Sunday, November 20, 2005

God-given gold teeth?

Source: The Sun in San Bernardino.

SAN BERNARDINO -- If Jesus could turn water into wine, why wouldn't God turn teeth into gold?

A growing number of people at Highland House of Prayer are claiming he has. It began with a series of religious revivals in October. Now, much of the congregation is opening wide and pointing to shiny dots on their teeth.

That was gray, they say, but now it's gold. Others have crowns and caps that appear to be wholly gold or maybe holy gold.

"The Lord spoke to me and said, 'It didn't have anything to do with faith. I did it to increase your faith.'' said the church's pastor, Larry Baker. "It has done so for me and this church tremendously.'

God only knows what's really going on, but about 15 of the church's 70 members say their teeth or fillings have turned to gold during the past three weeks. Some are now on a mission to get their dental records and prove their claims are true.

Across the world, Pentecostal Christians like those at House of Prayer claim teeth have changed, the disabled have been healed and the dead have been raised.

For now, the spirit is moving at House of Prayer. The congregation meets in the Church of Yahweh, a blue and white building in a dark Base Line strip mall, a few blocks west of the Highland city limits.

Since October, Baker and visiting evangelists have asked church members to show their faith by giving money "sacrificially.' Youths responded by selling their video games and basketball-card collections, a church bulletin reports, and adults sold second vehicles and wedding rings.

The church offering, which averages about $3,500 per month, surpassed $25,000, Baker said. An unspecified amount went to the evangelists; the remainder was earmarked to help build their own church, the pastor said.

Then God began paying through the teeth.

Baker was at home enjoying dinner with his family when the phone rang.

"I have a gold filling where I didn't have one,' the woman on the line told him.

"We told her to come over,' Baker said. "I didn't realize I already had mine.'

A few friends arrived at Baker's San Bernardino home to see what they couldn't believe. Jamen Nicholson, an area minister and contract painter, turned to the pastor and said, "I guess you already got yours done.'

"I turned to my wife,' Baker recalled, "and I said, 'Is there gold in there?' She went very, very white.'

Since then, he claims, God has given him four more gold teeth and one that is silver. He plans to visit his dentist Wednesday to get his records and to have his teeth checked. He wants to know if they are capped or solid.

Theologians say the purported miracles are nothing to pooh-pooh.

"We never say, 'It can't be real,' because God is God,' said Doug McConnell, dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. "I'm not a dentist, but I would assume a dentist could say, 'Yeah, it wasn't there before and it is now.''

About 84 percent of Americans believe in miracles, according to a 2003 Harris Poll. But things more commonly considered miracles include cancer disappearing, money appearing and, generally, prayers being answered.

"Healings take place now because God and Jesus have healed in the Bible,' said Robert Bruce Mullin, author of "Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination.'

"I don't know of any place (in the Bible) where God turns lead teeth into gold teeth,' Mullin said.

Baker said that God was replacing their amalgam fillings, which are about 50 percent mercury, with a safer metal.

"What God simply did was do away with the mistake of man and do it as only God can do it,' Baker said.

Although mercury is poisonous, there is no evidence that the fillings are hazardous. The American Dental Association has defended the safety of amalgam fillings, which have been used for 100 years.

Some religious commentators urge caution before claiming miracles.

Many believe, but they are being deceived by a "counterfeit revival,' says Hank Hanegraaff, president of North Carolina-based Christian Research Institute and host of the Bible Answer Man radio program.

"The expectations of people have reached such a fever pitch that some time ago a parent who lost a child put his baby on ice and drove 350 miles to the Brownsville Assembly of God to have the baby raised from the dead,' he wrote in a recent essay on the institute's Web site.

These stories have "tragic' consequences, wrote Hanegraaff, who was traveling Friday and unavailable for further comment. "When followers finally catch on to the manipulations of revival leaders, they often become disillusioned and disenchanted.'

Whether the fillings are safe or not gold or gild they have energized Baker's small congregation.

"In the Bible, you read about it, people raising from the dead, people being made to walk, but today you don't see it, except some televangelist twenty-nine, ninety-five for a healing handkerchief,' said James Wynn, 18, of San Bernardino. "But that's not real. Then you see it happen to your friends and family. It's amazing.'

And what's in Wynn's mouth?

"I have a filling that hasn't turned to gold yet,' he said optimistically.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Sculpting an identity

Source: Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

DIAMOND BAR -- The football coach hollers, "Water break!" and the players cluster around blue Powerade bottles. Hytham Elsherif stands alone and to the side.

"Somebody soak him down," an assistant coach says.

He unstraps his helmet so a teammate can squirt water on his head. He spits repeatedly to keep it from sneaking into his mouth.

Hytham is a unique member of Diamond Bar High School's varsity team -- he is its only Muslim. Because it is Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, Hytham is fasting from sunrise to sunset each day.

Starving the body for 14 hours is taxing on even the most sedentary. For a 17-year-old offensive lineman, it seems like a death wish.

"If he wants to play, it's up to him," says his mother, Naglaa Elsherif. "But he has to follow God's rules -- he has to fast. If he doesn't have the energy to fast, don't play."

Hytham's is a common dilemma of Muslim-American youths, many of whom find themselves attending class, studying and competing athletically on an empty stomach one month a year.

A first-generation Egyptian-American, Hytham has sculpted an identity as an American youth who happens to be a devout Muslim. He is one of an estimated 10 Muslims in a sea of 3,307 students. But his classmates do not consider him particularly different -- except during that one month each year when they only see him eat at night.

During Ramadan, which this year began Oct. 4 and ends Nov. 3, the 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide who are of age, in good health and not pregnant are called to abstain from food, drink, cursing and sex during the day.

Fasting is one of Islam's Five Pillars. Hytham first participated at age 6. He says it gets easier as the month progresses, that his body adapts to his inability to make up the lost calories.

The coaches and players say they respect Hytham's religion. His conviction leaves them in awe. But they are not without concern for the effect it has on Hytham's performance.

Take Jeff Jansen. As starting quarterback, Jeff's safety from injury largely depends on the offensive line's ability to block defenders.

Jeff worries that Hytham doesn't have the energy on game day to protect him. Against Chino High School, Jeff notes, he was sacked eight times.

"The previous five games I was only sacked once. And then he started doing his fasting thing."


The yellow buses arrive at Chino High at 5:32 p.m. The players step off and into the visitors' locker room. They are anxious. Their team is 3-1-1 and they are up against one of the favorites to win Sierra League.

Hytham hasn't eaten or drank anything for more than 13 hours -- and all he had then was a bagel and a glass of orange juice.

"I'm feeling good," he says.

Hytham is 6 feet 2 inches tall and built like a Buick, his undershirt bulging with muscles and belying his youth. His hair is short, his skin bronze, his eyes calm. Black face paint runs in a C-pattern from both eyes, along the jawbone to the corners of his chin.

His weight has fallen this month from 247 pounds to 226. And more than a week of daytime fasting remains.

"We're undersized," he says. "But we work hard and we hit hard and we work as a team. That's what helps us win games. A team's gotta have heart."

The Brahmas head to John Monger Stadium to warm up.

As the sky's blue fades, and the clock passes 6:30, Muslims throughout the Western U.S. break fast. Hytham is running plays.

Coach calls them in. They huddle and return to the lockers.

"Hytham! Your food's here," linebacker Danny Carrillo bellows.

Hytham gulps a 34 oz. orange Gatorade and then walks to the water fountain. He refills the bottle and empties it again. He grabs a granola bar and, as soon as he finishes that, pops a banana into his mouth.

Other players adjust their pads and get retaped.

Chino makes quick work of their opponents and scores on its fifth offensive play. Clearly, Hytham is not the only Brahma struggling to get into the game.

At the half, the score is 21-0.

In the locker room, Hytham grabs a Gatorade. The athletic trainer tries to hand him a paper plate of spaghetti, a sandwich and some orange slices, but the scoreboard has stripped his appetite.

"My stomach's too tense to eat," he tells the trainer, Stacy Camou.

"You're playing weak. You feel like you don't have to eat, but you have no fuel," Camou responds.

He begrudgingly accepts an orange slice. Camou's not happy either. She asks an intern trainer to grab the food and take it to the sideline in case Hytham gets hungry during the second half.

He eats no more.

The game ends 41-0.


Coach Nick Cuccia's team meets in his classroom on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to watch films of that week's opponent.

Two days before facing Damien High School, desktops are covered with potato chip bags and soda bottles. Players wolf down burgers, burritos, sandwiches. The smell of seasoned french fries saturates the room.

Hytham, clad in blue jeans and a black Cal State Fullerton hooded sweat shirt, twiddles his thumbs, his fingers interlocked atop an empty desk in the front row, his back to most of the munching.

He awoke at 4:50 this morning, had a light breakfast -- bread topped with a spread of feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and olive oil -- and prayed before sleeping for another hour.

By 6:55, he was with his teammates in the high school's weight room, working his legs and lower back for the next hour and a half.

"He's one of the hardest lifters on the team," Cuccia says.

Leg workouts are exceptionally strenuous because they demand energy from so many muscles, which shocks the central nervous system into releasing testosterone and growth hormone and increasing overall muscle growth. But a workout needs to be followed with food if muscles are going to grow.

"If you don't have anything afterward to replenish, you are basically eating away at your muscles all day," says Rehan Jalali, a Muslim and former bodybuilder from Irvine who recommends people fasting exercise at night.

But Hytham says his stomach is too small and his time too tight.

In fact, during the first few nights of Ramadan, he made the mistake of bloating his stomach with water, which stopped him from eating.

Little, if any, medical research has been done on the effects of daytime fasting on athletic performance. Anecdotally, it is perceived to have a negative effect -- but one that can be mitigated.

"You just have to come up with strategies to make up for the calories you're not getting during the day," said Dr. Sameer Dixit, UCLA Primary Care Sports Medicine fellow.

Such strategies include eating large meals in the morning, waking up throughout the night for refueling and avoiding strenuous activity shortly before sunset.

Hakeem Olajuwon and Muhammad Ali made it work. They were role models to many young Americans, especially Muslim youths who wanted to excel at sports without compromising their religious beliefs.

Dixit, a physician for UCLA football, said coaches should watch for signs of dehydration if a player is fasting -- cramps, lightheadedness, headaches, blurred vision, nausea, fatigue.

"The running is what kills me because I can't drink anything, so I get really dehydrated and I get headaches," says Hakam Halabi, a 6-foot-3-inch, 270-pound defensive end on Diamond Bar's freshmen squad. "I'm not really hungry but I'm really thirsty -- very thirsty."

