Empty pews on Sunday night

At my home congregation in Oklahoma, our two Sunday morning assemblies drew 1,256 people on a recent weekend. That same Sunday, just 540 worshipers returned for the evening service. In a fellowship that traditionally has placed a high value on church attendance, that’s a lot of people “forsaking the assembly.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of our church elders made a special announcement on a recent Sunday morning — I can’t recall if it was the same one — encouraging the congregation to return that night.

Of course, my congregation’s Sunday evening attendance trend mirrors what many churches across the nation are experiencing.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a mainstream news story about this trend, however, which is why I was so fascinated by a Religion News Service news feature published this week.

Here’s the top of the RNS story by Grand Rapids Press writer Matt Vande Bunte (it’s a revised version of a piece that first appeared in the Grand Rapids paper):

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (RNS) Doug De Vries describes Sunday evening worship as “a lot less formal” than the morning service at Plymouth Heights Christian Reformed Church.

It’s also a lot less crowded.

Plymouth Heights is in step with a larger trend of declining evening attendance in evangelical denominations that long have cherished a heritage of worshiping twice on Sunday. Some evening services are more intimate; others have been cancelled or replaced by an alternative.

“It’s a business question that has been asked,” said De Vries, the church’s minister of music. “People are spending time with their family (on Sunday nights) or using that time to get together in small groups. We were concerned that we were squandering resources to put the evening service together.”

The story cites statistics backing up the trend and gives church leaders an opportunity to explain why they think it’s happening:

There are different ways to interpret the trend: Some see it as harmless, while others see worrisome deviation away from doctrine. For others, the decline is a natural outcome of the historically Dutch church’s aspirations to evangelize a broader demographic.

“Many churches are substituting evening worship and putting their energies into other things,” said Jeff Meyer, pastor of Crosswinds Community Church, a 4-year-old CRC congregation in Holland, Mich., that, like many new churches, does not conduct evening worship.

“The people who are exploring Christianity are not typically accustomed even to weekly worship a single time. So to put forward some kind of a community-based expectation that you do this twice a Sunday would be extraordinary.”

A later reference is made to the Heidelberg Catechism, but the story fails to explain clearly what it means by the “worrisome deviation from doctrine.” In the context of the story, it’s difficult to determine if tradition and doctrine are the same thing. I understand the tight space constraints of most wire reports (this one is 850 words, with an optional trim to 750 words), but I wish that reference had been developed a bit more.

The story doesn’t specifically mention Sunday Night Football, youth soccer on Sunday or the demise of blue laws, but it does put the trend in the context of secular culture:

Others, including Ron Rienstra, a professor at the Reformed Church in America-affiliated Western Theological Seminary, are concerned that Christians may be chipping away on the one day a week that God commanded to be set aside and kept holy.

“The two services is a way to frame the whole day as belonging to Lord,” Rienstra said. “The decline of Sunday evening worship is a marker alongside many that our culture is becoming more popularly secular. We’ve lost a sense of sacred time that is being offered back to God.”

A fellow GetReligionista also noticed that the piece doesn’t reference the fact that many houses of worship have become “commuter congregations.” Whereas Americans once walked down the street to worship, many now drive 30 to 45 minutes to church. That’s more difficult to do — even with gasoline prices stable for the moment — twice on the same Sunday.

Also, I was surprised the story didn’t at least mention Wednesday night. That’s another traditional Bible study time for many evangelical churches, and I’m curious if it’s faring better or worse than Sunday night.

But overall, RNS deserves kudos for a timely, newsworthy piece of reporting. I’d love to see more Godbeat reporters tackle this trend.

Ghost in Houston murders

Here at GetReligion, we depend on faithful readers to help us spot religion ghosts in news stories across the nation.

Our thanks to a Texas reader who submitted a link to an Associated Press story about a Houston man charged in the shooting deaths of his three children:

HOUSTON — The estranged wife of a man accused of killing their three children in a custody dispute said “no one believed me” when she claimed he abused her for years and was a threat to their children.

Norma Martinez filed for divorce in February from 47-year-old Mohammad Goher, the Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday. The mother and their three children — daughters ages 14 and 7 years old, and a 12-year-old son — had lived at a shelter since March.

The children were found Sunday shot to death in their beds in an apartment where Goher lived.

