Category Archives: Clergy & Congregations

First person: Breaking the chains of religious tradition

c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) Where I come from, girls are married off as teenagers to men they barely know and are expected to spend their lives caring for their husband and children. They are required to cover their hair and nearly every inch of their skin, and to remain behind a curtain at parties and religious events.

Where I come from, if a woman wants to feel her hair blow in the wind or wear jeans or attend college, the courts have the authority to take her children away from her.

Where I come from, you might be surprised to learn, is the United States. Specifically, New York and then New Jersey, in the Orthodox Jewish community.

Recently, two women have brought national attention to the fact that Orthodox Jewish women who leave that insular community risk losing custody of their children: Deborah Feldman of New York, whose memoir about her escape from the Satmar Hasidic sect hit The New York Times best-seller list; and Perry Reich of New Jersey, whose custody battle — which includes accusations from her husband that she sometimes wears pants — earned her an appearance last month on the “Dr. Phil” television show.

My story is similar to theirs. When I was 19, my family arranged for me to marry a man who turned out to be violent. With no education and no job, and a family that refused to help me, I was stuck. By age 20, I was a trapped, abused, stay-at-home mother.

Ten years later, still trapped and unhappy, I finally took what became one of my first steps away from Orthodox Judaism: I stopped wearing a head covering.

The consequences were swift and severe. My family cut off contact with me; one of my five siblings kept in touch long enough to inform me the others were contemplating sitting shiva for me, or mourning as if I had died.

Perhaps most shockingly, several rabbis informed me I should say goodbye to my children because I was going to lose custody of them during my looming divorce proceeding.

They were not bluffing. Numerous family attorneys unaffiliated with any religion advised me to stop publicly flouting Orthodox laws and customs.

As the attorneys noted, and as illustrated by Feldman’s and Reich’s experiences, judges look at religion as one factor in a custody dispute and generally view stability to be in the children’s best interests.

They have been known to award custody to the parent who will continue to raise the children in the same religion as before the family breakup.

Where I come from — that means here in the United States, in 2012 — women fear, legitimately, that they might lose their children if they lose their religion.

Feldman and I each managed to settle and avoid divorce trials, and each of us retained custody of our children. Others have not been as lucky. Reich, for example, remains mired in her custody battle.

Fear in the religious community, therefore, persists. I recently started a nonprofit organization, Unchained At Last, to help women leave arranged marriages, and the most common inquiry I receive is from Orthodox Jewish women who want to leave the religion and are willing to accept ostracism from their family and friends, but are terrified that a judge might remove their children.

For many, their situation seems especially hopeless because they, like Reich, felt pressured to allow a beit din (an Orthodox Jewish court) arbitrate their divorce.

The beit din’s binding decisions and agreements routinely include a provision that the children will be raised within Orthodox Judaism.

Secular courts generally enforce those decisions and agreements, even if a mother later realizes she does not want to raise her children in a religion where men bless God every morning for not making them a non-Jew, a slave or a woman.

Where I come from — the United States — the First Amendment is supposed to empower people to choose whether and how to practice religion, without interference from secular courts. What went wrong?

(Fraidy Reiss is the founder/executive director of Unchained At Last. She lives in Westfield, N.J. A version of this commentary first appeared in The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)

Nixon felon and evangelical icon Charles Colson dies at 80

Chuck Colson in prison. Photo via Religion News Service archives.

c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

WASHINGTON (RNS) Charles W. Colson, the Watergate felon who became an evangelical icon and born-again advocate for prisoners, died Saturday (April 21) after a brief illness. He was 80.

Despite an early reputation as a cutthroat “hatchet man” for President Richard M. Nixon, Colson later built a legacy of repentance, based on his work with

Prison Fellowship, a ministry he designed to bring Bible study and a Christian message to prison inmates and their families.

Colson founded the group in 1976 upon release from federal prison on Watergate-related charges. Prison reform and advocating for inmates became his life’s work, and his lasting legacy.

