Washington mudslide disaster: the heart of the matter

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More than two weeks after the horrendous mudslide in Oso, Wash., news coverage is taking a different turn. Gone are the frenetic rescue stories and the first profiles of those lost, and in their place are more broad-based stories about those who will help residents recover long-term.

From the Seattle Times comes this piece about the faith community, both local and transplanted, in the wake of the tragedy. While we would expect this type of coverage at this stage in the developing story, this report seems different. Not only is it well-sourced, but it moved me to empathy in a way I didn’t really expect.

People of faith, ministers and chaplains have responded to the deadly March 22 mudslide as a calling. They’re on the ground in Oso, Darrington and Arlington, trying to help shocked survivors pick up and go on. The transition from overwhelming loss to healing will be slow and difficult, they say.

“I’ve been ordained 38 years, so I’ve seen a lot, but I’ve never been a part of something this dramatic and all-encompassing,” said the Rev. Tim Sauer, pastor at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Arlington and St. John Vianney in Darrington.

“There is a heightened sense of numbness, at least initially. It’s been two weeks now, so the realities are starting to kick in.”

I expected at this point to be told about the scramble for finding housing for the displaced or how hundreds of donors are bringing furniture or clothing to be sorted through by eager volunteers. The living tend to busy themselves non-stop in the activity of serving so that they don’t have time to think, really.

Not so. We instead hear thoughts about “being present” for those who have lost a loved one. “Emotional care” is emphasized by those working close to hurting families.

This story illustrates the presence of ministry in a way few post-disaster pieces even attempt. It’s almost as if the staff understands another role the media might have in a situation like this: to encourage the community to engage in spiritual reflection and to take time to assess their mental health as well as offering physical and emotional assistance to those directly affected.

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Ghosts in story on Catholic schools: real or imagined?

I’m intrigued.

That’s my reaction after reading a front-page New York Times story this week on Roman Catholic schools in the U.S. actively recruiting Chinese students — “and their cash,” as the Times’ online headline put it.

WAYNE, N.J. — When she arrived at DePaul Catholic High School to join the class of 2014, Di Wang hardly lacked for international experience. The daughter of a Chinese petroleum executive from Shaanxi, she had attended an elite summer camp in Japan. She knew firsthand the pleasures of French cuisine. Her favorite movie was “The Godfather.”

Her worldly exposure, though, did not extend to the particulars of a Roman Catholic education. Ms. Wang, 18, got her first lesson on that inside the school’s lobby. Gazing up at an emaciated Jesus hanging from a wooden cross, she was so startled she recalls gasping: “Oh, my God! So this is a Catholic school.”

She is hardly an anomaly. American parochial schools from Westchester County to Washington State are becoming magnets for the offspring of Chinese real estate tycoons, energy executives and government officials. The schools are aggressively recruiting them, flying admissions officers to China, hiring agencies to produce glossy brochures in Chinese, and putting up web pages with eye-catching photos of blond, tousled-haired students gamboling around with their beaming Chinese classmates.

Two basic assumptions seem to underlie the piece: First, the recruiting of Chinese students is mainly about bolstering “often-battered finances” at parochial schools. Second, while the international students are exposed to Catholicism, the schools’ religion really doesn’t make much of a difference in their lives or future outlook.

I’m intrigued because I can’t tell after reading all 1,300-plus words whether those assumptions are, in fact, the real story or simply the way the Times chose to frame it.

In my own reporting on schools such as Westbury Christian in Houston, which is associated with Churches of Christ, I have found administrators extremely open about their desire to lead foreign students to Jesus. But perhaps Catholic schools take a less direct approach. Or perhaps the Chinese element makes everyone — school officials, students and parents — more cautious in what they say.

From the Times story:

Today at DePaul, 39 of the 625 students come from China. Besides courses like chemistry, European history, studio art and chorus, they also take theology, lead Christian service club meetings and attend monthly Mass, where they can approach the altar to receive a blessing from the priest during communion but cannot partake in the sacramental wafer because they are not baptized.