Goher is recovering after shooting himself, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office says. The sheriff’s office, hours after the victims were discovered, issued a statement saying the couple had already divorced, but shelter officials indicated the two are still married.

“I have documents of everything, all the abuse, and I showed it to everyone, but no one believed me, and they still made me send my kids to him every weekend,” Martinez said in a statement read by Tayseir Mahmoud, a board member at An-Nisa Hope Center.

The reader said in his e-mail to GetReligion:

There is religion all over this story, but it is completely ignored in the report. No info was even given on An-Nisa, for example. I looked into An-Nisa and found out it’s a Muslim-based outreach to battered Muslim (and other) women.

Indeed, An-Nisa’s website includes this note on its donations page:

The best of all deeds is to bring happiness to other Muslims: by covering his nakedness, or satiating his hunger, or fulfilling any need of his. (Al-Mundhiri)

The AP story was mainly a rewrite of a piece that originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle. The Chronicle story, like the AP version, includes no mention of religion, describing the An-Nisa only as “a nonprofit that operates a shelter for battered women.”

So … the suspect’s name is Mohammad. The shelter caring for the mother is a Muslim outreach. Yet the word “Muslim” appears nowhere in either story and in none of the television reports I quickly watched.

What role, if any, did faith or religion play in the life of the suspect and/or the mother, who is Hispanic? Is the wife Muslim, or was this a blended faith household? Did the children frequent a local mosque or church — or both? Is there a grieving faith community (or communities) trying to deal with this tragedy? These seem like relevant questions to me, but the stories totally ignore them.

In the AP report, there is this vague reference at the end:

A prayer vigil was held Monday night for the three children. Mourners offered stuffed bears, flowers, balloons and candles.

What kind of prayer vigil? A Muslim vigil? A Catholic vigil? An interfaith vigil? Again … readers are left guessing. But why?

In searching Google for information about this case, I did find this reference online:

It is a very solemn day today in the Spring Muslim community. Today, at 2 p.m., a funeral prayer was held at the local Champions Masjid for the three children that were killed by their father, Mohammed Goher, this past Sunday. The three children, Saeeda, Saeed and Aisha were staying with their father during weekend visitation when he decided that he would kill them and himself rather than let their mother have them.

A grieving Muslim community. That sounds like news to me. Too bad it’s news that no media covered.

In that same online item, there’s also this:

Finally, in Islam, children have certain rights, and we must not forget that. If we as a community and as a society had recognized the rights of these children and looked after their safety, then maybe they would be alive today.

So, in review, we have a crime story — no religion, please — about a woman who claims “no one believed me” when she complained about abuse by her husband. And we have a Muslim community where at least one person suggests online that more attention to the children’s rights might have helped save their lives.

Nope, no dots to connect there. Definitely no religion angle to this story. The reader thought he saw a ghost. But obviously, it was a false alarm.

O’Donnell gets God, and many votes

All that talk about the possible death of print media? Totally premature. Christine O’Donnell’s big win in Delaware’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate has spilled enough ink to keep the dead-tree news business operating at least through the November election.

Don’t take that to mean, however, that O’Donnell hasn’t done her part to boost late-night talk show ratings.

She apparently even dabbled in witchcraft.

Here at GetReligion, we tend to run across more ghosts than witches. In that regard, The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., deserves kudos for an in-depth story Sunday that attempted to explain the role of religion in O’Donnell’s upset victory Tuesday. On the other hand, the 2,30o-word piece seems long on conjecture and short on actual facts (read: vote totals, poll data, anything concrete) to back up the notion that evangelicals propelled O’Donnell to victory.

The story’s headline and subhead boil down the main thesis nicely:

Delaware politics: Rise in evangelical activism tips scales in primaries

Politically conservative Christians putting ballots where their Bibles are

The top of the story:

Ella Shank recalls saying a little prayer Tuesday before casting her Republican primary vote in the Greenwood Fire Hall.

“I believe that God is waking America up,” said Shank, who attends a Mennonite church. She was among those who helped Christine O’Donnell upset longtime Rep. Mike Castle in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.

“If people don’t start voting for what’s right, God will punish us.”

