As the year ends, we count our blessings and say thanks
What a blessing you have been to us this 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.
Among the many stories I reported during 2018, here are 10 that inspired me — and hopefully you.
AKDESÉ, Haiti — In this remote mountain village, water gushes from a well drilled by Healing Hands International.
As one woman pumps the handle, another gleefully splashes the clear, flowing liquid on her face.
Little boys and girls giggle as they cup their hands under the spout, taking giant gulps before filling plastic buckets to carry home.
In an area where donkeys ferry supplies and entire families squeeze onto small motorbikes, the $7,500 well’s dedication brings celebration and dancing — and the opportunity for healthier lives.
“The people wanted it so badly,” said Art Woods, president of the Nashville, Tenn.-based humanitarian aid organization, which is associated with Churches of Christ.
It’s a scene repeated hundreds of times in this impoverished Caribbean island nation: Since the Jan. 10, 2010, earthquake that claimed 230,000 lives and left 1.5 million people homeless, Healing Hands has focused on providing access to clean water.
“We truly believe that if you’re going to change the world, it’s going to start with water,” said Sean Judge, director of Walk4Water, fundraisers by Healing Hands that involve dozens of Churches of Christ.
LOS ANGELES — In 1963, an 11-year-old named Dewayne Winrow gave a sermon during Southwestern Christian College’s annual Bible lectures in Terrell, Texas.
The boy’s message resonated with one notable person in the audience: Marshall Keeble, the famous black evangelist who baptized an estimated 30,000 people before his 1968 death.
“Brother Keeble came to the stage, and he offered me immediately a full-time scholarship to begin attending the Nashville Christian Institute,” Winrow, now 65, recalled in an interview at the Reseda Church of Christ, the San Fernando Valley congregation he has served since 1975.
Winrow, the son of a single mother, had been baptized at age 9 at the Bell and Farrall Church of Christ in his hometown of Shawnee, Okla.
’50 Years: Racial Reconciliation and the Church’ is a series focusing on significant events of the 1960s and the lingering impact. Read all the stories.
‘The sixth-grader moved to Tennessee and became one of Keeble’s “boy preachers” — students who traveled with Keeble to gospel meetings and delivered short messages before he spoke.
“Brother Keeble’s thing was preaching, and his thing was saving souls and baptizing people,” said Daniel Harrison, another of the former boy preachers.
“Right now, many of us are still carrying on his legacy,” added Harrison, senior minister for the Chatham-Avalon Church of Christ in Chicago for 50 years and director of the national Crusade for Christ since its launch 39 years ago.
ARECIBO, Puerto Rico — Punishing, back-to-back hurricanes that wrecked this U.S. territory nearly a year ago swept away homes, decimated crops, knocked out electrical systems and ravaged families.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria failed, however, to kill the spirits of those in this poor, coastal community who lived through the mayhem and work to rebuild.
Sandra Rosa Vargas is one.
On a recent weekday, the 62-year-old great-grandmother walked arm in arm along a pitted neighborhood sidewalk with a teenager who came with her Kentucky church to offer help and encouragement.
The two connected instantly, 13-year-old Ashton Brophy said, as Vargas shared stories of her life and offered to teach her new friend how to cook.
“I just really love Mrs. Sandra,” Brophy said of the widow whose oceanside home of rocks, seashells and cinder blocks had its roof peeled away by winds that registered roughly 150 mph.
“She is just very sweet. … She made lunch for us, rice and salad and chicken. She was telling me all about her grandbabies,” the teen added. “I just want to do everything I can to help her.”
Twenty-six other mission team members from the Reidland Church of Christ in Paducah, Ky., shared Brophy’s sentiment. They traveled nearly 2,000 miles to demonstrate their love and concern for their Puerto Rican brothers and sisters.
“I just heard about the destruction here and how bad things have been for them,” said Alethia “Ali” Williams, 14, who came with the Reidland group. “I felt really bad, and I knew I had the ability to help. … I knew God was calling me to go.”
TULSA, Okla. — “It’s you, Shannon.”
Shannon Wilburn heard the voice in her head.
