:00:00 PM by Lacy Thompson and John Pierce | with 0 comments

Religious Right groups rally as court begins new session : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

October 30 2003 by Robert Marus

Religious Right groups rally as court begins new session : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003
Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

Religious Right groups rally as court begins new session

By Robert Marus
Associated Baptist Press
WASHINGTON - As about 200 protestors rallied outside the Supreme Court demanding government support for religious displays, inside the justices began their annual term with at least one major church-state case on the docket.

The protesters displayed a replica of the Ten Commandments monument recently removed from the Alabama judicial building in Montgomery. Meanwhile, the high court opened its 2003-2004 session Oct. 6 by sidestepping one church-state case and remaining silent on another. Only one church-state case so far - involving government funding of a religious college - is scheduled to get the court's attention this year.

The justices declined to review a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that allowed a Bible club in Washington state to meet in a high school during school hours. A lower court had ruled against Tausha Prince, who as a sophomore at Spanaway Lake High School sued for the right to form the World Changers club.

The school allows students time during the school day to do homework, be tutored or take part in school-approved clubs. The clubs can make announcements over the school's public-address system and apply for use of a pool of funds shared by the clubs.

At the time, there were no religious clubs. Prince applied to start the club and was rejected by the school because of the group's religious nature. She then filed a lawsuit, saying the school was violating her First Amendment right to free expression of religion.

The 9th Circuit ultimately agreed. The Supreme Court, in declining to review that decision, has again avoided speaking on the issue of whether such clubs can operate during school hours. The case is Jacoby vs. Prince.

The court also did not reveal whether it would hear arguments in another controversial case from the 9th Circuit. That court caused great controversy last year when it declared the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in a California public school unconstitutional because the oath contains the words "under God." In that case, United States vs. Newdow, atheist father Michael Newdow sued his daughter's Sacramento-area school district to end their practice of teacher-led recitation of the pledge.

The court has already agreed to hear another Washington state case involving religion and schools. In December, justices will hear oral arguments in Locke vs. Davey - also a case from the 9th Circuit. The question before the court is whether states are required to fund religious programs - in this case a Bible college - on an equal basis with secular programs even if the state constitution contains an explicit bar on indirect government funding of religion.

The protesters who provided the backdrop for the Supreme Court's opening session were attending the culminating event of the "Save the Commandments Caravan," calling attention to the Ten Commandments monument erected by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore but removed by court order. Supporters say they will appeal the federal court ruling that banned the monument. But it is not known if the case will make it to the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

The caravan, organized by the groups Faith in Action and Grassfire.net, left Montgomery, Ala., Sept. 28 and stopped in Atlanta; Columbia, S.C.; Raleigh; Lynchburg, Va.; and Fredericksburg, Va., before concluding their rally in Washington.

Organizers and participants touted a grab-bag of Religious Right causes - including denouncements of abortion, homosexuality and the separation of church and state - and assailed Supreme Court decisions the activists believe support each.

Protestors directed their harshest criticism at two targets - the six Supreme Court justices who in June issued the landmark decision legalizing gay sex in all 50 states and the federal district judge who ruled the Ten Commandments display in Alabama unconstitutional.

"Impeach the Sodomy Six and Myron Thompson" read the protesters' signs.

Rally organizer Rob Schenck said the group would "hold the Supreme Court in contempt of the court of Almighty God" for the rulings. Referring specifically to the sodomy decision and five others on church-state issues or abortion, Schenck told rally participants, "We no longer hold these decisions relevant or binding on us, on our children or on our nation."

One man at the rally said he was there to "rebuke" the Supreme Court for past decisions and to support government display of the Ten Commandments and other religious monuments. "It's always been a part of the landscape - the forefathers acknowledged God, right?" said Gregory Pembo, pastor of Vieux Carre Assembly Church in New Orleans. "Why all of the sudden, after 300 years, we are saying, 'Wait a minute, this is wrong?'"

But a lone counter-protestor said she was there to provide a silent witness for the rights of religious minorities. "When you put one particular religion's monument inside of a government building, it gives the appearance that the government is promoting that particular religion - which, of course, is unconstitutional," said Sandra Van Maren, Illinois state director of American Atheists.

"As soon as you start moving religion into the government, you end up with, at the extreme, the Taliban, the Iranian government, all the governments we say we despise," she said. Van Maren held up a sign that said, "Thou shalt not turn a republic into a theocracy."

10/30/2003 11:00:00 PM by Robert Marus | with 0 comments

BCH teen killed by train : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

October 30 2003 by Steve DeVane

BCH teen killed by train : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003
Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

BCH teen killed by train

By Steve DeVane
BR Managing Editor
A 16-year-old living at a Baptist Children's Homes (BCH) of North Carolina facility was killed Oct. 14 when he was hit by a train.

Joshua James Willis was riding his bike to BCH's Mills Home in Thomasville when an Amtrak passenger train struck him at about 7:40 p.m. Willis had left a YMCA where he volunteered a short while earlier.

Witnesses reportedly told police that Willis went around the railroad crossing arms at the Norfolk-Southern Railway tracks. Norfolk-Southern officials told the Thomasville Times that the train was going about 70 mph.

