Going local by going global

spotlight on missionsThings have been pretty busy for me lately, but that will change in just under two weeks. Apologies for my low level of posts lately. I wanted to slip in a brief note to highlight what seems to me an impressive journalistic endeavor for a local newspaper. The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., sent reporter Trevor Aaronson along with a local Baptist church’s mission group to India to report on missionary work in the world’s second-largest country.

The result is a very long story that has generated still more comments. Here is the gist of the piece:

What happens here is funded entirely by Bellevue Baptist, a 30,000-member church in Memphis, the nation’s second-largest Southern Baptist congregation. Every year, Bellevue shells out $5.5 million — one-fourth of its $22 million annual budget — for missionary work around the world. At any given time, Bellevue is supporting missionaries in more than two dozen countries, and annually sends its Memphis congregants on international mission trips to Central America, South America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

India is particularly important for the congregation. The country is at the center of what Bellevue and other evangelical churches refer to as the “10/40 window” — the area 10 degrees to 40 degrees north of the equator, from North Africa to Japan, where 95 percent of the people are “unevangelized” and where only 8 percent of evangelical missionary dollars are spent.

“It’s really called ‘The Last Frontier,’” says Steve Marcum, Bellevue’s minister of missions.

In July, with the help of Indian Pastor Edgar Sathuluri, who named the women’s conference after his mother, Grace, Bellevue covered the transportation costs for the hundreds of women and paid for their meals during the five-day religious gathering in Hyderabad.

The article has a narrative arc that is quite long and full of rich detail. It is not by any means your traditional news story, but nor is it really a traditional feature story. It is a news article told in the style of an old-fashioned story without an ending.

The comments are also interesting because the reporter is being criticized from both sides, as well as commended for a job well done. Some of the people leaving comments think the story is rotten to the core because it promotes “holier-than-thou, so-called Christians.” Others, such as the person who sent us the story, say that Aaronson tries to “look at the purpose of and meaning of the trip from the eyes of the Indian and basically believes that [the] group is getting tricked by the pastor of the church they work with in India.”

Without weighing the particulars of this story — there is much to commend, plenty to quibble with — I think it is tremendous that so much labor and money went into the story. Not only is the newspaper reaching beyond its usual coverage and defying the trend that local newspapers have been heading in for years — it’s also focusing heavily on the activities of the local religious community.

While it may seem like common sense from a news perspective to pay attention to what the large organizations in a coverage area are doing, the activities of churches often go uncovered, particularly missionary work. Take the time to read the story, view the photos and even some of the comments and give us feedback on your thoughts and how other newspapers could follow The Commercial Appeal‘s lead.

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So is this what ‘Islamist’ means?

GetReligionBear2So here we go again.

For several days, I have been trying to decide what to write about the teddy bear named “Mohammed” in the Sudan. I was trying hard to avoid it, since the GetReligionistas strive to write about how the press covers religion events, as opposed to commenting on the religion events themselves.

But the issue will not go away and, in fact, events seem to be getting worse. Here is part of a typical CNN report:

Hundreds of angry protesters, some waving ceremonial swords from trucks equipped with loud speakers, gathered Friday outside the presidential palace to denounce a teacher whose class named a teddy bear “Mohammed” — some calling for her execution.

The protesters, which witnesses said numbered close to 1,000, swore to fight in the name of their prophet.

Gillian Gibbons, 54, was given 15 days in jail late Thursday after she was convicted of insulting religion. She was cleared of charges of inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs, her lawyer, Ali Ajeb, said.

But is this nationalism or religion? This is the standard question. The details, again, point to direct links to religious institutions.

This part of the standard wire-service reports is especially chilling:

The demonstration began around 2:30 p.m. as worshippers spilled out of mosques in the capital after Friday prayers. They marched to the palace, which is on the same street as Unity High School, where Gibbons taught grade school students. Those who named the bear were 7 years old.

… Armed with swords and sticks, the protesters shouted: “By soul, by blood, I will fight for the Prophet Mohammad.”

The bear in question was, of course, named “Mohammed” by a boy named “Mohammed.” The rest of the class liked the idea.

So what is the journalism question? What does all of this mean, in terms of the language that we use to describe the different forms of Islam that keep making news around the world? Stated another way, what is the difference between “Islam” and “Islamist”?

Gibbons is, of course, an “infidel.” She is also in a land where the common law is sharia. That is the only law in Sudan (and forget the U.N. Charter of Human Rights). So is the whole land of Sudan “Islamist” and, if so, what makes it “Islamist” or an “Islamic” state, instead of simply being a “Muslim” state?

