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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So what’s the problem in Maryland pews?

Whenever you read one of those reflective essays on how The New York Times serves as a cheerleader for progressive causes — thank you, M.Z. — what you really need next is a kind of chaser to clear the journalistic palette.

I cannot provide that, at the moment.

Instead, let’s jump right back into the same subject — only this time through a new-old Times report about political — dang it, we’re talking about POLITICS, people — events unfolding in the deep-blue state of Maryland. You’ll be stunned to know that the headline reads, “In Maryland, Gay Marriage Seeks a ‘Yes’ at the Polls.”

As always, the word “could” shows up very early in this report. Readers who consume lots of news know that the word “could” is often a sign that a news organization has its fingers crossed about the direction a particular issue should, as opposed to “could,” take in the immediate future. Thus, The Times goes down to Maryland to check up on how things are going:

WASHINGTON – When Marylanders go to the polls in November, the state could become the first to affirm same-sex marriage in a popular vote.

In March, lawmakers in Maryland approved a measure to allow such unions, but it came with a built-in escape hatch: it would not take effect until 2013. The waiting period was intended as a compromise with opponents of the measure and as an insurance policy for supporters. Lawmakers feared validating marriages for a period, only to have them overturned by a popular vote later, as happened with Proposition 8 in California.

Opponents of same-sex marriage in Maryland seized the opportunity to contest the law and gathered more than 100,000 signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot, setting the stage for a renewed debate on the issue.

Now, like I said, the state of Maryland (I live on the south edge of the Baltimore Beltway) is about as true liberal blue as a state can get. So the whole purpose of this story is to answer the following question: How can gay marriage lose in some of America’s most liberal political terrain? WHo are the opponents? Will the Times team listen to these bizarre folks?

Naturally, the Maryland Marriage Alliance shows up immediately, as it should. But who IS the Maryland Marriage Alliance? It is an “alliance” of what kinds of groups? If you know anything about Maryland culture, then you will know that the answer is that this an interracial network of religious groups.

The Times story, explores — from a liberal perspective — the role of race in this scene, but not religion (although there is brief, vague, content-free reference to the much-debated religious conscience exemptions written into the Maryland law that passed). Readers are told:

The ballot language will also be different in Maryland. In the other 32 states where voters have been asked about the issue, the referendum question was phrased so that a vote in favor of the measure was a vote to reject same-sex marriage. In Maryland, ballots will ask the question in the affirmative and will explain that there will be an exemption for religious groups.

In January, a poll conducted by The Washington Post found that half of Maryland residents supported same-sex marriage. Since then, polls have suggested a rise in support — in large part, advocates believe, because more black voters have warmed to the idea. That will be particularly significant in Maryland, where in a typical election blacks make up roughly one-third of voters.

Please read the whole story. Based in the information offered by the Times, would readers know that the key to this entire story is whether church-going African-Americans will turn out large enough numbers — with President Barack Obama on the ballot, this is likely, but not certain — and thus vote to defend a traditional definition of marriage? Readers are told that “more black voters have warmed to the idea” of changing the definition, without a single concrete reference to the fact that this pivots on debates in African-American pews.

So what are African-Americans in Maryland debating? What is the content of this pivotal discussion, which will almost certainly determine the fate of this item on the ballot?

Wait, you mean talking to African-American believers on both sides of this issue is a possibility? Who knew?

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Democrats back gay marriage: Who you gonna call?

At the moment, I am up in the mountains of North Carolina, which is one of those places where the occasional Democrat running for higher office will go out of his or her way to put the word “conservative” on the campaign yard signs so that they can try to hang on to the remnant of the good old days down here in the Bible Belt.

“Conservative” can mean lots of things these days, from standing up for the religious freedom of religious schools to, well, eating a chicken sandwich YOU KNOW WHERE. But mainly it means that this Democrat is not all that happy about trends in the national party.

