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Methodists forge proposal to separate over gay issues

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — United Methodist Church leaders from around the world and across ideological divides unveiled a plan Friday for a new conservative denomination that would split from the rest of the church in an attempt to resolve a years-long dispute over gay marriage and gay clergy.

Members of the 13-million-person denomination have been at odds for years over the issue, with members in the United States leading the call for full inclusion for LGBTQ people.

At a specially called meeting last February in St. Louis, delegates voted 438-384 for a proposal called the Traditional Plan, which affirmed bans on LGBTQ-inclusive practices. A majority of U.S.-based delegates opposed the plan, but they were outvoted by U.S. conservatives teamed with most of the delegates from Methodist strongholds in Africa and the Philippines.

Methodists in favor of allowing gay clergy and gay marriage vowed to continue fighting. Meanwhile, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, representing traditional Methodist practice, had already been preparing for a possible separation.

The Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and one of 16 people on the mediation team that developed and signed the separation proposal, said he is "very hopeful" the plan will be approved at the denomination's General Conference this year.

This is the first time that "respected leaders of groups from every constituency" have come together to form a plan, he said. "And this is the first time that bishops of the church have signed on to an agreement like this."

Boyette stressed that while the churches remaining in the United Methodist Church would keep the denomination's name, both the new church and the post-separation Methodist Church would be different from the current Methodist Church.

"This is not a leaving, but a restructuring of the United Methodist Church through separation," he said.

The proposal, called "A Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation," envisions an amicable separation in which conservative churches forming a new denomination would retain their assets. The new denomination also would receive $25 million.

How this move would affect congregations in Nebraska is still unknown, said Todd Seifert, communications director for the Great Plains United Methodist Conference, which includes 1,007 congregations in Nebraska and Kansas.

Seifert said a final decision on the policy will be made at the General Conference in Minneapolis in May.

He said he's not aware of any delegations in Nebraska that have expressed a desire to split from the church, but there are a few "traditional" delegations in Kansas that are "OK with restrictive language and wish to disassociate."

"They're tired of the fighting," Seifert said. "I'm not sure what they'll do now."

The First United Methodist Church in Omaha voted unanimously in April to host same-gender weddings. The decision was in defiance of the February vote in St. Louis affirming a ban against gay clergy and same-sex weddings performed on its property.

First United has a long history of advocacy and action for the LGBTQ community.

In the 1990s, before same sex marriage was legal, a First United pastor performed a same-sex wedding on church property. A church member filed a complaint against the pastor, the Rev. Jimmy Creech, who was sanctioned, faced a church trial and eventually was defrocked.

The United Methodist Church and the Lutheran Church each make up 8% of Nebraska's Christian population and are the largest mainstream Protestant denominations in the state, according to the Pew Research Center, which last studied religious demographics in 2014. In Iowa, the Methodist Church edges out the Lutherans, 10% to 8%.

The Omaha metropolitan area has 25 United Methodist churches with about 8,500 members total.

World-Herald staff writer Jessica Wade contributed to this report.

'It's all come to life': StratCom is now monitoring military threats from its new command post

Just in time to cope with increased tensions with North Korea and Iran, U.S. Strategic Command is warily watching the world from a new bunker.

Last month, with zero fanfare, StratCom moved its battle-watch staff from the old hilltop headquarters building at Offutt Air Force Base — where teams have operated continuously since 1957 — into the brand-new $1.3 billion command-and-control facility about 500 yards away.

“It’s all come to life,” said Vice Adm. David Kriete, StratCom’s deputy commander, who supervised the move. “The first evening, we had one of our nuclear command-and-control exercises. We’ve been off and running ever since.”

The move, on Dec. 17, occurred two weeks after North Korean leaders lobbed the veiled threat of a “Christmas present,” which was widely expected to take the form of a missile test. That test hasn’t occurred (yet), but now the U.S. may be on the brink of war with Iran after killing the country’s top military leader in Baghdad.

As of Friday, about 90% of StratCom’s 3,300 personnel at Offutt had completed the move into the new building, said Karen Singer, a StratCom spokeswoman.