Speaking during practice, Hakam explains that during Ramadan he participates in only the least exhausting drills and doesn't play in games. Fasting connects him with his religion, he says, but it distances him from football. His mouth is parched. His lips look chapped.

"You cannot break fast for weakness, but if there is a legitimate reason" -- such as extreme dehydration -- "you can break fast," said Imam Farid Hasan, head of the Islamic Center of Rialto. "It's not supposed to be a hardship. It's supposed to teach you self-restraint."


Legends are made when athletic ability appears uncanny. For instance, when NFL Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton died in 1999, every credible obituary mentioned Nov. 20, 1977 -- the day Payton, ailing with the flu, set a single-game rushing record of 275 yards.

Michael Jordan in 1998 played through a stomach flu and scored 38 points to lead the Chicago Bulls to victory in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

"Certainly, there are people who can place mind over body," Dixit said. "It is something we have no explanation for."

Hytham's teammates don't either.

"It doesn't mix," says starting running back Joe Beaudion. "He's half man, half amazing."

Arinze Anih, a defensive tackle, says, "I don't know how he does it. Each practice he gets stronger and stronger." In addition to playing without food, Arinze marvels, Hytham has a torn ligament in his left ring finger and his right pinky.

Coach Cuccia says he has not once heard Hytham complain or hide behind his faith.

Hytham has a simple explanation for his endurance: God is rewarding him.

"You have in the back of your mind, "God is with me,' and you think you can go through anything," Hytham says.

Islam is the reason Hytham has never sipped alcohol, doesn't date and tries not to curse.

He has known nothing else. His parents moved to Southern California from Egypt before their first son was born. Hytham, their fourth child, attended an Islamic school in West Covina through fifth grade and grew up speaking and writing Arabic and English. He and his siblings were taught to appreciate their culture.

"Our mom would say to us, "Out there is America. Do what you got to do to survive. But inside this house is Egypt,' " recalls his brother, Walleed, 23.

Hytham learned discipline and commitment from his mother, who raised her five children alone after their father, Salah, died in 1993.

"That's why Hytham never quits," says Bassam, the firstborn son.

"You don't break your fast because "Oh, I'm tired.' You just got to suck it up and do it," Hytham says.

Practice is the most difficult portion of Hytham's day. It runs from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.

On the first or second day of Ramadan, he overslept his morning meal.

"That was a mistake he didn't make twice," Cuccia says.

Because of the fasting, special attention is paid to Hytham. But he isn't coddled, and he doesn't ask to sit out drills.

He hustles -- opening holes for inside runs and sweeps, protecting the QB on passes, getting downfield. He drives his practice opponents to the ground as if it were game night.

After a tackling drill that leaves most its participants panting, Hytham is bent over, hands on his knees. A fellow lineman puts a hand on his shoulder.

At 5:11, the temperature has dropped three degrees Fahrenheit to 71. Players are gathering their equipment and leaving practice. Some talk. Hytham is doing up-downs.

"How many you done?" he asks a teammate who is calling it a day. "I've done 30 already."

He does 20 more, then grabs his bags and walks toward the locker room and the setting sun. He heads home, showers, prays, breaks fast, prays some more and goes to bed.

He'll sleep a few hours before another pre-dawn meal. Then he does it all over again.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Disasters shake the faithful

From: The Sun

If God is good, why do terrible things occur?

That's a question people of various faiths wrestle with often, especially during times of crisis. Lately, there has been no shortage of colossal tragedies hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, landslides.

Only a month after Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast, landslides buried about 800 people in Latin America, and the death toll from the magnitude 7.6 earthquake in Pakistan was around 40,000 as of Saturday, with that number likely to rise.

But the real question, say some Christians, Muslims and Jews, is not whether God is smiting the world but whether humans are smiting God.

"God has sent us to this earth. We should respect nature, ourselves, human beings,' said Shahana Samiullah, a 41-year-old Rancho Cucamonga Muslim woman who emigrated 15 years ago from Karachi, Pakistan.

Like many religious people, Samiullah finds hope in recent natural disasters.

"Some people start questioning their faith why God causes so much destruction and why people who are innocent are the victim of that,' she said. "To me, it strengthens my faith in God. In the midst of all that is happening, there are miracles that are happening. People are surviving. Like the man I heard about who survived 27 hours in the rubble.'

That man was Umer Mushtaq, a 17-year-old Pakistani rescuers found along with about 25 others living beneath the rubble of the 10-story Margalla Towers, according to news accounts.

"I never lost hope, as I had full faith that God Almighty will save me,' Mushtaq told the Gulf Times, a daily newspaper in Qatar.

A natural disaster is, for many, the ultimate test of faith. For others, it is dramatic validation that either God doesn't exist or that he is a sadistic supreme being.

In the past year, humanity has been rocked by a tsunami-spawning earthquake, two monster hurricanes in the U.S. Gulf Coast and the massive quake in Pakistan. In 2003, Southern Californians fell into their own hell when wildfires raged from Ventura County to eastern San Diego County, including the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains.

"If there was a God, how come he let all that happen?' Tom Cotton, 51, of Pinion Hills asked while finishing a burger at a Carl's Jr. in San Bernardino.

"If it's his plan,' Cotton said, scanning the restaurant as if he was going to curse, "he's sure got a messed-up plan.'

God only knows what that plan might be.

"If God is wiser than we, His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil,' C.S. Lewis, the Christian philosopher and children's author, wrote in "The Problem of Pain.' "What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His Eyes, and what seems to us to be evil may not be evil.'

Lewis begins the book by stating that when he was an atheist, he, too, believed God was either cruel or a farce.

"If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction.'

But later in life, Lewis came to believe in God, and Lewis' understanding of the root of pain changed from a godless cosmos to the Garden of Eden.

In the story of the fall of man, God is not to blame. Humans are.

"We have sown the seeds of our own suffering,' said Philip A. Amerson, president of Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary.

The initial seed was when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, sin entered the world, and humans were sentenced to lives of suffering, according to the book of Genesis, a text shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Man has sown many seeds since then, Amerson said, by abusing the environment and encroaching on dangerous environments.

Religious texts don't define building homes in the San Bernardino Mountains as sinful, but development disrupted the forest's natural fire cycle.

The structures that collapsed in Pakistan and India-controlled Kashmir were built in dangerous earthquake zones.

New Orleans lies below sea level, nestled among the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico.

When the tsunami wiped out parts of Southeast Asia, a Muslim stronghold, some fundamentalist Christians said God was smiting the sinful. Although that thinking was en vogue in antiquity (think Sodom and Gomorrah), it has fallen out of fashion.

Many local religious leaders said disasters are not God's way of punishing the sinful but are his way of testing the faithful.

"We can either choose to ask the questions: 'Does God exist? Is God evil? Does God punish us?' Et cetera, et cetera. Or we can realize God is testing us and we can decide how we respond to that test,' said Jay Sherwood, spiritual leader of Adat Re'im, an independent Jewish congregation in Rancho Cucamonga.

In our response to that test are "the seeds of our own hope,' said Amerson. "Through opening space for democracy, through welcoming the stranger, through supporting those who are suffering, through feeding the hungry, clothing the naked we are sowing the seeds of hope.'

Friday, October 07, 2005

Breaking stuff in the name of the Lord

From: The Sun

HIGHLAND -- They are giants for Jesus.

Members of Team Impact, a Dallas-based group of gym junkies on a mission, use uncanny strength to share their faith in God.

Six members were invited here by Immanuel Baptist Church and are scheduled to continue their bat breaking, telephone-pole lifting and rubber-bladder bursting tonight and Sunday night. They plan to lead Sunday morning worship services.

"They're incredible,' says Andrew Beck, a 6-1, 140-pound, 19-year-old intern at the Highland church. "They can pound their way through anything. I wish I could do that. I'm a little jealous.'

The house was packed Wednesday night for the former football players, professional wrestlers and no-holds-barred fighters. Close to 100 awestruck people responded to the altar call.

Christian Vines, 4, wasn't running to the stage, but he did return Thursday to see the guys he thought were stronger than Superman.

Christian's eyes shifted toward one of several television monitors that had been repeating a Team Impact trailer while people entered. The audience filled to about 1,300 a few hundred fewer than the night before.

The auditorium lights faded and the stage lights strobed. Young and old clapped and shrieked some swinging glow sticks.

Instantly, Immanuel Baptist was transformed into Hyundai Pavilion at Glen Helen during Ozzfest. But don't mistake the mission or the message: Team Impact was pumping up the audience for the Lord.

With nicknames like "Big' and "The Bear,' the musclemen in purple and black warm-ups took turns snapping bricks, some eight layers deep. They were loosening up.

Trey Talley, a former Mr. Teenage Arkansas, picked up a can of lighter fluid and soaked seven brick stacks. He set them ablaze.

Whap! Crack! Pow!

The flaming stacks turned into rubble. The sanctuary smelled of burned gasoline and fire retardant. Talk about being on fire for God.

Their moxie makes them candidates for the snake handlers and poison drinkers Jesus refers to in Mark; by faith they are able to do outrageous things.

Talley, who was emceeing this particular night, quickly clarified this is not simply "a macho program.' He dedicated the next feat the rolling of a frying pan into a steel burrito "to all the moms in the room.'

Hoops. Hollers. The crowd was insatiable.

The show crested with the sermon.

The Bear 315-pound Randall Harris of DeSoto, Texas says humans are sinful and in need of a savior. He then tore in half a Yellow Pages phone book, which represents God's record of his sin. The blood of Christ, according to the message, shreds that record.

This is the message of Team Impact's first visit to San Bernardino County. They have performed at hundreds of locations this year, including Immanuel Baptist and 34 area schools this week.

Immanuel Baptist spent about $30,000, largely raised through corporate donors, to support the school performances. The strongmen permitted to promote Christianity or the church at schools.

Their message for public institutions is decidedly pro-clean living: stay away from drugs, alcohol and destructive friends.

The festivities resumed and so did the screaming. It was deafening.

It was Richard Williams' turn. Williams walked away from an estimated $4 million NFL contract by backing out of the 2002 draft days before he was expected to be selected in the third round. Now Williams, all 390 pounds of him, makes a living by crushing walls of ice, running through two-by-fours and spreading the Gospel.

"Impact is not when we break concrete or when we break a bat,' Talley says. "True impact is when people invite Jesus Christ into their hearts and lives.'

