Urban ministry

What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

If you lived in or near Baltimore during the spring and early summer of 2015 then you were affected, one way or another, by the waves of urban violence that shook the city.

This tragedy was impossible to ignore. It was more than images on the evening news. You could stand in your yard and see the smoke over the neighborhoods east and west of downtown. One night, the fires were so large that I could see the reddish-gold glow in the sky — fires that included a community center and senior-housing unit that was being built by Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore.

What happened to Baltimore in those months, and the stunning violence that has gripped the city ever since, is a massive, complex story. It’s a police story. It’s a story about drugs, young men on the loose and shattered families. It’s an education story. It’s a political story. It’s a tragic story about government officials trying to find someone to blame.

But if you followed the local news during those months (and some of the national television coverage) you also knew that what happened in Baltimore was a religion story.

This is no surprise, since black churches — old and new, past and present — have always played a major role in urban life when people try to cope with danger and tragedy. No one worked harder than Baltimore pastors when it came time to respond to the violence and the bitter realities that provided fuel for the fires.

That’s why I was disappointed when I read a massive story on this subject that ran the other day, co-produced by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine. Here’s the dramatic double-decker headline:

The Tragedy of Baltimore

Since Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, violent crime has spiked to levels unseen for a quarter century. How order collapsed in an American city.

Let me be clear. This is a must-read story for anyone who cares about urban life and issues facing the poor. I am also not arguing that it was wrong for the story to devote so much ink to police and government issues.

I am simply saying that this story needed to include some content from pastors and other church leaders — if one of the goals was to show how Baltimore people responded to the riots, or uprisings, of 2015. The story needed the voices of religious believers, if the goal was to listen to Baltimore.

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Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Every working day when I am teaching in New York, I walk past the historic Trinity Episcopal Church. I don’t go in that direction on Sundays, because I head over to Brooklyn for a rather different, clearly Orthodox liturgical experience.

But back to the dramatic sanctuary at Broadway and Wall Street. We are talking about some prime real estate. And if you are interested in the dollars and cents of all that, then The New York Times recently ran a long, long story that you will need to read.

Actually, this sprawling epic is three or four stories in one. You can kind of see that in the massive second line of this double-decker headline. So sit down and dig in.

The Church With the $6 Billion Portfolio

While many houses of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their buildings, Trinity Church has become a big-time developer itself.

Frankly, I think this story should have been a series of some kind — to allow several of the valid religion-news angles to receive the news hole that they deserve. In a way, saying that is a compliment. Maybe.

For starters, you have that whole “$6 Billion Portfolio” thing, which deserves (and gets) a rather business-page approach. Then you have a perfectly valid church-state story about the tax questions circling around that vast bundle of secular and sacred real estate and development. Then you have a separate, but related, issue — New York City’s many other historic churches in which people are, often literally, struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Oh, and Trinity Wall Street is still an actual congregation that is linked to a historic, but now rapidly declining, old-line denomination.

Want to guess which of these stories received the least among of ink in this epic? #DUH

If you guessed the “church” story, you guessed right. Yes, there is an important religion “ghost” in this big religion story.

Let’s start with the overture, then I will note one or two passages that point to what could have been. To no one’s surprise, a certain Broadway musical made it into the lede:

Since the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” tourists have been swarming Trinity Church, part of an Episcopal parish in Lower Manhattan that dates to the 17th century. Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, are buried in the cemetery there.

Recent years have been good to the church and the rest of its campus.

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Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

No doubt about it, get ready to see more and more stories about church closings.

You know a topic is big news when Pope Francis starts talking about it.

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

First, here is the context for this discussion — a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.” Here’s the poignant overture:

WARRENTON, N.C. (RNS) — On a chilly December morning, 100 years and one week after its sanctuary opened, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a proud history, was formally closed.

