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Groups Use Wilberforce Film
to Combat Modern Slavery


BY NANCY HAUGHT                                                                           ©2007 Religion News Service

lavery is not dead, and neither is the campaign to kill it. A new generation of abolitionists hopes that a sweeping historical epic now in theaters will help boost their ranks.

The U.S. State Department estimates that 17,500 new slaves are brought to the United States every year. Worldwide, the number of people pressed into service and denied the freedom to walk away is probably at least 4 million, perhaps as many as 27 million, the agency says. The different numbers are the result of separate agencies doing the counting.

Slavery endures despite the fact that Great Britain abolished it two centuries ago, the United States fought the Civil War over it 140 years ago, and the United Nations prohibited it in 1948.

"Amazing Grace," a feature film directed by Michael Apted, opened in theaters nationwide on February 23. It tells the story of William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament who argued passionately against slavery for decades. He was behind a bill that limited the slave trade in 1807 and saw the abolition of slavery in Great Britain a few days before his death in 1833.

Ioan Gruffudd portrays the evangelical abolitionist William Wilberforce in the film "Amazing Grace."
{Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films}
Wilberforce's story is relevant today, abolitionists say, because it reminds a modern audience of the inherent evils of slavery and of the ignorance and greed employed to defend it. It portrays the power of one unrelenting voice and the necessity of a committed, long-term network to keep attention on the problem and build a broad consensus against it.

The movie "Amazing Grace" has inspired The Amazing Change (www.theamazingchange.com), a global campaign that unites several abolitionist groups, including the International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org) and Free the Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net). One of their biggest hurdles, abolitionists say, is overcoming the general notion that slavery no longer exists.

Modern-day slavery looks different from the plantation model most Americans think of when we hear the word. Today, children are pressed into the slave trade in the United States and abroad. Women are forced into domestic service not for wages--or even for adequate room and board--but in the hope that someday their owner will give them back their passports. Whole families work in mines, brick factories, or gravel yards. Their dangerous toil creates profits, not for them, but for their owners.

"Two or three centuries ago we spoke of slavery in the United States and Europe as state-sanctioned property ownership of human beings. Slaves were chattel," says David Batstone, an ethics professor at the University of San Francisco. He wrote Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade--and How We Can Fight It, published this month.

Today, slavery is different from an economic and social standpoint, he says. "People are forced into doing someone else's labor and not compensated. If they try to escape, they are treated violently or their family is threatened.

"This kind of slavery is shorter term--the slave owner doesn't feel the same urgency to take care of his `property.' People are disposable, like a battery. When their energy is used up, they can be thrown away."

Batstone is behind a grass-roots campaign (www.notforsalecampaign.com) to find creative ways to spell the end of slavery. He encourages artists, athletes, and others to help raise money that his organization channels to programs that shut down slave owners, retrain former slaves, and lend [the former slaves] money to start their own businesses.


Episcopal Church Must Halt Gay Rights
`For a Season',
Top Bishop Says

BY DANIEL BURKE                                                                                  ©2007 Religion News Service

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said February 28 the church should refrain from ordaining gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions "for a season," so it can contribute to a covenant between the world's 77 million Anglicans.

"If we want to be part of the writing of a covenant, we have some expectations before us," Jefferts Schori said during a live Web cast. She took questions from a studio audience, as well as by e-mail and telephone during the hour-long event.

A number of gay and lesbian Episcopalians questioned Jefferts Schori about how far the Episcopal Church must bend to the will of overseas Anglican bishops, who have demanded the U.S. church promise by Sept. 30 to stop ordaining gay bishops and authorizing liturgical rites for same-sex unions.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has proposed a covenant among the communion's 38 regional churches. The convenant would outline areas of common agreement and could provide a means for settling disputes. It's unclear how long it would take to complete a working covenant. But under the Episcopal Church's democratic government, it would need to be approved by a General Convention, the next of which is in 2009.

Jefferts Schori asked Episcopalians to be patient Monday and to "wait on God for clarity." She compared the church's situation to that of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, as he awaited execution. "We must watch and wait in this hour," she said. Jefferts said the church could provide a "creative" response to the primates but that a decision "not to decide" will have consequences.

"What it means for the church is that we lose our voice at the table," Jefferts Schori said.

Anglican bishops have also called for a "cease-fire" in the legal disputes over property between dissident breakaway parishes and the Episcopal Church. Jefferts Schori said the lawsuits will continue.


Scholars Say Young Catholics Key to Church's Future

BY KATHERINE BOYLE                                                                       ©2007 Religion News Service

The authors of a new book say the future of the church depends on young Catholics who share the principal tenets of the faith but are likely to disagree with the church on social issues.

