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November 2019
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Staff Editorials

Decline in church attendance hurts small towns, America

Christianity in America is changing. On a nationwide scale, a decline in church attendance is accompanied by a rise in those who identify as “religiously unaffiliated.” 

Last month the Pew Research Center came out with an update to what they describe as “America’s changing religious landscape.” The non-partisan think tank conducted telephone surveys in 2018 and 2019 and found that “65 percent of American adults now describe themselves as Christians, down 12 percentage points over the past decade.”

The “religiously unaffiliated” who identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26 percent, up from 17 percent a decade ago. 

Consider that in the late 1970s, 90 percent of U.S. adults said they were Christians.

In Pickens County, a conservative and demographically older community, we may be insulated from the trends somewhat. But think about these figures on a personal level, do nine out of 10 people you know attend church or is it just a little over half?

We’ll leave the theological implications to the pastors out there, but for practical reasons, this trend is troubling. Churches are the backbone of small town America.

Flip to our church pages (Page 4-5B) and look at the services offered and deeds performed by churches. For church critics, we’d be quick to ask who else is going to organize youth groups, volunteer with food pantries, visit the sick and offer solace to the grieving? Sure, there are secular groups, but without the support of churches, all these efforts will be drastically reduced or disappear entirely. Loneliness now stands as a recognized health crisis in America – that alone speaks to the need for strong churches.

In Pickens County, the Progress contacted several church representatives last week asking whether their memberships have increased, decreased, or been stagnant over the past decade. Respondents reported a mixed bag, with some congregations seeing increases and others a decline. Churches report losing members to “nursing homes and funeral homes,” while only gaining new members “slightly.” Some traditional church representatives said over the past two or three years it has been harder to attract young families, with many in that demographic, they feel, preferring the worship styles of the modern “mega” style churches.  

According to Pew, in 2009, regular worship attenders (those who attend religious services at least once or twice a month) outnumbered those who attend services only occasionally or not at all by a 52-47 percent margin. Today, those figures are reversed; more Americans now say they attend religious services a few times a year or less (54 percent) than say they attend at least monthly (45 percent).

Those national statistics may not hold true here. Another area church representative said while  smaller congregations are losing membership, mega-churches are increasing numbers. This is clearly a factor in Pickens County with Woodstock First Baptist and Revolution Church with large construction projects underway and Encounter Life Church (which already has several locations) moving to Trinity Tabernacle on Allred Mill Road.

A member of a local traditional Baptist church here said their membership has stayed steady over the past several years, with approximately 100-125 attending weekly and numbers swelling to over 200 during revivals. While they have an older congregation, they also have a thriving youth group.  In contrast earlier this summer, a Progress story on the tradition of Decoration Days at a west end church noted that attendance was dropping. 

Declining numbers at small churches, many well over a century old, are a marked change for Pickens County. Consider in the 1950s this newspaper reported the Grand Jury asked the sheriff to speak to businesses  opening their doors on Sunday and encourage them to do otherwise. 

The wide array of welcoming churches here are a great asset and make our county strong. If you have been a little slack in your weekly attendance, we’d encourage you to make it a habit and take someone new with you. If you don’t have a church connection here, look around and you’ll find great people who will be happy to see a new face.

 

Tag-team efforts tackle park deficits

You will read (Pages 8A-9A) in this issue about the City of Jasper and Pickens County filing a joint grant seeking funding for a 3.4-acre park on the corner of downtown Jasper. This is a big deal for several reasons.

First, they might (hopefully) will get the potential $3 million from the Conserve Georgia grants. In case you had forgotten, this was a state voter-approved revenue allocation where some of the sales tax from sporting goods goes directly to outdoor projects. There is a required local match, but with a plan put together by the local Atlantic Coast Conservancy (ACC) using in-kind labor and private donations, it should be a bargain for the innovative park the area will get.

The phase 1 plans are not large, but they will create a showplace for our mountain views and raise the “hip” factor in the county seat.

The plans, courtesy of Robert Keller and ACC, that have been presented are well-tailored for a downtown. The park will sit at the southeast corner of town on property already owned by the city at South Main Street and Spring Street. It surrounds the former Perrow medical clinic and will be named Perrow Park to honor the family.

That area is already a greenspace which hosts a few sporadic events but it’s rough, uneven terrain with no bathroom, night lighting or anything that facilitates public gatherings. 

Giving the property some designed character should be a catalyst for the revitalization underway along Main Street with new eateries and coffee/sweet shops. 

Among the features of the park we liked the best is the grassy amphitheater. This will be a neat asset as a gathering space any time, in addition to any shows. The terraced earthen area will be a spot to hang out, meet a friend or have lunch. If you think about cool-looking towns in Georgia, the ones that win awards and keep people coming back to downtowns, they all have something unique, feature some greenspace and are surrounded by vibrant shops. Whether it’s the colossal Atlanta midtown and Piedmont Park, or a smaller Marietta with the square or Dahlonega with the neat mountain atmosphere and puzzling traffic flow, Woodstock and their amphitheater and booming shopping/dining, Saint Simons and the lighthouse or Madison and its revitalized downtown park where unused buildings formerly sat, all these places have an ambiance.