I thought about this political fact of life when I was reading the celebratory report in The New York Times about the work being done to add a pro-gay marriage plank to the platform of said Democratic Party. Here’s a sample:

Gay rights supporters praised the Democratic Party’s vote. “Like Americans from all walks of life, the Democratic Party has recognized that committed and loving gay and lesbian couples deserve the right to have their relationships respected as equal under the law,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “I believe that one day very soon the platforms of both major parties will include similar language on this issue.”

The Democratic Party platform that was drafted four years ago, when Mr. Obama was first running for president, called for “full inclusion of all families, including same-sex couples, in the life of our nation,” and for “equal responsibility, benefits and protections.”

But the platform stopped short of endorsing same-sex marriages, in part because Mr. Obama had said he remained opposed.

Despite the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, the issue remains a difficult one for some Democrats, particularly those in the midst of hard-fought re-election campaigns in conservative-leaning states. Those include Tim Kaine, the former Democratic National Committee chairman who is running for Senate in Virginia, and Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana.

Now this got me to thinking about the journalistic footwork that reporters and editors might do to get some intellectual balance into stories about this subject.

So stop and think about this for a moment. Let’s turn this coin over.

What if the Republic Party somehow managed to do something totally predictable on gay-rights issues, like take a stand in defense of religious freedom or freedom of association or what not. Journalists covering this story would need — thinking logically — to get responses from two different groups.

First of all, they would need to reach liberals and gay-rights groups, those who would oppose this action. Then the reporters would need to contact people INSIDE the GOP who were opposed to the action. Can anyone imagine this story running without on-the-record reactions coming from Log Cabin Republicans, moral libertarians, etc., etc.? There are groups inside the GOP that speak up for the gay-rights cause. They should be quoted.

Now, let’s transfer this over to the Democrats, to the story that is currently unfolding. Obviously, we need to hear the views of outsiders who oppose this move — a quote from someone on the Religious Right, perhaps. Then we need a quote from a morally conservative, traditional-religion-friendly group inside the Democratic Party. You know, blue-collar, traditional Catholics in labor families, African-American churchgoers, Latino Catholics and others of that ilk.

So, truth be told, the Times team does come through on half of this journalistic task. Want to guess which half?

Peter S. Sprigg, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, predicted that Democrats will regret their decision to include the marriage plank in their platform.

“There are many places in the country where Democratic candidates will not want to be identified with the gay-marriage party,” Mr. Sprigg said. “I think this is more politically correct than it is politically smart.”

So, that’s a very predictable voice on the moral and cultural right. Now, where is that crucial vote from the right side of the Democratic Party, the voice that would be the counterpart of a pro-gay-rights GOP voice in a story about the Republicans?

Sorry about that. Maybe the folks at The Washington Post found a morally and culturally conservative voice in the diverse reality that is the modern Democratic Party? Maybe? Just maybe?

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Define “meditation,” give three examples

I realize that, at this point, the word “meditation” has evolved into a term that is used to describe cool things that cool people do instead of doing uncool things that journalists might think of as prayer. Perhaps we need an entry in the Associated Press Stylebook that states this clearly.

The problem, of course, is that many of these generic meditative techniques have their origins in major world religions and, in fact, they are linked to prayer in those traditions. The key, today, is that these spiritual techniques have been turned into consumer goods. Yes, there is an app for that.

It was a strange little news-you-can-use piece in The Los Angeles Times — “Meditation apps let the peace flow through the phone” — that got me thinking about this. Look it over, and we’ll return to its contents in a minute.

This story, if it is a news story, reminded me of an interview I did a decade ago with poet Rodger Kamenetz, author of the bestseller “The Jew in the Lotus.” He was worried that, as more and more people stopped practicing actual religious faiths, we would end up lots of people making up their own religions — stripping away the actual doctrines and ethical teachings until they were left with plastic substitutes that, essentially, calmed their nerves but never judged their lives.