Bishop Samuel Rodman presided over the Eucharistic service in an elementary school a block away from the church, where weekly services ended more than three years ago. Several longtime members returned to read Scriptures and sing hymns. Afterward, the group of 100, including history buffs and well-wishers from North Carolina and Virginia, shared a meal of fried chicken and baked beans.

All Saints is hardly alone among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations. Faced with dwindling members, crumbling infrastructure and costly maintenance, some 6,000 to 10,000 churches shutter each year, according to one estimate. More closures may be in the offing as surveys point to a decline in church attendance across the country.

But All Saints is an example of an even sharper decline. Historically African-American churches across the South are fast disappearing.

What do the numbers look like? The story notes that the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina “once boasted 60 such churches. Today, a mere dozen are left and, of those, only three have full-time clergy.” This long, deep, story has few, if any, signs of hope for the future.

Note that this feature is focusing on trends in “mainline Protestant and Catholic” churches.

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Friday Five: Thanksgiving, missionary death, Jordan Peterson, hurricane heroes, homeless church

Friday Five: Thanksgiving, missionary death, Jordan Peterson, hurricane heroes, homeless church

Happy (day after) Thanksgiving!

I’ve been mostly away from the news this week, enjoying my favorite holiday.

If I missed any important headlines that I should have included here, by all means, leave a comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

In the meantime, let’s dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This is an international story, so you might have missed it. The Washington Post reports from New Delhi on an American missionary who tried “to meet and convert one of the most isolated hunter-and-gather tribes in the world” by offering them “fish and other small gifts.”

Instead, the Post reports that “the tribesmen killed him and buried his body on the beach, journals and emails show.”

The story offers revealing insights from the journal as well as quotes from the missionary’s mother.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: As often happens, the words “Jordan Peterson” in a headline tend to attract attention.

Last week’s No. 1 most-read post was by our editor Terry Mattingly — the piece that he wrote to support last week’s “Crossroads” podcast. The headline on that: “Why is Jordan Peterson everywhere, right now, with religious folks paying close attention?” Here’s a bite of that:

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Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

You could make a strong case that GetReligion.org started with the Jonestown Massacre.

Yes, this massacre — a mass “revolutionary suicide” of 900-plus — took place in 1978 and this website launched in 2004.

What’s the connection? Well, in the late 1970s I was trying to work my way into the world of religion writing. I was already talking to the people who would serve as my links to that field — like Louis Moore, then of the Houston Chronicle, the late George Cornell of the Associated Press and others.

When Jonestown took place, here is what I heard these pros saying: This tragedy was the biggest story in the world. Why didn’t editors realize that this was a religion story? Why didn’t major news organizations assign religion-beat specialists to the teams covering this hellish event?

Why didn’t they get it? 

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

The reality was stranger than that. Jones came from the heart of progressive old-line Protestantism, from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He was well-connected to the edgy, liberal elites of San Francisco — including the LGBTQ pioneer Harvey Milk.

At the moment, the 40th anniversary of this event us getting attention in Hollywood and in the media. As our weekend think piece, consider reading this from The Daily Beast: “The Ballad of Jim Jones: From Socialist Cult ‘Messiah’ to Mass-Killing Monster.” Here is a chunk of that:

A new series from SundanceTV (co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio) takes an unflinching glimpse at the motivations of one of history’s most notorious cult leaders — for ultimately, that’s what Jonestown and the Peoples Temple became.

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Saved in El Salvador: Lots of media are flocking to cover gang members-turn-evangelical story

Saved in El Salvador: Lots of media are flocking to cover gang members-turn-evangelical story

Certain places in the world have problems that seem to be intractable. South Sudan. North Korea. And El Salvador.

The latter is the homicide capital of the world. Zillions of dollars have been poured into it. The U.S. government has declared war on its criminal elements. And nothing’s changed.

One institution, however, is dealing with the gangs. I was fascinated to see Molly O’Toole’s piece in The New Republic on how evangelical churches have the only solution that’s working.

Who would have thunk it?

