Church conversions to condos

Indy church converted to condoTo my great satisfaction, a journalist has given serious coverage to the religious angle in the ongoing story of old churches being converted to new condos. Kathy McCabe of The Boston Globe does an excellent job of wading into the religious and spiritual significance of sacred places of worship being converted into high-end condo buildings.

I have fussed about this twice this year (see Chicago Tribune here and Religion News Service here): the religious and spiritual angle in these stories does not get enough attention. The RNS was a great improvement over the Tribune, but The Globe asks some questions that have gone unanswered until now:

When developer Tony Pace had the chance to turn the 100-year-old former Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Ipswich into a luxury condo, he sought the blessing of a parish priest.

“I needed to be sure it was OK,” said Pace, 45, who was raised Catholic in Medford. “He told me that if I treated it with respect, there was nothing wrong with it.”

Guilt about turning a house of worship into a high-end home isn’t limited to crib Catholics.

Karnig Ostayan asked his Armenian pastor to bless the former St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Church in Watertown, before turning the church and rectory into 11 upscale condos.

“I want to sleep at night,” joked Ostayan, who attends St. James Armenian Apostolic Church, across Mt. Auburn Street. “Seriously, I know how much this church meant to people.”

The article does a good job exploring the churches’ decision-making process and procedures when they sell off their sacred properties. One also gets the sense that if developers were not grabbing these properties, other churches would not be finding a home in the buildings. In some ways, the condominium developers are stepping up to preserve at least some of the beauty of these buildings.

One also gets the sense that there is a certain amount of spiritual guilt present in this story. Check out the irony of former churches becoming $1 million luxury condominiums:

Indy church converted to condo

When selling a church, the archdiocese issues a request for proposals. The goal is to select a buyer whose plan is consistent with church teachings and social mission. The archdiocese pulled out from a deal to turn a Quincy church into a clinic that would have provided counseling on abortion. The former Blessed Sacrament Church in Jamaica Plain is being turned into a mix of upscale, market-rate, and affordable condominiums. The final call on any property sale lies with Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley.

“In general, the cardinal likes to hear about things that are here to help people,” Peterson said.

Even if that includes luxury condos, some priced at over $1 million.

“It is providing someone with housing,” said Peterson.

Yes, the church is providing someone with housing. The White House also provides someone with housing.

Okay, enough of my sarcasm. There is also a beautiful photo gallery that goes with the story, which appears in the newspaper’s real estate section. Overall, I get the sense that McCabe understands that faith is important and that these churches as sacred places matter.

The one angle that I am still hoping for journalists to cover here is the community perspective. Once a church and its community has been replaced by condominiums, what institution is expected to serve the community’s spiritual needs? On the other hand, has the community changed to a degree that local church life is no longer a priority? Are any of these new condo dwellers attending church outside their immediate communities? Perhaps the mega-church in the suburbs?

Photos, taken by the author of this post, are of former downtown Indianapolis churches which have been converted into high-end condo buildings.

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RNS hanging in there

religionsAttention all journalists who care about religion news coverage in the mainstream press. I have some bad news and some good news.

Perhaps you saw the following story on the wires — sadly, this kind of downsizing report is all too familiar — and started worrying:

Newhouse News Service, which has provided Washington and national news to newspapers for nearly half a century, will close on Nov. 7, after the election.

The news service, founded in 1961, is also the Washington bureau of Advance Publications Inc. of New York, which owns 26 daily newspapers, including The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J; The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.; The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

The key lines in the report, for the purpose of this weblog, are these:

The news service is also the parent company of Religion News Service, which will continue as an independent company, she said.

Now if you know anything about the history of religion news in the American Press, and the history of Religion News Service, you know that taking a mainstream, unbiased, interfaith, ecumenical, nondenominational approach to covering national and international religion news has never been an easy task. May have heard, but lots of news executives of all stripes just don’t get religion and, thus, they have trouble getting out their checkbooks and paying for quality coverage on the beat.

Over at the Religion News Service site, you can see some of the challenges written between the lines of the wire service’s history:

Louis Minsky founded RNS in 1934 under the auspices of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. … In 1983, RNS was acquired by the Dallas-based United Methodist Reporter and continued to operate as an independent news agency. In 1991, RNS editorial was distributed to the secular press by New York Times Syndicated Features, Inc. In 1994, RNS was purchased by Newhouse News Service (NNS), and its name was changed to Religion News Service. NNS is a company of Advance Publications, a major publisher of daily newspapers, as well the Conde Nast family of magazines, and Parade. Universal Press Syndicate now distributes the service to daily and weekly newspapers in the US.

