John Burnett

A new religious statue in the town of Davidson, N.C., is unlike anything you might see in church.

The statue depicts Jesus as a vagrant sleeping on a park bench. St. Alban's Episcopal Church installed the homeless Jesus statue on its property in the middle of an upscale neighborhood filled with well-kept townhomes.

Jesus is huddled under a blanket with his face and hands obscured; only the crucifixion wounds on his uncovered feet give him away.

The reaction was immediate. Some loved it; some didn't.

President Obama is traveling to Fort Hood, Texas, on Wednesday to attend the memorial service for those killed in last week's shooting.

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Flip on Daystar television at any hour of the day and you'll likely see the elements of modern televangelism: a stylish set, an emotional spiritual message and a phone number on the screen soliciting donations.

Based in a studio complex between Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, and broadcasting to a potential audience of 2 billion people around the globe, Daystar calls itself the fastest growing Christian television network in the world.

The Internal Revenue Service considers Daystar something else: a church.

The Sinaloa Cartel, headquartered on Mexico's northern Pacific Coast, is constantly exploring new ways to launder its gargantuan profits. The State Department reports that Mexican trafficking organizations earn between $19 and $29 billion every year from selling marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines on the streets of American cities.

The international drug trade goes in two directions: Narcotics go north and money goes south. All the drug profits made on the streets of U.S. cities like Chicago and Atlanta and Dallas are funneled down to ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border where they're smuggled back into Mexico. In 2012, one federal agency alone, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, seized $411 million in cash hidden in vehicles, mostly heading south.

The intrepid tourist who visits the market in the border city of Matamoros will find her between the onyx chess sets and Yucateca hammocks. She looks like a statue of the Grim Reaper dressed in a flowing gown. She is Santa Muerte, or Saint Death.

Originally revered as an underground folk saint in Mexico, her popularity has jumped the Rio Grande and spread to Mexican communities throughout the United States.

Televangelist Paul Crouch, co-founder of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, died Saturday at the age of 79. The Pentecostal minister's broadcasting network came to be the world's largest Christian television system with Praise-a-Thon fundraising efforts that brought in as much as $90 million a year in mostly small donations.

They say an oilman has to be a gambler, but can he be a prophet?

Zion Oil & Gas, based in Dallas, is a publicly traded company that believes it is commanded by the Bible to search for oil in Israel, both to help the Holy Land and make money for investors. The 22 employees of Zion Oil in Texas and Israel, and many of its 30,000 investors, believe the company is on a mission from God.

With mainline religious congregations dwindling across America, a scattering of churches is trying to attract new members by creating a different sort of Christian community. They are gathering around craft beer.

Some church groups are brewing it themselves, while others are bring the Holy Mysteries to a taproom. The result is not sloshed congregants; rather, it's an exploratory approach to do church differently.

Leah Stanfield stands at a microphone across the room from the beer taps and reads this evening's gospel message.

Two weeks ago, NPR reported on a group of Pentecostals in Appalachia who handle snakes in church to prove their faith in God. The story got us thinking: Why are the handlers bitten so rarely, and why are so few of those snakebites lethal?

Deep in the hills of Appalachia, there's a mournful, beautiful style of church music that hasn't changed since the 18th century.

Snake handlers dwell at the edge of the spiritual frontier — a community of people who are willing to die for their faith three times a week in church. Members of the Pentecostal Holiness Church take up venomous serpents to prove their faith in God. The practice is still widespread in Appalachia, though mostly hidden.

Pastor Jamie Coots warns about the scent in the snake room behind his house in Middlesboro, Ky.

Every year, the State Fair of Texas awards the most original food that is battered and plunged into a vat of boiling oil.

And it gets weirder every year. The obvious choices came and went in previous competitions — concoctions such as fried ice cream, fried cookie dough and chicken-fried bacon. Now, every year, the same cooks have to top themselves, which is not easy.

Last year, Butch Benavides — a Mexican food restaurateur turned fry-master — won a trophy for his fried bacon cinnamon roll on a stick.

It's Sunday morning at the Cowboy Church of Santa Fe County, N.M. You know you're there because of the chuck wagon parked by the highway.

You couldn't find a more nonreligious-looking building. The church is a charmless metal warehouse on a concrete slab. Inside, the altar is decorated like a set from a 1950s western — complete with saddles, hats, boots, a lasso and wagon wheel.

The band has just kicked off with "I Think God Must Be a Cowboy at Heart," and about 30 people in folding chairs are tapping their feet.

The United States military chaplaincy program has a proud heritage that stretches all the way back to the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

"They are rabbis, ministers, imams and priests who serve our nation's heroes and their families as committed members of the U.S. Army," according to one video produced by the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps.

