Scribe with big feet joins GetReligion

The powers that be tell me that I must introduce myself as the new GetReligionista.

Where to start? My name is Jay Grelen and, while I am not a religion-beat specialist, I may be the only reporter in the history of the journalism racket who has been ordered by a newspaper editor to put more God into a story for a major-market mainstream newspaper.

That story goes like this. As I was finishing up a feature I had written about a street preacher for the Denver Post in the mid-1980s, my boss ordered up a revised version of my text that was so specific the guy could have used it in his street ministry.

The young evangelist walked the 16th Street Mall in Denver, and he was a frequent passenger on the 16th Street Trolleys to Nowhwere. He was gentle, winsome, his brown hair longish but clean, often preaching but never yelling, and highly visible. A natural subject for the sort of people-centric stories that I prefer to write. So I visited with him over several days and at least one mighty fine fried-catfish po-boy (yes, in downtown Denver) and wrote a story.

As always you must when you write about God for a newspaper, you must be careful that you not include too many words about God.

So in telling the story of this apostle’s journey from his upper middle class home up north to his current mission, I was careful. Too careful, as it turned out. When my boss called me in to discuss the story, her primary question concerned one sentence I had written, which was that our young preacher had come from a church-going home but not a “Christian home.”

“How can that be?” she asked.

So I walked her down the basics on Romans and the road to salvation, virgin birth to resurrection, everything but quoting John 3:16.

To which she replied: You need to explain all of that in the story.

So I did.

What’s the point? In my 30-something years in the news business, since my antediluvian graduation from Louisiana Tech, I have found ignorance about things religious among my newsroom colleagues far more often than malevolence. Some co-workers have been hostile, which is not unique to the news business though more consequential; many more, however, simply are without a fact-based clue, which sometimes manifests as hostility in conversation.

More than one editor has told me that I put too much God in my stories, although none ever has redacted God once I had written Him into a story. (I still prefer to capitalize the pronouns.) You see, an editor who insists upon accuracy and thoroughness can’t very well argue that a writer should ignore the facts and language of faith if they are clearly part of a person’s life.

When religion is part of a person’s story, the reporter must note it. Otherwise the report is incomplete, if not dishonest. Facts are facts. Motives are motives. I should also add that never, ever has a reader of my work complained because I think that it’s important to “get religion” in news coverage.

My life and writing, of course, are informed by my life as a Southern Baptist — cradle-(and likely)-to-grave. I am genetically Texan (but never have lived under the Lone Star state) and grew up way Southern. My beautiful young adult daughters have enjoyed the same advantages — Southern and Southern Baptist.

I’ve worked as a reporter and columnist in a host of cities, mostly in the South, and I am currently busy on the copy desk of the Arkansas Democrat. The editors have approved me writing at this blog, but I will be avoiding — of course — critiques of my own newspaper (Hello Frank “Bible Belt Blogger” Lockwood) and others in the immediate vicinity. In other words, I remain active in the mainstream.

When I’m not writing, I’m riding a bicycle or washing driveways and houses with high-pressure streams of water. My mid-life red convertible is a 4,000 psi power washing rig in a little sideline biz I call the Bigfoot Storytelling, Sweet Tea & House Washing Society. (Think Charles Kuralt washes America and I do have big feet — size 14.) I enter the GetReligion family at the invitation of Terry Mattingly, whom I have known since the days he worked for the other paper in Denver (which, by the way, didn’t survive Terry’s departure and has since closed).

I had read tmatt’s work as the religion editor at the Rocky Mountain News for four years before I actually met him. In October 1989, Madeleine “Wrinkle in Time” L’Engle visited Denver for a conference; for a reason long-forgotten, Terry and I interviewed her at the same time, an interview I remember for having met two writers I admired. Not only does Professor Mattingly not remember that meeting as our first, tmatt doesn’t even recall that I was there at all. (Editor’s note: The reality is a bit more complicated than that and there is a tape recording of the session. ‘Tis a mystery.)

But I’m here now, with fresh ribbon in Mama’s old Royal manual typewriter, to join in pleading the case: Journalists who want to thoroughly and honestly write about real people and real events in the real world need to get religion.

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  • Mollie

    Glad to have you on board!

  • Samantha Friedman

    I’ll be following, Jay.

  • Bobby

    Welcome, friend. Let’s convene a special GetReligionista meeting at Ted’s real soon.

  • jh

    WOW Louisiana Tech Grad on Board. GO BullDogs

  • Julia

    OK. I’ll bite.

    For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son: that whosoever believes in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.

    How does that answer the question of how it is possible that a church-going home can at the same time not be a “Christian” home?

  • Deann Alford

    Hey, Jay. Visited with you in the mid 1980s in Wiley Hilburn’s J375 class when you explained the WWH gospel of significant detail to a bunch of impressionable minds, mine among them. That was a lot of nut grafs ago. Will enjoy reading your take on the gray void in MSM’s covering of religion angles.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Good Luck here. But who put the byline on your introductory GR piece??? When I read by J. Calvin I thought–now there’s a perfect name for a religion writer. But then, in the story, I saw your name is Jay Grelen. Or are you the reincarnation of the Reformation leader???

  • Frank Lockwood

    A person can be atheistic, agnostic or ambivalent and still be affiliated with a lot of churches, synagogues and temples.

    Church/synagogue/temple membership indicates a (past or present) desire (on behalf of the individual or the individual’s ancestors) to be part of a particular community or culture or tradition, but not necessarily a willingness to accept all (or even any) of the religion’s traditional teachings.

    Many evangelicals, traditionally, say one must have certain beliefs and take certain steps (repenting and reciting a sinner’s prayer, for example) to become a Christian.

