After more bullets in Baltimore: ‘Why couldn’t God stop this?’

Long ago, I was talking to an inner-city pastor (a priest, actually) in Denver who made a very interesting, insightful and depressing observation about his work. One thing that African-American clergy in major cities have to live with is the reality that — as a rule — there are only three things they can do that will ever be seen as newsworthy by their local news media. They can:

(1) Make a political statement of some kind. Everyone knows that African-American church life centers on politics, way more than on the Gospel.

(2) Start some new and innovative form of ministry to the poor, which would be seen as newsworthy because helping poor people is really all about politics (as opposed to obeying the clear call of scripture). See reason No. 1.

(3) Preach in the funeral of a person, the younger the better, who has been gunned down in their neighborhood.

I added that the clergy person could, of course, commit some kind of crime and that would be considered newsworthy. We both laughed, sharing rather tired smiles. Yes, that would be newsworthy, too.

I thought of that when working my way through a stack of newspapers after returning to Baltimore after a few days on the road. The first story that grabbed my attention was a perfect example of African-American Church News No. 3, complete with an agonizing, and appropriate, does of pull-quote-worthy “theodicy.” For an update on the meaning of this theological term, click here. Here’s the top of that Baltimore Sun story, including the crucial leap to theodicy:

Craig David Ray and his cousins believed they were beating the odds. Growing up in Baltimore, they knew many young black men who were gunned down or sent to prison. As they entered their 30s, Ray and his family members were thankful for their health and welfare with each passing year.

“That’s behind us,” cousin Larry Barganier said he told Ray not long ago as they talked about the family’s good fortune. “We beat the statistics.”

But the gray coffin cradling his cousin on Wednesday was a cruel reminder that the “streets are cold,” Barganier told mourners at Ray’s funeral. Authorities said Ray, 34, was shot to death, after he called the police on a Westport neighbor who refused to turn down loud music. He was trying to rest before his shift as a Maryland Transit Administration bus driver.

Ray’s death left his family grasping for meaning. He was steadily building his life, they said, planning to get married. On Feb. 24, the night that he died, he was at his girlfriend’s house watching her kids.

“Why couldn’t God stop this?” the Rev. Samuel Ray, an uncle, asked. “He couldn’t. There’s some things God doesn’t give us the answer for. That doesn’t mean we lose faith.”

Now this is, in my opinion, a rather well done story in this tragic genre. I was struck, over and over, by the connections between this young man and elements of both the church and civic establishment.

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A mere 1 million 20th century Christian martyrs? (updated)

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Every now and then, a journalist gets pulled into a serious error when covering a speech or some other form of public presentation of complicated material.

It happens. It’s especially disturbing when the speaker — perhaps a person of great authority — makes an error and the reporter is in the position of having to quote the bad information or to challenge the information in print. Awkward.

However, it appears that The Baltimore Sun needs to run an immediate correction after this morning’s coverage of Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s final address as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Here is the context of what almost certainly is a horrible and painful error.

“Painful”? Yes, especially if there are any Orthodox Armenians, Russians, Egyptians, Syrians or Romanians (I could make this list longer with ease) who still read this particular newspaper. Frankly, I know very few who are still subscribers.

Here is the top of the story, including the quote I am questioning:

At a time when the nation’s top Roman Catholic leaders have been making headlines with their stands on religious liberty and immigration reform, Cardinal Timothy Dolan opened this year’s convention of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by focusing his attention beyond American borders.

Actually, this lede is misleading. It’s clear that Dolan’s emphasis was on religious liberty AROUND THE WORLD, including the United States. Let’s move on:

Catholics and other Christians are facing so much violent persecution around the world today that the 21st century could accurately be termed “a new age of martyrs,” Dolan said Monday as he addressed church leaders gathered at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore.

More than a million people have been killed solely due to their faith in Jesus Christ since the year 2000, he said — more than suffered such a fate during the entire 20th century.

