Everyone has a big “but”

MUNICH, GERMANY - JULY 09:  The Ottheinrich Bible is displayed during a photocall of the 'Bayerische Staatsbibliothek' on July 9, 2008 in Munich, Germany. The Ottheinrich Bible, the first illuminated courtly masterpiece, lavishly illustrated with sparkling gold and precious colours manuscript of the New Testament in German, written circa 1430 in Bavaria, almost 100 years before the seminal Bible translation by Martin Luther, the unusually large manuscript is incomparably the grandest surviving manuscript of the German vernacular Bible, as well as one of the most ambitious books of the northern renaissance. The Bible is expected to fetch in excess of 3 million Euro.  (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

The New York Times has an interesting piece by Geraldine Fabrikant about a collector building a collection of ancient Bibles. With the goal of establishing a museum dedicated to the Bible, the family behind the Hobby Lobby chain of stores is on a bit of a spending spree. They’ve “bought illuminated, or decorated, manuscripts, Torahs, papyri and other works worth $20 million to $40 million from auction houses, dealers, private collectors and institutions, some of which may be selling because of financial pressure.”

Steve Green is the president of the company and we learn the following about his religious views:

Mr. Green is Pentecostal, but other family members worship in churches of other denominations, including Baptist and Assemblies of God. The family gives to a variety of Christian causes, Oral Roberts University and evangelical ministries among them, and adheres to Christian principles, closing its stores on Sundays, playing Christian music in them and operating Mardel, a separate chain of religious bookstores.

This reminds me of a question one of my colleagues asked me at one of my old newsrooms. He wondered whether Pentecostals were a religion or a denomination. Now, the phrasing above is unclear on two points. “Pentecostal” isn’t a denomination per se, although there are denominations with the word “Pentecostal” in their names. And either way you can’t say “but” other family members are Assemblies of God. That’s because Assemblies of God is the largest Pentecostal denomination out there. I’m unclear on what denomination Mr. Green is a member of.

Still, the story is interesting and provides a lot of detail on the rare book market, without overlooking the role religion plays in this particular story:

The group also bought a Martin Luther New Testament with 44 lushly hand-painted and illuminated woodcuts, suggesting that the edition was made for royal use, perhaps for Luther’s protector, Frederick the Wise.

The book was sold by Jorn Gunther, a dealer who had listed the edition at $400,000 in his catalog. “Book dealers are bibliophiles, but these men are coming at it with a strong belief that the Bible is the word of God and they want to show that,” said Mr. Gunther of Stalden, Switzerland. “It is like a doctor buying medical books.”

I did wonder about one phrase in this sentence:

Dr. Carroll, a former professor in ancient studies who has specialized in Biblical manuscripts, recently resigned from Cornerstone University, a nondenominational Christ-based liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, Mich., to become executive director of the museum and an adviser to Mr. Green.

I’m more familiar with the phrase “Christ-centered” than “Christ-based” and I note that the university uses the former phrase to describe itself. But I’m wondering if we could get something a bit more explanatory for a general reader.

It’s rare to see this much coverage of religion in a business section story. But the piece could have used some edits or guidance from someone with a bit more understanding of religion. For instance, it would be nice to know a bit more about what motivates the Green family. I don’t normally think of “Pentecostalism” when I think of ancient Biblical texts. But I also know enough about the Assemblies of God to know what emphasis that denomination places on study of Scriptures. These would be worthy themes for exploration.

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Don’t ask, don’t tell (about the chaplains)

If you are interested in church-state separation issues, and you happened to pick up one of the big American newspapers this morning, that sound you are probably hearing is the theme from “Jaws.” Here’s the top of the A1 report from the Washington Post:

President Obama has endorsed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise between lawmakers and the Defense Department, the White House announced Monday, an agreement that may sidestep a key obstacle to repealing the military’s policy banning gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces.

The compromise was finalized in meetings Monday at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers will now, within days, vote on amendments that would repeal the Clinton-era policy, with a provision ensuring that any change would not take effect until after the Pentagon completes a study about its impact on troops. That study is due to Congress by Dec. 1. …

While gay rights advocates hailed the move as a “dramatic breakthrough,” it remained uncertain whether the deal would secure enough votes to pass both houses of Congress. Republicans have vowed to maintain “don’t ask, don’t tell,” while conservative Democrats have said they would oppose a repeal unless military leaders made it clear that they approved of such a change.

