Author Archives: Paul Brandeis Raushenbush


Good Friday On Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa Marked By Christians Commemorating Jesus’ Crucifixion (PHOTOS)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Christians in the Holy Land are commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in Good Friday prayers and processions through Jerusalem’s Old City.

good friday old city

Thousands of Christian pilgrims filled the cobblestone alleyways of the Old City on Friday along the Via Dolorosa, Latin for the “Way of Suffering.”

good friday old city They are carrying wooden crosses and following the 14 stations ending at the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Tradition says the church was built on the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

The Easter holiday and Jewish Passover coincide this year.

good friday old city

According to the Gospels, Jesus ate his last supper — a Passover meal — hours before he was betrayed. Christians believe Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and resurrected on Easter Sunday.

good friday old city

good friday old city

good friday old city

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How Three Jewish Junior Obama Staffers Brought The First Passover Seder To The White House

April 19, 2008 was a low point in Senator Obama’s campaign to be the Democratic Presidential candidate. Senator Clinton had recently won the Ohio primary, Rev. Jeremiah Wright was in the news and the momentum appeared to turning away from the Junior Senator from Illinois.

It was also Passover; and three Jewish junior staffers on the campaign realized there was no way they would be able to be with their families. Eric Lesser, Herbie Ziskend, and Arun Chaudhary decided to throw together an impromptu Seder at 9:30 at the end of a long day in what they describe as a ‘dank, windowless, meeting room’ in the Sheraton in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

What they had not anticipated was that Obama would show up.

And so began a tradition of a small group of people celebrating the Passover Seder together, that in 2009 made history as the first Seder to be celebrated in the White House.

The three men have since left the White House, where they worked for a few years following the first Obama campaign, but on Tuesday, April 15th they will again join President Obama at the White House for the annual Seder, just as they have for the last six years.

Lesser, who is a candidate for state senate in hometown of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, Ziskend who serves as Chief of Staff to Arianna Huffington at The Huffington Post, and Chaudhary who is a Partner at Revolution Messaging, a communications firm in Washington DC got on the phone with HuffPost Executive Religion Editor Paul Brandeis Raushenbush to share exactly how this historic White House Passover tradition began and how it has changed both their lives and the lives of American Jews.

Paul: Ok, so you are three Jews with then Senator Obama, you’re on the campaign trail in 2008 and Passover happens. How did you decide to do a Seder at all?

Eric: So, we were the only Jews out of 9 or 10 traveling full time with the President. It was basically impossible for us to get home for Passover. I had chatted a bit with Arun and with Herbie who was going to be on the ground doing advance that night and we decided to do an impromptu Seder.

It was in the middle of the Pennsylvania primary and it was a very tough phase of the campaign. We were going to be in Harrisburg the first night at the end of a very long day of a whistle stop tour that was starting in Philadelphia and ending in Harrisburg. My job was to drive ahead of everybody to the hotel at Harrisburg so, on the fly I called my cousin who was at University of Pennsylvania and he raided the Penn Hillel for an emergency Seder box.

Arun: It was impressive. I have to give him credit there, it was an impressive little kit.

Eric: So, my cousin snatched some macaroons, some Manischewitz, some matzoh, and a bunch of Maxwell House Haggadahs and threw them in a box and gave it to me that morning. When I got everything set at the hotel I was able to find a dank, windowless meeting room at the basement of the Sheraton that nobody was using. And that turned into our makeshift Seder room.

Eric: So, Arun and Herbie got there around 9:30 that night and it was really going to be just Herbie and I, and anyone else who wanted to join us to have a quick, impromptu Seder; which is kind of the best tradition of the Seder, that you just invite whomever is around. So, we were just going to do something quick to mark the holiday and continue on with the campaign.

So, just as Arun, Herbie and I, along with a couple of other staff members who joined us were about to sit down, then Senator Obama popped his head in and said, ‘Hey, is this the Seder?’

And we were a little taken aback and said, ‘yeah, of course.’ It turns out that he had been to nine Seders in a row before that one, and that Michelle (Obama) and his daughters were at a Seder that night in Chicago. So he was eager to participate.

The funny thing is that Arun and Herbie and I were planning a pretty casual Seder and the President, well, then he was a Senator, can be a pretty intense guy. So when we sat down he was very fluent in the story, he knows the story of Exodus of course, and we actually went through the entire Haggadah.

Paul: You were going to do a speed Haggadah and he was not having it.

Arun: Were from very Reform families and usually the question is, will this be about a half hour before I get to dinner.

Herbie: Remember we had started that day on a train at 7am in Philly on a whistle stop tour. It was a long day, and it was the longest stretch of the campaign. It was our desert moment. Senator Clinton was making a big comeback. We thought we were going to win but it was unclear at the time. And everyone was tired after a long day of campaigning and then the Senator is saying: “Is this the Seder?” it was almost remarkable that everyone had the energy to get together and do it.

Eric: The senator said something pretty sweet at the time. When I was kicking things off I said this is a little bittersweet because I am normally with my family on Passover, and Arun, Herbie and I wanted to at least mark the holiday even though we are going to be away from family. And the Senator stopped us and said: ‘Well, you are with family.’

Paul: Who was in the room?

Eric: The three of us, Senator Obama, Valerie Jarrett, another friend from Chicago Eric Whitaker, Reggie Love, Samantha Tubman, Jen Psaki and Cookie Offerman.

Paul: How did you start? How did you decide who was going to read what?

