Are Millennials Really Leaving the Church? Yes, but Mostly White Millennials

Note from Bob:

This ran a few years ago at On Faith. It’s about the rise of the Nones—those with no religious identity—especially among young people.  The big takeaway?  Some young people are losing their religion. But it’s mostly white young people.

All the hand-wringing stories about young adults leaving religion overlooks the vibrancy and growth of multi-ethnic churches.

Almost everyday, it seems, there’s a new story about how “Millennials are leaving the church.” But there’s a problem with these trend pieces: they aren’t true. American Christianity still has plenty of Millennials, but they’re not necessarily in white churches.

Instead, they’re found in places like Iglesia de Dios, a 3,000-member Hispanic megachurch in Nashville. The church was started in the mid-1990s by the Rev. Jose Rodriguez, a native of Venezuela who moved to Nashville in order to get better medical care for one of his children.

Those early services drew a handful of people. But fueled by immigration, word of mouth, and a “come as you are” approach to worship, it’s grown slowly and steadily into a megachurch. Today Iglesia de Dios has six services on the weekends, including one in English for second-generation immigrants and some of their English-speaking neighbors.

“Our church here, we are very young,” says 27-year old Josué Rodriguez, the church’s associate pastor. “There are very few elderly people. And our youth services are the biggest services we have.”

Transformation Church, a multi-ethnic congregation in Indian Land, South Carolina, has also grown by attracting Millennials to worship. Started four years ago by the Rev. Derwin Gray, Transformation Church now draws about 2,500 people to its weekend services.

“What I see among Millennials are African Americans and Asians Americans and Latinos who are vibrantly growing in faith and leading the future of what the church will become,” says Gray.

About a third of young (18-29 year-old) Americans — and more than half of younger Christians — are people of color, according to data from the Public Religion Research Institute. White Christians, on the other hand, make up only a quarter of younger Americans. In fact there are more Nones (those with no religion) than white Christians in this age group.

That’s a remarkable demographic change from older Americans, where nearly 7 in 10 are White Christians, according to PRRI. “What you have in American religion today are the nonwhite Christians and the Nones,” says Mark Silk, professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

But the switch from most Christians being white to the majority being non-white has largely gone unnoticed. Instead, most of the focus has been on the idea that “young people are leaving the church.” That idea is true among white evangelicals, who show a dramatic decline in PRRI’s polling. Among Americans 65 and older, nearly 3 in 10 (29 percent) are evangelicals. That number drops to 1 in 10 for younger Americans.

Gray says that in the past, white Christians were in the majority, so they assumed that what happened in their churches was happening in every church. So if the number of young people in their churches was going down, he says, they assumed it was a universal problem.

Gray explains that since the 1980s, white megachurches in particular grew using a technique known as the “homogeneous unit principle,” the idea that the best way to grow a church is to cater to one specific racial or social group. That’s left them cut off from other ethnic groups and unable to see the bigger picture of what’s happening in the demographics of American Christianity, says Gray.

One of the dangers of being the majority culture is that you become complacent and you don’t listen,” says Gray. “You think your problems are everyone else’s problems.”

The future, says Gray, will belong to churches that are multi-ethnic, because that’s what God wants. He points to a section of the book of Revelation to make his point: “After this I looked,” says Revelation 7:9, “and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

“The reason that we should have multiethnic churches is not that the demographics of America is changing — but because it is at the heart of the gospel,” he says.

The Rev. Efrem Smith, a former church planter and author of The Post-Black and Post-White Church, agrees. Diversity used to be seen as a luxury by churches, says Smith, who is president of World Impact, a California-based evangelical nonprofit. Now, as America has become more diverse, it’s a necessity. “That’s good news,” he says. “It’s going to push us to a more authentic presentation of the gospel and a more authentic faith.”  

But diversity will mean changes in how churches operate, says Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, associate professor of history at Azusa Pacific University. Sánchez-Walsh says that while theology may unite believers over racial and ethnic lines, money and power may divide them.

“People don’t like to give up power,” she says. “They don’t do it easily. And demographic shifts are going to force people in power to deal with that.” Instead of becoming diverse churches, many white congregations may shrink and then close as their members age or die off, says Sánchez-Walsh. Then they’ll sell their building off to like-minded people of a different ethnic group.

The biggest hurdle of all, especially for Protestants, is that the different ethnic groups have set up insular church cultures and institutions. “You have a gigantic black church movement — they have their own media, they have their own colleges, and their own celebrity pastors,” says Sánchez-Walsh. “You have the same thing in the white evangelical and Pentecostal worlds. Then you have the smaller mainline circles. These are all circles that don’t intersect.

Still, there are some signs of success already. This past fall, the Mosaix Conference, a gathering of multi-ethic church leaders, drew more than 1,000 people. That’s up from about 30 people 10 years ago.

Immigration reform has also drawn support from Protestant and Catholic leaders alike, across racial and denominational lines. And pastors like Gray and Smith have begun to be featured as speakers at major pastors’ conferences around the country.

Author and blogger Kathy Kang, a regional multiethnic ministries director with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, says that more diverse voices are needed at pastors’ conferences and other Christian events. Those events, she says, haven’t quite caught up to the changing demographics among Christians.

But she’s hopeful for the future, despite fears among some church leaders that younger people are dropping out of church. “This is an opportunity for Christians to take a look at what they believe, and to ask, ‘Do we believe the Bible is good news for everyone?’” she says. “And if we do believe that, we have to find ways to communicate that good news with everyone.”

 

I Don’t Understand the Words to These Songs, but I Love Them Anyway

Curse you, NPR Happy Hour.

A few weeks ago, I was out for a walk and needed something to listen to, so I tuned to that podcast to see what the hosts thought of Avengers Infinity War (they liked it)—and got an unexpected gift.

The hosts were talking about what made them happy that week. One of them recommended a remix of “Stop Me From Falling” by Kylie Minogue, featuring a Cuban group named Gente de Zona. Minogue—who had a hit with a cover of “The Locomotion”—was aiming for something like David Byrne’s “Loco de Amor” from his Rei Momo album, a mix of Talking Head’s style of pop with Brazilian tunes (think Graceland in Brazil).

Instead, she got a hot mess of wicked awesomeness. The video features people dancing in the middle of downtown Havana, having a great time and singing with gusto.

It’s a song you can’t stop listening to. Or at least, I can’t stop listening to. Even when I don’t know what the people are singing about. That all led me down a rabbit hole of songs in languages I don’t speak but love to listen to.  

Here are a few of my favorites:

La Gozedera, Gente de Zona 

This hit from a Cuba reggaeton band (the music is a Caribbean form of hip hop) is about a starting a giant party across most of South American and the Caribbean. At least that’s what Google tells me. The video has more people dancing in Havana and a guest appearance from Marc Anthony.  

Dusted and God Bless Africa, from Zifa

 A pair of songs from Swedish musician Michael “Zifa” Eriksson. Eriksson grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and was a classmate of my friend Twyla, a missionary kid. Dusted (Nabouyo) is a little bit ABBA and a bit of little Graceland. The song is a mix of English and Lingala (I believe)—and I have no idea what he’s singing about. I think he’s giving the Devil a kick in the seat of his pants.  The song is dance-able and blast.

Zifa and his band also covered “God Bless Africa” or “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” a hymn written in 1897 by South African poet. Here Zifa sings it with a couple choirs at an event honoring musical legend Miriam Makeba. The song became an anthem of the anti-apartheid movement and still remains powerful.

Wake Me Up  (Mariachi version), Postmodern Jukebox

This song’s a bit of cheating, in that it’s a cover of Wake Me Up by Avicii, which has already been covered in English. Still, they’re singing in Spanish and I don’t speak that language, so it counts. And it’s great fun.

Estoy Aqui, Shakira

Back in the 1990s, I had a job running a college residence hall while I was in grad school.  My students loved Shakira, especially this song.  There’s even a Portuguese version. How awesome is that?

Tryggare kan ingen vara/Children of the Heavenly Father

One of the first hymns I learned when my family started going to a Protestant church in the 1970s was this song, often song in Swedish at baptisms and funerals. It’s the most beautiful hymn ever, written by Lena Sandell-Berg, after the death of her father. The hymn is lovely in English but far better in Swedish.

 Bonus track:

You know what’s even better than singing a song in a language you don’t understand? Listening to someone else do it. With that, I give you “Una Paloma Blanca” by the Dutch Band, The George Baker Selection. It’s in English and Spanish—and sung with gusto. It’s another hot mess of awesome.

