The missing faith angle in the Catholic charity story

Having grown up in a large Catholic family that volunteered at her church, a former tech executive leaves her job at a large philanthropic foundation to take a job at a small charity founded by a Jesuit priest and named after a Biblical character.

Do you think there might be some faith-related angle to this story?

NPR doesn’t seem to think so. In their profile of Patty Stonesifer, CEO of Martha’s Table, NPR overlooks any hints that religion might be a motive:

One of nine children, Stonesifer grew up in Indianapolis, the daughter of a car salesman and a physical therapist. Giving back to the community was understood in their home. “I didn’t know the word, or I didn’t recognize that we were volunteering, but whether it was putting new missals in the pews at the church, or riding the bus to pick up the deaf children to bring them to Mass, or working in the soup kitchen on Sundays, it was just part of who we were,” she tells Block. “It was just part of what it meant to be part of my family.”

NPR also seems to miss the significance of the charity’s name. Two months ago, when New York Times‘ columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about Stonesifer, she included that tidbit along with other faith-related details not uncovered by NPR. For example:

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The truly interfaith church of what’s happening now

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From the very beginning of this weblog, your GetReligionistas have argued that some of America’s most important religion stories are taking place on the Religious Left, even on the evangelical and Pentecostal left. I still believe that.

Also, we have always argued that it was important for journalists to cover the religious and doctrinal content of flocks on the religious left in terms of their DOCTRINES, worship and practices, not just their political views. It’s just as bad to assume that, let’s say, liberal Baptists believe what they believe for what are assumed to be political reasons as it is to argue that Baptists on the Religious Right are, truth be told, just a bunch of cynical politicos.

So, yes, I enjoyed reading large chunks of that recent New York Times story that ran under the headline, “A Church That Embraces All Religions and Rejects ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them.’”

By the way, I am not sure that the story nails down the second half of that headline, but that’s another issue. It’s possible that the religious thinker at the heart of this story would have trouble truly tolerating believers that be believes are intolerant. Why do I say that? Hang on a minute or two.

The opening of the story is a feast of Pacific Northwest details, some predictable and some quite refreshing:

LYNNWOOD, Wash. – Clad in proper Pacific Northwest flannel, toting a flask of “rocket fuel” coffee typical of Starbucks’ home turf, Steven Greenebaum rolled his Prius into a middle school parking lot one Sunday morning last month. Then he set about transforming its cafeteria into a sanctuary and himself into a minister.

He donned vestments adorned with the symbols of nearly a dozen religions. He unfolded a portable bookshelf and set the Koran beside the Hebrew Bible, with both of them near two volumes of the “Humanist Manifesto” and the Sioux wisdom of “Black Elk Speaks.” Candles, stones, bells and flowers adorned the improvised altar.

Some of the congregants began arriving to help. There was Steve Crawford, who had spent his youth in Campus Crusade for Christ, and Gloria Parker, raised Lutheran and married to a Catholic, and Patrick McKenna, who had been brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness and now called himself a pagan.

They had come together with about 20 other members to celebrate the end of their third year as the congregation of the Living Interfaith Church, the holy mash-up that Mr. Greenebaum had created. Yearning for decades to find a religion that embraced all religions, and secular ethical teachings as well, he had finally followed the mantra of Seattle’s indie music scene: “D.I.Y.,” meaning “do it yourself.”

The style appears to be mainline Protestant/Reform Judaism, blended with a rather academic infusion of other faith traditions. The Times team notes that:

… The liturgy moved from a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi to the “passing of the peace” greeting that traced back to early Christianity to a Buddhist responsive reading to an African-American spiritual to a rabbinical song. In other weeks, the service has drawn from Bahai, Shinto, Sikh, Hindu and Wiccan traditions, and from various humanist sources.

I found myself wondering why this congregation needed to go it alone. Why not hang with the Unitarian Universalists, liberal Episcopalians or the United Church of Christ?

