ESPN gets Irvin and his ‘threshing floor’ sermon

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Hey! Time for another GetReligion post about religious issues in sports coverage! Can you hear the cheers from the crowd?

Anyway, we have been known to criticize reporters and editors, from time to time, for playing the God card in sports stories (athletes talk about God a lot) and then failing to deliver any content that puts journalistic muscle behind the faith claims. Or an athlete brings up faith in a key quote about his or her life and then reporters just drop it like a hot frying pan.

GetReligion readers have been know to say that we complain about the bad in this news niche, then ignore the good.

So, folks, here is a tmatt post noting that the ESPN team took on some highly charged faith material in a story about the rise and fall and rise of Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin and just nailed all the details down just right.

The story digs into the roots of Irvin’s deeply confessional speech at his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony, a speech that changed how athlete’s with messed up lives can handle that moment in the spotlight. Faith is a huge and VERY specific part of the story and Eli Saslow delivers the goods.

You have to read the story, but here is just a taste. The key is a biblical image — that of a man being challenged and purified like wheat on a threshing floor. Here’s part of the overture in this wonderful piece:

Irvin spent months preparing obsessively for this moment, just as he had prepared to play in three Super Bowls during his career as a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. He hired a language coach to improve his vocabulary. He did enunciation exercises in the shower while the steam opened his lungs. He watched and rewatched tapes of his most embarrassing public comments outside of courtrooms and locker rooms, reliving the many moments when “a self-sabotage with words” left him humiliated.

The only thing he hadn’t yet done was settle on a speech. He had sketched out two possibilities and recorded parts of each of them. Nobody had heard either from beginning to end. Even alone in front of a mirror, Irvin never had the nerve to practice them straight through.

The first version was a boilerplate acceptance speech, a resume list of football achievements and expected thank-yous — a safe way to cement a Hall of Fame reputation.

The second version was a speech less about football than about the self-described “scars and regrets” of a man with one of sports’ most complicated legacies. It was an admission of failure in marriage and in fatherhood. It was a declaration of faith. It was a public risk by a man whose public risks had rarely worked out.

You really need to read it all.

If I started highlighting all of the key parts of this piece (I didn’t even get to the threshing floor hook) the post would go on and on. So read it. If you like good long reads, read it. If you love good feature writing about sports, read it. If you like detailed journalism about remarkable human lives, read it.

Bravo, ESPN. We criticize that sports empire quite a bit, around here. But this story truly gets the religion details right. Yes, it’s long, but just read it all.

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WWROD: Which denominations do what well?

So, GetReligion readers, have you submitted a religion-rooted question yet to veteran scribe Richard Ostling, over at his new weblog? That would be the one called “Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions” (click here for some background).

Anyway, this week’s Ostling offering here at GetReligion focuses on a question that is sure to raise hackles in a few corners of the world of organized religion.

The provocative question, from one Judy in Pennsylvania:

The various Christian denominations seemingly have particular strengths in the theology, practice, outreach, and church polity of their forms of Christian faith. How would you see these strengths being shared among individual churches and Christians across the USA and around the globe in an effort to strengthen the Christian faith?

This is the time of year, Ostling noted, when media folks are inclined to assemble lists of various kinds.

This particular list, however, is by its nature rooted in opinion and, thus, is a bit perilous. Nevertheless, based on his decades of experience on the religion beat, he offered some of his views. The list starts like this:

Salvation Army — Taking Jesus seriously, and not just at Thanksgiving or Christmas (“as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me.”)

Eastern Orthodox — Worship that conveys awe and mystery. Unwavering devotion to the faith that “was once for all delivered to the saints.”

Roman Catholics — Doctrinal clarity. Rich intellectual tradition. Parochial schools. Hospitals. Charities. And much, much else. But could benefit by learning from:

Presbyterian; Reformed churches — Skill with sermons (usually). Classic Protestant governance balancing regional oversight with local iniitiative, plus responsibility, voice, vote, and sense of vocation for lay members (concepts that helped create secular republics).

Lutherans — Choirs. Parish architecture and other visuals (often). Wise handling of schism to honor conscience and limit strife.

