The editorial powers that be at The Seattle Times, which this past spring missed by a mile the religious inspiration behind the actions of one Seattle Pacific University graduate, decided not to make the same mistake again.
This past Sunday, its front-page story on SPU alumna Marissa Johnson went out of the way to emphasize the faith angle. It started thus:
In 2013, Marissa Johnson graduated cum laude from Seattle Pacific University. She had taken a lot of theology classes, which deepened her faith. She also worked as the beloved director of a church’s Sunday school program, and was known for her helpful offers to baby-sit, as well as the striking voice she put to use during worship services.
Then Ferguson happened. “My life really did change,” she said during an April panel discussion on the changing face of the civil-rights struggle.
She showed that new face last weekend, attracting national notice as she and another woman shouted presidential candidate Bernie Sanders off the stage to denounce police brutality before a crowd of thousands. In taking over the microphone and disappointing those who had waited hours to hear the progressive Vermont senator speak, Johnson set off a furious debate about protest tactics, racism and Seattle-style liberals.
Hurrah. Finally someone in a newsroom digs into the faith history of a local activist and finds a huge backstory.
Among a new generation of Black Lives Matter activists who use confrontative tactics to get attention is a woman whose views were shaped by her church and the theology classes she took at a local Christian college. The reporter tracked down which professors influenced her turn toward radicalism and interviewed them. One encouraged her to take a feminist look at the Bible which in itself is somewhat unusual for a conservative Christian college. Then again, maybe SPU isn't all that conservative? That could be a story.
But her church, an evangelical congregation in west Seattle, wasn’t moving fast enough for the 24-year-old biracial woman and by this spring, she felt abandoned by her fellow Christians, the article said. Because Johnson did not say much in the one brief interview she gave the Times, the reporter had to dig through tapes of events at which Johnson had spoken or had disrupted by shouting down the speakers. She also interviewed Johnson’s pastor.
The reporter then dug up the head of SPU’s John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training and Community Development and found out that older blacks are put off by Johnson’s tactics and have called her on the carpet for it. Not that she’s listened, as illustrated in her recent disruption of the Bernie Sanders speech.
The bottom line: What is fascinating is how the article explains how the mainstream African-American church is not a part of today’s protests.
An SPU theology professor on the panel, Brenda Salter McNeil, said she saw the disconnect between the church and the Black Lives Matters movement firsthand when she went to Ferguson around the time of the riots. Cussing freely in front of her, young people announced they found the church hypocritical and misogynistic.
“There is a big distinction between what is happening now and what happened in the days of Selma,” she said, referring to the famous civil-rights marches of 50 years ago. Then, she said, “people met in churches. They came down the streets singing church songs. This ain’t that movement.”
If the article has a failing, it’s in not explaining how Johnson can justify her actions -- as a Christian -- in exercising the heckler’s veto.
The writer implies Johnson has gone post-Christian but, as evidenced by the large cross-shaped earrings she wears at demonstrations, the activist hasn’t completely dumped her beliefs. This is one complex individual. As some of the 388-plus commentators ask at the end of this piece, at what level is her activism? Why does she attend a mostly white church instead of a historic black one, for starters?
Others asked the Seattle Times why it was giving Johnson A-1 placement on a Sunday front page. Maybe it's because BLM activists are disrupting other rallies as well.
The article was worth doing, even if it chronicles the actions of a lost soul. The research the reporter did on Johnson was standard for a good religion story; that is, go to this woman’s church, interview the professors at the Christian university Johnson attended and build your story from there. Find the voices and quote them.
So many reporters these days don’t respect the religion element enough to do that. This one did.