Sacred seizure

FLDSbookYesterday I raised some of the journalistic questions surrounding coverage of the raid on the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints in Texas. And I was happy to see I wasn’t alone in being intrigued by those questions.

In the comments to the post, reader Joel asked:

Did you notice that when the temple was searched, there was little or no mention of the taboo-ness of gentiles entering it? I wondered about that, and I still haven’t seen anything that mentions the FLDS reaction to having their sanctum sanctorum violated.

Enter Miguel Bustillo’s story in today’s Los Angeles Times.

Authorities searching a remote polygamist compound for a 16-year-old girl who had claimed she was sexually abused discovered a bed inside a towering limestone temple and were told by a “confidential informant” that men used it to have sex with underage girls, according to a court document unsealed Wednesday.

The Associated Press ran a video report on the raid, that puts the size of the temple and the ranch in context.

Some folks wondered how it was possible that the group’s sacred temple and the contents therein could be subject — rather easily it seemed — to a search and seizure by law enforcement officials. Here’s the Times, again:

The allegation that sex between adult men and underage girls was occurring inside the monolithic white temple came Saturday from a confidential informant who formerly belonged to the religious sect and who had been cultivated over several years by Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, according to the affidavit.

In addition, Texas Ranger Leslie Brooks Long disclosed in the affidavit that investigators had interviewed numerous underage girls who were pregnant or married to men with multiple wives. While inside the compound, Long saw a document “indicating marriages between one man and more than 20 wives, all of whom resided in the same residence” as of last August.

When an investigator asked one girl her age, the affidavit states, the girl turned to her husband, Lee Roy Jessop, who said, “You are 18.” The girl then told the investigator that she was the fourth wife of Jessop, 33, and that “he was still married to the other three wives” in the eyes of the sect.

The initial search warrant does not appear to have been executed solely due to one complaint from a 16-year-old girl who said she had been raped and beaten. The Texas officials had been working with a confidential informant who had, on more than 20 previous occasions, given information that had been corroborated. The affidavits for search warrants have been unsealed so I hope the media report the further details.

Reading through the search warrants, some of the girls with children of their own claim not to know their age. So clearly law enforcement officials are looking for records which establish precisely how much statutory rape is going on among the FLDS. That presents concerns not only related to religious freedom but also attorney-client privilege. FLDS attorneys are arguing they have the right to review the seized material:

“The church has rights. Entry to the church is a sacred area,” said Gerald H. Goldstein, an attorney for church elder Lyle Jeffs. He argued that seized texts and genealogies considered holy by the FLDS should not become part of any court cases if they don’t directly relate to crimes.

Tom Green County District Judge Barbara Walther agreed that with help from an independent special master, the group should have the right to review evidence — for example, to ensure that attorney-client privilege is not violated if the evidence contains correspondence between attorneys and members of the sect.

I think Bustillo did a great job with the story, answering so many of the legal questions that have been raised. One minor point is that the temple had multiple beds, not the singular one that he mentions in the lede. Bustillo wrote an engaging story without falling into some of the overheated langauge we’ve seen in other reports.

For those still wondering about whether the term “compound” is appropriate, read the search warrant and let us know what you think.

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God talk and miracle shots

Mario ChalmersSometimes journalists should just step back and report the events, emotions and words of the event they are covering. Monday night’s NCAA Tournament was that kind of situation, and unfortunately for sports fans, it seems that the only person to notice a significant spiritual angle of one of the more impressive shots (and comebacks) in basketball history was a Sports Illustrated blogger.

Not that there is anything at all wrong with bloggers. This story is just deserving of a broader audience.

Here is blogger Luke Winn midway through his tremendous description of what must have been an amazing basketball moment to witness:

What happened, then? How does one explain this breathtaking finish? If you listen to Chalmers’ father, Ronnie, who happens to be KU’s director of basketball operations, the sequence of events was nothing short of divine intervention.

Inside the left breast-pocket of Ronnie’s suit on Monday night was a small scrap of white paper, a verse of scripture written on each side in pen. He took it out when Memphis’ Robert Dozier was at the charity stripe, hitting the first of two free-throws that would put the Tigers up 60-51. On Kansas’ bench, Ronnie silently read Psalm 46:1 to himself:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.

Perfect, thought Ronnie, because “we were in trouble at the time.”

Winn does not need to explain what this means. He just states it, as it should be.

