On poverty, race, families and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Other than arguments about the United States becoming entangled in Syria, and Miley Cyrus coming unwound at the MTV shindig, the big story the past few days here in Beltway land has been — thank God — the 50th anniversary of the “I Have A Dream” speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lincoln Memorial.

The other day, the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway touched on some of the wonderful coverage that led up to this event. Check that out. And here is another faith-themed report from Religion News Service. Read that one too.

Still, I would like to note what I think is a religion ghost in one of the major Washington Post stories linked to these events, an important story that ran under this headline: “Fifty years after March on Washington, economic gap between blacks, whites persists.”

Let me state right up front that this story contains all kinds of painful information about race and poverty that all Americans need to take seriously. I say that as a old-school conservative Democrat who has a large portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his office. Here’s the top of the story:

Even as racial barriers have tumbled and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated, the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide as they were when marchers assembled on the Mall in 1963.

When it comes to household income and wealth, the gaps between blacks and whites have widened. On other measures, the gaps are roughly the same as they were four decades ago. The poverty rate for blacks, for instance, continues to be about three times that of whites.

Later in the story, there is this information that hints at some of the complex realities inside these horrible numbers:

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‘The Butler,’ the usher and music of the Gospel

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On the movie level, “The Butler” is getting mixed reviews, while also causing quite a bit of public discussion of race relations in recent decades of American life. Was Eugene Allen, the real man whose life inspired the film, a hero or a living symbol of a humble age that has thankfully slipped in the past. Is it possible that he can be seen as both?

However, one thing is clear. It’s impossible to tell his story without considering the role that faith played in his life.

That’s why it’s important that veteran Religion News Service writer Adelle Banks went looking for people who knew the man behind the scenes, producing a feature that focuses on the church “usher” who was also the White House butler. Banks has been covering evangelicalism — all races, all styles — long enough to hear the religious themes that others, somehow, manage to miss in public life.

Here’s the overture near the start of her piece:

… (M)embers of The Greater First Baptist Church knew the man who died in 2010 by other titles: usher, trustee, and a humble man of quiet faith. “The attributes that made him a great butler made him a great usher,” said Denise Johnson, an usher at the predominantly black D.C. church where Allen was a member for six decades.

Those qualities were both external — black suits and white gloves — and internal — a dignified, soft-spoken manner.

On a recent Sunday, parishioners recalled Allen as a peacemaker, someone who never raised his voice.

His devotion to service extended far beyond the public and private rooms of the White House to the doorways and kitchen of his church. In African-American churches, the usher is a special role bestowed on highly regarded members. Allen joined others to open doors to visitors and pass out fans and offering plates. He also would roll up his sleeves and help prepare fish and chicken at church fundraising dinners.

“He was not only a servant there,” the Rev. Robert Hood, an associate minister, said of Allen’s White House work. “But he was also a servant doing the work of the Lord.”

That nod to the traditional role played by ushers in African-American churches is crucial because, year after year, symbolic events happen in black churches linked to that leadership role.

For example, I remember when the “iron man” streak of Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr., was nearing the mark of 2,131 games without missing a start and a newspaper (I wish I could find the clip) offered a fine feature on a church usher who had served 40 years without missing a Sunday. I think it was 40 years. It might have been longer.

The key is that the service that grows out of deep religious faith can take many shapes and, often, there are news stories hiding in that corner of life. This is one rather obvious example of that kind of story.

So, near the end of this piece is a quote that is the main thing I wanted to spotlight in this post.

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A Broadway revival that includes ‘Blessed Assurance’

The other day, I wrote a post about the fact that many journalists struggle to understand, to be perfectly honest about it, the role that Christian faith plays in the African-American church. There is a tendency to see the black church as a political institution, and that’s that.

I also mentioned that there is another common assumption, which is that the music of the black church is primarily an expression of culture, as opposed to faith. You know, those black spirituals are so lovely and so powerful, but they don’t really mean anything in particular.

