In Cleveland, a battle over unwanted churches

CLEVELAND (RNS) Shuttered churches might be the biggest challenge facing the preservation community. Shrinking congregations and migration to the suburbs have left churches empty, or with fewer members. Preservationists lobby to save them, but no one can afford to open them. By  Michelle Jarboe McFee.

Workers at religious institutions fear future of pensions

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (RNS) Tens of thousands of current and former employees at scores of religiously affiliated institutions across the country are worried as nonprofits increasingly seek refuge in “church” pension plans to escape onerous financial obligations. By Tom Haydon. 800. With photo.

Atheists aim to change image of penny-pinching Scrooges

(RNS) If Dec. 10 had been an average day for Doctors Without Borders, the Swiss charity that sends medical help into crisis areas, its website would have logged 4,000 hits. Instead, it was bombarded with more than 10 times that amount as atheists from the user-driven news site participated in a fundraiser that has so far raised more than $200,000. “It's amazing, what's going on,” a DWB spokeswoman told the Reuters news agency. “The amount being raised is amazing, definitely.”

It’s the most wonderfully holy time of the year

(RNS) A quick glimpse at a calendar is one way to see how religiously diverse the United States has become. This year, December, a month that encompasses the Christian and Jewish celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah, includes spiritually significant days for Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans and Zoroastrians. Yes, Zoroastrians: Scholars estimate there are 6,000 followers of the centuries-old tradition in North America. Here’s a quick look at some of the sacred days that illuminate the last month of 2011. Dec.

Charitable giving up slightly but still ailing

(RNS) Charitable giving is trickling back up as the economy heals, but it could take years to return to pre-recession levels, nonprofit leaders say. Giving totaled $291 billion in 2010, according to the 2011 annual report by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. That's up 3.8 percent from 2009 and follows two consecutive years of declines. This year shows little change. Charity Navigator, a Glen Rock, N.J., organization that evaluates nonprofits, anticipates donations will be flat during the holiday season.

COMMENTARY: All I want for Christmas

(RNS) After noticing that Lexus wants me to give a $50,000 sedan to my wife this Christmas, I joined my family in the annual “Ehrich Christmas Wish List,” an online spreadsheet maintained by my youngest son. I knew I had to list something, so I thought hard. Had to be affordable — no Apple MacBook Air this year, no luxury sedans. Had to be reasonably enjoyable to buy and to watch me open. A few things came to mind, such as coffee capsules for my new office espresso machine.

Was the first Thanksgiving a religious celebration?

(RNS) If you want to prepare for Thanksgiving like a real Pilgrim this year, here’s what you should do: Cancel the plane reservations. Stop jotting down recipes. Leave the libations alone. For the Pilgrims and Puritans, “thanksgiving” days were spontaneous and sober affairs. When friends arrived from overseas, European Protestants defeated Catholics in battle, or a bumper crop was reaped, the Pilgrims dedicated a day to thanking divine Providence.

Monday Godbytes

Religion majors rejoice: Nathan Schneider at Religion Dispatches explains why he thinks the world needs religious studies. The Dalai Lama is questioning whether self-immolations should be used as a form of protest, echoing the misgivings of other Tibetan leaders. Relevant Magazine asks: should a candidate’s religion matter? CNN reports that Muslims in Britain are “optimistic and proud” according to a new survey. OMG: Pakistan might ban the use of “Jesus Christ” in text messages, along with more than 1,000 other words.

Law would allow marriage to Catholics for U.K. royals

(RNS) Future British kings and queens would be permitted to marry Catholics for the first time in more than three centuries under reforms proposed by British Prime Minister David Cameron. Writing to his fellow heads of government in the British Commonwealth, in a letter published on Wednesday (Oct. 12), Cameron outlined several proposed amendments to the 1701 Act of Settlement, which bars Catholics and the spouses of Catholics from the British throne. In his letter, Cameron called the ban on Catholic royal consorts a “historical anomaly” which could not “continue to be justified.” Cameron did not propose lifting the ban on a Catholic becoming the monarch, who also serves by law as the “Supreme Governor” of the Church of England.

‘PopUp Sukkah’ helps Jews on the go celebrate Sukkot

(RNS) If you’re wondering why your Jewish neighbors built a hut in their yard, it’s because the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot began Wednesday night (Oct. 12), a sort of Jewish Thanksgiving that lasts through Oct. 21. The temporary hut is a “sukkah,” a place to eat and even sleep during the weeklong holiday, and meant to remind Jews of the ancient Hebrews who wandered the wilderness after the exodus from Egyptian bondage. Most observant Jews around the world spend hours building a sukkah that’s big enough to host a full meal for family and guests.

10 minutes with … Robert Lupton

WASHINGTON (RNS) Food pantries, clothes closets and mission trips have become unquestioned bastions of America’s charitable landscape. But do these well-intended services — many of them run by religious organizations — really help the poor? According to Robert Lupton, not really. His new book, “Toxic Charity,” draws on his 40 years’ experience as an urban activist in Atlanta, and he argues that most charitable work is ineffective or actually harmful to those it is supposed to help. Lupton is the founder of FCS Urban Ministries, through which he has developed mixed-income subdivisions that house hundreds of families.

Jesus cell phone ad ruled `disrespectful’

LONDON (RNS) A newspaper ad that showed a winking Jesus giving a thumbs-up sign to a line of cell phones has been given a thumbs-down by a British government watchdog panel that called it “disrespectful.” The Advertising Standards Authority, which governs media advertising, ruled that the phone ads cannot be used again because they appeared to mock Christian values. The publicity campaign for Phones 4 U, which appeared in the British media last spring, depicted an image of Jesus under the slogan “Miraculous deals on Samsung Galaxy Android phones.” The advertising panel ruled that although the advertisements were “intended to be light-hearted and humorous,” they instead left an entirely different message. “Their depiction of Jesus winking and holding a thumbs-up sign, with the text `miraculous’ deals during Easter …

Dalai Lama, Nobel laureates tussle (gently) over violence

NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) The Dalai Lama says peace in the world begins with peace in oneself. Some of his fellow Nobel laureates, however, aren’t convinced. “It isn’t that I’m just an angry human being, it’s anger at injustice,” said Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work to ban land mines. “I’m still struggling with inner peace and I’m not sure I’ll ever work it out.” About 1,500 people turned out Friday (May 13) for the start of the city’s three-day Peace Education Summit.

Toxic Chinese drywall taxes Katrina relief groups

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) Relief organizations whose volunteers built or repaired hundreds of damaged houses after Hurricane Katrina have found they installed toxic Chinese drywall in more than 200 buildings, requiring hundreds of low-income families to move out for months while the houses are gutted anew and rebuilt. For many families, it’s a return to stress, dislocation and helplessness more than five years after the storm-and long after they thought their ordeal was over. And for relief organizations, which have decided to shoulder the full cost of millions of dollars in repairs, doubling back to gut and rebuild old homes is a major budget setback that cuts into their future work. The saga of Chinese drywall is best known to thousands of families-especially in Louisiana, Florida and Virginia-whose new or repaired homes were ruined by defective drywall introduced to the U.S. market after 2006. In class-action suits in federal court in New Orleans, they described how sulfurous Chinese drywall emitted vapors that corroded electrical wiring; ruined the circuitry of air conditioners, appliances, computers and televisions; tarnished jewelry and other metals; pitted mirrors and sometimes made their homes stink of rotten eggs. Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Charities’ Operation Helping Hands and Rebuilding Together New Orleans have all launched programs to identify tainted homes, move homeowners out, sustain them for months and make the houses safe for occupancy.