Ghosts after Seattle Pacific shooting? Not in this story

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Here at GetReligion, we blog often about holy ghosts in news coverage. However, we much prefer stories that leave no room for spiritual ghostbusting.

Such is the case with an exceptional Seattle Times report on the “grief without despair” that followed last week’s shooting at Seattle Pacific University.

Given the university’s evangelical Christian ties, religion has been a part of this tragic story from the beginning, as tmatt noted earlier.

In a piece published Sunday, the Times explores the faith angle in a simple-but-remarkable way:

In the hours after a gunman killed one Seattle Pacific University student and wounded two others, what struck many was the way the students responded.

They clasped hands in prayer circles; lifted their voices together to sing hymns; prayed for the shooter as well as the victims.

“I have never been more proud of this institution,” Richard Steele, a professor in SPU’s School of Theology, wrote in an email to friends. “The faith, courage and calmness were just stunning,”

The response of the students, faculty and staff to Thursday’s startling violence highlights the role of religious belief at SPU. The small evangelical Christian college, on the north slope of Queen Anne Hill, stands out in the Seattle area for the degree to which it works on developing students’ faith and for fostering a tight-knit community.

Yes, the reporter — a former Godbeat pro named Janet Tu — provides relevant background on Seattle Pacific:

All undergraduates must take at least three courses in theology, and are encouraged to attend worship services, Bible studies, Bible retreats and other such activities to nurture their faith. They are expected to adhere to a code of conduct that prohibits premarital, extramarital or homosexual sex, as well as the use of alcohol or tobacco on campus, and marijuana on or off campus.

The some 4,000 students are predominantly Christian, although there are a few non-Christians at the school, which was founded in 1891 by the Free Methodist Church of North America.

Faculty and staff must be professing, practicing Christians.

But this story (relatively concise at 1,000 words) is at its best when Tu steps backs and allows her sources — three professors and two students — to discuss the role of faith in their own words:

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#SBC14: Race, sex, Muslims make Baptist headlines

Race. Sex. Muslims.

As Southern Baptists convene their annual meeting in Baltimore — home of editor tmatt — all could make headlines. In fact, they already are.

Sunday’s front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune featured a 2,500-word farewell profile on the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., who is wrapping up two years as the convention’s first black president.

A big chunk of the top:

A few blocks from where he grew up in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, in a wet and rising wind, Rev. Fred Luter Jr. is pacing behind a microphone. In his last weeks as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the leader of the United States’ largest protestant denomination is here in an official capacity, to speak at the dedication of a non-profit health clinic. But the event also marks a homecoming of sorts.

Here are the streets Luter walked as a boy. He can point to where his mother went to church, and to the barber shop where he honed a gift for speaking. Those buildings are now boarded and the streets marred by blighted homes, by empty lots — evidence of deep racial inequalities that Luter has seen as his life’s work to resolve.

The first African-American president of the Baptist branch that broke from the church to retain its pro-slavery stance, Luter has served a whirlwind two years. His term ends Wednesday. As president, Luter has traveled the globe, preaching in mud huts in Uganda, in the freezing February of an Alaskan winter. He speaks of his sympathy for human suffering, a sympathy that extends outward in every direction, to everyone he meets.

But he has retained a special sympathy for the problems facing his hometown. For the April 28 dedication of Baptist Community Health Services Inc., he spoke not of what he has accomplished abroad but of what he would like to do here. Embarking on a biblical anecdote of those who once doubted Christ, he said skeptics, upon hearing that Jesus was born in the backwaters of Nazareth, asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

Fred Luter Jr. in the Lower 9th WardThe first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, pastor Fred Luter grew up blocks away from a new health clinic in the Lower 9th ward. He speaks at its opening ceremony.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” Luter said, his voice gaining vim, “Washington D.C. one time asked. Baton Rouge one time asked. All over Louisiana, the question was one time asked: ‘Can any good thing come out of the Lower 9th ward? Can any good thing come out of Tennessee and St. Claude streets? Can any thing come out of the Lower 9th Ward area?’”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said. “We know there are good things to come. We’ve seen it ourselves.”

Luter standing there was the only answer that was needed. His life could answer the question he asked.

It’s an interesting, insightful story by a newspaper to which I haven’t paid much attention since Godbeat veteran Bruce Nolan’s layoff in 2012.

As Southern Baptists prepared to choose Luter’s successor, The Associated Press’ Monday advance on the annual meeting touted the possible election of a Korean-American:

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United (for now) Methodists and the same-sex debate

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Amid talk of a possible schism over homosexuality, the United Methodist Church is back in the news.

