Oklahoma tornado doctor: a bundle of vague faith

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The Oklahoman, my hometown newspaper and former employer, is rising to the occasion in its coverage of this week’s Moore, Okla.,tornado.

That’s no surprise for a newspaper that has gained way too much experience covering major tragedies — including the Oklahoma City bombing and the May 3, 1999, tornadoes.

Nonetheless, I’m going to provide a little constructive criticism of one tornado-related story that caught my attention in today’s Oklahoman.

The story concerns an emergency room doctor:

MOORE — Dr. Stephanie Barnhart began the scariest day of her life with her usual routine — listening to Christian music on the car radio, thinking about the 12-hour workday ahead and offering a silent prayer for strength to handle whatever she might encounter.

Christian music. Silent prayer. Anybody see the potential for a strong religion angle?

Keep reading, and the writer provides a compelling narrative of the events leading up to Barnhart finding herself — and the medical center where she works — in the path of the storm.

Eventually, there’s this:

The tornado was now just seconds away. It packed 200 mph winds and was destroying whole neighborhoods as it churned across the landscape. Barnhart glanced at the TV screen in time to see the tornado was near 149th Street and May Avenue when the hospital’s lights flickered and then went out, plunging the room into darkness.

Barnhart prayed.

“Please, Jesus,” she said.

The roar grew louder. Their ears began to pop from the air pressure change. They felt the ground shake and their bodies tremble. …

Barnhart said she was terrified, but also at peace that everything would be OK. She never feared for her life.

Jesus. Peace. Again, I ask: Is there a religion angle here?

Finally, there’s this nugget of religion:

“I don’t know how we survived in that place, she said. “I was praising Jesus. I knew he kept us safe. I knew that we were protected. You feel incredibly blessed.”

Tuesday was Barnhart’s scheduled day off. She used it to gather relief supplies which she dropped off at her church.

So, at the end of the story, we know vaguely that Barnhart believes in Jesus. We know that she has a church, but we have no idea which one.

Poynter Institute writing guru Roy Peter Clark has a first rule of storytelling: “Get the name of the dog.” For GetReligion purposes, I’d tweak that rule slightly and suggest: “Get the name of the church.”

Out of curiosity, I Googled to see if I could discover any more about Barnhart’s faith. All I found was a CNN feature haunted by similarly vague treatment of the religion angle:

Barnhart, 34, is a tiny blonde bundle of faith. She called her husband as soon as she could get cell reception after the tornado passed to tell him she loved him. She says she wasn’t really concerned about her own safety during the storm, but worried about friends and family — who all thankfully made it through OK.

“We’ve been blessed by that. I know there are lots of families that have been devastated by this, and we are definitely praying for them,” she says.

And this:

“I was just doing my job, and I knew what I had to do,” she says. “It’s Jesus that helped us and saved us, and I know that he was with us.”

Because they fail to engage this “tiny blonde bundle of faith” on religion, both the Oklahoman and CNN stories end up seeming rather hollow.

I’d love to know: Why did Barnhart feel at peace? What does she believe concerning God’s role — or lack of role — in this storm’s path? Why does she believe God kept her safe while taking the lives of others, including elementary school children — if that’s what she means?

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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.


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