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Religion Today Blog Christian Blog and Commentary

Morning Star News Nigeria Correspondent

Religious persecution, missions, Christianity around the world

JOSNigeria, September 20, 2019 (Morning Star News) – A decade after Boko Haram began a bloody campaign to impose sharia (Islamic law) on all of Nigeria, Christian leaders say some areas are still under the control of the terrorists.

The Rev. Mohammed Abubakar Naga, chairman of the Borno state chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), told Morning Star News that the terrorists are still active in the northeastern part of the country where the group originated and has displaced thousands of people, effectively closing many churches.

“Gwoza East, especially the hills, has been taken over by Boko Haram,” Pastor Naga said by phone. “The terrorists still attack Christian communities there. This is even with the presence of personnel of the Nigerian army in the area.”

After beginning a violent campaign to establish an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria 10 years ago, Boko Haram has killed an estimated 35,000 civilians, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The agency said 37 aid workers lost their lives in the course of serving those displaced by the attacks.

Two of the many pastors Boko Haram killed in northeast Nigeria’s Borno state include the Rev. Faye Pama Musa, then secretary of the CAN’s Borno state chapter, slain on May 14, 2013 after the terrorists followed him from his church building to his house and shot him to death; and Pentecostal pastor George Ojih, captured in 2009 and beheaded for refusing to recant his Christian faith.

Initially targeting government and police officials as part of its campaign against corruption, the insurgency that began in Maiduguri, Borno state increasingly struck Christian educational institutions, health facilities and worship sites, sometimes destroying entire Christian communities.

The CAN’s Naga, who has pastored Pentecostal Believers Covenant Church in Maiduguri for 35 years, said the Boko Haram uprising has been the greatest challenge to Christians in northern Nigeria. Christians were either killed or forced to flee to other parts of the country or to countries like Cameroon and Niger.

In the 2014, Boko Haram attacked congregations of prominent denominations such as the Church of Christ in Nations (COCIN), the Church of the Brethren (EYN), Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), and Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Pentecostal churches, Pastor Naga said.

Commonly referred to as Boko Haram, loosely translated as “[Western] education is forbidden,” the group is now officially part of the Islamic State as ISWAP, the Islamic State in West Africa Province. 

Genesis 

In 2002, Mohammed Yusuf, a public servant with the Borno state government and an ardent Islamic student under the tutelage of Sheik Ja’afar Mahmud Adam in Maiduguri, broke ties with the Islamic cleric and founded his sect.

Based in Maiduguri, Yusuf’s teachings included opposition to Christianity and Western democracy, which he said had their roots in the Bible and Western political philosophy. He labeled them “haram,” or forbidden.

In 2009, shortly after Yusuf beheaded Pastor Ojih as an example to others of what happens to those who refuse to convert to Islam, he and other Boko Haram members were captured and extrajudicially killed.

Abubakar Shekau took over as leader after Yusuf’s death in July 2009. Increasingly sophisticated attacks followed, and in 2015 the group aligned with the Islamic State. Its suicide bombings and other attacks have displaced an estimated 2.3 million people from their homes, and in 2015 the Global Terrorism Index ranked it the deadliest terror group in the world.

Nigeria’s military has retaken most of the 20,000 square miles that Boko Haram had seized in Borno state, but the group continues to carry out kidnappings and guerrilla attacks. In April 2014 the group abducted 276 students from the Government Secondary Girls School in Chibok, Borno state, and on Feb. 19, 2018 kidnapped more than 100 high school girls in Dapchi, Yobe state.

About 100 of the 276 girls kidnapped from Chibok are still missing. Nearly all of the Dapchi girls were released on March 21, 2018 after the government negotiated their freedom, but Boko Haram retained Leah Sharibu, now 16, because she refused to renounce Christ.

Nigeria ranked 12th on Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of countries where Christians suffer the most persecution. 

If you would like to help persecuted Christians, visit http://morningstarnews.org/resources/aid-agencies/ for a list of organizations that can orient you on how to get involved. 

