Imam who loves the Blues

Hey, wait a minute.

That was my delayed reaction this morning after reading an excellent St. Louis Post-Dispatch profile of a young, hip new imam:

Over the last decade or so, Asif Umar has practiced an unusual Ramadan tradition. The 27-year-old St. Charles native, who started last week as the new imam at the largest mosque in the area, celebrates the end of Islam’s holiest month by going to a Blues game with his buddies.

“He’s a sports junkie,” said Umar’s friend Nauman Wadalawala, a third-year law student at St. Louis University. “Whenever we go to a Cards game, he always has to wear his Pujols jersey. It’s interesting to see this religious scholar, sitting in good seats, with his beard and Cardinals jersey.”

Umar, whose parents came to the United States from India in the 1970s, is the first native St. Louisan to lead the Daar-ul-Islam mosque, also known as the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis. He also represents the ascendence of a distinctly American brand of Islam, a new generation of Muslim-Americans who were born in the United States and who spent their teenage years in the often uncomfortable glare of the post-Sept. 11 spotlight.

Immigrant parents of American-born Muslims who once insisted that their children become doctors and engineers have begun relaxing those expectations for a new crop of young Muslim-American scholars who feel drawn to be faith leaders, said Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Page 1 piece by Godbeat pro Tim Townsend. But after finishing all 1,300-plus words, a strange question occurred to me: Did the story even quote the imam himself?

A quick check revealed that sure enough, it did — but only briefly:

Umar may be utterly familiar to other young American Muslims, but he’s not what most non-Muslims might expect in an imam.

As Umar says, “Not every imam went to a Catholic school in the suburbs.”

For a typical feature introducing a new imam, pastor, priest or rabbi, a reader might expect the reporter to sit down for an interview with the spiritual leader and flip on the digital recorder. The routine story appearing in print would be told mainly from the perspective of the person featured.

Alas, Townsend’s profile of Umar is neither typical nor routine.

Here’s why: The writer does his homework. He interviews friends, experts and Muslim leaders — quoting no less than nine of them. He packs the profile with compelling anecdotes and insights as well as revealing context on the significance of Umar’s selection.

Beyond the commendable sourcing, Townsend struts his stuff as a religion beat specialist. He defines terms such as hafiz, fiqh and Alim. He explains that Islamic law is “the rituals and social contracts that make up the daily life of an observant Muslim” and that memorizing the Quran “is a task Muslims regard as a noble, virtuous endeavor looked upon highly by God.”

I do wish the piece had included just a few more quotes from the imam himself. For example, I’d love to know why he enjoys Blues hockey and what his experience was like attending a Catholic school.

I also wish the piece had avoided its one use of the word “Islamophobic” in favor of a less loaded, more concrete term.

But those are minor qualms with what is a fine piece of daily journalism.

Kudos to Townsend and the Post-Dispatch.

St. Louis photo via Shutterstock

How do you know that?

One of the most basic principles of journalism is that sources of information should be identified.

Attribution, it’s called. Like I said, it’s a journalism thing.

I thought about that principle as  I read a New York Times story today concerning a land-use dispute in Harlem.

Now, at its most basic level, this situation reminds me of the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) zoning battles that I so often covered in my days as a suburban city council reporter. Any time someone proposed building a shopping center or a church gymnasium, neighbors would rush to raise concerns over noise, traffic and other potential harm to their peaceful way of life. But the Harlem case presents a different twist.

So here’s the top of the Times story:

The wider world does not often glimpse the internal disputes of the Mormon Church. Formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the fast-growing religion is expanding in places as far-flung as Africa and Latin America, but most big decisions are still made centrally by a church hierarchy in Salt Lake City.

Recently, though, a debate over a ramshackle church property in Harlem has spilled into public view. And perhaps it is no surprise what subject could raise passions strong enough to override Mormons’ aversion to airing differences outside the church: Manhattan real estate.

The angle chosen by the Times seems like a legitimate one. A rare public dispute between a local congregation and the Mormon hierarchy fits my definition of news. I  kept reading, however, to find the source and context to back up the lede’s claim that this situation is unique.

