Pay attention to Peter Smith.
If that name doesn’t ring a bell, Smith is the award-winning religion writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (not to mention the newly installed president of the Religion News Association). Your friendly GetReligionistas have been praising his exceptional journalism for years.
At the moment, Smith is — along with the rest of his Post-Gazette colleagues — working overtime on coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that claimed 11 lives. Today, he’s leading the coverage of funerals for synagogue victims. He’s also reporting on a congregant who hid in a closet and called 911. Earlier, he wrote about an emotional vigil for victims of the synagogue shooting.
And here’s a safe bet: Smith and his newspaper will stick with the story long after the national news media have moved on. That’s not a criticism of the major press per se (after all, I do most of my own reporting for national outlets), but it’s a recognition of the important role of local journalists such as Smith, Jennifer Berry Hawes and Silvia Foster-Frau.
You remember Hawes, right?
She’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. For months and even years after nine black worshipers were shot to death at the Emanuel AME Church in June 2015, she provided must-read, behind-the-scenes accounts of victims dealing with that tragedy.
“Switch off cable and go local,” someone urged after the Charleston massacre, and we couldn’t help but agree.
And Foster-Frau? For the last year, the San Antonio Express-News writer’s updates on the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas — where 26 people were killed and 20 wounded on Nov. 5, 2017 — have been masterful.
Frau and photographer Lisa Krantz didn’t achieve this level of journalistic excellence by helicoptering in and out of that rural Texas community. They did so — as Express-News editor Mark Duvoisin noted — by immersing themselves in Sutherland Springs and offering “deep reports on the congregation’s recovery from the unspeakable.”
Ironically, Foster-Frau’s latest in-depth Sutherland Springs story was published on Sunday on the same front page as news of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. She also reported on Sutherland Springs’ members reactions to the Tree of Life tragedy.
Her anniversary piece, while sad, is remarkable in its detail and nuance. It shows incredible sensitivity to the faith of those featured as well as recognition of the extreme trauma that they experienced (and still experience).
Just a bit of the compelling narrative:
For parishioners here, God is everywhere. He's in the South Texas skies they reach for with their hands every Sunday. He's in the thousands of letters and gifts from people across the world sending prayers and condolences. He's in the flowers at the victims' graves.
The power of their faith has uplifted survivors in their day-to-day battles for physical and emotional recovery, and it has driven the community's desire to serve others. Romans 12:21 is often heard around the church today: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
"God has shown us how to combat evil: With love and caring about one another. And respecting and valuing life," said Julie Workman, 55, who survived with minor wounds. Her sons Kris and Kyle were with her that day. Kris, 35, worship leader and an employee of Rackspace Inc., was paralyzed from the waist down.
First Baptist members wear silver, Texas-shaped necklaces with the words "Sutherland Springs strong." They have T-shirts with the inscription "The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." In worship, they sing about the "never-ending, reckless love of God."
"If I didn't have my faith in Christ, I don't know if I could have made it through," said Debbie Braden, who lost Keith, her husband of nearly 34 years. "But the ones that He left behind are becoming stronger."
This story is, as always with Foster-Frau’s reporting on this subject, definitely worth your time. But be sure to grab a tissue before you click the link.
And if you believe in prayer, feel free to say one for the local journalists like Smith, Hawes and Foster-Frau who give so much of themselves to tell important stories such as these that touch their own communities.