Covering the other polygamy

3 wedding bandsWhile the news media has been focused on the sensational story of a breakaway Mormon fundamentalist denomination and its practice of polygamous marriage and allegations of child abuse, National Public Radio produced a solid two-part series this week on another significant religious tradition in the United States that allows for polygamy.

Muslims do not widely practice polygamy and in many cases its discourages from a practical standpoint. But one estimate puts the number at 1-3 percent of the 1-1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, which is no small number if you do the math. There are estimates of 50,000 to 100,000 Muslims in the United States living in polygamous marriages, according to the NPR series.

The Muslim faith also places some hefty requirements on men considering marriage to more than one woman (women cannot marry more than one man in Islam) that may be interpreted differently depending on who you listen to. Here is how NPR described those views:

Abdullah says polygamy in Islam dates back to the 7th century, when battles were killing off Muslim men and leaving widows and children unprotected.

As a result, Abdullah says, the Koran specifies that a man can marry “women of your choice: two, three, four, and if you fear you cannot be just, then marry one.”

“And so, a lot of scholars look at it sequentially,” he says. “Two is optimum, then three, then four, then as a last resort, one!”

This is not the only perspective on the Koran’s regulations of polygamy. Islam is a big religion, and views will differ within the faith. Here is the viewpoint I have seen more often:

Sarah begins to cry. Others nod in sympathy. These women are all Muslim. The Koran states that men may marry up to four women. The Prophet Mohammad had multiple wives.

But there’s a restriction, says Sally, another group member. The husband cannot favor one woman over another — with his wealth or his heart.

“You have to love them the same way, share everything the same way, equally,” says Sally. “Nobody can do that. It’s impossible.”

Since it’s impossible to treat two women the same, a Muslim man should not even try to. Apparently that argument doesn’t discourage all Muslims. And equality between wives is not always observed and sometimes leads to abuse, the article notes.

This is a difficult story to tell. Correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s reporting demonstrates the challenge of getting people to talk about something about which they are normally very quiet because of laws against polygamy. One husband with two wives refused to be interviewed, although his second wife is interviewed extensively.

Hagerty quotes a Muslim woman saying that every woman would prefer to be married to a man as his only wife. Another says that life is easier for second wives than it is for first wives.

With persistence and time, Hagerty was able to tell a tremendous story of what life is like in polygamous marriages from the perspective of first wives, second wives and husbands. Many diverse viewpoints were put forward, from the opinion that polygamous marriages help build up society and give children a father they otherwise wouldn’t have, to the heartbreak a 40-year-old first wife felt when her 43-year-old husband married a 30-year-old woman.

Somehow, I sense that the issue of polygamy will not go away. Perhaps if journalists did a better job covering the FLDS group before their leader was under prosecution, the current mess in Texas would not have played out the way it has.

The United States is a diverse place with many groups believing and practicing many things. Journalists should be open to that and cover as many of those groups as objectively as possible.

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Refereeing gay marriage wars

sullivanbookYesterday I criticized a Los Angeles Times story on same-sex marriage. While the post received tons of comments, very few — very few — managed to stay on topic to the purpose of this blog. Some posters used the comment thread as a forum to argue against same-sex marriage. Many others resorted to calling supporters of traditional marriage bigots.

Sigh. It was all extremely disappointing. This is not the forum to debate same-sex marriage — it is the forum to debate media coverage. We have a great community here of people who don’t agree on much politically or religiously. Please respect that and keep on topic. I will be more trigger-happy with the comment delete button if necessary. And don’t worry, there’s plenty to fight over even when simply analyzing media coverage of the issue.

The latest news in the gay marriage wars comes as a result of a new Field Poll which shows some interesting results. Over half of Californians would oppose amending the state constitution to bar same-sex couples from marrying according to the poll. When last week’s Los Angeles Times poll showed only 36 percent of Californians supportive of same-sex marriage, that result was downplayed as a narrow, slim victory for supporters of traditional marriage — so you can only imagine how much the mainstream media hyped this result. As in, there are thousands of stories on GoogleNews about the poll.

