Churches

PHOTOS: Hurricane Sandy Relief Efforts

As Onleilove Alston reveals in “Connecting the Dots,” in the April 2013 issue of Sojourners magazine, Hurricane Sandy vividly demonstrated the relationship between climate change, poverty, and immigration. Healing is taking place as people of faith step up to coordinate recovery efforts and lead advocacy efforts to curb climate change.

To view some of the ways people are making a difference in communities affected by Hurricane Sandy, check out the slideshow below.

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Leaving Fantasy Island: A Call for the Church to Respond to Gun Violence

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
NRA's Wayne LaPierre testifies at a Senate hearing on gun violence. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

In the 1980s television show, “Fantasy Island,” the island watchman heralded the arrival of individuals attempting to escape their reality with a call of “the plane … the plane … the plane!”

In the weeks since the Sandy Hook tragedy, I’ve spent much of my time in Washington, D.C., preaching about our moral mandate to reduce gun violence, especially in our urban neighborhoods. However, in my time in the capital, I have come to feel as though there are many arriving in Washington on the proverbial plane, escaping the realities of their hometowns, for the Fantasy Island in the beltway. 

In the Book of Proverbs, we read, “Buy the truth — don't sell it for love or money; buy wisdom, buy education, buy insight (Proverbs 23:23, The Message).”

Sadly in Washington, truth seems to be for sale; wisdom seems to be radically individualized; education seems to be mocked; and insight seems to be unable to breach the partisan walls in our nation’s capital.

House Approves Disaster Relief to Religious Groups

 J. Norman Reid / Shutterstock
Hurricane Katrina damage. J. Norman Reid / Shutterstock

The House Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a bill to allow places of worship to receive federal aid to repair their buildings damaged during Hurricane Sandy.

The bill, which garnered strong bipartisan support, is also expected to pass the Senate, and would address what its sponsors consider a discriminatory practice that keeps federal disaster money from religious groups.

Currently the Federal Emergency Management Agency excludes religious organizations but assists privately owned nonprofits. If the bill becomes law, it will make houses of worship eligible for relief on the same terms as other nonprofits.

“Today’s debate and vote is about those who are being unfairly left out and left behind,” Christopher Smith, R-N.J., one of the bill’s lead sponsors, told his House colleagues.

“It’s about those who helped feed, comfort, clothe, and shelter tens of thousands of victims now being told they are ineligible for a FEMA grant.”

Getting to Green

IN THE FOREWORD to Sacred Acts: How Churches Are Working to Protect Earth's Climate, prolific scholar-activist Bill McKibben recalls a time not long ago when many people of faith regarded environmentalism suspiciously—conservatives saw it as a cover for possible paganism, while liberals considered it less of a priority than problems such as war and poverty. Now, however, theologians and religious leaders discuss the environment almost as much as ecologists and Nobel prize-winning scientists do. As this book shows, moreover, the environmental movement now includes religious organizations such as Earth Ministry, Interfaith Power & Light, and GreenFaith, which are working at the grassroots level in congregations and communities.

Edited by Mallory McDuff, a lay Episcopalian who teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College near Ashville, N.C., Sacred Acts boldly focuses on climate change. McDuff believes that momentum is building among Christian communities worldwide as they call for just climate solutions—much like a modern Pentecost moment. The book addresses both skeptics and those who know climate change is real but feel overwhelmed by the problem's magnitude and despair of finding and implementing solutions.

The contributors to Sacred Acts include clergy, teachers, activists, directors of nonprofit organizations, and a farmer. Its 12 chapters are divided into four sections on the themes and strategies of stewardship, spirituality, advocacy, and justice.

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New & Noteworthy

Fresh Vintage

Cody ChesnuTT's Landing on a Hundred is a classic soul album, from the infectious grooves and vocals to recurrent themes of personal and social redemption (comparisons include Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield). Vibration Vineyard

Reclaimed Voices

A team of actors, playwrights, and activists help Ugandan teens, many of them survivors of abduction by the Lord's Resistance Army, courageously share their stories with their community—and, through the documentary After Kony: Staging Hope, with the world. First Run Feature

Exile and Welcome

In Kind of Kin, by Rilla Askew, a rural Oklahoma family finds itself torn from within and without when its patriarch is arrested for harboring undocumented immigrants in his barn. Sometimes heart-rending, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, this novel deftly explores issues of faith, family, immigration, and economic hardship in the heartland. Ecco

Defiant Prayer

The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation, by Stephen R. Haynes, tells an inspiring, lesser-known story of the civil rights era: the 1964-65 campaign by groups of white and black students to challenge segregation in local churches. Oxford

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In Newtown Churches, Many Questions — and Tears — But Few Answers

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
People attend a prayer service to reflect on the violence at the Sandy Hook School. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Dealing with the pain of the school shooting that claimed 28 lives will take faith, support, and joyous Christmas celebrations, church leaders said at the first Sunday services held since the tragedy.