Colson had undergone surgery on March 31 to remove a pool of clotted blood on his brain. On Wednesday (April 18), Prison Fellowship Ministries CEO Jim Liske told staff and supporters that Colson’s health had taken a “decided turn” and he would soon be “home with the Lord.”

Due to his illness, for the first time in 34 years, he did not spend Easter Sunday preaching to prisoners, his ministry said.

”For more than 35 years, Chuck Colson, a former prisoner himself, has had a tremendous ministry reaching into prisons and jails with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ,” said evangelist Billy Graham in a statement. “When I get to Heaven and see Chuck again, I believe I will also see many, many people there whose lives have been transformed because of the message he shared with them.

He will be greatly missed by many, including me. I count it a privilege to have called him friend.”

In many ways, Colson’s life personified the evangelical ethos of a sinner

in search of redemption after a dramatic personal encounter with Jesus. He also embodied the evangelical movement’s embrace of conservative social issues, although often as a happy warrior.

Today, Prison Fellowship has more than 14,000 volunteers working in

President George W. Bush listens to Robert Sut...

President George W. Bush listens to Robert Sutton, left, a graduate of the Prison Fellowship Ministries InnerChange Freedom Initiative, during a roundtable discussion in the Roosevelt Room Wednesday, June 18, 2003. The initiative is is part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice System and the new prisoner reentry and treatment program proposed by the Department of Justice. White House photo by Tina Hager (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

more than 1,300 prisons across the country. More than 150,000 prisoners participate in its Bible studies and seminars every year.

The organization founded by Colson also provides post-release pastoring for thousands of ex-convicts, and supplies Christmas gifts to more than 300,000 kids with a locked-up parent through its Angel Tree program.

Colson also founded Justice Fellowship, to develop what he called Bible-based criminal justice, and advocate for prison reform. In 1993, Colson won the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and donated the money to his ministry.

As recently as February, Colson was still contributing to political debates, writing an open letter with fellow evangelical leader Timothy George that criticized the Obama administration’s health care contraception mandate.

”We do not exaggerate when we say that this is the greatest threat to religious freedom in our lifetime,” he wrote with George, comparing the mandate to policies of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

In 2009, Colson was a chief architect of the “Manhattan Declaration,” which advocated grass-roots resistance to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. He called the manifesto “one of the most important documents produced by the American church, at least in my lifetime.”

”The Christian’s primary concern is bringing people to Christ,” Colson told Christianity Today magazine in 2001. “But then they’ve got to take their cultural mandate seriously. We are to redeem the fallen structures of society.”

Colson also was a key figure in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a network of religious leaders who found common ground supporting a “culture of life” and reaffirmed their stance in 2006 when they called abortion “murder.”

Religion was far from Colson’s mind during his early adult life, when his main passion was politics. A Boston native, Colson showed early signs of political acumen as a star debater in high school.

After graduating from Brown University, Colson enlisted in the Marines and rose to the rank of captain. Following law school and a stint in the Pentagon, Colson worked on Capitol Hill as a top aide to Sen. Leverett Saltonstall, R-Mass.

After serving on Nixon’s 1968 election team, Colson was appointed by the newly elected president as special counsel to the president. During Nixon’s first term, he was known as Nixon’s feared but respected “hatchet man.”

Colson once bragged of a willingness to “walk over my grandmother if necessary to assure the President’s reelection,” and was roundly known within the Nixon administration as the “evil genius.”

”I was known as the toughest of the Nixon tough guys,” he said in 1995.

Nixon himself described Colson as one of his most loyal aides. “When I complained to Colson I felt confident that something would be done, and I was rarely disappointed,” the former president wrote in his memoirs.

Among other activities, Colson helped set up the “Plumbers” to plug news leaks. The Plumbers engaged in illegal wiretapping of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate apartment complex, triggering the scandal that took down the Nixon White House.