After some more antics and another charge to purpose-driven living, about 75 people came forward and committed their lives to Christ.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Getting the Godcast

From: The Sun

Some Sundays, Steffani Warns is tempted to sleep in and skip church.

With the sermon of her choice only a click away, Warns could opt out of going to church, and instead sit on her couch in her pajamas and listen to biblical teaching on her laptop.

Piggybacking on the popularity of MP3 players and the convenience of TiVo, more people are listening to downloadable talk shows on their computers and portable music players. An increasingly popular genre is that of so-called Godcasts.

This begs the question: Will podcasts eventually make church services obsolete?

"There is a big difference between listening to something on TV and the radio and being there, where you can actually be involved in the worship and fellowship with other believers," said Warns, 25, of Rancho Cucamonga.

Most Sundays, she attends Community Baptist Church in her hometown. Godcasts are a way for her to unwind from work on weekday evenings.

That is something Godcast providers like to hear.

"We are very careful when we talk about podcasting to mention this does not replace church attendance or being part of a community," said Paul Eaton, administrative pastor for media at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, which uploads daily digests to its Web site from Pastor Greg Laurie. "This is merely supplemental."

Podcasting is widely referred to as "TiVo for radio" because it allows consumers to save a program and listen to it later. Don't like the music at the gym? Take your iPod and lift weights while you listen to the words of God.

Though iPods are the namesake, podcasts can be listened to on any MP3 player and on a computer. Programs are usually free. Whenever a new episode is uploaded, software such as iTunes automatically downloads it to the computer hard drive.

Steve Webb, webmaster for Lifespring Assembly of God in Riverside, and Laurie are two of the most widely listened to Christian Godcasters.

About 2,300 people a day have downloaded Laurie's daily radio program and a two-minute message, "Time for Harvest," since the church added the talks to its Web site in July. The Internet has given Laurie, founder of the Harvest Crusade, an even larger audience.

For Webb, the Internet enables him to spread Christianity to listeners in England, Iran and China without having to be a missionary. He does it from the safety of his home.

"In a lot of ways, God is using me to speak to the world," Webb said. "It is a very humbling thing."

While the most prominent Godcasts are Christian-based, the religion directory on links to podcasts by Mormons, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and pagans.

On Fridays, Eiman Abdelmoneim delivers sermons at his mosque in suburban Chicago. He records the sermons and later uploads them onto the Internet. At the hedge fund he works for, Abdelmoneim has heard his colleagues listening to his podcasts.

"I don't think they would ever have the opportunity to sit inside a mosque," he said. "It definitely opens their eyes."

The programs evolved in 2004 as podcasts gained popularity. The term was coined by Carlsbad resident Craig Patchett, founder of The GodCast Network, which runs In podcasts, Patchett discovered a cheap and easy way for religious people to share their faiths with the world.

Godcasts are not yet being produced in San Bernardino County. But it seems only a matter of time.

There is a long history of religious people using technology to disseminate their messages from Italian frescoes to the Gutenberg printing press to television.

Podcasting, like other media, is "a little bit like the Wild West," said Craig Detweiler, chairman of the communications department at Biola University, a Christian college in La Mirada.

The listener, Detweiler said, doesn't know if a program is being produced by a minister or a cult leader.

"It's very hard for the average consumer to sort out what is authoritative, what is important and what is absurd," he said.

Patchett agreed that podcasts are "buyer beware" just like picking a church, a Thanksgiving turkey or a minivan.

To that end, Patchett said, listeners should compare what they hear with what their holy book says.

"The risks are greatly outweighed by the benefits," said Rob Acker, pastor of Community Baptist Church, which is converting his sermons into MP3s for the Web.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Set Free liberating for 'outlaw' believers

From: The Sun

About 25 men, most with leather vests, shaved heads and prominently displayed tattoos, gathered on the sidewalk to wash each others' feet.

They held Bibles and smoked cigarettes while singing praises to Jesus Christ.

"I see nothing here but the same disciples you see in the Bible,' said Bryan "Spike' McGeo, who roared up on his fully loaded, $50,000 Harley-Davidson.

Maybe he's right. Jesus' closest followers were a far cry from today's model Christians. And Jesus did wash the apostles' feet to set an example of humility.

But most of the people who meet on Mondays in front of Rialto's Heroes and Madmen tattoo shop on Riverside Avenue would turn heads walking into church.

"We're reaching out to the outlaw bikers, the people on the streets, the punks those who nobody else wants to deal with,' said Johnny Neuneker, an unpaid associate pastor for Set Free Rialto and owner of the tattoo shop.

Neuneker joined Set Free last year after starting a Bible study in his parlor's lobby. He uses his shop to sow the seed of the Gospel on seemingly rocky soil.

Neuneker and others involved with Set Free seem like the kinds of guys and gals you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. But it's difficult to hold a conversation with them without being asked, "Are you saved?'

They are bent on sharing Christianity with people like Mario Chavez.

When the 36-year-old Colton resident met Neuneker six months ago in a dark alley behind a San Bernardino bar, he wasn't a resident anywhere.

Chavez was homeless, gangbanging and using drugs. Neuneker handed him a pocket Bible and told him he would become a Christian within three months.

He did.

"They keep it real,' Chavez said. "All they try to do is show you the way, the truth and the life.'

Sunday, July 31, 2005

A test of faith

From: The Sun in San Bernardino

Bruce Nelson's day begins with a cocktail of prescription drugs, the Bible and his wife asking God to take from him the pain sown on a mission trip to India.

"Lord, I pray you will bring Bruce peace today,' pleads Cassie, sitting on the edge of their bed. "I pray you will heal his ailing body.'

Once finished, Bruce reaches for an empty urine jug on the nightstand. It's easier than getting to the toilet.

"And I don't stand. I sit when I pee – like a woman.'

This Wednesday is like most days since the San Bernardino resident contracted dengue fever on a church-sponsored trip two years ago.

His body's unusual reaction to the virus has cost him the use of his legs and his job as an assistant pastor at Calvary Chapel Rialto.

The church later offered him a position washing walls and scrubbing stalls. Because he uses a motorized wheelchair for mobility – and feeling humiliated – he declined the janitor job.

For the 54-year-old, every day is physically painful and emotionally exhausting.

"My physical and mental condition is nothing what it was like before I went on that mission. I was an athlete. I was a chaplain at the Rialto Fire Department. I did a lot of charity.

"Now I'm a cripple.'

His former boss, Senior Pastor Terry Hlebo, said Calvary could not afford to pay him for a job he couldn't do.

He accused Bruce of "trying to split the church.'

The dispute depicts one difficulty of running a place where finite wealth and infinite needs collide.

The church's personnel policy provides five days pay and medical expenses for an on-the-job injury – Bruce received his full salary and health benefits for almost three months. After that, he received the workers' compensation insurance to which his employer had contributed.

"Calvary Chapel did go above and beyond what was required,' said its attorney, Geniene Stillwell.

Still, dozens of families left Calvary because they believed the church's response was un-Christian.

Bruce became depressed.

Angry with God? At times. But not disillusioned.

Amid Bruce's darkness, he has found light – an outpouring of love and support, church members and elders lobbying that his $52,000-per-year position be held and his bills paid until his health returns.

"This is a black eye on the church. And somebody has got to speak to it and correct it. Because as long as they don't, this poor guy is in the same situation,' said Leonard Larson, who resigned as a church elder and left Calvary because of the way Bruce was treated.


For 11 years, Calvary Chapel Rialto was at the center of Bruce's life. There this prodigal son had found purpose after a decade using drugs and another recovering.

Hlebo hired him in 1992 to lead children's ministries, a role he seemed born for.

"The true test is if you're walking into a Wal-Mart and a kid yells, 'Hey, Pastor Bruce!'' Hlebo told The Sun's sister paper, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, in a 1998 profile of Bruce Nelson. "He loves the kids, and they know it. They feel they can talk to him.'

Bruce ran Sunday School. He planned summer and winter getaways. And, always the adventurer, he organized beach socials, ski retreats and mountain hikes.

On March 17, 2003, Bruce flew into Madras, India. It was a two-week mission trip that would change his life.

He and the team from Calvary took a train into the country, where Bruce said he ministered to children in rural villages. As far as furthering Christendom, he said, it was his "best trip.'

When Bruce returned to San Bernardino on April 2, he assumed his exhaustion was jet lag.

Three weeks later, he was hospitalized. He didn't work during the following five weeks.

On May 30, Bruce received an e-mail from Hlebo titled "Coming back to work.' It was four sentences long and appeared to have been written quickly:

"Bruce as of Today May 30 we will no longer be paying your salary. You need to contact disability or workman comp to find out what steps you need to take collect. We have been covering for two months. So if you have any questions give me a call.'

Bruce was shocked. He had no warning.

Hlebo's decision was fought by Larson, then treasurer of the church's board of directors.

"It's way beyond the law, it's how a Christian should behave, setting an example for others. How can you have a ministry if you don't set an example for others?' Larson said. "Compassion is the heart of the Gospel.'

Hlebo agreed to keep Bruce on the payroll until he began receiving checks from workers' compensation in early July, according to a letter Hlebo sent Bruce.

At that point, Larson left the church.

The relationship between Bruce and Calvary was already souring. It completely spoiled when Hlebo suspected Bruce was going to sue.

After the church stopped Bruce's salary, he asked that they keep his lights on and his water running.

The church denied his request because of Bruce's "apparent preparation of a civil suit,' according to a July 24, 2003, letter from Assistant Pastor Fred Ruiz, written on behalf of Hlebo.

The Bible states in 1 Corinthians Chapter 6 that Christians should not take their disputes to "court before the unrighteous.'

But Bruce has not sued and said he does not intend to.

Hlebo, however, said he believes Bruce is responding to his sickness with sin.

"He is bitter. He is angry. And he doesn't want God in his life,' Hlebo said in a brief phone conversation.

Hlebo declined requests for an extended interview.

The church's attorney, Stillwell, claimed Bruce was hostile and made unreasonable demands – and said Calvary had provided him with more than the law requires.

In November 2003, the Nelsons contacted Don McClure, then director of Calvary Chapel Outreach Fellowship, which oversees pastoral issues for the 1,100 Calvary Chapels worldwide, including about 200 in Southern California. The office has little authority, though, because Calvary Chapel is a nondenominational network of churches, and each has its own articles of incorporation and bylaws.

"They seemed pretty angry and bitter, but at the same time, it seemed like the church was doing everything it could to help,' said McClure, now senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Laguna Beach.