Greenwood stands at the epicenter of O’Donnell’s upset win over Castle — a large and mostly rural, majority-Republican election district that, along with nearby Bridgeville, delivered more votes to O’Donnell than any other in Delaware.

It was a district that by most accounts saw a surge in political activism on social issues among evangelicals, surprising many party regulars, and was a factor in derailing Castle’s political career.

As the story goes on, readers learn that voters “united in prayer and evangelism” at O’Donnell’s campaign rallies. Readers are told that no one explains the vote entirely in terms of “activist voting by conservative Christians” but that many think it’s a “significant factor.” The story mostly proceeds along those lines, building an anecdotal case — a house of sticks.

The only real numbers reported are these:

According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, a compilation of reports from religious scholars and research centers around the world, Catholics made up the largest group of adherents to a single religious denomination in Delaware as of 2000. Mainline Protestants were next at 32 percent and evangelical Protestants at 13 percent. Orthodox faiths and other religions accounted for the remaining residents. Only about 40 percent of the state, however, claimed membership in any identified church.

But many with long histories of watching Delaware elections believe the evangelical Christian voting bloc has grown in strength, especially in southern New Castle County, where suburban Catholic congregations and new evangelical churches are growing.

Interesting numbers. Particularly given the idea that evangelicals — representing just 13 percent of the population in the latest statistics — swayed the election. Of course, the stats are 10 years old, and the piece leaves open the possibility that their ranks have grown. Still, my skeptical side wonders if the story’s easy thesis — evangelical activists tipping the scales — could stand up to serious scrutiny. Did anyone take exit polls that might provide better data and explanations for how Delaware Republicans voted?

I also wish The News Journal had done a better job explaining O’Donnell’s religious background:

Raised Roman Catholic, O’Donnell converted to Protestantism, and later rejoined the Catholic Church. Throughout the 1990s, she organized young Christians to fight pornography, premarital sex and abortion and advocated turning homosexuals “straight” in groups such as the Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT) and Concerned Women for America.

O’Donnell rejected Castle’s support of embryonic stem-cell research and of women’s rights to abortion. She has described homosexuality as “an identity disorder.”

Catholic. Protestant. Then Catholic again. Anybody but me think that might merit a bit more explanation? (And apparently this report was written before the witchcraft phase was made public by Bill Maher.)

“Straight.” “An identify disorder.” Anybody not totally certain about the purpose of such “scare quotes” in a news story? (Hint: It’s a quasi-journalistic way of saying, “These are some of the crazy things this candidate believes …”)

Finally, this quote stood out to me:

Gary Hindes, former chairman of the state Democratic Party, called the surge in socially conservative influence troubling.

“It’s scary to see a legitimate political party run by people I respect — but have profound differences with — taken hostage by basically extremists. It’s not good for America. It’s not good for Delaware,” Hindes said.

“Taken hostage by basically extremists.” My question: If you’re going to let a source make such a statement, shouldn’t you at least provide space for him to be specific about the extreme positions?

Yes, the story follows up Hindes’ quote with remarks from a Church of God pastor. But while the Democrat’s quote swings a hatchet, the response comes across more like a butter knife.

Really, really, really strong apology

Strongest. Apology. Ever.

In London on Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI again addressed the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

The pontiff “issued his strongest apology yet for child abuse by the clergy, denouncing it as an ‘unspeakable crime,’” The Daily Mail reported.

As The Herald Scotland put it, Benedict offered “his strongest statement of contrition yet for the abuse scandal that has rocked the 1.1 billion-member global community of Catholicism.” Indeed, reported ITN News (see video with this post), citing the pope’s “strongest public apology yet over the scandal of pedophile priests.” Using the same language, Voice of America called it “his strongest apology to date.” The Independent said the pope used “his strongest language so far when discussing the scandal.”

However, The Guardian wasn’t quite ready to call what Benedict said an apology. That newspaper’s main head and subhead today:

Pope meets victims of child abuse and expresses ‘deep sorrow and shame’

Strongest language so far but victims’ groups say comments do not add up to an apology

But you get the point: The pope never has spoken this strongly on his remorse or regret over the abuse scandal.

OK, just one more news report to drive home the point:

His remarks were the strongest he has used in confronting the scourge which has rocked the Catholic church globally, but failed to satisfy some victims.