Perhaps, he told me, it was time to list the actual prayer traditions of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam on some kind of “spiritual endangered species” list. Thus, I wrote:

Take Buddhism, for example, which appears to be flourishing and winning converts in media-soaked America. Simply stated, Buddhism is being bought and sold. And Kamenetz is not the only scholar who is worried about the rise of a consumer-friendly Buddhism in the spirituality marketplace.

There are other seekers — including growing numbers of “JUBUs” or Jewish Buddhists — who find Buddhism attractive because they see it as a form of spirituality without dogmas, creeds, beliefs, commandments and rituals that resemble anything they were required to learn as children. They simply ignore what traditional Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama have to say about hot-button moral issues, such as abortion, homosexuality of sexual abstinence.

“Let’s face it,” said Kamenetz, “one of the reasons Buddhism has become so popular, with so many Americans, so fast, is that people have stripped away all of the rules and the precepts and the work that has to do with how you are supposed to live your life. In doing so, they have stripped Buddhism of its ethical content. You are left with a religion that makes very few demands of you. Is that Buddhism?

With that in mind, take another look at that Times piece, which centers on peace and tranquility via the smartphone. Think of this, in a way, as a parallel story to the whole wretched “going to confession online” media craze of a year or two ago, which was a news-gets-abused mess on multiple levels. Those apps allowed believers to PREPARE for confession, using printed materials and journals on their smartphones.

It appears that these new “meditation” apps go way, way, beyond that kind of thing. The story notes that a simple search for “meditation” in the iPhone App Store yields 1,000 possible downloads.

The guidance offered in these apps “allows you just to let go and stop worrying about whether you’re doing it right,” says Stephan Bodian, a psychotherapist in Tucson and the developer of the Mindfulness Meditation app. “You can just relax and let yourself be led.”

Plugging in to a meditation app — having turned off the phone’s ringer and other functions, of course — could have a host of benefits. Researchers have found that meditation reduces stress and makes people generally happier.

Here’s the journalistic key, for me. What does the word “meditation” actually mean, in the context of this story? What would differentiate “meditation” from “prayer”? What is the line between, let’s say, letting oneself “be led” in generic, commercialized meditation, as opposed to meditating by saying the prayers of the traditional Catholic Rosary?

Here is what readers get:

There are many kinds of meditation, but a lot of attention these days is going to “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is all about paying attention to the here and now — not the past or future, where stressors lurk — with an open, observant attitude, says psychologist Britta Hölzel of Massachusetts General Hospital. Frequently it involves focusing on one particular thing, like the breath.

“It helps me be more awake and alive to what’s happening around me,” Hölzel says.

Mindfulness can help with attention, memory and emotional control. It can help people deal with anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

The benefits of meditation aren’t limited to the brain; it can also lower cholesterol, heart rate and blood pressure. …

In other words, the story offers little or nothing in the way of a definition or a description of the contents of these programs. Mediation is defined in terms of its alleged effects — that is all. You pay your money, you get the outcome that you want. Or you get your money back? This strange Times story does not address that point.

The story ends, of course, with blurbs promoting several of these generic, non-religious meditation products. Personally, I wonder what Kamenetz would say about this one:

For: Android, iPhone
Cost: $2.99

The lighthearted Buddhify program promises “appalicious goodness for you to play with,” including 32 meditations. It’s all about “urban meditation,” so you don’t have to find a quiet mountaintop or temple. Buddhify has meditations for walking, riding the bus, working out and the home. With no music, you focus on the sounds around you. You can further customize your experience by selecting specific “flavors,” such as clarity or stability.

I guess, in terms of journalism, we are living in a new age after all.

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Coached by God? NYT profiles Olympic runner

According to an in-depth story in ESPN the Magazine, the Summer Olympics are one big sex party — with 100,000 condoms ordered to keep up with all the athlete shenanigans expected in London.

With the provocative headline “Will you still medal in the morning?” that 3,200-word feature managed to steer entirely clear of any questions of values, morals or — dare we say — religion related to all the bedroom activity expected in the Olympic Village. That’s probably not surprising, given that the story appeared in the magazine’s Body Issue.

