October 20, 2006

World News

Pope Meets Dalai Lama

BY STACY MEICTRY                                                                    © 2006 Religion News Service
capPope Benedict XVI recently held a private meeting with the Dalai Lama that highlighted the troubled relations that both religious leaders have with the Chinese government.

Although the Vatican confirmed that the meeting took place, the encounter did not appear on the pontiff's official schedule and no statement was released from the Holy See press office afterward.

The secrecy surrounding the Tibetan leader's visit underscored the Vatican's desire to avoid further straining relations with China.

The Dalai Lama went into exile after China occupied Tibet in 1951. Now based in Dharamsala, India, he remains a fierce critic of the Chinese government for its continuing crackdowns on Buddhist groups.

Since his election, Benedict has pushed for reconciliation with China, which cut diplomatic ties with the Holy See decades ago. The effort has been stymied by disagreements over who has the right to name new bishops in China--Beijing or the pope.

Five million Chinese Catholics currently belong to a state-controlled "Catholic" church while at least 8 million faithful are believed to belong to an underground church loyal to Benedict. Members of the underground church are routinely harassed, beaten and jailed by Chinese authorities.


Scientologists Move In, and Not Everyone's Happy

BY AMY GREEN                                                                 
© 2006 Religion News Service
Scientology is perhaps best-known for its most famous practitioner, Tom Cruise. But here in this beachy suburb of Tampa, Scientologists are neighbors, business owners, real estate investors—and a growing force that makes some uncomfortable.

The Church of Scientology, despite its official status as a tax-exempt religious organization, is nonetheless the largest taxpayer in downtown Clearwater, home to its worldwide spiritual headquarters. The church and its members have flourished here, opening or refurbishing dozens of hotels, condos, office buildings and more, paying some $750,000 a year in taxes on revenue-generating properties, according to Mayor Frank Hibbard.

Today Scientologists own much of downtown Clearwater. They have given new life to a waterfront district that was ailing when they moved here in 1975. They draw tourists and celebrities such as Cruise and John Travolta, and they serve in a host of civic organizations. In one study commissioned by the church, Scientologists' direct spending in the community in 1999 was estimated at $119 million.

But not everyone is pleased. Many residents complain the church, its controversial history and unique beliefs alienate residents from a downtown that, despite the development and prime location minutes from the beach, remains sleepy even during lunch and rush hours. Many storefronts are vacant. Staffers, dressed in church-issued uniforms of button-down shirts and slacks, cluster on the streets.

Downtown may look better, they say, but unless you're a Scientologist there's little reason to go there.

It's a unique quandary for city leaders, said Darryl Paulson, professor of government at the University of South Florida campus in neighboring St. Petersburg.

"There aren't many politicians who are opposed to real estate development and expanding tax bases," he said. "In general it's a situation that any city council member or city manager would like to have. The community is redeveloping, and the tax base is expanding. ... They've certainly been part of the development process in Clearwater."

The 4,000-member Calvary Baptist Church left downtown last year after nearly a century there, but not directly because of Scientology, said the Rev. William Rice.

"It's just an unusual feel to it," he said. "When you drive down there, there are people in uniforms and they are walking hurriedly from here to there. It is not a normal feel to a downtown city, where you have a variety of people. ... Downtown Clearwater has a dead feel to it."

The ambivalence in Clearwater hasn't discouraged Scientologists from making ambitious plans to develop other sites across Florida, part of a worldwide expansion. During a recent interview in an ornate conference room of a renovated downtown bank, church spokesman Ben Shaw talked of affluent Sarasota to the south and Gainesville up north as possible new locations. He proudly showed glossy photographic renderings of how refurbished properties the church has already bought worldwide might eventually look.

The church boasts up to 10 million followers worldwide, he said, a number based on those involved in congregations and those who've bought the writings of founder L. Ron Hubbard, for example.* That's roughly the same size as the United Methodist Church worldwide, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination. 

In recent years the church has invested $200 million in purchasing new property around the world, Shaw said, drawing on wealth it accumulates through high-level, fee-based training offered to parishioners and the Hubbard estate, among other sources.

"To the degree the church is growing worldwide, the church will grow here," Shaw said.

The church, founded on a fleet of boats, was drawn to Clearwater for its waterfront location. The city is home to more than 1,500 staffers who live in church-owned hotels and condos, where visiting Scientologists stay while undergoing training. In addition to uniforms, the church provides meals, medical care and a $75 weekly allowance for personal items such as books, movie tickets and haircuts.