Oh, wait a minute. Now I need to apologize — in the strongest possible terms. I got confused. The above excerpt actually came from a July 2008 news report on Benedict’s “historic apology for child sex abuse” during that summer’s trip to Sydney, Australia. Forget I mentioned that. I’m sure that apology wasn’t anywhere near as strong as the latest one.

Pope Benedict XVI speaks to young people and worshippers at the close of a mass at Westminster Cathedral in London September 18, 2010. The Pope is on a four day visit to England and Scotland REUTERS/Luke MacGregor  (BRITAIN - Tags: RELIGION POLITICS)

The Sydney apology, of course, trumped Benedict kneeling in prayer a few months earlier alongside five victims of clergy sex abuse at a chapel inside the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C. At that time, the pope offered “his most dramatic gesture so far during a U.S. visit in which he has paid much greater attention than expected to the wounds caused by the abuse scandal.”

Admittedly, I have not parsed every word the pope has said — or apology he has made — on the abuse scandal. If you have, by all means, please weigh in with a comment and educate me.

From a journalistic perspective, though, I am perplexed: Who exactly ranks the pope’s apologies in terms of strongness? Who decides what ranks as the strongest apology ever? What makes what Benedict has said in London so much stronger than what he has said elsewhere?

It does appear that journalists in Britain were much more smitten with the strongness of what Benedict said than leading American newspapers and the Vatican writers for The Associated Press.

AP described Saturday’s remarks simply as the pope’s “latest effort to defuse the sex abuse crisis shaking his church.”

The Los Angeles Times used similar language:

In the latest in a string of such audiences, the pontiff also met privately with several victims of abuse even as thousands of protesters marched through the British capital to highlight the scandal over pedophile priests and to blast the Vatican’s stand on homosexuality, the ordination of women and the use of condoms to fight the spread of AIDS.

The New York Times didn’t use the term strongest but seemed to up the ante more than AP and the L.A. Times:

His remarks followed other recent comments in which he has struck an increasingly remorseful tone about the abuse scandal. But they took on added weight for the fact that they were made before 2,000 worshipers in the cathedral that is the seat of Catholicism in England, and ahead of a protest march on a scale rare in the recent history of the papacy.

Increasingly. Remorseful. Tone.

Not quite strongest apology ever. But I guess it’ll work in a pinch.

Dancing with the dead in Madagascar

If you’ve read GetReligion for any amount of time, you know that context means everything. Circumstances matter, too. And, of course, geography.

I mention all of that in reference to a recent New York Times story on people dancing with the bones of their dead relatives. The story left me with more than a few unanswered questions concerning the religious beliefs of the people involved.

But given the dateline of the story — Ambohimirary, Madagascar — I’m more willing to overlook such ghosts than if the same lapses had occurred in a report from Aberdeen, Mississippi.

In reality, lapses may be too strong a word. That suggests weaknesses, when my real complaint is that this 1,150-story proved so compelling in a relatively short amount of space that it left me wanting more. This is one of those stories where I’d urge you — double urge you — to read the whole thing before finishing the post.

For those who didn’t follow directions, here’s the top of the piece:

AMBOHIMIRARY, Madagascar — With fanfare befitting a parade, the shrouded remains of 17 bodies were removed from the family crypt, some sprayed with expensive perfume, others splashed with sparkling wine. Five brass bands took turns belting out cheerful melodies, and each emerging corpse was lifted onto the shoulders of its own set of revelers. The celebrators then joyously trotted about, dancing with the bones of the dead.

“It is good to thank the ancestors in person because we owe them everything,” said Rakotonarivo Henri, 52, an out-of-breath farmer who had just set down his dead grandfather and was moving toward the remains of his aunt. “We do not come from mud; we come from these bodies.”

Every society has its own customs regarding the deceased, an interplay between those who are and those who were. In many countries, a visit to the cemetery commonly satisfies an urge to be near a buried loved one. Flowers may be placed on the grave. Words may be whispered.

Here in the central highlands of Madagascar, that practice is taken much further. Ancestors are periodically taken from their tombs, and once the dancing stops and the bundled corpses are put on the ground, family members lovingly run their fingers across the skeletal outline protruding through the shrouds. Bones and dust are moved about in an effort to sustain a human shape. Elders tell children about the importance of those lying before them.

