Monday, February 29, 2016

6 things about Louisiana I found fascinating

1. The state is prone to frequent thunderstorms, is vulnerable to hurricanes, and is often affected by tropical cyclones. The day we drove from Shreveport to New Orleans, major thunderstorms crossed the state, leading to tornadoes, swaths of destruction, and at least two deaths (and less importantly, bad photos through the car window).

2. Louisiana is ranked 25th for population, with approximately 4,670,724 people in 2015. It is the only state divided into political subdivisions called parishes (which are the equivalent of counties). There are 64 parishes in the state, many of which are split by the Mississipi River.

3. Before 1803, what is now Louisiana was a colony of Spain purchased by France. Africans were imported as slaves, many from the same region of West Africa.

4. The state is a relatively small portion of the Louisiana Purchase (named for Louis XIV, king of France). The area stretched from Mobile Bay to Canada.

5. The highest point in the state is Driskill Mountain (535 feet above sea level). The lowest point is New Orleans, which is 8 feet below sea level away from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. The state is 237 miles north to south and 236 miles east to west.

6. Louisiana was the first site of oil drilling over water. The world's longest bridge over water crosses Lake Pontchartrain as part of the two-bridge Causeway. The longer of the two is 23.83 miles long.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

10 more churches in Arkansas

In yesterday's post, we threw in a few bonus photos of big, downtown churches. Don't be concerned, though! Those aren't the only churches we saw in Arkansas. Here are others we saw, primarily from the road.

crossroads church

Grace Reformed, on the square in Harrison

Fort Smith

st Valentine sign

New Life church

St Thomas Episcopal in Springdale

St Nicholas Orthodox in Springdale

Spanish language pentecostal in Fort Smith

nifty roof on an Arkansas church

Phillips Chapel in Springdale

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

First Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith

guest house and tower of First Presbyterian Fort Smith
The first thing we must make clear, a fact no one will dispute: "Darby Junior High School Cheer Squad Rules!" We know this for a fact because, at a dinner honoring their achievement, we saw not only their trophies honoring their Arkansas State Championships in multiple areas but also a video of their award winning performance. First Presbyterian Fort Smith, an unofficial sponsor of the cheer squad, hosted a dinner for the girls, their families, and their coaches as part of the church's work to serve their community.

sanctuary door First Presbyterian Church Fort Smith
The church faces the same challenge many downtown churches face in this country. The congregation was organized back in 1848, and their impressive building was built in 1898. (Downtown Fort Smith has a number of quite impressive church buildings*.) Back in the day, most people in the congregation lived near the church, but things have changed. Most people in the church live in the suburbs, and the congregation is aging. When husband and wife Phil and Tasha Blackburn came to Fort Smith three and a half years ago to serve as co-pastors, they recognized these challenges. With the church leadership they decided to look for ways to serve the immediate community.

DArby Cheer rules
Last year the church hired Keley Simpson as Missions Facilitator to minister to the community. Since Darby Junior High is within blocks of the church, it was decided that this was a clear opportunity for ministry. Keley asked the school principal what she could do. The principal suggested Keley attend practices and games and look for opportunities. One of the needs Darby Cheer had was financial; they needed mats for practice.

cheer awards
So the church offered funds for the mats in exchange for the girls doing community service at  the church and for the... um... community. They helped with the church's Vacation Bible School and a community mini-marathon. As mentioned before, the girls ended up going to state, and Keley and Tasha and Phil (along with many others from the church) were there to see them off and congratulate them on their return. And Mindy and I were able to help serve at the dinner that honored them.

Keley has found other ways the church can serve the community. As a master gardener, she has helped a local elementary school and senior citizens make gardens. The church hopes to help with the transportation needs of people in the community by means of low cost loans for motorized bikes. The church isn't expecting a direct connection between Keley's service and raising membership rolls. They're just wanting to use God's resources to serve people around them.

guest house
While in town, Mindy and I stayed in the church's guest house. Initially, the house was to provide low-cost housing for people staying in the area to be near hospitalized family members. More recently the home has also been used to provide for women seeking refuge from abusive situations.

second service at First Presbyterian Fort Smith
FPFS is also, of course, looking for ways to equip their own congregation. Mindy and I were able to attend Capstone, an ongoing series of adult education classes focusing on Scripture and theology. The night we attended, Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles from Southern Methodist University taught about passages from the book of John, bringing an interesting perspective on the miracles in John 5 and 9 from the perspective of Disability Theory. The church has also offered Alpha programs that can provide a thoughtful introduction to Christianity.

First Presbyterian in the sun
In our short stay, we experienced love and warmth within the congregation along with a desire to reach out to others. We chatted with Kara, a young woman in her twenties who attends the church when she can. She said that working in retail often prevents her from attending Sunday mornings, "But even when I've been away for months, people always seem glad to see me and don't judge me for not for not being there."

first presbyterian church sign
On Sunday mornings, the church has two worship services, at 9:00 am and 11:00 am, with Sunday School in between. The first service is called DayOne, which meets around coffee tables to provide for a more casual setting. The later service takes place in the sanctuary, with a robed choir and organ music, obviously a more traditional setting.

