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Update: Bob Jones University rehires firm hired to investigate sex abuse


© 2014 Religion News Service

After firing an independent watchdog group to investigate allegations of sexual abuse on campus, Bob Jones University has rehired the same group, one month before the findings from a 13-month review were scheduled to be released.

The university had contracted with Lynchburg, Va.-based GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) in November 2012 but suspended the contract on Jan. 27. The university met with GRACE officials Feb. 18-19 to discuss the review.

“GRACE satisfactorily addressed the University’s concerns and Bob Jones University is confident the review can be completed in a timely and professional manner,”  the university said in a press release. 

“To be clear, GRACE and BJU are united in their commitment to a review that is thorough, transparent and objective.”

In December, BJU President Stephen Jones announced his resignation due to health concerns, and he cited the “ongoing challenges in leadership change” in a letter that terminated the contract with GRACE. School officials had previously cited “differences” between the two sides, a charge that the watchdog group said came as a “complete surprise.”

Now that GRACE has been rehired, a spokesman for BJU said it’s unclear when the final report will be released.

The investigation is led by Boz Tchividjian, Billy Graham’s grandson, who said he has no further comment. Tchividjian, who blogs for Religion News Service, has written and spoken on why evangelicals struggle to report sex abuse claims.

“At the heart of the struggle is a fear that is rooted in the need to self-protect,” he wrote earlier this month. “All such ‘fears’ are usually masked by a rationale that the reporting of such abuse may ‘damage the reputation of Christ.’”

GRACE was fired last year by an independent Baptist missions agency shortly before it could conclude another abuse investigation of missionary children.

Bob Jones is a private Christian university in Greenville, S.C., with about 3,000 students. 


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In South Sudan conflict, churches attacked, looted


© 2014 Religion News Service

African church leaders are urging parties in the South Sudanese conflict to respect places of worship, after rebels attacked and looted church compounds in the town of Malakal.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Malakal was looted at gunpoint, forcing priests and civilians to flee, a regional church leader said.

Catholic and Presbyterian churches, a hospital and an orphanage have become safe havens for refugees escaping the fighting in the city.

“I came to know myself what it means to be asked for something under the threat of a gun when a group in uniform stopped me on the way from the hospital to the church,” said one Catholic priest, who did not give his name because he fears for his safety. “They blocked me and took my watch and a key.”

The conflict began Dec. 15 after President Salva Kiir alleged that his former deputy Riek Machar was planning a coup and arrested several senior politicians. (Seven of the 12 politicians arrested then were released Wednesday.) Since the conflict started, soldiers loyal to Kiir and rebels aligned with Machar have been engaged in bloody battles across the country.

The fighting has taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir’s Dinka tribe and Machar’s Nuer one.

Fighting has been heaviest in Malakal, which is seen as a gateway to oilfields in the north. Rebels looted shops and businesses there in mid-January before turning to homes and churches.

“We urge the fighters to respect the places of worship,” said the Rev. Ferdinand Lugonzo, general secretary of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa. “They should not force out civilians who already feel safe in the church compounds.”

Churches have been providing aid to victims of the conflict with support from international relief organizations. As of Jan. 18, the Catholic cathedral in the town was harboring 6,500 refugees.

The U.N. compound is hosting an additional 20,000. More than 600,000 people have been displaced in the fighting countrywide.

“We first thought this was spontaneous and the rebels were simply looking for houses to loot, but the attack on churches, which are clearly marked, is very disturbing,” said Lugonzo. “At all costs these premises must be revered.”

Although both sides signed a cease-fire agreement last week at peace talks in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, clashes have continued, with both sides being accused of human rights abuses.

Church leaders have urged expansion of the talks to include the religious leaders and the international community.

Christians played a crucial role in South Sudan’s independence, reconciling fighting factions, providing services and building structures. The groups now fear that all these facilities may be at risk of destruction.


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Pentecostal groups agree to bridge a century-old racial divide


© 2014 Religion News Service

When he was a boy, the Rev. Thomas Barclay noticed a difference between the worshippers of his small Pentecostal denomination and churches he visited of the larger Assemblies of God.

“Why are they all white and we’re all black?” he asked his father.

After a racial divide that lasted for nearly a century, the two denominations, the Assemblies of God and the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God, have agreed to a new partnership.

Four years ago, after Barclay was elected as head of the UPCAG, he wrote a letter to George O. Wood, the general superintendent of the 65 million-member Assemblies of God. “I felt the Lord saying to me, ‘I’ve put you in this office to do a job,’” Barclay recalled. “I asked him what it was, and he told me to write this letter to the Assemblies of God.”

At a Feb. 11 service at the Assemblies of God headquarters in Springfield, Mo., Barclay and Wood signed a 12-point agreement to build cooperation that includes introducing their churches to each other and sharing resources, including the Assemblies of God Credit Union.

