Exposed: A few questions about that breastfeeding mother given an apology by a Michigan church

Exposed: A few questions about that breastfeeding mother given an apology by a Michigan church

A woman got a pastor's apology for criticism she received after breastfeeding in an open area of a church building, reports the Livingston Daily — a Gannett newspaper in Michigan.

All in all, the paper offers a fair, well-rounded account of what happened on a Sunday in June.

I don't have many complaints about the coverage, which I came across via the Pew Research Center's daily religion headlines.

But I do have a few questions — one of them the same as I asked about a Virginia breastfeeding story last year. I'll elaborate in a moment.

First, though, let's review the basic facts out of Michigan:

A Brighton pastor has apologized to a woman who said she was shamed for breastfeeding inside a church while waiting for her other children to finish Sunday school.

Amy Marchant, 29, said she asked for a public apology after she was accused of immodesty and potentially inspiring “lustfulness” in men for nursing her child at The Naz Church in Brighton in mid-June.

“Of all the places, it is most hurtful when it comes from your own church, that you are going to cause guys to lust after you,” Marchant said Thursday.

Ben Walls, Sr., lead pastor, said the church supports and encourages breastfeeding, and the Father’s Day incident “had to do with breastfeeding, but didn’t.”

He said three different spaces are set aside for “those who want a private space” – a lounge outside of the restroom specifically created for nursing mothers a decade ago and two other rooms in a children’s area “designated for ladies who want privacy.”

“That is what we want to say – we have nothing against breastfeeding and we are in favor,” Walls said. “It’s very hard because we understand that she was very hurt and we apologize to her. We’re very sorry for the embarrassment and hurt caused when she was asked to cover or use one of those rooms. We apologize for her hurt and embarrassment; that wasn’t the intention.”

Keep reading, and a key issue seems to be that the mother had exposed both her breasts while feeding the baby in a public area. You can read the full story for all the specific details both from the perspective of the mother and that of the church.

My questions relate more to other important context: For one, the mother twice in the story calls the congregation — which she has since left — her "own church." Does that mean she is or was a member? How long had she attended the church?

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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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Remember the Church Page? RNS story on churches aiding South Sudanese refugees will take you back

Remember the Church Page? RNS story on churches aiding South Sudanese refugees will take you back

The Republic of South Sudan is one of the world’s misery portals. Since its independence in 2011, (it's the globe’s youngest fully-minted nation) South Sudan has known little else but war, poverty, hunger and political infighting among its power elites.

The result of which is ongoing misery for the north-central African nation’s ordinary people. This BBC backgrounder tells the tale -- though, curiously, it fails to mention that South Sudan sought to secede from its northern neighbor, Sudan, in large part over religion. Sudan is staunchly Muslim while the people of what is now South Sudan largely practice traditional African tribal faiths, though Christianity is also a major force.

A newly brokered power-sharing agreement could change things for the better. However, those in the international media paying close attention to South Sudan note that we’ve been here before. Al Jazeera English reported that this is the 12th ceasefire and second power-sharing arrangement between the current civil war’s rival parties. So don’t start clapping just yet.

All I’ve said so far is meant as a prelude to dissecting this recent -- and troubling -- Religion News Service story about an upsurge in South Sudanese refugees in Uganda seeking “healing” in Christian churches.

Here’s the top of it. This is long, but essential:

BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda (RNS) -- Every morning when Achol Kuol wakes up, she borrows a Bible from her neighbor and reads a verse to comfort herself before she meets others in an open-air church rigged from timber. They sing, dance and speak in tongues during the service. Some who feel filled with the Holy Spirit scream and jump -- not with joy, but remorse.

Confessions flow as they recall the ones they killed in the civil war back home in South Sudan. They cry out, lamenting ordeals they endure at night. Others weep in prayer as they ask God for forgiveness.

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'The hardest story I've ever written': Journalist masterfully tells story of church gunman's wife

'The hardest story I've ever written': Journalist masterfully tells story of church gunman's wife

Want to read the best, most insightful coverage of the aftermath of last November's massacre at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas? 

Then you absolutely must follow the byline of San Antonio Express-News journalist Silvia Foster-Frau, who repeatedly has produced extraordinary journalism on this sad subject.

Just three past examples of her must-read reporting on Sutherland Springs:

• Her hopeful, sensitive, nuanced portrait of victims a month after the tragedy.

