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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Haitian voices: God and the quake

So far, nothing I have seen coming out of Haiti has changed my mind about how journalists should approach the basic “theodicy” story.

I’ve said it several times already (click here and then here), I am really not that interested in what American religious broadcasters or even articulate American academics have to say about the role that God or the spirits did or didn’t play in causing the hellish earthquake that rocked Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area.

What matters to me are the voices of people in various faith groups — in Haiti.

At the very least, we need to be hearing from (a) the leaders of the Catholic Church, (b) voodoo leaders who fuse their beliefs with Catholicism, (c) voodoo leaders who are not active Catholics and (d) believers in Haiti’s growing Protestant churches, especially in the charismatics and Pentecostal churches. I totally realize that it’s simplistic to settle for this quartet of faith groups when trying to describe a land as complex as Haiti. More on these four groups in a moment.

I’ve been waiting for a story that tried to capture some of the tensions that exist in that land. Finally, there was this blunt headline in the Los Angeles Times: “Voodoo practitioners have an age-old take on the devastation, which their Christian neighbors chalk up to just such beliefs.”

You can see one of the problems that reporter Joe Mozingo faced, right there in the headline. Who are these “Christian neighbors”?

The complex reality arrives in the anecdotes that set the scene:

The night was filled with voices, murmuring then gathering together then rising into hymns and chants that carried far in the balmy air. This was the time for God and for spirits.

On a road next to the central cemetery, residents of a small slum were lying on mattresses and pieces of cardboard set out on the broken pavement. A woman started to hum a Christian song, and soon rallied a chorus, singing and dancing and clapping for rhythm.

“Kem kontan Jesus renmem, aleluya,” they sang — joyously, not mournfully. “I’m so happy Jesus loves me. Hallelujah.”

Farther down the road, two voodoo priestesses sat down on buckets with another group. They made the sign of the cross and started a Catholic hymn, before splashing some rum on the ground to reach out to the gede, the spirits of the dead.

“We are thanking you that we are here,” said Marie Michele Louis, a priestess, called a manbo here. “We are thanking all the spirits of Africa. We are not afraid to serve the spirits of Guinea.”

So the believers singing the joyful hymn are the “Christian neighbors,” while those singing the Catholic hymn are not Christians? This is certainly a case where the headline does not do justice to the material provided by the reporter.

So keep reading:

In Haiti, the spiritual world is omnipresent, a raucous realm where voodoo, folklore, superstition, Protestant and Catholic faiths compete, clash and sometimes converge. When the earth shakes no one talks about fault lines and tectonic plates. Instead, there are many otherworldly explanations of why the earthquake hit and the aftershocks go on here, from the biblical to the superstitious to the conspiratorial.

The devastation Jan. 12 has also widened a rift that has been growing since U.S. missionaries began coming to Haiti in the 1800s: Evangelical Christians blame voodoo for bringing on this ruin, claiming it is satanic. Voodoo priests counter that the Christians are exploiting the catastrophe to convert people and raise money.

So here is the basic split — Haitian Protestants with ties to America vs. the voodoo culture and its deep roots on the island. The basic theological question, stated from a Christian point of view, is this: Is it wrong in the eyes of God to worship “the spirits” or to worship with them?

Mozingo attempts to offer some background:

Voodoo has a pantheon of these spirits, the lwa, which evolved from the beliefs slaves brought from Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries. When they were taught by priests in the French colony, they saw the lwa as similar to the Catholic saints, if not actually the saints themselves, and appropriated certain Catholic rituals and liturgy. Followers believe in God as the almighty power, but find his underlings to be more accessible.

“We are like good neighbors with Catholics,” Louis said. “They just tell us to pray, they don’t tell us we’re evil.”

So this voodoo leader — one person, remember — sees the local Catholics as good neighbors and the Protestants as bad neighbors.

The Times then states the bottom line quite clearly:

The Roman Catholic Church does not endorse voodoo, and many Catholics avoid it, but it has not combated it as the Protestant faiths have.

Even under constant assault from Christians, voodoo and traditional folklore have retained deep roots, particularly in the slums and countryside. A man might casually mention that another man carrying a heavy load on a cart is a zombie, or that vampires are killing children in the night. …

But sorcery, including endless rumors of human sacrifice, is what has given voodoo a sinister reputation around the world, which practitioners, intellectuals and foreign anthropologists have been trying to change for decades. And it’s why the daily American Airlines flights between Miami and Port-au-Prince are filled with Christian missionaries.