But no experts — inside or outside the faith — are quoted to illuminate readers on the general practices and approaches of local members and the Mormon hierarchy in such situations. Readers are left to take the Times’ word for it that Mormon leaders prefer to handle such disagreements behind closed doors.

To be clear, I don’t doubt that they do. But as a reader, I expect the paper to provide evidence — to clearly show how its reporters and editors know what they claim. You are supposed to tell readers things like that.

On the positive side, the report does quote a church spokesman as well as local church leaders about the local dispute.

But it falls short — with the lack of background and context — in making this local issue a national case study.

PHOTO: Salt Lake Temple photo via Shutterstock 

Obama’s war on religion?

Confession: My brain is mush at the moment.

I woke up this morning in Chicago after a four-day reporting trip to Illinois and Iowa (totally non-caucus-related, by the way). After a bumpy flight home, I’m back in Oklahoma City.

One of the joys (sarcasm intended) of posting regularly at a site such as GetReligion is you do so when you’re well-rested and thinking sharply — and not when you are running on mental fumes.

Like. Right. About. Now.

I say all of that because I will let you decide, kind reader, if the story I’m about to review really is the mish-mash that it seems to me — or if it perhaps makes more sense to readers operating on all cylinders.

A GetReligion reader passed along the link to the NPR report, which features this provocative headline:

Has Obama Waged A War on Religion?

Religious liberty, the focus of the story, is a topic we have tackled frequently here at GR.  In my freelance work with Christianity Today, I have covered some of the same issues and interviewed some of the same sources highlighted in the NPR piece (including here, here and here). Given my experience with the subject, I was intrigued by the headline.

The top of the report:

Americans’ religious liberties are under attack — or at least that’s what some conservatives say.

Newt Gingrich warns the U.S. is becoming a secular country, which would be a “nightmare.” Rick Santorum says there’s a clash between “man’s laws and God’s laws.” And in a campaign ad, Rick Perry decried what he called “Obama’s war on religion,” saying there is “something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly … pray in school.”

Of course, children can pray in school, but Perry is echoing a larger argument: that religious freedom is at risk. The story is much more complicated than either side makes out.

Now, that third paragraph made me chuckle. It starts out by correcting Perry’s contention that children can’t pray in school. Then it follows up with the nut graf: the notion that the religious freedom issue is “much more complicated than either side makes out.” Please see my earlier caveat, but I found the juxtaposition of those two sentences ironic.

Keep reading, and the story takes the kitchen-sink approach to reporting on religious freedom. The piece moves quickly from topic to topic and source to source — all filed under the general heading of religious liberty. For some reason, the notion of “religious freedom speed-dating” popped into my head as I was reading it.

The reader who shared the link commented:

On the whole, it is pretty short and pretty superficial. It lets both sides of the debate give their position on the political issue, but it hardly delves into the reasons they hold those positions.

The piece is less than 1,000 words. Overall, it left me with a “Ho hum” reaction. As the reader said, the reporter — to her credit — included both sides. But in my mushy-brained view, this particular story tried to cover too much ground and, as a result, ended up not covering much at all.

As always, opposing viewpoints — particularly fully awake ones — would be welcomed. Just remember that we’re concerned about journalism, not politics. Please focus comments on the media coverage questions.

Photo via Shutterstock 

Romney’s Mormonism: Problem for voters?

For vague, unknown reasons, some Christians are reluctant to support a Mormon for president.

At least that’s the impression you get reading a Washington Post story this week with this headline:

Romney’s religion still a sticking point

Here’s the top of the story, published before Romney won the Iowa caucuses by the thinnest of margins Tuesday:

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — On a recent afternoon at the Kanesville Tabernacle, the historic site along the Mormon Trail where pioneers selected Brigham Young to lead their church in 1847, Sister LaRae Wright lamented that 150 years later many Iowans still know nothing about the Mormon faith.

Mitt Romney, she said, could change that.

“I want him to shout it from the rooftops,” Sister Wright burst out with a chuckle. Then she paused. “But does that make political sense?”

