News from the Baptist Press

Formed in 1946 by the Southern Baptist Convention, and supported with Cooperative Program funds, Baptist Press (BP) is a daily (M-F) international news wire service. Operating from a central bureau in Nashville, Tenn., BP works with four partnering bureaus (Richmond, Va.; Atlanta, Ga.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Washington, D.C.), as well as with a large network of contributing writers, photographers and editorial providers, to produce BP News.

Click on the title to view the full article at the Baptist Press website.


Tuesday, January 26, 2021 - 5:41pm

NASHVILLE (BP) – Lifeway Christian Resources has entered into a contract for the sale of their building in downtown Nashville. Contract terms, including the sale price, have not been disclosed.

Lifeway President and CEO Ben Mandrell said he is excited about Lifeway’s future workplace and the prospects of settling into a new work environment.

“Lifeway is moving forward, building fresh vision, and getting prepared for a new season of ministry to churches,” Mandrell said. “This has led us to think strategically about selling our large building downtown, fully embracing remote work as the norm and moving into a new era of creative and collaborative work.”

Mandrell said he and other Lifeway leaders have been looking at options for their headquarters since last summer, well before anyone knew COVID-19 was on the horizon.

“One of the first questions I asked when I took this role was ‘What should we do with this building?’ A study completed last year showed we were using the building at only 60 percent occupancy on a daily basis,” Mandrell said.

“We want to be wise stewards, so it makes sense for us to do all we can to make the best use of our resources, including our corporate office building. The decision to sell our building is a strategic one.”

Lifeway will continue to occupy a portion of the building over the near term until it determines a location for its new headquarters.

“We’re definitely moving to a new work environment,” Mandrell said. “Our new space will be designed specifically around a healthy blend of strategic meetings and team collaboration, as well as the flexibility of working from home. Like other companies are doing as a result of COVID, we’re re-imagining the corporate office for the future of work.

“We are moving away from the idea of a ‘headquarters’ to a fully mobile and agile workforce that intentionally gathers to build strong relationships, celebrate what God is doing and share ideas.”

In March, Lifeway’s Nashville-based employees moved to fully remote work as the city implemented a number of restrictions due to COVID-19.

Connia Nelson, Lifeway’s chief human resources officer, said Lifeway was well prepared for the remote work model.

“Before Lifeway moved to Capitol View, we saw the need to support an increasingly mobile workforce,” Nelson said. “We’ve had a robust work-from-anywhere strategy for the last few years, which positioned us well for Nashville’s safer at home orders put in place in March.

“Our employees have told us they have a better work-life balance and are still highly productive in this new work environment. We have a number of employees juggling work with caring for family members and helping their kids with distance learning. We want to make sure they have the flexibility to still perform at their best while juggling these responsibilities.”

Mandrell said employees will continue to work remotely the majority of the time and will come to the building for strategic meetings. The new work environment will offer a mix of conference rooms, casual meeting spaces and drop-in workstations.

Lifeway began a feasibility study of its corporate office building in downtown Nashville in April 2020. The study explored multiple options including leasing several floors to external occupants, selling the building and leasing back office space, or moving to another location.

Based on the positive results of that feasibility study, Lifeway’s board of trustees authorized a resolution for the organization’s executive team to pursue viable options for the sale of its corporate headquarters. The action taken by trustees in October allows the entity’s leaders to move forward with a sale of the property without further board approval.

Lifeway has not announced a timeline for closing on the current building or for moving to a new facility.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021 - 5:32pm

HONOLULU (BP) – The front desk workers and bellboys. Food service. Concierge. Restaurant staff. Custodians. Maintenance workers and lifeguards. Surfing instructors.

Those are just a handful of the jobs lost at Hawaiian hotels and resorts since the onset of COVID-19. Other businesses feeling the damage include helicopter and fishing tours, sunset cruises, and Uber and Lyft drivers. Retail businesses ground to a halt.

When COVID-19 all but put a plug into Hawaii’s tourism pipeline, the state suffered like no other in the union. Even when they could get there, travelers didn’t care for the 14-day quarantine upon arrival and certainty of getting ticketed should they leave their hotel without permission. In December 2019 daily passenger counts for Hawaii approached 43,000, but by late March those numbers had plummeted to below 500. That plunge put the state at Depression-era employment levels.

“Nearly everyone in the community is connected to the resorts or schools,” said Chris Martin, Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention executive director, on how the economic downturn has affected those areas. However, he noted that churches have continued to push in ministry and reaching others with the Gospel.

Pastor Arjay Gruspe of Pawa’a Community Church baptizes a new believer in April in a video shared on the church’s Facebook page. Despite being in one of the hardest-hit state economies, Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention churches have continued to minister and see new believers.

“Our churches have been very active in missions locally. And while they haven’t been able to engage directly with people as in the past, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in training and preparation by churches for ministry in this day,” he said.

The HPBC consists of 155 churches,121 of them located on the Hawaiian Islands. The rest are spread across the South Pacific Baptist Association (American Samoa and Samoa), Baptist Association of Micronesia (Guam and Saipan) and the Asia Baptist Network (Okinawa, Mainland Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines).

The physical expanse between convention churches led to an unusual timeline for adjusting to the COVID-19 shutdown. Members of the Asia Baptist Network were the first to directly experience its effects as Freedom Church, located in Seoul, suspended in-person worship in mid-February, a full month before churches in Hawaii did so.