Colson was also involved in the creation of the Special Investigations Unit, whose members broke into the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, who had given copies of the Pentagon Papers, a secret account of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, to newspapers.

Nixon aides justified the break-in on the grounds of national security, but

Colson later admitted that the agents were trying to dig up damaging information about Ellsberg before his espionage trial.

As the Watergate scandal mushroomed, Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in 1974, and the felony led him to serve seven months of a one- to three-year sentence at Alabama’s Maxwell Prison as Prisoner 23226.

Colson later said he became a Christian before going to jail, and his time behind bars cemented his faith.

”There was more than a little skepticism in Washington, D.C., when I announced that I had become a Christian,” he said in 1995. “But I wasn’t bitter. I knew my task wasn’t to convince my former political cronies of my sincerity.”

In addition to his work with Prison Fellowship, Colson authored more than 30 books that sold more than 5 million copies, including his seminal 1976 autobiography, “Born Again.”

Colson became an evangelist for better prison conditions and championed what he called “restorative justice,” in which nonviolent criminals should stay out of jail, remain in the community where they committed their crime, and work to support their families and pay restitution to the victim.

Colson also forcefully advocated President Clinton’s impeachment and removal from office in 1998 over what he called perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from the Monica Lewinsky affair.

BRIEF: Temple of Israel plans an “Invite your neighbor” service

The Temple of Israel is planning its first Invite Your Neighbor Shabbat service at 8 p.m. on May 4 at 1 S. 4th St. The service will include explanations of Jewish prayers and customs and a “Torah Roll” (a close-up look at and explanation of the Torah scroll).

Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky, courtesy StarNews file photo by Paul Stephen

“Many people are curious about Judaism and often aren’t sure if they are even allowed to enter a Temple or attend a service,” said Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky, spiritual leader of Temple of Israel, Wilmington’s reform Jewish house of worship. “Of course they are always welcome, and this is a great chance to reach out to people, both unaffiliated Jews and those who are not Jewish.”

Details: 910-762-0000.

– Amanda Greene

Why Ross Douthat thinks we’re ‘a nation of heretics’

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat doesn't mince words in his new book ``Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.'' RNS photo by Josh Haner/New York Times

c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) New York Times columnist Ross Douthat doesn’t mince words in his new book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.”

Since the 1960s, Douthat argues, institutional Christianity has suffered a slow-motion collapse, leaving the country without the moral core that carried it through foreign wars, economic depressions and roiling internal debates.

In its place heresies have cropped up — from the “God-within” theology of Oprah to the Mammon-obsessed missionaries of the prosperity gospel, says Douthat, a Roman Catholic.

In an interview with Religion News Service, Douthat explains his definition of heresy, why he thinks Mitt Romney and President Obama are both heretics, and why more Americans should argue about religion.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: The idea for the book came to me late in the Bush presidency, when the debate over religion in America was generally dominated by the clash between the New Atheists — Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett — and conservative Christians. In many ways, the debate over the existence of God is the most important debate there is, but I thought it would be useful to step back and consider what kind of shape American religion is taking.

Q: And what did you see?

A: In some ways, depending on what kinds of measurements you use — such as belief in God or spiritual experiences — the country might be more religious than ever. But that doesn’t mean that there are more traditional, orthodox Christians. Instead you have heresy: religions that draw on Christianity and yet are still miles away from the historic core of the Christian faith.

Q: How do you define heresy?

A: Looking at Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians, there is an intellectual core in the Christian faith. Sometimes that core gets blurry in various places, but you have the Nicene Creed, the belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God, that the four Gospels are the best sources of information about Jesus of Nazareth. There are a lot of religious movements and ideas that diverge from that core enough to be heretical but not to be a different religion entirely.

All of this is totally debatable, and people can look at the same landscape and disagree about who a heretic is. But the term is still quite useful in describing the reality of a country that is neither traditionally Christian nor post-Christian in any meaningful way. We are in a zone between those two things.

Q: You’re not going to start another Inquisition are you?

