Runaway teen Rifqa Bary and evangelicals connect on Facebook

St. Petersberg Times/September 8, 2009

Orlando - She lived in Central Ohio, and she fled to Central Florida, but the story of Rifqa Bary didn't start in either place. It started on Facebook.

Bary, 17, ran away from home in July because she believes her Muslim family has to kill her because of her conversion to Christianity. She got on a bus and for 16 days lived in the home of evangelical pastors Blake and Beverly Lorenz of Global Revolution Church after she had gotten to know them through a Facebook prayer group.

The Internet has made meeting more people in more places faster and easier than ever before, and churches are taking advantage. A recent Georgetown University study said 87 percent of religious organizations use the Internet to attract new members. Evangelical Christians, experts say, are particularly good at using social networking sites as powerful tools to proselytize.

Global Revolution is less than a year old and meets in a movie theater in a mall, but it still can have a life-altering impact on a teenage girl and her family more than 1,000 miles away.

"Facebook," Beverly Lorenz said last month in an interview, "is part of my ministry."

"Facebook," Mohamed Bary, the girl's father, said last week, "that was the problem. Not Facebook, but the people who were on who influenced her."

"Evangelicals are aggressively pursuing souls online," said Lee Rainie, the director of the nonpartisan Pew Internet and American Life Project.

"This is pretty deeply embedded in the evangelical communities," he said. "They see it as their great cause: Go ye into all the world."

Beverly Lorenz, 51, exchanged "seven or eight" Facebook messages with Bary, 16 at the time, this past spring and this summer. They had a wee-hours phone call in early July.

The girl showed up at their home late on July 21.

Beverly Lorenz is third generation in the church. Her father was a pastor. So was her grandfather.

She met Blake Lorenz at her father's church. They've been married almost 30 years.

Blake Lorenz, 53, bills himself as a former professional baseball player turned longtime pastor. He's a 1977 graduate of Rollins College in Winter Park and for a while was the school's career leader in pitching wins. He played one summer in the low minor leagues in the Chicago Cubs' organization. He pitched one inning, hit two home runs, and was released.

He felt low and lost until January 1980, he said, when he "met Jesus Christ" in his bedroom.

He was the pastor at Pine Castle United Methodist Church in Orlando for 24 years before he left last fall to start the Global Revolution Church across town. Global Revolution gets together in Theater 10 at the megaplex at Festival Bay. A recent Sunday morning service started with a booming movie-trailer voice: "Buckle up and hold on!"

"Revolution," says the church's Web site,, "means a sudden and radical change. We are about changing our culture."

The first call Blake Lorenz made to the Department of Children and Families was on July 29. He didn't give his name, and he didn't give Rifqa Bary's name, either, he said, because they told him the girl probably would be taken home.

Meanwhile, up in Columbus, the police were trying to find Bary. Her cell phone was off, so they couldn't track her signal - but her dad paid her bill, so he had access to her call log. He gave it to police.

That led to a name: Brian M. Williams. He's a 2008 Ohio State grad, an aspiring pastor, and was a Facebook friend of Bary and Blake Lorenz. He moved recently from Columbus to Kansas City, Mo., where he was interning at the International House of Prayer, a giant facility in a renovated strip center that the people there call the "missions base" of "a global worship movement."

Columbus police contacted Kansas City police. Kansas City police went to his address. Columbus police talked to Williams on the phone.

Blake Lorenz says he got a call from Williams on Aug. 5. They were here, Williams told Lorenz, looking for Bary.

On Aug. 9, the day before she was put in foster care with a different Christian family, Bary was at the Sunday service at Global Revolution. Blake Lorenz, calling her Anna, talked about her in his sermon.

"How should we live?" he asked his followers. "What choices are we going to make when we begin to get persecuted?

"Anna's been living this out. Anna is a wonderful young woman of God. ... She was a Muslim. Gave her life to Christ. Fell in love with Jesus. She fled for her life.

"The fear we live with," he continued, "is the police were going to show up, take us off, arrest us. I'd like to live with that fear every night. Oh, that couldn't happen? It happened to the man who baptized her. The police showed up at his apartment in Kansas City, to arrest him, illegally searched his apartment and all the apartments there, looking for her, convinced she was there."

Initially, the sermon was posted on the church's Web site.

The next day the Florida Department of Children and Families decided the Lorenzes now were "not appropriate placement" for Bary.

"Home study," a supervisor wrote, "was approved prior to being informed that the pastor's family was involved with possibly helping the child run away from Ohio."


That could mean a lot of things. Those Facebook messages she exchanged with Beverly Lorenz? The 4 a.m. phone call? The prayers they said together that night?

It could also mean a lot of people. The United States of Prayer, the Facebook group through which Bary met the Lorenzes, has hundreds of members from all over the country.

"The Internet," said Rainie, from the Pew Internet project, "has certainly scrambled the realities of distance and time. Legal authorities are having a new set of challenges. It's a very complicated and not at all settled element of the law now."

Where to look, and how? And who does the looking? Geographical jurisdiction has its limits in a world where geography hardly matters anymore.

Josh McKoy, 20, a Metro State college student in Denver, met Bary through his friend Brian M. Williams and messaged with her on Facebook.

"Brian's known her for a long time," McKoy said over the phone last month. "I don't know how they met but he was a huge help to her. Brian had bought her a Christian book.

"Oftentimes," McKoy said, "he was her transport to church and things like that."

Did Williams have something to do with her bus trip? Did Bary buy her ticket to Orlando?

"We can't confirm that," Columbus police Detective Jerry Cupp said.

Did the Lorenzes buy her bus ticket? They say no.

Who then? They won't say. They're concerned for that person's safety.

"A lot of people helped Rifqa," Blake Lorenz said.

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