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First Woman Elected to Head
Major Muslim Organization
 
BY OMAR SACIRBEY                                                                           ©2006 Religion News Service
 
orth America's largest Islamic organization elected Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian-born convert and Islamic scholar, as president this week, making her the first woman to lead any major Muslim organization on the continent. Mattson, whose many roles include director of the Islamic Chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, steps into the Islamic Society of North America's top spot after serving two terms as the vice president of the Indianapolis-based group, founded in 1963.

During that time, Mattson earned a reputation among many Muslim Americans as an eloquent voice better suited than her foreign-born colleagues for defending Islam at a time when many believe their faith is under siege.

Muslim American observers see Mattson's election as a chance to redefine both the image and the role of Muslim women in America and the Islamic world. "There are so many professional women who choose to be devoted Muslims, but in America we mostly see images of oppressed Muslim women," said Asma Afsaruddin, an Islamic studies professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Mattson converted to Islam as an undergraduate at the University of Waterloo in Canada, where she graduated in 1987. She spent the next two years in Pakistan working with Afghan refugee women, and has since held a variety of educational positions while also emerging as a spokesperson on Muslim issues.

But Muslim women said female concerns should be only one of her priorities. "She was elected not just because she's a woman, but because she's the best person for the job," said Shahina Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Social Services Association in Winnipeg, Manitoba. "You don't want her to be a one-issue president. There are many things facing the Muslim community." 
 
 
Christian Scientists Chafe Under New Health Care Law
 
BY G. JEFFREY MCDONALD                                                                  ©2006 Religion News Service 

The nation's first law requiring citizens to carry health insurance is drawing spiritual healers into the political fray as they fight for the right to refuse coverage for medical services.

By July 1, 2007, all Massachusetts residents must be able to prove that they have health insurance. Certain large employers who don't provide coverage will be fined $295 per uninsured employee, to help the state fund low-cost coverage for the poor.

That mandate has Christian Scientists urging regulators to spell out that qualifying group health plans should provide broadly for "health care" rather than just pay for "medical services," which Christian Scientists reject on religious grounds. At stake, church leaders say, is whether Bay State residents have a right to choose a path to healing that relies more on spirituality than medical technology. "We're using this opportunity to express a broader concern that focuses on access and options for health care," says Jane Warmack, manager of the legislative division of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, whose "Mother Church" headquarters in Boston employs about 550 people.

"We want to keep avenues open so individuals can make a choice as to the type of health care they want." Christian Scientists follow the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, whose 19th century classic "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" has inspired millions over the past century to follow what they regard as Jesus' example and shun medicine in times of illness. Practitioners instead pursue health through good nutrition, positive thought and prayer.

As an employer, the Mother Church offers a choice of a conventional health plan or one designed especially for Christian Scientists, which is chosen by about 25 percent of church employees. It's the Christian Science plan--which utilizes prayer and at-home nursing services such as reading aloud and light housekeeping -- which likely doesn't qualify as health insurance under the current set of proposed regulations.

For sticking with the Christian Science approach, individuals and the church alike could face penalties under proposed regulations. But making everyone get conventional insurance doesn't seem fair either, according to Claire Waterson, lobbyist for the Mother Church.  "Are you going to mandate that (individuals) must pay for something they're not going to utilize?" Waterson says.

This isn't the first time religious considerations have surfaced in the crafting of Massachusetts' universal health care law, which is attracting attention across the country as a possible model for other states. When lawmakers passed the law in April, they carved out an exemption for individuals with "sincerely held religious beliefs," although no such exemption exists for employers.

At this point, the proposed regulations are still subject to revision after public comment. State lawmakers will take up the issue again if necessary to clarify their intent, which was to make sure no one gets penalized for choosing a religious path to health, according to state Sen. Richard T. Moore, co-chair of the Senate Health Care Financing Committee.

"We recognize that there are some people, because of their religious beliefs, who don't subscribe to traditional medical treatment," Moore says. "They don't necessarily have to have the standard medical plan that everybody else is going to need to have." But anyone with such an exemption would be considered to have had a change of heart if they later seek medical care after an injury or illness sets in, and soon would be required to carry medical insurance, like it or not.