As a reader told us that this is a “very well written article describing, moment-by-moment, in-their-own-word, two minutes and twelve seconds of history, God and all.”

The reader makes the statement that compared to all other GetReligion entries he has read, no other reporter has been able to articulate the exact connection between God and sports. Since Winn doesn’t try, his article is the better for it:

He misses the first but makes the second. The score is 63-60. If you’re Collins, you think to yourself, “Now I know we have chance.”

Ronnie Chalmers had two scriptures in his pocket, if you recall. The second was from Psalms 46:10 — Be still, and know that I am God — and he read that one, too, at the start of the comeback. But even Ronnie had his doubts when he saw Collins make the handoff, and then witnessed his son let go the biggest shot in KU history. At first, Ronnie said, “I didn’t really think he got a good look at it.”

But just as Rush did from near the hoop, and Collins from the wing, and Mario, falling back from the top of the key, Ronnie then saw that the aim was true. He had sat with Mario for the 2004 Final Four in this very arena, as spectators for UConn’s title run, and his son had said that one day he would be playing for a national championship. Mario’s shot made Kansas’ title possible, and Ronnie, when he watched it go in, simply said, “Thank God. Thank God.”

Some of the comments on the blog make the point that God has nothing to do with who wins or loses a basketball game. If God took sides in a game, and he was on your team’s side, then it would not matter how many free throws your team missed.

Unfortunately, that is missing the point of reporting on religion in sports. Look closer at the verses being quoted. Religion would be just as relevant to the story if Mario Chalmers missed that desperation three-pointer.

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Time misses big Benedict picture

pbxvi The cover of Time this week features a large image of Pope Benedict XVI with an American flag in the background. As I will try to show later, this is ironic, but for now it’s worth noting that the cover story is “Why the Pope Loves America.”

The gist of the article is that the pontiff admires the American form of government and its diverse, religiously minded citizens:

[H]e entertains a recurring vision of an America we sometimes lose sight of: an optimistic and diverse but essentially pious society in which faiths and a faith-based conversation on social issues are kept vital by the Founding Fathers’ decision to separate church and state. It’s not a stretch to say the Pope sees in the U.S.–or in some kind of idealized version of it–a civic model and even an inspiration to his native Europe, whose Muslim immigrants raise the question of religious and political coexistence in the starkest terms.

Benedict, the story notes, shows his appreciation for America in many ways: He has appointed American prelates as his No. 1 and No. 3 officials in his office at the Vatican; he enjoys the frankness and intellectual independence of the United States bishops’ doctrinal office; and above all, he likes Americans’ notion of the importance of peaceful coexistence.

The story is true. It’s also besides the point.

Bono isn’t touring the United States next week; Pope Benedict XVI is. Reporters David Van Biema and Jeff Israely elevated a minor element of Benedict’s pontificate to the status of a major one.

Yes, the story acknowledges that Benedict is concerned about moral relativism and secularization in American life. But the reporters treat this as a side issue. Their emphasis is misplaced, and not just because one of Benedict’s key messages is that a “dictatorship of relativism” threatens Western civilization.

As my friend Dan Kearns points out, a second theme of Benedict is that Christianity offers “consolation, hope, and joy in a seemingly dark universe.” His first encylicals are titled “God is Love” (Deus Caritas) and “Hope” (Spe Salvi). The theme of his visit is “Christ Our Hope.” Consider, too, his recent announcement about the purpose of his visit to America:

“Following in the footsteps of my venerable predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul II, I shall come to United States of America as Pope for the first time, to proclaim this great truth: Jesus Christ is hope for men and women of every language, race, culture and social condition,” he said. “Yes, Christ is the face of God present among us.

“Through him, our lives reach fullness, and together, both as individuals and peoples, we can become a family united by fraternal love, according to the eternal plan of God the Father.

“I know how deeply rooted this Gospel message is in your country. I am coming to share it with you, in a series of celebrations and gatherings. I shall also bring the message of Christian hope to the great Assembly of the United Nations, to the representatives of all the peoples of the world.”

Van Biema and Israely miss this central message of Benedict’s pontificate. Instead of summarizing and critiquing this theological view, the reporters emphasize his political philosophy:

This Pope, more a student of global drama than an eager protagonist, knows that rising religious conflict may be the 21st century’s great challenge. He also appears to sense that American power alone won’t solve it–but that the power of American values still might. In rummaging through our founding precepts for a path for his own purposes, he might find something important for us to remember too.

