Taking Pat Summitt's faith seriously: Sally Jenkins on treating the elderly with dignity

As you would expect, the news coverage of the death of Pat Summitt has faded at the national level. She was a very important person in the world of women's sports, a legend even, but life moves on. Yes, we will get to that amazing first-person piece by columnist Sally Jenkins in a moment.

Here in East Tennessee, the coverage has continued. Here in Lady Vols territory, she was a local institution and, for many, a person who lived near someone they knew, or they bumped into her at a grocery store, met her at a sports event at a local school or, yes, they knew her from church.

Last week, I wrote a GetReligion piece in which I argued that it was strange for the mainstream press to have ignored the role that Christian faith played in this strong woman's life. This was especially true in light of a reference, in the official obituary posted online by the Pat Summitt Foundation, to the fact that she was baptized, with her son Tyler, in a ceremony of some kind of 2012. This was a year after her Mayo Clinic diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's disease and a few weeks after she stepped down as coach of the Lady Vols basketball team.

I immediately began hearing from lots of people that there was much more to that story than one event in 2012. Actually, you could catch a hint of that in the language used in that official obituary.

She was most proud of one special moment they shared that outshines all the others. On May 5, 2012, Pat and Tyler were baptized together. On this day, they decided together to go public with their faith and professed their love for and acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. On this day, they created the ultimate and eternal memory, together.

The point of my earlier post was not that this baptism was a story in and of itself, but that this event was part of a larger picture. I immediately started working on a column of my own, which will go to the Universal syndicate this week.

As it turns out, Summitt's son -- Tyler Summitt -- is a member of the giant Faith Promise Church, a Southern Baptist congregation that meets at several locations in the Knoxville area. As you would expect, his mother attended that church with him from time to time. Pat Summitt, however, was raised as a Methodist in rural Tennessee northwest of Nashville and was active in several congregations in that tradition in the Knoxville area, especially the Seymour United Methodist Church. She visited other local churches as well.

Let me be blunt, folks. If you know anything about life in the American Southeast, you know that Methodists churches are everywhere. If you were raised in a rural Methodist church in the 1950s and '60s, you grew up going to Church with a big "C." We are talking about revival meetings, Gospel singalongs, Bible camps and one of the strongest Sunday school traditions anywhere (as in the word "method" in Methodists).

In the online obit, Tyler had this to say:

For 64 years, my mother first built her life upon a strong relationship with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Her foundation was also built upon love of her family and of her players, and love of the fundamentals of hard work which reflected her philosophy that "you win in life with people."

Note what Tyler was saying there. His mother's Christian faith was part of her whole life. That 2012 baptism was a proclamation of that fact by the two of them.

Again, I say all of this to make this point: Faith played a strong role in this woman's life. It was a part of this news story, even if that was a complex part of the story. Why avoid it?

You can see what I am talking about in a lengthy first-person essay written (this link is to the Knoxville News Sentinel) by the famous sportswriter Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post, who co-wrote several books with Summitt -- including her autobiography, "Sum It Up." I knew Jenkins' work about Summitt from years of reading the Post. However, I had not dug into "Sum It Up" until this past weekend.

Here is a crucial passage from this new feature:

You couldn't fail to remark on how gentle and deeply absorbed Pat was with the very old, or the young. ... Pat had an undeniable habit of recruiting grandmothers. It was Chamique Holdsclaw's grandmother who insisted she go to Tennessee. A young player might spurn her for another school, but years later if Pat met her again, she'd say, "How's your grandmamma?"
In short, Pat was what she would call a good Christian woman. She was also no saint. The last time I saw her it was all I could do not to tease her one more time; I wanted to lean in close and whisper in her ear, "How bad do you want a cranberry vodka right about now?" Pat didn't practice bumper sticker Christianity, plaque-in-the-kitchen religion. She practiced the real thing, and never once talked about it. She didn't tell anybody to go to church. But if you ate with her you held hands and blessed the food before you took a bite. Long past the point that Pat began having trouble forming sentences, she could still say grace. So when I leaned in, what I whispered to her was, "Thank you for bringing me closer to God."

Jenkins has her own personal take on Summitt and her beliefs, one that is a bit different from other folks you can talk to on that subject.

But that's beside the point. Nobody has to agree with her theological reflections to see the depth of the friendship that was there and this reporter's understanding of how Summitt's final battle with dementia can teach our culture something important about the dignity and value of human life.

This is strong stuff:

When a friend or family member is diagnosed, this is what you quickly learn: Once-brilliant people who still have vast reserves of brain cells are discounted, forced into retirement, and many are warehoused in facilities where the food is patently awful and the most meaningful activity is bingo. And we wonder why they decline so swiftly. Their care is infantilizing and schedule-oriented, with full-grown adults fed at six and forced to bed at eight. And when they can't communicate as they used to we lack the imagination to try find other ways to reach them, so their pain or discomfort often goes unaddressed, leading to interactions that, as Stettinius says, "exhaust, frustrate, and deplete everyone involved." Creative new forms of care that can enhance quality of life -- art, poetry, music and animal therapies for Alzheimer's patients -- are the rare exception. Ignorance about the disease is the rule. We give lip service to preserving dignity but devote precious little thought to the fact that the quickest way to rob someone of that dignity is to tell them what time to go to bed.

And Jenkins powerfully does the math, for those who haven't been paying attention. Friends, Pope John Paul II could have written this passage:

How do we treat people who are older and ailing? As if they are sentient and sensitive beings, whose life and belongings are still theirs? Or do we treat them as if they are husks, largely insensible and defunct and somehow a little less human, so it doesn't much matter what their care is? The answer to that question happens to be the essence of Christianity.

Let me stress, again, that this Jenkins essay is essential reading. However, running a fabulous first-person piece on this subject by a world-class reporter only points to the fact that there was an important subject here worth serious reporting -- in a news piece that involved several perspectives on Summitt and her faith.

Newsrooms -- ESPN, for starters -- have poured out oceans of digital ink in the wake of Summitt's death, with dozens of powerful personal stories about her words and deeds. Why not report some of the stories about her faith?

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