Race

Holy smoke! Did Baptist News Global spot a ghost in that BBC barbecue report?

Holy smoke! Did Baptist News Global spot a ghost in that BBC barbecue report?

As you would expect, I get lots of email about religion- news stuff. That tends to happen when you've been in the religion-columnist business -- in one form or another -- since 1982. All that old snail mail on dead-tree pulp turned into email. Turn, turn, turn.

I still receive quite a bit of material from denominational wire services and independent religious publications, both large and small. That's one of the places that I find all those "Got news?" items about valid and interesting news stories that are out there, but not in the mainstream press.

During the decades since the great Southern Baptist civil war, I kept reading both the SBC operated Baptist Press and the Associated Baptist Press wire linked to the "moderate," or doctrinally progressive (some would say liberal) Baptist congregations that remain in the larger convention, and a few that have fled. ABP has evolved into a broad, basically mainline-Protestant wire called Baptist News Global. Both Baptist wires are must reading for journalists following the religion beat.

One of the most interesting things Baptist Global News does is offer, in its regular "push" digest online, a selection of links to interesting religion items from other newsrooms. The other day -- right there with retiring Presbyterian leaders, a key Southern Baptist voice calling for more countercultural Christianity and other items -- was a link to a long, interesting BBC report about the fact that America's pop-culture boom linked to barbecue culture seems to have skipped over African-American pitmasters.

 So, as the East Tennessee mountains guy that I am, I dug right into this story -- assuming that it would eventually have an interesting religion hook. After all, why would Baptist News Global have this piece in its news elsewhere list?

I read on, and on. This is about as close as I came to hitting a religion theme:

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Haunted: Jehovah orders troubled reporter to avenge Charleston with race war?

Haunted: Jehovah orders troubled reporter to avenge Charleston with race war?

It was not the kind of place that you expected to see violent images from hell.

This bizarre selfie-style massacre took place in a lovely community tucked into a corner of the Shenandoah Valley up against the Blue Ridge Mountains, off exits I have driven past many times on the way from the land of small towns and cities to the frequently troubled world of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

It's the kind of place where journalists, when they lose two colleagues, can huddle together and sing "Amazing Grace and recite the Lord's Prayer, as well as the 23rd Psalm.

As the stories rushed in yesterday, I asked the GetReligionistas to help me watch for the religious, moral and cultural angles that were almost certain surface. Acts this horrible tend to be haunted by religion ghosts.

As seems to be the norm, it was a British newspaper that took the blunt route. This massive, rambling early headline from The Daily Mail summed up the key details:

Revenge race murder: Bitter black reporter who gunned down white ex-colleagues live on air and posted the video online blames Charleston shootings and anti-gay harassment in manifesto

The Daily Mail wasn't able, apparently, to squeeze in the part about the gunman saying that God told him to do it.

The key to the reporting was the lengthy, carefully prepared suicide manifesto that Vester L. Flanagan II -- who used the name Bryce Williams in his small-market journalism career -- sent to a higher authority, a national television news network.

In terms of religious and moral issues linked to this crime, some editors appear to have been worried about how much of this material to share with readers.

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Looking inside Pew numbers: It appears that black churches are not fading away

Looking inside Pew numbers: It appears that black churches are not fading away

This morning I was doing some search-engine work on African-American churches for my piece on the long, but totally faith-free, news feature about the Rev. Al Sharpton that ran in The Los Angeles Times. In the middle of those searches I hit a link that reminded me of a recent Religion News Service story that I had wanted to bring to the attention of GetReligion readers.

As you would expect, considering the subject material, this piece was written by one of this website's favorite veterans on religion-news beat, Adelle Banks. I do not write about her work as much as I would like, simply because she was a long-time lecturer -- nearly two decades -- in the journalism programs I ran in Washington, D.C., for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

In this case, Banks focused in on a newsworthy wrinkle in a recent tsunami of religion "landscape" numbers from the Pew Research Center. This is one of those cases where church decline made the headlines, but she found an positive exception to the rule. Here is the overture for her report, setting the stage for the summary:

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (RNS) At Alfred Street Baptist Church, the pews start to fill more than half an hour before the service begins. White-uniformed ushers guide African-Americans of all ages to their seats. Some stand and wave their hands in the air as the large, robed choir begins to sing.
In September, after using a dozen wired overflow rooms, the church will start its fourth weekend service. So many people attend, church leaders are now asking people to limit their attendance to one service.