He said Hlebo has a "great' reputation.

"Of all the people to accuse of not being compassionate, he's the least likely one,' McClure said.

Five months later, in April 2004, a workers' compensation doctor cleared Bruce to return to work. Restrictions included "preclusion from heavy work,' according to a letter from GuideOne Insurance.

Bruce's doctor, Michael Ing at Jerry L. Pettis Memorial Veterans Medical Center in Loma Linda, insisted his patient was incapable of working then and remains unable to today. But after receiving $27,864 from workers' comp – about half Bruce's salary – the checks stopped May 19, 2004.

Under California labor law, Calvary was required to offer Bruce a job within 15percent of his previous pay.

Hlebo, however, said he had decided Bruce was no longer spiritually fit to be a pastor. To avoid having to pay him severance, Hlebo said, the church offered Bruce a job as a janitor.

Bruce filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It was dismissed last May because of a lack of jurisdiction. Mediation was held this spring at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. The outcome is confidential.

For the mediation, Carey F. Baird wrote in a letter of reference that Bruce "was one of the most diligent, reliable and hard working employees on staff' and "has exemplified the description given by Christ of a servant.'

Baird, a church janitor for 10 years, believed Bruce's heart would lead him to do whatever the church needed. But custodial work, he wrote, was something Bruce couldn't do.

"It is not a position that could be carried out to the satisfaction of the pastor by a man that is dependent upon a walker, much less a wheelchair,' Baird wrote. "The job requires physical agility and stamina, it involves bending, kneeling and even crawling.'

During the past two years, Bruce said, he has followed a biblical model in appealing his termination, going from Hlebo to members of the church board, to McClure, to the government. Unhappy with the results, he spoke this month with The Sun.


The way the Nelsons see it, a single mosquito – something most Westerners considered little more than a nuisance until the emergence of West Nile virus – has turned their lives upside down.

The family income has been more than halved.

Medical bills continue to fill the mailbox.

Rebekah and Katie, Bruce's 21- and 22-year-old daughters, moved into a room together and share a full-sized bed so Bruce can have a home office to continue counseling Christians and ministering.

Katie took leave from college to care for her dad.

Bruce sold two of his cars and his custom Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

He and Cassie, 52, have discussed selling the house they bought in 1983 and buying a cheaper condo.

"It's tough when you had a dad who would do everything and, all of a sudden, it's four girls who don't know what to do,' says Katie, whose 26-year-old sister, Jenny, lives six blocks away.

If a friend hadn't built ramps at the kitchen door and the side door of the master bedroom, Bruce would be trapped in his home.

His doctors are baffled by why a previously healthy man who loved to walk local mountains and surf the Pacific hasn't bounced back from an illness most recover from within weeks.

"We don't know completely what is going on. We know that he went to India and came back very sick,' said Ing, chief of infectious diseases at the veterans hospital.

Bruce is not paralyzed. He can stand, but the pain is excruciating and his muscles are weak.

"When I stand up,' Bruce said, "it feels like someone is drilling a hole into my kneecap.'

He takes a pain killer, a nerve blocker and an anti-depressant four times a day. Ambien keeps him from waking up screaming in pain.

Dengue fever is rare in the United States. It is endemic in tropical regions such as Puerto Rico, southern Africa and India. Common symptoms include high fever, headache, joint pains, vomiting and rashes. Less than 1percent of infected people die from dengue fever, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ing said other viruses may have taken a toll on Bruce's body. In March 2004, the CDC's vector-borne infectious diseases lab found tick-borne encephalitis, Japanese encephalitis and West Nile virus in Bruce's blood. The lab could not conclude when he was infected.

Bruce continues to have eight to 10 doctor appointments each month.

"We've tried everything and every medication. We've done everything we know medically to try to turn him around, and we've just not been able to improve his situation,' Ing said.

"As far as trying to come up with a magic bullet to solve his problems, we kind of struck out and it's not from lack of trying.'


Water of Life Community Church in Fontana has a smaller crowd on Saturday nights than Sunday mornings. Still, Bruce and Cassie arrived early to secure an end seat.

Bruce sits while others stand and sing.

"You are God and you can take my pain away,' the worship leader sings softly.

Bruce nods. Cassie rubs his back and nestles her head against his shoulder.

The sermon is part of a series titled "How You Can Know God's Will for Your Life.' The focus tonight is prayer.

Bruce prays "all the time.' For his family. For his health. For resolution in his dispute with Calvary.

Pastor Danny Carroll warns his congregation that God does not always immediately answer prayers or remove suffering. God uses these trials to build character, Carroll says.

At the end of the sermon he leads the congregation in prayer and asks for a show of hands from those with special requests.

Cassie raises her right hand.

"It's been 2 years,' she says after the service. "And after a while, you don't stop praying but you don't have the faith you had for healing in the beginning.'

Bruce is intercepted by old friends as he rolls his wheelchair toward the exit.

"We've always loved Bruce, before his illness and after his illness,' says Rick Savage, whose three daughters were part of Bruce's ministry.

The Savages left Calvary earlier this year, in part because of what happened to Bruce.

Carroll is perplexed by Calvary's treatment of a stricken missionary. He has written letters on Bruce's behalf to Calvary Chapel Rialto and the flagship, Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa. He counsels Bruce and prays with him, especially when money is lacking.

"Imagine if it were you and me, how you'd feel if your family was going hungry and you couldn't work?' Carroll says, standing in his church parking lot.

Bruce spends most days reading, sleeping, baby-sitting, writing his autobiography and battling depression.

At times, he has felt distant from God and asked the question most do when they suffer: Why?

But, he says, his faith has remained firmly rooted. He leads a weekly Bible study for six couples in his home and occasionally officiates at weddings and funerals. He's been encouraged by the support so many have given his family.

Friends and relatives deliver dinners, help maintain the house, even pay some bills. In June, his father's uncle gave them $2,000, which almost covered two months' mortgage payments.

"That kind of stuff really increases my faith,' Bruce says, sitting in his living room.

Moments later, Jenny drops off her 9- and 6-year-old daughters, a clear source of joy in his life.

Bruce reads his granddaughters a story from a picture Bible.

"So the lesson of that story is God can turn bad things around for the good,' Bruce says. "You just have to trust him.'

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

UCC deems gay marriages equal before God

From: The Sun

ATLANTA - The United Church of Christ on Monday overwhelmingly declared gay marriages equal to those between a man and a woman.

The statement of the church's voting body was the boldest and broadest a Christian denomination has given in support of allowing gays to marry. It may spur other mainline Prot denominations to advance their acceptance of homosexuality, theologians have said.

Leaders of the liberal denomination hope it catches the attention of Washington, where some politicians, including President Bush promoted a constitutional amendment that would prevent states from legalizing gay marriage.

"On this July Fourth, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ has acted courageously to declare freedom, affirming marriage equality, affirming the civil rights of same-gender couples to have their relationships recognized by the state and encouraging our local churches to celebrate and bless those marriages,' said the Rev. John H. Thomas, the 1.3 million-member church's president and general minister, at a news conference after the high-noon vote.

The marriage-equality resolution passed with the support of what appeared to be 80 percent to 90 percent of the 884 delegates at the church's biennial national gathering.

But it was not without a few voices of strong opposition and harsh criticism.

"This now begins a period of disorder, chaos and confusion in the United Church of Christ,' said David Runnion-Bareford, executive director of Biblical Witness Fellowship, a movement within the church that strongly opposes gay marriage as unbiblical.

"It's a tragic day for the church,' he said.

Congregations are not required to agree with the Synod's decision or change their policies based on it. But it is widely expected of the United Church of Christ's 6,000 congregations will break away.

"There will be a cost as well as a joy,' the Rev. Stephen Gray, who leads the Indiana-Kentucky Conference, said during the discussion that precipitated the vote. "The cost will be members and churches and income.'

It is unknown how many congregations will leave. The church's headquarters in Cleveland had not studied the matter.

No congregations left the Southern California-Nevada Conference after it adopted a similar resolution in June 2004, said the Rev. Jane Heckels, conference minister.

The conference, which includes 17 congregations from San Bernardino and eastern Los Angeles counties, sponsored the resolution "In Support of Equal Marriage Rights for All.'

The resolution asks congregations to adopt wedding policies that don't discriminate against homosexuals and to support legislation that would legalize gay marriage, not only civil unions.

"I'm hopeful that someday I will be able to be married,' said Heckles, a Claremont resident. "My partner and I have been together for 25 years and we would love to be married.'

The church's statement is expected to resonate with other mainline Protestant denominations struggling with whether gays should be allowed to marry or serve as priests.

"I learned a long time ago not to try to predict mainline churches, but it might well be a signal to other churches that they ne at this,' said Philip A. Amerson, president of Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary.

Next month, the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will vote on a recommendation to allow into the priesthood those "in lifelong, committed and faithful same-sex relationships.'

The Lutheran Church's requirement that gay ministers be celibate caused the Central City Lutheran Mission in San Bernardino to be pulled from the roster of churches after the mission installed a lesbian pastor. The Rev. Jenny Mason resigned in April after one year on the job.

Homosexuality has created a growing divide between the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, which is upset with its American church for installing an openly gay man as bishop of New Hampshire.

And every summer since 1978 excusing this year because of a schedule change the Presbyterian Church USA has discussed its policy that "self-affirming, practicing homosexuals are not eligible for election as church officers.'

United Church of Christ leadership argues the Bible says little about marriage and does not forbid homosexuality. However, those who interpret the Scriptures literally believe it is plain as day that God limits marriage to one man and one woman.

They point to Genesis 2:24. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh,' it states. The passage is quoted three times in the New Testament.

"We follow the intent of the Scriptures: What has it said for the last 2,000 years not what has it said for the last 20 years,' said Koloman Ludwig, a member of the Calvin Synod, an orthodox sect within the church.

Ludwig's comment took a dig at the church's yearlong campaign, "God is still speaking.' Its message has been that God speaks in new ways every day, underlying the church's belief that doctrine and the intent of the Bible are affected by culture and context.

Over time, the church's understanding of how gays and lesbians should be treated has changed, said Thomas, United Church of Christ's president and general minister.

Monday was another marker in the United Church of Christ's long history of crusading for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

In 1972, it was the first Christian denomination to ordain an openly gay man. Thirteen years later the church declared it is "open and affirming' of gays and lesbians. And long before there were discussions about amending the U.S. Constitution to prevent states from allowing gays to marry as they can in Massachusetts many United Church of Christ pastors performed ceremonies for gay couples who wanted to enter into a covenant relationship.

