Al Jazeera America: a solid piece of religion journalism?

Al Jazeera America: a solid piece of religion journalism? July 7, 2014

Let’s see: a meaty, 3,200-word religion story — part profile, part trend piece.

Quick, name the national news organizations producing such in-depth journalism on the Godbeat these days. Did Al Jazeera America make your list?

That relatively new U.S. media organization spotlighted “Downwardly mobile for Jesus” over the weekend. The superb feature drew praise from ordinary readers and journalism pros alike.

“Good reporting,” said the subject line on an email from a GetReligion reader.

The reader wrote:

This article could have been much more cursory but instead goes the distance on showing motivations, pitfalls, wins and losses along the way in this report on attempts to live a ministry in distressed urban areas.

Godbeat pro Eric Marrapodi of CNN complimented the story, too:

The piece introduces readers to Matthew Loftus, a 27-year-old white man who moved into a poor, high-crime, nearly all-black neighborhood in Baltimore.

This section up high makes it clear that holy ghosts won’t haunt this report:

Matthew Loftus doesn’t fit into the typical narratives about changing American communities. On one hand, recent housing policy has encouraged integrated suburbs by helping low-income families access “communities of opportunity” with more jobs, less crime and better schools.  When integration moves the other way — into poor urban neighborhoods — it often tips over into gentrification as upscale amenities arrive, taxes and rents rise, and longtime residents get priced out.

For people like Loftus, it’s not coffee shops or home values drawing them to places like Sandtown. It’s Jesus. Shortly after Loftus started medical school in Baltimore in 2007, he began worshipping at New Song Community Church, a racially diverse congregation in Sandtown. New Song is part of the same Presbyterian denomination as the church Loftus and his 14 siblings attended as children in Harford County, Maryland, 40 minutes outside the city.

New Song is also a member of the Christian Community Development Association. The CCDA’s model is similar to “asset-based community development,” which tries to build out from a community’s strengths rather than “fix” its deficiencies. But the CCDA asks more of its practitioners across the nation: that they have something personally at stake in the development. Leaders at New Song talked to Loftus about the core of the CCDA’s philosophy, the “three R’s”: relocation, redistribution and reconciliation.

The CCDA model emerged largely from the work of John Perkins, a black, 84-year-old civil-rights activist from rural Mississippi. Evangelism is at the heart of Perkins’ model. But what separates his approach is his insistence that outsiders who want to help a neighborhood actually move in. The idea is rooted in “incarnational ministry”: the idea that God became flesh and shared in human suffering. Jesus, CCDA supporters like to say, did not commute back and forth from heaven.

It’s just one story. But it’s a nice sign from Al Jazeera America.

Go ahead and read it all.

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