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Two Dead as Extreme Weather Sweeps Nation; Americans Trapped By Fighting in South Sudan

Aired December 22, 2013 - 08:00   ET



VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Ice, rain, and freezing temperatures are gripping the Midwest as flooding sinks cars, streets and back yards. But despite a storm that's stretching from Louisiana to Canada, the Northeast is enjoying spring in December.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The conflict in South Sudan has now become an American problem. When U.S. military members there were fired upon and injured. They had to abort their rescue mission. The question now, how to evacuate those stranded American civilians?

BLACKWELL: And a third person is come forward alleging racial profiling in a Macy's store in New York. He'll join us live to explain what happened when he tried to buy a $2,400 gift.

Your NEW DAY continues right now.



BROWN: Well, good morning to you. Thank you so much for waking with us on this Sunday. I'm Pamela Brown.

BLACKWELL: I'm Victor Blackwell. It's good to have you with us. It's 8:00. This is NEW DAY SUNDAY.

BROWN: And we want to begin with winter weather grinding its way across the country. This unusual system is now being blamed for killing two people in Mississippi and one in Missouri.

BLACKWELL: In Des Moines, Iowa, plows worked through the night to remove half a foot of snow off the roads.

BROWN: The blizzard made driving a slow and some drivers were frozen in their tracks. Take a look at this. This is out of Milwaukee, this video here. And it is the scene that is being repeated all over the map on this busy holiday travel day.

And CNN is all over the story.

BLACKWELL: From reporters in the severe weather center to Chicago's O'Hare Airport, to Kansas City, Missouri, we find CNN's Nick Valencia this morning.

How's it going, Nick?


Don't adjust your TV screens at home. They're not shaking. I'm the one shivering out here.

The first day of winter, surely lived up to it. It's really cold here. It feels like single digit temperatures, probably more towards in the 20s here in Kansas City right now. We woke up and saw about three to five inches of snow. And that really sort of is resonating all throughout the Midwest and parts of the South. We have a possible tornado in Arkansas. A lot of severe weather in Oklahoma and here in Missouri, there were problems as well.

Joining us is Chris Redline. He is with the Department of Transportation. He is telling us about road conditions.

What is it like right now? What are people waking up to this morning?

CHRIS REDLINE, MISSOURI DEPT. OF TRANSPORTATION: Well, the residential streets are going to covered and slick. Highways are starting to get better. So, expect conditions all across the board right now.

VALENCIA: What are the most difficult issues you're dealing with statewide? You're talking about flooding and fatal accident. Fill us in.

REDLINE: Yes, southeast Missouri, we have over 50 roads closed right now due to flooding. Then on the opposite end of the spectrum, we have freezing rain and ice north of here last night that we're dealing with.

VALENCIA: Didn't that lead to one death, a car descent, is that right?

REDLINE: Yes. There unfortunately was a fatality.

VALENCIA: And the roads are kind of empty right now. But that's going to change in a matter of hours. You've got a big game today. Kansas City Chiefs playing, about 80,000 or 90,000 people expected there.

Are you guys prepared for that?

REDLINE: We absolutely are. Yes, we have full staff and we're going to work hard until we get the roads in good shape.

VALENCIA: Pride and joy, people won't miss out on that Kansas City Chiefs game. I was talking to people here in Kansas City. They're more concerned about the Chiefs game than the weather here. This is a state that's no stranger to blizzards and severe weather.

For right now, it seems, though, the worst is past.

And we'll throw it back to you in the studio.

BLACKWELL: Hey, Nick. Before we go, I just want to make sure something. This death, this fatal accident, is that being blamed specifically and solely on the weather conditions?

VALENCIA: That's right. That is weather related, Victor. One death here and two in Mississippi. We keep checking in with highway patrol.

In fact, we just checked in with them a little while ago. And there were some other deaths overnight. But those weren't weather- related. So far, just three deaths that CNN can confirm now as a result of this severe weather system.

BLACKWELL: All right. Nick Valencia in Kansas City, Missouri, for us -- thank you.

BROWN: You know, just a reminder of how dangerous and treacherous the conditions are on the roads for people.

You know, a lot of people trying to get out right now, to make their Christmas trips. But all the stormy weather is putting a lot of people in neutral.

CNN's George Howell is at Chicago's O'Hare Airport this morning.

So, George, tell us. Are you seeing any delays, cancellations there?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Pamela, as the day goes on here in Chicago, we will see more cancellations on the board, more delays surely. We're getting to a point now where more travelers are coming to the airport. You see over here the early birds who are, you know, trying to get ahead of the storm. As I mentioned in the earlier hour, that's the best plan, because the weather conditions here in Chicago will be changing.

