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Ten stories that inspired me — and hopefully you — during 2016

These Christians demonstrated faith, hope and love.

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 circumstances.

Over the last decade, my travels with the Chronicle have taken me to all 50 states (I finally made it to the Dakotas this year!) and 10 countries.

As we near the end of this year, here are 10 individuals and groups who inspired me — and hopefully you — during 2016.

These are just a few examples among many who deserve to be recognized.


Young man with autism has a heart for homeless

CAMARILLO, Calif. — A few miles from the Camarillo Church of Christ, a man with a backpack and a bicycle squats at a busy intersection.

Chris Kibbe, who describes himself as between jobs and homeless, holds a cardboard sign.

“Spare a little kindness,” the handwritten message begs. “God bless.”

Not long ago, many members of the Camarillo church — which meets in a palm-tree-shaded building just off the Ventura Freeway — might have averted their eyes and driven right past Kibbe.

But now — thanks to a packet ministry started by Luke McAllister, a 20-year-old church member with autism — the congregation is equipped and eager to help.

“It’s easy to become blind to things,” preacher Alan Beard said. “But in the same way that if you have a watering can, you look for flowers to water — if you have a packet, you look for someone who’s thirsty or needs a quick meal or a couple of dollars.”

“Luke’s Packet Ministry” offers snacks, cash — and hope — to downtrodden souls.

Read the rest of the story.

Canadian churches embrace Syrian refugees

BEAMSVILLE, Ontario — As war ravaged their homeland, a Syrian family of eight fled for their lives.

The Muslim father, mother and six children — among 4 million Syrians who have escaped to neighboring countries — ended up in a refugee camp in Lebanon.

There, they lived in a barn for four years.

Conditions became so dire that the family — including a daughter with cerebral palsy — contemplated returning home, despite the 5-year-old civil war that has claimed an estimated 470,000 lives.

“Inhumane” is the single word that an Arabic interpreter used to translate the Syrians’ lengthy description of the camp.

Enter two Churches of Christ south of Toronto — their hearts touched by the plight of strangers abroad and resolved to show the love of Jesus to a suffering family.

“When I saw the images on TV, I thought, ‘Where would we go? Who would accept us?’” said Linda Minter, a member of the Tintern Church of Christ in Vineland, Ontario, which joined with the nearby Beamsville Church of Christ to sponsor the family’s resettlement to Canada.

Read the rest of the story.
Heart transplant recipient Josh Oakley, a member of the Northside Church of Christ in Wichita, Kan., pitches for the Eisenhower High School Tigers. (PHOTO BY KRISTA PRINDLE)

He pitches with heart — a brand new one

GODDARD, Kan. — It’s a picture-perfect afternoon for baseball as Josh Oakley steps to the mound: blue sky, soft breeze and 71 degrees.

Fifteen family members — two parents, four grandparents, three of Oakley’s five older sisters and six nieces and nephews — cheer as the high school senior delivers his first pitch.

The Eisenhower Tiger’s white-and-baby-blue jersey — with No. 10 on the back — covers a footlong scar down his chest.

That scar helps explain what makes this start so remarkable: Less than six months earlier, Darrell and DeVona Oakley’s youngest child — their only son — received a new heart.

“It’s an absolute gift from God to still be able to play this game,” said Josh Oakley, 18, a member of the Northside Church of Christ in Wichita, about 15 miles east of this suburban community of 4,600.

When the Kansas City Royals began their World Series-winning postseason run this past October, Josh Oakley lay unconscious at Children’s Mercy Hospital in that same Missouri city.

His family feared they just might lose him.

“I’d already accepted that God was going to take him, and I was preparing myself to have to feel what he felt by giving up his son,” Darrell Oakley said.

Read the rest of the story.

In Orlando, a call for more openness, less fear

ORLANDO, Fla. — Sally Gary couldn’t come to Orlando and fail to visit the site of the gay nightclub massacre where 49 people died.

The founder of CenterPeace, a Dallas-based ministry that provides support and resources for people who experience same-sex attraction, said she felt compelled to pay her respects.

“I can’t imagine being here and not paying homage to the brothers and sisters who lost their lives there,” said Gary, a member of the Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas.
Months before the Pulse nightclub attack, Gary accepted an invitation to speak at the Equip Conference in Orlando — a biennial event formerly known as the Spiritual Growth Workshop.

