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Year in Review: Economic woes, historic momentscomment (0)

January 1, 2009

By Grace Thornton and Jennifer Davis Rash

Few escaped the heaviness that defined 2008. From conflict and tensions across the globe to a tanked economy in the United States, it was a “weight-of-the-world-on-your-shoulders” kind of year. Natural disasters made their appearance and devastated thousands as well.

Still, amid the tragedy and hardship, Americans witnessed history being made as the first black president was elected Nov. 4 — Barack Obama. That history also included Sarah Palin, the first female to run as the Republican vice presidential candidate, and Hillary Clinton, the first serious female contender for a potential presidential nomination, running against Obama earlier in the year for the spot on the Democratic ticket.

And while Obama, Palin and Clinton garnered many headlines throughout the year, the topic of religion gave them all stiff competition for the media limelight. It became one of the hottest topics coming out of the presidential election.

During the race to November, parties battled hard for religious voters and both were forced to distance themselves from outspoken clergy whose fiery rhetoric threatened to become a political liability. Obama and Republican John McCain faced off on issues close to the heart of evangelical Christians Aug. 16 during the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency, a question-and-answer event led by Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, Calif. The event highlighted the candidates’ different views on abortion, gay “marriage” and the judiciary, and come November, McCain won three out of four born-again or evangelical votes.

But his campaign could not overcome the negative economic news that trumped all other issues. As the nation dipped into a recession, the eyes of Americans watched anxiously as gas prices soared above $4 per gallon, the stock market plunged and the unemployment rate rose to 6.7 percent. A $145 billion stimulus package in February couldn’t even hold off the need for a bailout plan worth $700 billion come fall.

A reprieve on gas prices — below $1.50 in some places — had Americans breathing a little easier as 2008 ended, but economic woes continued to weigh heavily on many. Baptist entities such as national Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) and Southwestern and Southern seminaries were among many across the nation forced to make financial or staff cutbacks.

And on the world scene, tensions were even more volatile. In India’s Orissa state, long months of violence aimed at Christians claimed more than 30 lives and destroyed 3,000 homes and 130 churches in the latter part of the year.
The persecution began in the aftermath of the Aug. 23 murder of a revered Hindu teacher in the area. Although police have said communist rebels committed the killing, Hindu extremists blamed Christians and began inciting violence against them in retribution.

Violence exploded in Kenya as well in early 2008, following the nation’s disputed Dec. 27, 2007, elections. Gangs of youth ransacked and burned homes, and by Jan. 10, more than 300 people had died and hundreds of thousands more had been displaced. Another refugee crisis was created in August in the Black Sea country of Georgia, where 50,000 were driven from their homes by fighting in South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia with close ties to Russia. The conflict erupted when Georgia launched an offensive to re-establish control over South Ossetia and Russia responded with a massive counter-strike.

Violence wasn’t the only force wreaking havoc around the globe in 2008. Natural disasters claimed lives and homes by the thousands.

In May, Cyclone Nargis — a storm stronger than Hurricane Katrina — raked the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar (formerly Burma), killing more than 100,000 people. A few days later, an earthquake shook China’s Sichuan province, killing more than 70,000. Millions in both countries were left homeless.

The United States fared better but didn’t go untouched by calamity. In February, an EF-4 tornado wrecked the campus of Union University in Jackson, Tenn. In the following months, individuals, other schools and Baptist churches across the nation pooled their resources to help the campus recover from $40 million in damage.

With no fatalities and few injuries, students resumed classes in just two weeks, and a few days later, Union officials broke ground on a series of new residence complexes. Less than seven months later, 14 buildings were completed and ready for student move-in day Sept. 5. Though Union students and faculty weathered the storm, 55 people elsewhere died in that string of tornadoes that ripped through the South. Sixteen named hurricanes also claimed more than 100 lives as they pounded the United States and its neighbors.

But in the face of widespread devastation, Alabama Baptists never stopped moving. When hurricanes Gustav and Ike slammed into Louisiana and Texas in September, Alabama was spared damage so state disaster relief director Tommy Puckett called for all hands on deck to help storm victims.

For a week leading up to Gustav’s landfall, Alabama Baptists worked round the clock to care for the more than 12,000 evacuees who took up residence across the state. Afterward team after team was deployed with shower, feeding, laundry and communication units, as well as chain-saw and cleanup teams, to help in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas, which also received some damage. Floods and ice storms came, too, piling disaster on top of disaster, and Alabamians burned the candle at both ends for months. But Puckett said through this — Alabama Baptists’ most active disaster relief season yet — “we always have reasons to say ‘glory.’”

State Baptists said “glory” for another reason in 2008, too — in July, they wrapped up their partnership with New Orleans’ Zone 6. Since early 2007, Alabamians had prayed for and prayer walked in the 2-mile-by-5-mile area of Orleans Parish hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and construction teams had helped to fill the job requests of homeowners seeking to repair and rebuild.

“I have literally run out of home­owners we can help,” said Gary Walker, who coordinated Alabama’s work through Operation NOAH Rebuild in Zone 6 and returned to the state.