On the heels of an exceedingly positive profile of Methodist gay-rights advocate Frank Schaefer, the Washington Post reported this weekend:

Hundreds of American pastors from the United Methodist Church have signed a proposal released Friday that aims to keep the global denomination of 12.5 million members from splitting over the issue of homosexuality.

It offers churches and regional bodies the option to make up their own minds on issues like affirming gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

The proposal, titled “A Way Forward,” includes some prominent pastors, including Adam Hamilton, who leads an 18,000-member church in Kansas and delivered the sermon at President Obama’s 2013 inaugural service, and David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

The gist of the proposal, as described by the Post:

“The Church leaders that offer this proposal believe that the current debate is virtually irresolvable if left to the choices that the General Conference has been faced with recently. These leaders believe division would be shortsighted, costly, detrimental to ALL local congregations, and out of step with God’s will,” Friday’s statement read.

“One side believes the ‘practice of homosexuality’ is incompatible with Christian teaching. That is what’s written into the UMC Book of Discipline. The other side believes that scriptures related to homosexuality reflect the values of the time period in which scriptures were written more than the timeless will of God.”

The response from those opposed to budging on homosexuality? More from the Post:

It wasn’t possible to get immediate comment from the leaders of the traditional wing of the church, but the proposal came a few weeks after a group of conservative pastors issued a call of their own for “a way forward” that sounded more like a request to split.

It wasn’t possible? Seriously, what does that mean? Would the traditional leaders not answer their phones? Did the Post get the story too close to deadline? (But give the Post credit for including after that paragraph the most recent statements from the denomination’s traditional wing.)

In most of the reporting on debates such as this, you have one side pushing for something — such as compromise on the issue of homosexuality — and another side opposing it. To a large extent, that’s the nature of news. At the same time, these debates — in real life — often are marked by as much gray as black and white.

With that in my mind, I found a Florida Today story this weekend refreshing in that it reflected the complexity of the discussion among many Methodists:

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We don’t need no religion education, or do we?

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I’m on the road this week, sunburned and tuckered out.

So rather than do a normal GetReligion critique, I’m going to ask a couple of journalism questions that are related to what we do here.

First question: Do you know any journalists who could benefit from advanced study of religion?

If so, I have terrific news. The Religion Newswriters Association invites journalists to apply to its Lilly Scholarships in Religion Program. According to an RNA news release, the scholarships give full-time journalists up to $5,000 to take any college religion courses at any accredited institution at any time.

What a deal!

More from the news release:

Religion headlines are dominating news coverage—politics, religion, Islam in America — now is the perfect time to dig deeper into today’s hottest stories. More than 290 people have already taken advantage of RELIGION | NEWSWRITERS’ Lilly Scholarships in Religion Program for Journalists.

Topics reporters have studied include: Religion & Politics in the 20th Century and Beyond, God & Politics, Buddhism in the Modern World, Politics of International Religious Freedom, Religion and Social Justice, Violence and Liberation, Muslim-Christian Relations in World History and many more.

“The courses led to dozens of story ideas and new resources. I came out a sharper researcher and writer, two benefits I was not expecting going in,” said Eric Marrapodi of CNN who took four Lilly scholarship courses in three years at Georgetown University.

The scholarships can be used at accredited colleges, universities, seminaries or similar institutions.

Read on for more info.

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Church to boycott Redskins? Not enough to fill a stadium

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The Washington Redskins are changing their name because of its negative connotations, a friend posted on Facebook.

Apparently, the National Football League team will drop the “Washington” and be known simply as the Redskins.

Bah-duh-BOOM!

But seriously, folks, check out this Washington Post lede:

Eleven days before the United Church of Christ will vote on a resolution calling for its 22,000 members to boycott the Washington Redskins, a team official called a top minister and asked him to speak to three Native Americans who support the controversial name.

Does anything about that opening sentence strike you as a little off?  How about the 22,000 members? I mean, I knew that mainline denominations had shrunk in recent decades, but the last time I checked, the United Church of Christ had almost 1 million members across the U.S.

Alas, since the Post functions often as a national newspaper, I assumed that the figure related to the national denomination. Wrong.

Keep reading:

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Building religion IQ in reporters? We say, ‘Amen!’


Usually, GetReligion focuses on critiquing mainstream media coverage of religion and pointing out holy ghosts.

Occasionally, we share news on personnel changes on the Godbeat — such as Jim Davis’ must-read interview this week with laid-off Tampa Tribune religion writer Michelle Bearden.

And sometimes — as with this post — we can’t resist recommending an article or essay that hits at the core of our passion for informed, thoughtful religion reporting.