Let's go over here. I want to show what you is happening right now outside. The weather is changing. The temperatures right around 33, 32. It's dropping. And now, we're starting to see out here -- you pan over there, Jake -- you see the snow, snowing in Chicago right now. You know, we're used to that sort of thing here.

But again when you talk about a busy travel week like this, the snow is not helpful. We do expect delays anywhere from one to two hours here in Chicago. You can see delays in Washington, D.C. and New York. The storm system continues to pass over.

But again, it's the people who got out early, those are the guys that will have the best luck in this later in the day the situation can change weather-wise and travel not nearly as easy as we're seeing right now.

BROWN: Interesting perspective there. BLACKWELL: Yes.

BROWN: Take us outside.

George Howell keeping an eye on things at Chicago's O'Hare airport -- thank you so much.

BLACKWELL: Well, it's coming down in Chicago. And people are also hitting the roads for Christmas, too.

You know, the roads are really where most of the people will be.

And Jennifer Gray is in the CNN severe weather center with more on how this could affect the drive -- Jennifer.

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. We could see some wet roads. If you're taking your trip by road, I would wait until tomorrow.

Conditions are going to be much better tomorrow. If you're hitting the skies though, Chicago could be delayed up to two hours today, as well as D.C. D.C., we're going to see showers and even thunderstorms start to develop this afternoon. New York City, we could see delays up to two hours as well due to thunderstorms a little bit later in the day.

Here's the big picture. Here's why. We have mainly rain. It is stretching all the way from the Florida panhandle, all the way up into the Northeast. And so, we're going to be dealing with possibly flooding situation today.

The good news is the tornado threat has come down. So we will see some thunderstorms develop today, but it's mainly going to be a rain event. And then all up to the north, that's where we're seeing the snow. We're seeing snow anywhere from Chicago to Milwaukee, all the way up to Grand Rapids and then even in Upstate New York we're seeing snow in Maine as well and even freezing rain around Burlington.

We've seen reports up to three quarters of an inch of ice in some of this northern area. So, very dangerous situation, even power outages up there. So very cold morning for you.

Down to the South, like we mentioned the rain, just starting to enter the perimeter in Atlanta, and that stretching all the way up. so, I-40 is going to be hard hit as we go through the next couple of hours. We could see anywhere three to five inches of rain around Atlanta, two to four else where along the mid-Atlantic.

And then as we travel through the next 24 hours or so, it's basically just going to sit on the East Coast. And then start to move out by tomorrow. So, tomorrow looks like a much better day if you're traveling 95, say, up the East Coast. It's going to be better and better as we get to the next day or so.

Temperatures have been very, very warm in the East, though. We're going to enjoy another day of 67 degrees in New York City. You should be at 41 this time of year. Just give it a couple of days. By Tuesday, you'll definitely start feeling like the holidays. It will be back in the 30s -- guys.

BLACKWELL: All right. Jennifer Gray. Everybody's going to get some before the end of the year.

BROWN: Yes, I was going to say, really a mixed bag there. All right.

BLACKWELL: Thank you.

BROWN: Thanks, Jennifer.

Well, NASA has completed the first emergency space walk to repair the International Space Station cooling pump there. Two astronauts stepped outside the station yesterday to try to fix that cooling pump which essentially makes sure the equipment isn't overheated there. The mission took about seven hours in total, the pump which failed last week weighs almost 800 pounds, about the size of -- about the weight of a refrigerator, right?

BLACKWELL: A nice sized refrigerator, equal to 800 pounds.

BROWN: And the second space walk is scheduled for tomorrow.

BLACKWELL: A dangerous situation in east central Africa, a surge of violence. We're talking about South Sudan.

And dozens of Americans are caught in the middle.

BROWN: Plus, an amazing rescue. A fisherman stranded at sea. What kept him afloat for 15 hours after their boat sank? We're going to have the stories and more after this break.


BROWN: Let's get you up to speed now on a dangerous situation for Americans in South Sudan. Several dozen U.S. citizens are now stranded at the U.N. compound there, in the town of Bur. That's where South Sudanese troops are finding forces loyal to the former vice president.

BLACKWELL: CNN foreign affairs correspondent Elise Labott joins us in Washington.

So, Elise, an evacuation attempt Saturday was aborted. We now know why. The U.S. helicopters took fire wounding four Americans. How will they get these Americans who are trapped there out?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Victor, this is what they're assessing right now. Defense Secretary Hagel, his military advisors, working with U.S. Africa Command, they're discussing how to move forward, of course, in coordination with the State Department.

But right now, the State Department is urging citizens to hunker down and avoid the area of the airport. They're not coordinating flights right now out of Bor because it's too dangerous. Right now they're reviewing options. I think it's fair to say the U.S. doesn't want to offer much detail about what they're doing until these get out because the situation is so tenuous.