 

 

Why My 30th Wedding Anniversary Made Me Sad

We said, “I do,” 30 years ago this week.

I was 23. My wife, Kathy, was 21—and only a few weeks out of college. We had no idea what we were in for.

30 years, 3 kids, 2 dogs, half a dozen apartments, a house, more cars than I can count, and a handful of adventures and crises later, we are still here. There have been tears. And laughter. Some kisses. A few fights. Early on, we thought we might not make it.

But we hung in there, and joy found a way.

For the most part, this week has been fabulous. The kids made us dinner on Monday the 4th, which was our actual anniversary date. We went out to see a movie. Told a few old stories.

Like the one about our friend, Pete Mueller, who showed up at the wedding in a Panama hat right after all the bridesmaids had walked down the aisle. Everyone was standing and looking at him as he tried to sneak in and cut off the bride. Awesome.

Still, I’m a bit sad.

The years have not been so kind to a dear friend of ours. Actually, two friends who were there at the wedding—a pastor and his wife. I’ve known them since I was a teenager. They’d been a model for Kathy and I, showing us how to have a good marriage.

Now they are barely hanging on. He had a long-term affair and was found out. They lost everything—his job, their church, and many of their friends. Now they are strangers who live together, all alone.

I wish things had turned out differently. But life is a mess. People are always one dumb move away from a train wreck.

There have been lots of news lately of pastors like my friend. People who did a great thing, then lost their way. Some of them still refused to admit their fault. Others may still be hiding their wrongdoing. No one knows how things will turn out. Sometimes good people do bad things and never recover. Some make amends. Others change their ways but are still haunted by the past, like Doug Parkhurt.

Fifty years ago, Parkhust got drunk and decided to go for a drive in his Buick Special on Halloween in the small town of Fulton, New York.

A little girl named Carolee Ashby was out with her sister. The two had gone to the store to get candles for a birthday cake and were headed home so Carolee could dress up and go trick-or-treating. They crossed the street at the same time Parkhurt came barreling along. He hit Ashby and killed her. He never stopped.

Police question Parkhust, who said he’d hit a pole, according to the Post-Standard newspaper in Syracuse. Then he went off to Vietnam and the trial went cold. The case remained unsolved for years. Then a retired investigator posted a note about the case on social media and a new witness came forward.

Parkhurst confessed. He apologized for the pain he had caused and for the guilt he carried for taking Carolee’s life. But he was not prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run out.

It was case of “imperfect justice,” the Post Standard reported.

Parkhurst later moved to Maine. Not long ago, he went out to watch a ballgame at Goodall Park in Sanford, Maine. That night, it appears a woman named Carol Sharrow decided to go for a ride. It’s not clear she was under the influence—though she had past convictions for operating under the influence.

She wound up at Goodall Park and drove her car of the field, barreling down toward some kids. Parkhurst pushed the kids out of the way then was struck and killed, according to the Portland Press Herald.

For a moment he was a hero. Then news about his past came out. And no one knew quite what to say or how to make sense of it.

“I am overwhelmed by it all,” Carolee’s sister, Darlene McCann told the Press-Herald. She still carried grief and pain from the loss of her sister. When she heard of that Parkhust had died in a hit-and-run, there was some relief.

“He left us all these years with nothing, not even an ‘I’m sorry,’ ” she said.
McCann said her parents died without knowing what happened to their daughter. She said her mom, at least, might have shown some mercy to Parkhust.

“I know my mom would have been grateful that children were saved. Sometime I may be able to forgive him, but not right now,” she told reporters.
Maybe that’s the best we can hope for when we mess up. Forgiveness may take a while.

Elizabeth Bruenig, a columnist at the Washington Post, was tweeting on this topic over the weekend. Bruenig, who is Catholic, often writes about theology and ethics. “The fact that people who do kind things and are nice people also do evil things and are inclined to do evil is one of those things I think is very important to parse,” she tweeted. “Until then I think you’re still a Manichean of some kind.”

That’s about right I think.

“We go crying, we come laughing, never understand the time we’re passing,” says the songwriter Bruce Cockburn. “Kill for money, die for love. Whatever was God thinking of?”

That’s right too. Most of us are a train wreck, a mix of good and bad and in between. Some of us hide it better than others. Some of us manage to avoid the stupid mistakes that would ruin our lives.

Or we get enough grace that when we make a mistake, the universe gives us a pass. And we don’t destroy our lives

This week I’m basking in the joy of 30 year of wedded bliss and am grateful that we’ve made it so far, hoping that the next 30 years will be full of adventures and enough forgiveness for us to get by. And I hope our friends find the same.

Most of all, I hope joy will still find a way.

The Cost of Forgivenes

If you’re lucky, once in your life you’ll meet a real life, bonafide saint.

 

Eighteen years ago, my former colleague Craig Pinley and I met three of them: Herb, Bruce and Barbara Baehr of Baldwinsville, New York, on the outskirts of Syracuse. By saint, I mean some who not claims to believe in God but who live like they believe in God.

Here’s their story, which originally appeared in the July 2000 issue of The Covenant Companion.  (It is republished with permission).

 

 

On December 6, 1997, Mary “Lily” Baehr of Baldwinsville, New York, was murdered in the home she shared with her husband Herb, and their son and daughter-in-law. Lily’s son, Bruce, serves as the associate pastor of Grace Covenant Church in Clay, New York.

On March 17, 1999, Kenneth Hobart, a career criminal, confessed to killing eighty-year-old Lily Baehr during an attempted burglary. On January 19, 2000, Hobart was sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison for murdering Lily Baehr. At Hobart’s sentencing, Bruce Baehr looked the man who had killed his mother in the eye, and read this statement:

“We want you to know that when you killed Mary Lily Baehr, you took a life that was cherished by her husband, family, and friends. To have her physical life taken by you in such a cruel and unnecessary way has caused great sorrow and pain in the lives of those who loved her so much. We often think of her and miss her….Perhaps part of the good that will come from such a terrible crime is for you to hear what Mary Lily Baehr would have wanted us to say to you today. We want to tell you that we forgive you. We can say this with sincerity because we have received God’s forgiveness for the wrong things we have done.”

Bruce Baehr remembers that he was in a hurry the day that his mother died. Bruce and his wife, Barbara, were headed to Chicago to see their son Jason, a student at North Park University, and they were running late. So Bruce headed out the door without kissing his eighty-year-old mother good-bye.

Barb stopped him. “Bruce,” she said, “you didn’t say goodbye to Mom.”

“I turned and went back,” Bruce recalls, “and said, ‘Mom, I love you,’ and gave her a hug and a kiss and then we went out the door.”
That was the last time that any family member saw her alive.

Bruce and Barb left their home at approximately 8:30 a.m., on Saturday, December 6, 1997. Soon after they left, a group of men approached the Baehr family home in rural Baldwinsville, New York, about fifteen miles northwest of Syracuse. They had been casing the house for some time and believed they would find a large sum of money in the house. They also believed that no one would be home. When they found Lily Baehr and only a few hundred dollars in the house, they slit her throat and left her to die on the laundry room floor.

At 9:45 a.m., eighty-one-year-old Herb Baehr returned home from a Saturday morning prayer meeting. It took him some time to figure out that something was wrong. “There was a bit of snow on the ground that day,” he says. “When I arrived, I noticed that the outside door was open. I thought, well that’s strange, but maybe Lily was baking something and maybe wanted to get a little smoke out. I thought no more of it.”

As Herb walked from the garage to the house, he noticed that there were several skid marks in the driveway. “I thought, well, Bruce must’ve been late for his plane and took off in a hurry.”

Then he noticed a second door leading into the kitchen was open as well. Herb walked past the laundry room door and noticed that several things looked out of place.

There was a pan of quiche on the kitchen counter, with a fork, a plate, and a glass of orange juice next to it. He heard the television on in the living room, but no one was there. He stopped in his bedroom and noticed that the money he kept there was missing. He checked the whole first floor of the house, but there was no sign of Lily.

“I called, ‘Lil,’ to see if she was upstairs and there was no answer,” says Herb, “so then I really was getting concerned. I went into the kitchen and then I went into the laundry room and there she was. I went back to the bedroom and called 911, and they said to go check if she’s still breathing. So I went into the [laundry] room and I looked and I felt her shoulder, and it was already starting to get cool, so I knew she wasn’t breathing. I checked her body motion and there was no breath, of course. Then I went back in (to the phone) and I said ‘She’s not breathing.’ [They said] to go back again and see if her heart is beating, so I went back in and felt her wrists and felt her pulse and, of course, there was no pulse. That dear woman was in glory.”