In spite of the differences in style, the teaching for both services is pretty much the same. Through the Lenten season Phil and Tasha are looking at "Discovering Jesus" using different images and metaphors. In other weeks they've looked at Jesus as laughter, fire, and scent. The morning we were there, Tasha preached on Jesus as clothing (with the texts of Genesis 3:20 - 24 and Galatians 3:24 -29).

cornerstone at first presbyterian
As an illustration, Tasha told about a woman in need who came to the church for help. When she came in, Tasha shook her hand. As she was leaving, the woman thanked Tasha for taking her hand earlier. This baffled Tasha, and she asked why the woman said that.

"My clothes are so dirty; I didn't think anyone would touch me."

Tasha went on to say that Jesus can clothe us and take away our guilt and shame.

First Presbyterian Church in Fort Smith is surrounded by people in need who haven't yet come through the church doors. And now the church is figuring out ways for their staff and congregation to go out of those doors and meet those needs.

Service Length: first service 45 minutes, second service 52 minutes
Sermon Length: first service 18 minutes, second service 15 minutes
Visitor Treatment: we were greeted every time we came in the door; the church has visitor cards at the tables during first service and in the pews during second service, as well as an attendance register at each service. During the passing of the peace, we were all encouraged to greet those around us, which everyone seemed to do.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none (although we did have lunch with the pastors after church)
Our Rough Count: first service 65, second service 75
Probable Ushers' Count: first service 70, second service 100
Snacks: coffee before first service, coffee, cinnamon rolls, and donuts before Sunday School, coffee after second service
Musicians: first service 4 women (vocals), 2 men (vocals), 1 woman (keyboard, 2 men (acoustic guitars), 1 man (percussion)
second service 1 woman (organ and piano), 1 man (trumpet), 1 man (choir director), 6 men (choir), 8 women (choir)
Songs: first service
"10,000 Reasons"
"Change my heart"
"Great is Thy faithfulness"
"My Worth" (worship team)
"Praise the Father"
"How great is our God"
worship team practicing
"As we go"

second service
"In Christ there is no east or west"
"Change my heart"
"One faith, one hope, one Lord" (choir with trumpet solo)
"Great is Thy Faithfulness"
"Liebestraume" (trumpet and piano)
"Standing on the Promises"

Miles to church: zero (we walked across the street)
Miles from start: 6,329
Total 2016 Miles: 6,284
Church website:

*Here are a few of the other (very impressive) church buildings in Fort Smith. 
Covenant Presbyterian Fort Smith
First Baptist Fort Smith
Lutheran Church, Fort Smith

First Methodist Fort Smith
Central Presbyterian Church
Immaculate Conception Church

Monday, February 22, 2016

6 surprising things about Arkansas

welcome to Arkansas
1. The official pronunciation of the state name is [ar (like a pirate)-can (like ability)-saw (like seeing in the past)]. With much more legalese and less helpful commentary, this pronuciation was adopted by the state legislature in 1881.

2. Crater of Diamonds State Park, about halfway between Texarkana and Little Rock, has the world's only diamond bearing site where the public can dig for (and keep!) the gems.

blustery day by the White River
3. The state is in "tornado alley" and has about 60 days of thunderstorms each year.

Bass Reeves plaque
4. When the Civil War began, about a quarter of the population was enslaved African-Americans. About fifteen years later, Bass Reeves was appointed the first
African American deputy marshal west of the Mississippi River.
Rogers airport
5. After World War 2, the state began to diversify its economy. The service industry, aircrafts, poultry, steel, and tourism, along with cotton and rice, are the largest sources of the state's income.

ferris wheel in fort smith
6. Arkansas has four state songs, three "demonyms" (names for people who live there), two nicknames (one current and one former, and one motto: "Regnus populus" ("The people rule")

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Next Step Homeless Services, Fort Smith, Arkansas

"Fort Smith is a uniquely caring community," John Foster, director of case management at The Next Step Homeless Services, said. "This city attracts the homeless because the community cares for the homeless."

We had heard indirect confirmation of this sentiment earlier that day when we were at the Fort Smith Public Library. Two librarians were talking about a local homeless man who had been stabbed and hospitalized. "I hope it wasn't one of ours," one of the librarians said with real concern in her voice.

John mentioned the same stabbing. His wife had asked him the night before, "Was that one of yours?" John had to say it was. (Happily, later news reports revealed the hospitalized man is going to be okay.)

John began working with Next Step two and a half years ago. For twenty-seven years before that, John had been working in mental health service, and when he was done with that he thought he was done working. "But He had other ideas," John said, pointing heavenward.

