On George Zimmerman’s (young) Catholic faith

I have been waiting for someone to write a story about George Zimmerman and his family and it’s religious background ever since I saw a passing reference to him being a former altar boy.

The world is full of former altar boys, it seems, and every now and then that symbolic detail turns out to have meaning.

However, before we look at this Reuters report — “George Zimmerman: Prelude to a shooting” — let me note that this isn’t really a news story that appears to impact crucial questions linked to the tragic events at the heart of this case. Like many other journalists I know, I continue to sift through the coverage trying to find hard, factual references to the evidence describing the sequence of events that led to the shooting and what may or may not have happened in that struggle.

In other words, all citizens of good will are waiting for the physical evidence to be discussed and debated. It could be a long and very tense wait. Meanwhile, religion is and has been part of the whirlwind around the death of young Trayvon Martin.

So what is this news story about? Journalists at Reuters tried to find out more information about the complex background of the man who pulled the trigger:

… (A) more nuanced portrait of Zimmerman has emerged from a Reuters investigation into Zimmerman’s past and a series of incidents in the community in the months preceding the Martin shooting. Based on extensive interviews with relatives, friends, neighbors, schoolmates and co-workers of Zimmerman in two states, law enforcement officials, and reviews of court documents and police reports, the story sheds new light on the man at the center of one of the most controversial homicide cases in America.

The 28-year-old insurance-fraud investigator comes from a deeply Catholic background and was taught in his early years to do right by those less fortunate. He was raised in a racially integrated household and himself has black roots through an Afro-Peruvian great-grandfather — the father of the maternal grandmother who helped raise him.

A criminal justice student who aspired to become a judge, Zimmerman also concerned himself with the safety of his neighbors after a series of break-ins committed by young African-American men.

As you would expect, the story is rooted in biographical information about the multiracial Zimmerman family. The question, for GetReligion readers, is whether his “deeply Catholic” background is established in hard facts and then successfully linked to the man’s character and life before the shooting. Otherwise, why make the reference at all?

The key figure, it appears, is Zimmerman’s mother, Gladys — an active Catholic. His father Robert’s background is Baptist. The story includes some of the details that matter:

Gladys came to lead a small but growing Catholic Hispanic enclave within the All Saints Catholic Church parish in the late 1970s, where she was involved in the church’s outreach programs. Gladys would bring young George along with her on “home visits” to poor families, said a family friend, Teresa Post.

“It was part of their upbringing to know that there are people in need, people more in need than themselves,” said Post, a Peruvian immigrant who lived with the Zimmermans for a time.

Post recalls evening prayers before dinner in the ethnically diverse Zimmerman household, which included siblings Robert Jr., Grace, and Dawn. “It wasn’t only white or only Hispanic or only black — it was mixed,” she said. …

Zimmerman served as an altar boy at All Saints from age 7 to 17, church members said.

“He wasn’t the type where, you know, ‘I’m being forced to do this,’ and a dragging-his-feet Catholic,” said Sandra Vega, who went to high school with George and his siblings. “He was an altar boy for years, and then worked in the rectory too. He has a really good heart.”

So religion is part of the picture until this young man is 17. Then there is trouble, symbolized by conflicts with police and a fiance’s civil motion for a restraining order “alleging domestic violence.” “Anger management” is an issue — on the books. Eventually Zimmerman marries and seeks a career in criminal justice.

There are many details provided about race relations and crime in the Zimmerman neighborhood and the devastating impact of the recession on homeowners. Zimmerman is known for helping people — black and white — protect their homes. The question for GetReligion readers is simple: What happens to the religion angle? What happened to Zimmerman’s faith?

The answer? Silence. There is no more information. The angle completely vanishes.

Thus, readers are left to draw their own conclusions about the devout Catholic boy who helps his mother reach out to the poor. It’s key that part of Zimmerman’s defense will be that, as a young adult, he was still trying to help his neighbors, black and white. This story appears to document some of that.

But what happened to his faith between the ages of 17 and 27?

At that point, the clear info about his family turns into a ghost about his adult life — precisely at the moment that would interest readers. Is he still active in a local parish and it’s social-justice ministries? Does the report’s earlier information on his faith have any real meaning to recent events? How are we to know?

In the end, a very disappointing story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    very interesting. I actually enjoyed this story for dispassionately laying out some details I had never heard before and not shading it one way or another. That has been a challenge for many reporters, to understate wildly. But you’re right that a ball is dropped with the religion angle.

  • http://cleansingfiredor.com/ Thinkling

    My first thought is that Zimmerman’s stance on religion (indeed many things) would be much more relevant during the 17 to 27 year span of his life than his early childhood.

    But I can imagine it might be more difficult to get the right questions to the right people to learn that information, than to get simple census form type answers about his childhood. This is not surprising though…the older he gets the more ideal Zimmerman himself is for the source of such information about himself. Right now he is not exactly available for commenting.

  • Sharon D.

    The “home visits” reference suggests his mother was a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

  • Julia

    The fact that he continued serving at Mass past grade school is very significant – particularly since someone in the know says he did it voluntarily. Especially boys drop out of that once they graduate 8th grade.

    It does sound like Vincent dePaul work that he did with his mother. Presumably his mother didn’t work outside the home and was doing day-time visits. There are ways other than home visits that you can work with Vincent dePaul such as food banks, soup kitchens, clothing drives, etc.

    As an adult Zimmerman probably wasn’t doing home visits. He might have seen his neighborhood watch duties as helping his community more in line with his criminal justice studies. I have a lawyer friend who runs a Neighborhood Law Office in East St Louis funded by the Catholic diocese. I’m not sure what the reporter meant by describing home visits as “outreach”. That sounds more like evangelizing.

    I learned a lot from the news story and sent a link to lots of folks when I first read it.

  • Bill

    Good story. It fleshed out a rather lopsided skeleton. It would be interesting to learn about the details of his religious life from post-adolescence on, but if there is a lapse it could be just a common drift away from the religious practices of his childhood that happens in many young adults. Often they come back. (I suspect a few of us know something about that.)

    We should be careful about inferring too much from the restraining order without more information. Many divorce lawyers apply for restraining orders as a matter of course, which are used as leverage in custody battles. Zimmerman’s restraining order might or might not indicate a tendency for violence.

    The coverage has also been rather sloppy and sensational about Florida’s laws concerning self-defense and carrying weapons.


    I’d like to see a story about what constitutes being armed. Is it the possession of a gun, knife or club? How about a hammer, scissors or sharpened screwdriver? If a small, elderly woman is attacked by a big, strong man, is he armed by virtue of his physical power?

  • pubpubpub

    This is a lie and you know it. His father is not Baptist.