Read on, please. This is a complex and, at times, truly nasty story. For example, note the anti-Catholic dances that some missionaries performed with a notorious and bloody dictator.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, I find it hard to believe that there is any one set “voodoo teaching” on anything and, at the very least, there must be differences between those who practice their Catholic faith, blended with voodoo, and the voodoo believers who have been influenced by the surrounding culture, but are not truly practicing Catholics. I have always been impressed with the diverse, complicated views one can find in pagan groups. This is not creedal territory.

Readers also desperately need to hear from some voice of authority who can state the official Catholic teachings on voodoo. Then this needs to be contrasted with the reality, which is the fact that Catholic leaders clearly do not oppose the voodoo culture to the same degree as the Protestants, especially the Pentecostal believers.

By the way, I find it hard to believe that all of these evangelical/Pentecostal believers have precisely the same point of view, when the time comes to proclaim that the earthquake was literally the act of a jealous and angry God. Surely there are variations on that side of the church aisle. It’s time to listen to some Haitians in those pulpits.

To wrap it up, this story breaks some important new ground — primarily by listening to Haitians and taking seriously what they say. There is power in the simple observation of what is happening there.

But now we need some additional facts. I know that the Catholic leadership in Haiti has been decimated. Who can speak with authority on these issues? Has Rome ever addressed the status of voodoo in this heavily Catholic land?

Meanwhile, is anyone there — Protestant or even conservative Catholic — saying that the Catholic Church has been judged for its compromises with voodoo? It would not surprise me if some people were claiming that, in a land so tense and traumatized. For example, what are Catholics saying who are active in the charismatic renewal movement? Just asking.

There is much, much more ground to cover on these issues and, surely, there is more to this story than evil evangelicals vs. loving Catholics and their voodoo neighbors who just want to be left alone.

I hope that the Times stays on the story and that other news organizations join them.

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Framing the religious voices

Haiti Struggles With Death And Destruction After Catastrophic Earthquake

I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to report on the relief and recovery efforts in Haiti, much less manage or participate in them. I keep reading the news and feeling sicker and sicker. One of the things that struck me about personal emails or messages out of Haiti is how they all emphasize the religious lives of the survivors. And it’s nice to see that much of the mainstream media coverage is touching on that as well.

And this Washington Post story, headlined “As lives and houses shattered in Haiti quake, so did some religious differences,” is all about how people’s religious lives have changed following the earthquake. Reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia begins by telling readers that Haitians sing spirituals together at night and then:

Haiti is known as a society of devout Christians — Catholics, Protestants, Methodists, evangelicals — and followers of voodoo. Faith has long played a powerful role in this impoverished nation, giving hope to the poor and fulfilling social functions that the government is incapable of handling.

But in the days since the earth pitched and rolled here, pulverizing shanties and mansions alike, the religious differences that sometimes separated Haitians have come crashing down.

Port-au-Prince has become a kind of multidenominational, open-air church. Tens of thousands live in the street together, scraping for food and water, sharing their misery and blending their spirituality.

The women singing together in Jeremy Square might never have worshiped side by side before the disaster, but now their voices harmonize and soar well past 2 in the morning. Lionelle Masse, a stringy woman with a deep, sad voice, lost a child in the quake. She sings next to Rosena Roche, a fiery-eyed Catholic whose husband is buried under tons of rubble.

“I still have faith in God,” Roche says. “I want to give glory to God.”

OK, so you get the picture. The reporter is saying that religious differences used to separate Haitians and now, with disaster everywhere, they don’t.

To make his case, he says that everyone is praying together now and everyone sings hymns together. He speaks with one priest who says that nobody cares about religious differences.

Now, the piece is just full of wonderful color about the role religion plays in disaster and it actually gets into some bonafide doctrinal matters, too. And not simply about theodicy, for once. I really appreciate these things and value them as a reader. Up until a couple of days ago, I noticed a disconnect between the private missives I was seeing out of Haiti — riddled with religious references and details — and many of the dry reports in the newspaper. Now, with many more reporters on the ground, it’s hard to get through a single story without inclusion of the role religion plays.

But what struck me about the piece was how the reporter was reading quite a bit into the vignettes he described. Maybe it’s true that Haitians never in their wildest dreams would have prayed together or sung shared religious hymns prior to the earthquake — but Christians pray together all the time. The fact that the various groups know the same hymns should be evidence of something, no?

