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Enterprise tornado earns top billing among 2007 Alabama eventscomment (0)

January 3, 2008

By Jennifer Davis Rash

The devastation of a tornado ripping apart a town, along with the hearts of nine families, will forever be etched in the minds of Alabamians. It happened March 1, 2007, and the year was never the same again.

Eight students at Enterprise High School became the victims of the killer tornado when it struck the school’s third hall. One person was also killed in another part of town where several neighborhoods were destroyed.

The storm system affected the entire state that day, also killing one person in Wilcox County.

While the devastation left Alabamians in shock, it didn’t leave them motionless. Alabama Baptists once again garnered the first-responders title with Hillcrest Baptist Church, Enterprise, next door to the high school, serving as a triage center.

“We were at the window and saw [the tornado] coming,” said Hillcrest Baptist Senior Pastor Billy Joy. “I have never felt fear like that before.”

Alabama Baptists’ disaster relief volunteer coordinator, Larry Murphy, was also on the job almost immediately following the tornado. A resident of Enterprise, Murphy found himself fighting an emotional battle as he organized the relief efforts.

“This has had a greater impact on me than any other operation I’ve ever been on,” Murphy said. “It’s been very emotional. … Sometimes I just had to pull off the side of the road in a quiet place and think about what was going on … and ask [God] to give me the strength to continue with the operation.”

Alabama Baptists continued their assistance to Enterprise throughout the year while also helping doing disaster relief in other parts of the United States:

  • Missouri after a January ice storm that traveled across the country
  • the flood-ravaged areas of Kansas in July and Minnesota in August
  • the Midwest following December ice storms.

On the international front, Alabama Baptists were the first to respond to a call for disaster relief in the Ancient Olympia area of Greece following massive fires in August.

Two teams, traveling at different times, cleared charred olive trees with chain saws and helped build temporary dams to prevent floods from washing away the topsoil in the absence of the trees. Many of the area’s olive groves were destroyed by the wildfires’ 10-day massacre.

Volunteers from numerous Baptist churches across the state also assisted New Orleans’ Zone 6, where Alabama Baptists have a partnership in the rebuilding efforts following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

Baptists from all parts of Alabama worked quietly and consistently throughout 2007 rebuilding lives and helping hurting people at home and around the world, all while battling a seemingly never-ending drought that scorched the state throughout the summer and into the fall and winter.

And continuing their legacy as leaders in Southern Baptist disaster relief efforts, Alabama Baptists unveiled a new airlift kitchen in January, which became the model for Baptists nationwide.

Not all aspects of Southern Baptist life reflected the cooperative spirit of Alabama Baptists, however.

The International Mission Board (IMB) continued to have dissension within the ranks about its criteria for missionaries on baptism and speaking in tongues. IMB trustees first adopted regulations on both issues in 2005. The baptism regulation was designed to prevent the approval of candidates baptized by a church or denomination with a different understanding of the doctrine of baptism than the views held by most Southern Baptists. The other regulation prevented missionaries from practicing a “private prayer language,” a form of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues.

The trustees’ actions stirred almost immediate controversy, which lasted into 2007 when trustees decided to soften the criteria. The tongues policy was changed to a guideline, which carries less authority, and the baptism guideline’s language was softened.

At the center of the controversy has been IMB trustee and Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson, who launched the initial response against the trustees’ move in 2005 and became famous for his blogs about the issues. In November 2007, Burleson found himself penalized for the information he posted on those blogs. He was censured and suspended from the next four meetings by the IMB trustees for violating the trustees’ code of conduct.

Another result of the IMB baptism and tongues controversy was a vote by Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) messengers to the annual meeting in June deeming the Baptist Faith and Message as the “sufficient” doctrinal guide for convention agencies and institutions.

Unrest in Southern Baptist life could also be seen in California with the launch of a second state convention and Missouri with a surprising move that ousted the convention’s leadership after the executive director was fired midyear.

In North Carolina, five colleges affiliated with the state convention began the process of pulling away from the convention. And the state’s Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) voted to remove itself from the North Carolina Baptist Building because of a controversy over who has final authority on hiring WMU staff — the state convention executive director or the WMU executive director. With the move, the WMU staff planned to resign from the state convention staff while remaining on the WMU staff. Insurance and payroll issues are currently in transition.