Today, openly gay ministers lead more than 200 congregations.

One of those pastors is the Rev. Lisa Stedman of Danvers, Mass. In 1987, she and her partner dedicated their relationship in a ceremony before friends and family. Last year, after Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriages, they were married officially.

Holding a marriage license has dramatically improved their relationship, Stedman said.

"Separate but equal has never worked, and equal but different can never be truly equal,' she said. What is the United Church of Christ?

The 1.3-million-member denomination formed in 1957 with the merger of the Christian Congregational Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

It is a "covenant' church that allows each of its 6,000 congregations to govern independently. The national body General Synod "speaks to the church, not for it,' says the Rev. Robert Chase, executive director of the Office of Communications.

Because of the synod's direction, the United Church of Christ has a reputation for being among the most liberal Christian churches, though leaders prefer the term "progressive.'

The Biblical Witness Fellowship formed in 1978 as an alternative to the church's liberal leanings. The movement claims the Unite Church of Christ's declining membership is a result of "radical social positions.'

During the past 48 years, the church has rallied behind social and racial causes, working in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. It has since shifted its attention to equal rights for homosexuals.

The national body declared in 1985 the United Church of Christ "open and affirming' to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. It called on local churches to do the same. About 600 churches, including those in Claremont, Redlands and San Bernardino, have followed.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Mosque fire threatens legacy of High Desert Muslim leader

From: The Sun

ADELANTO - It's a wonder Shaikh Zaid Assfy chose this undeveloped High Desert plot for the sole Muslim cemetery in Southern California.

But, two decades ago, he did. On 35 acres, 3.8 miles north of where the town's main road turns to dirt, Assfy built the High Desert's first mosque and a sacred burial ground. Around it, an Islamic community grew to hundreds of families.

After the shaikh died in 2000, though, a mosque opened in Victorville. Without Assfy, many Muslims relocated their religious activities.

"That man was the cornerstone,' said John Bridges, 33, a Muslim convert and Assfy's last student.

A June 3 fire at the mosque, which mourners used for prayer and meditation, further threatens to diffuse the Muslim community here.

"The Muslims may start feeling safer to bury their dead in a multi-faith cemetery rather than an all-Islamic cemetery until things quiet down,' said Dany Doueiri, an Arabic studies professor at Cal State San Bernardino who plans to be buried there.

Authorities continue to investigate what caused the first fire at a Southern California mosque. But they lack evidence and they don't expect to find much.

"It is unlikely if we haven't found it by now,' said Chip Patterson, spokesman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

The FBI, sheriff's and fire officials have found no evidence to indicate a hate crime.

"Really, no one with certainty can say it is or is not, unless someone comes forward and says, 'I did it because I don't like Muslims,'' said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"Unfortunately, it doesn't matter what it is anymore,' he continued. "What matters is what it is perceived to be by the victims.'

The cemetery's caretakers, Ali and Michelle Khawaja, said they don't want to "jump to conclusions.'

"People ask you, 'Oh, do you think it was hatred?' It's hard to think that when you feel so much love and support,' said Bridges, a gravedigger who said some residents visited this week to offer their condolences.

Before the blaze became international news, it flew under the radar of many Adelanto denizens.

"People here never even knew it was there. I've been here since '60 and the first time I heard of it was on TV,' Chuck Cawthorne, 67, said as he enjoyed an afternoon beer at the Amvets Restaurant on Adelanto Road.

The cemetery is at the northernmost end of Adelanto. Three miles to the south is Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville. Silver Lakes is five or more miles north, Highway 395 a ways west.

The only thing nearby to the east is an impromptu junkyard stacked with cars and single-wide trailers going nowhere fast; a worn yacht is sunk in the sand.

Assfy found and bought the land in the mid-1980s. On it Muslim families erected tents and set up camp.

They were separated from their neighbors by miles of rocks, sand and Joshua trees.

"We were all learning how to live in the desert,' said Barbara Howard, 68, whose small home three miles north of the cemetery is powered by solar panels, gas and propane.

Even after the Muslim campers left, the shaikh lived in the mosque. Since Assfy died, Ali Khawaja, the current caretaker, stayed occasionally. In recent years, the cemetery and mosque were repeatedly vandalized.

Authorities said the blaze may have been caused accidentally by a transient or transients. The fire was reported at 4:24 a.m. June 3. No traces of accelerants were found, Patterson said.

Insurance will cover the damage to the mosque, about $225,000, said Michelle Khawaja. A night-time security guard likely will be hired, she said.

About 500 people are buried at the cemetery. Another 2,000 plots are reserved, many by people who live hundreds of miles away.

The cemetery follows Islamic tradition. The dead are tipped on their side, facing east, toward Mecca. Bodies are cleaned but not embalmed. Shrouded in white, they are laid in the ground without a coffin.

Several cemeteries in Southern California have sections reserved for Muslims, but burial at those sites are forbidden by the state without a coffin, said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council, which overseas Southern California mosques.

"The only reason this particular one is allowed, at least right now, is because it is out in the boonies ... and it does not affect running water,' he said.

Assfy's grave stands alone. While most are 500 feet from the mosque, Assfy, the shepherd even in death, lies near the former sanctuary, the blackened rubble filled with burned pages of the Quran.

"Whoever may have done this, God help them,' Syed said.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Home school: a largely Christian endeavor

As long as home room is their living room, the Keatings know their children will be safe from school violence and receive an education consistent with their Christian beliefs.

The Hesperia family could have sent their 10 children to a private school, but it would have cost several thousand dollars per child per year.

Besides, Joellen Keating often wondered how a teacher could care more than her about her children's education.

"There was so much more I wanted to teach my children than they would learn at school, the Lord, and family ... so many things that wouldn't be under reading, writing and arithmetic that were such an important part of life,' Joellen said.

Between 80,000 and 100,000 children are schooled at home in California. The National Home Education Research Institute estimates that between 1.7 million and 2.1 million children are schooled at home nationwide.

And those numbers are increasing by 7 percent to 15 percent annually, advocates say.

This comes as several school districts across the nation wrestle with teaching an alternative to evolution and parents' worries about violence on campus grow.

Little research has been done by the federal and state governments on the benefits and consequences of schooling at home. California does not regulate home-school curriculum.

About 75 percent of parents who choose to school their children at home are evangelical Christians, advocates say. They want to be able to teach their children the origin of life, human sexuality and history from a Christian perspective.

Both religious and nonreligious parents can teach what they believe without complaints from other parents.

"In order to raise our children in our faith and our values, it is best to have them home with us, rather than having the public school system undo our teaching,' said Susan Beatty, co-founder of Christian Home Educators Association of California.

"The whole foundation of the content of public education is not only godless, but in a lot of cases anti-God,' Beatty said.

Avoiding evolution

This year, school boards in Kansas and Pennsylvania have been challenged for requiring that an alternative to evolution be taught in public schools. These officials want intelligent design the theory that the universe is so complex that there must be a creator to be taught alongside or in place of Darwinism.

School districts in other states also have forced the questioning of evolution.

Critics nationwide claim intelligent design is a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to introduce the Creation story into classrooms. But the scientific groups that have led the intelligent design campaign argue the theory is not linked to a religion or God. It is based on science, they say.

California schools have not launched curriculum that challenges evolution.

Few parents school their children at home solely to avoid the topic of evolution, parents and advocates say. But for Christians, it is one of several aversions to public education.

Joellen Keating teaches her children evolution with a twist. After they learn what it is, they learn why they shouldn't believe it.

"We avoided it some, but then we actually found books that showed why some of Darwin's things ... are not even true.'

Equipped to educate?

The California Department of Education does not know how many children are schooled at home. (Technically, "home schooling' is illegal in California. The state classifies legal home education situations as: private tutoring, private schooling and independent study.)

"Because it is not public, we are not able to evaluate it,' said Hilary McLean, spokesman for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell.

"Jack is a great believer in public education, but it is a parent's choice about how they would best provide education for their children,' McLean said.

Some public educators, however, caution that schooling at home does not work in every situation.

Children need to be taught more than just math and reading, said Mikki Cichocki, a member of the board of directors for the California Teachers Association, representing San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

She added that few parents are equipped to teach every subject their children need to learn.

"Even for credentialed teachers in public schools, kindergarten teachers are not able to teach chemistry,' said Cichocki, a teacher on assignment with Youth Services in the San Bernardino City Unified School District.

System of socialization

The best school-at-home programs are those where numerous families are linked together.

The Keatings are one of 50 High Desert families, known to the state as Berean Christian School, who attend field trips together and maintain student transcripts. It is an independent study program.

The biggest challenge to a well-rounded education, Cichocki said, is socialization.

"You have to learn how to deal with people that are different than you, people you don't like. Sometimes that is difficult to do in a sheltered situation, which is what some home school situations are.'

Despite growing up in a rural part of Hesperia that is now booming with new $700,000 homes, Jacob Keating was rarely short a social setting. With two older brothers, friends from church and others from city sports leagues, "almost every day we would have kids our age to play with,' he said.

Jacob, 18, completed his sophomore year at University of La Verne last month. The transition was easy, he said.

"The hardest thing was having scheduled classes.'

Since schooling at home took root in the early 1980s, its popularity and its acceptance has grown.

Most colleges and universities now have a system for admitting these students, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association, which formed in 1983 and led the campaign that legalized home education in all 50 states.

In 2000, Michael Farris, the same person who founded the legal defense association, opened Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., 50 miles northwest of Washington. More than 80 percent of its students were schooled at home at some point.

The college has already proven to be a fertile ground for young politicians. It's first class graduated 60 students in April 2004. According to school records, six are employed in congressional offices, and two work in the White House. Eight work for other federal agencies, including domestic and foreign intelligence, two are in state government, two in county government, and eight have nonprofit public policy positions.

"That is pretty successful,' said Michael Kiser, the college's director of communications.

Kiser schools his 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son at home. His son recently completed algebra, a subject typically taught to high school freshman.

"Academically it's better, spiritually it is certainly better, morally it's better,' Kiser said of schooling at home. "It's all those things together that makes it a no-brainer for us."

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Funny thing happened on the way to church

From: The Sun

Comedian Mark Fitter's greeting is also his opening joke.

"Hi, my name's Mark, and I am a pastor of a church.'

Audience members and bar patrons laugh and clap. Someone shouts, "Amen!' Another, "Hallelujah!'