It does not. Conversations with voters and evangelical leaders across Iowa reveal that a suspicion of Mormonism may still be a central reason for those opposing the former Massachusetts governor. But by establishing himself as the electability candidate in the field, Romney has created a political tension between that undercurrent of religious antipathy and a more open hostility toward President Obama.The outcome of Tuesday’s caucuses could depend on whether the fear of a second Obama term trumps the trepidation about Romney’s religion.

Why are some voters suspicious of Mormonism?

A longtime Romney supporter suggested to the Post that “bigotry” is the reason. Another source cited a “fear of the unknown.” The story included this interview with a voter at a Romney campaign event:

On Sunday afternoon, potential voters in Atlantic waited for Romney at the Family Table restaurant. A few tables down from a group of Mormons, Karen Poe, 68, fresh out of church services, sat with her husband, Phil, around ketchup-stained plates. “Beating Obama is my bottom line,” she said, but isn’t sure she can get behind Romney.

“He’s a Mormon,” Poe said, grimacing at the mention of Romney’s name. “Everyone needs to base their decision on something, and the basis for his decisions would be different. I’m not convinced it’s a good point of view to be coming from.”

Poe, an evangelical member of the Assemblies of God church outside Des Moines, said that while she’d also have issues with a Jewish or Muslim candidate, Mormons worried her more. “They are a very controlling religion,” she said.

Missing from the article: Any exploration of theological reasons why some Christians — evangelicals, mainliners and Catholics among them — might have problems recognizing the core of Mormonism.

Your GetReligionistas spent some time this morning privately bemoaning that glaring omission.

This afternoon, we were pleased to see a Religion News Service piece that provides clarity where the Post offered confusion.

In his report, Godbeat pro Daniel Burke explores why Romney’s “evangelical problem starts with theology”:

(RNS) The good news for Mitt Romney: he won the Iowa caucuses. The bad news for Romney: evangelicals remain reluctant to support him.

Romney bested former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum by a mere eight votes in Tuesday’s (Jan. 3) first-in-the-nation voting. But just 14 percent of evangelicals supported the former Massachusetts governor, according to entrance polls, a third less than he won during his 2008 campaign.

Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said Romney failed to convince evangelicals that he cares about their issues, particularly outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage.

“What evangelicals are saying is: We don’t know what this guy believes,” Scheffler said. “Does he have any public policy philosophy other than wanting to be elected president?”

Yet numerous polls and anti-Mormon statements suggest that deeper disagreements rooted in core elements of Christian theology are also in play.

Those core elements of Christian theology?

Among the disputes are the nature of God, the doctrine of the Trinity and the acceptance of revelations and books beyond the Christian Bible.

“For the people on the inside of these kinds of discussions, these are not just matters of life and death but of salvation. There is nothing more important for them than having a proper relation to God and idea of who Jesus is,” said Mason, author of “The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South.”

In a sense, Mormons and mainstream Christians have been at odds for nearly 200 years, Mason said.

Mormonism’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith, said God told him that every existing church and creed was “corrupt” and “wrong.” Drawing on personal revelations—published in the Book of Mormon and other texts—Smith set out to restore the church.

Smith preached fairly orthodox Christian theology at first, but “became increasingly radical, breaking more and more from standard Christianity with every year that he lived,” said Craig Blomberg, a professor at Denver Seminary who has been active in evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

A sermon Smith preached three months before his death in 1844 planted the seeds for Mormonism’s biggest break with traditional Christianity, according to scholars. In it, Smith preached that God was once a flesh-and-blood man who had attained godhood. Likewise, Smith taught, humans could advance to God-like status in heaven.

That’s a pretty big chunk of the story that I just copied and pasted. I’m tempted to share much more. Instead, I’ll encourage you to read the whole thing yourself.

By all means, peruse both pieces and share your thoughts on how each media organization handled the story. This is not the place, however, to argue politics or debate beliefs. Let’s keep the focus on journalism.

Romney photo via Shutterstock

Latinos at a small country church


We’re big fans of it here at GetReligion.

Journalism without nuance relies on stereotypes and cardboard-cutout characters. Journalism with nuance entertains complex positions, shades of gray and ironic juxtapositions.

