In coverage of Hurricane Florence, faith-based disaster relief is, again, an important part of the story

I wrote a news story for Christianity Today this week on “The Crucial Role of the ‘Faith-Based FEMA’ After Florence.”

The piece is actually an update of an article I first reported for CT back in 2013 after a killer tornado struck the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore.

In both cases, I focused on an umbrella group of 65 faith-based agencies and secular charities called the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, known as National VOAD. As USA Today noted in a story highlighted here at GetReligion last year, about 75 percent of those groups are faith-based. They include a number of Christian groups, from Catholic Charities to Samaritan’s Purse, as well as Tzu Chi (Buddhist), ICNA Relief USA (Islamic), the Jewish Federation of North America and others.

Suffice it to say that faith-based disaster relief is an important story, as always, in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.

So I was pleased to see this headline — “In the Carolinas, Churches Provide Spiritual Refuge and Shelter From the Storm” — in the New York Times on Monday.

I mentioned that front-page report briefly in the Monday Mix roundup of weekend news, but I wanted to offer a bit more commentary on it.

The lede was fantastic:

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Services at Manna Church, a big nondenominational congregation on the west side of town, began at 9 a.m. with announcements.

“We’ve got 10 port-a-potties.”

“They’re setting up showers in the back.”

Pastor Michael Fletcher, standing at the entrance, welcomed the pilgrims arriving out of the pounding rain: A man with his belongings gathered in a soaked towel on his back. A grandmother fleeing her probably flood-doomed house, along with her daughter and five young children.

The largest church in Fayetteville had become the city’s eighth official storm shelter.

As Sunday dawned grimly in the Carolinas, the heavens opened for the fifth straight day, swelling rivers past record-breaking levels and drenching already half-drowned towns. But, it being Sunday, the congregations were still at work in one of the most church-steeped parts of the country, even if many religious services were canceled because of flooded sanctuaries, dangerous roads and scattered parishioners.

From the first moments of the rolling disaster of Florence, there has been no sharp divide separating the official responders, the victims and the houses of faith.

Keep reading, and the Times does a really nice job of letting people of faith explain — in their own words — why they feel compelled to help after Florence.

For example, here:

As the first harsh bands of rain began lashing Greenville, N.C., Asif Daher, 40, stood at the counter of his restaurant, Bateeni Mediterranean Grill, one of the few places in town that were still open. Food was free for anyone helping out with the hurricane, said Mr. Daher, a Palestinian immigrant, because the Quran defines the righteous as those “who give charity out of their cherished wealth to relatives, orphans, the poor, needy travelers, beggars,” and the like.

“It’s part of our religion to help wherever we are,” he said. There was a stack of Qurans in the corner, and a sign offering them for free as well.

And here:

As the storm moved over the central Carolinas, roughly 60 people gathered for a Saturday night dinner of chicken bog, sweet potatoes and green beans at the New Ebenezer Baptist Church in Florence, S.C.

“We are a church of action,” said Marcus Simmons, who oversees the evangelism ministry at the church, which had opened its recreation center as a shelter. “We believe that, unless we do it and show you that we mean what we said, then how can we even hold ourselves or hold you accountable?”

Even before Florence arrived, Religion News Service’s Yonat Shimron was on top of the faith-based disaster relief angle:

DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) — On top of all the state and federal disaster relief groups readying for Hurricane Florence as it barrels toward North and South Carolina are a group of expert helpers: the faith teams.

The biggest of these, North Carolina Baptists on Mission and the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, have made a name for themselves during previous hurricanes and other natural disasters, feeding people, clearing debris, gutting uninhabitable homes and rebuilding them from stud to kitchen cabinet.

On Wednesday (Sept. 12), they were back at it — not yet delivering help, but strategizing over how best to deploy their volunteer armies and equipment.

What other coverage — good and bad — have you noticed concerning faith and Florence? By all means, share links in the comments or tweet us at @GetReligion.

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So a Chicago priest who was once abused burns a rainbow-cross flag: All heck breaks out

So a Chicago priest who was once abused burns a rainbow-cross flag: All heck breaks out

Well, here is a hot-button story if I’ve ever seen one. Take a look at this headline atop the report at NBCNews.com: “Parishioners defy Chicago Archdiocese, burn rainbow flag in 'exorcism' ceremony.”

Just to give you a hint of how complicated this case is, that headline actually jumps the gun and settles one of the issues that is in dispute. According to parish leaders, the archdiocese ordered the church not to burn the rainbow flag in a ceremony in front of the sanctuary. So parish leaders burned it privately, without a public media show.

