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'Acts of God' considered top national/global story

Posted: 1/06/06
TOP TEN: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita--and Baptist response to the disasters-- comprised the Baptist Standard's top nation/global story in 2005.

'Acts of God' considered
top national/global story

By Marv Knox

Editor

A couple of "acts of God" trumped all other events to claim the Baptist Standard's No. 1 national/international Baptist story of 2005.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita wreaked havoc up and down the Gulf Coast late last summer and early fall. In their wake surged a flood of Baptist mercy and compassion, which spread across the Southern lowlands.

See Related Story:
Baylor leadership transition
the top Texas story in 2005

Katrina claimed about 1,000 lives--far less than the 10,000 originally predicted, but far more than such a storm should have claimed. Her winds scattered New Orleans residents from their saturated and swamped city into Baton Rouge and Houston and Jackson, and on to Dallas-Fort Worth, Memphis and Atlanta. Katrina also shredded coastal communities in Mississippi and Alabama. And while Rita didn't do as much damage, she came on the tailwind of her big sister and upended residents of Louisiana and Texas.

Baptists throughout the South and Southwest opened their churches and homes to provide shelter for victims who evacuated both Katrina and Rita. Led by Baptist Men volunteers from Texas and elsewhere, they also worked in evacuation centers, cooked meals, cut down fallen trees, removed debris, cared for children, helped with logistics, and offered prayer--lots and lots of prayer--on behalf of waterlogged survivors.

In the weeks following the storms, Baptists opened their pocketbooks to help hurricane evacuees relocate and settle into new communities, far from home. In many cases, they provided apartments or at least furnished them. They helped evacuees find jobs, secure clothing, settle children into schools, fill out government paperwork and, as much as possible, feel at home in strange neighborhoods and friendly churches.

Many Baptists also gave funds to help decimated churches find and minister to members, begin to repair or replace damaged buildings, and chart unsteady courses into uncertain futures. The Baptist General Convention of Texas provided $1 million to Baptists in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to help churches meet needs in their communities.

And as the year drew to a close and monumental needs remained, Baptists across the region seemed to echo the same refrain: "We're in it for the long haul."

The Standard's other top 10 Baptist stories include:

2. Federal courts.

Particularly at the national level, Baptists tried to shape the federal judiciary. Baptists populate both sides of the argument over whether the courts have become too "activist" in recent decades. Both sides have a vested interest in the appointment of judges. So, they weighed in when President Bush nominated John Roberts to fill the seat vacated by the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist at the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as when the president nominated Harriet Miers and then Samuel Alito to replace Sandra Day O'Connor when she retires. Baptist pundits and activists also sought to influence congressional decisions regarding lower-level judges.

3. Tsunami recovery.

The South Asia tsunami killed about 180,000 people, making it one of the greatest natural disasters in history. Christian and humanitarian relief agencies from around the globe poured into the region to care for the wounded and help rebuild communities wiped flat by the surging water. Baptists joined the efforts.

Texas Baptists responded with aid to victims of the tsunami.

Baptist Men volunteers from across the United States, including many Texans, traveled to Sri Lanka to serve the victims. Benevolence agencies rallied to the cause as well, channeling a variety of resources to the neediest people. And since the wall of water impacted one of the world's most Christian-resistant regions, missions agencies sensed the tsunami might soften hearts long hardened to the gospel. They reallocated both personnel and material resources to meet physical needs while they also demonstrated the love of Christ to people who, only days or weeks before, might have killed missionaries for preaching the gospel.

4. BWA centennial.

The Baptist World Alliance celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005, as Baptists from many of the 211 member conventions and unions traveled to Birmingham, England, for the Baptist World Congress, an event held every five years. The past couple of years have been difficult for the BWA, particularly because the Southern Baptist Convention accused Baptists elsewhere of not being up to its standards of orthodoxy and consequently pulled out of the organization during its 99th year. Fortunately, Baptists elsewhere--such as the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Baptist General Association of Virginia and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, all in the United States--rallied to the cause. So, despite the SBC's absence, about 13,000 Baptists from around the globe converged on Birmingham for a joyous centennial celebration, marked by who arrived and not by who failed to show up.

