From Baptist kid to jihadist fighter

In “The Jihadist Next Door,” Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Andrea Elliott’s Sunday cover story in The New York Times Magazine, Elliott turns her laser focus on the journey of one American youngster who decides to join a Somali terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda.

By going deep into one particular story, this long-form feature sheds light on bigger issues. But as I read her opening grafs, I worried that Elliott was going to give short shrift to the story’s religious dimensions.

Sentences like this one, which appeared high up in the story, teased the reader but were not immediately developed:

Brought up a Southern Baptist, Omar [Hammami] went to Bible camp as a boy and sang “Away in a Manger” on Christmas Eve.

On the second page of the 12-page story was another teaser:

Hammami’s journey from a Bible Belt town in America to terrorist training camps in Somalia was pieced together from interviews with his parents, sister, best friends and law-enforcement officials, as well as hours of home videos and passages from his e-mail messages, journal entries and hundreds of his postings on an Internet forum.

A later sentence seemed to link “Alabama’s conservative Christian culture” to a previous paragraph’s mention of Ku Klux Klan, but this may have been merely an unfortunate transition.

Once the stage is set, Elliott dives into her subject’s warring religious loyalties:

Yet for all of his social triumph, Hammami was consumed with a profound internal conflict. He didn’t know whether to be Muslim or Christian.

Omar was raised by a father who came to America from Syria and a mother who had Omar baptized in the local Baptist church. Somehow mom and dad found a way to make their two-faith marriage work, but as Omar grew older he became obsessed over questions of religious identity. In time began wearing Arabic robes to school and praying to Mecca at the flagpole where Christian students regularly gathered for their prayers.

We know Omar is headed for big trouble when he develops a more-fundamentalist-than-thou mindset and begins “searching for guidance on the Internet.” Before long he moves to Toronto, to join the Muslim community there, and on to Somalia where he rapidly climbs the jihadist ladder to emerge as a leader with his own YouTube recruitment videos. (He shows up at about 2:30 into the video featured at the top of this post.)

Dear Ms. Elliott: I am sorry I let a few early teaser sentences lead me to briefly doubt you. This is a great and fascinating (and disturbing) piece of journalism. I can only imagine the hard work you did to establish trust and communication with Omar’s family members and his jihadist brethren. And the hundreds of reader comments show that you have hit a nerve with your in-depth reporting.

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Oh No! Abstinence works? (revisited)

Earlier today, we looked at a couple of media treatments of that abstinence study. Both the Washington Post and Associated Press coverage we looked at were much better than this Los Angeles Times story. It’s awful. Here’s a sample:

The George W. Bush administration poured tens of millions of dollars into federal funding for abstinence-only programs, most of them religious-oriented, with little or no evidence that they worked. And new data released last week showed that sexual activity, pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases are increasing among teens.

What are reporters Thomas H. Maugh II and Shari Roan talking about? Have they even read the Bush administration guidelines for funding of abstinence programs? Or, for that matter, for funding of faith-based groups? Do they really believe that “most” of the Bush administration funds went to religious-oriented programs? Really? Now, I’m not saying that in the bloated bureaucracy that is the federal government that funds aren’t misappropriated to religious charities that fail to follow the regulations for federal funds. (Indeed, the ACLU got Health and Human Services to agree to stop funding one group over concerns the funds were being allocated to a group whose program was, well, religiously oriented.) But if you believe that most federal funds for abstinence programs went to “religious-oriented” programs, you shouldn’t be writing on this topic.

And that’s not even mentioning the failure of this story to mention that non-abstinence programs receive the vast majority of federal funds for sex education. My previous post discussed how odd it is that studies showing the same rates of effectiveness for various sex ed programs are written up as failures for only one type of sex ed program (and it’s always the abstinence program that gets blamed or framed as the curriculum that shouldn’t be funded).