However, the whole point of this story is that Greenebaum’s flock somehow represents the trend that researchers usually call our “postdenominational age.” This pair of fact paragraphs is crucial:

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Gay rights, street preachers, and narrative preferences

When I was 12-years-old I developed an unhealthy addiction to Choose Your Own Adventure novels. Perhaps due to my own lack of imagination, I became hooked on the books where an author would frame a story in which I was the hero. (In case you’re too old or too young to remember this Gen-X genre favorite: each story is written from a second-person point of view, with the reader assuming the role of the protagonist and making choices that determine the main character’s actions and the plot’s outcome.) Although each book could have up to forty possible endings — some were “good” (e.g., I save the day) and some “bad” (e.g., I die an ignoble death) — the only endings I considered to be “real” were the ones that aligned with what I’d call my “narrative preference” (i.e., I’m a hero).

Now that I’m all grown up, my taste in books have changed, but my bias toward my narrative preferences remains firmly intact. As an editor at a small town newspaper, I found myself framing stories that fit the preferred narrative I had about my local area. Crime stories were treated as deviations from the norm, while heroic actions were presented as every day occurrences among noble citizens. That more people were likely to be mugged than saved from drowning was a fact I never let impose on my preferred “reality.”

Narrative preference is one of the common biases of journalists – and one of the most difficult for us to recognize. When we are accused of being “politically biased” we often scoff and point to our nonpartisan treatment of the issues. But that often misses the point, for it is not the politics that we are being criticized for, but for having narrative preference that differs from our critics.

Take, for example, a recent incident in Seattle, Washington in which two street preachers are assaulted at a gay pride rally. Here is the report by local ABC affiliate, KOMO 4.

If you haven’t heard about this story, it’s because it did not make the national news. But should it have? Normally, I would say that is was just a local crime story. But Denny Burk, associate professor of Biblical studies at Boyce College, raises an interesting question:

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Got news? Is a global ‘war on Christianity’ newsworthy?

Would it be newsworthy if a U.S. Senator claimed in a public address that American taxpayer dollars are being used in a war against Christian believers in — to pick one key region — the Holy Land?

Apparently not, since Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made that claim yesterday at the Faith and Freedom Conference and the media has all but ignored it. As James Hohmann of Politico reports:

“There is a war on Christianity, not just from liberal elites here at home, but worldwide,” he said. “And your government, or more correctly, you, the taxpayer, are funding it.”

Although it was noticed by a handful of the D.C.-based, politically oriented sites, few mainstream outlets picked up on the story (a mention by CBS News and the AP are the only ones I could find).

Why the silence?

Imagine if a senator — a potential candidate for president, in fact — had claimed we were funding a war on Islam, or Hinduism, or Judaism. Would that not be a front-page story? Why then the difference when it comes to Christianity?

Part of the reason, I suspect, is because few journalists understood what Sen. Paul is even talking about. The socially conservative Christians at the conference knew what he meant, but that is because they read alternative media sources. Religious media outlets mention persecution of Christians around the globe nearly every week, though such stories rarely find their way into mainstream news stories. Even when, earlier this month, the Vatican claimed that 100,000 Christians are killed annually because of their faith, no major media seemed interested enough to do a follow-up on the assertion.

Perhaps some journalists thought that by reporting on Sen. Paul’s statement they would be required to explain the context. But they needn’t have worried about that. Here, for example, is the entire mention by the Associated Press in their 900+ word article titled, “GOP leader says ‘a war on Christianity’ is funded by taxpayers”:

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Does the president, and the press, get theodicy?

There’s an old joke preachers tell about the man who was depressed and opened the Bible randomly to a page to see what God would say to him. He put his finger on a verse and read, “And Judas hung himself…” Horrified, he opened the Bible again at random and saw the phrase, “Go and do likewise.” Dejected, he opened the Bible one final time and came to the verse, “What you must do, do quickly.”

I was reminded of that story after reading about a lost Bible discovered in tornado debris last week in Shawnee, Okla. As a local NBC affiliate reported,

Storm chaser, Brandon Heiden, shot video of the storm as it pummelled [Lance] Carter’s home.

Heiden stopped for a moment to make sure everyone was ok, and found a Bible in the debris. He shot this picture, and hoped the owner would be re-united with the good book again someday.

Meanwhile, Gage Ross, a friend of the Carter family came by the property to help with the clean-up effort. Ross stumbled across that same family Bible; it was still open to the very same page, Isiah chapter 32 which reads, ”A man will be as a hiding place from the wind, and a cover from the tempest.”