In its most prime real estate — Column One — the Los Angeles Times on Friday demonstrated the value of nuance. The Times devoted 1,900 words to a piece on the impact of Alabama’s tough new immigration law on a small country church.

The top of the Page 1 story:

Reporting from Tallassee, Ala. — The small group, six Mexican men and a woman from Guatemala, sang No. 619 in the hymnal with a force that belied their number:

“Alabad a Jehova! Naciones todas, pueblos todos …”

Praise God! All nations, all people …

They had come this Sunday morning to pray, as they always do, at Riverside Heights Baptist Church, out beyond Rosehill Cemetery, where the graves of Civil War dead are marked with tattered Confederate flags.

Victoria Pajaro banged out a piano accompaniment in the vigorous style that Southern Baptist missionary women had taught her years ago in Colombia. After a Bible reading, a pastor named William Robles, speaking in Spanish, abruptly mentioned the state’s new immigration law, which requires that police check the residency status of suspected illegal immigrants.

We cannot assume that the whites who supported the law are bigots, he told the congregation. Only God knows the content of their hearts.

Keep reading, and the story provides an overview of the seemingly conflicting points of view:

In an hour, the sanctuary would fill with the church’s white members, nearly all of them conservatives and most supporters of Republican Gov. Robert J. Bentley, the Southern Baptist deacon who championed the law as the nation’s toughest after signing it in September.

For more than a decade, however, the white Southern Baptists in this small country church have opened their doors, wallets and hearts to a group of Latino strangers who appeared among them suddenly one Sunday, desperate for a place to pray.

They hired a bilingual pastor, launched a countywide “Hispanic mission,” and let their children play side by side with the newcomers’ kids on field trips and in summer camps. They knew or suspected that many of them were here illegally.

Now, since the law’s passage, the Latinos are moving away. And in the pine pews of Riverside Heights Baptist Church, many white members are struggling to reconcile strongly held convictions about a lawful society with their compassion for their new brothers and sisters in Christ.

I thought the piece did a nice job of painting a multifaceted portrait of the small church, particularly the white members. Perhaps the language barrier was an issue, but I did not feel like I got to know the Latino members as well or as fully.

In a few places, the story’s wording seemed strange. For instance:

The Spanish-language service is at 9:30 a.m. in an old meeting room. English-language church is at 11 a.m. in the main sanctuary. Only the children are thrown together for Sunday school: the Latino kids, in day care or enrolled in public schools, are usually fluent in English, or close to it.

In evangelical churches nationally that have English and Spanish services, it’s quite common for all the children to attend Sunday school together for the exact reason the Times noted: the Spanish-speaking kids usually can communicate in English, too. I’m not sure that “thrown together” is the best description of the children attending class together.

Likewise, the question of whether the Spanish speakers will use the main sanctuary or convene in a basement or small building behind the main church is a frequent one. In the case of the Alabama church, it would be helpful to know exactly why the Spanish-language group assembles in the “old meeting room.”

Those questions aside, though, there’s plenty of nuance to like in this piece:

Both whites and Latinos are baptized in the same industrial-sized tub, built into the wall above the altar behind a low plexiglass partition. Sometimes, the newly baptized emerge from the water to the sight of white and brown people in the pews below, clapping and shouting, uproariously, as one.

The church has hosted classes in English as a second language for the Latinos and Spanish classes for the whites, but the lessons haven’t really stuck. So the members try to make do.

Once a month, JoAnn Johnston’s Sunday school class invites the two groups to a big country breakfast. She bakes the homemade biscuits. Tommy Graham, an avid hunter, brings venison sausage, and James Benton cooks it. Gloria Lowery makes the coffee and grits.

They sit down together in a new, gymnasium-like metal building — constructed in part to handle the new Latino flock — and they smile, and nod, and eat. But they don’t really speak.

“We can’t understand each other,” Kathi Schmitt said. “So we just smile.”