"If they said they didn't believe from a religious standpoint in that type of care, and they show up in the emergency room and expect to be treated, then they have changed their position," Moore says. "And so therefore they have put themselves in a different category, one that does require health insurance."


A Year After Katrina, Churches Still
Continue Recovery and Rebuilding Work
 
BY KIM LAWTON                                                                               ©2006 Religion News Service
 
In the blistering summer heat of the Crescent City, Southern Baptist volunteers are putting the finishing touches on a new development of Habitat for Humanity homes -- rare signs of construction in the city's still-devastated Ninth Ward.

Just a few miles away, United Methodist volunteers are dragging out moldy carpet that has rotted inside a church sanctuary for nearly a year. Team members are shocked at how little has changed since Katrina. "I guess I wasn't aware that the devastation was still as bad as it was, almost a year later," United Methodist volunteer Cheryl Walker told the PBS program "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly." "I thought more work had been done because of all the money that you hear has been pumped in."

A year after Hurricane Katrina unleashed death and destruction across the Gulf Coast, faith-based groups are playing a key-- and often overlooked--role in the region's struggle to move forward.  And while political wrangling and unwieldy bureaucracies are hampering many recovery efforts, residents here say religious groups are bringing much-needed hope amid the despair.

"You can never overlook the importance of human capital, you know" said Jim Burton, director of volunteer mobilization at the Southern Baptists' North American Mission Board. "As corny as it may sound, people are our greatest assets." The Baptist-run Operation Noah Rebuild is committed to rebuilding 1,000 homes and 20 churches in greater New Orleans over the next two years. Pastor Jay Bruner said he and his church in North Richland Hills, Texas, came to be part of Operation Noah Rebuild because of their faith.

"Christian means Christlike, and when Christ walked this earth, he came to help those that were hurting and in need," Bruner said. "It's a core value. It's just who we are." In some neighborhoods, residents say faith-based groups are the only ones getting anything done.

"What the volunteers have been doing is coming here and really helping the people to rebuild," said New Orleans resident Malcolm Russell. "You know, ever since the election [May 20, 2006], I haven't seen a politician through here." Russell is one of the many trapped in a post-Katrina bureaucratic nightmare. His house is badly damaged, but he said he is not receiving any federal, state or city assistance. He and five other family members sleep in two barely habitable rooms because they have nowhere else to go.

"We're not asking for a handout from the government," he said. "They can do what they want with the money. Just help us to get our houses back together."

Operation Noah Rebuild has Russell on its list, but the group can't keep up with the demand for volunteer groups with experienced roofers and electricians. The spiritual and emotional toll of the last 12 months has also been huge. New Orleans community activists Angele and Joe Givens embody the uncertainty of many residents. They are worried about whether the levees will hold during this hurricane season. They've been waiting for months for their gutted home to be demolished, and they haven't decided whether to rebuild.

"This was our dream house," Angele Givens said, standing inside the shell of the structure. "When we bought it, we said we were going to live here for the rest of our lives," she added.

"We're still in a permanent state of emergency," said the Rev. Dwight Webster, pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church of New Orleans. "We're still not whole." Webster and other clergy have been trying to help their congregations while also dealing with their own losses. He still feels the pain of gutting his home. "Books that I had been collecting, lecture notes and my personal notes of over 30 years -- I couldn't even pick them up with my hands, my gloves. We had to shovel 30 years of my life up," he said.

Cheryl Taylor, a mental health expert, serves on a special post-Katrina justice commission set up by the faith-based Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. She is especially concerned about the impact of losing a home. She knows; she lost hers, too. "I can speak for all of us," she said. "There is no place like home. And home is not just a physical structure. It's the families, the memories, the people.

"The situation has been especially difficult for the elderly, Taylor said, citing her mentors, Church of God in Christ United Bishop James Feltus and his wife, Hazel.

"I'm 78 and my husband is 85 and ... it's hard for us to do some of the things that (other) individuals are doing," Hazel Feltus said. "We have been taxpayers for so long and good citizens for so long," the bishop added. "We feel like the government owes us something. And we've had many promises but no return. And it has been said, `justice delayed is justice denied.'

