Finding God in the margins

And they say D.C. is a cold, heartless, town. Dontcha believe it. Technology entrepreneur Earl Stafford's plans to hold inaugural celebrations that will include a substantial minority of disadvantaged and hard-luck guests has all the ingredients for a terrific human-interest tale: particularly at a time when the nation's have-nots are becoming both more visible and more numerous.

In the numerous American stories that have been done on the upcoming festivities, Stafford's faith may be found somewhere in the mix -- sometimes as a ghost, sometimes as a guest, sometimes in-between the lines.

It's not that religion is absent from the coverage. References to Stafford's upbringing as one of 12 children of a Baptist minister, where he attends church, and his use of Biblical allusions, peek out at you on and the New York Times The Caucus Blogs like a shy child hiding behind her mother's skirts at a party.

But it was Ewen MacAskill, writing for The Guardian, who had the most telling Stafford quote. So let's start with him.

At a press conference in Washington today, Stafford said he wanted to invite America's dispossessed and distressed. "This celebration would be incomplete without such people," Stafford said. He added: "We are thrilled to give them a front-row seat on this momentous occasion in history."

Asked by a reporter what his motivation was, he hesitated because he said that the media did not like talk about religion but his inspiration had come from his Christian faith.

Whether or not "the media" like to talk about faith, it's a powerful statement. I'm not convinced it explains why his faith isn't headlined in the coverage. It's possible that he was reticent to volunteer information -- and its also possible he wasn't asked.

In a rather short article, MacAskill does a really nice job of making faith an integral part of the Stafford story. Could that be because he approaches the rather remarkable tale as an outsider?

Here's his conclusion:

Returning from church, he had seen an article in the Washington Post that the Marriot was offering a $1m package dubbed Build Your Own Ball.

"The Lord spoke to me and I thought 'Yes, that is what I want to do'." He joked that when he saw the price tag he wavered.

Obama's team has not yet said which balls he will be attend but Stafford is hoping he will stop by at his. "That would be the icing on the cake," he said.

The story of the Fairfax County businessman was also the topic of an extensive article by Michael E. Ruane in the Washington Post.

While Ruane doesn't spend a lot of time discussing Stafford's Baptist roots and beliefs, he does allude to them.

Earl W. Stafford, 60, of Fairfax County, the founder of a Centreville technology company who grew up as one of 12 children of a Baptist minister, said he will provide his guests lodging, food and special access, as well as beauticians, gowns and tuxedos, if necessary.

Stafford has paid the $1 million, a spokesman said, and is prepared to spend $600,000 more for a breakfast, a luncheon and two balls at the hotel. Stafford said he hopes to recoup some of the $600,000 from other sponsors, yet to be recruited.

"We wanted to . . . bless those who otherwise wouldn't have an opportunity to be a part of the great celebration, the inauguration and the festivities," he said in an interview yesterday. "Our objective is to bring in a cross-section of society -- those who are distressed, those who are terminally ill, those who are socially and economically disadvantaged, those veterans who are wounded and served our country."

Stafford said the idea was inspired by his deep religious faith and the good fortune that has come his way.

From the allusion to Stafford's childhood to his quote about "blessing" those who wouldn't usually be invited to the inauguration to Ruane's mention of his "deep religious faith," these paragraphs are rife with hints about the businessman's faith. But it really isn't explored.

Like MacAskill, Ruane concludes with a provocative quote from Stafford.

Stafford said he began shopping around for a suitable inauguration venue months ago. He tried the Newseum and the Willard Hotel, and was considering a smaller suite at the Hay Adams Hotel when he read a newspaper story about the Marriott's package. "The price tag was pretty stiff, but we felt that that's what the Lord would have us to do," he said.

"There's a saying in the Bible," he said. "To whom much is given, much is required."

After reading a plethora of articles about Stafford, I wondered about the seemingly arbitrary way in which American writers referred to his faith.

Is it because journalists are uncomfortable going into great detail about someone's beliefs? I'm not convinced, in the land of the incessant personal narrative, that this is the case. Is it because journalists think their readers would be bored if they went all profound . . . or preachy? Or is it because we are so used to the language of faith, particularly Christian faith, that the folks writing the stories expect us to supply the background?

What do you think, gentle reader?

Photo by David Corby, via Wikimedia Commons.

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