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In 2017, these Christians demonstrated faith, hope and love

Ten stories that inspired me — and hopefully you — over the past year.

I am blessed.

As chief correspondent for The Christian Chronicle, I am privileged to tell the stories of Christians living out their faith — often under difficult or extraordinary circumstances.

Over the last 13 years, my travels with the Chronicle have taken me to all 50 states and 11 countries.

Among the many stories I reported during 2017, here are 10 that inspired me — and hopefully you.

1. Texas faithful mobilize shelters for Hurricane Harvey flooding victims

BELTON, Texas — In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, strangers became like family.

Christians motivated by their love for Jesus opened their hearts — and their church buildings — to men, women and children fleeing a storm that flooded tens of thousands of homes and caused at least 82 deaths.

“I couldn’t put it into words. They’ve treated us like we were royalty from some foreign country,” retired Army Col. Chuck Emmerich, 81, said after spending four nights in the Belton Church of Christ gymnasium, about 200 miles northwest of Houston.

“They’ve treated us just like family, really,” added Emmerich, who was using a walker after stepping on glass during his evacuation and requiring treatment at the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood.

A police boat rescued Emmerich, his wife, Marjorie, and their mixed-breed terrier, Mejia, on Sunday, Aug. 27, as floodwaters rose in their Houston-area home.

When the Pearland, Texas, residents went to bed about 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, there wasn’t even a puddle in their yard, Emmerich said. But when he got up to go to the bathroom about midnight, his feet squished into wet carpet.

“We’re flooding!” he told his wife.

Read the full story.

2. Syrian refugees find ‘second family’ in Canadian churches

ST. CATHARINES, Ontario — Ten-year-old Mohammed and his sister Miriam, 6, shriek with excitement when they hear knocking at the front door.

The pint-sized Syrian refugees are expecting Jori Warren, one of a handful of Canadian church members bringing meals while the children’s mother, Samia, recovers from gallbladder surgery.

“Jori!” Mohammed exclaims as he jumps up. “I’ll get it.”

“No!” Miriam protests. “I want to get it.”

The brother and sister trip over each other as they run to answer the door.

A year ago, two Churches of Christ south of Toronto — their hearts touched by the plight of strangers abroad and resolved to show the love of Jesus — sponsored the Faham Katan family’s resettlement to Canada.

In the United States, new President Donald Trump’s push to bar refugees from Muslim-majority nations deemed terrorism threats — including Syria — has dominated headlines.

But here in Canada, the government has welcomed more than 40,000 men, women and children fleeing Syria’s civil war since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s October 2015 election.

Read the full story.

3. For kings and queens with special needs, a Night to Shine

“King” Austin Peters basks in the spotlight of Night to Shine as he and his volunteer buddy prepare to board a limousine.

FORT SMITH, Ark. — Crowns on their heads, the kings and queens flash huge smiles as they emerge from a sleek black limousine.

They wear fancy suits and formal dresses and seem to glide up the red carpet as the waiting crowd cheers.

The 150-plus royal guests pass under a lighted archway with the message “Night To Shine” flanked by the words “Hope” and “Dream.” Many pump fists in the air. Others simply glow.

The friendly paparazzi hold cameras and smartphones with one hand and wipe tears with the other — unable to contain a flood of emotions.

On this recent Friday night, more than 350 volunteers came together at the West-Ark Church of Christ to throw a giant party for God’s children with autism, Down syndrome and other special needs.

“This is a glimpse of the kingdom, that’s what it is,” said Chris Benjamin, preaching minister for the 700-member church. “You see the upside-down kingdom in action because those often overlooked are given special honor.”

Around the world, 375 churches in all 50 states and 11 countries hosted prom-like Night to Shine events sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation — a faith-based charity started by the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and inspirational speaker.

In all, the festivities involved 150,000 volunteers and 75,000 guests, the foundation reported.

“Favorite night of the year!” Tebow declared on Twitter.

Read the full story.

4. No more ‘us and them’

National Guardsman Gary Ciko checks buildings for snipers during the 1967 Detroit riot

DETROIT — The boys — one black, one white — were 10 years old.

Ive Edwards lived close to where the chaos started. Smoke filled his nostrils as arsonists set his hometown ablaze. Looters ran by his window. Army tanks rolled down the street. The pop-pop-pop of gunfire pierced his ears. Afraid of stray bullets, he dove under his bed.