Belmont University in Nashville parted ways with the Tennessee Baptist Convention (TBC), allowing the university’s trustees to become a self-perpetuating board not controlled by the TBC.

Strife also emerged among Americans in general as the issue of illegal immigration was debated, the value of the dollar fell and the presidential election maintained its daily position among top headlines in all media outlets.

Political pundits took notice of the expanding concerns for moral and social issues such as poverty, health care and global warming among evangelical voters. It seems to be a new day for the group that for so long focused only on fighting abortion and same-sex “marriages.” While these two issues are still important to evangelical voters — for instance, they praised the Supreme Court’s decision in April to uphold the ban on partial-birth abortion — they are no longer the only areas of concern.

Near the close of the year, former Southern Baptist pastor and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee surprised the nation with his come-from-behind lead among Republican candidates in Iowa, site of the first presidential caucus — a traditional indicator as to how the candidates will fare.

Two other famous Baptists — former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — managed to stir the religious waters early in the year when they announced their Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant meeting set for January of this year.

Carter noted the convocation is to unite Baptists in common cause who have not had similar views since the mid-1800s when a schism developed between Northern and Southern Baptists. “We hope to recertify our common faith without regard to race, ethnicity, partisanship and geography,” he said.

What has already united Baptists is a fight against clergy sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse, particularly child sexual abuse, was just one of a number of moral indiscretions by church leaders consistently uncovered throughout the year. There were extramarital affairs, homosexual incidents, prostitutes hired, financial issues, tax fraud attempts and the list goes on.

The child sexual abuse problem grew enough out of control in Baptist life in 2007 that people nationwide began calling for an accountability system for churches and church leaders.

A resolution passed by SBC messengers called for churches and convention organizations to perform criminal background checks on ministers, employees and volunteers. It also renounced individuals who commit child abuse and “individuals, churches or other religious bodies that cover up, ignore or otherwise contribute to or condone the abuse of children.”

Being autonomous in nature, it is hard for Baptists to have an all-encompassing system to police each minister, staff person and lay volunteer, but Baptist leaders are listening to the outcries and attempting to develop a way to help.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas reacted by making available to its churches a list of registered sex offenders currently or previously on staff at affiliated churches.

The Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions plans to offer a resource beginning in early 2008 that can be used by churches to prevent situations that could lead to sexual abuse opportunities.

Other faiths continued similar struggles with the sexual abuse issue. For instance, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles reached an unprecedented $660-million settlement with 508 alleged victims of sexual abuse. This 2007 payment was the largest so far in the Roman Catholic Church clergy sexual abuse scandal. All total the scandal has cost the U.S. Catholic Church about $2 billion since 1950.

These scandals were not all that religious bodies faced in 2007.

Eight prominent televangelists from six ministries found themselves being investigated by the Senate Finance Committee. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R–Iowa, wants to know how they are spending their money and to ensure these ministries are operating with financial integrity. Because of their nonprofit “church status,” all of the ministries are tax-exempt and not required to submit their financial information to the Internal Revenue Service. Youth With a Mission made headlines in December when a former missions volunteer killed two staff members of the organization and wounded two others in Denver before killing two people and wounding three at a Colorado Springs, Colo., church. The killer, Matthew Murray, 24, had written that he wanted to kill as many Christians as he could.

Murray’s actions came just eight months after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history — the Virginia Tech tragedy. Thirty-two students and faculty members were gunned down April 16 by Cho Seung-Hui, who also killed himself.

Persecution of Christians and others was not contained to the United States, however. It proved to be a global concern and one that impacted people on various continents simultaneously.

The world watched intently for six weeks as Taliban militants in Afghanistan held South Korean Christians hostage. The 23-member missions team was kidnapped in an attempt to trade team members for Taliban prisoners.

The militants killed two of the hostages right away and then released two others. The remaining 19 were released over a period of two days in late August, following negotiations between the Taliban and South Korean officials, who pledged to withdraw South Korean troops from Afghanistan.
Gaza also had its share of tragic events in 2007.