And now there will be another chapter. After the Newhouse story broke, our friends at quickly put up this note for concerned religion-news readers:

“We’re still alive,” says Kevin Eckstrom, editor of the Newhouse-owned Religion News Service. “I just wanted to make sure you’re aware that we’re not going anywhere. Next year marks our 75th anniversary, and we’re just getting started.

So, hopefully, it is time for another chapter to open. Here’s hoping that RNS finds another partner or two that are committed to a mainstream approach.

At the same time, I also — hint, hint — hope that there are some major religion content sites out there what can open up some pages for hard-news content (think RNS reports) as well as for feelings-based faith opinion. Facts and events matter.

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Journalists ignore life’s beginnings

ignore2Two major newspapers published front-page stories yesterday about a proposed Bush Administration rule that would seek to protect health-care workers to not provide abortions, or contraceptive devices they regard as tantamount to abortion. The proposal would deny federal funding to any hospital, clinic, health plan, or other entity that does not give employees a right to refuse to participate on conscience grounds.

In The Wall Street Journal, reporter Stephanie Simon focused on the potentially far-reaching effects of the rule. Her lede began this way:

Set aside the fraught question of when human life begins. The new debate: When does pregnancy begin?

The Bush Administration has ignited a furor with a proposed definition of pregnancy that has the effect of classifying some of the most widely used methods of contraception as abortion.

A draft regulation, still being revised and debated, treats most birth-control pills and intrauterine devices as abortion because they can work by preventing fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. The regulation considers that destroying “the life of a human being.”

Later, Simon elaborated about the politics of the proposed rule as well as that of other similar state measures:

With its expansive definitions, the draft bolsters a key goal of the religious right: to give single-cell fertilized eggs full rights by defining them as legal people — or, as some activists put it, “the tiniest boys and girls.”

As long as Roe v. Wade remains in effect and abortion remains legal, that goal can’t be fully realized. But in recent years, abortion opponents have scored notable successes. For instance: Several states now define a fertilized egg as a legal person — an “unborn child” — for purposes of fetal homicide laws, which allow criminal prosecution when a woman miscarries as a result of an assault.

In South Dakota, abortion doctors must tell patients — whatever their stage of pregnancy — that they will be “terminating the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being” with whom they have an “existing relationship.” In Colorado, voters this fall will weigh a state constitutional amendment that would confer full personhood on fertilized eggs, as well as embryos and fetuses. And embryonic stem-cell research is restricted through a variety of state and federal policies.

In The Washington Post, reporter Rob Stein also focused on the political and legal effects of the rule:

Because of its wide scope and because it would — apparently for the first time — define abortion in a federal regulation as anything that affects a fertilized egg, the regulation could raise questions about a broad spectrum of scientific research and care, critics say.

Simon and Stein could not ignore writing about the rule’s political and legal implications. But their exclusive focus on them gave readers an incomplete and misleading picture. They glossed over the biological aspects of the rule. And Simon used scare quotes to describe human biology– “the life of the human being” and “unborn child.”

As I wrote last December, embryologists and biologists have reached a rough consensus about when human life begins. In the vast majority of cases, an individual human life begins at the end of fertilization or conception.

Take the definition in Brittanica Concise Encyclopedia:

In humans, the organism is called an embryo for the first seven or eight weeks after conception, after which it is called a fetus.

Or consider the definition in Columbia Encyclopedia:

Among humans, the developing young is known as an embryo until eight weeks following conception, after which time it is described, until birth, as a fetus.

Not all authorities agree with this precise definition. For example, the American Heritage Dictionary and Oxford University define an embryo as that which begins at implantation. Yet this definition relies on an exception to the rule: the case of twins or triplets, etc. In those cases, the first human life begins at fertilization, and the second when the embryo splits or divides. Yet the life is undoubtedly human.

It’s fine for reporters to write about the law and politics. But when it comes to bio-ethical issues, they also need to write about the biology. Avoiding the topic is simply a journalistic sin of omission.

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Showing sins against secularism

turkeyI know Turkey is a secular state. As a reader of books about the Middle East (such as this fine one) and as someone who got a degree in political science, I have heard all about Kemal Ataturk and the secular founding of the country. But I had never appreciated how secular Turkey was until I read reporter Laura King’s story in The Los Angeles Times.

King wrote about whether the country’s ruling party would be shut down by its highest court because of alleged anti-secular activity. (The party ended up being fined.) King wasted no time in showing readers the importance of the nation’s secular constitution. Her introductory paragraphs began this way:

In an overwhelmingly Muslim but avowedly secular state, the legal confrontation illuminates the deep divide between the devout and those who are determined to keep displays of piety from public life.