Wood said he didn’t even know the group existed until he received Barclay’s letter. That’s when he learned that in 1917, a missionary couple who had sought support to travel to Liberia were refused by the Assemblies of God — which had started three years earlier — because they were “colored.”

In 1919, a group of black New England churches started the UPCAG and sent that missionary couple to Africa. Learning that history “pained me a great deal,” said Wood, who said he “apologized several times” to the UPCAG leaders.

“It’s just tragic that there was that epoch in America where the church caved in to the culture rather than transforming the culture,” he said.

Now, after leaders spent time getting to know each other, the much larger Assemblies of God hopes to learn more about urban ministry from the UPCAG and welcome its members to join in youth Bible quiz competitions, fine arts festivals and missions outreach.

The UPCAG has about 70 predominantly black churches in the U.S., the Caribbean and Liberia. The Assemblies of God has 360,000 churches worldwide; about 300 Assemblies congregations in the U.S. are predominantly black.

In recent decades, there have been other signs of improved race relations among Pentecostals — who came together for the interracial Azusa Street Revival in 1906 and then mostly went their separate ways. In 1994, black and white Pentecostals met together for the so-called Memphis Miracle. Last November, officials of the predominantly black Church of God in Christ met with leaders of the Assemblies of God in Springfield in their first official dialogue.

Both Barclay and Wood agreed that the new cooperation would be something short of a merger. But the memo of understanding between the two sides states their hopes that it will allow “the body of Christ to become more united and effective before a watching world.”

“I believe that something wonderful and powerful is going to happen as a result of us coming together, working together for the kingdom,” said Barclay, his church’s international presiding elder.

Added Wood: “It’s very healing to us that they come with such a gracious attitude and even initiated the action when we were the ones that did the wrong.”


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Immigration reform becomes personal for evangelicals


© 2013 Religion News Service

For Southern Baptist Pastor David Uth, immigration reform became a priority after a family in his Orlando, Fla., megachurch faced deportation.

    Bishop Ricardo McClin says it was time to speak up when members of a Church of God congregation he oversaw stopped worshipping in Jacksonville, Fla., because they feared detention.

    As Congress appears close to hammering out new immigration policy, religious leaders -- and especially evangelicals -- say personal encounters with the current system have prompted them to advocate for reform.

    "We've sensed in our church this growing understanding that immigration has a face," said Uth, pastor of First Baptist Orlando. "It has a name. It has a story."

    A recent poll shows white evangelicals are less supportive (at 56 percent) than other religious groups of allowing immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to become citizens. But leaders say there's been a sea change in the last couple of years as they hear about church members being detained or deported and the effects of those measures on their families.

    The Evangelical Immigration Table has mounted a six-figure campaign that includes Christian radio ads, distribution of more than 100,000 bookmarks urging congregants and members of Congress to read Bible passages about "welcoming the stranger" and plans for an April 17 lobbying day in Washington.

    McClin, a former district supervisor for the Tennessee-based Church of God, said a predominantly immigrant church in Jacksonville shut down after going through ups and downs in attendance by fearful worshippers.

    "One Sunday there's a service, we had 80, 100 people," he recalled. "And the following Sunday there would be nobody."

    "I can't pretend that everything is going to be OK because of faith," said McClin, now a pastor in Kissimmee, Fla. "Faith has to be put to work."

    The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, a longtime advocate for immigration reform, said personal experiences are what have driven many non-Hispanic clergy "off the fence."

    "This is now a Christian issue," said Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "It's not a political issue. It became a Road to Damascus moment."

    In January a broad network of churches -including mainline Protestant, historically black, Orthodox, Catholic and evangelical and Pentecostal leaders -- issued a statement calling on Congress and the president to improve the laws.

    "Each day in our congregations and communities, we bear witness to the effects of a system that continues the separation of families and the exploitation, abuse, and deaths of migrants," declared Christian Churches Together in the USA.

    Jim Wallis, the evangelical founder of the anti-poverty group Sojourners, said some Christians have seen a passage from the Gospel of Matthew in a new light. It includes the verse that reads: "I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

    He said a "biblical conversion" is occurring, along with a relational one.

    "When you worship with people, you get to know them and you get to know their lives and their families and their kids and so stereotypes go away," said Wallis, author of the new book, "On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving the Common Good." "And you understand who they are and that changes you."

    Evangelical leaders are hoping to use newfound support to galvanize Congress. Scores of pastors are meeting with legislators in their home districts and in Washington, urging them to take the "I Was A Stranger" challenge and study related Bible verses for 40 days.

    Last week, Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., met with evangelical leaders at an Aurora, Ill., church. His spokesman, Josh Wessell, said Huntgren, who attends an evangelical church, committed to personally read the several weeks of Scripture and took extra bookmarks to share with members of his congressional Bible study group in Washington.

    Wessell said the congressman's primary focus has been border security but he is in an "information-gathering phase."