It’s definitely newsworthy and I’m glad to see so much coverage of the poll. But it is interesting that so few of the stories I read thought it necessary to explain the sudden shift (from Friday, even!) in popular opinion. Rather than look at any of the weaker coverage, I’ll highlight a story from the San Diego Tribune that actually addressed the change:

In 2006, the last Field Poll on the issue, 44 percent approved of same-sex marriage and 50 percent disapproved.

Since then, several things have happened.

In 2007, the Legislature passed for a second time a law approving same-sex marriage, which was again vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. For years, California had already allowed same-sex couples to register in domestic partnerships that confer many of the same rights and responsibilities that go with marriage.

Last fall, a gay-rights group, Equality California, conducted a campaign that included television and Internet advertising along with house parties in support of making same-sex marriage legal.

Most significant, the state Supreme Court on May 15 ruled 4-3 that statutes banning same-sex marriage violate the right to marry embodied in the state constitution.

The decision overturned a law passed by the Legislature in 1977 and Proposition 22 approved by 61 percent of California voters in 2000. The ruling made California the second state after Massachusetts to legalize same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriages may begin in the state as early as June 14.

While some predicted a backlash from the court’s decision, DiCamillo suggested the court might have helped increase support for same-sex marriage.

“The court is held in high esteem in California,” he said.

So not only does this poll show an 18-point shift from the Los Angeles Times poll from last week, the poll director completely contradicts the Los Angeles Times story from yesterday arguing that the California court ruling would have no ripple effect. This New York Times story breaking the news that New York plans to recognize same-sex marriages in California also undercuts that silly “don’t worry about same-sex marriage ruling” story from the Los Angeles Times. This Associated Press story credits the court ruling for the entire recent shift in attitudes. I only point that out to show how imprecise and all over the place the coverage of this issue is. It’s also worth noting, and I didn’t really see this discussed in any of the coverage, that someone could be opposed to same-sex marriage but not feel that it should be prohibited by an amendment to the constitution. As I mentioned, constitutional amendments are hard sells to the public. And yet that distinction was not mentioned by media coverage. Instead the storyline was that Californians now love same-sex marriage.

Football RefereeAnother piece of coverage completely lacking in all of the 1,400 stories on the matter is the issue of the Spiral of Silence.

The Field Poll is generally trustworthy, but we’ve discussed before the problem with mainstream media advocacy for positions skewing the results of polling. It was in 2000 that over 60 percent of Californians voted to ban same-sex marriage, after all. Generally speaking, of course, amendments to the constitution are a harder sell to the public than regular ballot initiatives, but it is also true that respondents to media polls tend to under report their opposition to same-sex marriage. I didn’t see any story address that fact. And, of course, this problem will only be compounded by the media hyping of this story.

The poll did ask respondents for their religious affiliation and this Sacramento Bee story did a good job of including that data:

Born-again Christians objected to gay marriage, 68 to 24 percent. Protestants were opposed, 57 to 34 percent. Catholics were nearly evenly split. Voters from other religious groups favored gay marriage, 61 to 33 percent. Eighty-one percent of people with no religious preferences supported gay marriage.

“There are huge, substantial differences — whether you live in the Central Valley or on the coast, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, Protestant or no religious affiliation,” DiCamillo said. “It’s a divisive issue.”

That should provide some interesting fodder for religion reporters to dig into. Why are people without religion the most uniform in their thinking? Why are Protestants opposed while Catholics are nearly evenly split? Rather than focus, as the Los Angeles Times has, on those “other religious groups” that favor gay marriage, I’d be interested in a story on these other questions.

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God, Aquinas, and the dungeon master

d d 04If I had to teach a child the concept of natural law, I would tell him or her to play Dungeons & Dragons.

Like millions of American boys, I used to play this fantasy role-playing game in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the eve of the mass-video game era. The game taught you, among other lessons, that for every action, there is a reaction and that for every strength, there is a weakness. Such was the game’s power that though I played the game only once or twice, and never as the dungeon master, I still refer to the concepts it taught me about the natural world.

Natural law is not a religiously inspired philosophy, but I have found that those who embrace it are more likely to be religious adherents than those who don’t. So I was interested to read David Kushner’s long profile in Wired magazine of of Gary Gygax, the co-founder of D & D, as it was known. Was Gygax religious, and if so, how so?

