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2009: The year in Baptist newsmakers
Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press
January 04, 2010

2009: The year in Baptist newsmakers

2009: The year in Baptist newsmakers
Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press
January 04, 2010

Here are some of the top newsmakers in 2009 as reported by

Associated Baptist Press.

1. The Baptist movement turns 400

Baptists gathering in 2009 celebrated the 400th anniversary

of the Baptist tradition.

While there are different theories of Baptist

origins, most scholars today date the first Baptist church to 1609, when a band

of Separatists from the Anglican Church who had fled England to avoid

persecution established a congregation near Amsterdam. Baptists from around the

world celebrated the event in conjunction with the Baptist World Alliance

General Council meeting July 27-Aug. 1 in the Netherlands.

During the meeting John Upton, executive director of the

Baptist General Association of Virginia, was nominated

as president of the Baptist World Alliance. If elected at next year’s Baptist

World Congress, he will begin a five-year term to end in 2015.

2. Maggie Lee Henson

On July 12 a bus carrying youth from First Baptist Church in

Shreveport, La., on the way to a youth camp in Georgia overturned

on a Mississippi interstate, injuring all on board.

One of the most critically

injured, 14-year-old Brandon Ugarte, died on the way to the hospital.

The other, the daughter of a church staff member, clung to

life for three more weeks before succumbing

to severe head trauma. Maggie Lee Henson’s parents described her struggle

in a website page that went viral, spawning a Facebook prayer group numbering

in the thousands.

After her death on Aug. 2, supporters determined

to keep her spirit alive by recruiting people to do a good deed in her honor on

what would have been her 13th birthday.

Nearly 18,000 people observed

“Maggie Lee for Good Day” on Oct. 29. The name was taken from a song in

her favorite Broadway musical, “Wicked,” because she had dreamed of one day

being an actress.

“My passion is acting and singing,” Maggie Lee said in a

family video played at a memorial service

celebrating her life Aug.6.

“My goals are to become a better Christian, a

better actress and a better performer and a better daughter.”

3. Wiley Drake

Best known for ubiquitous motions at annual meetings of the

Southern Baptist Convention — including the one that led to the denomination’s

eight-year Disney boycott beginning in 1997 — Southern Baptists rewarded the

irrepressible small-church pastor from Southern California by electing him the

convention’s second vice president in 2006.

On June 1 of this year Drake said on a radio program he

broadcasts over the Internet that the May 31 murder of an abortion provider in

Wichita, Kan., was for him an answer to prayer. Invited by Fox News Radio to

discuss the comment, first reported by

Associated Baptist Press, the pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena

Park, Calif., said he had been praying for George Tiller, one of the nation’s

largest providers of late-term abortions, using “imprecatory” prayer — selected

Psalms from the Old Testament intended to invoke God’s judgment upon an enemy.

Asked by host Alan Colmes if he was directing imprecatory prayer toward anyone

else, Drake replied:

“The usurper that is in the White House is one, B. Hussein Obama.”

Some

SBC leaders — including a prominent African-American pastor who had

already called for a resolution praising Obama’s election — denounced

Drake’s comments.

The SBC, which had been vocal in support of President Bush

during his eight years in office, responded by passing a resolution applauding

the significance of America’s first black president but denouncing many of

Obama’s policies.

Drake, meanwhile, who was on the ticket in California during

last fall’s election as running mate for minor-party presidential candidate

Alan Keyes, pursued a lawsuit

challenging the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency.

Drake claimed Obama did not

qualify for election because he was born outside of the United States — an

allegation the Obama camp has repeatedly denied and that has been repeatedly

investigated by journalists and found meritless.

A federal judge dismissed Drake’s lawsuit Oct. 29. Drake’s

lawyer filed an appeal on Nov. 16. More recently, Drake lifted

his call for imprecatory prayer, and said he is now praying that Obama will

live long enough to be tried for treason.

4. Violence and churches

Fred Winters, 45, pastor of First Baptist Church in

Maryville, Ill., died

March 8 when a deranged gunman walked into his church during a worship service

and opened fire.

One of the bullets struck Winters, a past president of the

Illinois Baptist State Association, in the heart, killing him instantly.

Terry

Sedlacek, 27, was charged with the murder. On Oct. 29 a judge declared

Sedlacek unfit to stand trial and confined him to a mental institution. After

relying on guest preachers during a period of mourning, First Baptist Church

this fall called

an interim pastor while it seeks a permanent successor to its beloved pastor of

21 years.

The process is expected to take about two years.

The Illinois church wasn’t the only Southern Baptist

congregation to lose a pastor to gun violence this year.

Jonathan Ayers, 29,

pastor of Shoal Creek Baptist Church in Lavonia, Ga., was leaving

a convenience store in nearby Toccoa Sept. 1 where he had just withdrawn money

from an ATM.

Rushed by undercover police officers wanting to question him about

a woman he had given a ride who was a subject in a drug investigation, Ayers

panicked and tried to drive away. Perceiving a threat, officers began firing at

Ayers’ vehicle, fatally wounding him.