If you or your organization would like to help enable Morning Star News to continue raising awareness of persecuted Christians worldwide with original-content reporting, please consider collaborating at https://morningstarnews.org/donate/

Article originally published by Morning Star News. Used with permission. 

Photo courtesy: MSN/Wikipedia/VOA

 

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (RNS) — Poor people have often told pastor Brian Combs that the hardest thing about standing at highway intersections holding up a cardboard sign and begging for money is not watching the windows roll up or hearing the click of automatic doors locking.

It’s seeing people avert their eyes.

So when Combs, pastor of Asheville’s Haywood Street, and his friend artist Christopher Holt began talking about collaborating on a project, they envisioned a fresco on an entire wall of the sanctuary featuring images of the poor and downtrodden.

When completed later this month, the 27-foot-by-10-foot composition will illuminate in bright colors the faces and gestures of the people who visit Haywood Street Church’s principal ministry — The Welcome Table, a dining room with a reputation as one of the best places to eat in this mountain town known for its creative spirit.

To Combs and to the hundreds of poor who stop in for a meal each week, the fresco is intended to make the invisible visible.

“The primary intent of church, in my opinion, is to communicate something about sacred worth,” said Combs. “In God’s sight, you are anything but a throwaway. You’re priceless. You’re royalty. That’s one task of urban ministry we take seriously.”

The fresco’s composition is loosely based on the Beatitudes, the nine blessings recounted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

But unlike traditional frescoes that have often offered visual representations of God, Jesus, Mary or the saints — think of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Fra Angelico’s “The Annunciation” in Florence or Giotto’s “Adoration of the Magi” in Padua — this one puts the poor front and center in a style known as Classical Realism.

There’s Robert Stafford, a gardener at Haywood Street. A 58-year-old recovering drug addict, Stafford first came for meals and stayed on to work the grounds. In the mural, he’s depicted clutching three sunflowers.

And then there’s David Holland. A decade ago, Holland quit his job at Buffalo Wild Wings, threw his belongings into a dumpster and walked into the woods. In 2011, he came to Haywood Street for a meal. He’s now the “banquet steward,” or executive chef. He’s portrayed in the fresco wearing his trademark apron.

Both men were meticulously drawn by Holt, the 41-year-old principal artist.

A student of Ben Long, an Asheville-based master fresco artist who has created a dozen fresco paintings in churches and municipal centers across the state, Holt said the Haywood Street project was unique because of its subjects.

“The most enriching part of it was getting to know different folks from the community and maintaining a friendship with them,” he said.

An average of 1,000 people tromp to Haywood Street each week for its Sunday breakfast and Wednesday lunch — many with backpacks larger than their weathered bodies. 

They take their seats at tables set with fresh cut flowers, a white tablecloth and white dinner napkins. Wait staff in white aprons take their orders. Entrees are plated on ceramic dinnerware made by East Fork, the hip pottery outfit just a few miles away. 

Over the past 10 years, the Welcome Table has partnered with some of the top chefs from North Carolina, many of whom now vie for dates to plan menus and serve meals.

It’s all part of Combs’ core conviction: that the poor should not only be treated generously, but extravagantly.

“Spend a little time in a typical soup kitchen and what you’ll find most times is that the food is left over,” said Combs. “It’s out of date. It’s something someone else didn’t want. It’s discarded. It’s served in a styrofoam board on a tattered tray. And you’re told, this is all we have.”

Combs, on the other hand, thinks that when it comes to the poor, the church ought to be indulgent to the point of being wasteful.

It’s an idea he’s extended to the fresco project, which is costing the church nearly $300,000.

Work on the fresco began last October when four artists applied lime and sand — the elements of plaster —  to a sanctuary wall and allowed it to cure for eight months. 

As it did, Holt and his crew sat down with a dozen Welcome Table visitors and volunteers to draw their portraits and assemble a large “cartoon,” or sketch of the entire artwork. 

The church has also partnered with a company to create a kiosk where visitors will be able to see a computer image of the completed fresco. By tapping on different images on the screen, they will be able to listen to recordings of the people in the fresco speaking about their lives.

The emphasis on living out Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, where the first are the last and the last are the first, has been part of Combs’ thinking since starting the church 10 years ago. 