What was that again? There were a million Christian martyrs — or fewer than that — in the 20th century?

What about the Armenian genocide alone? That’s a controversial issue, but you will frequently see claims that 1.2 million or more believers died in that wave of persecution.

And what about the persecution of the church in Russia in the decades before and after the establishment of the Communist regime?

Once again, statistics vary widely for the number of Russian Orthodox bishops, priests and believers who died as martyrs. However, most academic studies put the number somewhere between 10 and 20 million killed. And what about Romania and the rest of Eastern Europe? What about previous rounds of persecution in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, etc.? And I in no way mean to imply that the Orthodox in these lands were the only Christians to die for their faith in the troubled 20th century! No way. I am simply noting some obvious cases.

I have searched to see if other media outlets have quoted Cardinal Dolan making this error.

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All together now: Archbishop Lori leads WHAT committee?

It’s that time, again. The U.S. Catholic bishops are back in Baltimore and the agenda includes the election of a new president to replace the remarkably charismatic (especially in his crucial mass-media duties) Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

Speaking of omnipresent, the primary voice of authority in the A1 Baltimore Sun piece on the conference is the one and only Rocco “friend of the blog” Palmo of the Whispers in the Loggia weblog, who basically narrates the whole report. I especially liked his quip on the challenge of replacing Dolan:

Whoever is chosen in Tuesday’s election will have his work cut out for him, according to Palmo, in part because Dolan made such an extraordinary mark.

“Like him or not, you couldn’t ignore him,” Palmo said. “He’s a once-in-a-generation leader. It’s like Elvis is leaving the building. Who’s going to take the stage now?”

There are at least two other “must cover” news angles in this bishops conference advance piece, with one angle of special importance to a newspaper in Baltimore. Alas, only one really made it into print, and it wasn’t the all-news-is-local one.

There is, of course, the Pope Francis angle, which shows up early. Note the careful attribution (not) of the opinions expressed in this passage:

This week’s meeting is the first during the tenure of Pope Francis, the first Latin American-born pontiff and a man widely seen as offering a friendlier face to the non-Catholic world than many of his predecessors.

It also comes in the wake of Dolan’s term, which many felt gave the bishops a more unified public presence than they had enjoyed in years.

Who are the Catholic voices of authority hiding in the phrase “widely seen” on this back-handed slap at the Blessed John Paul II and, of course, the bookish Pope Benedict XVI? Then, a few phrases later, we have a vague reference to “many” Catholics feeling such and such. Lots of people talking, but few willing to be quoted? Not a good sign.

The other key topic that must be addressed is the presence of Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori in the short list of candidates to fill Dolan’s chair as conference president. While he is not a lock-in, there is at least one reason to think that Lori could get the nod. This force in his favor, however, could be a reason he would not get the presidency in the new media-friendly age of Francis.

So, all together now, what is the primary leadership post held by the articulate and scholarly archbishop of Baltimore? Why has he been in and out of the headlines in recent years? What national church work has he performed (often in a partnership with Dolan)?

The story gives a hint, but never states the obvious.

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Praise be to Soros for investing millions in Baltimore

So, does the cultural left have a leader who might play the role that the Rev. Pat Robertson plays for the mainstream press when it is covering life on the religious right? I mean, is there a person on the religious or anti-religious left whose views are so predictable and, often, so predictably extreme that one can always count on him for that symbolic action or quote that you need to stereotype all of the other people on that side of the cultural aisle?

I mean, other than Madonna or Bill Maher?

At the level of real-life power, I think it would be hard to find a better nominee than mega-billionaire George Soros, the financial titan whose presence looms behind so many important institutions and projects on the cultural and religious left. Yes, I realize that Soros can be found on many lists of prominent celebrity atheists. However, the big tent on the cultural and religious left includes a wide array of people along the spectrum from proud atheism to progressive forms of religious faith. So there is room for this man and his wallet.

