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As Ebola crisis depletes food supplies, Baptists find ways to fill the gap

In Liberia, hard hit by the virus, the economy spirals downward and food is increasingly scarce.

By Robert Dilday

A week after Baptists around the world responded to a West African request to pray for victims of Ebola in the region, Baptist groups in Virginia and Texas are addressing another critical aspect of the epidemic — the depletion of food supplies.

Recent reports by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank warn that Liberia — hardest hit by the virus — is descending into what the Washington Post called “economic hell.”

Ebola FoodAs people abandon fields and factories, food is becoming increasingly scarce, and restrictions on public transport and internal travel are making it difficult to distribute food that is available. Worst case estimates of the impact on the economy as a whole are catastrophic, the Post reported.

“People are terrified by how fast the disease is spreading,” Alexis Bonte, a representative in Liberia for the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, said in the FAO report. “Neighbors, friends and family members are dying within just a few days of exhibiting shocking symptoms, the causes of which are not fully understood by many local communities. This leads them to speculate that water, food or even crops could be responsible. Panic ensues, causing farmers to abandon their fields for weeks.”

That’s consistent with reports received by Dean Miller, team leader of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board’s glocal missions team.

“Liberian leaders have told me that while many people are dying of Ebola, many more may die of starvation,” Miller said.

After a recent conference call initiated by Baptist World Aid — which included Liberian Baptist leaders — confirmed the growing crisis, Miller decided to act. “This was something we could actually do,” he said. “We can’t cure the disease and we can only do much medically. But we can provide food.”

Miller contacted Stop Hunger Now, an international hunger relief agency which partners with the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. The organization told Miller its stockpile of meals in the United States had already been sent to Sierra Leone. But their warehouse in South Africa still had nearly 145,000 meals, none of them assigned. What’s more, transporting them to Liberia would take only three weeks, about half the time it would take to ship from the U.S.

Several Baptist General Association of Virginia congregations provided funds to ship the meals, which should arrive soon in Liberia. They’ll be distributed by representatives of the Liberia Missionary and Educational Convention.

Also contributing to shipping costs was Texas Baptists Disaster Recovery, a component of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. That contribution was part of a much larger effort launched by the TBDR which has arranged for about 570,000 meals to be sent to Liberia.

Menjay OluThe effort was prompted in part by a visit to Texas by Olu Menjay, president of the Liberian convention. TBDR director Chris Liebrum began talking with Menjay several weeks ago about ways to respond to the growing food crisis. He discovered food packets were available from Convoy of Hope, a faith-based, international humanitarian-relief organization in Springfield, Mo. Liebrum secured funds to ship the meals, which are now en route.

“It became clear that what we can do is help the secondary crisis, by providing food, which is becoming the primary crisis for many in the area,” Liebrum said in a press release.

Menjay said Liberians are grateful despite their fear.

“The crisis is huge, and the needs are huge. I think this initiative is helping us reach the grassroots people in a real way because we’re using our churches. This partnership is putting hands and feet to what God has called us to.”

goatley davidMeanwhile, the Washington-based Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention is coordinating an additional effort to distribute food in Liberia, where the convention supports a mission school it founded in 1908. A recent “Heart for Liberia” event in Philadelphia collected more than seven tons of food and medical supplies.

The convention’s executive secretary-treasurer, David Goatley, said in a press release Oct. 17 he and president Gregory Moss are working with leaders of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, National Baptist Convention USA, National Baptist Convention of America and National Missionary Baptist Convention of America to provide financial support to distribute food and sanitary equipment in Liberia.

“The Ebola virus outbreak is an exceptional crisis which calls for extraordinary action,” Goatley said.

Liberian expatriates in Virginia also are taking steps. Earlier this year they organized Virginia in Action for Liberia Against Ebola (VALAE), which describes itself as a “movement to mobilize and consolidate support for Liberia.” Chairing the group is Calvin Birch, pastor of African Christian Community Church, a congregation which worships in facilities provided by Hatcher Memorial Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.

VALAE is partnering with both the Virginia Baptist Mission Board and First Baptist Church in Richmond to ship supplies to Liberia.



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Guy Sayles stepping down at FBC Asheville

A prominent CBF pastor says a bout with cancer got him thinking about what he should do with the time he has left in ministry.

By Bob Allen

The pastor of a flagship Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church announced Oct. 19 he is resigning his pulpit, just short of nine months after telling the congregation he is battling cancer.