Next Step was founded in 2002 when a man named Gary Hays saw that homeless people in the area had nowhere to go during the day. He went to St. John's Episcopal Church for help. The church offered a building for use as a day room. Next Step Day Room offered warm food and a TV room and soon offered much more.

A slogan for the the program is "Seeking solutions to homelessness one individual at a time," and one of the primary solutions the program utilizes is employment. To that end, Next Step offers job counseling, psychological assessment, life-skills training, message and mail services, and even make-overs to look right for the interview.

Next Step also helps people who've been without I.D. for years to find their paperwork. John said he tells people who come in with, say, a driver's license, "Don't lose track of that, it's precious."

Next Step receives limited government support (primarily because of their provision for veterans), some help from the United Way, and support from individuals and churches. St. John's Episcopal Church does charge Next Step Homeless Services for the rent: every year they have to come up with one whole dollar.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Quick stop in Eureka Springs; or, you can't always get what you want

entrance to the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs
When we started researching churches, Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, was on all sorts of lists. Though no congregation meets in the building, it's known for its beauty, so we thought it'd be worth a side trip.

We were excited to learn that Eureka Springs is also known for the Christ of the Ozarks statue (third tallest Jesus statue in the world), part of The Great Passion Play attraction just outside of town. So we decided the community would be a good first stop in Arkansas and set off. Our first stop, we decided, would be the statue and Passion Play.

authentic souvenir from the Great Passion Play
The actual two-and-a-half hour play is only performed from May through October, so we weren't surprised that the property looked almost abandoned. We decided to check in at the gift shop and Bible Museum first.

Bible Museum
Even though it's housed in what seems to be an annex to the gift shop, the Bible Museum is impressive. It houses more than 6,000 Bibles in over 625 languages and dialects, and contains fragments of a number of very old documents including a first edition of the first printing of the King James (Authorised) Bible, the first Cherokee Bible, and a page from a Gutenberg Bible. It also contains the only complete Bible translated into English by a woman, a fragment of Erasmus' Textus Receptus, and translations by John Wycliffe (into English) and Martin Luther (into German).

Cherokee Bible segments
After that, we were ready to take a look at the buildings that are used for the Great Passion Play and the New Holy Land Tour, which are across the street from the gift shop (and Bible Museum). Going inside the buildings (or walking the tour route) wasn't a possibility, but we didn't really mind. A couple returning from the individual tour while we wandered around the entrance assured us we should take the tour when we had the chance.

We also took a look at the amphitheater where the play is performed during the summer. It was impressive, with 6,000 seats and a three story set that's 550 feet wide, according to the website. It is, apparently, the largest outdoor pageant in the US, with more than 150 actors and many live animals.

After checking in at the gift store again (because a sign said we should), we drove up to the statue. The statue was the first element of  what eventually became The Great Passion Play complex, dedicated in 1966 and built by Emmet Sullivan (who later built the brontosaurus at Wall Drug, South Dakota). It was impressive, and somehow, the scaffolding set up for the current restoration of the statue added to the appeal.

An unexpected element of the attaction was the small chapel building with a 10' x 10' segment of the Berlin Wall next to it. The chunk of the wall has Psalm 23
(in German) written on it, which I (Mindy) found inspiring.

Thorncrown Chapel from the highway
Oh, and Thorncrown Chapel? After we'd visited the Great Passion Play property, we drove to the other side of Eureka Springs to take a look at it. Although a sign said it was open every day, the driveway was gated shut. We drove by again the next morning, hoping to be able to visit, but the driveway gate was still closed, with a sign that said not to walk through. This is the only picture we got.*

*I just checked. The Chapel is closed during January and February, except for weddings. Oops.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

10 Missouri churches as seen from the road

cornerstone at Evangel Colege in Springfield
cornerstone at Evangel College
Church buildings in the parts of Missouri we saw appeared to be less standardized than in some other states we've visited so far, ranging from dramatic to extremely plain, gothic to storefront. Here's a sampling, from Hannibal to Kansas City to Springfield to Mansfield; city, prairie, seminary, and Ozark roadside.
City on a Hill Church
City on a Hill, somewhere in the Ozarks

Catholic Church
Catholic Church in northern Missouri

Missouri church

First Church of the Nazarene
First Church of the Nazarene in northern Missouri

Church in Grandview Missouri
in Grandview, Missouri

Colonial Church in Grandview Missouri
Colonial Presbyterian Church, Kansas City

Holy Trinity Lutheran, Grandview, Missouri
Holy Trinity Lutheran, Grandview, Missouri

Church of God, 7th Day
Church of God, 7th Day, somewhere in Missouri

Holy Rock Church, Springfield, Missouri
Holy Rock Church, Springfield, Missouri

chapel for Country Club Church, Kansas City, Missouri
This isn't the church, just the chapel 

Country Club Christian Church, Kansas City, Missouri
for Country Club Christian Church, Kansas City, Missouri