G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Articles By This Author

Sister Helen Prejean: Tsarnaev ‘Genuinely Sorry for What He Did’

by G. Jeffrey MacDonald 05-11-2015
Sr. Helen Prejean. Photo via REUTERS / Judy Fidkowski / RNS

Sr. Helen Prejean. Photo via REUTERS / Judy Fidkowski / RNS

Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun and anti-death penalty activist whose story came to fame with the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, took the stand on May 11 in the penalty phase of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial. She said he is “genuinely sorry for what he did,” and told her how he felt about the suffering he caused to the bombing’s victims.

“He said it emphatically,” Prejean said.

“He said no one deserves to suffer like they did.”

From Burlap Sack to Digital File, Church Records Get Makeover

by G. Jeffrey MacDonald 09-19-2013

Eighteenth-century records from Byfield Parish Church in Georgetown, Mass. Photo via RNS/courtesy Congregational Library

Six years ago, the people of First Congregational Church of Rowley in Massachusetts were convinced they’d lost their treasure. A 17th-century minister’s 664-page diary, and its rare detailed account of community life in early America, had been missing for nearly two decades.

Then the phone rang.

A local bank was cleaning out its vaults when a staffer opened a burlap sack marked “dimes” and found an old leather-bound book with strange handwriting inside.

As Denominations Decline, Number of Unpaid Ministers Rises

by G. Jeffrey MacDonald 09-18-2013

Mark Marmon (right) teaches fly fishing at Fishers of Men retreat. Via RNS/The Episcopal Diocese of Texas, Photo: Emily Krueger

The 50 members of All Saints Episcopal Church in Hitchcock, Texas, are looking forward to December, when Mark Marmon will be ordained their priest.

One reason for the excitement? They won’t have to pay him.

A 57-year-old fly fishing guide, Marmon, whose wife is a lawyer, says he doesn’t want or need a church salary. He belongs to a growing breed of mainline Protestant clergy who serve congregations in exchange for little or no compensation.

Where Are the Christians on Burying Tsarnaev?

by G. Jeffrey MacDonald 05-09-2013
FBI image of Tamerlan Tsarnaev

FBI image of Tamerlan Tsarnaev

Soon after the Boston Marathon bombings, local Christian leaders stepped swiftly into the public eye, convening vigils and urging peaceful healing in the wake of senseless violence.

But their public voices have fallen mostly silent as noisy resistance grows to the prospect that suspected bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev could be buried in local soil.

Cemeteries and even some mosques have refused to take his body. His city, Cambridge, has urged family members to bury him elsewhere. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez and local talk radio host Dan Rae want him dumped in the ocean, like Osama bin Laden. Clergy have largely kept mum.

“The only signs of people who are showing some sort of moral conscience are those few who stand with a card near the funeral home saying [burial] is a corporal work of mercy,” said James Keenan, a moral theologian at Boston College. “To say, ‘we won’t bury him’ makes us barbaric. It takes away mercy, the trademark of Christians. … I’m talking about this because somebody should.”

Boston Amputees Face Long Spiritual Struggle Ahead

by G. Jeffrey MacDonald 04-24-2013
 Photo by Holly Thornton

Mike Norrell and Woody Thornton ski in a pyramid with Gloria Walker at the top. Photo by Holly Thornton

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings that left three dead and more than 260 injured, perhaps none face more significant adjustments or a longer road ahead than the 14 amputees who lost a limb.

For these victims, the path forward involves relearning almost everything, from getting out of bed to getting in a car. Whether they go on to lead satisfying lives depends largely on how they handle the spiritual challenges at hand, according to amputees and researchers.

Losing a limb is like losing a family member: It involves grief and mourning, according to Jack Richmond, a Chattanooga, Tenn., amputee who leads education efforts for the Manassas, Va.-based Amputee Coalition. When one’s body and abilities are radically changed, questions of meaning are suddenly urgent: Why did this happen? Why am I here?

“You’re wondering: Why did I live?” said Rose Bissonnette, an amputee and founder of the Lancaster, Mass.-based New England Amputee Association, a support organization for amputees.

Boston Bombings Bring Chaplains into New Ground

by G. Jeffrey MacDonald 04-19-2013
Hospital emergency room, muss / Shutterstock.com

Hospital emergency room, muss / Shutterstock.com

Two days after the Boston Marathon bombings, Boston Medical Center chaplain Sister Maryanne Ruzzo was checking on staffers who’d been caring for the injured when she received a page. A bombing victim wanted to see her.

The bedside was fraught with worry. A woman in her 30s had lost a leg to amputation as surgeons deemed it unsalvageable. Still suffering multiple injuries, she was now heading into surgery again, knowing she might wake up with no legs at all.

