“Faces of Compassion,” one of our new hand-out/bulletin insert print resources available in September, features Cindy Timmerman, Executive Director of Exodus Ministries in Dallas.  Exodus assists Dallas County female ex-offenders who are re-entering society after incarceration and have demonstrated a willingness to make positive changes in their lives.  “These women are dealing with the pain of having been separated from their children for long periods of time and do not have the immediate financial resources to sustain their families,” says Cindy.  “Exodus helps them re-enter society by serving their spiritual and physical needs.”

Inmates leaving prison typically arrive in Dallas with $50, no job, a few friends, and little hope.  “Because everything in prison is so regimented,” Cindy explains, “ex-offenders are usually overwhelmed with the responsibilities they face in their freedom and lack the training, support, and spiritual focus needed to succeed.”

Exodus Ministries provides each woman a furnished single-family apartment and all basic living needs, including medical care.  In addition, the ministry provides life management and parenting skills, substance abuse recovery and support, family budgeting and financial planning skills, and job readiness and job placement services.  TBOWH funds are used to stock the pantries of new residents and their children.  “It’s so exciting to show a new resident her furnished apartment with a full cupboard and refrigerator and see faces full of gratitude and hope,” says Cindy.  “When I see spiritual and social growth in one of our families and that the generational cycle of crime is being broken, I realize that we labor not in vain – that God is working through us, and the resources provided by our ministry partners make a life-changing difference.”

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On July 6, 2009, the Washington Times had an interesting article about the importance of family dinners and adolescents.  It seems that the practice of eating dinner together as a family could be the single greatest decision that one can make toward saving the adolescents from poor decisions regarding drugs and alcohol.

For more than a decade, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University (http://www.casacolumbia.org/templates/Home.aspx?articleid=287&zoneid=32) has been studying the tremendous impact that family meals can have on children. Their research repeatedly shows how children suffer when they don’t spend regular, casual time with their parents gathered around the dinner table. Consider this summary of their findings:

“Compared with teens who frequently had dinner with their families [five nights or more per week], those who had dinner with their families only two nights per week or less were twice as likely to be involved in substance abuse. They were 2.5 times as likely to drink alcohol, and nearly three times as likely to try marijuana.”

Dining together makes huge differences in general family relationships, too. Children from families who don’t have frequent meals together are more than twice as likely to say that their family has strained or tense relationships. And, sadly, they often don’t feel as if their parents are very interested in their lives.

How to save your family from being disconnected
There’s no reason to wonder if lonely meals lead to strained relationships or vice versa – find out by making togetherness a priority. “Just do it.” It might be a worn-out phrase, but as the parent, you need to determine in your heart to make family dinners happen.

And, although they won’t tell you, your teens want you to make it a priority…Really!

As the school year approaches, please consider making Recovery Sunday, October 18 a part of your church calendar for the fall.

Do Something: Substance Abuse Ministry DVD

Introducing Do Something: A Substance Abuse Ministry DVD available through the Christian Life Commission. To order, contact Alicia Enriquez at 214.828.5192, or e-mail alicia.enriquez@bgct.org. The cost is $2.

Pathways to Prevention Website

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Religious liberty is so central to our US foundation that on most days it is invisible to us. But religious liberty is also radical, fragile and personal. Those denied liberty feel it. The heroic defenders often suffer. Laws which are made in lofty impersonal chambers of the highest courts or legislative bodies have long fingers that reach into each neighborhood.  Earlier this month I joined with seventy other faith leaders to discuss religious liberty and important policy developments that will continue to define the relationship of church and state on federal and state levels.