Craig Webb, assistant executive director, had been visiting HPBC churches in Asia at that time and rushed back to Hawaii as COVID travel restrictions began taking shape. Governmental regulations, he said, have had a definite impact on how churches are allowed to gather.

“Hawaii is a more liberal state, so we’ve had more shutdowns. Things have opened up somewhat. Most of our churches have been able to start meeting again in person, but the recommendations to do so can be confusing. Still, we’ve gathered as best we can,” he said.

In the meantime, churches have ministered through outreach efforts, primarily through food distribution. Those leading the way include Lahaina Baptist, Kahului Baptist and Waiehu Baptist churches on Maui and Life Christian Church and Central Baptist Church on Oahu. Hawaii Chinese Baptist and Living Faith Church in Honolulu partnered to donate more than 1,000 face shields to medical workers. Guam Christian Life Fellowship partnered with other churches to provide weekly meals to the homeless in a park. That outreach has brought men and women to Christ and to baptism, said Pastor Pancho Madrid.

Pastor Jay Wright of Lahaina Baptist Church said members have stepped up their ministry efforts.

“We are witnessing a tremendous increase in active volunteers,” he said. “Roughly 60 percent of our church members are out of work and spending their time serving people in need throughout the community. Many are delivering groceries to the elderly and shut-ins and working with one of our weekly outreaches to the homeless.

“We’re seeing many new relational bridges develop between our members and those disconnected from the local church.”

Martin said that the early experience HPBC churches in Korea had with COVID essentially gave those on the Hawaiian Islands about a month to prepare logistically for ministry during a shutdown. Churches’ responses since then have been marked by determination to continue serving not only in their community but through fulfilling the Great Commission.

“We witnessed our pastors and church leaders exercising great faith in the past 10 months of the pandemic,” he said. “They embraced the uncertainty and faced the difficulties, determined to show the power of Christ to a world searching for hope.”

Furthermore, despite the bad economy Martin said Cooperative Program giving in 2020 actually exceeded its budget by 3 percent. Likewise, 2021 has brought a promising start.

“January is shaping up to be one of the strongest-giving months we’ve had in the last 10 years,” he said. “Our churches have been incredibly faithful. Even though their primary avenues of ministry were hindered, they’ve found new ways. They didn’t throw their hands in the air and wonder what they were going to do.”

That outreach has brought forward salvation decisions as well. Last Sunday (Jan. 24) Life Christian Church in Honolulu baptized five people. Those statements of faith came about because of the church’s evangelism and outreach efforts, Martin said.

Also on Sunday, one pastor reported that as he presented his sermon on the sanctity of life a new attendee – thirtysomething and unchurched – stood up and walked out. When reached later by church members, she admitted being troubled by the message, but understood. Simply put, she said she’d never heard anyone teach what the Bible said about the topic.

For all its beauty, Hawaii is a tough place to minister. Many of its 1.4 million residents aren’t native. Those who arrive and declare they’re never leaving often do within a year or so for reasons such as rock fever, a term referring to the claustrophobia, homesickness and feeling of being trapped on a “rock” in the middle of the ocean. They also tire of paying $6 for a dozen eggs , $9 for a fast-food combo meal and some of the highest gas prices in the country.

Martin, a 15-year resident, understands those hurdles but also the payoff for sticking around for the long term.

“For us, in spite of the challenges, our churches are showing tremendous faith in sharing the Gospel,” he said. “We’re very excited.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2021 - 5:28pm

LONDON (BP) – Christian and Jewish human rights leaders are remembering the Holocaust by urging international advocacy on behalf of more than 3 million innocent Uyghur Muslims held in Chinese concentration camps aimed at cultural genocide.

In advance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, recognized Wednesday (Jan. 27) in the U.S., advocacy and charity groups Christian Solidarity Worldwide U.K. and the René Cassin Foundation hosted a Zoom conference Jan. 25 featuring the daughter of an imprisoned Uyghur and several faith leaders.

Nazi Germany’s persecution and systematic slaughter of more than 6 million Jewish people during World War II makes China’s current persecution of Uyghurs “far too familiar,” said Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism in London. Rabbi Wittenberg noted not only China’s concentration camps, but the disappearance, enslavement, torture and death of Uyghurs at the hands of China’s Communist Party.

“All of these things echo from our past, and it would be a breach of the meaning of the history to say that we don’t want to act, that we’re not prepared to learn from it,” Wittenberg said during the conference. “This touches us deeply from the core of our history.”

Wittenberg voiced solidarity with the Uyghurs, represented at the conference by Uyghur American Ziba Murat. Murat’s mother, retired Uyghur doctor Gulshan Abbas, is serving 20 years in prison, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide and others, because of her family’s activism in the U.S. on behalf of fellow Uyghurs. Abbas is the sister of Uyghur American human rights advocate Rushan Abbas.

“If it means anything, it means solidarity with you, Ziba, and with your people,” Wittenberg said of the Holocaust and lingering persecution.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide could provide no statistics on the number of Uyghurs China has murdered, but said it is “aware that a number of people do not know where their family members are or if they are still alive.” As many as 3 million are held at concentration or reeducation camps. China is attacking Uyghur identity, culture and religion, breaking up families, and leaving children and the elderly alone and vulnerable, the organization said.

