Late last week, I was visiting the Washington Post newsroom with some of my students and the professionals there were -- justifiably -- buzzing about a news feature that dominated that day's front page. It was one of those mood-of-the-nation pieces in which one person's story is used as a metaphor for the lives of many. The setting is Fort Myers, Fla. The person is single-mother Chrissandra Walker (photo feature here). The headline is a quotation that says, " 'A storm in my life' -- Woman goes from American Dream to nothing after losing high-income job."
Here is a healthy chunk of the story, starting with the symbolic-detail lede:
Chrissanda Walker's bourbon-glazed chicken is just out of the oven. The bread pudding is finished. The collard greens worry her, though; she doesn't want to overcook them. Walker looks at the clock. It's 10 a.m. She's been on her feet since 6.
Walker used to make $100,000 a year as a nursing home executive until she lost her job a year and a half ago. Unable to find a new one, she shed her business suits and high heels and put on an apron and soft-soled shoes. This year, she and her daughter are living on $11,000: her unemployment benefits plus whatever she can earn selling home-cooked dinners for $10 apiece.
Her American Dream has taken a punch to the gut. "I never thought I'd be in a situation like this," she says, smoke from the cooking swirling about her. "My friends say to me: 'Listen to the Lord, Chris.' I say, 'No, I have to have a paycheck.' "
And the larger picture? The reason readers are meeting this woman on A1 in a major national newspaper?
The Census Bureau recently reported that the poverty rate in the United States rose to 14.3 percent last year, the highest level in more than 50 years. Texas and Florida saw the most people fall below the line. In Florida alone, 323,000 people became newly poor last year, bringing the state's poverty total to 2.7 million.
The numbers tell another tale as well: Nationwide, in black households such as Walker's, income plunged an average of 4.4 percent in 2009, almost three times the drop among whites. The number of blacks living below the official poverty line -- $21,756 for a family of four -- increased by 7 percent in just one year.
It's a gripping story. If you read down to those gut-punch statistics, is almost impossible to stop until you reach the end. It's the kind of profile that editors want to see in their newspapers, combining hard news and real human emotions. And, of course, religion plays a major -- but completely mysterious -- role in this story.
At the top of the story, above the main photograph, was the following pull quote. Let's read it again:
"My friends say to me: 'Listen to the Lord, Chris.' I say, 'No, I have to have a paycheck.' "
The first time I read that, I thought to myself, "What a quote. No wonder they pulled up top." But then I read it again. Then I read the whole story. Twice. Then I read the quote again.
Truth be told, I still have no idea what that quotation means. The implication, I guess, is that there is something that God wants Walker to do or there is something that God wants her to learn from this experience of suffering. However, this hardworking mom and fervent believer wants to keep seeking a paycheck, after losing her high-paying job as an executive in a local nursing home.
Say what? God is against her being employed?
Here's the big problem. Strong references to faith are woven throughout the feature, but we never are given any details about her faith or her community of faith that frame these words, that help them make sense. Could a clergy person explain that mysterious quote about the mysterious voice of God? It appears not.
The photo essay includes a picture of Walker sitting in a church office using the congregation's computer, with the implication that this is where she searches for work since she cannot afford an Internet connection of her own.
OK, I have some questions. What is the name of this church? What role does it play in her life? In another picture, she appears to be taking part in worship. Again, what is she hearing in this church? How is it helping her to wrestle with this crisis? What does her pastor have to say about her plight? The members of her Sunday school class, if she is part of one? Is there a support group for single mothers?
In 20 months, she had gone from flourishing American Dream to Down to Nothing.
"There have been some painful days," Chrissanda Walker says. "I should have been back working by now. I've had to hold on to my faith. I've gone on job interviews. I know I'm qualified. My record speaks for itself."
She sighs and drops her head.
Readers also meet a friend -- Christine Rahmings -- who describes Walker's attempts to pay the bills by cooking meals for others. Now, Rahmings and these other women that we meet in the story, are they part of this there-but-not-there church?
A short while later, Walker started making meals. During the Depression, many American women, trying to stave off ruin, went to their kitchens and emerged selling dinners - from their porches, windowsills, back yards. "It reminded me of the black women who used to sell dinners to help build churches," Rahmings says. "Chris was selling dinners, though, to pay her utilities, or to get something for Ravean. You've heard that expression: 'By any means necessary.' "
Here's another strong faith-based quote from a Friday night high-school football game, in the voice of Kelly Newson, one of Walker's high-school classmates from long ago:
On the field, Fort Myers High is falling behind. Kelly Newson, an old high school classmate of Walker's, takes a seat behind her. He starts right in: "You find a job yet?" Walker shakes her head no.
Riverdale scores again.
Newson goes on: "If God wants you to go North, you go North. You can't go Northwest if he wants you to go North, my sister." Walker nods, not sure about the cryptic counseling. "I had a relative in the nursing home Chris was at," Newson begins again, "and she was really happy there. Chris took care of the place. It was clean. I just can't understand why she can't get a job."
The religious references are everywhere, from her supporters getting "prayed up" to, literally, a prayer balloon that drifts toward heaven in the final lines.
It's clear that there is a faith community in this woman's life and that it is a source of support, prayer, advice and friendship. There is evidence of that community everywhere in this story. One might even claim that it is the context of this woman's story.
That is, this faith community is everywhere except IN THE STORY.
This is most strange.