Alabama Church Works to Become a Revitalized Church by Forming Ministry Partnerships to Meet the Needs of the Neighborhood

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) — When Rob Paul first got to Huffman Baptist Church in Birmingham in July 2019, he spent several months talking with church members and “getting the lay of the land.”

One question kept coming up: “I was looking at this huge building and thinking, ‘What are we going to do with this?’”

In its heyday, the church ran about 1,500 in worship, but when Paul came on as lead pastor, around 125 came through the doors on Sundays.

“At this point we had shut down over half of our usable space,” he said. “Our three-story education building and two-story children’s building were completely shuttered.”

ADVANCING THE GOSPEL

So he began to lead the church to look at the community around them and think about what they could do to reach the next generation of neighbors.

“We started to ask, ‘How can we use the space that we have in a way that advances the gospel and benefits the community?’” Paul recalled. “We started looking at how do we as a diverse congregation but still mostly white, how do we impact a community that is flipped what our church is? We have as many as 75,000 people within a 10-minute drive, and 70% of them don’t look like me.”

In January 2020, he presented a plan called Vision 2025 — a plan to become a revitalized church that helped revitalize other churches. He wanted to consider ministry partnerships that would help them meet the needs of the neighborhood.

And he started praying for God to send the church one young family with children — a contact point to begin reaching others in the community.

PRAY BIG

But these days, Paul says in retrospect that his prayer was too small. Earlier this year they began preparing the third floor of the adult education building to become a community ministry hub. That space now is home to Elevate Birmingham, an organization that teaches character-based education at Huffman High School and tutors students off campus after school; Birmingham Urban East Young Life, which runs Christian-based clubs aimed at helping students know Christ and prepare for their futures; and Kingdom Family Christian Fellowship, an African American church plant.

The church has partnered with Kingdom Family and Christian Service Mission to provide food boxes to neighbors once a month.

And this summer more than one family is moving in — there is a whole school.

Starting Aug. 1, Banks Academy, a predominantly African American Christian high school, will hold classes in the two buildings that previously were shuttered.

It’s all left Paul, the church’s pastoral staff and the rest of the leadership team and congregation amazed.

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Source: Baptist Press

Supreme Court Christians and Conservatives Change the Nation for Decades to Come if the Lord Tarries His Coming

The Supreme Court ended its term with the conservative justices bending the law sharply rightward in a series of momentous decisions on abortion, gun rights, environmental regulations and religious rights that will reverberate for decades.

The decisions represent triumphs for a conservative legal movement that has sought for decades to remake American law and found its moment in a high court with a bolstered 6-3 conservative tilt that took on issues long linked to Republican policies.

The term that ended Thursday showed that majority “really flexing its muscle” in the cases it selected and the decisions it issued, said Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law Houston.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who has expressed a desire to maintain the court’s reputation as nonpartisan, highlighted that shift when he criticized his fellow conservatives for an abortion case decision that is a “serious jolt to the legal system.”

But five justices, including three Donald Trump appointees, voted to undo the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade and wipe out the constitutional right to abortion, an outcome the conservative legal movement had sought for decades.

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Source: RollCall

Supreme Court Continues to Reject Laws Separating Church and State, Focusing on the Suppression of Religious Voices

(CNN) – Supreme Court justices on Monday readily put themselves in the shoes of a football coach who wanted to pray at midfield after a game, over those of students who might feel pressure to join him, in an expansive decision focused on the “suppression” of religious voices.

The 6-3 ruling against a Washington state school district that suspended coach Joseph Kennedy reinforces a modern court pattern favoring religious conservatives and a greater mingling of church and state.

Overall, the decision reflected the conservative majority’s view that the voices of religious believers are being squelched. Justice Neil Gorsuch, at the outset of his opinion for the court, raised concerns about “censorship and suppression.” Such fears of religion under siege have also emerged in prior decisions and in some justices’ off-bench speeches.

