The voiceless disappearing flock

Just last week, I praised a Washington Post story that — in a fair, respectful way — managed to personalize black ministers who (a) fought for racial equality and (b) oppose same-sex marriage.

Alas, that story required a reporter willing to listen to a 2,000-year-old religious point of view that seems to contradict the prevailing societal winds.

Fast-forward a week, and check out the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ coverage of a black minister on the other side of the aisle:

The Rev. Oliver White took a proverbial leap of faith a few years ago and told his skeptical congregation that homosexuality was not a sin. Unable to shake the memory of the fire hoses that ripped the clothes off his back during the equality marches of the civil rights era, all were welcome, he said, at the Grace Community United Church of Christ in St. Paul.

As a member of the UCC’s national synod in 2005, White flew to Atlanta to cast a vote endorsing same-sex marriage. The resolution passed after much discussion.

Membership at his largely black church in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood immediately declined. The next Sunday, about 25 percent fewer churchgoers filled the pews. The trend continued for three months until White, 69, had lost almost three-fourths of his congregation. With fewer members, church finances shrunk, and the 22-year-old church recently faced closing.

White never considered himself a crusader for gay rights, but he’d be damned before he’d stand in the way of anyone’s equality. “I never really thought I would be in this position,” White said. “I didn’t ask for it. I really didn’t ask for it.”

And, to borrow this newspaper’s preferred French, readers would be damned before they’d find any opposing viewpoints in this report.

White declares that homosexuality is “not a sin” but offers no theological reasons — at least in this story. Instead, this report sticks closely to a single preferred narrative, one in which there’s a direct parallel between “gay marriage equality and the civil rights movement.” Heaven forbid anybody be given an opportunity to disagree.

Based on my calculations, the heroic pastor’s church lost 150 out of its 200 members, yet the story names nor quotes not a single one of them. They are guilty as charged, based on this story. No need to give them a voice.

Also guilty as charged are other black ministers in the city. No need to give them a voice:

The isolation has intensified. White says he has not been invited to preach at any historically black churches in Minnesota since 2005. “I’ve had African-American ministers tell me how wrong I am. I have many African-American colleagues, but I don’t hear from them anymore,” White said. “The last one I spoke to said he was praying for me, him and his church, which I find kind of hilarious.”

Also guilty as charged: at least one of the 50 members who remain in the congregation. Again, no need to give the actual person referenced a voice:

Two days after White accepted the donation from Cathedral of Hope, a quiet congregant who tended to sit toward the back of the pews during his sermons wrote him “one of the most eloquent letters I’ve ever received…but his point of view was that I was sending my church to hell in a breadbasket.”

“I folded his letter and put it in my Bible,” White said. “I look at it frequently. I have not been able to answer his letter, because I don’t know what to say, except ‘I’ve enjoyed your company.’”

Speaking of crimes, is it illegal to quote people on the other side of this issue? Did I miss that legislation? Otherwise, I’d be tempted to call this a sad excuse for a news story. Except that it’s so far from an actual piece of journalism that I’m hesitant to call it a news story.

I hate to be a total buzzkill, though. Give the Pioneer Press an A-plus for cheerleading.

Image via Shutterstock

Print Friendly

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Spencerian

    The article definitely read more as an opinion piece. The tone was all-too-reminiscent of how NPR frames its stories; with passionate phrases and colorful descriptions of a plight–typically of someone that the reporter sympathizes with at length, while getting a soundbite of the opposing view, if at all, or dispassionately commenting the opposing view without sources and using general, stern descriptors that are anything but comforting that place the story’s subject in a positive, carefully positioned light.

  • MJBubba

    The article does have one quote from White that characterized objections of former members: “They felt I was Biblically wrong.” Of course that is the extent of it.
    Media cheerleading for the left is what we have come to expect; it is really nice that GetReligion continues to look for the American model of journalism when it comes to cultural issues. With y’all on the job I can just ignore the mass media and listen to Christian talk radio and check out a couple of favorite niche media aggregators on the internet. Checking in at GetReligion from time to time is all I need to have a feel for the state of decline of Western Civilization.

  • John Pack Lambert

    It is odd that when well over half the congregation has gone away a reporter can find no one to explain why.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Checking in at GetReligion from time to time is all I need to have a feel for the state of decline of Western Civilization.

    Hmmm, not sure if that’s the testimonial we’re going for or not … :-)

  • Jon in the Nati

    I lived in the Twin Cities for four years earlier in my life (before I was “in the Nati”). I must admit to being surprised and disappointed at such a poor piece of journalism from the Pioneer Press. If it had been another publication (such as that fishwrap across town) I would not be so surprised. The Pioneer Press was the paper I read when I lived in those fine cities, and I always regarded it as the far superior of the two.

    Incidentally, HuffPo has this from Religion News Service on the matter. Unsurprisingly, this article does not quote anyone who left the church either.