But what’s also interesting is how differently the Los Angeles Times portrayed the effectiveness of other forms of sex education. It claimed that the other forms of sex education used (one that encouraged abstinence but taught about birth control and one that taught about birth control) were also tremendously effective:

Other forms of sex education also worked, however, reducing sexual activity by about 20% and reducing multiple sexual partners by about 40%, according to the study reported Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

It doesn’t explain which forms of sex education were successful. But compare that with what the Associated Press said:

The students, mostly 12-year-olds, were assigned to one of four options: eight hour-long abstinence-only classes, safe-sex classes, classes incorporating both approaches; or classes in general healthy behavior, which served as a control group. Results for each class were compared with the control group.

Two years later, about one-third of abstinence-only students said they’d had sex since the classes ended, versus nearly half – about 49 percent – of the control group. Sexual activity rates in the other two groups didn’t differ from the control group.

And the AP’s statement even seems to conflict with what the Washington Post says:

Over the next two years, about 33 percent of the students who went through the abstinence program started having sex, compared with about 52 percent who were taught only safe sex. About 42 percent of the students who went through the comprehensive program started having sex, and about 47 percent of those who learned about other ways to be healthy did.

If 42 percent of the students who learned about “safe sex” and abstinence had sex while 52 percent who learned solely about how to have “safe sex,” that seems noteworthy.

I don’t have access to the full study but these three summaries all seem to say different things. Either the other sex ed programs showed worse results than the control group, the same results as the control group or better results than the control group. That’s not hard to make happen when dealing with statistics but it does make you wonder about how studies are presented by the media.

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Fair criticism on march coverage? (corrected)

As I mentioned the other day, media coverage of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., always offers conservative activists new opportunities to bash the mainstream press. As a journalist who has always worked in the mainstream, I frankly wish that the mainstream press would make their work a little harder to do.

What we have at the top of this post is a pretty typical example of this genre. It is full of movement code words and, I am sure, contains the kind of language — “pro-aborts,” for example — that will make people on the other side of the issue roll their eyes. It’s a conservative video from a conservative group.

However, it makes some valid points. Please watch it, to understand where these media critics are coming from.

For example, you know and I know that crowd estimates have become highly politicized here inside the Beltway. One side sees 100 people. The other side counts 1,000 people. I think it’s important for the press to quote the estimates on both sides, since the police are now reluctant to give estimates. It’s an imperfect science, at best.

But the CNN language that is quoted and shown? Get out of here. That’s just crazy stuff. And what can we say about the online piece from nonNewsweek? Here is the top of the item by Krista Gesaman:

Today is the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case legalizing abortion, and droves of women are prepared to face rainy weather to support their positions during the annual Washington, D.C., demonstrations. But there will be one major difference with the demonstration route this year — it’s shorter.

“The organizers are getting older, and it’s more difficult for them to walk a long distance,” says Stanley Radzilowski, an officer in the planning unit for the Washington, D.C., police department. A majority of the participants are in their 60s and were the original pioneers either for or against the case, he says.

So this raises the question: where are the young, vibrant women supporting their pro-life or pro-choice positions? Likely, they’re at home. “Young women are still concerned about these issues, but they’re not trained to go out and protest,” says Kristy Maddux, assistant professor at the University of Maryland, who specializes in historical feminism.

Where to begin?

Well, as conservative media critic Matthew Balan noted, the folks at nonNewsweek could have started their research by reading, no, not Right to Life News, but their own sister publication — The Washington Post. In that newsroom, the rising tide of young marchers has in recent years turned into a theme that runs through the coverage.

But this is a case in which the conservative people that made this video could have strengthened their case by citing accurate, informed coverage, as well as bashing away at some of the inaccurate and often embarrassingly biased coverage that — this is painful to say — is out there, year after year.

The folks at ThineEyes.org could have, for example, included part of that recent Metro column in the Post by Robert McCartney, the one that opened like this:

I went to the March for Life rally … on the Mall expecting to write about its irrelevance. Isn’t it quaint, I thought, that these abortion protesters show up each year on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, even though the decision still stands after 37 years. What’s more, with a Democrat in the White House likely to appoint justices who support abortion rights, surely the Supreme Court isn’t going to overturn Roe in the foreseeable future.

