One of the things that annoys me about reporting is how we spend so much time looking for and writing about dramatic news hooks that we miss the day-to-day drama of real life. I almost never see my religious life reflected in a given news story. My congregation is not driven by trends. We worship in largely the same way Lutherans have always worshiped. This does not make for exciting news coverage, as you might imagine.
But that’s why it’s so impressive when a reporter can take the mundane and make a fascinating story out of it. Sarah Maslin Nir did just that with her New York Times piece about how some religious adherents factor their beliefs in when making housing decisions. This is something that my husband and I think about all the time. We want to live near our church so we can be as active as possible there. Not just on Sundays, when it’s easy to get there, but other days of the week. And we will be sending our children to our parish Lutheran school. This is a topic of regular conversation for us. And, frankly, it’s always been a factor no matter what my living situation — as the daughter of a pastor, as a college student, as an inhabitant of the Washington, D.C., group home lifestyle, etc. And yet I’ve never seen a story that reflected this reality:
Apartment hunters always have a wish list of things that will help them call a new place home — doormen, laundry rooms, southern exposures.
But for some people, faith guides real estate choices. Instead of bay windows and an in-house gym, their must-have may be a kosher kitchen, a short walk to church, room to roll out a prayer mat or like-minded roommates.
She begins by looking at a Christian group home and allows its owners to describe what they’re trying to accomplish. The lack of snark is welcome. She describes the variety of residents and speaks with one:
Justin Hilton, 21, arrived at the brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant on July 1. Mr. Hilton works at a video store in Park Slope, and moved from Crown Heights, where he shared an apartment with a friend. He now pays $500 a month to be a part of Radical Living.
A child of missionaries to West Africa, he grew up in communal situations, and he was seeking similar surroundings when he discovered Radical Living.
“Living here in this community is not just like I have people my age or into the same things as me,” he says. “It stretches you and makes you hopefully more selfless, living for something more than just your own comfort.”
He said that living where religion is as much a part of daily roommate life as making sure there’s milk in the fridge, means the principles of his faith are always in practice. “Church, when it’s once a week, you can turn it off,” Mr. Hilton said.
There are some interesting details about how prospective housemates are chosen and how conflicts are resolved using Biblical principles. There is nothing there that will surprise the average Christian but it is surprising to see it in the New York Times in such a straightforward manner.
Before we move onto the next example, I have to say how nice it is that the reporter does not try to make a claim about how factoring faith into your living situation is some fancy new trend. We all cringe when we see those “three anecdotes makes a trend!” pieces and this article does not fall into that trap. It simply describes a few different living situations in New York. Such as Yoheved Rubenstein, an Orthodox Jew who actually picked her temple before apartment shopping. She keeps kosher, of course, and is shomer Shabbat. I’m always fascinated by how my shomer Shabbat friends manage their apartment dwelling and house hunting and, again, it’s nice to see that reality in a story such as this. It may not seem dramatic but, in another way it is. This is the drama of our daily lives and it probably speaks more to who we are as people than most stories that appear in a given newspaper. After getting through so many other concerns about her location and necessary apartment features, we learn this:
Earlier this summer she found an almost perfect pad with an ample bedroom not far from the Jewish Center. But another feature of her observance ruled it out: Every Friday night, Ms. Rubenstein hosts a traditional Sabbath dinner. She needed enough space to accommodate at least 30 guests.
This month, she began moving into a three-bedroom apartment that has a much smaller bedroom and is 10 blocks farther north that she might have liked. But the dining room is huge.
“For me,” Ms. Rubenstein said, “it was more important to have a larger living space, as opposed to my room, which wasn’t really a priority. I’d rather host people than have a larger room.”
Perhaps my favorite anecdote involved Sadia Kalam, a Muslim who we aren’t just told is “devout” but we are given actual information that demonstrates that, such as how she prays five times a day and fasts during Ramadan. After learning how she handled dorm life, we’re told that she sought Muslim roommates. She ended up living in a tiny apartment with two Muslims and a Catholic — all devout:
The jam-packed apartment became a community. The Muslims would share milk and Cheerios before dawn during Ramadan, and pray with the apartment cat flopped on their mats.
“The living situation was not anything I would brag about,” Ms. Kalam said, but “I wouldn’t trade that experience of living with Muslim girls for a beautiful loft in a really nice neighborhood. It’s more about the experience of living with people who understand who you are and what you need to do.”
All three women were her bridesmaids when she married, Ms. Kalam said.
Nir digs down further, mentioning how common religious values play out in roommate life — whether or not to have alcohol in a house, whether guests of the opposite sex can stay over. She even notes how the Muslim girls, some who wore a hijab, developed a policy requiring roommates to call in advance if a man would be visiting.
There are more anecdotes and more details about how people find roommates with shared values. It’s just a very well-done piece on an undercovered aspect of daily life in the city.
One final thought: In addition to what I appreciated about the story lacking any bogus claims of a trend, I also liked how it treated each religion separately. It was a nice ecumenical piece that didn’t feel the need to assert the idea that all religious adherents are roughly the same. In fact, it did the opposite. It drew out some of the very particular distinctions in the religions and it did so using concrete examples. That takes some real skill not just in composing the piece but, first and foremost, listening to one’s subjects about what’s important to them. In so doing, it actually made the piece more interesting and educational for the reader.