What’s the faith background of the Episcopal Church’s new leader?

What’s the faith background of the Episcopal Church’s new leader?


Can you tell us something more about the presiding bishop of our [Episcopal] Church? I’ve heard only upbeat things about him from people who have met and heard him. Will he be a Marco Rubio -- a very effective speaker who can connect with people?


Perhaps so. Here’s some information about the personable Michael Bruce Curry, 62, who was installed this month as the new presiding bishop of America’s troubled Episcopal Church. Some U.S. denominations lack such a solo head while the Episcopalians grant their chief unusually centralized power and, moreover, his term runs till 2024.

The questioner’s pitch for Republican Rubio brings to mind Hillary Clinton’s 2016 hope to become the nation’s first woman president following its first African-American president. The Episcopalians have done the opposite. Curry, the first African-American to head this rather elite and overwhelmingly white church, succeeds its first female presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori.

Jefferts Schori was a surprise choice in 2006 because she never led a prominent parish or diocese. She spent only five years as bishop of Nevada (currently with 5,444 souls). By contrast, Curry has 15 years of seasoning as bishop of the Raleigh-based North Carolina diocese, the nation’s sixth largest with 50,218 active members.

Rather like Barack Obama’s notable keynote speech to the Democrats’ 2004 convention that helped win the 2008 nomination, Curry delivered a rousing sermon at the church’s 2012 convention and was elected presiding bishop at the next one.

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Pope Francis in Kenya: AP gets some details, but misses the 'big idea,' in his message

Pope Francis in Kenya: AP gets some details, but misses the 'big idea,' in his message

Pope Francis has been on the road, again, which means that it's time for more stories about the political implications of his sermons and off-the-cuff remarks to the flocks of people who gather to pray and worship with him.

This is business as usual, of course. Want to play along and see how this works in a typical Associated Press report?

OK, first we'll look at the many excellent details from one of the Kenya talks that made it into the AP report, which ran in The Washington Post with this headline: "Pope calls slum conditions in Nairobi an injustice."

As you read several chunks of the story, ask yourself this big-idea question: What does this pope believe is the ultimate cause of this injustice?

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Visiting one of Nairobi’s many shantytowns on Friday, Pope Francis denounced conditions slum-dwellers are forced to live in, saying access to safe water is a basic human right and that everyone should have dignified, adequate housing. ...
In remarks to the crowd, Francis insisted that everyone should have access to water, a basic sewage system, garbage collection, electricity as well as schools, hospitals and sport facilities.
“To deny a family water, under any bureaucratic pretext whatsoever, is a great injustice, especially when one profits from this need,” he said.

Now, I think it is fair to ask: Is safe water the "big idea" in this talk, or is the pope saying that safe water is a symptom of larger problems? Hold that thought, as we head back to the AP text:

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Religion news story of 2015? Epic Time cover on forgiveness in Charleston, S.C.

Religion news story of 2015? Epic Time cover on forgiveness in Charleston, S.C.

It's hard to know where to start in praising the Time magazine cover on the legacies of the nine believers lost at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. This story sets out to let readers meet all of them, using the voices of those who survived and others touched by the glimpses of hell, and heaven, during that nine-minute massacre.

It's true that the reporting team that produced "What it Takes to Forgive a Killer" -- David Von Drehle, with Jay Newton-Small and Maya Rhodan -- were given an extraordinary amount of space in which to paint this masterwork. When you start reading this, close the door for privacy and have some tissues ready -- especially if you watch the YouTube at the top of this post, which is referenced in the article.

In a way, the size of this article only raises the stakes. You see, forgiveness is a massive personal and theological subject and the goal of the article was to show that people are complex and that grace works in different lives at different paces. There are several theological perspectives to consider, and tons of biblical material to reference, with many places to stumble in handling the facts and the background. In a way, this article seems short, when one considers its ambition.

For me, as the son of a pastor in a Bible-driven tradition, the key is that this story focuses on a small circle of "Wednesday night" people, the ultra-faithful folks who end a long, long day by gathering with their shepherds for Bible study. This is not the Sunday morning crowd. If you were looking for the true believers, Wednesday night Bible study in Mother Emanuel is where you are going to find them.

At the heart of the story are three words, spoken by Nadine Collier, daughter of the fallen Ethel Lance,  to gunman Dylann Storm Roof. Sharon Risher is her sister. This is long, but essential:

“I forgive you.” Those three words reverberated through the courtroom and across the cable wires, down the fiber-optic lines, carried by invisible storms of ones and zeros that fill the air from cell tower to cell tower and magically cohere in the palms of our hands. They took the world by surprise.

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Asatru: Is that true? Were terrorist wannabes pagans? Do news media care?

Asatru: Is that true? Were terrorist wannabes pagans? Do news media care?

FBI agents crack a plot to kill blacks and Jews, allegedly planned by members of a little-known religion. How do you cover the story?

If you're like many mainstream media, you ignore or downplay the religion.

The guys in question are Virginians who allegedly wanted to buy guns and bombs, then attack synagogues and black churches. Unfortunately for them, their contacts were undercover FBI agents, who then arrested them.