How wrong I was. The antiabortion movement feels it’s gaining strength, even if it’s not yet ready to predict ultimate triumph, and Roe supporters (including me) are justifiably nervous. … In this case, I was especially struck by the large number of young people among the tens of thousands at the march. It suggests that the battle over abortion will endure for a long time to come.

Yes, it’s important for media critics to stress that their goal is to praise good journalism, as well as to spotlight the bad. Bashing away, year after year, can be balanced with praise for journalists who are striving to get the facts right.

It never hurts, for example, to point journalists toward one of the towering achievements in media criticism on this topic, which would be the famous 1990 Los Angeles Times series on media bias and abortion, written by the late David Shaw. In this case, the reporter himself was pro-abortion rights, but he was also pro-journalism. That series continues to be must reading, 20 years later.

Let’s close with one of its more famous passages:

… It’s not surprising that some abortion-rights activists would see journalists as their natural allies. Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and two major media studies have shown that 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington last year, and the American Newspaper Guild, the union that represents news and editorial employees at many major papers, has officially endorsed “freedom of choice in abortion decisions.”

On an issue as emotional as abortion, some combatants on each side expect reporters to allow their personal beliefs to take precedence over their professional obligation to be fair and impartial.

And all of the fair-minded journalists said: Amen.

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Got news? China’s missing girls

Every now and then, a story that I have followed for years and filed over in category A gets connected in some completely logical way with another important story that I have filed in category B and, suddenly, I am shocked to discover something new — a major story in category C.

I think the Washington Times just printed a perfect example of this phenomenon. It will be interesting to see if anyone follows up on this story.

The story in category A: China’s one-child-per-couple policy, which has long been the subject of passionate protest by religious activists. When combined with that society’s prejudice in favor of male children, you end up with a powerful form of sexism that results in the abortion of millions of unborn children who happen to be female. Of course, there are also secular human-rights activists — feminists, even — who are concerned about this issue.

The story in category B: The growing global concern about the sexual trafficking of young people, mostly girls, in what amounts to a new form of slavery. Once again, this issue has inspired activism in a wide variety of religious groups and in secular human-rights circles, as well.

And the story in category C? Here is the top of Cheryl Wetzstein’s report:

When Chinese officials created the country’s one-child-per-couple policy in 1978, they intended to contain the country’s burgeoning population for the sake of economic growth, national security and environmental preservation.

But Chinese boys now outnumber Chinese girls by the millions, and the impact of the lopsided sex imbalance is starting to spill beyond China’s borders.

This phenomenon of “missing girls” has turned China into “a giant magnet” for human traffickers, who lure or kidnap women and sell them — even multiple times — into forced marriages or the commercial sex trade, says Ambassador Mark Lagon, who oversaw human rights issues at the State Department during the administration of President George W. Bush.

“The impact is obvious. It’s creating a ‘Wild West’ sex industry in China,” Mr. Lagon said.

In China, “an entire nation of women” is missing because they were aborted before they were born, said Reggie Littlejohn, founder of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, a nonprofit anti-sex slavery group. “This is gendercide.”

The story connects the dots between statistics from a variety of different, starting with the prediction by the official Chinese Academy of Social Services that, by 2020, at least 24 million Chinese men might not be able to find brides. Wetzstein notes that “previous estimates put that number in the 30 million to 50 million range.”

But the Chinese traditions favoring male children are deep — even ancient.

Chinese parents believe they must have a son to carry their family name, inherit family properties, support them in their old age and host their funeral ceremonies. Tradition says children belong to their father’s lineages, and daughters become part of their husband’s families.

Because of these ancient beliefs, China’s one-child policy forces couples to choose between “their future retirement and the lives of their daughters,” said Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, a nonprofit pro-life group who has been tracking the one-child policy since the late 1980s.

What is the religion hook in this story?

In a way there is none, other than the high-profile role that religious groups have played in protesting both the one-child policy in China and weak efforts by governments worldwide to fight the rising tide of sexual trafficking. Of course, issue of abortion — government-mandated abortions — looms over the debates about the actions of the Chinese government.

