New to the Godbeat in St. Louis: Lilly Fowler

In case you missed our tweet — you do follow GetReligion on Twitter and Facebook, right? — the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has hired a new religion writer.

This past fall, Post-Dispatch “religion-writing superstar” Tim Townsend left to become a senior writer and editor at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. We might have mentioned his departure once or twice or five times — here, here, here, here and here.

The journalist hired as Townsend’s successor? Lilly Fowler, a longtime Religion News Service contributor.

Post-Dispatch assistant metro editor Matthew Franck shared this internal announcement on Fowler’s hiring:

We are pleased to announce that Lilly Fowler will join the metro desk as a religion reporter. Lilly has master’s degrees in journalism, from the University of Southern California, and religion, from Notre Dame. Her freelance work on religion has appeared in Slate, Salon and a host of papers, including the Post-Dispatch. Most recently, she has been an assistant editor at FairWarning, a nonprofit in Los Angeles, where she has written investigative projects on health, safety and corporate conduct. She also has multimedia experience as a web producer for the public radio broadcast Marketplace.

One respected Godbeat pro told me he was unfamiliar with Fowler. “I don’t know anything about Lilly — do you?” he asked.

When I shared the memo copied above, that writer replied, “Great credentials. Any clergy who have something to hide should be nervous.”

Let’s not put too much pressure on Fowler to start. It takes a while to build a new beat in a new city. And as she said herself, she has “big shoes” to fill.

But like her predecessor, we welcome her hiring by the Post-Dispatch and look forward to reading her stories.

Assessing the state of the Godbeat

I posted earlier this week on three veteran superstars of the Godbeat — Ann Rodgers, Bob Smietana and Tim Townsend — deciding to leave major daily newspapers.

I noted a tweet in which The New York Times’ religion writer Laurie Goodstein joked, “Will the last one on the religion beat please turn out the lights?”

Playing off Goodstein’s quip, I suggested that someone — I nominated former GetReligionista and current Religion News Service national correspondent Sarah Pulliam Bailey — should “step up, interview these three and write a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story on why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore.”

My choice of terminology, even while typing with my tongue firmly in cheek, was not the best.

My phrasing prompted a gentle pushback from tmatt in the comments section:

Well, is the issue whether people want to cover religion news or is it that they believe they can personally survive in the changing realities of smaller newsrooms?

I agree. I nominate Sarah to write a definitive piece for Poynter.org

RNS Editor in Chief Kevin Eckstrom, meanwhile, strapped on a rhetorical holster and came out firing (take cover, fellow GetReligion contributors!):

Or, how about this? Rather than conclude (without any basis in reality) that “no one wants to cover religion anymore,” perhaps it’d be a good idea to ask why these folks are leaving the beat (it’s complicated) and whether these positions will be filled (most likely).

But that’s not the way GR does things. Shoot first and never ask the appropriate questions later. C’mon, guys, you can do better than this. Or at least you should.

You can read my response to Eckstrom (and his response to my response) in the comments section of that original post.

Eckstrom complained that Poynter.org picked up on my question and that I didn’t do the religion beat “any favors with careless irresponsible exaggerations.” 

In fact, this was the headline on Poynter’s follow-up on my post:

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Et tu, Tim? Townsend latest to leave the Godbeat (updated)

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Speaking of Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes

In the last few weeks, we’ve highlighted the departures of two respected journalists from the Godbeat.

First, Bob Smietana left The Tennessean.

Then Ann Rodgers announced plans to leave the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

Now, a third religion-writing superstar — Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — has decided to leave the Godbeat.

Townsend revealed his plans on Twitter and even provided dramatic music to go along with the announcement:

Townsend’s tweet prompted this response from religion writer Laurie Goodstein  of The New York Times: 

Smietana. Rodgers. Townsend.

Tim Townsend

In journalism, we all know that three examples make a trend. (Or are we up to six now?)

There’s a legitimate news hook here, people. Who will be the enterprising Godbeat soul (if there’s anyone left) who will step up, interview these three and write a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story on why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore? (To anyone out there screaming that I’m overgeneralizing, shhhhhhh. We’ll add context to the piece later, but first we need to inspire someone to take the assignment. The more dramatic, the better.)

My nomination for this assignment: former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, now a rockin’ Godbeat pro herself (at least as of this moment) for Religion News Service.

What say ye, Sarah? You up for it?

In the meantime, kind GetReligion readers, please feel free to leave a comment. If you want, you can reflect on how much you’ll miss Townsend’s excellent journalism with the Post-Dispatch. Or if you prefer, you can speculate on who will be next to leave the Godbeat. No wagering, please.

