Oconee Street UMC looks to rebuild

Originally published on Athens Patch on April 16, 2013

A cross — seemingly untouched — overlooks the collapsed ceiling, broken glass and other debris in the former sanctuary of Oconee Street UMC.

More than 20 members of Oconee Street United Methodist Church stood yards away from the doorstep of their church, located on the hill between Oconee and Oak Street, as firefighters fought a blaze that engulfed the historic sanctuary.

“I feel like a part of me has died,” said Maxine Easom, the church’s music supervisor. “I have been a part of this church since I was a born.”

The blaze — the cause of which is yet unknown but no foul play is suspected — completely destroyed the 111-year-old main sanctuary. This morning, Easom, along with several other church members including Pastor Lisa Caine, surveyed the damage. The ceiling is gone from the main sanctuary, as a large gold cross still hangs firmly on the wall behind the altar amidst downed beams, broken glass and torched pews.

“With that sanctuary and that altar railing – you can feel the cloud of witnesses and hear the saints who have gone before us and made the church the place that it is today,” said Caine, who has served as pastor of the church since 2001.

Oconee Street UMC has a long history in Athens. Founded in 1871 with just 16 members, the church moved to its current location in 1903. Over the past half century, the church has been known for its strong support of social justice and service within the community. In 1980, the Rev. Carolyn Morris became pastor of the church, making Oconee Street the first Methodist church in the area to have a woman serve as pastor. A decade later under the leadership of the Rev. Ted Staton, the church partnered with Athens Urban Ministry and opened the city’s first lunchtime soup kitchen, Our Daily Bread. Most recently, the church has raised thousands of dollars and offered hundreds of service hours for local charities, including the Athens Nurses Clinic, the Interfaith Hospitality Network and the Northeast Georgia Food Bank.

After checking out the damage, the members discussed an action plan for the immediate future. Church records, insurance company contacts, Sunday services and even choir practice became the topic of conversation. Held at the church’s former parsonage — now used as a workspace for Action Ministries – church members filtered in one-by-one, all wanting to help in some way.

“This church has served the community for more than 140 years,” said Sharon Pendley, lay leader of the church. “The community looks to it and relies on it for the help that it can’t get anywhere else.”

As organizers for Action Ministries developed immediate plans for to continue offering meals through Our Daily Bread, church members started plans to recover and rebuild, but they were far from alone. From construction services to temporary church locations, Caine was inundated with calls offering space, support and service.

“I have been so overwhelmed with the calls of love, affection, encouragement and support that we have received from the Athens community,” Caine said.

One such call came from Young Harris United Methodist Church, a congregation similar in size and scope to Oconee Street. The church offered space on its Prince Avenue campus for Oconee Street to temporarily hold Sunday services and Sunday school classes.

Allison Floyd, children and youth programs coordinator for Young Harris, said the decision to help Oconee Street was easy. “Many of us have been in Oconee Street UMC’s kitchen volunteering with Our Daily Bread, so we know what a special place it is and what good work goes on there,” she said. “Anything we could do to comfort the Oconee Street congregation and allow them to regroup, our congregation wanted to do.”

With a temporary new home secured, Oconee Street UMC leaders are now looking to the long-term. A special website — www.rebuildoconeestreetumc.org — has been set up to accept donations and provide progress updates. Donations may also be made in person at any Athens First Bank and Trust location, made payable to “Oconee Street UMC Building Fund.”

Although the fire destroyed the sanctuary and the education wing of the church is heavily damaged with water and smoke, Caine has no doubt the church will persevere.

“Oconee Street is all right,” she said. “Our sanctuary is gone, but we as a congregation are strong and have the trust and faith to go on, because Athens can’t be without a church on the hill.”

Funky Dancing

Hello. Welcome to my website. If you received a Christmas card from The Dennis Family and are looking for the video of Jackson dancing, check it out below. If you didn’t receive a card, but still want to see some funky dancing, check out the video below.

If interested, you can check out family photos by visiting our Flickr page here.

It’s Time to Ban Semiautomatic Weapons

Originally published on Athens Patch on Dec. 17, 2012.

Like all parents of young children, I was shaken by the tragedy in Connecticut, especially as the events unfolded while my kids were at their own elementary school.

I cannot imagine the pain the parents of the victims must be feeling, and hope the outpouring of support from the nation lets them know they are not alone in their mourning.