BROWN: And we've been reporting that President Obama's envoy to South Sudan Donald Booth expected to arrive today. Given how dangerous the situation is in South Sudan, is that still going to move forward? If so, how can he calm the situation there?

LABOTT: Well, first he has to get there. And with the security situation the way it is, it's unclear when he would arrive. He's in the region right now. There's no shortage of diplomatic efforts going on right now. Several African countries have already sent envoys.

So, Ambassador Booth is working with them on the ground to try to find a diplomatic solution. They want to get government and rebel groups loyal to the former vice president, Riek Machar, who the president believes -- blames for starting the fighting to sit down and start a dialogue. And he's going to press the leaders to reign in the rebel groups under their control. Stop attacks on civilians and this violence between ethnic groups because that's the real concern here.

South Sudan, the world's youngest country, was born out of decades of civil war. They want to get everyone to step back from the brink and prevent this from ethnic violence which is new phenomenon relatively erupting into a full blown civil war, Pam.

BLACKWELL: Yes. We hopefully this envoy will be able to calm the situation. But, understandably, the U.S. government would not want to announce a projected wheels down time considering the threat that those four U.S. servicemen were just under.

LABOTT: Exactly.

BLACKWELL: Elise Labott, our foreign affairs correspondent in Washington for us this morning -- thank you.

BROWN: Thank you, Elise.

And hopefully, we can get the Americans out safely soon.

BLACKWELL: Absolutely.

The White House says the president is being briefed on the situation in South Sudan while he's on vacation. He's in Hawaii with his family. And he has a warning for the people and the government there.

CNN's Athena Jones is live in Honolulu. How is the president reacting to all of this, Athena?


Well, we know that immediately upon landing here in Honolulu late Friday night, the president was briefed while still aboard Air Force One, given a status update on the status of these four American service members who were injured in that attempt to evacuate those American citizens from Bor.

We also know that later Saturday morning after his national security team had a meeting on the situation in South Sudan, that meeting lead by national security advisor Susan Rice. The president had a conference call with Susan Rice, his deputy national security advisors as well and the rest of his national security team to talk about the situation in South Sudan.

He's directed his team to continue working with the United Nations to try to evacuate the American citizens. This comes, of course, as you heard them talk about the ethnic and political violence, rising violence we've seen there in that country. And so, those American citizens were working for the U.N. in South Sudan and they're going to keep trying to get them out.

The president, as you mentioned, also had a warning for the leaders of South Sudan. This is a country that is only two years old. He said, I'll read part of the statement, "South Sudan's leaders must know that continued violence will endanger the people of South Sudan, and the hard earned progress of independence." He said, "It's the responsibility of the leaders in South Sudan to help the U.S. secure these American personnel." And he said that "any effort to seize power, this power struggle you heard her talk about through the use of military force will result in the end of long-standing support from the United States and the international community."

And so the president asked that his team continue to keep them updated. And that's where things stand now -- Victor.

BROWN: Yes. Only 3:15 in the morning where you are there in Honolulu, Athena. And, of course, we expect the president to be briefed later this morning. Thank you for that report.

BLACKWELL: Police in Massachusetts have seized more than 1,200 packets of heroin labeled with the word "Obamacare." Some bags were also marked Kurt Cobain. Police arrested four people after stopping a car for speeding and found the stash of drugs.

Police say the Obamacare label is only a marketing ploy. So drug users know what kind of product they're getting.

BROWN: Well, imagine this. Imagine not being able to taste your favorite food or any food at all for that matter? That's a reality for a 10-year-old girl who suffers from a chronic illness. Why her passion is keeping her in the kitchen despite the hurdle she faces.


BLACKWELL: And you may need a sleigh to get through this. Take a look. Live pictures from Milwaukee. It is coming down. High, 30 degrees. Feels like 19.

Lovely weather for a sleigh ride together. Hey, two fishermen clung to a cooler floating in the ocean for 15 hours and they survived. This incredible rescue off the coast of Australia, yes, caught on camera.

BROWN: In fact, a helicopter came and plucked them out of the water. According to Sky News, the men sent out a mayday call for help on Friday just before their boat sank. They were rescued on Saturday. And, of course, they were both exhausted. But remarkably, they're doing OK.

BLACKWELL: They are OK. That's what's important.

We want to introduce a girl from Connecticut. She has a passion and she has a plan. She's ten years old. Her name is Chelsea Wheeler. Now, Wheeler says she wants to become a chef and open her own restaurant when she grows up.

BROWN: But there is just one problem. Wheeler suffers from a disease that prevents her from eating solid food. Imagine that.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen has more.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Ten-year-old Chelsea Wheeler loves preparing dinner with her parents. Her dream is to become a chef and open her own diner when she grows up. But Chelsea essentially can't eat food.

