A faith dispute goes public

maincollage1The Akron Beacon Journal published quite a story Sunday that touches on issues with which many families struggle, but so rarely do they spill out into the public square. In this case, a family's personal controversy over the child's decision to join a non-denominational Christian group known as the Xenos Christian Fellowship created a story that the newspaper could not ignore. The article could have been limited to the police and court reports, but instead, the newspaper published an epic 2,700-word news feature:

Annemarie Smith, 48, a Roman Catholic from Stow, believes her 18-year-old son, Thomas, has been taken by a cult.

She has launched a religious war that has engaged the Stow police, mayor, high school and a municipal judge. She started an Internet blog and is trying to rally others to the cause.

Online, she makes allegations of alcohol abuse, vandalism and brainwashing of young children. She calls the church leader and his family "Devil man," "Devil wife" and "Devil son."

While the article leads with the perspective of the mother, it makes clear early and often that there is definitely another side to the story. Readers are left deciding for themselves which side has more validity. The journalists' job of avoiding the temptation to take sides, or to make individual judgments, can twist a story into an appellate brief designed to convince the jury of readers of certain morality judgments that have no place in news features such as these.

The mother's accusation that her son has joined a cult goes a bit deeper than that, but the article captures it well:

His mother, a stay-at-home mom, said she had no problem with her children occasionally attending church with friends -- and she believes her son's attraction to Xenos is more about friends than God.

The tension grew exponentially after Thomas' roadside reckoning and an announcement to his parents that he planned to be baptized again, this time at a Xenos service, and that he would like for them to attend.

They told him he already had been baptized Catholic and they would not attend.

The article totally gets the faith aspect of the story and leads with it in the article's subhead. The article's grasp of the importance of faith to these individuals and all that comes with that helps the author explain to the reader some of the more difficult-to-grasp concepts present in this saga.

The story gets much darker, with a few twists and turns, and one has to wonder how this can end well. One criticism that could be leveled against the article -- and this one came from a reader that submitted the story -- is that the article could have quoted another Catholic other than the mother. However, this is very much a personal story that is unfortunately playing out in the public square.

The other area I wish the article had focused on is the organization's history, its activities outside the immediate controversy, and how the group maintains its funding. The article gives a definite sense of what the group is not about, but less about what the group is about. Are members of the group are expected to maintain a financial commitment while involved and what are some of the group's main accomplishments since it was launched?

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