What she didn’t know was whether the voice was her own or that of the Holy Spirit.
Wilburn, whose husband, Mitch, preaches for the 1,700-member Park Plaza Church of Christ in Oklahoma’s second-largest city, was sitting in worship one Sunday in September 2016.
That morning, an announcement informed the congregation that Walt Erwin, a member of Park Plaza’s branch campus in suburban Jenks, needed a kidney donor.
Thirty-five years earlier, Erwin, now 66, had received a kidney from his older brother, Frank. But he desperately needed a new one. And he was having trouble finding a donor. Without a suitable match, he faced ongoing dialysis. That would mean a decreased quality of life and a shortened life expectancy.
But was Walt Erwin’s health really Shannon Wilburn’s concern?
“What is going on?” she thought as she wrestled with the voice in her head. “I barely know this guy, and I don’t need to give him my kidney.”
DALLAS — “Praise as protest,” declared the bold letters on the T-shirt that Ashley Hawthorne sported at the Dallas County courts building this weekend.
On a gloomy Saturday, clouds covered the tops of nearby skyscrapers and Dallas’ landmark Reunion Tower. Rain drenched Hawthorne as she stood without an umbrella on the steps outside the Frank Crowley Courts Building.
But Hawthorne and roughly 150 other Christians had come — on the day that Botham Jean would have celebrated his 27th birthday — to remember their fallen brother and call for justice in his fatal shooting by an off-duty, uniformed Dallas police officer.
The nasty weather failed to deter these members of Churches of Christ from their appointed mission: singing and praising God.
“The walls of Jericho didn’t come down because they fought,” minister Willie Williams III told the crowd, citing the Old Testament account of the Israelites marching around the city and blowing their trumpets. “The walls of Jericho came down because the people of God got together, and they shouted, and they praised God.”
Lamont Ross, senior minister for the Marsalis Avenue Church of Christ in Dallas, prayed to God, “We can’t make sense of the senseless, but we come to you because we recognize the therapeutic value of praise.”
“Are you OK?”
“Tell me you’re safe.”
“Pamela, please text me back.”
At 7:57 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, a gunman opened fire at Marshall County High School in Benton, Ky., a rural community 130 miles northwest of Nashville, Tenn.
By the time the rampage ended, two students were dead, and 14 were riddled with bullets, police said. Seven other victims — all teens — were hurt as students ran for their lives.
As news of the nation’s latest mass shooting spread, text messages flooded 18-year-old Pamela Ross’ phone.
But for half an hour, the messages to Ross, a senior at Marshall County High and a lifelong member of the Benton Church of Christ, went unanswered. The texts became more frantic.
“I had an MRI at 8, or I would have been there,” said Ross, who faces possible neck surgery as the result of a 2016 car wreck. “I had no clue about anything until I got out and got dressed.
“My mom (Susan) looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘There’s been a shooting.’ I said, ‘What?’ I couldn’t process it. … Then she handed me my phone, and I opened it, and I had like 500 messages and missed calls.”
The reality of what had happened sank in, and Ross (no relation to me) broke down. “And it hasn’t been the same since,” she told me. “It won’t be the same for a very, very long time.”
PANAMA CITY, Fla. — In the dark, John Kincaid could see hints of the devastation in this seaside city.
The downed tree limbs in every direction. The roofs ripped off homes and businesses. The flattened pavilion beside the Jenks Avenue Church of Christ’s family activity center.
But in the pitch-black wee hours — with the power still out in this Florida Panhandle community — the headlights on Kincaid’s tractor-trailer rig flashed only brief, sketchy glimpses of Hurricane Michael’s vast impact.
After a 466-mile trip from Nashville, Tenn., to deliver emergency food boxes and supplies from Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc., the volunteer driver approached the Jenks Avenue church just before 2:45 a.m.
The engine grunted as Kincaid, 76, tapped the brakes and slowed almost to a complete stop. The retired police officer squinted as he scanned the disaster zone for the church’s driveway.
