When the government dictates prayer

I’m not much for displays of civil religion but there’s one recent governmental intervention that really chaps my hide. That’s where the government requires citizens to submit prayers for governmental approval before they’re uttered.

I rarely hear a prayer I agree with and I’ve yet to be too bothered by it. I expect that individuals praying publicly are praying according to their own conscience, not mine, and I respond accordingly. If I’m able to pray along, great. If I’m not, no sweat off my brow. Fact is, the prayers that absolutely horrify me the most are the ones that attempt to be “inclusive” by bringing in not just a single religion I don’t adhere to but as many of them as possible.

But this governmental trend received pushback last week and the Houston Chronicle was there to report on it. I thought the story was pretty good and since it relates to Memorial Day, today is a fitting day to look at it. Headlined, “VA agrees not to interfere with holiday prayers: Agency backs down after losing court fight over pastor’s mention of Jesus in Memorial Day invocation at Houston cemetery,” reporter Terri Langford writes:

The nation’s agency for military veterans has agreed to stay out of religious refereeing for now, backing down from its attempt to tell a minister how to craft a prayer for a Memorial Day invocation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Hindrichs told federal District Judge Lynn Hughes that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will not demand that Memorial Day prayers at Houston National Cemetery Monday be as non-denominational as possible.

I was going to criticize the use of the term “non-denominational” but I think it’s actually correct. We so often see it used by evangelical Christians as a marketing term for a particular type of Christian but it really does probably mean “not tied any religion.” I always think it’s funny, though, that these government approved prayers would be perfectly at home in some churches — so is it really accurate to call them nondenominational? I’m not sure.

The change of heart came one day after the judge granted the Rev. Scott Rainey a temporary restraining order against the agency after officials told the pastor to edit his prayer to make it as general and non-denominational as possible. Rainey’s prayer, submitted for review at the agency’s request included the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and thanked Jesus Christ, the Christian savior, in closing.

No, that’s not right. Here’s how it ended: “While respecting people of every faith today, it is in the name of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, that I pray. Amen.” That’s not “thanking” Jesus but praying in his name. Still, the story got good quotes, such as this one:

“I’ve never said a prayer in my life that didn’t end with Jesus Christ,” Rainey said after Friday’s hearing. “It was unrealistic expectation for me not to include the name of Jesus Christ.”

That’s why Rainey, who has prayed at this ceremony before, filed suit. The judge said officials at the agency were going too far and telling citizens precisely how to honor veterans:

“The government cannot gag citizens when it says it is in the interest of national security, and it cannot do it in some bureaucrat’s notion of cultural homogeneity,” Hughes wrote.

See, stories about lawsuits can be interesting. Anyway, nicely done for an update on a story that will probably include many more updates. I hope everyone is having a wonderful Memorial Day weekend. Do let us know if you saw any particularly good or bad coverage of the day’s events.

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The church of O is pantheistic

In Christianity Today, LaTonya Taylor offered the definitive look at “The Church of O” 10 years ago. There are many reasons why I’m not the type of woman to get into Oprah Winfrey, but her religious views always intrigued me.

Earlier this week, Tmatt looked at some of the coverage of Oprah’s goodbye show. He wrote “She led the way in creating what I have long called ‘OprahAmerica,‘ it’s a culture defined by emotion, feelings and stories, not by acts of creeds, doctrines and sacraments that have eternal consequences.” But how many articles got at that issue?

In the New York Times this weekend, Mark Oppenheimer looked at “The Church of Oprah Winfrey and a Theology of Suffering.” And as you might expect of a religion column, it’s all about the unique religion advanced by Oprah, “at once Christian and pantheistic.” The first part of the article talks about some of the Christian strains in her theology, with interesting quotes from Eva Illouz, a sociologist:

While respecting Ms. Winfrey’s use of her Christian heritage, Dr. Illouz ultimately concluded that the talk-show host might be something of a false prophet. That is because, she said, Ms. Winfrey and her cadre of self-help experts treated suffering as something beneficial. Ms. Winfrey turned the black church’s ethos of self-reliance in the face of suffering into an exaltation of suffering itself.