I am seeing little evidence that journalists are drawing, or being allowed to draw, these kinds of lines clearly. I know there are journalists who know these lines exist.

There are government angles to all of this. There are public policy and political angles to all of this, too. Everyone knows this. But this Time passage seems to state the obvious.

I’m not saying that I know exactly what these “obvious” facts mean, right now. But here’s the bottom line:

The case is an embarrassment for the Sudanese government, whose policies in Darfur have helped make it an international pariah. But the government is hamstrung by extremist elements, who will capitalize on any perception that Khartoum is bowing to British pressure, said Professor Elteyb Hag Ateya, director of Khartoum University’s peace research institute.

“There is a sort of ‘who is the best Muslim?’ competition to this whole thing which makes it difficult for the government to be seen to back down,” he said.

Surely that statement is depressing reading for mainstream Muslims.

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Good old story about Bono history

U2OctoberEraAs you would expect, I have heard from some folks asking my opinion of the Washington Post feature story about that Paul Hewson guy that ran with this faith-based two-decker headline: “Bono’s Calling — The Irish Rocker Has a Mission: To Fight Poverty and Enlist the Powerful in the Battle.”

The good news is that this giant piece, which ran atop the Style section, was remarkably snark-free (although opening with that cute Beatles songfest inside a Beltway bathroom comes close).

The other good news is that there really isn’t anything all that new or edgy in reporter Sridhar Pappu’s piece. It covers lots of old U2 territory and gets most of it right, even if the sketches are a bit incomplete.

It’s impossible, of course, to talk about Bono’s long history of work in Africa without digging into his Christian faith. It’s even hard to talk about the political angle here in Washington, D.C. — by which I mean Bono’s ability to connect with people on both sides of the cultural aisle — without talking about his ability to quote St. John as well as John Lennon.

Bono brings that up, himself:

“I think knowing the Scriptures helped,” Bono says of his conversations with more conservative legislators. His father was Roman Catholic, and it was his Protestant mother who regularly took him to church before her death when Bono was 14. “I think I could debate with them. I hope they had appreciated that, and they knew I had respect for their beliefs. Even if I wasn’t the best example of how to live your life, they treated me with respect. I’m nervous of zealotism, even though I have to admit I’m a zealot for these issues of extreme poverty.”

But this is really old stuff, as I mentioned in a recent post flashing back to my U2 interviews from 1982. But here is a crucial chunk of the history in this piece:

He was an ordinary man once, with an ordinary name. Paul David Hewson started to become who he is at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin. There, when he was 15, he met Alison Stewart, now his wife of 25 years and the mother of his four children. And it was there he found his mates — the three men who would join together and stand together to this day as U2.

From the very beginning, they were not content to stay a garage band or merely a darling of the critics. They always wanted to be galvanizing, a force that could reach millions, everlasting and indestructible. Musically, their songs (beginning with their first album, “Boy”) made that extended reach, informed by a sense of spiritual longing, underpinned by biblical beliefs.

… (Millions) across the world heard U2′s anthems to social justice in 1985 at the Live Aid benefit for a starving Ethiopia. After that, Bono and Alison went there themselves and worked for six weeks giving out essential food supplies. At one point, a man approached Bono with his young child, asking the rocker to take his son to Ireland.

Those who know Bono say it was something he never really got over. It spurred his transcendence from mere rock star to savior of both the world’s most impoverished and the button-down servants of the American experiment working along the Potomac.

So what is missing? The Post misses several connections between the religion, the music and the politics that were already in place long before Live Aid.

It’s important to remember that in the crucial 1981-82 period, the Christians in U2 were part of a charismatic-evangelical house church crowd, which meant listening to the powerful voices of people who were saying that it was, literally, a sin to be a rock star. The band almost broke up over the issue, but did not.

u2 album war1Why? The music was the big thing, obviously. But Bono was also wrestling — way back then — with the positive side of being famous, as well as the negative side. From the very beginning, the positive side of fame became linked with the desire to help others and he was already talking about Africa in 1982. Here is how I tried to sum up some of that love-hate relationship with his own celebrity status in a 2001 column for Scripps Howard:

In U2′s early days, other Christians said the band should break up or flee into “Christian rock,” arguing that fame always corrupts. Bono and his band mates decided otherwise, but the singer soon began speaking out about his faith and his doubts, his joys and his failures.