Monday’s ruling threatens a series of decisions back to 1962 that have forbidden official-sponsored school prayer. The ruling also comes less than a week after the same 6-3 ideologically split court declared that states subsidizing private education must include religious schools.

In both cases, the majority put an emphasis on the First Amendment’s “free exercise” guarantee and minimized its prohibition on government “establishment of religion.”

The court majority brushed aside the Bremerton School District’s assertion that letting Kennedy pray on the 50-yard line would lead observers to think the district had impermissibly endorsed religion or exposed student athletes to coercion.

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Source: CNN

NATO Returns to Combat Stance in Preparation for an Increasingly Hostile World

President Biden announces new U.S. troops in Europe during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the alliance's summit in Madrid. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)
President Biden announces new U.S. troops in Europe during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the alliance’s summit in Madrid. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

(Bloomberg) — NATO this week agreed to the biggest upgrade of its military presence in Europe since the end of the Cold War, redrawing the continent’s security in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At a summit in Madrid, NATO leaders agreed to put more than 300,000 troops on high alert while beefing up its European defenses with extra forces, enhanced air power and new equipment, including two additional squadrons of US F-35 stealth fighters. After Turkey dropped its veto on Sweden and Finland’s membership applications, the alliance is also set to add two new members, bolstering the exposed Baltic nations.

Signaling a shift to a more global perspective, NATO leaders also identified China’s increasing military presence as a “challenge” for the first time and sought to deepen relations with democracies in the Asia-Pacific region as a counterweight to Beijing.

“NATO is back,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters Wednesday as he arrived at the talks, where the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand attended as guests.

The overhaul ushers in a new era in which Russia has demonstrated its willingness to unleash destruction on a neighbor in eastern Europe and China is building up its military to project force across the Pacific.

US President Joe Biden called the Madrid meeting a “history-making summit” as he pledged more support for the alliance’s eastern flank with a permanent headquarters in Poland for the Fifth Army Corps, an additional rotational brigade of thousands of troops in Romania and plans to bolster other deployments in the Baltic states, adding to 100,000 US troops already in Europe.

The additional US F-35s will be stationed in the UK and air-defense systems in Germany and Italy will also be increased.

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Source: MSN

Summer State and Regional Meetings Give a Preview of How the Split Is Going in the United Methodist Church

Summer is known as “annual conference season” for United Methodists in the United States and Europe. It’s a time when the regional units that form the basic structure of the global denomination come together to make decisions for their future.

While only the General Conference can make decisions for the entire denomination, choices made at annual conferences often indicate what topics the global legislative assembly, now scheduled for 2024, may consider.

This year the key topic in most annual conferences is whether churches in their region have decided to “disaffiliate” or leave the denomination.

Currently, the official count of churches that have left the UMC stands at 167, according to UMC Data, a unit of the General Council on Finance and Administration. Unofficially, the tally of departing churches stands between 750 and 1,000 of the more than 30,000 U.S. congregations, based on news reports from the conferences and local media. At least one conference, North Texas, announced it would not disclose names or numbers of churches seeking disaffiliation; those agreements won’t be decided until spring 2023.

Meanwhile, accompanying issues around disaffiliation such as the ordination of LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage are providing “straws in the wind” for how the UMC is reforming itself from the bottom up. Here are some highlights from this year’s annual conference sessions:

Baltimore-Washington Conference ordained a married lesbian, T.C. Morrow, as a “deacon in full connection” after she spent a decade in limbo because of her sexuality. United Methodist deacons are ordained to ministries of “word and service,” meaning they can preach but not preside at baptism and communion. Morrow’s proposed ordination was challenged during a plenary session, but Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling cited the UMC’s Book of Discipline and a Judicial Council decision that specify determining a candidate’s  fitness for ministry is the responsibility of the conference board of ordained ministry and the clergy session, which votes on candidates’ acceptance. By a 2-to-1 margin, the conference also endorsed the Christmas Covenant, a proposal to restructure the worldwide denomination into continental regions to allow for contextualized decision-making and to eliminate U.S.-centric bias.