“Individuals sent to the so-called reeducation camps do not have access to legal counsel and there is no mechanism for appeal,” Christian Solidarity Worldwide spokesperson Kiri Kankhwende told Baptist Press. “Their families are typically not told where they are being held, or when they will be released. In addition to the camps, an unknown number of Uyghurs, including many professionals and religious leaders, face extremely harsh prison sentences for so-called terrorism offences.”

Event organizers and participants encouraged citizens globally to advocate for the freedom and humane treatment of Uyghurs by contacting national leaders and ambassadors. In the U.S., both the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have highlighted the persecution of Uyghurs. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has restricted entry into the U.S. of any cotton and tomato products produced by the forced labor of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Murat said the horror of the Holocaust must inform the world’s response to the treatment of Uyghurs.

“I’m asking as a daughter, let me hug my mother again. Let her see her grandchildren grow up,” Murat said. “I’m asking for millions of others who have no such opportunity to speak on this panel, and those suffering silently, or dead. ‘Never again’ should mean something,” she said, referencing the rallying cry of Jewish people and advocacy groups. “Every Uyghur in the diaspora is affected by this.”

Conference participant and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams pointed to hope that lies in the advocacy of society despite theological differences and in the sure hope of Christ.

“Our capacity, our willingness to tell the story that some people want to silence, our capacity to stand alongside people that others want to be forgotten, that is part of where hope begins,” Williams said. “The very fact that we can speak together, despite our deep differences in all sorts of ways in our approach to reality, that sure is itself a sign of hope. As a Christian believer I also hold, not simply that there is simply some settlement in the future, but there is here and now, an energy that makes toward justice, that gives us some resource and some vision in the direction of justice.”

The event was not intended to downplay the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Mia Hasenson-Gross, executive director of René Cassin Foundation, said in remarks to the media that the difference between the Holocaust and “now is that there is still time to act. Jews have the moral authority and a moral duty to speak out now. Never again should civil society, businesses and decision-makers be silent as in the 1930s.”

The foundation, named for the French-Jewish judge who co-drafted the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948, describes itself as “a charity working to promote and protect universal human rights, drawing on Jewish experiences and values.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2021 - 1:10pm

NASHVILLE (BP) – While Americans have been caught in a whirlwind of conspiracy theories the last several months, many pastors say they hear such unfounded claims from their church members.

A new study from Nashville-based Lifeway Research finds 49 percent of U.S. Protestant pastors say they frequently hear members of their congregation repeating conspiracy theories they have heard about why something is happening in the country. Around 1 in 8 (13 percent) strongly agree their congregants are sharing conspiracy theories, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.”

Another 47 percent disagree, including 26 percent who strongly disagree, saying they do not often hear church members sharing such ideas. One in 20 (5 percent) are not sure.

“Christian churches resolve to be places focused on the truth,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “Yet, half of pastors hear the spread of assumptions about plots often. This is a startling disconnect.”

Pastors of churches with more than 250 in attendance are the most likely to agree (61 percent). White pastors are also more likely than African American pastors to say they frequently hear their church members repeating conspiracy theories (50 percent to 36 percent).

Pastors 65 and older are the most likely to disagree that they hear those ideas in their church (59 percent) and the least likely to agree (34 percent).

“While conspiracy theories may be embraced by a minority of churchgoers, the larger the church the more minds and mouths exist to be misled,” McConnell said. “At this time, it appears more of the theories are traveling in politically conservative circles which corresponds to the higher percentages in the churches led by white Protestant pastors.”

For Christian apologist Mary Jo Sharp, the widespread sharing of conspiracy theories within churches is a worrisome trend, as it can reinforce negative stereotypes about Christians and hamper efforts to share the Gospel.

“Irresponsibility with information unravels the impact of a Christian’s witness to those in their community, and, with social media, to the broader world,” she said. “The non-Christian may begin to believe or become further ingrained in the culturally popular belief that Christians are anti-intellectual, including anti-science.”

Sharp, author of “Living in Truth: Confident Conversations in a Conflicted Culture,” added: “Christians should always be Gospel-forward in how they live their public lives. They are representatives of the kingdom of God.”

Because of this status, she said that before Christians share anything in person or on social media, they should first ask: “How will this affect my ability to share the Good News of Jesus Christ?”

“The apostle Paul tells us that, ‘Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth’ (1 Corinthians 13:6). I am supposed to delight in knowing, and, therefore, in sharing what is true,” Sharp said. “That is a high calling, but it is the one Christians are called to as followers of the Truth (John 14:6). We are not called to perfection, but to take seriously our representation of Jesus and the truth of His salvation.”

While half of pastors note they frequently hear their church members sharing conspiracy theories, a previous study found church members may not be sharing the Gospel that frequently.

In a 2019 Lifeway Research study, most Protestant churchgoers (55 percent) said they had not shared with anyone how to become a Christian in the past six months.

“Before returning to heaven, Jesus appealed to His followers to share what they had seen and heard,” McConnell said. “Passing along these eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ teaching and His death, burial and resurrection is the mission of the church. Instead, many church members are sharing things that might be, could happen or sound possible. One is a firm message of hope, and the other a shaky message of fear.”

For more information, visit or download the complete report.


