Faith in what, exactly? Courier-Journal series on Indiana town battling AIDS pulls up short

One of the most challenging assignments in the world is stuffing 10 pounds of sugar into a five-pound sack.

Reporters face this all the time: A carload of details that must be crammed into a small shopping bag.

Such may well have been the lot of investigative reporter Laura Ungar of the Louisville Courier-Journal, a daily now noted as "part of the USA Today network." After six months of reporting, she delivered a devastating three-part series on the HIV epidemic that still plagues Austin, Indiana, a town less than 40 miles north of the paper's offices, in a region known as "Kentuckiana."

Let me be clear: This is important work touching on a vital topic of national interest, and it deserves a wide readership, I believe. How HIV gripped this town, how addictions to opioids opened the floodgates, how transmission the virus is being fought and what the human and policy consequences are should concern every American. After all, as noted in the two-year-old PBS NewsHour video above, one trucker hiring a prostitute in Austin could subsequently carry the infection hundreds of miles away.

The articles focus on the health care and policy issues, subjects well within the reporter's wheelhouse. But we also get glimpses of faith elements at both ends of the series.

The glimpses left me wanting more.

The first piece begins with a discussion of the Christian physician laboring to help save the town, and the final installment boldly proclaims Austin as "having faith" in the midst of the crisis, Ungar -- or her editors -- seem to hold back when discussing the exact nature of faith that's involved.

The final installment's headline, "Healing Austin: Faith lifts small town from depths of HIV plague," could lead a reader to expect a more detailed discussion of just what that faith is, how it is practiced, what it entails. The subhead is equally promising: "As the outside world moves on, [a] small city draws on faith to save itself from drugs and disease."

Everyone who imagines we're going to get a few tales of tent revivals and the old "sawdust trail," please raise your hand.

We get hints. Everyone in the town, which boasted 30 churches in its prime, appears to identify as an unaffiliated or "generic" brand of Christian. The bottom line: Some details just aren't there. 

Ungar begins this concluding article with the heart-gripping tale of a young woman, addicted to drugs and pregnant, finding medical help for her and her child at the hands of Dr. Will Cooke, the town's only doctor. A year later, the woman's child is cared for by social services agencies, and she's back on drugs:

Still, Cooke won’t forsake her. The 45-year-old Jeffersonville resident chooses to practice medicine amid the largest, drug-fueled HIV epidemic to hit rural America in recent history. A deep Christian faith guides him as it does so many others driven to help in a place where more than 30 churches occupy less than three square miles.
“It’s only when we’re purpose-driven that we are really living,” says Cooke, Austin’s lone doctor. “Otherwise, we can be of no earthly good.”

We never learn what brand of Christianity the good doctor practices. It might be helpful to know if there was something specific in his spiritual formation really pushed him towards this life of service -- a mission trip, a Bible verse, an influential pastor or Sunday School teacher. As Ungar notes, Cooke's career path is not likely a road to wealth, so what led him there?

But in the Courier-Journal series, faith is -- as a rule -- just hinted at. In the first installment, focusing on Cooke and his uphill battle against an HIV epidemic he saw coming, we get a hint -- and only a hint -- of his motivation:

... Cooke -- a 45-year-old wearing a Star Wars cap that matches his scrubs -- peppers the usual medical instructions with a dose of humanity, advising students: “Listen to him and talk to him and show him compassion.”
A deep Christian faith guides the doctor, who closes all his emails with a quote from Galatians:
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

That's found in the sixth chapter and ninth verse of Galatians, from the English Standard Version, by the way, something omitted from the piece. (Although The Associated Press Stylebook does not demand a citation when quoting Scripture, it does specify the formatting. In this case, it would be "Galatians 6:9" if a verse is to be so identified.) 

All we learn in the concluding article is that Cooke endorses efforts by one church to help feed those impoverished and hungry in town, a move the medic separates from " 'the ugly side of religion,' when people judge others from afar," as Ungar wrote.

The final installment, online, is littered with pull-quotes of Bible verses -- Matthew, Lamentations, Proverbs -- without citations or context in the body of the story. The quotes certainly convey an atmosphere of service and healing in the town, but might confuse a reader expecting a connection to the story itself.

In that concluding piece, we get hints about a group called the Church of the New Covenant, whose associate pastor, Paul Thomas, described to me as "just a Bible-believing church," with no denominational affiliation.

The group gets some play -- and a big photo at the head of the article's web page -- in this piece, but there is not a word quoted from Thomas or senior pastor Harold White, nor any discussion of what the church believes in, other than offering some "faith" -- and food assistance -- to a crisis-wracked town.

"I noticed that, too," Thomas told me about that lack of context about the church when I reached him by phone.

Some journalism notes here: Ungar is a healthcare and policy reporter, not a religion writer. The series focused far more on the health and policy impact of the situation in Austin than the faith angle, which appears to have surfaced as part of her investigation. And, Ungar didn't write that final article headline on how "faith" is helping the community survive the scourge or that installment's subhead.

There are tantalizing anecdotes: We get a detailed description of how one young man, now 21, cheated death and HIV while on drugs, and how his having a girlfriend to talk to helps him stay sober. Another teenager, who lost her mother to drug abuse, has found in a high school choir the inspiration to avoid drugs, and that story is also told.

Those illustrations evidence faith in something, to be sure, but are they the kinds of faith readers expect when seeing that word in the headline and in the subhead?

I'm just asking here. Perhaps other readers were left wondering as well.

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