In the most drastic outcome, the Constitutional Court could outlaw the ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, for anti-secular activity. It could also ban dozens of senior party leaders, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from participating in politics for five years.

Later, King showed the nature of the ruling party’s offense: It tried — tried — to overturn a certain type of ban:

The AKP overwhelmingly won last summer’s elections, running mainly on a platform of economic development. However, it caused an uproar this year when it attempted to toss out a ban on head scarves at public universities. That set the current case in motion, with the party standing accused by prosecutors of harboring an Islamist agenda that runs counter to Turkey’s secular constitution.

Then, King gave readers the context necessary to understand the highest court’s impending decision:

Turkish courts and officials have banned political parties in the past, about 20 times in all. But banned parties have often simply reconstituted themselves under another name, and the AKP would probably do the same. The current party is a more moderate offshoot of an Islamist party that was outlawed in the 1990s.

The story was not perfect. Perhaps King could have cited the secular constitutional laws in question. Perhaps she could have mentioned whether the anti-secular laws are unpopular or not. But of course, as Tmatt implied, perhaps newspapers could stop reducing the length of their news stories.

Yet this story got religion. Or rather it showed what happens to a state where public displays of religion are banned completely.

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Texas high court tosses exorcism lawsuit

Giotto ArezzoThe newspaper coverage of the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling that tossed out a lawsuit against a Pentecostal church over an incident that resulted in a 17-year-old girl being held down on the floor of the church has been more than solid. The two articles from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram have been a model in careful use of religious language and balance.

Max Baker is conscientious in his use of religious terminology, presents both sides of the story, explains the narrow nature of ruling effectively and gives readers a sense of what is or is not likely to happen in this 12-year legal battle. Baker’s article on the ruling appropriately lays out the court’s ruling in detail and then gives legal experts on both sides of the debate room to let it out:

Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina, writing for the majority, said the case presents an ecclesiastical dispute over religious conduct that would unnecessarily entangle the court in church doctrine.

Medina said that while Schubert’s argument regarding physical injuries might be tried without mentioning religion, her case was mostly about her emotional or psychological injuries from a sanctioned religious activity.

For the court to impose any legal liability for engaging in a religious activity would have an unconstitutional “chilling effect” by compelling the church to abandon core principles of its religious beliefs, Medina wrote.

But the justice added that the court does not mean to imply that anyone may commit an intentional wrong, such as sexual assault, and get away with it.

One must remember that this is Texas, the same state that is struggling with what to do over the legal mess they are in with the FLDS sect. To say that the majority’s opinion was aware that people would look to this opinion to see how it could reflect on that case would be an understatement.

The key to the 20-page opinion in my humble opinion is that Laura Schubert’s case (who now goes by Laura Schubert Pearson) was based on the assertion that the events at the church caused her physical and emotion damage. However, there was no evidence of physical injuries to take to the jury, and her testimony at trial dealt only with her emotional and psychological injuries stemming from the incident that involved religious activity. The state’s highest court does not want people to be able to sue and get damages for emotional injuries coming out of religious events.

The “expert debate” following the explanation of the court’s opinion gives both sides of the issue in reasonable, if not predictable, detail.

Next to the story on the legal issues coming out of the decision is a rather lengthy article on the history of the case. Overall the article deals with the religious issues in a fairly informative and balanced way. Partly because the church stopped apparently cooperating with the media, Shubert’s side of the story is featured prominently:

Laura Schubert Pearson was an impressionable 17-year-old when friends in her church youth group thought demons possessed her.

Repeatedly, over two days, the youth pastor, his wife and others held the girl down on the floor of the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God Church in Colleyville, even as Pearson screamed, fought and begged to be released.

They cast it as wrestling with the devil.

But she said it was “like being pummeled by this very large group. These were our friends, people we hung out with.”

The article does not use the church’s refusal to comment as an excuse to not include their side of the story. Baker drew on material from the church’s attorneys during the legal proceedings to show that the church viewed Schubert “as an out-of-control, attention-seeking teenager who he once said ‘breathes in attention the same way we breathe in air.’”

As for Schubert’s father, who was an Assemblies of God minister and missionary at the time of the incident, he has resigned and become an agnostic. I’m sure you could write an entire separate article on that part of the story.

My last observation is that I hope the Star-Telegram follows up on this matter and not only from a legal perspective. From a religious perspective, the Assemblies of God, is the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination with about 57 million adherents. Overall, Pentecostalism crosses over into several Christian denominations and is not easily defined.

