A don't-miss-it deep dive: New York Times delivers a factual, balanced portrait of John Allen Chau

A don't-miss-it deep dive: New York Times delivers a factual, balanced portrait of John Allen Chau

Here’s the must-read religion story of this past weekend: the New York Times’ front-page treatment Saturday of the tragic death of missionary John Allen Chau.

I’ll offer a few quick grades (on a report-card scale of A to F) on the in-depth piece before urging you to read it:

• Readability: A.

Filled with “astounding details,” this is an exceptional read that immediately draws in readers.

The compelling opening anecdote (my apologies for copying and pasting so much text, but it’s crucial information):

Just months before undertaking the most forbidding journey in his life as a young missionary to a remote Indian Ocean island, John Allen Chau was blindfolded and dropped off on a dirt road in a remote part of Kansas.

After a long walk, he found a mock village in the woods inhabited by missionaries dressed in odd thrift-store clothes, pretending not to understand a word he said. His role was to preach the gospel. The others were supposed to be physically aggressive. Some came at him with fake spears, speaking gibberish.

It was part of an intensive and somewhat secretive three-week missionary training camp. Mary Ho, the international executive leader for All Nations, the organization that ran the training, said, “John was one of the best participants in this experience that we have ever had.”

For Mr. Chau, 26, the boot camp was the culmination of years of meticulous planning that involved linguistics training and studying to become an emergency medical technician, as well as forgoing full-time jobs so he could travel and toughen himself up.

He did it all with the single-minded goal of breaking through to the people of North Sentinel Island, a remote outpost of hunters and gatherers in the Andaman Sea who had shown tremendous hostility to outsiders.

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What happens when a travel story about spiritual spaces in Los Angeles goes wrong?

What happens when a travel story about spiritual spaces in Los Angeles goes wrong?

Well, it seemed like a delightful story. 

A New York Times freelancer decided to visit contemplative sites and institutions in greater Los Angeles and make a travel story out of it.

I was in LA for few days in January. And after experiencing the region’s numbing traffic several days in a row, I hid out at a friend’s home in a gated community in Buena Park. I was thanking God that I had never gotten a job in this region. I thought commuting in DC was rough. This was the Beltway on steroids.

But this writer gave a positive spin to all the craziness. Thus, we follow him as he explores what Los Angelenos do to escape the maddening crowd.

The key: Finding vaguely spiritual sites that help people calm down and deal with stress. But are all "spiritual" places created equal? Are some "spiritual" activities linked to, you know, religion?

This meditative mind-set was fitting for my 3 p.m. appointment, which I was now 45 minutes late to. I was supposed to be visiting the Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens as part of a larger quest to seek out spaces of refuge and retreat across the city’s endless suburban sprawl. I wanted to find the quiet, contemplative Los Angeles, the hidden pockets of reverence, reflection, silence; places Angelenos repair to in order to recharge their batteries so that they are ready to face another day, another traffic jam, another screaming child, another vindictive boss. A city is not necessarily defined by its landmarks or its flashiest moments but by all the subtle ways its citizens forge the necessary solitude that allows them to live in proximity to their neighbors. ...

He showed me how to walk the labyrinth, a circular pathway of travertine marble. Have you ever walked a labyrinth? Labyrinths, unlike mazes, are unicursal -- they have only one way in and one way out. Each step becomes a purposeful movement. They are an ancient form of meditation; this one is based on the labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France, built in the early 13th century. As you walk, the city becomes a distant dream, a movie half-remembered. In a way, it is bit like the festina lente of Interstate 10, but without the cars, the smog, the man in the neon-yellow Dodge Charger listening to Whitesnake’s “Here I go Again” at peak volume. One way in, one way out.

The writer introduces the reader to the concept of shinrin-yoku, which is immersing oneself in greenery, as in a forest. Stay with me for the next lengthy passage:

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The politics -- ancient and modern -- that surround the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The politics -- ancient and modern -- that surround the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The other day, I pointed readers toward a piece of student journalism from the famed Columbia University School of Journalism -- a kind of a "Religion Beat: The Next Generation" nod. Click here to see that post: "Meet the Muslim Man Who Rents Crosses in Jerusalem."

Several readers asked if this was new territory for GetReligion, since we are not critiquing these pieces. In a way, it is new ground. However, readers should consider this part of our years of work trying to show newsroom managers that there are young journalists in the pipeline who want to cover this important beat.

The faculty member behind this project is the great religion-beat pro Ari L. Goldman, formerly of The New York Times, who serves as director of the Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life. With his cooperation, The Media Project website is running some student stories reported and written in Goldman's "Covering Religion" seminars -- with hands-on reporting work overseas.

This story by reporter/photographer Augusta Anthony is about one of the most famous and sacred sites in global Christianity. The headline: "Unity in the Divided Church of the Holy Sepulchre." The symbolic-detail lede:

JERUSALEM -- There’s a ladder in the Old City of Jerusalem. It perches on a stone ledge beneath the second floor window at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. According to local lore, the ladder has been there since at least 1852 and it is not to be moved.

