A haunted story, handled just right

11516One of our goals here at GetReligion is to find stories in mainstream journalism that are "haunted" by religion ghosts, which we define as a clear religious element or theme that the reporters and editors either didn't notice or simply ignored. We have also been known, from time to time, to take a shot or two at the masters of snark -- the team that produces the Washington Post's Style section.

So it brings me great pleasure to point GetReligion readers toward a story in that Style section that is, indeed, haunted by faith issues and reporter Tamara Jones saw them, reported them and wove them into the story just right. Bravo.

The entire Virginia Tech massacre story was haunted. I suspected that right away and other religious details quickly emerged. Now, it is a year later and Jones took a familiar route to an anniversary feature story, profiling one of the victims who survived the carnage -- the often interviewed witness Derek O'Dell.

There is a strong faith element in this story. It does not dominate the story, but the big theological question is not hidden. The theological question, of course, is linked to theodicy -- as are many other stories (click here for a sample) linked to horrible events in our world.

What struck me, as I read this story, was that Jones allowed religion to play a normal role in this young man's life. She did not spotlight it and it would have been strange if she had. A sample:

Derek discovered two more holes in his fleece jacket, most likely from the bullets fired through the classroom door as he held it shut. He tried the jacket on; one of the holes was over his chest. He fingers the silver cross he always wears, a gift from his girlfriend; it was the only shield, he thinks, between a bullet and his heart. A Catholic, he remembers asking his priest why his life was spared that day, what this all meant. It's a mystery of faith, he was told.

Here's another image, where the faith element fits in at the end of another symbolic story, one that begins with yet another emotional issue facing Derek O'Dell's family:

Roger O'Dell had undergone successful surgery for ocular cancer the year before, and Derek had been anticipating the university's annual Relay for Life fundraiser for months. The overnight marathon fell on the Friday after the Monday massacre. His parents tried in vain to talk Derek out of going. Beneath his jacket, a small photograph of each of the five people killed in Room 207 was pinned to his sling, and mentally, he checked off another name each time he circled the track. This is Lauren's lap, that was Nicole's lap, Mike's lap, Maxine's, Herr Bishop's. Luminarias lit the field, arranged to spell the word CURE. As the night wore on, the candles were rearranged, and Derek saw the new message they spelled: HOPE.

Weak and fatigued by the time the event ended just after dawn, O'Dell was amazed to hear that another student had run an entire mile for each victim of April 16. He caught up to offer congratulations to the stranger. "Man, that was incredible, how did you do it?" O'Dell exclaimed. His voice catches even now, repeating the answer a year later.

"It was easy. I had 32 angels running with me."

I was impressed with another image in this story, a non-religious theme that still provided a wonderful emotional structure for parts of the feature. This young man is a chess player and, now, his life is like a match in which he is having to move the pieces of his life very carefully, just to get by, then to try to heal.

Faith is one of the pieces in that match. This Post story played that piece very well.

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