In political terms, this means that everyone gets to vote before the November elections — which are expected to cut into the Democratic Party’s huge majorities on the Hill — yet the Pentagon would complete its study and announce the results after the voting is done. In other words, Bible Belt Democrats and others in red zip codes have to face the maximum amount of pressure in the campaigns. GOP leaders have to love that.

At this stage, the reporting is totally about politics — of course. Up is up. Down is down. The forces of journalistic gravity remain in effect. It’s much too early for the religion ghosts to make it into print (think about the patterns in the health-care reform news coverage).

In the Los Angeles Times report, the one conservative cultural voice that is featured in the story is from a completely predictable source and the topic, of course, is the nature of the political horse race that surrounds the bill. The reporters probably had this group’s telephone number on speed dial.

… Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, criticized the agreement as a backroom deal that “disregards the views of our troops and uses the military to advance the political agenda of a radical special interest group.”

“This rushed deal is a tacit admission that after the November election, the Democrats are likely to lose a working liberal majority,” Perkins said. “They want to get what they can now, and also far enough away from the election that it won’t be prominent in the mind of voters.”

So what is the faith-based issue that is almost certain to surface in the weeks between now and the election? Why, a clash between gay rights and religious liberty claims by traditional believers, of course. The story has already been developing, but has received minimal mainstream media coverage (click here for a short Religion News Service story). As you would expect, niche media (Baptist Press, for example) covered the story from day one.

First, it helps to know that there have been growing tensions in the past decade between conservative military chaplains (most of them evangelical Protestants, due to the basic math of who is in the military) and chaplains who are from more liturgical or liberal Protestant groups and, to a lesser degree, the Catholic Church.

This surfaced in 2005 as reports that conservatives were claiming that they faced discrimination when it came time for promotions. A year later, this conflict grew more specific — with some chaplains saying that they were being punished or shunned if and when they protested policies requiring them to pray publicly in doctrinally neutral language, meaning language that did not include references to Jesus or to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

While the conflicts focused on predictable flocks — Southern Baptists vs. Episcopalians, for example — others were affected. Many Eastern Orthodox bishops, for example, would never approve of their priests NOT praying in the name of the Holy Trinity. That simply isn’t a doctrinal option, even in a ecumenical or interfaith setting. Can these priests continue to serve as chaplains?

As you can see, there is no easy way out of this church-state maze. Either non-Christians or liberal Christians must, on occasion, hear explicitly Christian prayers, or military personal from more conservative traditions have to live without any potential by chaplains who share their faith.

The ideal military chaplain, these days, is one who is willing to serve as a kind of doctrinal Swiss Army knife, pulling out various rites and prayers and beliefs when the need arises. This is easier for some chaplains than others. How easy will this be for Muslims?

Meanwhile, how does a liberal clergyperson handle ministry to soldiers whose beliefs she or he considers intolerant? Does a traditional Catholic turn to an Episcopal woman in a collar for a blessing before heading into combat? How does a traditional shepherd handle battlefield counseling for openly gay soldiers whose beliefs and challenges (someone experiencing stress in a same-sex marriage, for example) directly violate the doctrines and traditions that the pastor or priest vowed to defend when being ordained?

Truth is, it is often impossible for a military chaplain to refer a troubled soldier to a chaplain whose foxhole is 20 or 30 miles away. There is no way to have a full range of chaplains — from Pentecostal to Wiccan, from Reform Judaism to strict forms of Islam — available in every base, let alone in every submarine. You can see why military chaplains have long been the subject of church-state conflicts, for the perfectly logical reason that these pastors work for, and answer to, both the church and the state.

Sure enough, more than 40 retired military chaplains — speaking out would be too risky for active chaplains — have issued a letter (.pdf) warning that repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” will lead to even more conflict in their ranks, with further limits on their religious liberty and ability to minister in good conscience without violating their ordination vows. And, as you would expect, voices on the left side of the debate have responded by saying these chaplains are being illogical and intolerant.

In other words, there is a story in there.

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5Q+1: Julia Duin and her times

Sunday is the much-overlooked Christian feast of Pentecost and we live in an era in which the global rise of Pentecostalism is simply — this cannot be debated — one of the most important religion stories of our time. Ask the experts at the Pew Forum on the Religion & Public Life.