Jasper business owners have made tremendous strides with new restaurants, boutiques and shops now open, giving a fresh flow on Main Street -- small businesses leading the way.

Now, if fortune smiles on the grant application, the civic side can pull their weight by giving a touch of character to town. 

However, if the state decides our project doesn’t get the dough this year, the effort has already broken new ground in the joint city/county approach. While the two governments have worked together regularly on roads, waterlines and storm clean-ups, this marks a new chapter of them tag-teaming for recreation. Not just working together to accomplish a set task but actually combining heads and resources for an ambitious plan.

Working together the city and county can tackle this recreation deficit to benefit us all.

 

Spread of child porn must be stopped

While the New York Times often bears the brunt of media criticism, their recent reporting on rampant and mostly uncontrollable child pornography deserves praise for bringing the vile problem into the forefront and the facts they uncovered should force lawmakers and law enforcement at all levels to take note and take action.

The investigative report (The Internet is Overrun With Images of Child Sexual Abuse. What Went Wrong?) which appeared on their NYTimes.com website earlier this month will leave you aghast at how big the epidemic of child pornography is. The Times found that last year technology companies reported 45 million photos and videos of child sexual abuse posted online. In 2008, the number was at one million and it was considered a crisis back then.

In 2008, Congress passed legislation that was supposed to bring this horrible situation under more scrutiny.  But it appears that after the legislation was passed, little was done and it got much, much worse. Among the Times’ findings:

• Law enforcement is so understaffed and underfunded that agents in state bureaus and large cities assigned to child sex crimes are forced to prioritize which cases they  handle and ignore others entirely.

One agent interviewed said it made him sick at night to know they were only addressing cases where they thought children might be in imminent danger or for only the very youngest children.

Another agent, in New Jersey, said based on statistics, their small task force could probably arrest 400,000 people if they had the time and resources to act on all the leads - obviously an impossible task.

Congress dedicated $60 million a year to fight child sexual abuse imagery but has never fully-funded that and rarely funds more than half that amount. 

• The images are mostly, but not always made overseas, then passed around globally, including in the U.S. on social media sites. The tech companies are required to report child exploitation photos if their employees see it, but are not required to look for it or take any further action. And in many cases, agents say that tech companies cooperate only to the barest minimum.

Hany Farid, who worked with Microsoft to develop technology in 2019 for detecting child sexual abuse material, said tech companies had not wanted to dig too deeply. “The companies knew the house was full of roaches, and they were scared to turn the lights on. And then when they did turn the lights on, it was worse than they thought.”

Tumblr and Snapchat were cited as the least cooperative with their inability to give timely response to law enforcement requests.

• New encryption software, including Facebook’s plans to encrypt Messenger, greatly allows criminal perverts to send and exchange files. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged the threat in encrypting Messenger saying, “Encryption is a powerful tool for privacy but that includes the privacy of people doing bad things.”

• The Justice Department, charged about a decade ago to lead efforts to thwart the spread of sexual images of children, did little. Among their failings that the Times documented was never creating a senior level position to handle child exploitation cases, nor filing required reports on their strategy to address these crimes as congress sought.

Nor did they implement any increase in manpower. One agent interviewed said even if they doubled the agents assigned to child exploitation cases, they “would still be getting crushed.”

The reporting also found that the threat of crimes against children grows more widespread and with more gruesome abuse when perpetrators are able to join online forums such as Love Zone on the dark web. The site, according to the Times  had 30,000 members and encouraged them to become “producers” making images showing abuse.

Psychologists now believe there is a much stronger link than previously thought between viewing abusive images and committing abuse, which should frighten us all - recall it was 45 million images reported last year.

This is intolerable and inexcusable that our lawmakers and federal agencies can’t bring this disgusting crime under control.

It’s great to see community involved, now keep it up

It was truly heartening to see the community participate so fully in the democratic process, expressing their views to the school board involving the transgender bathroom situation. And, while poor handling of the whole situation by the school district set off the chain of events, the school board and superintendent deserve respect for publicly owning up – in spite of death threats and raised tempers. It takes gumption to invite an angry crowd to air their grievances.

The bathroom issue was one that reached  parents at an emotional level. It is important that parents feel their children are safe both physically and emotionally at a school. And the rest of the public’s tax dollars fund the system so their policy is fair game for comment even if your oldest child graduated years ago. 

But for all those people who ONLY turned out for this one issue and will not be back to future school board or county meetings, shame on you. It’s like you came to watch the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl and then forget about the team the rest of the year.