In other words, while all three of these hellish stories are rooted in concerns about basic human rights, they are often portrayed as “conservative” issues or even “evangelical” issues because so many religious conservatives are involved in efforts to combat these abuses. Thus, I have topped this post with one of our “Got news?” headlines.

But this could change, because the movement to fight sexual trafficking is broadening. The U.S. government is also quietly concerned about the situation in China.

… (The) most immediate and horrifying consequence of China’s “missing girls” is that it is fueling a growing trade in human beings, especially girls and women, say those who are fighting it.

The State Department’s 2009 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report downgraded China to its Tier 2 “watch list,” because it is a “source, transit, and destination country for men, women and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation.”

While women from many countries are being captured or trafficked into China, North Korean women are especially vulnerable. … If North Korean women protest or try to flee their forced marriages or prostitution houses, they can be “repatriated” to North Korea, said Mr. Lagon. Upon their return, they are treated like criminals and are likely to be beaten, imprisoned or killed, he said.

Laura Lederer, a former State Department official who now is part of Global Centurion, a nonprofit group fighting sex slavery, said that the sex imbalance in China is leading to a “new tsunami of demand.”

Stay tuned and, by all means, please watch for coverage in other newspapers and wire services.

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Beer, babes and … abortion?

Let’s gather ’round the TV as we celebrate one of America’s biggest holidays, Super Bowl Sunday. And if the game’s a dud we can laugh at the commercials, many of which feature beer and babes.

This year, a new Super Bowl advertiser (Focus on the Family) is paying CBS to air a spot with a different kind of message about (pick one) pro-life or anti-abortion values.

As we could have predicted, some pro-choice (or pro-abortion) groups are SHOCKED that Focus would do such. And Focus is SURPRISED that they are shocked!!!

An Associated Press story available at the Sports Illustrated web site captures the shock and surprise surrounding this ad, which will feature college football star Tim Tebow and his mother:

The New York-based Women’s Media Center was coordinating the protest with backing from the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority and other groups.

“An ad that uses sports to divide rather than to unite has no place in the biggest national sports event of the year — an event designed to bring Americans together,” said Jehmu Greene, president of the Women’s Media Center.

“By offering one of the most coveted advertising spots of the year to an anti-equality, anti-choice, homophobic organization, CBS is aligning itself with a political stance that will damage its reputation, alienate viewers, and discourage consumers from supporting its shows and advertisers,” the letter said.

(P.S. #1: When did women’s groups come to believe that the Super Bowl’s marathon mix of man-on-man violence and ads that objectify sisters was a hallowed ground that demanded their protection?)

Meanwhile, Focus has gone from not acknowledging the ad to discussing it to (in the AP piece) defending it:

Gary Schneeberger, a spokesman for Focus on the Family, said funds for the Tebow ad were donated by a few “very generous friends” and did not come from the group’s general fund.

Schneeberger said he and his colleagues “were a little surprised” at the furor over the ad.

“There’s nothing political and controversial about it,” he said. “When the day arrives, and you sit down to watch the game on TV, those who oppose it will be quite surprised at what the ad is all about.”

“We understand that some people don’t think very highly of what we do,” Schneeberger said. “We’re not trying to sell you a soft drink–we’re not selling anything. We’re trying to celebrate families.”

(P.S. #2: I once had a close friend who routinely embarrassed me in social situations. Time after time he would do things that others found offensive. He was always surprised by people’s reactions, but then he would go on to offend again and again. I wonder what ever happened to him.)

The story is popping up in papers and other media outlets nationwide, but so far I haven’t seen any local angles or coverage in Colorado papers.

It would also be intriguing to see coverage that explored some of these related issues more deeply:

* What kinds of advocacy ads have aired or not aired on previous Super Bowls?

* What does this conflict say about the unique and elevated status the Super Bowl has in our national life?

* Following the Supreme Court‘s recent decision opening the doors to greater political advocacy by corporations, what’s the role of free speech on mega-events like the Super Bowl?