Eric: The event would be recognizable to any Jewish family that celebrates the Seder. There was a little awkwardness figuring out where to start and then we just kind of went around. Everyone took turns reading portions. Obama was, is, very familiar with the story and the law professor in him is very interested in the intellectual give and take aspects of the Seder so he asked questions like: What’s the significance of this? How do you celebrate it with your family?

Arun: And it was also some people’s first Seder. So there were questions about what to do with the plates and other things; which was great for me, Eric and Herbie who have been to a lot of Seders but have never led one and we took a collective role of leading.

Eric: And at the end everybody raises their glasses and there is a tradition when you say: Next year in Jerusalem. So we all raised our glasses and said ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ and then we all put our glasses down and then Obama raised his glass and said: ‘Next year in the White House.’ And we all said yes, and raised our glasses. It was a very poignant moments because it was really one of the lowest points within the 2008 campaign.

Eric: Fast forward a year later and Arun, Herbie and I are all working in the White House and Obama, of course, is president. I was working as a special assistant to David Axelrod in my little cubby hole next to David’s office was just 40 feet off the Oval Office and it was around this time and the president just poked his head in one day and said “Hey, Lesser, we’re doing the Seder again right? I promised ‘next year in the White House’ and here we are!”

And we were all like, “yeah, sure, let’s do it!” But it was really driven by him and he remembered it. And he had said to many of his friends and many people that it was among his best memories from the campaign because it was such a unique night. I mean, he can’t go anywhere without a million reporters spotting everything he does. And that Seder was a pause- which is what a Seder is supposed to be, there’s a reason that you recline. One of the four questions is “why do we recline?” And that’s really what it was! It was a chance for all of us to pause, to tell the story, and to connect about the meaning of the holiday. And then of course everyone went back, we all went back to running a million miles an hour the next morning. And fast forward a year later and we’re at the White House, and it’s time for what became the first Seder celebrated by a president in the White House in American history.

Paul: I find that amazing.

Arun: Because it felt even more like that at the White House that year. You’re actually at the building where you’ve been busting your ass every day- but even then, those few hours that we were able to spend doing the Seder, I think for the First Family and for us really does feel like this pause- a real moment of reflection. You know, it’s been a year since we did this, it’s going to be the same people, a lot of the same conversations even, just like any family. You know, the President makes fun of me because I every year make the speech about Hillel Sandwich- I’m very impressed with Hillel Sandwich- I find it to be an extraordinary piece of Jewish technology that is not necessarily as lauded as it needs to be. And so I make this speech about it every year. And I remember one year we were running behind, and so I said, “I don’t want to make this speech,” and the President was like, “You gotta make the speech! That’s what you do every year- it’s your thing.” And it feels very much like a family, very much like tradition, and that’s why I think it’s so important to everyone to go.

Herbie: Each year that we’ve done it- every year since the in the White House, in the old family dining room, and the President always starts by remembering the story of the first one in ’08, and talking about how important it was to him at the time, and to the team, and how it has become something that he really loves doing every year. He brings the First Lady and his daughters, and his daughters are the youngest ones at the table, so the story of Passover is always told to the youngest people there and so it’s directed towards them. And what we notice every year is that despite the fact that you have to go past Secret Service and you’re in this historic building, and you’re with people who are helping to run the country, it’s just like any other Seder. The same jokes- I go out every year and I hide the afikomen, and one year I hid the afikomen and the daughters went out to look for it and I realized that I forgot where I hid it. So things go wrong- I think one year we were about to start and we had forgotten matches.

One year the macaroons got quarantined by the Secret Service on their way in, because we hadn’t pre-cleared it, which was definitely a White House Seder Problem. That’s going to be a hashtag.

Paul: So let me ask you, there’s this perception about the President that he doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve and some people complain about that. How do you guys understand the President as a spiritual or a religious person?

Arun: I think that he takes his spirituality and religious convictions extraordinarily seriously, but also very privately. I think he likes to demonstrate it through deeds- whether it’s comforting folks in times of need, or even something like hosting a White House Seder, rather than always kind of harping on. He’s always been someone who’s more of a show-you-his-religion person, rather than a tell-you-his-religion person. And I think that the Seder speaks volumes to that, and it is not a political event. Jewish advocates, people who inform Jewish public opinion in elections, are not the people who come to the Seder. It is like a real spiritual experience, what a Seder is to the people who are at hand, the people who are trying to make it. I think all of the other guys can fill in from there, but that’s definitely something that I feel very strongly about.

Herbie: There’s a strong connection between the African-American community and the Jewish community, and in terms of the story of the Exodus, and the fight to become free and live in dignity, and during the Civil Rights movement, African-Americans and Jews were working together. And so, this idea of becoming free, and both for groups and individuals at a personal level is something that I think we all feel when we do the Seder at the White House. We now, for the last few years, have been reading the Emancipation Proclamation and everyone goes around and reads a different verse form the Emancipation Proclamation- and so the story is related to more current times. And you know as we’ve said, it’s not political, it’s like a very typical Seder- but of course, it’s in the White House, and it’s the first year we did it on Truman silverware- and Truman was the first president to recognize Israel. Last year, I think Arun’s grandmother’s Seder plate was bumped because Sara Netanyahu gave a seder plate..

Arun (interjects)- No, worse than that, it was my Mother-in-law’s Seder plate that was bumped in favor of Netanyahu’s Seder plate!

Paul: When did the Emancipation Proclamation get incorporated and whose idea was that?