So I thought this would be a good time for a 5Q+1 with a religion-beat veteran who has just written a book that addresses a variety of newsworthy topics linked to this trend — such as the impact of Charismatic renewal in the national and global Anglican scene and ways in which this freewheeling form of faith can be a source of great strength and a door into forms of leadership that can be abused.

The book is “Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community” and the author is Julia Duin, who is best known, for those who have long followed religion-news coverage, for her work at the Houston Chronicle and at the Washington Times. In all, she has worked at five mainstream newspapers, often earning high marks in Religion Newswriters of America contests and written five books, including another recent work that drew media attention — “Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do About It.”

“Days of Fire and Glory” cuts especially close to the bone, since it focuses on events in the nationally known Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, which Duin attended during her Houston years. The other key word in the title is “community,” since much of the work of that parish revolved around the lives of individuals and families that, literally, lived in common households, communities, communes, etc. This fascinated Duin since she had experience with life in a Christian community in Portland. For more information on this fascinating and frightening book, which is rooted in 20 years of research and interviews, see this review by journalist George Conger of the Church of England Newspaper.

Duin was born in Baltimore and was raised in Hawaii, Maryland, Connecticut and Oregon. She is a graduate of Lewis & Clark College in Portland and has a master’s degree in religion from the Trinity School for Ministry, an Anglican seminary in Ambridge, Pa. For more information on her work and interests, visit her homepage and blog.

So here are her responses to those familiar questions:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I check GR and Whispers in the Loggia every morning plus I get literally hundreds of emails from Richard Kim, an Episcopal-turned-Anglican priest who operates an informal wire service of religion news. He scoops up a lot of stuff. When I have time, I check Rod Dreher’s weblog, Titus 1:9 and then the Episcopal Cafe, to see what the left is up to.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

Overseas religious persecution tops the list. I did a front-page story recently on how the Chinese government is killing off hundreds — no one knows the true number — of Falun Gong prisoners for their organs and I got no pickups. Now that story is not completely new but the MSM is not touching it. It’s Nazi horror stuff: people getting snuffed out for their skin, lungs, corneas, livers and kidneys. The Falun Gong had a press conference recently in the Capitol on this — with secular folks who are not part of their movement testifying — and it was pathetic how few media attended. The slow strangulation of Orthodox Copts by the Egyptian government is another story. Teen-aged girls are getting kidnapped, gang-raped and forced to convert to Islam. Islamic mobs attack Christians with impunity. These stories are not hard to do but I don’t see journalists out there doing them.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I just did a series on the interfaith movement and how interesting combos of Jews, Mormons and Muslims are getting together, setting up think tanks and institutes and holding off-the-record meetings on ways they can work together. One New York foundation — led by a rabbi — does nothing but get foreign imams and rabbis together for several days to teach them how to import American-style interfaith networks into their own countries. I’m also watching how Islamic governments (Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kazakhstan) are sponsoring all these interfaith conferences; in fact, Kazakhstan is having yet another one next month. Meanwhile there’s these off-the-record meetings American evangelicals are having with Muslim governments, such as Morocco, about religious freedom.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

It informs everything we do and religion stories are truly everywhere. When you’ve got 95 percent of the American public believing in God; when religious events are Americans’ biggest leisure activity, when Americans spend millions of dollars on sports, but billions on religion (the late George Cornell of the Associated Press did a story in 1994 that actually proved this); then you have to ask why religion stories rarely make the top of A1 unless it’s about the pope. And why is it that journalists who’ve attended a religious college or seminary find it nearly impossible to get hired at a major newspaper? And why is it that sports gets 20-30 writers and photographers and a whole section to itself while at the same paper one reporter has to cover all the major world religions plus several thousand churches, mosques, temples and synagogues in his or her city?

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

The way Jim Wallis has become a statesman for the Religious Left. I’ve watched Sojourners since 1976 and how it started out as evangelical group that morphed into a mainline Protestant institution. There was a total vacuum of leadership and Jim neatly stepped into it, creating himself a place on the New York Times bestseller list in the process.