Anglicans; Episcopalians — Liturgy. Hymnody. But could learn much from the Lutherans on schism.

You get the idea.

Head on over to his site to read the rest and, by all means, leave a few questions that will force this religion-beat patriarch into hard-news terrain.

Just do it. Make our day.

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Yahoo! asks Robert Griffin III a rather obvious question

The big news here in Washington, D.C., (other than the mysteries of the U.S. Supreme Court) is that (a) the knee of quarterback Robert Griffin III is strained, not broken, and (b) that The Washington Post team survived another weekend covering a superstar who keeps talking about the fact that he apparently believes in a God who hears prayers and plays some meaningful role in the lives of real people.

So blame Twitter, of course, along with press conferences in which players get to say whatever is on their minds (and hearts).

Team spokesman Tony Wyllie said later Sunday evening that Griffin underwent an MRI exam and “everything is clear.” Griffin did not tear his anterior cruciate or medial collateral ligaments, Wyllie said. He called the injury a knee sprain and added that Shanahan will provide further details Monday. It remained unclear whether Griffin will be able to play next weekend.

Griffin wrote on Twitter: “Your positive vibes and prayers worked people!!!! To God be the Glory!”

Sports fans here in Beltwayland are certainly in full swoon mode, which the Post team tried to capture last week in a piece that ran with the headline, “Redskins’ Robert Griffin III maintains focus amid increasing frenzy.” This being Washington, it’s hard to write about a figure this charismatic without connecting him to politics, in one way or another.

I mean, check out this near-messianic language:

… (The) Redskins’ rookie quarterback was the subject of a CBS “Sunday Morning” segment that credited him with uniting politically polarized Washington, quoting some high-profile elected officials. On Monday night, Griffin played in his second nationally televised game and led the Redskins over the New York Giants for Washington’s first three-game win streak since 2008. (The victory also marked the Redskins’ sixth of the season, meaning they will at least finish one game better than last year’s 5-11 record.)

Following the game, analysts such as Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, fellow Super Bowl-winning passer Trent Dilfer and former Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden raved about Griffin’s play, which ESPN highlighted over the next 48 hours.

On Tuesday night, Griffin attended his first Washington Wizards game. Sitting courtside in owner Ted Leonsis’s seats, he stole the spotlight from the home team’s players, who upset LeBron James and the defending NBA champion Miami Heat. When the long-suffering Wizards pulled off the upset, fans and commentators wondered tongue-in-cheek if it was Griffin’s aura that had caused their good fortune.

“It’s humbling. You never go somewhere expecting people to chant your name,” Griffin said, referring to the response he got at the Verizon Center Tuesday night. “… It just means you’re really doing something for the city.”

How do reporters avoid Godtalk when dealing with a young Christian man who insists on saying things like this?

On Wednesday, a representative from the Pro Football Hall of Fame came to Redskins Park to collect the jersey and cleats that Griffin wore while he set the record Monday.

“Everyone wants to be in the Hall of Fame, so, we’re in there,” Griffin said after uncomfortably enduring the brief transfer ceremony of his memorabilia to the possession of the Hall of Fame official. “But I have a long career, prayerfully, and this is only the first step. It’s an honor to have my jersey and my cleats, although they’re very dirty, in the Hall of Fame.”

Following the “Monday Night Football” broadcast, Gruden gushed over Griffin, saying he his skills, and the plays the Redskins are running for him, have changed the pro game.

Griffin’s response: “I don’t think it’s me by myself, necessarily … God has blessed me with speed, and good decision-making, so [coaches] allow me to go out there and trust me even in crucial situations to throw the ball and run the ball or whatever it is. When a coach buys in and the whole team buys in, you can have what we’re doing.”

What is interesting, however, is the degree to which the Godtalk that is at the heart of Griffin’s life and persona has not been explored in major D.C. media at the level of information and facts. You know, journalism.

Thus, I was happy the other day when one of my former students — the digital comet named Chris Moody — was able to land a few moments to talk with Griffin on behalf of Yahoo! News. While the quarterback was extremely cautious about what he said, Moody asked some specific questions and learned at least one interesting fact that I don’t think has previously made it into print.

