Post story gets the sermon

black handsSadly, this is the kind of story that Washington Post readers see on a fairly regular basis -- a long, detailed daily report on a funeral that symbolizes a crisis in an urban or, increasingly, suburban community hit by violent crime. I read this story yesterday as I rode back to Baltimore on the commuter train. I thought that it was going to be yet another example of a story that was set in a church, built around the words of the preacher, yet never really allowed the readers to go to church, if you catch my meaning.

I was wrong. Here's the top of Avis Thomas-Lester's story from the Tabernacle Church outside Washington, D.C.:

A Laurel minister told mourners for Ronnie L. White yesterday that they all bore some responsibility for the destructive road his life took and urged his friends to turn their lives around so they would not follow him to an early death.

Speaking before 400 loved ones, the Rev. G. Randolph Gurley said the 19-year-old did not suddenly decide to go astray the day he allegedly killed a Prince George's County police officer. Less than 36 hours after White was brought to the county jail on first-degree murder charges, he was found dead in his cell of apparent strangulation.

"When did it all start? Who all has a part in this tragedy?" Gurley asked, gazing intently into the eyes of several people in the pews before him. "We all know someone took his life, but it goes beyond that. We know that Ronnie didn't wake up that day and say, 'Today I'll participate in some activity that will result in someone's life being lost and later lead to the loss of my life.' His family, his friends, the school system, certainly the faith community ... maybe we all have a part in this."

The usual details are all here, from the weeping young mother to pews packed with young people who, based on their attire, are not regularly in pews.

The minister's sermon, or, at least, the part reported is, in this genre, usually based on politics and community issues. It often seems that the tragedy could have been prevent with a few more dollars from the government to fund a few more social programs.

Not this time. The preacher looked out into the pews and spoke to the young people. All of those tank tops, tattoos and hip t-shirts in tribute to the fallen hero and his -- one way or another -- gang?

Gurley told the young people to "wear the T-shirts in love" for White, but to remember that they represented death. "How long will it be until your face will be on one of these T-shirts?" he asked, drawing some loud sobs. ...

Gurley, who has been a pastor for 30 years, was unabashed in his anger at losing another member of his flock. White's funeral was the sixth for a young person at the church in the past decade, he said. The first five died of gunshot wounds. An autopsy showed that White died of asphyxiation after he was choked.

"I wish I could speak of a long and prosperous life, how he had lived life to the fullest, of his wife and children ... and how finally ... he had succumbed to a death of natural causes," Gurley said. "Unfortunately, that is not the case."

As I read, I kept wondering what the pastor had said that had been left out. To put it bluntly, I wanted to know if the Gospel was being edited from the sermon. This pastor clearly was looking out into those pews and talking to the people sitting there. Did he leave faith out of this?

Finally, at the very end, the reporter gave us the final act of this particular drama.

Perhaps it would have been better to hint early on -- inverted pyramid and all -- that this final detail was coming. That's a matter of writing style and, well, art. But Thomas-Lester did not deny readers what, for the preacher and for some in the pews, was the bottom line:

"This is not the time to threaten or be threatened," Gurley said. God, he said, would ensure that justice is done.

"Pour out a little Hennessy [cognac], drink some 40s, smoke a bag of weed, hit a dipper or two if you want to ... but that won't bring him back," he said. "Get as drunk or as high as you want and do it in his honor if you want to, but that will not bring him back."

Gurley then challenged the mourners to use White's death as motivation to improve their own lives.

"Come in my life today," Gurley prayed on behalf of the hundreds who flocked to the altar at his invitation to give their lives to Christ. "Come into my heart. Change me. Save me. Let me be blessed."

There's more. Read on. This story gives you the "-30-" and the "Amen."

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