The rescue squad arrived moments later and tried desperately to revive Lily. The police came a few minutes later. According to the Syracuse Post Standard, more than thirty officers searched the Baehrs’ house and farm for the next two days, looking for clues to help them find out who killed Lily Baehr.

They found very little to go on.
“It’s one of those cases you don’t often see in police work,” says Steve Dougherty, chief assistant district attorney (DA) for Onondaga County. “You had a crime that was committed, one of the most vicious homicides you could have, a burglary in the middle of the country, with no suspects. From the outset, we were stumped. There was no motive and no suspects.”

a cloud of suspicion
Suspicion turned immediately to Herb Baehr. He was questioned for some time on the day of the murder – first at the house and later at the police station. He says they asked him where he had been and when he had left the house. They also wanted to know how much insurance Herb carried on his wife.

“We had a terminal policy for Lily, just a small one, $2,500, for terminal expenses,” says Herb. “That’s all there was. And I couldn’t even get that. On the death certificate, they would not put the cause of death. So I could not get the insurance, even for my wife’s burial expenses. They weren’t sure I hadn’t done it.”

While Herb was being questioned by police, Bruce and Barb were in Chicago. When they arrived at O’Hare Airport, they were surprised to hear they names paged. They were met by a Chicago police officer, who escorted them to a conference room in the basement of the airport. They called home and talked to one of the officers at the scene, who put Herb on the phone. Herb told them that Lily was dead.

Bruce and Barb spent several minutes trying to piece together what could have happened. Herb had told them that the back door of the house was open and that Lily had died in the laundry room.

“I called back and I got [one of the officers] on the phone,” Bruce says, “and I told him, ‘I think we have it figured out. I think my mom was probably feeding the cat, [tripped] and hit her head on the laundry room floor.’ His words to me were, ‘Mr. Baehr, your mother was murdered.’ That was the end of the conversation.”

Bruce and Barb knew that they needed to get back home as soon as possible. After booking a 6 p.m. flight to Syracuse, they called their son Jason to tell him what happened. They also called David Lysack, a family friend, and asked him to be with Herb until they arrived.

When they arrived at the Syracuse airport, officer Renee Roberts was waiting for them. “We knew that we were going to be met at the airport by the detective,” Bruce says, “and they had already told us that we were going to be questioned as soon as we got back.”

As Roberts drove the Baehrs to the police station, Barb realized that they were already being interrogated. “She [was] asking questions and wondering if I did this,” Barb says. “We were babes in the woods. We had no idea that we would be considered suspects.”

When they arrived at the police station, Herb had already gone home with Lysack. Bruce and Barb’s daughter Jessica, nineteen, was also being questioned.

“I kept saying, ‘I want to see my daughter,’ ” Barb says, “and they said, ‘she’s being questioned, you can see her when we are done.’ When I was done [being questioned] I asked where my daughter was and they told me she was gone. I tore down the back stairs and she was [driving away] in a police car.” Barbara was not able to reach Jessica until the next morning.

Bruce and Barb were questioned until about 1 a.m. When they were finally allowed to leave, they faced a new problem – where to go. They couldn’t go home as their house was still considered a crime scene. They ended up at the Lysacks’ house. Herb was there, along with a number of friends from church, who had come to support them.

God went before us
The Baehrs say that the thing that got them through this time of their life was a sense that God was in control. They saw this first in the response from their church. Many people brought meals or just spent time with them. One couple, Herb and Donna James, took the Baehrs into their home.

“They just took over,” Barb recalls. “They said, ‘You are coming home with us.’ Their presence normalized things because there’s no place that you can make this fit in your life – this doesn’t have anything to do with what you have ever experienced.”

Several days later, Bruce was finally able to go back to the house. It was a mess. Most of the house was covered in a gray dust used for fingerprinting. There were muddy footprints from officers who had been searching the farm, and much of the house was taped off. Still, Bruce says that he saw God at work.

Before being called as the associate pastor at Grace Covenant, Bruce had worked for nearly twenty years at a local adoption agency. The first person he met at the house was an evidence technician who also happened to be an adoptive dad. Years earlier, Bruce had placed two children from Russia with him.

“He came to the door,” Bruce says, “and I could see tears in his eyes. He said, ‘Don’t worry Bruce. I told all of the evidence technicians to be careful. It was sitting at this kitchen table that I saw my son and daughter for the first time. Your house is in good hands.’ ”

In the earliest days of the investigation, Don Hilton, a member of the Syracuse police department and of Grace Covenant, called the sheriff’s office and told them to start looking outside the family for a suspect. Hilton also placed a call to Mary Lawrence, who directs the victim’s advocate program for the Onondaga County DA’s office. She visited the house and spent some time talking with Herb. She was also able to help him clear up Lily’s death certificate, which allowed Herb to collect the insurance money for his wife’s funeral.

Lawrence, who lost her own brother in a murder ten years ago, works with the New York Crime Victim’s board to provide counseling, assistance with burial expenses, and other services for victims’ families. She talked about some of the hardships that a family faces after a loved one is killed.

“Aside from losing someone violently and suddenly,” Lawrence says, “they also find themselves in a system that’s focused on the perpetrator – looking for the perpetrator or building a case….You want some respect – that this happened to your life, this is about you, and you have absolutely no control. The media’s in your face, the police are in your face, the DA’s office wants all their facts, and all of this is out of your control. You can’t get a life insurance policy, everything’s held up. It’s almost like your grief is kind of stopped until, and even after, a sentencing.”

coming home
After three weeks, the Baehrs were allowed to move back into their house. At first, Barb and Herb weren’t sure they wanted to go back. Besides getting past the trauma that came with Lily being murdered in the house, the Baehrs feared that they would lose the house as a place of ministry. They bought the house in June of 1977, after Bruce and Barb moved to the area to work at a local adoption agency. Herb and Lily moved in that October after Herb retired as an assistant school superintendent in Valley Stream, New York. Besides their children Nathan, Jason, and Jessica, the Baehrs shared their home with five children from Vietnam: Tuan, Hai, Linh, Loan, and Hoai Nguyen. (Eventually, they helped the Nguyens’ mother move from Vietnam as well.) They had also welcomed a number of single mothers to live with them and had often invited adoptive parents and people from church to the house.

“At one point,” Barb says, “I thought that maybe no one will ever want to come to our house again. In the third week of January, some of the women from church came and they had a little birthday party, and it was so comforting to know that people would still want to come here.” A few weeks later, a dozen men from Grace Covenant held a day-long retreat at the Baehrs’ house.

Still, everywhere they looked, the Baehrs were reminded of Lily’s absence. Lily had decorated much of the house, including a wallpaper border in the kitchen she had put up in the weeks before she died. Barb says that she got mad every time she heard Lily described as an “elderly woman.”

“I would not describe her as elderly,” says Barb. “She was up [on a ladder] wallpapering. The last thing we did together was put a border around the kitchen ceiling. We were laughing hysterically and insisting the men leave the room, and no comments. Our favorite hobby was making fun of Dad. We wanted it to go on and on.”

She describes Lily as having a “can-do” spirit. “If there was a problem like sewing or anything, she would figure out how it could be done,” she recalls. “When I think about her life, it wasn’t a life that ended tragically in her old age. Her life was snuffed out. She was going full-tilt for the Lord, she was a volunteer, she was an active grandmother and wife, a mother-in-law, and mother. It wasn’t like she was petering out at all. She had plans for things we were going to do.”

solving the case
While the Baehrs were adjusting to living back at home and Lily’s absence from their lives, they were still under a cloud of suspicion. As of April 1998, five months after the murder, they were still the primary suspects.

Steve Dougherty says that while investigating the family may seem harsh, it was necessary, especially in this case.

“You have to look at the family,” he says, “and it’s so uncomfortable. If you don’t turn over a rock, it’s going to come out later that you didn’t turn that rock over and it can be part of the defense of the person who actually did it or it may lead to the person who actually did it.”

The focus of the investigation began to change when Chuck Florczyk, a detective with the Onondaga sheriff, was assigned to the Baehr case. During the initial investigation, Florczyk had been assigned to a federal narcotics task force.