The nation’s worst mass shooting — in which 53 people were wounded in addition to those killed — provided “a very in-your-face reminder” of the urgency for churches to become more open and less fearful in discussing LGBT issues, Gary said.

Her message to the standing-room-only crowds that filled her three sessions: The person experiencing same-sex attraction isn’t a guy in a rainbow-colored bikini marching in a gay pride parade.

“It’s me,” said Gary, who grew up in the Tenth and Broad Street Church of Christ in Wichita Falls, Texas, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Abilene Christian University.

Read the rest of the story. 5. NORTH CENTRAL CHURCH OF CHRIST
A man walks past the North Central Church of Christ in Flint, Mich. The 150-member church has distributed more than 150,000 bottles of water since the city declared a state of emergency. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

Thirsty souls: Churches help victims of Flint water crisis

FLINT, Mich. — “Father, we know the water saves us,” North Central Church of Christ member Robert McDaniel prayed on a recent Sunday.

The living water of Jesus Christ washes away sins, McDaniel declared as 150 men, women and children bowed their heads.

But people depend on water, too, to quench physical thirst, he said.

Amid a crisis involving lead-tainted drinking water in this economically depressed city of 100,000 souls, McDaniel’s words resonated.

Twenty-four-pack cases of water were stacked high inside the church building and its nearby storage facility. Outside, the congregation’s marquee sign invited residents to pick up free water between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays.

Since this city 65 miles northwest of Detroit declared a state of emergency in mid-December, the North Central church has distributed between 150,000 and 200,000 bottles of water, organizers said.

Church members Javaris Burks and James Greer, joined by fellow Christians, volunteer all day before going to their regular jobs.

“I always want to hear, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant,’” said Burks, a team leader at a General Motors truck assembly plant. “We’re in the middle of a community that can really use our help.”

“We just want to make sure we’re reflecting Christ,” added Greer, a lineman for a cable company. “Because sometimes we are the only Bible that people see.”

Read the rest of the story. 6. BLACK HILLS BIBLE CAMP
Kylie Tucker, at right, and other campers pray during a morning devotional at Black Hills Bible Camp. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

Amid massive biker rally, Bible camp thrives

DEADWOOD, S.D. — Revving engines of Harleys, Yamahas and Kawasakis are the first clue you’re getting close to Black Hills Bible Camp.

For a half-century, the youth and family camp has brought together members of Churches of Christ during the same week as the world-famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

“It’s a little piece of heaven,” said Dustri Brown, 33, who met her future husband, Lance, at the Bible camp when she was 9 and he was 8. “You’re singing and praising God. The worldly things don’t matter. It’s the joy of being together with fellow Christians.”

Each August, the motorcycle rally attracts an estimated 500,000 people to the southwestern region of South Dakota — and thousands of bikers cruise U.S. Highway 385 near the turnoff for the camp.

About 15 minutes south of Deadwood — around the time you see a green sign that says Mount Rushmore is 39 miles away — you reach a gravel road shrouded by yellow pines that stretch 80 to 100 feet high.

Four miles of bumpy twists and turns inside the Black Hills National Forest lead you past an outdoor swimming hole, over a little bridge and — finally — to the kitchen, the chapel and the wooden cabins that serve as the weeklong home for nearly 200 Christians from the Dakotas and nine other states.

Read the rest of the story.

Morgan Freeman interviews hurricane survivors Charles and Angela Marsalis at the Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ in New Orleans. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNEL)

Morgan Freeman hears Katrina survivors’ ‘Story of God’

God doesn’t play favorites.

Charles Marsalis stresses that message at the Hollygrove Church of Christ, the New Orleans congregation he and his wife, Angela, planted in a high-crime neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina.

“I’m just plain ol’ Charles,” the minister said. “I’m not going to treat anybody differently, no matter who you are.”

Not even if you’re an Academy Award-winning actor named Morgan Freeman — in the Big
Easy to interview Marsalis and his wife, Angela, for the National Geographic Channel series “The Story of God.”

“Some of the folks, including one of my sons, was watching me to see how I was going to react,” the father of four said, referring to Freeman’s presence at a Sunday worship assembly. “My son said, ‘Pops, you never called this man out one time.’”

Of course, the actor who played God in the box-office hit “Bruce Almighty” and its sequel, “Evan Almighty,” was impossible to miss. So were the cameras that filmed the congregation singing “Shelter in the Time of Storm.”