Why the reporters missed the real story about Benedict is difficult to say. They read through many of his writings and talked to various sources. All I would recommend is that reporters covering the Pope’s visit read Zenit.org, a Web site about the Vatican. It contains all of his public sermons, speeches, and documents. As such, the site is the best first-hand account of his thinking and message.

The staff at Time should read the site. If they had done so, the cover no doubt would have been more accurate: a big picture of the Pope and a cross or crucifix, with an American flag in the distant background.

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Religious queries can yield political insight

tibetanmonks6One of our standard criticisms at Get Religion is that reporters focus on politics to the exclusion of religion. I wonder if the press grasps the flip side of this notion. By overlooking or underplaying religion, reporters fail to illuminate politics sufficiently.

Take this story in The Washington Post. Reporter Jill Drew wrote about Tibetan Buddhist monks who struggle with the forced education campaign instigated by the Chinese government. Drew’s story was interesting, informative, and well executed. But by not delving into the beliefs of the monks, she left her readers with questions about the Chinese-Tibet political conflict.

Drew’s lede was memorable. She told the story of a Tibetan abbot and the conflict between his religious beliefs and Chinese policy:

Arjia Rinpoche was 47 years old and a senior Tibetan abbot when he first signed a document denouncing the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader.

It was 1997, and about 50 Communist Party workers had come to his monastery to conduct what is called a “patriotic education” campaign — 45 days of instruction in the Chinese version of history and a requirement that all monks sign a document accepting Chinese rule in Tibet and rejecting the Dalai Lama as a “separatist.” For many followers, that amounts to painful renunciation of their religion’s central figure.

“It was not our wish, not our thought, but we don’t have choices,” Arjia said. “We have fear.”

Such campaigns are now a standard feature of life in Tibetan monasteries and nunneries. They are one of many tools Chinese leaders use to tighten party control of a religion whose charismatic leader, the 72-year-old Dalai Lama, is revered in Tibet, respected around the world and viewed in Beijing as a threat to the party’s supremacy.

Drew showed that monks pay a high price for flouting Chinese policy.

monks say those who don’t accept China’s terms are stripped of their robes and permanently expelled from their monasteries. If they protest, monks say, they can be jailed and tortured.

Arjia, who fled to the United States in 1998, said that fate was well-known to the 700 monks from his community, Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai province on Tibet’s border, when they gathered for a final meeting after 45 days of patriotic study.

At this point in the story, I think that Drew should have broached the idea of martyrdom. While nobody wants to be jailed, beaten, or tortured, religious and non-religious figures have braved death to uphold their beliefs. Indeed, there is an old saw about Christianity that “the seeds of the Church began with the blood of the martyrs.” So do Tibetan monks believe in dying for their faith? Have they done so? (According to the U.S. State Department, one Tibetan monk likely did.)

If monks balked at the forced education campaign and were killed as a result, Tibet’s plight would likely receive even more international tension. Think of the seven Buddhist monks in 1963 who set themselves on fire to protest anti-Buddhist policies. Such a state of affairs might well spark more outrage about China’s occupation.

Of course, China does not single out Tibetan Buddhists; it clamps down on all religious figures under its aegis. Drew ably pointed this out to her readers:

For the Chinese, the campaigns boil down to a simple loyalty oath.

“The government controls all the religions in China very tightly, such as Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity,” said Kang Xiaoguang, a professor of regional economics and politics at Beijing’s Renmin University. “The government doesn’t only aim at Tibetan Buddhism. On the contrary, it makes greater concessions on Tibetan Buddhism than on other religions.”

As they say in academia, this paragraph needed more “unpacking.” Besides not specifying which concessions the Chinese make to Tibetan Buddhism, Drew neglected to note why Tibetan Buddhists are fighting Chinese rule than other religions. Is their intransigence related mainly to their religious beliefs? Or is it related more to nationalist sentiment — the Chinese are unjust occupiers?

Posing these questions and answering them would have served Drew well. She could have highlighted that Tibetan Buddhist monks are the most tenacious fighters against China’s policy.

Perhaps I protest too much. Drew is based in Beijing, and she must have struggled to write a story about a closed country such as Tibet. But it’s important to keep in mind that in this occupied nation, politics and religion are close cousins.