For his part, Tebow has asked viewers to respect a point of view that led to his being born:

“I know some people won’t agree with it, but I think they can at least respect that I stand up for what I believe,” Tebow said. “I’ve always been very convicted of it (his views on abortion) because that’s the reason I’m here, because my mom was a very courageous woman. So any way that I could help, I would do it.”

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Tissue alert: God is in the details

Want to start your day with a real tearjerker (the good kind)? Take a few minutes to read this story by the Washington Post about a Maryland pastor whose family was stranded in Haiti after the earthquake. Yes, it’s five pages long, but hit the “print” button so you can read the whole thing lest I be accused of plagiarism for posting too much of it here.

I fear any summary will butcher the beautiful storytelling, but the story shows a pastor at a church called Eglise Baptiste du Calvaire (appears Protestant from the website) faces tremendous fear that his wife and six children were among the dead in Haiti. One writer reports from Haiti, the other writes from Washington. Here’s the picture painted during the earthquake.

They ran to the roof. They could see buildings collapsing and slabs of brick falling. They rushed back downstairs. As if frozen, they crouched together in the living room. They began to pray, hoping God would hear. But with more booming, God’s ears seemed a mighty long way away. “The blood of Jesus! The blood of Jesus!” one of the dinner guests cried out.

Lissa had to protect her children.

“Mommy! Mommy!”

Wind coming through the windows blew things about. Like baby sheep, the children scooted close to their mother. They thought the house might cave in. They threw shoes, a Bible, birth certificates, passports into a green pillowcase. They ran out, turned up an alley, roped together by their own sets of hands. Brick walls were falling. The earth had stopped moving, but things above it had not. They hurried aimlessly down another street.

I love this detail: the prayers, the dinner guests, the pillow case. The writers make you feel like you’re there. The story flashes back to when the couple met. “Lissa liked that William was “a man of God,” who also was doing some church ministry,” the story says.

In time, William found himself speaking against the Aristide government in class. He was warned to stop. Authorities summoned him for questioning more than once. Then came the day in early 2002 when a fellow teacher, also outspoken, disappeared. In early 2003 Lissa, who had become increasingly worried about her husband’s political stance, told him he should leave Haiti or risk not living to see his children grow up. At the airport, the children howled as Papi disappeared into the skies.

He settled first in Brooklyn, where he met a Haitian exile group, which helped him get to Silver Spring. He began working and sending money home to his family. He never let more than two days go by without calling home, and the voices of his wife and six children filled him with joy. For the past year, he has been working with an immigration lawyer to get visas so his family can come join him.

Flashing forward, after fearing their deaths for five days, he finally gets a phone call from his wife.

“Thank God!” he said. “Thank God!” He started pacing rapidly. He kept talking over his wife. Later, he would regret not hearing everything.

Lissa told him they have no food or water. She told him their house is ruined and she has no money.

She told him she loved him.

He told her he loved her.

Okay, I admit I’m a sappy newlywed. Here’s something for you sappy parents.

But on Saturday after saying goodbye to his wife, Saint-Hilaire listened to the voice of his 15-year-old daughter Bella on the phone.

“Papi,” she asked, “how are you?”

And when his oldest daughter — who had thus far endured unimaginable horror, who was now without food and water and had seen bodies heaped like stacks of laundry — showed concern for her father and his well-being, Saint-Hilaire balled his hand up and put it in his mouth to stifle the sobs of relief.

Pass the tissues. Please.

After initially reading the story, I was tempted to suggest that the writers could have gone deeper with the religion angle, asking the family more questions about their faith and how it impacted them during the earthquake. But religion was told through implicit details.

Scattered in the descriptions, you can see that this family’s faith is important to them. You can see the detail of the pastor watching the news on a TV in his church, the family shoving their Bible into a green pillowcase, the couple’s first meeting at church. The pastor imagines how the twins could be singing gospel music, he faces Haitians at the church who needed counseling, “I wondered how come I couldn’t hear God,” he says, and members of his church lay hands on him.

