About that prayer circle featured on New York Times front page: great writing or overly dramatic?

As a media critic, it's my job to have an opinion. I'm supposed to be able to read a story and then let readers know what I thought.

Is it good journalism? Did it get religion?  Those are questions that I'm expected to answer in this space. And most of the time, that's no problem. 

But what happens when I'm not 100 percent sure whether I liked — or disliked — a particular piece of reporting? When I find myself arguing with myself? Believe it or not, that happens every so often.

Such is the case with my attempt to analyze a New York Times narrative feature, which ran on Sunday's front page, on "17 people (who) joined in prayer before clearing out the flooded house of an aging widow. God, they insisted, was also there."

The Times sets the scene this way:

“In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit
WHARTON COUNTY, Tex. — Jeff Klimple, head bowed and eyes clinched, had locked his meaty mechanic’s hand into the trembly, creased fingers of his 80-year-old mother, Angie. She, in turn, held the right hand of her 24-year-old granddaughter, Natalie. Natalie was clutching a box of Hefty Ultra Strong garbage bags with her left hand, so the Lutheran pastor standing next to her, Lee Kuhns, wrapped one arm around her and draped the other over the shoulder of the gray-haired woman on his left, Rosalie Beard.
In all, there were 17 Texans linked in a ring on Angie Klimple’s front yard last Saturday afternoon, a circle of prayer broken only by the hay wagon that would soon carry away the putrid, sodden remnants of 50 years of her life.
“Father, we come to you and thank you for all of these people you sent us,Mr. Klimple continued.
The group gathered in what had been a tidy yard on Blanche Street, one house away from a cotton field, an hour’s drive southwest of Houston. Wharton County, bounded on the northeast by the San Bernard River and bisected by the Colorado, has some of the state’s most productive farm and ranch land. But by Aug. 30, the deluge brought by Hurricane Harvey had lifted water levels by five to 10 times their norm and both rivers had breached their banks.

My uncertainty over that lede: I couldn't decide whether I thought it was great writing or overly dramatic. So I asked a few people whose opinions I respect.

"That is so, so over the top," said one journalist who has served as a features editor for a major daily.

But another journalist — this one a national religion writer — disagreed. His take: "Seriously, it's great stuff. It wouldn't work work in every instance, but in this case it does, IMO."

I also sought feedback from two ministers involved in faith-based relief efforts in Texas.

One replied:

I think it's a powerful and moving opening that describes a common scene in parts of Texas that were hit by Harvey. For many, churches were the first to offer assistance. They acted quicker than large nonprofits and local government. Churches were there to help cleanup and pray. Ministers and church members donned work boots and gloves, but they were just as ready to listen to a person's concerns or offer a prayer. These are both a work of the church. People don't always realize this, so I'm glad the New York Times was able to capture this slice of life.

The other minister was equally complimentary, saying he identified with the scene the newspaper described: 

I've stood in that type of circle and prayed many times. I've been in similar circles in emergency rooms, courtrooms, and lately, at houses destroyed by water. When life leaves us in a seemingly senseless situation, my mission is to show up and remind us, including myself, that God is still with us.

OK, it sounds like the ayes have it: Most of my small focus group loved the story.

Keep reading, and the Times does a nice job of allowing various sources to explain their faith during this difficult time.

Just a small snapshot of that:

The two clergymen in the circle approached that question from different angles. For Mr. Kuhns, the Lutheran pastor, the answer concerned man’s original sin. “We broke the world, and so we see the ramifications with earthquakes and floods and wars,” he said. “We’re the ones that brought it about.”
That interpretation of Scripture, he acknowledged, was not an easy one for those already suffering. “It doesn’t come off sounding very loving,” he said. “And yet the truth is we all deserve death and destruction. That’s what we deserve. But by the grace and love of God, he has blessed us with not total suffering.” Harvey’s devastation, he said, served to remind believers that heaven and not earth was their true home, the place where all would be perfect.
Rabbi Vowell had brought his family to the Klimple house at the request of Mr. Beard, who attends Congregation Beth Messiah in Houston with his wife, Kim. Ms. Beard had learned she had Jewish ancestry and became interested in messianic Judaism, which recognizes Christ as a spiritual savior within a context of traditional Jewish practice.
Raised Jewish in Houston, Rabbi Vowell, 41, had himself come to Christ as a young man as part of his escape from drug abuse and dealing. These days, he bears a resemblance to the popular iconography of the prophet he calls Yeshua (if, that is, Yeshua had worn snakeskin boots and a Texas star belt buckle).
“My theology is that if I can see God moving through people, neighbors helping neighbors, I can shelve the bigger question of why is this happening,” he said. “That there are still people caring for each other is evidence enough that God is in this world.”

Given my initial wishy-washiness on this story, I'd love to know what you think, dear GetReligion reader. Am I crazy for even having to think about it? Or do you share any of my hesitation to fully endorse the piece?

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