Czech and Slovak Conference appears on the verge of “moving in different directions.” The Czech district wants to stay in the UMC. The Slovak district is interested in joining the Global Methodist Church but wants answers to questions “on the employment of pastors, on the adaptation possibilities of the church order or also on the administration of assets in the GMC,” according to a report on the Central and Southern Europe website.

Estonia Conference voted overwhelmingly to leave the UMC. The vote flies in the face of a ruling handed down by the denomination’s Judicial Council regarding a similar vote in the Bulgaria-Romania Conference that was called illegitimate. Still uncertain is what the decision will mean for the Latvia and Lithuania districts, “neither of which has mentioned the decision on their Facebook pages,” wrote David W. Scott on UM & Global. it’s also unclear whether Estonia will join the GMC or become an autonomous national church. The conference will complete its exit process by 2023.

Florida Conference drew both praise and criticism after its clergy session voted to reject a class of 16 clergy candidates because two of them are openly LGBTQ. A third candidate identified herself as having same-sex orientation after the vote. According to a report by Sam Hodges of UM News, the conflict highlighted the divide among United Methodists over the acceptance of LGBTQ persons as clergy.

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Source: Baptist News Global

Pastor of First Baptist Church in Forrest City, Arkansas, Apologizes After a Black Woman Says White Member Called Black People ‘Coloreds’ and Another Asked, “Well What You Want to Come in for?” in Viral Facebook Post

FORREST CITY, Ark. — An Arkansas church is receiving backlash after allegedly turning away a Black woman.

The Forrest City church said it was all a miscommunication.

The woman claimed a church member at First Baptist Church of Forrest City turned her and her family away; she then took to Facebook to describe her experience.

The post went viral and has been shared thousands of times.

In it, the woman said a church member turned her away due to the color of her skin and claimed she experienced uncomfortable racial terms.

She said she had received an invite to the church, but a man at the door told her to come back when services began.

The church’s pastor, Steve Walter, addressed the incident during Sunday’s service.

He said the woman came during Sunday School, which is open to all.

The woman’s post went on to say that she then asked a female member of the church, “Is everyone not welcomed here?”

The other woman then allegedly told her, “We’ve had coloreds here before.”

The pastor said he believes the incident is an example of miscommunication and the incident didn’t come from a bad place. He said the congregation has had Black members join the church in the past who still support its ministry.

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Source: Christian Post

FBI Opens Massive Investigation Into Sex Abuse by Catholic Clergy in New Orleans

FILE – Archbishop Gregory Aymond conducts the procession to lead a live streamed Easter Mass in St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Sunday, April 12, 2020. The FBI has opened a widening investigation into Roman Catholic sex abuse in New Orleans, looking specifically at whether priests took children across state lines to molest them. The FBI declined to comment, as did the Louisiana State Police, which is assisting in the inquiry. The Archdiocese of New Orleans declined to discuss the federal investigation. “I’d prefer not to pursue this conversation,” Aymond told AP. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The FBI has opened a widening investigation into sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in New Orleans going back decades, a rare federal foray into such cases looking specifically at whether priests took children across state lines to molest them, officials and others familiar with the inquiry told The Associated Press.

More than a dozen alleged abuse victims have been interviewed this year as part of the probe that’s exploring among other charges whether predator priests can be prosecuted under the Mann Act, a more than century-old, anti-sex trafficking law that prohibits taking anyone across state lines for illicit sex.

Some of the New Orleans cases under review allege abuse by clergy during trips to Mississippi camps or amusement parks in Texas and Florida. And while some claims are decades old, Mann Act violations notably have no statute of limitations.