“The Lord must be with us, I guess.” Ross remembers.

While the Bible only traveled about 100 feet (it belonged to a neighbor who lived on Mr. Carter’s property), the story made it all the way to the White House.

On Sunday, President Barack Obama visited Moore, Okla. to assess the damage done by the recent deadly tornado. According to the transcript of his speech, he said:

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A ghost in here? IRS targeting Jews too?

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Fear not religion news reporters, you too can jump into one of the hottest news stories on the wires. Buried deep within an article reporting on the Internal Revenue Services’ harassment of conservative advocacy groups lurks  a religious liberty news story. That may not sound too exciting but you could rephrase the story pitch this way for your editor: Has the IRS created a religious test in order to define what it means to be a loyal Jew?

On Friday a second-tier IRS official told a gathering of tax lawyers the IRS had engaged in discriminatory audits against conservative groups. The initial story from the AP wire reported that the IRS admitted its mistake, but the mistake was an innocent one:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Internal Revenue Service inappropriately flagged conservative political groups for additional reviews during the 2012 election to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status, a top IRS official said Friday. Organizations were singled out because they included the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their applications for tax-exempt status, said Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups. In some cases, groups were asked for their list of donors, which violates IRS policy in most cases, she said.

“That was wrong. That was absolutely incorrect, it was insensitive and it was inappropriate. That’s not how we go about selecting cases for further review,” Lerner said at a conference sponsored by the American Bar Association. “The IRS would like to apologize for that,” she added. Lerner said the practice was initiated by low-level workers in Cincinnati and was not motivated by political bias. After her talk, she told The AP that no high level IRS officials knew about the practice.

The story expanded exponentially over the weekend as further details emerged. By Sunday morning it had reached the level of Watergate allusions. The Daily Caller reported that on Sunday’s broadcast of ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” commentator George Will raised the specter of impeachment.

Now the question is, how stupid do they think we are? Just imagine, Donna Brazile, if the George W. Bush administration had an IRS underling, he’s out in Cincinnati, of course, saying we’re going to target groups with the word ‘progressive’ in their title. We’d have all hell breaking loose.”

Will noted that one of the items in the 1973 impeachment articles of then-President Richard Nixon, which ultimately led to his resignation, described the Nixon administration’s use of the power of income tax audits in a “discriminatory matter.”

“This is the 40th anniversary of the Watergate summer here in Washington,” Will said. “’He has, through his subordinated and agents, endeavored…to cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigation to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner,’ — Section 1, Article 2, the impeachment articles of Richard Nixon.

Other outlets developed collateral stories on the IRS enemies list. The Jewish Press reported that along with the tea party pro-Israel lobbying groups had been subjected to enhanced IRS scrutiny.

… There is evidence the IRS also targeted pro-Israel groups whose positions were potentially inconsistent with the administration’s. For example, in 2010, the passionately pro-Israel organization Z STREET filed a lawsuit against the IRS, claiming it had been told by an IRS agent that because the organization was “connected to Israel,” its application for tax-exempt status would receive additional scrutiny.  …

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Render unto Google the things which are Google’s …

First of all, let me state right up front that it is hard to do a news critique of a graphic device. I concede that point.

At the same time, I also know that Google is not, in and of itself, a news source.

Google is, of course, much more than a news source.

Google is one of the most powerful forces shaping culture and information in this digital age in which we live, read and think.

Google is a portal, a door and a gateway. If the editors at Google decide to shape our world, our reality, into some new form then dang it, it will be shaped into that new form. If the principalities and powers at Google decide that certain forms of information are more worthy, more valuable, more acceptable than others, then that perception will become search-engine reality. It’s kind of like that showdown between Apple’s iTunes overlords and the circle of religious conservatives that produced the Manhattan Declaration.

Anyway, the Google overlords have a tradition of doing cute little graphic frameworks for the word “Google” on major days of interest in the culture, such as “The Holidays,” St. Patrick’s Day, the Super Bowl, Earth Day, the 4th of July, Halloween, etc. They also enjoy doing occasional salutes to major historic figures, often on their birthdays.

Which, of course, brings us to today — which is the most important day of the year in the Western version of the Christian calendar.