5. University transition.

At least six Baptist universities encountered significant change in 2005. In Texas, Baylor University saw the resignation of President Robert Sloan, whose administration had divided regents, faculty and alumni; a period of healing under interim President Bill Under-wood; and the election of John Lilley as the next president by a sur-prising--some would say miraculous--una-nimous vote. Mercer Univer-sity in Macon and Atlanta, Ga., and the fundamentalist-controlled Georgia Baptist Convention parted company, alleviating the GBC of financial obligations and the university of the threat of an SBC-style takeover. At the end of the year, Underwood was elected Mercer's president, to succeed longtime President Kirby Godsey. Also in Georgia, Shorter College lost a court battle to separate from the state convention, which then named a new slate of trustees for the school. In Tennessee, Belmont University attempted to separate from the Tennessee Baptist Convention, a move complicated by a little-known founding provision that the Nashville school's property should revert to the TBC if the school ever left the convention. At year's end, Samford University in Alabama was set to elect Andrew Westmoreland as president, to replace longtime leader Tom Corts. And that move provided implications for yet another school, Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas, where Westmoreland is president.

6. Flood, race and poverty.

Hurricane Katrina left a mess in New Orleans. At year's end, much of the city remained uninhabitable. And the future of the Crescent City--as well as its former residents, now scattered across much of the country--remained an open question. Also at question is the relationship between race and poverty in America. Of course, geography played a major role in the New Orleans catastrophe. Since urban planners began channeling the Mississippi River generations ago, the city has sunk. So, a hole in a levee naturally means flooding in the city. But this tragedy shined a bright light on several other facts: Years of benign neglect left the levees weak and the city vulnerable. New Orleans already was one of the nation's poorest cities. It also was one of the cities with the largest black population. And when the floods came, the city's poor African-Americans suffered the most. Many Americans, from politicians to pundits to preachers, noted the connection between race, poverty and devastation is too strong to ignore. Figuring out how to remove toxic waste from New Orleans is one thing. Deciding how to treat Americans more fairly is quite another.

7. Warren & the world.

During the past 25 years, Rick Warren's Saddleback Community Church in California has become the largest Southern Baptist congregation and provided one of the major models for church growth. More recently, he wrote The Purpose Driven Life, which has touched hundreds of thousands of people. But in 2005, Warren turned his attention to poverty and AIDS. He said God convinced him he should be a good steward of the affluence and influence his mega-selling book has afforded him. So, he is taking on five "global giants"--spiritual darkness, lack of servant leaders, poverty, disease and ignorance--that affect billions of people. He has crafted a PEACE plan--plant churches, equip servant leaders, assist the poor, care for the sick and educate the next generation--to eliminate poverty, starvation and AIDS, as well as spread the gospel. If churches flock to PEACE in anywhere near the numbers that have adopted Purpose Driven, one can only wonder what 2006 will bring for Warren and the world.

8. Sex & culture.

Last year, Americans thought about sex almost as much in the courtroom and ballot booth as they did in the bedroom. In particular, they thought--and talked and argued--about same-sex marriage. And by and large, proponents of gay marriage won legal battles, while opponents won elections, such as the November referendum in Texas. Meanwhile, homosexual-rights activists and people who minister to gays and lesbians debated: Is the tendency toward homosexuality prompted by nature or nurture? Do homosexuals choose their lifestyle, or are they born that way? And can they choose to change? If anything, the debate will grow louder in '06.

9. Ten Commandments cases.

In two closely divided, carefully nuanced decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court drew a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable presentation of religious text and symbols on public property. By 5-4 votes, with Justice Stephen Breyer casting the swing vote in both cases, the court settled the two most significant church-state cases of its 2004-05 term. In Van Orden v. Perry, the justices ruled placement of a 6-foot-tall stone Ten Commandments monument on the Texas Capitol grounds is constitutional. But in McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, they determined a framed copy of the commandments in a county courthouse is impermissible. While the Texas case provides government officials with precedent for displaying the Ten Commandments, the Kentucky decision warns that such displays must serve a secular purpose or else they're out of constitutional bounds.

10. School curriculum.

In one of the final major court cases of the year, a federal judge ruled the theory of "intelligent design" is not science and cannot be taught as science in public school classrooms. U.S. District Judge John Jones III ruled unconstitutional the Dover, Pa., school district's policy of requiring biology teachers to suggest evolution is "not a fact" and to state that intelligent design--the belief that some life forms are too complex to have evolved naturally and must have been aided by an intelligent designer--is a plausible alternative. While binding only in Dover, the court's decision is expected to warn districts in other parts of the country away from intelligent design. In a parallel debate, Americans argued whether Bible teaching in the nation's schools--such as materials published by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools--is a legitimate course of study that is protected by the Constitution or a subterfuge for proselytizing students against their will.

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