Yes, yes, yes, I know that there is a huge flaw in comparing Soros with Robertson, when it comes to the role of providing journalists with easy headlines and soundbites (I mean, other than the fact that Robertson is nowhere near as rich). Robertson talks all the time. Soros does not.

Still, both mean are oh so predictable in their motivations and actions.

Thus, I was interested when the newspaper that lands in my front yard featured a long A1 story built on an actual interview with Soros, focusing on the 15th anniversary of the creation of his Open Society Institute in Baltimore. Is there a GetReligion ghost in the story?

Well, the word “atheist” does not appear in the text, which I think is rather strange. Why is that? To be frank, the elements of the Open Society Institute’s work that are covered by The Baltimore Sun strike me as being, well, so similar to the kinds of social-ministry projects that are taken on by religious groups. In a way, what we have here is a kind of a secular alternative to the work of the major Catholic and Jewish groups that are so powerful here in Charm City.

Like what? Here is a key chunk of the story, right after the description of one outreach program to young internationals:

The lives of these Baltimore teens are among the thousands influenced by George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist who decided 15 years ago that the city, with severe crime and poverty and just enough potential, was ripe for an experiment.

The Baltimore office of his Open Society Institute was designed as a social justice laboratory to keep students engaged in school, confront drug addiction, reduce incarceration and grow an army of advocates. Now, the 83-year-old hedge fund investor — who has given $90 million to the effort here — wants to recreate it in as many as five more U.S. cities.

“A lot remains to be done, but we now consider the Baltimore experiment so successful that we wanted to replicate it nationwide,” Soros said in a phone interview from his native Budapest, Hungary.

Soros, who lives outside New York City, said his organization, Open Society Foundations, has given planning grants to eight communities to compete for future offices. Meanwhile, he pledged his continued support in Baltimore, saying the advancements the institute has helped promote in student attendance, discipline and performance are the return on investment he wanted. “Baltimore is our poster child, the city that has done the most,” he said. “From my perspective, that is the one I cherish the most.”

Now, what we have here are projects linked to ethics and moral choices — topics that journalists must not, repeat must NOT, assume are inherently religious in nature. What I think is missing here — in light of Soros’ beliefs as an atheist — is a story that truly explores precisely why he wants to get involved in this kind of, to be blunt, urban ministry.

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Tom Clancy: That Baltimore Catholic and his generic beliefs

As I have mentioned many times, Baltimore culture is both historically Catholic and very liberal and the state of Maryland is used to having political leaders who are openly Catholic, yet clash frequently with the church hierarchy on issues of moral theology. Meanwhile, the newspaper that lands in my front yard just off the south edge of the Baltimore Beltway is, if anything, to the political and cultural left of the Maryland mainstream.

Thus, it is safe to say that The Baltimore Sun is not the place readers will want to look today if they are seeking insights into the moral (some kind of pro-life Catholic) and political (solidly Republican) beliefs of the late Tom Clancy, the Baltimore native who died Tuesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital at the age of 66.

For years, I have listened to liberal and conservative Catholics argue about the degree to which Clancy’s novels — which certainly contained a worldview far from the Hollywood norm — reflected moral absolutes that were or were not rooted in his Catholic heritage and education. Are we talking “just war theory” or “just war, baby”? And what were readers to make of that Catholic super hero Jack Ryan and his remarks about Roe v. Wade?

OK, I was idealistic this morning. I thought that the long A1 obituary in the Sun would at least address whether Clancy was or was not an active Catholic. Yes, he was a very private man and there was the matter of his divorce and remarriage. However, there were plenty of churches close to his luxury condo near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

This is all readers learned on the religion and worldview front:

Thomas Leo Clancy Jr., the son of a mail carrier and an eye surgeon and insurance agency manager, grew up in Baltimore’s middle-class Northwood neighborhood. “I was a little nerdy but a completely normal kid. Mom and Dad loved each other. It was like ‘Leave it to Beaver,’” he told The Sun in 1992.