If the story was about Vodoun being incorporated into the Sunday morning Mass at Sacre Couer cathedral, I think the reporter would definitely have a story. But the biggest divide he really gets into is between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The fact that Pentecostal women are taking refuge in Catholic churches is interesting. But is it really evidence that doctrinal distinctions are all of a sudden unimportant?

Take this story from Reuters about how Vodoun priests are objecting to mass graves because it violates their conception of how the dead should be handled. It sounds like doctrinal distinctions are still important and still matter.

In fact, it seems like the big “wall” that needs to be broken down is the reporter’s bias that doctrinal differences are unimportant.

This CNN story managed to simply report on the religious scene, painting a much more nuanced portrait:

It seems Tuesday’s quake has only strengthened the religious fervor many Haitians carry in their souls.

“A lot of people who never prayed or believed — now they believe,” said Cristina Bailey, a 24-year-old clerk.

In parks and backyards, anywhere a group gathers, the prayers of the Haitians can be heard. Last week, the call-and-response chanting and clapping that accompany those prayers pierced the darkness of night and the pre-dawn hours — sometimes as early as 4 a.m. The singing and praying was particularly intense in Champs de Mars plaza, where hundreds of people have taken refuge. But the scene was repeated throughout the city, with preachers on megaphones exhorting the faithful, who responded with lyrics like “O Lord, keep me close to you” and “Forgive me, Jesus.”

Many preachers are telling followers not to lose faith, that God remains with them regardless of what’s happened.

Okay, but what about Vodoun? The story doesn’t just tell but shows how the widespread practice is incorporated into the lives of Haitians:

Colonized by France, Haiti is a strongly Catholic country. Christian motifs are everywhere in Port-au-Prince. Many vehicles bear signs like the one painted on the windshield of a truck on Rue Delmar: “Merci Jesus,” it said. A woman passing by on Avenue Christophe chanted softly: “Accept Jesus.”

“In Haiti, you have Protestants and Catholics, and you have your percentage of each,” said J.B. Diederich, a native-born Haitian who now lives in Miami, Florida, but returned to the Caribbean for several days after the earthquake. “But everybody is 100 percent voodoo.”

Voodoo is widely acknowledged but practiced only behind closed doors, with practitioners often placing candles and icons on the floor of a home and dancing to music and drums.

Followers believe the world is under the power of loas — spirits and deities who act as intermediaries between humans and God. In voodoo, disasters like Tuesday’s quake are not the result of natural forces, but displeasure by a loa. See complete coverage of Haiti earthquake

“It’s in every apartment. The voodoo is our culture,” 25-year-old Alex Gassan said. “It’s like the folklore.”

Gassan proudly calls himself a Catholic, pulling out a crucifix necklace from under his shirt to show a reporter.

Haiti has a unique religious culture with unique religious values. It’s okay to just describe the situation and let people speak for themselves.

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‘How could He do this to us?’

Journalists in the mainstream press often talk about covering both sides of a story fairly and accurately. I can say “Amen” to that, even while acknowledging that it is rare to cover a major story that only has two sides. Nevertheless, the key is for journalists to keep seeking multiple points of view, especially when covering a subject as complicated as religion.

So far, journalists covering the hellish scenes in Haiti have done a good job of showing the degree to which religion — or religions — color life in that haunted, yet intensely spiritual nation. This must be incredibly hard work, when surrounded by so much chaos.

As I mentioned the other day, we are now moving into the “theodicy” (How could God do this? How could God allow this to happen?) stage of this disaster story. I stand by my earlier statements that the best coverage is focusing on the voices of believers and doubters in Haiti, as opposed to rounding up the usual suspects in America.

Consider, for a moment, this Washington Post headline on a weekend Associated Press report: “Religious Haitians see hand of God in earthquake.”

Do tell. I have been wondering when someone would write about this angle of the story, in the wake of the media storm around the Rev. Pat Robertson. To cut to the chase: Are there Haitians who believe that the earthquake is, in some mysterious way, an “act of God,” even a form of divine judgment?

That depends. For starters, you will be glad to know that reporter Michelle Faul quickly establishes that Haitians are not of one mind when it comes to answering that question.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Deeply religious Haitians see the hand of God in the destruction of Biblical proportions visited on their benighted country. The quake, religious leaders said Sunday, is evidence that He wants change.

Exactly what change He wants depends on the faith: Some Christians say it’s a sign that Haitians must deepen their faith, while some Voodoo followers see God’s judgment on corruption among the country’s mostly light-skinned elite.