A: (Laughs) Well, controversy is good for book sales. Obviously the hunt for heretics has a long and horrible history. An orthodoxy that doesn’t leave any room for heresy is dangerous and destructive; and a world that is all heresy and leaves no room for orthodoxy is dangerous as well. But I don’t see any particular danger in using the term to describe America today.

Q: I’ve read that you think both Mitt Romney and President Obama are heretics.

A: A lot of evangelicals and conservative Catholics will say straight out that they don’t think Mormons are Christians. If you flip that around, you find that Mormons themselves think that all evangelicals and Catholics are in a state of apostasy, that Mormons have the true Christianity. It can be an endless and pointless argument. They both claim ownership of the same religious tradition.

Q: What makes Obama a heretic in your view?

A: Obama’s personal religious beliefs are a little more opaque than Romney’s. He’s not part of a church or specific denomination. But the church (Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago) where he basically converted, or reconverted, back from agnosticism, is a church whose theology diverges and stands in judgment over the traditional Christian churches. The theology of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons is radical — and that’s the whole point. Black liberation theology is much more explicitly political and revolutionary than traditional Christianity.

Q: But is it heretical?

A: I think using the word just clarifies the distance — the very real theological distinctions — between Jeremiah Wright’s vision of Christianity and what a lot of traditional churches consider Christianity.

Q: Even if heretics are no longer burned at the stake, it seems that many Americans have an aversion to labeling others heretical, no?

A: And I would disagree with that very strongly. The promise of a liberal society is that we agree to a kind of truce where nobody will impose their religion on anyone else and the government will not set up an established church, or the Spanish Inquisition. But part of religious freedom is the freedom to have arguments about religious beliefs. People who take religion seriously should have serious public arguments.

Q: You quote Philip Rieff’s idea of a modern prophet who denounces the rise of a therapeutic, ego-driven faith. Do you see yourself in that role?

A: (Laughs) I don’t think I’m comfortable calling myself a prophet. I’m more comfortable calling myself a critic. Even though I use pretty strong language to criticize trends in contemporary theology, I also want to get at what it is about “Eat Pray Love,” for example, that so many people respond to. It’s very easy to be mocking and dismissive from a more highbrow perspective. But there is a coherent theological core at the heart of the prosperity gospel and the “God-within” schools, and I take them seriously.

Q: Why do you say this book was written in a spirit of pessimism?

A: As a practicing Catholic, I have an obvious bias in favor of institutional religion. But if you look at Christian history, the belief that everyone can follow Jesus on their own is not a particularly realistic approach to religious faith. It is a faith best practiced in community with doctrine passed down through generations. What makes me pessimistic is that all the trends in contemporary American life are toward deinstitutionalization, not just in religion but across the board.

BRIEF: Wrightsville Beach priest to receive statewide service award

Father Joe Vetter, a longtime North Carolina Council of Churches board member and current pastor at St. Therese Catholic Church in Wrightsville Beach, will receive the Council’s Distinguished Service Award during  the 2012 Critical Issues Seminar on April 19 in Winston-Salem.

“Joe Vetter has been an important leader within the NC Council of Churches for decades,” said Council Executive Director George Reed in a press release. “He has served as an articulate ambassador for the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, an influential liaison between the Council and Bishops Joe Gossman and Michael Burbidge, a strong voice for dialogue and understanding among Catholics and Protestants, a keen observer of the religious landscape in North Carolina, and an effective advocate for peace and justice and for the common good.”

The Distinguished Service Award honors those whose work reflects their commitment to social justice and ecumenism.

A Greensboro native, Vetter has served parishes in Cary, Siler City, Raleigh and Southport and has been a campus minister at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University. He was editor of “The North Carolina Catholic” newspaper, and has served the Diocese as Director of Family Life, Director of Communications, Vicar for Priests, Vicar for Religious and Chancellor/Moderator of the Curia. He serves on the Board of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation.