CHELSEA WHEELER, PATIENT: I know my stomach doesn't work. Well, I can't eat real food. So, I've got to have I.V. fluids.

PLEITGEN: Those fluids which Chelsea needs to survive come from a especially equipped backpack she has to wear 16 hours a day.

(on camera): Do you feel it's unfair you can't eat and other kids can?

CHELSEA WHEELER: Not usually, but sometimes yes, I get really fed up with it.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Chelsea has been sick since birth, suffering from a mitochondrial disease and tachycardia. She was also diagnosed with pseudo-obstruction and suffered irreversible intestinal failure a year ago. Chelsea's had 30 surgeries and went into septic shock.

Her Chris and Linda recalled she barely survived.

LINDA WHEELER, CHELSEA'S MOM: Last year was the worst where she went into -- what?


LINDA WHEELER: Yes, on Halloween, she went into shock and woke up in the morning and couldn't use half her body. PLEITGEN: Chelsea tries to fit in with her peers. When we came by, it was elves day in her fifth grade class. She refuses to wear her backup with the nutrients in school. The next big challenge, Chelsea's doctors say she needs a small bowel transplant to replace part of her intestine that has failed.

DR. DONNA ZEITER, CONNECTICUT CHILDREN'S MEDICAL CENTER: Because of the seriousness of it and the impact on her quality of life, we have referred her for a possible intestinal transplant patient.

PLEITGEN: Chelsea is waiting for a donor. The Wheelers say they will never give up fighting for their daughter's life. And their community in Oxford, Connecticut, is pitching in. They've set up a giving tree at town hall and the Children's Organ Transplant Association started a Web site for donations to help with medical bills.


LINDA WHEELER: She has a tube in her stomach. She has a tube in her intestine. She's had a tube in your nose. I mean, she's -- it would be nice to have a day where she's eating food pain-free and not through a tube, and be happy.

PLEITGEN: At the dinner table, Chelsea can only have one popsicle. That's all her stomach can take. But she's already thinking about the menu for her future diner.

(on camera): What kind of food do you need to serve?

CHELSEA WHEELER: You don't need to be a millionaire to eat there every night. But it's you feel like a millionaire when you eat there.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Oxford, Connecticut.


BROWN: All right. You know what time is it. Time for the good stuff.

It was a homecoming she will always remember. Cameron Wood thought she was attending a pep rally in South Carolina.

BLACKWELL: But when she was called up to help unwrap a gift, she unwrapped it and the surprise of a lifetime was inside. There he is. Her soldier dad, Air Force Major Jason Wood, was home in time for the holidays. Cameron and her little brother thought they wouldn't see him until May. But he managed to get two week Christmas break.

BROWN: You just can't help but smile.

And a community in Pennsylvania helped make a dying girl's wish come true much last night nearly 10,000 people -- 10,000 -- showed up to Christmas carol in support of Laney Brown.

Brown was diagnosed with leukemia seven months ago and she said she's always wanted to carol at Christmas. Well, doctors say Brown has just days left to live.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't even express how I feel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is God's way of saying, OK, listen, I need you to go over to see my little angel and give her that singing she deserves.


BROWN: And to top it off, the outpouring of support from Brown's community came one day after her eighth birthday.

BLACKWELL: So, by now, you probably have seen Jean-Claude Van Damme doing a split on top two of moving trucks.

BROWN: Every time I see it, that makes me feel uncomfortable. In the event, you haven't seen it, here's a quick look.


BROWN: All right. So there it is. Van Damme's commercial for Volvo trucks.

BLACKWELL: Not to be outdone ever, Chuck Norris has his own split.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, so hallowed and so gracious is that time --


BLACKWELL: Yes, that's Chuck, doing a split between two fighter jets while balancing 11 people standing in the shape of a Christmas tree on top of his head. That's the way chuck does it. They later light up like a normal Christmas tree would.

BROWN: And just so you know, this isn't real. In case you thought it was.

BLACKWELL: I don't know, Pamela, if anybody thought that Chuck Norris was really doing this stunt.

BROWN: Hey, don't put it past Chuck Norris. He may have used a little help can graphics to make this all happen. But you know, still funny and only a matter of time before we saw a parody.

BLACKWELL: There is a book out there with the Chuck Norris does this and does that. It's hilarious.

My favorite is Chuck Norris doesn't do pushups, he pushes the earth down. The book is hilarious to me.

BROWN: All right.

BLACKWELL: Hey, it happened again. A third person accusing retailer Macy's of racial profiling. This time it's over $2,400 Louis Vuitton bag. We'll talk to the plaintiff of this latest lawsuit live.


BROWN: Bottom of the hour now. Great to you have with us. I'm Pamela Brown.