Greg Guymer witnessed the turmoil from Detroit’s outskirts. Helicopters whipped overhead, soldiers’ legs dangling out like a scene from Vietnam. Fear paralyzed him, but his grandfather admonished him to hide in the basement if the war zone approached.

Fifty years after the 1967 Detroit riot, Edwards and Guymer recounted their experiences as two congregations sought to model Christian unity in a nation that still struggles mightily with race — as illustrated by the recent fatal clashes between white supremacist groups and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va.

Even before Charlottesville, the predominantly black Oakland Church of Christ and the predominantly white Rochester Church of Christ — both north of Detroit — saw a need to bridge the divide.

“Love conquers hate because God is love,” said Edward Cribbs, minister for the 300-member Oakland church. “The Oakland and Rochester congregations are endeavoring to bring to the forefront the issue of race and reconciliation. The events in Charlottesville remind us that our efforts are long overdue.”

Adam Hill preaches for the Rochester church, which averages Sunday attendance of 550. He said Charlottesville demonstrates that “the ministry of reconciliation must be learned again and again by every generation.

“The truth is that the devil is not going to give up without a fight,” Hill said. “The Gospel will not allow churches to remain silent about loving one another and recognizing the dignity that each of God’s children has been given.”

Read the full story.

5. A baptism, then a murder confession

Lucinda Wilson is interviewed at the Dr. Lane Murray Unit

GATESVILLE, Texas — Lucinda Wilson might have gotten away with murder.

Except that she became a Christian and confessed to her crime.

Now 48, Wilson has served 20-plus years of a life sentence for the capital murder of her ex-fiancé’s girlfriend, Margaret Morales.

Behind bars, the former U.S. Navy servicewoman has worked hard to remain faithful and share the Gospel with other inmates, she said in an interview at the Dr. Lane Murray Unit, a maximum-security women’s prison 40 miles west of Waco.

Wilson won’t be eligible for parole until July 25, 2036 — when she would be 67.

“When I compare it to eternity, it’s really not that long at all,” she said, speaking into a telephone on the other side of a glass partition.

As Wilson visited with The Christian Chronicle, one Texas Department of Criminal Justice guard stood watch. Another guard held a phone to her own ear as she monitored the conversation.

“I don’t deserve to have a second chance really,” said Wilson, an ordinary-looking woman — except for her white prison jumpsuit — with long, brown hair pulled behind her head.

“I just want to try and do as much as I can to bring the Lord the glory he deserves because it’s not about me,” she added. “It’s about what we can do for him and how many souls we can lead to him as well.”

Read the full story.

6. South Carolina church battles opioid ’emergency’

SURFSIDE BEACH, S.C. — Opioids, meet Jesus.

The drugs behind a crisis that President Donald Trump characterizes as a “national emergency” are no match for the savior of the world.

That’s the message at the Grand Strand Church of Christ, which has become a haven for prodigal sons — and daughters — caught up in addiction.

“The whole congregation kind of took me in and just showed me as much love as they can,” said Jordan Taylor, a recovering heroin addict who served prison time for drug crimes. “I went through ups and downs, and they’d always accept me with open arms.

“They would never judge me or anything like that,” added Taylor, who was baptized after showing up for the church’s Celebrate Recoveryprogram and studying the Bible.

The church in this beach town battles an epidemic — linked to opioids such as heroin and prescription painkillers like oxycodone and fentanyl — that has caused drug overdoses to skyrocket nationally.

Overdoses claim 142 American lives each day — “a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks,” a presidential commission reported this month. Opioids are tied to two-thirds of those deaths.

“We have an enormous problem that is often not beginning on street corners; it is starting in doctor’s offices and hospitals in every state in our nation,” the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis said.

Read the full story.

7. After his wife died in a fire, this single father found hope in an unexpected place

Single father Neil Zierden

MOUNT DORA, Fla. — In an instant, Neil Zierden’s world fell apart.

An accidental explosion at Firepoint Products Inc., the Florida business Zierden co-owned with his 40-year-old wife, Rhonda, killed her and an employee,George Harthman, 54.

Zierden was lost in his own grief and faced with raising the couple’s two young children — Miranda, now 9, and Brett, 7 — on his own.

“We just didn’t really know where to turn or what to do,” Zierden said, recalling the aftermath of the May 7, 2016, tragedy. “I’ve never been a mom.”

Enter Mount Dora Children’s Home,which is associated with Churches of Christ.

“It was obvious that he was a hurt man,” social worker Johnnie Coley said. “So when he came to us, we brought him in. We loved him. We used all the resources that God has given us to help.”