    "He's seeking input from folks, particularly leaders in the faith community, on how to successfully balance federal immigration policy with his faith and biblical principles," Wessell said.

    Beyond the biblical focus, some evangelical leaders are addressing immigration reform for strategic reasons.

    While some predominantly white evangelical congregations may not have any immigrants in their pews, denominational leaders are aware that immigrants are contributing to the growth of their churches, said Matthew Soerens, U.S. church training specialist for World Relief, a founding member of the Evangelical Immigration Table.

    "If you're in a denominational office, you know that," he said, "and you don't want to see the part of your church that is growing deported."


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Exodus International shuts down, president apologizes


© 2013 Religion News Service


Exodus International, a group that bills itself as “the oldest and largest Christian ministry dealing with faith and homosexuality,” announced late Wednesday (June 19) that it’s shutting its doors.

Exodus’s board unanimously agreed to close the ministry and begin a separate one, though details about a new ministry focused on gender and sexuality are still being worked out.

The announcement came just after Exodus president Alan Chambers released a statement apologizing to the gay community for many actions, including the organization’s promotion of efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation.

Exodus functioned as a support group for men and women who were struggling with their sexual orientation, and early on embraced the idea that gays and lesbians could become straight through prayer and counseling.

But the belief in “reparative therapy was one of the things that led to the downfall of this organization,” Chambers said in an interview, noting that Exodus in recent years redirected its focus to helping men and women work through their sexual identity.

“I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents,” Chambers said in the apology. “I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly ‘on my side’ who called you names like sodomite—or worse.”

Chambers, who is married to his wife, Leslie, said his core beliefs about sexuality have not changed, and admitted he still wrestles with his own same-sex attraction.

The announcement comes at a critical point for gay rights, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to issue two potentially decisive rulings on gay marriage and public opinion shifts rapidly in favor of gay rights and even gay marriage.

A recent Gallup Poll showed that 59 percent of Americans now view gay or lesbian relations as “morally acceptable,” a 19-point swing since 2001 and the biggest change seen on any social issue, including divorce, extramarital affairs and other issues.

When Chambers was hired in 2001, he said he told the board, “Success looks like Exodus going out of business because the church is doing its job.” Three years ago, he said, Exodus had more than 20 employees in its Orlando office. Today, it has nine. In July, it will have 3 employees before it completely shuts down.

“Maybe I’ll get my wish and be a decorator and be a peacemaker on the side,” Chambers joked.  

Chambers had already disavowed reparative therapy at the annual Gay Christian Network conference in January 2012, and his apology “is the acknowledgement many of us have been waiting to hear for a long, long time,” said GCN executive director Justin Lee.

“Alan has been moving this way for awhile … but this apology is much more explicit and leaves no room for support for change therapies or demonizing gays.” said Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College who has long observed the ex-gay movement.

“Exodus has been a lighting rod for Christian discussion about homosexuality over the years and with today’s events will probably continue to be for awhile.”

John Paulk, who was spotted at a gay bar in Washington D.C. in 2000 and left his role as chairman of Exodus, also recently apologized for the reparative therapy he once promoted.

Chambers announced the closure of Exodus at the ministry’s 38th annual conference in Irvine, Calif. Local affiliated Exodus ministries, which are autonomous, will continue, but not under the name or umbrella of Exodus.

“Headlines about Exodus closing down will cause celebrations across the gay community,” said Mel White, who ghostwrote Jerry Falwell’s autobiography years before he came out as gay and launched the gay rights group Soulforce.

“What’s going to replace it is the question. I’m skeptical of it. At this point, I say thank you, I am grateful. But have you changed your basic theology?”

Exodus began in 1976 by a gay man, Frank Worthen.

“Perhaps nothing has brought Exodus into the mainstream of evangelicalism more than its embrace by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family,” wrote Christianity Today in 2007.

The ministry has faced some challenges in recent years, including a split with Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago and other dissolved partnerships.

In his apology, Chambers acknowledged stories of people who went to Exodus for help only to experience more trauma.

“I have heard stories of shame, sexual misconduct, and false hope,” he said. “In every case that has been brought to my attention, there has been swift action resulting in the removal of these leaders and/or their organizations. But rarely was there an apology or a public acknowledgement by me.”

On Thursday, journalist Lisa Ling’s program “God & Gays,” which features Chambers among others, aired on The Oprah Network. “The organization needs to shut down. Shut down!” a man in the trailer tells Chambers.

“It was excruciating to sit through a group of a dozen people who shared a lot of pain and anger,” Chambers told RNS. “To sit with them and listen and take it is something the church really needs to do.”

Chambers said that 18 months ago, he proposed the idea of shutting Exodus down to its 150 leaders. Ling’s program was not the impetus for shutting things down he said, but it did provide timing.

“Sitting there listening to those stories did speed up the process a little bit,” he said. “I think it’s time in the church that we wake up and realize our culture has changed and the church isn’t in charge anymore.”

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