On the other end of the spectrum, I am amazed at how people who jumped on the Charismatic renewal bandwagon 30 years ago don’t want to be identified with it today, now that it’s no longer fashionable. Instead, they’ve gone Reformed, neo-Calvinist, emergent or whatever the theological flavor of the year is.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

I still wish the beat was given the respect that politics, entertainment and sports get. There could be a minimum of five-six reporters per media outlet covering religion because believe me, the stories are out there. Not only the predictable stuff but there are some great scandals out there I’d love to go after if I had the time and the staff. What’s been so disheartening over the years is to see how the largest media outlets consistently hire reporters for the religion beat who have little or no experience or background in religion coverage. I watch these reporters and usually they last 2-3 years max. At the same time, these media outlets demand years of expertise when it comes to staffing the beats they really care about, such as the environment, entertainment, health and election coverage.

So to all you recruiters out there: Don’t just pick someone from your existing staff to plug the religion hole. Do a national search for the right person. You’ll be amazed at the wealth of talent out there and the number of people who have honed their skills in small and medium markets, who’ve done graduate work in religion and would love the chance to cover the Godbeat in a way that would make the most impact.

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The camel’s nose called ‘evangelism’

Before we look at the journalistic essay that has me so hot and bothered, let us pause and read two crucial passages in a document that used to be dear to the heart of old-fashioned liberals — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This cornerstone of human-rights work was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948.

Article 18.

* Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

* Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Note, in particular, the link — by proximity and logic — between the right to convert people to another faith and the right to express one’s beliefs to other people in any medium, which I would certainly assume includes human speech (and newspapers, too). As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said at a World Council of Churches assembly in Vancouver, during a debate about public evangelism, one person’s evangelist is another person’s political activist.

Now, there are missionaries who take this too far. I assume that rape and forced marriage is not a valid form of evangelism, even though it is common in Egypt. I assume that bribery is not a valid form of evangelism. The same goes for torture and death threats that must be taken seriously.

With all of that in mind, please read the following online essay — entitled “Christian Soldiers” — from Robert Wright at the New York Times. I would never claim that his point of view dominates American newsrooms. That’s a straw man argument, the kind of thing that conservatives spout who, in reality, tend to hate journalism. However, his point of view is common and may affect coverage in some significant newsrooms.

To comment, you are really going to need to read it all. But here is the top of the piece, which contains a key part of his argument against Christians who insist on following the commands of their Scriptures and attempting to convert other people to their faith.

You see, it seems that missionaries — and even native Christians who are part of local churches in foreign lands — are causing violence. It is also crucial that, according to the Times, Muslims do not attempt to convert others and Christians would be very, very upset if Muslims began trying to spread their faith.

Last Friday night a New York Times headline underwent an online transformation. The article formerly known as “A Christian Overture to Muslims Has Its Critics” acquired a new billing: “A Dispute on using the Koran as a Path to Jesus.”

For my money this was a big improvement, and explaining what I mean will illuminate a dirty little secret: some American Christians are fostering religious strife abroad. They mean well, but the damage they’re doing can be seen all the way from Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims are killing each other, to Malaysia, where Muslims are trying to keep Christians from using the term “Allah” for God.

The Times story is about an outreach technique that some Baptist missionaries use with Muslims. It involves stressing commonalities between the Koran and the Bible and affirming that the Allah of the Koran and the God of the Bible are one and the same.

You can see how a headline writer might call this an “overture.” And certainly the Christians who deploy the technique see it in sunny terms. Their name for it — the “Camel Method” — comes from the acronym for Chosen Angels Miracles Eternal Life. But a more apt etymology would involve the “camel’s nose under the tent.” The “overture” — the missionary’s initial bonding with Muslims via discussion of the Koran — is precision-engineered to undermine their allegiance to Islam.

Now, apparently, when some Christians get together with Muslims (and members of other world religions) and talk about areas of common ground between the faiths — while stressing that the faiths are all equally true and there is no need for anyone to convert anyone — this is called “interfaith dialogue” and this is a wonderful thing.

But when former Muslims and foreign missionaries meet with Muslims to discuss areas of common ground between their faiths — while insisting that, as these two faiths claim, one of them is eternally right and the other eternally wrong, this is dangerous evangelism that leads to violence.

The status of both of these activities under the U.N. Charter? They are both protected. But it appears that some civil liberties are more protected than others, even when they involve activities that are tightly linked to free speech and the freedom of the press.