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The global operations center, or “battle deck,” is slightly more than 1,000 square feet, the beating heart of a building that measures 916,000 square feet.

It features several semicircular rows of computer workstations facing a video screen 9 feet high and 32 feet wide. The back row can be set off by a soundproof divider, in case information is discussed that is too sensitive for even some of the commander’s closest aides to hear.

From their offices upstairs, Kriete and StratCom commander Adm. Charles Richard can reach the battle deck in 90 seconds on foot, or 30 seconds on a private elevator.

In the vacated 1957 headquarters building, the journey took five minutes.

The old headquarters was also outmoded, having never been designed for the thousands of computer workstations and high-tech communications gear needed in the command center for the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Kriete described the transition to the new operations center as “seamless.” But it took months of work and practice before that seamless change could happen.

Because some of the monitoring equipment was new, everyone on the battle-watch teams had to be trained and recertified, Kriete said, both individually and in groups. That involved “a couple hundred” people, he said.


"The first evening, we had one of our nuclear command-and-control exercises. We've been off and running ever since," said Vice Adm. David Kriete, StratCom's deputy commander, who supervised the move.

For weeks, teams operated in both buildings while the personnel, both military and civilian, got used to the new equipment and computer displays.

“It was kind of a parallel operations sort of thing,” Kriete said. “We didn’t skip a beat.”

Gen. John Hyten heralded the change Nov. 18, when he handed over command of StratCom to Richard. They also christened the new building in honor of Gen. Curtis LeMay, longtime commander of the Strategic Air Command. Hyten described the first full-scale test of the new operations center, which took place that day.

“If everything goes according to schedule, we could all be in by Christmas,” he told The World-Herald at the time.

StratCom beat that deadline by a full week.

“It was the culmination of years of work, by thousands of folks,” Kriete said.

It was one of the few times in the new building’s complicated history that things have gone according to schedule.

Congress approved funds to design the building in 2009, and construction began in 2012. By then, the project was already six months behind schedule after initial bids on the building came in too high. The building size was shrunk by about 10% to reduce the cost.

The contractor, Kiewit Phelps, ran into a series of problems, including drainage problems, mold in new ductwork, labor shortages, fires, floods and even a tornado. The project ended up $53 million over budget and 29 months behind schedule, taking 86 months to complete.

A 2018 inspector general report on the cost and schedule overruns blamed them on “inaccurate cost estimates, design deficiencies, contract modifications, fire, floods, mold, and challenges related to the execution of contract modifications.”

Kriete acknowledged the problems, but he said the overruns will be forgotten as the building ages.

“I know it cost $1.3 billion,” he said. “But this is the place where we’re going to be carrying out nuclear command and control for as far as we can see into the future.”

Photos: Offutt Air Force Base through the years

Trump: Strike was ordered 'to stop a war'
Pentagon official says at least 3,000 troops are headed to Middle East as Iran vows 'harsh retaliation' for attack

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday that he ordered the drone strike that killed Iran's top military leader to prevent future attacks against Americans.

"We caught him in the act and terminated him," Trump said, adding that "we take comfort in knowing his reign of terror is over."

Trump rejected concerns that his decision to kill Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran's elite Quds Force, would draw the U.S. into a wider conflict in the Middle East.

"We took action last night to stop a war," he said. "We did not take action to start a war."

Tehran vowed "harsh retaliation" for the attack, and a Pentagon official said at least 3,000 more Army troops were heading to the Middle East.

U.S. officials offered few details of what they said was a plot by Soleimani to kill American soldiers and diplomats. The mention of diplomats seemed to suggest that targets included an American embassy — possibly the one in Baghdad that was stormed by pro-Iran militias this week.

"There was an imminent attack," Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said on Fox News. "What was sitting before us was his travels throughout the region and his efforts to make a significant strike against Americans. There would have been many Muslims killed as well — Iraqis, people in other countries as well."