The award presentation is during the seminar, Eating Well: For Ourselves, for Our Neighbors, for Our Planet, which will explore food as a faith and social justice issue. Topics include the economics of hunger in the midst of plenty, food and water insecurity and peace, buying local, food and spirituality, issues of climate change and personal health.

– Amanda Greene

BRIEF: Lifepoint Church celebrates its grand opening this Sunday

Lifepoint Church has been busy converting a former furniture store space off South College Road into its first permanent worship space.

The church will hold a grand opening celebration of its 30,000 square foot building 9-11:15 a.m. Sunday (April 15) at 3534 S. College Road (right next to Food Lion).

The grand opening will include firetrucks, inflatables, free Rita’s ice cream and free hot dogs.

Details: 910-794-3100.

– Amanda Greene

St. Mary Catholic Church turning 100, readying itself for basilica status

The domes of St. Mary Parish. Photo courtesy of St. Mary.


St. Mary Catholic Church in Wilmington is many marvels.

It’s an artistic marvel. The church’s domes of brick and stone dedicated in 1912 use no steel or wood beams and no nails.

Its ministry to the poor, St. Mary Tileston Outreach, serves about 9,000 people a year. Its newer dental clinic serves hundreds.

“I’ve been here just under six years, and St. Mary is very well known in the community, and the poor know us as well,” said Father Bob Kus, St. Mary’s priest.

And without much parking in its Fifth Avenue neighborhood, the church welcomes thousands each weekend to six services. The church has about 6,000 members.

Today, the parish welcomes immigrants from every continent except Antarctica. It has the first Hispanic affiliate of the Maryknoll Society in the United States.

In January, the church opened a medical clinic near its sister parish in

Altar servers in Reitoca. Photo courtesy St. Mary Parish.

Reitoca, Honduras. On its first day, the clinic served 280 area villagers, said Father Kus.

And this week, St. Mary is celebrating another major milestone – its centennial – with a special Mass at 6 p.m. Friday (April 13) at the church on the corner of Fifth and Ann streets. Bishop Michael Burbidge of the diocese of Raleigh will officiate the Mass.

A mother church for Catholics in the eastern part of North Carolina, St. Mary was dedicated as St. Mary Pro-Cathedral in 1912 and returned to being St. Mary Church in 1925, when the Diocese of Raleigh was established.

Viewed as a sacred place of contemplation, the church was deemed a shrine in the Diocese of Raleigh in 2005.

And soon it will become a basilica, the second in North Carolina. Father Kus recently received word that one of two Vatican congregations (institutes) have already approved St. Mary’s basilica documents.

“And I’m told the other approval won’t be long at all,” he said. “But that will require a name change so we’ll have a separate celebration for that.”

Amanda Greene: 910-520-3958
On Twitter @WilmFAVS

Churches join forces in an Easter egg hunt for the elderly

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Andy Lee

By Blogger Andy Lee
Walk the Talk

Silly rabbit, Easter egg hunts aren’t just for kids!

On Saturday (April 7), a perfect day for an egg hunt, Water of Life Lutheran Church  and Covenant Moravian Church combined forces to bless both the young and old with an Easter egg hunt held at Trinity Grove Nursing Care.

Pastor Rachel Connelly is passionate about involving everyone, so she didn’t miss the opportunity to combine her two congregations as well as the very young, the elderly and those with special needs. Together, they shared in the joy of the famous Easter egg hunt tradition.

All participants, both children and residents, gathered in a circle to hear “The Tale of Three Trees” read by local author, Joseph Sisk.  The Easter Bunny then hopped in for a visit and led the children and residents to their hunt. Baskets were quickly filled to overflowing as the children found the colorful treasures and shared them with the residents. Smiles abounded on both smooth and wrinkled faces. It was indeed a sweet

Wellington family with Marie Parks pose for a photo. Photo by Andy Lee

treat to witness their camaraderie.

“This is the best Easter I’ve ever had!” said one of the Trinity residents after the eggs were all gathered. After all of her years, this one Easter egg hunt became her favorite memory.