The answer comes only at the very end of the story. It is worth quoting in full:

While it may surprise — or embolden — the religious groups who long rallied against him, Gygax says he has found God. The discovery began one day about 25 years ago, fittingly, during a game. A friend of his was doing some role-playing with Gygax as a kind of personality test. He had Gygax describe his journey down an imaginary road. At one point, Gygax described coming to a clear lake, and his buddy said, “There’s a drinking vessel there. What does it look like?”

“It’s a beautiful silver chalice,” Gygax replied, “all engraved.”

“I didn’t know you were religious,” his friend said.

Neither did Gygax, but he warmed to the idea that the universe has been mapped out in advance by some celestial designer. “There’s got to be a creating hand behind everything,” he says. “As Thomas Aquinas said, ‘Out of nothing, nothing comes.’”

Over the past few years, Gygax has suffered two minor strokes, a heart attack, and a series of falls. And, he says, it was his newfound beliefs that sustained him. He began to pray frequently that he would regain the movement that he lost in his arm and leg after his most recent stroke. And it was an experience inside a game that prepared him for his ultimate journey, too. At the completion of the round, he tells me, the game master said, “You’ve come to a wall. The wall is the end. It’s death. What do you do?”

Gygax looked him in the eye and said, “I jump over it. When you come to the end and you can’t go any farther, you’ve got to go over the wall. Gotta see what’s there.”

Kushner set up this ending well. Early in the story, he showed that Gygax believed in the power of the human imagination and that all men seek to be warriors. The implication is straightforward: Playing Dungeons & Dragons is a religious exercise, a preparation for transcending death. Kushner seemed to get religion in a basic but powerful way.

gygax2 01

I just wish, however, that Kushner had gotten religion in a slightly more sophisticated way.

In the passage above, Gygax quotes Thomas Aquinas and his contingency argument for the existence of God. Aquinas and his proofs are no longer part of Americans popular culture, if they ever were. So how did Gygax come across Aquinas? Was he raised in a religious tradition. If so, how did this shape his world view and his co-design of D & D? Unfortuntately, Kushner does not mention Gygax’s religious background.

I also thought that Kushner’s story had a religious ghost in it. He describes D & D this way:

Most aspects of the game can be expressed numerically, from attributes like strength and health and intelligence to the power of a weapon and the probability that it will successfully connect with an enemy and the amount of damage it would inflict. But one player has to paint a picture with words: That person assumes the role of the dungeon master and describes for other players what they see and hear in this imaginary world, and what effects their actions have.

In other words, the dungeon master is God while the other players are mortals subject to, yes, natural law. Did Gygax possess a religious imagination while he co-designed the game? What were his religious or spiritual views at the time?

Answers to these religious questions would have made an otherwise first-rate magazine article even better.

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Not skeptical about skeptics’ camp

questcamp I criticized an Associated Press story yesterday for failing Journalism 101. Another AP story, about nonreligious camp, does not suffer from this problem.

Reporter Valerie Bauman executed journalism’s fundamentals. In her first five paragraphs, Bauman gave her readers the five W’s:

When Joe Fox sends his daughters away to summer camp, he’s confident they’ll be surrounded by kids who share his family’s beliefs and values.

Caitlin, 16, and Elizabeth, 10, go to Camp Quest, which in 1996 created a niche getaway for children who are agnostic, atheist or just not sure yet what to believe.

Parents have plenty of summer camp options, such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the YMCA, soccer, dance, music and drama camps. Many claim no religious affiliation, though others are Jewish, Catholic or evangelical Christian. The Camp Quest concept started in 1996 with 20 kids at a site in Ohio with the slogan “Beyond Belief.”

Since then, demand has grown, and weeklong camps have been added in Minnesota, Michigan, California, Tennessee and Ontario, Canada. In 2007, the camps accommodated 150 kids, generally ages 8 to 17. The projection for 2008 is more than 200 campers, and new camps are being considered in Vermont and the United Kingdom.

“They’re good, moral kids without organized religion,” Fox said of his daughters. “They can feel comfortable being who they are.”