Update: Sarah just sent the following tweet to RNS Editor in Chief Kevin Eckstrom, so it appears she’s considering the story idea!

 

 

So this renegade Polish priest and an Episcopal bishop walk into a bar …

OK, not really. But you know how we’re always going on about stories that make people not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church seem like they are, in fact, affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church? Well, here’s a great example of a religion journalist doing it right. Here’s the very top of St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend explaining part of a complicated scenario:

It has stood up to three Catholic bishops. It has weathered a decade-long legal storm. It has embraced doctrine far afield from its Roman roots.

Now St. Stanislaus Kostka Church is on the verge of aligning with a different denomination entirely, joining forces with the Episcopal church.

Awesome, right? The piece is chock full of good information, including doctrinal issues and the technicalities of a possible change. We learn that the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri has announced the possibile union and what it would mean for the historically Polish church (they’d get to keep their own rites and identity or choose to use Episcopal liturgies).

We get the background on where things stand on the near-interminable legal battle between St. Stanislaus and the St. Louis Archdiocese. The latter had appealed a 2012 decision that granted St. Stanislaus control to its own lay board, but later dismissed the appeal. Here’s how the tricky issue of affiliation is handled:

As part of the agreement, St. Stanislaus agreed to abstain from representing itself as affiliated with the Roman Catholic church. In the eyes of the Vatican, the church lost that affiliation in 2005, as part of a battle with then-St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke.

The Rev. Marek Bozek, the former Roman Catholic priest who has led St. Stanislaus since parishioners hired him in 2005, in violation of Roman Catholic canon law, was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

But in a “September Reflection” letter posted on the parish’s website, he makes reference to the issue — posting a photo of Smith’s visit last month to the church to meet with parishioners.

Bozek said the church has lacked that kind of authority, and has been “struggling to survive without a bishop for over nine years.”

“One cannot be a Catholic without having a bishop,” he continued, citing a description of a bishop’s ministry in the “Book of Common Prayer.” “It is my hope that by the time this process is completed, we, St. Stanislaus Parish, will have a caring and wise bishop and that we will be a part of a diocese.”

I also like how we learn about St. Stanislaus’ need for a bishop, although it would be nice to know the particulars of why one is necessary. We then hear from parishioners about their mixed feelings about such a move (and that the Episcopal Church is just one of the contenders for affiliation).

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God works through means: a story

I’m not sure if we looked at the media coverage of the “miracle priest” in Missouri. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here’s an early Associated Press account of how a “mysterious priest” “suddenly appeared” and prayed over and anointed a badly injured car accident victim with oil. That piece is headlined “Priest comes out of nowhere to aid accident victim.” Here’s a News-Tribune (Jefferson City, Mo.) follow-up with more details.

The initial coverage looked at how onlookers were looking for the priest who helped the victim and how no photos of the accident scene showed the priest, even though many people had seen him. A perfect August story.

The priest ultimately revealed who he was. That was also covered. A typical example is this New York Daily News piece, which begins:

There’s no mystery to this Father Dowling — he’s a prince of a priest.

But the best story was definitely the one that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The reader who sent it along wrote:

I realize that there as been a lot of coverage of this story but this St. Louis Post-Dispatch article is actually quite good in both explaining Church teaching, letting the “religion” survive the reporting, and it even follows up with a university professor explaining how this event could still be a “miracle” even if God was acting just through a human being.  It is quite good.

Couldn’t have said it better. Reporter Tim Townsend introduces the backstory before adding:

What [the Rev. Patrick Dowling] did next would unexpectedly trigger an international media frenzy over miracles, angels and divine intervention.

After officials allowed him to approach the accident, Dowling reached his arm well into the car to touch Lentz’s head with oil. “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”

The prayer was the Anointing of the Sick, an ancient ritual with roots in Judaism that is one of Catholicism’s seven sacraments.

As the priest walked away from the Mercedes, Lentz — a member of an Assemblies of God Pentecostal church — asked him to return and pray aloud with her, which he did. He then moved out of the way so rescue efforts could resume.

Dowling said in an interview this week that he was only doing his job at the sight of someone hovering near death. “You stop and anoint because that’s what Jesus told us to do,” he said.

I loved this story about the mystery priest, but not for “miraculous” reasons. My dad is a pastor and that meant that my childhood was full of random roadside stops where my father would see what help was needed and would pray with and for those who needed help. I thought the lack of photos was a weird detail, but mostly I just liked how it showed that many clergy act as first responders.

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Halloween: trick or treat for Christians?

