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Remembering the Memphis Miracle of Pentecostal racial reconciliation

Huffington Post today republished an interview with theologian Estrelda Y. Alexander, author of "Black Fire: 100 Years of African American Pentecostalism," that was originally posted on We in Memphis, home of the Church of God in Christ, a large black Pentecostal denomination, are familiar with the black roots of the Pentecostal movement that Alexander's book covers. In more recent memory, a meeting of black and white Pentecostal and charismatic churches in 1994 here in Memphis sought to overcome decades of racial division in a movement that began as integrated in the early 20th century:

Christine A. Scheller: Is there still more racial integration in Pentecostal churches than in the wider of body of churches?

Estrelda Y. Alexander: There has been an attempt to recapture the racial openness with certain movements. There's what we call the Memphis Miracle, an episode where the divided denominations came together and consciously made an effort to tear down some of those barriers. It's been more or less successful. There's still quite a bit of division. It's not on paper. On paper, there's this idea that we've all come together, but the practicality of it doesn't always get worked out.

Memphis native Bishop J. Peter Sartain was appointed today as archbishop of western Washington. He'll lead 600,000 Catholics in cities like Seattle and Tacoma, becoming, at age 58, the youngest archbishop in the United States.

Sartain has been most recently bishop of Joliet, Ill., and before that was bishop of Little Rock and pastor of St. Louis Catholic Church in East Memphis.

In an excellent column, Joel Connelly of comments on the challenges that Sartain will face in the Pacific Northwest, "one of America's least 'churched' regions."

He'll need to adapt to our way of doing business here: Everybody gets consulted about everything. Barriers get bypassed. St. James Cathedral has hosted burial services for an Episcopalian congresswoman (Jennifer Dunn) and a gay state senator (Cal Anderson).

With suspicious, hostile secularists -- a notable media presence here -- Sartain will find he has no room for clerical error.

Initial reaction in Washington and in the local church seems positive so far, Connelly adds:

The welcoming mass at St. James on Thursday saw palpable relief that the Vatican has not sent a hard-line "enforcer" visit. Private clerical reactions to the Sartain appointment ranged from "cautiously hopeful" to "a great guy."

Via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Get Schooled blog:

The New York Times carried today a takeout on the Romeikes, the evangelical Christian family from Germany who sought and were granted* political asylum in the United States by a federal immigration judge in Memphis. The reason: They were homeschooling their children, and that's a no-no in Germany -- violators can face thousands of dollars in fines and even lose custody of their kids.

The Times reported on the contents of the decision by immigration Judge Lawrence O. Burman of Memphis:

In a harshly worded decision, the judge, Lawrence O. Burman, denounced the German policy, calling it "utterly repellent to everything we believe as Americans," and expressed shock at the heavy fines and other penalties the government has levied on home-schooling parents, including taking custody of their children.

Describing home-schoolers as a distinct group of people who have a "principled opposition to government policy," he ruled that the Romeikes would face persecution both because of their religious beliefs and because they were "members of a particular social group," two standards for granting asylum.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has appealed the decision, according to The Times story.

Here's a story from the German news magazine Der Spiegel, though it appears most of the story was clipped from various wire services.

* Scroll way down to the last item.

New York Times on accused Little Rock shooter Abdulhakim Muhammad

The New York Times had an interesting takeout Tuesday on Abdulhakim Muhammad, the Memphis native and convert to Islam who will stand trial in June for the deadly shooting at a military recruiting center last year in Little Rock.

This is the first story I have seen on the topic that delves into Muhammad's earlier years as Carlos Bledsoe, as well as his family. His parents reportedly were displeased by his conversion to Sunni Islam, and his father set up Muhammad with a job in Little Rock after the son returned from Yemen, where he had been jailed. The father, Melvin Bledsoe, wants shine a light on his son's radicalization, The Times reports:

Though he has hired a lawyer for his son, visits him in his cell in Little Rock on weekends and contributes to his defense, Mr. Bledsoe, 54, says he has no illusions about his son's guilt.

"My heart bleeds for the families of the victims," he said.

