Scriptural and responsible use of the Internet was a key point of discussion as more than 100 ministers and church leaders gathered for the recent “We Be Brethren Symposium.”
Organizers described the two-day event — hosted by the Elysian Fields Church of Christ in the heart of the Big Easy — as an effort to foster unity and face-to-face dialogue on doctrinal issues sparking heated debate online.
“All of us can become victims of Facebook bullying,” said Herman Wesley III, minister for the NorthPointe Church of Christ in Montgomery, Ala. “Facebook is not the proper forum to expose people’s sins, and Facebook is not the proper forum to correct people’s sins.”
The symposium was developed “to give a last-ditch effort to help bring together a brotherhood we saw splitting right before our very eyes,” said directors Antwan Brown, minister for the Barton Avenue Church of Christ in Luling, La., and R.L. Clark Jr., minister for the Crowder Boulevard Church of Christ in New Orleans.
In a written statement of purpose, Brown and Clark voiced hope the undertaking “will start a national dialogue among the African-American Churches of Christ to bring us closer together than the current trend which has seen us driven further apart.”
Genesis 13:8 (King James Version) inspired the event’s name: “And Abram said unto Lot, Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren.”
Biblically acceptable worship, lines of fellowship and whether clergy robes are sinful were among the topics addressed in mostly cordial but sometimes testy presentations.
John Lewis, minister for the West Fifth Street Church of Christ in Summerville, Ga., said he welcomed the symposium’s emphasis on respectful dialogue.
“Facebook can get out of control, and people can be really mean and nasty,” Lewis said. “That’s what’s happening.”
Talking in person benefits the tone of conversation, he added: “We can disagree with each other and not be disagreeable.”
A desire for unity drew Jeffrey Pointer, minister for the Southern Hills Church of Christ in Charlotte, N.C., to the symposium.
“I would hope that rather than picking a side, we would use the biblical references and Scriptures to draw conclusions,” Pointer said. “We don’t have an issue with any of the churches here, even though we may not do some of the things that they do in worship.
“But some people want to make it a test of fellowship,” he added, “and hopefully this weekend we can come up with an idea that, ‘Look, we’re different in different areas, but we are all on a united front, and we’re going to support the work of the Kingdom.’ That’s what I’m hoping comes out of here.”
But on Facebook, purported defenders of the faith frequently call out certain ministers and leaders as “heretics” and “false teachers,” panelists lamented.
“Just a few weeks ago, there was a long list of brethren who were considered heretics in the church,” Wesley said, “and I think we ought to be very careful about throwing out these types of labels.
“What we’re seeing now is, if you are associated with somebody who is doing something that is questionable, you are being labeled a heretic on Facebook,” he added. “You haven’t received a call. You haven’t received a letter. There’s been no conversation, I’m sure.”
Wesley said he appreciated the symposium bringing together disagreeing brothers to dialogue “from their hearts … in a spirit of love.”
Omari French, minister for the Uptown Church of Christ in San Francisco, said a Facebook group with which he is associated publicly apologized for a false accusation made against a Christian woman.
“We want to make sure that there are men striving for integrity,” French said of that group’s online activity.
But French said, “My question is, when there is something that offends the doctrine, whether it’s fellowship with a denomination or whatever have you, is it not outside of the purview of Matthew 18:15 if something is sin?” (That verse concerns the need to confront a brother or sister who sins one on one.)
A doctrinal issue, French suggested, should be an appropriate subject for a biblical dialogue in a public forum.
But Michael Crusoe, minister for the East End Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., said, “I’m not so sure I can take care of a doctrinal issue in California from Tennessee. … When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, you know they had all kinds of problems, but he’s writing to the church at Corinth. He’s not writing to the church at Rome about Corinth’s problem.”
Discussions with — and about — fellow believers ought to be seasoned with “an overwhelming amount of love,” Anderson said.
Younger Christians can’t distinguish between nasty words on social media and declarations of love on Sunday, he cautioned.
Without a change in tone, Churches of Christ risk losing that generation, he said.
“We have got to find a way,” Anderson said, “to be positive and loving in the way we communicate on social media.”
And they’ll know we are Christians by our … love.
“Don’t go, Daddy,” she begged. “Don’t go.”
Jack Zorn — known to generations in Churches of Christ as “The Man in the Red Jacket” who founded the Lads to Leaders program — was leaving to speak at a church in another state. His daughter Rhonda wanted him to stay home and play.