Ruzzo stood among the woman’s parents and siblings and did what she does best: listen. She heard their fears, including concern for the woman’s husband, who was being treated at a different hospital and who also might lose a leg to amputation. Then she prayed.

“Other people might not want to feel the pain and say, ‘Oh, it’s going to be fine,’” said Ruzzo, the Archdiocese of Boston’s coordinator of Catholic services at BMC. “We just try to be present and listen to them. … I prayed for the surgeons and the nurses.”

In a week when Boston hospitals cared for more than 170 bomb victims, staff chaplains were suddenly in great demand. They moved calmly from emergency departments to waiting rooms and employee lounges, offering a compassionate ear and much-needed comfort to anxious patients, family members and staffers.

All Eyes on Texas, S.C. Church Property Fights

by G. Jeffrey MacDonald 02-18-2013
cdrin and iofoto / Shutterstock

Historic little wooden church and Businessman and businesswoman yelling at each other. cdrin and iofoto / Shutterstock

When disgruntled congregations have left hierarchical denominations such as the Episcopal Church, they’ve often lost property battles as civil courts ruled buildings and land are not theirs to keep.

But outcomes could be different this year, court watchers say, as high-profile cases involving dozens of Episcopal congregations in South Carolina and Texas wind their way through state courts. That prospect has observers watching for insights that could shape legal strategies in other states and denominations.

Both cases involve conservative dioceses that voted to leave the Episcopal Church over homosexuality, among other issues. In South Carolina, congregations representing about 22,000 people are suing the Episcopal Church for control of real estate worth some $500 million and rights to the diocese’s identity. In Texas, the national Episcopal Church is suing about 60 breakaway congregations in the Fort Worth area for properties estimated to be worth more than $100 million.

Fasting Like an Old Testament Prophet Gains Followers During Lent

by G. Jeffrey MacDonald 02-08-2013
RNS photo courtesy Amy Lester

Amy Lester of Orlando prepares “nutty fruity cereal,” a staple of the Daniel Fast. RNS photo courtesy Amy Lester

Amy Lester has followed Jesus for decades, but her keen appreciation for his sacrifice on the cross came only recently when she started eating like the prophet Daniel.

During Lent, which starts Feb. 13, the 40-year-old mother of two keeps a type of Daniel Fast, which involves eating only food from seeds (vegetables, fruits, unleavened grains), drinking only water and practicing daily devotions.

A similar regimen kept Daniel and his friends free from corruption in King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian court, according to the Bible. Now the Old Testament example guides growing numbers of Christians in the 40-day period of preparation for Easter.

“We set apart a sacrifice in Lent in order to identify, even the smallest (bit), with what Jesus sacrificed for us,” said Lester, who attends University Carillon United Methodist Church in Oviedo, Fla. “He died for me. The least I can do is to sacrifice the foods that are comforting to me.”

Secession Theology Runs Deep in American Religious, Political History

by G. Jeffrey MacDonald 11-29-2012
Photo: By Júlio Reis, via Wikimedia Commons

Civil War secession map, Photo: By Júlio Reis, via Wikimedia Commons

Corruption has gone too far. The righteous must break away. Hope now rests with a holy remnant that will honor foundational texts. 

The message sounds familiar. A church schism? No, mounting calls for secession from the United States.

Since President Barack Obama won re-election, more than 750,000 Americans have petitioned the White House website to let their respective states secede, from Alaska to Iowa to Maryland and Vermont. Those leading the charge are framing it, observers say, in terms that suggest a deep-seated religious impulse for purity-through-separation is flaring up once again.

But this time, it’s playing out on a political stage.

“Today's secessionist movements are just the latest example of a long parade of breakaway groups [in American history] seeking to restore some lost ideal,” said Peter J. Thuesen, professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “The problem is that the ideal is invariably a mirage.”

Bishop Gene Robinson Sets Sights on D.C. as Retirement Looms

by G. Jeffrey MacDonald 11-26-2012
Bishop V. Gene Robinson

Bishop V. Gene Robinson

CONCORD, N.H. -- When V. Gene Robinson became the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church in 2003, his controversial election triggered shock waves and fears of schism across the worldwide Anglican Communion. Hundreds of parishes left the Episcopal Church in protest.

Now, as this lighting-rod figure prepares to retire on Jan. 5, he’s leaving New Hampshire for a city that knows polarization all too well: Washington, D.C.

But rather than throw fuel on the culture wars, Robinson foresees a new role as a bridge builder for a nation strained by divisive issues. First up: helping his new church home, St. Thomas’ Parish in Dupont Circle, found a Center for Non-Violent Communication.

“Our big goal is to change the nature of the debate in Washington,” Robinson said during an interview at his Concord office. “We’re mostly shouting at each other these days. We’d like (the center) to become a place where people can learn about and commit themselves to a different kind of tone.”

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