What he wants, Mr. Bledsoe says, is to understand how "evildoers" brainwashed his son, as he puts it. And he wants the F.B.I. held accountable for what he considers its negligence in preventing the attack.

"They didn't pull the trigger, but they allowed this to happen," Mr. Bledsoe said. "It is owed to the American people to know what happened. If it can happen to my son, it can happen to anyone's son."

Churches using mixed-martial arts to bring Gospel to young men

The New York Times continues its recent string of Memphis-datelined features (see here and here) with a story in Monday's editions about evangelical Christian churches using mixed-martial arts to minister to young men.

The setting for the story was a Cage Assault MMA show on Beale Street. One of the teams participating in the card was Xtreme Ministries, "a small church near Nashville that doubles as a mixed martial arts academy." Xtreme is one of a growing number of churches -- the story stresses that nearly all of them are white -- that are using cage fighting "to explain how Christ fought for what he believed in."

The goal, these pastors say, is to inject some machismo into their ministries -- and into the image of Jesus -- in the hope of making Christianity more appealing. "Compassion and love -- we agree with all that stuff, too," said Brandon Beals, 37, the lead pastor at Canyon Creek Church outside of Seattle. "But what led me to find Christ was that Jesus was a fighter."

The background to this effort is to increase church attendance among young men. Some pastors interviewed for the story say they fear that churches have become too focused on women and children.

Men ages 18 to 34 are absent from churches, some pastors said, because churches have become more amenable to women and children. "We grew up in a church that had pastel pews," said Tom Skiles, 37, the pastor of Spirit of St. Louis Church in Arnold, Mo. "The men fell asleep."

Bishop Steib speaks out about race, Catholic church and Obama

Bishop J. Terry Steib of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis was keynote speaker earlier this month at a symposium of African-American Catholics, priests and religious to mark the 25th anniversary of a 1984 pastoral letter from the nation's 10 black bishops.

The thrust of the letter, titled "What We Have Seen and Heard," was evangelization, Steib told the Sept. 12 gathering in Philadelphia:

"The Catholic Church is universal, there is room in the sanctuary for everybody, and it is our responsibility to work within our community and lead others to our faith which we believe in," he said. "That's what evangelization is all about."

The bishops felt "the time had indeed come to share with the church, in our own language, the experience, the history, the insights, the understanding of the past," he said ... . "We decided it was time to shape the hopes for the future."

Steib also had some interesting, even provocative, things to say about race matters in the church and the nation, as well as about President Barack Obama.

The relative dearth of black Catholic leadership in the church at the time the pastoral was released was due to "subtle racism," Bishop Steib charged in his remarks at the symposium.


Some racism still exists, he said, and cited the furor in Catholic circles in May over the honorary degree awarded by the University of Notre Dame to Obama, who supports legal abortion. The president also was the commencement speaker at the Indiana university.

Critics of Obama, who included about 70 bishops, said it was Obama's stand on abortion that made him an inappropriate choice to receive an honorary degree and/or be the commencement speaker at a Catholic university.

At the symposium, Bishop Steib said other presidents have had disagreements with the positions of the Catholic Church, for example, on war policies and capital punishment, but have received honorary degrees without similar objection.

It is the subtle racism that still exists which contributes to the lack of priestly vocations among young black men because "it leads to a mistrust of the church among young black men and women," he said. "Let's acknowledge that."

Steib also put in a word for the Memphis diocese's Jubilee Schools, inner-city Catholic schools that were reopened after decades to serve a mostly poor, black and non-Catholic population. He said education was a powerful tool for the evangelization the black bishops urged 25 years ago:

"Our mission, because of our baptism, is to teach our children the good news about Jesus Christ. What better way to go about it than through the Jubilee Schools?" he said. "We don't maintain the Jubilee Schools because the children are Catholic; we maintain the Jubilee Schools because we are Catholic."

UPDATE: In response to a commenter who had concerns about this post, I did a little more digging and found another blog post that had similar questions about whether the original source correctly quoted Bishop Steib.