Here’s a clip or two from that Q&A interview, which begins, of course, with politics:

Yahoo News: When you cast your ballot for president, what were some of the most pressing issues that were on your mind?

RG3: For me, I always told my fiancée and my family that money would never change the way I viewed politics. For me, it wasn’t a money issue. It was about overall what each candidate presented, but I can’t disclose who I voted for.

YN: Why don’t you like to talk about who you voted for?

RG3: There’s a couple things you don’t talk about in life, and that’s race, religion and politics. I try to make sure I don’t talk about politics at all.

Religion does, however, show up later in the interview, along with the answer to one very specific question. However, Griffin remained very cautious, perhaps knowing that even general comments on specific faith issues — such as biblical authority — could be interpreted as commentary on political specifics:

YN: You grew up in a Christian home and went to a Baptist university. Have you found a home church in the D.C. area?

RG3: I go to a church in this area, but I haven’t necessarily found a home church yet. I’m still in the process of finding that.

YN: Where do you attend?

RG3: I go to Cornerstone [Fellowship Church.]

YN: Has your faith shaped the way you view politics or policy?

RG3: It shapes everybody’s view. To me, you don’t directly relate it, but my faith makes me who I am. When it comes to that, my beliefs are not strict to only what the Bible says. I’m influenced by. … You probably can’t point out exactly what it shapes, but it does shape you.

Looking at a digital search, it would seem likely that the congregation to which RG3 is referring is Cornerstone Fellowship Church in Frederick, MD. Looking at it’s website, and statements of faith, this appears to be a modern evangelical, charismatic/Pentecostal congregation, which would be consistent with the congregations Griffin has attended in the past back in Texas.

In other words, stay tuned. In this town, questions will eventually be asked.

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The day after: The prophet John Green, revisited

It should be a quiet day on the religion-beat front, in the wake of yesterday’s nail-biters in the real world of politics. If the past repeats itself, as it often does, it will take a few days for the religion elements of the story to emerge, other than the usual “Obama won the Catholic vote (whatever that is)” headlines.

We do know several things for sure, on the day after. The ultimate ties that bind are race and religion, even when those two realities pull in different directions. The map also shows the degree to which many working-class voters in the urban Northeast and Midwest remain in deep, deep pain and many are convinced that the government is their ultimate, if not only, friend. GOP leaders seem to be deaf to their populist cries. (Then again, I am a registered Democrat who just bought a Chevy Cruze).

In its wrap-up analysis, USA Today went back to the map:

The changing U.S. electorate split in two Tuesday — not only along lines of political party and ideology but also by race and ethnicity, gender and marital status, region and religion, education and age. The divisions are even sharper than they were four years ago, when Obama attracted broader support, especially among whites.

But this time the contest was much closer in a country that is undergoing tectonic shifts in its demography. “We have never had a more polarized electorate,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres says.

If there was one thing that seemed to unite the nation, it was a sense that the stakes were high and the election mattered.

The nation froze in place in an amazing state of gridlock. Things pretty much remain the same on the nation’s hot-button moral, cultural and religious issues: The only vote that actually matters, at least for a few years, is that of Justice Anthony Kennedy. It’s his country, but he lets us live here. For church-state insiders, all eyes are on his editing pencil and numerous First Amendment cases (free speech, freedom of association and religious liberty) are headed his way.

As election night plodded on, I kept thinking about University of Akron scholar John Green and that recent Pew Forum “Nones” study and America’s growing coalition on the secular and religious left. To be specific, I flashed back to a Media Project seminar in the summer of 2009, when Green stood at a whiteboard and described the changes that he was seeing in the landscape of American religion. Everything he said on that day showed up years later, in the 2012 Pew Forum study of the religiously unaffiliated.

On the right side of the American religious marketplace, defined in terms of doctrine and practice, is a camp of roughly 20 percent (maybe less) of believers who are seriously trying to practice their chosen faith at the level of daily life, said Green. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a growing camp of people who are atheists, agnostics or vaguely spiritual believers who define their beliefs primarily in terms of the old doctrines that they no longer believe. This is especially true when it comes to issues of salvation and sex. As the old saying goes, on these issues these spiritual-but-not-religious believers reject all absolute truths except the statement that there are no absolute truths.

