This year brought much in the way of faith-based news in East Texas. There was controversy and construction, growth and historic occasions and a potentially violent situation averted. Read about some of the stories that topped local news in 2015.
In June, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation called on the city of Hawkins to remove the Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins sign that sits alongside U.S. Highway 80.
The foundation said the sign was on public city property and therefore unconstitutional because the government cannot endorse religion over non-religion or one type of religion over another.
In September, Hawkins City Council members voted to remove the sign to avoid a lawsuit from the foundation.
However before the city took it down, the Jesus Christ Open Altar Church bought the property the sign sits on from two funeral homes.
Earlier this month, the city sued the church and the two funeral homes claiming the property the sign sits on belongs to the city.
Mark McDonald, administrative director of Jesus Christ Open Altar Church, said he is prepared to fight the suit and has a group of attorneys backing his position.
When the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in June, local church leaders considered how they would navigate the issue moving forward.
Several church leaders contacted by the Tyler Morning Telegraph said they would not perform same-sex marriages.
The Rev. Jerome Milton, senior pastor at Greater New Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Tyler, said neither the church nor he, as its senior pastor, would perform same-sex marriages.
“God loves all people, black, white, red, green, striped, but as it relates to holy matrimony it is for one man and one woman,” he said. “There is no hate, no malice, but I will not be performing same-sex marriages.”
Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler said he would issue a decree covering 33 East Texas counties “that no member of the clergy or any person acting as employee of the Church may in any way participate in the solemnization or consecration of same-sex marriages.”
In addition, he said that no Catholic facilities or properties could be used for the “solemnization or consecration of same-sex marriages.”
Diocese spokesman Peyton Low said the decree is in draft form and canon lawyers are reviewing it. All the principles of the decree are part of the Church’s Code of Canon Law already, but the decree will serve as a reminder, Low said.
At Christ Episcopal Church in Tyler, Rector the Rev. David Luckenbach wrote in an emailed statement that Christ Church decided three years ago against hosting same-sex blessings on church grounds and to prohibit the church’s ministers from performing same-sex ceremonies anywhere.
Still there were a handful of East Texas churches that supported the decision.
John David Creamer, pastor of Life Covenant Church in Tyler, said his church would perform same-sex marriages.
“This is a beautiful step,” said Creamer, who is gay. “This is something we've been waiting for for a long time, but the fight’s not over.”
Rabbi Neal Katz, of Congregation Beth El in Tyler, said he and his congregation supported the decision and were happy for couples that wished to confirm their love through the ritual of marriage.
The Tyler Unity Center of Practical Christianity also was among the congregations that opened its doors to same-sex couples who wanted to marry.
PASTOR CALMS ARMED MAN
The moment Rasheed Abdul Aziz, of Flint, walked into the Corinth Missionary Baptist Church, the pastor knew there was a problem.
“Every hair on my neck just stood up,” the Rev. John D. Johnson III, 45, said at the time. “It was almost like you could just like feel the presence of just negative energy.”
Aziz, 40, was sweating profusely on that Sunday in September. He wore camouflage fatigue pants, camo boots, a black T-shirt and a tactical vest with a canteen hanging from it. Tattoos covered his neck and arms.
As soon as Johnson extended his hand to meet Aziz, the latter launched into a rant about being a “man of Islam” and having demons chasing him.
He yelled that God had authorized him to take lives and how it was OK for him to kill Christians or Jews, Johnson said.
Johnson, a former parole officer, has prior training in verbal de-escalation, crisis prevention and experience dealing with mentally ill offenders.
He calmly talked to Aziz and, after detecting what appeared to be a gun in the man’s pocket, alerted his wife and another church member about the emergency telling them to get everyone out of the church.
He ultimately decided to leave himself, leaving Aziz in the church alone.
All church members left safely and Smith County Sheriff’s deputies later arrested Aziz inside the Pine Trail Shores subdivision.
He has been indicted on a federal charge of felon in possession of a firearm. Smith County has charged him with the same crime, but he has yet to be indicted. The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department charged him with terroristic threat, a third-degree felony, but the case is still pending grand jury.
SAINT'S RELICS IN TYLER
An estimated 4,000 people came to pray and reflect before the relics of St. Maria Goretti, when they were brought to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Tyler in November.
The East Texas stop was one of three in the state - Houston and Dallas were the other two - and about 40 nationwide.
The tour was part of an effort to promote the Holy Year of Mercy, which began Dec. 8 and continues through Nov. 20, 2016.
Universally known as the Patroness of Purity, St. Maria, who was killed when she was 11, is also known as the Patroness of Mercy and the Little Saint of Great Mercy. She is the youngest canonized saint in the Catholic Church.
Her last words were of forgiveness toward her killer. She also reportedly appeared to him during his prison sentence and forgave him.
POPE VISITS U.S.
During Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States in late September, some East Texans had the opportunity to see him.
Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler traveled to the Northeast to attend several events involving the pope including midday prayer at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington D.C. and Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.
Strickland heard Pope Francis’ historic speech to Congress in person while in the House Gallery at the U.S. Capitol.
“One high point was the thunderous applause at his call for sanctity of life,” Strickland tweeted at the time.
“Let us pray that our leaders and our nation may take action in light of Pope Francis’ message,” another tweet read. “Many applauded. May action follow.”
In addition to Strickland, different groups of East Texans traveled to the Catholic Church’s World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Pope Francis celebrated a Mass with the public at the end of the event.
CHURCHES UPGRADE FACILITIES
This was a year of growth and renewal for many area church facilities.
St. John of Damascus Orthodox Church in Tyler completed construction on the first Orthodox Church to be built in East Texas.
The 2,000-square-foot facility, which cost about $520,000, has a temple, or sanctuary, with the possibility of adding a great hall later.
The new church is primarily Byzantine in design with some Romanian elements.
First Baptist Church of Whitehouse opened The 801 Center, a building pastors said they hope will serve as a center of activity for the community as a whole in addition to the youth.
The 14,000-square-foot facility comprises three main areas: 10 classrooms on one side, a 250-seat cafeteria with kitchen in the middle and a gym with a combined basketball and volleyball court and stage on the other side.
Plans for the outdoor recreation area called for a basketball court, sand volleyball court and softball field.
The 801 Center along with the remodeling of the church’s Family Life Center cost $2.7 million.
Hideaway Lake Community Church opened a new worship center three years after a fire destroyed the previous one.
Firefighters believe a 2012 lightning strike in the middle of the night caused the blaze. By the time firefighters arrived on scene, flames were coming from the building.
The new 24,000 square foot space, which cost $3.6 million to build, includes a 369-seat worship center with stage, a choir loft and projection screens; a children’s wing with classrooms; classrooms for adults; a library; and a gathering space with tables and chairs.
First Christian Church of Tyler completed a $4.8 million renovation project on its campus at the corner of South Broadway Avenue and Loop 323.
The project included demolishing much of the church’s old structure, with the exception of its traditional sanctuary and spiral staircase, and building a new fellowship hall, contemporary worship space, children’s ministry wing and offices.
The project also involved renovating the church’s Christian Life Center, which is a separate building that provides space for Christian education, community programs and church events.
Senior Minister Dr. Chris Pulliam said the finished product produced a facility much more conducive to meeting the needs of the church and thereby the community.