For decades, the children’s home — founded in 1945 in this picturesque town of 13,000 about 35 miles northwest of Orlando — cared for boys and girls in traditional group-home settings. It still operates two such homes overseen by foster parents in this community with sprawling canopy oak trees.

However, frustration with helping children temporarily only to return them to dysfunctional households prompted the creation of a new program serving entire families.

Read the full story.

8. In Canada, seeking redemption for a long, dark chapter

The flag of the Province of Manitoba in western Canada.

DAUPHIN, Manitoba — The boy felt nauseous.

A knot gripped him in the pit of his stomach.

He couldn’t explain the feeling, but it overcame him each time he walked into the long, rectangular building.

Nearly four decades later, the Métis tribal member — who grew up to be a social worker in this rural Canadian community — understands better why the Mackay Residential School caused him such inner turmoil.

“Even if you weren’t the one abused and suffering the genocide and loss of your culture, you absorbed that just by being there,” said the tribal member, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Dave. “They call that the common experience.”

Jamie Harvey can’t escape the ugly history of the building where he and the 30-member Dauphin Church of Christ serve the needy in this town 200 miles northwest of the provincial capital of Winnipeg.

For many in Dauphin, haunting memories remain attached to the 26,000-square-foot building that now houses low-income apartments, a free clothing store, a community food bank, children’s playrooms and the congregation’s worship area.

Until the late 1980s, the structure served as an Indian Residential School — one of 139 such facilities nationwide that were built by the government and run by Christian denominations.

Read the full story.

9. Memories lost — but love and faith remain

ALLEN, Texas — Aunt Melba has no idea who Harold Tidwell is, but he loves her.

He loves her from deep in his soul. He cherishes her as if she were his own mother — a role she fulfilled for him and Gail Tidwell, his wife of nearly 50 years, after their parents died.

Harold Tidwell, 78, is an elder of the Greenville Oaks Church of Christ in this fast-growing suburb north of Dallas.

Never has he known life without Aunt Melba.

At age 97, Melba Warrach is frail and suffers from an advanced form of Alzheimer’s disease.

Update: Aunt Melba dies hours after fellow Alzheimer’s patient Glen Campbell

She resides in the Bluebonnet Memory Care unit at Christian Care Centers’newest senior living community, which opened last year.

The Greenville Oaks church donated five acres for the Allen facility. It’s the faith-based nonprofit’s third location in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The others are in Mesquite, east of Dallas, and Fort Worth.

“Do you know who I am?” Harold Tidwell asks after hugging Aunt Melba on a recent afternoon.

“Art?” she replies.

The late Art Haddox directed the Herald of Truth television ministry in Abilene, Texas. He was one of Aunt Melba’s four brothers — all of whom served in World War II.

Read the full story.

10. Driven by faith, Texas mom advocates for refugees

HOUSTON — To Reda Hicks, refugees aren’t nameless faces on the news.

They’re real women — with real stories of escaping war and persecution in places such as Iran, Iraq and Sudan.

Hicks, a member of the Memorial Church of Christ in this ethnically diverse Texas metropolis, volunteers with The Community Cloth, a nonprofit that helps refugee women launch microbusinesses.

“My children understand what a refugee is … because they’ve played together, shared stories and showed kindnesses to one another,” said Hicks, mother of Howard, 6; Josie, 4; and Katie, born just a few weeks ago.

What motivates the 35-year-old attorney — the wife of a retired U.S. Army Special Forces soldier — to devote time and talents to helping refugee families start over in a new country?

She points to her Christian faith.

“Throughout the Bible, there are examples of people risking everything to take care of others,” she said. “Consider Rahab and the critical role she played in carrying out God’s plan for the people of Israel. Consider the Good Samaritan. Consider every Christian that has ever spoken truth to power, knowing they could be forfeiting their lives in doing so.”

Jake Hicks, 43, identifies with his wife’s concern for refugees based on his own experiences as a Green Beret.

While fighting to stabilize Iraq, Afghanistan and other war-torn nations, he frequently served alongside natives — interpreters, medics and militia members who helped save American lives while putting their own in jeopardy.

“Most people around the world just want the basic necessities of life,” said Jake Hicks, who flew helicopters and dispatched to numerous war zones in 22 years with the Army. “They want freedom and happiness and to be able to practice their religion.”

Read the full story.

Filed under: International National People Top Stories year in review

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