“It’s been a long road and just the fact that someone this high up believes us means the world to us,” said a former altar boy who alleged his assailant took him on trips to Colorado and Florida and abused him beginning in the 1970s when he was in the fifth grade. The AP generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted.

The FBI declined to comment, as did the Louisiana State Police, which is assisting in the inquiry. The Archdiocese of New Orleans declined to discuss the federal investigation.

“I’d prefer not to pursue this conversation,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond told the AP.

FILE - This Dec. 1, 2012 file photo shows a silhouette of a crucifix and a stained glass window inside a Catholic Church in New Orleans. The FBI has opened a widening investigation into sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in New Orleans going back decades, a rare federal foray into such cases looking specifically at whether priests took children across state lines to molest them, officials and others familiar with the inquiry told The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

This Dec. 1, 2012 file photo shows a silhouette of a crucifix and a stained glass window inside a Catholic Church in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

The probe could deepen the legal peril for the archdiocese as it reels from a bankruptcy brought on by a flood of sex abuse lawsuits and allegations that church leaders turned a blind eye to generations of predator priests.

Federal investigators are now considering whether to seek access to thousands of secret church documents produced by lawsuits and shielded by a sweeping confidentiality order in the bankruptcy, according to those familiar with the probe who weren’t authorized to discuss it and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity. Those records are said to document years of abuse claims, interviews with accused clergy and a pattern of church leaders transferring problem priests without reporting their crimes to law enforcement.

“This is actually a big deal, and it should be heartening to victims,” said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and chief executive of Child USA, a think tank focused on preventing child abuse. “The FBI has rarely become involved in the clergy sex abuse scandals. They’ve dragged their feet around the country with respect to the Catholic Church.”

The U.S. Justice Department has struggled to find a federal nexus to prosecuting clergy abuse, hitting dead ends in cases as explosive as the ones outlined in the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report that disclosed a systematic cover-up by church leaders. Federal prosecutors subpoenaed church records in Buffalo, New York, the same year in an inquiry that similarly went quiet.

“The issue has always been determining what is the federal crime,” said Peter G. Strasser, the former U.S. attorney in New Orleans who declined to bring charges in 2018 after the archdiocese published a list of 57 “credibly accused” clergy, a roster an AP analysis found had been undercounted by at least 20 names.

Strasser said he “naively” believed a federal case might be possible only to encounter a host of roadblocks, including the complexities of “putting the church on trial” for charges like conspiracy.

But federal prosecutors have in recent years employed the more narrowly focused Mann Act to win convictions in a variety of abuse cases, including against R&B star R. Kelly for using his fame to sexually exploit girls, and Ghislaine Maxwell for helping financier Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse teenage girls. In 2013, a federal judge in Indiana sentenced a Baptist pastor to 12 years in prison for taking a 16-year-old girl across state lines for sex.

Among the priests under federal scrutiny in New Orleans is Lawrence Hecker, a 90-year-old removed from the ministry in 2002 following accusations he abused “countless children.” Hecker is accused of abusing children decades ago on out-of-state trips, and other claims against him range from fondling to rape.

Hundreds of records currently under the confidentiality order “will reveal in no uncertain terms that the last four archbishops of New Orleans knew that Lawrence Hecker was a serial child predator,” Richard Trahant, an attorney for Hecker’s alleged victims, wrote in a court filing.

“Hecker is still very much alive, vibrant, lives alone and is a danger to young boys until he draws his final breath,” Trahant wrote.

Asked by telephone this week whether he ever abused children, Hecker said, “I’m going to have to hang up.”

More recent allegations are also drawing federal attention, including the case of Patrick Wattigny, a priest charged last year by state prosecutors after he admitted molesting a teenager in 2013. His attorney declined to comment.

Wattigny’s 2020 removal from the ministry came amid a disciplinary investigation into inappropriate text messages he sent a student. The case sent shockwaves through the Catholic community because church leaders had frequently characterized clergy abuse as a sin from the past.

