Scared ‘journalist’ hides in a church, lives to write about it

Scared ‘journalist’ hides in a church, lives to write about it January 18, 2013

A few weeks ago, a Twitter post from Tim Townsend, the award-winning religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, caught my attention.

The tweet linked to a piece titled “Journalism is not narcissism.”  The enlightening essay concludes:

The extent to which we train a generation of young writers to become robotic insta-memoirists is the extent to which a generation of stories from the wider world does not get told. The real tragedy of journalism-as-narcissism is not the general pettiness of the stories it produces; it is the other, better stories that never get produced as a result.

I was reminded of that piece this week when I came across a Religion Dispatches post headlined “A Journalist in Church, Hiding in Plain Sight.”  I forwarded a link to the article to my fellow GetReligionistas with a one-word subject line: “Weird.” (And yes, I acknowledge the irony of writing a first-person blog post related to this.)

My boss replied to my e-mail with this note:

A great example of a non-hard news item that we should write about.

It’s linked to the religion beat, period.

So here I am, assigned to make sense of this “journalist” who hides in a church and lives to write about it.

Let’s start at the top:

I’ve often wondered why I hid from them that day. It was two years ago and a rousing Sunday service was winding down at the Portuguese Language Missionary Pentecostal Church in Queens. The pastor, a fiery sermonizer who looked the part of an insurance salesman in his oversized metallic gray suit, had just asked the congregation’s baptized members to approach the front of the church and form a tunnel, through which the unconverted (não crentes, as Brazilians call them) could walk and feel the power of the church’s faith.

As the first of several women approached the gauntlet of cheery Christians, their heads downcast in perhaps shame or contemplation, I double-timed it down the church’s back hallway to the shoddy bathroom. For several tense minutes I waited, until it was safe to once again hide in the back row.

While cowering in the bathroom, and later in my seat, I rationalized my disappearing act on purely journalistic grounds: I was only there to observe. Yet my rapid heartbeat hinted at something else: fear. Fear of being found out, of being asked straight out if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior—I had not and still have not.

Maybe I’m missing something here, but wouldn’t the better journalistic approach be to carry a notepad, introduce yourself as a reporter and ask if it’s OK to hang out in the back and see what the church is all about? Isn’t that what journalists do? 

Or maybe the better “journalistic” approach is to pretend to be someone you’re not?:

As I would discover over months of reporting, my job was just that much easier if everyone simply assumed I was a born-again journalist, writing about a life of faith I had intimate access to. Though I never once claimed to be anything I was not, I also never volunteered a fully candid portrait of my private self: A young gay man, recently out of the closet and transplanted to the big city, co-habitating with my boyfriend of almost three years, unable to remember the last time I’d darkened a church’s doorstep.

But whatever you do, don’t just stand or sit there with a notepad. Convince folks that you’re a true believer:

To avoid the dreaded question, while still establishing a basic sense of belonging in the dozen or so churches I visited, I set down some rules of engagement. When the assembled faithful joined in song, I’d sing along. (My favorite hymn, Ressuscita-me, or “Revive me,” begs God for a miracle.) When the congregations swayed rapt, their hands raised to the heavens to beseech their God, I’d hold my hands palms up, but never higher than my elbows, which I’d keep firmly glued to my sides. None of those straining Baptist hands for this (onetime) Catholic boy. I also peppered my language with faith-y buzzwords—God’s PeaceEpiphanyDeliverance—meant to connect with my interview subjects’ often hardscrabble stories of poverty, illegal emigration to the United States, solitude, drug abuse, and, finally, rehabilitation in Christ.

Good grief.

The Religion Newswriters Association points out:

It is critical that journalists respect faith as an important part of people’s lives, and they must be committed to the core journalistic values of balance and fairness. Whatever their own beliefs, journalists must write about others’ beliefs with respect, whether or not they agree with them.

As a religion journalist for The Oklahoman and later The Associated Press, I tried to show respect in small ways: If a congregation stood to pray or sing, I stood up, too. When I walked into a mosque, I removed my shoes.

But I can’t say that I ever purposely “peppered my language with faith-y buzzwords.” And I never — as this writer suggests later in his piece — “felt an all-too-spiritual tingle as I crescendo-ed in collective song.”