One child told Pastor Rachel she loved having the Easter egg hunt at Trinity Grove because she could tell it made the residents happy. What a wonderful gift to give a child – the joy of serving.

Well done, Pastor Rachel.

Orthodox seder emphasizes God’s redemption of Jews during Passover; today

Passover Seder Table, Jewish holidays עברית: ש...


The first night Passover seder at Chabad of Wilmington Friday started about 9 p.m. and stretched into the wee hours of Saturday morning.

But it was a light-hearted night for the 50 attendees at the center’s Orthodox community seder commemorating the Jewish exodus out of Egypt after escaping God’s 10 plagues on the Egyptians. Per Jewish tradition, photos were not allowed during the seder.

Chabad’s gathering was just one of several community seders around the Cape Fear region this weekend.

Each place at the U-shaped set of tables inside Chabad’s worship area had blue, green or red goodie bags with parts of a seder – lettuce, round matzah (the unleavened bread symbolic of Jewish affliction as well as freedom) and a Haggadah (the book guiding participants through the seder). Bottles of wine, water and grape juice lined the tables for the four cups that should be drunk during the seder.

“Wow, I’ve never seen this done before,” said one attendee holding up the individually bagged lettuce and matzah. “We practice safe seders!”

Chabad Rabbi Moshe Lieblich led the seder, asking his two young sons and another boy to recite a portion of the seder in Hebrew.

“If we had not left Egypt, we would have still been Egyptians, and we would have been part of the uprisings there last summer,” the rabbi said, referring to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

Each time a glass of wine was drunk, each participant leaned to the left “to symbolize freedom and power,” Lieblich said.

Between seder parts, participants washed their hands in a ceremonial basin. They splashed water from a silver chalice three times over each hand up to the wrist.

Lieblich discussed the meaning of the four children in the seder: the wise child, wicked child, simple child and the child who doesn’t know how to ask.

“Of course, in Chabad, we say there is also a fifth child, the child who doesn’t show up to the table,” he added, “but it is incumbent to us to bring him back to the table.”

As each participant read a portion of the Haggadah, the rabbi asked visitors’ names. Some people drove from an hour away to attend the seder for the first time.

Wilmington resident Peyton Jones brought his family to the seder to expose his daughter’s boyfriend to his first Jewish seder. Jones, who is Christian, said he was also learning so he could lead his family’s seder Saturday night (April 7) to honor his wife, who is Jewish.

“I don’t know what I’m doing so it’s nice for a non-Jew to experience it among Jews,” he said.

When it came time to break the matzah, the rabbi explained there would

Handmade shmura matzo used at the Passover Sed...

Handmade shmura matzah used at the Passover Seder especially for the mitzvot of eating matzah and afikoman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

be no hiding of the Afikomen, a small portion of matzah sometimes hidden by Jewish children in exchange for a prize from their parents.

“Chabad doesn’t have the custom of hiding the Afikomen,” Lieblich said, “because we don’t want our kids to learn to take things from their families.”

Wilmington resident Paul Sternlieb said experiencing the seder was “a nice tradition. It’s a good reminder of the enslavement and then escaping Egypt.”

Lieblich said all Jews at the Friday night seder are linked to the Jews who crossed the parted waters of the Red Sea with Moses.

“Ultimately, we all have the same source, the same essence,” he said. “Every generation we must remember God did not just redeem them but he redeemed us, too.”

BRIEF: Myrtle Grove Presbyterian to present Maundy Thursday drama

Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic

Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic (Photo credit: jakebouma)

Myrtle Grove Evangelical Presbyterian Church will present a visual narrative of the final days of Jesus in Jerusalem at 7 p.m. Maundy Thursday (April 5) at the church, 800 Piner Road. The presentation will be a multimedia experience including worship and communion. Childcare will be provided for kids ages two and younger. Details: 910-791-6179.

– Amanda Greene