“It looked rather bleak when I came on board,” Florczyk says. “It appeared as though there wasn’t much of anything that they [missed]. But it just took some time, talking to the right people and asking the right questions.”

After reviewing the case and talking with the family members, Florczyk became convinced that they were not involved in the murder. That conclusion was corroborated when both Bruce and Barb passed polygraph tests.

Taking the polygraph test proved to be a frustrating experience for the Baehrs, in part because the polygraph operator led them to believe that new evidence had been uncovered. This angered Bruce, as he had been assured by Captain Gene Conway of the sheriff’s office that they would be notified of any new evidence immediately. That, on top of being asked if he killed his mother or knew anything about the crime, was too much to for Bruce. He stormed out of the room once the test was over, and ignoring the operator’s instructions, told Barb what to expect during the test.

“I was so angry,” Bruce says. “I was angry at Gene Conway, I was angry at the polygraph operator. [I was so angry that] I could not have a quiet time, I could not read my Bible, I could not pray. I realized that I had to ask Gene Conway to forgive me for my anger at him.”

So, the next Monday morning, Bruce called Conway and asked him to come out to the house. When Conway arrived, Bruce apologized for his behavior and asked Conway to forgive him.

“I think that was the one time that I saw tears welling up in his eyes,” Bruce says. “His comment was, ‘Bruce, you don’t need to say that you are sorry to us. We need to [apologize] to you, but to be thorough we had to do this. I knew in my heart that you weren’t involved but still, procedurally we had to do that.'”

That conversation marked a change in the relationship between the Baehrs and the police officers involved in the case. Several of them have become especially close to Herb. Conway stops in on a regular basis to talk, while Florczyk stops in for a cup of tea every week. Bruce says that the family is thankful for all the work that the detectives have put in, and tries to pray for and encourage the officers involved in the case.

Florczyk and his partner Richard “Chris” Simone worked on the case full-time, often working overtime. Several sources pointed towards Kenneth Hobart, thirty-four, a career criminal with a number of arrests for burglary and assault. The two detectives questioned Hobart and talked with many of his associates. “Every day [Hobart] woke up,” says Florczyk, “he was talking to someone that was telling him that they had a visit by the police. That’s the price you pay when you are involved in this crime.”

At first, Hobart denied any involvement in the crime. As the investigation continued, Hobart began to get very nervous. At one point, Hobart begged him to give Florczyk a polygraph test, to prove that he was not involved in the crime. Florczyk arranged two polygraphs for Hobart. He failed both times.

The detectives also conducted several searches and found a number of pieces of evidence. They also found about a pound of marijuana among Hobart belongings and arrested him for possession.

Eventually, detectives began to suspect that someone close to Hobart might have been in the car while Hobart and others robbed the Baehr house. Dougherty thinks this played a role in Hobart’s decision to come forward and confess. On March 17, 1999, Hobart and his lawyer came to the DA’s office and agreed to a plea bargain. He gave detectives a written statement the next day.

“[We think] that Hobart’s conscience may have gotten the better of him,” Dougherty says. “We’d like to think there was some divine intervention. Whether he was doing this to protect someone, we don’t know. But he came forward with an attorney and he gave us a full confession. In return for not seeking murder in the first degree, which can lead to the death penalty, we said that if he gave us a written statement we’d drop the charge to murder in the second degree and the maximum sentence, which is twenty-five years to life.”

Both Dougherty and Florczyk say that given the lack of physical evidence or witnesses, it was doubtful that Hobart would have been convicted without the confession. “I do give him some credit for facing up to this, for whatever reason,” says Florczyk.

Hobart also gave police the identities of several of the other people who were involved in the murder. The other suspects were not arrested immediately because Hobart’s confession was not considered sufficient evidence. He did, however, point the police in the right direction. “They have solved the case,” Bruce says. “Now all they have to do is prove it.” In May, Angel Perez was indicted by a grand jury for his role in the murder of Lily Baehr.

Florczyk says that he feels a sense of accomplishment about solving the case, in part because of his relationship with Herb. “I made a commitment the day that I started this case,” says Florczyk. “I promised Herb Baehr that if nothing else, I would provide him and his family with an explanation. I was able to provide this explanation to eliminate all that doubt – that way they weren’t going to be pointing the finger at each other in the family. That was a major relief and I think that helped [Herb].”

the road to forgiveness
Bruce says that he is not a forgiving person by nature. But he knew even at Lily’s memorial service that he wanted to forgive whoever had killed her.

“You think I may have been early to forgive,” Bruce says. “Mom would have been before me. I remember [when I was] a young child, she was going to work on Long Island and she got knocked down and somebody stole her purse. And she never had an unkind word to say about that person. When she came home, I asked her what happened. She said, ‘Someone must’ve needed some money because they took my purse.’

“That’s the way she was, she was gentle and kind and could find the good in any person so as I reflect back on this,

I know that forgiveness would have been what she desired for all of us. She really tried to live her life as Christ would live.”

Mary Lawrence says she was struck by how soon after the murder the Baehrs were talking about forgiveness. She says that one of the first things that Bruce said to her was, “I forgive this person.”

“I told him, ‘You don’t even know who this person is,’ ” Lawrence says, “and he said, ‘I know, but I forgive this person.’ That was within the first days, he still wasn’t even back in his home yet. I’ve been doing this for eight years, and I have never seen [that so early]. I’ve seen the rage, I’ve seen the intense grief, I’ve seen families torn apart, I’ve seen families pulled together, but I’ve never had anybody come to me in such a short time and say ‘I forgive this person’ and not even know [who the person was.]”

Barb says that she knew when she saw Hobart’s picture that she had to forgive him. “There was just no question that this is someone God loved,” says Barb, “and someone who had led a miserable life and had spread plenty of misery to others. And yet, we [felt] we had no choice.”

Forgiveness came hardest for Herb. He spent a lot of time talking with both Bruce and his younger son Rick about it. He says that since he knew that God had forgiven him, he had to forgive Lily’s killer. “I had quite a struggle,” he admits. “It was very difficult for me to overcome the fact that my partner of fifty-eight years was taken from me. But I truly can say that I have forgiven him.”

the courtroom

The Baehrs worked on the statement they would give at Hobart’s sentencing for several months. Barb wrote the first draft. Herb and Bruce revised it. Bruce also called Dougherty and several of the officers ahead of time, to let them know what he was doing. “I did not want anything I had to take away from the wonderful job they did to solve this crime,” he says.

Florczyk says that as the sentencing approached, he started to get anxious to hear what Bruce was going to say. After thirty-one years and hundreds of investigations, this was the first time he had heard the family of a victim forgive a murderer.

“[That day] I lost my sense of being in a courtroom,” Florczyk recalls. “At one point I thought I was actually in a church, because it seemed like the atmosphere in the courtroom transformed into a church….As a matter of fact, you could see the defendant, Kenny Hobart, actually overwhelmed. I think his original intention was to address the court, but I don’t think that he could do it. He was just overcome by the emotion.

“I don’t know too many people that could do what Bruce did. I am still talking to people today about this. Most people I deal with find it very difficult to forgive at that level.”

Bill Walsh, who represented Hobart at the sentencing, says the act of forgiveness by Baehr still amazes him.

“Hobart did say on the day of the sentencing that he was sorry,” said Walsh. “And I don’t care how cold your heart is…it’s got to affect you. I think he was surprised by the compassion [of] the family. He knew that the family was a churchgoing, Christian family, but in a later conversation, he was still genuinely surprised. And it certainly wasn’t a hollow statement by Bruce Baehr. It came from the heart. [Lily Baehr’s murder] was a savage act of violence, with no rhyme or reason. For the family to forgive him, I was just astounded.”

Dougherty says that the sentencing is the one time where a family can address the perpetrator. He has seen families give a range of responses, from hostility to, in rare cases, forgiveness.

Dougherty says that he was moved by both Bruce’s statement and Hobart’s response. “When Bruce was reading the statement, [Hobart] was crying,” he says. “This is a guy who’s got his own children and family. Crack cocaine has gotten the better of Kenny Hobart by leaps and bounds and he did the most unthinkable thing you could do, but still in there was a person with a conscience that came forward and confessed. At least there was some light in his head to come and do the right thing.”

Dougherty says that seeing the Baehrs’ forgiveness has stuck with him.