Also, Bauman talked with an opponent of the non-religious camps — a skeptic of the skeptics, you might say; and amplified her earlier theme that non-religious Americans put their children in these camps partly to develop a sense of belonging.

I have no beef with Bauman’s reporting of the story. But I do have a beef with her confusing and misleading storyline.

Bauman writes that the camps are designed not just for agnostics or atheists but also those who are “just not sure what to believe.” She then quotes the camps’ founder who says that young children are unable to form their own worldview:

“We really try not to label the kids,” she said. “When a kid is 8 or 10, asking them to say, ‘I’m an atheist,’ or, ‘I’m a Catholic’ — at 8 or 10 we don’t think that kids are able to make a decision about their worldview.”

The passage above, as well as the lede, suggest that the camp teaches open mindedness about religion; religion might be true, it might not be. Well, the organization that runs the camps promotes nothing of the sort. On its website, the organization states that it opposes organized religion:

The Institute for Humanist Studies (IHS) promotes humanism, a nonreligious philosophy based on reason and compassion. IHS advances human rights, secular ethics and the separation of religion and government through advocacy, innovation and collaboration.

The examples in Bauman’s story also suggest strongly that the camp opposes organized religion:

The counselors will sometimes discuss world religions and philosophies. They say the focus is not on what is “wrong” about other beliefs, but they do sometimes use examples from religions when talking about errors in critical thinking.

In one exercise, counselors tell the kids about invisible creatures — such as unicorns or dragons — that live in the camp and then challenge them to prove that they don’t exist. The campers are told they can’t see, touch or taste the creatures.

The point is that a belief isn’t valid just because it can’t be proved wrong. The exercise is supposed to help kids prepare for questions from those who ask them to prove a higher power doesn’t exist.

So doesn’t the camp promote opposition to organized religion? Bauman should have resolved this ambiguity. Instead, she stated that the camp is not religious. The implication is that the camp has no attitude, and possibly even an open-minded one, toward organized religion. Call me skeptical.

Baumann either pulled her punches or wasn’t sufficiently critical about the non-religious camp. Either way, readers are not sure what to believe.

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Religion news unlike any other

newspaper sectionsReligion news should be treated generally like any other news found in a community’s newspaper. News about religious issues is not the place for preaching, lecturing, or giving advice. Most news stories avoid using the first person. That is standard news journalism.

On Sunday, The Oregonian published an article that had the makings of a solid religion news feature story. The story’s news hook is that a Pew Research Center study found earlier this year that Americans like to shop around the various religious traditions from time-to-time. The newspaper wanted to tell its readers how that applied to people in Oregon.

Unsurprisingly, Oregonian readers responded with various common themes:

We all seem to search for community — those who believe in a traditional higher power and those who don’t.

It’s OK to change your mind. We value the process of finding our own way, wherever it leads. The yearning to be authentic — to live out what we believe — fuels our journeys throughout our lives.

Perhaps it is just an issue of style, but the use of “we all” and “it’s OK to change your mind” comes off as advice, or recommendations. I doubt that was the intention of the newspaper, but consider whether this style would be acceptable in other sections of the newspaper, such as politics and government?

The indefiniteness of the newspaper’s unscientific survey and the absoluteness of the declaration that “we value the process of finding our own way” clash with the very personal stories told later in the story. In addition, since the newspaper sought out individuals who had changed faiths at some point in their lives, the perspective of those who had stayed with the faith in which they were born is not reflected in those generally all-inclusive statements.

The individual stories following the introduction are nice. I am sure many readers found them interesting and even related to the portrayed individuals. I just would like for the common themes emerging from reader responses not be phrased in a way that made it seem like it applied universally.

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Jews burned books. Interested? Tough.

burntbooks3 The Associated Press wrote an interesting man-bites-dog story about religious conflict in Israel. According to the wire service, Orthodox Jews burned hundreds of copies of the New Testament:

Or Yehuda Deputy Mayor Uzi Aharon said missionaries recently entered a neighborhood in the predominantly religious town of 34,000 in central Israel, distributing hundreds of New Testaments and missionary material.

After receiving complaints, Aharon said, he got into a loudspeaker car last Thursday and drove through the neighborhood, urging people to turn over the material to Jewish religious students who went door to door to collect it.

