Ash Wednesday, Ash Every Day

From the Toledo Blade:

Pam Kest was leaving Way Public Library in Perrysburg [Ohio] Tuesday when she saw a flash of lightning and heard a loud boom, drove around a corner, and saw the cross atop the St. Rose Catholic Church steeple go up in flames. “Then five minutes later, I saw the cross fall,” Ms. Kest, 48, of Maumee, said.


Authorities said lightning struck a rod on the cross about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, setting the cross ablaze.

That news story got me wondering about other churches that the all-powerful Creator decided to set on fire.

There are no reliable numbers that I’m aware of, but here’s a tantalizing fact:

• Google “church fire lightning” and you get 13.7 million hits.
• “Accidental church fire,” which would include references to mostly non-arson, non-weather-related church fires, yields 5.6 million hits.
• “Church fire arson” (which, in addition to arson stories, also brings up links to church-fire reports where arson was suspected but later ruled out) delivers almost 5 million hits.

God above, with his bolt-hurling prowess, seems to be firmly in the lead here. In 2010, he even smote a 62-foot-tall statue of his Son (below, center), again in Ohio, making the toppling of the Toledo cross at the top of this post an act of divine recidivism that should probably concern believers in the Buckeye State.

Why the Lord Almighty would destroy, incessantly and with such dedication, the very structures erected to honor him, is a question for theologians to answer.

I’m just fascinated to gaze at the results of all that celestial pyromania. Here’s a small sampling I put together.

churchfires_lowres[top photo by Dan Moses via The Blade]


What’s the Difference Between Pray and Prey? Pastor Crime Ring Involved In Petro Stock Fraud.

Opening statements are expected today in the trial of five people, including alleged ringleader Isreal Owen Hawkins, accused of selling unregistered worthless shares to more than 9,000 investors.

Petro America Corp, a Kansas-based oil company, had no oil, no evident plans for buying, transporting or storing large amounts of oil, no assets to speak of, and no employees beyond president and CEO Hawkins (photo).

Isreal: is fake

Isreal: is fake

Petro America did have revenue, however. Lots of it. Not from oil-market transactions, but from the thousands of people who were persuaded by their pastors to sink their savings into the shadowy company.

According to the U.S. Justice Department,

Investors lost from $100 to $100,000 each. Initially, many of the investors were drawn into the scheme with the promise that $100 would buy 100,000 shares of Petro America stock, the affidavit says, which Hawkins claimed was “book valued” at $2 per share. As the scheme progressed, conspirators raised the price to invest and claimed an ever-higher “book value” for the shares. The affidavit alleges that this allowed conspirators to unload shares to new investors at an increasing profit.

Which makes it a classic Ponzi scheme.

Hawkins allegedly promised “meteoric returns” on investments. At the height of the scheme, the affidavit says, up to $700,000 flooded into the company each month.

In the end, more than 9,000 gullible victims invested more than $7.2 million.

Where’d the money go? Hawkins and his co-conspirators went to pimp town and spent wads of cash on luxuries such as fancy cars, expensive jewelry, a $5,700 fur coat, a $37,000 boat, and a $5,200 piece of Louis Vuitton luggage.

The scheme probably wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if it hadn’t been for two holy men: the Rev. Edward D. Halliburton of Kansas City, Kan., and his colleague Joseph Harrell, of Waco, Texas.

Harrell, acting as the CFO of Petro America, told anyone who would listen that the company was worth as much as $284 billion (which would have made it bigger than Wal-Mart and the Coca-Cola Co.). When touting the “once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunities” to his eager marks, the good reverend often wrapped those sales pitches in Bible talk, stressing that Petro was a blessing from God.

Oh, and while he was bilking believers out of their nest eggs and living the high life, Harrell also enjoyed the comfort of having a little revenue stream on the side: government handouts, including food stamps.

Meanwhile, Halliburton, a pastor of more than 20 years, was the president of the Ministers Alliance, a group of about 15 ministers (mostly from the Kansas City area) who aggressively sold the worthless Petro shares to their congregants and others. The faux-pious hoodlums informally called themselves the White Hat Guys, as each of the ministers received a white fedora. All participated in regular Thursday night conference calls with hundreds of investors in dozens of states. Following the calls, many of the White Hat Guys went to the Epicurean Lounge, a local night club for people looking to get it on.


Like Hawkins, the men of God spent investors’ money with abandon. The Reverend Halliburton paid off his mortgage and purchased a Mercedes S500. Through it all, educating himself about the word of God™ was never far from his mind: for the low low price of $1,794, he also bought a doctorate degree from Tabernacle Bible College, for which he did no actual course work.

In separate appearances before a magistrate judge, both Harrell and Halliburton pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit securities fraud and wire fraud.