Guy Sayles, pastor of First Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C., since September 2001, said recent months added urgency to thoughts of a ministry transition that he had already begun to entertain before learning in February he has multiple myeloma, a cancer that forms in a type of white blood cell.

After treatment including chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant, he said, his cancer is in remission.

In a recent posting on a Caring Bridge site set up to allow church members and others to monitor his health status, Sayles said “re-mission” – in the sense of experiencing a new or renewed sense of mission — is a word he has been thinking about a lot.

“My experience with cancer has certainly made it necessary for me to think and pray, deeply and urgently, about the mission and purpose of my remaining life,” he wrote. “The gift of a physical remission brings with it the opportunity and responsibility of emotional/spiritual re-mission — of discerning and pursuing the role I can now play in pursuing God’s dreams for the world.”

In a letter read to the congregation Sunday morning, Sayles said he cannot fully embrace the discernment process while still serving as pastor. A few days earlier he submitted his resignation to the deacons, effective Jan. 11, 2015.

“I believe that I have given you the best gifts I have had to give, and I also believe that the next season of the church’s life, a season which is very bright with possibility, invites the talents and vision of a new pastor,” Sayles said. “That new pastor will step into a healthy, creative and vibrant community of faith. Our gifted and resourceful ministerial staff and a team of wise and committed lay leaders will continue to guide and care for the church.”

Sayles, 57, said it is the first time in his life that he is resigning a job without having another one lined up somewhere else. “Even though I am uncertain about what my next work will be, I am certain that my time as your pastor is ending,” he said.

“So, like Abraham and Sarah, I am setting out in response to what I believe to be God’s call without knowing where I am going,” he said. “I trust, as I have said to you across these years, that God will give me everything I need to live the life God is calling me to live.”

Sayles, a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a D. Min. from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, previously served congregations in Georgia, Maryland, Texas and Missouri. Prominent CBF pastorates include Kirkwood Baptist Church in St. Louis and Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas.

He is a former member of the CBF Coordinating Council and in 2004 was named to a task force to explore ways for the organization to engage with the Baptist World Alliance, which voted to accept CBF as a member the previous year.

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The Houston Pastors' Subpoenas: What Can It Teach Us About How Christians Should Be Responding?

It started when Fox News broke the explosive story: “The city of Houston has issued subpoenas demanding a group of pastors turn over any sermons dealing with homosexuality, or gender identity. And those ministers who fail to comply could be held in contempt of court.”

The Houston Chronicle reported it began with Houston’s new non-discrimination ordinance driven by Annise Parker, Houston’s first openly lesbian mayor and approved by the city council in June. A group of Houston pastors opposing the ordinance launched a petition drive that generated more than 50,000 signatures—far more than the 17,269 needed to put a referendum on the ballot.

But in a controversial turn the city unexpectedly tossed out the petition in August over alleged “irregularities.” The opponents of the non-discrimination bill (which originally included, among other things, that men could use women’s restrooms and vice versa—but that point was pulled early over the criticism) filed a lawsuit, and the city attorney responded by issuing the subpoenas against the pastors.

The Christian response was wide-ranging as usual, and offers an interesting look at how to respond publicly during a controversial LBGT issue like this.

Among the responses, the nonprofit group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) wrote from a legal perspective and reminded its readers of the constitutional and legal issues surrounding what they called a “witch hunt” and reminded its readers (and the Houston Mayor’s office) that, “Political and social commentary is not a crime; it is protected by the First Amendment.”

The Interfaith Alliance wrote an open letter to the mayor and city attorney denouncing the subpoena from the perspective of the many faiths they represent.

Russell Moore from the Southern Baptist Ethics and Liberty Commission took the opportunity to give local pastors some excellent tips on responding, as well as teaching their congregations how to navigate these challenging issues.

He also urged the novel approach to, “Give them what they want! Print out your sermon manuscript or notes from a sermon on marriage or sexuality, snap a picture and post it on social media with the hashtag #4Houston5, and mail it to the Mayor’s office at: Mayor Annise D. Parker City of Houston P.O. Box 1562 Houston, TX 77251.”

Moore knows that sometimes, going overboard with what the opposition wants is the best way to expose their folly.

Jonathan Bock, founder of Grace Hill Media—which works closely with Hollywood studios and media companies to help them understand the Christian audience—agreed with Russell Moore: “I think it would be awfully gracious of every pastor in Houston to supply a hard copy of every sermon they have given in the last five years. That would be 250 sermons per pastor times the probably 10,000 churches in the greater Houston area. That would be 2.5 million sermons. Feel free to review, Mr. Lawyer!”