“I don’t believe in preaching at people,” he told me, back in 1982. A constant theme in his music, he added, is the soul-spinning confusion that results when spirituality, sensuality, ego and sin form a potion that is both intoxicating and toxic. “The truth is that we are all sinners. I always include myself in the ‘we.’ … I’m not telling everybody that I have the answers. I’m trying to get across the difficulty that I have being what I am.”

So the Post feature was quite solid and far better than the norm. It’s simply interesting to note that Bono and Co. have been, well, singing this song for a long, long time. It’s news, but it isn’t new.

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Tony Blair, a man for some seasons

beheaded Judging by The Sunday Times of London, a reader might conclude that former Prime Minister Tony Blair was a smart man’s Thomas More or Thomas Beckett. Blair, who is expected to convert to Catholicism, said in an interview that his Christianity “played a hugely important role” during his decade-long tenure, but he feared saying so lest he be known as a “nutter.” As Dipesh Gadher reported,

In his most frank television interview about his religious beliefs, Blair confesses he would have found it difficult to do the job of prime minister had he not been able to draw on his faith.

The admission confirms why Alastair Campbell, then Blair’s director of communications, was so wary of the prime minister mentioning religion. “We don’t do God,” he once said.

In a documentary to be broadcast on BBC1 next Sunday, Campbell now says of his former boss: “Well, he does do God — in quite a big way.”

In a tone of breathless wonderment, Gadher reports what he clearly views as a series of shocking revelations about the depth of Blair’s faith. Wherever Blair was in the world on a Sunday, he insisted on going to church. When Blair sought to use the expression “God bless you” on the eve of war against Iraq, his aides, keen to quell Blair’s religious fervor, urged him to leave out the offending phrase. Before retiring for the evening, Blair read the Bible.

The implication of Gadher’s story is that in the case of Tony Blair, politics and religion, far from being decoupled, were intertwined. Presumably, if Blair was an agnostic or atheist, there would have been no story to report.

I do not know what the British press considers an acceptable form of piety in its public officials. Nonetheless, Gadher’s story struck me as no more substantive than your local anchorman’s wig or dry-blown hair.

To take the most important example, the story does not mention a single instance in which the former Prime Minister’s faith affected public policy. Did Blair’s faith shape his policies toward the poor or immigrants? Was Blair ever ready to stick his neck out for his Christian faith?

Certainly, and I know faithful GR readers have read this before from me, Blair did little to promote the Catholic Church’s stands on cultural issues. During his tenure, Britain legalized human cloning and civil partnerships for homosexual couples; and continued to allow the killing of unborn infants up to their 24th week. Did Blair have a conflict between his personal and public beliefs? If so, what were they?

In short, Gadher fails to paint Blair’s faith against a wider canvas. Maybe the Prime Minister’s Christianity was “hugely important” to him — in some, but not all, seasons.

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Keeping up with the Garcias

463395691 544ba72a9eHere’s a quick memo to the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference and the Assemblies of God and the Democratic Party and lots of other people.

It’s time to connect the dots in The New York Times, again. We have a story with a big religion ghost in it and the Times knows it (and so does the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life).

Here’s the lede from reporter Sam Roberts:

Step aside Moore and Taylor. Welcome Garcia and Rodriguez.

Smith remains the most common surname in the United States, according to a new analysis released yesterday by the Census Bureau. But for the first time, two Hispanic surnames — Garcia and Rodriguez — are among the top 10 most common in the nation, and Martinez nearly edged out Wilson for 10th place.

The number of Hispanics living in the United States grew by 58 percent in the 1990s to nearly 13 percent of the total population, and cracking the list of top 10 names suggests just how pervasively the Latino migration has permeated everyday American culture.

Garcia moved to No. 8 in 2000, up from No. 18, and Rodriguez jumped to No. 9 from 22nd place. The number of Hispanic surnames among the top 25 doubled, to 6.

So read that, then flash back to an earlier Times story — with stops along the way at the Pew Forum studies on the growth numbers for Hispanics and then for Pentecostal Christians.

Those Hispanic names signal other changes, of course. It would be wrong for this simple Times story to mention all of them. But some commentary would have been nice.

Let’s see, politics or religion, religion or politics. Can anyone tell the difference anymore? Which will it be?

I vote for religion. So back up a few months and the Times tells us:

The religious identity of Hispanics will affect politics, the report says. The Hispanic electorate is largely Democratic (63 percent), despite being conservative on social issues like abortion and homosexuality. But Hispanic evangelical Protestants — whose numbers are growing — are twice as likely as Hispanic Catholics to be Republicans. This is a far greater gap than exists between white evangelical Protestants and Catholics.

About one-third of Catholics in the United States are now Hispanic.

