- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2000

Police recovered a van yesterday that had been stolen with $50,000 worth of compact discs from an Australian church youth group here for "The Call," a Christian revival rally held Saturday on the Mall.

The fate of the 2,800 CDs, recordings that the group made to sell and help pay for their trip, is still in doubt. Members of the Lanham, Md., church hosting the guests from Down Under are reaching out to help their friends.

"They came here to stand with us, fight in spiritual warfare, bless us and encourage us, so now we're answering the call and want to bless them back," the Rev. Tino Cione, associate pastor at Trinity Assembly of God in Lanham, said yesterday afternoon.

Church leaders and other pastors dug into their own pockets to help with the costs and asked for the thief to return the CDs.

Just hours after church leaders spoke with reporters, an unspecified police agency recovered the van.

A Greenbelt, Md., police official confirmed the van had been found, but would not provide details about its condition or the compact discs.

"That's great," exclaimed the Rev. Troy O'Quin, when a reporter from The Washington Times informed him that police had found the van.

"I'm on my way to meet them at the airport, and I can't wait to give them this good news," said Mr. O'Quin, an associate elder at New Ephesians Church of God in Christ in Forestville, Md., that helped the Australian group.

Later, Mr. O'Quin said police would not give church leaders any information such as where the van was found, who found it, its condition or whether the CDs were still there because the van was a rental.

"Everybody was shouting here in the airport," he told The Times. "Everybody is happy to know that the van at least is recovered. Now we're just waiting about the CDs."

Just after midnight Sunday, someone stole the rented van out of the parking lot at Trinity Assembly of God on Good Luck Road in Lanham.

Inside were 2,800 CDs of recordings the Australians made to sell here to cover some of the expense of their trip. The van also held cassettes, a CD player, a radio, church literature, Bibles and personal items.

But the youth group and its leaders didn't let that get them down.

The teens seemed cheerful as they got off a bus after a shopping and sightseeing tour yesterday, and they snapped photos and took video recordings of new friends as they packed up their belongings.

"They're in good spirits because they realized whoever stole it has a van full of gospel CDs," Mr. O'Quin said before hearing that the van had been recovered. "They're confident that God will change the heart of whoever stole that van."

The church leaders even laughed when they realized their evangelism effort is now focused on just one person.

"They brought the CDs to give to Americans, they just didn't want one person to have the whole thing," Mr. Cione said.

The CDs are a big hit for the Australian youth group. Its 80 members raised $300,000 for the trip and used ministry funds from several churches in Sydney, Queensland and Victoria.

Much of their stay here was paid for by donations. Trinity Assembly of God housed the group for free, albeit on the floor of the church gymnasium.

Andrew Gray, the Australian team leader for the trip, said no one is angry or upset, and they don't even begrudge the thief.

"It's disheartening and a little discouraging, but we're not going to just sit back," he said. "Hopefully, [the thief will] be moved in his heart to return the things in the van at least."

Most of the Australian group's 80 members hail from the Christian Life Center, Mount Annan, in Sydney. An American pastor who spoke there in April invited them to Saturday's rally, where organizers called for a renewal of morality among Americans and holy war against sins such as sexual immorality and abortion.

Many of teens wore slouch hats, made famous by the Australian Lighthorse Brigade, an 800-member unit that fought to free Jerusalem in World War I.

They viewed their trip here as a journey to fight a spiritual battle, and the stolen van was just one setback in the war.

The robbery is "one of the losses you're going to have against your team in a war," Mr. Gray said. "We trained them to learn to live with this."

The experience hasn't embittered Mr. Gray about the United States. "Crime's a fairly international game," he said. "We're not trying to point at any area, place or people."

Several pastors said yesterday their congregations will help cover the loss, but they are accepting donations in care of Christian Life Center, Mount Annan, at Trinity Assembly of God, 7800 Good Luck Road, Lanham, Md., or by calling 301/552-9322.

"They came here to do spiritual warfare for the Americans, so now the Americans are stepping up to fight for the Australians," said Mr. Cione.

"They came here to lay themselves down for us, so we want them to go home on an encouraging note, because they've been encouraging to us."

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