His education was Roman Catholic, beginning with St. Matthew’s grade school. He went on to Loyola High in Towson, an all-boys school with an all-male faculty and a rigorous Jesuit curriculum. Students took four years of Latin, wore jackets and ties, and began each class with a prayer.

“He was kind of his own man. He was quiet and toward the shy side,” Father Thomas McDonnell, a former Loyola faculty member who taught Mr. Clancy religion, Latin and history in his sophomore year, recalled in an interview with The Sun some years ago.

He described Mr. Clancy as a straight-A student from the standout class of 1965, but unremarkable as a leader or athlete. …

While some of Mr. Clancy’s classmates went on to spend the late 1960s on campuses rife with antiwar activism, he moved to Loyola University Maryland, where the ruling Jesuits had little tolerance for demonstrations.

OK, but what if Clancy’s moral/religious worldview was reflected in some way in all of those bestselling novels? What if the content of the books actually had something to do with his fan base and his popularity?

This is the rare case in which Charm City’s newspaper didn’t even pursue the political side of this matter.

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The Sun talks (just talk, no facts) about an Episcopal hero

I didn’t know much about the Rt. Rev. David Leighton — the 11th diocese of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland — before reading the recent Baltimore Sun news article about the funeral rites held in his honor.

In fact, while this may be hard to believe, I think it would be accurate to say that I knew less about this man after reading the Sun article than I knew before reading it. I certainly had more questions afterwards.

How is that possible? Well, the article contained very few facts of any kind, which means that it didn’t even achieve the proper mix of journalistic materials that would allow it to serve as a public-relations piece for the diocese and its causes. Instead, the article repeatedly allows people to make statements that describe the bishop — often words from the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, the current bishop — while failing to provide any factual material to back those assertions.

But for me, the crucial fact was that Leighton served as bishop in this progressive city and urban region during the years between 1972 and 1985 — a period of time in which the national Episcopal Church was moving from quiet, cultured liberalism (at least up north) into the Woodstock-at-prayer cultural activism of the current era.

Where did Leighton fit into all of that? Let’s look at one or two questions that this article leaves hanging in the air.

Before the ceremony began, clergy from across Maryland flocked into the cathedral dressed in flowing white albs; among them were many women, including the Rev. Phebe C. McPherson. Leighton ordained her as the first female priest in Maryland in 1977 — a move described as his most controversial in office.

Through a biblical reading and Sutton’s sermon, the service reflected on Leighton’s role as the “good shepherd” of his community.

Sutton said that in Jesus’ lifetime shepherds were widely despised — he compared their status in society to that of “hustlers” on the streets of Park Heights. Sutton said Leighton embodied that tradition in his willingness to expand the embrace of the church and to confront those who criticized his opposition to the Vietnam War and his welcoming of women into the ministry.

“He knew that if he were to be the bishop of all the people, then he would have to make a special effort to become the shepherd of the least, the lost, the forgotten of his fold,” Sutton said. “In his ministry he would make no peace with oppression, and that sometimes cost him dearly in friends and in money, for himself and for the diocese.

“But he was the good shepherd. Like his Lord, Bishop Leighton was willing to lay down his life for the sheep.”

Now, this sounds like Leighton paid a price for his activism on behalf of liberal causes. Is this true?

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Why can’t press get religion, when covering black churches?

Let’s face it. The mainstream press really struggles when trying to cover life in African-American churches.

On one level, black churches are treated like giant political institutions that — in a city like Baltimore — speak for a crucial segment of the voting public.

There is some truth in that view. Any student of American religion knows that, for generations, the pulpits of major churches played a central role in black culture, a place where strong, prophetic voices could be heard during hard times when they were not welcome in the public square.

Thus, reporters will show up to hear black preachers talk about politics. But is there more to preaching in black churches than mere politics?

Journalists also know that the black church is a powerful force in culture, especially when it comes to music. How does anyone try to tell the story of popular music in America without focusing on the role that gospel musicians played in the birth of blues, jazz, funk and soul music?