BLACKWELL: I'm Victor Blackwell. And it's good to be with you.

Here are five things you need for your NEW DAY.

BROWN: At number one, some unusual winter weather causing big travel as it pushes across the country. Possible tornadoes in Arkansas carved a path of destruction just a few days before Christmas. And from Missouri to Mississippi, severe storms are now being blamed for killing three people. Further West, an ice storm left branches frozen and made even short drives treacherous.

BLACKWELL: Number two, a public relations executive and company have parted ways over an offensive tweet. Justine Sacco posted this on her way to South Africa. Quote, "Going to Africa, hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding, I'm white."

Sacco was an executive at Interactive Corps, a parents company of dozens of companies like College Humor, The Daily Beast. Well, the company spokesman says that was unnecessary and condemned the tweet.

BROWN: And number three, more grief this morning in the Denver area. Seventeen-year-old Claire Davis died eight days after shot in the head by a classmate in Arapaho high school. Investigators say Davis didn't know Karl Pierson, who shot her in the head and fired randomly through the halls before killing himself. Davis has been in a coma since the shooting.

BLACKWELL: A group of bikers accused of assaulting the driver of an SUV will likely face reduced charges. Prosecutors say driver Alexander Lien was not seriously injured. Eleven people were indicted after video from the September incident went viral. Investigators say Lien was later pulled from the SUV and beaten after he hit a biker while trying to drive away. The group could still face 15 years in prison if charges are reduced.

BROWN: George Zimmerman, the man acquitted in the death of teenager Trayvon Martin, has reportedly sold a painting on eBay. Doesn't sound like a big deal until you hear how much it went for -- more than $100,000. The painting right here is a blue flag done in oil. Zimmerman says he'll hand deliver the art to the buyer's front door.

BLACKWELL: Well, it's allegedly happened again. Another shopper is now accusing Macy's, the flag ship store in New York's Herald Square of racial profiling.

BROWN: Halim Sharif, a club promoter in New York, is now suing, saying he was stopped and unnecessarily searched because he's black.

BLACKWELL: It happened in April as Sharif was leaving Macy's Herald Square store with a $2,400 Louis Vuitton bag. Well this is the third profiling claim against this particular Macy's including one by Rob Brown who stars in the HBO series "Treme". Two other shoppers have made similar claims against Barneys in New York.

BROWN: Regarding this latest case, Macy's had this to say "We take any claim made by our customers very seriously and will investigate Mr. Sharif's allegation vigorously. Macy's has zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind. If Macy's policies have not been upheld, we will take swift and immediate action." Macy's said they cannot comment further on Sharif's lawsuit.

BLACKWELL: And joining us now from New York is club promoter Halim Sharif. Halim, good to have you with us. I understand that you shot some cell phone video of this incident. I want you to explain what elevated this, in your mind, for you from a security person, a store employee doing a check for loss prevention to being profiled?

HALIM SHARIF, ACCUSING MACY'S RACIAL PROFILING: Well, what led to was this basic observation of what I saw. I mean as I was standing there and I saw one security personnel. And I asked for his supervisor and which led to me waiting to speak to his supervisor. So being I was going for the chain of command I'm standing there and waiting patiently to speak to somebody else above each person that was standing there. And what I observed was numerous people were exiting the store. The door alarm ringing, nobody being approached, stopped, questioned. But unfortunately, I was.

BLACKWELL: And not one of those persons was African-American walking out?

SHARIF: Correct.

BLACKWELL: Now we have to say that this cell phone video you've recorded is not being released. Your attorney has decided that it will not be released. We respect that. But, you know, why are you suing Macy's now?

SHARIF: Well, I mean for one, the humiliation of me standing there. Two, the way they were mistreating me and I felt I was being totally disrespected by their own employees. Because I also asked their head supervisor if they work for an independent company or did they work with Macy's directly. They said they worked for Macy's directly so therefore, they're being trained by Macy's staff, Macy's personnel.

BROWN: Now I've got to ask, there were recent lawsuits alleging racial profiling at these stores as we pointed earlier. This incident involving you happened in April. You're suing now. I got to ask did you just feel like this was an opportune time and why do these other lawsuits filed, why are you -- why did you wait so long to file the lawsuit?

SHARIF: Well it was an opportune time because at the time of the incident, it was back in April of this year, I filed a complaint in the store itself. And I went back two or three occasions to inquire about the complaint which I've never received a response from Macy's. And all I want is a response from Macy's. So I said ok, they kept saying to me well come back another month or two it takes a while for them to respond back to you. So I waited patiently. And it fell on deaf ears.

And unfortunately which I thought which I thought was an isolated incident started to say maybe it wasn't as isolated incident as far as mistreatment of myself.