At the end of the piece — and as much as I liked it — I still felt unsure as to the biblical reasons that the white members might give for supporting the anti-immigration law while, seemingly, continuing to welcome illegal aliens into their body. The writer included biblical examples in the story — such as Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well — but the applications seemed unclear.

Overall, I was impressed with this story.

By all means, read the whole thing and weigh in with your journalistic thoughts.

Country church photo via Shutterstock

Cuddly baby and a court case

What could be more adorable at Christmastime than the precious smile of a baby?

Granted, the photo that ran with a front-page Cincinnati Enquirer story this week wasn’t as compelling as the one accompanying this post. That’s mainly because the mother featured in the article declined to let her daughter’s face be photographed.

Still, the writer paints a warm-and-fuzzy picture of the little one way up high:

WITHAMSVILLE — Sitting on her mom’s lap, the 10-month-old toothless girl with twinkling blue eyes and chubby cheeks sports a wide smile as she gums a jingle bell Christmas tree ornament.

Ahhhhhhh, how sweet!

How, one might wonder, could such a cuddly subject inspire a reader who shared the link with GetReligion to declare it “a seriously loaded” piece of journalism?

Well, keep reading, and the “loaded” part arrives quickly enough:

The infant is Christa Dias’ greatest gift – and the reason she was fired from teaching jobs at two Cincinnati Catholic schools.

“I’ve always wanted to have a baby,” said Dias as she held her wish-come-true in her arms in their Withamsville home. “I’ve always known that. That’s why I became a teacher, because I love kids.

“I didn’t think it would be a problem.”

But it was for her employers, Holy Family and St. Lawrence schools in East Price Hill, who fired Dias in October 2010 because the single woman was 5½ months pregnant and wanted to discuss maternity leave. She is still unemployed.

So, it seems, the story has two sides: The loving mother and the villainous Catholic school officials.

The piece — part of a year-end series by the Enquirer revisiting local newsmakers of 2011 — recounts that the teacher was fired for being pregnant not by premarital sex, but as a result of artificial insemination.

Interestingly enough given the tone of the article itself — and to the newspaper’s credit —  these sidebar notes appeared on Page A1 beside the opening paragraphs:


The teacher will “comply with and act consistently in accordance with the stated philosophy and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the policies and directives of the School and the Archdiocese.”


“The gift of a child”

“Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple – donation of a sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus – are gravely immoral. These techniques – heterologous artificial insemination and fertilization – infringe the child’s right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage. They betray the spouses’ ‘right to become a father and a mother only through each other.’ ”

Case closed? Apparently not.

The story notes that the discrimination lawsuit the teacher filed in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati is on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considers a similar case. However, the paper fails to provide any background at all on that case. I’m assuming it’s the one involving a Lutheran school teacher that Mollie highlighted back in October.

Some background on the Supreme Court case would have improved the Enquirer story. Analysis by third-party legal experts on the key issues — both in the local case and the one before the high court — would have helped even more. Instead, the story quotes only the parties involved.

Meanwhile, readers learn:

Dias, 32, a Michigan native, isn’t Catholic but is Christian and attended Notre Dame College, a Catholic school in South Euclid, Ohio, on a volleyball scholarship.

Dias is Christian.

Unfortunately, that’s the full extent of the background given on her faith. Would anyone besides me like to know what kind of Christian she is? Does she attend church? If so, where? What does she believe concerning artificial insemination? Was she aware of the Catholic Church’s position before deciding to get pregnant?

Late in the story, the Enquirer abruptly introduces past allegations against the priest who fired the teacher:

Dias was fired by the Rev. James Kiffmeyer, who was suspended in 2002 after being accused of sexual misconduct with two male students at Fenwick High School, where Kiffmeyer was a teacher.

There was no criminal investigation because the men were 18 and adults at the time of the incidents in 1986 and 1990. The Archdiocese made a financial settlement with one accuser. The Vatican reviewed the cases but handed down no discipline.

Kiffmeyer, who denied the allegations, was reinstated in 2006 and then became pastor at Holy Family church.

“I would think Father Kiffmeyer would be more empathetic because of the judgment that he’s received from his past,” Dias said.

