Aliens, neighbors and evangelicals

One of my personal -- and professional -- weaknesses is my short attention span. After reading about 57 stories on the same subject, be it a clergy sex abuse scandal or a fight over where to build a mosque, my eyes glaze over.

As a secular journalist, I always hated crowded news conferences and refuse-to-die stories that drew a pack of reporters committed to parsing and reparsing the same well-tread ground. I much preferred stories that took me to the middle of nowhere -- places or ideas untouched by other reporters -- and let me explore new journalistic frontiers. As a reader, I tend to gravitate toward the same kind of stories.

During my time with The Associated Press, I benefited firsthand from the experience and wisdom of national religion writers Rachel Zoll and Richard Ostling (now retired). From AP headquarters in New York, Zoll tackles major religion news such as, yes, the battle over the proposed mosque near ground zero (I think I followed the new AP style there). But while I enjoy Zoll's Big Apple-datelined reporting, I particularly relish it when she -- and other national writers -- venture outside the New York bubble to deliver compelling stories.

Amid all the important religion reporting this week on the New York City mosque and President Obama's religious affiliation, I discovered a jewel of a story by Zoll -- reporting from Naperville, Ill. -- on an evangelical activist trying to win church converts on immigration law changes:

NAPERVILLE, Ill. -- A handwritten sign on the church door announces the event where Matthew Soerens, fluent in Spanish, the Bible and the nation's immigration laws, will try to win converts.

For months, he has been seeking out evangelical pastors locally and around the country, hoping to persuade them that immigration reform is a Christian imperative, even though the issue is so explosive that many ministers won't go near it.

"I've heard people in churches saying things about immigrants that would make me kind of cringe," Soerens says.

On this night, he is speaking at Community Christian Church in Naperville, a megachurch with several sites in Chicago's western suburbs. In neighboring Aurora, where the church has a campus, the number of immigrants has grown so steadily that some of its schools are mostly Latino. Their presence, and their struggles, have drawn notice in the broader church.

Zoll's 1,650-word story uses the 26-year-old activist to put a human face on the debate occurring -- formally and informally -- in many churches. At the same time, she places his experience in the context of the wider evangelical world. No, this is not the first story to tackle the issue of evangelicals and immigration, but it goes into the heart of America and presents the topic in a fresh way.

A few things I like about this story:

1. It has a sense of place. The AP writer does not assume that readers will understand the geographic significance of pursuing such a story in the Chicago area:

The region is a hub of American evangelicalism.

Along with World Relief and Wheaton College, it is home to Christian publishers Tyndale House and InterVarsity Press, and the offices of Christianity Today, the widely read evangelical magazine. Hybel's Willow Creek megachurch is a short drive away, as are Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Moody Bible Institute, founded by famed 19th-century evangelist D.L. Moody.

What happens here can have an impact on American Christianity far beyond the area, and one of the key recent developments has been the arrival of a large number of immigrants.

2. It provides Scriptural perspective. In reporting on Bible-believing people, the AP writer provides specific references:

The biblical debate centers on Romans 13, which says Christians must submit to civil authorities and obey the law. However, Scripture is also filled with exhortations to show kindness to the "alien" and, in Matthew 25, to clothe and feed the stranger.

3. It recognizes the value of nuance. Too often, journalists quote people at the extremes of any given issue and fail to include voices from the middle. In this case, Zoll quotes churchgoers, such as this pastor, whose perspectives don't fit into a ready-made box:

Mont Mitchell, senior pastor at Westbrook Christian Church in Bolingbrook, near Naperville, started his nondenominational church 13 years ago with the goal of creating a multiethnic house of worship. The church holds an annual Cinco de Mayo party, provides volunteer tutoring and translating for a local public school with many Latino immigrant children, offers free ESL classes and hosts World Relief workshops on applying for citizenship.

"But we purposely haven't become a church that has become political in terms of immigration," Mitchell said, sitting in his church office. "I don't want to get distracted from the Gospel. So I just err, without apology, on the side of I'm going to love people and preach the Word and minister to the flock."

Alas, this is GetReligion, and we are in the business of making religion stories better. So no post would be complete without a bit of constructive criticism. A few suggestions:

1. Tell me what the sign says. The story leads off with a handwritten sign at the event. I want to know what it says. I mean, this is the 21st century, and you'd think someone at a megachurch would have access to a computer and a printer. Beyond that, knowing the sign's wording would provide insight into exactly what the crowd came expecting to hear.

2. Avoid overly broad generalizations. While it's appropriate that a profile of an activist would focus on his opinions, the story suffers from a lack of input from anyone on the other side. Instead, we get this:

Yet, as Soerens has found through his work, evangelical churchgoers are in a far different place. Law-and-order is still the focus and sympathy for illegal immigrants is thin.

Soerens is trying to change that, one church at a time.

Law-and-order is still the focus and sympathy for illegal immigrants is thin. Really? According to whom? What survey data back that up? What percentage of evangelicals interviewed by the reporter fell into this category? Where, to be precise, does this "fact" come from?

3. Take me back to the beginning. The story provides excellent detail on Soerens' advocacy and views on immigration laws. This section especially grabbed me:

To better live out his beliefs, he moved into a dilapidated apartment complex across from a strip mall, among the few places in Wheaton where new immigrants can afford to live. He leads a Bible study for young people in the building. A small fellowship group he formed for Spanish-speakers in the complex now holds weekly worship at a local chapel.

"Scripture is at the core of who I am," he said. "I'm evangelical and biblical, not a liberal in evangelical clothing."

That's terrific detail. But I kept wondering: What brought him to this point? What motivates an affluent white evangelical who attended a private college in the suburbs to become an immigration advocate? Was there a personal experience -- a turning point in his own life -- that led him to this point?

I'd love to know, but the story never tells me.

Overall, though, this piece left me -- the easily distracted reader -- feeling satisfied and glad I took the time to read all the way to the end.

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