“By making all experiences of suffering into occasions to improve oneself,” Dr. Illouz wrote, “Oprah ends up — absurdly — making suffering into a desirable experience.”

And if, as Ms. Winfrey’s teachings suggest, strong women “can always transcend failure by the alchemy of their own will and of therapy, then people have only themselves to blame for their misery,” Dr. Illouz said.

Very interesting. We then get an intriguing discussion of Charles Grandison Finney and the “anxious bench.”

But I also enjoyed the part of the article that looked at the non-Christian aspects of Oprah’s theology:

Yet the Church of Winfrey is at most partly Christian. Her show featured a wide, if drearily similar, cast of New Age gurus. As Karlyn Crowley writes in her contribution to “Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture,” an essay collection published last year, Ms. Winfrey excelled at offering “spiritual alternatives to the mainstream religions” in which many of her followers grew up. Ms. Winfrey presided over something like a “New Age feminist congregation,” Dr. Crowley writes. …

In her earnest spiritual seeking, Ms. Winfrey gave platforms to some rather questionable types. She hosted the self-help author Louise Hay, who once said Holocaust victims may have been paying for sins in a previous life. She championed the “medical intuitive” Caroline Myss, who claims emotional distress causes cancer. She helped launch Rhonda Byrne, creator of the DVD and book “The Secret,” who teaches that just thinking about wealth can make you rich. She invited the “psychic medium” John Edward to help mourners in her audience talk to their dead relatives.

Oppenheimer’s reported column ends with this type of criticism of Winfrey’s religious exuberance and failure to ask tough questions of “psychics and healers and intuitives.” Whether you agree or disagree with Oppenheimer, this is a thoughtful and well argued analysis of Oprah’s theology and its limitations. It’s nice to read something of this nature in the weekend paper.

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Study: nonbelievers have small brains

OK, so Religion News Service has a provocative story on a provocative study that I’ve seen in a few papers. But the headlines that are running with the story are curious, to say the least.

Basically the study says that Protestants, like myself, without a “born-again” experience (I’m assuming, although the article doesn’t tell us anything about how that term is defined in the story, that my baptism doesn’t get counted as a “born-again” experience) have bigger brains than … Catholics, Protestants with a “born-again” experience, and the religiously unaffiliated.

And yes, I realize the entire study is somewhat obnoxious and I say that even though my peeps supposedly fared the best.

But do the headlines boast that my kind of Protestants win the brain-size prize? Do the headlines say that Catholics have tiny amounts of gray matter? Do they assert what I put above? (And yes, I realize that the religious unaffiliated would include more than just non-believers.) Or do they say that “born-again” Christians are idiots? Let’s roll the tape:

USA Today: Study suggests ‘born-again’ believers have smaller brains

Houston Chronicle: Study: Born-again Christians have smaller brains

Beliefnet: Study suggests ‘born-again’ believers have smaller brains

I mean, technically it’s true. The study, which looked at a grand total of 268 adults, did say that “born-again” Christians had smaller hippocampal volume. But wow do the headlines above give a different impression than picking on Catholics, nonbelievers or the unaffiliated. Here’s the abstract for the study, in case you’re interested.

And if you want an indication that most people only read headlines and skim the rest, take a gander at the comments of the USA Today story where everyone seems to think that the study proved that nonbelievers are smarter than Christians.

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Sex wars in ‘Mainline’ near end?

We had an interesting discussion the other day in the comments pages after my post about coverage of the decision by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to approve the ordination of noncelibate gays, lesbians and bisexuals (and potentially cohabitating straights, as well). The discussion focused on the old, old, old Godbeat term “mainline Protestantism.”

A reader commented, with a valid hint of anger:

Will says …

So, does this mean that the Swedenborgian Church in North America is not “mainline”, or, like the Ron Paul campaign, has simply been declared an nonentity?

If the former, then not all members of the NCCC are “mainline”. If so, who is in this exclusive “mainline” club? …

The term “mainline” has always been used, of course, to refer to the historic and once numerically prominent churches that church historians refer to as the “seven sisters” of American Protestantism. The term “mainline” has always been linked to “mainstream,” which is as judgmental as all get out, but for decades or a century or so this word was probably culturally and statistically accurate.