Is that background on Kiffmeyer relevant in this particular story? My first reaction is that it is not. It seems out of place and unrelated to the employment question in this story. But maybe I’m missing something.

The story, of course, ends the way it begins — warm and fuzzy:

Despite the fight, Dias is convinced she made the right decision.

“She’s such a gift,” Dias said of her daughter. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I am very happy. She’s an amazing gift from God. She’s amazing and wonderful. I would do it all over again for her.”

Baby photo via Shutterstock

Holy smokes, Batman! They’re proselytizing!

Here at GetReligion, we’re a generally amiable group. There’s not a lot of backbiting or harsh words among your friendly neighborhood ghostbusters. We get along just fine, thank you very much.

Except maybe for today.

A little tug-of-war ensued between Sarah and me over who would get to critique the following story. After Mollie shared the link with our crew, I quickly called dibs, prompting this note from Sarah:

Oh shoot! I was literally reading this and thinking how awesome it is for a post.

Kind of like the Jelly of the Month Club in the holiday classic “Christmas Vacation,” this 4,000-word story by Bloomberg Businessweek is “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Story might not be the right word to describe this hard-hitting investigative expose (sarcasm intended) on the fact that, believe it or not, evangelical Christian high schools in the U.S. that enroll students from China teach them about Jesus. (I’ll pause for a moment and let that shocking news sink in.)

The headline says it all about the tone of this report:

Chinese Atheists Lured to Find Jesus at U.S. Christian Schools

The top of the story:

Dec. 21 (Bloomberg) — Haiying Wu’s family in Shandong Province wasn’t religious. After a born-again Texan teaching English in China advised her that Christian schools in the U.S. are safe and academically strong, she enrolled at Ben Lippen High School in Columbia, South Carolina.

Ben Lippen required her to attend church and chapel, take Bible class, and join a Bible study group. At first, she didn’t understand “why you need to believe in something you can’t view or touch,” she said. Gradually, it began to make sense. When the house parents in her dorm showed the 2004 film, “The Passion of the Christ,” she wept. Shortly before her 2009 graduation, she was baptized.

Her parents were taken aback. “In China, I don’t think there’s any chance I would have become a Christian,” said Wu, 21, a junior at Tulane University in New Orleans. “It takes a lot to convert someone. Because Ben Lippen is such a strong religious environment, it makes you feel you have to learn about Christianity, and how come everybody around you believes.”

As evangelical schools capitalize on the desire of affluent Chinese families for the prestige of an American education, many Chinese students are learning first-hand how the Bible Belt got its name.

While proselytizing is banned in China, Protestant — and, to a lesser extent, Catholic — high schools are doing their missionary work on this side of the Pacific Ocean. Through placement agents and religious networking, they’re recruiting growing numbers of students from China, most of them atheists, and encouraging them to convert, in the hope that some of them will spread the faith back home.

As I read the story, I couldn’t help but smile. I imagined the reporter — totally aghast at the wicked proselytizing occurring at the hands of evil evangelicals in the Bible Belt — doing his best to control his blood pressure as he typed. Undoubtedly, an extremely somber soundtrack played in the background as the piece was edited.

I wanted to be irritated at the slanted perspective of the report. Instead, I was reminded of country comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s “My Wife’s Family” bit in which he talks about his father-in-law waking up at 4:45 in the morning and playing the Discovery Channel at full volume while Foxworthy’s trying to sleep. The comedian notes:

It’s a weird sensation to be mad and learning at the same time.

This story fits that description. While much of the piece is laughable to anyone who knows anything about evangelical Christianity — or for that matter, Christian inroads in China — the report contains a lot of detailed information, in many cases hurting its own thesis that proselytizing is harming Chinese students and their families.

Interestingly enough, the story opens with a Chinese student who converted to Christianity and ends the same way (with a different student). In both cases, the students are content with their decision. The piece quotes Christian school officials who freely acknowledge a desire to share Jesus with foreign students (while claiming that they make their Christian affiliations and requirements crystal clear to Chinese applicants). In a story about Christian schools “luring” Chinese students to proselytizing environments, I found this section telling:

Guan Yuntian, a 15-year-old from Beijing, was interviewed by three schools, including Northland.