“The books were dumped into a pile and set afire in a lot near a synagogue,” he said.

I am no expert about Middle East politics; in fact, I am little more than an amateur on the subject. So should I be surprised that Orthodox Jews in Israel burn books?

Well, I was. The story struck me as counter-intuitive, to say the least. If the Jews are anything, they are a people of the Book. Their identity is bound up with the Talmud, scholarly learning, and the Old Testament. So for Orthodox Jews to burn books — well, the only equivalent I can think of is Catholics burning crucifixes.

Yet the story is burdened with a cardinal journalistic sin: the story fails to answer the five W’s.

The reporter does not identify the missionaries who distributed the books; explain whether book burning is illegal in Israel or the local jurisdiction; or mention that the New Testament seeks to convert all non-Christians, not just Jews.

Come on. Don’t tease readers like this. If you got a good story, and this reporter had a fine story, please do the journalistic fundamentals.

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Can a photo say it all?

evidenceThe Salt Lake Tribune has been the place to go for news on the FLDS court battles in Texas. While most news organizations have focused on the arguments before the Texas Supreme Court Friday regarding an appellate court’s decision finding the removal of 468 children improper, the Tribune has the goods on how the knives are coming out in this chaotic legal battle, at the heart of which are religious beliefs and values.

Reporter Brooke Adams demonstrates a tremendous ability to tell the complex story from the collapse of the state’s case due to a lack of hard evidence, to the introduction of The Photo, which is posted above, by state officials. The Photo shows imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs giving a not-so-friendly kiss to a 12-year-old girl he allegedly married nearly two years ago:

In San Angelo, the state went to battle with the Jeffs photos.

The photos were entered as evidence in a 14-day custody hearing for an infant born May 12 to Louisa and Dan Jessop. The girl in the photo is Dan Jessop’s sister. Attorneys for the state contend the photo is evidence that the couple lived in a household that supported underage marriage.

The photographs have left at least some attorneys for FLDS parents and children reeling. Lawyers interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune on Saturday said they found the photos “disturbing.”

But attorneys were unsettled, too, by the state’s use of them now rather than at the original hearing in mid-April.

Under Texas law there has to be some evidence that a child is in immediate danger. A Texas court of appeals said there was none to support the removal of all 468 children. The state’s officials appealed that order and released this photo but will not say where they got it or exactly how it supports their case for removing all of the group’s children.

Some have speculated that it was intended to sway the Texas Supreme Court in the state’s favor. The state’s highest court is reportedly reviewing the arguments this holiday weekend.

Here is a summary of the state’s arguments from The New York Times:

“The record is uncontroverted that adult men engage in ‘spiritual marriages’ with under-age children,” the state’s brief said. “No age was too young to marry and they wanted to have as many babies as they could.”

It said that girls as young as 13 were pregnant and that boys “were groomed to be perpetrators.” The state also argued that the ranch functioned as “one big family, one large community and they have the same belief system” so that “all the children there are potential victims.”

The religion ghost wrapped up in this story is a question that was asked by Bob Abernethy of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly to reporter National Public Radio reporter Wade Goodwyn on Friday:

ABERNETHY: Now, Wade, polygamy is against the law. Why doesn’t the state just shut the whole place down?

Mr. GOODWYN: Well, it is against the law. It’s a felony in Texas. But it seems that state officials in Utah, Arizona, and now in Texas are reluctant to prosecute for polygamy. Sexual abuse of an underage teen is another issue. But there seems to be a general feeling of “live and let live” among consenting adults, because if the state wanted, I think they probably could bring charges. Those are just charges that are hard to prove in court when no one wants to testify.

There has been little news coverage of this, partly because reporters have been kept quite busy covering the many angles and court cases coming out of the raid of the FLDS compound. But this is what the case is all about. State officials disapprove of this group’s morality and beliefs and are trying to prosecute the entire group on questionable grounds of child abuse. No one is contesting the state’s ability to prosecute actual instances child abuse, but without evidence of abuse the state doesn’t have much of a case unless the polygamy angle is pursued.