The Obama administration and faith based initiatives. Relationships of church and state have been a part of the American landscape for more than two hundred years. Within the new administration church state policy trends are emerging at several levels: new religion and public policy initiatives are being expanded in the State Department, the White House Advisory Council is also creating policy direction for faith based and community initiatives. There are no conclusive outcomes this early in the administration, however, the following recommendations proposed by Melissa Rogers and EJ Dionne in a paper “Serving People in Need, Safeguarding Religious Freedom (pdf),” show the parameters of discussion for some initial issues of the White House council. These recommendations include:

  1. Recognize and promote both financial and nonfinancial religious partnerships.
  2. Ensure government funding goes to programs that work.
  3. Use both Executive branch and Congress to forge policies; include the use of an advisory group and White House Council to seek consensus for federal legislation.
  4. Clarify restrictions on aid and religious activities. Monitor compliance.
  5. Protect the identity of religious providers.
  6. Specify the distinction between government funded activities and privately funded religious activities.
  7. Insure protection of religious liberty for service recipients.
  8. Study and revise religion-based hiring distinctions; the goal is to both honor religious identity and respect government funding policy.
  9. Simplify the process of forming 501.c.3 organizations. Create new incentives for charitable giving.
  10. Use peer review, evaluation and accountability measures relevant to religious organizations. Create workshops and seminars for training and outreach.

New structures in Texas to address faith based initiatives. Texas recently passed legislation that provides for some new structures to promote productivity for faith based organizations and their cooperation with the state (81st Session pdf). Dialogue, cooperation and planning among government and faith based partnerships increase the effectiveness of much needed service to Texas families. Cooperation does not happen in a vacuum, however, and explicit bodies that duly recognize faith based groups and discuss partnerships have not been designated in Texas before. This legislation directs agencies and private advisory groups to intentionally cooperate for the common good by establishing the following:

  • Government Agency Liaisons – One employee from each major state agency appointed to serve as liaisons between their agency and faith and community-based organizations:
  • Interagency Coordinating Group -The interagency group is composed of each of the governmental liaisons for faith and community-based organizations.
  • Task Force for Strengthening Nonprofit Capacity – The task force is composed of representatives from both the government and the private sector to advise and plan to build nonprofit capacity statewide.
  • Renewing Communities Account Advisory Committee – Leaders of faith and community-based organizations shall make recommendations to the executive commissioner of the HHSC regarding the Renewing Communities Account funds for capacity building.

The Texas bill has explicit protections for safeguarding religious freedom. There was significant discussion among legislators about this aspect of the bill. This bill references Federal Code 42 U.S.C. Section 604a and includes:

(j) Limitations on use of funds for certain purposes. No funds provided directly to institutions or organizations to provide services and administer programs under subsection (a)(1)(A) of this section shall be expended for sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization.

Other references in the bill to religious protections occur in Sec 535.104 ((7) establish policies and procedures to ensure that any money appropriated from the account to the commission that is allocated to build the capacity of a faith-based organization or for a faith-based initiative, including money allocated for the establishment of the advisory committee under Section 535.108, is not used to advance a sectarian purpose or to engage in any form of proselytization.

These new Texas councils and advisory committees provide an opportunity for a variety of religious leaders to join together to direct the development of appropriate church state relationship in Texas. If you are interested in serving on any advisory bodies for Texas faith based initiatives, please send an email. Although fashioned by a robust history, religious liberty is not a dusty vestige of the past, it is contemporary and subject to change. The expression of liberty is subject to the domestications and consequences of change at state, federal and international levels.

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Each July we celebrate the founding of our country and our bold fight for independence. As a nation we honor those who have fought for our freedom time and time again. We also honor the triumph of the radical ideals that became not only the foundation of our country but also the challenge of each age as we struggle to live up to those principles. As Baptists, it is an appropriate time to look back on our own history and that moment in time where the deep-rooted convictions of our faith converged with the birth of a new country.

It is hard to argue that a dedication to religious liberty and freedom of conscience are not at the very heart of the Baptist expression of Christianity. These core beliefs are a consistent thread through our heritage as acknowledged by Baptist historians such as Buddy Shurden, William Estep and Leon McBeth. How that belief intersected and influenced the story of America is acknowledged by secular historians such as Edwin Gaustad and others. President Barack Obama has publicly stated his appreciation (pdf) for the role of Baptists in US history even citing John Leland by name. We should be concerned that our non-Baptist president knows our history, yet many Texas Baptists do not.