Now here is what we are going to discuss here, since I totally concede that some forms of evangelism are dumb and some are offensive.

However, what is the journalistic argument for arguing that the U.N. Charter is wrong? Is it wrong on press freedom, too, since that is very, very dangerous. Right? Was Tutu right to connect persuasive political speech and persuasive religious speech? Etc., etc.

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Fighting to catch up in Nigeria

Last week, I was pretty hard on a New York Times report about the latest round of quote, “ethnic,” unquote violence in Nigeria. This story was very light on the details when it came to describing the role that religion plays in a nation that is, literally, divided by faith.

Thus, I think that it is only fair to provide an update. After all, my original post conceded that the Times team was covering a very challenging story and that more details would, obviously, emerge.

That’s what happened and, sure enough, one of the later stories was much better. As the headline suggests — “Nigerians Recount the Night of Their Bloody Revenge” — this story was built on first-hand testimonies. Did you ever notice that when people talk, as opposed to reporters doing the paraphrasing, that religion jumps higher in the news mix?

I’ll skip some of the details of the massacre a week ago, which flow easily in the words of a young killer named Dahiru Adamu. Here is the summary material that you need:

Sunday’s killings were an especially vicious expression of long-running hostilities between Christians and Muslims in this divided nation. Jos and the region around it are on the fault line where the volatile and poor Muslim north and the Christian south meet. In the past decade, some 3,000 people have been killed in interethnic, interreligious violence in this fraught zone. The pattern is familiar and was seen as recently as January: uneasy coexistence suddenly explodes into killing, amplified for days by retaliation.

Mr. Adamu, a Muslim herder, said he went to Dogo Na Hawa, a village of Christians living in mud-brick houses on dirt streets, to avenge the killings of Muslims and their cattle in January. The operation had been planned at least several days before by a local group called Thank Allah, said one of Mr. Adamu’s fellow detainees, Ibrahim Harouna, who was shackled on the floor next to him. The men spoke in Hausa through an interpreter.

“They killed a lot of our Fulanis in January,” Mr. Adamu said, referring to his ethnic group. “So I knew that this time, we would take revenge.”

His victims were sleeping when he arrived, he said, and he set their house on fire. Sure enough, they ran out. “I killed three people,” Mr. Adamu said calmly.

No one doubts that the violence has cut both ways in this region.

However, that is one problem in this story. That violence last January? It seems that the details of those events — with alleged mass killings of Muslims by Christians — come from the testimonies of the Muslims who are justifying their actions in these new attacks.

Meanwhile, the new violence is documented by a wide variety of outside observers. For the story to be balanced, and truly believable, we need to know more about the January violence and it would truly help if the details came from authorities that are, as much as possible, detached from the vicious killing cycles in this part of Nigeria. Does that make sense?

It’s easy to see the kinds of tensions and challenges that are shaping the work of journalists who are trying to do fair, balanced, accurate reporting on these stories. Pay close attention here, while recalling that authorities at the state levels in Nigeria tend to partisans linked to the ruling religions in the North and South:

“Suspicion is still rife,” the state police commissioner, Ikechukwu Aduba, said in an interview in his office in Jos. “We are appealing to the youth to sheath their swords and give peace a chance.”

Mr. Aduba sharply disputed the elevated death toll reported by others, saying that the police could confirm only 109 deaths.

But a Nigerian Red Cross official in Jos, Adeyemo Adebayo, deputy head of disaster management, said that the number of dead was “possibly” even greater than the 332 buried in the mass grave, since many fled into the bush and could have been cut down there by their attackers. A respected Nigerian human rights group, the Civil Rights Congress, said Monday that its members had counted 492 bodies.

Clearly, journalists face hard, hard work trying to get these stories right. All I can say is that we do not — based on the reports that I have seen — know much about the wave of violence in January that the killers now claim ignited their passions. We need to know more. If GetReligion readers have seen coverage with more information from neutral or international sources, please let me know.

Please give us the URLs to help provide more balance. Otherwise, this Times story still has a bloody hole in it. And let me add one other question, which has been voiced by some readers in comments. Does anyone know if these Christian victims are Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Evangelicals or all of the above?

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Clearing one missionary’s name

It’s time for a flashback to an earlier stage in the story of the Idaho Baptists and the Haitian orphans. You may recall that, while tracing the trail of Laura Silsby and her short-term mission team from Idaho, the New York Times heard people discussing this name — Philippe Murphy.

