Here we go again, with another post in our ongoing series about why mainstream journalists need to retire the word "devout" or, at the very least, be extremely careful when using this vague and almost meaningless adjective. This time around, we are dealing with a story about the often blurred line -- in some cultures, like Haiti -- between voodo and culturalized Catholicism. I did quite a bit of background research years ago preparing to do a magazine story set in Haiti and I am aware that some people try to mix these faiths. If you find a priest or bishop who says that's valid, please let me know.
Anyway, here is the lede from the Philadelphia Daily News. It's a wild one:
Lucille Hamilton paid $621 to have her "spiritual grime" removed by a voodoo high priest in an ordinary townhouse on a winding street in Camden County, a friend said.
Hamilton, 21, a male living as a woman, flew in ... from her home in Little Rock, Ark., to the house on Loch Lomond Drive in Gloucester Township, friends said, to take part in a three-day spiritual cleansing referred to on the priest's Web site as "Lave Tet."
Hours later, Hamilton was dead and authorities were waiting for the results of the toxicology reports. Friends were mystified.
"I'm still trying to find a scenario that makes sense," said Billie Miller, Hamilton's boss at Arkansas Flag and Banner, in Little Rock. "I can't come up with anything that makes sense."
Miller said Hamilton was a devout Catholic, with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe tattooed on her foot, but was also interested in voodoo. She said Hamilton -- who used the name Lucie Marie on Facebook -- had been saving money to travel to New Jersey, but was not planning to undergo a sex change.
"She was very spiritual and beautiful, too," said Miller. "She was not there for some dark purpose. She wasn't depressed; in fact, you couldn't meet a more upbeat person."
Now, the story provides plenty of additional details about the voodo angle, details that I have to admit I lack the expertise to judge in terms of their accuracy. We are told, however that this rite was three days long and that the name "Lave Tet (from the French laver tete) literally means head-washing." It's a rite that "begins with cleansing, after which participants lie in a 'badji,' or altar room, before being 'baptized.' "
To me, it sounds like a rite that involves being re-baptized would certainly raise flags for Hamilton's priest and for his or her Catholic friends. And there is the rub. The term "devout Catholic" is attached to this person -- I would say "troubled" person, but others would disagree -- with absolutely zero journalistic material in support of this judgment other than the presence of a tattoo that, sadly, could be a cultural symbol or a sign of devotion at another stage of life. Oh, and a quote from an employer.
It would be nice to hear from a priest? Other members of the parish? Family members?
Ah, you say, clearly the journalist did not have time to land interviews from these kinds of authoritative voices on the Catholic side of this person's life. This only underlines the point that I am attempting to make. I really think it is wrong to use a loaded term of this kind with no journalistic support for using it. What is the purpose?