  • Rami Ayyad, 31, a prominent member of Gaza Baptist Church and manager of a Christian bookstore owned by the Palestinian Bible Society, was killed in October.
  • Gaza Baptist Church was seized twice by police to be used as a watching point during the highest moments of violence between the militant Hamas party and its more moderate rival party, Fatah.
  • A huge bomb blast severely damaged the building housing the Palestinian Bible Society in Gaza City April 15. The security guard was also kidnapped and beaten by the bombers before being released.

In Myanmar (Burma), fighting between the government and the Karen National Liberation Army continued throughout the year, creating unrest and fear among the poverty-stricken people, as well as unmanageable price increases on food and other necessary items.

By late summer, citizens began to rally against the government, particularly against fuel price hikes.
Nearly 30,000 Buddhist monks led a pro-democracy protest that was at times surrounded by 70,000 to 100,000 supporters, but the monks were harshly put down, and several lives were lost in the process.

In Lebanon, life looked much different in the latter half of 2007 than it did a year prior and even just months prior. August marked a year since Hezbollah’s 34-day war with Israel in 2006.

Violence continued during the early part of 2007, but tensions calmed down as the year wore on.

Lebanese Baptists worked consistently through the fighting, reaching out to hurting people, and are now experiencing more opportunities for ministry.

Their presence has also opened doors for other Baptist groups to help the area rebuild.

History was also made in the international religious community in 2007 when the Baptist World Alliance elected its first nonwhite general secretary, Jamaican pastor and theologian Neville Callam, July 6.

Another historic moment happened for Baptists in July when Doug Carver became the first Southern Baptist to hold the position of U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains since 1954.

In Alabama Baptist life, messengers to the state convention annual meeting in November voted to begin relocation efforts for the Baptist Building and passed a record $44,585,000 Cooperative Program (CP) base budget for 2008.

Also during the annual meeting, state convention officers were reelected without opposition to serve a second term: Roger Willmore, president; Jimmy Jackson, first vice president; and Mike Shaw, second vice president.
Samford University in Birmingham garnered headlines several times throughout the year:

  • The university named and dedicated the campus’ new $32-million athletics and special events facility, the Pete Hanna Center.
It is named in honor of the Birmingham businessman and Samford trustee who provided a major gift for the project.
  • The university’s business school was named Brock School of Business after Harry B. Brock Jr., a Samford trustee and former Compass Bank chairman and CEO. Brock promised a “substantial” gift to the $100-million endowment campaign currently under way.
  • After 17 consecutive years of ranking in the top 10 among master’s universities in the South in U.S. News & World Report’s America’s Best Colleges, Samford was ranked at a new level in 2007.

The university was reclassified as a doctoral/research university by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, making it Birmingham’s second national research university and the only private national research university in Alabama, and was ranked right away among national universities in America’s Best Colleges 2008.

The University of Mobile (UM) also hit a milestone with the rankings, making the master’s universities in the South list for the first time, coming in 56th.

All three Alabama Baptist schools — Samford, UM and Judson College in Marion —were named among the best Christian colleges in America, according to Institutional Research & Evaluation Inc.

Another Baptist institution made history in its own way — naming the youngest CEO in its history. Shane Spees, 36, became the president and CEO of Birmingham’s Baptist Health System in February.
In SBC news:

  • The North American Mission Board (NAMB) elected Geoff Hammond as president March 21. He previously served as senior associate director of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia and an IMB missionary to Brazil. Hammond filled the spot left vacant by embattled former NAMB President Bob Reccord.
  • NAMB also sold its television network FamilyNet to Charles Stanley’s In Touch Ministries in October.
  • Frank Page of South Carolina was re-elected SBC president in June.
  • The CP topped the $205-million mark for the first time.
  • Giving to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for international missions exceeded the $150-million goal.
The world also lost three giants of the faith in 2007:
  • Ruth Graham, wife of world-renowned evangelist Billy Graham
  • Jerry Falwell, a founder of the modern Christian conservative movement and pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Va.
  • D. James Kennedy, founder of Evangelism Explosion and longtime pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
(Wire services contributed)
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