Baltimore Sun drops ball in profile of a preacher’s son

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Here we go again.

The following has become a GetReligion mantra, when it comes to mainstream media coverage of sports and religion. If journalists are going to play the God card, especially in the ledes of major stories, it really helps if they are willing to devote some part of these stories to detailing the role that faith plays in the lives of the athletes who are being profiled.

In this case, we are talking about a piece of scripture that is at the heart of a story about a player who was just selected by the Baltimore Ravens at the end of the first round of the National Football League draft. To top that off, this same piece of scripture played a highly symbolic role in the lives of several Christians on the Ravens team (think Ray Lewis, especially) during last year’s run to the Super Bowl and the NFL title.

The Baltimore Sun team gets the scripture into the lede and initially does a good job of framing its importance. This is long, but the following will show some of the context for the verse’s appearance in this young man’s life:

Long before Isaiah 54:17 became a rallying cry during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run and a fixture in Ray Lewis’ speeches, an angry and withdrawn young boy heard the words and decided to put them over his bedroom door.

“No weapon formed against me shall prosper.”

Yet to celebrate his 10th birthday and already burdened by a lifetime’s worth of tragedy, Matt Elam felt that the whole world was against him when he displayed the verse to give him a daily reminder of what mattered.

His half brother had been shot and killed four years before he was even born. His parents divorced when he was 5. Already acquainted with death and departure, Elam then had to deal with the murder of his older sister, Christina, who was at a local park when shots rang out.

Elam, just 8 years old, got the news from his neighbor and sprinted to the park to see his 12-year-old sister one final time.

“We were really close and when I lost her, I felt like everybody was against me,” Elam said Friday.

Read that carefully. We are not talking about a college player putting that scripture over the door of his bedroom. It appears — the sentence structure is quite bizarre — that we are talking about a 10-year-old boy, already burdened with tragedy and pain, putting those words over the doorway into his private sanctuary in the rough streets of the neighborhoods north of downtown West Palm Beach, Fla.

That’s really quite amazing, if one stops and thinks about it. It would appear that religious faith — the kind that teaches fairly obscure scriptures to young boys — must have played a major role in his upbringing. You think?

Yet what is going on with all of these violent events that have touched his life? Might there be some connection between the faith and the pain, some link between scripture and the realities of Elam’s tragic young life?

So how far into this story will readers have to go to find out the answer to that unasked question? Good question.

The answer is about 1,300 words — a few paragraphs before the end of this long feature story.

And here is all readers will learn:

In 2011, Elam, the youngest of Addie and Donald’s five kids, learned that his father had died at age 64. A minister and Vietnam veteran, Donald Elam had long battled mental illness.

“He allowed [the tragedies] to work together for his good,” Addie Elam-Lewis said of her son. “He allowed it to make him stronger, to make him more humble, to make him more focused, to make him more determined to work toward fulfilling the dream that he had as a kid. I’m glad that he didn’t allow all the turbulence in our lives to walk contrary to the desire and dream he had before him.”

Stop and think about that. This young man’s life was shaped, in part, by a trio of amazing factors in the life of his father. It would hard to imagine a more stunning and poignant combination of forces than Vietnam, mental illness and urban ministry framed by poverty.

Perhaps it would have been good to have explored that a bit in this long story about a preacher’s son?

Apparently not.

Notice that, in this summary quote from Elam’s mother, she actually paraphrased one of the most famous verses in the New Testament epistle to the Romans. That would be Romans 8:28:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Did the reporter realize the theological point that was being made by the player’s mother in his pivotal quote in the story?

Apparently not.

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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.

  • tmatt

    This says so much about the GetReligion and Patheos audiences.

  • http://theoppositepc.blogspot.com Frank

    Actually, tmatt, it says a lot about the commenters who are more than happy to jump on the political or church/state topic du jour. I appreciate when you bring these posts to our attention. In athletics a majority of players cross themselves before a play, or kneel to pray before a game, or proudly thank God to the press but seldom does the media dig in to the faith behind those acts and statements. I’m a sports-nut, so I’d welcome these types of posts any day even if I don’t always comment.


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