Jumping down, there is more content on that second point:

Some followers of Voodoo, practiced alongside Roman Catholicism by the vast majority of Haitians, said the devastation of key symbols of power was punishment for corrupt leaders who have allowed the mostly light-skinned elite to enrich themselves while the black majority suffers.

“If all of a sudden, in 15 seconds, 20 seconds, all the physical representations of corruption are destroyed, it gives you pause for thought,” said Richard Morse, a renowned Haitian-American musician whose mother was a singer and revered Voodoo priestess. “The Justice Ministry: down. The National Palace: down. The United Nations headquarters: down.” …

The destruction of every major Catholic church in the capital, including the 81-year-old cathedral, also was a sign, he said: “When there is all this corruption going on, whose role is it in society to speak out? Isn’t the Church supposed to say something?”

There is an old saying in the region that Haiti is 80 percent Roman Catholic and 100 percent Voodoo. However, that simply isn’t true, these days. The government does recognize two official state religions, which are Catholicism and Voodoo. Media reports have emphasized, accurately, that most Haitians practice both of these faiths and believe they are compatible.

However, the nation also includes a growing number of Protestants, especially Baptists and Pentecostal Christians — who reject Voodoo, as a rule. You have to ask: What are these groups saying? Are these some of the people whose street sermons have — vaguely — been mentioned in some media reports? What is their stance on the “divine judgment” issue? I predict that the answer to that question is more complex than you might imagine.

It would also be good to know if Catholics are united in the belief that Voodoo rites and beliefs can be fused, as they often are in Haiti. Is this topic debated? And what about the Voodoo community itself? It is hard to imagine that there would be only one point of view on the question of who is being judged and by what Deity. How does Voodoo address the “theodicy” question?

What about unbelievers? What about the people who have lost so much, including their faith or faiths?

Clearly, there is much ground still left to cover. But for now, try to forget the final image from this AP report:

“How could He do this to us?,” cried Remi Polevard, who said his five children lie beneath in the rubble of a home near St. Gerard University. “There is no God.”

Sunday night, as downtown residents began burning some of the bodies that have been rotting on the streets for five days, a woman walking by in an orange dress pulled out a copy of the Bible.

She flung it into the fire.

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The gospel of easy money

In case your memory is as poor as mine, back in November Sarah Pulliam Bailey discussed an Atlantic profile of Dave Ramsey, a Christian financial advisor who abhors the modern-day trend of buying everything on credit. This was the companion piece to the cover story for the magazine’s December issue, and Sarah remarked that a colleague was going to tackle the bigger story. I was that colleague. Whoops.

The article by Hanna Rosin, an ace of evangelical newswriting, teased with a photo of foreclosure and for sale signs hanging from a wooden cross. It asked “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” and then, in the subhead, explained that preachers have been pushing a gospel of debt.

The latter is certainly true. Some preachers, proponents of the prosperity gospel, folks whose sincerity I am deeply suspicious of, have been preaching such a gospel. But the former doesn’t necessarily follow, and in this case the facts simply don’t support the connection between the prosperity gospel, Christianity and the economic crash.

As usual, Rosin’s reporting is fascinating and well-written and thoughtful and full of theologically perplexing scenes like this one from Joel Osteen’s bestselling Christian self-help book, “Your Best Life Now”:

Osteen and his wife, Victoria, are walking around their neighborhood in Houston when they pass a beautiful house being built. “Most of the other homes around us were one-story, ranch-style homes that were forty to fifty years old, but this house was a large two-story home, with high ceilings and oversized windows,” he writes. “It was a lovely, inspiring place.” Victoria desperately wanted a house “just like it,” but Joel was worried about how stretched they already were. “Thinking of our bank account and my income at the time, it seemed impossible to me,” he writes. But this, of course, is an example of ungodly, negative thinking. With her unwavering faith, Victoria wouldn’t let it drop. Soon she convinced Joel and then he, too, started to believe that “God could bring it to pass.” There is no explanation of how they came to own such a house — whether Osteen worked hard to grow his ministry or got rich from his TV show or received an inheritance from his father’s estate. In this story they are standing in for an average middle-class couple who set their sights on a bigger house and believed, despite all the financial evidence, that God would bestow it upon them, like a gift. And he did.