Just imagine if the public rose up in similar fashion over the vaping issue? Vaping to date has affected more children than the bathroom issue; has already sent kids to the hospital; resulted in charges and reportedly left at least one student with lingering health effects -- prompting an investigator to predict vaping will eventually kill a kid here. Think for a second if the schools saw 800 parents or even half that amount down on D.B. Carroll Street demanding something be done right then to get vapes out of the schools? 

Or imagine, instead of complaining on the back end about the expensive video scoreboard at Dragon Stadium, people had turned out demanding a cut in spending before it was installed?

What about if parents and grandparents of elementary children marched into a school board meeting with questions and opinions on whether the board should shorten the school day for the youngest students, even if it means cutting some of the PEs and arts?

Or where were the parents asking what can be done to raise Milestone scores over the fair/okay but not that great ones reported earlier this year?

What exactly do parents feel about making the school year start later and with fewer class days? The board can only guess or speculate from a small handful of comments.

It was encouraging to see that people here still demand accountability of their elected officials and tax-funded institutions but outside of this one issue, it’s disheartening to see how few other topics raise much interest.

Former school board member Byron Long remarked at a public forum when he was still office that he had tried to engage the public, but his phone never rang nor did he log many e-mails. Even if you can’t attend a meeting, all board members can be reached by e-mail [it’s on their website pickens.k12.ga.us but not that easy to navigate].

Any elected official in a small town will do a better job with input from their constituents, whether its parents or property owners. They will do a better job because the people will hold them accountable -- when the eyes of the people are on them. There is no money in serving on a commission, city council or school board. People don’t get into small town government for fame or fortune. They do it because they care, and they need input to know what parents and taxpayers are thinking and not just once in a blue-moon.

The Progress ran a photo (May 24, 2018) of a public hearing on the school’s FY 2019 budget at the central office. It shows two board members and Superintendent Carlton Wilson talking amongst themselves in front of an empty room of chairs. Not one member of the public attended.

The latest episode involving the bathroom and school officials reversing their decision for the time being shows what can be accomplished when the community is engaged. Don’t let it be a one-time thing

 

A great time to be a sports fan

Some people may think SEC football, baseball playoffs or the surging popularity of the Atlanta United are about sports. They aren’t.

They are about people. Sports are about us coming together in our increasingly isolated, digital world and collectively rooting for one particular team - all of us together. It’s tribal. 

Whether you grew up watching the Braves on the Superstation or trekking over to Athens or even down to Bobby Dodd, sports are about togetherness.

Sporting events for the fans are as much about the social aspect of the game and as the sport itself. When you are tomahawk chopping with 40,000 others at SunTrust Park it’s magic. When it’s with a group gathered around a television it’s still pretty cool, but when you are by yourself on the couch it’s sort of silly - and please let us have plenty to chop about in Game 5.

Research tells us that there are real mental health advantages to claiming a sports team as our own (Go Dawgs). While our blood pressure may rise  when they start slow in Knoxville, the health benefits are far-reaching. Epic fandom is linked to higher levels of well-being and general happiness.

And what a great time to be a sports fan in Georgia. From the Braves post season (even when Acuna prefers to watch the ball instead of run) to what will hopefully be a historic season for the Georgia Bulldogs, sports are exciting. And, right here at home, our Dragons football team is again in the hunt for playoff action. Get down to Pickens High School and support all our high school athletes.

While most of us will never be like super fans Freeman and Betty Reese who missed their daughter’s wedding to see a University of Alabama game (they warned her), we can all cheer on our team win, lose, or draw. 

Bonding over sports - the highs and lows of the game - strengthens ties and gives us a sense of family. When we identify with a team we instantly build connections to those around us - and that hastens our overall wellbeing.

We are happy when our team wins and sad when they lose. Either way, it’s a diversion from regular life. When we are watching a batter or wide receiver, we aren’t thinking about that looming deadline at work.  

As a species,we have a strong need to belong and a need to identify with something greater than ourselves. Sports is a  fun way for people to do that. It doesn’t delve into the deeper meanings of life and that’s the whole point. There are times for deeper thoughts but not while a game is on the line.  The bonding we do with friends and others we meet while sitting in the stands cheering can bring us together and make us more than strangers that happen to live in the same area. 

While some of us may have more interest in the sporting event itself and what is happening between the yard markers, baselines or on the basketball court, a family or group of friends can just as well enjoy the conversation, the laughs, the highs and the lows of the competition.

Research shows us that maintaining a strong social network improves our chance of living longer by 50 percent - and who wouldn’t want that? Sharing good times with friends - like at a sporting event - can even reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease and help us cope with stress. So even if the team we’re pulling for loses, at least we have our friends or neighbors in the stands to cheer us up and help forget about it over some laughs. 

So find a spot for yourself in Dragon Stadium at their next home game and see what a fun and exciting time you can have cheering them on.