On coverage of evangelical refugee conference: Applause for RNS, with reservations

We at GetReligion have had occasional differences with the Religion News Service. But in its coverage of the GC2 Summit, a caucus of evangelical leaders on how to help Middle Eastern refugees, RNS does itself proud.

Not that the coverage is spotless, but more on that later.

U.S. Christians have shared the anxieties of other Americans over resettling 10,000 people fleeing the Syrian civil war. While not ducking that issue, RNS also reports the conference of 500 leaders to ease those fears and muster aid.

For that job, RNS chose Timothy C. Morgan, a Godbeat veteran who knows the evangelical community. This is important in a day when many reporters are clearly out of their depth in religion stories. Morgan shows his savvy high in the article:

"We are having the wrong conversation about refugees," Richard Stearns, head of the aid group World Vision, told a meeting of evangelicals. "We have managed to make the suffering of millions all about us. God wants us to share their pain."
Around 500 people attended the GC2 Summit at the Community Christian Church, a Chicago-area megachurch. GC2 is a reference to the Great Commandment and Great Commission in the New Testament, which require Christians to love God and their neighbors, and to evangelize.
Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, an evangelical polling organization, called it "the largest gathering of evangelicals on refugees ever." He said his latest survey of Protestant pastors indicates that 45 percent sense fear in their churches over refugees and immigration, yet 85 percent believe Christians should "care sacrificially" for this group.

That, my friends, is known as a seasoned eye. Morgan also perceptively compares the initiative with the evangelical outreach to people with HIV and AIDS 15 years ago. And there's a couple of touching quotes by a Pastor Raed Awabdeh of Sacramento, himself an immigrant from Syria:

"Invite the Muslim to sit with you. Make true friends. Be the gospel and preach the gospel," he said, adding that Christians should not engage Muslims in theological argument. He also said attitudes toward Muslims change when churchgoers get to know refugees.
"Christians no longer see the head covering or a Muslim, but a person," Awabdeh said.

The article adds background facts on the length of the Syrian war and how it has created millions of refugees -- part of a historic flood of 59 million worldwide, citing the United Nations. The article also notes that Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully to stop President Obama's plan to take in more than 10,000 fleeing Syria. But it adds that the GC2 conference shunned politics in favor of helping the refugees.

Special applause to RNS for follow-up: This article tells what happened after the organizational meeting in December. Morgan wrote that story, too.

I'm impressed as well that the two articles don’t overlap heavily.  Often a follow-up piece adds a bit of new material to the basic story, like thin frosting on a cake. Morgan gets a lot of new stuff, and doesn't repeat a lot of the old.

Still another strength is the quotes in both stories. In the December piece, Stetzer states a goal "to change a narrative of fear and instead focus on faith and compassion. Our desire is not to resettle everybody in another country. When a house is burning down, we need to put out the fire and rescue people fleeing the fire." It also reports the joint statement of the group, that the crisis presents "opportunities for us to be like Jesus, showing and sharing His love to the hurting and the vulnerable."

That first story brings in more context, talking not only about the war but the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. It reports the perceived need for tighter screening protocols for immigrants. It says the U.S. has paid more than any other country -- $4.5 billion -- on humanitarian aid for the refugees. And it cites complaints that the government pays the benevolent agencies to resettle refugees.  

I'm not sure about all that. Although the article spends seven paragraphs on the background, it doesn't explain it all, nor does it quote sources or cite studies.

The December article does mention a couple of opinion surveys, but they seem misuses. One from NBC and the Wall Street Journal shows rising fears of terrorism, but it doesn't isolate Christian reactions from those of the general public. It doesn't even specify the topic of refugee resettlement.

RNS also brings up a survey by World Vision itself, saying that "41 percent of respondents were fearful of Syrian refugees, a rapid rise from the 25 percent figure recorded in October." Why didn’t it also report that 72 percent said they were willing to help Syrian refugees -- a number hardly different from the October survey? The story did better this week with the LifeWay numbers, which support the image of fearful Christians.

Finally, a comparative nitpick, about explaining the GC2 title. Yes, RNS says it stands for the Great Commandment and Great Commission, with a drastic summary. But direct New Testament quotes, or at least the chapters and verses, would have been better, methinks. At less than 600 words, the follow-up story had plenty of room to add those brief details.

That said, the two articles represent quality journalism. And since the evangelical alliance has just formed, I hope RNS keeps an eye on it. if the alliance holds, it could yield a variety of follow-ups.


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