The blogger, Daniel Burke from Religion News Service, contacted Steib's office in Memphis for clarification. While waiting for a copy of the remarks, he also contacted the writer I linked to -- Lou Baldwin, a Catholic freelance writer whose piece was picked up for syndication by Catholic News Service. Baldwin provided Burke with a transcription of Steib's remarks, which I will copy in part below (these are Bishop Steib's actual words as transcribed by a reporter present for the address):

"I ... know there is a subtle racism that still exists within our Church that leads to a mistrust of the Church among our young African American men and women. (snip)

Slowly we are moving away from that mistrust to trust in our Church and thereby trust in the Universal Church. You may ask, "What do you mean by subtle racism? Well, recently and particularly because of the awarding of a degree to President Obama at the University of Notre Dame, the question racism among the bishops of the country has been raised. I am only raising it because Archbishop Quinn in an article in the America Magazine said that continuing confrontation with President Obama and his administration sends the message that the bishops are insensitive to the heritage and continued existence of racism in America. Archbishop Quinn said that.

Please check out the rest of the remarks in the RNS post, as well as the comments there. Steib clearly pushed a few buttons.

UPDATE: Opinionated Catholic comments on how Catholic leadership's criticism of Democratic politicians is now amplified due to the power of the Internet.

Rocco Palmo, the "Church whisperer" who has served as a church analyst for media like the BBC, NPR and The New York Times, also remarks on Steib's speech. His blog post is structured similarly to mine, which might help blunt criticism that my original post was the "sloppy" work of a "young" journalist (I have been in this business for 13 years, after all).

Outside perspectives on Dalai Lama's visit to Memphis

Music-industry bigwig Tamara Coniff is blogging about the Dalai Lama's visit to Memphis for The Huffington Post. Although she doesn't comment on the already-controversial fist-bump greeting by Memphis Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery, she does provide some other details:

In broken English he expressed his belief in "human value" and "human affection," stating that affection and compassion can reach beyond issues of race, economic status, or any other dividers. "Compassions change our perception," he said.

Before leaving the Mississippi, he bestowed a special blessing on the river with two Tibetan scarves. He smiled and looked at his fellow monks and said, "This is how we bless our rivers in Tibet. This is our river too."

Coniff also touches on the political context of the Dalai Lama's visit. With all this in mind, one could consider not insignificant the decision by the Memphis and Shelby County mayors to greet spiritual leader:

(E)specially now that China has emerged as a superpower and is a vital trade partner, many U.S. businesses are afraid to align with the most famous Buddhist for fear that China will retaliate.

Beijing condemns the Dalai Lama for promoting autonomy in Tibet, which China took over in 1950. In fact, U.S. presidents have been cautious when dealing with the Dalai Lama. President Obama has yet to meet with him, and to date has only sent an advisor to discuss the U.S. policy on Tibet.

I'll update this post throughout the afternoon if and when I find other outside-Memphis outlets that are reporting on the Dalai Lama's visit.

UPDATE: This is an inside-Memphis link, but worth it: The editor of the local alternative-weekly tabloid predicts that the video of Lowery giving a pound to the Dalai Lama will make the Letterman/Olberman/Comedy Central circuit. We'll just see about all that, and you'll find the links here when they show up!

UPDATE: The Voice of America is reporting that the Dalai Lama says the fist bump "gesture reminds him of violence."

UPDATE: Agence France-Presse also reports this, and cites WREG-TV. It is unclear, however, when Channel 3 might have gotten the later reaction. It is not included on their video clip.

UPDATE: Eyewitness News' description of what the Dalai Lama said -- "laughingly" -- makes a little more sense. However, it appears the Channel 3 account is what is gaining traction nationally and internationally ...

UPDATE: After rewatching our cut of the video, I see where this is coming from. Listen closely around 1:18; I can't make out all of what the Dalai Lama is saying, but I do hear: ".. but the expression of violence, is this one!" after which he re-enacts the fist bump. It's hard to tell whether he's actually expressing disapproval or just acknowledging the joke. 

UPDATE: Meanwhile, in Canada, where the Dalai Lama is to attend a peace conference this weekend, a death threat against the leader appeared on an Internet chat site in Vancouver and was reported in a Chinese-language newspaper:

"Is there anyone willing to risk death to dedicate themselves/repay their country and assassinate Dalai," the posting reads. "I'll pay money. If can't assassinate throwing a shoe is okay too."

