The second storytelling rule: Get the name of the church

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The first storytelling rule: Get the name of the dog.

So says Poynter Institute writing guru Roy Peter Clark.

For the purposes of GetReligion, I’ll add a second rule: Get the name of the church.

I found myself frustrated with the generic churches featured in a Wall Street Journal story on South Africa’s national day of prayer, held Sunday in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death.

QUNU, South Africa — South Africans filled houses of worship on Sunday to remember their first black leader, Nelson Mandela, whose death last week sparked an outpouring of grief, remembrance and preparations for his hometown funeral and a memorial at a soccer stadium.

Mr. Mandela, who died Thursday evening at his Johannesburg home at 95 years old, enjoyed near mythical status in the racially divided country, and President Jacob Zuma had designated Sunday as a day of prayer and reflection on his life.

South African officials fanned out to different churches and synagogues in what amounted to a campaign to use the spirit of the late statesman to bridge the nation’s lingering societal divides.

“We should not forget the values that Madiba stood for and sacrificed his life for,” President Zuma told those gathered at a church in Johannesburg, using Mr. Mandela’s clan name. “He actively participated to remove the oppressor to liberate the people of this country. When our struggle came to an end, he preached and practiced reconciliation to make those who had been fighting to forgive one another and become one nation.”

That’s a perfectly fine summary of the day’s events. Except I want to know the name of the church. And beyond that, I’d love some insight on why the president chose the particular church where he spoke. Was there a historical or spiritual significance to the venue?

Later in the story:

“I’m worried about this current government but we must release Mandela because he has worked hard for us,” said 71-year-old Beatrice Mathsqi, attending another prayer service in Mqhekezweni, where Mr. Mandela lived after Qunu.

But what was the name of the church where she attended the prayer service? Am I wrong to want less vague identification of the houses of worship featured?

Contrast the story by the Journal — an exceptional newspaper that I praise way more often than I criticize — with the prayer day story published by the Washington Post:

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In death, Nelson Mandela unified South Africans of all races and backgrounds Sunday on a day of prayer for the global statesman — from a vaulted cathedral with hymns and incense to a rural, hilltop church with goat-skin drums and barefoot dancing.

Mandela was remembered in old bedrocks of resistance to white domination as well as former bastions of loyalty to apartheid.

“May his long walk to freedom be enjoyed and realized in our time by all of us,” worshippers said in a prayer at the majestic St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, where the first white settlers arrived centuries ago aboard European ships.

Not only does the Post story identify St. George’s Cathedral, but it puts the house of worship into historical context.

The same is true here:

In Johannesburg, hundreds swayed and sang at the Regina Mundi Church that was near the epicenter of the Soweto township uprising against white rule in 1976 and served as a refuge from security forces who fired tear gas around the building and whose bullets have pockmarked the outside walls.

CNN provided similar details:

Soweto, South Africa (CNN) — There are still bullet holes in the stained-glass windows of this church.

They’re a reminder, Tommy Zwane says, of the dark days before Nelson Mandela became his country’s first democratically elected president.

The Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto was at the heart of the uprising against apartheid — most famously on June 16, 1976, when young students rebelled against the education system and were fired upon by police.

“Things were difficult for everybody, for black people in this country. We used to run and come to this church to pray to God so that he could come and assist us, because we were in trouble at that time,” Zwane said. “There was no understanding between us and the government of South Africa.”

On Sunday, people filled the church’s pews for a very different reason — to sing, pray and honor Mandela’s legacy days after his death in a home nearby.

Services at churches, synagogues and mosques throughout South Africa honored Mandela.

It’s a simple concept, but it makes a big difference: Get the name of the dog. And the church.

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.

  • Julia B

    I was glad to get the name of the church. I assumed it was Anglican b/c of Desmund Tutu’s high profile. But then I read the name of the church and thought it couldn’t be Anglican with a name like that. Interesting to be confirmed that it was a Catholic Church. I don’t think there are many Catholics in that part of the world – so I would never have known that I’m sure other kinds of churches were involved in the fight against apartheid and would have been glad to know about them, too.


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