Brenda B. Gray, BCH's executive vice president for development and communications, said police have indicated that Willis probably tried to beat the train as he crossed the tracks.

"I'm sure he saw the lights and thought he could make it," Gray said. "He just misjudged."

Gray said Willis, who was called "Josh" by his friends, had been with BCH for about two and a half years. He had "turned his life around" and was baptized Sept. 28, she said.

When BCH officials went to Willis' room after the accident, they found his Bible open on a table next to his bed where he had left it after his morning devotions.

"He was a very special young man," Gray said.

Willis loved to play basketball and had learned how to play the guitar.

"He was a very outgoing young man," Gray said. "He loved life."

Willis had a great sense of humor and liked to volunteer, Gray said. "He liked being busy," she said.

Gray said Willis had a "great day at school" the day he died. His grades had been improving and his teacher allowed him to bring his guitar and play that day as a reward.

At the YMCA, Willis did whatever task he was told to do, Gray said.

"He was a young man who liked to help," she said.

BCH officials planned to hold a memorial service the evening of Oct. 19. The funeral was scheduled for Oct. 17 in Danville, Va.

Willis was one of about 80 children at Mills Home. The others and the staff members are grieving his loss, Gray said. BCH brought in counselors to help them.

"They're hurting, which is to be expected," she said. "We have a very close family here. We've all offered comfort and support to each other."

Gray said the BCH family asks for the continued prayers of N.C. Baptists.

"We have felt the power of prayer and the power that comes from a Christian community," she said. "Our hearts go out to his family as they grieve."

Willis' death is the first for a BCH child in recent memory, Gray said. He is the third N.C. Baptist to die in a train accident in recent months.

Ned Christy, pastor of New Home Baptist Church in Peachland, and his wife, Priscilla, were killed Aug. 22 when their car was hit by a train in Marshville.

10/30/2003 11:00:00 PM by Steve DeVane | with 0 comments

Herschel Hobbs not 'duped,' successor says : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

October 30 2003 by Mark Wingfield

Herschel Hobbs not 'duped,' successor says : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003
Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

Herschel Hobbs not 'duped,' successor says

By Mark Wingfield
Associated Baptist Press
SHAWNEE, Okla. - The primary author of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M) BF&M 12&34 & & abc&&&def
10/30/2003 11:00:00 PM by Mark Wingfield | with 0 comments

Baptist teacher in China murdered : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

October 30 2003 by Todd Starnes

Baptist teacher in China murdered : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003
Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

Baptist teacher in China murdered

By Todd Starnes
Baptist Press
BEIJING - A Southern Baptist teacher working for a nondenominational ministry in the central Chinese city of Wuhan was stabbed to death inside a church just before the start of a worship service.

Bruce Emerson Morrison, formerly of New Orleans, was stabbed in the abdomen by a Chinese Protestant, identified as Gong Zhili, before the service at the church on Feb. 3.

Morrison, 37, had been an English teacher at the Hubei Industrial Institute since 1993, an official at the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee of Protestant Churches of Wuhan told a French news agency.

Morrison's parents are members of Suburban Baptist Church in New Orleans. He was raised as a Southern Baptist.

He lived in Wuhan, in Hubei province with his wife, Valori, 34, and six daughters. His wife is pregnant with the couple's seventh child, the church official said.

Following the stabbing, Morrison was rushed to a local hospital but efforts to save him failed.

Gong was soon apprehended by police and an investigation into the incident was continuing, the official said.

The motive for the murder has not been determined, but the official at the Chinese committee said Gong suffered from mental illness and as a result might have been oversensitive about his friendship with Morrison. Morrison and Gong had known each other since 1999 and would socialize at church, the church official said.

"Gong has mental problems. They had frequent contacts at church initially. But later Morrison said maybe he did not want to talk to him as often as before, so their friendship was estranged," the official said.

He said Gong walked into the church around 1:45 p.m. on Feb. 3, shouted "Teacher Mo" - Morrison's name and title in Wuhan - and then stabbed him.

"Because of mental illness, he thinks the teacher no longer likes him, no longer cares about him," the official said.

The official said Gong's parents have requested a chance to meet Morrison's family to express their regret.

Gong, 34, was a former music teacher who stopped working a few years ago and lived on disability benefits after he became emotionally unstable, the committee official said.

U.S. Embassy officials are providing Morrison's family with assistance but they refused to comment on the case.

10/30/2003 11:00:00 PM by Todd Starnes | with 0 comments

From prisoner to helper : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

October 30 2003 by

From prisoner to helper : Friday, Oct. 31, 2003
Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

From prisoner to helper

From staff reports
Connie Wagner will never be the same.

"I will never forget the day I was released from the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women," wrote Wagner about her parole from prison on June 18, 1980. "When I walked through that front gate on Bragg Street in Raleigh, I did not look back. I had paid my debt to society and had no intention of ever stepping foot in a prison again."

But Wagner had a change of mind as well as a change of heart.

The change began to take place when her friend, Scottie Barnes, convinced her to share her experience and testimony at a women's celebration dinner at Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte. "However, I still did not feel God had given me the liberty to face walking into a prison environment," Connie said.

