Let's say that you are a regular reader of religion news and you see a story with this simple, but bold headline: "Meet Pennsylvania's unlikely 'Pastor for Pot'."
In this story, you find out that the clergyperson in question -- introduced as Shawn Berkebile, with no "The Rev." -- likes to wear a clerical collar and that he has a bishop, with whom he consults on crucial questions about his parish and his work.
Now, combine these symbolic facts and most religion-news consumers are going to ask a rather basic question. It's certainly a question that sprang into the mind of the religion-beat veteran who sent me an email the other day about this story.
Apparently, editors at The York Daily Record didn't think this question was all that relevant.
The GetReligion reader, and media pro, noted:
NOWHERE in the story does it say what kind of congregation it is: Episcopal, Unitarian, Assemblies of God, whatever. ... And the only reference to his bishop is strangely devoid of context. ...
The omissions ... took what should have been a good story and just made it strange, as if the writer was trying to conceal something.
This religion-beat veteran noted that there is a photo -- a quite small one, in the online version of the story -- in which one can read a sign identifying this pastor's congregation as St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church. It would be logical to assume that this means Berkebile and his small flock are part of the progressive Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A bit of online digging confirmed that.
Why omit this perfectly normal and, in this case, not very shocking fact? Religion-beat professionals and dedicated readers: Raise your hand if you are surprised that a young ELCA pastor is in favor of liberalized medical marijuana laws. Anyone? Not me. Still, this long, chatty (it verges on a kind of journalistic Dr. Seuss approach, at times) and interesting news feature opens like this:
What would they think?
His congregation. His representatives. All those people in the town hall.
He didn’t look like a rebel. And he didn’t look like a stoner -- because he wasn’t one. (He still isn’t).
He wore his white collar -- he regularly does in public. He was just as baby-faced then as he is now, about three years later.
He didn’t look like the “pastor for pot” -- even though that’s what some have called him.
Annie was on his mind.
He was worried, for her and for her cause.
He worried that his actions would bring division, not unity.
He worried about the opposition he might face.
To be honest, he was a little worried they’d run him out of the church.
That didn’t happen.
It takes some time for facts to emerge. "Annie," who has severe epilepsy, is the daughter of church member Angela Sharrer. Her medical challenges are described in great detail, but with lots of compassion. That part of the story is solid, noting that she was "wracked with sleep deprivation and suffering from life-threatening pancreatitis."
Once again, the strange element in all of this is the vague approach to the pastor and the ecclesiastical structures in which he works. It appears that the goal is to portray him as an ultra-courageous rebel because of the conservative cultural context of his ministry. But is that the case? Facts would help.
Let's keep reading. Here is some additional background:
Three years ago, when Annie’s family came to speak with Shawn Berkebile, he hadn’t touched the plant in years.
Frankly, at that point in his life, he didn’t think much about marijuana any more.
When he was younger, he thought it was a drug -- a bad one -- and that people who smoked were stoners and potheads. They were the deviants.
Things started to change in college.
He smiled looking back. He was part of a music fraternity. Pot was just a part of the culture.
He partook socially, on occasion.
It didn’t ruin his life.
But he moved on, past those social circles. He graduated and went to seminary, just like he planned. He met his wife working at a church camp; he had three kids. He became a minister in sleepy Abbottstown, Pennsylvania, population: 1,011.
This brings us to the local church itself:
You wouldn’t expect St. John’s to be a hotbed for medical marijuana activism -- you just wouldn’t.
It’s a 257-year-old congregation. “Everyone’s related to everyone,” Berkebile mused. He didn’t hesitate in describing it as “extremely conservative.”
It's located in Abbottstown, a town so small that its most notable landmark is its traffic circle.
But under Berkebile’s leadership, the congregation has grown dramatically. Bishop James Dunlop cited Pastor Shawn’s energetic leadership style in a May 2017 award presentation.
He’s the kind of pastor who stops and talks to the construction workers outside the church.
He strives to be a peacemaker, so the idea of taking up a controversial cause like marijuana wasn’t easy.
But it was necessary.
I could go on and on. The bottom line is that key facts never show up.
Also, if this congregation was really conservative, it would help to hear from some members of the congregation. Were there parishioners who opposed his stand on medical marijuana? If so, they never make an appearance. In fact, there is no evidence that a reporter ever visited the church at all. As best I can tell, 90 percent of the story comes from one long interview with the heroic pastor.
This is an interesting, but puzzling, story about a very newsworthy topic. But is it a surprising story, in the context of the ELCA? Can anyone imagine the denomination's powers that be not backing this pastor, in this case? If there was tension and potential controversy, then editors should have asked for solid reporting about that.
Why not cover the basic facts in this story? Why not give readers a bit of ecclesiastical context?