The “outrage” end of the spectrum used to be owned by the American Family Association. For years they were quick to urge petitions and boycotts against a wide variety of issues, causes and groups. But possibly because a strategy of outrage rarely changes anything they seemed to have softened lately—which is probably why that space has been taken by a relative newcomer called “Faith Driven Consumer.”

In the last year or so, Faith Driven Consumer has been quick to launch petitions against a wide range of issues—mostly centered around Hollywood. Rebecca Cusey, Entertainment editor at Patheos, responded to the campaign: “Are they ever not outraged? I picture them as interns in a basement somewhere scouring the internet every day looking for something to rile the masses and add to their mailing list.”

As is typical of their approach, they go to extremes right off the bat, writing an “open letter” criticizing the mayor’s actions using terms like “bullying,” “un-American” and “the very height of hypocrisy.” True or not, going straight to Def-Con 5 as your first volley makes it obvious that the letter isn’t really for the mayor, it’s to rally the group’s supporters.

As in their other campaigns, they seem more concerned about self-promotion (in the opening paragraph of their email blasts they never forget to tell you how awesome they are), and for them, everything is driven by collecting names and email addresses. At best it’s terribly self-serving, plus a harsh approach like this makes it difficult for the other side to save face, and we all learned in school that when you take an accusatory approach and call people names up front, they rarely ever come over to your side.

From my perspective, one of the most effective approaches was from Houston pastor Chris Seay. A lifelong resident of the city, he wrote an open letter that was gracious and yet direct, and from the perspective of working together to make a better city. It was a very thoughtful letter. He didn’t criticize the mayor personally, but pointed out the significance and gravity of her actions. He knows the mayor, and in these types of situations, that personal relationship counts a great deal.

Then, in a breaking development Wednesday, the mayor appeared to back away from the initial requests. Janice Evans, a city spokeswoman, told Law Blog in a statement:

“Mayor Parker agrees with those who are concerned about the city legal department’s subpoenas for pastors’ sermons. The subpoenas were issued by pro bono attorneys helping the city prepare for the trial regarding the petition to repeal the new Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in January.

“Neither the mayor nor City Attorney David Feldman were aware the subpoenas had been issued until yesterday,” Evans continued. “Both agree the original documents were overly broad. The city will move to narrow the scope during an upcoming court hearing. Feldman says the focus should be only on communications related to the HERO petition process.”

Whether the mayor really directed the subpoenas or they were sent by pro bono attorneys working for her, it was a serious breach of religious freedom. Who in their right mind in America thinks it’s OK to force pastors and faith leaders to hand over their sermons and other content for the state to review?

One Houston local told me that it’s an example that while the left is constantly criticizing the right for supposed “intolerance,” it’s actually the Left who most often attempts to silence the opposition when in power.

Either way, my concern is how the Christian community engages these challenging situations. We can go for the short-term hype, capture names and email addresses and throw our weight around like bullies. But that approach results more often in hardening the opposition, making the culture far more divisive, and accomplishing very little.

Or we can take a more thoughtful approach with a longer goal in mind. But that involves the hard work of developing relationships, reaching out, thinking strategically, creating dialogue with those we disagree with, and doing our homework.

Chandler Epp, public relations expert at The DeMoss Group, said, “Is our goal to change hearts and minds on the issue (specifically those of the mayor and her staff/attorneys), or is our goal to stir up a media frenzy, incite anger towards the mayor’s office or send a message the mayor will never forget? How we answer that question will lead us down radically different roads and will inform the tone we take in unfortunate situations like these.”

Rebecca Cusey from Patheos summed it up: “We’re not called to love those who mistreat us in the abstract, but in the here and in the now. This mayor. These protestors. This city. How we treat those who rise against us is more important, I think, in Jesus’s book, than whether we win or lose the issue.”

This issue in Houston isn’t over, so it’s too early to say how serious a response it will eventually take. But in the past, Christians have too often won the battle, but lost the war. That’s why I believe it’s not about “winning” as much as presenting Christ to the culture—because that’s how lasting change happens. And for what it’s worth, I’ve yet to meet a single person who came to Christ because they were embarrassed or humiliated into it.

In these challenging times, the stakes are too high to get it wrong.

Phil Cooke is a media consultant focused mainly on the Christian market, as well as a vocal critic of contemporary American and American-influenced Christian culture. Click here to visit his website.



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