Next, we find out that millions of people on the huge island nation practice the ritual, called a famadihana, “often in conjunction with their various religious faiths.”

More of the story:

Many Malagasy believe the boundary between life and death is not altogether impermeable, that the spirits of their ancestors can somehow pass back and forth. To them, the famadihana is a time to convey the latest family news to the deceased and ask them for blessings and sagely guidance.

Mr. Rakotonarivo was in the midst of such a meaningful conversation on a recent afternoon. “I am asking them for good health, and of course if they would help me to accumulate wealth, this is good also,” he said.

But others considered such supplications contrary to their Christian beliefs.

“We do not believe we can communicate with the dead, but we do believe the famadihana strengthens our family between the generations,” said Jean Jacques Ratovoherison, 30, a manager for a technology firm.

As the reader who sent this story link to GetReligion noted, the varied voices and shades of nuance concerning Malagasy people’s religious beliefs and ritual practice strengthen this piece. We learn that different people participate in the famadihana for different reasons — almost like the religious and secular versions of Christmas, it seems.

But the writer never really provides a clear idea of the non-Christian faiths at play and doesn’t go into much detail on the Christian beliefs. Yes, the story is remarkable as it is. But as I mentioned earlier, I would love to know more.

Then again, the story does quote a taxi driver “whose Protestant sect discouraged participation in a famadihana.” The rest of his family agreed to proceed after an astrologer was consulted:

So the timing awaited approval from Rakoto Mandimby, the local astrologer, or mpanandro, whose multiple skills included farming, faith-healing, performing circumcisions and observing the phases of the moon.

“I inherited my powers from my father, and he got them directly from God,” he explained, holding the lapels of his threadbare jacket.

As guests were served an ample lunch, Mr. Mandimby stood on a high perch in the hilly ground, happily flooding himself with homemade rum. Finally, with the sun at a satisfactory angle, he signaled the ritual’s start.

Near the end, there’s this:

Most of the bodies were returned to the old crypt within a few hours. But the four corpses set aside for the new tomb were brought home for two more days of celebration, including a Mass said by the family’s Roman Catholic priest.

“Exhumation is a time when families show they love each other,” the Rev. Rakotomamonjy Basile told a small crowd while cautioning them not to think of the dead as having any of the powers of the living.

Rakotonirina Armand, head of yet another offshoot of the family, shrugged off the priest’s words. Death was not like a light going forever dark, he said. The dead can reach the living, their voices inserted in dreams or riding in the wind.

Wow. That’s a religion story. End of journalism class, folks. Seriously, sections like those last two are what make this piece so compelling — and me so reluctant to try to poke holes in it.

What saith you?

If you read the whole thing (one more chance), what did you think? Strengths? And weaknesses?

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Could it be Satan? How con-VEEN-ient

What happens when you mix atheists, Satanists, a Bible Belt state and a bunch of cliches?

Well, you get a story like this one from The Associated Press:

OKLAHOMA CITY — Atheists in Oklahoma City have erected a billboard seeking fellow non-believers, and Satanists have scheduled a conference in a city-owned building, drawing criticism from ministers in a state where more than eight out of 10 people say they are Christians.

“It’s not a question of ‘Can you?’ It’s a question of ‘Should you?’” said Dan Fisher, pastor of the Trinity Baptist Church in Yukon. “It’s kind of like they’re poking a finger in your eye.”

Nick Singer, the coordinator of a local atheists’ group called “Coalition of Reason,” recently received $5,250 from its national counterpart to erect the billboard along Interstate 44 near the Oklahoma State Fair, which opens Wednesday. Its message reads, “Don’t believe in God? Join the club.”

You get the message, don’t you? The God-fearing state of Oklahoma is up in arms over these developments, and maybe some people are. But I live in Oklahoma City — and I go to church here — and the only place I’ve heard anything about the atheists or the Satanists is on the news.

Reporters at the hometown level look for ways to “localize” a national story. For a national — make that, international — news organization such as AP, the goal is to “nationalize” a local story, which is wonderful. The problem is that cliches so easily overtake such stories. When I worked for AP in Dallas, the joke was that no story from Lubbock ever made it on the wire without a well-meaning editor in New York adding “dusty plains of West Texas.”

