Looking Back: 2021 Top Stories

By LORETTA FULTON

Each December, members of Religion News Association, including Spirit of Abilene creator and editor Loretta Fulton, choose the top religion stories of the year. Voted Number 1 for 2021 was the role that religion played during the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionists. Some voiced Christian prayers, while others displayed Christian or pagan symbols and slogans inside and outside the Capitol.

Coming in second among the voters was the Taliban retaking control of Afghanistan after the U.S. military withdrawal. The Taliban reimposed strict Islamic rule twenty years after their outster by a U.S.-backed coalition in the wake of 9/11. 

Locally, Spirit of Abilene chronicled the ongoing effects of COVID on religion events, how churches came to the rescue during the February winter blast, a couple of major retirements, churches getting new homes, ministries celebrating milestones, and much more. And, of course, readers were–and continue to be–enriched by the writings of contributors such as Nancy Patrick, Jim Nichols, Danny Minton, Marianne Wood, Darryl Tippens, and Dan Stiver.

Following are some of the highlights from 2021:

THE ONGOING INTRUSION OF COVID-19
A year after COVID canceled church services for a while in Abilene and nationwide, some normalcy did return in 2021. A story in Spirit of Abilene advised adding a mask to the list of new clothes for Easter Sunday. That advice was still in effect for Christmas services, as the virus just won’t go away. In-person worship did return in 2021, but with COVID protocols in place. Some churches also hosted vaccination clinics, with good response. Another victim of the COVID pandemic was the annual Summit at Abilene Christian University. It was canceled in the fall, a year after a virtual Summit was held. A hybrid event had been planned for fall 2021 but was canceled. Summit is scheduled to return in spring 2022.

Getting vaccinated against COVID

AN UNWANTED VALENTINE’S DAY ‘GIFT’
A record-breaking winter blast hit Abilene and the rest of Texas on Feb. 14, with effects felt far beyond that initial blast. Much of the city was without power for periods of time, and the entire city was without water for a few days. Churches and other religious institutions came to the rescue, providing temporary warming centers, overnight shelter, and food. Among them was the Presbyterian Encampment in Buffalo Gap. The camp was without heat except for the gas stoves in the dining hall, but did house people for a few days. And, of course, those gas stoves cooked some welcomed hot meals.

James and Linda Myers take a selfie in front of the snow covered swimming pool at the Presbyterian Encampment at Buffalo Gap, where they serve as onsite managers. Submitted photo

TWO STALWARTS RETIRE
Two of the longest-serving pastors in Abilene retired in 2021. Msgr. Frederick G. Nawarskas, better known as Father Fred, stepped down as priest of Holy Family Catholic Church, where he had served since 1996. His last Sunday as priest of the church was June 27. He continues to serve Holy Family in the role of  “reduced active ministry,” serving under the direction of the new priest, the Very Rev. Santiago Udayar. 

In September, Phil Christopher preached his last sermon at First Baptist Church, where he had been senior pastor since 1995. Phil and Mary Christopher will remain in Abilene, where both are active in the community. One area of focus for Phil will be with the church’s Hope Center, located in the neighboring property previously owned by First Christian Church. The center will house additional counseling services, City Light Community Ministries, GLO childcare, the Culinary Academy and more outreach programs. Mary Christopher will continue consulting with school districts across the state, assisting with their Gifted and Talented programs. She also is an adjunct professor for ACU’s Dallas Doctorate in Organizational Leadership and will continue teaching a May Term course in the ACU graduate program in education. 

SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
First Christian Church, which had been located downtown since 1921, sold its property in 2019 to its neighbor, First Baptist Church for outreach ministries. First Christian met temporarily in the Enterprise Building until moving into a remodeled vacant church building on Antilley Road in 2021. The first service was held in March, with a brand new minister, Gregory Morris. The word “ALLELUIA” in colorful individual capital letters stretched across part of the lawn at the new location just before Easter. Members had much to shout “alleluia” about, with a new building, new pastor, and a new outlook. 