Soleimani was killed by a U.S. drone strike late Thursday as he drove in a convoy in Baghdad, according to a military officer familiar with the details who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Also killed were Abu Mahdi Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and six other people, according to Iraqi security officials. The Associated Press quoted other Iraqi officials as saying Soleimani's body was torn to pieces, and he was identified by a ring he wore.

"We've made clear to the Iranians that we weren't going to tolerate the killing of Americans," Pompeo said on CNN.

Soleimani was a cultural icon in Iran and the reputed mastermind behind the Islamic Republic's military operations throughout the region, backing Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Hezbollah party in Lebanon and other groups. He also helped fight against Islamic State militants who at one point seized large parts of Iraq and Syria.

Washington and Tehran have been engaged in a steadily simmering tit-fortat conflict since Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposed harsh sanctions that have battered Tehran's economy.

The United States urged citizens to leave Iraq "immediately" and closed consular services at the embassy in Baghdad. Some flights to the country were canceled.

Pentagon officials said 3,000 to 3,500 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division are deploying to Kuwait. That's in addition to the 600 sent this week in response to the Baghdad embassy protests.

"The brigade will deploy to Kuwait as an appropriate and precautionary action in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, and will assist in reconstituting the reserve," said a Defense Department official.

Also Friday, the Pentagon placed an Army brigade in Italy on alert to fly into Lebanon if needed to protect the U.S. Embassy there, part of a series of military moves to protect U.S. interests in the Middle East. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official said the U.S. could send 130 to more than 700 troops to Beirut from Italy.

Pompeo on Friday telephoned numerous world leaders to inform them of the administration's action and to say the United States "remains committed to de-escalation." Several allies said the killing was unwise and urged restraint on all sides.

One group Trump did not inform was Congress.

His first public comments were made on Twitter, where he said that Soleimani should have been killed years ago.

He also shared laudatory remarks from supporters and rejected concerns that administration officials should have briefed congressional leaders about the strike ahead of time.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned in Tehran that "harsh retaliation is waiting" for the United States. He declared three days of mourning and appointed Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani's deputy, to replace him. Iranian experts said Soleimani had already groomed a new generation of fighters and suggested the void he leaves might be quickly filled.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a relative moderate, called the strike "an act of state terrorism and violation of Iraq's sovereignty."

The region braced for a counterstrike from Iran, although that may not happen immediately and could occur in a number of places.

"What always kept both Democratic and Republican presidents from targeting Soleimani himself was the simple question: Was the strike worth the likely retaliation, and the potential to pull us into protracted conflict?" said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former CIA analyst who focused on Iranian-backed militias while serving in Iraq.

"The two administrations I worked for both determined that the ultimate ends didn't justify the means," she said, referring to the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. "The Trump administration has made a different calculation."

She added, "It is critical that the administration has thought out the moves and counter-moves this attack will precipitate."

The tensions between Iran and Trump are rooted in his decision in May 2018 to withdraw the U.S. from Iran's nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

It's unclear what legal authority the U.S. relied on to carry out the attack. American presidents claim broad authority to act without the approval of Congress when U.S. personnel or interests are facing an imminent threat. The Pentagon did not provide evidence to back up its assertion that Soleimani was planning new attacks against Americans.

But American officials have blamed Iran for the two-day embassy attack in Baghdad, which ended Wednesday. No one was killed or wounded in the protests, which breached the compound but appeared to bemainly a show of force.

The attack at the embassy followed U.S. airstrikes Sunday that killed 25 fighters of Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iranbacked militia operating in Iraq and Syria. That was in retaliation for last week's killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Flooding forced them into campers and hotels. Now King Lake families ring in 2020 at home

Trish and Salvador Duran hosted Christmas this year for their extended family, an act of hospitality that once seemed impossible after almost 4 feet of floodwater swept into their house in King Lake in March.

“They don’t expect perfection,” Trish Duran said as she looked around her nearly finished home.

She dug out their little Christmas tree. The Elf on a Shelf was lost in the flood; good riddance, she said. Their two kids knew that this year, more than ever, Christmas was about more than presents.