The mixed mode survey of 1,007 Protestant pastors was conducted Sept. 2-Oct. 1, 2020 using both phone and online interviews. Phone: The calling list was a stratified random sample, drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Quotas were used for church size. Online: Invitations were emailed to the LifeWay Research Pastor Panel followed by three reminders. This probability sample of Protestant churches was created by phone recruiting by LifeWay Research using random samples selected from all Protestant churches. Pastors who agree to be contacted by email for future surveys make up this LifeWay Research Pastor Panel.

Each survey was completed by the senior or sole pastor or a minister at the church. Responses were weighted by region and church size to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,007 surveys (502 by phone, 505 online). The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.4 percent. This margin of error accounts for the effect of weighting. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021 - 1:08pm

RICHMOND, Va. (BP) – The International Mission Board’s 175 years of ministry among the nations has resulted in the formation of 140 Baptist conventions and unions in 73 countries. These conventions and unions are reaching their own people and are sending their own missionaries to spread the Gospel. These Baptists come from myriad countries spanning the globe, from the Southeast Asian nations of Indonesia and the Philippines to Spanish-speaking countries like Ecuador and Cuba.

The IMB seeks to partner with and provide training for Baptists from these conventions and unions. Amanda Dimperio, IMB’s director of globalization, is leading the effort to provide guidance to national partners. Dimperio said the IMB defines globalization as, “Working with our national partners to help them embrace their role in the Great Commission [and] seeking to encourage and expand their capacity to send and receive cross-cultural missionaries.”

D. Ray Davis, IMB’s church mobilization manager, explained the strategy: “Instead of U.S. churches sending internationals, we’ve recognized it is healthier, more sustainable and more appropriate for IMB and our churches to invest our 175 years of experience in assessment, sending-support structures, training and strategic areas into national partners,” he said. “We provide training and guidance to local churches and conventions overseas in helping them organize to send, but we also are expanding our overseas IMB teams to include global partners as team members.”

The IMB refers to national partners serving on missionary teams as Global Missionary Partners (GMP). GMPs are cross-cultural missionaries who are affirmed and sent by a local church and sending entity in their home country. The GMPs are nurtured and affirmed by IMB personnel and work in cooperation with an IMB field team.

“A team in Africa may have IMB (U.S.-sent) missionaries and a Brazilian-sent missionary, or a Korean national may join an IMB team in North Africa,” Davis said. “This is already taking place and is gaining momentum.”

Dimperio said the international Baptist conventions that have sent the most GMPs are the Western Baptist Convention of Cuba and the Huayu International Missions Agency of Taiwan.

Five missionaries from the Huayu agency have recently been sent out to serve on IMB teams.

Cuban Baptists have four couples serving in Colombia, one in Uganda, and soon, several more GMPs will be commissioned to serve in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

“We have prayed to the Lord of the harvest to send out more laborers into His harvest field, and we see Him answering that prayer in a great way,” Dimperio said. “We are currently working with several other national Baptist conventions, mostly in Latin America, but also in Africa, Asia and Europe to help them send their first cross-cultural missionaries to serve in cooperation with IMB field teams. We hope to partner with many more in the future to share our resources of 175 years of experience, cross-cultural training and mentoring so that they can send and sustain their own missionaries.”

Jeff Ginn, who works with IMB’s American Peoples Affinity, said he and other leaders in the region, in conversation with local partners, set a goal of working with national partners and U.S. churches to send 75 GMPs by the year 2025.

The IMB remains committed to partner with Baptists around the world to fulfill the Great Commission and has made adding 500 global partners to missionary teams one of five target goals for 2025.

The 2025 targets are:

  1. Mobilize 75 percent of Southern Baptist churches prayerfully and financially supporting the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering by 2025. “With less than half of Southern Baptist churches reporting on the Annual Church Profile that they gave to the Lottie offering last year, we have lots of opportunity to grow the support needed by our missionaries,” IMB President Paul Chitwood said.

  2. Send an additional 500 fully funded missionaries by 2025. This number came to IMB leadership directly as a request from the field, Chitwood said.

  3. Mobilize 500 global partner missionaries on IMB teams. While IMB will not fund these missionaries, they will be embedded on IMB teams and an essential part of IMB strategy, Chitwood said.

  4. Engage 75 global cities in comprehensive strategies. Demographers project that 80 percent of the world’s population will be in the urban centers by the end of this century, Chitwood said.

  5. Increase Lottie Moon Christmas Offering receipts 6 percent annually to sustain the 500 additional missionaries, or $10 million per year for the next five years.

Uruguayan Baptist Convention commits to support Lottie Moon Christmas Offering

Uruguayan Christians and IMB missionary Tim Kunkel gather for the dedication of a Baptist church in Colonia Lavalleja, Uruguay. The church cost $1,500 to build — the same amount the Uruguayan Baptist Convention donated to the 2020 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.

One example of the IMB’s global partnerships is in Uruguay. The Uruguayan Baptist Convention, comprising 70 congregations, 35 preaching points and 4,899 Christians, donated $1,500 to the 2020 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering (LMCO) for International Missions.

This is not the first year Uruguayan Baptists have committed to giving to the LMCO. In 2018, a Uruguayan Christian told IMB missionary Tim Kunkel that her church wanted to donate to the LMCO. She handed Kunkel an envelope with $500.

“You mean our Lottie Moon?” Kunkel asked, referring to the offering that supports IMB missionaries sent from the U.S. Kunkel is IMB’s regional ambassador for Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia.

