It's time to give a salute to The Baltimore Sun for trying to do a timely, highly relevant religion-beat story in the midst the civic meltdown ignited by the still mysterious death of Freddie Gray. If you have a television, a computer or a smartphone (or all of the above) you know that the situation here in Charm City is only getting more complex by the hour.
This past weekend's story -- "What's the role of the church in troubled times? Pastors disagree" -- reminded me of some of the work I did in a seminary classroom in Denver while watching the coverage of the infamous 1992 Los Angeles riots. Facing a classroom that was half Anglo and half African-American, I challenged the white students to find out what black, primarily urban pastors were preaching about the riots and I asked the black students to do the same with white, primarily suburban, pastors.
The results? White pastors (with only one exception) ignored the riots in the pulpit. Black pastors all preached about the riots and, here's the key part, their takes on the spiritual lessons to be drawn from that cable-TV madness were diverse and often unpredictable. The major theme: The riots showed the sins of all people in all corners of a broken society. Repent! There is enough sin here to convict us all. Repent!
So when I saw the Sun headline, I hoped that this kind of complex content would emerge in the reporting. The African-American church is a complex institution and almost impossible to label, especially in terms of politics. There are plenty of economically progressive and morally conservative black churches. There are all progressive, all the time black churches that are solidly in the religious left. There are nondenominational black megachurches that may as well be part of the religious right. You get the picture.
So who ended up in the Sun in a story published just before the protests turned violent?
I am not really sure if the members of the Sun team know the answer to that question. They knew they were featuring the voices of black and urban pastors. But did those voices offer any logical, balanced look at the views found in African-American pulpits and pews?
I'm not sure that the Sun editors thought about that. The pastors are simply quoted, as if it mattered little what kinds of churches they represented (culturally or theologically) or their possible historic ties to Baltimore politics. You know, I guess all black preachers are alike and interchangeable?
This issue shows up right at the start:
The black church has always been on the front lines of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Jamal H. Bryant says. And it's in that spirit, he says, that he's taken a leading and controversial role in protesting the death of Freddie Gray.
The charismatic local pastor has led rallies, exhorted marchers -- and called for the arrest on murder charges of the six officers involved in Gray's arrest.
Many of Bryant's colleagues have disavowed that demand, but they agree that the city's African-American churches have a special role to play in the search for social justice.
So who is Bryant? Would it help to know that he is part of a rich vein of black leadership in a more progressive mainline church? He leads the Empowerment Temple AME Church and is he son of a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Does that mean that his views are not relevant or needed? Of course not. It simply means that readers need some context for his life and work.
As always, the Sun addressed this preacher's work primarily in terms of politics, not theology.
No one was questioning the sincerity of Bryant, the influential pastor of Empowerment Temple AME Church, who has become synonymous with high-profile civil rights protests and causes.
In 2012, he became nationally known as a supporter and friend of the family of Trayvon Martin, the Florida youth who was shot to death by a neighborhood watch captain. Bryant spent several weeks in Ferguson, Mo., last year, taking part in demonstrations in the wake of the police-involved shooting death of African-American teenager Michael Brown.
He also works on civic issues in Baltimore, where Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake named him co-chair of a task force that studied the planned use of body cameras by police. He said he sees his actions in the wake of Gray's arrest and death as being in "those same footsteps" as the civil rights leaders of 50 years ago.
At this point, the Sun offered up the sentence that made me hope that readers were about to offered a glimpse into the deep, rich resources found in black sanctuaries, when it comes to the Bible, theology, faith and public life.
But even the civil rights pioneers of the 1960s rarely spoke with one voice.
The story then offers another voice.
A few blocks from where Gray was arrested April 12, the Rev. Louis Wilson said a minister should encourage people not to act in haste.
"As Christian leaders, our job is not to rush to judgment. It's to stand up for the truth," said Wilson, pastor of New Song Community Church in Sandtown-Winchester. "We can't make assumptions and say, 'Arrest and fire them.' Based on what? On an inconclusive video? Gather the facts, then let the evidence shape what you believe."
But who is Wilson? What is the New Song Community Church? What is its unique history and point of view? A visit to the church website shows that this, too, is a flock linked to a historic, progressive church body. Again, that is good content. But where are churches with a different approach to faith and public life? The region contains many, MANY giant black and mixed-race megachurches with Pentecostal roots, for example.
Later there is material from a pastor linked to a group that sounds most impressive -- the "Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a consortium of pastors representing about 50 Baltimore-area churches."
But is this, in fact, a very diverse group or simply another element of the city's old guard church establishment? Click here and see what you can figure out. At the very least, some critics believe the alliance has tight, tight ties to the current powers that be and to the city's embattled administration.
So what is my point?
Good try, journalistically speaking. This was a topic that had to be covered, if the newspaper was going to talk about life in Baltimore right now.
What went wrong? As is so often the case, the newspaper ended up with a very narrow and, I would argue, simplistic take on what is happening in the African-American pews and pulpits in our area.
Did the editors know that? That's the question. To be charitable, maybe they did not know what they did not know. They did know they were trying to find voices on both sides of a debate about faith, crime, race, public life and even violence. That was a good start. They need to try again, because this story is not over yet. No way.