The trial that’s scheduled to start today involves Hawkins (by all accounts the chief crook) and four other accused scammers charged in connection with Petro America. All have pleaded not guilty.

According to the Kansas City Star, whose early reporting on Hawkins and Petro America tipped off investors that something was amiss, among those expected to testify are:

• A 79-year-old California man who still hasn’t told his wife about investing in Petro for fear it would worsen her already serious health problems.

• A Louisiana lawyer who grilled Hawkins in Petro’s rented Kansas City office on behalf of a Petro investor and then had to chip in $20 for gas money when Hawkins and a secretary gave him a ride back to the airport.

• A legally blind Texas investor whom Hawkins took to fancy Kansas City restaurants, often sticking him with the bill, and who was hit up for bail money when Hawkins was arrested.

[Hawkins image via COGIC Abuse Watch]

Christ Almighty: Catholic Children Throw Molotov Cocktails at Protestant Minority in Derry City

The Troubles may be coming back in Northern Ireland.

Kevin Campbell, the mayor of Derry City, told a local news team that

dissident (Catholic) republicans were manipulating mobs of up to 50 children and having them throw dozens of petrol bombs at the minority Protestant community after the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher last week.

The Protestant enclave, the Fountain Estate, consists of 400 families surrounded by a two-to-three mile security barrier in the mainly Catholic west of the city.

Mr Campbell said the attacks on the estate were “absolutely disgraceful”. He added: “There must be a sinister element involved when 25 petrol bombs are thrown — children aged nine to 15 would not know how to make petrol bombs.”


Resident William Jackson said petrol bombs have been coming within 2-3 feet of his house. “After seven nights of mayhem we have seen only one arrest,” he said. “We feel under siege 24 hours a day. … They call us Orange Huns and say things like, ‘We are going to burn you out’. I get phone calls at 2-3am saying they are going to burn me out, shoot me in the head and watch my family cry. They are not going to be happy until we are out. It is ethnic cleansing, just sectarian thuggery.”

The “Orange Huns” moniker refers to a battle the Protestants fought alongside Dutch Prince William of Orange against Catholic English king James II — in 1690.

In matters of politics and religion, grudges may hibernate, but they rarely die.

[art by Bansky via UK Street Art]

Muslims Lose Their Shi(r)t, Christians Follow Suit

Egyptian prosecutors are filing criminal charges against 13 religious brawlers who were arrested after

fighting erupted in the village of Dahshour when a Coptic Christian man who irons clothes for a living and one of his Muslim customers became entangled in a brawl after the Christian accidently burned his client’s shirt.

The fight escalated, drawing more people, and left one Muslim, Moaz Mohamed Mohamed, dead.

Over a shirt. And of course, over whose god is better.


More than 120 Coptic families living in the area left the town, fearing they would be violently expelled.

The defendants in the sectarian incident are nine Muslims and four Coptic Christians, and [they] are charged with murder, the possession of explosive materials, and assaulting security forces.

[photo by Eric V. Santos via flickr]

Church Gives Talking Congregants a Little Taste of Hell — By Intentionally Burning Their Legs

If you don’t shut up in church, what’s the worst that could happen? Getting shushed? Being asked to leave? God doing some righteous smiting?

In Zimbabwe, your fellow believers could roast your legs.

Six True Gospel Apostolic Faith church members, including the leader, have been arrested in Chitungwiza on allegations of burning the legs of two other members as punishment for talking during a church service on Sunday morning. The injured, who are aged 21 and 14, were yesterday still admitted to Chitungwiza Central Hospital, while the six are assisting police with investigations.


“The two were accused of talking while the church leader, Nguni, was addressing at the church service yesterday (Sunday) at around 9am in Chitungwiza,” Asst. Inspector Dube said.

As punishment, they were then forcibly held close to — and possibly pushed into — an open fire, such that the 21-year-old received burns on both legs, and the 14-year-old on one. The investigation continues.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

When Liberal Democrat Mark Smith decided to run for Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania recently, the amateur guitarist might not have counted on the votes of his conservative Christian bandmates. But what his musical friends had in store for him astonished Smith. The other members of the up-and-coming group, One Floor Away, told him he’d have to quit making music with them — unless he changed his position on marriage equality.  

Smith has spoken up for marriage equality on the campaign trail and on Facebook. He refused to renounce his support, and lost the opportunity to play music he loves for a band that is recording its first album and seems to be going places in the Christian rock scene.


“It sort of blew my mind,” Smith said. “It was like a smack to the side of the head.” He said the band’s record producer and a couple of his band mates gave him the ultimatum late last month as they were meeting in Ithaca, N.Y. for a recording session. 