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Covering the right of Southern Baptists

must go rightHow often do you read that the Southern Baptist Convention is to the left of a theological debate? For many, that fact alone is the story’s lead. Such is the situation when a reporter must cover a theological/academic spat at a religiously fundamental institutions.

Directly two hours east of where I live is Cedarville University, a private nonprofit Baptist institution in Cedarville, Ohio, made up of about 3,000 students. The university is in the middle of academic turmoil due to the firing of two tenured Bible professors over what seems to be a stymied theological debate that breaks down on the issue of Biblical inerrancy.

The Dayton Daily News is doing a good job covering the controversy in terms of quantity but as you can see below, the language and terms used to describe the conflict is pretty messy:

Observers say Cedarville is caught up in a debate within evangelical Christianity over whether or not it can know for certain that scriptures in the Bible are true. Fundamentalists take a historical view of the Bible’s truth and apply its statements literally, for example holding firm to the book of Genesis explanation of the Earth’s creation, that God created Earth in six days.

But less literal followers, known as the Emergent Church, put the Bible into the context of the modern world, deconstructing and reconstructing Christianity with other faiths to arrive at an assurance the Bible is true.

For nonevangelical Christians, the difference might appear minor. But to fundamentalists, even questioning the truth of the Bible is blasphemous and rattles its core belief system.

Cedarville historically has been fundamentalist, or orthodox, since becoming a Baptist institution in 1953. At issue is whether professors in the university’s Bible department were promoting beliefs of the emerging church movement, creating a split among faculty that could not be resolved.

It should be clear that this debate within evangelical Christianity over Biblical inerrancy is not exactly new. In many ways, it is all a matter of degree and has been going on for quite some time.

In this sense, the article is quite accurate that this debate is occurring with evangelical Christianity. However, I am not sure the two sides are the literalists and the Emergent Church movement.

The emergent church would probably be better described as part of a group that does not necessarily believe in an inerrant scripture as traditionally defined, but it does not represent the entire theological point of view.

In addition, the debate does not appear minor to all non-evangelical Christians. Perhaps the debate seems trivial to non-Christians, but conjecturing that there are Christians out there who don’t care that much about how the Bible is interpreted would be like saying law students don’t have an opinion on how the constitution should be interpreted just because they don’t plan on becoming constitutional law professors.

If you are a member of the Orthodox Church, you have to chuckle at how the article describes Cedarville as historically “fundamentalist, or orthodox” as if the two terms were interchangeable. In addition, if you are familiar with the Baptist church, this paragraph will make you do a double take:

In addition, in June 2006, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches severed ties with Cedarville because of its unofficial relationship with Southern Baptists, who the association condemns for its inclusiveness of other faiths, according to Christianity Today, a magazine for evangelical Christians. The State Convention of Baptists in Ohio, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, began endorsing the school in 2002 to Ohio southern Baptists. Cedarville had been associated with GARBC since its Baptist founding in 1953.

Covering theological debates is never easy for one who is not reasonably familiar with them. Perhaps this is a good reason to have reporters in the newsroom who are familiar with the issues. That’s not to say that only reporters with theological backgrounds can cover these stories, rather, it would be helpful for newsroom diversity to have this type of viewpoint represented.

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That Voodoo that you do

voodoocardsVoodoo, in its New World form, is a syncretized religion. It blends religion native to West Africa and Central Africa with Christianity. Reporter Marc Lacey wrote about the new Port-au-Prince-based head of Voodoo in a profile for the New York Times:

The goat tethered to a tree outside of Max Beauvoir’s home is doomed.

Beauvoir, tall and majestic with closely cropped white hair, is a voodoo priest who was just named the religion’s supreme master, a newly created position that is aimed at reviving voodoo.

His grand residence on the outskirts of the Haitian capital serves as a voodoo temple for practitioners and a late-night hangout for those paying customers eager to take in an exotic evening of spiritual awakening.

As you can see, it’s just a wonderfully written story. Lacey paints a picture of the vibrant dances and rituals conducted by Beauvoir. Lacey explains how the new position came about:

Popular in Haiti even among many of those who attend Christian churches, voodoo lacks the formal hierarchy of other religions. Most voodoo priests, known as houngans, operate semi-independently, catering to their followers without a whole lot of structure.

