It didn't take me very long, after I arrived in Charlotte, N.C., to get a bit frustrated with the leaders of that city's powerful African-American churches. The churches were doing all kinds of interesting things. The problem was that I only heard about them in the past tense, from people talking about events after they had taken place. I was sincerely interested in what these churches had to say about -- to name one example -- the lives of black men and how these lives were reflected in media. I was interested in the forces that were shaping black families and how churches were struggling to help.
Finally, I started making the rounds and meeting with these pastors and -- here was the key -- asking them if they would add me to the mailing list for their weekly church bulletins. That way, I could look for interesting events in the church calendars ahead of time.
However, it didn't take me long to hear one consistent complaint over and over again.
Most of these African-American pastors -- it didn't matter if they were Pentecostal, Baptist, Catholic or mainline Protestant -- said that there was one simple reason that they had given up calling local newsrooms about events in their congregations. No matter what they did, any journalists who happened to show up were only going to cover the parts of these events, even worship services, that had to do with politics.
Politics. That's all that the black church is about to most journalists, said one pastor. No matter what African-American believers say or do when it comes to faith issues, everything always comes out as politics.
Years later, in Denver, I turned in a feature photo assignment for an Ash Wednesday service at a high-church Episcopal parish that was predominately African-American. The priest later called me in amazement. It was the first time he had ever been photographed, he said, in a worship service, while acting as a priest (as opposed to when he was speaking in public, political settings). He called to say "thank you."
I thought about those old Godbeat lessons when I picked up my copy of The Baltimore Sun this morning and read the A1 story about local reactions to the death of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen-ager who was killed while walking through a gated community. Here's the top of that story:
It was "Hoodie Sunday" at the Empowerment Temple in Northwest Baltimore -- and at churches elsewhere in Baltimore and across the nation.
Throughout the morning, several hundred parishioners at the African Methodist Episcopal church arrived wearing black, blue or gray hoodies to show their solidarity with Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African-American who was gunned down in Florida on Feb. 26 while walking through a gated community. He was shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who had called 911 about Martin's presence in the area.
The Martin case has burst open racial frustrations across the nation and galvanized many black church leaders.
At Baltimore's Empowerment Temple, dozens of black youngsters between the ages of 12 and 17 were invited to stand in front of the altar, where Pastor Jamal-Harrison Bryant -- wearing a hoodie that said "No justice no peace" -- delivered a sermon to roughly 2,000 people.
There was, you see, a sermon. However, the sermon seemed to have little to do with religion or faith. The story focused on details of the case that have -- with good cause -- been covered over and over in the mainstream press. The service undoubtedly included faith language, biblical images, hymns and other religious themes that were linked to this infuriating event. However, an A1 story in the Sun is not the place to look for that kind of new material, those new insights.
What about the Baptists in town?
At Rising Sun First Baptist Church in Woodlawn Sunday, Pastor Emmett C. Burns Jr. wore a hoodie even as many of his congregants turned out in their Sunday best. Pastor Burns spoke at a prayer vigil for Martin during the mid-morning service. Congregants clapped, nodded and called out "amen" during his 12-minute speech.
There was a prayer vigil in the middle of a worship service? I'm not sure what that means, since prayer vigils are usually 12- to 24-hour events that last all day or through an entire night, dusk to dawn. Maybe the people simply did a lot of praying and the reporter was not sure what was going on.
And what did the pastor and his people say during this lengthy period of prayer?
Burns, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, said House members were expected to wear hoodies on the floor Monday to show solidarity with Martin. "When will it end? It will not end until we stand together," Burns said. "I've never seen a movement like this all over the nation, where whites and blacks are wearing hoodies. Go buy a hoodie."
After his message, Burns led the congregation in singing "We Shall Overcome."
In closing, Burns said: "We ask for justice in the case of Trayvon. Comfort, comfort be with his parents who have lost a child strictly based on his race."
Now, it does appear that this final statement -- "we ask" -- is addressed to God. Thus, at least one piece of prayer made it into the story. Otherwise, this story is just another example of what happens when journalists cover worship services as if they were political rallies. What did these pastors have to say about justice, in terms of biblical truth? What appeals did they make to God, as well as to politicians?
Read it all. What did I miss?