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A cleanup crew found the basketball in March on a beach near Craig.

It had the words “Kesen chu,” short for Kesennuma Chugakko or Kesennuma Middle School in Rikuzentakata, printed on it.

Students in Alaska returned the ball, along with words of encouragement for the Japanese students, half of whom are still living in temporary housing.

Students and school officials opened the white cardboard box and immediately began playing ball. They called the basketball’s return a miracle and said it brings back memories.

A soccer ball, a volleyball and a buoy, all found in Alaska, also are being returned this week to their owners in Japan by FedEx.

TENNESSEE

Southern Baptists see further membership decline

NASHVILLE — The nation’s largest Protestant denomination continues to see a decline in membership.

Statistics released Tuesday by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Lifeway Christian Resources show membership in 2011 decreased by almost 1 percent to just less than 16 million. That marks the fifth straight year of decline.

The number of churches increased slightly, but the total number of congregations dropped as the denomination lost several church-type missions. These are smaller congregations that are supported by larger churches.

The number of baptisms increased slightly last year an important measure for a denomination with an expressed mission to win souls for Christ. But Lifeway Research President Ed Stetzer downplayed the significance.

“Baptisms had their second lowest year in the last 50 years, so this is not a time to pull out the party hats,” he said.

Mr. Stetzer said the overall trend is that baptisms and membership are declining for the Nashville-based denomination. And for membership that decline is accelerating.

Those changes mirror the declines that mainline Protestant denominations such as the Methodists have been seeing for decades.

NEW YORK

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