Finally spotting it, he shifted into reverse and backed up a bit. He twisted the steering wheel, pulled into the parking lot and nudged into a space beside the worship center, where days earlier the Category 4 storm — with sustained winds of 155 mph — had poked a hole in the roof above the baptistery.
Kincaid recorded the semi-truck’s odometer reading at his destination — 201,035 — before cutting the lights. After a quick pit stop under the stars, he left the rig’s air-conditioner running and climbed into the back of the cab.
There, on a twin mattress, he’d catch a few hours of sleep before sunrise and the arrival of church volunteers to unload the 53-foot-long trailer.
ABILENE, Texas — In 1960, a professor named Carl Spain delivered an explosive Bible Lectureship sermon that reverberated far beyond what was known then as Abilene Christian College.
In stark terms, Spain called out the racism of Abilene Christian and other colleges associated with Churches of Christ nationally that maintained whites-only admissions policies.
“God forbid that Churches of Christ and schools operated by Christians shall be the last stronghold of refuge for socially sick people who have Nazi illusions about the master race,” declared Spain, who taught Bible at Abilene Christian as well as serving as the minister for the Hillcrest Church of Christ in this West Texas city.
“Our moral attitudes are so mixed up that we use the story of Philemon and Onesimus to justify refusing a Negro admission to study Bible in our graduate school of Bible,” the professor complained, later asking, “Why are we afraid? … Are we moral cowards on this issue?”
Nearly six decades after Spain’s stinging rebuke hastened the integration of what is now Abilene Christian University, another Bible professor — this one an African-American named Jerry Taylor — stepped to the same wooden podium.
Taylor spoke during ACU’s recent 112th annual Bible lecture series — now called Summit — as the university marked the opening of the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action, which will conduct academic research on historical and contemporary racism in the church and Christian institutions.
The center’s name honors the legacy of Spain, who faced “social rejection, religious ostracism, tribal rage and racial retribution” as a result of his Feb. 24, 1960, address, Taylor told thousands of students and guests who filled ACU’s Moody Coliseum.
MALIBU, Calif. — A little boy from Vietnam.
A little boy from Kenya.
This is the story of how one of those boys — all grown up — paid forward his blessings from God.
The recipient of that boy’s extreme gratitude? The other boy.
At age 11 in 1975, Hung V. Le escaped Vietnam on a military transport plane, but he was forced to leave his family behind. Just a few weeks later, Saigon fell to the communists.
For the next several years, Le lived with foster parents in the Seattle area. When he finished high school, a guidance counselor urged him to consider Pepperdine University. That’s how he ended up at the Southern California university, which is associated with Churches of Christ, in the fall of 1983.
At Pepperdine, Le — who had grown up in a devout Roman Catholic household and contemplated becoming a priest — studied the Bible and felt he truly understood it for the first time. The campus minister, Tom Reynolds, baptized Le, and he met his future wife, Corinne, a fellow student, through the University Church of Christ.
“God just gave me so much more than I could ever imagine,” said Le, who earned a degree in business administration and worked on Wall Street for a few years before returning to serve on Pepperdine’s staff in 1990. “I expected a school, and I found a family.”
Not only did Pepperdine nurture Le’s faith, but the university community also rallied to reunite him with his family.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jeff Pendleton met and married his wife, Marcia, at the Red Bridge Church of Christ, a once-thriving congregation less than a mile from the Kansas state line.
He baptized his daughter, Kelly, there.
When loved ones died, he sang hymns and shed tears there.
“It’s a cherished place for so many,” said Pendleton, who served as a church elder. “There are so many memories there.”
At one point, average Sunday attendance topped 350. The church expanded to two morning worship assemblies.
But in more recent years, the congregation became older and grayer. The numbers shrank, down to about 80 on a typical Lord’s Day. Attracting and retaining young families became increasingly difficult.
“Lord, show us your will for Red Bridge,” the church’s leaders began praying a year ago. “What do you want us to do? What do you want us to become?”
The answer came not with a whisper but with a loud thud — as God opened the door for the old, declining church to close and a new, growing church to replace it.
Bobby Ross Jr. is Chief Correspondent for The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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