Since the tragedy, much has been written and said trying to make sense of the events of Dec. 14, and the seemingly increasing senseless violence in our country. Over the past six years, the United States has seen some of its worst mass murders in history:

•April 16, 2007 – Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va., 32 killed;

•Dec. 5, 2007 – Westroads Mall, Omaha, Neb., 8 killed;

•Feb. 14, 2008 – Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill., 5 killed;

•April 3, 2009 – American Civic Association in Binghamton, NY, 13 killed;

•Nov. 5, 2009 – Fort Hood, Texas, 13 killed;

•Aug. 3, 2010 – Harford Beer Distributor in Manchester, Conn., 8 killed;

•Jan. 8, 2011 – Rep. Gabriel Giffords appearance in Tuscon, Ariz., 6 killed;

•July 20, 2012 – Movie Theater in Aurora, Colo., 12 killed;

•Aug. 5, 2012 – Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wis., 6 killed;

•Dec. 14, 2012 – Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., 26 killed.

Each event featured one sole assailant, and these murderers of the 129 victims have one thing in common — they all used legally purchased semiautomatic weapons to conduct their killing sprees. In nine of the 10 cases, the semiautomatic guns were purchased by the perpetrator himself (the Westroads Mall shooter stole the gun from his stepfather). Assault weapons serve one main purpose — to kill multitudes in a short amount of time. It’s how 10 killers single-handedly murdered 129 people in the aforementioned tragedies.

In 1994, with overwhelming bipartisan support, the federal government passed an assault weapons ban. The ban expired in 2004. During the 10 years the law was in place, there were eight mass shootings resulting in 51 deaths. According to the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, six of the eight massacres involved semiautomatic weapons purchased legally before the assault weapons ban took effect in 1994. The two mass shootings featuring illegally acquired weapons — Columbine in 1999 and Edgewater Technology in 2000 — resulted in 20 combined deaths.

Doing the math, over the past 18 years, mass shootings involving legally purchased assault weapons resulted in 160 innocent deaths, while mass shootings involving illegally purchased assault weapons resulted in 20 deaths.

Obviously, assault weapons and the ease of purchasing them is not the sole reason 160 people have lost their lives. However, one cannot deny the link between the spike in mass killings and the expiration of the assault weapons ban.

For the 20 children shot multiple times in a matter of minutes last Friday; for the 129 murdered over the past eight years by legally purchased semiautomatic weapons; and to reduce a legitimate threat to safety of all Americans, the government needs to restore a ban on semiautomatic weapons.

My 3 Sons: The Trampoline

Jaydon and Jackson cooling off on “sprinkler trampoline.”

Originally published on Athens Patch on Dec. 12, 2012.

My one piece of advice to a family with young boys: buy a big trampoline.

Years ago my wife and I were examining ways to provide more outdoor entertainment for our sons. Of course, they have their bikes, scooters and skateboards, but we wanted something that could occupy them for significant chunks of time while also keeping them contained within our backyard.

We explored the options. A pool was too costly and took too much effort to maintain. A sandbox was too messy, and since I typically handle vacuuming and mopping duties, I quickly eliminated that proposal. A mini-playground was a nice idea — but then I remembered that I lack handyman skills. I envisioned our kids flinging off the swing as the base of the playground becomes loose because daddy forgot to tighten a nut, or a bolt, or whichever one it is you tighten. So we settled on a trampoline — a big one — with “easy to assemble” printed on the box. And after a two-week battle with the 200 parts that came with it, the trampoline was completed.

It was an instant hit with our oldest boys, 8-year-old Jaydon and 4-year-old Jackson, and in turn the best thing to happen to their parents.

The trampoline has become our “go-to” option when our two oldest kids are too revved up around the house. Running around too much in the living room while mom and dad are trying to relax? Go jump on the trampoline. Wrestling each other while baby is trying to get in on the act? Go wrestle on the trampoline. Nerf gun bullets flying in the kitchen while we’re cooking dinner? Go shoot each other on the trampoline. Throwing balls at each other in the hallway? Go play dodgeball on the trampoline. The trampoline has become an outdoor pseudo “time out” that everyone enjoys: mom and dad get peace in the house while the boys still get to be rowdy.

The trampoline is also the perfect year-round backyard accessory. During the hot summer months we put a sprinkler under the trampoline. When it’s raining (as long as it’s not lightning), it’s a nice way for our sons to get some outdoor time without getting muddy. I’m hoping for some snow this winter, so we could witness our first trampoline snowball fight.

Baby Matthew has even started to partake in the trampoline fun. Although we don’t let him join his brothers’ craziness just yet, he enjoys his solo time chasing a ball and bouncing around.

Even if they don’t admit it, most parents at some point have used the TV as an indoor “babysitter.” We have discovered that its perfect outdoor counterpart is the trampoline.

My 3 Sons: The White Sox Game

Originally published on athens.patch.com on Sept. 29, 2012.