  • Chris M

    Why bother quoting them as if their opinion matters? They’re just intolerant homophobes! We should just put them all on an island somewhere in the Pacific. Or at least make sure they’re publically identifiable so we can avoid their businesses, sitting near them on public transportation, etc. Color coded armbands, maybe.

    What other reason could they have for opposing “equality”?
    Calling this propaganda piece “cheerleading” is an insult to cheerleaders.

  • R9

    Hang on Bobby, that previous piece was quite sympathetic to its subject. Also the only quoting was the subject passing on things he’s had said to him – there was no effort to go find opponents and talk to them. But you were full of praise for it.

  • Dale

    This story is a complete mess.

    As you’ve noted, it’s only told from the perspective of the pastor– but more than that, if you think about the congregationalist governance of the UCC, it doesn’t make any sense.

    To begin with, the pastor may have announced that he didn’t believe that homosexual sex acts were sinful, but under a congregationalist governance, he didn’t have the power to make that decision for the congregation. Quoting from the UCC Constitution:

    18 The autonomy of the Local Church is inherent and modifiable only by its own action. Nothing in this Constitution and the Bylaws of the United Church of Christ shall destroy or limit the right of each Local Church to continue to operate in the way customary to it; nor shall be construed as giving to the General Synod, or to any Conference or Association now, or at any future time, the power to abridge or impair the autonomy of any Local Church in the management of its own affairs, which affairs include, but are not limited to . . . to admit members in its own way and to provide for their discipline or dismissal; to call or dismiss its pastor or pastors by such procedure as it shall determine

    I’ve never heard of a congregationalist church that surrendered to the pastor the power to set doctrine for the local church. That power belongs to the local church counsel, and ultimately the congregation who elects them. If, as the pastor claims, a majority of his congregation disagreed with him about Christian sexual ethics, the congregation and the counsel could direct him to teach doctrine as the counsel determines. If he refused to comply, they can remove him.

    So how is it that this pastor remained in his position when 3/4 of the congregation was so opposed to his teaching that they would leave? Why didn’t they simply vote the pastor out? Maybe they were being nice, and didn’t want to destroy his livelihood. (Hey, it could happen.) Or maybe there were other reasons why they left.

    For example:

    A bad mortgage deal in 2006 left Grace Community with a 23.5 percent interest rate “from an investor who is extremely inflexible,” White said.

    Say WHAT? Did they put the church property on someone’s credit card? How do you get a 23.5% interest rate on a mortgage? And, unlike the pastor, the mortgage is not removable by vote of the counsel or congregation.

    Of course, a pastor losing his congregation because of same-sex marriage is much more compelling than a local church falling apart because of financial mismanagement. I don’t know for certain that’s what happened, but the reporter’s story as it stands doesn’t make any sense.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Hang on Bobby, that previous piece was quite sympathetic to its subject. Also the only quoting was the subject passing on things he’s had said to him – there was no effort to go find opponents and talk to them. But you were full of praise for it.

    R9,

    Good point.

    However, I think the difference is that while the previous piece was quite sympathetic to its subject, it was also quite sympathetic to the other side. To some extent, the other side didn’t need to be quoted because the reporter was making all of the other side’s arguments for them.

    In the case of the latest story, there is no sympathetic rehashing of what the other side thinks – so the reader, based on this story alone, has no way of knowing there is more than one point of view.

    And, as I noted in the previous post, that story was a rare case where I thought it worked without quoting the other side. It was the exception, not the rule. At least that’s how I saw it.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    You expect better from the (usually) biased liberal media?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    I expect better from professional journalists.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “I expect better from professional journalists.”

    Here’s the hidden reality: Sometimes liberal bias trumps professionalism by journalists and their editors.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Here’s the hidden reality: Sometimes liberal bias trumps professionalism by journalists and their editors.

    Bias is undoubtedly the case sometimes. Worldview comes into play other times. Any number of other factors can contribute to a one-sided story, from overworked reporters to undertrained editors to mediocre expectations at a specific publication.

    We at GR try (and obviously don’t always succeed) to focus on the actual content that we critique and not assign motivations to those who created the content (except in cases where we have facts to back up such assertions).

  • http://www.reversesalvation.com Reverse Salvation

    I enjoyed seeing how you pointed out the one-sidedness of the article. The journalist really was only answering the questions to his own slant.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “Bias is undoubtedly the case sometimes. Worldview comes into play other times. Any number of other factors can contribute to a one-sided story, from overworked reporters to undertrained editors to mediocre expectations at a specific publication.

    We at GR try (and obviously don’t always succeed) to focus on the actual content that we critique and not assign motivations to those who created the content (except in cases where we have facts to back up such assertions).”

    Would a historic pattern of one-sided stories constitute enough evidence for the argument that liberal media bias plays a significant part in the publication of one-sided stories?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X