Oh yeah, FBI also said they were Norse neo-pagans.

How did the media handle all this? We'll start our survey with the typically spare hard-news story from the Associated Press:

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Two men described by authorities as white supremacists have been charged in Virginia with trying to illegally buy weapons and explosives to use in attacks on synagogues and black churches.
Robert C. Doyle and Ronald Beasley Chaney III tried to buy an automatic weapon, explosives and a pistol with a silencer from three undercover agents posing as illegal firearms dealers, FBI agent James R. Rudisill wrote in an affidavit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Richmond.

If the FBI is right, they're clearly racist anti-Semites. What about their spiritual leanings? AP doesn't tell us until more than halfway down, and then only a little more:

According to Rudisill's affidavit, Doyle and the younger Chaney "ascribe to a white supremacy extremist version of the Asatru faith," a pagan sect that emphasizes Norse gods and traditions. The affidavit says the FBI learned that Doyle planned to host a meeting at his home in late September to discuss "shooting or bombing the occupants of black churches and Jewish synagogues, conducting acts of violence against persons of Jewish faith, and doing harm to a gun store owner in the state of Oklahoma."

The AP report was based partly on one by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That story says pretty much the same phrases about Asatru and bombing black and Jewish congregations. "Asatru is a pagan religion," it unhelpfully adds.

CNN heavy hitters Wolf Blitzer and Pamela Brown mention only the men's membership in a "white supremacist group." They reference the case of Dylann Roof, the church bomber in Charleston, S.C., but only because he and the new defendants both talked about starting a race war.

Even this morning, a local CBS affiliate, which boasted of having broken the story, merely adds that police and FBI agents raided two other homes, including that of Chaney's father.

Ah, but the Washington Post was on the job. They'd help us understand, right? Well, kinda:

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Rare midweek think piece: Calm J-voice of faith in Mizzou media storms (updated)

Rare midweek think piece: Calm J-voice of faith in Mizzou media storms (updated)

In the circles that I run in, the University of Missouri's School of Journalism is way better known than the school's football team. Many of the large state universities in the Midwest have important journalism programs (I have a master's from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), but when it comes to clout in the world of basic print journalism, Mizzou has long been a unique national and global force.

At the same time, the J-school has a reputation as a place where many of the journalists take religion very seriously (providing a home for the Religion Newswriters Association), while offering a cultural environment in which quite a few believers (including both liberal and conservative Christians) have learned to take journalism very seriously. At one point, I know, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship had a chapter just for students in the J-school.

In a way, think of Missouri has a bridge point between the cultures of the Midwest and the South, a location that offers many strengths and some weaknesses as well.

In recent days, the journalists I know -- especially in academia -- have been following the events on the University of Missouri campus with a combination of horror and fascination. A communications professor calling for "muscle" to prevent a student journalist from photographing protests in a public space? Really? For those fluent in academic politics, it has also become clear that President Tim Wolfe's fall had a lot to do with sins against powerful academic interest groups (think teaching assistants and adjuncts, in particular) as well as his slow, weak responses to growing campus concerns about acts of racism.

I have had several emails from people who know Missouri well asking me to comment on the "religion ghosts" in this story, meaning religious themes that are haunting these events but drawing little coverage. And there's the rub: In this case I haven't seen, in the mainstream coverage, enough material about religion to deserve comment.

Have there been meetings sponsored by religious believers to seek unity and healing? Were campus religious groups involved in the protests or responses to the protests? The president said he prayed about his decision to resign. And there was this, in a Missourian story about hunger striker Jonathan Butler:

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Red Cup Diaries: Mainstream media cover Starbucks' Christmas brew-haha

Red Cup Diaries: Mainstream media cover Starbucks' Christmas brew-haha

So this Christian guy online aims a camera at his face and says that coffee cups show Starbucks "hates Jesus."

Can you say click-bait? There go those religious crazies again. Just the kind of story that mainstream media like to pounce on, eh?

Except, to my surprise, most didn’t this time. Instead, they just covered it, pro and con, and looked for facts.

Our story starts with Joshua Feuerstein, a former evangelical pastor based in Arizona. Feuerstein saw Starbucks' new cups for the Christmas season -- plain red with the company's green mermaid trademark -- and freaked.

"Do you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand-new cups?" the fast-talking minister says in a video.  He boasted that he entered one of their coffee shops and told a barista his name was "Merry Christmas," forcing the worker to write the phrase on his cup.

He chortles:

So guess, what, Starbucks? I tricked you into putting "Merry Christmas" on your cup. And I'm challenging all great Americans and Christians around this great nation: Go into Starbucks and take your own coffee selfie. And then I challenge you to not only share this video so that the word gets out, but let's start start a movement, and let's call it, I dunno, "#MerryChristmasStarbucks," and I know that by sharing this video, and getting other Christians to do it, well …

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From faith and forgiveness to a furor over finances at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church

From faith and forgiveness to a furor over finances at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church

Follow the money.

