If you have followed GetReligion posts about The New York Times in recent years, you may have spotted a pattern in our comments about its religion-news offerings.
When dealing with national-level stories, especially those linked to sexy, hot-button "culture wars" issues, the Times team has consistently served up one-sided stories driven by the advocacy journalism doctrines of what your GetReligionistas call "Kellerism." Surf this file if you have questions about the origins of that term.
But things almost always seem to change when run-of-the-mill religion news stories surface at the local level. Time after time, the Times Metro team has offered solid, detailed, meaty reports built on a wide variety of on-the-record voices. It's called journalism, folks.
However, what happens when a complex local story may -- I stress "may" -- have the potential of overlapping with one of those larger, sexier national stories?
Let me show you what I mean. The Times Metro team recently covered the kind of story that is happening more and more often in America's great urban zones. It's a story about efforts to save the facilities of a strategically located Catholic parish that is crucial to local residents, especially the poor.
But what happens if government officials get involved?
Thus, the headline: "A Bronx Church Where Landmark Status Would Be More Burden Than Honor." Here's the colorful, detailed overture:
The bronze doors of Immaculate Conception Church are always open during the day, a welcoming gesture to the surrounding Melrose neighborhood in the South Bronx. Decorated with figures of the Virgin Mary, the doors are graceful -- and heavy. “My main issue is trying to open them in the morning,” the Rev. Francis Skelly, the church’s pastor, said. “They keep me in shape.”
The bigger challenge is keeping them open: The parish is poor, and money for repairs and maintenance is tight. Twenty years ago, the church’s copper steeple had to be dismantled after pieces began to crash onto East 150th Street. It has yet to be restored because parish leaders have other priorities for the congregation’s 1,200 members -- most of them Latinos and immigrants -- who turn to it not just as a place to worship, but also for help with things such as citizenship classes and preparing tax returns.
Immaculate, as the faithful call it, has always been a church for newcomers, starting with the German immigrants who filled its pews when the current structure opened in 1888, replacing a wooden building that had stood there before. After decades of doing hard and unheralded work, the church is being recognized by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has proposed that the exterior be designated as a landmark.
Ah, but there's the rub.
The Times story notes that church leaders fear that landmark status would complicate efforts to repair, renovate or simply change the sanctuary. Does the church want to wrestle with bureaucrats on those issues? What if keeping the128-year-old building up to its historic specs cost more money than the parish could afford, further hindering its work with the poor?
However, the spokesperson for the landmarks commission -- Damaris Olivo -- makes it clear that she things that the congregation would not be in this battle alone. Here is the crucial detail. She says that there would be financial aid available from other sources.
... She added that while landmark status would require the approval of repairs and renovations to safeguard the building’s integrity, the commission had staff members who could expedite requests, and that some state funds and private grants were available to help defray costs.
“The commission is aware that the changing nature of the city’s neighborhoods has had an impact on religious institutions,” Ms. Olivo said. “This is a national phenomenon in cities across the country grappling with these same challenges. Our approach to saving these buildings is to collaborate with religious organizations to find solutions that benefit them and the public interest.”
That sounds positive. But stop and think about this for a moment, looking at this question from the point of view of church officials. Isn't the Catholic church seen, in many government and now even corporate circles, as a key player in "conservative," even bigoted efforts to oppose sexual liberty in the name of religious liberty?
Is it a reach to say that, in a few years, when the bills roll in to maintain this sanctuary according to its carved-in-law landmark status, that there would be significant pressure to deny state funds to help a Catholic flock in this manner?
Can you see progressive corporations such as Google, Apple and others protesting the efforts of major companies and secular foundations to come to the aid of a congregation aligned with a hate group?
If repairs were made with tax dollars, could you imagine LGBT-aligned protestors -- perhaps from the many colleges and universities in the greater New York City area -- marching outside the sanctuary protesting the use of their tax dollars in this manner?
Does it seem far-fetched to raise this issue? I would ask defenders of traditional religious groups in, oh, Indiana and North Carolina about that. Maybe ask someone from the Little Sisters of the Poor?
To state my question directly: Do church leaders have reason to fear that, in the future, landmark status would create unwanted maintenance expenses that they would be legally required to pay, while promised aid from state and outside sources may no longer be available for, well, political reasons? Did this affect their thinking on this matter?
Did anyone at the Times ask the key players that question?