Eric: It was Eric Whittaker, who’s a close personal friend of the Obamas from Chicago, and he was there in Harrisburg with us the first time- he always flies back, he comes back to Washington for the Seder each year- and it was his idea which we all, of course loved- to incorporate the Emancipation Proclamation. And we traditionally read it right after the welcoming of Elijah, which occurs after the meal. And a funny aside on that: there’s a tradition in Jewish homes that you open the front door when you welcome Elijah — because in Jewish tradition the coming of Elijah presages the coming of the Messiah — and so you want to welcome Elijah in so that the Messiah can come in. And there’s a beautiful song that you sing as this is going on, and the front door of the home is opened. And we realized logistically the first year that opening the front door of the White House isn’t exactly realistic (laughs). So we just opened the door into the hallway.

Paul: And what did you do when you were in the Harrisburg hotel?

Eric: That’s a good question. I don’t exactly remember- I think we just opened the door to the hallway then too-

Arun- I actually remember. Between us and an empty ballroom- not ballroom, but you know how they have those sort of modular spaces around- you know those horrible hotels with the folding walls? The next folding wall over was an empty room, and we just peeled back a little bit of that, to the next empty, windowless section of the Sheraton in Harrisburg.

Paul: Sounds so glamorous. How do you think this has changed you? How do you think this has changed your faith- this experience?

Herbie: It reinforced that no matter where you are in your life, and no matter what you’re doing, that stopping and pausing every year to remember the story of the Exodus, is both necessary and realistic. Because if you look at where we all were in 2008, our lives were about to dramatically change. Obviously the senator’s life changed the most, but all of our lives changed, too. We went on to Washington, we had jobs in the White House for the new president, a president who made history just by winning, and yet, despite all that was happening around us in all of our lives, each year we would stop, and we continue to stop, pause, and remember the story. So for me, on a personal level, it has reinforced that for the rest of my life I want to make sure that for me and for my family, I take the time to stop, tell the story of Passover, do a Seder, and allow myself and those around me to pause and understand why this is so important. An event that occurred 3,000 years ago, why it still matters today in our own lives.

Arun: I feel like it’s always valuable to see something- no matter how important it is to you, like Passover- through the eyes of others. It forces you naturally to reexamine the process, reexamine what’s important to you about the ritual, and it’s just something that I’m grateful to have- like Herbie says- to have taken the pause.

Eric: I have two main takeaways that I have gotten from it. The first is that the universalism in many ways of the Passover story. I had internalized the story, the Jewish story, from growing up and celebrating it at my synagogue, and with my family at home in Massachusetts, and what you realize and appreciate is that there are universal elements to the story of Passover that everybody has a piece of, that everybody can identify with, which is you know, the struggle for freedom, the concept of redemption and the social justice.

You know, all groups, particularly the African-American community certainly has much that they can find significant. So that was a very fulfilling realization personally for me, which was that this holiday that we know as a Jewish holiday, is a holiday that celebrates universal themes, and that everybody in the country can find attachment to. That’s the first place, that really changed me.

The second is that, on a very basic level, it really kind of shows that anything is possible, doesn’t it? I mean, the idea that the first African-American president would be celebrating the first Seder in the White House- you know, my grandmother who recently passed away, but who was living in an assisted-living center in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn- the very first year when my aunt brought her the picture of us all celebrating the Seder at the White House, she couldn’t believe it! She thought that that was never possible- a group of people that had survived the Holocaust and moved to the United States and were considered outsiders could now be sitting in the White House celebrating a Seder with the first African-American President- I mean, even just a few years ago everybody would have thought this kind of a scenario would be impossible.

Herbie: It’s particularly meaningful to me because this year, for the first time, I’m bringing my grandmother, who lived in the same town as the one that I grew up in- this is the first time she’s coming to the White House for this, and for that generation to see this happen, and for her to have the amazing privilege of attending, is just so moving for me and for my family. And it just kind of shows how special and incredible this story truly is.

Paul: Last question. In two years, at the end, let’s say, next year in Jerusalem, then there will be one more question, maybe one more toast. Where do you think it’ll be?

Arun: We have to keep doing this together, that’s for sure. You know, location-wise- I think maybe it’s going to have to be rotating? I don’t know guys, what do you think?

Herbie: I think like all Jewish families, when we gather we’ll probably say, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Eric: We’ll leave it to the President to make the suggestion, he’ll give us the clue in 2016.


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Palm Sunday Photos 2014: Christians Celebrate Around The World

Christians around the world celebrate the beginning of Holy Week with Palm Sunday; a day that commemorates when Jesus entered Jerusalem and was greeted by followers waving palms as described in the Christian Gospel of John.

They took palm branches and…

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Pope Francis Personally Takes On Evil Of Priest Sex Abuse, Asks For Forgiveness

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis asked for forgiveness Friday from people who were sexually abused by priests, and vowed that there will be no going back in the church’s fight to protect children.

Francis made the off-the-cuff remarks after coming und…

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Pope Francis Treats Faithful To Copies Of The Gospels In St. Peter’s Square

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Tens of thousands of faithful in St. Peter’s Square have been treated to gifts from Pope Francis — pocket-sized copies of the Gospels which he hopes they’ll keep handy and read daily.

The scriptures were handed out by volunteers after the pope’s traditional Sunday appearance to pilgrims and tourists in the square. The pope did ask for something in return, telling them: “In exchange for this gift, perform an act of charity.” He said such an act might be praying for an enemy, for example.