But to tackle specifics of the Oklahoma story: The lede mentions that eight of 10 people in the state say they are Christians. Wow. Then again, 78 percent of Americans identify with some form of Christianity, according to Gallup. That kind of context might be helpful.

Also helpful would be some kind of concrete information on the form — and level — of the criticism that the atheists and Satanists are drawing from Oklahoma ministers. Are ministers meeting to discuss a response? Is there any kind of formal opposition? Did the ministers approach AP? Or did AP call ministers trying to find critics? In other words, which came first — the AP call or the ministers’ concern (the first minister quoted serves a church 15 miles from the billboard)? To me, these are important details.

This is my favorite line of the whole story:

Oklahoma wears its religion on its sleeves.

Cliche, anyone?

Here’s how AP backs up that statement:

Around the holidays, owners of downtown skyscrapers leave on nighttime lights in the pattern of a cross, which across the flat landscape can be seen for miles. The Ten Commandments were on display at a courthouse lawn in northeast Oklahoma until a federal judge ordered it removed, and a move is afoot to erect a similar monument at the state Capitol.

Legislators pray in their chambers, led by a “minister of the day,” usually Christian. The Oklahoma City Thunder is one of the few NBA teams to begin each contest after a non-denominational prayer delivered by a minister on the public address system.

One state lawmaker wants to change the state’s motto from “Labor omnia vincit” — Latin for “Labor conquers all” — to “In God we trust.”

Oklahoma also has various “God” billboards that purport to pose questions and observations from the Almighty, like: “You think it’s hot here?” and “What part of ‘Thou shalt not …’ didn’t you understand?” and “Life is short. Eternity isn’t.”

All of that, I suppose, is true. But Oklahoma also has topless bars, more Indian gambling casinos than you can count and a fair number of cars parked in driveways on Sunday mornings — I see them as I drive through my neighborhood each week. However, those images don’t fit the story, I don’t guess.

Concerning the prayer at the Thunder games, I wonder if the prayers are Christian only or if the writer meant non-sectarian prayer instead of non-denominational prayer?

Speaking of cliches, there is one liberal pastor in Oklahoma City who stands above all others when it comes to commanding media attention. That pastor often is quoted as the voice of reason in stories like this. AP does not fail to deliver that pastor’s perspective:

Some religious leaders had other issues on their minds.

“It’s not the people who don’t believe in God that worry me,” said Robin Meyers, senior minister at Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City and a professor of rhetoric at Oklahoma City University. “It’s some of the people who do.

“Fundamentalism is the enemy worldwide, no matter what the strain.”

Am I suggesting that Oklahoma is not a right-leaning religious state? Not at all. Am I suggesting that atheists and Satanists are not a little off the beaten path in the ordinary narrative of Oklahoma religious life? Again, not at all.

But I am suggesting that a much better approach would be to go beyond the cliches and tell a fuller, more nuanced story. At a minimum, give me an idea how many atheists there are in Oklahoma, and Satanists too.

When you tell me the Satanists have reserved a room at the Oklahoma City Civic Center for a “blasphemy ritual,” tell me what that is. What does it involve? What is the religious — or non-religious — significance? (For a bit more coverage of the Satanists, ABC News and The Oklahoman report on the planned event.)

Speaking of religious significance, what does it mean that the atheists are taking an evangelical approach to winning converts?

I have no idea how much time the reporter involved had to write this story. I don’t know if it was his idea or a deadline request from an editor in New York. Perhaps it was one of those stories where the writer was told what it should say before he reported it. It certainly reads like it.

I did love the ending:

Singer, from the atheists’ group, said his group has no connection to the Satanists.

“As far as Satan goes, we don’t believe in him either,” he said.

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Muslim victims of 9/11

Everyone has a 9/11 story.

Amid all the chaos, noise, headlines, politics and, yes, religious debates, it’s sometimes easy to forget the gravity of what occurred that day. Terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans in unfathomable attacks on this nation’s way of life.

I was the religion editor for The Oklahoman then and pounded out four stories that Tuesday, from covering emotional church prayer vigils to interviewing Oklahoma City bombing victims who, until 9/11, had experienced the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. I also contacted local Muslims I knew and wrote a piece that started like this:

A distraught Muslim woman called the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City on Tuesday morning as terrorist attacks rocked the nation.