This transitions right into the meat of the story:

THEOLOGICALLY, THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL has always infuriated many mainstream evangelical pastors. Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Life outsold Osteen’s, told Time, “This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy? There is a word for that: baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn’t everyone in the church a millionaire?” In 2005, a group of African American pastors met to denounce prosperity megapreachers for promoting a Jesus who is more like a “cosmic bellhop,” as one pastor put it, than the engaged Jesus of the civil-rights era who looked after the poor.

More recently, critics have begun to argue that the prosperity gospel, echoed in churches across the country, might have played a part in the economic collapse. In 2008, in the online magazine Religion Dispatches, Jonathan Walton, a professor of religious studies at the University of California at Riverside, warned:

Narratives of how “God blessed me with my first house despite my credit” were common … Sermons declaring “It’s your season of overflow” supplanted messages of economic sobriety and disinterested sacrifice. Yet as folks were testifying about “what God can do,” little attention was paid to a predatory subprime-mortgage industry, relaxed credit standards, or the dangers of using one’s home equity as an ATM.

In 2004, Walton was researching a book about black televangelists. “I would hear consistent testimonies about how ‘once I was renting and now God let me own my own home,’ or ‘I was afraid of the loan officer, but God directed him to ignore my bad credit and blessed me with my first home,’” he says. “This trope was so common in these churches that I just became immune to it. Only later did I connect it to this disaster.”

Infuriated many mainstream … yeah, like me. But this commentary isn’t as fresh as Rosin makes it seem. Preaches have been exploiting the gospel for their own gain for two millennium — and religion in general even before that. This is a particular problem not necessarily in minorities communities as it is in working-class and previously working-class communities.

Whenever I see a prosperity gospel story, which is often, and certainly in the past few years it has become even more common to see the gospel of wealth go bad, I am reminded of one of the first memorable stories I read as a religion reporter. It was an investigation by John Blake of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution into the peculiar spending habits of Bishop Eddie Long, who said Jesus wasn’t poor — this is a common prosperity belief, though I don’t know where it comes from — and offered this money quote:

“We’re not just a church, we’re an international corporation,” Long said. “We’re not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can’t talk and all we’re doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around this world. I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation.

“You’ve got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that’s supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering.”

Such stories, of course, hinge on colorful characters. Rosin, for whom I often have high praise, did not miss the mark. (She did, however, fall into the same trap reporters often do when dealing with how Christians spend their money and seemed to miss the point of why Christian tithe; she also did a good deal of evangelical stereotyping when referring to Sarah Palin’s “messy family life.”) Rosin opened the article with Fernando Garay, whose reflection can be seen on the first page in the hood of his midnight blue Mercedes-Benz. From 2001 to 2007, while building his church, Garay was a mortgage loan officer; he favors sharing of his rags to riches story from the pulpit.

Garay tried many churches, but they all felt alien and “dead” to him. “That’s not me, sitting quietly and saying ‘Thank you, God.’” Finally he came upon a Pentecostal prosperity church, much like the one he leads now. The church was full of miracles and real emotion, which drew him in, but it also offered practical benefits. The pastor pointed out Bible passages that referred to finances in specific terms, giving him images of wealth he could almost reach out and touch: “Give, and it shall be given to you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over” — a passage that’s now often read at Garay’s church during tithing time.

“Then it started happening. It started happening!”

Rosin didn’t really question this claim but gave Garay enough rope to hang himself — in no place more poignantly than the closing of the article:

Garay’s is a faith that, for all its seeming confidence, hints at desperation, at circumstances gone so far wrong that they can only be made right by a sudden, unexpected jackpot.

Once, I asked Garay how you would know for certain if God had told you to buy a house, and he answered like a roulette dealer. “Ten Christians will say that God told them to buy a house. In nine of the cases, it will go bad. The 10th one is the real Christian.” And the other nine? “For them, there’s always another house.”

Wow. I feel ill.

But the primary premise of the story, or at least the theory that The Atlantic wanted readers to think would be proved within its pages, is never really supported. It’s possibility is just suggested.

Additionally, this is, indeed, a very old story, even in relation to the roaring oughts, though it predated the downfall God hath wrought. Back in late 2006, Time ran a lengthy cover story by the very able David Van Biema that asked newsstand passers-by — four years ago we still had newsstands — “Does God Want You to Be Rich?” That’s a much less loaded way of teasing the prosperity gospel.

The issue, though, is not as much with what’s in and what’s out of this article. It’s about why anyone thought that headline was apt. As another GetReligionista wisely remarked:

How I wish Michael Kelly were still alive and editing The Atlantic. If he published Hanna Rosin’s decades-late Gray Line tour of prosperity theology, he would not have approved such a moronic headline as “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” I think that’s on the order of writing about the late Meir Kahane and asking, “Did Judaism Destroy All Hope of Middle East Peace?”