At the same time, the churches listed have long had a strong northern and theologically progressive cast to them, as well. Think Philadelphia “Main Line” and you have the style of this.

Thus, the term “mainline” was a fighting word for the large and powerful churches of Southern Evangelical culture. Northern Baptists were mainline. Southern Baptists were not, no matter what the numbers said.

The question now, of course, is whether the “mainline” has become the “oldline” or even — other than in the halls of Washington, D.C. power — the sideline. Are the Assemblies of God now “mainline”? The Southern Baptists? How about Catholics? Look at the U.S. Supreme Court, which now contains at least three kinds of Catholics, in terms of faith and culture.

So the big question: Is the term officially out of date? I now strive to avoid it, other than in contexts in which I can explain what it once meant.

However, in the wake of the PCUSA decision, the Religion News Service ran a crisp, solid news feature that asked another provocative question: Are the “mainline” battles over sexuality over? In other words, due to decline in some parts of the nation and increases in others — I’m thinking the polity of the United Methodist Church — has the pro-gay theological camp won its last big victory? Here is a key chunk of that:

The momentum of the gay clergy movement, however, may soon grind to a halt.

“There is not another denomination I see on the horizon right now that is on the cusp of this,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan research and consulting firm.

Officially, the PCUSA’s decades-old barrier will fall in July, after Presbyterians in Minnesota voted to effectively revoke a rule that had barred sexually active gays and lesbians from becoming ministers, elders and deacons. …

But even as gay and lesbian Christians celebrated, some acknowledged that steep challenges lie ahead in other denominations, particularly the country’s largest four: the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Those four denominations, whose leaders show few signs of accepting gay clergy or relationships, together count nearly 100 million members. By contrast, the four largest denominations that allow gay clergy together count less than 11 million members. The Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, has about 2.1 million members.

And in one of the few “mainline” churches that remains relatively large?

Gay rights activists in the United Methodist Church, for example, have labored in vain for years to remove a rule that calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and bars the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, just 32 percent of Methodist ministers want to allow gay clergy. …

Moreover, the UMC, which has about 12 million members worldwide, is growing most rapidly in Africa, where Christians tend to hold conservative views on theology and sexuality, noted Alan Wisdom, vice president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a Washington-based conservative think tank.

In other words, as in the Anglican world, this story is becoming local, regional, national and global. And when one thinks about the ancient churches and the global churches, the word “mainline” takes on a completely different meaning.

It’s time to make a sincere effort to shelve this label and simply describe the reality on the ground. Name names. Quote the numbers. Detail the changes in doctrine.

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What ‘new banner’ do you mean?

Perusing the Faith and Values section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I came across a little story — 335 words — about a little church — Sunday attendance of 15 — that decided to disband and start over.

Folks at the First Baptist Church of Valmeyer, Ill. — soon to be called GraceRidge — are extremely open about where they think they went wrong:

“In the past, we may have unintentionally alienated ourselves from the community and possibly focused too heavily on nonessential issues,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Rob Gion Jr.

The church opened in the 1950s but somehow lost its mission along the way, he said. …

In a recent letter to church members, Gion said the church in the past may have displayed a message of condemnation rather than grace, made people think that church’s members are better than others, and been narrow-minded about issues like drinking and dancing.

Gion said members stayed away from an annual picnic of churches in Valmeyer because alcohol was served, for example.

Church member Darlene Kettler, 57, said they gained “a bad reputation” and that something had to be done.

“We’ve done an awful lot of prayer on this,” she said.

The online version of the story links to a letter sent to neighbors.

Readers learn that the church plans to remain affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention while making a fresh start:

Gion said members came together to reflect on the role of the church and the message they were preaching.

“We looked at where the church is at now and the history, and we didn’t feel like we are or have been all that God would want this church to be,” he said.

The problem with the story?

It is so utterly vague as to what, if anything, this little church still believes or plans to preach in the future. What does God want this church to be? I have absolutely no idea after reading this story.

