Spiritually frozen tropics

2002_dc_ward_map_trinidadSometimes it's more difficult to praise a fantastic piece of journalism than it is to critique a weak article. With a bad article, you can point out the errors and missteps. But what exactly makes a great piece great? Sometimes it's difficult to pin down. But this Washington Post article by Michelle Boorstein was one of the most enjoyable pieces of religion writing I've read in a long time. Here's how it begins:

Carlos Williams swore he'd never return his children to Washington, the city where drug deals, fights and drunks outside his father's apartment used to keep him and his brothers awake at night. But there they were, Carlos, his wife and their seven children -- all under 13 -- tumbling out of the family's white van one Saturday in Trinidad, the small Northeast D.C. neighborhood plagued by more than 125 violent crimes in the past year.

As they began their rounds, the kids giggling and running up alleys, young men on sidewalks and older women on stoops tended to stare, as if to say, What are you doing here?

Saving souls, or at least trying.

I love the economy with which the reader is immediately taken to Trinidad, a beautiful and deeply troubled neighborhood that borders mine. We're quickly introduced to the family and they're presented as real people and not caricatures of a missionary family.

The 2,000-word article gives the religious back story to how the Williams family came to Trinidad and it treats their decisions and that of the congregation that sent them here with respect that is not often seen. The reporter doesn't place herself in the story even though it's clear she spent quite a bit of time with the family. We learn about the sacrifices the family made, such as selling their house in Maryland during the economic downturn in order to rent a 1-bathroom rowhouse in their mission field.

The Pentecostal beliefs of the family are interspersed throughout the story and also treated with an appropriate journalistic distance. The drama of the story is the difficulty Williams has in Trinidad:

But saving souls involves more than just desire, Carlos Williams is finding. Residents of Trinidad tell him, yes, they need Jesus, but first they have more pragmatic questions: Can Williams, a baby-faced 38-year-old telecom worker, help them find a job? Pay their utility bill? Other residents are indifferent to religion. Then there is the devil, whom Williams considers a direct rival.

He said he sees the Devil in "a spirit of oppression, a heaviness over that neighborhood. There is an adversary that opposes any spirit of God," he said the day after a slow Sunday. "To me, it's crystal clear that it's not people we're up against -- it's a spiritual deal."

That's the mind-set of a grass-roots, walk-the-beat kind of soul saver, a throwback. A guy who runs Bible study every Wednesday night in a McDonald's. Who won't get on the train home on Fridays until he prays with a desperate-looking stranger. Who thinks Washington has too much religion and too little Jesus.

"A church on every corner and all this carnage?" he said one Saturday outside the Trinidad Recreation Center. Inside, a memorial service was underway for a 13-year-old shot dead during the summer while visiting from Alabama.

One of the things I loved about the piece was that it answered so many technical questions about how Williams ended up in Trinidad. He was part of a nondenominational Pentecostal church where he was headed toward some type of ministry. But without advance warning, the pastor announced that Williams and his family would be doing missionary work in Washington. For Williams' part, he thought he'd be a foreign missionary if anything, so he was somewhat surprised. He drove around the District and felt the need to be in Trinidad when he drove by it.

Here's another interesting tidbit that shows that the article is more interested in telling Williams' story than pursuing a particular agenda or stereotype:

Willliams's plan was that on Saturdays they'd roam and on Sundays hold worship services. But his first attempt to find space in Trinidad for his Northeast D.C. Apostolic Church was met coolly. Pastors of established churches, mostly Baptist, he said, were uncomfortable lending space to an unknown Pentecostal. Pentecostals tend to place a higher value on speaking in tongues and evangelizing and a lesser one on formally educated clerical leadership. He was shocked when a city prison chaplain turned down his offer to minister to prisoners.

"She said, 'What can you offer these people? Can you provide suits for these guys?' " Williams said she told him. "I said, 'Ma'am, more people are going to hell than ever, and you're telling me these guys need a suit?' "

Usually the media, because of its obsession with temporal politics, tend to sort of favor those religious groups that focus on earthly solutions over salvation. Or we get stories that assume earthly needs are of course more important than everlasting needs. But not every religious group shares this view. I thought this story handled that well without taking sides about which is better.

The story touches on another issue facing inner-city churches. Many of their members commute in from the suburbs. This was key to the Williams family's decision to move into the neighborhood.

Even though it's long, I encourage you to read the story. It's very well-constructed, making it an easy read. There are many vignettes about the people Williams meets in his efforts to grow a community of believers. The end, which deals with Williams' growing frustration and how he resolves that, is particularly poignant.

As a pastor's daughter, my childhood was full of visits from missionary families that were on leave or returning home from foreign locales. Their stories varied wildly. Some missionaries had trouble keeping up with all of the converts they were bringing in while others would work for years with nary a convert. And both extremes are fascinating. Boorstein gets the drama in this particular story and tells it well.

And be sure not to miss the photo gallery that accompanies the piece.

The title is an homage to one of my favorite blogs, which is about Trinidad.

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