The Uruguayan convention has an offering – named after a Uruguayan woman who was their “Lottie Moon” – to support Uruguayan churches and missionaries. The convention currently helps financially support three Uruguayan couples serving among unreached people groups in South America and a missionary who serves in Central Asia.

But in addition to commissioning and helping to financially support Uruguayan missionaries, the Uruguayan Baptist Convention is also committed to giving back to the IMB.

The Uruguayan Christian told Kunkel her church has given to the LMCO for several years out of gratitude because funds from the offering built her church, Young Baptist Church, located in the Río Negro department of Uruguay. Young is a city of just 16,756 people, according to a 2011 census.

IMB missionary J.D. McMurray planted the church after his appointment to Uruguay in 1945.

IMB work in the country began 110 years ago in 1911 when J.C. and Helen Quarles transferred to Uruguay from Argentina. In 1912, J.C.’s brother L.C. and his wife Jennie moved from Argentina to serve in Uruguay.

This fall, when IMB missionaries were encouraged to reach out to encourage churches to support the LMCO, the Lord brought Young Baptist Church to Kunkel’s mind. Kunkel approached the Uruguayan Christian and her church’s pastor about their church making a donation, and then the church’s interim pastor, who is also the convention president, extended the giving request to all the churches in the Uruguayan Baptist Convention.

The amount given to the 2020 offering, $1,500, is roughly the cost of building a wood-framed church in Uruguay. Kunkel said most pastors in Uruguayan churches are bi-vocational and make around $300 a month, and he was moved at their generosity.

Chitwood expressed his gratitude for the financial gift from the Uruguayan Baptist Convention.

“I was so excited and humbled to learn that the Uruguayan Baptist Convention, one of 140 Baptist conventions and unions around the world that has resulted from 175 years of Southern Baptist work among the nations through the IMB, is giving a Lottie Moon Christmas Offering to advance that work!” Chitwood said. “While we cheer their support of the IMB, we are also grateful to have Uruguayan Baptists as partners on the ground, reaching the nations for Christ.”

To join IMB in reaching the 2025 targets or to learn more about globalization in missions, email Discover the steps to becoming a missionary at If you’d like to give to help prepare, train, send or support a GMP, you can donate now.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021 - 12:16pm

NEW ORLEANS (BP) – Years before I became a pastor or seminary professor, I had another job. As a 16-year-old boy, growing up in Atlanta, I had a dream job – I was a batboy for the Atlanta Braves. Actually, I was bat boy for the visiting team. Being a Major League batboy was an absolute dream come true as I met some of the greatest legends of the game – Yogi Berra, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente and others. I met them all.

But the day I met Hank Aaron was different. I discovered that day that his heart was as big as his ability to play the game.

During the summer of 1967, every National League team that came to Atlanta to play the Braves had me as their batboy for the game. Batboys usually do not travel with their teams for away games. Teams bring a uniform with them and use a local teenager to serve as their batboy. When they came to Atlanta that summer, I was their guy. I wore their uniform, worked in the visiting team clubhouse and rubbed shoulders with future hall of famers. Before one game, I played pitch with Willie Mays!

Mark Tolbert at 16, wearing a Philadelphia Phillies uniform when the team came to Atlanta to play the Braves.

My job had two parts; one was fun and one was not so fun. During the games, I had a front row seat in the dugout when the Braves batted. When the visiting team batted, I waited in the on deck circle to pick up bats after each at bat. What great fun! After the game, I was a clubhouse attendant, a “clubbie.” I made sure dirty uniforms were washed and dried, shoes were shined, and basically picked up after 25 grown men. It was not so fun. However, even though mine was a rather menial job, I was happy to be there alongside these sports heroes. Although I was paid very little money, the experience was priceless.

One day, I arrived at the stadium and realized I had left my baseball cleats at home. It was a few hours before game time and most players were not at the stadium yet, so I took the tunnel over to the Braves clubhouse. I found the Braves batboy, who was a friend. He and I were both named Mark, and he was 16 years old, the same as me. I asked if he had an extra pair of cleats I could borrow. He led me over to his locker and offered me his spare pair. But they were size 8, too small for me. “I need a size 10,” I said. “I can’t wear an 8!” He said I was welcome to try. I told him I could not possibly wear a size 8. “I need a pair of 10s,” I said. “I don’t know where I am going to get them.”

Someone was standing behind us and overheard our conversation. He said, “I have a pair of 10s you can borrow.” I turned to see who it was. It was Hank Aaron! I couldn’t believe it! I was completely speechless. He took me over to his locker and loaned me a pair of his shoes to wear for the game that night, which I did. I meekly thanked him, and he said, “You are very welcome.”

I like to tell people, “I can fill Hank Aaron’s shoes!” I did … one night … for about four hours. After the game, I shined them and took them back.

To this day, it remains one of my best memories. He did not have to do that, but he did. He probably knew what it would mean to me as a young teenager. He may not have known it would be a story I would tell people, including my grandchildren 54 years later. One of them texted me on the day he died to tell me the news of his passing. I texted him back: “He was very kind to me 54 years ago. Be kind!”

In 1974, Hank Aaron broke the home run record of the legendary Babe Ruth. Some celebrated, but some were filled with anger and prejudice.