The “immovable ladder,” as its known, symbolizes the complications that arise when six different Christian denominations occupy one of the holiest sites in their theology. Someone -- no one knows who -- left it there in the mid-19th century and to this day none of the churches has agreed who the ladder belongs to. So it sits there, on a ledge above the sturdy wooden doors, a reminder of the contested ground beneath it.

“They are always asking about the ladder,” said Archbishop Hierapolis Isidoros with a sigh.

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'Is your church van a death trap?': Kentucky paper shines a bright light on important safety question

'Is your church van a death trap?': Kentucky paper shines a bright light on important safety question

Louisville Courier-Journal print subscribers woke up to this question Sunday morning: "Is your church van a death trap?"

Or, as the headline atop the online version of the Kentucky newspaper's in-depth investigative report put it, "Churches are putting their faith in these old vans that could kill."

This is important journalism, based on the Courier-Journal's analysis of millions of crash records from six states between 2004 and 2017.

Readers — particularly those with a 15-passenger van in their church parking lot — would do well to pay attention to it.

I'll share a longer chunk of the opening paragraphs than normal, but these details are both powerful and crucial:

A Ford Motor Company employee test-driving a 15-passenger van flipped it while swerving through a series of cones in 1990.

He didn’t report it. He blamed himself, not the van — and his superiors agreed. That vehicle, the E350, dominated the large-van market for years.

But a Florida jury in March blamed that same make and model van for a woman’s death, granting her four children and husband nearly $20 million in damages.

The left-rear tire on the 2002 E350 had shredded. The van flipped, and passenger Michalanne Salliotte, 44, was tossed from the vehicle and crushed on Feb. 21, 2014.

Salliotte and the driver, who also died, were among five people thrown out as the van tumbled. One was a teenager who had to repeat a year of school because of brain damage. Seven others were injured.

The jury also found the First Baptist Church of New Port Richey negligent for not keeping seat belts in the van within reach.

Transportation safety officials have known since 2001 that 15-passenger vans like the E350 are prone to roll in a crash when loaded with people. Federal officials have issued repeated safety warnings to carmakers and the public. Some insurance companies refuse to cover them. A major religious denomination advises member churches to avoid them. And at least 28 states prohibit public schools from using them to transport students.

Yet many churches around the country still use the old vans to haul kids to swimming pools, take parishioners to services or deliver members to conferences and revival meetings.

And people still die.

Of course, safety questions about 15-passenger vans are not new.

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Jim Bakker plus real estate plus the apocalypse plus zero new reporting equals WHAT?

Jim Bakker plus real estate plus the apocalypse plus zero new reporting equals WHAT?

Jim Bakker likes to build things.

In the old days be built really big things and news consumers with a long attention span will remember how that turned out. Click here for a recent news update.

Today he's building smaller things -- like Ozark cabins for the post-apocalyptic age. Buyers will need lots of Bakker approved religious-home furnishings, of course.

As you would imagine, there are people who want to write about that. The question is whether, in a social-media and Internet journalism age, WRITING about this topic actually requires journalists at a major newspaper in the Midwest to do any new REPORTING, other than with an Internet search engine.

Here's the Kansas City Star headline: "Televangelist Jim Bakker calls his Missouri cabins the safest spot for the Apocalypse." Read this story and count the online and streaming info sources. I'll start you off with the overture:

Televangelist Jim Bakker suggests that if you want to survive the end of days, the best thing you could do is buy one of his cabins in Missouri's Ozark Mountains. And while you're at it, be sure to pick up six 28-ounce "Extreme Survival Warfare" water bottles for $150.

Bakker, 78, made comments promoting his Morningside church community alongside his co-host and wife, Lori, on an episode of "The Jim Bakker Show," which aired Tuesday. The show is filmed there, near Branson.

Then there's a short flashback to the PTL Club days in Charlotte, with no attribution necessary. That's followed by a temptress Jessica Hahn update, care of reporting by The Charlotte Observer a few months ago. Then a bit more history, with no attribution.

Then we're back to information gained by watching the new Bakker show from Branson.

But wait. Read this next part carefully.

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From Columbia Journalism School: Meet the Muslim man who rents crosses in Jerusalem

From Columbia Journalism School: Meet the Muslim man who rents crosses in Jerusalem

Long, long ago, back when I started writing my "On Religion" column, I worked at The Rocky Mountain News (RIP) in Denver. That meant getting to know quite a few editors and leaders in the whole Scripps Howard News operation. After I left the newsroom, it was natural that some of those ties and friendships remained.

Then, when I began teaching journalism -- especially in Washington, D.C. -- it was natural for me to talk to some of the movers and shakers in the Scripps Howard Foundation, especially those linked to the news bureau that existed for many years just off K Street.

To make a long story short, I was very happy when the foundation asked for input on starting an seminar on religion reporting at the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York City. They said the faculty member they wanted to lead this project was Ari L. Goldman, formerly of The New York Times, and I said: Oh. My. God. Yes. (or words to that effect). Goldman is now the veteran director of the school’s Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life.