Unfortunately, you don’t see those kinds of descriptions in explicit religion stories, much less general stories where these details can be found. They are the type of details that give a story with religious elements color, a way for readers to see what faith means to a family, a reporting technique more reporters could mirror.

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‘Nonononono! Oh God, not Erika!’

When journalists who care about religion news make a case for improved coverage on this beat, we usually talk about the ways in which religious faith — in almost all cultures — helps shape the pivotal events in the lives of the overwhelming majority of people in this world. A wise, highly secular editor once told me that he recognized that, for most readers, it’s hard to talk about Life’s defining moments (births, baptisms, marriages, tragedies, illnesses, deaths, funerals) without talking about religion.

That’s true, but that doesn’t make those events any easier to write about in the context of news. It’s hard to pin down the precise impact of faith, unless people talk openly about the subject. It’s hard to write about the faith that’s in between the lines.

It’s even harder, I would argue, to write about those same life-and-death topics in a way that expresses a loss of faith or the way that people face these issues without faith.

How do you write about the emotions, doubts, pains and experiences of people who are facing ultimate issues without faith? Their stories deserve coverage too, right? That’s a kind of faith story, too, even if the “faith” element is woven deeply into a person’s lose of faith or denial of faith. As a recent Pew Forum study (.pdf) noted, atheists pray, too.

This brings us to a gripping pair of stories (Part I here and Part II is here) in the Washington Post Style section about the murder of 9-year-old Erika Georgette Smith in 2002 and her mother Carol’s long search for justice and some form of peace and even joy in the aftermath of this ultimate loss.

I sought out these stories after watching a woman on my commuter train read the first installment, while fighting back tears. I asked her if there was a faith element in the story and she said, yes, there was. It was about a mother’s grief and the loss of faith. After reading both stories, I will say that the loss of faith is certainly implied, but is not spelled out in detail.

Nevertheless, these stories are stunning on multiple levels. Print them out, sit down and prepare for a painful journey.

Reporter Neely Tucker is more than the author — he is an active, first-person participant. After covering events in the aftermath of the murder, he became close friends with the grieving single mother and her family and they eventually married. He knows her grief from the inside out.

How can a parent go on? What happens to the bonds between mother and daughter? The following account of Carol Smith’s life after Erika’s death covers more than seven years. It involves crushing despair, a tortuous odyssey through the criminal justice system, being cross-examined in court by the man who killed her child, and, through sheer will, surviving to build a new life.

As it happens, I have had an unusual, front-row seat to this arc of grief. I wrote for the front page of this newspaper a lengthy investigation of how the suspect had tricked prison and parole officials into releasing him a few months before the killings. After the story was published, I developed a friendship with Carol Smith. Four years later, we were married.

The goal, simply stated, is to tell a human story, a story about loss.

That is all. Tucker writes, in utter candor:

… I wish to make clear that I do not think that there are lessons to be taken away from the murder of a child. I do not think all things work together in a mystical plan for good. Some things in life are brutal, ugly and will never make sense.

But Aeschylus, the ancient Greek playwright, held that there was suffering so great that, even in our sleep, it dripped upon the heart until “in our own despair, against our will,” comes a terrible wisdom. That wisdom is perhaps the stubbornness of hope, the human resilience that lies beyond our understanding, that we commonly call love.

Some details jump out at you. A key piece of evidence is the Bible that the killer stole from the apartment of Erika’s father, after he killed both of them. Why steal a Bible?

There is this fond memory: Erika use to sit in the lap of Carol’s mother, learning to recite Bible verses by memory. Ultimately, the little girl is buried in her red-velvet Christmas dress. Weeks after the murder, a page in Carol’s journal is covered with one word — “pain” — written over and over and over.

For years, it seemed that the accused gunman would be declared incompetent to stand trial. Life seemed to stop for the grieving mother, in part for psychological and physical reasons that Tucker clearly describes. And finally, there is this totally understandable passage:

She felt herself in free fall, where every waking moment was physically painful. Depression set in like an arthritis of the mind. There was no Erika. There was no homework, no swimming lessons, no girl-chat. Imagined scenes of the shooting played in her mind in an endless loop. Weeks passed, then months.