“Building Religion IQ in Reporters” is the title of the piece that Andrea Scott — a former Washington Journalism Center student of GetReligion editor tmatt — wrote for the spring 2014 issue of Philanthropy magazine:

Much news today is somehow related to religion, as a glance at the headlines reveals: Turmoil in the Middle East. Church relief missions after a natural disaster. The actions of Pope Francis. Challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. The ebb and flow of local religious programs that feed the hungry, operate schools, fight addictions, and run hospitals. Statements by the Dalai Lama. Same-sex marriage and abortion debates. Jihadist terror. Differences in community life and politics that link to spiritual perspective. Many of today’s evolving stories are intricately entwined with religious issues.

And beyond its role as a factor in news events, faith is of deep and urgent personal relevance to many citizens. According to the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of Americans say that religion is “very important” to them, while another 26 percent say it’s “somewhat important.” This can powerfully influence both private and public actions.

Despite its pervasive importance, religion is a foreign land to many, perhaps most, reporters. “I was practically born and raised in the news business, and know firsthand that newsrooms are exceedingly secular places,” says veteran journalist Carl Cannon, Washington bureau chief of RealClearPolitics. “But the people we cover—and our audiences—are steeped in religious faith of all kinds. So to accurately cover the political and civic life of this country, journalists need to know what’s going on in the spiritual life of their fellow Americans.” This, however, is a struggle for under-informed reporters.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

The article goes on to describe the development of a conference designed to improve reporters’ religion IQ, as the title indicates:

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Boy, you got a prayer in … the drive-thru lane

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I’ll never forget a sermon I heard as a young boy — mainly because I found the message extremely humorous.

In Churches of Christ, we observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. But some folks were showing up and quickly leaving after the communion service. So the minister got up one week and proposed distributing the grape juice and crackers through a drive-through so people wouldn’t even need to get out of their cars.

Fast-forward 35 years, and the idea of a drive-thru faith connection isn’t theoretical.

This story (which I came across via the Pew Research Center’s daily religion news email) caught my attention this week:

Drive-thru at church: The easy-pray lane

As a journalist who once wrote a national Associated Press story on 1-800 prayer lines, I found the headline intriguing. Honestly, though, I expected to find “shallow” and “cheesy” on this story’s menu. Instead, the Philadelphia Inquirer treated the subject in a thoughtful, meaty — and yet still interesting — way:

Have it your way.

No, not your fast-food burger. Your prayer.

In an age when convenience is king and religion is often ridiculed, some churches looking to widen their outreach efforts are embracing what community banks and pharmacies have utilized for decades: the drive-through.

The latest to offer a bit of spiritual uplift in the comfort of your car is Hope United Methodist Church in Voorhees.

“People go to Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee, not because it’s the best coffee, but because it’s the most convenient,” reasoned Hope’s lead pastor, Jeff Bills. “In a similar way, this is a port of entry for somebody to begin to connect with God in an intentional kind of way.”

(Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t get a chance to respond in this story. Call me old school, but they should. Surely a Dunkin’ PR person could come up with a nice quip about coffee and prayer that fits with the story’s tone. But I digress.)

Back to the story: Three things I liked about this piece:

1. It considers the big picture: The Inquirer provides details both about the trend involved and the context in which drive-thru prayer has a chance to thrive.

The trend:

In Lancaster, there are drive-through hours Wednesday afternoons from the steps of Lancaster First Assembly of God during spring, summer, and fall months, when it’s not too cold to sit outside. Sonrise Worship Center in Lutz, Fla., extends coffee with its comfort the third Saturday of every month. Other drive-through churches have opened in Wichita, Kan.; Richmond, Va.; Aurora, Ill.; and Modesto, Calif..

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Whoa! Religion chapter added to AP Stylebook

Big news for Godbeat style geeks: The Associated Press Stylebook — the journalist’s Bible — has added a religion chapter.

The Poynter Institute reports:

The 2014 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook comes out Wednesday, with about 200 changes and additions, including a new chapter devoted to religion, updates to social media terms, weather terms and the chapter on food.

Some of those additions include (sic)MERS and Buffalo wings, “B is capitalized in Buffalo,” said Sally Jacobsen, AP Stylebook editor, in a phone interview with Poynter. (AP puts the word “selfie” on the edition’s cover.)

“The key thing is the new chapter on religion,” she said. “We have 208 entries in that chapter.”

AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll reported those entries out for the Stylebook editors, speaking with religious scholars, communication specialists within denominations and AP reporters in different regions, including Jerusalem and Haiti. The goal is to be respectful to the groups themselves, to listen to them, Zoll told Poynter in a phone interview, but ultimately to be clear for the journalists for whom the book is made.

The Stylebook changes and grows with both language and culture, and this year, the new religion chapter includes an entry on Coptic Christians, for instance, and a more detailed entry on Easter, which acknowledges that not everyone using the Stylebook may be familiar with the holiday.

AP itself notes:

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