• Her poignant account of survivors attending National Day of Prayer events in Washington, D.C., in May.

• Her detail-laden profile, published in June, of the “good guy with a gun” who confronted the gunman outside the church. 

And now comes another masterpiece from Foster-Frau, this one from the front page of Sunday's Express-News and featuring her exclusive interviews with the troubled wife of the dead gunman.

How incredible was this latest story? Consider that at least two other major Texas papers — the Houston Chronicle (a sister publication of the Express-News) and the Dallas Morning News — both reprinted it on their front pages today.

The chilling opening scene recounts what happened at the home of Devin and Danielle Kelley on the morning of Nov. 5:

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Amazing grace: KKK leader transformed by baptism, repentance and other vague stuff

Amazing grace: KKK leader transformed by baptism, repentance and other vague stuff

What an amazing religion story NBC News offered the other day about sin, repentance, forgiveness and a Christian pastor showing some genuinely amazing grace to a KKK leader.

Well, it would have been an astonishing religion feature, if only the newsroom team had included a reporter or a producer who recognized that Christian faith was at the heart of this story of human hatred that was baptized -- literally, in this case -- in love. 

It's hard to leave religion out of a born-again story like this one, but the NBC team did its best.

So here is the dramatic, but faith-free, headline on top of the report: "Ex-KKK member denounces hate groups one year after rallying in Charlottesville." And here is the faith-free overture:

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nearly one year ago, Ken Parker joined hundreds of other white nationalists at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. That day, he wore a black shirt with two lightning bolts sewn onto the collar, the uniform of the National Socialist Movement, an American neo-Nazi group.

In the past 12 months, his beliefs and path have been radically changed by the people he has met since the violent clash of white nationalists and counterprotesters led to the death of Heather Heyer, 32.

Now he looks at the shirt he wore that day, laid out in his apartment in Jacksonville, and sees it as a relic from a white nationalist past he has since left behind.

So where is the faith element in this born-again story? Well, Parker had some contacts with opponents of the alt-right that left him somewhat shaky, in a good way. He began to think twice about his beliefs.

Then this happened:


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The (S.C.) State launches five-part series on why Bible Belt folks are quitting church

The (S.C.) State launches five-part series on why Bible Belt folks are quitting church

The State, a McClatchy newspaper in Columbia, S.C., doesn’t have a religion reporter due to budget cuts, but its staff has sure published out a lot of religion news lately. Several weeks ago I wrote here about a piece by one of its writers on the state’s exotic snake industry and how snake-handling preachers in surrounding states get their serpents from South Carolina.

(In fact, there was a follow-up article on Saturday about Repticon, a huge snake show in Columbus that had a religion angle to it.)

This year, the staff embarked on a lengthy series called “Losing Faith: Why South Carolina is abandoning its churches.” At least 97 S.C. churches have closed since 2011, a subhead said. Other churches are dying slow deaths, losing thousands of members, so what’s happening to the Bible Belt?

Sarah Ellis, a local government reporter, wrote most of these pieces. In this one, the largest article in the series, she sets out the problem. (And as the author of the 2008 book “Quitting Church,” naturally I’m interested in how this topic has stayed in the news for a decade. My book came out 10 years ago next month.)

As this first article points out, three out of every four people in the South identify as Christian and 80 percent say religion is important in their lives. The South has the country’s highest rate of church attendance. Now we learn that adherence is slipping even in the Bible Belt.

Many churches are dying slow deaths, stuck in stagnation if not decline. And if they don’t do something, in the near future, they’ll share the fate of Cedar Creek United Methodist, a 274-year-old Richland County congregation that dissolved last year; Resurrection Lutheran, a church near downtown Columbia that will hold its last service on Sept. 2; and the dozens of churches that sit shuttered and empty around the state.

At the same time, some churches are growing, and some growing quickly. But they might not look much like the churches your grandparents (and their grandparents) were raised in. From meeting in unconventional places to tweaking their traditions, many churches are adapting, offering something different that many people thought the church couldn’t do for them.

What they’re doing reflects the results of an ongoing conversation among churches: How can they stay alive?

A lot in this piece repeats what’s long been reported elsewhere: The growing numbers of “nones;” aging church members not getting replaced by younger ones and a post-Christian culture where less and less people publicly identify themselves as Christians.


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Thinking about trust & the press: Religion-beat pros are liberals who 'get' the right?