Here is the key Times reference:

Several parents denied accusations that they had been given money for their children, or that they wanted their children to be put up for adoption.

They trusted the Americans, they said, because they arrived with the recommendation of a Baptist minister, Philippe Murphy, who runs an orphanage in the area. A woman who answered the door at Mr. Murphy’s house said he had gone to Miami. But she also said that he did not know anything about the Americans.

Thus, I asked the following questions here at GetReligion based on that report:

Who is Pastor Philippe Murphy? Is he the leader of the orphanage — surely Protestant — that the Idaho Baptists worked with to find these children? Why has this Haitian pastor gone to Miami? One more question: Are the Baptists from Idaho major funders of his orphanage?

Logical questions, but they were based on an error or a misunderstanding. I am happy to report — and I hope the Times team noticed this too — that reporter Cary McMullen of The Ledger in Lakeland, Fla., has found this missionary and added some crucial information.

This is a perfect of example of what can happen when reporters are working in very complex and traumatized environments, especially if they are working through a translator. To cut to the chase: A reporter from the Times heard Haitian parents talking about Phillipe Murphy, a local pastor who runs an orphanage. They trusted Silsby and her team because of his endorsement, but someone at his house said he had gone to Miami.

Not quite. McMullen’s report shows that there is a man named Phillip Murphy, but that the Times reporter misunderstood what the parents were saying or the parents were not very clear about what they were saying. Then again, there may have been language issues involving the translation from Creole to English.

Thus, here is some crucial material from the top of this new report on Murphy and his work in Haiti:

A Lake Wales man, a former missionary to Haiti, has found himself embroiled in the controversy over the arrest of 10 Americans in Haiti accused of trying to take children out of the country illegally. But Phillip Murphy says he has no connection to the group and that the arrested Americans may have caused heartache for parents of the Haitian children.

“It’s an unfortunate and horrible situation. I feel guilty, because I think if I were there I might have been able to prevent it,” he said.

Murphy, associate director of the HEART Institute, a missionary training facility at Warner University, was briefly mentioned in a story in Wednesday’s New York Times about the detained Americans. He was incorrectly identified as “a Baptist minister, Philippe Murphy, who runs an orphanage in the area” of Fermathe, Haiti. … But Murphy said he is neither Baptist nor a minister, and the orphanage he and his wife founded in 1986, House of Blessings, is in the village of Callebasse.

So what happened? Murphy founded the orphanage, lived there for years, has a continuing role in ts work and visits frequently. Drawing on material from the missionary and from the Associated Press, McMullen works through the layers of the misunderstanding — which is based, in part, in the fact that Silsby and the Southern Baptists from Idaho were working with a Haitian translator, Isaac Adrien, who grew up in the House of Blessings.

Adrien took Silsby’s group to House of Blessings, which houses about 20 children, but the director, Joana Jean Marie Desir, turned them away, Murphy said. … Adrien conveyed the offer of Silsby’s group to gathered villagers, acting as a translator, and because of that connection, the villagers assumed they could trust the Americans, despite a warning from Desir not to, Murphy said. …

“We lived there so long and people knew us, and when they saw Isaac with them, they assumed we were part of that (group),” he said.

The story ends with another anecdote that shows how confused things are right now — in Haiti and in the United States — even for veteran missions workers who know the rules and are doing everything they can to follow them. The current director of the orphanage asked Murphy if he could take her three children back to the United States after the earthquake, so that they could continue going to school during the crisis.

Although the children had valid passports and visas, Murphy and the children were stopped by the Department of Homeland Security upon their arrival in Florida, and the children were temporarily detained. Department officials said a letter of entrance had not been properly notarized.

Keith Rupp, communications director for U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam (R, Bartow), said Putnam’s aides helped put Murphy in touch with the proper authorities, and the children were released four days later.

You really need to read the whole report and, like I said, the Times copy desk needs to add some kind of clarification to its earlier story.

Photo: From a House of Blessings weblog item in 2005. Phillip Murphy is shown in the back row, just to the left of center (look for the trunk of the palm tree).