Sign in front of First Christian Church’s new home in March 2021. Photo by Loretta Fulton

BROOK HOLLOW CHRISTIAN GETS A NEW HOME
Brook Hollow Christ Church, which began as a mission of First Christian Church, sold its iconic building at South 23rd and Willis streets in 2021. The first service was held at the Willis Street location on Sept. 6, 1959, in the heyday of mainstream church attendance. By 2021, the building had grown too large for the smaller congregation. The building was purchased by Beltway Park Church for a daycare and counseling center. Brook Hollow members continue to meet in their new digs at 4606 S. 14th St. in Woodhaven Shopping Center.

Brook Hollow Christian Church sold its iconic building in 2021. Photo by Loretta Fulton

B.O.B.S. CELEBRATES 25 YEARS

Breakfast on Beech Street–just call it B.O.B.S.–celebrated 25 years of serving a hot breakfast Monday through Friday from its dining hall on Beech Street. The ministry originated in the building when it was part of First Christian Church in downtown Abilene. The church sold its property to First Baptist Church in 2019 and relocated to Antilley Road. But B.O.B.S. remains in its cozy confines on Beech Street and continues to serve breakfast and a sack lunch, although COVID has caused a few tweaks. 

Joe Biles, left, and Lee Hampton, prepare sandwich bags at B.O.B.S. Photo by Loretta Fulton

BALLET FOLKLORICO PERFORMS AND INSPIRES

Ballet Folklorico, a gifted dance troupe sponsored by St. Vincent Pallotti Catholic Church, celebrated its 58th year by giving a gift to the community last August—two evenings of spectacular performances at the Paramount Theater.

The group of dancers, directed by Alvaro Munoz, presented “Mi Tierra Mexicana” in two performances. The Paramount Theater was packed, with everyone wearing a mask. The multi-talented Munoz is the nephew of the ballet’s founder, Martha Munoz de Serrano.

Ballet Folklorico performance at the Paramount Theater in August 2021. Photo by Loretta Fulton

HOUSES FOR HEALING EXPANDS

Despite the blistering heat, there was much rejoicing Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, when the “Blessing a Foundation” ceremony was held at the site of the latest tiny house being built by Houses for Healing, a local ministry started by Brian Massey. The groundbreaking was for the first of sixteen new tiny houses planned for an addition on North Hickory Street. The ministry provides free housing for patients and their families from area communities who are undergoing long term medical treatment in Abilene. The patient and family members can stay in a fully furnished and stocked house as long as the treatment lasts–all free of charge. When the project is completed, a total of 20 tiny houses will be available. 

One of the tiny houses built by Houses for Healing, a ministry for people undergoing longterm medical treatment in Abilene. Photo by Loretta Fulton

HENDRICK HOME FOR CHILDREN OPENS NEW BUILDING
The Hendrick name is literally all over Abilene. One of the iconic Hendrick institutions is Hendrick Home for Children, which opened at the intersection of South 27th St. and Treadaway Boulevard in 1939. The original main building on the campus was designed by famed Abilene architect David Castle, and it stood as a welcoming beacon to children for several decades until it was razed in 2018. Construction on a new building started then and was completed in 2021. Hendrick Home staff, headed by David Miller, who recently retired, moved into the new building the week of Oct. 25. Grand opening ceremonies were scheduled for October but were postponed due to COVID concerns. Loretta Fulton wrote a book for the occasion, “Hendrick Home for Children: Still Building on a Firm Foundation.” The coffee table-style book, loaded with photographs taken throughout the Home’s history, was published by ACU Press and is available at Texas Star Trading Company, 174 Cypress St. 

Hendrick Home for Children opened a new building in October 2021. It is featured on the cover of a history book by Loretta Fulton

 Loretta Fulton is creator and editor of Spirit of Abilene

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