“It’s not going to be about the stuff,” Trish said days before Christmas.

“It’s just about the family, and spending time, and appreciating (each other),” 9-year-old Gabby said.

Slowly but surely, families like the Durans and several of their neighbors are moving back into their flood-damaged houses after spending months replacing water-soaked drywall, carpet and ruined appliances.

Floods devastate Nebraska, Iowa in March 2019

They acknowledge that they are the lucky ones. In many areas hit hard by flooding, such as BellevuePacific Junction, Iowa; Fremont, Nebraska, and their neighborhood of King Lake in western Douglas County, some have walked away from houses that are too expensive or too damaged to repair. Or they have moved elsewhere while they cobble together savings, loans and federal disaster aid to rebuild.

King Lake is an unincorporated area, a secluded neighborhood of 1 square mile that sits next to the Elkhorn River and not far from the Platte River, east of Valley and north of Waterloo. During historic flooding in March, the Elkhorn spilled out of its banks, sending water into almost all of the 111 homes in King Lake. At Waterloo, the river reached new heights, cresting 5.65 feet higher than the previous record, set in 1962.

Contractors and volunteers have scrambled to get residents back in houses that are at least habitable — maybe not picture-perfect, but with functioning heat or electricity — before the holidays and winter cold set in.

Down the road from the Durans, the newest ornament on the Bonacci family Christmas tree was a camper, representing almost a year’s worth of stress, sweat and resiliency.


The Bonacci family buys a new Christmas ornament every year, and for this year they bought a camper ornament to hang on their tree.

It’s a nod to the 24-foot RV parked in their driveway, bought from a seller on Facebook, where the family lived from July to October after 4 feet of flooding forced them from their one-story home. Before that, they bounced around from hotel to hotel so their two younger daughters could access the Internet for homework and spent time in two emergency shelters.

“It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was only nine months,” Denise Bonacci said.

Now daughter Lydia, 11, shows off her newly renovated bedroom — now that her oldest sister has moved out, she’s got her own space. A curtain blocks the entrance while her dad, Paul, a landscaper, continues to put the finishing touches on the house — trim, doors, cabinets and countertops for the kitchen.

What’s it like having your own room after sharing one with your sister for years?


Lydia Bonacci, 11, is excited to finally have her own room, even though there is only a curtain for a door right now. The repair and renovation of the house gave Lydia her own room for the first time.

“Perfect,” Lydia sighed.

Before the flooding, Trish and Salvador Duran moved their family — Gabby and 6-year-old Salvador — into King Lake from Springfield, Nebraska, after they found a good deal on a 1,100-square-foot house that had sat empty for a year. Salvador cashed out money from his 401(k) to replace the roof and update the house.

Six months later, the March flood hit, erasing months of hard work. Like many of their neighbors, the Durans did not have flood insurance.

“In one moment of my life, I thought I lost everything,” Salvador Duran said. He choked up. “But there have been so many miracles and blessings in the way it drew this community together, the help, the resources.”


Salvador Duran holds his daughter, Gabby, 9, while sitting next to their Christmas tree on Dec. 23. The Duran family was displaced by flooding for months, living out of a camper in their front yard. “It’s just about the family, and spending time and appreciating (each other),” Gabby said.

“It’ll make you or break you,” Trish said as she reached for her husband’s hand.

For years, King Lake had a rough reputation, Salvador Duran said. But he can’t imagine living anywhere else after seeing how his neighbors took care of their own, sharing meals, prayers and labor.

“It’s amazing how solid this community is,” he said.

The family moved back into their house right before Thanksgiving and little Salvador’s birthday, after living with Trish’s mom and in a 300-square-foot camper parked outside.

“It felt like a hallway,” Gabby said of RV living.

Renovation No. 2 isn’t finished — painting, trim work and some wiring remains — but Trish said, “It’s starting to feel like a house.”

Lifesaving Nebraska flood heroes honored by Gov. Ricketts, first lady Susanne Shore

Lifesaving Nebraska flood heroes honored by Gov. Ricketts, first lady Susanne Shore