5Q+1 interview: Melissa Binder on the thriving Godbeat in America's least-religious city

Melissa Binder is rocking the Godbeat in one of the unlikeliest of places -- Portland, Ore.

"Who else is going to tell you what religion in the rest of the United States might look like in 50 years?" The Oregonian writer responds when asked about covering faith and values in America's least-religious city.

Binder's journalism talents earned her prestigious national awards even before her graduation from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2013. Besides gaining photography, writing and digital news experience on campus, she interned for major news organizations such as the CNN Wire, the Charlotte Observer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

After graduation, she joined The Oregonian as a neighborhood news reporter covering parts of Portland before transitioning to the newspaper's newly revived religion beat less than a year ago. 

In introducing herself to Portland readers, she cited her own faith:

I'm interested in this beat for reasons beyond intellectual curiosity. Belief is central to individual identity for many of you. As a person of faith, I get that. I grew up in a North Carolina church (quite literally — I attended a Christian elementary and middle school in the same building where my family attended regular services). You can find me with my husband in the front row at Imago Dei Community in Southeast Portland almost every Sunday morning.

Q: As I understand it, your transition from school to working life was a whirlwind adventure. Please tell us about it.

A: Yes, it was! I got engaged, graduated from undergrad, got married, moved across the country and started my first full-time job all in four-and-a-half months.

Packing in those milestones wasn't anticipated. My husband, Jonathan Binder, worked for CNN Radio in Atlanta and lost his job when the whole program was cut in June 2013. That was about six weeks after he proposed and I graduated. I'd been looking for work in Atlanta but wasn't limited anymore. We both job searched nationally, sort of with this deal that whoever got a good offer first won. We bumped up the wedding so we could be married before we had to move. (We planned a wedding in exactly one month, while job searching. Anything is possible.) I got my official offer at The Oregonian a couple of days before the ceremony and accepted the day we got back from our honeymoon. We packed, said goodbye to friends and family, and road tripped across the country to start a new life.

Q: How did you come to cover the religion beat? Just nine months in, what do you find most exciting and most challenging about it?

A: Our relatively new editor, Mark Katches, recommended resurrecting the faith beat shortly after he arrived here last summer, and I advocated pretty adamantly for it — that it exist and, preferably, be given to me. I hope I live up to the trust the leadership placed in me.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey wrote in her introduction to GetReligion that religion is often the answer to the “why” question, and I’m delighted that my job is to explore, again and again, an aspect of peoples’ identities that determines so much of their behavior. I can help people understand one another and the forces in their communities.

As fulfilling as it is, the beat is incredibly challenging. There is no flow of news arriving neatly at my desk everyday. No council meetings or new product announcements. Holidays provide some structure, but otherwise I’m sort of out in reporting abyss. There are more stories than I know what to do with, but little actual news. That will get better with time, I’m sure.

Q: Where do you get your religion news? 

A: Dozens of sources, all online. The major national/metropolitan new outlets and Religion News Service, of course. I follow blogs from Rabia Chaudry’s Split the Moon to Rocco Palmo’s Whispers in the Loggia. I read Patheos, Tablet, Christianity Today, etc. Locally: the Catholic Sentinel, Christian News Northwest and Oregon Jewish Life. I wish I had time to read everything from every outlet on my list, but the reality is that my news consumption is a mishmash.

Q: What are some of your favorite religion stories that you've written so far? And how did these stories help you grow on the beat?

A: I see you’re going to ask about my all-time favorite piece in the next question, so let me tell you about my second favorite: a quirky profile of an atheist Jew who sings in a gospel choir. The story is actually written as a how-to guide for becoming Portland’s most likable man, with section labels such as “Step Two: Suffer an embarrassing hormonal imbalance” and “Step Four: Marry someone who disagrees with you about God.”

