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.