So, is the following statement true: A church is a church is a church is a church?
In other words, are all churches the same? When reporters cover stories about controversies linked to "a church," shouldn't it be a standard part of their journalistic marching orders to provide some kind of modifier or brand name in front of the word "church"?
I think most GetReligion readers would say "yes." Why pin some kind of blame on a vague institution when, with one or two questions, a journalist could dig out specific information to provide to readers?
You will see what I mean in the following story from The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. The headline -- "Mississippi RV park owner evicts interracial couple" -- doesn't point to the religion angle, so hang on. Here is the overture:
TUPELO -- A Mississippi RV park owner evicted an interracial couple because of the color of their skin.
“Me and my husband, not ever in 10 years have we experienced any problem,” said Erica Flores Dunahoo, who is Hispanic and Native American and whose husband, a National Guardsman, is African-American. “Nobody’s given us dirty looks. This is our first time.”
More than a half-century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred discrimination on the basis of race, Gene Baker acknowledged asking the interracial couple to leave his RV park near Tupelo. Baker, who lives in Aberdeen, said he only did it because “the neighbors were giving me such a problem.”
The on-the-record reaction from Baker is crucial.
Later on in the story, readers are given this crucial information linked to Baker, which pulls the church angle into play:
In February, Dunahoo, 40, and her 37-year-old husband, Stanley Hoskins, who have two children, were looking to rent an RV space when she contacted Baker. “We were trying to save money to get our life on track,” she said.
On Feb. 28, she arrived at the RV park and gave Baker a $275 check for rent for the month.
“He was real nice,” she said. “He invited me to church and gave me a hug. I bragged on him to my family.”
Yes, in the South it is perfectly normal for people to invite newcomers to church. Trust me on that.
Now, that friendly word of invitation is interesting, to say the least, in light of what Dunahoo says happened next in this sad drama.
The next day, she said, Baker telephoned her and said, “Hey, you didn’t tell me you was married to no black man.” She said she replied that she didn’t realize it was a problem.
“Oh, it’s a big problem with the members of my church, my community and my mother-in-law,” she quoted him as saying. “They don’t allow that black and white shacking.”
“We’re not shacking. We’re married,” she replied.
“Oh, it’s the same thing,” she quoted him as replying.
OK, at this point in the story I TOTALLY want to know more about this church. How about you?
Fact is, the Bible Belt contains more than its share of churches that have diverse congregations and interracial marriages.
Back in the 1980s -- make that the early 1980s -- I covered a funeral at one of the most powerful fundamentalist (that label was openly embraced in the pews) Baptist churches in Charlotte, N.C., and was intrigued to find more than a few African-Americans in the pews and the husband of one mixed-race couple serving in the board of deacons. What pulled these families into the church? A strong, and integrated, Christian school.
My assumption is that the editors handling this Clarion-Ledger story were thinking that they didn't need to identify this church, because, you know, everyone knows what kind of church would contain people that think like this. It would have to be Baptist, Pentecostal or some other brand of holy-roller place, right?
Maybe, maybe not. I do know that the Jackson area would include plenty of evangelical and even fundamentalist churches in which people would find this kind of racial discrimination horrifying and smoke from the pit of hell.
Belief it or not, the generic church angle shows up again before the story is done.
Asked if he had a problem with a mixed-race couple, Baker replied, “Oh, no.” He said his church lets interracial couples attend.
Dunahoo said he told her they could attend their church but “we’re not allowed to be members.”
OK, what kind of church are we talking about here? Why not ask that question and print the answer? In terms of quality journalism, what is to be gained by leaving readers in the dark?
This generic, no-name church stuff just doesn't cut it when the stakes are this high.