Some residents believe that racism is blocking African-Americans, especially poor blacks, from returning. Others worry about a just and corruption-free distribution of government aid.  "We know that there are billions of dollars on the way to New Orleans," Webster said. "But the frustrating thing is that most of that money will not get down to the level where people need it the most."

Indeed, churches have become a major organizing point for much of the community activism. And they're finally catching the attention of local officials. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has promised to meet with faith-based community leaders for at least two hours every month. "We're really starting to focus on the importance of the faith-based community in the restoration of this city," Nagin said.
 
 
Wenger Mennonites Show Sharp Growth Rates
 
BY DANIEL BURKE                                                                                   ©2006 Religion News Service
 
On the highways of American life, one might expect the "horse-and-buggy" Mennonites to be left in the dust.
But this conservative Christian sect, whose members eschew the indulgences of modern life -- including computers, cell phones and cars--is quietly thriving, according to a new in-depth study.

The Old Order Mennonites, also known as "horse-and-buggy" or "Wenger" Mennonites after former Bishop Joseph Wenger, included about 200 families in 1927 when they split from other Mennonites who wanted to allow the use of automobiles.

Now, the Wenger Mennonites have grown to 18,000 in nine states, with most living in rural areas such as the Finger Lakes region of New York and parts of Lancaster County, Pa., according to research compiled by sociology professors Donald B. Kraybill and James P. Hurd.

For a religious community that prizes humility over aggression, sacrifice over individual achievement, and God's grace over material goods, the rapid growth has taken some by surprise. The majority of U.S. Mennonites have embraced modern life and become assimilated into the "whirlpool of worldliness," Kraybill and Hurd write in their new book, "Horse-and-Buggy Mennonites." The Wenger Mennonites originally split from "mainstream" Mennonites in 1893 over the introduction of Sunday school and English-language church services.

They may appear more progressive than the closely related Amish because they wear less distinctive clothing (women wear bonnets but men do not wear beards) and use electricity and tractors, but Wenger Mennonites are more socially conservative, according to Kraybill. Some Wenger Mennonites even refer to the Amish as "hickory sticks" for their willingness to bend their own rules. That conservatism, along with some of the highest fertility rates in the U.S., helps explain why the Wenger Mennonite population has been doubling every 18 years, said Kraybill, who teaches at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County.

Alta Hoover, 68, a Wenger Mennonite who lives in Lancaster, raised seven children. "That's a small family," she said in a telephone interview. By her community's standards, she's right. The average Wenger Mennonite family has 8.3 children, according to the research of Kraybill and Hurd, a professor at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. Wenger Mennonites have also been remarkably successful at retaining their youth, with 90 percent agreeing to be baptized into the church when they are young adults.

The community's age-old rules are updated by a semiannual ministers' conference and read to congregations each year. The penalty for breaking the rules is a restriction from receiving Holy Communion and possibly excommunication. But Hoover said the community's values are "better caught than taught."

"If we live our basic beliefs, our children will catch it," she said. Children are taught that the community they were born into is the one in which they will be happiest, Hoover said, and the lack of outside influences, like television, radio and the Internet, keeps the youth from straying.

"It's a protection for us, actually, to stay away from the many temptations of the world," Hoover said. Parochial schools whose lessons end at the eighth grade, family-run businesses and the use of a Pennsylvania German dialect draw fences between Wenger Mennonites and outsiders. Those boundaries serve dual purposes: They keep the community together and force them to live simply, in a way they believe is pleasing to God, Wenger Mennonites say.

For instance, their reliance on the horse and buggy keeps families together by restricting long-range travel, said Mary Shirk, 54, a Wenger Mennonite from Lancaster. "If you have a horse and buggy, you cannot quite as readily go and do just anything and everything you wish. You can only run the horse so far," Shirk said.

Still, economic pressures are scattering Wenger Mennonites, as young families must move farther afield to find affordable farmland. To travel great distances for family gatherings, Wenger Mennonites will often rent van and a driver.

"If we need to spread out, then that's what we need to do," said Hoover. The world is pretty small nowadays."




 
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