First part: 'He's with me, and he's fighting,' brain-injury victim's wife says“Dad sat in the floor and explained his commitment to the church and supporting his family,” Rhonda Fernandez recalled. “He said, ‘Rhonda, you don’t want me to disappoint all those people expecting me and not do my work, do you?’”
Decades later, Fernandez, now 53, found her role reversed as she explained to her parents — who entered hospice care a year ago — that she had to go home to Orlando, Fla., after six weeks at their central Alabama home.
Jack Zorn, 81, is mostly blind, has hearing difficulties, battles regular strokes and sleeps between 20 and 21 hours a day. Besides that, he has an arthritic hip that causes severe pain.
Frances Zorn, 79, suffers from heart problems and dementia. The extent of her memory loss fluctuates from day to day.
Both Zorns were in a serious car wreck in 2009 that exacerbated their health concerns.
“I needed to go home to my job, my dog, my own kitchen, my church family and, most of all, my precious husband, Halo,” said Fernandez, a member of the Concord Street Church of Christ.
But when Fernandez broke the news that she was flying home the next day, her mother wept and said she couldn’t sleep if Rhonda weren’t there. Her father assured her Halo would understand if she stayed just a little longer. Get him on the phone, Jack Zorn urged.
“My heart just hurt,” Fernandez said. “My dear husband knows this is a season of life and is supportive, but he is sacrificing deeply. It seems I live in two states. That same Jack and Frances two years ago would have said, ‘We enjoyed your visit, Blondie, but you need to get home to your husband.’”
Jack and Frances Zorn hold hands while wearing matching red coats during last year’s Lads to Leaders annual convention in Nashville, Tenn. (PHOTO BY HALO FERNANDEZ)
Gut-wrenching. Sobering. Scary. All-consuming.
Fernandez uses all of those adjectives to describe the role she has assumed overseeing her parents’ around-the-clock care.
But she’s quick to point out that she’s just one piece of the puzzle.
Others include the caregivers who change her parents’ undergarments, the nurses and doctors who make house calls, the homecare beautician who fixes her mother’s hair, the neighbors who help with yard work, the police chief who changes the batteries in her parents’ GPS bracelets and the Broadway Church of Christ members — led by Mike Perry — who deliver the Lord’s Supper each Sunday.
“She keeps saying, ‘It’s not about me,’” said Resa Byrd, Fernandez’s older sister, whose husband, Herbert Byrd III, serves as an elder of the Maryville Church of Christ in Tennessee. “However, I will tell you that I think she’ll have a special place in heaven for what she has done and is doing for my parents. It consumes her life, and she loves them the way Christ loved us.”
Said Fernandez: “It seems common for one sibling to be most involved, and the support of the other siblings is so helpful. I cannot imagine how conflicted I would be if I did not know my sister Resa was always there for support when needed. She is my prayer warrior and is encouraging me habitually.”
As Rhonda Fernandez welcomes a visitor to Jack and Frances Zorn’s home, the husband and wife sit in the living room — surrounded by family photos and other mementos of 58 years of marriage.
Prized picture frames show political heroes such as Ronald Reagan and a Christian Chronicle clipping featuring “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson, whom the couple enjoy watching on television.
“What if I fall?” asks a wall hanging. “Oh, my darling, what if you fly?”
Jack and Frances sport matching, long-sleeved T-shirts with a photo of themselves emblazoned on front. In the picture, both are in wheelchairs, holding hands and wearing red jackets at a Lads to Leaders event.
“If I am lost find Jack,” says the message on Frances’ shirt.
“I am Jack,” says the note on his.
Look closer, and a camera — one of eight that Fernandez had installed in every room except the bathroom — shines on the couple.
Whether in the next room or 500 miles away in Florida, the Zorns’ daughter can keep an eye on her parents — and their caregivers — via her smartphone and her tablet computer.
“Technology is fantastic,” Fernandez said. “At night — if they are having a bad night — I can put in an earpiece. Then I sleep sort of light, and I can hear them toss and turn and an occasional faint snore.
“But then if there is a weird noise, it wakes me up. Then I can text the caretaker in the next room, you know what I’m saying. I know it’s a little compulsive.”
Her husband, Halo Fernandez, teases her about that compulsiveness, even as he tracks the Zorns’ movements himself.
One night, Rhonda Fernandez was in bed at her parents’ house when Halo called from Orlando.
“Your dad’s doing his leg like he does when his hip’s hurting,” Halo said. “He needs a pain pill.”