Adhering to that old journalistic adage pays off for Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes in yet another rock-solid story on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

This time, Hawes' coverage concerns not the faith nor the forgiving nature of a black congregation devastated by a white gunman's attack on a Wednesday Bible study.

Rather, the projects writer for The Post and Courier, Charleston's daily newspaper, digs into the touchy subject of church finances:

In the weeks after a suspected white racist gunned down nine worshippers in Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, applause for the Rev. Norvel Goff Sr. swelled as talk of forgiveness inspired mourners nationwide.
Praise poured in — even mention of the Nobel Peace Prize — along with millions of dollars in donations to Emanuel AME Church and the families of the victims.
But others are coming forward to paint a much different picture of the man named interim pastor and now overseeing how the donations are doled out.
Across Goff’s path of past churches, from New York to Columbia to Charleston, accusations of poor financial oversight swirl amid lingering questions about how he is handling the huge pot of donations at Emanuel AME.
Among them, a woman who served as secretary to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, slain pastor of Emanuel AME, said she was terminated after raising concerns about the oversight of incoming donations.
And several members of Goff’s most recent church, Reid Chapel AME in Columbia, contend their former pastor took out large mortgages against the church without proper permission while amassing federal and state tax liens that reached $200,000.
Similarly, the pastor who succeeded Goff at his previous church, Baber AME in Rochester, N.Y., said Goff also left it saddled with debt and hard feelings among members.

After that broad introduction, Hawes methodically presents the facts and accusations in a 2,700-word investigative piece that is both hard-hitting and fair.

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In some news reports, Oregon gunman's motives were bloody specific, but in others...

In some news reports, Oregon gunman's motives were bloody specific, but in others...

Another day, another gunman, another mass shooting. Once again, when government authorities consistently declined to discuss possible motives, it was hard not to assume that the religion shoe was going to drop, sooner or later.

By this morning, journalists have had quite a bit of time to look for witnesses and to sift through social-media looking for clues and quotes. At this point, it's almost like journalists in key newsrooms were not covering the same tragedy. 

Let's look in New York City, for example. That did The New York Times have to say about the religion angle? The world's most powerful newspaper opened with the basic facts and then, five paragraphs in, added:

Law enforcement officials identified the gunman Thursday night as Chris Harper Mercer, and said he had three weapons, at least one of them a long gun and the other ones handguns. It was not clear whether he fired them all. The officials said the man lived in the Roseburg area.
They said one witness had told them that Mr. Mercer had asked about people’s religions before he began firing. “He appears to be an angry young man who was very filled with hate,” one law enforcement official said. Investigators are poring over what one official described as “hateful” writings by Mr. Mercer.

Did he ask anything specific, when it came to religion? Were members of one faith, or no faith, more at risk than others? And those "hateful" writings -- on social media, perhaps -- were about what?

Writing for a radically different audience than the TimesThe New York Post went straight to the point with the religion angle bannered on its website a few hours after the massacre. The most recent version of that story now states, drawing on material from news and social media:

A gunman singled out Christians, telling them they would see God in “one second,” during a rampage at an Oregon college Thursday that left at least nine innocent people dead and several more wounded, survivors and authorities said.

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From Jennifer Berry Hawes, another powerful story with strong religion content on Emanuel AME

From Jennifer Berry Hawes, another powerful story with strong religion content on Emanuel AME

If you love good journalism and great storytelling, you absolutely must read Jennifer Berry Hawes' latest front-page narrative on the Emanuel AME shooting in Charleston, S.C..

From the beginning, we have praised the Pulitzer Prize-winning Hawes' strong, sensitive coverage in The Post and Courier, Charleston's daily newspaper.

Once again, the veteran Godbeat pro — now a projects writer — produces a powerful story mixing raw, chilling details with expert attention to revealing religion details.

The focus of this narrative: Felicia Sanders and Polly Sheppard, who survived the massacre, along with Sanders' 11-year-old granddaughter.

The grab-your-attention-in-a-hurry lede:

The blood splattered on her legs — that of her son, an elderly aunt, her pastors, nine people she loved — had dried. She still wore the same clothes, a black skirt and a black-and-white blouse, crusty now.
An endless night before, Felicia Sanders had left her blood-soaked shoes with the dead in the fellowship hall of her beloved lifelong church, Emanuel AME.
Barefoot as the sun rose, she trudged up the steps to her home, the one where 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders’ bedroom waited silently, his recent college acceptance letter tacked onto a bulletin board beside his poetry. It was after 6 a.m., and she hadn’t slept. She hadn’t eaten, not since going to Emanuel AME’s elevator committee meeting the evening before, then its quarterly conference and then its weekly Wednesday Bible study. There, 12 people met in God’s midst. Nine of them died, 77 bullets in their midst.
Felicia had answered questions all night from myriad authorities determined to find the killer. Now her phone rang. Her doorbell rang. Reporters, friends, family, strangers, an endless blare through the jangle of her muddled thoughts. Finally, in a delirious rage, she called an old friend, attorney Andy Savage.
“Andy, it’s too much!” she cried into the phone.
“I’ll be there.

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