After some further coaxing, Wagner decided to join Scottie at a WMU program that ministered to female offenders at Camp Mundo Vista. "I did not realize it was the same camp I had been chosen to attend when I was incarcerated 22 years earlier," she said. "As we turned off the main road, a feeling of deja vu came over me. I said, 'Scottie, I think I have been here before. This place looks so familiar.' As we drove on through the beautiful wooded area and pulled into the parking lot; I saw the large rock outside of the activity building. Twenty-two years ago, I had sat on that rock and had my picture made with 17 other inmates and WMU volunteers before we boarded the van to return to Raleigh. Jesus had brought me full circle!

"We sat down on one of the wooden benches and prayed and a feeling of peace came into my heart. Scottie told me this was the same camp she would be coming to in two more months. Revelation does bring responsibility. It was no coincidence that I had come here. It was a divine appointment. At that moment, I knew I had to come with her ... I wanted to give back what was given to me over two decades ago."

Wagner was accepted as a volunteer for the WMU 2000 Prison Retreat.

"I can't express the anticipation that was in my heart the day those two prison vans rolled into Camp Mundo Vista," Wagner said. "The volunteers' orientation luncheon had been held several hours earlier and I had been given the names of two inmates assigned to my room in the guest lodge. I went running out to the parking lot holding up two nametags, looking for Gina and Melissa. After locating and welcoming them, we all headed back to the activity building to get acquainted. ...

"Ruth Jackson, the lady whose husband was the visionary that built the camp came to me and asked if I would give my testimony in the main building. ... Now receptive to my Lord's direction, how could I say no?

"I started my evangelistic testimony by sharing Psalm 119:71-72 in my own words: 'The punishment You gave me was the best thing that could have happened to me, for it taught me to pay attention to Your laws. They are more valuable to me than millions in silver and gold.'"

Wagner told the group how she had grown up in a church and had made a profession of faith as a teenager. "However, I know now that I only had head knowledge; not heart knowledge," she said. "Jesus wasn't Lord of my life. Had He been, I would have reacted differently when I experienced a failed marriage as a young adult. I wallowed in self-pity, blaming people and circumstances for my unhappiness. Because of this, I made some poor choices that ended up affecting me first spiritually, then mentally and finally physically. ... It only took four short years for my life to become unmanageable. I was arrested for possession of drugs on October 19, 1976. ... I repented of my sin, which God graciously forgave me of, but I knew there was a penalty to be paid. Sin had taken me further than I had intended to go, made me stay longer than I had intended to stay, and pay more than I intended to pay.

"Three of my cases were consolidated for judgment and on one charge I was sentenced to five years in the State Department of Correction. I was sentenced to ten years on the other two charges, suspended for five years and placed on five years probation with the sentence to run concurrent with the previous one. I was bankrupt in soul, demoralized and terrified.

"When I arrived at prison, I was stripped of my clothing, sprayed with disinfectant and told to shower in an open shower stall. After a 30-day orientation with other new inmates, I was assigned to a cellblock that held 40 women. I never would have chosen these neighbors but my choices in life had chosen them for me. ... I was forced to a crucial place of depending on God again. When my first parole hearing came up, I thought I would be experiencing celebration. When I was denied, I was devastated. After all, I had been the 'model inmate.' ... My rediscovered relationship with God became my pillar to hold me up through the painful repercussions of my sins.

"I was paroled on June 18, 1980. Because I had professed to be a Christian before my arrest, I felt it necessary to ask for forgiveness from my own church family. That was one of the hardest things I have ever done. ... I could not change the past, but I could make amends. There is no relief like repentance. God restored the joy of my salvation."

In 1993, Wagner was diagnosed with hepatitis C, which she said was probably transmitted through IV drug use. Her daily treatment with alpha interferon was terminated because she was considered to be a non-responder and was experiencing intolerable side effects. She continues to develop other autoimune related illnesses.

"After sharing my story and going back to our cabin," Wagner said. "I was reminded that only people who have faced a similar situation can empathize. As Gina and Melissa lay down on their beds, I heard one of them say, 'Thank you God for this pillow. It feels so good. And the bed is so comfortable. I can't feel springs in my back.' After the lights went out, I heard the other girl say, 'I can't believe we are getting to sleep in the dark.' All of those old memories started coming back to me and tears started welling up in my eyes as I remembered what it felt like to come to that same camp. To be able to sleep without lights on all the time, to lay down and have no fear of being strip-searched in the night, to be able to go to the bathroom in privacy. More importantly, to have people love you unconditionally."

Wagner corresponds with the women in her lodge and plans to return to the next WMU Prison Retreat at Camp Mundo Vista.

"The Lord took something that Satan meant to destroy in me and made something good come out of it," she stated. "Perhaps my Lord not only brought me full circle; He has shown me my mission field."

(EDITOR'S NOTE-Wagner, 51, resides in Taylorsville, N.C. The Mundo Vista retreat is funded through the North Carolina Missions Offering)

10/30/2003 11:00:00 PM by | with 0 comments

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