“Oh, thank you, honey,” Rhonda said, grabbing a pill and water for her father.
About 30 minutes later, her phone rang again.
“I think your father’s throat is parched,” Halo joked. “He might like some lemonade.”
“Stop watching my parents,” she replied with a chuckle, “and go to bed.”
A decade ago, the Zorns retired and moved to Frances’ hometown of Sylacauga, a Bible Belt community of 13,000 about 50 miles southeast of Birmingham.
The daughters’ earliest memories involve their dad behind the pulpit on Sunday mornings.
Saturday nights were filled with “baths, hair-curling sessions, ironing of clothes and early bedtimes,” Resa Byrd said, “because we all knew that Sunday was the day we honored God by looking our very best.”
Jack Zorn was raised on a sharecropper’s farm in Geneva County, Ala. His father suffered from alcoholism, and his mother struggled to instill Christian values in the family. At age 17, Jack Zorn was baptized at a gospel meeting. He later attended Alabama Christian College (now Faulkner University) in Montgomery, where he met fellow student Frances.
Zorn was preaching in Warner Robins, Ga., in 1968 when the elders asked him to develop a leadership training program for the congregation’s young people.
That Sunday class for eight boys grew into Lads to Leaders, which annually draws a combined 20,000 boys and girls to a half-dozen convention sites across the nation. Frances Zorn’s younger brother, Roy Johnson, now serves as executive director.
In the summers, the entire Zorn family hit the road in a Dodge camper to promote Lads to Leaders.
By Fernandez’s count, those trips took her to at least 27 states. Her father encouraged her to make impromptu speeches in as many states as possible. She reckons that contributed to her interest in politics — including later serving on Reagan’s advance team.
The Zorns timed their driving so they could be sure to attend worship services — wherever they were — on Sunday and Wednesday.
“We’d be in that camper, and we’d have that ‘Where the Saints Meet’ book, and we’d flip through and see where we were going to be and what time,” Fernandez said.
Now, she is the person who must tell her parents that — unless they’ve had an exceptional week healthwise — they can’t go to church.
“Neither of us can drive, so we have to depend on other people driving us or carrying us,” Jack Zorn said. “And we go as often as we have a way.
When we don’t, somebody brings us the Lord’s Supper.”
“It’s not just the driving part,” his daughter interjected. “They’re a fall risk.”
It’s just too risky — particularly when Fernandez is in Florida — to attempt taking Jack and Frances to worship, she said. The daughter wouldn’t want a caregiver or church member feeling responsible if her parents left and got hurt.
“It makes me sad,” Jack Zorn said of not being able to attend.
“And that breaks my heart,” his daughter said.
Her dad, she pointed out, is a big man and can become wobbly.
“Daddy, what are you — 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4?” she asked.
“Six-foot-two,” he responded.
“I’m sorry,” Fernandez said. “He seems like a giant to me.”
In her eyes, he will always be a giant in faith — and she counts it a blessing that their only real argument concerns his desire to worship God.
Frances Zorn smiled and listened to the conversation but spoke little. Her daughter gently rested her left palm on her mother’s right hand.
“I’ve become the annoying ‘no’ child,” Fernandez said. “No, Dad, you have to use your walker. No, Dad, you cannot leave the house without your wheelchair because remember what happened last time. No, Mom, you cannot shower alone because it’s not safe.
“Mom, the church called and notified me your driving had become unsafe, and I need your keys.”
When Fernandez first realized her parents couldn’t care for themselves, she contemplated moving them to Orlando to live with her.
But an expert at Alabama’s Helen Keller School for the blind and deaf cautioned against taking her father away from his familiar surroundings, where he already knew the floor plan and felt comfortable.
Well-meaning friends and fellow Christians tell Fernandez she should put her parents in a nursing home.
“Those decisions are so incredibly personal, and each family has its own set of unique circumstances,” she said. “I am not judging others for their choices, but I want to keep my parents in their own home as long as humanly possible.”
Resa Byrd said it’s important for those who don’t assume the brunt of the load to support and encourage the one who does.
“Other family members simply must support that sibling with unconditional love, patience and trust,” Byrd wrote in an email. “Unless you are the one who handles the doctors’ visits, the financial decisions, the schedules, the phone calls, the emotional needs, then you don’t need to ‘gift’ your sibling with advice (unless solicited) or criticism for their decisions.”
