Tissue alert: God is in the details

Want to start your day with a real tearjerker (the good kind)? Take a few minutes to read this story by the Washington Post about a Maryland pastor whose family was stranded in Haiti after the earthquake. Yes, it's five pages long, but hit the "print" button so you can read the whole thing lest I be accused of plagiarism for posting too much of it here. I fear any summary will butcher the beautiful storytelling, but the story shows a pastor at a church called Eglise Baptiste du Calvaire (appears Protestant from the website) faces tremendous fear that his wife and six children were among the dead in Haiti. One writer reports from Haiti, the other writes from Washington. Here's the picture painted during the earthquake.

They ran to the roof. They could see buildings collapsing and slabs of brick falling. They rushed back downstairs. As if frozen, they crouched together in the living room. They began to pray, hoping God would hear. But with more booming, God's ears seemed a mighty long way away. "The blood of Jesus! The blood of Jesus!" one of the dinner guests cried out.

Lissa had to protect her children.

"Mommy! Mommy!"

Wind coming through the windows blew things about. Like baby sheep, the children scooted close to their mother. They thought the house might cave in. They threw shoes, a Bible, birth certificates, passports into a green pillowcase. They ran out, turned up an alley, roped together by their own sets of hands. Brick walls were falling. The earth had stopped moving, but things above it had not. They hurried aimlessly down another street.

I love this detail: the prayers, the dinner guests, the pillow case. The writers make you feel like you're there. The story flashes back to when the couple met. "Lissa liked that William was "a man of God," who also was doing some church ministry," the story says.

In time, William found himself speaking against the Aristide government in class. He was warned to stop. Authorities summoned him for questioning more than once. Then came the day in early 2002 when a fellow teacher, also outspoken, disappeared. In early 2003 Lissa, who had become increasingly worried about her husband's political stance, told him he should leave Haiti or risk not living to see his children grow up. At the airport, the children howled as Papi disappeared into the skies.

He settled first in Brooklyn, where he met a Haitian exile group, which helped him get to Silver Spring. He began working and sending money home to his family. He never let more than two days go by without calling home, and the voices of his wife and six children filled him with joy. For the past year, he has been working with an immigration lawyer to get visas so his family can come join him.

Flashing forward, after fearing their deaths for five days, he finally gets a phone call from his wife.

"Thank God!" he said. "Thank God!" He started pacing rapidly. He kept talking over his wife. Later, he would regret not hearing everything.

Lissa told him they have no food or water. She told him their house is ruined and she has no money.

She told him she loved him.

He told her he loved her.

Okay, I admit I'm a sappy newlywed. Here's something for you sappy parents.

But on Saturday after saying goodbye to his wife, Saint-Hilaire listened to the voice of his 15-year-old daughter Bella on the phone.

"Papi," she asked, "how are you?"

And when his oldest daughter -- who had thus far endured unimaginable horror, who was now without food and water and had seen bodies heaped like stacks of laundry -- showed concern for her father and his well-being, Saint-Hilaire balled his hand up and put it in his mouth to stifle the sobs of relief.

Pass the tissues. Please.

After initially reading the story, I was tempted to suggest that the writers could have gone deeper with the religion angle, asking the family more questions about their faith and how it impacted them during the earthquake. But religion was told through implicit details.

Scattered in the descriptions, you can see that this family's faith is important to them. You can see the detail of the pastor watching the news on a TV in his church, the family shoving their Bible into a green pillowcase, the couple's first meeting at church. The pastor imagines how the twins could be singing gospel music, he faces Haitians at the church who needed counseling, "I wondered how come I couldn't hear God," he says, and members of his church lay hands on him.

Unfortunately, you don't see those kinds of descriptions in explicit religion stories, much less general stories where these details can be found. They are the type of details that give a story with religious elements color, a way for readers to see what faith means to a family, a reporting technique more reporters could mirror.

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