In recent national elections this growing camp of secularists and religiously unaffiliated people have formed a powerful coalition with Catholic liberals, liberal Jews and the declining numbers of people found in America’s liberal religious denominations (such as the “seven sisters” of oldline Protestantism). Add it all up, Green said in 2009, and you had a growing camp of roughly 20 percent or so on the cultural left.

The bottom line: This coalition was emerging as the dominant voice in the modern Democratic Party on matters of culture and religion. Just as Republicans have, in recent decades, had to wrestle with the reality — the pluses and the minuses — of the energy found on the Religious Right, leaders in the Democratic Party will now be faced with the delicate task of pleasing the Religious Left and its secular allies. This could, to say the least, shape the party’s relationships with the Catholic Church, Orthodox Jews, Muslims and other major religious bodies.

Here’s what Green had to say, a few weeks ago, after the press gathering announcing the “Nones” report. This is taken from a column I wrote for the Scripps Howard News Service.

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the “Nones” skew heavily Democratic as voters — with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

“It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. “If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties.”

Sound familiar?

So where does this go? Where will journalists be looking for the next wrinkle in this story?

The reality that trumps many of these religious divisions is, of course, race. At some point, cultural conservatives are going to have to find a way to separate married and religious African-Americans and Latinos from the single adults and secular people in those large ethnic groups. White voters divide alone lines of religious practice (the “pew gap”) and marital status, while black and Latino voters do not.

If cultural conservatives are not able to do this, then do the math.

Meanwhile, here comes the deeper information from the exit polls. If journalists continue to march in lockstep, we are only days away from reports about the growing division between young evangelicals and old evangelicals (whatever the word “evangelical” means).

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Boooo! One-side story praising Halloween evangelism?

It would be hard to imagine anything more controversial, in the American of 2012, than the concept that certain sinful lifestyle behaviors can lead to people being condemned by God to spend eternity in hell. For starters, this would mean that the word “sin” can be applied to behaviors other than those judged intolerant by the editorial page board at The New York Times.

So, try to imagine my shock when I opened up my copy of The Baltimore Sun (the newspaper that lands in my front yard) and, lo and behold, there was a story on A2 about one of those “fright house” ministries that some conservative Christian ministries operate, for clearly evangelistic purposes, every Halloween. (Stop and think about this for a minute. Has anyone ever heard of a doctrinally liberal “fright house” operation? If there is one somewhere, that would be worth some coverage. I mean, what would the scary sins be in a Universalistic “fright house” ministry?)

So here is the shocker: This story was totally one-sided and biased.

What? What is so shocking about the Sun doing a biased story about a conservative Christian ministry?

I hear you. What’s interesting, this time around, is that the story was completely biased in favor of the ministry. This news report focused on a very controversial subject and (a) I would bet the bank that it omitted some of the most controversial details of this operation and (b) it contained not a shred of evidence that there are religious believers and nonbelievers who oppose this type of thing because they consider it — with good cause from their theological point of view — offensive and judgmental.

So this story offered a low-key version of the conservative side of a story linked to a very controversial doctrinal statement, in this day and age. It would have been a much better report if it had included the views of liberal Christians, unbelievers and, in this season, pagans.

What does this look like in print? Here’s the opening of this unusual public-relations piece:

Instead of a traditional Halloween haunted house filled with fog and ghoulish scenes, an outreach ministry in East Baltimore is offering stark glimpses into real-life issues, messages of hope and firm promises of help. The images portrayed at Reality House can be as haunting as any in a tale of horror, mostly because they are based on actual situations.

Within a 46-foot-long tent pitched behind the Patterson Park Library, visitors can check out scenes that depict social ills like drug addiction, suicide and teen pregnancy. The portrayals shed light on the consequences of poor decision making, according to Teen Challenge of Baltimore, a faith-based ministry that organized the program.

“This is about reality, which really can be scarier than any horror movie,” said Kenny Rogers, outreach coordinator of Teen Challenge. “This is the stuff kids live with in a society that is really scary for them. It doesn’t go away, like when you walk out of the movie.”

