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Pastor calls for faith over fear at victim’s church

on November 1, 2009

At the church attended by the 15-year-old Richmond High School rape victim, the pastor told his congregation that last week’s attack provides an opportunity for positive change in Richmond.

Pastor Jim Wheeler of First Presbyterian Church spoke about “The Commitment of Testimony,” as part of his ongoing series on religious commitment. He said he found it appropriate that this lesson should follow the inaction of so many witnesses to the assault.

Five men are facing charges in connection with the incident, and the police say they are continuing to look for others who were involved. According to police, As many as 10 men participated in the rape while up to 10 people looked on, said police.

“Evil can abound when people are afraid to do the right thing, or even the loving thing,” said Wheeler. “Jesus gives us the power to live life and speak the truth.”

“We have a great opportunity. There has been a tragedy, but there has been an awakening all over,” said Wheeler.

He said that unlike more affluent cities where money and organizations are available to help people during difficult times, Richmond’s churches must rise up to provide that support. If the faith-based community doesn’t show the power of Jesus’ love, it will “create a testament that the church doesn’t matter,” Wheeler said.

The minister then drew upon his the personal experiences of his father in Colombia to illustrate his point. In 1981, revolutionaries of the 19th of April Movement came into a village in the jungle looking for Wheeler’s father, who was working as a missionary with his family, said the pastor. Wheeler’s dad wasn’t around and Chet Bitterman, another missionary, was kidnapped in his place, he said.

Bitterman was later killed by the revolutionaries. After his death the elder Wheeler was asked by reporters what it felt like to have “somebody die in your place,” the Richmond pastor told his congregation. In that situation, Wheeler’s father used the tragedy to remind the world that Jesus had died in “his place,” long before Bitterman’s murder.

The Richmond pastor revealed how the people of Colombia expected his family to run back to the United States. But the missionary family had faith and remained in the country to continue God’s work, he said.

“That was the first time that I ever realized that the gringos were my brothers,” a Colombian minister told his father at the time, according to Wheeler.

“Fear is the opposite of faith. There is power in fear,” said Wheeler. “There is a fear that rules in Richmond. A fear that says, ‘you speak the truth, you’ll be punished.'”

“If you have any faith, fan it into flame,” he said.

Wheeler said that the wide-spread outrage against the witnesses who watched the rape and did nothing could be directed to everyone who has witnessed violence and injustice without taking action.

“If a person sins because he does not speak up when he hears a public charge to testify regarding something he has seen or learned about, he will be held responsible,” said the Bible in Leviticus 5:1.

This passage and other verses are included in a new pamphlet, “A Christian Response to Violence,” that the church compiled and began distributing after Sunday’s service.

Wheeler called on his parishioners to serve as mentors for the city’s youth. He said that the schools are now opening their doors to faith-based leaders and that he was fingerprinted last week so he could work as a school volunteer.

“We have a lot more work ahead of us,” said Wheeler. “Let us put an end to this violent-fear based society that we live in.”

More than 20 flags from around the world line the church sanctuary. Each flag represents the country a parishioner calls home.

Toward the beginning of Sunday’s service Wheeler welcomed his congregation with a good morning’salutation in Vietnamese, Korean, German, Spanish, English and several other languages.

Led by a diverse worship team — both musically and ethnically — the congregation sang a mix of traditional spirituals, modern worship music, and hymns.

The service began with a civil rights era song, “This Little Light of Mine,” that featured an extended guitar-solo reminiscent of Chuck Berry. A gray-haired woman bounced up and down on the piano as she lay down the rhythm along with a man playing a banjo. A woman playing flute accompanied the singers on stage.

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