At houses of worship around town, people gathered in pews, crying, kneeling, and hugging each other through services that focused on remembering the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, uniting the community, celebrating the meaning of Christmas and preventing similar disasters.

Yet even this beleaguered town's day of worship provided a moment of fear when congregants at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church fled the building, saying they were told there was a bomb threat. Police with guns drawn surrounded the church. No injuries were reported, but the church canceled all events for the day.

Earlier in the day, services at St. Rose, much like other places of worship in the area, were focused on the tragedy.

The Presumption of Equality

A ninth-century mosaic of women leaders in the church of St. Praessede, Rome.

EVER SINCE THE apostles positioned Mary Magdalene as an “unreliable narrator” telling an “idle tale” in Jesus’ resurrection story, some men in the church have claimed maleness as normative and orthodox and femaleness as, well, not.

In the recent case of the Vatican vs. the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the integrity of women’s witness is, once again, called into question by male hierarchs.

These Catholic sisters represent an unbroken, cohesive expression of faith in the history of American Catholicism and in women’s presumption of equality, completeness, and active moral agency both under law and under God—a presumption that is a shining light for women around the world. The sisters might have once shared accolades for faithful servant leadership with their brother priests, bishops, and cardinals, but over the course of nearly 30 years of unfolding pedophilia scandal and blasphemous mob-like cover-up, the laity has learned to look to the sisters alone for examples of Catholic gospel witness and Christian maturity, strength, and just plain grit.

But let’s not sideline this issue as “a Catholic thing.” We don’t get off that easy. The struggle over women’s authority runs right through the denominational diaspora of the body of Christ.

“Christian churches have long been ambivalent about us,” wrote Protestant female theologians in a letter of support to the women of LCWR. “Women’s roles have been embraced in private, not public forums. Women leaders are affirmed as long as they are seen, but not heard (at least too much).” And as long as what the women say doesn’t contradict male authorities.

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What Can Churches Do?

JUST OVER A year ago, I attended a retreat sponsored by the Fund for Theological Education. During the retreat we were encouraged to look at our lives and to find a personal story that captured the essence of what led us to our particular ministries. That led me to reflect on my childhood: growing up in poverty, attending a different school every year, walking to school with cardboard in the bottom of my shoes because the soles were worn out, wondering how I was going to eat, lacking school supplies at times, and dealing with the stress of a single mother who was a substance abuser.

By reminding me of those things I endured and had to overcome as a child, that exercise helped me tap into my real passion. I wanted to find ways to help children growing up in similar circumstances. I wanted to inspire them to believe in themselves and know that they can make it.

At-risk youth and under-performing students need to be inspired, but equally important is their need for adults who are willing to do the work of helping them succeed academically. Education continues to be our most reliable tool for creating upward life trajectories and optimal opportunities. Churches are more than places where people come in search of a deeper relationship with God; they are also places where people come to find deeper connections with their communities and the possibility of using their gifts and talents to help those in need.

All these forces together compelled me to act on an idea I had more than a year ago: to call on friends from across the country to help create Faith for Change. Faith for Change builds a national network of churches and people of faith committed to implementing proven educational strategies for improving children’s lives.

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Gathering Around the Peace Table

SEVEN AMERICAN women sat at a long rectangular table with 10 pastors from rural communities in Eastern Congo to learn about the pastors’ work of healing and reconciliation. A brilliant World Relief translator moved seamlessly from Swahili to French to English as we jotted notes.

“When Marcel from World Relief first gathered local pastors together, we were suffering,” one pastor said. “But he reminded us that, even in circumstances like these, the church has a crucial role to play. All the victims in our communities are people given to us to care for.”

Local church pastors in the North Kivu region of Congo face personally all the sufferings common to members of their communities: murder of family members by armed militias; rape of mothers, wives, and daughters as a weapon of war; displacement from their homes because of local conflict; an economy based on subsistence farming destroyed when crops are burned or uprooted by marauding rebels.

But their personal suffering doesn’t invalidate their biblical call to “care for the least of these.” Marcel, formerly a local Congolese pastor, works with World Relief Congo to serve local pastors by providing training in leadership, community transformation, trauma healing, and conflict resolution.

The pastors’ first challenge was to create committees representing every denomination and tribe in the region. The committees meet monthly to determine who in the community is most in need—a family with nothing to eat, a widow without shelter, a victim of sexual assault who needs hospital care. Sometimes the most needy are church members; sometimes they aren’t. It doesn’t matter.

In June 2012, I took my second trip to Eastern Congo. I had met many of the pastors on my first trip to Congo in 2009 and was amazed by the progress they had made in just three years.

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