One other thing about that headline: It’s crucial to know that this is more than a rainbow flag. This particular flag combined the LGBTQ symbolism with a cross — a move that raised the theological stakes much higher.

So let’s look at a few key sections of this story. Here’s the overture:

In a church bulletin posted this month, the Rev. Paul Kalchik, a Roman Catholic priest at Resurrection Parish in Chicago, announced that he would burn a rainbow pride flag that had once been prominently displayed at the church.

“On Saturday, September 29, the Feast of Saint Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, we will burn, in front of the church, the rainbow flag that was unfortunately hanging in our sanctuary during the ceremonial first Mass as Resurrection parish,” Kalchik, who joined the church 11 years ago, wrote.

A footnote on his announcement stated, “US Church homosexual scandal is a sequel to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.”

A bit of translation: Obviously, at one point in its history, this parish was on the left side of the American Catholic spectrum. The flag, for example, was prominently displayed during a Mass led by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a leader whose memory is cherished by gay and progressive Catholics.

Clearly, times have changed at this parish. Here is another crucial passage:

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Does the celibacy rule underlie Catholic scandals? Here's an angle reporters could pursue

Does the celibacy rule underlie Catholic scandals? Here's an angle reporters could pursue

Beginning with the pioneering National Catholic Reporter survey by Jason Berry and colleagues 33 years ago on priests molesting under-aged boys and girls, and on through the current devastating crisis, there have been continual disputes over whether the celibacy tradition bears blame and eliminating it would help prevent scandals.

It’s common for media to state that the Catholic Church requires priests to be celibate, but as beat specialists know that’s not fully accurate.

A handful of already-married Protestant clergy converts are Catholic priests. Far more important, married priests are allowed in Catholicism’s Eastern Rite jurisdictions across Eastern Europe, the Mideast and Asia (whereas the West’s Latin Rite has made its celibacy tradition mandatory for all since 1123).

The Religion Guy chatted about this mess with a New Jersey university professor who’s an active Eastern (Ukrainian) Catholic. Neither of us could recall hearing of any molesting scandals with Eastern priests. No doubt there are some, and The Guy has doubtless missed a few references.

But that raises the following: Does the track record of the 11,000 parish priests (not counting those in celibate religious orders) serving 17.7 million Eastern Catholics indicate marriage acts as a preventative and that there’s a link between celibacy and the abuse scandals? Does the Vatican have numbers on molesting cases with married Catholic priests these 33 years compared with clergy bound by celibacy?

If nobody knows, are there plans to research this question? If not, why not?

Whatever the church might do, how about journalists?

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Read it all: The New Yorker offers a stunningly good take on the 'Christian' rock wars

Read it all: The New Yorker offers a stunningly good take on the 'Christian' rock wars

First, here is yet another tmatt confession: I am so old that I attended one of the original “Jesus music” rock festivals held in Texas in the early 1970s. Then I went to Baylor University during the era when various branches of Word Records in Waco were releasing early albums linked to what would become Contemporary Christian Music.

There’s more. Anyone digging into the roots of “folk” and later “rock” music inside church doors will eventually hit a 1967 landmark — the “Good News” folk musical by Bob Oldenburg. Who played the role of the “skeptic” the first performances? That would be my big brother, Don, who was playing a ukulele before it was cool.

As a journalist, I have been covering the “Christian music” wars since the late 1970s and, of course, that topic ended up in my book “Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture.” The key theme: CCM is music defined by unwritten rules about lyrics and the belief that all “Christian art” should, in reality, be evangelism in disguise.

Hold that thought. I wrote all of that to add punch to my praise for an almost unbelievably good New Yorker feature by Kelefa Sanneh that just ran with this epic headline:

The Unlikely Endurance of Christian Rock

The genre has been disdained by the church and mocked by secular culture. That just reassured practitioners that they were rebels on a righteous path.

It opens with a quotation that left me stunned. I have read shelves full of books about “Christian rock” and have never been clubbed over the head with these words.

Try to guess the minister who had this to say in 1957, addressing whether gospel music could be wedded to rock ‘n’ roll. This Baptist pastor from the South was blunt:

Rock and gospel were “totally incompatible,” he explained: “The profound sacred and spiritual meaning of the great music of the church must never be mixed with the transitory quality of rock and roll music.” And he made it clear which he preferred. “The former serves to lift men’s souls to higher levels of reality, and therefore to God,” he wrote. “The latter so often plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths.”