… The study also found that conversion is a common experience for many Hispanics. Nearly one in five changed either from one religion to another, or to no religion at all.

The biggest loser from all the conversions is the Catholic Church, while evangelical Protestant churches are the beneficiaries. Thirteen percent of all Hispanics in the United States were once Catholic and left the church. Of Hispanic evangelical Protestants, half are converts — mostly former Catholics. Hispanics born in the United States are more likely to convert than are foreign-born immigrants.

So we are back to the only story that really matters in American politics right now, a story that is much bigger than the whole evangelical crackup thing. And that is the splintering Catholic vote. The Catholic bishops know what is going on and there does not seem to be anything they can do about it at — at the pew level. That’s a story.

Personal note: GetReligion will remain open during Thanksgiving and the days ahead, but we are all moving around a bit (I am sure) and I am headed back into a zone where WiFi is not that common. So hang in there with us. It may take time to respond to messages and comments.

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The Post nails some Anglican lingo

CanterburyNuke2 01 01 01I hope I don’t get anyone in trouble by saying this.

But I would like to give a shoutout to reporter Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post for her coverage of local, regional, national and global Anglican wars that are taking place in a Northern Virginia courtroom right now. At stake are millions of dollars in real estate, the pride of national church establishment and, perhaps, the issue of whether traditionalist Anglicans in some other parts of the nation are able to leave the liberal Episcopal Church while retaining control of their buildings, property and other assets.

Now, you can’t read GetReligion for long without knowing that we think the accurate use of language is really, really, really, really, really, really, really important when covering the various levels of combat in this war. This is more than an American conflict about homosexuality. Things are much more complex than that.

So pay close attention to the territory that Boorstein covers in these paragraphs near the top of this hard-news story last week:

The trial comes almost a year after the majority of congregants in 15 traditional Episcopal churches voted to leave the national church because of disagreements about the nature of God and salvation and about whether gay men and lesbians should be fully accepted. Northern Virginia has since become one of the most active areas in the country for the conservative, breakaway movement, and clergy around the country are watching this trial to see what happens to Episcopalians who want to leave — and take church properties with them.

The land issue is a manifestation of a larger debate within the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch. Traditional Anglicans are frustrated with decades of what they see as watered-down Christianity, and the dispute threatens to split the Communion.

Although traditionalists are a minority in the United States — members of the 15 Virginia breakaway churches represent about 7 percent of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia — they dominate in large swaths of the developing world, including in Africa and Asia.

Bravo. There are phrases there to get under the skin of people on both sides, but I think that few people who care about journalism would find many shots that miss the mark. The keys to this passage are (a) that the battle is described as being about much more than sexuality and (b) that it is very clear that conflict is taking place on several different levels in a global Communion. There is even a hint of the relative sizes of the different bodies, in comparison with each other.

That’s it. That’s what it takes to throw some accurate ink at this complex, complex story.

Now, I know that we have readers involved in the warfare on both the left and right sides of the Anglican/Episcopal aisle. What complaints do you have about this language in the Post? What changes would you propose — just in what is covered here?

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Pakistan’s religion-rich conflict

bhutto 3The opening sentence in Time‘s guide to the conflict in Pakistan is quite appropriate: “The turmoil in the streets of Pakistan stems from a mercurial mix of history, religion and politics — with explosive results.”

Religion is front and center in this very important part of the world, but are reporters telling the story?

The New York Times scored an interview with embattled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday, and while the religious issues don’t pop out at the reader, they are present:

He said Pakistan was suffering from a “disturbed terrorist environment,” and he appeared to be unaffected by calls from Europe as well as the United States for an end to the emergency rule.

Instead, the general, whose government has received more than $10 billion in aid from the Bush administration, mostly for the military, asked for even more support, and more patience.

The Bush administration has called the general the best bet to fight Al Qaeda and Islamic militants, but has also complained that the cooperation of the Pakistani military has been sporadic and often ineffective.

You don’t have to read too deep between the lines to understand where religious issues come into play. But religious issues remained cloaked in vague terms, such as “moderates,” as tmatt pointed out Wednesday.

As for the Time piece, it is a good start and long overdue. However, it is only a start and it largely fails at explaining the various forms of Islam in Pakistan and how they relate to the law and politics.

A helpful way to go about this would be to compare Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries dominated by Muslim politics. Some are comparing the situation in Pakistan to the pre-revolution situation in Iran. Now that is a scary thought. But how does the presence of the highly professional military in Pakistan negate that factor, and what does religion have to do with it?