Elsewhere in Canada, another city mayor is getting out in front of a potential protocol problem. Calgary Mayor Dave Bonconnier says he will present the Dalai Lama with a white cowboy hat, an honor given to visiting dignitaries that was denied the Tibetan leader during a visit in 1980. 

Asked whether the inevitable protest by the local Consulate-General of the People's Republic of China will change his mind, the mayor had one word: "No."

Such a refreshing change from the scandal which erupted in 1997, when then-mayor Al Duerr capped Chinese President Jiang Zemin with a white hat, thus honouring a tyrant connected to the Tiananmen Square massacre.

A year later Duerr added fuel to the fury of Calgarians, denying a hat to famed Chinese dissident, Wei Jingsheng, yet offering a Smithbilt to China's premier, Zhu Rongji, shortly after that.

National Baptists praise outgoing Rev. William J. Shaw

National-Baptists-President.jpg After electing a new president last week in Memphis, members of the National Baptist Convention were praising outgoing president Rev. William Shaw for his leadership and integrity in the wake of the scandal-marred term of Rev. Henry J. Lyons. reported from the meeting of the nation's largest association of African-American churches.

"There's no question Dr. Shaw has been a tremendous leader with foresight and insight," said the Rev. Dr. L.B. West, a Washington, D.C. minister, "It's been a wonderful 10 years to see him walk in integrity and live in integrity."

Praise also came from President-elect Rev. Julius Scruggs of Huntsville, Ala., who handily defeated Lyons:

"Dr. Shaw has done a phenomenal job leading this convention for 10 years," the minister told the AFRO. "He became president when this convention was in serious trouble, going through perilous waters and he's navigated us through those waters and brought us to where we are."
Shaw himself said he is confident that Scruggs will keep the NBC on the right path. Shaw will return to leading his White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

"I go without regret, I go without sorrow, I go without trying to hang on," he said. "[Because] being president is an episode in a journey, but the journey goes on."

Ex-bank robber Mike Anders now ministering to convicts

The Suburban Journals of St. Louis carry a story about a former bank robber who served four years at the Memphis Federal Correctional Institution in the 1990s but turned his life around and began a ministry for inmates and ex-convicts.

Mike Anders, now 64 and known as "Brother Boogie," robbed banks in the St. Louis area to feed a gambling habit that sometimes brought him to the dog track in West Memphis.

"When an alcoholic is addicted to alcohol, they go get alcohol to satisfy that desire," said Anders, who was arrested in 1992, shortly after his second robbery. "A gambler needs money to feed his addiction. I went to where the money was."

Anders became a born-again Christian while in jail awaiting trial. He changed his not guilty plea in both cases to guilty.

Thumbnail image for G.-Scott-Morris.jpg Dr. Scott Morris, founder and executive director of the Church Health Center in Memphis, writes occasional columns for the Monday Health & Fitness section of The Commercial Appeal, and this week he contributed a column to The Washington Post to weigh in on the complicated debate over health care reform.

Morris begins by suggesting that health care reform, if it doesn't actually cover the working uninsured, could "erode support for faith-based clinics like us and hurt the very people who will continue to rely on us for care."

Among other key points in the column:

True health care reform will incentivize prevention and find a way to mobilize the larger faith community to effect change from within congregations. Not everyone will come to our wellness center, but millions of people go to church. Imagine the difference the faith community could make!

Critics say that paying for preventive services isn't cost effective, but we've only invested a miniscule amount of our research dollars in answering the questions of what real prevention should look like. Why haven't we? There's no financial incentive to do so.

We must recognize that there is a spiritual dimension to life that must be cared for. I'm not suggesting that we write a blank check for mental health treatment, but being poor can be a devastating experience to a person's spirit, and yet the health care system often doesn't recognize that emotional and spiritual suffering can lead to physical illness.

Morris also steps into the touchy end-of-life debate that has made "death panels" one of the year's buzz phrases:

How did we come to believe as a nation that death is the enemy? The cost of prolonging a life with little quality is beyond our means to pay for and is morally wrong, yet no one is willing to fully address the issue on a national level.

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