The night I wore Hank Aaron’s shoes was a rare glimpse of an extraordinary man. It was a very private moment, not witnessed by fans or reporters. It was a genuine act of kindness. We live in a world filled with acts that are often anything but kind. Although Hank Aaron is admired and honored today, he suffered countless acts of unkindness and bigotry. But I saw with my own eyes the man behind the legend. I saw a celebrated, legendary Black athlete demonstrate an unheralded act of kindness to a young, white teenager.

Today I pay tribute to Hank Aaron, the man as well as the legend.

Be like Hank; be kind!

Mark Tolbert is a professor of preaching and pastoral ministry and the director of the Caskey Center for Church Excellence at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Monday, January 25, 2021 - 5:05pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden signed an order Monday (Jan. 25) reversing a Trump-era Pentagon policy that largely barred transgender individuals from serving in the military.

The new order, which Biden signed in the Oval Office during a meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, overturns a ban ordered by President Donald Trump in a tweet during his first year in office. It immediately prohibits any service member from being forced out of the military on the basis of gender identity.

The decision requires the departments to submit a report to the president on their progress within 60 days.

Austin, in a statement, voiced support for the change and said the Pentagon will work over the next two months to implement the new policy.

“I fully support the President’s direction that all transgender individuals who wish to serve in the United States military and can meet the appropriate standards shall be able to do so openly and free from discrimination,” said Austin, who also was formally sworn in as defense chief by Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday. “This is the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do.”

Doug Carver, executive director of chaplaincy with the North American Mission Board, said Southern Baptist chaplains will “continue to defend the biblical truth that God created the two sexes – male and female – as the crowning work of His creation.”

Carver added that NAMB-endorsed chaplains will “extend love and compassion to those whose lifestyle, beliefs, gender orientation, and behavior are contrary to biblical truth,” but that they will not participate in a marriage or union ceremony for any same-sex or transgender couple, provide counseling in support of such a union or conduct training events or retreats to support same-sex or transgender relationships.

“Pray for our military chaplains as they will now have the opportunity to minister the love of Jesus Christ to openly transgender service members,” Carver said in written comments. “Pray for them as they continue to preach the truth in love regarding God’s clearly articulated and intentional design for human sexuality. Pray that our chaplains show the utmost dignity, respect, and ‘convictional kindness’ to those struggling with their sexual identity. Finally, pray that our chaplains have the uncompromising courage as stated in Acts 5:29 to boldly proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ without fear of intimidation or retribution.”

The Trump policy triggered a number of lawsuits, including from transgender individuals who wanted to join the military and found themselves blocked.

“It is my highest goal to serve my country in the U.S. military and I’ve fought this ban because I know that I am qualified to serve,” said Nicolas Talbott, an aspiring service member involved in one of the lawsuits. “I’m thrilled and relieved that I and other transgender Americans can now be evaluated solely on our ability to meet military standards. I look forward to becoming the best service member I can be.”

Others disagreed. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the move would divert “precious dollars from mission-critical training to something as controversial as gender reassignment surgery.”

Under Biden’s new policy, transgender servicemembers won’t be discharged based on gender identity.

The move to overturn the transgender ban is the latest example of Biden using executive authority in his first days as president to dismantle Trump’s legacy. His early actions include orders to overturn a Trump administration ban on travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries, stop construction of the wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, and launch an initiative to advance racial equity.

Until a few years ago service members could be discharged from the military for being transgender, but that changed during the Obama administration. In 2016, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that transgender people already serving in the military would be allowed to serve openly. And the military set July 1, 2017, as the date when transgender individuals would be allowed to enlist.

After Trump took office, however, his administration delayed the enlistment date and called for additional study to determine if allowing transgender individuals to serve would affect military readiness or effectiveness.

A few weeks later, Trump caught military leaders by surprise, tweeting that the government wouldn’t accept or allow transgender individuals to serve “in any capacity” in the military. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail,” he wrote.

After a lengthy and complicated legal battle and additional reviews, the Defense Department in April 2019 approved the new policy that fell short of an all-out ban but barred transgender troops and military recruits from transitioning to another sex and required most individuals to serve in what the administration called their “birth gender.”

Under that policy, currently serving transgender troops and anyone who had signed an enlistment contract before the effective date could continue with plans for hormone treatments and gender transition if they had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria.

But after that date, no one with gender dysphoria who was taking hormones or has transitioned to another gender was allowed to enlist. Troops that were already serving and were diagnosed with gender dysphoria were required to serve in the gender assigned at birth and were barred from taking hormones or getting transition surgery.

As of 2019, an estimated 14,700 troops on active duty and in the Reserves identify as transgender, but not all seek treatment. Since July 2016, more than 1,500 service members were diagnosed with gender dysphoria; as of Feb. 1, 2019, there were 1,071 currently serving. According to the Pentagon, the department spent about $8 million on transgender care between 2016 and 2019. The military’s annual health care budget tops $50 billion.

All four service chiefs told Congress in 2018 that they had seen no discipline, morale or unit readiness problems with transgender troops serving openly in the military. But they also acknowledged that some commanders were spending a lot of time with transgender individuals who were working through medical requirements and other transition issues.

From The Associated Press. May not be republished. AP writer Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.

Monday, January 25, 2021 - 4:55pm

LEXINGTON, Tenn. (BP) – For the second time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Rock Hill Baptist Church in rural east Tennessee was resuming onsite worship. Then, Pastor Richard Bray was exposed to the virus and the church had to transition once again to remote worship while Bray waited weeks for his test results.