Marsalis did address Freeman when the star jokingly took money out of the collection plate. “Boy, you about to get whooped in the church,” the minister said he told him.

At the family’s home after the service, Angela Marsalis served Freeman and his entourage baked chicken and macaroni and cheese. She admitted being a bit starstruck, even though she described the actor as extremely friendly and easygoing.

Read the rest of the story.

For a closed urban church, an alternate ending

HOUSTON — Another closed church.

Another lost opportunity to serve wounded souls in the inner city.

That could have been the story as the Lindale Church of Christ — a once-flourishing congregation in the nation’s fourth-largest city — disbanded in December 2015.

However, leaders and supporters of the Impact Houston Church of Christ — which has become a model of urban ministry among Churches of Christ — intend to write a different ending.

In the Lindale church’s heyday, hundreds of worshipers filled the elegant, red-brick building — a landmark near Houston’s busy interchange of Interstates 45 and 610.

Now, thousands of motorists pass a dilapidated structure with boarded-up windows, broken bricks and letters falling off the “Lindale” below the steeple.

On a recent visit to the church property, Impact elder Ron Sellers discovered a side door busted open. Blankets, pill bottles and scraps of garbage were scattered inside the dark, moldy building. The debris indicated that squatters had taken up residence.

Far from discouraged, Sellers said the scene only reinforced the need for bringing hope — physical and spiritual — to this hurting community.

“We almost waited too long,” Sellers said of Impact’s hopes to restore life to the Lindale facilities. “But fortunately, God has given us the opportunity.”

Read the rest of the story. 9. THE PATTERSON FAMILY

Mike and Michelle Patterson, with sons Cameron and Blake, stand in what’s left of their Rowlett, Texas, house after tornadoes struck the Dallas area. The family attends the Saturn Road Church of Christ in nearby Garland, Texas. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

God in the rubble

ROWLETT, Texas — Rain poured on Mike Patterson.

The Texas church member stood by the cozy fireplace where he used to glance out the window and enjoy God’s creation.

Now, crumbled bricks, broken glass and sticky yellow insulation surrounded him as he stared directly into the dark sky.

Soaked as he picked through the remains of his family’s tornado-devastated house, the 50-year-old father of two counted his blessings.

“It’s been a very good reminder of how quickly what we view as a home here in this world can just vanish and be torn apart in 15 seconds,” said Patterson, a deacon of the Saturn Road Church of Christ in nearby Garland, Texas. “It’s been a reminder that his world is not our home, and we should be focused on what is eternal.”

Patterson, his wife, Michelle, and their sons, Blake, 21, and Cameron, 16, were celebrating the holidays with extended family in Georgia when an outbreak of tornadoes struck North Texas.

Twelve people — including Timothy Harris, a member of the Johnson Street Church of Christ in Greenville, Texas — died as the tornadoes wreaked havoc the day after Christmas.

Read the rest of the story.

Debra Lawrence opens the door for De Coco and her husband, Eugenio, at the original “House of Compassion” in Rochester, Minn. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

When you took in a stranger

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Creaky stairs.

Wooden floors.

To Lee Jamieson Sr., the old house down the street from the Mayo Clinic feels like home.

“It reminds me of my grandparents’ house,” said Jamieson, minister for the Timberlane Church of Christ in Tallahassee, Fla. “It’s got character.”

Snow coats the driveway as the preacher and his 19-year-old son, Lee Jr. — who paralyzed his right arm in a skiing accident — carry their luggage once again into the “House of Compassion.”

Built in 1921, the three-level dwelling is part of a ministry that has provided soft beds and warm hugs to thousands of Mayo patients and their loved ones.

The ministry, called Hands of Compassion because it involves more than housing, grew out of Rochester Church of Christ members opening their own bedrooms and basements to frequent out-of-state visitors.

“Members were taking random strangers into their houses just because they happened to be sick and going to the Mayo Clinic,” said Phillip Quelle, full-time chaplain for Hands of Compassion. “They were doing this week in and week out, over and over and over again.”

Launched in 1985, Hands of Compassion expanded with the opening of a second, more modern House of Compassion in 2007. Still, space and facility limitations forced the nonprofit to turn away more than 300 potential guests last year.

Read the rest of the story.

Who inspired you during 2016?

Share your own reflections below. Be sure to include your home congregation, city and state in case we decide to quote you. And if you missed our 2015 list of inspiring stories, check it out, too.

Filed under: Features Inside Story National Travel Reports

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