“I come from a social work background, I worked with kids who had a lot of problems, and that has always been a part of my makeup,” Dougherty says. “Unfortunately, it gets you a little jaded because what we see [in the DA’s office] is a lot of bad stuff. But when you hear someone that comes in and is as refreshing as Bruce is, it makes you walk a little lighter, and for more than just a day. It’s great to see the good in people…it makes me feel a bit better inside.”

Lawrence, who was in the courtroom that day as well, says that because Syracuse is a smaller city (pop. 164,000), sometimes a victim’s family has a connection with a perpetrator, either through family or a neighborhood connection. “But for Bruce and his family,” Lawrence says, “it was a total stranger coming into his home and devastating his whole family. And it wasn’t just the homicide they were dealing with, it was not just their mother’s death, it was all this turmoil they had to face and the scrutiny they were under. And he was [still] saying, ‘I forgive this person.’ I’ve never forgotten that. I carry it with me.”

Lawrence says that people can confuse forgiveness with saying that what the murderer did didn’t matter, that “It’s okay what you did.”

“Bruce was never saying that,” she says. “He was saying, ‘I forgive this person, and I hate what he did. My mother’s gone forever and we have to deal with my father being a widower in what should be his last, wonderful years.’ ”

Having a strong faith seems to be a key component for families that have been able to forgive, says Lawrence. She says that faith helps people deal with the pain and the loss.

“It’s always a process,” she says, “and people who have a strong faith sometimes even question their faith. They tell me, ‘I am questioning God, I am questioning my faith, I feel like I am on very shaky ground.’ But they always come back to their faith and usually stronger. And they learn to appreciate things more. Life is more precious to them, but so is the void – there is a person missing from their life and that void sometimes becomes huge.”

Dorine Hanevy, who covered the sentencing for the Palladium-Times newspaper, says that she was impressed by Bruce’s calmness.

“I’ve heard people in the past mention God and forgiveness,” Hanevy said. “But in the other cases you could feel their pain they were still dealing with it. Bruce didn’t center on his own feelings, he didn’t cry out, ‘I’m going through this much pain.’ He focused in on his relationship with God and it just came across as calm and believable, that he had actually forgiven him, which I think is a hard task to do.”

facing the future
The recent indictment of Perez means a new challenge for the Baehrs. Because Hobart confessed, they did not have to go through the ordeal of a trial. On Monday, May 15, 2000, Perez pleaded “not guilty” to all charges in the Baehr case. The next court date is July 6.

Perez has been involved in a murder before – in 1994, he helped a Florida man kill and bury his girlfriend’s husband. However, prosecutors there gave Perez immunity after he cooperated with authorities to indict two accomplices.

His arrest has brought up the issue of forgiveness again for the Baehrs. Perez was charged with murder in the first degree, which carries a possible death sentence. In early May, Dougherty called the Baehrs and asked them where they stood on the death penalty.

Bruce says that ironically, he was a death penalty advocate before his mom was murdered. He now opposes it.

“Yes, they came in my house, and yes they took my mom’s life,” he says, “but I want to respond, [even though] I am not always able to, as Christ would have responded….We have a loving God who has provided an avenue for all of us, no matter how bad we are, to have an opportunity to come to faith. And if we put someone to death, that lessens that opportunity.”

The subject of the death penalty touches some raw emotions in Herb. He says that he hasn’t made up his mind over whether he would support the death penalty if Perez is convicted. When asked if he would be able to forgive Perez, he says that “there, I come to a wall.” (At Perez’s indictment the DA’s office decided not to pursue the death penalty.)

Herb planted a rose garden in front of the house – which he maintains in memory of his wife. He says that he wants to approach the trial in the way that his wife would have.

“Coming back to Angel’s trial, I’m sure that Lil would want me to do my best to be objective and say the facts as they were, but at the same time to have a forgiving attitude toward him. I’m sure she would be [forgiving].”

Bruce says that though he wishes that this ordeal was over, he and the rest of the family just want to remain faithful.

“When God is finished with what he has planned through this whole thing it will be finished and it won’t be finished until God sees the results that he wants to see. I think I can speak for everyone in our family – that we will be faithful to his purposes till the end of this. It would be wonderful for this to be over, but on the other hand I have seen people’s lives changed because of what we have had to travel through – this is not about glorifying the Baehr family – this is about glorifying God.”

“I don’t know too many people that could do what Bruce did. I am still talking to people today about this. Most people I deal with find it very difficult to forgive at that level.”

Bill Walsh, who represented Hobart at the sentencing, says the act of forgiveness by Baehr still amazes him.

“Hobart did say on the day of the sentencing that he was sorry,” said Walsh. “And I don’t care how cold your heart is…it’s got to affect you. I think he was surprised by the compassion [of] the family. He knew that the family was a churchgoing, Christian family, but in a later conversation, he was still genuinely surprised. And it certainly wasn’t a hollow statement by Bruce Baehr. It came from the heart. [Lily Baehr’s murder] was a savage act of violence, with no rhyme or reason. For the family to forgive him, I was just astounded.”

Dougherty says that the sentencing is the one time where a family can address the perpetrator. He has seen families give a range of responses, from hostility to, in rare cases, forgiveness.

Dougherty says that he was moved by both Bruce’s statement and Hobart’s response. “When Bruce was reading the statement, [Hobart] was crying.” he says. “This is a guy who’s got his own children and family. Crack cocaine has gotten the better of Kenny Hobart by leaps and bounds and he did the most unthinkable thing you could do, but still in there was a person with a conscience that came forward and confessed. At least there was some light in his head to come and do the right thing.”

Dougherty says that seeing the Baehrs’ forgiveness has stuck with him.

“I come from a social-work background, I worked with kids who had a lot of problems, and that has always been a part of my makeup,” Dougherty says. “Unfortunately, it gets you a little jaded because what we see [in the DA’s office] is a lot of bad stuff. But when you hear someone that comes in and is as refreshing as Bruce is, it makes you walk a little lighter, and for more than just a day. It’s great to see the good in people…it makes me feel a bit better inside.”

Lawrence, who was in the courtroom that day as well, says that because Syracuse is a smaller city (pop. 164,000), sometimes a victim’s family has a connection with a perpetrator, either through family or a neighborhood connection. “But for Bruce and his family,” Lawrence says, “it was a total stranger coming into his home and devastating his whole family. And it wasn’t just the homicide they were dealing with, it was not just their mother’s death, it was all this turmoil they had to face and the scrutiny they were under. And he was [still] saying, ‘I forgive this person.’ I’ve never forgotten that. I carry it with me.”

Lawrence says that people can confuse forgiveness with saying that what the murderer did didn’t matter, that “It’s okay what you did.”

“Bruce was never saying that,” she says. “He was saying, ‘I forgive this person, and I hate what he did. My mother’s gone forever and we have to deal with my father being a widower in what should be his last, wonderful years.’ ”

Having a strong faith seems to be a key component for families that have been able to forgive, says Lawrence. She says that faith helps people deal with the pain and the loss.

“It’s always a process,” she says, “and people who have a strong faith sometimes even question their faith. They tell me, ‘I am questioning God, I am questioning my faith, I feel like I am on very shaky ground.’ But they always come back to their faith and usually stronger. And they learn to appreciate things more. Life is more precious to them, but so is the void – there is a person missing from their life and that void sometimes becomes huge.”

Dorine Hanevy, who covered the sentencing for the Palladium-Times newspaper, says that she was impressed by Bruce’s calmness.

“I’ve heard people in the past mention God and forgiveness,” Hanevy said. “But in the other cases you could feel their pain they were still dealing with it. Bruce didn’t center on his own feelings, he didn’t cry out, ‘I’m going through this much pain.’ He focused in on his relationship with God and it just came across as calm and believable, that he had actually forgiven him, which I think is a hard task to do.”

facing the future
The recent indictment of Perez means a new challenge for the Baehrs. Because Hobart confessed, they did not have to go through the ordeal of a trial. On Monday, May 15, 2000, Perez pleaded “not guilty” to all charges in the Baehr case. The next court date is July 6.

Perez has been involved in a murder before – in 1994, he helped a Florida man kill and bury his girlfriend’s husband. However, prosecutors there gave Perez immunity after he cooperated with authorities to indict two accomplices.

His arrest has brought up the issue of forgiveness again for the Baehrs. Perez was charged with murder in the first degree, which carries a possible death sentence. In early May, Dougherty called the Baehrs and asked them where they stood on the death penalty.

Bruce says that ironically, he was a death penalty advocate before his mom was murdered. He now opposes it.