So, yes, journalists know that the black church is a powerful force in the arts and in culture. But is there more to the music of African-American churches than that beat, that power and, yes, that soul? What about the content of the songs and hymns?

Now what else is missing in this picture?

I think it’s crucial for reporters to remember that we are, first and foremost, talking about CHURCHES, not political think tanks or concert halls.

Many times, while covering events in black churches over the years, I have heard pastors say something like this: Why is it that reporters always want to talk to me about politics, but the minute I start talking about Jesus they just aren’t interested?

I thought about that this morning while reading The Baltimore Sun obituary for the Rev. Harold A. Carter Sr., pastor at New Shiloh Baptist Church — a truly historic figure in our city on a number of different levels.

What is missing from this obituary? Try to guess.

The story starts strong and then, at a crucial moment, the Sun team simply drops the ball.

The Rev. Dr. Harold A. Carter Sr., senior pastor of the New Shiloh Baptist Church, whose legendary preaching spanned generations and brought him an audience beyond his congregation of 5,000 members, died of cancer Thursday. He was 76.

In 47 years of ministry, Dr. Carter preached with legends of the civil rights era, before his congregation in West Baltimore and to bigger audiences across America and in foreign countries. And for years, his resounding voice could be heard on Sundays on WBAL-Radio.

One sermon more than three decades ago — when he filled 14,000 seats in what is now the 1st Mariner Arena for an evangelistic crusade — still resonates with the Rev. A.C.B. Vaughn, the senior pastor of Sharon Baptist Church and a family friend.

“The greatest sermon he ever gave was his life,” said Vaughn. “Harold Carter was one of the crown jewels. His main thrust was prayer and evangelization. He had a passion for saving souls.”

That’s pretty good. So how does the story follow up on the key elements of his life, which were evangelism, prayer and preaching? By the way, he was also a leader in the evangelical Promise Keepers ministries for men, a major force for racial reconciliation in evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity.

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A football star (oh, he’s a minister) talks about sexual abuse

As I have mentioned many times, issues related to the world champion Baltimore Ravens (still enjoying typing those words) are about as close to serious religion news as my local newspaper gets, most of the time.

However, let me stress that for the old guard in Charm City there is only collection of gridiron saints that commands more respect and that would be players from the golden years of the Baltimore Colts.

So consider the emotional impact of this news story from The Baltimore Sun:

He was a bearded, Bunyanesque defensive tackle whose rugged play helped the Baltimore Colts to three straight division championships in the 1970s. But Tuesday, when Joe Ehrmann addresses a national gathering convened to deal with the problem of child sexual abuse in sports, he’ll take part in one of the most meaningful huddles of his life.

His words will weigh heavily on the audience at the two-day Safe to Compete summit in Alexandria, Va., because Ehrmann … is himself a survivor of child sexual abuse. He still feels tremors from that trauma.

“It hemorrhages your soul for a lifetime,” said Ehrmann, who, at 12, was raped by two men at a campground near Buffalo, N.Y. “That’s the leukemia [of sexual abuse]. It might go into remission, but it never goes away.

“I’m 63 and my life has been a long and painful journey. It didn’t have to be this way, if society wasn’t so shameful, and if I’d had the help [afterward] that I needed. I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through that.”

Now, I edited out one tiny, but crucial, phrase from that anecdotal lede.

As it turns out, Ehrmann’s biography includes one or two other notes related to his soul-barring appearance at that podium. Every so briefly, the Sun team mentioned that the former coach is also a “minister” and “motivational speaker.”

For starters, this raises an interesting Associated Press Stylebook question: Why isn’t this particular Colts legend referred to on first reference as “the Rev. Joe Ehrmann”?

Yes, this is a picky point. However, I would argue that it is highly relevant to the nature of this man’s message on this hellish subject. It is hard to imagine that his faith will not enter into his remarks on such a personal, painful issue.

So what does the Sun tell us about his ministry?

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