Bridge of Hope

Earlier today I got several emails from Dennis Wadley, a Covenant minister who runs an AIDS outreach program called Bridges of Hope in the township of Phillipi, just outside of Capetown.

Dennis and his wife, Susan, moved their last year, leaving behind a successful ministry at a 700 member church in California. They do holistic community development--helping local residents to solve their problems, and providing a bridge between that township and people with resources in the US and in wealthier parts of South Africa. (A feature story on the Wadleys can be found here).

There's a woman in their community named Anges, who is raising 6 AIDS orphans, and the Wadleys help rally support to built a new home for her and her family. One picture he sent showed a little boy, dancing in the street on move-in day, his face wrapped in joy, smiling that little boy smile. This is a community devasted by unemployment, crime, and AIDS. A second picture showed a young man named Monde--taken just before his death. Some volunteers from Bridges of Hope had come to see Monde, brought him a gift of a new t-shirt, and gave him a bath. Simple things that made his life more bearable.

Stories like this, of the profound power of human connection, and of people who refuse to give up hope in desperate circumstances are why I started writing about religion in the first place. So much of our time is caught up in stories about controversies--stem cells, gay marriage, abortion, Janet Jackson's breast, TBN sex scandals--that we lose sight of the profound human suffering around us. I mean, the Deal Hudson affair (the Crisis publisher and Bush advisor who resigned after past sexual misconduct was revealed) is riveting stuff, but it doesn't really matter, does it? Not when the world's going up in flames in places like Darfur , Haiti, and Congo.

The image of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic comes to mind.

As does this quote from the forward of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death:

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.



Surprising Connections

Chris Walton at Philocrites found this Boston Globe story about Southern Baptist preachers coming to serve small New England churches.

As Walton notes in his post, the Globe found that:

The Southern pastors come with missionary zeal, a willingness to work for a pittance, and a conservative philosophy notably different from the more liberal New England religious tradition. Their arrival marks the melding of cultures that have been separate since the time of the Civil War, when Southern Baptists broke with their northern brethren.

And yet Vermonters -- to the surprise of the Southerners and themselves -- have embraced Pittman and others, warming to their manner and message.

"It's hard for Vermonters to accept people from outside the area, much less the South," said Lucille Nelson, a parishioner at Sheffield Federated. "And he does have a very different style. But he is just awesome. He talks to us at our level. Not like he is higher than us.

The Globe piece reminded me of this week's Time magazine story on an Episcopal church split in Virginia this week. Both stories illustrate he problem that liberal and moderate Christian churches face.

The more conservative and evangelical wings of the church have a better survival strategy--they are out making converts, going on missionary service to remote areas with little pay (even small town New England can seem like a mission placement) and offering clear answers in understandable language. Contrast that, for example, with almost anything written/preached by a protypical mainline minister, say Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold of the Episcopal Church (I've been reading his work lately), which is often so full of nuance and ambiguity as to be undecipherable.)

Lost in the reporting of Protestants soon becoming a minority (down to 52% of the US population)was is the enourmous dropoff in Mainline Protestant Church membership since 1960.

Here's how a recent Christianity Today piece summarized it:

In 1960, total mainline church membership topped over 29 million. By 2000 this number had fallen to 22 million. This represents a 21 percent drop in mainline membership—during the same period that overall church membership in the United States increased by 33 percent. Some mainline denominations have suffered even greater membership losses: the Disciples of Christ, 55 percent; the United Church of Christ, 39 percent; and the Episcopal Church, 33 percent.


I would be remiss in not mentioning my favorite religion story of the day, a Houston Chronicle review of SPIRIT AND FLESH: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church by James M. Ault Jr.

Ault spent three years working on a documentary film (released in 1987) called "Born Again: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church." According to the review, Ault, a "self-described '60s radical who embraced the
anti-war movement, feminism and other left-leaning enthusiasms of the day" became a Christian as a result of his relationship with church members.

Ault didn't embrace Fundamentalism, but found his life changed by "the caring power of the congregation."

What surprised Ault -- and changed his life -- was the warmth and
acceptance he found among the politically conservative members of Shawmut
River Baptist Church in Massachusetts, where he spent three years
researching the film. Even though he was a liberal intellectual and a
nonbeliever, Ault plunged into the day-to-day life of the small church,
joining a weekly Bible-study group meeting in the home of a newly "saved"
couple, practicing with the Christian Academy's basketball team and
attending pastor Frank Valenti's services.

If Ault's book sounds appealing, you might want to try "Congregation" by Paul Durham and "The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader" by Stephen Fried


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