“She’s completely terrified,” said Suhaib Webb, imam of the society’s mosque. “She’s a single woman. She’s like, ‘What if someone tries to kill me?’

“She’s worried that society is going to blame her for this killing.”

American Muslim groups rushed Tuesday to condemn the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They cautioned other Americans not to blame followers of Islam until investigators determine who was responsible.

As Oklahoma’s roughly 20,000 Muslims dealt with the shock experienced by most Americans, they grappled with another emotion as well: fear. Fear that people would blame them for the tragedies. Fear that 10 years of work to change Oklahomans’ perspectives of their religion had been shattered.

Nine years later, many American Muslims still live with that fear and concern — including hundreds of relatives of about 60 Muslims who died in the World Trade Center. In recent days, USA Today and Religion News Service both have written compelling stories about still-grieving Muslim relatives. Be sure to check out USA Today’s For families of Muslim 9/11 victims, a new pain and Religion News Service’s Another wound for Muslims who lost family on 9/11.

USA Today does an excellent job of putting real human faces on a number of Muslims. RNS’ story gravitates into more a political debate over the proposed Ground Zero mosque, including references to “rhetoric” by Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. If other news organizations have done relevant coverage on this topic, please feel free to include links in the comments section.

But the best coverage I have seen on this topic came in today’s New York Times, which featured a story headlined Visiting Ground Zero, Asking Allah for Comfort on today’s Page 1:

Nearly every Sept. 11 since Sept. 11, Hadidjatou Karamoko Traore has made sure that her three children were dressed in their best clothes, and taken them from their tidy brick home in the Bronx to the pit where the World Trade Center stood, and where her husband, their father, worked and died.

After the attacks, all that was found of Abdoul-Karim Traore, a cook at the Windows on the World restaurant, were his leather wallet, his identification cards and a few coins.

“I like to go down there and pray and see the place and remember,” said Mrs. Traore, a native of Ivory Coast who came to the United States in 1997. “When I go there, I feel closer to him. And him to me. I pray for him, too.”

When she prays, she calls God Allah. Mrs. Traore, 40, says praying in the pit feels entirely natural, even if some of those standing with her — widows and widowers, parents and children — blame her religion for the destruction of that day.

“That’s not fair,” she said. “It’s not because of Allah that these buildings fell.”

The beauty of this piece is that it focuses on one victim — and one family — and tells their story in an exceptional way. It’s a story filled with precise, relevant details and nuggets like the wife’s “peanut sauce and doughy fritters” that reward the reader paragraph after paragraph — all the way to the end.

Take this section, for example:

Their home, a jumble of New York and Africa, is filled with the laugh track of Disney Channel sitcoms and the smell of peanut stew. A pile of shoes lies by the door — leopard-print Timberland boots, shiny high-top sneakers, slippers, sandals and high heels.

Mrs. Traore keeps hand-drawn Mother’s Day cards taped to her bedroom door and posters of Mecca taped to the living room walls. Those walls could use a fresh coat of paint, and the ragged carpet has seen better days. But the family is busy, and the house is well loved, a refuge from the rough streets of Hunts Point outside.

Does this article settle the question of whether Islam is a peaceful or violent religion? No, but that question presupposes that there is such a thing as one-size-fits-all Islam. There’s not. But read this story, and one gets a better idea of the role of faith — a peaceful Islam faith — in the life of one woman who lost her husband on 9/11. Isn’t providing a window of understanding into the beliefs and practices of a diverse group of people an important function of journalism?

There are a few things I wish the story had done better. For one thing, we learn that the woman’s sons attend a Roman Catholic school where they feel comfortable but have hidden their religion from schoolyard bullies, according to the story. Why does the woman send her children to a Roman Catholic school? That question goes unanswered.

The meaning of one’s faith, alas, is often difficult to express and even more challenging for a news story to convey. To its credit, the Times provides ample space for the story’s main character to talk about Allah in her own words:

Islam, indeed, acts as the ballast of her life. “It puts me in the right direction, and it protects me from doing bad things,” she said.

She does not blame God for her husband’s death. “That was my husband’s destiny,” she said.