But many of Haiti’s houngans recently came together into a national federation and named Beauvoir, 72, as their public face. He is now the spokesman for a religion that followers believe too often gets a bad rap and is in dire need of an image overhaul. (Think “voodoo economics.”) Even before he got the job, Beauvoir was a voodoo promoter extraordinaire. With his own Web site, www.vodou.org, and a following among foreigners intrigued by voodoo, Beauvoir is criticized by some purists as too much of a showman.

The piece is very detailed, explaining Beauvoir’s education, including graduate study in biochemistry, and how it compares with the largely illiterate population of voodooists.

My only problem is that it didn’t really describe the beliefs of Voodoo. We learn that it mixes the animism of West African religion with Christianity. We learn that Beauvoir thinks Voodoo should play “a role” in resolving Haiti’s problems. But this is the entire explanation of Voodoo beliefs:

Haiti has long been a battleground for Christian missionaries who view voodoo as devil worship and work tirelessly to convert the population to Christ. Voodoo also has one god, modeled on God of the Christian Bible, but it incorporates pagan elements that make Christians uneasy: casting spells and catering to spirits that are seen as the major forces of the universe.

But you can learn that much about Voodoo from clumsy Hollywood depictions. I want more. Anyway, the piece really is very informative apart from that, explaining how politicians in Haiti reach out to Voodooists in order to burnish their populist credentials. Lacey also quotes people who are very leery of Beauvoir, saying they wouldn’t trust him with their money or child. All in all, a good read.

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Covering classic mainline blues

the bluesThe Dallas Morning News had a compelling story last week that dealt with the closing of a 118-year-old neighborhood church that draws on local, regional and national religion trends. Locally, dwindling membership and declining revenues have challenged the church. In addition, the church has struggled as a “predominantly Anglo church in a largely Hispanic area.”

Nationally, as a reader pointed out to us, if reporters look at the demographics of the Presbyterian Church USA denomination, they will realize that this story will become quite common in the coming years. To sum it up, the church struggled as an aging congregation in an area becoming less and less “predominantly Anglo.” Efforts to reach out to Hispanics with multi-lingual services and advertising the congregation’s gay-friendly status did little to slow the decline.

The reader also noted that the story’s end could be theologically related and yearns for a follow-up of some sort:

Trinity will have a worship service Sunday morning, followed by an official closing service at 3 p.m. Preaching then will be Steve Jester, who grew up attending Trinity and now is pastor at St. Philip Presbyterian Church in Hurst.

“The direction I’m heading is to give thanks for all of the ways that the church has witnessed to Christ in the community over the decades,” he said. “And, as I would at a funeral, I want to focus on the promise of new life. We trust that God will continue to work with the people in ways we can’t see.”

As with any institution lasting for more than a century, there are many ways to look at this story. This is true particularly of churches because they can define the way in which a group of people views their community. See this paragraph on the church’s belief that the institution had a purpose in its neighborhood:

Though Trinity has reached out to Hispanics — hosting a small Spanish-language congregation called Iglesia Presbiteriana Emmanuel, as well as English language classes — efforts at dual-language worship flopped.

In the last few years, Trinity tried various strategies, including advertising that it is openly welcoming to gay people. But nothing reversed the decline.

“We’re dying off,” Mrs. Mitchell said. “You’ve got to have the young people to carry on the church.”

Trinity might have followed the lead of many urban churches and moved to the suburbs. But that, according to members, would have violated its sense of mission.

“We chose to stay and serve the neighborhood,” Mr. Manton said. “That’s probably why we’re having to close.”

Reporters covering church closings in other communities could look to this story as a model for what kind of questions to ask and what sort of trends for which to look. Abandoned downtown churches have affected most cities, and most mainline denominations have dealt with the closings of timeless congregations. At some point the national story on this needs to be updated with a frank look at the demographic numbers and the changing face of American cities.

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Press doesn’t get King’s real dream

mlk 02 On the night before he was assassinated, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the now famous “Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn.

King had arrived in Memphis to help lead a sanitation worker’s strike. His message was that in a violent and unjust age, he was seeking to do God’s will: showing the city’s whites that God’s black children were suffering and must be helped. As King said,

The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.

Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be — and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue.

Today is the 40th anniversary of King’s death. Unfortunately, the press has not changed much since his day. Reporters in general continue to focus on the window breaking itself rather than the Christian context in which King understood that it occurred. The result is stories that not only commit the sin of presentism, but also are largely secularized.