“Yes, they came in my house, and yes they took my mom’s life,” he says, “but I want to respond, [even though] I am not always able to, as Christ would have responded….We have a loving God who has provided an avenue for all of us, no matter how bad we are, to have an opportunity to come to faith. And if we put someone to death, that lessens that opportunity.”

The subject of the death penalty touches some raw emotions in Herb. He says that he hasn’t made up his mind over whether he would support the death penalty if Perez is convicted. When asked if he would be able to forgive Perez, he says that, “there, I come to a wall.” (At Perez’s indictment the DA’s office decided not to pursue the death penalty.)

Herb planted a rose garden in front of the house – which he maintains in memory of his wife. He says that he wants to approach the trial in the way that his wife would have.

“Coming back to Angel’s trial, I’m sure that Lil would want me to do my best to be objective and say the facts as they were, but at the same time to have a forgiving attitude toward him. I’m sure she would be [forgiving].”

Bruce says that though he wishes that this ordeal was over, he and the rest of the family just want to remain faithful.

“When God is finished with what he has planned through this whole thing it will be finished and it won’t be finished until God sees the results that he wants to see. I think I can speak for everyone in our family – that we will be faithful to his purposes till the end of this. It would be wonderful for this to be over, but on the other hand I have seen people’s lives changed because of what we have had to travel through – this is not about glorifying the Baehr family – this is about glorifying God.”

Wayne Jolley’s Ministry is Running Out of Cash

I had just pulled out of Memphis when the phone rang, “Have you ever heard of Wayne Jolley?” the caller asked.

I had.

A few years earlier, I’d gotten a similar call from a woman in Georgia.  Her sister had gotten caught up with a preacher by that name who claimed to have a “world-wide ministry.”

The sister had sold her house to support the ministry. But the caller could find no evidence that that world-wide ministry really existed; she thought the preacher was a scam artist, and his ministry might he a cult.

I had just started looking into the group when the woman called again. She didn’t want to talk to me anymore. If she did—her sister might cut her off for good.

Fast forward to 2015. I had been in Memphis at the funeral for the late, great Phyllis Tickle. Phyllis had befriended my when I was just started out on the Godbeat and had helped some so-so stories into great ideas.  I think she was sending me one more great story.

My caller that night, Glenn Chambers, told me that his daughter had moved to Nashville to attend a local college. He’d asked a friend, Christian music producer Ed Cast, to watch out for her.

Instead Cash introduced her to Wayne Jolley. And before long, she had cut off all ties for her parents.  Their sin?  Questioning Jolley’s authority.

Over the next few months, I interviewed former members of Jolley’s group, watched hours of his sermons, and poured over his tax forms.  I even got the best “no comment” ever—a song written by one of Jolley’s followers.

Slowly, a story emerged.

In the early 2000s, Jolley had been run out of Ringgold, Georgia, for allegedly abusing his stepdaughter and other young women. Jolley had been a traveling prosperity gospel preacher and had used his position to lure young women to join his ministry.

He’d also been good at talking people out of their money—claiming to be a modern-day prophet. (And he had lots of modern day profits). After being chased out of Ringgold, he was broke. In 2004, the ministry had  $6,064 in the bank—with about $33,000 in assets—and a $15,000 budget deficit.

Then he met members of a small Bible study in Franklin, Tennessee, which included Cash, then an up and coming producer.  Soon afterward, Cash had a hit record. A song he co-wrote and produced, “How Great is our God,” became one of the most popular worship songs in America.

Cash credited Jolley’s spiritual advice—and the money started rolling in.

Over the next decade, Jolley would collect more than $10 million in donations from a handful of followers. That group, known as the Gathering International, never had more than 40 people or so. But they bought Jolley a million dollar house and took care of his every need.  No one was allowed to question his authority.

His critics were controlled by demons and were to be shunned. And he took aim at other churches that were run by a church board—saying those churches were run by demons too.

 “That’s why we don’t have boards,” he told his followers in a sermon posted to the Gathering’s website. “We just don’t. … I am criticized for that. I am looked down upon for that. And I am called a cult leader. I really don’t care.”

And that worldwide radio ministry Jolley claimed to have?  It didn’t exist. All he had a was a website with videos of his sermons. Jolley’s ministry ruined marriages, tore families apart, and led friends to betray one another.

Then I got that call from Glenn Chambers. A few months later, Christianity Today ran a story on Jolley.

Things started falling apart for Jolley after that. His followers started to desert him. His health failed. The state of Tennessee began investigating the ministry and revoked its tax-exempt status.

In the spring of 2016, Jolley passed away

After that, some of his former followers began to put their lives back together. A few of Jolley’s followers remained faithful to the Gathering, now run by Jolley’s widow, Linda.  They sold off the big house and moved out the middle of nowhere to start over. They’ve still got a website and are collecting donations.

But they’re running out of money.

For the last few years, I’ve been keeping an eye on The Gathering, waiting to see their latest tax return.  They finally filed their 2016 return—the year the CT story ran. Things are not going so well. The ministry lost $822, 457 in 2016.  Donations dropped from $668, 648 down to $276,969.  But spending skyrocketed, from $749,396 in 2015 to $1,102,885 in 2016—including $554,825 in “other expenses” listed without any details on the ministry’s tax form.

Their bank account dropped from about $1.5 million in cash to about $600,000.  

Not everything is better.  Some of the families broken up by Jolley still remain estranged. But the ministry’s ability to harm people has been broken for the most part.

And that’s good enough for now.

 

Michael Gerson and the Last Temptation of Evangelicals

A couple thoughts on Michael Gerson’s cover story in the new issue of The Atlantic.– about the current state of affairs among evangelicals.

  • Read it. Gerson’s an evangelical insider–a Wheaton College grad–and President Bush’s former speechwriter. It’s worth hearing what he has to say.
  • Gerson’s mostly talking about white evangelicals. And mostly Northern white evangelicals. Southern Baptists, for example, are absent from his history of the movement. And evangelicals of color–for the most part.
  • He also seems unaware of Pentecostals.
  • Gerson mentions PEPFAR--the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The program has its critics–but it saved millions of lives around the globe and was inspired by George W. Bush’s evangelical beliefs. Bush spent more than Bill Clinton did on AIDS relief.
  • He argues evangelicals should become more like Catholics–developing more social teaching and becoming more diverse.
  • He argues that William Jennings Bryan should have attacked eugenics — and not evolution.
  • He misses the demographic changes in the US that have led evangelicals to think that they’re losing the home-field advantage.
  • The piece is part of a larger soul-searching about the future of the evangelical movement.

 

Want a glimpse at the future of faith in America? Watch The Expanse.

  

My favorite character on television these days is Chrisjen Avasarala—the sharp-tongued, brilliant and manipulative UN staffer on The Expanse, a SyFy channel original series now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Avasarala smiles in the public eye–always putting her best face forward. But she’s at her best working in the shadows, trying the save the world from machinations of interstellar politics.

She’s always excavating what’s going on below the surface. And she refuses to let politicians drag the Earth into a war it can’t survive.

Sometimes she acts by subterfuge. While her bosses dither and posture, she takes matters into her own hands and gets the job done.

And her sarcasm is genius.

“No I wasn’t murdered in the last 30 seconds,” she tells a hovering security officer while trudging through the snow on another secret mission to save the world during an early episode.

“Never listen to what people say,” she tells another staff. “Just watch what they do.”

Played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, a brilliant Iran-American actress, Arasavala is gruff on the outside but that hard shell hides a wounded heart. Her son was killed in action some years before the series began. And she is determined – at least on her watch—to prevent other mothers from experiencing that kind of heartache.

A bit of background. Based on a series of sci-fi novels by James S. A. Corey—a pen name for the writing duo of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck—the Expanse is set several hundred years in the future. Humans have colonized Mars—as well as the asteroid belt beyond Mars and Jupiter.

But things are going not well.

Earth is aging and stagnant. Mars is rising and ambitious—eager to use its military might against its older sister. And the Belters—many of whom have lived their own lives in outer space—are caught in the middle. Earth and Mars need the resources the Belters mine from the asteroid belt—and aren’t afraid of taking what they want.

Meanwhile, the Belters long to be free, tired of being second class citizens.

Things really go south in the Solar System when a mysterious group of scientists find an alien life form – a kind of disease known as the “proto-molecule”—and decided to test it out on a group of Belters on a remote station located on an asteroid named Eros.