Performing on the same bill as comics whose repertoire revolves around lewd innuendos and blatant bawdiness, the Victorville resident cracks clean jokes.

"You know, the tough thing about being a pastor is most people only see you work on Sundays,' Fitter said as he performed at Tuesday at Omaha Jack's Grillhouse and Brewery in Rancho Cucamonga.

"And most give you a hard time about it. 'Hey Mark, it must be great having a job where you only have to work one day a week.' That really ticks me off because I don't work one day a week I only work an hour per week.'

Fitter, pastor of Desert Winds Community Church in Adelanto, is part of a growing alternative to blue humor.

Christian comedy has exploded during the past decade, said Dan Rupple, president of the Southern California-based Christian Comedy Association. Since the group began with 35 comedians in 2002, its nationwide membership has swelled to 350.

But as a full-time pastor who recently took his act outside the church walls, Fitter is an anomaly, Rupple said. Most Christian comedians stay away from bars and clubs unless its Christian comedy night and those who work at churches only do so part time.

Fitter's moonlighting may seem unusual, but the 43-year-old doesn't think so.

"Everybody wants to laugh. Everybody has problems,' Fitter said in an interview.

Also, he said, being a comedian helps supplement his pastor's salary.

In fact, at a monthly meeting of American Baptist pastors in San Bernardino and Riverside and counties, Fitter teaches others how to fling zingers during their sermons.

"He's very funny,' said Dane Aaker, senior pastor of Colton First Baptist. "He catches you off guard and makes you laugh when you are not expecting it.'

Randy Barnes, who attends Fitter's church, said the pastor "makes sure we are still awake by throwing in a joke.'

But the sermons don't turn into stand-up acts, Barnes said.

Fitter has performed comedy at churches in the Inland Empire and High Desert for a few years. Three months ago, he branched into the unknown world of nightclubs, bars and comedy clubs.

Christians and non-Christians alike can relate to his "observations' of being married, living in suburbia and raising kids. And his jokes about religion don't demand the audience share his beliefs.

"When you turn 40, you start to see God's sense of humor because God starts repositioning your hair,' says Fitter, who still has most of his salt-and-pepper mane. "It's like Chia Pet meets Mr. Potato Head.'

As could be expected, not all of Fitter's jokes were a hit at Omaha Jack's.

On this night, though, Fitter entertains as well as any of the other amateur comics.

"If it's funny, it's funny,' said Rosemary Gore, a Rancho Cucamonga comedian whose jokes probably shouldn't be delivered from the pulpit.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Gay SB pastor to leave Lutheran mission

SAN BERNARDINO - The Rev. Jenny Mason ends her one-year stint as an openly gay associate pastor at Central City Lutheran Mission today.

It was her hiring 365 days ago that caused the mission to be removed from the official roster of Lutheran churches. Its pastor, the Rev. David Kalke, also was pulled.

Mason said she is departing for personal reasons. Her partner lives in St. Paul, Minn., and the distance has been draining.

Her resignation comes at a time when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is torn over the issue of ordaining gay men and women.

Church rules say only celibate homosexuals may be part of the priesthood. But the Church Council on Monday recommended that non-celibate gay ministers be allowed in ministry as long as they are "in life-long, committed and faithful same-sex relationships.'

"It's amazing that this tiny place called San Bernardino, and the even smaller mission, has become the focus for what has become a national debate, which is: What are the rights of gay and lesbian ministers?' Kalke said.

Kalke said the mission still supports the ordination of gays. But he is in talks with the Orange County-based Pacifica Synod which has authority over churches from the San Gabriel Valley to San Diego and in Hawaii and would like Central City to again be listed as a Lutheran congregation.

In late March, the synod reinstated the mission as a site to train seminarians for urban ministry.

Bishop Murray D. Finck of the Pacifica Synod did not return repeated calls for comment.

Central City Lutheran Mission, at 1354 N. G St., provides shelter, food and clothing to the poor and people who are HIV-positive or living with AIDS. The mission is owned by its board of directors, not the synod.

Mason was popular with the men and women who stayed there. Some knew she was gay.

"We've got to start learning to live with each other,' said Gary Ryan, a 55-year-old homeless man from Tillamook, Ore. "I don't care if you are gray, pink, purple or black. She does her job well.'

Mason doesn't like the scrutiny. In 2001, 10 years after she was ordained, her name was pulled from the Lutheran roster while she was working in Chile. Someone outed her.

Mason disagrees with the Lutheran Church's requirement that gay ministers remain celibate. She argues the Bible says very little about homosexuality.

She has been in the same relationship for a year. The six-year relationship she had in Chile dissolved when she moved back to the United States.

"There are a lot of fabulous pastors out there who are gay and lesbian, and they are being wiped out,' Mason said.

Homosexuality has become one of the most divisive, and certainly the most public, debates in U.S. Protestant churches.

Each summer at its general assembly, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. considers its opinion that sexual relationships must only be between a married man and woman.

The United States Episcopal Church was asked this week by the international Anglican Communion not to send a voting representative to its June meeting because of the 2003 consecration of a gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

In December, Irene Elizabeth Stroud was expelled from the clergy by a jury of United Methodist ministers who found that her lesbian relationship violated church policy.

"The mainline churches are really struggling with this. It is a real rift, and it threatens to tear denominations apart,' said Philip A. Amerson, president of Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary.

The Lutheran Church has been more "graceful,' Amerson said.

In May, the Rev. Dan Hooper was installed as pastor of Hollywood Lutheran Church, where about a quarter of the 100 members are gay. About 82percent of the congregation voted to hire Hooper. The church was not punished.

Hooper attributes this to the more liberal Southwest California Synod, which oversees churches in Los Angeles and along California's Central Coast. A letter of reprimand was sent from the synod's Bishop Dean Nelson.

"The letter was quite amusing,' Hooper said. "It said, 'You shouldn't have done this ... blah, blah, blah.' But it went on to say, 'We fully support you in your outreach to the gay and lesbian community.''

Nelson did not return calls for comment.

Frank Imhoff, a spokesman for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, would not comment on why bishops Finck and Nelson responded to the gay ministers differently.

Standing outside the San Bernardino mission, Todd Davis was dismayed when he learned Mason is leaving.

"She's a good pastor,' the 38-year-old man said. "I believe she will be missed by all of us not just me but all the homies. And I've got guys who will back me up.'

Two guys nodded their heads and muttered affirmations.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Religion imprisoned

From: The Sun

Rarely do Christians and Satanists play on the same team.

But politics make for unlikely alliances.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Monday that challenge governments' ability to limit religious freedoms in prisons and other institutions.

In one corner the state of Ohio, which claims prisoners use religious services to organize violent gangs. The state will argue that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, gives preferential treatment to religious prisoners, violating the First Amendment.

In the other corner a group of inmates supported by unexpected allies: civil libertarians and social conservatives, Jews and neo-Nazis, President Bush and former President Clinton.

"The most important religious liberty case before the Supreme Court this term is Cutter v. Wilkinson,' said Jared Leland, media and legal counsel for the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of 50 civil liberties and religious organizations that include Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and American Indians.

The court's ruling is expected in June.

If the law is struck down, Jews and Muslims could be forced to handle pork, Catholics could be prevented from wearing the crucifix, American Indians could be required to cut their hair and any religion deemed dangerous could be blacklisted, Leland said.

Constitutional scholars do not believe the court will rule against the law because it benefits all religions: The more obscure the belief, the greater the law's need.

"Chances are this will be seen as a constitutionally permissible accommodation for religious liberty and not a cracking in the wall of the separation of church and state,' said Jesse H. Choper, a UC Berkeley law professor who specializes in church-state issues.

It is unclear how the law has improved religious practices at local prisons and jails and if they would be affected by the high court's ruling. Safety first

At San Bernardino County's Central Detention Center, which boards an average of 550 federal inmates daily, sheriff's Capt. Larry Brown said the jail lacks the staff and facilities to offer much more than chaplain prayer and chow-hall chapel services.

"Safety always has to come first. That is usually our problem here,' said Brown, who runs the jail in downtown San Bernardino. "The more you move them around, the more you have problems.'

The jail is bound by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act's requirements because the U.S. government pays the county to house federal inmates, who make up more than half the jail's population.

At the California Institution for Men in Chino, the law has not improved religious services, said Michael Nichols, a staff chaplain.

The Sun was unable to speak with inmates at the Chino prison because it was on lockdown when a reporter was allowed to visit. Brown declined access to inmates at the Central Detention Center.

In Ohio, several inmates claim the state has infringed on their religious rights. They are of various religions, including Wicca, Satanism and the Christian Identity Church, which advocates violence against nonwhites and Jews.

"Ohio is not opposed to religion in prisons,' said Douglas R. Cole, Ohio's state solicitor and lead attorney in Cutter v. Wilkinson. "But Ohio thinks that religious practice needs to be appropriately balanced with safety needs in prisons. State prisons officials are best able to decide, and they shouldn't have their hands tied by Congress.'

In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the current law's predecessor, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The high court said the 1993 law overstepped Congress' authority and infringed on states' rights to manage their own prisons.

The 1993 law still applies, however, to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Unlikely allies

After three years of work, Congress drafted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Sponsored by two senators of very different political beliefs Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. the law skirted its predecessor's downfall by making it a requirement on states and counties that take federal money for their prisons and jails.

"If you don't want to comply with the federal act, don't accept federal funds,' said Leland. "It's as simple as that.'

The tactic has been used by Congress before. In 1984, it passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which told every state to set its drinking age at 21 or else lose federal transportation dollars.

The Supreme Court upheld this law in a 1987 case, South Dakota v. Dole.

When the court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, only Justice John Paul Stevens said the law unconstitutionally endorsed religion.

The composition of the court has not changed since, which encourages supporters of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The law has been upheld by four federal courts of appeals, including the 9th Circuit in San Francisco. But the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati sided in 2003 with the state of Ohio.

"If (the law) is overturned, it makes it much easier for all religious practices to be obstructed. It doesn't matter what it is,' said Chaplain Gary Friedman, spokesman for the American Correctional Chaplains Association.

"If you prevent one faith from its religious practices, it can domino and often does.'

In general, the California Department of Corrections allows more religious freedom than other state prison systems, Friedman said.

But the men's prison in Chino "is one of the worst in the state,' said Nichols, the chaplains' representative to the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees.

The prison is so often on lockdown, most inmates can't speak with chaplains, let alone attend religious services, Nichols said.

"You have to have consistency of the program,' he said, "and we do not have any consistency. So we are doomed to failure.'