“It was happening while the church was saying, ‘It’s no longer happening,’” said Bill Arata, an attorney who has attended three of the FBI interviews.

“These victims could stay home and not do anything,” he added, “but that’s not the kind of people they are.”

Clergy abuse is particularly fraught in Louisiana, a heavily Catholic state that endured some of the earliest scandals dating to the 1980s. Last year, it joined two-dozen states that have enacted “lookback windows” intended to allow unresolved claims of child sex abuse, no matter how old, to be brought in civil court.

But with few exceptions, most notably a former deacon charged with rape, the accused clergy have escaped criminal consequences. Even at the local level, cases have been hamstrung by statutes of limitation and the political sensitivity of prosecuting the church.

FILE - Members of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, including Richard Windmann, left, and John Gianoli, right, hold signs during a conference in front of the New Orleans Saints training facility in Metairie, La., Wednesday Jan. 29, 2020.  The FBI has opened a widening investigation into sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in New Orleans going back decades, a rare federal foray into such cases looking specifically at whether priests took children across state lines to molest them, officials and others familiar with the inquiry told The Associated Press.   (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton, File)

Members of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, including Richard Windmann, left, and John Gianoli, right, hold signs during a conference in front of the New Orleans Saints training facility in Metairie, La., Wednesday Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton, File)

The archdiocese’s 2020 bankruptcy case has also frozen a separate court battle over a cache of confidential emails describing the behind-the-scenes public relations work that executives for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints did for the archdiocese in 2018 and 2019 to contain fallout from clergy abuse scandals.

While the Saints say they only assisted in messaging, attorneys for those suing the church have alleged in court records that Saints officials joined in the church’s “pattern and practice of concealing its crimes.” That included taking an active role in helping to shape the archdiocese’s list of credibly accused clergy, the attorneys contend.

Attorneys for those suing the church have attacked the bankruptcy bid as a veiled attempt to keep church records secret — and deny victims a public reckoning.

“Those victims were on the path to the truth,” Soren Gisleson, an attorney who represents several of the victims, wrote in a court filing. “The rape of children is a thief that keeps on stealing.”

___

Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/

Source: Associated Press

Unify Project Seen as an Opportunity for the Southern Baptist Convention to Set Gospel-based Example of Racial Unity

Renowned pastor and author Tony Evans joined SBC President Ed Litton and former SBC President Fred Luter to announce an initiative June 15 to build racial unity nationwide, conducted by the local church, called The Unify Project. The Unify Project will work in concert with The Urban Initiative, a ministry Evans co-founded in 1981 with his late wife Lois. (Baptist Press photo by Karen McCutcheon)

NEW ORLEANS (BP) – Fred Luter, the lone African American to have served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, sees great opportunity in the Unify Project, a new national grassroots racial unity initiative he’s leading with former SBC President Ed Litton and Dallas-area pastor Tony Evans.

“It would allow us to show that it is possible, according to the Scripture, for brothers and sisters to come together — of different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures — and be the church that Jesus died for,” said Luter, senior pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. “He died for everyone.”

Luter, Litton and Evans announced the Unify Project at the 2022 SBC Annual Meeting in Anaheim with plans to launch the pastor-driven program in the fall, backed by a diverse core steering committee.

Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Mobile, Ala., said the initiative extends beyond Black and white cultural groups.

“It’s important to stress too, because we have received some questions about this, that this isn’t just an African American (and) Anglo American experience,” Litton said, but includes Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and “all sorts of divisions racially in our culture.”

Evans, senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas and a noted author, theologian and radio host, will help lead the Unify Project in concert with The Urban Alternative, a ministry he co-founded in 1981 with his late wife Lois.

Within a short time following the announcement in Anaheim, Litton said, the initiative drew more than 2,000 requests for information on the program (available by texting Unify to 63566), and more than 1,000 requests for information registered at Unifysbc.org.