If you’re not familar with Kahane, he was a Jewish radical loved by some MOT because of his vision for militant Jewish defense (he founded the Jewish Defense League and was an influential voice among some Israeli communities) and loathed by other Jews as Kahanazi. In short, he was not a representative of the broader Jewish community and certainly was not a spokesman for Judaism in general. In fact, no one speaks for all Jews — two Jews, three opinions; one Jew, two synagogues — but the comparison was apt regardless.

As I mentioned, I am no fan of the prosperity gospel. In fact, I regularly rag on it as sort of religiously-lacquered fraud. But I’m not ready to believe that this little-followed gospel — how many adherents are there really? the subhead claims “tens of millions” — caused the crash. Rosin’s article just didn’t convince me. In fact, there has been some evidence that the prosperity gospel has grown stronger during the recession, which, if Rosin’s premise was support, would suggest we were plunging deeper into depression.

But even if it had caused the crash, that still wouldn’t warrant blaming Christianity on the whole.

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Pat Robertson’s Voodoo

If disaster strikes, you can pretty much count on religious broadcaster Pat Robertson to say something about it that offends much of the population. It’s not just Robertson, of course. You might recall Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., saying Katrina was about God wanting to smite Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour or something. Anyway, with the horrific news out of Haiti, that the earthquake there led to unbelievable loss of life and property, Robertson came in on cue. And news organizations spread the word immediately. Here’s how CNN reported it:

The Haitians “were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever,” Robertson said on his broadcast Wednesday. “And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ “

Now, explaining why Haiti is so poverty-stricken and troubled is a surprisingly challenging task. But what in the world was Robertson talking about?

The general approach being taken by the media seems to be 1) get Robertson’s quotes on air and in print STAT as they are ratings gold and 2) provide no context or explanation.

I wish we lived in a world where we had neither natural disasters nor Pat Robertson’s verbal disasters, but the media really like to cover him and he certainly represents a slice of religious thinking that should be covered. Even if I feel dirty writing about it.

The first thing that should be noted, but that many media outlets don’t, is that Robertson’s story wasn’t simply invented yesterday while he was on air. Let’s go to ABC News’ Jake Tapper who has the goods. After quoting Robertson extensively, he writes:

Robertson’s tale stems from a legend that Jean Jacques Dessalines, who led the Haitian revolution against the French Army, entered into a pact with Satan disguised as a voodoo deity in exchange for a military victory, which finally happened in 1803.

One minister of a Haitian-American church — who does not believe this legend — recently wrote about the frequent references in Haiti “to a spiritual pact that the fathers of the nation supposedly made with the devil to help them win their freedom from France. As a result of that satanic alliance, as they put it, God has placed a curse on the country sometime around its birth, and that divine burden has made it virtually impossible for the vast majority of Haitians to live in peace and prosperity in their land…The satanic pact allegedly took place at Bois-Caiman near Cap-Haitien on August 14, 1791 during a meeting organized by several slave leaders, under [Dutty] Boukman’s leadership, before launching what would become Haiti’s Independence War.”

Whatever one thinks of the veracity of this belief, it certainly should be included in stories about Robertson’s risible remarks. Another way to deepen understanding in these regular stories about Robertson is to provide some context for where he sits on the spectrum of religious broadcasters and evangelicals. Cathy Grossman at USA Today writes that he wasn’t just relying on this legend:

[H]e was also relying on his considerable talent for provoking attention, says Rice University sociologist Michael Lindsay.

Lindsay interviewed Robertson for his book, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. He says:

“Robertson is savvy and vastly underestimated by most observers. He knows exactly what galvanizes attention among his constituents and the larger American public. It’s a mix of earnest belief and showmanship. He says these things intentionally. He’s not a careless speaker.

“Why bad things happen when God is good is the great question people ask at times of tragedy and disaster. To Robertson, it has to mean that evil — personified by the devil — is at work.”

Very interesting. I love having some perspective such as this. Sometimes I wonder whether the whole Pat Robertson experience doesn’t fill some cosmic need that everyone has after a natural disaster or act of terror. We want to be angry, but in a safe way. Robertson provides this vehicle for anger that fits perfectly into the 24-hour-news cycle.

Anyway, Robertson actually issued a statement defending the actual remarks he made. You can read it here.

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