Combs had been searching for an urban ministry after graduating from Emory’s Candler School of Theology, where he said reading civil rights’ leader Howard Thurman’s “Jesus and the Disinherited”’ changed his life.

He found the perfect space in an 1891 brick Italianate church building that had been vacant after its previous congregation merged with the larger Central United Methodist Church.

Haywood is a mission church, a special designation in United Methodist nomenclature that means a congregation focused on outreach to marginalized groups and supported through donations from other churches and from individual donors.

Haywood Street has no formal membership. Sometimes only 50 people arrive for Sunday services. But Combs believes the heart of the worship experience is not the sermon but the shared meal.

“We believe you’re only doing church if you’re eating together,” Combs said. “We would say unapologetically, that’s church.”

In addition to the Welcome Table, the church has added a number of supporting ministries. There’s a clothing closet and a clean needle exchange that distributes Naloxone, the overdose reversal drug. There’s also an eight-bed respite, where homeless people recuperating from a hospital stay can regain their strength before returning to the streets or the woods.

The fresco is the latest of these efforts and the church hopes it will help the larger Asheville community focus more intently on confronting the poor.

The church has begun hosting live lunches on Tuesdays and Thursdays where people can drop in on their lunch break to watch work on the fresco and ask questions of the artists (Holt and three of his assistants).

The fresco steering committee has worked hard to generate buzz about the impending completion of the artwork.

“I’m already getting calls from hotel managers,” said Pam Siekman, the committee’s chairperson. “They’re like, ‘Pam, when will it be done? We want to put together a fresco visitor package.’”

For the people who frequent Haywood Street there’s no need to burnish the message of the fresco. They get it.

“I’m here to restore dignity to the undignified,” said David Holland, the banquet steward who was once homeless. “That’s what I do and that’s how I look at it. That’s my motivation.”

READ THIS STORY AT RELIGIONNEWS.COM.

Article originally published by Religion News Service. Used with permission.

Photo courtesy: RNS/John Warner/Warner Photography

RNS) — The United Methodist Church’s deadline for petitions for its next global meeting passed Wednesday (Sept. 18), setting the terms for a final reckoning with LGBTQ issues that have divided the denomination for more than 40 years. 

The UMC’s General Conference 2020, to be held in May in Minneapolis, will consider the structure of what church leaders hope can be an amicable, and orderly, breakup of a worldwide church that is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States. The various plans come in response to a vote earlier this year by the church’s decision-making body to strengthen language barring LGBTQ United Methodists from ordination and marriage.

That decision came in February at a special session of the General Conference that approved the conservative Traditional Plan, which centrists and progressives in the church have rejected and adamantly resisted. The resulting chaos has led some churches to withhold money from the denomination or to call for schism.

Bishops in areas that are growing within the denomination and widely seen as conservative, such as the Philippines and African countries, have urged unity in recent statements, even as moderates, most of whom are based in the United States, are optimistic about the prospect of formal separation.

“It’s not a divorce. It’s giving life to expressions of the church that are now in conflict,” United Theological Seminary President Kent Millard told Religion News Service last month.

The denomination won’t release the full text of petitions that will be considered at the 2020 meeting until all have been translated into the four official languages of the meeting.

But all of the most likely proposals provide for dissenting congregations to exit the denomination, while in most cases retaining ties to United Methodist support organizations such as publishing houses. 

The Indianapolis Plan

The Indianapolis Plan would split the United Methodist Church into at least two denominations with differing theological understandings of LGBTQ ordination and marriage.

One of the two new groups would uphold the language passed at the special session earlier this year. The other would remove language from the Book of Discipline, the UMC’s consensus ruling document, that refers to the “practice of homosexuality” as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” 

A possible third denomination would immediately celebrate the full inclusion of its LGBTQ members by marrying them and allowing them to be ordained.

All of the new denominations would be allowed to retain “United Methodist” in their names.

Regional annual conferences in the United States could vote on which of the denominations to join or automatically become part of the centrist denomination. Conferences outside the U.S. could vote, form an autonomous Methodist church or automatically become part of the conservative denomination.