So what are the sins that are on display? There’s a seance. There are images of substance abuse, including references to alcohol and marijuana, and the tough life of a teen-aged single mother. There’s a row of graves “each marked with the deceased’s cause of death.” I would imagine there are some controversial social/political issues linked to those tombstones.

And the final message of hope? It would offend many, many Sun readers:

After about a 20-minute walk through the scenes, visitors exit the tent to see three crosses — emblems of Calvary — and to hear brief words from Scripture.

During a dress rehearsal Thursday, several neighborhood children approached the costumed actors, asking if they were real. … Belainta Crawford, 7, tugged on Christ’s beard and tried on a demon’s frightful mask before he matter-of-factly assured his 5-year-old sister, “He’s God and he’s the devil.”

Seriously, I wonder if anyone opposed this ministry operating this close to a public library. Is it on public land?

Before some readers freak out, I am not saying that it is always wrong for this kind of event to be held in a public place. What I am saying is that this is a topic that would — in many communities, and especially liberal Baltimore — cause fierce debates. So where is the rest of this story?

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On sex: Smart black Christians vs. you know who

Brace yourselves, GetReligion readers. I am about to do something shocking.

I would like to take this opportunity to offer careful praise for a Baltimore Sun story that focuses on the lives of two African-American believers who are have struggled with same-sex attractions. I say “have struggled” because the story focuses on two radically different people whose experiences and decisions have led them in two radically different directions, in terms of how they view the Bible and their own Christian lives.

The opening of the story sets up the framework that shapes this long news feature. The goal, quite simply, is to let two people tell their own stories. The result isn’t perfect — more on that in a minute — but it’s evidence that journalists can, by featuring candid human voices, help readers wrestle with complex issues in human life and faith.

While growing up in an African-American Baptist church, Harris Thomas was taught homosexuality is an “abomination in the eyes of God.” As a young minister, he disparaged the gay lifestyle even while secretly pursuing it. Today he heads a Baltimore church that serves gay Christians of color “right where they are.”

Grace Harley, too, grew up in a mainstream black church. She discovered the gay underground as a teen and lived as a lesbian for nearly 20 years. But God freed her from homosexuality, she says, a “blessing” she gladly recounts as a straight minister based in Silver Spring.

Both longtime Marylanders began their spiritual journeys in a similar place, as black Christians who felt strong same-sex attractions. Both faced rejection from family and community, and particularly forceful disapproval from fellow African-Americans, a group whose values have long been shaped by conservative religious thinking. But on a key question of the day, Thomas and Harley could not be more different.

As Maryland’s same-sex marriage referendum looms next month, Elder Harris Thomas, 57, the openly gay pastor of the Unity Fellowship Church of Baltimore, backs “marriage equality.” The Rev. Grace Harley of Fruit of the Spirit Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., 58, opposes it. Both have arrived at their views at a steep price.

And, thus, the story wades into some of the messy details. It’s crucial to know that both of these ministers, one liberal and the other conservative, have lived lives that defy simple labels. Both could, in some sense, accurately describe their lives in terms of bisexuality, as well as homosexuality.

This is a long story for a good reason: It takes time to let these two people tell, and interpret, their stories. (By the way, I should mention right up front that I happen to know the reporter — Jonathan Pitts — whose byline tops this report and I know a bit about how he works. He is a solid interviewer with a long, long attention span.)

So what is my problem with this story? Simply stated, the story falls into an easy trap when talking about issues of scripture and sexuality. Once again, readers are offered the simplistic notion that the modern church is divided into camps of “biblical literalists” — simple code for “fundamentalists” — and more nuanced believers who have spent some time in a seminary and, thus, have grown to accept modernized teachings on sexuality. Thus, readers are told:

African-Americans have deep spiritual roots in the evangelical tradition of Christianity, a broad school of faith incorporating the Pentecostal, Baptist and African Methodist traditions, among others, and stressing biblical authority. Evangelicals tend to read Scripture literally, religious historians say, and at first glance, the Bible seems to leave little room for tolerance of homosexuality.

Later, there is this kicker, care of the Rev. Cedric Harmon, an “African-American pastor who is co-director of Many Voices, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for same-sex marriage within the black church.”