All kinds of mayhem ensues, which makes for great television.

What fascinates me about the show is this—it might have the most diverse cast I’ve ever seen on the television. And the leadership of characters is diverse.  Arasavala is the most important player on earth. Her main adversary is Asian American. On Mars, a soldier named Roberta “Bobbie” Draper plays a key role, and she’s of Polynesian descent. Fred Johnson, the main Belter leader, is African American. James Holden, the captain of a ship that discovers the alien virus, is white. But his second in command is African American, the ship’s pilot is from the Middle East.

Most of the Belters come from diverse backgrounds as well.

“Part of the mandate when you’re writing a future is to write the kind of future you want to see,” Abraham told the Verge.com. “Not that we’re utopian, but the idea of a future where it’s less mixed and interesting than my immediate day-to-day life would have been weird.”

The Belters—along with the folks on Earth and Mars—are all working out issues of identity and culture and power in the midst of a crisis. Who will be in charge of the future? Will folks from different background get along—or fight to the death over limited resourced? Who gets to decided humanity’s fate? Will people who have been in charge share power? How do people resolve conflict when they disagree?

None of those questions are easy. And they’re very similar to the questions facing faith groups in America—and around the world.

America’s religious landscape in being completely remade before our eyes.

Older Americans are mostly white and mostly Christian. Younger Americans are not. In fact, there are more Christians of color and “Nones” among Americans under 30 than there are white Christians, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

Many predominately white faith groups are aging and shrinking, according to Pew Research. Other faith traditions are growing in numbers and diversity.

Meanwhile, worldwide, the religious landscape is rapidly changing. That’s especially true for Christians. By 2060, for example, about 40 percent of the world’s Christians will live in Sub Saharan Africa, according to Pew forecasts. Only 9 percent will live in North America, only 14 percent in Europe—a total of 23 percent. That’s down from 36 percent today.

And while Christians in North America and Europe will hold most of the power and wealth—most of the people will be in Africa, Europe, and South America. As the center of Christianity moves from the North Hemisphere to the South—who will lead the church?

Who will lead the church in the United States—once many of the older white Christians have passed on?

And how will Americans from all backgrounds sort out how to live together in this new religious reality?

There’s hope that we’ll sort it all out.

But if “The Expanse” is any indicator, it won’t be easy.

Missiles, Music, and Crazy Religion

 

 

Over on the podcast this week,  my friend Marty Duren and I talk about missiles, parents whose odd beliefs become abusive, and what happens when a friend goes to trial.  Oh — and some hippy music.

Back in the early 1990s, I dreamt of being a songwriter in Nashville. Made it here as a writer –but left the songs behind. Here’s one of them.

The Kindness of Strangers, Revisited.

 

 

 

On a fall morning in 2006, my brother Paul went out for a walk while visiting his in-laws in the Philippines.  He never came back.

They found his body by the side of the road. He was just shy of his 40th birthday.

Wrote this a few months later — and it originally appeared in The Covenant Companion magazine.

The Kindness of Strangers

In the year that King Uzziah died, the prophet Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, sitting on a throne, surrounded by angels calling out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3).

In the year that my brother died, I also saw the Lord.

Not high and lifted up, but in dozens of small and ordinary ways, like the platters of chicken salad sandwiches, made by the women of our home church and served after my brother’s funeral in early November.

The angels from Isaiah tells us that the whole world is filled with God’s glory. The writer of “Joy to the World” tells us that Jesus came to make his blessing flow “far as the curse is found.”

This past fall the curse of sorrow struck my family down at what should have been one of the happiest moments of our lives.

My younger brother, Paul, and his wife, Chit (short for Chitadelia), were in the Philippines, finalizing the adoption of their twenty-month-old daughter Connie Marie. The Philippine government had approved the adoption months earlier, and finally, Paul and Chit had received approval from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to bring Connie Marie home.

All they needed was a visa, which should have been routine with INS approval in hand. But red tape abounds when dealing with adoption, and there were more delays.

Early on the morning of October 22, Chit went to the market,  while Paul went for a run. When he didn’t return, Chit and her family went looking for him, and found his body by the side of the road.

In the flash of a moment my brother was gone, a couple months shy of his fortieth birthday.

In the days and weeks following my brother’s death, my family has seen the Lord’s glory and blessing time and again.

We often talk about the body of Christ as if it were a quaint expression, a bit of religious jargon for the church.

But we saw the Lord and felt God’s care through the hands and voices of other Christians. They became the body of Christ and surrounded us with God’s love.

Many people have made our grief their business. Less than an hour after my parents received the haunting call from Chit, and had finally sifted through the tears and pain in her voice and realized the awful truth, their church sprang into action.

That call had come at about four in the morning. By six their pastor, Kent Palmquist, came to the house and prayed with them. Dozens of people brought food or came to the house just to sit with my parents and talk with them.

They demonstrated the reality of Christ’s love through concrete means—hugs and prayers; platters of chicken salad sandwiches, calzones, and cranberry squares; cards and phone calls and flowers.

At my workplace colleagues prayed for us and picked up the pieces left behind when I took off for theEast Coast to be with my parents. The pastors of Libertyville Covenant Church, Dwight Nelson and Brian Zahasky, prayed with us and shared our tears,

Friends brought meals.

My friend Chris Becker walked in and gave me a hug on the morning we found out Paul had died. No words were necessary to communicate how he felt.

Other friends cashed in their frequent flier miles and sent my our family to the East Coast for the funeral.

If the angels are right, and the whole world is filled with God’s glory, then all these acts of kindness are holy. They are sanctified with God’s presence—transformed from the ordinary and commonplace into expressions of grace.

And God’s blessings are known far as the curse is found. Grace fills every moment.

My brother understood, in the way he lived from day to day, how God cared about the small things.

Paul had not been one to talk about himself much and we lived a thousand miles apart, so there was much about each other’s daily lives that we never shared. But here’s something I learned after Paul was gone.

When they left for the Philippines in mid-October, Paul and Chit shared one small suitcase.. The rest of their luggage allowance was taken up with three large boxes of clothing and shoes for the children of Quinaoayanan, the small village in the province of Pangasinan where Chit grew up.

Paul told my dad that when he arrived in the Philippines for the first time, a decade ago, he noticed how poor the children were. Many of the children in Quinaoayanan had worn or tattered clothing and few had shoes. For entertainment, they rolled a  can filled with stones down a dirt road.

So Paul, who never had to be asked to lend a hand, began doing what he could to make life a little bit better for the children in Quinaoayanan. He rented a truck and took many of the village’s children to the beach. He organized a pig roast and an impromptu picnic for the whole village, complete with three-legged races and prizes for the kids.

A big kid himself, Paul was in the middle of the races, like the ringmaster of a circus. Upon his return home, he and Chitadelia sent care packages filled with clothes and shoes.

When he learned that Chit’s parents’ house didn’t have running water, he paid to have it installed. When he passed away, an elderly woman in the street selling fruit to make a little bit of money, he bought everything she had so she could go home and get out of the 100-degree heat. During many of his visits, parents

in the village would ask him to be a godparent to their child,  and he never said no.

If Paul saw that something needed to be done, he did it. He didn’t have to be asked. One of Paul’s friends said that if you met him once, you had a friend for life. And the children of Quinaoayanan had a  friend for life in Paul.

None of us could have imagined how short that life would be.

My brother was not a saint.

He wasn’t Mother Teresa with a tool belt.

He was an ordinary guy, who was more often found on his bass boat on Sunday mornings than in the pew. He didn’t spend his entire life alleviating poverty or feeding the hungry or clothing the naked.

He didn’t set out to save the world.

But most of the time, he got the small things right.

When he saw something that needed to be done, he got busy.

Not all the time; not perfectly, But he did not wait to be asked. He didn’t pass by on the other side and pretend the problem was somebody else’s business. He made it his business.

More than 400 people came to Paul’s wake, and the church was full at his funeral, filled with people whose lives he had touched.

Every one of them had a story to tell. One of his fishing buddies told me that this past fall Paul had learned about a national guardsman coming home from Iraq who had a love for fishing.

Paul went out and bought a small trolling motor for the soldier.  They had never met, but Paul wanted in some small way to say thank you to that soldier for his service in Iraq.

“That’s the kind of guy your brother was,” his friend told me.

Toward the end of her book, “Righteous: Dispatches from the EvangelicalYouth Movement,” author Lauren Sandler experiences a revelation during a visit to a megachurch in Colorado.

