God and faith in Oklahoma tornado coverage

In my first-person account of the Moore, Okla., tornado last week, I predicted that the faith and resiliency of the state’s residents would be a major theme in media coverage.

Sure enough, it has been.

I saw the devastation for the first time Sunday when I made my way to that side of Oklahoma City to work on a Christianity Today piece on the “Faith-Based FEMA”:

At the edge of the disaster zone — just across the street from the decimated Moore Medical Center — teens and adults in cowboy hats cook smoked sausages outside the Central Church of Christ.

This group of volunteers drove 430 miles from Denver City, Texas, southwest of Lubbock, to prepare meals for victims after last Monday’s EF5 tornado destroyed 1,200 homes and killed 24 people, including 10 children.

Inside the church, worshipers — many wearing bright orange “Disaster Assistance” T-shirts — at the Sunday service maneuver around ceiling-high stacks of emergency food and supply boxes delivered on a tractor-trailer by Nashville, Tennessee-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc.

The church’s marquee sign along Interstate 35 normally grabs drivers’ attention with catchy Bible verses and witty sayings.

But now it declares simply: “Disaster Relief Center.”

Even as President Barack Obama consoles victims and promises the government’s assistance “every step of the way,” the so-called “faith-based FEMA” is already out in force — from Mennonite Disaster Service chainsaw crews to Samaritan’s Purse debris cleanup teams to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance pastoral counselors.

On the Sunday after a major disaster, news organizations often send reporters to cover worship services. The challenge is turning such a predictable assignment into a truly insightful story. I’m not so sure the Los Angeles Times accomplished that feat in its report on Sunday’s services in Moore.

Here’s the lede of the L.A. Times’ story:

MOORE, Okla. — They filled the sanctuary after one of the worst weeks they had ever known.

The tornado that tore through the Oklahoma City area killed two dozen people, including 10 children. It destroyed homes. It wiped away mementos. It upended lives.

But the crowd hadn’t come on this Sunday evening to dwell. They wanted to push forward, to reclaim what they could and to rebuild what they couldn’t. They were here to pray for the strength to persevere.

“We choose not to walk as victims, Lord,” Dennis Jernigan, the worship leader, prayed at First Baptist Church in Moore.

Part of this (or perhaps all of it) is purely personal preference, but I like understatement when writing about a tragedy such as the Moore tornado.

In other words, rather than use overly dramatic language (“one of the worst weeks they had ever known”), provide some actual facts or nuggets of real human experiences to help me come to that conclusion myself. It’s an old journalistic adage, but show, don’t tell.

Keep reading, and there’s more boilerplate material:

Nearly a week after the tornado, the focus was on prayer, mourning and trying to make sense of such loss. Earlier in the day, people gathered for morning worship, and President Obama visited the devastated areas to offer reassurance and support.

Contrast that with the specific details featured up high by the The Oklahoman’s religion editor, Carla Hinton:

MOORE — A group of children from a community torn asunder by a deadly twister brought Oklahomans to their feet Sunday with a simple, heartfelt rendition of “Jesus Loves Me” at a memorial service for tornado victims.

Teacher Waynel Mayes, who said she and her students sang the beloved hymn as a tornado bore down on their Briarwood Elementary School classroom, led a group of Moore School District students as they sung in front of a crowd of about 2,000 at First Baptist Church of Moore, 301 NE 27.

The Briarwood group received a standing ovation as they entered the sanctuary and as they departed. Their song and Mayes’ account of her class’s experience provided perhaps the most emotional part of the service, with many attendees visibly touched and some wiping away tears.

“There are still many uncertainties to be faced in the days ahead but one thing I know is that Jesus loves me and all of us,” Mayes told the crowd.

The subtle difference between the two stories, it seems to me, is that one follows an expected script, and the other provides a fresh perspective. Then again, maybe my analysis is totally off base, in which case I’m sure you’ll tell me, kind GetReligion readers.

Meanwhile, CNN’s Belief Blog co-editor Daniel Burke (with contributions from colleagues) produced an advance report on faith leaders’ plans for publicly addressing the tragedy. The piece includes diverse sources and benefits from nuanced accounts of the sermon outlines.

It’s certainly an interesting read.

Image via Shutterstock

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.

  • Sari

    Nicely written story, but why didn’t the reporter question the appropriateness of a public school teacher leading a very religious hymn in a public school setting? We know, from Wolf Blitzer, that at least one atheist with children resides in Moore. It’s even possible that non-Christians live there as well.

    Maybe that’s a whole ‘nother story to be researched and told.

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

      Reporter: “As your school was demolished by an EF5 tornado and you didn’t know whether you were going to live or die, did you consider the potential church-and-state ramifications of singing ‘Jesus Loves Me?’”

      Seriously, there was a teacher quoted by ABC who said she “prayed out loud” with students during the tornado: http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/05/22/teacher-admits-she-prayed-out-loud-during-violent-tornado-i-did-the-teacher-thing-that-were-probably-not-supposed-to-do/

      And there has been a hoax to which the school district has responded over a teacher (who doesn’t exist) supposedly fired for praying during the tornado: http://newsok.com/oklahoma-tornadoes-moore-school-district-dispels-condemns-rumor-that-praying-teacher-was-fired/article/3834984

      So maybe there is a story about what rules apply in circumstances such as these teachers found themselves.

      • Sari

        Every story has multiple angles.

        What struck me was the assumed homogeneity of the community, something that was put to rest by Blitzer’s interview. Perhaps the difference between the Oklahoman, local to the event, and larger papers with larger circulations, is that the first writes to a narrower (as in less diverse) audience. Had my child been in that classroom, s/he would have felt alone and abandoned by classmates and teacher in addition to being afraid of the tornado. Who would have been there to offer comfort?

        It is unimaginable that the Moore Public School District would fire a teacher over prayer.

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

          The L.A. Times story does use the same “Jesus Loves Me” anecdote near the end of its story.

          • Sari

            Ok, Bobby. I read through both articles and can say that the Oklahoman reporter wrote the article from an overtly Christian viewpoint.

            “…Vered Harris, rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in
            Oklahoma City, said a prayer.

            “You are not the storm; rather after the storm, you are the still
            clear voice within us,” Harris said in the prayer she offered up to the
            Lord.”

            That phrase, offered up, is unique to particular groups of Christians and is NEVER used by Jews. We pray, period. And it sounds more like she read an inspirational poem, not a prayer. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like a paraphrase of 1 Kings 19:11-13.

            And, how about this?

            “The choir sang the timeless hymn “Amazing Grace.””

            Timeless to whom, Bobby?

            The Oklahoman writes to a particular constituency, one that is Christian, and allows its reporters to superimpose their personal religious perspective on what should be news articles. Even human interest stories need to remain impartial.

          • Space_Chief

            ‘”The choir sang the timeless hymn “Amazing Grace.””
            Timeless to whom, Bobby?’

            Timeless to those who know about it. One need not be religious to know that, or belong to the same religion. You don’t need to celebrate events to know they are “timeless”. I bet I could apply the label of “timeless” to the American celebration of Thanksgiving and its associated traditions, yet I reside abroad and am a non English speaking foreign national. Are US traditions now suddenly not timeless for me?

            Maybe that some people don’t know about “Amazing Grace” or don’t appreciate its meaning in American culture testifies to the failure of multiculturalism in the US.

  • Nalliah Thayabharan

    This is karma for all those Southern Baptists who said Hurricane Sandy was “God’s will”

  • Nalliah Thayabharan

    One million Tornadoes for mass murdering one million Iraqis with WMDs Lies.
    Divine justice at last


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