Was there a religion angle in the Sailor Gutzler story — and did the media ignore it?
Right after the start of the new year, 7-year-old Sailor made national headlines when she survived a plane crash that killed her family.
The lede of The Associated Press' riveting account:
KUTTAWA, Ky. (AP) — Bleeding and alone, 7-year-old Sailor Gutzler had just survived a plane crash that killed her family. She walked through about a mile of woods and thick briar patches, wearing a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and no shoes in near-freezing temperatures when she saw a light in the distance.
The beacon led her to Larry Wilkins' home, police said, and she knocked on the door. Wilkins answered to find a thin, black-haired girl, whimpering and trembling.
"I come to the door and there's a little girl, 7 years old, bloody nose, bloody arms, bloody legs, one sock, no shoes, crying," Wilkins, 71, told The Associated Press on Saturday. "She told me that her mom and dad were dead, and she had been in a plane crash, and the plane was upside down."
Federal Aviation Administration officials arrived at the crash scene Saturday to try to determine why the small Piper PA-34 crashed on Friday evening, killing four people, including the girl's parents, Marty Gutzler, 48, and his wife, Kimberly Gutzler, 46, authorities said.
Also killed were Sailor's sister Piper Gutzler, 9; and cousin Sierra Wilder, 14. All were from Nashville, Illinois. The bodies have been sent to Louisville for autopsies.
The plane reported engine trouble and lost contact with air traffic controllers around 5:55 p.m. CST, authorities said. Controllers had been trying to direct the pilot to an airport about 5 to 7 miles from the crash scene, authorities said.
About 40 minutes later, 911 dispatchers received a call from Wilkins, who reported that a girl who had been involved in a plane crash had walked to his home.
A Los Angeles Times story hinted at the family's religious faith:
Flying wasn't something that filled Marty Gutzler with fear, if the photos the pilot had posted to Facebook last week were any indication.
A father and husband, he'd taken a grinning selfie of himself in the pilot's seat of a small plane, headset on, as two young girls fiddled with crayons and a basketball in the back seats.
"If God brings you to it, he will bring you through it!" read a meme Gutzler, 48, of Nashville, Ill., posted Dec. 28. The phrase would come to have a tragic new resonance for Gutzler's family less than a week later.
From that same Times story:
For friends and relatives of the Gutzlers, the grief and healing has also only just begun.
"We are devastated by this loss, but are confident that they rest in God's loving arms," family spokesman Kent L. Plotner said in a statement. "Please pray for us, especially for Sailor Gutzler."
The Chicago Tribune quoted the family's Lutheran pastor:
"A loss like this doesn't just affect one family or one group of people, it affects the whole community," said the Rev. Matthew Wietfeldt of Trinity Lutheran Church in Nashville, where Marty Gutzler was a member. "It's very hard to go through this, but the comfort we have is we can go through this together, and we're all rallying around Sailor."
Marty Gutzler helped the church with donations and deals on carpeting, tile and furniture, and was a big supporter of the local schools, Wietfeldt said.
"This is very sad for our community," Wietfeldt said. "Our prayer as a church community is that God will surround their friends and family and be around them as they mourn."
The Rev. Matthew Wietfeldt of Nashville's Trinity Lutheran Church said those killed -- whom he's known for four years -- "will be deeply missed."
"The Gutzlers were a wonderful family and wonderful members of our congregation and community," Wietfeldt said.
Kent Plotner, an attorney representing the family, said in a statement, "The Gutzler family mourns the loss of Marty, Kim and Piper Gutzler and Sierra Wilder. We are devastated by this loss, but are confident that they rest in God's loving arms. We ask that you respect our privacy at this difficult time. Please pray for us, especially for Sailor Gutzler."
Based on those links, it's obvious that the media recognized a certain religious element to this story. But did news organizations resist telling the full story? Were there holy ghosts?
I ask because Wietfeldt, the pastor, voiced frustration with media coverage in an interview published by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod:
Wietfeldt says he has seen firsthand how the Gospel offers rich comfort in the midst of what seems like hopelessness. But he’s also seen that hope outright rejected.
“Dealing with the national media has taught me that they want sound bites. They don’t want to hear the Gospel,” he explains. “Out of all the things I’ve said, only one or two of the local stations . . . have used anything of what we’ve been saying as the Church: preaching the Gospel and comforting people in the midst of tragedy.”
“The Church doesn’t deal in pithy little sound bites that have nothing to do with the Gospel,” Wietfeldt says. “That weighs heavily on me. It perpetuates the sorrow. The media is taking solace in the fact that one person survived, when we in the Church take comfort in the fact that Jesus really does take care of His people through His Holy Spirit, and that as a community, we’re going to make it through this, not because of our resilience or ourselves, but because of Jesus.”
Certainly, it's not a journalist's job to preach the Gospel. On the other hand, if Wietfeldt clearly expressed the church's perspective on grief and loss — and the media chose to brush aside deeper spiritual thoughts in favor of more clichéd sound bites — that's a concern. Before taking sides, I'd need more information on what Wietfeldt actually told reporters.
The pastor's criticism certainly is interesting. But is it warranted? That's the question.