Just as I was lamenting the ESPN piece, a GetReligion reader submitted a link to an even longer Olympic story — this one published by The New York Times and running more than 5,600 words. (You read that right: 5,600 words! No word on whether this dead-tree story required the clearing of an extra forest.)

The Times profiles Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall (whose faith has received in-depth treatment before). The top of the story:

REDDING, Calif. — Ryan Hall rocked slightly, palms up, closing his eyes or singing softly to lyrics projected on giant screens at the evangelical Bethel Church. Other worshipers jubilantly raised their arms and swayed and jumped in the aisles. A band played onstage and a woman waved a fabric flag like a rhythmic gymnast.

Thin and blond and boyish at 29 — flight attendants still asked his age when he sat in an exit row — Hall wore jeans and a blue shirt labeled with the shoe company that sponsored his running. At the 2011 Boston Marathon, he ran a personal best of 2 hours 4 minutes 58 seconds. No other American has run faster.

The Boston course is not certified for record purposes because of its drop in elevation and its layout. Still, of the29 fastest marathon performances in 2011, Hall’s was the only one by a runner from a country other than Kenya or Ethiopia. His next marathon will come Aug. 12 at the London Olympics. On a Sunday in March, Hall firmly believed he could challenge the East Africans for a gold medal.

“Light a fire in me for the whole world to see,” he sang.

I’m not a big fan of that lede. To me, it seemed like pretty boilerplate stuff for an evangelical church, especially considering the exceptional material that characterizes most of the piece.

But overall, the writer, Jere Longman, does an amazing job of taking religion seriously — of delving deep into the runner’s faith, letting him explain what he believes in his own words and providing context and insight to help understand Hall’s brand of Christianity.

Longman makes it clear up high that this story will “get religion”:

Underpinning his running is his faith. The marathon is so isolating in its training, so impossibly fast at the elite level, so restricting to two performances a year for most top runners, that many athletes seek a purpose larger than themselves, something to believe in more than the numbing miles of roadwork. For some, it is their families or an escape from poverty. For others, it is their religion.

“If you run without any reason, you are just chasing the wind,” said Wesley Korir, the reigning Boston Marathon champion from Kenya.

During the 2011 Chicago Marathon, Hall began singing praise to the Lord. Freestyling, he called it. Korir joined in.

“Come Lord Jesus, come,” the two runners sang as they ran. “Come Holy Spirit, come.”

After finishing second at the 2011 United States half-marathon championships, Hall went to drug testing, a standard procedure. Asked on a form to list his coach, he wrote: God.

You have to list the name of a real person, a doping official said.

“He is a real person,” Hall responded.

As the Times explores Hall’s faith, it provides details on his church:

Bethel Church, formerly affiliated with the Assemblies of God or Pentecostal faith, is a charismatic evangelical Christian fellowship with more than 3,000 congregants. It promotes a direct, personal relationship with an unconditionally loving God and what it calls supernatural signs and wonders. These include speaking in tongues, prophecy, healings and miracles that are said by church officials to include the curing of cancer, regeneration of limbs, mending of broken bones and raising the dead.

For a writer seemingly so fluent in the language of the athlete’s church, the description of Hall’s church confused me. The Assemblies of God or Pentecostal faith? That makes it sound like the Assemblies of God is the only Pentecostal faith, as if the two terms are interchangeable. Yet there are more than 60 Pentecostal denominations, according to the Religion Newswriters Association’s online stylebook. In fact, the church still sounds Pentecostal to me, unless I’m missing something (and please feel free to tell me in the comments section if I am).

Later in the story, another reference tripped me up:

As part of the so-called renewalist evangelical Christian movement, Bethel Church subscribes to a relationship with God that is not distant but intimate. Through prayer, charismatic evangelicals train their minds to converse with God, not unlike athletes who train their bodies to run marathons. They speak to God and believe that he speaks to them in return.