BLACKWELL: So Macy's recently has come out with this customer bill of rights. And I want to read a line from it. "Macy's Incorporated strictly prohibits unreasonable searches and the profiling of customers by any employee." And it goes on. Do you think it's efficient protection against the kind of treatment that you say you dealt with?

SHARIF: Well definitely better training of the personnel will help alleviate a situation like this and also my video itself when I spoke to the head supervisor of the security personnel, he stated to me that his guards were acting improperly. So therefore, they weren't properly trained. So hopefully maybe this bill will help.

BROWN: Halim what do you want to come out of this lawsuit?

SHARIF: Better treatment of all customers and not certain races or ethnicities but of all customers who spend their money there.

BLACKWELL: Ok are you suing for damages? Essentially you want money from this?

SHARIF: Whatever comes out of it whether it's monetary gain whether it's the change of the policy and procedures of Macy's -- I need some sort of changed on period. Because when I filed the complaint and I went back two and three occasions and they kept telling come back another month or two, it takes a while I feel like the complaint I filed against the actual personnel, they did never even submitted. They might have just ripped it up or to say hey this is nothing, it's isolated.

BLACKWELL: Let me take one more turn of that. Are you looking to make money from this? Is that what you're seeking?

SHARIF: No, I mean, what I'm seeking is some sort of justification of why I was stopped and numerous other individuals weren't.

BLACKWELL: Ok. All right. Halim Sharif, thank you so much for taking the time to speak us with.

BROWN: Thanks Halim.

SHARIF: Thanks for having me.

BLACKWELL: Sure. BROWN: Well two very religious men with two very different views on the "Duck Dynasty" suspension -- how Christians are divided over whether or not homosexuality really is sinful. We're going to have that debate after this break.

BLACKWELL: Stay with us.


BROWN: Pope Francis is getting ready for his first Christmas as Pope. This morning he held his weekly prayer at the Vatican. Yesterday he delivered his Christmas message to Vatican staff and urging them to stay professional, avoid gossip and stay dedicated to serving the rest of the church.

Then he spent several hours at a local children's hospital greeting patients who gave him a basket full of notes with their wishes on them, mostly hoping to get well.

And for today's "Faces of Faith", we're going to be talking about Christianity and it's stance on homosexuality.

BLACKWELL: Yes the comments made by "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson put a highlight on the issue this week when A&E suspended him after his interview with "GQ" magazine. Phil Robertson described what he thought was sinful saying, quote "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there -- bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."

Supporters of gay rights called the comments vile and insensitive. But Christian conservatives noted that Phil was adhering to biblical teachings.

BROWN: And joining us now to talk about this, Pastor Robert Jeffress from the First Baptist Church of Dallas and Frank Schaefer, a pastor who was defrocked by the United Methodist Church after officiating his son's same-sex wedding.

Thank you so much for being here with us.

BLACKWELL: Pastor Jeffress, I want to start with you. Are Christians like Robertson putting too much emphasis on the issue of homosexuality even as the Pope believes that Christians should probably focus on other elements of the Christian doctrine?

ROBERT JEFFRESS, PASTOR, FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH OF DALLAS: Well, first of all, Victor, I'm not here to defend every word that Phil Robertson has ever spoken or will speak, but what he says about homosexuality is in keeping with what the bible teaches and what has been the understanding of Christians for 2,000 years. And that is that God created sex for a man and a woman in a marriage relationship and any deviation from that, whether it be adultery or premarital sex or homosexuality is sinful.

And when Phil says that it's unnatural for a man to be with a man or a woman with a woman, it's a misuse of the body, he is simply quoting what Paul says in Romans 1.

Now people may not agree with that. They may want to attach some new interpretation to it. But people don't have the right to label Phil or me or tens of millions of Evangelical Christians as "hateful" because we hold a historic understanding of the bible.


BLACKWELL: Well what the --

JEFFRESS: And what I would say Victor is, let me -- let me just say this. What I would say is to say homosexuality is sinful is no more hateful than saying adultery is sinful.

BLACKWELL: But let me ask you something you said. Quote from July 2013 Your Pathway to Victory Radio Ministry, ahead of the Chick- Fil-A (inaudible) promoting on August 1st there are disproportionate amounts of sexual assault against children by homosexuals than by heterosexuals." Where is that in the bible or in science?

JEFFRESS: Well, that is certainly borne out when you look at the general population and so forth that is true. But look --

BLACKWELL: Which (inaudible) is before we go pastor?

JEFFRESS: I'll say, all sin, all sin --

BLACKWELL: It's true. What is your source?

JEFFRESS: Yes. Yes I documented that in my book "Outrageous Truth". But look the fact is we are all sinners who need God's forgiveness. We all need the gift of forgiveness. And that's really what Christmas is about. That Christ came to forgive all sins.