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Chaos surrounding Haitian orphans

We have a very complex and ugly story developing right now down in Haiti, one than calls up the demons of all the tensions that exist in that nation between Americans and Haitians and, it must be stressed, between competing religious groups inside Haiti.

But before we get into that, the Washington Post needs to run an immediate correction on a mistake at the top of this story:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – Ten American Baptists who tried to leave Haiti with 33 destitute children were stuck in legal limbo Monday, with Haitian and U.S. officials negotiating over whether the church members should be prosecuted in the United States.

The Americans, Baptist church members from Idaho and other states, said they were taking the children to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic and deny any wrongdoing. But Haitian authorities said members of the group, who have little experience in international adoptions, did not have permission to leave the country with the children. On Monday, the church members were being held in a dank room at the judicial police headquarters, where they had not yet been charged, as Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and other Haitian authorities met with U.S. officials to discuss their fate.

Fortil Mazar, a prosecutor in Port-au-Prince, said members of the group face kidnapping and child-smuggling charges. In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the United States is helping in the investigation but has not yet determined the “appropriate course” of action.

Now, if you know anything about the complex state of Baptist life in America, you know that there are American Baptists — as in members of the more liberal American Baptist Churches USA — and then there are Baptists who are Americans, which could mean that they could be members of the giant Southern Baptist Convention, members of hundreds of other Baptist bodies or simply members of completely independent Baptist congregations.

The lede says “American Baptists” — which is simply wrong.

The Post story does follow the trail, via the Internet, to the proper congregation. But the story does not pay attention to the status of that church, in terms of its national or state affiliations.

The Baptists said that they were simply saving the children, ages 2 to 12, in their care and that they had come from orphanages that had been devastated in the quake.

“The children were being taken to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic where they could be cared for and have their medical and emotional needs attended to,” said a statement on the Web site of Central Valley Baptist Church, which is based in Meridian, Idaho. “Our team was falsely arrested today and we are doing everything we can from this end to clear up the misunderstanding.”

Meanwhile, the SBC’s wire service has some crucial information on the identity of these Southern Baptists, who happen to be from Idaho (far outside the South, in other words):

Members of two Southern Baptist churches in Idaho are awaiting word on what a Haitian judge will decide Feb. 1 when he hears the case of 10 Americans accused of unlawfully trying to remove 33 children from Haiti.

Five of the 10 are members of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, and three are from Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, including Eastside’s pastor, Paul Thompson. Two others are believed to be from other states.

“Both churches are very missions-minded and have sent members overseas many times,” said Rob Lee, executive director of the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention. “They went over to help. I really don’t believe they had anything less than perfect motives.” Lee said while he had been informed by email that the churches were planning trips to Haiti, the trips were not coordinated through the Utah-Idaho convention.

According to Clint Henry, pastor of Central Valley Baptist, the Baptists lacked one document at the Haitian border and returned to Port-au-Prince to get it, where they were confronted and detained.

For me, the most crucial information that is in the Baptist Press report — with credit given to the Associated Press — is in this section:

Henry said Laura Silsby and another member of his church started New Life Children’s Refuge before the earthquake as a way to help orphaned Haitian children. According to an AP report, given the living conditions for the children and the breakdown in government control, Silsby said she didn’t think about Haitian permission to take the children out of the country. She said they only had the best intentions and paid no money for the children, whom she said were brought to a Haitian pastor by distant relatives. …

Silsby and her team had been working with a Haitian pastor named Jean Sanbil of Sharing Jesus Ministries, AP said. The earthquake destroyed the orphanage facilities, and facing the chaos that followed the earthquake, the ministry team was trying to help Sanbil ensure the immediate safety and welfare of the children. Sanbil had made arrangements for housing the children temporarily in the Dominican Republic, and the team was working to help him transport the children there.

In other words, it appears — I stress appears — that the members of this Baptist team were working with a Protestant Haitian ministry called Sharing Jesus Ministries and that a Haitian pastor was working with them, including making some of the arrangements.

But one fact is not clear and it is crucial: Is “Sharing Jesus Ministries” actually an orphanage? In other words, were the Southern Baptists from America working with a Haitian pastor who was already in charge of the children in question, through connections in their families?

This is a crucial question for reporters, when investigating the hot, hot accusations of kidnapping and trafficking.