To The Washington Post, King was a tragic leader of the Left. Reporter Kevin Merida focuses on King’s career from 1966 to 1968, the time when King had helped eliminate legal discrimination but struggled to achieve economic and social equality, especially for striking sanitation workers in Memphis:

Forty years after King was gunned down by an assassin in Memphis, it is this sharper-edged figure who has come into focus again. To mark today’s anniversary, several scholarly reports have been released charting the nation’s uneven social and economic progress during the past 40 years. Some scholars and former King associates are using the occasion to zero in on the two issues — war and poverty — that were consuming him at the time of his death.

Both have particular resonance now: The United States is engaged in a war in Iraq that has grown increasingly unpopular, and the poor — despite the concerns highlighted by Hurricane Katrina and the subprime mortgage crisis — are as voiceless as they were in King’s day, advocates contend.

Merida’s focus on politics unmoored from religion is misplaced. In his mountain-top speech, King explicitly identified himself with Moses, the religious leader who is allowed to peer the mountaintop and see the Promised Land. Instead, Merida portrays King as the political leader of a line that runs from George McGovern to Barack Obama.

To The Washington Times, King was a tragic leader in another sense: His black followers rioted and pillaged Washington and left a legacy of crime and poverty. As Timothy Warren writes,

Beginning in the early evening on April 4, 1968, upon learning of King’s assassination in Memphis, Tenn., angry blacks throughout the city took their frustration and mourning to the streets. They began fire-bombing and looting businesses.

“We saw crowds beginning to form around 7:30 near 14th and U,” said Mr. Barry. “I tried to get them to calm down. That’s when the riot started to break out. Firetrucks couldn’t even get down there till 3 or 4 in the morning.”

“We could see the fires early on April 5,” said Jim McNeece, a Columbia Heights native and volunteer fireman for Prince George’s County at the time, who was brought in to help fight the fires in the District. “About 24 hours later, they called us because the D.C. fire crews were overwhelmed. Rioters pelted us with rocks and bottles as we put out the fires.”

In the end, the riots led to 10 deaths, 1,200 injuries, and 7,600 arrests and damage of $13 million, according to the Washington Star. The aftermath of the riots have had an unfortunate lasting effect on the city, stunting what many think could have been major economic and cultural development for the District.

mlk2 It’s possible to interpret Warren’s story as the conservative rejoinder to Merida’s: While King fought for equal rights and practiced non-violence, his secular followers lay waste to the nation’s capital. This is an interesting and important angle, but also a flawed one. It focuses, literally, on broken windows rather than King’s prophetic role.

To The Los Angeles Times, King was not only a leader of the New Left, but also a man of God. As John L. Mitchell writes, King focused on political issues, while those who heard him give a sermon at a local church remember him as a holy man:

While he was in Los Angeles, King was contacted by the Rev. James Lawson, who urged him to fly to Memphis, where garbage workers were protesting low wages and poor working conditions after two workers were accidentally killed in a trash compactor. That Monday, March 18, King flew to Memphis and delivered a speech to more than 15,000 people.

“He was the Moses of our movement, the major spokesperson and symbol for black people and lots of people around the world,” said Lawson, who chaired the strike committee and later was pastor at Holman for 25 years before retiring and teaching nonviolence.

Mitchell’s story had the advantage of focusing on one incident (check out the images and audio recording of the speech; they’re excellent). This allowed him to tell readers about the historical context in which King gave his speech as well as the reactions of those who saw him deliver it. But Mitchell failed to note that King’s sermon had as much a religious element as a political one.

To its credit, The New York Times conveyed King’s Christian character and mindset well. Shaila Dewan wrote an interesting story about a vacation home that King never got to use. In the story, she told this illuminating anecdote:

Ms. Mitchell, a pioneer in early childhood education and one of the first black school board members in Beaufort County (the other was also a Penn staff member), said she was determined to ask Dr. King one question: “How can you tell me to love people who treat me as if I were not human?”

“I will never forget” his response, she said. “He said we are created in God’s image. So you love the image of God in that person.” She added: “I don’t know if I was able to use that, to apply that, in all different situations. But I always remembered it.”

By using this anecdote, Dewan gave readers a sense of King’s spiritual force. Here was a man interested not just in material bounty and equality for his fellow blacks, but rather in doing God’s will through social protest.

It’s tempting to write about historical figures by focusing on their legacy. But if reporters don’t convey to readers the figures’ perception of themselves, especially their religious perception, they will get only half the story.

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