Bahai News -- Religious issues made news in 1999 Story last updated at 7:57 a.m. on Saturday, January 1, 2000

Religious issues made news in 1999

By Jim Thompson
Assistant Metro Editor

From church fires, to the brightening flame of Christian revival, to denominational struggles with the issue of homosexuality, spiritual life in Northeast Georgia in 1999 reflected a number of broadening national trends and issues.
   The dawn of the year was obscured locally by the smoke from a number of holiday season church fires.
   A New Year's Eve 1998 blaze destroyed New Salem United Methodist Church near Commerce and claimed the life of Banks County volunteer firefighter Loy Williams.
   A New Year's Day blaze damaged Johnson United Methodist Church in Oconee County.
   Those blazes came on the heels of late-December 1998 fires at a Walton County church and two Murray County churches.
   The Johnson United Methodist congregation resumed services in its building in March; construction of a new sanctuary for New Salem Baptist Church is continuing.
   Jay Scott Ballinger, a 36-year-old from Yorktown, Ind., has been charged with the fires, along with a host of other church fires across the eastern United States.
   One of the major local religion stories of the year began as a barely noticed spark, with what was supposed to have been a one-week summer revival at New Covenant Worship Center, a trans-denominational church tucked away in a quiet corner of northern Clarke County.
   The four-night-a-week revival (it is shifting to three nights a week -- Thursdays, Fridays and two services on Sundays -- with the arrival of the new year) is now closing in on its 40th week, with Beth Stephens, a petite, committed evangelist, taking the pulpit most nights.
   ''We all realize these are the last days,'' Stephens said in a recent interview. ''There's a moral darkness.''
   The New Covenant revival, which routinely draws hundreds of people each night, is becoming part of a nationwide series of lengthy revivals.
   ''Never in my 40 years of ministry have I been associated with anything close to this revival,'' Howard Conine, pastor of New Covenant, said Friday.
   The beginning of the revivals is generally traced to the Brownsville Assembly of God Church in Pensacola, Fla. A revival that began there in the spring of 1995 is still going strong.
   Two mainline Protestant denominations also had a fair share of local headlines in 1999.
   For five days in June, the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church brought more than 2,000 people to the Classic Center in downtown Athens for election of delegates to the denomination's General Conference, its top national legislative and policy-setting body.
   Gov. Roy Barnes addressed one conference session.
   Telling the audience he was speaking not as governor, but as a Christian, Barnes said, ''Each of us should live lives so filled with compassion ... that others want to drink out of the same cup of redemption.''
   Late in the conference, parliamentary maneuvering helped delegates avoid a direct vote on a resolution seeking church support of homosexual unions.
   The resolution, from 12 women from metro Atlanta's Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church, noted that its authors ''believe that when two adults are lovingly committed to one another, the church should support such a relationship, and it is our prayer that our church will reconsider the hard line it has drawn against homosexuality.''
   Delegates took no action on the resolution after Joseph Slife, a lay delegate from Gateway United Methodist in Athens, pointed to a conference bylaw allowing delegates to opt not to discuss any issue deemed ''unprofitable,'' and suggested it was ''unprofitable to debate what God has already decided.''
   Also at the conference, delegates defeated a resolution that would have broadened the church's stand on protection of the legal rights of homosexuals.
   The Georgia Baptist Convention also grappled with the issue of homosexuality at its November meeting in Atlanta, voting to expel two churches -- Virginia-Highland in Atlanta and Oakhurst in Decatur -- where homosexuals served as deacons.
   While the convention took its action before the Rev. Bill Ricketts, pastor of Athens' Prince Avenue Baptist Church for 26 years, was elected as its president, Ricketts firmly supported the convention's decision.
   ''I really just wish the (expelled) churches ... had understood that they were out of step with the Georgia Baptists,'' Ricketts said in an interview following his election. ''I'm firmly convinced that Jesus calls us to love all people. What we do not believe is that we can condone the homosexual lifestyle.''
   While Ricketts earned a statewide honor, another Athens clergyman -- Rabbi Ronald Gerson of Congregation Children of Israel -- had a moment on a national stage.
   On Oct. 13, Gerson offered the prayer to open that day's session of the U.S. House of Representatives.
   Gerson's prayer, in part, asked, ''Heavenly Father, as we strive to new horizons in our country's glory, guide us through the admonition of the prophet Micah: 'To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Amen' ''
   In other developments of note in Athens-area spiritual life during 1999:
    A congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church, which serves the gay and lesbian communities, was established in Athens. Our Hope Metropolitan Community Church holds services at 11 a.m. Sundays in the Poolside Room of the Holiday Inn, 197 E. Broad St.
    William Roberts of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States spoke at the University of Georgia in April as part of the denomination's continuing nationwide effort to open up a dialogue on race relations.
    The Rev. Jon Appleton retired in April after 23 years as pastor of Athens' First Baptist Church.
    In September, Antioch United Methodist Church in the Jackson County community of Nicholson celebrated its 200th anniversary.
    Also in September, popular comedian Jeff Foxworthy abandoned his ''redneck'' routine to talk with young people about his Christian faith in a special appearance at the Classic Center.

©Copyright 2000, Athens Banner Herald (Athens, GA)

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