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Ten years after Katrina, looking for God in the anniversary news coverage

Ten years after Katrina, looking for God in the anniversary news coverage

With the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this week, I wrote a column reflecting on covering the "storm of the century" for The Christian Chronicle:

NEW ORLEANS — I see the faces, and the memories come rushing back.

Since Hurricane Katrina a decade ago, I’ve made repeated trips to report on the faith and resiliency of God’s people — both victims and volunteers. 

I’ve lost track of the exact number of times I’ve traveled to New Orleans. However, the faces — and experiences — remain fresh in my mind.

From my personal experience in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, I know the "faith-based FEMA" were a key piece of the recovery — in some cases, the key piece.

In Katrina's wake, thousands of volunteers motivated by faith in God housed, fed and clothed evacuees, cleaned up muck and debris, rebuilt homes and businesses and helped in a million other ways.

Given that, I am curious to see if God will show up at all in the anniversary coverage of Katrina making landfall on Aug. 29, 2005.

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The Los Angeles Times presents the Rev. Al Sharpton, with zero signs of God or faith at all

The Los Angeles Times presents the Rev. Al Sharpton, with zero signs of God or faith at all

A few years ago, I got out a notepad and wrote a list of the "seven deadly sins" of religion writing in the modern mainstream press. 

Right near the top of the list is the tendency among reporters to assume that all religious issues are, in reality, political issues when push comes to shove. It's a kind of militant materialism that assumes the political life is the ultimate reality for all people, since that happens to be the case for legions of people (but not all) in elite newsrooms.

It is especially easy to see this principle at work in mainstream news coverage of the African-American church. Am I the only person that has noticed that major news organizations have started omitting the term "the Rev." when printing the names of many black clergy?

Of course, it must be noted that clergy have -- for generations -- provided crucial public leadership for the entire black community, including in politics. The fact that this is true does not, however, mean that the work these pastors do in the public square has nothing to do with their faith and their role as church leaders.

This brings us to the Rev. Al Sharpton, a Pentecostal preacher turned Baptist whose high-profile work in politics and mass-media career have made him a controversial figure, including among African-American clergy. It is common to hear his critics say that he doesn't deserve the title "the Rev." -- which, in my opinion, only makes it more important for journalists to provide basic facts about who this man is, what he believes and to whom he relates as a minister. The bottom line: He is ordained and he is making faith claims, as well as political claims, when he speaks and/or preaches.

The Los Angeles Times times recently offered up a lengthy news feature on Sharpton that is a perfect, five-star example of all of this. Click on this link and do some searching. Here are some words you will not find in this piece -- "God," "Jesus," "faith," "religion," "Bible" and "ordained." The only reason "church" appears is that there are descriptions of rallies held in churches.

Is this a comment about Sharpton, the Los Angeles Times or both?

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Few gaps in fine New York Times look at hospice and common fears among African-Americans

Few gaps in fine New York Times look at hospice and common fears among African-Americans

Let's face it. The religion-news beat is amazing. I have never understood how many journalists consider this a fringe topic that doesn't deserve mainstream coverage.

Decades ago, I interviewed scores of newspaper editors for my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and you want to know the two most common reasons they gave for avoiding religion? Religion was (a) boring and (b) too controversial. That's the problem, you see, the world is just full of boring, controversial religion stories.

I think any professional who works on this beat for multiple decades -- which describes all the current GetReligionistas -- lives in a state of amazement at how complex new stories, and new angles on old stories, just keep showing up.

That's how I felt reading a very interesting New York Times feature about the struggle to promote hospice in African-American churches. Once again, it is amazing what the Times can do when a religion topic doesn't touch on the Sexual Revolution and, thus, clash with the core doctrines of Kellerism. Here is the key summary material near the top of this fine story, which opens with tragic events in the lives of the Rev. Vernal Harris and his wife Narseary, who have lost two sons to sickle cell anemia:

Hospice use has been growing fast in the United States as more people choose to avoid futile, often painful medical treatments in favor of palliative care and dying at home surrounded by loved ones. But the Harrises, who are African-American, belong to a demographic group that has long resisted the concept and whose suspicions remain deep-seated.
It is an attitude borne out by recent federal statistics showing that nearly half of white Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in hospice before death, compared with only a third of black patients. The racial divide is even more pronounced when it comes to advance care directives -- legal documents meant to help families make life-or-death decisions that reflect a patient’s choices. Some 40 percent of whites aged 70 and over have such plans, compared with only 16 percent of blacks.

