When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul
— "It Is Well With My Soul," one of the hymns sung at Arcadia First Baptist Church of Santa Fe, Texas, on Sunday
• • •
Two days after the nation's latest school shooting claimed 10 lives, residents gathered for worship Sunday — and reporters, not to mention Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, were there.
Given the location of the shooting, that's no surprise: Grief-stricken Santa Fe, Texas, is a "deeply religious community," as NPR described it.
The people of the small town south of Houston "turned where they always do when they are troubled: their faith," the Dallas Morning News reported on its front page today:
Already today, tmatt delved into news coverage of the Greek Orthodox heritage of the 17-year-old gunman, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, who characterized himself on Facebook as an atheist.
But beyond the religious beliefs — or lack thereof — of the shooter, religion is a crucial angle of the story in Santa Fe. Here's why: It's impossible to understood that community or its response to this heart-wrenching tragedy without considering residents' faith in God.
Given that, the New York Times deserves kudos for emphasizing the faith angle even before Sunday rolled around.
The Times published a front-page sidebar Saturday — the day after the shooting — emphasizing the town's focus on prayer:
A key section of that story:
But in Santa Fe, where football players appeal to the Lord before Friday night games, where church on Sunday is all but a given, where the school district once went all the way to the Supreme Court to preserve the right to sponsor prayer, these expressions of faith are not mere words, but salves.
On Friday, inside the high school, the students turned to prayers for protection. As gunfire roared through the hallways, several students hid in a classroom, forming a prayer circle.
“We could hear everything, gun shots, screams, bullets ricocheting,” said Grace Johnson, 18, the school band chaplain. “I asked if anyone wanted to pray. That even if they didn’t believe in God, that maybe being comforted by friends would help. So we prayed for the safety of our class that got separated, our peers and most importantly we prayed that something would change in the heart of the shooter.”
Wow, what a quote! That's the kind of quote that will sell a story in a Page 1 meeting.
And not only is it a remarkable quote, but it's also an insightful one — helping readers understand that for some people, prayer is a real thing and not just a cliché "thoughts and prayers" kind of thing.
Meanwhile, some stories about Sunday's services were better than others.
The Houston Chronicle (to which I am a paid subscriber) has produced a ton of world-class journalism in the wake of Friday's shooting. But I'll admit, a bit reluctantly, that I wasn't overly impressed with the Chronicle's handling of the church angle on today's front page:
The Houston paper's lede front-page report opens with Sunday worship but then delves into law enforcement and other news. In my opinion, the Chronicle tried to cover too much ground in a single story. But given that this is the third day of the story, that newsroom may simply be running on fumes after some long, long days. Suffice it to say that I don't know the inside story of the circumstances, so I am commenting simply based on what I read.
Songs of peace and healing filled Arcadia First Baptist Church in Santa Fe on Sunday as grieving parishioners came together for prayers and strength while the investigation continues into the mass shooting Friday that left eight students and two teachers dead at the local high school.
With a 17-year-old student behind bars on capital murder charges, shaken residents attended church services, vigils, a pre-graduation baccalaureate service and final prayers for a foreign exchange student killed in the morning rampage.
But while a few more details about the service are offered in the story, readers never learn what any of the songs of peace were. No specific Bible verses are referenced from the assembly. And where the paper does quote the pastor, it seems to shift from him talking to the congregation to him talking to God without differentiating:
On Sunday, churchgoers hugged and greeted one another at the Baptist church, where Gov. Greg Abbott joined the congregation for the morning.
“We need to pray that as a nation we begin to turn back to the Lord, that this senseless killing may be stopped in our schools,” said interim Pastor Jerl Watkins. “Do we need to do more than just pray? Yes, we certainly do, but prayer needs to be a continual and integral part of all that we do.”
He called for people to turn to faith in times of tragedy.
“There are no words to take away that hurt and pain,” Watkins said. “But Father, you have something that can give us peace in spite of the pain.”
It sounds like in the first quote he's talking about prayer, and in the second quote, he's actually praying. Right?
The Dallas story seemed to capture a bit more of the authentic flavor of the assembly:
But inside the service, the focus was on healing and searching for peace.
"This is not a time for anything but loving our neighbor," Watkins said.
He read verses about overcoming tribulations and finding peace in Jesus. He asked the congregation to pray for the students of Santa Fe High School.
Here again, though, I don't want to be told he read generic verses. I want to know which verses and what they said.
Another major Texas paper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, used an Associated Press story on Sunday worship on its front page:
I appreciated the specific details offered by AP:
Church leaders wore green T-shirts with gold lettering —the colors of Santa Fe High School. Inside an outline of the state of Texas, the letters spelled out a verse from 2 Corinthians 4:8-9: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
Even a brief reference to a song's specific lyrics from NPR helped make me feel like the reporter actually took me into the church sanctuary:
"Lord I need you, oh I need you," sang the choir at Arcadia First Baptist Church. It was the refrain of many who are turning to faith to deal with the grim reality that this familiar, and tragic, American routine has now come to their town.
USA Today also covered the church angle, but I found its story pretty underwhelming for some of the same reasons mentioned above.
Finally, back to the Houston Chronicle: Its front-page story on the funeral of a Pakistani exchange student, who was Muslim, contains some specific and revealing religious details, including this section toward the end:
On Mother’s Day, Sabika gave her host mother a prayer shawl handmade in her home country. Just a week later, Joleen Cogburn wore it to cover her head inside the mosque as she remembered Sabika’s life.
“She wanted to be a part of what we did, and we wanted to be a part of what she did,” Jason Cogburn said. When Sabika began fasting last week for Ramadan, he said, the whole family started fasting along with her.
She would have returned home in time for Eid, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan.
Sabika was closest, perhaps, to the Cogburns’ daughter Jaelyn, who started attending Santa Fe High this fall after years of homeschooling. She didn’t know anyone when she got to school, and neither did Sabika. They became fast friends.
When his daughter made her first friend at school,“little did we know she would come from a different culture, from a different place halfway around the world,” Jason Cogburn said.
“We had no idea what God was going to send us,” he said. “But he sent us one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever had in my life.”
I like that the Chronicle allowed the father to talk about God.
I wish the paper had included just a detail or two about the family's own faith.
Not to pile on the Chronicle too much, but I don't think it has a religion reporter anymore. If I am wrong, please do correct me. But if I am correct, I think the Santa Fe shooting is a perfect example of why major papers need Godbeat specialists. In this case, some of the obvious issues I'm pointing out would have been obvious — before publication — to the religion reporting pro.