    “You can sleep in a garage,” they say, “but that doesn’t make you an automobile. You can sit on a pew, but that doesn’t make you a Christian.”

  • Jerry

    Welcome to the beat. I must ask though about your picture. You seem to have been unhappy when the picture was taken. So I hope that sometimes we can cheer you up with an appropriate post to one of your pieces. :-)

  • Mollie

    What are you talking about Jerry? That picture is AWESOME. Seriously, I was sold the moment I saw the rotary phone.

  • tmatt

    Jay Bob insists the j. calvin is a nickname

  • Jerry

    Mollie, maybe I’m wrong but to me he looks like he’s frowning in that photo and thus unhappy.

  • Frank Lockwood

    That could be a sad face. Or it could be a “I am a serious, contemplative, Dan Ratheresque journalist face.” Those two faces get confused a lot.

  • Edward

    Jay: Loved your columns for the Dem-Gaz. I look forward to reading you here!

    Frank: This Papist thanks you for your explanation (church home / Christian home vis-a-vis the Evangelical POV). Given the premise of this site, perhaps Jay could’ve mentioned that! And great job with the Religion section; I look forward to it each week.

  • Cathy G.

    Yay, copy editors! :)

  • j. calvin

    3. Bobby’s reference to Ted’s: The best Mexican food joint ever. People drive three hours and wait three hours in line.
    6. Deann Alford, It’s been more than 20 years since we talked, so I’m running on memory fumes, but I’m thinking your hometown is Springhill/Sarepta?
    7. My real entire name is Jay Calvin Grelen. I’ve recently taken to using J. Calvin Grelen with the hope that with a name like that on the 300-page mansucript, an agent will assume it’s literary and buy it without even reading it. My paternal grandfather in El Paso, Texas, known to us as Papadee, was named Charles Calvin Miser. His friends called him Charlie or C.C. He was a butcher for Safeway. I still have two of his cleavers. Of his two grandsons, one by each of his daughters, I was born first, and so Mama had dibs on whichever of his names she wanted. I’ve never known why she picked Calvin. I wasn’t always happy about that, but now I am.
    9. The photograph: A. I do not like facing a camera. B. I do not like taking my own photograph. C. I never smile in a photograph because it always feels forced. D. The woman I married says I always look grim. E. So if I’m going to have to make a picture, and Professor Mattingly insisted, I’m not going to be happy about it. F. To answer your question, then, I was not unhappy, that’s apparently my normal look. E. But Flockwood was right in his assessment of the photo: That is my, I’m j. calvin, thoughtful and serious literary giant in what’s left of my own mind.
    And in the small-world category: I first knew Doug LeBlanc in 1981 when I was a copy editor at the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, and he was still at LSU. He is one of my longest-lasting friends, and one who has influenced me as much as anyone in my life. Doug and I wrote a long piece about Bob Larson, the exorcist who faces down satan three and four times a day but was afraid to meet me for an interview; you know the tmatt story — thanks to tmatt, I attended the Gegrapha conference outside Baltimore about three weeks before the attacks on New York and Washington; I worked with Bobby Ross at the Daily Oklahoman — In fact, at one point, our desks abutted; Sarah doesn’t know this, but her father once asked me to consider writing editorials for his newspaper.
    As for the hour of this response, I’m a copy editor for a morning newspaper. Just got home. I’ve got religion. Now I’m going to get some sleep. Thank you for the nice welcome.

  • Frank Lockwood

    14. Edward, Thank you. If you know of any good stories for the Democrat-Gazette religion section, please let me know.

    And 16. Jay, Great to have you at

  • http://!)! Passing By

    j. calvin -

    Since you started the name game, I have to say my great-grandfather’s given names were “John” and Calvin” and he was a Primitive Baptist (Calvinist) preacher. So there. It would no doubt grieve him to know that his descendants slid down into the Southern Baptist Convention, and some of us are even Raving Papists.

    Which is all by way of “welcome”. :-)

  • Tyson K

    Jay, presumably you are named after your maternal grandfather, as you are his daughter’s son?

    Don’t mean to be nit-picky, but as you are a copy-editor…

  • j. calvin

    Dear Tyson K, Well that is embarrassing. I can only plead the hour of the post and offer that as evidence of the dangers of posting at that hour. As for picking nits, thank you, and I’m sure I’ll supply more for the picking and hope that you will avail yourself of all opportunities. jay

  • MJBubba

    Cheers to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for good journalism. I live near Memphis, and I have spent a few bucks to purchase access to good stuff behind their paywall. I don’t like it, but I completely understand.

  • Moe

    I remember you from the Bob Larson exposes some years ago. I’m a current Bob Larson observer and commentator, so if you want to know what the little shyster is doing, you can email me. He’s doing the ” real exorcist” scam and has done this for a few years now.

    Seems you are not the only one he’s too scarfed to sit down with. Motal AKA the Paranormal Preacher confronted him in one of his ” conferences” and suggested that Larson cast alleged demons out of Motal, but Bobbie called for security since the cameras were not on and he wasn’t using his stage hypnosis.

    As for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, yeah it has some good articles once in awhile but I guess it depends upon your perspective. The Arkansas Times, which web site is free access BTW, has some good articles as well.

  • Moe

    Oh yeah I forgot you wrote the ” Sweet Tea” column. Why did they cancel it? A lot of people enjoyed it, including me.

  • Moe

    As for religion stories ideas, I’m a Pagan in the South. You can guess how little non-Christian religions are actually covered in the religion section of many newspapers. :-( While I understand you as a Christian and a Baptist have certain preferences, I personally would like to see more stories focused on UNDERSTANDING other faiths. It would be a refreshing change from some of what I see coming from certain Christian segments.

  • Ben Pollock

    Glad to see you up here in the blog-o-sphere, Mr. Grelen!
    – Ben