Who said that? That would be the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Take it away, Aretha Franklin.

It’s hard not to quote every other passage in this must-read piece, which punches all the right buttons — from the copycat “Jesus is my boyfriend” style of worship music to battles over loud drums and heavy-metal guitars. Yes, U2 is in here. Ditto for Bob Dylan.

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Is Beth Moore really taking on the 'evangelical political machine,' whatever that is?

Is Beth Moore really taking on the 'evangelical political machine,' whatever that is?

I arrived in Houston in 1986 as a freshly minted religion reporter for the Houston Chronicle. This was about the same time as Bible teacher Beth Moore was becoming known as a master teacher of women. This was an era, in lots of evangelical churches, when women weren’t supposed to be teaching men in any way, shape or form.

She wasn’t famous at that point, although I vaguely remember hearing about her. She got her start leading aerobics classes at First Baptist Church in Houston, one of several megachurches in the city. By the time I arrived she was segueing into teaching Bible studies for women and the rest is history.

Well, almost. For 30-some years, she’s been a best-selling Christian author who hasn’t said much that’s controversial — until Donald Trump started running for president. According to a new profile on her in The Atlantic, 2016 was the year when everything changed.

These days, the profile says, Moore is taking on “the evangelical political machine” — singular. But is she really? Is there one group of evangelicals active in American politics, or is the reality more complex than that?

When Beth Moore arrived in Houston in the 1980s, she found few models for young women who wanted to teach scripture. Many conservative Christian denominations believed that women should not hold authority over men, whether in church or at home; many denominations still believe this. In some congregations, women could not speak from the lectern on a Sunday or even read the Bible in front of men. But Moore was resolute: God, she felt, had called her to serve. So she went where many women in Texas were going in the ’80s: aerobics class. Moore kicked her way into ministry, choreographing routines to contemporary Christian music for the women of Houston’s First Baptist Church. …


Her Bible studies were what made her famous.

A publishing career followed, further magnifying Moore’s influence. She was the first woman to have a Bible study published by LifeWay, the Christian retail giant, and has since reached 22 million women, the most among its female authors. Today, her Bible studies are ubiquitous, guiding readers through scriptural passages with group-discussion questions and fill-in-the-blank workbooks. “It would be hard to find a church anywhere where at least some segment of the congregation has not been through at least one Beth Moore study,” Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (and no relation to Beth) told me.

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Religion News Association honors AP religion writer Rachel Zoll, one of the best on the beat

Religion News Association honors AP religion writer Rachel Zoll, one of the best on the beat

Rachel Zoll, national religion writer for The Associated Press, is impossible not to like.

That’s true even for her competitors, said Jeff Diamant, a former religion writer for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey.

“Her expertise on the beat is really something to behold, and when you get to know her, you see that she has one of the great personalities in the profession or really anywhere,” Diamant, contest chairman for the Religion News Association, said at the association’s annual awards banquet Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio.

“This makes it really hard to get mad at Rachel Zoll,” he added, “even when she beats you on a story in your hometown or when you're a source and she writes something you don't like because the story was fair.”

The RNA gave Zoll, who has terminal brain cancer, a Special Recognition Award, which AP deputy managing editor Sarah Nordgren accepted on her behalf.

Diamant noted that colleagues praised Zoll as a reporter, a writer, a colleague and a person — “the total package.” See a video of the presentation and Nordgren’s acceptance remarks at about the one-hour, nine-minute mark of this video.

It’s not the only honor she has received recently:

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More Washington Post editorial-page news: Stunning Reagan letter about faith and eternity

More Washington Post editorial-page news: Stunning Reagan letter about faith and eternity

I was never a Ronald Reagan fan. Like many blue dog, pro-life Bible Belt Democrats, I found it impossible to vote for him. One of my closest graduate school friends said that he lost his Christian faith (I am not joking) because he could not worship a God who allowed Reagan to reach the White House.

Reagan was a B-grade actor, a talented but shallow politico. Thus, I was surprised when the evidence began to emerge that Reagan did most of his own reading and writing. It turned out that all of those pre-politics Reagan radio commentaries were not produced by ghost writers and then read on the air by a PR pro. Reagan wrote them, in longhand. He wrote those punch lines. He wrote the paragraphs summarizing all of those books and journal articles.

As a Jimmy Carter-era evangelical, I also had doubts about the depth of Reagan’s Midwestern, old-school mainline Protestant faith.

I say all of that because of an amazing feature that ran the other day in The Washington Post under this headline: “A private letter from Ronald Reagan to his dying father-in-law shows the president’s faith.” It was written by editorial-page columnist Karen Tumulty.