When Scientologists bought the downtown landmark Fort Harrison Hotel in 1975, without identifying themselves, it immediately engendered mistrust, said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion and an expert on new religious movements.

Other controversies, including the 1995 death of a woman under church staffers' care, added to the strain. Criminal charges against the church over the woman's death eventually were dropped.

The relationship thawed after the church was recognized as a religious organization by the Internal Revenue Service in 1993. Shaw said church leaders feel responsible for improving downtown on behalf of their international visitors. Hibbard, the mayor, said the city's downtown is indeed diverse with a variety of businesses, a new library and a refurbishment project under way on the main thoroughfare."We are not just a Scientology city," he said. "We are a diverse city."

*This is not considered the normal method of calculating church membership.


New Orleans Churches Stagger Back to Life
BY BRUCE NOLAN                                                                         © 2006 Religious News Service

Seventy-five people gathered in bright sunshine on a recent Sunday outside Reaping the Harvest Full Gospel Baptist Church. They applauded as the Rev. Troy Lawrence, resplendent in a three-piece gray pinstriped suit, cut a red ribbon and, for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, led his flock into the completely refurbished building, singing "We've Come This Far by Faith."

Three days earlier, the Rev. Joel Tyler sat at a folding metal table inside Second Rose of Sharon Baptist Church. The little red brick building is a raw, skeletal hulk: bare concrete floor, no power, no water, no furniture. Two men sat across from him, flipping through their Bibles as Tyler led a congregation of two through a weekday Bible study.

"I don't care if only one shows up," Tyler said later. "We're coming back."

And so it goes across the city's devastated Lower 9th Ward, where a handful of churches, with or without outside help, are staggering to their feet, struggling to become rallying points for families hoping to return and rebuild their lives.

Before Katrina, the neighborhood of 7,000 was home to an estimated 46 churches, according to Bill Day, a church demographer at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Now there are about six.

Most of those, it appears, lie on higher ground where the elevation did not spare them from the floodwaters, but they drained sooner. Pastors were able to reach them while the lower-lying blocks remained closed for weeks.

Across the Lower 9th Ward, pastors and church members hope their small communities will give displaced residents another reason to return. They hope to offer day care and other resources to the community, provide places for civic meetings -- and at the most basic level, provide hope and encouragement to hundreds of people toiling through the most miserable time of their lives.

"The church is the heartbeat of the community," said the Rev. Douglas Haywood of New Israel Baptist Church. "One of the reasons people will come back is because of the church. When I had my first service, the average person coming said they weren't coming back. But after the service, everyone was saying they're coming back.

"I'd say 80 percent of the congregation tells me they're coming back because of the church." Coming back will be a struggle.

In every case, congregations are gathering only a fraction of their pre-Katrina numbers.

Many displaced members found each other by cell phone months ago. In Baton Rouge or Houston, remnant congregations gathered with their displaced pastors and worshipped in rented hotel rooms, in borrowed churches or, in Reaping the Harvest's case, a funeral home.

Some have been able to return to the Lower 9th and reopen their doors. They attract a mixture of old faces and new worshippers who belong to shuttered churches but who place themselves temporarily under the care of another pastor --"watch care," in the language of the church.

A few, such as Reaping the Harvest and nearby St. Paul Church of God in Christ, are marvels of reconstruction: bright and cool, smelling of new carpet and paint, better than they were before the storm.

Reaping the Harvest collected $32,000 from World Vision, an evangelical relief effort, and another $20,000 from the Bush-Clinton Hurricane Relief Fund, and benefited from crucial volunteer labor, Lawrence said.

Meanwhile, the neighboring St. Paul Church of God in Christ was rebuilt in two weeks in September by God's Pit Crew, a team of 150 Christians based in Virginia who donated their construction skills and five tractor-trailer loads of building materials and furnishings, said Randy Johnson, one of the coordinators.

Some churches are old anchors, such as St. Maurice Catholic Church, where about 135 people gather for one Sunday Mass a week. "Ninety-five percent drive in from elsewhere around the city," said St. Maurice's pastor, the Rev. Joe Campion.

In a sense, all the churches are mission churches -- starting anew, gathering new faces around a core of familiar families.

Campion is pastor of two neighboring churches, St. Maurice and St.David, also in the Lower 9th Ward; only St. Maurice is open. While the two churches used to draw about 800 for Sunday worship before the storm, St. Maurice draws about 135 now.