This story was a milestone for me as a young writer because it was the first time I really let myself go creatively. They loved it, and that was really affirming. As for growing on the religion beat, this story pushed me out of my conversation comfort zone. I met Ron Silver (the subject of the story) very early into my time on the beat, and reporting this involved wading through the messiness of his faith identity. It was a great exercise for asking really awkward questions, defining terms and respecting the complexity of human identity.

Other favorite include a tender piece about Muslims who struggle with the Ramadan fast because of health problems, a photo project on LGBT Christians and a takeout on an organized, national effort to reemphasize the “C” in YMCA. That last one is pretty interesting — of all places, an effort to encourage more Christianity in the Y is based in Portland. At this point, almost everything I do stretches my comfort zone and builds new writing muscles. I’ve only been out of school two years and on this beat for about nine months. Everything I do is new.

Q: You recently wrote a narrative piece on "Life inside the abbey." You've described this 2,000-plus-word story as your favorite so far, and GetReligion's Jim Davis praised it in a post here. How did this story develop? And what pleased you about the final product?

A: I learned about the monks at Mount Angel from a friend back in the spring. He told me about their new beer venture, but what I walked away with was simply, “We have monks!” I was giddy. I knew nothing about monasticism and was so curious about the monks’ lives. I called the abbey that week and next thing I knew I was granted full access.

I picked Father Martin Grassel because he’s so relatable. He grew up in a nonreligious home and had a life as a software engineer. He deals with budgets and emails. He loves craft beer and cats. He carries an iPhone that monitors how many steps he takes. I followed him around and used scenes from the day to dig deeper into his life. By happenstance a disturbed stranger came into the chapel during noon prayer and threatened to kill everyone. That added some drama, obviously, and served my goal to show the reality of imperfection at a seemingly utopian place. They said something like that happens maybe once every five years. They joked that it was my fault.

I’m really proud of the final product. Not just the writing but the whole reader experience online. Jessica Greif’s videos compliment the story, and the wide-format display helps the reader get lost. We’ve used that format for other big enterprise pieces, but in this case it really serves a purpose. It feels quiet, clean and isolated — just like the abbey. Everything from the rhythm of the writing to the photography to the display is meant to recreate the feel of the abbey, and I think we succeeded.

Q: Finally, why in the world does a newspaper in Portland, Ore. — ranked in one survey as America's least-religious city — need a religion writer? Seriously, how, if at all, does Portland's relative lack of religiosity play into your role with The Oregonian?

A: To the first question: Who else is going to tell you what religion in the rest of the United States might look like in 50 years? Portland has been ahead of the country ideologically for decades, for better or for worse. The Pew Research Center projects that the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated in the U.S. will grow by 50 million in the next 45 years, while Christians only gain about 15 million or so during that time, and minority faiths each gain a couple million. Those 50 million “nones” aren’t all going to be in Pacific Northwest, especially if we get decimated by an earthquake soon. My stories not only serve the community here but also create a record of what faith looks like in a secular American culture.

To the second: The lack of religiosity does play into my role in a number of ways:

• First, my beat is titled “faith and values” instead of “religion” for a reason. I’ve written about how the national obsession with Elsa from “Frozen” (as opposed to heroine sister Anna) reflects American values. I will soon have a monthly ethics column modeled after The Ethicist. Non-religious people are just hungry for thoughtful stories about ethics and morality as believers, I think.

• Second, I look for ways to write about the spirituality of non-believers every now and then. Non-religious does not mean non-spiritual. In many ways I see Portland as a city of spiritual refugees, and there are stories to be told. I haven’t done enough of that in my first nine months.

• Third, I have to be considerate of non-religious folks in my language. We’re supposed to do that as journalists anyway, but I am extra aware that a lot of my readers aren’t familiar with religious jargon or belief.

P.S. This interview was in the works before we posted Wednesday on the Alabama Media Group laying off veteran religion writer Kay Campbell. Still, the irony of Bible Belt news organizations losing faith in the Godbeat while it thrives in Portland was not lost on one GetReligion reader:

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