Faith in a homeless man's 'golden voice'

Earlier this week, my husband sent me a random YouTube video because it was from the Columbus Dispatch where I interned once upon a time. It only had a few thousand hits, but I bet at the time that the YouTube video would probably get the homeless man a job. Little did I know that the man with a "golden voice" would explode into the viral video of the week, leading to a film offer with Jack Nicholson, a job offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers and a reunion with his mother on the NBC's Today show. Now Ted Williams is dealing with the "choking" publicity and says that he feels like Susan Boyle or Justin Bieber.

The video received over 13 million hits before the Dispatch asked YouTube to remove it due to copyright infringement. Like most newspapers, the Dispatch needs a better video strategy so its content can still be hosted on YouTube. (Update: The Dispatch has added it back to YouTube under its own channel. Jay Rosen has been criticizing the earlier decision on Twitter.) But more than a newspaper's video strategy, there really are underlying elements of religion in the background.

This CNN piece has some great background info on Doral Chenoweth III, the Dispatch's multimedia producer, who made the video happen.

It's "standard operating procedure" for him, he said, to stop and talk to people who are homeless, whether he's carrying a camera or not.

"It's part of my faith," he said after some prodding about his motivations. "You may not be able to help someone with money, but you can at least say hello, how you doing, and look at them."

About 14 years ago, Chenoweth said he was assigned to photograph a homeless ministry at New Life United Methodist Church in downtown Columbus. He was so impressed by the ability of the 50-member congregation to help the homeless that he and his wife joined.

The church's pastor said that Chenoweth routinely invites people who are homeless to the church for meals and medical attention. He's also photographed people on the street and displayed their photographs to emphasize their humanity, said the Rev. Jennifer Kimball Casto, New Life's pastor.

We discuss over and over again how people are often motivated by faith, and here's an example of how it can impact journalism. A few years ago, tmatt discussed the number of religiously-affiliated journalists in the newsroom, jumping of an Associated Press report on Christian journalists. The Pew Research Center reported in 2007 that 8 percent of journalists say they attend a church or synagogue weekly while 29 percent of them never attend services. We discussed how reporters need to remain objective in the reporting process, but that doesn't mean they turn off their sensibilities.

Back to the original story, I'm still confused by some of the vague faith mentions from the viral video star and hope that someone can offer more concrete details. Cathy Lynn Grossman documents several quotes, showing how he mentions God in most of his interviews. "I can't believe what's going on," Williams told the Associated Press. "God gave me a million-dollar voice, and I just hope I can do right by him."

Then there's the tearful reunion with his 90-year-old mother on yesterday's Today show, with an updated report from the Dispatch.

During conversations in years past, Ted Williams would hang up the phone whenever his mother would broach his plight, encouraging him to embrace religion.

"I was trying to tell you to find God in your life," she said softly. "How do you think I felt?"

"I'm through with it all," he assured. "Mother, I love you so much."

In an interview with the Associated Press, she said she was embarrassed to see her son in the video. "I prayed and prayed but I always said my prayers weren't strong enough. It never got through to him." Another Dispatch story reports that he had recently been calling family members, saying that he had found God. Hopefully someone will take the time to ask him what he means.

Update: Williams' mother said in an NBC interview that her husband was a Jehovah's Witness and she says, "I go to one of the nicest churches in Brooklyn."

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