So-called renewalist evangelical Christian movement? I found myself wanting to know more about the history and size of that (so-called) movement.

Those quibbles aside, the writer deserves major kudos for his brilliant attention to detail in relating Hall’s faith. Consider this section, for example:

At Bethel Church, God’s presence is felt in a number of ways, including what is said to be the appearance of feathers from angels’ wings and the manifestation of what is called a “glory cloud.”

Hall said he and his wife had experienced a glory cloud on New Year’s night, likening the phenomenon to fireflies or the flashing of tiny fireworks. Others say it resembles gold dust. He had seen a YouTube version of the glory cloud and was somewhat skeptical, believing that it might be simply a cascade of dust from the ceiling of the church. His skepticism faded when he saw for himself.

“I feel like I’ve experienced God in a lot of ways, but I’ve never seen a sign like that in such a tangible way,” Hall said. “I was like so sure it was God, that it was him doing it, because there was no explanation. I almost feel like we’re kids and he’s our dad and he’s kind of like having fun with us.”

There’s much more — from Hall and other sources — that make this story a compelling read, for sports fans as well as readers interested in religion.

Check it out.

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Well handled snakes, in the Washington Post

Although I lived in the mountains of Tennessee for six years, I am not an expert on the small — but well documented — bands of Christians who choose to handle snakes as part of their worship services. Yes, there was this mainstream Greek newspaper that decided that I was an expert on this subject (one of the most bizarre episodes in my career), but that was the kind of mistake that happens when one writes a singe column that somehow shows up high in a Google search.

The key to writing about this subject is that reporters need to listen to the snake handlers as they explain what they do and why they do it. For, you see, the snake handlers are — when you hit the bottom line — edgy Protestants who truly believe they they are supposed to pick up their Bibles and read them literally, without putting the tough passages into the context of 2,000 years of church history and tradition. Here’s how I tried to explain some of that in a column during my years in Appalachia.

Millions of Americans say the Bible contains no errors of any kind. “Amen,” say the snake handlers. Others complain that too many people view the Bible through the lens of safe, middle-class conformity and miss its radical message. Snake handlers agree.

Millions of Americans say that miracles happen, especially when believers have been “anointed” by God’s Holy Spirit. “Preach on,” say snake handlers. Polls show that millions of spiritual seekers yearn for ecstatic, world-spinning experiences of divine revelation. “Been there, done that,” say snake handlers.

The reason I bring this up is because of an amazing series of events, and the coverage of those events, that unfolded in The Washington Post this past week.

Actually, the story of this story begins last November with a typically gripping feature story by veteran religion-beat specialist Julia Duin, best known for her years of work at The Washington Times, who now is a contributing writer at The Washington Post Sunday Magazine. It only takes a few sentences for Duin to bring together the wild ridges of West Virginia, a preacher named Randy “Mack” Wolford and the “sandy-colored timber rattlesnake” sitting, in a box, on the passenger seat of his pick-up truck.

There is no way to do justice to the whole story, but it is important that Duin deals quickly and clearly with the “why” in this particular story. Thus, readers head straight to Jolo and the Church of the Lord Jesus:

For years, this tiny church in an unincorporated hamlet of 1,191 souls has been world-famous for its death-defying handlers of serpents. Reporters, researchers, photographers and TV crews have come here to track Pentecostals who brandish poisonous snakes, drink strychnine and play with fire as a testimony of their faith. Each Labor Day weekend, the church has hosted a well-documented “homecoming” for snake handlers, who believe that Mark 16:17-18 mandates that true Christians “take up serpents and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick and they will recover.”

Wolford’s mission in life is to make sure that this custom, which he learned from his parents, survives for another generation. …

Though snake handling is condemned by mainstream Pentecostal denominations, Wolford believes that 21st-century Christianity desperately needs people willing to exhibit such signs. And he’s willing to do so despite having been bitten four times — and despite watching his snake-handling father die an agonizing death.