My suspicion is that this piece was written by an overworked suburban writer filing stories in the same day from the local police blotter, fire department reports, the zoning commission and, yes, this little Baptist church.

That said, in a perfect world, a “slice of life” like this could be developed into so much more.

Neighbors could be interviewed about their perceptions of the church and their reactions to the planned changes. Members could go into more detail about their faith and how it’s evolved (specifics, please).

Context could be added about other Baptist churches (and United Methodist Churches and Churches of Christ and so on) eschewing name-brand labels in a non-denominational age. Background could be offered on whether there’s any evidence that a dying church filled with older members can remake itself at this stage.

The headline on the story proclaims:

Valmeyer church regroups under new banner

I’d sure love to know what that banner is.

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Religion angles twist in Tornado Alley


Tornado Alley. 

The Bible Belt. 

Do the two comprise the same general area or not?

Just a random question that entered my mind as I perused coverage of the April 27 tornadoes that killed hundreds and injured thousands in the South — and I don’t imagine that there is one right answer.

But I wondered about it when I read this Reuters headline:

In tornado-ravaged Bible Belt, churches mobilize to help

Anyway …

Last week, I highlighted coverage of faith and hope after the nation’s deadliest twister outbreak in decades. Now, nearly two weeks after the big storm, faith-based relief efforts are gaining media attention.

The Reuters story gave this breathless description of church relief workers:

These are not naive, disorganized do-gooders. They are professional volunteers with first class equipment and meticulous training.

Smelley’s crew maintains a trailer filled with chainsaws, safety glasses, chaps, gloves, extra chains and chainsaw repair tools. It is parked at a church member’s home for fast access. Similar trailers dot the parking lots of churches from nearly every religious denomination in Alabama.

Some trailers open out into “feeding units,” such as one maintained by the Baptist denomination that is a 53-foot semi-truck and can issue 25,000 meals a day.

Other units include a shower and laundry truck, emergency child-care trucks, supply trucks, and tool trucks like the chainsaw trailers, according to Keith Hinson, spokesperson for Baptist Disaster Relief. Several warehouses store the trailers packed with supplies and equipment.

The New York Times, similarly, sang the praises of Baptists:

Of course, thousands of church members are doing their part to help the South recover from the tornadoes. They raise money, sort clothing donations and hand out water.

They are what the veterans of large faith-based relief efforts call S.U.V.’s — spontaneous untrained volunteers. The efforts are welcomed, but they have nothing on what the Southern Baptists bring to a disaster.

From an elaborate “war room” in a church building in Montgomery, Ala., to direct lines of communication with federal and local emergency agencies, the Southern Baptist disaster ministry is a model of efficiency.

I promise. That’s from the Times, not Baptist Press.

I think it’s wonderful that major media are recognizing the crucial role that faith-based groups play in disaster relief and reporting on it. But I would prefer — please don’t hate me, Baptists — that a news story provide a source when characterizing an organization as a “model of efficiency.”

Then again, the Times includes attribution (general as it is) but not a lot of concrete evidence to back up this statement:

But when it comes to disaster relief, the link between church and state has never been stronger than during the most recent storms in the South, say federal officials and the leaders of faith-based disaster relief work.

Alas, this is the Times, so a story like this would not be complete without a section about (cue the dramatic music) “proselytizing victims”:

Religion and secular rescue efforts do not always mix easily. Jessica Powers, a Red Cross volunteer from New York who ran the feeding operation in conjunction with the Southern Baptist group here, said that on a disaster mission in Louisiana, a Baptist worker riding along with the Red Cross was proselytizing victims.

“I had to say to him that the Red Cross is a humanitarian organization, and one of our positions is neutrality,” she said.

For the Baptists, spreading the word about Jesus Christ is an essential reason they head into disaster zones over and over.

“You have an opportunity to tell people that the Lord loves you,” Mr. Blankenship said. “When you hand someone food when they’re hungry, the door’s open.

Meanwhile, The Associated Press did a story on churches of different denominations forging bonds after the tornadoes. It’s a laudable attempt at enterprise reporting, but it seemed to me that it tried to stretch a relatively weak anecdote into too large a story.