And Phil Robertson has admitted in his programs that he is a sinner as well. Victor, I am no better than a homosexual or an adulterer. We are all sinners who need God's forgiveness. He's willing to forgive us if we're willing to ask. But that means admitting our sins and not denying that sin is sin. The bible labels homosexuality, lying, adultery, these are all sins that we're all guilty of in some way or another. We all need Christ's forgiveness.

BROWN: So Frank, I want to get to you now. You know Pastor Jeffress talked about the scripture that Robertson was -- was apparently referring to. You have a different take on that scripture Frank. Tell me about what your thoughts and was what he said really by what the bible says?

FRANK SCHAEFER, DEFROCKED UNITED METHODIST PASTOR: Well, I do have a different take on this. I think the holy scriptures, they are very important us to as Christians, of course. And they do talk about truth and we are trying to figure out what that truth actually is and what it means.

But the scriptures predominantly are there given for us for inspiration and for help. And as a minister, I just take to that approach and I've tried to really inspire people. So comments made by Phil and others that lump together homosexuality with bestiality with promiscuity, they're just offensive, especially to homosexuals because that's not a choice. They weren't, you know, that's not their choice. They were born this way. They were created this way.

And so it is totally unfair and it is very hurtful. And I think what I would like to ask Phil is, you know, who made you judge? Who are you to judge? We just heard about Pope Francis and he went on record to say who am I to judge? But who is Phil to judge?


JEFFRESS: Could I answer that? Could I answer that?

BLACKWELL: Go ahead.

BROWN: Go ahead.

JEFFRESS: Phil is saying that -- when Phil says homosexuality is a sin, he is not formulating a judgment. He is simply repeating what God has already judged to be true. And that is that homosexuality, adultery, premarital sex are all deviations from God's perfect standard. You know he designed sex. In his instruction manual called the bible, he says this is how sex best operates between a man and a woman in a marriage relationship.

And you know the bible prophesized that there will be a day coming when people will call evil "good" and good "evil". And that's what we're seeing here. It is unthinkable to me that people would label Phil Robertson or Dan Cathy of Chick-Fil-A as hateful bigots because they believe that sex should be between a man and a woman in a marriage relationship. That's simply outlandish. But that is certainly what the bible predicts is going to happen.

BLACKWELL: Well Pastor Jeffress, you bring up a good point. You talked about it many times. That we are all sinners and that one sin, as you say, is as bad as another.

I want to continue with this after the break. And I'll come back on that point.

Stay with us. We'll continue this debate about Christianity and same-sex marriage and the comments from "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson.

Stay with us on NEW DAY SUNDAY.


BLACKWELL: Welcome back. We're having a heated debate between Pastor Jeffress and former pastor now recently defrocked Frank Schaefer who was defrocked because he officiated his son's same-sex wedding.

BROWN: He was suspended -- yes. He was suspended, defrocked -- and really the question is to you, Frank, you knew the parameters of the denomination when you entered it. You knew what the church taught. Why now should the rules change because you have changed?

SCHAEFER: I believe that the basis for my belief is actually in the bible. You know, coming back to the former debates and it kind of ties in here as well, I think we have a choice on how to use this book that we agree is holy and rich to us. You could take lift passages out of this book and make a case for polygamy or for slavery or for sexism. But that doesn't give us the right to use the book in this way.

You're not supposed to use it judgmentally but we're supposed to use it in a way that is helpful to people in their every day struggle for inspiration and for help. And so when I look at the scriptures and those passages, nowhere do I see that homosexuality is actually talked about in terms of a loving homosexual committed relationship.

So my basis for my faith is biblical. And I'm saying the church must recognize that what we're doing is actually discrimination. We treat our homosexual brothers and sisters as second class Christians.

BROWN: Pastor Jeffress, I see you shaking your head. Jump in.

JEFFRESS: Look, Moses said from the beginning that God's plan for sexuality was one man and a woman and a marriage relationship. Jesus affirmed that in Matthew 19. And here's the point. If you're going to say that God didn't mean what he said in the New Testament about homosexuality, that it's okay, why don't you legitimize? Why not legitimize lying or cheating?

I mean the fact is we can't pick and choose which parts of the New Testament that we want to believe. And I believe that that's why the whole problem of liberalism is really hypocrisy. You know liberals in this whole debate about this "Duck Dynasty". Liberals are saying we tolerate all beliefs except those that contradict our own.

BLACKWELL: Well, let me ask you about that. About all beliefs that contradict your own, Pastor Jeffress. Because you have said right here on CNN and the Associated Press which I read from October 2012, you can't pick and choose which sins.