Family and church members held a vigil

Oct. 3 demanding a complete investigation into the shooting. A prosecutor

turned results of a Georgia Bureau of Investigation report over to a grand

jury, which found officers involved in the shooting justified in using

lethal force. A civil suit against the officers is expected from Ayers’

survivors.

On Sept. 28, 69-year-old Mary Shepard, treasurer of First

Baptist Church of Anna, Ill., and 76-year-old Leona Mount, a custodian,

were working inside the church when they apparently encountered a burglar who

beat them severely while robbing them.

Willis Bates, 45, of Anna was charged

with attempted murder and held on $1 million bond. Both women are expected

to recover, something that Pastor Tony Foeller described as a miracle.

Other churches became indirectly involved with violence.

Texas Baptist chaplains were among the first to minister

following a Nov. 5 shooting at Fort Hood that left 13 dead and 29

wounded. College Park Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., opened

its doors a day later after a former disgruntled employee shot up the

offices of a nearby engineering firm, killing one.

Baptists in Samson, Ala., ministered

in the wake of a March 10 killing spree by Michael McLendon, who took 10 lives

before turning a gun on himself.

A little more than two weeks later,

First Baptist Church in Carthage, N.C., offered

shelter to residents of a nearby senior-citizen center where a gunman killed

eight and wounded two others March 29.

5. Broadway Baptist Church ousted

On June 23 the Southern Baptist Convention severed

a 125-year relationship with Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas,

after an unprecedented year-long investigation by SBC officials of newspaper

reports that the church affirms homosexuality.

Youth from Broadway Baptist Church paint a home in Nashville during their summer mission trip.

A motion from the previous year’s

convention asked that the church be ruled not in “friendly cooperation” with

the denomination under an SBC constitutional ban on churches that act to affirm

or endorse homosexual behavior.

Previously the provision, adopted in the 1990s, had been

applied to congregations that take only some formal action, like ordaining gays

or conducting gay marriages, but the SBC Executive Committee found that by

recognizing gays as full members, including allowing them to serve on

committees, the church had violated the ban.

After the decision a Baptist-affiliated college in Kentucky un-invited

youth from Broadway who were scheduled to stay at the college during a mission

trip.

At the last minute, Broadway leaders made alternate plans for the youth,

including painting

the house of an elderly couple in Nashville, Tenn.

Michael Cox, a professor of music theory and composition at

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, chose

to take early retirement rather than resigning his membership at Broadway.

6. Generational shift

In addition to being the 400th anniversary of the first

Baptist church, 2009 marked 30 years since the beginning of a movement called

the “conservative resurgence” that changed the face of the Southern Baptist

Convention.

Many of the leaders of that movement, along with some of the

organizations spun off in its wake, have begun to exit the scene, raising questions

about future directions of Baptist life in the United States.

Some of the younger potential leaders coming through SBC

seminaries these days do not identify with what they regard an overtly political

and narrow moral agenda of thou-shalt-nots that prevailed in recent decades.

They have gravitated toward culturally relevant trends like the emergent church

and expanded their political activism beyond opposition to abortion and

homosexuality to embrace concerns like the environment,

poverty and nuclear

disarmament.

Many on the fence

about their future in denominational life flocked to this year’s SBC

annual meeting in Louisville, Ky., to support a Great Commission Resurgence movement

spearheaded by

SBC president Johnny Hunt and Southeastern Baptist Theologial Seminary

President Danny Akin.

A committee appointed at the SBC annual meeting to study

ways to make the denomination more effective took an even higher profile

when Jerry Rankin,

president of the SBC International Mission Board, and SBC Executive Committee

CEO Morris Chapman

announced upcoming retirement dates.

The surprise resignation

Aug. 11 of the head of the North American Mission Board means that three

of the highest-profile jobs in SBC life will soon be open, signaling

significant change in the near future.

7. International religious freedom

While Baptists around the world celebrated in 2009, in some

places it was despite increasing hostility and government restriction.

In Uzbekistan, three Baptist leaders were convicted

Oct. 29 of tax evasion and involving children in religious activities without

their parents’ permission, charges Baptists there said were untrue.

Authorities cracked

down in July on Camp4Joy, a summer camp for children Uzbek Baptists have

held annually for several years, after a state-run news agency carried reports

of alleged activity illegal under the country’s restrictive religion law.

Baptists say parents who send children to the camp know it is run by Baptists

and that it doesn’t owe any taxes because it is non-profit organization.

Pavel Peychev, general secretary of the Baptist Union of

Uzbekistan; Yelena Kurbatova, the union’s accountant; and Dimitry Pitirimov,

director of the youth camp, avoided prison but had stiff fines levied

against them following a drawn-out trial in October.

Recent reports suggest

authorities are trying to remove them from leadership in Baptist life.