Last fall, the pope had volunteers distribute free rosaries in boxes resembling pill packets, likening them to spiritual medicine.

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Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory To Sell $2.2 Million Mansion

SMYRNA, Ga. (AP) — The archbishop of Atlanta says he has decided to sell his $2.2 million residence following a storm of criticism from parishioners.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory said Saturday that he will leave the Tudor-style residence in the exclusiv…

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Giampaolo Marta and Gianantonio Allegri, Italian Priests, Canadian Nun Abducted In Cameroon

ROME (AP) — Armed groups on Saturday abducted two Italian priests and a Canadian nun working as missionaries in northern Cameroon, Italy’s government and Catholic church officials said.

Italy’s foreign ministry identified the priests as Giampaolo Marta and Gianantonio Allegri, but declined to give other details, including the Canadian’s identity, to avoid compromising efforts for the missionaries’ release. A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said Pope Francis was praying for the three and “expressed hope for a solution.”

Italy cautions against travel to the area, which is 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the border with Nigeria “in consideration of the risk of kidnappings due to presence of jihadist elements coming from Nigeria.”

“It isn’t ruled out that those who carried out the abduction belong to the Islamic fundamentalist group Boko Haram,” Vatican Radio said.

Boko Haram has warned Cameroon to stay out of its fight with the Nigerian military, threatening otherwise to carry its war for an Islamic state into the neighboring country.

The priests were assigned from the Vicenza diocese in northern Italy. No one has claimed responsibility, diocese officials said.

Vatican Radio broadcast an interview with an unidentified priest from Vicenza, who said the kidnappers seized the Canadian woman, but left nuns from Cameroon.

The Italian news agency ANSA quoted diocesan officials as saying the nun is 80.

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Christian Nick Vujicic Offers Powerful Testimony On Standing Strong Against Bullying

I am a bully’s dream, no doubt about it.

No arms. No legs. No defense.

Born without limbs for reasons never determined, I was blessed in so many other ways. My greatest blessing was a loving and supportive family. They sheltered and encouraged me for the first years of my life. But once I left the protective shelter of family for the hallways and playgrounds of elementary school, I felt like I had a target on my chest that said, “Bullies, aim here.”

I felt alone in my fear of bullies, but I wasn’t alone. And neither are you.

If you’ve been bullied, the first thing you need to understand is that their attacks, taunts, and mean acts aren’t really about you, any flaws you might have, or anything you might have done. Bullies have their own issues. They pick on you to make themselves feel better, to vent their anger, to feel more powerful, or even because they can’t think of anything else to do.

I know it’s lame, but it’s true.

When I was a teenager, I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out why bullies picked on me. There was one guy in particular who really got inside my head. He bullied everybody, but for some reason I took it personally. I obsessed over his motives. Finally I realized that his bullying wasn’t about my problems. It was about his.

You may have a bully who has had the same impact on you, getting inside your head, knotting your stomach with stress, and tormenting your dreams because you can’t figure out why you are the target. I’m here to ease your mind and lighten that burden.

Your bully’s motives don’t matter. You do.

Your safety and your happiness are important to me and everyone else who loves and cares about you; so instead of focusing on why a bully is picking on you, let’s focus on helping you feel secure and happy again.

Does that sound like a plan?

Bullies want to abuse you. Instead of allowing that, you can use them as your personal motivators. Power up and let the bully eat your dust. In the pages that follow, I will help you build your antibully antibodies. This is a process that works by building strength from the inside out, from your deepest thoughts and feelings—your heart and soul—to the way you see the world, make decisions, and take actions. You build your bully defense system from the inside out by

1. figuring out who you are so no bully can tell you
differently or make you feel badly;

2. taking responsibility for your own behavior and happiness so bullies have no ultimate power over you;

3. establishing strong values that no bully can shake;

4. creating a safety zone within yourself where you can go mentally to draw strength and comfort;

5. building strong and supportive relationships to stand up for you against bullies;

6. learning to monitor and manage your responses to the emotions triggered by bullying;

7. developing a spiritual foundation to help you be at peace and be strong against bullying;

8. taking the opportunity to learn from your bullying experience so that you can become stronger, wiser, more confident, more faith filled, and more prepared to handle any challenges;

9. creating your bully defense strategy so you are prepared to handle bullies of all kinds; and

10. mastering empathy so you are aware of the needs of others and serve them whenever possible to help them overcome bullying.

Once all those things are in place, you will have your own bully defense system. Then you can join me in working to eradicate the epidemic of bullying so no one else has to suffer. Together, with God’s help, we can bring an end to the bullying epidemic.

Excerpted from Stand Strong by Nick Vujicic Copyright © 2014 by Nick Vujicic. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Darren Aronofsky’s Moving Middle School Poem ‘The Dove’ Is What Started It All

Darren Aronofky’s film ‘Noah’ is on its way to box office success with $44 million in box office sales in its first weekend. The road to the movie’s opening has been a long one including over ten years in development; but the genesis for the film goes …

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Pope Francis Surprises Priest, Kneels Before Him And Confesses His Sins In St. Peter’s Basilica

(Reuters) – Pope Francis surprised his own master of ceremonies on Friday by confessing his sins to an ordinary priest in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The pope was presiding at service intended to show the importance he attaches to the sacrament of reconcili…

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Vatican Says It’s Willing To Play Mediator Role In Venezuela

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican said Friday it was “willing and desirous” to intervene diplomatically in Venezuela’s crisis after weeks of deadly unrest but says it must study expectations and options about what role it could play.