The plan was drafted by a group of 12 conservative, centrist and progressive United Methodists who began meeting in late June.

It included Millard; the Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative group that had backed leaving the United Methodist Church if the Traditional Plan had not passed at the special session; and the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, which also had supported the Traditional Plan, according to the United Methodist News Service.

It also included some clergy affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network, a group that advocates for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church, though the network is officially supporting a different proposal.

The UMCNext Proposal

The UMCNext Proposal, released in August, aims to keep the United Methodist Church intact. However, it would provide a way for churches that wish to leave to be able to do so while continuing to share denominational agencies.

It also would remove language from the Book of Discipline that singles out and discriminates against LGBTQ United Methodists, put an end to disciplinary procedures against clergy who are LGBTQ or who have performed same-sex weddings and allow pastors to determine who they consider ready for marriage within the church.

It also calls for yet another special session of the General Conference to be held in 2022 to consider a new comprehensive structure and governance plan for the denomination.

The UMCNext Proposal was developed and is supported by the UMCNext Coalition, which includes the Reconciling Ministries Network, Uniting Methodists and Mainstream UMC.

It follows a May meeting of more than 600 centrist and progressive United Methodists from every annual conference in the country at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., the largest United Methodist congregation in the U.S., convened by its pastor, the Rev. Adam Hamilton.

“Most United Methodist congregations have people of differing views and convictions regarding same-sex marriage. We’ve learned to live with those differences,” said Hamilton in a statement about the group’s proposal.

“The UMCNext proposal seeks to reimagine a United Methodist Church for all people. It removes the language in the Book of Discipline that is harmful to LGBTQ persons. It provides a gracious exit for those who wish to leave, and it allows pastors and churches to minister according to their convictions.”

For LGBTQ United Methodists, Reconciling Ministries executive director Jan Lawrence said in the statement that the proposal “treats everyone fairly and equitably and allows us to reimagine a United Methodist Church free from the current restriction and welcoming all of God’s children.”

‘A New Form of Unity’

A third strategy, titled “A New Form of Unity: A Way Forward Strategy 2019-2022,” was floated in July by Bishops David A. Bard of the Michigan Conference and Scott J. Jones of the Texas Conference.

The strategy would split the denomination into several self-governing churches in full communion with one another, with the United Methodist Church remaining as “an umbrella organization to facilitate this new form of unity.”

Those churches would tentatively include a Traditional Methodist Church, an Open Methodist Church and a Progressive Methodist Church. All would continue to share in the governance of church agencies.

The strategy also would create a United Methodist Church in Africa and allow churches in Europe and Asia to form their own Methodist churches or to belong to one of the two or three churches formed by the plan.

“We both envision a future where the church will focus on its mission of making disciples and spend less time and energy debating issues of human sexuality, which means we need to bless different parts of The United Methodist Church to be about the mission in their own ways,” Jones told the United Methodist News Service.

Bishops are not allowed to vote during General Conference meetings, but going into February’s special session, the Council of Bishops had recommended allowing individual churches and regional annual conferences to decide whether to ordain and marry LGBTQ members. Any petition that accommodated their plan would have the weight of the bishops’ opinion.

Other petitions discussed in the lead-up to Wednesday’s deadline include creating a new structure for churches in the U.S. so that U.S.-focused matters don’t overwhelm the global General Conference; revising the denomination’s Social Principles, a  statement of the church’s aims, to better apply to the global church; and adding more bishops in African countries, where the denomination is growing fastest.

It was unclear at press time how many of those plans and proposals actually were submitted for consideration as petitions.

Any organization, clergy member or lay member of the United Methodist Church may petition the General Conference, according to the Book of Discipline. Petitions deemed eligible for consideration go to one of several committees, which then decide whether to approve, amend, combine or reject them for recommendation to the General Conference.

The United Methodist Church plans to publish the full text of petitions by Feb. 5 — 90 days before the meeting in Minneapolis.

READ THIS STORY AT RELIGIONNEWS.COM.

Article originally published by Religion News Service. Used with permission.

Photo courtesy: RNS/Mike DuBose/UMNS

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