“Religious school is fine for me,” she said. “The school will be better disciplined than other schools,” and the tuition lower. “It’s not bad to have a religion as it may help me to be stronger.”

Zhang Shaoxuan, the father of another girl at the fair, would gladly send her to a Christian school, he said.

“Both religious school and private schools are fine, the public schools are what you don’t want to be in,” he said. “Because there will be all kinds of odd students there.”

The premise of the report is that Chinese parents are upset by an apparent “bait-and-switch” approach by Christian schools recruiting their children and that the Chinese students are victims of deceptive marketing:

Plunged with little preparation into an intense religious environment, Chinese students often struggle to fit in. Some shed their skepticism and become Christians, delighting school officials and dismaying their families in China.

Missing from the report is evidence to back up the claim that Chinese students often struggle to fit in. Meanwhile, not a single “dismayed” Chinese parent is quoted in the story. (I also wondered if there are perhaps any closet Christian parents in China purposely sending their children to the U.S. Christian schools. That question, of course, is not raised.)

Alas, the story is worth a read. For all its faults, it provides some compelling background and anecdotes. And a few chuckles, too.

Photo via Shutterstock

‘Messenger Angels’ flap media-friendly wings

In my time with The Associated Press, I spent a week in Juarez, Mexico, reporting a story on a Texas church group that had developed a special relationship with Mexican orphans.

Given my experience in the crime-riddled border city, headlines from Juarez always catch my attention.

The latest has a strong religion angle:

Angels Send Message of Peace to Juarez, Mexico

The piece, aired Monday by NPR, benefits from colorful writing and details. The top of the story:

In the violent border city of Juarez, Mexico, young evangelical Christians are dressing up as “Messenger Angels” to bear silent witness against murder and corruption, to the dismay of the police.

On a recent Saturday morning in the barrio called New Land, at the ragged edge of Juarez, the angels get ready to go to work.

Fifteen young people glue goose down recovered from cast-off comforters onto plastic wings. Others smear on silver makeup, which is, presumably, the color of angels.

This scene is not that different from any church youth group preparing for a Christmas pageant. But that’s about to change.

Carlos Mayorga, an intense 33-year-old man who wears black glasses and a T-shirt that says “Love for Juarez,” is the youth leader for the Psalm 100 Church, to which these young people belong.

“What we’re doing here is preparing signs and wings and robes, so that we can go out into the streets to give our message of peace to this dangerous border city,” he says.

This is one of those “slice of life” reports that takes readers/listeners to the scene of the action. The reporter goes with the angels to a crime scene where a corpse is sprawled facedown as the evangelicals with wings encounter police.

A telling scene:

Two angels climb onto a tin roof and hold up their signs for the cops to see.

A plainclothes officer wearing sunglasses is asked what he thinks of a sign that says, “Corrupt police, seek God.”

“We’re a free country; they can say what they want,” he answers, walking away. “We’re all searching for God.”

After 20 minutes, the angels gather around a group of neighbors that has been quietly watching the strange tableau. The church group prays with them for employment, for better living conditions, for salvation from sin, and for an end to the murders.

After the prayer, several of the residents are weeping.

After finishing the story, I had a mixed reaction.

On the one hand, I saw value in the approach NPR took — which was to shine its camera lens (symbolically speaking) on key pieces of action and let the story unfold naturally.

On the other hand, I found myself wanting to know more about the evangelicals in the angel suits: their beliefs, their spiritual motivations, their faith backgrounds.

My question: Was the glimpse of the angels that NPR gave me all I needed to understand this story? Or would more background have helped the piece? I’m torn on the answer. I’d welcome your feedback, angelic GetReligion readers.

Meanwhile, I was ready to give NPR full credit for a nice piece of original enterprise reporting. But after a quick bit of Googling, I discovered that NPR was late to the “Messenger Angel” party.

The New York Times did this story a month and a half ago. CNN had it a month ago. Fox News featured it about the same time. I may be missing other media coverage.

I can neither confirm nor deny that every time the media report on this, an angel gets his wings.