Big setup, big letdown: New York Times on Luis Palau event

The New York Times ran a promising advance for Luis Palau's CityFest, then slacked off on the follow-up.

The newspaper used the occasion for an indepth on the growth of evangelical Christianity in New York, highlighting the role of immigrants. But the event coverage was pedestrian, paint-by-the-numbers, almost as if the Times had lost interest by then.

The 1,500-word advance has some strengths. It tells of the patient but exuberant preparations for the July 10 event. It provides a peek into the festive, exuberant Sunday worship of some of the churches. It shows how they serve immigrants on several levels: spiritual, social and cultural. And it quotes a variety of evangelicals: Haitian, Ecuadoran, Salvadoran, Trinidadian.

"The size of the festival belies the city’s secular reputation and speaks to the vibrant evangelical movement in New York," the Times says. At times it sounds almost affectionate for the main speaker, without injecting stereotypes about the religious right:

Nearly 900 of the 1,700 churches participating in the festival are Hispanic, organizers said. Latino leaders were the ones two years ago to invite Mr. Palau, an endearing, white-haired bilingual immigrant from Argentina who has built a reputation as the Hispanic Billy Graham, but African-American and Korean-American church leaders quickly got involved in the planning.
The six-hour event is expected to highlight the multidenominational and multiethnic flavor of evangelical Christianity in New York and its suburbs, drawing hundreds of churches whose members also hail from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.
"What the Palau Festival has been able to do is catalyze a growing movement of Christian voices present in the city," said Gabriel Salguero, a pastor of a multiethnic church in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. It represents, he added, a "coming-of-age of immigrant evangelicals" in New York.

While numbers aren't easy to come by, the newspaper does a good job, borrowing from sociologist Tony Carnes. It also gives some "whys" for the rise of evangelicalism:

The recent growth of evangelicalism is noticeable but difficult to quantify. According to Mr. Carnes, there are 1.2 million to 1.6 million evangelicals in the city, which he said was an increase of about 22 percent since 2000. To arrive at the estimate, he synthesized several studies, including the American Values Atlas and work by the Pew Research Center, and culled information from his journal’s database of 6,600 churches.
Mr. Salguero, of the evangelical coalition, said immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Asia, where Pentecostalism is challenging Catholicism for adherents, found comfort in a familiar atmosphere in New York. "We have a style of liturgy and worship that speaks to Juanita and Juan Doe," he said. "It’s lively and passionate, and that reflects some of the cultures where people are from."
Barry Deonarine, 46, a defense lawyer whose family is from Trinidad and Tobago, joined Aliento de Vida in Queens because he said he wanted a more intimate faith experience. "This is the type of evangelical church you would find in Latin America," he said. "They speak to the need of people who don’t have the power, don’t have the resources."

But the story has some flaws. One is the claim that evangelicalism in New York is "driven largely by immigrant-led churches that have proliferated in the boroughs outside Manhattan." That assertion ignores several sizeable congregations, on and off that island.

There's Times Square Church, founded in 1987 by the late street evangelist David Wilkerson. There's Redeemer Presbyterian Church, pastored by evangelical Tim Keller, which has three campuses around the city. And how did the Times forget Brooklyn Tabernacle, with its music and leadership conferences?

Still, the story represents some hard work in telling of CityFest and its supporters. If only the coverage followed suit.

First fumble is the lede itself:

The sun bore down on Barbara Harrison as she dabbed at the sweat on her forehead. She then waved an arm in the air, eyes closed, while a singer performed on a stage lit as if for a rock concert.
But the song Ms. Harrison swung her head to was not a pop tune; it was a gospel song.

The writer and/or her editor seems amazed at Christian rock, more than four decades after its appearance. And what did Barbara Harrison say about the festival?  "With all the stuff going on in our city, all the racial tension, this is a great place to be. You can see the unity."

Yawn-provoking quotes like that are scattered throughout the article.

"Nothing can stop the followers of Jesus Christ," says a minister from New Jersey.

"The spirit of God has led me here," says a woman from the Dominican Republic.

"Here, people of faith, people of every faith, are welcome," Mayor Bill de Blasio says. "God bless you all for participating today."

Even Palau, the main speaker, is reduced to "Who's in the park?", with the crowd replying, "God's in the park."

Oh yeah: The Times also lets Palau say to de Blasio, "Biblically, you are the king of New York" -- without explaining the biblical context for that.

What was Palau's main message? He spoke on "how Jesus Christ is the key to freedom and encouraged people to surrender to God for eternal life," the Times says.

Yep, a paraphrase. That's all we get on what Palau said. The effect is like a journalistic donut, or perhaps a GetReligion-style religious ghost.

The Times focuses laser-like on the feelings, the numbers, the demographics. Yet it seems blind to the spiritual heart of the story: the personal relationship with Jesus that has united so many kinds of New Yorkers -- both at CityFest and every Sunday.

Sure hope Pope Francis doesn't get similar coverage when he visits New York in September.

Photo: Luis Palau, 2006 photo by Adrruiz via Wikimedia Commons.

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