On Thursday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accepted the idea of a good-faith facilitator after coming under mounting pressure to reconcile with opponents who have been protesting for nearly three months. He mentioned Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, until last year the Vatican’s ambassador to Caracas. Critics of Maduro’s socialist administration have pressed for Vatican involvement: Shortly before he was arrested, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez wrote an open letter to Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, asking him to guide the country.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Friday the Holy See and Parolin were “certainly willing and desirous to do whatever is possible for the good and serenity of the country.” He said Parolin, in particular, “knows and loves” Venezuela.

But he said the Vatican needed to have more information to understand “the expectations and the premise for undertaking a useful role that could achieve the desired outcome.” Such a study, he said, was underway.

The oil-rich nation has been widely criticized for its harsh crackdown on opponents protesting inflation, crime and shortages. Clashes between protesters and loyalists have left more than 30 people dead.

While direct Vatican mediation in conflicts is rare, the Holy See’s diplomats often works behind the scenes and have helped resolve conflicts in Latin America before.

In 1978, Pope John Paul II sent an envoy to help Francis’ native Argentina and Chile reach a compromise on a territorial dispute. The two countries had been on the brink of war over the Beagle Channel and its islands.


Joshua Goodman and Hannah Dreier in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.


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Rick And Kay Warren Launch Saddleback Church Mental Health Ministry After Son’s Suicide

Every day since his son Matthew died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound nearly a year ago, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church has found himself in tears.

He has spent his nights journaling, trying to discern God’s purpose in the pain that Matthew endured over his 27 years living with mental illness, and in the loss Warren and his wife, Kay, have felt since Matthew left their lives.

Warren has asked God why he took his youngest child, whom he remembers as a troubled but “kind, gentle, and compassionate man” with a “gift for sensing who was most in pain or most uncomfortable in a room.”

He has prayed that something good might come out of something so awful.

On Friday, just eight days before the anniversary of their son’s death, the Warrens launched a new chapter in their ministry, which has used its megaphone as one of the nation’s largest and most influential churches to address alcohol addiction, drug abuse, orphan care and HIV/AIDS. The Conference on the Church and Mental Health, a daylong event at the church’s main Lake Forest, Calif. campus that will be broadcast online, has amassed 3,000 registrations and features a lineup of pastors, academics and psychiatrists hosting panels and prayers to tackle the stigma of mental illness and suicide in the church.

“In God’s garden of grace, even a broken tree bears fruit,” Warren said in an interview with The Huffington Post, reflecting on a journal entry he wrote when Matthew was alive that’s taken on new meaning after his death. “We knew that even with the massive pain we were going through, we would have to use it to help others.”

Friday’s conference, for which Saddleback has teamed with Bishop Kevin Vann of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Orange County to host, is the first step in what will be a long-term campaign to launch discussions of mental health in pulpits and pews across the U.S. Friday’s workshops include “Christianity and Depression,” “How to Launch a Support Group and Counseling Ministry in your Church,” “Suicide Prevention: Saving Lives One Community at a Time” and “Food and The Body: Three Steps to Healing Eating Disorders through Community.”

“There is no shame in diabetes, there is no shame in high blood pressure, but why is it that if our brains stop working, there is supposed to be shame in that?” said Warren, who said the family kept Matthew’s illness a secret from the public not because of shame, but “because it was his own story to tell.”

“After he died, well, I am such a public person, I thought I may as well grieve publicly, too. It helped,” said Warren, who announced Matthew’s death last April with a public letter asking for prayers, and was inundated with tens of thousands of emails and letters. “I am not the same guy I was a year ago. I am much more reflective. I am much more sympathetic.”

While mental illness and suicide plague believers and nonbelievers alike, a series of high-profile tragedies in the past year have brought sharp awareness to the problem in the evangelical community.

In December, Isaac Hunter, the 36-year-old son of Orlando-area megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, one of President Barack Obama’s spiritual advisers, committed suicide. The same month, Richard Cizik, the president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good and a former top lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, discovered his son dead from a heroin overdose in their Virginia home.

Last November, the suicide of Teddy Parker, Jr., a pastor of Bibb Mount Zion Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia, also made national headlines after Parker shot himself outside his home. Over the summer, Frank Page, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, released a book about his daughter, who took her own life in 2009.

Outside the religious community, mental illness and suicide have also become more common in the news. This year, a spate of suicides in the finance industry have rattled industry experts and mental health professionals. Last year, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report said that for the first time, more Americans are dying from suicide than car accidents. The same report said that suicides among people ages 35 to 64 rose nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2010. And about one in four adults are believed to suffer from mental illness, according to statistics from the National Institute for Mental Health.

Still, the situation is especially dire among evangelicals, said Warren. Survey results from the Southern Baptist-affiliated nonprofit Lifeway Research, released in September, found that close to half of evangelical, fundamentalist and born-again Christians believe prayer and Bible study alone can solve mental illness. Among Americans as a whole, about one in three shared that view. Nevertheless, 68 percent of Americans said they believed they would be welcome in church if they were mentally ill.

“It’s just not the case that faith or religious belief will inoculate or immunize a person against mental illness,” said Aaron Kheriaty, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, who co-authored The Catholic Guide to Depression and will speak at Saddleback on Friday. “We want to convince Christians that psychiatrists, religious leaders and mental health advocates, all of us can work hand in hand.”