Can this church surive? Yes, there is a story in there to be covered.

By all means, read it all. This story has snakes, it has snake handlers and it has the historical and academic background information that you need. Most of all, his long piece has voices. The believers get to talk and the readers get to read, with Duin providing the context and focus.

This brings us to the two pieces that ran this past week in the newspaper’s Style section, one by Duin and the other by freelance photographer Lauren Pond, who just happened to be paying a return visit to the region when the other shoe dropped.

Working from a distance, and with the help of social media, Duin laid out the basics:

Mack Wolford, a flamboyant Pentecostal pastor from West Virginia whose serpent-handling talents were profiled last November in The Washington Post Magazine, hoped the outdoor service he had planned for Sunday at an isolated state park would be a “homecoming like the old days,” full of folks speaking in tongues, handling snakes and having a “great time.” But it was not the sort of homecoming he foresaw.

Instead, Wolford, who had turned 44 the previous day, was bitten by a rattlesnake he had owned for years. He died late Sunday. …

“I am looking for a great time this Sunday,” he wrote May 22. “It is going to be a homecoming like the old days. Good ’ole raised in the holler or mountain ridge running, Holy Ghost-filled speaking-in-tongues sign believers.”

“Praise the Lord and pass the rattlesnakes, brother” he wrote on May 23. He also invited his extended family, who had largely given up the practice of serpent handling, to come to the park.

Pond told Duin earlier in the week: “I didn’t see the bite. … I saw the aftermath.”

Because she had earlier earned the trust of the Wolford family, Pond was allowed to simply stay beside the preacher while his loved ones surrounded him to pray. After all, he had survived bites in the past. There was music and there were prayers. This was a way of life.

On this day, it was a way of death. As a journalist, what was Pond going to do? Thus, the headline on her personal and pained essay was blunt: “Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith.”

There are the details to report. Then there are the questions.

Wolford’s family had questions, as well as a few answers. Some of the onlookers did not share their certainty. And Pond was left with the kinds of questions that linger for people who work with cameras, notebooks and pens.

Mack’s family wanted me to know that he was more concerned with helping people attain salvation than getting them to handle snakes. “The Lord used him in so many ways, with so many people, and all ages,” his sister Robin said.

Some of the people who attended last Sunday’s service have struggled with Mack’s death, as I have. “Sometimes, I feel like we’re all guilty of negligent homicide,” one man wrote to me in a Facebook message following Mack’s death. “I went down there a ‘believer.’ That faith has seriously been called into question. I was face-to-face with him and watched him die a gruesome death. … Is this really what God wants?”

That’s a good question.

I know many photojournalists have been in situations similar to mine. Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter photographed an emaciated Sudanese child struggling to reach a food center during a famine — as a vulture
waited nearby. He was roundly criticized for not helping the child, which, along with the disturbing memories of the events he had covered and other factors, may have contributed to his suicide. As photojournalists, we have a unique responsibility to record history and share stories in as unbiased and unobtrusive a way as possible. But when someone is hurt and suffering, we have to balance our instincts as professionals with basic human decency and care.

In my mind, Mack’s situation was different from that of a starving child or a civilian wounded in war. He was a competent adult who decided to stand by what he understood to be the word of God, no matter the consequences. And so I’ve started to come to peace with the fact that everyone in the crowded trailer, including myself, let Mack die as a man true to his faith.

And what to do with her photos of the scenes at the preacher’s death watch?

It will take time, but please read all three of these pieces. See the faces and listen to the voices.

It’s called journalism. Some people get it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: It goes without saying, but try to focus on the journalism questions linked to these stories, not the beliefs of Wolford and his flock.

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Doing that Bill Maher gay marriage Obama thing

I have three questions, after reading the latest New York Times news report about why President Barack Obama is hurting his chances in the upcoming election with his ongoing reticence to let his beliefs on marriage completely evolve into agreement with, well, the great Gray Lady herself.