The AP report opened with a Baptist pastor leaving a voice mail at an Assemblies of God church. The Baptist pastor offered the Assemblies of God church — damaged in the storm — any help that it needed, including use of the Baptist building. Maybe it’s me, but that did not seem like a remarkable phone call. It impressed me as something many pastors of different denominations would do.

Later in the story, though, we find out that the Assemblies of God church did not accept the Baptist invitation:

Despite the offer from Watkins, Jacks moved his Assembly of God congregation of about 400 for a Thursday evening service to the non-denominational Peoples Church in nearby Hueytown, where he once served as worship leader and where the services are closer to his own Pentecostal denomination’s exuberant style of raised hands and singing and clapping.

Besides, the pastor, Buddy Poe, is an old friend who says God came to him and told him to open his door to Jacks and his congregation. Jacks says God delivered a similar message to him.

Besides? Am I the only one thinking those paragraphs out of order? Um, if God made a personal visit (“came to him”) to one pastor and “delivered a similar message” to the other, did that perhaps play a bigger role than the style of worship?

Alas, those are the only two sentences in the entire story about God’s role in where the congregation decided to meet. The AP drops that angle like a hot potato!

Finally, and I have saved the best for last, if you like a fantastic story told in a compelling way, you must read CNN’s piece on faith and football — and even the history of race relations — in tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala.:

On April 27, a mile-wide tornado tore through Tuscaloosa, one of nearly 200 twisters to strike the South as part of a record storm. Hundreds died, including dozens in this college town – many of whom lived in the area known as Alberta City where College Hill Baptist sits.

The church lies at the center of the damage, as well as at the crossroads of faith, football and Alabama history. In a community where gospel and gridiron are interwoven like a hand-stitched Southern quilt, it all comes together at College Hill Baptist.

I’ll resist the urge to copy and paste giant sections of the 2,400-word story, but I will share my favorite graf of the entire piece:

A pious man with veins that bleed Crimson Tide and Bible scripture, Greene says the tornado looked like the devil when it came through. “It began to make a tail,” he says in an accent as thick as sorghum. “It went up in the air, like it had arms and shoulders.”

Read the whole thing. It almost made this Sooner fan (and resident of Tornado Alley/the Bible Belt) want to scream, “Roll Tide!” But not quite.

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Churches respond to Osama’s death

It was just a week ago that we all got news about the killing of Osama bin Laden. On Sunday night, crowds of people came out to celebrate this victory in the war on terror. And while many people understood the impromptu reaction, others felt a bit uncomfortable by the celebration. I think we all probably had mixed emotions in our reaction to Osama’s death. Almost immediately, many of my (mostly) Lutheran friends and family discussed what our reaction should be and it was an interesting example of how theology influences our day-to-day behavior.

Usually these examples aren’t picked up on by the mainstream media. This case, however, was different. Early on, Religion News Service had a piece asking “Is it OK to cheer Osama bin Laden’s death?” that began:

Jesus said “love your enemies.” If only he had said how we should react when they die at our own hands.

The piece gives a nice survey of views from major religious groups, including Jews and Muslims. Other opportunities to discuss this issue — how the Christian (or other religious adherent) responds to the death of bin Laden — came with the news that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is being condemned for saying the news of his death pleased her. A Hamburg judge has filed a criminal complaint against Merkel for “endorsing a crime” after she stated she was “glad” that Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces.

The New York Times, on the other hand, had a completely religion free piece titled “Celebrating a Death: Ugly, Maybe, but Only Human.” Instead, it looked at what social scientists have to say about revenge and forgiveness and what not.

My pastor’s sermon this morning — which was an amazing exploration of death versus the Christian faith — began by mentioning Osama’s death. Something tells me that we weren’t the only congregation in America that heard sermons reflecting on his death. So I was pleased to see this Associated Press story that ran in USA Today under the headline “USA’s pulpits address bin Laden death.” Here’s how it began:

The killing of Osama bin Laden, a man who was America’s face of evil for nearly a decade, left Christians, Jews and Muslims relieved, proud or even jubilant. For their religious leaders, it was sometimes hard to know just what to say about that.