Early this year a Baptist pastor in Azerbaijan was found

guilty of what supporters say are bogus weapons charges and given “a two-year

corrective labor sentence.”

Hamid Shabanov, pastor of a house church of

approximately 60 members in the town of Aliabad, was arrested in 2008 after

police claimed to have found an illegal weapon in his home.

Supporters said

Shabanov did not own a gun and believe the evidence was planted.

Two Baptist leaders in Cuba were held

two weeks for what authorities deemed suspicious behavior while delivering

funds raised in the United States to churches.

Rubén Ortiz-Columbié,

coordinator for special projects of the Eastern Cuba Baptist Convention, and

Francisco “Pancho” Garcia, director of the convention’s teen department, were

arrested Oct. 3 and released Oct. 17 without formal charge.

A December study by the Pew Research Center said

70 percent of the world’s population lives in a country where religion is

restricted significantly.

8. Women in ministry

Forty-five years after the first Southern Baptist woman was ordained

to the gospel ministry, female Baptists remain controversial for some Baptists.

In November the Georgia Baptist Convention voted to end

a 148-year-old relationship with First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., over the

congregation’s 2007 vote to hire a woman as senior pastor.

Convention leaders said the decision to call Julie

Pennington-Russell, a veteran pastor who previously led Baptist churches in

California and Texas, put the Atlanta-area congregation out of step with the

majority of Georgia Baptists.

Most other Southern Baptists in the state agree

with an article of faith adopted by the SBC in 2000 saying, “While both men and

women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to

men as qualified by Scripture.”

Moderate Baptist groups like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

are more open to the idea of women in ministry, but women seeking employment in

ministry roles still confront what has been termed a “stained-glass ceiling.”

After several years of financial hardship, Baptist Women in Ministry

restructured this year and hired

a full-time executive director, Pam Durso, to reinvigorate the support group

formed in the 1980s.

9. Baptists and the economy

Many churches cut

budgets and curbed expenses to cope with the country’s economic downturn, and

denominational groups are feeling the pinch.

A roll call of Southern Baptist Convention entities began

the year with announcements they were downsizing, freezing salaries of

implementing other cost-cutting measures.

Beginning in March the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship reduced

spending by 20 percent, including a cut in pass-through funds for independent

partner ministries like seminaries and Associated Baptist Press.

This fall a number of Baptist state conventions adopted reduced

budgets, some for the second year in a row.

10. Clergy sex abuse

As in other denominations, clergy-sex-abuse scandals

continued to rock corners of the Baptist world in 2009. David Pierce, who

worked for nearly three decades as minister of music at First Baptist Church in

Benton, Ark., pleaded

guilty Aug. 27 to four counts of sexual indecency with a child.

Court records alleged

a pattern of using his position to groom boys for voyeurism and sexual

gratification that may have gone on for decades.

While some still regard sexual abuse of children by clergy

mainly a Catholic problem relating to celibacy and homosexuality, a September study

by Baylor University’s School of Social Work found that clergy sexual

misconduct is no respecter of denominations.

The report said in a typical

congregation with 400 adult members, an average of seven women in attendance on

a typical Sunday were victimized by clergy since they turned 18.

First Baptist Church in Benton wasn’t the only Baptist group

to receive unwanted publicity for sexual abuse.

Darrell Gilyard, and African-American pastor who is not a

Southern Baptist but as a young preacher was mentored and groomed by some of

the denomination’s highest power brokers, went to prison after pleading

guilty to molesting a 15-year-old girl and sending lewd text messages to

another at his former church.

Joshua Spires, a former pastor of First

Baptist Church in Jay, Okla.,

received a 10-year sentence after pleading guilty to sexual abuse of a

15-year-old girl.

In August a jury in Arizona convicted

Christopher Decaire, youth minister of East Tucson Baptist Church, of

molestation of a 13-year-old.

In November Frank Brown, 45, former pastor

of Bellmead First Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, who also formerly worked at a

Baptist church in Illinois, was sentenced

to 50 years in prison after pleading guilty to sexual abuse of a

child.

Stephen Wayne Carter, director of Baptist-affiliated Cale Retreat

and Conference Center in Hertford, N.C., took a leave of absence after his arrest

July 1 on charges of taking indecent liberties with a child and

first-degree sex offense involving a child.

Jack Duffer, 40, youth minister at

Seaford Baptist Church near Hampton, Va., faced

multiple charges of sexual abuse of a minor after his arrest Aug. 21.

Before

moving to Virginia two years ago Duffer was pastor of a Southern Baptist church

in Hawaii.

Christa Brown, Baptist outreach director for the Survivors

Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), published

a memoir and expose in June claiming the Southern Baptist Convention has more

than 100,000 clergy, but no effective system of denominational oversight to

protect children from sexual abuse.

The SBC’s LifeWay Christian Resources reported

Aug. 4 that one in eight background checks it conducted on volunteers or

prospective employees found a criminal history that might have kept an

individual from working or volunteering at a church.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist

Press.)