The Warrens, who have increasingly shared their mourning in public following a four-month retreat from public life after their son’s death, hope their new mental health ministry can also be a lesson in how to cope with struggles of all kinds.

“Everyone is going through loss in life. Grief is God’s gift to us. It’s how we get through,” said Warren. “There is no growth without change, and there is no change without loss.”

“Does that mean I don’t think every day about what it would be like to have Matthew back? Absolutely not,” he added. “There is nothing wrong with asking ‘why.’ Even Jesus asked ‘why’ on the cross. But what do you do when you don’t get an answer? Some things won’t be explained in life.”

Kay Warren, who will also speak at the conference, shared her own views in a recent Facebook post. The message, shared, “liked” and commented on by 80,000 people, told mourners that it’s okay to take things slow, and urged friends and followers to be more understanding of how the death of a child can affect a parent’s outlook.

“Mourners are encouraged to quickly move on, turn the corner, get back to work, think of the positive, be grateful for what is left, have another baby, and other unkind, unfeeling, obtuse and downright cruel comments,” she wrote. “What does this say about us — other than we’re terribly uncomfortable with death, with grief, with mourning, with loss — or we’re so self-absorbed that we easily forget the profound suffering the loss of a child creates in the shattered parents and remaining children.”

Later, she added: “April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time … maybe forever.”

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Rich Stearns Answers Questions About World Vision’s Gay Marriage Fiasco

In an attempt to create unity, World Vision managed to create a hornet’s nest around the issue of same-sex marriage. Its president Rich Stearns openly acknowledges the mistakes the relief organization made while flip-flopping on the issue.

Earlier this week, the World Vision announced that it would allow employees to be in same-sex marriages. Within 48 hours, the $1 billion Christian organization reversed course, saying on Wednesday that it had made a mistake. The backlash illustrated how evangelicals will continue to wrestle with a growing cultural acceptance of same-sex marriage.

In an interview with RNS on Thursday, Stearns suggested that the number of sponsors lost was under but around 5,000. Those who sponsor a child pay $35 each month, so the loss could have tallied up to $2.1 million a year.

Stearns also spoke with RNS on how the decision and its reversal has impacted the organization, the number of staff who have resigned and the regret he has had this week. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What has been the reaction since the reversal?

A: This has been a painful week in terms of the division that we created around our initial decision, and then reversing the decision two days later has created a lot of concerns with our employees and our key partners around the country.

Q: Can you say how many child sponsors have been lost?

A: I don’t actually have today’s number but it’s less than 5,000 so far. We’re learning that a number of people are calling back since the reversal to reinstate their sponsorship. They’re forgiving, they’re saying, ‘Hey we stand with you.’”

Q: What about non-religious partners? Have you lost any partnerships with them since the reversal of the decision?

A: Not that I’m aware of at this point. We’re still obviously evaluating the impact of all of this on all of our partners. The important thing for World Vision is that every organization has to clearly define who they are and what they stand for. And we’ve done a pretty good job of that for 63 years, and this week has unfortunately caused a lot of confusion and dissonance across the country, certainly with our closest partners and sponsors, pastors and churches, some who have been with us for decades. The mistake I think we made was to confuse those folks about where we stood on what we feel and they feel on certain issues, certainly the issue of traditional marriage.

Q: Do you know what percent of your givers are evangelicals?

A: I don’t know that percent. Certainly a large majority of our supporters are Christian, but they come from all denominations within the Christian faith. And we have a lot donors who are not Christians, at least a number of them who support us because of the quality of work we do around the world.

Q: Someone said you had tears in your eyes in this morning’s staff meeting. How has it impacted you personally?

A: I’ve had better weeks, I’ll tell you that, Sarah. This has been emotionally difficult for all of us at World Vision. I feel responsibility. I’m the leader. I led us into this situation. I’ve made some mistakes and I have to live with that. But I think some of the emotion is about how we are so proud of what we stand for, we are so proud of what we’ve done, all the good work we do with refugee camps in Syria, rebuilding the Philippines after the typhoon and work in the Congo. All of those things have been taken off the table and out of the discussion because of the controversy around this recent decision. If I have any heartache, I hope and pray that it doesn’t impact the amazing staff and work we do around the world.

Q: Has anybody called for your resignation, on the board or elsewhere?

A: If you read the internet, there are people that are calling for the resignation of me, the board and anybody else who wears a World Vision t-shirt. No, there have been no serious requests for my resignation. I would certainly understand if the board wanted to make a decision around that. Some of the board members have asked the question about their own resignation. Right now, our feeling is we were all in this together. We made certainly in retrospect was a bad decision, but we did it with the right motivations. We weren’t trying to harm, or trying to find revenue, we weren’t doing it for wrong motives. We were trying to find some kind of solution to a divisive issue that would create some space of togetherness around differences within the church. Our regret is that we caused more division instead of finding a place of more unity.

Q: Have any staff members resigned?

A: We have had one or two resign that I’m aware of, but not a large number.

Q: Was that earlier this week?

A: I believe at least one resigned earlier when they learned about the decision. We had a few in the past few days resigned partially because of stress. You can imagine some of the folks in our call center that our answering our 800 line. They’re receiving an earful of anger. I think we had a few people who couldn’t handle the stress and the anxiety created by the incoming calls.

Q: What about since the reversal? Has anyone left?

