For a number of years, I've enjoyed the outstanding reporting and writing of Bruce Nolan.
No, I'm not talking about the fictional television news reporter played by Jim Carrey in the 2003 comedy "Bruce Almighty," although I certainly liked the film.
Rather, I'm referring to the fine Godbeat reporter at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, where Nolan covers religion, ethics/values and faith-based Katrina recovery efforts.
Earlier this month, I bemoaned the mediocre nature of a Washington Post story on Gulf Coast residents finding comfort in prayer amid the worst oil spill in U.S. history. I complained:
I hoped the piece might provide some insight into how people of faith are handling this national tragedy. Instead, the 600-word account impressed me as shallow and full of details that served more as window dressing than actual conduits to explaining how the faithful view God's role in BP's spewing gusher.
But to the rescue this week came Bruce Almighty -- the real-life newspaper writer, that is -- with a story highlighting how thousands of evangelicals, Catholics and Muslims are turning to God in the face of the massive oil spill. Religion News Service picked up the story and distributed it nationally.
The top of the story sets the scene:
Twice a day, precisely at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., alarms ring on dozens of cell phones, alerting those participating in the Rev. Jim Woodard's week-old Internet prayer initiative to spend one minute praying for relief from the BP Gulf oil spill.
In Meraux, Cesar Lopez rises each morning at 4:30 a.m. and says the rosary, as he does every day, remembering especially to pray for relief for families stricken economically by the spill.
And in Violet, a coalition of Christian pastors has begun laying plans to pray with out-of-work fishers at least three mornings a week in Shell Beach, Delacroix and Hopedale as the men gather before dawn to learn whether BP will put them to work that day.
"Whatever BP decides to do, that's down the road," said Brandy Shelton, who lingered after the Sunday service at Christian Fellowship in Violet.
"Right now, the only thing I can do is stay in faith with those families and pray for them. And if our church is doing anything for them, to assist in that way."
Around southeast Louisiana, people who know nothing of the daily technical battle to stem the 52-day-old spill, including many who do not have family or friends yet affected, nonetheless say that concern about the oil spill has landed heavily in their interior lives, where they pray quietly in search of understanding or ask for comfort for themselves or others, according to the dictates of their faiths.
A major strength of the story is Nolan's attention to specific details (with one mistake that I'll mention below). I'm talking about details that serve not as window dressing -- one of my concerns with the Post report -- but as important windows of understanding. Nolan takes faith seriously and does not treat prayer as a novelty.
For example, in one section of the story, Nolan refers not once but twice to specific Scriptures. To this journalist's credit, he's not afraid to cite biblical texts by book, chapter and even verse if it helps readers understand what's happening in the world of faith:
On Memorial Day, a team of evangelical pastors motored out onto Lake Borgne and prayed together, asking God for relief. One of them, the Rev. Jim Jeffries, said they poured salt over the water, commemorating a biblical act of healing by the prophet Elisha in the second chapter of Second Kings.
Woodard, who spent decades working as a land company manager in the oil patch around Venice before founding The Crossroads church in Belle Chasse eight years ago, said a particular Scripture passage rang in his mind as an appropriate response to the spill, whatever the oil industry engineers do.
On Friday, Woodard launched a website, www.prayforourcoast.org, urging readers to consider Chronicles 7:13-14, in which God promises to heal the land if people turn to him in prayer.
"I know people are already praying," Woodard said. "I'm not downplaying that. But I thought, what would happen if we focused all that? What would happen if we got people to stop, twice a day, and pray about this?"
"The idea of expecting God to intervene and heal something as messed up as this is asking something foreign to a lot of people," Woodard said. "Frankly, I think he's in the miracle business, and this is a great opportunity."
(In both the Times-Picayune and RNS versions of the story, the second Bible reference should be to the second book of Chronicles, as there are two. )
Of course, prayer is not the only religion angle associated with the oil spill. ReligionLink, the excellent tool for story ideas and sources produced by the Religion Newswriters Association, highlighted a number of potential angles in a recent post titled "Oil spill apocalypse: Religion, the environment and BP":
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is shaping up as an environmental and social disaster of epic proportions -- and one that is also prompting a great deal of national soul-searching. Ethical, moral and religious aspects of the catastrophe are playing a critical role in the debate.
The issues raise questions about the propriety of the nation's dependence on fossil fuels, America's penchant for consumption over conservation, the role of government in regulation and cleanup, and even the purely theological issues of the emerging teaching on "creation care" and the older eschatological debates about the apocalypse and the end of the world.
The great thing about ReligionLink: Its story ideas are free for the taking. Here's hoping that more journalists will take advantage.