Moreover, she said, “Every family member should contribute, love, visit and engage in their parents’ lives. Being nothing more than a ‘visitor’ is the easy way out. Every family member can roll up their sleeves, wash some dishes, mop a floor, throw laundry in the washer, rake some leaves, pay a bill or do something more than drop by.”
Hood, 75, serves as an elder for the 125-member Callahan Street Church of Christ in this northwest Georgia city of 36,000.
He worked for a paper mill for 33 years, but now he’s enjoying retirement.
I showed up at Hood’s house — painted bright yellow with a U.S. flag flying by the front door — after seeing his name in national news reports.
Hood, it turns out, was as surprised as anybody when he ended up in arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some background: In 1987, Hood was a potential juror for a capital murder case in which Timothy Tyrone Foster, an 18-year-old black man, was charged with killing Queen Madge White, a 79-year-old white woman.
However, prosecutors used challenges to remove all four prospective black jurors — including Hood.
More than a quarter-century later, Foster’s attorneys seek a new trial on the basis of “purposeful discrimination by the prosecution in securing an all-white jury.”
In the penalty phase, prosecutor Stephen Lanier urged the jury to sentence Foster to death to deter other people “out there in the projects.”
The nation’s high court heard arguments in the case in November — and Hood figured prominently.
According to the defense, prosecutors first claimed they objected to Hood because he had a son about the same age as the suspect. However, the jury included two whites with sons in the same age range.
Later, prosecutors blamed the strike on “Hood’s affiliation with the Church of Christ.” The church, they claimed, “definitely takes a stand against the death penalty.” But the district attorney’s own notes acknowledge the church leaves the issue to individual members, the defense responded.
For his part, Hood said he didn’t dwell on being excluded.
“Being in the Lord’s church, I don’t take something and build it in my mind to have any animosity,” he said. “But when I came home, I told my wife (Elnora), ‘More than likely, they’re not going to want too many of ‘us’ on the jury.’”
By “us,” he meant people of color.
Given the decades that have passed, Hood couldn’t recall if the district attorney quizzed him on his religion. But when I asked if he had a problem with the death penalty, he quickly replied, “Oh, no.”
When Foster was convicted, Hood heard about it. However, he didn’t realize an all-white jury had rendered the decision. He figured a few blacks had remained on the jury.
Eddie Hood visits with The Christian Chronicle at his home in Rome, Ga., (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)But before the recent hearing, Foster’s attorneys contacted Hood.
Then the media — including a reporter and a photographer from The Associated Press — came calling.
Before long, friends at the library were teasing Hood about being on the front page of the newspaper. And he couldn’t believe his eyes when the headlines scrolling across his television included his own name.
Hood grew up in the Jim Crow era of segregation, so racial issues are not new to him.
In his hometown of Cave Springs, Ala., blacks had to go in the back door of the café. As a teen, he was bussed 16 miles each way to an all-black high school. At the movie theater, blacks sat in the balcony, while whites had seats down front.
In 1963, Hood’s younger brother James Hood and fellow student Vivian Malone gained notoriety when Gov. George Wallace blocked their entry to the University of Alabama.
Wallace later capitulated and allowed James Hood and Malone to enroll after President John F. Kennedy federalized several hundred members of the Alabama National Guard. (James Hood — one of Eddie Hood’s eight younger siblings — died in 2013 at age 70.)
Eddie Hood, the great-great-grandson of a slave, said his mother taught him not to hate white people but to be careful around them.
Hood’s grandson Brandon Rucker, a member of the Jacksonville Church of Christ in Alabama, can’t recall his grandfather talking about race with him.
“We were just, I guess, raised properly, and it just never seemed to be an issue,” Rucker told me when I met him at a Jacksonville worship assembly. “When I brought home friends from school and whatnot, he would just compliment me being around good people, regardless of race. Color was never mentioned. It was never an issue at all.”
Like his grandfather, Rucker was surprised to see Hood making news. (Rucker leads singing in the below video).
“It’s a little unsettling to know that race is still used as a criteria for either accepting or rejecting jurors,” said Rucker, who was unaware of the case until reading news reports. “That should be a non-issue as well.”
The Supreme Court is expected to rule before its current term ends next June. Hood is curious to see what the justices decide.
Meanwhile, he takes pride in helping knock down racial barriers closer to home.
“My neighbor here put up a fence when I first moved in,” Hood said as he walked me to my car.
Eventually, though, he and the white neighbor became friends — and the fence disappeared.