But could they be baptized if they chose? Have any taken that step?

More:

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Baby boomers and (some) traditions for ‘green’ funerals

The other day I wrote a post noting that, in addition to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the so-called “Woodstock Generation” also had a taste for spiritual adventure that has helped shape American life and culture ever since. Basically, without the Age of Aquarius, you don’t end up with a parade of scholars and gurus teaching Oprah how to raise her hands up to the heavens while praying to the Universe, with a big “U.”

Some GetReligion readers were a bit miffed that I seemed to think that all Baby Boomers (me too, I guess) could fit under the same Woodstock banner.

That wasn’t my point, of course. I was simply saying that the alternative approaches to life explored in the late 1960s and early ’70s have had a major impact on shaping how all Americans think and live. Part of that cultural wave was captured in the sexual revolution, part was popular culture that soaked into the soul and part was an openness to alternative forms of spirituality (some of it serious, some of it fleeting), often from the Far East.

Truth be told, some Baby Boomers have also turned into strong believers in traditional forms of faith. Ask any megachurch pastor about that. There are also Baby Boomers who have switched brands and churches, looking for alternatives to the faiths in which they were raised. Some of them (ask your local Orthodox rabbi) ended up digging back into ancient forms of faith. Some have explored traditional forms of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, etc., etc.

Once people start searching their paths can go all over the place.

This leads me to that New York Times feature that traced some of these trends right to the final acts of seekers’ lives. The headline was:

The Rise of Back-to-the-Basics Funerals

Baby Boomers Are Drawn to Green and Eco-Friendly Funerals

The New York City opening — in trendy Park Slope, of course — sets the tone. Spot all the key elements, one at a time:

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Did Pope Francis have to go to confession?

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RACHAEL ASKS:

Who does the pope go to if he has to go to confession or is he exempt because he’s the pope?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The pope gets no pass because he’s the pope.

Pope Francis, who has shown a flair for the dramatic his first year in office, demonstrated this in highly unusual fashion during this Lenten season, which puts special emphasis on contrition for sin. On March 28, to the surprise of worshippers in St. Peter’s Basilica, the pontiff publicly kneeled before a priest with his back to the cameras and congregation and confessed his sins for about three minutes. The AP reported the priest seemed to chuckle so perhaps he was also surprised. Then Francis joined 61 priests along the sanctuary walls who heard confessions from penitents, something popes usually do on Good Fridays.

The doctrine of original sin says (and history sometimes proves) that the popes are flawed humans just like all the rest of us. A pope’s infallibility involves only his personal definitions of faith and morals.

Francis explained at a weekly “general audience” talk last November that “priests and bishops too have to go to confession. We are all sinners. Even the pope confesses every 15 days, because the pope is also a sinner. And the confessor hears what I tell him; he counsels me and forgives me, because we are all in need of this forgiveness.”

Francis appreciates performing this priestly function. In off-the-cuff remarks on Pentecost Eve last year he said he regrets he cannot do it more often. “When I go to listen to confession — and I can’t yet because to go out and listen to confession, well, I can’t leave this place. But that’s another issue … ”

Catholicism asks all parishioners to regularly confess in order to be in the proper spiritual state to receive Communion, and by all means to do so during Lent.

Confession must be done before a priest who alone can grant absolution on God’s behalf and prescribe deeds of piety and charity as “satisfaction” for sin, as opposed to Protestants’ individual or group prayer for forgiveness directly to God. Francis stated in the November talk that God himself wills that believers “receive forgiveness by means of the ministers of the community.”

Penance (also called the sacrament of reconciliation) is so central that it takes up 76 sections in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This includes the teaching, rejected by Protestants, that the church has the unique power to grant “indulgences” that remove partial or full punishment due to sin for either the living or the dead in Purgatory. Observance of Penance has declined this past generation more than with the church’s other six sacraments (Communion, baptism, confirmation, clergy ordination, marriage and the anointing of the sick).