YouTube Preview ImageIn yet another case of liberal bias by GetReligion, tmatt screamed “Boooo!” the other day at a one-sided story praising Halloween evangelism.

I chimed in with a comment noting that in my Associated Press days I did a “hell house” story and included both sides — long before GR-style ghostbusting became a ghastly gleam in the Internet’s eye.

Since it’s Halloween, I thought I’d highlight a couple of stories reporting on how some Christians deal with the holiday’s pagan roots. Before I do, I want to be sure to give a hat tip — pumpkin hat, that is — to Religion News Service for the above video, which RNS included in its daily e-mail today.

The first story was written by Taya Flores, a reporter for the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, Ind. Flores does a nice job of taking what could be a yawner of an annual story and making it interesting reading. The top of the story:

Heather Salemink of Lafayette has celebrated Halloween since childhood. She can recall dressing in costume and her dad decorating the house.

So even as a Christian, she never questioned whether her children would celebrate the holiday, too.

“Kids need opportunities to imagine themselves in different worlds,” said Salemink, 34. “It’s really kind of fun to watch them explore different parts of the world through their imagination. In Christianity, there is so much that requires belief in things that you can’t see.”

But not all religious groups approach Halloween with such ease and excitement. Controversy still surrounds the holiday, which has origins in ancient Celtic spiritualism.

Honestly, I’m not a big fan of anecdotal ledes that start with someone who does not fit the theme of the story. In other words, if the story is about people who don’t approach Halloween with ease and excitement, begin the story with one of them, not with somebody who has no problem with Halloween.

Nonetheless, there’s much to like about this story. The writer provides historical background, quotes experts and pastors and even includes other faiths besides Christianity:

Other religions may shy away from the holiday as well. Traditionally, Muslims do not approve of Halloween either.

“Halloween, because it has pagan roots and traditions, is not something Islam will approve for its followers,” said Aurangzeb, president of the Purdue Muslim Student Association.

There’s variance among Jewish believers. Daniel Frank, director of the Jewish Studies Program and professor of philosophy at Purdue University, said from a traditional point of view, Jews are not supposed to celebrate non-Jewish festivals, whether it be pagan or Christian.

However, some conservative and reformed Jews may celebrate Halloween as a cultural holiday.

“Orthodox Jews as a typical rule don’t celebrate Halloween,” said Nora Rubel, assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York. “Conservative and reformed Jews can, but it’s left to the individual family. It’s not just the pagan roots that bother Orthodox Jews but also the Christian roots.”

No pagans are quoted, however.

The other story was written by Tim Townsend, religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Townsend’s piece focuses on St. Louis-area churches using Halloween’s pagan roots to grow their flocks. The top of the story:

DES PERES — Jason and Stacey Leeker grew up going door to door on Halloween night, collecting candy in costumes. But after the couple dedicated their lives to their Christian faith, they decided they would shield their own children from Halloween’s pagan roots.

Last Saturday evening, the Leekers and their three children ventured out to Faith Des Peres Presbyterian Church’s trunk-or-treat party.

Trunk-or-treats — Halloween tailgating parties, with kids going from car trunk to car trunk — are an increasingly popular alternative for schools, churches and community groups to traditional doorbell trick-or-treating.

For the Leekers, the church atmosphere provided a safe Halloween outing where they could give their 5- and 3-year-old a taste of the holiday’s fun.

Like the Indiana story, the Post-Dispatch report provides historical context:

Jack Santino, a professor of folklore at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, has written that Halloween has its origins in a pastoral festival called Samhain (pronounced sah-ween). Throughout Europe, it was the biggest festival of the Celtic calendar, and a celebration of the end of harvest and the beginning of winter.

The Celtic people believed that during Samhain, the souls of those who had died during the year “traveled into the otherworld,” Santino wrote, and “their ghosts were able to mingle with the living.”

They lit bonfires to honor the dead, “to aid them on their journey and to keep them away from the living.” Early missionaries appropriated many pagan rituals and subtly transformed them into Christian rituals.

Like a trick-or-treat bag full of candy, Townsend’s story brims with specific details from trunk-or-treat events that he obviously visited firsthand.

If the story lacks anything, it’s a perspective on how mainstream Halloween has become in churches and whether many still resist the holiday. That’s a minor criticism, however, because I think the report’s strong focus on a specific phenomenon — trunk-or-treats — gives it a newsy, journalistic edge.

Your turn, GetReligion readers: Any insights on the stories mentioned? Any links to other Halloween-related religion stories that you’ve come across and your thoughts on them?


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