If they had stayed in Ivory Coast, she reasons, perhaps he would have fallen fatally ill. “I’m praying to God to make me strong to protect them and raise them,” she said of her children. “I believe God is helping me because my children here are growing and they’re healthy and I’m doing my work.”

“I move closer to prayer, closer to God, and I thank him,” she said. “I keep praying to God to make me strong.”

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1.03.01

How not to cover a protest

Thousands of people demonstrated outside California’s state Capitol this past weekend. I assume — and, yes, I know how fraught with potential disaster that course of action can be — that The Associated Press didn’t consider the rally any big deal.

I base my assumption on the relatively short length of the AP story (450 words), the lameness of said story (read on for more details) and the fact that the story ran, as best as I can tell, only on the California state wire and did not move nationally.

My point is not that this story should have been big news. I don’t have enough facts or background to gauge the significance of such a rally in Sacramento. Rather, my point is more basic: If this event was deemed newsworthy — and apparently it was, since AP sent a reporter to it — then it deserved to be covered well. Unfortunately, this story falls short of that mark.

The top of the piece:

Thousands of Christian conservatives spent 12 hours Saturday praying and fasting in front of the state Capitol at a gathering organizers described as spiritual repentance “when there is no hope for a nation.”

The daylong religious event titled, “TheCall to Conscience,” was led by Lou Engle as well as other pastors and speakers to protest gay marriage, pornography and abortion. Many of those attending slapped red “Life” stickers over their shirts and set up blankets and folding chairs facing a large stage with banners that read: “Only One Hope God.”

People close to the front of the stage held up their hands when called to prayer. They jumped and danced to musical performances between sermons. The gathering filled the west lawn of the state Capitol and hundreds of people spilled into the next block, but the rest of Capitol Mall’s five-block-long lawn went unused despite large screens and barricades set up for the occasion.

Offering stations were set up throughout the area.

So many questions that go unanswered: How many thousands? Is it 2,000 or 15,000? What is meant by fasting in this case, and what is the spiritual significance? Could someone explain what is meant by spiritual repentance “when there is no hope for a nation?” Who (for readers who don’t recognize the name) is Lou Engle? (If I was in a really surly mood, I’d even ask: What’s a Christian conservative?)

It’s not awful, but the reference to people holding up their hands when called to prayer made me chuckle. Wonder if that’s ever happened before in an evangelical-leaning crowd? The jumping and dancing to musical performances between sermons, meanwhile, made me wonder how high they were jumping and what kind of dancing they were doing? What kind of music was playing? Bon Jovi or Mercy Me?

Sarcasm aside, how many people did organizers expect to show up? And how short of projections was the crowd, assuming it fell below expectations? These would appear to be actual journalistic questions that the reporter could have asked.

Finally, the vague “Offering stations were set up throughout the area” needs some sort of explanation, doesn’t it? Were they collecting money to pay the speakers and performers or to stage more protests?

In writing about the recent Glenn Beck rally in Washington, Tmatt posed this question: “Hey, what was said at the rallies?” Apparently, the AP staff in California didn’t bother reading that post because the Sacramento protest story doesn’t bother with any of that kind of minutia, relevant as it may be.

This is the first actual quote in the AP story:

Ken and Antoinette Rodrigues, who described themselves as born-again Christians, drove in from Fremont to attend Saturday’s rally after their daughter-in-law saw it over the Internet.

“It’s a little more blunt than I anticipated, not that I’m opposed to that, but the things they are speaking, it’s bold, very bold,” said Antoinette Rodrigues, 48. “But I feel that it’s very appropriate and timely.”

OK, let’s move past the fact that — out of thousands of demonstrators — the first people quoted apparently aren’t representative of the crowd as a whole. Let’s focus on what the quote actually says: It’s a little more blunt than I anticipated. What exactly is a little more blunt? The things they are speaking, it’s bold, very bold. What things are they speaking? (Oops, forgot, the story doesn’t include any of those.)

I could go on, but you get the point: It’s just that kind of useless, vague story. It’s almost as if the reporter goes through the motions rather than give serious treatment to the rally and the demonstrators.

For a much better, albeit not perfect, approach, the Sacramento Bee gave Page 1A prominence to the rally.

The Bee story tackles some of the specific questions asked above, interviews political analysts on what the rally means for California and even includes the perspective of protesters who rallied against the demonstration. Imagine that.


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