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Pentecostal gap in that LATimes immigration reform story

There was an important interfaith gathering the other day in Los Angeles that allowed some highly symbolic religious leaders to make a faith-based appeal for immigration reform. As you would expect, The Los Angeles Times produced a short news story that focused on the basic facts.

The double-decker headline pronounced:

Local religious leaders unite for change in immigration law

Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in Southern California hold vigil calling for a revamp in federal immigration laws.

As noted in the lede, the service attracted several of “Southern California’s most prominent religious leaders,” led by the local Catholic archbishop. The presence of a Catholic leader was par for the course, especially in this case:

Immigrants who are in the United States illegally “need mercy and they need justice,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez, welcoming an array of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to the gathering at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Gomez, who has made changing immigration laws a hallmark of his three-year tenure leading the L.A. Archdiocese, described the current system as “totally broken,” adding that federal laws punished families and children unfairly.

“These are human souls, not statistics,” the archbishop said. “These are children of God. We cannot be indifferent to their suffering.”

I appreciated the fact that the Times team candidly reported that hardly anyone was in the cathedral’s pews during this event. The actual phrase was “only a few dozen in attendance.”

The story also noted that it was important that leaders from “each of the three main Abrahamic traditions” were in attendance, instead the usually rally for Christians, alone. That is certainly a newsworthy point.

So what is missing in this short report?

Read the following material from the story quite closely and tell me who is missing. What is the major hole in this coalition, especially if the goal is to make a faith-based case for immigration reform in the context of modern-day Southern California and the lands to the South of the United States?

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About that ‘complex’ doctrine Catholic teachers must follow

Imagine this lede atop a national wire service story:

CINCINNATI (AP) — Parochial teachers are so ignorant of basic Roman Catholic doctrine the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is giving them a cheat sheet on some of the things that can get them fired.

That is, of course, not the spin that The Associated Press took.

Here’s the actual opening paragraph of an AP story published this week:

CINCINNATI (AP) — The doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is so complex the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is giving teachers a cheat sheet on some of the things that can get them fired.

Complex doctrine, huh? According to whom?

The story continues:

A new contract proposal from the diocese specifies some violations of Catholic doctrine that could put teachers out of a job — including abortion, artificial insemination and “homosexual lifestyles” — and extends forbidden behavior to include public support for those kinds of causes, drawing some complaints that the language is overly broad and a cynical attempt to make it harder for wrongfully terminated teachers to sue.

Again, the story seems tilted — and tell me if I’m wrong — toward the teachers’ perspective.

Notice that the proposal is characterized as a “cynical attempt to make it harder for wrongfully terminated teachers to sue,” not a “crafty attempt to make it harder for rightfully terminated teachers to claim naiveté.”

AP quotes an archdiocese spokesman as saying the proposal clarifies what is expected of teachers, then provides background on a lawsuit filed by a teacher fired for getting pregnant through artificial insemination and a separate lawsuit filed by an unmarried teacher fired for getting pregnant.

Keep reading, and the story gives three sources critical of the proposal an opportunity to bash it, one after another. That tag team of critics starts with a union leader not even from Cincinnati:

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Brendan Eich nailed for his generic, private, anti-gay beliefs?

Yes, yes, yes, I know. Just try to imagine the mainstream press coverage if Brendan Eich had been a Chick-fil-A manager in, oh, some middle-American enclave like Mission, Kan., who was forced to resign because of his private financial support for gay rights.

No, I am not going there. To put it bluntly, I am waiting for the religion shoe to drop in the whole story of the Mozilla chief executive who was forced to step down because he once donated $1,000 to California’s Proposition 8, a campaign dedicated to defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

As one veteran GetReligion reader asked in a private email: “I’m not missing the part where they say he’s Catholic, Mormon, evangelical, whatever, am I? The faster gay marriage becomes accepted, the harder I think it is for someone to be against gay marriage without some driving religious belief.”