Speaking of countries highly influenced by the military that also happen to be allies of the United States, how does this compare to the situation in Turkey? An important aspect of this story is that Pakistan is no Turkey in terms of its relationship with the U.S. The country is far more radical, at least in religious ideology. Before September 11, 2001, the country was headed the way of Iran and Iraq as an official supporter of terrorism. But things changed on that tragic day, and the United States needed help of Pakistanis — along with Iranians — in routing the Taliban out of Afghanistan.

Another significant religion ghost that could receive more attention concerns former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. What is the religious significance that the opposition leader in an Islamic country is a woman? What does that tell us about the way Islam is taught and applied in the country?

Just as everyone was caught off-guard by the Iranian revolution, another surprise could be on the horizon concerning Pakistan. Religion will likely be in the center of it all.

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Spirits of ‘moderate’ Islam

250px Bottle of Arak RayanAs regular GetReligion readers will know, I have a thing about that vague word that mainstream journalists keep using to describe the Muslims that America likes, or that the journalists like, or that the Taliban dislikes, or something. That word, of course, is “moderate.”

In particular, I want to know more about the doctrinal or religious content of the word. I know that it has something to do with being pro-West or pro-America. I suspect that it has something to do with the belief that one can be a good, practicing, faithful Muslim without living under Sharia law — a hot question in the Islamic world today.

So I read with interest a New York Times story that ran with this headline: “In Mixed Slice of Baghdad, Old Bonds Defy War.” It’s about the shockingly peaceful Baghdad neighborhood called Bab al Sheik:

… (It) has been spared the sectarian killing that has gutted other neighborhoods, and Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians live together here with unusual ease. It has been battered by bombings around its edges, but the war has been kept from its heart, largely because of its ancient, shared past, bound by trust and generations of intermarriage.

Reporters even feel safe there, walking and talking. We are marching closer to the crucial word, of course. Take this visit to a large Kurdish family.

Abu Nawal, the father, recounted how a group of men from the office of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr came to a local cafe, proposing to set up shop in the area. The cafe owner pointed to a sign, which stated in dark script that all discussions of politics and religion were prohibited. The men were then asked to leave.

“The guys in the neighborhood said, ‘If you try to make an office here, we will explode it,’” said Abu Nawal, a shoemaker, whose family has lived in the neighborhood for four generations.

Some time later, Sunni Arab political party members came and were similarly rebuffed. …

He said he despised the poisonous mix of religion and politics that was strangling Iraqi society, and he enjoyed cracking wry jokes at politicians’ expense. Playing off the names for extremist militias, which in Iraq call themselves things like the Islamic Army, he refers to his group of friends as the Arak Army, righteous defenders of an anise-flavored alcoholic drink.

So intermarriage and alcohol — two terrible things for traditional Muslims — are crucial. Now we have arrived at the key moment in the story.

The neighborhood has another rare asset: moderate religious men.

Sheik Muhammad Wehiab, a 30-year-old Shiite imam whose family has lived in Bab al Sheik for seven generations, was jailed for 14 months under Saddam Hussein, a biographical fact that should have opened doors for him in the new Shiite-dominated power hierarchy. But his moderate views were unpopular in elite circles, and he has remained in the neighborhood.

He feels connected. So much so that while talking on the phone one night this fall, he walked out into the tiny alley outside his door, lay down and watched the stars in the night sky.

250px Bottle of Arak RayanAnd what are those “moderate” views, pray tell?

We get some clues later in the story. We meet an anonymous Sunni cleric who seems to share these “moderate” views, although we have not been told what those views are.

The cleric, who asked that his name not be published out of concern for his safety, because of the high profile of the mosque, lovingly ticks off qualities of the 12th-century Sufi sheik Abdel Qadr Qailani, who gave the mosque its name: Intellectual. Scholar. Moral teacher.

But moderate religion is not drawing an audience on a national scale, and Qailani Mosque, one of Baghdad’s most important Sunni institutions, has fallen on hard times. Donations are down. Its long-running soup kitchen serves one meal a day instead of three. Sufi clerics cannot perform their rituals. A bomb sheared off part of a minaret in February.

So “moderates” are smart, which means that non-moderates are, well, not smart? And moderates believe in morality, but are not hung up on the actual teachings of Islam?

Then, the story ends with a long, rather strange anecdote about how positive it is when people feel free to drink lots and lots of that Arak drink. The alcohol really seems to be crucial.

This is not helping me much. It sounds like “moderate” is, again, code for Muslims with whom Western journalists feel comfortable. Did I miss something in this story?

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