First, Harmon says, black preachers were among the first African-Americans who could read, and their interpretive skills were rudimentary. Second, slaveholders abused black sexuality so badly, it took hundreds of years for their descendants to develop a healthy sense of self. As they did so, he believes, a culture developed inside and outside the church that scorned behaviors that might be seen as aberrant. He wonders whether African-American men adopted a culture of machismo at that early stage.

“Literal readings can lend themselves to condemning and ostracizing interpretations,” Harmon says. “Now that many of us have gone to seminary and studied those scriptures, that language has begun to lessen a bit. But that doesn’t diminish the intensity of what many people have gone through.”

In other words, there are smart people on one side, people who have gone to seminary, and on the other side there are, well, macho biblical literalists who have never been to school.

This is a very poor and simplistic way to describe the viewpoints of biblical scholars who — in a variety of traditions, Catholic and Protestant — keep clashing in these debates. The Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area, I might add, offers very deep resources when it comes to finding articulate, informed, academic voices on both sides of this debate. Where are the conservative scholars? This story, in other words, reduces 2,000 years of orthodox Christian doctrine on human sexuality to one form of Protestant literalism.

The journalistic goal, of course, should be to do justice to the theological viewpoints on both sides. This story does a good job of accurately quoting the voices of these two ministers — the stakeholders in this feature — but falls short when it comes time to quote experts who are asked to frame and explain what these stories mean.

So I can offer some praise to the Sun for letting these two believers tell their stories, in their own words. The problem is that the story slips back into a familiar, simplistic journalistic rut when it comes time to explain the bigger picture. The result is yet another warped portrayal of a very complex debate.

This was a good try, but one that failed to take seriously the sources of the beliefs of people on both sides of these painful stories.

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A religiously fashionista story

I love a good fashion story, especially one that taps into religion behind the inspiration for the different styles.

The Associated Press recently assessed the state of style among evangelicals in Brazil, no small story for the potentially steamy topic.

Strolling down the main shopping drag in this working-class Rio de Janeiro suburb, it’s not the second-skin dresses in shocking pink spandex that catch the eye or even the strapless tops with strategically placed peekaboo paneling.

The newest look can instead be found in stores like Silca Evangelical Fashion, where the hot items are the demure, long-sleeved frocks with how-low-can-you-go hemlines and the polyester putty-colored potato sack dresses.

In the birthplace of the “fio dental” or dental floss string bikini, so-called evangelical fashion has emerged as a growing segment of the country’s $52 billion-a-year textile industry, catering to the conservative sartorial needs of Brazil’s burgeoning numbers of born-again Pentecostals.

What makes the piece a winner is that goes into detail not just about the clothes but about the history and context for why the clothes matter.

Introduced in the mid-19th century by American missionaries, Brazil’s neo-Pentecostal churches were long regarded as fringe groups. Aggressive proselytizing, particularly among the poor and disenfranchised, has produced a dramatic spike in the community’s numbers in recent decades and eaten away at Brazil’s status as the world’s largest Catholic country.

In 1980, evangelicals represented just over 6 percent of the population, according to the country’s IBGE statistics agency. In the 2010 census, more than 42 million people, or 22 percent of the country’s 190 million, identified themselves as evangelicals. Some statisticians predict that if current trends hold, evangelical Christians could become the majority here by 2030.

I would quibble with a few word choices like proselytize and the interchangeable use of “evangelical” and “pentecostal,” but the piece weaves the religion and style fabrics pretty well.

Customer Ana Paula Fernandes agrees. As a nonpracticing Catholic, Fernandes converted to an evangelical church two years ago. Dressed in cutoff shorts and a white tank top with spaghetti straps permitted by her congregation for day-to-day wear, Fernandes said it took her a while to get used to the modest garments required for services.

“Once when I first joined, I went to church in pants, and the pastor called me out on it,” said the 25-year-old manicurist and mother of a 7-year-old daughter. “It seemed strange at first, but now I see how what you wear affects other people, not to mention your own sense of self-worth.”

Now, she says she wears only modest, loose-fitting dresses to church.

“I feel dignified,” she said.