My question for GetReligion readers and Godbeat pros: If you can’t trust a “journalist” to be upfront in his reporting, how much can you trust the news story that he produces?

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14 responses to “Scared ‘journalist’ hides in a church, lives to write about it”

  1. “He is a recipient of a 2011 Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life, which underwrote his exploration of the Brazilian evangelical community in Queens, New York.” Which makes it sound like he’s an author working on a book? For which the acceptable norms are a bit fuzzier than, say, daily journalism for which Bobby’s description matches mine. I’ve been prayed on (at) a lot over the years.

    • Yeah, that’s what it sounds like to me. This isn’t a guy who’s doing an ordinary article on the growth of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalist churches in South America and how that affects the religious affiliation of immigrants, this is a guy looking to do an award-winning series of articles and/or produce a book by going undercover or being immersive in this culture.

      It’s wanting to do something along the lines of “Black Like Me”; this isn’t journalism as ‘just the facts’ impartial reporting, this is Grand Social Commentary.

  2. For those who don’t know, I’m an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as “The Mormons”.

    In addition to being a local-level public affairs representative, I’m also the “media greeter” for my congregation. How it works is that when reporters come to the congregation, I’m their point of contact. If a reporter calls ahead, they’ll be referred to me so that I can make arrangements to meet them. This is, so near as I can tell, standard among Mormon congregations.

    I would imagine that it’s also standard among other Christian congregations for someone to be made a point of contact for the media. If the guy seriously wanted to come inside and study the church in question, then a phone call or two should have sufficed to gain him admittance.

  3. How can you write at any depth if people don’t open up to you, and how do people open up if you don’t engage with them. I’m not suggesting extensive self-disclosure or getting overly personal, but if your subjects are really people to you, you have to be a person to them.

  4. “As the first of several women approached the gauntlet …” Gantlet, you doofus, not gauntlet. If you don’t even know your own language, why should anyone rely upon your reportage?

    • Thanks for the catch, SouthCoast. I did not notice that, which I guess makes me a doofus too. 🙂

      You made me curious and I came across this interesting item on gantlet vs. gauntlet from the L.A. Times.

  5. This reviews an article which is a feeble attempt at journalism as anthropology. In my 201 and 214 anthropology courses, I was taught that a prevalent model of anthropology is to make observations without influencing what you see. But at least anthropologists respect the cultures they study. And I think by skipping out on a portion of a service the journalist would reduce himself to being forced to subjectively guessing what was going on during that absence. Thus conclusions about the faith venture are drawn from assumptions about the meaning of un-witnessed portions of the service, which are themselves assumed to have bearing on a portion of the essay. Aren’t we reasonable in surmising that three layers of assumptions are hardly credible? So the article is hardly investigative journalism! I agree that “How can you write at any depth if people don’t open up to you, and how do people open up if you don’t engage with them”? Wouldn’t they, in this case, act differently if you deceive them than if you don’t? And wouldn’t their behavior when not deceived be more revealing than their behavior when deceived? It seems to me this anthropological method of journalism is an almost foolproof method of getting disinformation.
    To make one further note, we’ve gone beyond advocacy journalism to writing disguised as anthropology.

  6. I happen to be reading several books about evangelicals written by non-evangelical anthropologists and sociologists, and all of them are honest with their subjects about their own faith commitments. These writers spent long periods of time with their subjects (several years, in some cases). If any, being honest about their differing views on religion made it easier for them to talk with their subjects about religion. The subjects knew they were dealing with an interested outsider, so they were happy to explain their beliefs and practices. Granted, this may not be the case with all religious groups, but earning trust is part of the job of the writer, no?

    (BTW, the books are TM Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back, James Bielo’s Words Upon the Word, and Omri Elisha’s Moral Ambition. All are highly recommended for anyone seeking a better understanding of contemporary evangelicalism. I’m writing about the books for InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Blog. )

  7. I was struck by two words “safe” and “cowering”. I have to wonder if he was afraid of himself and hiding from himself. Otherwise, why use those words in that context?

  8. I have to wonder what the reaction would be if the shoe were on the other foot. What if some straight conservative christian journalist were to pull a stunt like this in a gay bar or pride center?

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