The minimum-security portion of the prison, which houses the least violent criminals and allows for more religious exercise than other parts, was on lockdown during a tour by a reporter last week. An inmate had been slashed in the yard shortly after breakfast.

"We try to afford all those that want religious services,' said corrections Sgt. Ari Sams, prison spokesman. "Based on the situation of a particular day, that dictates whether or not an inmate will be able to continue that daily schedule.' Divided chapel

The minimum-security portion has a chapel divided into two rooms. In one there are Islamic prayer mats and Catholic decorations. The other has walls that bear both the Christian cross and the Jewish Star of David.

The prison also has a sweat lodge for American Indian purification ceremonies, which are held weekly for about 35 inmates.

"There are only two things they have left when they come to prison: their identity and their religion,' said Chaplain Al Davis, a Protestant minister on staff.

When the five staff chaplains two Protestants, one Muslim, one Jewish and one American Indian are thrown a religious curveball, such as Wicca witchcraft they seek literature and community members who can better minister to the inmate.

Inmates in the prison's maximum-security central facility are not allowed to go to chapel. Chaplains walk the tiers and talk to them.

But even that practice often is limited, as it was in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 10 killing of corrections Officer Manuel Gonzalez.

Nichols has cited the death as a tragic example of what prisoners are driven to when they can't practice religion. Inmate Jon Christopher Blaylock is the suspected killer. Women's prison

It's a different world at the California Institution for Women near Chino. The prison has about 1,900 inmates. Though it houses everyone from minimum-security inmates to Manson Family members, the women mingle freely in a collegiate-like grassy quad.

"They don't have to utilize the chapel to communicate,' Warden Dawn Davison said during a tour last week. "When they go to religious services, it is because they want to have God in their life.

"For many of them, it has saved them.'

Little research has been done on religion's ability to rehabilitate the 2 million incarcerated American men and women.

"It's very difficult to measure religiousness,' said Harry R. Dammer, chairman of the sociology and criminal justice department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. "How am I going to measure how religious you are compared to me?'

Anecdotally, though, everyone has heard stories about a person who went to jail for murder and found religion.

"People who commit crimes are broken people, wounded people, people who have pain. Religion gives you comfort,' said Romarilyn Baker, a 40-year-old Catholic who is serving 17 years to life at the women's prison.

"Committing the crime of murder was devastating to me,' she said. "I didn't only break my heart; my soul ached. I had to seek God.'

Baker wears a crucifix on a chain around her neck that she constantly clutches for comfort.

Prison officials, and especially chaplains, say stories like hers show "jailhouse religion' is often a good thing. Creating a religion

Seen as a threat to the exercise of religion are faiths that inmates draft for special treatment. Friedman, the chaplain association spokesman, mentioned an inmate who created a religion that included as sacraments sirloin steak and Baileys Irish Cream.

This is indicative, he said, of the single flaw in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act: It is too broad in what it defines as a legitimate religion.

But prisons do have the authority to investigate the sincerity of an inmate's faith.

"The concern raised by Ohio about gang activity and sham religious beliefs espoused for other reasons that sometimes exists. But the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was drafted to address that,' said David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The law's broadness is the reason it likely will survive the constitutional test, supporters said. They hope the Supreme Court agrees.

"Inmates are on the bottom of the totem pole. It is hard for them to get anything,' said Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of prison and military programs at a Surfside, Fla.,-based Jewish organization, The Aleph Institute.

"It is not like (the law) is this magical thing that opens all the doors. But at least it keeps the door cracked.'

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Hindu temple? Not in Apple Valley

From: The Sun

Most 15-year-old girls drift into thoughts about cute boys, but Megha Nayyar daydreams about a Hindu temple rising from the High Desert sand.

"For the past 15 years, I was not able to go every Sunday to a church or place to worship because we didn't have one up here,' said Megha, a sophomore at Granite Hills High School in Apple Valley. "There are so many children. You can just see it on their face. They are confused. They need a temple now.'

When Megha's father, a neurologist, told her he would buy a 2.35-acre lot in Apple Valley if she raised $1,500, she did. Then Mammohan Nayyar upped the challenges: Raise another $3,000 and we'll build it. Megha petitioned peers and adults and collected the money in two weeks.

But in January the Apple Valley Planning Commission denied the temple proposed for 13356 Apple Valley Road because of the traffic it would generate.

"They deserve a place to worship,' Commissioner Peter Allan said. "But you also have to take into account people who drive on Apple Valley Road and who live in the neighborhood.'

The commission's denial is not uncommon for Hindu temples, also called mandirs. Last year, Chino Hills didn't fully give the go-ahead to a group that wants to build a massive mandir in a residential neighborhood. The city said "yes' to the proposed temple but "no' to its design.

As Hindus have populated new communities across the country, neighbors have resisted their Eastern culture and ornate architecture, Hindus say.

"There is a racial component to it. We look different,' said Vardhan Nadadur, head of the Hindu Temple Society of California in Calabasas. That temple, too, was opposed before it was built more than two decades ago, he said.

"I don't understand why they have a problem approving temples when you have churches at every street corner. Just as Christian needs a church, Jewish needs a synagogue and Hindus need temples,' Nadadur said.

The perceived paradox challenges religious pluralism a characteristic of the United States that minority religions often reference and majority religions often overlook.

"Imagine how Christians would feel if they could not build their church in town,' said Alison Dundes Renteln, a professor of political science at USC.

Cities often use zoning codes to keep minority religions out, said Dundes Renteln, author of "The Cultural Defense,' which argues the legal system fails to protect against such discrimination. She is not familiar with the proposed Apple Valley temple.

But plenty of people around town thought the Planning Commission's denial was based in bigotry.

"I believe your decision, if not against the U.S. Constitution, is against its spirit,' wrote resident Anne Pyle, a Catholic. "Your arguments are farfetched and seem racist if not down right prejudice.'

After receiving letters like Pyle's and impassioned appeals from local Hindus, the commission agreed to rehear the project tonight.

Temple vs. traffic

The 7,950-square-foot temple and 7,415-square-foot cultural center would centralize a Hindu community that is accustomed to moving religious meetings from house to house. It would be the only mandir house of God between Riverside and Las Vegas. The Riverside mandir is 58 miles southwest of Apple Valley; Las Vegas is 202 miles northeast.

The temple would be built across the street from Sonlife Community Church, which the city has prevented from accessing Apple Valley Road a traffic treasure the temple wants.

Sonlife pastor Mark Allen Mikels said the temple would congest the road and could establish it as a strip mall of religious centers.

"When there is already something else there (Sonlife), why put something else balled up on the same corner?' said Mikels, who recommended the temple be built elsewhere. "If it was a Baptist church, we still would have said we didn't want it there.'

Deputy Town Engineer Richard Pedersen told the Planning Commission that during peak commuting times, the temple would add about four cars to Apple Valley Road. On Saturdays and Sundays about 100 vehicles would visit, architect Robert Martinez said. There would be 148 parking spaces. Hindus do not hold services on a specific day of the week.

"I'm not convinced the traffic impact is as small as it appears,' Commissioner Allan said in an interview.

Commissioners Brian Hawley, David Hernandez, Bob Tinsley and Chairman Elliotte Fajardo did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

A pointed problem

Traffic also has been an issue in Chino Hills, where a group of Hindus wants to build a temple it once billed the next "Wonder of the World.'

"We are not a tourist attraction, nor do we want to be,' said Councilwoman Gwenn Norton-Perry, who voted in September against the project's size and location, when the City Council overruled the Planning Commission. "We are a quiet community, and that is the way we want to keep it.'

The group no longer wants to build the largest temple west of London, said Paresh Patel, the chief developer for the group, Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swarminarayan Sanstha, commonly known as BAPS.

He said about 38,000 people would visit annually a 90 percent reduction from traffic numbers once filed with Chino Hills that said 380,000 would visit each year.

"That was an error and no one was willing to accept it,' he said.

After a year of heated public debate, Chino Hills temple talk had been dormant since September.

Patel met with city staff Feb. 14 to discuss plans for the 164,372-square-foot development that stalled when the council denied a request to build five spires two at 52 feet, two at 67 feet and one at 73 feet.

The group has been waiting to see if religious leaders in India will allow them to build the temple without the spires, which have religious significance. In India, many temples are built in the center of town or atop hills. The spires, which point to the heavens, are like God's calling card.

"I do not have a definite thing right now, but I know that 42 feet doesn't work for us and 80 feet doesn't work for the city,' Patel said. "So we have to find a compromise.'

Structured faith

Architecture is a fundamental part of the Hindu religion.

"Temples are typically a whole philosophy in stone,' said Vasudha Narayan, a religion professor at the University of Florida.

Temples in the United States, she said, are built with visions of India but "are more of a creamy white instead of the loud colors from India.'

There are 29 temples in California, according to the Council of Hindu Temples of North America. It is unknown how many Hindus live in the state. (The U.S. census does not track religion.)

Most Hindus are of Indian descent. There were 4,370 Asian Indians in San Bernardino County in 1990, the census shows. That number grew to 7,368 in 2000. That year, there were 5,526 in Riverside County, 60,268 in Los Angeles County and 314,819 statewide.

As the home-building boom continues in the High Desert, more and more Indians are moving to the sun-baked region.

Hinduism is unlike most Western religions. It has no documented origin, founder or central authority. And believers worship various gods that are different representations of "The God.'

One place to go

The Shri Lakshmi Narayan Mandir in Riverside is the only temple in the Inland Empire.

At 9292 Magnolia Ave., the mandir does not stand out from the cityscape. It sits nondescript between a thrift store and an office building that looks like a motel.

Ten years ago the temple was a bank. Its walls are white. There are no commanding colors. It is unlabeled and the tallest spire is only 35 feet.

"Those really should be much higher, but you have to compromise,' said Shukavak Dasa, head priest of the temple and a part-time Yucca Valley dweller.

About 500 people each week worship at the mandir, run by the Hindu Society of the Inland Empire. They come at their convenience. Unlike other religious gatherings, there isn't a big once-a-week meeting; Hindu worship, called puja, occurs at home and in the temple.

Though the temple's edifice is uninspiring, its interior is flush with Hindu carvings and decorations. Beautifully painted sacred images sit atop marble flats.

The smells of incense waft in the air. Indian music plays quietly. Shoes are piled outside the front door.

"When you come in here, it should look like a temple. It should smell like a temple. ... And it should put you in a state of mind,' Dasa said.