There are lots of sins that are highlighted in the bible. This happens to be one that you continue to harp on. Why this sin is so offensive that you must speak out over and over about it? According to your definition of it

JEFFRESS: Well, that's right. You know, in my church, I probably preach 2,000 sermons. And out of those 2,000 sermons, probably five have dealt with homosexuality. So I'm not harping on the subject. But it is a subject that is in the news right now with same sex marriage. And as a pastor and preacher of god's word, I have an obligation to say what the bible says about this subject when asked about it.

And we're going to say without hesitation that God's standard for sex is a man and a woman in a marriage relationship. And, again, when you depart from that, whether it is polygamy or adultery or premarital sex, all of those things are violations of God's standards. BROWN: All right. Frank, I want to go to you before we wrap this debate up. As we mentioned, you were defrocked from where you were but now you've been offered a new job. Is that right? Is it with UMC?

SCHAEFER: Yes, absolutely. It's such -- I don't even know how to describe it. It's huge news. It's good news not only for me that bishop from the California Conference has come out to say we are proud of Frank. We believe what he did is biblical and we do have to change our policy in the United Methodist Church.

Not only is it good news for me because it means I can continue to minister in my church, the United Methodist Church. It's good news for the United Methodist Church because we are on a move here. There is a human rights movement under foot. I think this will lead to change soon.

BLACKWELL: And this highlights the division within the church that he is defrocked by one church within the United Methodist Church and then offered a job by another church within the UMC.

Of course, we want to thank both of you for the conversation this morning. Pastor Frank Schaefer, Pastor Robert Jeffress -- thank you so much for speaking with us this morning.

BROWN: Thank you to you to both.

SCHAEFER: Thank you.

JEFFRESS: Thank you. Merry Christmas.

BLACKWELL: To you too.

BROWN: Same to you.

SCHAEFER: Merry Christmas to you.

BROWN: For more stories on faith, be sure to check out our belief blog at

BLACKWELL: All right. Switching gears, a man who used to be Russia's richest sat down exclusive with CNN to talk about his time in prison for the first time since getting out.

BROWN: Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released on Friday after President Putin signed an amnesty decree. He was a major critic of the government and he's been in prison for ten years for tax fraud and evasion-- charges which he maintained his innocence.

He spoke about one incident where he says he was stabbed in the face.


MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY, RELEASED FROM RUSSIAN PRISON (through translator): When I was stabbed with a knife -- I was lucky. It just -- he tried to get to my eye but got my nose. As a result, the dentist who was there was somebody who was also a plastic surgeon. And carried out the operation on me which means it was virtually not noticeable.


BLACKWELL: More of NEW DAY after the break.


BROWN: Time now for some more good stuff -- can't get enough of this.

This next story all started when a camera man for CNN affiliate KRON was working on a project for the station. Get this, he interviewed a homeless man named Marcus Malone and during that interview, Malone seen right here said he used to be a landscaper and a music composer.

And he was not kidding. In fact Malone revealed he was actually a member of Carlos Santana's original blues band before he became homeless. Get this -- the camera man was so touched by the story, he helped reunite Malone with his former boss.

Take a look.



CARLOS SANTANA, MUSICIAN: Marcus "The Magnificent" Malone.

MALONE: Oh, my God. Oh, man. Look at you.

SANTANA: Marcus "The Magnificent" Malone.


BROWN: Santana says he actually tried to find Malone over the years but he came up dry. We're going to have more on this story later today.

CNN's Fredricka Whitfield will talk to Santana about the touching holiday reunion at 2:00 p.m. Eastern time.

And shifting our focus now to the weather -- ice and sleet are not things you really want to be hearing about when traveling the weekend before Christmas. But, of course, neither are thunderstorms. Jennifer Gray tells us those things could be in the mix today. What is going on here -- Jennifer?

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. At least the tornado threat is down today. We could see a couple of thunderstorms. But I think the severe threat has really gone down. So basically, just rain and snow. We also have freezing rain to deal with. But it's mainly extreme northern sections.

I know Green Bay has been one area that has gotten a lot of snow and continuing to snow just a bit there. Should be improving as we go through the day to day but it is going to be cold there. They are hosting the Steelers. And it is going to be about 22 degrees with winds of about 16. So it is going to be quite a chilly afternoon there in Green Bay.

But the rain should be pushing out later tonight and should be much, much better across the nation tomorrow -- guys.

BROWN: Something tells me nothing is going to stop those Green Bay fans from going.

GRAY: No. They are tough, tough people. They are.

BLACKWELL: They will be there.

BROWN: Jennifer Gray, thank you. And thank you so much for seeing a part of your Sunday.

BLACKWELL: I feel like all I have left is a wave because my voice is shot.

BROWN: You made it through though.

BLACKWELL: "STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley starts now.