Though she vehemently disagrees with the politics and social positions of church members, she allows members of a small Bible study to pray for her. The group asks God to bless Sandler’s book and her travels. That small act transforms the way Sandler sees evangelical Christians.

Afterwards, she writes that the small group convinced her “that they are capable of translating Jesus’s legacy of agape into  their everyday lives.”

“Tonight,” she adds, “they have demonstrated the simple concept that powers and sustains this movement: they have shown me  the kindness of strangers.”

Thirty years ago my family came to the Covenant church as strangers; curious to find out more about God but suspicious of church people. My dad, in particular, wanted nothing to do with what he called “a bunch of holy rollers.”

Still we came to church, not because of a revival or outreach, but because of a simple invitation. My brother’s friend Joey Clark asked Paul to go to a Sunday-school picnic with him, and before long, the friendship and kindness shown to our family had won us over. More than programs or music or preaching, the kindness showed to us when we were strangers made us part of the body of Christ.

Paul carried the lessons he learned at the Covenant church wherever he went. He was generous by nature, and his experience at church transformed his natural kindness into a lifetime of giving. He took those lesson with him to Egypt, where he worked for several years; across the United States, where he traveled for a time, setting up cellular networks; and eventually, he took them to the Philippines.

Not long after my brother’s funeral, my dad received a letter from one of Paul’s former tenants. In his late twenties, my brother bought a triple-decker apartment building that was a handyman’s special. He fixed it up then sold it a few years later.

The former tenant was an older man who had several physical disabilities. The man told about how Paul had befriended him—how he had installed an additional railing to make it  easier for him to get up the stairs; how, knowing he was on a fixed income, Paul never raised his rent; and how Paul would visit with him, listen to his stories, and leave him smiling with a joke.

No fuss, no fanfare. Just a joke and a smile and a helping hand. And the whole earth is filled with the glory of God.

Tom Brady and the Cat Cultists

 

A few years ago I went to the grocery store and ran into some cultists.

They didn’t look like end times cultists at the time. Instead, they appeared to be do-gooders—warmhearted local volunteers who were rescuing kittens.

They parked their mobile cat shelter outside the local Kroger and let kids inside to play with the kittens—in hopes those kids could pester their parents into taking one home.

(My daughter tried. It didn’t work.)

Still, they were nice cat people.

Then I talked to Rachael Gunderson. Rachael had joined the cat rescue group—known as Eva’s Eden—about a decade earlier, in Bellingham, Washington.

Back known, the group was known as the Gates of Praise, a run-of-the-mill Pentecostal church, known for its exuberant worship and creativity. The church was like a family and made her feel welcome from the start.

Especially Pastor Sheryl – the church’s tall, blond charismatic leader.

“I heard Sheryl preach that day, and I was hooked,” she told me.

At first, things went well. Rachel spent every spare hour at the church, soaking in Pastor Sheryl’s teaching. Pastor Sheryl showered Rachel with love – and told her that God had great things in mind for her.

But before long, things got crazy. Pastor Sheryl started claiming to be a prophet, then a reincarnated Mary Magdalene, and then a new Messiah. She made follower kiss her feet and drink her blood mixed with their communion wine.

Then there were the cats.

Pastor Sheryl become that the stray cats were angels in disguise—and that church members should dedicate their lives to rescuing them. When the end times came, those cats would transform back into angels and return the favor—saving church members from the end of the world.

In other words, Apocalypse Meow.

Gunderson bought it all.

“It’s like once you take one sip of the Kool-Aid, you keep drinking,” she said.

I met Gunderson while reporting on Eva’s Eden. She’d left the group by then and rebuilt her life. Still, she was haunted by her past.

How could this have happened, she wondered.

I wondered the same thing. How does a normal congregation turn into a cat-worshiping cult of personality?

Ben Zeller, assistant professor of religion at Lake Forest College, just north of Chicago, say that a charismatic leader is key. In a group like Eva’s Eden, follower members are often more tied to the leader than to their theology, said Zeller, who studied the Heaven’s Gate cult in Arizona.

So they will follow their leader, even if it means betraying their own beliefs. After a while, they are too invested to leave.

“There are plenty of people who are along for the ride. It’s just that it’s amazing what people will do when they are along for the ride — if it means giving up their money or control over their lives or their finances, their romantic relationships or, in suicidal groups, their lives,” Zeller told me.

That line— “there are plenty of people who are along for the ride”—has come to mind recently, with revelations of a rift between the New England Patriots and the “cult of Alex Guerrero.”

Guerrero, a former missionary turned charismatic fitness guru, is Tom Brady’s miracle man, credited with allowing the star quarterback to play at a top level into his 40s. The two have team up to spread the Gospel of TB 12—in a bestselling book and TB12, a lucrative training and fitness brand.

And Guerrero outlines almost every moment of Brady’s life—what he eats, how he exercises and rests, how he mentally prepares for games. He’s even godfather to Brady’s son.

He’s a “big part of what I do,” Brady said after news broke that Guerrero was banned from team flights and the sidelines during Patriots games.

As Sports Illustrated put it, they’re closer than most married couples

“This season marks Year 13 for Brady and Guerrero, a pair who spend more time together than most married couples, swearing to remain faithful in health and in better health,” wrote Greg Bishop. “They opened their TB12 Sports Therapy Center up the hill from Gillette Stadium in 2013 and started selling products last year, peddling lemon protein bars made with Himalayan pink salt, resistance bands built with ‘surgical-grade dipped latex tubing’ and athlete recovery sleepwear that fits ‘next-to-skin without the squeeze.’”

But Guerrero also has issues.

“Tom Brady’s Personal Guru Is a Glorified Snake-Oil Salesman” is how Boston magazine put it.

He was twice indicted for fraud. Claimed to be an MD when he’s not. Marketed a juice he claimed would cure cancer and another that was supposed to stop concussions.

Was also accused of defrauding investors. And of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from another client—a client who also made Guerrero godfather to his son.

In other words, he sounds a lot like a  cult leader.

Now he’s tied at the hip with probably the greatest quarterback ever and one of the wealthiest and most powerful star athletes in the world.

And he’s using that fame to spread the Gospel of TB12, recruiting other players to join their cause and spreading the message around the world.

Some of it works.

Brady exercises, which stress flexibility, and his healthy eating habits, have helped him remain at the top of his game at 40, a rare feat in the NFL.

But the questionable claims about Guererro’s methods remain—especially the high profile they get from being tied to Brady.

Given his history, there’s cause for concern, says Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy.

Guererro reminds Shaughnessy of Dr. Eugene Landy, the quack doctor who nearly destroyed Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

After recounting Guerrero’s past sins and alleged misconduct, he issues a warning.

“If it works for Tom, that’s great. But Belichick is wise to put some space between the Patriots and the cult of Alex Guerrero,” he wrote. “We all love QB12, but Tom Brady is becoming Tom Cruise right in front of our eyes. It’s only a matter of time before he jumps on the couch with Oprah in defense of Alex Guerrero. Go back to last year’s Brady interview on WEEI about the perils of Western medicine, and last summer’s bottom-feeder appearance with Tony Robbins.”

Back to the cat cult for a moment.

Most of them ducked me as I reported on their group. But I eventually reached Georgia Snow, Ruthven’s mom, one of her daughter’s most devoted followers.

Why don’t you leave us alone, she said. Isn’t there religious freedom in America?

“We do nothing but good,” she told me. “And yet we have people who try to destroy that.”

Brady seems to be doing much of the same. Guererro’s ideas work for him. So why knock them?

This is the hard part of religion reporting. And this story is definitely a religion story.

Brady’s ties to Guerrero are based on belief and his own experience – not science. And they two are closer than most trainers and athletes. Guerrero—a self-admitted con man—is Brady’s spiritual advisor and guide.

There’s a difference between beliefs that are weird. And beliefs that are harmful and abusive. Guerrero seems to dance on that line and has crossed over more than once.

Now Brady’s boss is threatening his beliefs.

When that happens, all hell can break loose.

For 17 years, the Patriots—and full disclosure, I am a big fan—have been nearly unstoppable. Five Super Bowl titles and more wins than any other football team in that ear. And they seem poised to add a 6th.

But the ties that bind the team’s quarterback and coach are fraying.

And a snake oil salesman may bring the whole thing crashing down.

Get your popcorn.

This will be interesting to watch.