We didn’t spring up out of a vacuum and we can’t disregard the experience of past generations. Dr. Bill Pinson, former Executive Director of the BGCT, has recently written a wonderful, accessible book published by BaptistWay Press called Baptists and Religious Liberty: The Freedom Road, that compiles much of the history we should all know.

John Smyth and Thomas Helwys who in the early 1600’s were the first to speak out against the established church in England at great personal cost including imprisonment.  In our churches we should tell the story of Roger Williams who was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, founded Rhode Island after purchasing the land from an Indian tribe, where he established the first Baptist church in America in 1638. It is Williams who first advocated for a “hedge or wall of separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world.” The names of John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes and John Crandall should be known to all Texas Baptist as men who in 1651 were jailed in Massachusetts for the crime of conducting an unlawful worship service – Holmes was then brutally whipped on the street in Boston.

When we celebrate our independence and the founding of our nation think back to Isaac Backus who in 1774 took his plea for religious liberty to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia and then to the delegates from Massachusetts arguing that tax dollars should not go to support the established Congregationalist church. Virginia Baptist Pastor John Leland was a vocal supporter of Thomas Jefferson and his effort to disestablish the Episcopal Church by passage of the “Virginia Statute Establishing Religious Freedom” in 1886. It was Leland who later met with James Madison and urged him to support an amendment to the newly ratified constitution that would guarantee religious liberty.

As Texans recall with pride that in 1920, George W. Truett pastor of First Baptist Dallas, stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, proclaimed religious liberty for all and recited this history praising our forbearers.

They dared to be odd, to stand alone, to refuse to conform, though it cost them suffering and even life itself. They dared to defy traditions and customs, and deliberately chose the day of non conformity, even though in many a case it meant a cross. They pleaded and suffered, they offered their protests and remonstrances and memorials, and, thank God, mighty statesmen were won to their contention. Washington and Jefferson and Madison and Patrick Henry, and many others, until at last it was written into our country’s Constitution that church and state must in this land be forever separate and free, that neither must ever trespass upon the distinctive functions of the other. It was pre-eminently a Baptist achievement.

We would also be wise to head the word of our fellow Baptist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who warned that “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”

Finally, we must give thanks and our support to modern day Baptists like J.M. Dawson, James Wood, James Dunn, Brent Walker, Melissa Rogers, and Holly Hollman who, through the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, have resolutely and vigilantly upheld the Baptist ideal of religious liberty and church state separation for over 70 years.

Our commitment to the separation of church and state is not only based on theology, but also on our experience as a persecuted religious minority. Such conviction should not be compromised now that we are part of the majority religious culture. Indeed to allow our government to favor any faith sets a potentially disastrous precedent should the day come when we are no longer in the majority.

While Baptists may disagree on individual cases or controversies we should agree that stepping back into the role of a religious minority would give us better insight to the type of protections we should seek for all faiths. The ability to walk a mile in another’s shoes is critical to upholding the basic rights granted under the Bill of Rights and the first amendment. As former justice Sandra Day O’Connor said so eloquently in McCreary County v. ACLU “we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.”

We must be careful not to be tempted by the “Christian Nation” rhetoric that is now so often espoused. Our history tells us better, we helped make sure that this nation was for all people, not founded for and operated only by Christians. We must be ready to strongly push back against those, armed with only a speck of truth, promote a distorted view of history.

Above all, remember that our commitment to religious liberty is grounded in the core of our faith. Our faith, in response to our interpretation of scripture, proclaims that God made us all free, responsible and competent to respond to the gospel as we feel led, voluntarily and individually any action by another that attempts to compel belief is worthless. As George Truett said in 1920 “God wants free worshipers and no other kind.”

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EL PASO – More than 250,000 multimedia gospel compact discs arrived here July 27, enough for Baptists to blanket every home in the county with Scripture in the near future. Full Story »

BROWNWOOD – The Board of Trustees of Howard Payne University today named Bill Ellis as the 19th president of the 120-year-old institution. Full Story »

ENCINAL – In many places across the state, churches dot the community. Here, there are people but no regular church for them to worship in. Full Story »