Unless I have missed something in the past hour or two, that is not a question that many journalists have been asking. Right now, the framing for this story is that his actions were anti-gay, not pro-something, something doctrinally and legally different.

Over at the normally gay-news-driven New York Times, this story is not receiving major attention. A “Bits” feature in the business pages does provide an interesting summary of the raging debates surrounding this case, including the fact that some liberals — including some in the gay community — are quite upset with the illiberal campaign by many “liberals” to punish Mozilla, while making Eich an untouchable in the highly influential tech world. Here is a key chunk of that report:

Mr. Eich’s departure from the small but influential Mountain View, Calif., company highlights the growing potency of gay-rights advocates in an area that, just a decade ago, seemed all but walled off to their influence: the boardrooms of major corporations. But it is likely to intensify a debate about the role of personal beliefs in the business world and raise questions about the tolerance for conservative views inside a technology industry long dominated by progressive and libertarian voices.

Andrew Sullivan, a prominent gay writer and an early, influential proponent of making same-sex marriage legal, expressed outrage over Mr. Eich’s departure on his popular blog, saying the Mozilla chief had been “scalped by some gay activists.”

“If this is the gay rights movement today — hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else — then count me out,” Mr. Sullivan wrote.

A number of gay rights advocates pointed out that their organizations did not seek Mr. Eich’s resignation. Evan Wolfson, a leading gay marriage advocate, said that this was a case of “a company deciding who best represents them and their values. There is no monolithic gay rights movement that called for this.”

The article also noted that Eich has consistently stressed, and so far no one has contradicted this, that he was committed to inclusiveness in the Mozilla workplace and had never discriminated. However, he has also asked not to be judged for his “private beliefs.” In a way, that is also interesting in that fierce defenders of the First Amendment have long argued for free expression, even in public (with others, yes, having the right to freely protest in return).

The Times article does note, concerning the clashes between old-school liberals and the new illiberal liberals:

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Sister Jane, chapter 2: Observer still favors the protestors

Remember the fracas over a speech by a nun at a Catholic school? Well, they haven’t forgotten at Charlotte Catholic School in North Carolina, where nearly 1,000 people gathered Wednesday night to complain about Sister Jane Dominic Laurel’s March 21 speech focusing on Catholic teachings on marriage and sexuality.

And again, the Charlotte Observer gleaned enough for a story on the matter, although the reporter couldn’t get in. (Wasn’t his fault, though; the school locked out all media except the diocesan newspaper.) Just not enough information for a clear picture.

As you may remember from my April 2 piece, Sister Jane is a Dominican nun from Nashville who spoke on sexuality at the Charlotte school. Parents said their kids told them the sister voiced “inflammatory comments”: homosexual behavior is unnatural, children develop best in two-parent families, etc. More than 3,000 of them signed a petition and the school arranged a meeting on the matter.

Reporting second hand is a handicap. It means relying on texts and tweets from inside the school gym — inevitably getting more feedback from the angrier parents. But the Observer did have six days, after its March 27 story, to study the matter and make contacts on both sides. There was plenty of time to find the many Catholics who are supporting Sister Jane.

Unfortunately, the new story repeats some of the same mistakes.

Once again, it cites the protesters more than the school’s supporters, although it notes the latter were present as well. The story paraphrases them, but they’re outweighed by the opposition:

Some defended Laurel, saying she was presenting traditional Catholic teachings. But Hains and others said the majority of parents who spoke did not agree with the nun or many of her comments.

And some expressed anger at the school for inviting her, for not stopping her when she veered off script, and for not telling parents ahead of time what she would talk about.

At times, the article blurs the line between fact and personal impressions. It quotes a parent quoting her son:

“He said, ‘We had the worst assembly today,’ ” Traynor recalled. “He said he tried to leave with some others, but they were made to sit down. There are students in this school who are openly gay and some who are not out yet. Obviously, they felt bullied.”

And again, the newspaper didn’t quote the alleged offender, Sister Jane herself. The one whose words were being trashed and perhaps mischaracterized. And it’s not like she couldn’t be found.

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