The other band members declined to comment on the affair, other than to say “What we do with our band, we prefer to keep quiet.” The group aims to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, and Smith says he was on board with that.

One Floor Away recently recorded a single featuring Smith that was released on iTunes; at Smith’s request, it is being re-dubbed with a substitute part. He explains he “can’t support them any more than they support me.”

He also built the group’s website, Smith says. It’s unclear whether One Floor Away will redesign it so as not to benefit from creative contributions by the insufficiently pious.

[image via]

Gay Teacher Fired Over Partner’s Name in Obit

Teachers at Catholic institutions in Ohio may be fired for “immorality.” Sounds all right, until it comes to the definition of that word.

Actually, recognizing disgusting behavior isn’t a problem at all for the easily piqued religious authorities who terminated Carla Hale. Hale is a physical-education teacher who lost her job when her mom died and she included her female partner’s name in the obit.

She’s taught at the school for two decades.

Now, I agree that’s a great example of immorality. But whose? Hales’, or the Church’s?

Students and others are rallying behind a teacher who they say was fired from a Catholic school in Clintonville [Ohio] after listing her female partner’s name in her mother’s obituary.


A petition posted yesterday on seeks the reinstatement of Bishop Watterson High School physical-education teacher Carla Hale. It has gained more than 4,000 signatures.

“It’s unfair that someone who cared so much about her students and her job should lose them on the basis of something she cannot even control,” the petition says. “The school claims its mission is to teach its students about love, acceptance, and tolerance, and yet it did none of this in the way it treated Ms. Hale.”

[image via outlook columbus]

Box Office Success? Despite Prayers, Not Today.

The credits that run at the end of the new movie Not Today list an unusual job: prayer coordinator.

The film, about a wealthy young American who finds God when he travels to India and is affected by the plight of the poor, is an indie Christian endeavor whose $1.6 million budget was raised with collection-plate contributions from the members of Friends Church in Yorba Linda, California.


About the prayer coordinator, the church’s Creative Arts Pastor Brent Martz explains that the job was vital to the project.

“For us at the church, having people praying from the very beginning of this project and even up to today and this opening weekend has been a huge part of it,” Martz said. “We believe that God led us into making this film, and he’s ultimately responsible for it, and so every bit of this journey has been covered through this prayer team, and they’ve been so faithful to pray for all us during the writing and during the production and during the post-production and now during the marketing and PR.”

Whether all the earthly beseeching of the Creator of the Universe has been effective remains to be seen.

The plentiful praying certainly didn’t stop director Jon Van Dyke from filing a federal lawsuit, alleging fraud by church leaders. Van Dyke’s version of events involves a biblical deluge of internal bickering, cheating, and outright fraud. He was director of the Friends Church media department when he wrote the movie script. To hear him tell it, Martz, his boss, demanded a co-writer credit he wasn’t really entitled to, or he would fire Van Dyke. The young director says he was terminated when he raised concerns after the movie wrapped, including a claim that

the budget was “significantly inflated to include numerous illegitimate and improper expenses” in an effort to dilute profits.

According to Martz, the profits from the movie are intended to build hundreds of schools for children from India’s Dalit caste. But box office revenue this past Friday through Sunday — opening weekend, when the movie was shown on 41 screens — was only $96,347. Under a typical indie distribution deal, the producer (essentially, Friends Church) will get maybe 40-50 percent of that.

More revenue should come in from TV rights and rentals, presumably. Will it be enough to generate fat profits so that Dalit children may get an education? Let’s hope so, and let’s also hope that the lawyers don’t gobble up al the money.

If the project stays awash in red ink, I suppose the church could always hire additional prayer coordinators to get those schools built.

Priests’ Parking Brawl: One Bites Off Other’s Ear

I’ve known some clergymen who can chew your ear off, but here’s one who does it literally. And all it took for Father Thomas Byrne to go all Mike Tyson on a colleague was a contested parking space.

An 80-year-old retired priest allegedly bit an ear off another elderly clergyman during a fight over a parking space. The punch-up broke out outside an apartment block, which houses three retired Catholic priests, in Perth, Western Australia.


Father Thomas Henry Byrne [photo, left] has appeared in court charged with grievous bodily harm over the incident involving his neighbour, 81-year-old Father Thomas Joseph Cameron Smith.

If that’s not bizarre enough for you, try this on for size:

According to police, after the brawl Father Byrne told Father Smith to pick up an item up on the ground. It was not until Father Smith returned to his flat that he realised the item he had picked up and put in his pocket was his right ear. Father Smith wrapped his ear in a tea towel and drove to Dianella Medical Centre, where staff phoned for an ambulance and alerted police. He was taken to Perth’s Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital where he underwent surgery to save the ear.