Once again, we face a familiar question: Why was this a topic for an editorial-page feature, instead of the front page or, perhaps, in the newspaper’s large features section? Where would this feature appeared if a letter had emerged containing revelatory information about Reagan’s views on the Soviet Union, his thoughts on aging or even his views on abortion?

Don’t get me wrong. This is a fine essay and the subject material is gripping. The overture:

Something tugged at Ronald Reagan on that otherwise slow August weekend in 1982.

“Again at the W.H.,” the president noted in his diary. “More of Saturdays work plus a long letter I have to write to Loyal. I’m afraid for him. His health is failing badly.”

Loyal Davis, Reagan’s father-in-law and a pioneering neurosurgeon, was just days away from death.

Something else worried Reagan: The dying man was, by most definitions of the word, an atheist.

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Atlantic essay on Poland asks: Why do religious biases seem to accompany populist politics?

Atlantic essay on Poland asks: Why do religious biases seem to accompany populist politics?

“Who gets to define a nation?,” journalist Anne Applebaum asks in a piece she wrote for the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine. “And who, therefore, gets to rule a nation?

For a long time, we have imagined that these questions were settled — but why should they ever be?”

Newspaper, magazine and broadcast reports attempting to explain the moves toward nationalist-tinged political populism in a host of European nations, and certainly the United States as well, have become a journalistic staple, which makes sense given the subject’s importance.

Here’s one recent example worth reading produced by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat  that looks at the issue in light of the recent Swedish national election. His focus is whether the political center can continue to hold, and for how long?

So why single out this magazine essay by Applebaum, who is also a columnist for The Washington Post?

Because it’s a good example of how a writer’s deep personal experience of living within a culture for many years can produce an understanding that’s difficult to find in copy produced by the average correspondent who, at best, spends a few years in a region before moving on to a new assignment.

Granted, the American-born Applebaum has the advantage of being married to a Polish politician and writer. She herself has become a dual citizen of the U.S. and Poland, and is raising her children in Poland.

As a Jew, however, she retains her outsider status in Polish society. It's from this vantage point that she conveys how Poland’s shift toward right-wing populism has impacted the nation, and her. (Her piece is one of several published by The Atlantic grouped together under the ominous rubric, “Is Democracy Dying?”)

If it is dying, at least in the short run, she argues that in large measure it’s due to the sweeping demographic changes in Europe triggered by the large number of Muslim refugees and immigrants fleeing war, poverty and general chaos in Syria, Iraq, North Africa and elsewhere who have moved there.

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New York Times flashback: Is hiding sex scandals among bishops just the 'Roman way'?

New York Times flashback: Is hiding sex scandals among bishops just the 'Roman way'?

When you read the lede on the following USA Today report, it’s pretty clear which issue the editors think is at the heart of the 30-plus year long scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.

Yes, I am sorry to bring this up again, but this information is important for reporters and editors who are trying to understand the current divisions inside the world’s largest Christian flock.

This has nothing to do with Donald Trump and Catholics who hang out with Steve Bannon. It a lot to do with statistics, doctrine and the contents of a good dictionary.

Words matter. By the end of this post, we’ll see — in a 2009 case study — that this has always been the case. Using the right words, and avoiding others, helps people keep secrets.

Let’s begin. Read the following carefully:

VATICAN CITY — The latest — and most serious — wave of pedophilia and cover-up allegations to hit the Vatican is shining a new light on the gap dividing the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. And almost none of it is about the charges of widespread clerical abuse scandals.

Dozens of commentators and Vatican watchers have pointed to the wide gap between the views of conservative, traditional Catholics in the mold of Pope Benedict XVI and those of reform-minded Catholics like Pope Francis. Many media have referred to what is happening as a kind of “civil war.”

Yes, that passage does include another example of journalists using “reform” as a dog whistle to make sure that readers know which Catholics are good and which Catholics are evil. However, we need to move on, in this case (click here for more information on that bias issue).

The lede clearly states that “pedophilia” is the crucial issue in this crisis. Now, what does that word mean, when you look it up in a dictionary? Here is the online Merriam-Webster:

pedophilia noun

: sexual perversion in which children are the preferred sexual object

specifically: a psychiatric disorder in which an adult has sexual fantasies about or engages in sexual acts with a prepubescent child

Note the specifics attached to the general information and then ask this question: Statistically speaking, are most of the victims in this abuse crisis “prepubescent” children?

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