You know all those quotes about the need to be "in the present"? Well, they're also true for news media. Many stories these days have a thin, flinty feel because they're drawn from documents, websites and other articles.
Not so with the New York Times in its feature "Gadsden Finds God." The 500 words and 13 photos give us a vivid, sensitive look at how a rural Florida county united to help its worst-off people.
Gadsden County, in the Florida panhandle, is portrayed as troubled with overlapping problems of unemployment, under-education and juvenile crime. This despite the fact that Gadsden is just northwest of Tallahassee, the state capital and home of two leading universities -- Florida State and Florida A&M.
The Times found an unusual alliance combating the threefold plague: a judge, a sheriff and the school superintendent. The judge made sure to hear all county juvenile cases herself, emphasizing her local upbringing as a "daughter of the soil." The superintendent founded an alternative school for low-scoring students, with smaller classes and more support. And the sheriff, Morris A. Young, hired a fulltime chaplain, Jimmy Salters, for the county jail.
Their combined efforts have contributed to some good numbers since Young became sheriff in 2004, says the newspaper: arrest rates falling by 75 percent and graduation rates rising from 40 to 65 percent. And the Times writer captures some of the intense emotions involved.
You don’t get passages like this while sitting at a computer in New York City:
When I visited the jail in January, guards escorted family members, dressed in their Sunday best, past the concertina wire into a garage containing a large galvanized tank filled with water. Ten baptismal candidates were ushered in, and after a prayer, a song and a Scripture reading, Mr. Salters thrust each one backward into the warm water and then pulled them back onto their feet. The female inmates cried with relief, hugged one another, raised their arms and shouted for joy. As the men stepped out of the tank, one by one, their game faces gave way to smiles.
The chaplain reminded them that the baptism was only a first step toward re-entering society, and he expressed hope that upon their release their families and churches would greet them as reborn.
Sitting in New York also wouldn't yield powerful photos like the ones with this article. Three women in worship service, with hands raised and faces in a kind of rapture. An ex-con, a graduate of the rehab program, proudly standing before his barbecue business. A beaming inmate being allowed to hold his baby son.
The captions tell us a little more than the body text, on how the community has gotten involved. The top photo shows a woman with her baby at a shelter "run by an evangelical couple" -- one of the few times I've seen "evangelical" lately that wasn't connected with politics or scandal or both. Another shows a prayer service in the county jail, part of the Faith Behind Bars Reentry program created by Sheriff Young. The barbecue master works with Christ Town Ministries, the residential re-entry and rehab program he went through.
Young's initiative with Salters evidently inspired other congregations to pitch in. "Many local churches now send their members to the jail to teach Scripture and life skills, and other churches try to find jobs and housing for former inmates and others in need," the Times reports. It's one more proof, as Billy Graham once said: "Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened."
Or, as the sheriff told the Times: “We cannot incarcerate our way out of crime. When all else fails, you sometimes have to appeal to the spiritual side of offenders.”
So it's a poignant, absorbing feature. It would have been even better with quotes from the inmates themselves. What good do they feel it does for them? Is it better or worse, or the same, with the spiritual component? Were they forbidden to talk to the Times? If so, maybe the former inmate who runs the barbecue business would have been willing to talk?
Generally, the three-pronged approach seems to be yielding concrete results:
These efforts have coincided with a remarkable decrease in violent crime, juvenile arrests and incarceration rates. A sheriff, a chaplain, a judge, a schools superintendent and lots of good church folk are together offering hope and transforming lives in their own community.
But I see no indication whether the school or court component alone -- or perhaps a blend of the two -- would have been any worse than the religious-spiritual emphasis. There's also nothing about separation of church and state. Most stories of this type would start checking the familiar boxes of the ACLU, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and, if they're alert, opponents like Liberty Counsel. And probably side with the ACLU.
For a feature like this, that may be a better route. There are, of course, valid questions about the crossroads of religion and government. Those could be handled in a sidebar or on another day. This day, judging by the display of this article, is for vivid, sensitive coverage. In its choice, the Times itself shows a quality rare in modern media: wisdom.
Pictures: Screenshots from the New York Times.