But are they ready for an atheist chaplain?

For the next year, NPR will take a musical journey across America, which is one of the most religiously diverse countries on earth. We want to discover and celebrate the many ways in which people make spiritual music — individually and collectively, inside and outside houses of worship.

In a major victory for the anti-abortion movement, the Texas state Senate passed a sweeping bill early Saturday that has become a flashpoint in the national abortion debate. Gov. Rick Perry is expected to sign it in short order.

But the fight is not over. Abortion rights supporters say that the new law attempts to overturn Roe vs. Wade in Texas, and that's why they plan to take their fight to the courts.

The Boeing 777 that crash-landed in San Francisco has one of the best safety records in the industry. In addition to the plane's solid reputation, many other factors helped save lives in Saturday's crash — from fire-rescue training to aircraft design.

If you look at pictures of the gutted, charred fuselage of Flight 214, you'd wonder how anybody made it out alive. All but two of the 307 passengers and crew survived. Both people killed were teenage girls from China.

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The battle over a new abortion bill in Texas will resume now that Governor Rick Perry has called a second special legislative session. It's scheduled to begin on Monday. This past Tuesday night, an audience far beyond Texas watched as a Democratic state senator filibustered an anti-abortion bill for 12 hours. When Republicans cut her off, spectators jeered and the chamber erupted in pandemonium.

A small church in Santa Fe, N.M., has grown up around a unique sacrament. Twice a month, the congregation meets in a ritualized setting to drink Brazilian huasca tea, which has psychoactive properties said to produce a trance-like state.

The Supreme Court confirmed the UDV church's right to exist in 2006. The church doesn't seek new members and prefers to keep a low profile. It did, however, agree for the first time to open up to a journalist.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's check in on another major story that dominated our attention last week, a fertilizer plant that caught fire and exploded in Texas. We can now say that 14 people were killed and 200 injured. But those numbers alone do not quite capture the impact of this disaster.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

To understand that, recall that the disaster with that scale came in a city of fewer than 3,000 people.

NPR's John Burnett reports from West.

Twenty years ago, federal agents clashed with David Koresh's Branch Davidian community near Waco, Texas. The standoff ended with a raid and fire that killed some 80 people. It's remembered as one of the darkest chapters in American law enforcement history.

Two decades later, some of the Branch Davidians who survived the raid are still believers, while a new church group has moved onto the land.

The Raid

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're learning more about last night's fire in the Texas town of West. The fire started in a fertilizer plant, and a father in a vehicle nearby was taking video of the flames when the plant exploded.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Are you OK?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You OK?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah. I can't hear.

Driving in northern New Mexico requires special caution on Good Friday. Tens of thousands of people — some walking all night — are converging on the village of Chimayo to pray inside a 200-year-old chapel before a carved wooden image of Jesus.

As it does every year, the highway department has put out portable toilets, orange barriers, and signs warning motorists of "Santuario walkers."

Islam in America is growing exponentially. From 2000 to 2010, the number of mosques in the United States jumped 74 percent.

Today, there are more than 2,100 American mosques but they have a challenge: There aren't enough imams, or spiritual leaders, to go around.

Father Kevin Mullins steers his old Chevy pickup up a steep road to a hilltop dominated by a large statue of the virgin. She has a commanding view of this troubled corner of Christendom.

Here, the states of Texas, New Mexico and and Chihuahua, Mexico, intersect amid barren hills freckled with ocotillo plants and greasewood.

When a human tragedy occurs on the scale of the Newtown shootings, clergy are invariably asked an ancient question: If God is all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent, why does he allow such misfortunes?

There's even a word for reconciling this paradox: theodicy, or attempting to justify God's goodness despite the existence of evil and suffering.

A World Both Beautiful And Shattered

After covering East Africa for five months, a profound problem I encountered in every country was what will happen to the continent's exploding cities.

The U.N. predicts that by 2040, six in 10 Africans will live in cities — an estimated 1 billion people. One of the pressing questions for African leaders is how to occupy all the idle young men who turn to crime because there are no jobs.

In Nairobi's Huruma slum, I came across a point of light — one man's attempt to take in thieves and prostitutes and give them honest work, of all things, making jewelry.

Life can be especially cruel for girls growing up on Kenya's Swahili Coast. Some families sell their daughters to earn the bride price, while others encourage them to become child prostitutes for tourists. The girls drop out of school and have babies, and their childhoods are stolen. Now, a coalition of educators, religious and traditional leaders is fighting back.

Thirteen teenage girls — all with babies on their laps — are gathered around a table in the town hall of Msabaha village, not far from the beach resort of Malindi.

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