Suds in the bucket: More on dirty laundry and faith-based outreach

In a post last month titled "Can a laundromat replace the traditional church?" I reviewed an NPR story out of California.

I ended that critique like this:

How exactly is the laundromat an alternative to church? Are there any spiritual aspects to the ministry — such as praying or reading the Bible? Does (organizer Shannon) Kassoff really come to the laundromat instead of going to church, or is the interviewee speaking metaphorically?
NPR does not provide answers to such basic questions — leaving the reader's (or listener's) clothes dripping wet after a half-done wash cycle.

My sarcastic tone drew the attention of my friend Dawn Shelton, who attended Oklahoma Christian University with me and later worked in broadcast media. 

Dawn's basic question to me: Couldn't you be nicer?

"NPR did a faith-based story. BOOM," Dawn wrote in a message that she gave me permission to share. "I loved it when I heard it on the air. I imagine the number of Christians in the entire NPR outfit is close to ZERO."

In other words, people of faith should be happy that NPR attempted a religion story but not expect too much out of it.

Dawn also wondered if I could lace my posts with more honey and less overly critical vinegar, as in, "That was great, but here's how it could have been better."

Given my deep respect for Dawn, I took her feedback seriously. 

My responses to her criticism:

1. Those of us who write for GetReligion are "traditional religious believers who are pro old-school journalism," as our editor tmatt describes us. But GetReligion is a journalism website, not an evangelistic undertaking. I would hope that big-time media outlets such as NPR and The New York Times would want to be held to the highest journalistic standards.

2. Yes, I can be nicer. There is too much screaming and mockery online already without me adding to the noise. Even under deadline pressure, I will strive to make my points in a kinder, more constructive fashion.

An Associated Press story out today — following up on the NPR report — gives me a perfect opportunity to attempt that new approach.

The lede is compelling:

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Over the long months that Victoria Mitchell lived in her car with her infant daughter, there was one bright spot in her life: doing laundry.
Every month, Mitchell would trek to a local laundromat and take advantage of Laundry Love, a growing faith-driven movement that helps those who are homeless or financially struggling by washing their dirty clothes for free.
Amid the comforting routine of fluffing and folding, volunteers befriend their patrons and often find ways to help that go beyond free soap and quarters.
Mitchell, for example, now has a job and place to live after the Laundry Love volunteers pooled their money to help her family rent a starter apartment. They have also watched her daughter Jessica grow from a newborn to a curly-haired toddler.
"You're not just checking a box to give a donation. You're spending the whole evening with these people and getting your hands dirty and it's intimate — you're doing people's laundry," said LuzAnna Figueroa, who volunteers at the group's Huntington Beach chapter and has grown close to Mitchell and her daughter.

From there, I like that the writer attempts to provide some important context:

Richard Flory, a religion expert from the University of Southern California who has studied Laundry Love extensively, said Mitchell is just one example of how the organization can profoundly impact people through something as simple as washing their clothes.
"It's an opportunity for people to live out their faith out in a concrete way, in a frankly elegantly simple model where you do something that's necessary for people who don't have the means to do it for themselves," Flory said.

That's good, but here's how I think the AP could have made it better: by providing just a few more details to establish Flory as a "religion expert." A quick Google search reveals that he is the director of research in USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Also, I am fascinated by the note that Flory "has studied Laundry Love extensively." I'd love to know what form that study has taken. Has he simply observed the ministry? Interviewed those who volunteer and those who receive help? Produced any scientific, empirical data?

The story presents a nice snapshot of the outreach effort. However, the AP approaches the religious nature of the program only at the most shallow level.

That makes for an easy, breezy read — albeit one lacking any real, below-the-surface kind of insight.

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