Since I’ll be heading to California at the end of the month for a gathering of religion writers, I thought I’d scan the headlines to see the day's news in that part of the country. Some of it was delicious, such as the movement for all of the central and eastern parts of the state to split off into "New California," a 51st state without the baggage of the coastal cities.
Others showed a hole in news coverage, in that few newsrooms in the nation’s third largest state employ a religion specialist –- even part time -– and many, like the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, now have none.
Thus, when one of the most famous churches in southern California -- Church on the Way in Van Nuys -- had a fire last November, only the Los Angeles Daily News covered it. And the reporter who wrote the follow-up story didn’t seem to know any of the history behind this Pentecostal church, which was a national center for the Jesus movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
However, the big story in southern California for the past two days has been about a couple living outside of Riverside who were discovered on Sunday to have kept their 13 children shackled in an innocent-looking suburban home.
I’ll start with a summation from the Rolling Stone:
Authorities in California have arrested 57-year-old David Allen Turpin and 49-year-old Louise Anna Turpin on nine counts of torture and child endangerment each, after discovering their 13 children were held captive in their house, with "several children shackled to their beds with chains and padlocks in dark and foul-smelling surroundings," the Riverside County Sheriff's Department said in a news release.
Last Sunday, a 17-year-old daughter escaped the house, located in a quiet suburban town named Perris, roughly two hours southeast of Los Angeles. She told law enforcement that her siblings remained trapped against their will, according to the news release. Police and deputies initially thought all were children, but they found that the "victims appeared malnourished and very dirty" and were "shocked" to learn that seven of them were actually adults.
The children, who range from age 2 to 29 -- seven were legally adults –- were interviewed at the Perris police station, where they received "food and beverages after they claimed to be starving," before being transported to nearby hospitals for medical examinations and additional treatment, according to the news release. Authorities did not say how long the children were shackled. Their conditions have not been released.
Hmm, I wondered, could there be a religion angle to this?
Turns out there is. ABC News found it.
In West Virginia, the paternal grandparents, James and Better Turpin, told reporters that they were "surprised and shocked" by the arrest and charges, according to ABC News. They haven't seen the children in five years. Though they remembered them looking thin, they claimed they were a "happy family." David and Louise Turpin, the grandparents say, have Pentecostal faith and had many children because "God called on them." The children were subject to "very strict homeschooling" in which they were made to memorize Bible passages.
The Los Angeles Times had several articles on the crime here including this one , and this one but with no mention of any religious angle. The second article did ask why California law does not have mandatory inspections of home schools like the ones these parents were running.
The Riverside Press-Enterprise, the closest major newspaper to Perris, likewise found no religion angle in the articles I read.
How did ABC do it? By tracking down the grandparents in West Virginia.
So here is the ABC story about what little people know about this Pentecostal couple who -- this is crucial, when faith gets twisted -- didn’t seem to attend any local church. (Note to ABC's copy editors: "Bible" is supposed to be capitalized.)
The distraught grandparents added that David and Louise Turpin are considered a good Christian family in their community, saying they can't understand “any of this.”
"God called on them" to have as many children as they did, James and Betty Turpin said of their son and daughter-in-law.
The arrested couple's parents also said the children were given "very strict homeschooling," and that the children would memorize long passages of the bible. Some of the kids' goal was to memorize it in its entirety, the couple said.
Someone, somewhere in this area has got to know these folks and what they believed. But I doubt any local reporters have the contacts among local Pentecostals to find out any more. Just like the editors at The Daily News didn't know the history behind Church on the Way.
If there was ever a time for the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union Tribune to hire some religion specialists, it would be now.