Some congregations in Alabama accomplished major rebuilding of their own this past year, several of them amid the ashes of church fires. It’s an unwelcome recurring theme in the state, but Allen Foster, pastor of Providence Baptist Church in rural Chilton County, said such disasters give God’s people “a chance to shine.”

After losing its fellowship hall to arson in January 2008, Providence Baptist recently completed a sanctuary three times the size of its former building. The congregation has grown by leaps and bounds since the fire, and the old sanctuary, which survived the blaze, was converted to a fellowship hall.

Woodland Baptist Church, Phenix City, started rebuilding this past year after two 21-year-old arsonists vandalized and set fire to its building the first week of January. The church has been meeting in mobile chapels provided by the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM). Maple Springs Baptist Church, Clanton, also started the process of rebuilding in 2008 after its facilities were consumed by a blaze at the end of December 2007. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and the congregation is meeting in the old sanctuary of nearby Samaria Baptist Church.

In addition to fire, a number of Alabama Baptist churches battled another rapidly growing type of vandalism this past year — copper theft. It’s a new twist on the old habit of burglarizing churches, officials said, noting that targeting copper in heating and air conditioning units has been “out of control” lately.

On the state’s political scene, Alabama Baptists continued a hard fight against electronic bingo gambling in 2008.
Electronic bingo battles consumed the legislative session as a barrage of Alabama House and Senate bills seeking to expand gambling across the state held legislators hostage with filibusters for many weeks. With stiff opposition from many Alabama Baptists, gambling efforts eventually died at the Statehouse but not before exhausting precious time needed to address many “good” bills waiting in the queue.

While gambling opponents fought at the state Legislature, Alabama Baptist leaders in Walker and Houston counties organized and struggled to hold what many call “illegal casino-style bingo gambling” at bay on the home front. But the battle wages on and is predicted to appear again in the upcoming legislative session.

As Alabama struggled with gambling, the rest of the nation was locked in a moral battle of its own — the conflict over gay “marriage.” In California, conservatives came out on top Nov. 4 when voters overruled a state Supreme Court decision from May that had legalized such unions. The state was one of three to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Arizona and Florida also passed such measures.

The topic, however, also took a few unfavorable turns over the course of the year. Connecticut legalized gay “marriage” in October, and Richard Cizik, chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, resigned in December following controversial comments about his moral views, including acknowledging he favors same-sex civil unions.

In other news around the nation:

• Six televangelists’ finances were the subject of a U.S. Senate committee probe.

• Domestic nutrition programs and farmers got a boost with the passage of a $307 billion farm bill in May.

• President George W. Bush, while getting low approval ratings, still garnered kudos for funding of faith-based programs and his work with AIDS. He received the first International Medal of PEACE given by the Global PEACE Coalition, a network organized by Saddleback’s Warren that focuses on humanitarian issues.

• Pope Benedict XVI spoke candidly about the clergy sex abuse crisis during his first visit to the United States in April, leaving with higher approval ratings than when he arrived.

In Alabama Baptist life:

• State Baptists passed the $1 billion mark in Cooperative Program (CP) giving and approved a record $46 million SBOM base budget for 2009.

• Samford University asked the Alabama Baptist State Convention (ABSC) to cap its CP funding at its current allotment, $5.3 million, a move that would funnel more funds into Judson College and the University of Mobile.

• Dan Ireland, executive director of Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP), retired after 30 years with ALCAP.

• Jimmy Jackson, pastor of Whitesburg Baptist Church, Huntsville, was elected president of the ABSC.

In Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) news:

• Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church, Woodstock, Ga., topped a six-candidate field to win the SBC presidency.

• The International Mission Board (IMB) approved a major reorganization, trading its 11 geographically based regions for eight “affinity groups” focused around commonality of language, culture and ethnicity.

• The IMB board of trustees said goodbye to embattled trustee Wade Burleson, who resigned in January after censure in November 2007.

• The IMB’s regional leader for Central and Eastern Europe, Rodney Hammer, resigned in May after challenging the board’s policies on baptism and private prayer language.

• Controversy swirled when a group of prominent Southern Baptists, including then SBC President Frank Page and Southeastern Seminary President Danny Akin, signed a paper on climate change and environmental stewardship in March. The paper, written by Jonathan Merritt, a 25-year-old student at Southeastern Seminary, captured widespread media attention when it was released as a statement and was mistaken as a Southern Baptist initiative on the topic.

• The North American Mission Board sold its FamilyNet building in Fort Worth, Texas, closing a chapter on Southern Baptist involvement in broadcast media.

• LifeWay Christian Resources unveiled a new Baptist Hymnal containing 674 hymns and worship songs.
Baptists also lost three giants of the faith in 2008:

• Alma Hunt, who is remembered as the face of national WMU after leading the organization for 26 years as executive secretary,

• Dellanna O’Brien, the first international missionary to serve as executive director/treasurer of national WMU and

• Landrum P. Leavell II, president emeritus of New Orleans Seminary.

(Brittany N. Howerton, Sondra Washington and wire services contributed)

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