Explaining how demographics have changed within the country are the icing on the cake of the story, which is more about style and fashion. Kudos to the reporter who dug beneath the surface on style and went into the fabric of Brazilian religious life.

Image of casually clothed woman via Shutterstock.

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Big tragedy, big money in Big Apple

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Back in April, I weighed in on a claim that my former employer, The Associated Press, is “desperately seeking Pulitzers” and relaxing its news standards.

I defended AP against such criticism, although I questioned my position just a little soon afterward.

But today, I come to praise AP, not to bury it …

In recent days, AP published a 3,700-word investigative piece — in the wire service world, 3,700 words is akin to an expanded edition of “War and Peace” — on a New York City minister who made big money off the Sept. 11 tragedy and later disasters.

The top of the story:

NEW YORK (AP) — Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Rev. Carl Keyes was a little-known pastor of a small New York City congregation searching for members and money.

When the twin towers fell, his fortunes changed.

Donors poured $2.5 million into the minister’s charity to help 9/11 victims. More opportunities to raise relief money would come later, with at least another $2.3 million collected for efforts along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, in the poorest corners of West Virginia and Tennessee, and even in remote African villages.

Tens of millions more flowed through his fingers from the sale of church properties.

But Keyes, a one-time construction worker, did more than help the needy with the millions donated — he helped himself.

This is an intricately reported exposé — a journalistic freight train piled high with crucial goods such as “financial records, internal correspondence and interviews with former employees,” as AP characterizes its sourcing up high.

At the same time, AP puts the story in a bigger context — another trait of the best journalism:

Relatively few people know of Keyes’ charities — Urban Life Ministries and Aid for the World. But his story offers a disturbing glimpse into how some nonprofits manage to largely avoid scrutiny and keep finances secret, even while raising substantial amounts of money in the name of tragedy. It’s also a story about what can happen to the money of well-meaning donors eager to open their hearts and wallets in the wake of devastation.

It’s a far from flattering portrayal of the pastor involved. In so many ways, this a case of the facts truly speaking for themselves.

But at the same time, AP goes out of its way to be fair — to allow the pastor and his supporters space to defend themselves, even when their statements only lend to the incredulity.

Keyes and his lawyer say all payments by his church and charities were proper.

“Sorry that you don’t have a real ‘story’ here, but the truth is actually quite boring since no one did anything wrong,” his lawyer, Jennifer Polovetsky, said in an email to the AP on Aug. 22.

“It must be underscored that Carl Keyes is an internationally recognized humanitarian who has spent the past 30 years helping others in crisis,” she wrote in an earlier letter. “He has worked with many presidents and prime ministers around the world to help ease the suffering of their people.”

From a GetReligion standpoint, we certainly could nitpick over whether the story could benefit from slightly more attention to Keyes’ theological background and how that background informs, if at all, the handling of financial matters scrutinized in the AP investigation.

Readers do learn that accusations of wrongdoing have followed Keyes since his early days as an Assemblies of God minister. Is the prosperity gospel at play in any way here? Do Pentecostals approach finances at all differently than other Christians?

After all the dollar figures and public records, the story ends where it started — with Keyes the pastor:

Keyes says disaster and devastation have taken their toll. He’s no longer a full-time pastor of Glad Tidings. His wife leads the church.

He and some volunteers recently helped build a home in Pennsylvania for victims of sex trafficking.

On his website, Keyes said he is “working with struggling towns and cities to write a screenplay and shoot a film in order to lift them out of poverty.” He wrote that movie stars would be involved, and that the “lofty venture” would “result in the actual turnaround” of the yet-to-be-selected town.

Also, within the last year, Keyes has been on eBay selling a special coffee from Africa named after his Aid for the World charity. In its most recent financial disclosure report, that charity stated it owed $1 million to Glad Tidings and $300,000 to Keyes.

Keyes insists he’s done with disasters, mostly because he says 9/11 and Katrina cost him, physically and emotionally. He was once lean and athletic. Now he struggles with his weight, at one point last year topping 400 pounds.

“I would never go back to relief work again, even if you pay me,” he says. “It was a circus.”

It’s a long story. But by all means, read it all and tell me what I missed.

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