I thought of that second point again when reviewing a recent New York Times piece that several GetReligion readers brought to my attention. It seems that something strange has been happening down on Broadway in recent weeks.

You see, there’s a Broadway revival — never has that word been more accurate — running of one of the greatest American plays ever about faith and family and the ties that bind.

I am referring to Horton Foote’s classic “The Trip to Bountiful,” which focuses on an elderly woman’s quiet, but desperate, flight from Houston in an attempt to visit her family homestead one last time, near a town called Bountiful. In this production, the great African-American actress Cicely Tyson is playing the lead. In this case, her race is a key element of the news hook. The Times article notes, early on:

She is on the run from her abusive daughter-in-law and henpecked son in Houston, desperate to see the family farm in Bountiful once more before she dies. Overcome with emotion, she begins singing an old Protestant hymn, “Blessed Assurance.”

From the first note, there’s a palpable stirring among many of the black patrons in the audience, which the play, with its all-black cast, draws in large numbers. When Ms. Tyson jumps to her feet, spreads her arms and picks up the volume, they start singing along. On some nights it’s a muted accompaniment. On other nights, and especially at Sunday matinees, it’s a full-throated chorus that rocks the theater.

“I didn’t realize they were doing it until someone remarked to me how incredible it was that the audience was joining in,” Ms. Tyson said in a recent interview, referring to her preview performances. “I said, ‘Where?’ I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t hear it.”

After the play opened, on April 23, she began tuning in. “At that point, I was relaxed enough to let other things seep in,” she said. “It was absolutely thrilling.”

Thrilling but unexpected.

This phenomenon happens the most in the Sunday afternoon shows, you say? That would be, well, right after, uh, church? That might have something to do with large numbers of people in the audience stepping over this line in Broadway tradition and joining in.

Now, the Times team did find an expert who knows something about this hymn (even if that expert incorrectly says that this particular Fanny Crosby text has something to do with “fundamentalist” faith). The story also features quality quotes from people in the audience.

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Ready! Set! Be bored by Illinois’ same-sex marriage debate!

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s “Religion News on the Web” page is one of the places I go to peruse religion news.

A headline from Illinois caught my attention today:

AP: Politics and the pulpit: Black churches at heart of gay marriage debate in Illinois

That topic interests me, so I clicked on the link.

Let’s start at the top of The Associated Press report:

SUMMIT, Illinois — When a proposal to legalize gay marriage started gaining momentum in the home state of President Barack Obama, it seemed a quick and easy deal: The pastor of his former megachurch endorsed it with powerful testimony at the Capitol and Democrats control Illinois’ government.

But fervor over the idea has stalled for months in that exact spot where faith and politics are inseparable.

Black churches — where the pulpit has always been political — are deeply divided over their support for same-sex marriage and are central to the Illinois measure’s passage, which awaits a House vote as early as this week. On either side of the issue, pastors and politically active congregations have waged intense campaigns with robocalls, columns and sermons.

What do you think of that lede?

When I worked for AP, I always enjoyed writing creative ledes much more than inverted-pyramid-style ledes (meaning straight-news, just-the-facts intros). So I understand the desire to grab the readers’ attention with something more stimulating than “Black churches in Illinois are deeply divided over same-sex marriage, stalling proposed legislation on the matter.”

But honestly, the lede AP used contains way too much editorialization for my taste. And way too little attribution. Who thought the proposal seemed like a “quick and easy deal,” for example? Doesn’t that subjective fact demand a named source?

Still, I kept reading, holding out hope that the story would reflect passionate voices on all sides of the debate.

The first source introduced — an openly gay pastor — certainly seems fired up:

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Writing a puff piece: a how-to manual

Truth be told, in our bias for fair, accurate journalism, we at GetReligion probably focus too much on the negative.

We point out mistakes in mainstream reporting. We cry out for balance. We complain about the MSM bubble.