Why are people attracted to Pentecostalism? From what religious traditions do new adherents come? How do the children of Pentecostal believers respond to the faith? The trickiest question evolves around the incident in the lawsuit: what is the church’s doctrine and core religious beliefs? These are all complicated questions that don’t have easy answers.

Saint Francis exorcising demons in Arezzo, fresco of Giotto used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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Define evangelical leader, give an example

Lahaye Ralph Z. Hallow of The Washington Times wrote an intriguing story about elite evangelical opposition to Mitt Romney, a prospective GOP vice-presidential running mate:

Prominent evangelical leaders are warning Sen. John McCain against picking former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as his running mate, saying their troops will abandon the Republican ticket on Election Day if that happens.

They say Mr. Romney lacks trust on issues such as outlawing abortion and opposing same-sex marriage and because he is a Mormon. Opposition is particularly powerful among those who supported former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the Republican presidential primaries earlier this year.

“McCain and Romney would be like oil and water,” said evangelical novelist Tim LaHaye, who supported Mr. Huckabee. “We aren’t against Mormonism, but Romney is not a thoroughgoing evangelical and his flip-flopping on issues is understandable in a liberal state like Massachusetts, but our people won’t understand that.”

The Rev. Rob McCoy, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Thousand Oaks, Calif., who speaks at evangelical events across the country, told The Washington Times, “I will vote for McCain unless he does one thing. You know what that is? If he puts Romney on the ticket as veep.

“It will alienate the entire evangelical community – 62 million self-professing evangelicals in this country, half of them registered to vote, are going to be deeply saddened,” Mr. McCoy added.

Only LaHaye and McCoy are quoted directly saying that McCain would lose evangelical support if he chooses Romney as his running mate. Other evangelicals give ambiguous remarks about whether they would vote for a McCain-Romney ticket.

Here’s my main problem with Hallow’s story: It failed to define the term evangelical leader. I mean, is Tim LaHaye really a leader? A well-known novelist and supporter of Mike Huckabee — he is, yes; but someone whose views affect others — I don’t know. With the possible exception of Upton Sinclair, novelists are not conventional political leaders.

That’s OK. Maybe LaHaye is breaking the mold and plans to call evangelical pastors to not vote for the Republican ticket. But Hallow needed to give at least one example of LaHaye’s efforts.

Perhaps McCoy, too, is a leader. But Hallow does not cite any ways in which he is.

The term evangelical leader, as I noted months ago, has been used far too loosely this presidential campaign season. Sure, some evangelicals clearly are leaders. But for evangelicals whose political credentials are questionable, a little definition would go a long way.

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Define “Christian lifestyle choices”

monica googlingGenerally the newspaper coverage of the Justice Department report on illegal hiring practices has been really good. There is one glaring exception though: the lead in The Washington Post‘s A1 story. You have to wonder where the phrase “Christian lifestyle choices” came from.

Here it is along with the second paragraph:

For nearly two years, a young political aide sought to cultivate a “farm system” for Republicans at the Justice Department, hiring scores of prosecutors and immigration judges who espoused conservative priorities and Christian lifestyle choices.

That aide, Monica M. Goodling, exercised what amounted to veto power over a wide range of critical jobs, asking candidates for their views on abortion and same-sex marriage and maneuvering around senior officials who outranked her, including the department’s second-in-command.

I wish I could have been in the newsroom when the Post put that lead together. I really hope they did not put too much thought into the phrase “Christian lifestyle choices” because what in the world does that really mean?

Giving the Post the benefit of the doubt, the “Christian lifestyle choices” language may have come from Goodling herself. If so, that choice of words should have been attributed to her as a quotation. Otherwise, the language must have been chosen, in the newsroom, in an attempt to reflect how Goodling was portraying these issues in interviews, memos, etc.

In essence, the phrase attempts to indicate that supporting the Bush Administration’s views on two critical legal issues — abortion and same-sex marriage — means that the person in question is practicing a “Christian lifestyle.” Is the opposite position a secular lifestyle? I would imagine liberal Baptists in the Clinton Administration would have a thing or two to say about that.

I’ve always been a fan of avoiding labels in news reports. The better way to go is just to describe in as much detail as possible what actually happened. Here is The New York Times in the third paragraph of their article on the subject:

Another prosecutor was rejected for a job in part because she was thought to be a lesbian. And a Republican lawyer received high marks at his job interview because he was found to be sufficiently conservative on the core issues of “god, guns + gays.”