Thinking about trust & the press: Religion-beat pros are liberals who 'get' the right?

And now, an all too familiar word from America's Tweeter In Chief: "The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust."

This is, of course, a variation on his larger theme that the entire mainstream press is the Enemy of the People, or words to that effect. Meanwhile, "fake news" has become a phrase that (click here for a tmatt typology on this term) is all but meaningless in American public discourse.

Whenever a Trumpian Tweet storm kicks up, I always say that it's stupid to say that something as complex as the American Press is the Enemy of the People. However, after decades of reading media bias studies on moral, cultural and religious issues, I think that it’s possible to say that significant numbers of journalists in strategic newsrooms are the enemies of about 20 to 40 percent of the nation's population. This remark usually draws silence.

This brings us to the growing "trust gap" between the American press and the American people. What can be done to improve this tragic situation?

That's the subject of this weekend’s think piece, which is a Q&A at FiveThirtyEight, that includes a rather strange reference to improving religion-news coverage. The discussion opens like this: 

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): It’s time to gaze at our navels!!! We’re chatting about the media. Everyone ready?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I’m not not ready.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Technically, I’m in a different field full time, academia, where we never do any navel-gazing, sooo …

micah: On this week’s FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, we talked about President Trump’s attacks on the press. Trump’s criticisms are mostly wrong, but the press as a whole (yes, it’s not great to lump all the media into one) does have a trust issue.

With that in mind, our mission for today: What resolutions do we think journalists (us and everyone else) should make to improve Americans’ faith in the press? 

Now, if you are an advocate of old-school, "American Model of the Press" journalism (stress on accuracy, balance, fairness and respect for voices on all sides of public debates), this Q&A is going to make you upset.

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Catholic drama is epic tragedy: Why is Willow Creek meltdown so important?

Catholic drama is epic tragedy: Why is Willow Creek meltdown so important?

At this point, two of America's hottest religion-beat stories have become wedded at the hip, at least in my mind.

I am talking about the latest round of the four-decade scandal in the Roman Catholic Church centering on clergy sexual abuse of children and teens -- the vast majority of them male. Now we have a new #MeToo angle, with numerous reports of sexual abuse and harassment of seminarians and young priests, and some of the attackers have ended up in the episcopate.

The poster-male for this story, of course, is former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the American hierarchy's most powerful networkers and media stars over the past 50 years.

Then there is the #ChurchToo fall of the Rev. Bill Hybels, a superstar megachurch leader who helped create the "Seeker Friendly" evangelical movement of the past couple of decades.

But you know all of that, and I wove those subjects together the other day in a post with this headline: "Who you gonna call? New York Times offers a spiritual piece of the Bill Hybels puzzle."

It will not surprise people who listen to "Crossroads" that host Todd Wilkins and I returned to these topics in this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Look, everyone knows why -- in terms of news -- the Catholic crisis is as has hot at Hades. This is the biggest religion game in town. It's the religion-news Olympics. But why is the Willow Creek story so massive?

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Friday Five: Lifetime achievement winner, Willow Creek drama, Spikeball Mennonites and more

Friday Five: Lifetime achievement winner, Willow Creek drama, Spikeball Mennonites and more

Talk about a slam dunk!

The Religion News Association announced its 2018 William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award recipient this week.

What a fine choice the RNA made:

When the Vatican ordered the bishop of Pittsburgh to reinstate a pedophile priest, then Pittsburgh religion reporter Ann Rodgers received the decision even before the bishop himself.

When an evangelist was making false claims about miracles in a Houston hospital, Rodgers did the hard yards of investigation and spotted the fake.

And when she was invited to join Pope Francis’ Palm Sunday procession in St. Peter’s Square, Rodgers waved a palm and reported back to Pennsylvania on the experience.

In addition to serving as president of the Religion News Association during a time of significant transition and growth, Rodgers faithfully served on the religion beat in New Hampshire, Florida, and finally in Pittsburgh, Pa., for more than three decades.  

For her many years of work in religion newswriting and service to RNA, Rodgers will receive the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award at the 69th Annual RNA Conference in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 15.

The William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award was created in 2001 and is presented to individuals who demonstrate exceptional long-term commitment and service to the Religion News Association and its members, and to the field of religion newswriting.

Read the rest of the release.

Let's dive into the Friday Five:

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