The Houston Chronicle had a big story on its front page Sunday on a Baptist church seeking ethnic inclusiveness.
At least I think that was the intended focus.
The problem is that this big story — more than 2,200 words — lacks a true focus.
Is this long-drawn-out piece about racial segregation on Sunday? Is it about the divisive debate over illegal immigration? Is it about conservative Republican politics among white evangelicals?
The Chronicle hopscotches all over the place, awkwardly tying hot topics to the church featured but never really connecting the dots in a cohesive way.
Often, your GetReligionistas will complain that a story fails to explain where a particular scenario fits into the overall big picture. In this case, there's a whole lot of context — about immigration and Republican politics, for example — but not as much actual insight on the church. Instead of telling a story about the church, the Chronicle turns this report into a politically correct commentary on race and politics.
Let's start at the top:
When Pastor David Fleming arrived a decade ago at Champion Forest Baptist, one of Houston’s largest evangelical churches, he took stock of its mostly white congregation and made a bold decision. Sitting between Cypress and Spring, the church reflected its neighboring McMansions but not the apartment complexes popping up around FM 1960.
“We want to reach all of the people within the shadow of our steeple,” he preached to his predominantly Republican parish that includes Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman and state Rep. Debbie Riddle, who once likened the children of immigrants to “little terrorists.”
Recruiting a Hispanic and black pastor, he moved the main English-language Sunday service earlier and convened a Spanish-language sermon at the prime-time 11 a.m. slot. Lamented by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as “the most segregated hour in this nation,” it was a powerful gesture that Champion Forest could be different, even fulfill King’s vision for churches to “remove the yoke of segregation.”
Fleming envisioned one multilingual, multi-ethnic church, a rarity among Southern Baptists who have only 1percent of churches meeting that criteria. As the nation’s premier evangelical denomination posted nine straight years of membership losses, Champion Forest doubled to nearly 8,000 people, including almost 3,000 in what Fleming said is the state’s largest evangelical Spanish-language congregation.
Catering to both the Republican soccer mom and the Mexican construction worker she wants to deport can be a challenge of biblical proportions. Fleming tackled it head-on, becoming among the first leading evangelicals to push for comprehensive immigration reform. He pointed to demographic studies showing that of school-age children in the church’s radius, equal thirds are Hispanic, black and white.
Right up high, you get a hint of this story's inclination to editorialize: Fleming made a "bold decision." Moving the service time was a "powerful gesture." Who says it was bold? Who says it was a powerful gesture? In other words, where is the attribution?
And right up high, you get a hint of the story's questionable grasp of key religious terms: Since when do Baptist churches have "parishes?" The Religion News Association's religion stylebook notes that the term parish "is best used only in reference to Catholic, Episcopal and Orthodox Christians. It should not be used for non-Christians or members of nonhierarchical Protestant denominations." The Southern Baptist Convention is a nonhierarchical Protestant denomination.
The Chronicle's veteran religion reporter did not write this piece. Rather, the paper's immigration writer produced it. That's evident to anyone reading this with a close eye.
Don't get me wrong. Bits and pieces of the story hint at potential insight. But the flubs and misses make it difficult to digest the whole thing without an excessive level of frustration.
Go ahead and read it all and feel free to tell me if I'm wrong.