There is no religious or sectarian terminology in that paragraph. That doesn’t mean religion is not part of this story. Rather, the political decisions were not necessarily made using religion as the basis.

More of course could be said on this subject and there will be more to come from us on this fairly significant story involving evangelical influence in the Bush Administration.

Tmatt, who is swamped in meetings all day, noted in a quick email to the GetReligionistas that there are plenty of other ways to get to conservative stands on these significant legal issues. What is making some news reports phrase the screening process in religious terms?

Also, are readers to believe that the Clinton White House did not have ways of screening applicants for stances on these hot button issues? They just did not do so in sectarian terms. The choice of words — “Christian lifestyle choices” — could mistakenly indicate that the opposing positions on gay marriage and abortion are non-Christian lifestyle choices. I do not think that is what the Post intends to say.

I don’t doubt it is possible that Bush Administration officials and decision makers in the Justice Department view the conservative position on abortion and gay marriage as the lifestyle of choice for Christians. If that was what Goodling told the investigators who wrote this report then so be it. News stories should report that. That doesn’t make it the final word on the matter for the purposes of a news story though.

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Football news sacked by religion

amazing sackReaders of The Miami Herald‘s sports section may be wondering if the newspaper’s sports department is on the hunt to hire a religion expert. Based on the last couple of days of football coverage, it may not be a bad investment although they are doing fairly well with what they have at this point.

On Thursday, the newspaper published an article that primarily focuses on the faith and missionary work of Florida Gators quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. The next day the newspaper published an even more extensive article on Miami Dolphins quarterback John Beck and his two-year experience on a Mormon mission.

The Tebow story is nothing particularly new and is the product of Southeastern Conference Media Day. Stories coming out of “media day” in any sport at any level tend to be fairly fluffy, but fans love seeing what the team has to put forward for the upcoming season.

Reporter Joseph Goodman’s story is headlined “Tebow uses fame as a pulpit” and describes the 25 minute news conference as “bizarre” in the lead. But is “bizarre” really the best way to portray what happened?

It was a bizarre beginning to the Southeastern Conference Media Days on Wednesday. There was a football player at the dais — perhaps the best in the country — and there were football writers in the audience, but the topic of football seemed like a footnote.

Then Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, told hundreds of sports reporters that football isn’t that important.

”I want to do everything in my power that football gives me to influence as many people as I can for the good, because that’s going to mean so much more when it’s all said and done than just playing football and winning championships,” Tebow said.

Yet another group converted. College football is a religion in the Deep South, but when Tebow shows up for the season’s kickoff party, the whole thing turns into a tent revival.

The bizarre part of the story is Tebow’s personal story of faith and upbringing and his incredible talent. Is it that bizarre that that was the subject of the press conference?

What an athlete does in the off-season seems like a reasonable thing to talk about though, and if that makes it preaching from the pulpit then so be it. Media days don’t exactly give reporters much option but to write about what was said from that pulpit.

The challenge with covering Tebow, who is the son of Christian missionaries, is that his religious work, including preaching in prisons and churches and mission trips to Thailand, the Philippines and Croatia, has already been extensively covered.

For me, the Indiana Pacers have spent more time recently talking about their player’s off-the-court arrests and legal problems than basketball. And I am certain Peyton Manning’s first press conference of the season will have little to do with football and more to do with the health of his knee. If that turns the press room into a medical center or a criminal courtroom then so be it. Reporters cover the subject at hand on media day.

The day after the “bizarre” Tebow press conference, The Herald published a story on Dolphins quarterback John Beck and how his time as a Mormon missionary prepared him to overcome adversity:

And Beck’s mission turned out to be good preparation. In the 1-15 season, he started four games, passed for one touchdown and three interceptions, lost five fumbles, and then saw the Dolphins draft Chad Henne in the second round in April.

“I always say when you’re on the mission, you have to face a lot of rejection,” Beck said. ‘A lot of people don’t want to talk to you. When you walk down the streets, people throw stuff at you, they cuss at you. Where I was at in Portugal, some people liked to swerve their cars in front of us, kind of joke around like, `I’m going to hit you.’ Ridicule, all that kind of stuff, it was just normal, you just had to work through it.

”Let’s take that into last year where a lot of things were going bad for us,” he said. “It was tough, but we had to just keep on working kind of with the goal in mind that even though it’s tough, we’re going to keep working and things will be good. That’s kind of how it is on a mission.

The article doesn’t go much into Beck’s faith or how it has impacted him personally other than his decision to go on the mission. Obviously that was a fairly substantial decision and commitment, but it would have been nice to see more on how his personal faith informs his lifestyle and personal goals.

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