Bray became a one-man worship service team – preaching, leading music with his guitar, recording the service on his phone, handling the sound equipment, broadcasting the service via an FM transmitter to worshipers who listened in their cars in the parking lot, and uploading videos to YouTube, Facebook and the church website after service ended. That was his routine from mid-July to mid-September.

“I think I was tired, just physically and mentally,” Bray said months later. “Tired of dealing with all the issues, the stress of COVID, the stress of trying to do the right thing, the stress of the church members who see things differently than you do. It does take its toll.”

Joe Wright addresses the struggles of many pastors as executive director of the Bivocational and Small Church Leadership Network designed to serve about 83 percent of Southern Baptist churches.

“We are hearing, just across the nation, of pastors and churches both struggling,” Wright said. “We’re seeing just the stress of trying to do ministry in this kind of environment is taking a toll on pastors and church leaders.

“There are a number of issues that we have identified, one is decision fatigue. What is happening is that the landscape is changing so quickly that from the time a decision is made early in the week, oftentimes they’ve had to make changes to those decisions before the week is over.”

Bray ultimately tested negative for COVID-19, but he had to isolate an additional two weeks while his wife exhibited COVID-19 symptoms.

“And since I didn’t have any symptoms, I really didn’t think I had COVID. But you just want to be safe rather than sorry,” Bray said. “I’ve been trying to protect our church family as much as possible. We’ve been taking steps to do that. I’ve been working very closely with the deacon body to make decisions.”

At 61, Bray said he doesn’t have as much energy as he had even 10 years ago.

“And it’s been stressful, just, because there’s differences of opinion about what needs to be done,” Bray said. “We’ve got people in our church that don’t think you ought to wear a mask, and people that say ‘If you don’t wear a mask I’m not coming.’ You’ve just got both ends of the spectrum. So probably the most difficult thing is trying to steer through the middle of this path without hurting people’s feelings.”

Churches have transitioned through a seesaw of onsite and remote worship in response to fluctuating COVID-19 infection rates within communities and among congregations, with decisions adhering to leadership protocol that varies widely among congregations.

“We’re also seeing ministerial frustration,” Wright said. “There’s a tremendous amount of emotion that is being exhibited within the church right now, and a lot of that emotion is negative. … Frustration also leads to anger, leads to discord, and of course Satan also utilizes those things to create sin within the church.”

Pastors need a break, Wright said, as many are working longer hours that they worked before the pandemic. He has not heard of any small church and bivocational pastors leaving the ministry because of the pandemic, but said, “There is no doubt that many churches, because of the stress of the situation, are finding themselves in positions where they’re terminating pastors, oftentimes unexpectedly.”

Pastors are stressed by the limitations that are necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Pastors miss the feedback that church members typically offer when worshiping in person. Pastors miss the fellowship, handshaking, greeting members and guests at the altar. Hospital visits, weddings, funerals and a host of other pastoral duties are on hold.

Bray recalls when a member of Rock Hill died in the hospital of an illness not related to COVID-19. But because the hospital is only allowing staff chaplains to minister to patients during the pandemic, Bray couldn’t visit before the member died.

“The chaplains do a great job,” Bray said. “But when people are sick and they’re at the point of death, they want their pastor. … They want their own pastor to come and pray with them – somebody they know, somebody that knows them, somebody that’s loved on them before, and they know and love on them now.

“That kind of thing for me has been really difficult, not being able to minister to people, not being able to go in and lay hands on people and pray for them.”

Bray has persevered by praying, relying on the Lord’s faithfulness and seeking the counsel of friends, including Wright.

The Bivocational and Small Church Leadership Network has increased its online outreach and resources to help pastors cope during the pandemic, offering free Zoom meetings and conferences, and encouraging state conventions to reach out to pastors and churches within their reach. As early as March, the network will launch “Small Church America!” a monthly webinar of free resources for leadership and especially pastors of smaller attendance churches across the nation.

Congregations should continually encourage their pastors, Wright said.

“We feel like that the best thing you can do for a pastor right now is to call him and just encourage him,” Wright said. “It’s the absolute best thing you can do for a pastor. It’s just to call him up and say, ‘I know this a hard time for you. I know you’re struggling, but I want you to know I’m praying for you as a leader, and I appreciate you.'”

Monday, January 25, 2021 - 4:53pm

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California lifted regional stay-at-home orders across the state Monday in response to improving coronavirus conditions, returning the state to a system of county-by-county restrictions.

The order had been in place in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, covering the majority of the state’s counties.

The change allows restaurants and churches to resume outdoor operations and hair and nail salons to reopen in many areas, though local officials could choose to impose stricter rules. The state is also lifting a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

“Together, we changed our activities knowing our short-term sacrifices would lead to longer-term gains. COVID-19 is still here and still deadly, so our work is not over, but it’s important to recognize our collective actions saved lives and we are turning a critical corner,” Dr. Tomas Aragon, the state’s public health director, said in a statement.

Terry Barone, communications group leader for the California Southern Baptist Convention, said he was unsure how much the announcement would change what churches are already doing.

“Many churches are meeting indoors,” he said. “It’s too cold to meet outdoors. Many have tightened up their protocols. They may not have required masks outside, but they require them inside.

It’s different throughout the state. You have county and city officials saying they aren’t going to enforce these regulations. People are just acting on their own conscience.”