There is at least some dissonance between the values they preach and the triumphant response on the streets of New York and Washington to the death of a human being — even one responsible for thousands of killings in those areas and around the world.

The stories are all pretty standard and helpful. I’m most interested that they ran. It seems obvious that they should and yet it’s not a given, is it. Because these types of “what’s being preached in America’s pulpit” stories aren’t done regularly, they lack some of the depth you might hope you for.

And there are two areas that weren’t really broached, that I think should have been. One is the “Two Kingdoms” or “Two Cities” understanding in Christianity. This idea comes from Jesus himself. It was a topic written about by Augustine and Luther and many other Christians. That is probably one of the main ways that Christians understand the paradoxical response a Christian might have about the act — gratitude that the government worked for justice but sadness over the death of an evil man. This understanding sort of creeps up in the media response pieces, but it’s not terribly well fleshed out.

The other issue that I saw covered less than it should have been, if at all, is how religious adherents are to react considering the role that enhanced interrogation techniques played a role in the death of Osama bin Laden. It’s not that Christians are of one mind as to whether what the government did with enhanced interrogation techniques is or is not torture. But leaving all the euphemisms aside, for those who believe that the government should not have inflicted any pain in order to extract information from enemy combatants, and learning that pain infliction did play a role in helping the government obtain information, there are profound ethical questions.

Still, I think we’ve been seeing some good religion coverage surrounding Osama’s death.

Two things: torture, two kingdoms.

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Faith and hope amid the ruins

First, there was that one big story.

Then, there was that EVEN BIGGER STORY.

Down South, though, about 350 people are dead and thousands more hurt and homeless after a swath of tornadoes cut a deadly path across seven Southern states — hitting Alabama hardest — last Wednesday night. It’s the nation’s deadliest twister outbreak since the Great Depression and America’s worst natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina, according to the news reports I’ve read.

We exist here at this friendly little weblog because the mainstream media often do not GetReligion.

It does not take an editor with a seminary degree, however, to know that on the Sunday after a big disaster in the Bible Belt, reporters better crawl out of bed long before noon and go to church.

In my Associated Press days, I always loved these assignments because the guild contract required paying reporters a full day’s salary even if they only worked a few hours of overtime on an off day. So you’d go to a morning service — or maybe two or three — feed your quotes to the person writing the day’s big roundup and be home by noon with a nice little bit of extra pay.

But I digress …

It appears that most of the major media — and of course, the local newspapers in storm-ravaged communities — got the memo about the importance of going and writing the “faith and hope amid the ruins” stories.

And quite honestly, most did an incredible job with these stories. Most followed the same formula, opening with a pastor addressing his weary congregation and discussing God’s presence in the storm. But wow, such stories can be powerful — no matter how many times you’ve read them. It’s almost as if faith plays a tremendous role in people’s lives.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Alabama pastor Tommie Lewis took one good look at his congregants and asked, “Why?”

Four days after tornadoes ravaged their town and their state, they came ready to listen, and he came ready to preach.

“Why is it that the deaths are now beyond 200 and approaching 300? Why do good people who live in their homes 50 years, never bothering nobody, have to get swept away? Why do folks who paid their car notes every month now have no cars? Why?”

Across the South, this day of worship couldn’t have come soon enough. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and others dusted themselves off, reached for their finest clothing — some donated, some borrowed — and flocked to God to refuel their faith and gather hope on a Sunday that Alabama’s governor had declared a Day of Prayer.

From the Wall Street Journal:

GLENCOE, Ala. — Pastor Allen Murphy, 61 years old, spoke to worshippers Sunday at the new Mamre Baptist Church, framed by a stained-glass window of Jesus kneeling and looking upward. Above, the church roof was torn away.

“We’d be lost and undone without Jesus,” he told the assembly of about 100 people.

Two Mamre Baptist Churches in northeast rural Alabama, the old and the new, were destroyed by last week’s tornadoes. One church member died and several others were injured in the old church, where they had sought shelter.