(1) Is the Times editorial staff, essentially, doing a Bill Maher riff here, chiding the president with story after story of wink-wink material that essentially says, “We think you’re lying on this issue, so you might as well come clean” or words to that effect?

(2) Is the goal, in this kind of coverage, to change the minds of traditional Christians in African-American churches, to shame them or merely to ignore them? To use the term popularized by the crew, the Times team does seem to be deliberately ignoring a major group of “stakeholders” in this debate.

(3) Is this another case, after the great Bill Keller confession in Austin, in which readers are simply supposed to assume that it is now Times policy that it is no longer necessary for the newspaper’s urban, sophisticated scribes to even attempt to accurately represent the views of leaders on the opposing side of a moral, cultural and religious issue such as this one?

The key to the timing of this story, of course, is that Vice President Joseph Biden, Jr., came within a whisker of endorsing same-sex marriage this past Sunday (during a talk show, as opposed to greeting reporters after Mass). White House aides said the statement was consistent with those previously made by the president, while gay-rights leaders (outside the administration) said Biden’s words were unique and newsworthy.

Once again, this meant that the Times story needed to offer an explanation — political, of course, not religious — for Obama’s silence. As usual, this background material mentioned religious beliefs, but did not explore them.

The political considerations for the White House and the Obama re-election campaign are complicated, and advisers are on both sides of the issue. But Mr. Obama’s senior strategists like David Axelrod and David Plouffe, confronting the prospect of a close election, are loath to raise a subject that could cost votes in swing states like Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado, say Democrats familiar with their thinking.

Yet Mr. Obama risks alienating gay Americans who have been among his strongest supporters and biggest donors, and same-sex marriage is strongly supported among many of the young and college-educated voters whom the campaign courts. But it is opposed by socially conservative blacks, particularly politically influential ministers, whose strong turnout Mr. Obama needs.

At the same time, some Democrats say that Mr. Obama, by continuing to straddle an issue that many supporters and gay activists believe he privately favors, risks looking politically calculating, even cynical.

Note, as usual, the lack of attributions for the ticklish statements in this part of the story.

Those who choose to read on will then note the complete absence of voices — even pro-Obama voices — explaining the point of view of these “politically influential” African-American ministers (as opposed to African-American ministers who are religious leaders and, thus, not all that important). Do Times editors realize how offended many African-American pastors are when told that they are important simply because of their political clout, and not their roles as pastors and community leaders?

Later on, the Times does offer this additional background on the North Carolina scene:

In North Carolina, polls indicated that the proposed state amendment banning same-sex marriage would be approved on Tuesday. While North Carolina has a law against same-sex marriage, Republican lawmakers said they worried that without an amendment, the law was in danger of being struck down by the courts.

The issue divides nearly all demographic groups, with ministers, lawyers, business executives, as well as black and white voters falling on both sides of the debate. …

Christopher Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, said of the issue, “I think the less it’s talked about in a state like North Carolina, the better it is for Obama.”

The story accurately notes that ministers — white and black — can be found on both sides of this debate in North Carolina and nationwide. Once again, the goal here at GetReligion is to note that there are religious stakeholders on both sides and their views need to be covered fairly and accurately.

Meanwhile, over at The Washington Post, the same story received coverage that was just as one-sided and even more faith-free. In this case, the gay-rights side of the equation was backed by six sources (not including Biden) and there were no voices, in terms of new interview material, featured on the other side.

In this case, the big idea of the story is that Obama is attempting to balance African-American votes vs. the power of gay money:

Several people close to the White House said the episode has exposed internal tensions within Obama’s team between those who want the president to say he favors same-sex marriage before the November election and others who worry about a political backlash if he does — not just among conservatives and working-class voters but among African Americans who are Obama’s most loyal support bloc but tend to oppose such unions.

About one in six of Obama’s top campaign “bundlers” are gay, according to a Washington Post review of donor lists, making it difficult for the president to defer the matter. Activists are planning a campaign for the adoption of a pro-gay-marriage plank in this year’s Democratic Party platform.

