Hands and feet of Jesus?

GetReligion reader Duane Shank, a Mennonite who grew up in Lancaster County, Pa., passed along a link to a front-page Philadelphia Inquirer story on the Mennonite tradition of service.

Tied to the massacre of 10 medical aid workers -- including Glen Lapp, a Mennonite -- in Afghanistan last week, the piece drew praise from Shank. He nominated writers Amy Worden and David O'Reilly as journalists who "get religion":

This piece is one of the first I've seen in a mainstream paper that understands the nuances of Mennonites. Most seem to think that Mennonite and Amish are synonyms.

Here at GR, we like nuance in mainstream news stories. And like Shank, I appreciated the Inquirer story -- which does the best job I've seen of explaining the faith and motivation of the Christian aid workers slain in northern Afghanistan.

As my fellow GetReligionista Brad A. Greenberg highlighted earlier this week, the Taliban took responsibility for the killings, disparaging the civilian aid workers as "foreign spies" and accusing them of "preaching Christianity." However, the International Assistance Mission, a nonprofit Christian organization, denies that the workers tried to convert Muslims.

The Inquirer story paints a picture up high of the Mennonite approach to service:

EPHRATA, Pa. -- Members of the Mennonite church first came together 90 years ago to ship tractors and plows to fellow Mennonite farmers in Russia and the Ukraine, starving because of war.

Later, in war-torn Vietnam, or when a tsunami ravaged Indonesia or, most recently, when an earthquake wreaked havoc in Haiti, they were there to help the general population.

The Mennonite Central Committee has evolved into a global disaster response relief and community-building enterprise.

Aid worker Glen Lapp of Lancaster, who was slain last week in Afghanistan along with nine others, was one such Mennonite volunteer.

Motivated by faith and a philosophy of service, the Mennonites -- cousins to the generally more conservative Amish -- have come to be regarded as leaders on the international relief stage.

My only qualm with that opening section: I wish the writers had chosen a different word than conservative. I am not certain, however, that I know what that word should have been. Traditional? Strict? Countercultural?

To the reporters' credit, excellent background on Mennonites is provided later in the story:

The Mennonite denomination traces its roots to the Swiss-German Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century.

Many Mennonites settled in the Germantown area, joining Quakers, who were similarly persecuted and shared the same antislavery and antiwar beliefs.

Most Mennonites are conventional Protestants who dress in regular clothing and drive, and live in neighborhoods with people outside the faith. But there are several subsets of conservative Mennonites. The most traditional, or "Old Order," eschew modern clothing and conveniences such as cars and electricity. The so-called "black bumper" Mennonites drive cars, but only own black vehicles and dress in traditional clothing.

The story concludes by tackling the killers' accusation: Were the aid workers trying to convert Muslims?:

Mennonite Central Committee officials and Schirch strongly dispute the idea that Lapp was trying to convert Muslims to Christianity -- which is what the Taliban has said was its reason for killing the aid workers.

"Both Glen and I are Mennonites motivated by our faith, which teaches us to help people in need, turn the other cheek, and love your enemies," she said.

But converting them was not what MCC or the International Assistance Mission, the group Lapp was traveling with, does, she said.

"The Mennonites have a long history of positive relations with Muslims in many countries" and engage in "respectful exchanges" with people of other faiths. "We help build Muslim schools and try to promote good relations and dialogue. . . . Glen was a part of that."

An editor might have moved that section higher in the story. The conversion claim, after all, is a key news question. However, I believe the Inquirer made the right decision by saving that information until the end. By that point, readers have enough background and details -- if they didn't already -- to judge the Mennonites' statements against those of the Taliban.

I read another relatively well-done story in the Cincinnati Enquirer, which covered a church service reflecting on the life and death of victim Cheryl Beckett. It's a simple thing, really, but the Enquirer recognized the news value of a prayer said by the church's minister:

"We ask you to forgive those who committed this crime," (minister Bill) Christman said while invoking God during a prayer. "Help us to have the mind and heart of Jesus, who would have forgiven this."

In an exclusive report from Kabul, The Associated Press interviewed an official familiar with the account given by the attack's sole survivor, a Muslim driver for the aid workers:

Safiullah said he doesn't know why he survived while two other Afghan members of the team were killed. He said he raised his arms in the air and recited verses from the Islamic holy book Quran as he begged the gunmen for his life.

At the end of the story, the AP cites the Taliban's claims of Christian conversion attempts and the mission group's denial. It seems strange that the story -- so detailed that it mentions the attackers stopping to pray in the evening -- does not include the sole survivor's response to the Taliban's charge.

The New York Times also attempted to put a face on the victims in a piece headlined Slain Aid Workers Were Bound by Their Sacrifice. Here is how the Times story addresses the conversion question:

Though many of the victims were Christians and worked for Christian organizations, friends and family of the victims denied the Taliban's charges that they had been spies or proselytizers. "They try to be the hands and the feet of Jesus," Mr. Beckett said, "not the mouth of Jesus."

The Times describes Lapp this way:

Glen D. Lapp, 40, of Lancaster, Pa., was a nurse who ran an eye-care program and wrote home of "trying to be a little bit of Christ in this part of the world."

Finally, there's this from the brother of one of the Afghan victims:

Mr. Jawed's brother Abdul Bagin said of the killers: "They were infidels; not human, not Muslims. They killed my brother without any judgment, without any trial, without talking to him."

Mr. Bagin saw the body in the morgue in Kabul and said there was a single bullet wound, which forensic personnel told him was fired at close range, through the heart.

That's powerful writing, no doubt.

But again, it seems strange -- at least to me -- that the conversion question isn't posed directly: Were these aid workers with whom your brother was associated trying to convert Muslims to Christianity?

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