At a small jail outside San Salvador, Brother David Borja lifted his sunglasses to talk a guard into letting us inside. The cell, originally intended for temporary holding, smelled of sweat and urine. In the center was a roughly ten-by-ten-foot cage, and inside it, a tangle of limbs and hammocks.

At the sight of Borja, a street preacher from the Baptist Biblical Tabernacle “Friends of Israel” church, bare-chested, tattooed young men began crawling down from the hammocks and pulling on T-shirts.

As Borja started to pray, the men crossed themselves and bowed their heads. A few cried silently; others testified, “Truth.” … As the guard latched the thick steel behind us, we could still hear the men’s applause, and pleas for the pastor to pray for them to be saved.

Prisons are obviously fertile missionary grounds here.

Founded in 1977, the Baptist Biblical Tabernacle “Friends of Israel” church, known as “Taber,” is now believed to be El Salvador’s largest church. Taber claims a congregation of more than 40,000, with millions of converts and more than 500 churches across the country. The megachurch also owns a handful of TV and radio stations and newspapers, extending its reach. In 1950, El Salvador was around 99 percent Catholic, but Protestantism has shot up since the 1970s, with 40 percent of adults today identifying as Protestant.

That makes Taber one of the most influential institutions in a country otherwise dominated by gangs.

The switch-over of Latin and Central Americans from Catholicism to Protestantism is still one of the more under-covered stories of modern religion reporting. It is a fait accompli one never thought would happen as recently as the 1970s. Here we read about an evangelical church that's taken on the gangs that rule the country.

According to experts, one of the gangs’ golden rules is that members can never leave with their lives. But in the past few years, there’s been a fascinating development: Gang bosses are increasingly granting those under their command desistance—a status change from “active” to “calmado,” meaning “calmed down”—if they convert to evangelicalism. At El Salvador’s San Francisco Gotera prison, about 1,000 ex-gang members have become evangelicals, nearly all of the overcrowded prison’s occupants.

The phenomenon can also be seen outside, at smaller Pentecostal parishes such as Ebenezer, whose ministry to gang members, The Final Trumpet, is known for speaking in tongues. Newfound-religious who stray from the righteous path, however—whether by drinking, doing drugs, beating their wives or girlfriends, or not attending church—can face deadly consequences from their former compatriots.

It’s an open, urgent question whether evangelical megachurches like Taber can use their influence to bring peace to El Salvador . . .

Actually, according to the link provided in the above paragraph, Ebenezer is simply a Pentecostal church and is known for a lot more than tongues-speaking. I am guessing the reporter is not too familiar with the doctrines of these various congregations.

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That Aretha funeral sermon: AP offers quick look at the painful issues behind the furor

That Aretha funeral sermon: AP offers quick look at the painful issues behind the furor

During the two decades that I taught journalism in Washington, D.C., the team at what became the Washington Journalism Center did everything it could to help our students -- who came from all over the country -- see a side of the city that tourists rarely see.

We urged them to visit local churches, black and white. For two years, our students lived in home-stay arrangements all over the city, with families we met through church ties. We sent them on research trips into neighborhoods, using the buses rather than the subways (ask any DC resident what that's all about). Students served as tutors in urban after-school programs and as helpers and babysitters for mothers linked to a crisis-pregnancy center.

In discussions with students I heard one question more than any other: Where are the fathers?

That's the subject looming in the background of media reports about the controversial sermon delivered the other day by the Rev. Jasper Williams Jr., during the epic Aretha Franklin funeral. We will come back to that.

In many ways, this topic has been a third rail in American journalism ever since a 1965 report -- “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" -- by Daniel Patrick Moynihan rocked American politics (click here for Washington Post backgrounder). Here is the key stat (see this stunning chart), undated to reflect what has happened since: More than 70 percent of all African-America children today are born to an unmarried mom, a stat 300 percent higher than in the mid-1960s.

Here is the overture to the Associated Press story about the Aretha funeral. The key question: Was the heart of this sermon religious or political?