Stay tuned. I predict new and/or renewed coverage, soon, of how young African-American pastors are clashing with old African-American pastors on this issue. Also, if any GetReligion readers are faithful Maher watchers, please keep us posted on his news coverage of this issue.

Meanwhile, the Post also reports — in a blog item — that the White House press conference exchanges on this “evolving” issue were almost certainly worthy of Saturday Night Live — with little or no editing needed. That is, if SNL still does skits gently poking Obama.

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Swiss chastity

So dear to Heaven is saintly chastity,
That, when a soul is found sincerely so,
A thousand liveried angels lacky her,
Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt;

John Milton, Comus (1634)

Let me point out a lovely little article on chastity published by the Tages-Anzeiger — the TA is a center-left German- language Zurich daily with a readership of approximately 550,000. I was pleasantly surprised by this article which allowed Esther G., a 28 year old Swiss woman chose to explain why she practiced chastity before marriage.

The news hook for this article was news of the debut of a Swiss film examining the Purity Ball phenomena in America. The article entitled “Auf Sex warten, weil es Gott gefällt” which I would translate as “Wait for sex because it is pleasing to God” interviewed a Swiss woman who shared the worldview of the subjects of the American film.

But rather than the ridicule I expected of American Purity Balls and of their Swiss fellow travellors, the TA allows Esther to speak for herself. The Purity Ball phenomena does not have a Swiss counterpart, Esther notes, but its commitment to chastity does resonate with her.

The usually good Worldcrunch website has an English-language translation of the story. However this time they have dropped the ball. They entitled the article “Confessions Of An Unusually Chaste Swiss Woman” –  a rather tacky editorial insertion. Lost in the translation also is some of the sympathetic tone found in the original. But let’s work with the original.

My translation of the German version’s lede is:

She’s wearing jeans, tennis shoes and lipstick, and thus differs little on the outside from other young women. Except that she is strikingly pretty, with her cornflower-blue eyes and very regular facial features. And then there’s the fact that she was celibate until her wedding three years ago. Esther G.  (28) is a member is a member of Zurich’s Pentecostal Mission, where she met her husband, who also abstained from premarital sex.

She recounts her encounter with her sexuality noting that she first met her husband to be when she was 16 and he 19. It was love at first sight for her “and I would have married him even then. But it was clear that this was far too early”

The article allows Esther to recount her personal history without editorializing and then gives her the opportunity to express her reasons for not engaging in pre-marital sexual relations — it is here that the article stands out. There is no feel of an anthropologist peeping at an exotic tribe — no sense of reproof for being different or connotation of being odd for expressing views not shared by the majority of TA’s readers. And it takes Esther’s religious faith seriously.

The article allows Esther to offer pragmatic and spiritual reasons for her choice. Abstinence …

… is a refuge for body and soul. You give so much of yourself when you have sex, that wasting it on somebody you don’t have a future with hurts. That’s why I really believe you shouldn’t have sex before marriage. I believe that sex should only take place in the protected environment of the marriage. There would be far fewer problems if more people lived abstemious lives: AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases.

Also, I did it willingly because I wanted to please God. The Bible says that it is immoral to sleep with someone outside of marriage. God condemns it as sin, and because he has redeemed me, I stand by this. 

Perhaps I have become jaded but I was very surprised to see such a sympathetic treatment of chastity in a left-liberal European newspaper. The subject’s Christianity is not held up to ridicule, nor does an editorial voice appear to demean or applaud this women’s words. The facts tell the story.

But is it too much of a good thing? Should Esther have been pressed harder by the reporter? Was her identification as a Pentecostal Christian ( a rare bird in Switzerland) meant to imply that “real” Christians (Catholics and Reformed) would find her views odd? Was it not odd that the news of the film on Purity Balls that introduced the topic was moved to a side bar, while Esther’s story was placed front and center.

Or, was this that rare thing — a good news story with a religion angle from a liberal European newspaper?

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