Every so often I like wandering the cyber highways and byways to find religion reporting that’s off the beaten track -- especially out here in the West.
One state that intrigues me is isolated North Dakota, which has more religion stories than one might think.
There’s the Baptist-turned-Catholic Bethlehem Community in Bathgate. There’s Becky Fischer, the Pentecostal trailblazer for children’s ministry best known to the outside world for her role in the 2006 film “Jesus Camp.” Her ministry is still going strong in Mandan.
Or there’s Lutheran Social Services in Fargo, which is resettling refugees in this sparsely populated state even though the locals aren’t happy about it. This story just broke in InForum, a Fargo newspaper also known as The Forum along with another story that explains how new arrivals from Somalia and Bhutan aren’t exactly fitting in with the local culture.
Well, this post isn’t about that topic, fascinating as it is.
It’s about a columnist for InForum, a freelancer who has taken it on herself to report on faith in Fargo. North Dakota is a state of mostly small newspapers and no fulltime religion reporter (listed with the Religion Newswriters Association, that is). What caught my eye was a simple advance for an upcoming visit to town by Bible teacher Beth Moore:
FARGO -- When Beth Moore was growing up in Arkadelphia, Ark., her father, who owned the local cinema, required his children to help out in the family business.
It was her job to hand out samples of popcorn and soda. And sometimes, she would "slip into the movie and take with her a pickle bag full of popcorn and a Dixie cup of Coke," her website notes.
"There in a theater chair, wide-eyed and filled to the brim with Coca-Cola, Beth began a lifelong love for stories," the introduction continues. "She loved to tell them, write them and be told them."
The story that ultimately captivated her, however, was one about a savior named Jesus who, she discovered, loves her madly.
Lots has been written about Beth Moore but I rarely see something this graceful.
Writing a piece on a visiting speaker is one of the more boring tasks a reporter must do, so it’s unusual when a writer actually puts time and care into such a story. I began looking up this writer’s byline -- Roxane B. Salonen -- and found quite a motherlode.
Let me stress that some of her pieces, like the one about a campus minister killed by a stranger who came to his door asking for a glass of water read more like opinion columns.
Others, like the second part of this recent two-part series on a local order of contemplative nuns, are straight forward news features:
WAHPETON, N.D. -- It's been called the "Ground Zero of prayer," the "spiritual nexus of the diocese," says the Rev. Peter Anderl.
But Anderl, who regularly hears the confessions of the eight religious sisters who inhabit the cloister at the Carmel of Mary Monastery here, has another designation for the nuns themselves.
"If you think about people as cars, (the sisters) are like Maseratis," he says. "When they're running well, look out world, because they're going 180 miles an hour versus 30 on the gravel road."
I learned that this reporter/writer is, according to Twitter, a “Catholic wife and mother of five, writer/author, cantor, prairie dweller, coffee drinker, book lover.” Judging from her writing, she got some journalism training somewhere and she shows more understanding of the beat than many full-time folks I've encountered.
One quality that makes for greatness in religion stories is when the writer can express the quality of a person's spirituality, not just basic autobiographical facts.
Salonen seems to capture the essence of many of her interviewees in good quotes that surely took time and work to get. I’m glad whoever edits InForum managed to talk this mother of five into doing some writing and reporting for them. Maybe when her children are grown she can go full-time. The newspaper would surely be the richer for it.