Father Byrne eventually extended his apologies, while Father Smith offered forgiveness.

The ear-biter’s attorney used a temporary-insanity defense, telling the court that his client is a kindly old man whose flesh-ripping attack was “uncharacteristic” and brought on by dementia. The prosecutor downgraded the charges and the judge imposed only a $1,000 fine.

Wrathful God Is Bad For Believers’ Mental Health

If god is good, is he also good for you? It depends on whether you believe in a kind and benevolent superbeing, or in a compulsive rager who is a candidate for anger management.

Psychologists led by Nava Silton of Marymount Manhattan College tried to determine

…how one’s perception of God — as punitive, benevolent, or indifferent — was associated with five different psychiatric symptoms: general anxiety, social anxiety, paranoia, obsession, and compulsion.

Respondents’ characterizations of God were gleaned from their opinions of how six adjectives — absolute, critical, just, punishing, severe, or wrathful — applied to God. A numbering system was used to gauge the degree to which the subject viewed the adjective as an accurate descriptor of God (very well = 4; somewhat well = 3, not very well = 2, etc.). In a similar fashion, respondents answered queries designed to measure the five aforementioned psychiatric symptoms.


The researchers found that belief in a punitive God was significantly associated with an increase in social anxiety, paranoia, obsession, and compulsion. Conversely, belief in a benevolent God was associated with reductions in those four symptoms. Belief in an indifferent God was not linked to any symptoms.

It’s a nice-to-know conclusion that probably won’t surprise anyone. Or, as one snarky commenter noted,

It doesn’t take a scientific study to conclude that there is something seriously wrong with people who smile gleefully as they describe their rapture, when they’ll be whisked away in a blissful twinkle of an eye, and the rest of humanity will suffer all manner of death and torture for not heeding their proactive told-ya-so.

[image via flickriver]

Nigerian Christians Claim Their Piece of the Terrorism Pie, Threaten to Bomb Mosques

Fed up with the violence from Muslim terror groups like Boko Haram, Nigerian Christians aren’t exactly turning the other cheek. Their solution: kill Islamic clerics, and bomb mosques.

The latest terrorist threats to come out of Nigeria aren’t being propagated by Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group bent on eradicating Christianity (and other Western influences). Instead, the threats from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) are being made “in defense of Christianity.”


MEND, a militant group operating out of the country’s oil-rich Niger Delta, says it intends to attack Muslims in order to protect Nigeria’s “hapless Christian population.” The planned attacks, which MEND says will begin on May 31, will include mosque and hajj bombings and assassination attempts against Muslim clerics.

If it seems like just tough talk, look closer. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom noted in a response to the MEND statement that there have been “ongoing attacks and retaliations by Muslims and Christians” in Nigeriah, and that Boko Haram has used “Christian attacks on Muslims to justify its attacks on Christians.”

USCIRF also says Boko Haram has “killed more Muslims than Christians over the past few years.”

[image via Aaron Niequist]

Judge Lets Thieving Pastor Off Easy

In pastor Kyung Soon Kim’s defense, the 10 Commandments don’t get as specific as “Thou Shalt Not Defraud Thine Insurance Company.” From The Reporter:

NORRISTOWN – With a judge ordering him to spend a few days behind bars for his role in a car insurance scam, a Korean pastor from Montgomery Township [Pennsylvania] learned the hard way, “Thou shalt not steal.”

“It’s confounding to this court why he would do this,” Montgomery County Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy said Monday as she sentenced Kyung Soon Kim to two consecutive weekends in the county jail after Kim pleaded guilty to charges of theft by unlawful taking and conspiracy to commit theft in connection with a 2008 incident involving a Lexus vehicle.


The car belonged to a friend’s son. Kim and the woman conspired to file a false police report and bilked the insurance company out of $42,000.

The judge kept racking her brain over the motive.

Reading from a presentence report, the judge noted Kim’s commitment to his church dates back to 1986 when he was pastor at a Presbyterian church in Seoul, South Korea, and then a Presbyterian pastor upon arriving in the U.S. several years ago.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me why this is the slightest bit relevant to the judicial process. Anyone else smell a double standard?

I’m pretty sure that in the case of a non-clergy defendant, the presumed answer to the question of motive would be, “Because he is a greedy sonovabitch.”

I’m also pretty sure that if you or I stole 42 grand, we’d do some serious time.

The Reverend Kim, however, could count on the judge’s leniency, and received a jail term of only four days. He doesn’t even have to serve that puny sentence as one block of time: instead, he gets to do it in stretches of 48 hours during two consecutive weekends.

[photo by Shawn Wheat via Gwinnett Daily Post]