For once, I want to accentuate the positive. Therefore, please allow me to highlight a Seattle Times story this week as a perfect example of how to write a puff piece.

Before I begin, however, I must stress that reporters typically do not write their own headlines. In this case, the headline and deck might give the reader the mistaken impression that this will be an actual news story, not a puff piece (shame on the headline writer!):

In black churches, a gay-marriage divide

A source of debate across the country and the subject of ballot measures in four states this year, same-sex marriage remains a thorny issue within the African-American community, where objections are deeply rooted in religion and biblical teachings.

At this point, I must admit that I was worried. I feared that the story might subject me to actual intelligent voices on both sides seriously engaging the thorny issue and even providing insight (of a theological nature!) on the deeply rooted objections.

Whew! Imagine my relief when I realized that this would indeed be a puff piece.

Some key elements that make this puff piece work:

• The lede: Immediately, the Times takes readers to a gay-friendly church that stands as a stark contrast to the discriminatory black churches that — somehow in an enlightened age — still manage to claim the Bible condemns homosexuality:

Sounds of gospel music resonated through the sparse sanctuary on a recent Sunday afternoon as voices rose up in praise and a few hands sailed through the air.

Liberation United Church of Christ in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood is a small congregation with a style of Christian worship not unlike many charismatic black churches.

But its congregants, many of them African American, come here as much for the spiritual euphoria as for this: that as gays and lesbians, they have felt unwelcome and uncomfortable in the churches of their parents and grandparents.

That’s particularly relevant in a year when questions about whether gays should be allowed to marry will appear on the November ballot in four states, including Washington.

The sourcing: The Times quotes eight sources by name, by my quick count. Fortunately, six of them support same-sex marriage and contribute mightily to the puff piece. But even the two sources who oppose same-sex marriage serve a purpose, providing caricatures with real names to highlight the lunacy of the other side:

Within the community, there are unspoken concerns, particularly among older people, that to accept gays as victims of discrimination somehow diminishes the discrimination blacks have endured.

Some have even said that given the challenges in the black community — from education to health care — marriage for gays cannot be a priority, despite a significant number of African Americans in same-sex relationships.

But ultimately for many, the Bible is the final arbiter.

“People have a hard time advocating for something that is biblically wrong,” said André Sims, senior pastor of Christ the King Bible Fellowship in Federal Way, who has participated in recent rallies in favor of traditional marriage.

“Same-gender relations are wrong because of what God said about them.”

Notice the way the story makes a lot of broad generalizations about the other side without attributing the information to a named source? That’s a brilliant tool for a puff piece. But then the story quotes a single pastor as the sole representative of the “many conservative leaders — including some black pastors” opposed to same-sex marriage. Again, brilliant.

• The marginalization: Make it crystal clear which point of view is on the right side of history and public opinion. (Hint: Don’t dare let on that a state referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage has never passed in the United States or that polls show support for the Washington state measure under 50 percent.) The proper way to write it:

While national polls now show majority support for gay marriage in the general population and among other racial and ethnic groups, support among black people remains under 50 percent — despite a bump after endorsements by President Obama and the NAACP.

Recently, black pastors in parts of the South and Midwest have encouraged voters to sit out the election or to consider not supporting Obama because of his position.

In Atlanta, Alveda King, a niece of the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s, said she would never suggest that people not vote. But she said she and some pastors are so disturbed by Obama’s endorsement they’ve formed an organization, GodSaid.org, to urge black Americans to vote their “biblical values” rather than a party line.

At this point, we’re roughly two-thirds of the way through the story. The writer has allowed token appearances by the other side. But the entire rest of the story — the final one-third — needs to provide positive, compelling anecdotes and quotes to support the need for same-sex marriage. Bingo, the Times is up to the challenge! This is such a terrific puff piece — leads with the side that’s right, ends with the side that’s right and sprinkles the side that’s wrong in the middle, but just a little bit!

All in all, I don’t think anyone could ask for a better puff piece.

Seattle skyline image via Shutterstock


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