However, it is also clear that the religious tensions in Haiti between Protestants and Catholics, especially Catholics who have blended Voodoo practices into their daily lives, are at the heart of this story. As I have stressed all along (here is a crucial post to catch up), these tensions are powerful among the Haitians themselves, as well as between Haitians and American missionary workers.

Consider this passage in a USA Today blog post by veteran religion-beat specialist Cathy Grossman.

Are Haiti earthquake ‘orphans’ fair game for evangelizing? … Some critics say the race to remove Haiti’s children is culturally insensitive, if not downright illegal. Others are offended by the prospect of children from a Catholic culture being airlifted into evangelical institutions or families — losing their faith along with their families.

Valid questions, although it may be a rush to assume that all of the people in “a Catholic culture” are (a) Catholics or (b) practicing Catholics, a distinction that has been the subject of talks between Protestants and Catholics of good will for decades. The native Protestant presence in Haiti is rising rapidly, as has been mentioned in some press reports.

However, this time around there is a more basic question that must be asked first: Were the Baptists, in fact, working with Haitian orphans who had been brought, by their relatives or others, to an orphanage operated by Haitian Protestants where they were to be cared for and, one would assume, potentially adopted? In other words, had Haitians arranged this transfer of the children?

It seems that someone needs to talk to the pivotal Haitian figure in this story — Pastor Jean Sanbil of Sharing Jesus Ministries — pronto.

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‘Lifies’ and the Haggard saga

Gayle Haggard, the loyal wife of fallen evangelical mega-pastor Ted Haggard, was all over the mainstream media world (Oprah, “Today,” etc.) last week promoting her new book: “Why I Stayed: The Choices I Made in My Darkest Hour.”

With this book blitz, reporting on the Ted Haggard story has now officially moved from Chapter 1 in the Media Playbook (Hard news: Scandal) to Chapter 3 (Features: “Lifie”) without going through Chapter 2 (Analysis: What the heck is really going on here?). Readers would have benefited from deeper questioning.

Ted Haggard finally admitted his sins in November 2006 and was subsequently fired from the Colorado Springs megachurch he founded. He resurfaced in January 2009 when HBO broadcast Alexandra Pelosi’s gripping documentary, “The Trials of Ted Haggard” and he and Gayle appeared on Oprah’s show.

Late last year he started a new church down the road from his old congregation. At that point, some reporters (including local religion reported Mark Barna at The Gazette) did good analysis pieces that raised questions about Haggard’s suitability to lead.

All those questions have been forgotten in the wake of Gayle’s successful p.r. campaign (which was orchestrated by Tyndale, the Wheaton, Illinois-based evangelical publisher that learned a few things about big-league promotion with the Left Behind novels). Marcia Z. Nelson of Publishers Weekly’s Religion BookLine reports that Tyndale has already gone back to press after selling out a first printing of 75,000 copies.

The Haggard story has now evolved into the type of media events Neal Gabler called “lifies,” which are celebrity-driven, media-friendly stories about failure and redemption that serve up big, gooey life lessons for viewers.

Gayle Haggard presents readers and viewers with a powerful message of marital love, personal loyalty and Christian forgiveness, and I was particularly impressed by her interview with Meredith Vieira on “Today” and the piece by Adelle banks of Religion News Service.

But as the Haggards seek to find a new life and calling for themselves, important questions remain:
- Can we believe Ted when he says, as he did on Oprah last week, that after therapy, he has not had “one compulsive thought or behavior”?
- Even if that is true, is Ted now in a position to once again assume the mantle of pastoral leadership?
- Gayle Haggard has certainly suffered enough already, and her husband’s sins do not necessarily bar her from leadership. But is the “evangelical industrial complex” helping to return the couple to a form of shared leadership by publishing and promoting Gayle’s book?

Gabler’s “Life: The Movie” argues that entertainment has conquered reality. The Haggard saga, at least as it is currently being covered, is the latest in a long list of stories about tarnished evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal leaders that demonstrates the truth of Gabler’s argument in religious circles.

Despite their frequent and often angry protests against pop culture, many Christians reveal that they are all too willing to submit to the marketplace–not any ecclesiastical authority–as the ultimate arbiter of who qualifies as a leader.

This isn’t the last we will hear from the Haggards. Perhaps next time around enterprising reporters will ask some of the tough questions about leadership and authority that have been lost in in the “lifies.”

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