"If the older generation of Catholics assumes a young person's world is like their own, they are mistaken," said Jim Davidson, a sociology professor at Purdue University and co-author of "American Catholics Today." If the church does not begin to engage young people in a conversation, he added, it could lose members of that generation.

Davidson and Dean Hoge, another co-author and sociology professor at Catholic University, spoke at a Georgetown University forum sponsored by the school's Woodstock Theological Center on February 6. For their study, the authors identified four generations of Catholics: pre-Vatican II -- those born before 1940; Vatican II, post-Vatican II, and millennial Catholics, whom they defined as those born between 1979 and 1987.

All four generations had some common ground. Majorities in each group believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, think the laity should be more involved in the church, and condemn the recent clergy sexual abuse scandals.

But millennial Catholics were the least likely to agree with the church on issues such as gay marriage, premarital sex, the need for a celibate and male priesthood, and the teaching authority of the church.

These differences diminish millennials' sense of Catholic identity, Hoge said.

He attributed many of these differences to the world in which young Catholics have grown up, noting that they have achieved a higher level of education than any previous generation, tend to live in the suburbs rather than in "Catholic enclaves" and are marrying non-Catholics at a rate of 45 percent to 50 percent. Young adult Catholics consider the church's sacraments, charity to the poor, devotion to Mary and the beliefs stated in the Nicene Creed to be the most central elements of Catholicism.

However, a majority do not accept that the church's stances on the death penalty, abortion, personal confession, or the celibacy of male priests are central to the faith.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Woodstock and the former editor of America Magazine, said young women's disengagement with the church could be devastating. "You hear about grandma, not grandpa, leading the rosary," he said. "If women are turned off, it's over. We close the doors."


For One Company, Snooping Around Is a Ministry

BY DANIEL BURKE                                                                                     ©2007 Religion News Service

For the folks at Oxford Document Management Company, it's not snooping. It's a divine mission. With a full-time staff of just three, the Anoka, Minnesota-based background investigation firm has beat out bigger rivals to become the go-to gumshoes for religious groups across the United States.

All but a handful of Oxford's 1,000-odd clients are churches or denominational bodies, such as dioceses and synods. Glen Johnson, who founded the company 16 years ago, said those are the only clients he seeks.

"I wanted to help them out because I'm a Christian person and I saw the need for this," said Johnson, 48. Oxford keeps the business's prices low -- up to $225 for a "full-service" check -- so churches don't have to pass the plate to keep safe, said Chuck Koterba, the firm's director of client services.

Oxford employees have been called by God, they say, to keep churches clear of sexual predators, fiduciary finaglers and general ne'er-do-wells. Clients praise the firm for helping them determine how serious a potential employee's infractions are -- either a momentary lapse of judgment or an extended tour through the seedy side of life.

With high-profile and costly cases of clergy abuse and financial mismanagement roiling U.S. churches, background checks have come to be a necessary part of due diligence. Increasingly, insurance companies require them, and people in the pews expect them.

"Unfortunately, in a way, this is a growing business," said Oxford's vice president, Bob Leverentz. In February, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) both activated background-check programs through Oxford. They join at least 99 Episcopal dioceses, 58 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America synods, 13 United Methodist regional conferences, six Roman Catholic dioceses, four African Methodist Episcopal Zion districts and about 10 other Christian denominations on Oxford's roster of clients. Some ask for full criminal and credit reports. Others ask only for reference checks.

Johnson founded Oxford after Minnesota passed a law requiring background checks for people involved in psychological counseling, including clergy. Business started booming in the mid-1990s, when a number of Episcopal dioceses began using Oxford to check the references and history of its ministers and bishops.

Around that time, Episcopal dioceses in New England required ministers to fill out questionnaires asking for deeply personal details --such as alcohol use and sexual history. A number of priests balked at the questions and Oxford was caught in the crossfire. But the ruckus settled down, at least for Oxford, when priests realized it was their bishops who wanted the answers, not the background investigators.

Now, Oxford administers similar questionnaires for other mainline denominations, such as the United Methodist Church. Each denomination tailors the background checks to their own needs and internal rules-- some ask about sexual orientation, for example, others do not. When Oxford conducts full credit and criminal checks, they most often "find hits" on traffic violations and financial problems, said Chuck Koterba, Oxford's director of client services.

"With lots of clergy, their spiritual gift is not financial management," Koterba said, adding that money issues can lead to other problems, such as gambling, spousal abuse, and drug use.

Still, serious infractions are rare among the pulpit set, said Koterba and Johnson, despite the media attention surrounding clergy misconduct. Company officials say they get no satisfaction in finding the rare red flag--though they're happy to protect churches. "To me this job is my ministry," Koterba said. "It's the work God wants me to do."



 
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