God, faith, Jahi McMath and church (or not)

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I can’t remember the last time I became so engrossed in a story.

Perhaps it’s because I also have a teenage daughter (who, by the way, also is interested). Maybe it’s the unprecedented attention, or the opportunity to educate myself about an issue I had not previously considered: whole brain death and all its scientific and physical ramifications. More likely, it’s the passion on both sides and the way people of faith everywhere are reacting so emotionally to the case.

I can’t look away, in other words.

Jahi McMath, the brain-dead teen from Oakland, Calif., continues to make global headlines as family members, their lawyers, the medical community and media outlets …

What? What are they doing, exactly?

No one outside those intimately involved know where the child is or what the family is thinking and doing, outside of their press conferences and social media posts. But those statements and Instagram updates are filled with requests for prayers and allusions to miracles, in spite of the signed death certificate with her name on it. The mother, against all scientific data, precedent and the physical state of her child, believes God will heal her daughter. And she says she is pursuing a level of recovery-themed care for the legally dead child (a feeding tube, a tracheostomy tube) that will aid in the physical side of her vigil.

In the absence of real-time news in a society obsessed with instant updates, the media has focused some on the religious aspect of the story.

The Los Angeles Times has provided extensive coverage on the story. In its first report after the brain-dead child was taken by ambulance from the hospital, released to the Alameda County coroner’s office and then signed over to her mother, the Times’ story provided this insight from McMath’s uncle about their future plans:

“These people have been very welcoming with open arms. They have beliefs like ours, they believe what we believe,” said Jahi’s uncle, Omari Sealey.

We know they believe God will heal the teen. But as to what else they believe, what denomination or faith group or doctrine they align themselves with, we don’t know.

The Church of All Faiths in Oakland planned a fundraiser for the teen while she was still at Children’s Hospital Oakland, but the family’s connection to the church was never explored by the San Jose Mercury News, which publicized the event but didn’t follow up on whether it happened.

Likewise, a vigil was held at Oakland’s Paradise Baptist Church shortly before Christmas, says Oakland North. No one who stepped to the microphone or was interviewed by a reporter said the family attended there, however.

We also know a handful of area church leaders protested the family’s treatment outside the hospital and called on investigators to look into allegations from McMath’s mother about her daughter’s death. The Contra Costa Times reported on the protest and excerpts of the letter, signed by five named ministers in the area but didn’t mention any of them knowing the family personally.

Amid speculation that McMath was taken to a Catholic hospice in the Oakland area, the San Francisco Bay-area NBC affiliate provided a report headlined “Catholic Organization Says Jahi McMath ‘With Jesus Christ.’”

“This is a very tragic case but in the face of death, the Church proclaims that Jesus Christ has won the victory over death,” the National Catholic Bioethics Center said Tuesday on its website. “And [Jahi's mother] has the obligation to comfort those who mourn with the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead.  We offer our prayers for all who have been so profoundly affected by this tragic event.”

Could the reason the family has not accepted the declaration of death have to do with an absence of a trusted, Godly church family and leaders who know them and can minister to them compassionately yet persuasively? The value of these kind of spiritual relationships and perspectives is high – and seemingly absent here, as no news outlet has reported on it.

About Tamie Ross

Tamie Ross is a wife, mom, writer and all-around crazy-about-life girl now battling autoimmune disease. Her 20-year journalism career included stints as religion editor for The Oklahoman, online editor for The Christian Chronicle and freelancer for clients ranging from The Associated Press to United Methodist News Service. She has won state and national awards for her personal columns and editorials.

  • Connie Mashburn

    Those of us who do have a family and friends with strong religious faith face the prospect of death knowing that we’ll finally get to meet our Savior face to face. That’s why you see facebook messages about a death being a transition to heaven or meeting the angels, etc. Reassurances to the family that “though you’ll miss them, they are in a better place”.

  • CentralJerseyMom

    This article quotes an NBC article that quotes a Catholic bioethics center as saying:

    “This is a very tragic case but in the face of death, the Church proclaims that Jesus Christ has won the victory over death,” the National Catholic Bioethics Center said Tuesday on its website. “And [Jahi's mother] has the obligation to comfort those who mourn with the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead.”

    However — this clearly makes no sense and cannot be a correct quote that *Jahis mother* would have an obligation to comfort someone. I was sure that this quote must be saying that *the Church* has the obligation to comfort those who mourn, based on a sure and certain hope of the resurrection. . Sure enough, I went to the Catholic bioethics website and it says:

    “This is a very tragic case but in the face of death, the Church proclaims that Jesus Christ has won the victory over death and SHE has the obligation to comfort those who mourn with the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead.”
    *She* means the Church. The Chuch is referred to as “she” not “it.”. “She” does not mean “Jahi’s mother”!!
    So, to say that “the press just doesn’t get religion” is apparently very true. :)

    • Julia B

      Thanks for checking that out. It sounded really weird to me, too.

      • John Pack Lambert

        I think in this case we are dealing with writers who are so unfamiliar with the use of “she” for things other than people, that it confuses them. They know not the Book of Revelation and thus fail.

  • boinkie

    Religion, or the memory of the Tuskegee experiment?

    Many minorities (not just blacks) have had bad experiences with the medical industrial complex and won’t sign living wills or agree to withdrawing treatment. And as a doctor, I know of too many anecdotes that suggest they might have a point.

    Two: you might want to read this essay from the disability rights group “Not Dead Yet”: LINK…or this article that discusses the problems of making the diagnosis (and includes stories of survivors of “brain death”).


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