Fine line between shallow, spiritual

The word through the grapevine is that tmatt is wrapping up end-of-the-semester grading this afternoon.

Here on the Christian university campus where I work, students are taking final tests and rushing home for holiday break. (Yes, I did that on purpose so I could share this link, which you may or may not enjoy. For the record, I found it highly entertaining.)

Speaking of exams ...

Isn't it about time that GetReligion readers were subjected to one?

Here's your assignment:

1. Read this story from The Washington Post about a Franciscan priest living out his faith in what the Post describes as "one of the largest and most dangerous drug-growing areas in the world."

Here's the top of the story:

YECORA, MEXICO -- A twisting federal highway passes through this mountain town in the western Sierra Madre, halfway between the states of Sonora and Chihuahua.

The Sinaloa drug cartel controls one side. The Juarez cartel rules the other. In the middle is the Rev. David Beaumont, a Franciscan priest from Hempstead, N.Y.

When Beaumont arrived here 20 years ago as a young missionary, the roads were unpaved, there was no electricity, and there was little to eat besides beans and tortillas. He'd been sent to serve dirt-poor Pima Indians, some of whom were still living in caves, but they ran and hid whenever he arrived in their villages.

"Sometimes I think it was easier back then," said Beaumont, 50, laughing at that memory as he rumbled along a dirt road in a pickup truck and the tattered brown friar's habit he wears over bluejeans. With his long beard and hair, and 6-foot-3 frame, he is an emissary for peace, humility and love in one of the largest and most dangerous drug-growing areas in the world.

2. Read this story from The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., about a white couple moving to an inner-city area and choosing to send their son to a predominantly black school.

Here's the top of the story:

Not long after Mandy and Robert Grisham moved to Midtown five years ago to start a church, they began hearing about The Decision they were going to face as their son Adam got closer to school age.

Stay in Midtown, get in line for private schools, and spend tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours in a car over the next 13 to 15 years.

Or move to the suburbs.

The Grishams didn't want to move. They loved the diversity and urban amenities of Midtown. It reminded them of the San Francisco Bay Area, where they lived while Robert attended Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.

OK, class, no skipping ahead. If you didn't read the stories, please follow directions and do so now.

(Insert "Jeopardy!" think music here.)

Now, are we all caught up?

The Post story is gripping and well-written. The compelling scenes and anecdotes help put a face on the priest. He's described as "a spiritual father and a surrogate one." He's "completely devoted to Christ," an apprentice friar says. He organizes a march with "icons of Saint Francis and the Virgin of Guadalupe." He preaches a very specific sermon on Saint Francis.

So, yes, there's plenty of detail there about the what of Beaumont's ministry. On the other hand, the story seems severely lacking in the why.

The friar does not talk about his faith in Jesus. He does not share intimate details about what he believes. Surely such matters came up in such an extended conversation with the reporter? Surely he preached a sermon or two (with a translator helping the reporter listen in)?

Contrast the Post piece with the Memphis story by veteran Godbeat writer David Waters.

Waters' story never sets foot in a church, I don't believe.

Yet the religion angle -- the spiritual angle -- strikes at what I would characterize as a deep level.

Consider this section, which follows a quote in which Mandy Grishman says she became "an evangelist" for the local public school:

Two of her converts were Ginger and Josh Spickler. From the day their son Walt was born, the Spicklers assumed they would send him to private schools.

"I certainly never intended to send my kids to Peabody," Ginger Spickler said.

"It's quite a leap to send your kid to the neighborhood school that isn't actually educating any (or at least many) of the neighborhood kids, has so-so test scores, and where he'll be in the extreme minority. And if we hadn't felt so confident in Peabody's leadership, I'm not sure we'd be having this conversation."

"Ultimately, it did come down to making a leap of faith. After making what we felt was the best decision for our family, we had to trust that God loves our child even more than we do and would take care of him if we'd screwed up. Honestly, we probably went into it feeling that we would be making some sacrifices by sending him there, but at least so far, I would say it has been one of the best parenting decisions we've made. I can't imagine feeling as positive about any school as I do about Peabody."

So, class, here's the scenario for your essay exam: One story is about an overtly religious topic. The other is about -- at least on the surface -- a not-so-religious endeavor. But which piece does the better job of conveying issues of faith and spirituality?

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