A: Not that I’m aware of. Within an hour of the reversal, the call volume dropped. The angry calls stopped and dropped to a much lower level. Some of the sponsors called back to reinstate their sponsorships.

Q: Did anyone come out in the time between the announced decision and the reversal? In other words, are there any employees in same-sex marriages currently?

A: As far as we know, we don’t have any World Vision U.S. employees involved in a same-sex marriage. With a population of 1,100 employees, I’m sure we have people with a same-sex orientation on our staff. But I think it’s important to say that we respect the privacy of our employees. We don’t ask about sexual orientation in the interview or in hiring because we do welcome people regardless of their sexual orientation if they can affirm the Apostle’s Creed and the statement of faith, and if they can abide by our conduct policy. The conduct policy applies to hetereosexuals and homosexuals. We’re not trying to exclude someone because they have a same-sex orientation, but we do have a conduct standard that governs all employees.

Q: Do you have employees or members of the board who are worried about being perceived as anti-gay?

A: Certainly that would be a concern. I certainly don’t want to send a message to the gay community that we are anti-gay. We are not. We are pro people. We believe that all people are created in the image of God and are to be treated with love and respect. That’s the foundation for our work around the world. We work with all people. We don’t discriminate based on religion. We work with Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Christians and Animists. We don’t discriminate racially, ethnically or religiously. We would not want people to think we have negative attitudes towards people with same-sex orientation.

Q: What kind of church do you attend, and has that informed your personal view on same-sex marriage?

A: It’s a Presbyterian Church (USA) in the Seattle area, but I don’t want to drag them into this. I’m not telling people where I stand on same-sex marriage because I don’t think it’s relevant. The decision the board made is about what World Vision should do strictly around our code of conduct. We saw it as a narrow issue and we have board members who have our own opinions and go to various denominations and churches.

World Vision has been aware that this issue has been dividing churches, denominations and families in a heart-breaking way. Our board was trying to make an honest attempt to wrestle with a divisive issue. We created more disunity by our action and we blurred the image of World Vision in the eyes of our supporters and church partners, so we took steps to rectify that and be quite clear in where we stand.

Q: In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote about you, “Mr. Stearns argues that evangelicals were often so focused on sexual morality and a personal relationship with God that they ignored the needy.” Do you still feel this way when it comes to an evangelical focus on sexual morality?

A: I’m not suggesting at all that marriage or sexuality is a trivial issue for a Christian or for the church. They’re important issues around conduct and the authority of Scripture in our lives. What I do feel is there is a tremendous amount of energy going into these issues from within the church, and certainly because of who we are at World Vision, we see that the issues of poverty and suffering and caring for the least of these around the world, these issues sometimes seem less important than these issues of policy and sexual morality in the United States. I’m not trying to equate the two, but to say we should certainly as passionate about serving the poor as we are about issues of sexual morality in the United States. In many churches, that is the case. But we all have to admit that issues like this distract us and take up more time than they should or than they ought to. We’re trying to call people to our mission and let’s come together and change the world. I wrote a whole book called “Unfinished” that’s about the kingdom mission that was given to Christ is unfinished 2,000 years later, and we need to finish the job, working across differences. That’s not saying we shouldn’t violate core principles of our faith in various faith communities, but we have to come together to finish this kingdom mission.

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Pope Francis Announces Names Of Sex Abuse Commission

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis named the initial members of a commission to advise him on sex abuse policy Saturday, signaling an openness to reach beyond church officials to plot the commission’s course and priorities: Half of the members are women, and one was assaulted by a priest as a child.

The eight members were announced after Francis came under fire from victims’ groups for a perceived lack of attention to the abuse scandal, which has seriously damaged the Catholic Church’s reputation around the world and cost dioceses and religious orders billions of dollars in legal fees and settlements. The Vatican in December announced that Francis would create the commission to advise the church on best policies to protect children, train church personnel and keep abusers out of the clergy. But no details had been released until Saturday and it remains unknown if the commission will deal with the critical issue of disciplining bishops who cover up for abusers.

In a statement, the Vatican hinted that it might, saying the commission would look into both “civil and canonical duties and responsibilities” for church personnel. Canon law does provide for sanctions if a bishop is negligent in carrying out his duties, but such punishments have never been imposed on a bishop for failing to report a pedophile priest to police.

The eight inaugural members include Marie Collins, who was assaulted as a 13-year-old by a hospital chaplain in her native Ireland and has gone on to become a prominent campaigner for accountability in the church.

Also named was Cardinal Sean O’Malley, one of Francis’ key advisers and the archbishop of Boston, where the U.S. scandal erupted in 2002.

Two other members are professors at Rome’s Jesuit Pontifical Gregorian University, which in 2012 hosted a seminar for bishops from around the world to educate them on best practices to protect children. Several participants from that conference are now founding members of Francis’ commission, including Baroness Sheila Hollins, a British psychiatrist.

During that 2012 conference, Collins told the bishops of her own ordeal, of the hospitalizations, anxiety and depression she endured after Irish church authorities didn’t believe her when she reported her attacker, and then blamed her for the assault.

“I was treated as someone with an agenda against the church, the police investigation was obstructed and the laity misled. I was distraught,” Collins said at the time, calling for bishops to be held accountable when they don’t report abusers to law enforcement.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the institution of the commission was evidence that Francis believed “the church must hold the protection of minors among her highest priorities.”

But in a March 5 interview with Corriere della Sera, Francis appeared defensive about the issue, complaining that the church had been unfairly attacked.