“I think it expresses what has been a deep current within the SBC for the last five years, and that is people see this. They have a desire for it, but they lack a plan and a strategy,” Litton said. “And one of the things we set out to do was to say, let’s not talk about, let’s not over-debate the subject as it is in our culture. Let’s just see what the Gospel tells us to do. What does the Gospel expect the Lord’s church to do?”

Luter describes Unify as an opportunity for the SBC to lead in unity at a particularly divisive time in the U.S.

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Source: Baptist Press

Here We Go: Supreme Court Rules Against D. James Kennedy Ministries in Lawsuit Over Being Called a ‘Hate Group’ Because They Preach Against Homosexuality

The late D. James Kennedy’s television and radio ministry cannot sue for defamation over being called an anti-LGBT hate group.

Five years after Coral Ridge Ministries Media first protested the “hate group” designation, the US Supreme Court has declined to reconsider the legal definition of “defamation.” The ministry’s suit against the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) cannot go forward.

The Supreme Court’s summary disposition was handed down Monday without explanation. The only dissent came from Justice Clarence Thomas. He argued the court should overturn the guiding 1964 precedentNew York Times Company v. Sullivan, which says media companies are only liable for libel against public figures when they publish false information with reckless disregard for the truth and “actual malice.”

“Coral Ridge now asks us to reconsider the ‘actual malice’ standard,” Thomas wrote. “As I have said previously, ‘we should.’”

Donald Trump also pushed for a reevaluation of New York Times v. Sullivan when he was president, calling the legal standards for libel “a sham” and “a disgrace” to America.

“We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws, so that when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about someone, that person will have meaningful recourse in our courts,” Trump said in 2018.

According to Coral Ridge Ministries’ lawyer David C. Gibbs III, the “actual malice” standard is “a more-often-than-not insurmountable bar for a public figure to plead and prove a defamation claim.” He argued it should only apply to elected officials, not “private public figures,” or be disregarded entirely.

“Instead of the shield it was designed to be,” Gibbs wrote, “it is now a sword used to bludgeon public figures with impunity.”

Coral Ridge Ministries, also known as D. James Kennedy Ministries, first sued SPLC for defamation in 2017. The television ministry grew out of the megachurch Kennedy founded in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and has continued broadcasting since Kennedy’s death in 2007. The ministry currently spends about $1.4 million on airtime, tax records show.

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Source: Christianity Today

Many Pro-Life Black Christians Don’t Focus on Abortion Alone

Image: Mandel Ngan / Getty Images

For many white evangelicals who led the pro-life movement, the end of Roe v. Wade marks a long-awaited and celebrated outcome. But for Black Christians whose political views on life extend beyond a single-issue fight, the sentiment is more mixed.

As the founder of Pro-Black Pro-Life, Cherilyn Holloway sees how Black Christians may agree with valuing life from a theological standpoint and are open to a “whole-life” perspective yet they reject politically conservative policy stances. For them, the racial disparities and injustice impacting abortion need to be prioritized too.

“To live abundantly, we have to be able to acknowledge the systems that have been put in place to keep us from doing that,” said Holloway.

While the abortion bans that go into place after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling may result in more babies born, Black Christians continue to call attention to so many other overlapping factors that threaten Black lives in pregnancy.

“It’s not quite as simple as some folks make it out to be. Having the baby isn’t the only issue, and abortion isn’t the only issue,” said Justin E. Giboney, president of The And Campaign. “There are a lot of other factors that go into that when it comes to policies like paid family leave, health care issues—which this country still has not dealt with adequately. Those also play into the conversation.”

Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, and their babies are half as likely as white babies to survive until their first birthdays. Racial disparities persist across nearly every measure—from income for covering childcare to quality of education.

A promotional video for the campaign’s Whole Life Project says, “When Black women who have chosen to carry their child to full term are still at risk of death, we must lead with a more compassionate posture.”

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Source: Christianity Today