State officials’ reluctance to charge this group with polygamy deserves a closer examination. The argument that the group would not testify against each other in court making the charges difficult to prove is unsustainable since state officials could simply charge every single member of the group with conspiracy to commit a felony.

Would Texas state officials be content to let groups practicing polygamy “live and let live?” Or would a felony polygamy charge justify taking children away from parents who practiced polygamy? Those who arranged underage marriages like Warren Jeffs, who could spend the rest of his life in a Utah prison for two counts of accomplice to rape, and those who have committed statutory rape, face harsh legal sanctions. But the state can do little, without pursuing the polygamy charges, to punish others outside this group of individuals.

Already state lawmakers are wondering how the state will be able to fund efforts against less high-profile cases of alleged child abuse since the total cost of the FLDS situation could exceed $30 million.

One Republican lawmaker Sen. Bob Deuell has an idea: take the FLDS group’s 1,700-acre ranch, which is worth about $20.5 million.

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God and city in context?

god and the cityWhen journalists write stories about people doing good things with seemingly pure hearts, it’s not unusual that the reporting ends up being a bit on the soft side. There is nothing particularly flagrant about this offense. I confess to being guilty of it on occasion. However, failing to be skeptical, provide the needed context and ask tough questions leads to stories that leave readers with questions.

David Gonzalez, an award-winning reporter and metro columnist for The New York Times, wrote Monday, about 35 volunteers in that “young adult” category from groups around the country defined as “faith-based” to meet with people defined as “clergy” who are in several ministries defined as “urban.” I’m not sure exactly what those terms mean, but the article’s context provides some clues.

The story does a great job of evoking images of well intentioned religious people who want to work toward ridding large cities of poverty and suffering:

Angie Hummel craned her neck and beheld a glass-sheathed Upper West Side tower where luxurious studios sell for more than a million dollars. She shifted her gaze ever so slightly downward to the brick building where Mexican immigrant families cram four people into a single room barely big enough for a bed.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “Nothing like a stark comparison.”

It was that kind of day. Even where she stood — in front of a century-old brick church that was among the few structures not being demolished for new housing on West 100th Street — was a reminder of the price of progress in urban America. Smack dab in the middle of plenty, if not excess, people scrape by anonymously. For a religious person like Ms. Hummel, faith is found while navigating gently between those extremes.

“I have my own struggle of what I am called to do in this world,” she said. “What’s the point if there is still going to be devastation and brokenness, even despite good works? Is God really there?”

I think it is tremendous how the article highlights the fact that churches are often the last things of meaning standing among fancy developments in many American cities. Hopefully the city’s regulations keep churches like this from being turned into condo buildings, but that’s another story for another day.

This story is about these “crazy” young adults right out of college putting off the goal of riches for something more spiritually fulfilling. The sponsoring organization, Fund for Theological Education, is described in a fairly vague manner, but as long as they’re pursuing the wholesome goodness of helping people in big cities everything else should be OK, right?

She sat before the visitors, recounting her decision to be ordained. It was a roundabout process, considering that she was not especially drawn to organized religion. She had worked with the poor in her 20s. She had entered the seminary, thanks to a scholarship from the fund that paid for a year of seminary, no strings attached, for young people considering ordination.

“The church needs to be in those places where people feel outside the church,” she said. “For many of you, the important question is, how dissatisfied are you with the church? The church needs people like you.”

She explained to them how she spent 18 years in the South Bronx, a period she chronicled in her well-received memoir, “Breathing Space,” working and living in a community where death and disease struck early and often. Yet she spoke of those years in tender terms, recalling the strength of her neighbors.

Read between the lines if you like, but the lack of theological content in the story is, let’s say, interesting. Should it matter what a religious group believes about the deity of Christ or the meaning of the Bible? Perhaps not if that group is just focused on helping people.

Or maybe there is more to the story. Perhaps we could learn about how many people are helped through this program, how people attend the congregation and where its funding comes from. The article generically mentions Presbyterians, Lutherans, the Episcopal Church, some Catholics and an interchurch center, but those are fairly broad labels for organizations that should be more specifically defined.

There is an important story going on in religiously oriented aid work in American cities with groups like the Fund for Theological Education. This is a good start, but more context and details are needed.

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