In other words, today is Easter for most of the world’s Christians. Those of us who are Orthodox Christians, and follow the older Julian calendar, will celebrate Pascha (Easter) on May 5th.

So what did the Google folks do today? Well, on one level, they decided to mark the 86th birthday of union leader Cesar Chavez. In my opinion, they ended up profoundly insulting this famous Catholic.

Thus, I would like to associate myself with this morning’s post on the topic by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher, which states in part:

Nothing against Chavez, but what the heck? Chavez, who was a devout Catholic, probably would have been bewildered as well.

Google could have ignored Easter, and nobody would have noticed. But choosing to observe something other than Easter on Easter Sunday is deliberate.

It’s a small thing, of course, but this kind of thing, accumulated, signals an intentional de-Christianization of our culture, and the creation of an intentional hostility to Christianity that will eventually cease to be latent, or minor. It cannot have been an accident that Google decided to honor a relatively obscure cultural figure instead of observing the most important Christian holiday, a day of enormous importance to an overwhelming number of people in the United States, and to an enormous number of people around the world.

The only part of that statement that I would word differently is that I would say America is evolving from from a predominantly Protestant culture that, imperfectly, attempted to avoid state endorsement of any particular religion into a culture that is increasingly hostile to traditional forms of religion — while openly endorsing modernized forms of faith that our national elites find acceptable. I think it’s simplistic and inaccurate to call America’s emerging civil religion “secular,” since it officially favors some forms of religion and rejects others.

Then again, what was that whole “stomp on Jesus” incident down in South Florida all about?

With an indirect nod to a Rob Stroud post at the Mere Inkling weblog, Dreher ends up quoting a haunting piece of the famous C.S. Lewis novel, “That Hideous Strength,” that looks forward to life in an England that is blending science and the occult, while, yes, stomping on Christianity:

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Got news? Egyptian Copts tortured for some strange reason

Yes, I know that we’re talking about a report on Fox News. That fact alone, for many readers, will mean that GetReligion is once again venturing into the world of alternative, niche, “conservative” news.

I recognize that. However, I still want to know why this event is getting little or no coverage in the mainstream press here in North America.

Let’s start at the top, which includes the first hint of what, for me, is the most interesting and important element of this hellish report:

Islamic hard-liners stormed a mosque in suburban Cairo, turning it into torture chamber for Christians who had been demonstrating against the ruling Muslim Brotherhood in the latest case of violent persecution that experts fear will only get worse.

Such stories have become increasingly common as tensions between Egypt’s Muslims and Copts mount, but in the latest case, mosque officials corroborated much of the account and even filed a police report. Demonstrators, some of whom were Muslim, say they were taken from the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in suburban Cairo to a nearby mosque on Friday and tortured for hours by hard-line militia members.

“They accompanied me to one of the mosques in the area and I discovered the mosque was being used to imprison demonstrators and torture them,” Amir Ayad, a Coptic who has been a vocal protester against the regime, told MidEast Christian News from a hospital bed.

As I have said many times (including this all-but-MIA GetReligion post about human rights, public rapes in this case) my starting point in reading coverage of Egypt is that there is no one Muslim point of view on these kinds of hot-button issues, such as the freedom of the nation’s religious minorities to practice their faith and be active in public life.

If you assume this to be true, what are the most important words in this news story?

How about the fact that some of the abused demonstrators where Muslims, along with the statement that “mosque officials corroborated much of the account and even filed a police report”?

Now, I do not read Arabic. Is there a GetReligion reader out there who can read the actual document (pictured above) to which the Fox Report links via URL? Click here to see the document itself.

Journalists often hint that they hesitate to cover stories about persecuted Christians — as well as Jews, Baha’is and members of minority forms of Islam — because they turn into emotionally loaded and one-sided debates, the political equivalent of “he said-she said” fights.

That does not appear to be the case this time around:

Officials at the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque said radical militias stormed the building, in the Cairo suburb of Moqattam, after Friday prayers.

“[We] deeply regret what has happened and apologize to the people of Moqattam,” mosque officials said in a statement, adding that “they had lost control over the mosque at the time.” The statement also “denounced and condemned the violence and involving mosques in political conflicts.”

So what does this mean?

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