The nature of the pandemic and the nature of Baptists mean “there’s no one size fits all,” Barone said. “It’s going to be different depending on the congregation.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom was expected to address the public later Monday. Public officials in some of California’s major cities and counties indicated they could soon lift local restrictions.

“We will be moving forward with some limited re-openings, including outdoor dining and personal services,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said in a tweet.

Orange County planned to lift some restrictions as well, said Jessica Good, a spokesperson for the county health agency. In Los Angeles County, home to 10 million people, Republican Supervisor Kathryn Barger expressed support for opening outdoor dining, personal care services and other industries and said the state must balance public health with “devastating social, emotional and economic impacts of this virus.” Los Angeles County public health officials are expected to hold a briefing later Monday.

The state’s decision came amid improving trends in California’s rate of infections, hospitalizations and intensive care unit capacity as well as vaccinations.

Newsom, a Democrat, imposed the stay-at-home order in December as coronavirus cases worsened.

Under the system, a multi-county region had to shut down most businesses and order people to stay home if ICU capacity dropped below 15 percent. An 11-county Northern California region was never under the order and the Greater Sacramento Region exited the order last week. The state makes its decisions based on four-week projections showing ICU capacity improving, but officials have not disclosed the data behind the forecasts.

During the weekend, San Francisco Bay Area ICU capacity surged to 23 percent while the San Joaquin Valley agricultural region increased to 1.3 percent, its first time above zero. The huge Southern California region, the most populous, remains at zero ICU capacity.

Early last year, the state developed a system of color-coded tiers that dictated the level of restrictions on businesses and individuals based on virus conditions in each of California’s 58 counties.

Most counties will now go back to the most restrictive purple tier, which allows for outdoor dining, hair and nail salons to be open, and outdoor church services. Bars that only serve beverages cannot be open.

The county-by-county tier system uses various metrics to determine the risk of community transmission and apply a color code — purple, red, orange or yellow — which correspond to widespread, substantial, moderate and minimal, respectively.

As of the weekend, California has had more than 3.1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and 36,790 deaths, according to the state’s public health website.

From The Associated Press. May not be republished. Antczak reported from Los Angeles. AP journalists Janie Har in San Francisco and Amy Taxin in Orange County contributed.

Monday, January 25, 2021 - 4:00pm

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (BP) – Some homeless women may have a place of their own soon as First Baptist Church, Spartanburg, S.C., begins constructing a small village of tiny houses.

After seeing some similar villages on television and elsewhere, Steve Wise, missions minister at FBC Spartanburg, posed the idea: “Building small, transitional houses could be something our church could do to help one of the various populations that its community ministry serves,” he said.

“Our church has been serving the homeless on Sunday mornings through a ministry we call ‘Refuge,’ which offers showers, breakfast and Bible study. So they’ve always been on our heart.”

The church’s ministry center, The Bridge at Green Street, is located in one of several spotlight neighborhoods where partnerships are forming between government, for-profit, nonprofit and faith-based organizations in an effort to transform entire communities, Wise said. The North Side Development Group approached FBC Spartanburg about expanding its ministry among the homeless.

“The percentage of the population that’s female and homeless is growing, while most of the resources seem to be targeted at men,” Wise said. “Let’s see if we can do something about that,” he said, adding: “God cares about everyone.”

For the last 18 months, The Bridge has been pulling its resources together, getting design plans and lining up architects, engineers, contractors and donors. Madison Biggerstaff, a member at FBC Spartanburg, is the project’s director. She will work on-site through the United Way of Piedmont, coordinating other community resources.

A village of about 20 tiny houses is planned on about an acre of property adjacent to The Bridge. The single-bedroom houses will range in size from about 190 to 230 square feet. A few will have two bedrooms. The expected cost for each unit will be approximately $30,000.

“But the plan,” Wise said, “is that these houses would be temporary shelter, not permanent housing. The ladies would be in our tiny houses and in a ministry program that will help them repair some of the broken parts of their lives that put them in their particular situation.”

Naturally, the church’s ministry will also offer healing for their brokenness with God, Wise said.

“We really believe that’s the number one thing that’s going to be their transformational spark,” he said. “So we’ll have a pretty extensive mentoring program that has Bible study and discipleship elements.”

Wise added that the ministry also will meet a need for job training “to provide the opportunity to increase income-earning potential,” he said, adding that a 20,000-square-foot community building — where residents can learn job skills, build relationships with others, share meals and attend Bible studies — is also in the works.

The goal is that one day the women will be able to move into larger, more permanent housing.

“Hopefully, the home run would be for them to buy their first home, or they would be in a rental situation,” he said. “We want to help them get their lives back in order, so they can be productive, contributing citizens.”

Construction is projected to begin this summer, pending approval by city zoning and planning officials.

“We’ll have the licensed professionals for plumbing and wiring and those things that are necessary to meet city codes,” Wise said. “But we’ll need lots of volunteers on-site to do the construction work. It’s really a ‘community build’ kind of effort.”

FBC Spartanburg would like to see other churches be involved. One fairly easy way, he said, is for churches to send volunteers to help build a house or several houses together.

“And, certainly, churches can pray,” he said. “The thing we most want to see happen is for the Lord to be glorified — and for our city, our county and our state to all take notice of what happened and to know that it happened because of Jesus.”