He acknowledged the “profound” wounds abuse leaves and credited Pope Benedict XVI with turning the church around. Benedict in 2001 took over handling abuse cases because bishops were moving pedophiles around rather than punishing them. In his final two years as pope he defrocked nearly 400 abusive priests.

But Francis then added: “The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution that has moved with transparency and responsibility. No one has done more. And yet the church is the only one that has been attacked.”

Collins’ appointment to the panel was hailed by Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who has clashed both with the Vatican and his fellow bishops in demanding greater accountability and honesty about abuse. SNAP, the main U.S. victim’s group also praised her inclusion but said the pope doesn’t need another study panel, he just needs to oust complicit bishops.

“He’s had more than a year to defrock, demote, discipline or denounce even one of them,” said SNAP’s outreach director Barbara Dorris in a statement. “But, just like his predecessors, he refuses to take this simple but crucial step toward justice, healing and prevention.”

The initial group named Saturday will define the scope, statutes and priorities of the commission and propose other members to better reflect the church’s geographic diversity.

Other members include:

—Catherine Bonnet, a French consultant in child and adolescent psychiatry.

—Claudio Papale, an Italian canon lawyer and official of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles sex abuse cases.

—Poland’s recently departed longtime ambassador to the Vatican, Hanna Suchocka, a constitutional lawyer.

—The Rev. Humberto Miguel Yanez, an Argentine Jesuit who studied with Francis as a seminarian and currently is head of moral theology at the Gregorian.

—The Rev. Hans Zollner, the vice-rector of the Gregorian, a Jesuit psychologist and psychotherapist who organized the Gregorian seminar and also serves on the German government’s roundtable on child abuse.


Follow Nicole Winfield at

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Vatican Expels Michael Fugee From Priesthood For Defying Ban On Ministry To Children

(RNS) Acting with uncustomary speed, the Vatican expelled a New Jersey man from the priesthood for repeatedly defying a lifetime ban on ministry to children.

Michael Fugee, 53, who attended youth retreats and heard confessions from minors despite signing a court-sanctioned decree forbidding such activities, is no longer a priest, said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark.

The Vatican typically takes a year or longer to expel priests, a process known as laicization. In some cases, the procedure drags on for several years.

Fugee’s removal comes just four months after the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office agreed to drop criminal charges against him in exchange for his expulsion. He remains under lifetime supervision by the prosecutor’s office.

Asked about the swift pace of Fugee’s removal, Goodness said the former priest’s petition for laicization was “given a good amount of attention when it was submitted.”

Fugee’s interactions with children, first reported last April, led to national criticism of Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, who had repeatedly defended the priest and returned him to ministry after a molestation conviction was overturned on a technicality.

Months later, Pope Francis appointed a co-archbishop for the archdiocese. Myers maintains his handling of Fugee and other priests credibly accused of sexual abuse was unrelated to the pope’s decision.

Fugee’s troubles stretch back to 2001, when he admitted under police questioning that he fondled the genitals of a teenage boy, that it sexually excited him and that he recognized it was a “violation.” Two years later, a jury convicted him of criminal sexual contact, and he was sentenced to five years’ probation.

The conviction was later reversed by an appellate court, which ruled the trial judge gave improper instructions to jurors.

The ban on ministry to children, enshrined in a 2007 memorandum of understanding signed by the archdiocese’s vicar general, required Fugee to undergo counseling for sex offenders and to stay away from children. The archdiocese agreed to ensure the terms.

Because of the court reversal, Fugee was not required to register as a Megan’s Law offender.

Mark Crawford, the New Jersey director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an advocacy and support group, called Fugee’s expulsion from the priesthood “long overdue.”

“This should have happened years and years ago,” Crawford said. “If the archbishop was truly open and transparent, Fugee would never have been returned to ministry. At least now he will be monitored by professionals, and we will no longer have the archbishop’s empty promise that Fugee will be supervised. It’s crystal clear he was never supervised.”

Fugee, ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Newark in 1994, was serving at the Church of St. Elizabeth in Wyckoff when he became close with the 14-year-old alleged victim and the boy’s mother. Fugee spent evenings at the teen’s home and traveled with him on vacation.

During several visits, Fugee engaged in wrestling matches with the boy, groping him in the process, prosecutors charged.

After Fugee’s return to the priesthood, Myers named him chaplain at St. Michael’s Medical Center in Newark without informing hospital officials of the criminal case. When The Star-Ledger informed the officials of the priest’s past, they demanded his removal.

Fugee later served as co-director of the Office of Continuing Education and Ongoing Formation of Priests, a position at the archdiocese’s headquarters in Newark.

At the same time, however, his contact with children continued. He went on youth retreats, attended youth ministry meetings and heard confessions from minors at St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck and at Holy Family Church in Nutley. He also traveled to a Canadian shrine with youth group members from both churches.

The prosecutor’s office criminally charged him in May with seven counts of violating a judicial order. Six months later, Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli dropped the charges on the conditions that Fugee agree to laicization and that he submit to lifetime monitoring and a host of other restrictions.

The controversy led to the gravest crisis of Myers’ tenure in Newark, with calls for his resignation from lawmakers, parishioners and advocates for sex abuse victims. The pastor and two youth ministers at the Colts Neck church were removed from their positions, and the vicar general, Msgr. John Doran, was reassigned.

Goodness said he doesn’t know where Fugee is living now.

(Mark Mueller writes for The Star-Ledger.)

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