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Your weekend think piece: A different take on America's shortage of minority journalists

Your weekend think piece: A different take on America's shortage of minority journalists

For several decades, one of the primary goals of those who run American newsrooms has been (and justifiably so, from my point of view) increasing the number of mainstream journalists who are African-American, Latino, Asian, Native Americans and part of other minority groups, defined by race.

At the same time, there have been less publicized debates -- mostly behind the scenes -- about the need to bring more intellectual and cultural diversity into our newsrooms. As one journalist friend of mine once put it, what's the use of bringing in more African-Americans, Latinos, etc., if they all basically went to the same schools as everyone else and have the same set of beliefs between their ears?

You can see these two issues collide in William McGowan's the much-debated 2003 book, "Coloring the News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism." He argues that years of diversity training in American newsrooms has actually made them more elitist and narrow, purging many professionals who come from blue-collar and non-urban backgrounds.

Before you write that theory off as conservative whining, what was that statement near the end of the famous New York Times self-study entitled "Preserving Our Readers' Trust (.pdf)"?

Our paper’s commitment to a diversity of gender, race and ethnicity is nonnegotiable. We should pursue the same diversity in other dimensions of life, and for the same reason -- to ensure that a broad range of viewpoints is at the table when we decide what to write about and how to present it.
The executive editor should assign this goal to everyone who has a hand in recruiting.
We should take pains to create a climate in which staff members feel free to propose or criticize coverage from vantage points that lie outside the perceived newsroom consensus (liberal/conservative, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, elitist/white collar/blue collar). 

And also: 

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Seattle Times scores a winner with revealing profile of Black Lives Matter activist

Seattle Times scores a winner with revealing profile of Black Lives Matter activist

The editorial powers that be at The Seattle Times, which this past spring missed by a mile the religious inspiration behind the actions of one Seattle Pacific University graduate, decided not to make the same mistake again.

This past Sunday, its front-page story on SPU alumna Marissa Johnson went out of the way to emphasize the faith angle. It started thus:

In 2013, Marissa Johnson graduated cum laude from Seattle Pacific University. She had taken a lot of theology classes, which deepened her faith. She also worked as the beloved director of a church’s Sunday school program, and was known for her helpful offers to baby-sit, as well as the striking voice she put to use during worship services.
Then Ferguson happened. “My life really did change,” she said during an April panel discussion on the changing face of the civil-rights struggle.
She showed that new face last weekend, attracting national notice as she and another woman shouted presidential candidate Bernie Sanders off the stage to denounce police brutality before a crowd of thousands. In taking over the microphone and disappointing those who had waited hours to hear the progressive Vermont senator speak, Johnson set off a furious debate about protest tactics, racism and Seattle-style liberals.

Hurrah. Finally someone in a newsroom digs into the faith history of a local activist and finds a huge backstory.

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New film looks at prayer, but RNS advance feature mainly sees racial issues

New film looks at prayer, but RNS advance feature mainly sees racial issues

A bold new movie on the power of prayer to heal relationships rightly gets a sizable feature from Religion News Service. But what does RNS fixate on? The color of the cast.

War Room, due out Aug. 28, follows "a flood of faith films starring white actors" last year, says the article. It "arrives at a time when racial tensions in America have intensified as a result of police brutality cases and the racially motivated slaying of black worshippers by a white shooter in Charleston, S.C." And its main actor, T.C. Stallings, says he took the role "because of the positive picture it paints of the African-American family."

And what's the plot of the film? Well, the article never quite gets around to that, despite the 800-word count.

Much of the story quotes Stallings, who tells of his own disadvantaged upbringing in Cleveland, then gives his views on how Hollywood treats urban African Americans:

“What I saw on TV and in movies growing up was all negative. The picture of African-Americans in urban areas was all bad language and bad credit scores and bad habits,” Stallings said. “There were many upstanding, Christian black families in the world, and they needed to be talked about as well.”
Stallings rejected the black family stereotype he was seeing, graduating from high school and college. Today, he resides in California with his wife and two children, whom Stallings helps home-school.
“There are many people out there — white and black — who stay with their families and work through their problems. They aren’t thugs or gang leaders,” He said. “’War Room’ tells the truth about society by showing the reverse of that stereotype.”

Sure, valid views, and he has a right to give them. But six paragraphs worth? And his thesis would have been more solid if the producers, Alex and Stephen Kendrick, had confirmed it. The most for which RNS quotes them is a vague statement from Alex: “There is an element to the way we tell this story that has power and desperation that would be different if we tried to tell it any other way." Howso? Doesn't say.

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