She moved into a heavily secured apartment building. She was prone to rages and a forgetfulness that bordered on amnesia. She stopped attending family dinners and holiday celebrations. Her faith disintegrated. If God wasn’t going to answer prayers to keep your children safe, what other prayer would be answered?

I found myself asking: Where was this woman’s church in all this?

If her faith disintegrated, was this in part because of a failure by her chosen faith community? Or was this a case of a woman who had a private faith, but no faith with, as the saying goes, some human flesh on it to embrace her and help her?

The story does move past the pain, to a time for butterfly gardens, gatherings to share girlie stories, days when Tucker can visit the cemetery and sit, leaning back against the girl’s tombstone, while telling Erika — Out loud? In silent prayers? — how her mother is doing. Ultimately, there is this:

“I can feel myself going on,” she said one evening, when we were sitting in the kitchen. “And it’s okay. I don’t feel like I’m leaving Erika.” She woke up one morning, beaming: “I dreamed I was in Erika’s school. She came to door of her classroom and hugged me. I got a hug!”

I had rarely seen her so happy.

A month or so later, through the mysteries of surrogacy, we were pregnant. We are expecting twins this month, a girl and a boy.

“I still believe,” she said the other day, “that miracles are possible for me.”

Read both stories, please.

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Focus’s family squabbles (continued)

You can learn a lot about a family by observing how it handles fights. And Laurie Goodstein’s Sunday New York Times story shows that as the breach between James Dobson and Focus on the Family grows, all parties are keeping quiet and pretending everything is OK.

Earlier this year I wrote on coverage by media outlets in Colorado Springs (where Focus and many other evangelical parachurch organizations are headquartered) about the decision by Dobson to launch a competing organization and radio program called “James Dobson on the Family.”

Given the prominence of both Dobson and Focus, I was shocked at how few media outlets covered this extraordinary story about a major parachurch founder leaving his organization to start a new organization that does basically the same thing. (The silence may be partially due to the shrinking of religion pages and reporting staffs at many news outlets. And I just know the AP’s Eric Gorski would have been all over this story if he hadn’t recently been transitioned off the religion beat).

Goodstein did the best she could when principals aren’t talking: She tracked down other folks for her story, including a former Focus executive and an unnamed Focus board member who commented on Dobson’s potential motives for launching a new radio show with his son, 39-year-old Ryan:

The real reason for Dr. Dobson’s new venture may have been his son. A Focus board member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that because Ryan Dobson has been divorced, it would be against the board’s policy for him to serve as the voice for Focus, which counsels people on marriage and child-rearing. (Ryan Dobson has since remarried and has a son of his own.)

Goodstein also grasped the uniqueness and singularity of this split in parachurch circles:

Experts who study Christian ministries said that whatever the reason for it, Dr. Dobson’s decision was extraordinary.

“I can’t think of another example where the leader of a major ministry organization founded it, built it up, then moved on and did something so visibly competitive,” said Stewart M. Hoover, director of the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Goodstein also shows that in an era of media- and celebrity-driven religion, Focus’s efforts to transition to new leadership (and potentially a new generation of supporters) may have been half-baked:

Dr. Dobson did cultivate a successor as leader of Focus, but he never cultivated anyone to succeed him as its media personality. Focus will continue broadcasting its radio show with a variety of hosts, including Jim Daly, whom Dr. Dobson handpicked as the new president for Focus in 2005.

Focus is talking about one topic that was formerly off limits: its plans to air a Super Bowl commercial featuring Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam. A focus spokesperson told Electa Draper of The Denver Post that it taped a “life- and family affirming” 30-second spot. Pam Tebow faced a problematic pregnancy with Tim while she served with her husband as a missionary in the Philippines, but decided to carry Tim to term nonetheless.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to hear Focus and Dobson reveal the truth about their split.

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