Peter Smith has spent the last several months reporting on immigrant religious communities in Pittsburgh, carving out time for the special project between daily assignments.
His work with the Post-Gazette earned him the Religion Newswriters Association's 2014 Religion Reporter of the Year Award. That prize recognizes excellence in religion writing for metropolitan newspapers.
In all, Smith boasts 30 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He earned a bachelor of arts in English at Oral Roberts University and a master of arts in religion from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Smith discussed his first year in Pittsburgh — including the immigrant religion project — in an interview with GetReligion.
Q: Are you enjoying your relatively new gig in Pittsburgh?
A: Very much. Pittsburgh has a diverse and vibrant religious scene. While we miss Louisville, we've also found Pittsburgh to be a great place to live.
Q: Talk about about your recent reports on how immigration has changed the religious landscape in Pittsburgh. How did these reports come about?
A: This is part of a much larger project. The Post-Gazette is doing a year-long team report on Pittsburgh's new immigrants, covering everything from individual stories to some of the legal, cultural, political and economic issues raised by immigration.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the large numbers of immigrants who came to Pittsburgh a century ago to work in the mines and steel mills, Pittsburgh today has a lower proportion of foreign-born residents than many North American cities. Still, the world is here. We have significant populations of Indian and Chinese immigrants, a small but growing Hispanic population and a wide range of refugee groups, particularly from Bhutan.
A reporter and photographer traveled to Nepal to do a powerful report on the plight of Nepali refugees from Bhutan who are languishing without a country after many years in refugee camps. Thousands of Bhutanese refugees have already settled in Pittsburgh. The photographer on that project, Julia Rendleman, also did many of the compelling photos that accompany the immigrant-religion project, although many people from our photo, video and online staff were ultimately involved.
Q: Describe the research and reporting that went into these stories.
A: There's really no central address for "immigrant congregations," so I arranged to visit them one-by-one. (That's a good way to get to know a new city in general, I found.) I went to a Vietnamese Catholic wedding (in a historically Polish church), a Congolese Presbyterian funeral, Spanish-language Protestant and Catholic services, Friday prayers and eids at the various mosques, Hindu festivals for Bhutanese and Indian groups, a Chinese Christian church and Baptist services in Bhutanese and Vietnamese.
Among others. I interviewed clergy and lay people, and also visited faith-based agencies helping immigrants. Plus I read up on every report on immigrant religion I could find — mostly on a national scale — which I used for reference and for guides on what to look for.
These are vastly diverse groups, but they do have some common threads: Congregations serve as both spiritual centers and social networks — places to get help finding a job or a home, or just to meet with other people from the old country and share familiar foods and language. Also, immigrant congregations of all stripes, from elaborate suburban temples to storefront churches, face the challenge of passing on the faith to their children in a new land. One of the more interesting stories was of a group of Burundian refugees who have integrated into a small, historically white Free Methodist church, which they sought out because that denomination's missionaries had helped them in their years of exile in Africa. It became a story of a small church that helped refugees and received a jolt of new energy and youth.
Q: How big a learning process was this project for you? Were you already familiar with the faiths you covered? Or did this story test even a veteran Godbeat pro such as yourself?
A: I was familiar with them, but not as much as I wish I was. It's been a particularly educational experience to learn about various expressions of Hinduism in a city with a Hindu population large enough to have multiple temples, shrines and expressions, including a temple that has become a national pilgrimage destination.
It was also interesting to see basic Christian missiological techniques applied to the United States. I visited a Pentecostal church with Nigerian roots that, unlike those I mentioned above, has no intention of just being a comfortable place for West African Christians. It's trying to evangelize its neighborhood and city, which means holding services in English and avoiding African-centric sermon illustrations.
Also, having spent so many years in Southern Baptist country and then having moved to a place where Southern Baptists are scarce, I found it interesting to visit small ethnic congregations meeting in the inner suburbs of Pittsburgh, led by immigrant church planters commissioned by the North American Mission Board.
Q: What kind of reaction has this project received from readers? Are you pleased with the response?
A: Positive. I think readers have appreciated seeing the range of faith communities here.
Q: Looking ahead, what religion story or issue will be taking a lot of your time over the next year or so?
A: I hope to explore the religious implications of some other demographic trends, but I'm in the very early pre-reporting research and can't get too specific. Meanwhile I'll be preparing for the big Catholic events next fall — the World Meeting of Families with an expected papal visit in Philadelpha, followed by Family Synod II.