The last words of Spencer Motes, 33 years old, according to witnesses, were, “Get on your knees!” as the door of the church basement blew open and the structure fell in.

Throughout the service, in the new church down the hill from the old one, people called out amens and raised trembling hands. They sang “Victory in Jesus,” calling for salvation and rebirth.

From AFP, the French news agency:

TUSCALOOSA, Alabama – Grieving storm survivors turned to prayer and the good grace of volunteers Sunday across the US south as shattered communities looked to rebuild after the second-worst tornado disaster on record.

Churches from Mississippi to Virginia flung open their doors for prayers, some in the very houses of worship destroyed by powerful tornadoes that claimed nearly 350 lives on Wednesday.

“This is the Bible Belt. Church goes on regardless,” Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeremy Heidt told AFP.

In hardest-hit Alabama, where Governor Robert Bentley declared a state-wide day of prayer, the faithful gathered under open skies, in parking lots and church sites on the first Sunday since the historic disaster wiped several of their churches off the map.

In the town of Phil Campbell, congregants erected a makeshift wooden cross and sang hymns on the concrete slab where the Church of God once stood, before some of the most powerful tornadoes on record left it and thousands of homes and businesses in splinters.

Alabama papers also had some nice writing — including here, here and here — on the Sunday after the twisters.

From the Tuscaloosa News:

ALBERTA – As they gathered around and held hands to sing the standard gospel song “Amazing Grace,” many members of Alberta Baptist Church began to cry, but implicit in the prayer was the resolve to carry on.

“We pray, oh, God, for your mercy, for your precious strength and provision…,” the Rev. Larry Corder prayed later in a small service in the parking lot outside the church building that stood for nearly 60 years before the tornado last week nearly demolished it.

“We thank you, Father, for what you’re going to do in our lives and in this community in the days that lie ahead.”

Even the New York Times made it to church.

For whatever reason, though, the Times didn’t stay long. The paper’s story hits the faith angle, then quickly switches to government officials:

All across the South on Sunday, worshipers arrived in borrowed or newly bought clothes, carrying tattered family Bibles found among the ruins. They sang hymns, gave thanks for miracles and celebrated tearful reunions. And they looked for answers.

“Why?” asked Reverend Lewis. “Why? Why is it that the death toll now is beyond 200, approaching 300, and they’re still counting?”

While the preachers wrestled with the big questions, governmental officials focused on more concrete matters.

On Sunday afternoon, White House officials visited Pratt City and Smithville, Miss., touring the ruins with state and local officials, pledging federal support and addressing the priorities of the response.

“Obviously housing will be perhaps the single most critical part of the recovery, and we have a number of efforts under way already,” said Shaun Donovan, the secretary of housing and urban development, who was accompanied by the secretaries of homeland security and agriculture, among other officials.

Insert yawn here.

Seriously, “carrying tattered family Bibles found among the ruins” is a nice turn of phrase. But dare I ask for a source? Dare I expect to see someone actually quoted who carried one of these Bibles? Maybe it’s just me, but I’m thinking that person might have a much more interesting story than White House officials.

The Times eventually returns to the faith angle, but — and maybe it’s just me — its piece seems to lack the true emotion and raw depth of most of the other major media reports.

I saved the best for last, however. Did I mention that the AP has experience with these kind of roundups? I especially loved the lede on AP’s story as it opened with a slightly different angle than the other reports (and then came back later with a little more detail on the Muslim and Baptist referenced):

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Macolee Muhammed accepted the prayer of a relief worker who stopped by what was left of her Birmingham home. It didn’t matter that she was Muslim and he was a Southern Baptist.

“If you came here to help, the only person who sent you was God,” she said.

The storms that roared across the South last week flattened churches and crushed the homes of pastors and parishioners in a ragged stretch from Mississippi to Virginia. At least 342 people were killed and thousands more hurt.

So on the first Sunday after the disaster, believers streamed into houses of worship to give thanks for being spared, to mourn the dead and to ponder impossible questions. Why did some survive without any explanation? Why did others die for no apparent reason?

Many people in this highly religious region saw God at work, even amid the devastation.

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