All of that leads to this: Our colleagues at The Media Project website are going to start running, on occasion, pieces written by students in Goldman's "Covering Religion" seminars, which include hands-on reporting work overseas -- with past visits to India, Russia, Ukraine, Ireland, Italy, Israel, Jordan and the West Bank.

So check out this feature, with reporting and photography by students Isobel van Hagen and Vildana Hajric. The headline: "A Muslim Man's Sacred Job Renting Crosses in Jerusalem."

Here's the overture:

JERUSALEM -- Tall, built and gangly, Mazen Kenan, a 46-year-old Palestinian, towers above everyone in just about any setting. But his height is particularly commanding in the tightly packed streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, where he maneuvers easily despite the five foot-long, 50-pound wooden cross he bears on his shoulder. His dexterity is not surprising because he’s been shuttling crosses through the city for nearly two decades.

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Here we go again: Has anyone at Newsweek (or Yahoo) heard of that whole 'Easter' thing?

Here we go again: Has anyone at Newsweek (or Yahoo) heard of that whole 'Easter' thing?

OK, this is going to be a rather short post. Here is the big news, in the words of a faithful GetReligion reader: "Oh no. They did it again."

Who is "they" in that sentence? Basically, "they" are one or more Internet journalists somewhere who wrote and approved a headline without stopping and thinking about it.

What is the "it" in that sentence? Pay attention as I dig into this a bit. Then we'll get to the use of the word "again."

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is a one-of-a-kind holy site, with various ancient Christian churches in control of this large and complex sanctuary. At the moment, there is a big story unfolding there. Here is the top of a Newsweek report, as run at a Yahoo news site:

Christian leaders have closed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, said to be built on the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial, in a protest at Israeli tax policy which they say unfairly targets Christians.
In a rare move, leaders from the Greek, Armenian and Catholic denominations said they were indefinitely closing the church because of a “systematic campaign” by Israeli authorities.

Well, yes, that's one way to say it. The church does contain a shrine built over the tomb of Jesus. However, if you know  anything about Christianity -- anything AT ALL -- you probably remember something very important about that tomb. It's the whole Easter thing.

Thus, the reader sent me this headline -- which is the "it" n this sad tale. Here we go:

Jerusalem Church Where Jesus Is Said to be Buried Closed After Tax Dispute With Israeli Government

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Friday Five: Livin' On A Prayer, Emanuel AME juror, deranged parents, Arkansas shooting and more

Friday Five: Livin' On A Prayer, Emanuel AME juror, deranged parents, Arkansas shooting and more

Confession time: I chose one of this week's Friday Five because it gave me an excuse to post the video of Bon Jovi's "Livin' On A Prayer."

See if you can guess which one.

Woah, we're halfway there

Woah, livin' on a prayer

Take my hand, we'll make it I swear

Woah, livin' on a prayer …

But enough of that. Let's dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jennifer Berry Hawes profiled the jury foreman in last year's trial of Dylann Roof, the gunman sentenced to death in the Emanuel AME Church massacre in Charleston, S.C.

In a post this week, I described Hawes' story in The Post and Courier as "an amazing narrative piece."

"Jennifer Hawes is AMAZING. The end," the jury foreman, Gerald Truesdale, commented in response to my post. 

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Wall Street Journal does religion tourism where multiple faiths co-exist

Wall Street Journal does religion tourism where multiple faiths co-exist

It’s not often that I see a combination of two of my favorite beats: Religion and travel, but a recent story in the Wall Street Journal travel section told of the quickly becoming-famous “Jesus trail” through Galilee that could theoretically be walked in three days.

Tara Burton, the newish religion corresponded for, wrote the Journal piece about how she found the 40-mile trail through rural parts of Israel to be welcoming and full of multi-cultural and multi-religious experience. But the comments to the article brought out some other angles: How only in Israel might a Western woman expect to hike unmolested. If Burton tried this in certain others Middle Eastern countries, her experience might have been very different.

First, the article, which, being behind a paywall, will be reproduced here as much as I’m able to cut and paste.

It took five minutes into my pilgrimage for somebody to offer me free food. Leaving my inn, a converted 19th-century mansion in the Israeli town of Nazareth, I’d turned the corner to make the initial ascent toward the Franciscan Mensa Church. The church stands on the site where Christ was said to have dined with his apostles just after his resurrection. A smiling man with a lazy eye, standing by the trail head, decided I should dine, too.
He handed me a chocolate bar, gesturing toward the orange trail markers that demarcated the route. He mimed something approximating “difficult climb,” then also gave me a piece of burma—a sticky, pistachio-studded pastry—the honey staining my fingers. But of course, I had to try this, too. With a combination of hand signals and makeshift Arabic, I tried to convey “delicious,” “thank you” and “please stop: I cannot fit anything else into my bag.”
I spent nearly as much time eating with strangers as walking during my trip earlier this year along the Jesus Trail, a 40-mile trek connecting several major sites of Jesus’ life, from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee (also called Lake Tiberias). But that was, according to the Jesus Trail’s founders, the point.

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