Jaydon enjoys a $3 cotton candy at his first White Sox game.on Sept. 28, 2012.

Growing up just 20 minutes from old Comiskey Park, I grew up loving the White Sox. I’ll never forget my first game. It was June 20, 1985 — I still have the ticket stub. My dad and grandpa Chuck took me to the old ballpark with my Cub Scout troop, and despite my incessant cheering for my childhood heroes Carlton Fisk, Harold Baines and Ron Kittle, the Sox were pounded 12-1 by the Oakland Athletics (and to this day, I still hate the A’s). Despite the setback, I remember watching the entire game, clinging on to every pitch.

It was with much anticipation that I took Jaydon took his first White Sox game 27 years later. It was a typically hot Chicago August evening as we watched the Sox battle the Los Angeles Angels. Although growing up 15 hours from U.S. Cellular Field, Jaydon has grown up a White Sox fan, thanks in part to former University of Georgia baseball star Gordon Beckham playing second base for the Sox. We walked to our seats in the hopes of seeing his favorite players — Beckham, home run powerhouse Adam Dunn and future Hall of Famer Paul Konerko — lead the Sox to victory. I was really hoping his first Sox experience would be much better than mine, so didn’t mind dropping $150 to get some good seats.

It was an outstanding game — several lead changes, home runs and extra innings — and we missed most of it. We got there well before the first pitch, and even got to to see the Sox staked to an early 4-1 lead. Then Jaydon wanted some food. In talking up the game experience to him I mentioned the unique and delicious food options at The Cell, so I obliged. We trek 15 rows up to the concourse and get a nachos with cheese and salsa, two Chicago-style “Comiskey” dogs and two “souvenir Cokes,” which is Coke but tastes better because it’s in a special cup. Jaydon thought that was a bargain. Down $30, I disagreed. Only one inning missed. Not bad.

We get back to our seats in the second inning and the lead has narrowed to 4-3. Not sure how that happened. After an uneventful half inning for the White Sox and Jaydon already through with his “souvenir Coke” the inevitable happens.

“Dad, I have to use the bathroom,” he says.

Knowing not to test a 9-year-old bladder, I cram the rest of my hot dog, his hot dog and the rest of our nachos in my mouth, excuse ourselves from the five people separating us from the aisle and make the 15-row trip back to the concourse. After the restroom trip, Jay reminds me that his mom said we should grab him a Sox cap while at the park. So we walk around the concourse to find the “official” gift shop, of course stopping at every little souvenir stand so he can determine he doesn’t like any of the caps. We arrive at the gift shop, seemingly miles from our seat, and Jay has a field deal browsing wall-to-wall White Sox apparel and gifts. After much consideration, he settles on a cap, but then wants to look at the toys. An avid Lego fan, he’s enthralled by the selection of Lego White Sox players. He wanted the whole team. I talked him down to one — Gordon Beckham, of course. Out another $40, we take the 15-minute walk back to our seats. It’s already the fifth inning and the Sox are now down 5-4.

I tell Jaydon we are not going to leave our seats for awhile, and he agrees. We catch an uneventful fifth inning and see the Angels tack on another run in the top of the sixth. Then nature calls again.

“Dad, I’m really sorry, but I have to go to the bathroom,” he says.

I glance at the guy next to me and I sense he feels my frustration. He gets the rest of his group to stand up so we can make our way to the aisle and the 15-row trip to the concourse, again.

After the restroom, Jay reminds me about this fun place for kids at Sox park that I told him about a long time ago. It’s called “FUNdamentals,” an attraction where kids can practice their baseball skills with White Sox “coaches.” I mentioned this to him months ago, but intentionally neglected to him about it this trip because I bought good tickets and wanted to watch the game. I knew FUNdamentals closes at the seventh inning so we walked around the ballpark to the attraction.

Jaydon had a blast and didn’t mind the long waits to hit, pitch, run  and field. Meanwhile, the White Sox hit a couple blasts to tie the game at 6. After 30 minutes of FUN, the attraction closes and we take the long walk back to our seats, of course stopping to pick up some frozen lemonade and cotton candy (another $15 gone). It’s the ninth inning, and I’m determined not to miss another pitch.

The game goes into extra innings and the Sox shut down the Angels in the top of the tenth. At the bottom of the inning, with one out and one on, Alex Rios slams a home run to center field, giving the White Sox an 8-6 win.

In more than a hundred professional baseball games attended, I’ve never witnessed a walk-off home run, and my son gets the chance in his very first ballgame. And underneath his new Sox cap, gripping his Gordon Beckham lego and souvenir cup, Jaydon had a big grin on his cotton candy-covered face. It made the hole in my wallet and the worn rubber on my shoes all worth it.