"We're right back to our humble beginnings in our earliest years," he said. "My job now is to evangelize the people and assist in the restoration of the neighborhood."

Women Clergy Mark Milestones, Yet Obstacles Remain

BY ADELLE M. BANKS                                                           
  © 2006 Religion News Service
When the Rev. Margaret Aymer took part in a celebration of this year's 50th anniversary of ordained women preachers in the Presbyterian Church (USA), she relished the moment to bask in the success of those who had struggled in the past.

"It's extraordinary to stand under the legacy of women like those women who have gone before and paved the way for me, such as it's a nonissue in my church," said Aymer, an assistant professor of New Testament at Atlanta's Interdenominational Theological Center.

But Aymer, who was ordained in 2004, teaches some students for whom access to ordination and pastorates are real issues indeed.

"Some of these women are very much experiencing a call to ministry," she said. "They then have to make the choice: Do I stay in my tradition, which I love, in which I have been raised, or do I leave my tradition to follow my call?"

As women in the nation's mainline Protestant denominations rejoice over decades of ordination -- 50 years for both the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) -- their more conservative counterparts continue to challenge whether their place in the pulpit is appropriate.

Even some supporters of women's ordination say the "jury is still out"on substantive changes in religious leadership, and worry about statistics that show the percentage of women clergy has actually fallen in some denominations that pioneered the idea of women in the pulpit. What's more, advocates say many churches that officially support women clergy nonetheless remain reluctant to fill their pulpits with women.

Opponents to women clergy, meanwhile, see the milestones as no reason to celebrate.

"I think it's an act of defiance against a very clear New Testament teaching," said the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

"I'm not saying that all those who affirm this intend to defy the word of God, but I think that's the net result."

The Rev. Eileen Lindner, deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said she begs to differ with evangelical leaders who hold that view, and instead celebrates that three NCC member-denominations have prominent women leaders: the Rev. Sharon Watkins is the president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); Bishop Vashti McKenzie became the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2000 and was followed by two more in 2004; and Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is to be consecrated Nov. 4 as the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Adair Lummis, a sociologist of religion and an expert on women clergy at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, applauds the milestones being marked by mainline Protestant denominations. But, she offers a "don't just relax"caution about the status of women's ordination.

"Just because you have more women and you're having these milestone celebrations, please remember that in some denominations, like the more what they call the spirit-centered, evangelical denominations, ... there were more women ordained 50 years ago than there are now," she said.

In "Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling," Lummis and her co-authors cited changes in such denominations, including the Church of the Nazarene, whose percentage of women clergy decreased from 20 percent in 1908 to 6 percent in 1973. That figure stands at 8.5 percent today.

Likewise, in the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which was founded in 1927 by Aimee Semple McPherson, currently 36 percent of clergy are female. Thirty years ago, about half of Foursquare clergy were women, and there were even greater percentages at the start of the denomination, said the Rev. Ron Williams, church historian. He attributes the change, in part, to the growing focus on different roles for men and women in some evangelical circles.

Once women are ordained, they may still face resistance to some kinds of leadership. "For the larger churches, the better-paying churches, they want a man in the pastorate," Lummis said. "This is a problem."

But even as women continue to face what scholars have long labeled a "stained-glass ceiling," some are bucking tradition. In August, eight Catholic women, defying church hierarchy, were ordained as priests in a Pittsburgh riverboat ceremony organized by the group Roman Catholic Womenpriests. A month later, Dina Najman became "rosh kehillah," or "head of the community" at an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Manhattan without the title "rabbi."

Mary E. Hunt, co-founder of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, said Women-Church, an ecumenical feminist movement of which her organization is a part, will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. Even as she applauds women in "Catholic feminist ministries," she's seeking greater transformation of the traditional hierarchies.

"The consensus has changed enormously in the last 30 years since the ordination of the Episcopal women to the priesthood in the mid-1970s," said Hunt, who is based in Silver Spring, Md. But, she added: "I think the jury is still out on whether the ordination of women has occasioned substantive structural changes in any of the churches."

In Southern Baptist circles, where opposition to women clergy is particularly intense, officials of Baptist Women in Ministry intend to start a pro-active campaign for at least occasional changes in some pulpits.

"One of the things we're going to do is encourage pastors, male pastors, in Baptist churches, to put women in their pulpits on a specific day," said Pamela Durso, associate executive director of the group. "The more women are in a pulpit, ... the more exposure they get and the more congregations get over what I call `fear factor.' There's that scary-woman-in-the-pulpit fear factor."