A fiery, old-school pastor who is under fire for saying black America is losing "its soul" at Aretha Franklin's funeral stands firm by his words with the hope critics can understand his perspective.

Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. told The Associated Press in a phone interview ... he felt his sermon was appropriate at Franklin's funeral Friday in Detroit. He felt his timing was right, especially after other speakers spoke on the civil rights movement and President Donald Trump.

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The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber flies solo: RNS offers readers a love song that avoids her critics

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber flies solo: RNS offers readers a love song that avoids her critics

It's easy to understand why the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber has always received so much attention from the mainstream news media.

Many journalists start with The Look, referring to her many tattoos, edgy hair and love of weight-lifting. Then there is the message -- a jolting mix of traditional religious language, lingering traces of her work in stand-up comedy, candor about her complicated personal life and a set of moral and political views that place her solidly on the religious left. And the aging world of old-line Protestantism is not full of pastors, male or female, who built growing urban congregations that appealed to the young.

The bottom line: Bolz-Weber is a media superstar.

So it was totally logical for Religion News Service to produce a long feature about her final service as pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America church that she started a decade ago in Denver. Here's a crucial passage:

Bolz-Weber said she had decided to step away only recently and still can’t entirely explain what made her feel like it was the right time. She reached a point, she said, where “the church still loves me, but I don’t think the church still needs me.” ...

But there were signs, too, that she had done all she could do at HFASS. “I didn’t come to this job with everything, but it felt like I was equipped with the ability to welcome thousands of people through the doors,” she said. “I was at a retreat recently where there were 30 people I didn’t recognize, and I just had this feeling like, ‘I can’t welcome any more people.’”

Bolz-Weber’s signature talent is welcoming people who think the church wouldn’t welcome them. The eight people who showed up in her living room for a Sunday evening service in 2008 were mostly LGBT people, those with religious baggage, addicts and others who don’t fit at many Sunday services but want to experience God’s grace.

After a decade, the church has roughly 500 members. That's a rather average-sized church in megachurch friendly Denver, but that is a very large church in the context of liberal Protestantism.

Needless to say, Bolz-Weber has critics as well as fans.

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San Francisco Chronicle's piece on RVs and the homeless is latest look at huge trend

San Francisco Chronicle's piece on RVs and the homeless is latest look at huge trend

I never knew there was a hidden population of people in church parking lots across the country. Then I read a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle about how some congregations were helping alleviate a crisis of homelessness on the West Coast.

It makes sense, actually. Most days a week, church parking lots are pretty much empty.

I thought the Chronicle’s story was unique until I did a search and found out that church parking lots-and-the-homeless have been covered quite a bit. KTVU, a local TV station, covered the same topic a month ago. Here's the Chronicle's piece:

Last year, Arnell Clark and his girlfriend, Mataele Robertson, moved their young family out of an East Palo Alto house because they could no longer afford the rent. The couple figured they’d get more room in a 34-foot recreational vehicle.

But the stigma hit hard. When they were renters, neighbors used to say hi. But in an RV on the street, “we’re invisible,” said 39-year-old Clark, a laid-off package handler. “It’s the unspoken that tells me how you feel.”

The solution: moving to a church parking lot. For months the couple have stationed their RV in the lots of local churches. They are currently on the East Palo Alto property of St. Samuel Church of God in Christ, an arrangement that Clark finds a blessing…

With no end in sight to soaring housing costs, several Bay Area faith organizations have become a sanctuary of sorts -- not just channeling donations and distributing food, but also offering a safe place for people living in cars or RVs. The arrangement has sometimes grated on neighbors, but for pastors, it’s simply an extension of their mission to serve humanity.

The newspaper offers a list of churches -– mainly in Silicon Valley -– that are letting either RVs or people sleeping in their cards take up space in their lots.

The "Safe Parking" sign that introduces this post is from Morgan Hill Bible Church that's well to the south of San Jose. Back to the feature itself:

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