His temple is preparing to grow into bigger clothes a 35,000-square-foot temple and cultural center will be built nearby at a cost of $5 million.

"They've been really good neighbors and good people and we are glad to have them in Riverside,' Mayor Ronald O. Loveridge said.

The Hindu Society was born 21 years ago when Hindu doctors met in San Bernardino. The temple draws people from Anaheim to Apple Valley and beyond.

The base is building and "the seeds are going out,' Dasa said.

True believer

Nayyar is one of those seeds. The Apple Valley neurologist visits the Riverside mandir once or twice a month.

Nayyar estimates there are 200 to 300 Hindu families in the High Desert who choose between a long drive and worshipping at home.

"Indian population has grown and our children don't have much exposure to our scriptures as we had in India. The children are urging us to build a place where they can learn about the scriptures,' Nayyar said.

He believes local temples will stabilize the Indian community and will encourage their children who leave for college to return.

"If my children have somewhere to educate their children (about Hinduism), they will come back. Otherwise, they will settle somewhere else,' Nayyar said.

That could prevent a group of highly educated adults from living in the area, where more than 50 Hindus, of several hundred, are physicians most in specialized fields. Last month, Nayyar and 33 others formed Physician Hospital Management and took over the administration of Victor Valley Community Hospital in Victorville. The doctors lent the troubled hospital $6 million out of their own pockets.

"There is no doubt they are a tremendous asset to Apple Valley and to Victor Valley as a whole,' Apple Valley Mayor Scott Nassif said.

He is glad the commission will reconsider the temple proposal and hopes traffic solutions will be found. "I'm fairly certain some amicable solution will be coming forward.'

Megha, the 15-year-old visionary, and her friends will pack Town Hall tonight.

"We are looking forward to the reconsideration,' she said. "All the kids are so anxious right now. We are all going to be there.'

Monday, March 14, 2005

'The spiritual backbone of the unit'

Source: The Sun in San Bernardino

TWENTYNINE PALMS - Navy Lt. Robert Grove awoke before the sun rose and prayed.

During the next 12 hours, Grove chaplain for the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines welcomed 40 Marines and sailors to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center here; he prayed over 103 men leaving for Iraq; and he celebrated with 139 returning home.

It was a typical whirlwind. Grove's workload has been heavy since he joined the Navy after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

It intensified two years ago when the United States attacked Iraq, where 150,000 American troops remain. There are another 17,000 in Afghanistan. California has sent more troops to the Middle East than any other state; thousands have been from Twentynine Palms, Fort Irwin and the California Army National Guard.

Peppered throughout the nation's military are about 4,000 chaplains with a daunting task: Win the emotional wars waging within troops.

"I am responsible for the spiritual fitness of this battalion,' Grove told the new Marines and sailors during a breakfast address.

On the battlefield

That day, newspaper headlines announced the death toll for American troops in Iraq topped 1,500.

The number didn't phase Grove, a two-tour veteran of Iraq.

Death is sad, he said without a hint of emotion, but it is part of war. It's the reason the military employs chaplains.

"There are no atheists in foxholes,' the axiom says. And so military ministers are there to prepare troops to meet their maker whatever they believe it may or may not be.

"They are the spiritual backbone of the unit. ...' said Gunnery Sgt. Frank Patterson, Twentynine Palms base spokesman. "Chaplains provide an invaluable service.'

Almost all are Christian. Of the 1,400 active-duty Army chaplains, nine are Jewish and six are Muslim, according to the Office of the Chief of Chaplains. Six are Orthodox Christian. The rest are Protestant or Catholic.

"In a time of war, all chaplains are trained to minister to soldiers of all faith groups,' said Col. Ron Huggler, the chief chaplain at Fort Irwin near Barstow. "We know how to deal with death and dying issues, whether it is a Jewish soldier or a Christian soldier or a Muslim soldier.'

Chaplains themselves become masterful bullet dodgers. They don't carry firearms, even in combat zones where warriors are dressed like civilians and crude bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, erupt around them.

"From a sniper's point of view, or, obviously from an IED's point of view, we are a soldier just like anybody else,' Huggler said.

No chaplains have been killed in Iraq since Operation Iraqi Freedom began; three were seriously wounded.

Terms of service

Chaplains have been a part of the U.S. military since before the United States existed. At the urging of Gen. George Washington, the Continental Congress hired the first chaplain in 1775.

There are about 2,500 chaplains in the Army, with 1,100 in the Reserves and National Guard. The Air Force has 600 chaplains. The Navy, which provides the chaplains for the Coast Guard and Marines, has 871.

Job requisites are strict: a masters of divinity degree, two years of pastoral experience, a church sponsor and good health.

During peacetime, chaplains are involved in the daily spiritual struggles of base service members and their families.

They take their shepherding on the road during war.

Grove found in Iraq that planning was restricted by the volatility of the region and the possibility the battalion would be moved at any moment.

So he developed an informal system of combat visits: He traveled throughout southern Baghdad in American convoys, stopping to meet with troops where they were stationed and then moving to the next spot.

"It can be emotionally draining at times,' Grove said. "Being only one chaplain for roughly 1,000 sailors and Marines, the workload can be overwhelming.'

That would be a lot of people for any person to care for under ideal circumstances.

"Here we have about seven assistant pastors to help take care of the flock,' said Raul Ries, senior pastor of a 15,000-member church in Diamond Bar, Calvary Chapel Golden Springs.

But chaplains do it thousands of miles from comfort, in an environment saturated with death and loss.

Chaplains do more counseling than they do preaching and teaching. Leading worship services and religious devotions are part of the job. But often, chaplains say, they are approached for their impartial ears.

Overseas and at home, they are available around the clock.

"All the time, Marines walk into this office and say, 'I need to talk. Now,'' Grove said, sitting in the comfort of his sparsely decorated office on the base.

Conversations are confidential. Like communication with attorneys, the content is protected by law.

"Whatever happens with the chaplain, stays with the chaplain,' Grove said.

Easter without the resurrection

Grove spent last Easter in Fallujah with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. On Resurrection Sunday he listened on a military radio to the ambush of a close friend.

Two other Marines died that day.

"It was probably the worst day of my life,' Grove said of April 11, when Christians celebrated the resurrection of Jesus in 2004.

But Grove didn't mourn for 1st Lt. Oscar Jimenez of San Diego.

"There really is no time to grieve when you are in combat,' the chaplain said. "You've got to move on. You grieve later.'

The next day the chaplain gave a memorial service under the hot desert sun. It was a brief break for bereaved Marines before they returned to fighting in the then-insurgent dominated city in Al-Anbar Province.

"I wish I would not have to do any memorial services,' Grove said. "But that is a fact of war.'

In Iraq, chaplains also counsel troops who feel guilty about the death that surrounds them, maybe even follows them.

"It is very important for a chaplain to help each soldier be able to draw on his faith so he believes what he is doing is morally and ethically and spiritually right,' said Huggler, the Fort Irwin chaplain.

"Especially when they see the horrors of war. Without that, you have a soldier who becomes hesitant ... and all the sort of things that can get him or his fellow soldiers killed.'

Evil as war may seem, chaplains say, it has its time and place. They point to the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, a sacred book for Jews and Christians:

"There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the sun: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, ... a time for war and a time for peace ...'

A fallen soldier lives on

Spc. Daniel Unger was the first member of the California Army National Guard killed in combat since the Korean War. Unger was attached to the 1-185 Task Force, headquartered in San Bernardino. He died last May in a rocket attack on an American camp.

When his body was returned to Exeter, Calif., his father spoke at the funeral. By his side was the adjutant general of the California Army National Guard, Maj. Gen. Thomas Eres.

Eres was so impressed that three months later he had an assistant offer Marc Unger a chaplain job.

The 53-year-old pastor of Exeter Baptist Church signed up for 11 years of service.

Throughout the week, Unger counsels soldiers via telephone. He drives from his Central Valley home to the Central Coast to the Bay Area. Sundays he preaches in Exeter, a 9,500-person farm town southeast of Fresno.

"Our son's ministry to his country lives on as his family continues to minister to our country as a chaplain family,' Unger said.

Help on the home front

Unger and other chaplains who remain in the states assist families while a mother or father, husband or wife is thousands of miles away.

Whether the need is spiritual guidance, money or a babysitter, "we are going to find a way to meet it,' Huggler said.

This is most pronounced in the Army Reserves and National Guard, where families do not live on military bases and don't have the geographical support network.

When the 1-185 Task Force deployed for Iraq last March, few soldiers had prepared their families for the long separation, unit Chaplain (Maj.) Steve Harrell said.

"Midway through the deployment some of the spouses experienced extreme burnout, stresses on their home life that were just beyond them,' Harrell said. "The results were not good.'

There are also problems long after combat ends that require the chaplains' attention.

About 15percent of Iraqi veterans are returning with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the National Center for PTSD, a branch of the Department of Veterans Affairs. In these people, the stresses of war cause intense flashbacks and nightmares, impairs sleeping and estranges a person from their surroundings.

"When soldiers come home, we realize he is not the same and she is not the same. No matter what,' Huggler said. "Just being apart for the year, there are going to be all kinds of changes.'

Chaplains at Fort Irwin spend weeks weaning soldiers back into civilian life. Through Reunion and Reintegration Training, they explain to couples the hurdles that will soon present themselves. They train spouses to look for signs of post-traumatic stress and, if needed, seek help.

Praying for protection

The skies were bright and brilliant as the Marines and sailors of Mike Battery, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines prepared to deploy for Iraq. Black clouds that had dumped hail on the San Bernardino Valley and spun a twister in Fontana were moving north over Big Bear Lake. But the air of Twentynine Palms was clear and quiet except for 'hurrahs' and sobs.

Before the troops boarded buses to March Air Reserve Base near Riverside, an officer announced the chaplain would pray with those interested. About 60 men surrounded Grove.

"It's important we get spiritually right before we go on a deployment,' the chaplain told the men, many of whom looked like boys.

They were talkative and anxious while waiting in the parking lot. Around the chaplain they were respectful and reflective.

"Lord God, we give thanks to you for this day. We thank you for the blessings of this life. For our health, for our family and friends ...' Grove said.

"We ask your blessing to be upon the Marines and sailors of Mike Battery as they deploy for Iraq. They have been given the tremendous responsibility to serve our country, to be peacemakers ...

"Keep them strong and resolute. ... Protect them and bless them. ... And by your grace and mercy, bring each one of these Marines and sailors back home safe and sound. And we pray this in your most holy and precious name, our Lord and our God. Amen."