BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

Once upon a time, I was an expert on life in Waco, Texas. I spent six years there in the 1970s — doing two degrees at Baylor University — and have had family ties to Jerusalem on the Brazos for decades, some of which are as strong than ever.

The Waco I knew didn’t have lots of civic pride. For many people, things went up and down with the state of affairs at Baylor. Even the great Willie Nelson — who frequently played in a Waco salon back then — had Baylor ties. And talking about Baylor means talking about Baptists. We used to joke that there were more Baptists in Waco than there were people. We had normal Baptists, conservative Baptists, “moderate” Baptists and even a few truly liberal Baptists. Welcome to Waco.

This old Waco had a dark side — a tragic, but normal, state of things in light of America’s history with race and poverty. Many of the locals were brutally honest about that. And in recent decades, Waco has had tons of bad luck, media-wise. Say “Waco” and people think — you know what.

As you would imagine, the fact that Waco is now one of the Sunbelt’s hottest tourism zones cracks me up. But that’s the starting point for a long, long BuzzFeed feature that I have been mulling over for some time. Here’s the epic double-decker headline:

”Fiixer Upper” Is Over, But Waco’s Transformation Is Just Beginning.

HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines helped convert a sleepy Texas town into a tourist mecca. But not everyone agrees on what Waco’s “restoration” should look like.

There is an important, newsworthy, piece of news writing buried inside this sprawling, first-person “reader” by BuzzFeed scribe Anne Helen Petersen. It’s kind of hard to find, since the piece keeps getting interrupted by chunks of material that could have been broken out into “sidebars,” distinct wings of the main house.

Here’s the key question: Is this story about Chip and Joanna Gaines and their Magnolia empire — the hook for all that tourism — or is it about Antioch Community Church and how its evangelical, missionary mindset has shaped efforts to “reform,” “reboot” or “restore” distressed corners of Waco?

The answer, of course, is “both.” That creates problems, since there are so many elements of the “good” Waco news that clash with BuzzFeed’s worldview. Thus, the goal here is to portray (a) the shallow, kitschy aspects of Waco’s current happiness before revealing (b) the dark side of this evangelical success story.

This vast, multilayered feature is built, of course, built on Peterson’s outsider status and her contacts with former — “former,” as in alienated — members of the Antioch-Gaines world. There’s no need to engage with the views of key people who are at the heart of these restoration efforts because, well, this is BuzzFeed, a newsroom with this crucial “ethics” clause in its newsroom stylebook:

We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. 

Let’s start with the overture:

There are dozens of new stores in Waco, Texas, that sell the ingredients for a successful Instagram post. There are boutiques with cute linen rompers, well-lit coffee shops, and new shops with felt pennants stenciled with “Let Go and Let God” and hand towels screen-printed with “Alexa, please feed the kids.” And they’re almost all in the orbit of “the Silos” — two rust-stained containers, once filled with cotton seed, that serve as a shabby-chic navigation point from downtown Waco. “Close to the Silos” has become the most prominent characteristic in descriptions of Waco shops, real estate listings, hotels, and Airbnbs: “Within walking distance” means access to the spending dollars of the 50,000 (!) tourists who come to town every week.

Three and a half years ago, those silos were transformed by Chip and Joanna Gaines — the stars of the HGTV show Fixer Upper (2013–2018) and the couple behind the thriving Magnolia brand — into Waco’s new center of gravity.

Want to catch the snarky blue-zip-code style of this piece? This detail in a tourist-shop visit will do just fine:

Over in the corner, there’s a different sort of dry good: Chip and Jo prayer candles, their illustrated faces surrounded by a beatific glow. It’s a joke, but as someone commented on an Instagram photo of the candles, “it’s got such a tragic truth to it [that] the joke doesn’t land.” Because the Gaineses have indeed become the patron saints of Waco. …

This brings us to the BuzzFeed thesis statement, in which we find out that things are not as they appear in Waco.

The bottom line is that — no surprise to small-o orthodox Christians — our world is both glorious and fallen, that even the best efforts of good people cannot achieve perfection. This is long, but essential:

While that phenomenon is broadly referred to as the “Fixer Upper effect” or “Magnolia effect,” it goes far beyond Chip and Joanna. In many ways, the story of Waco is an old-fashioned story of a company town, where the university (Baylor), the biggest church in town (Antioch Community Church, where the Gaineses are members), and one of the biggest businesses (Magnolia) largely dictate how — and through whom — power and prosperity spread and reproduce. And like any town in the throes of transition, there’s a part of Waco that’s wary of promises of salvation if it means sacrificing ownership, literal and figurative, of the community — and handing over control to those who’ve historically demonstrated little interest in preserving that community. ...

There is, after all, a Waco that you don’t see on Fixer Upper — a Waco that’s over 21% black, over 32% Latino, and where 26.8% of the city lives beneath the poverty line. To some, the Magnolia effect is not just transforming houses and vacant brick storefronts, but smoothing and sanding the actual diversity of town, painting everything slightly different shades of white. Everyone’s invited to the Restoration of Waco. But what if, despite the invitation, you still don’t feel welcome?

So, Waco is not a racial and economic paradise. Readers will also be shocked, shocked, to know that Jerusalem on the Brazos is not a BuzzFeed-friendly place when it comes to LGBTQ life. It is also not surprising that there are “former” members of the Antioch and/or Magnolia team who somewhat disenchanted with how things are going in Waco.

Right there: That’s the interesting story. This could have been a story that listened to both sides of this complicated situation and shed some light on how hard it is to achieve large goals in a short amount of time, with TV cameras running.

At one or two points, there are even hints that Antioch leaders know that their efforts are less than perfect and that they sincerely want to do more to help all of Waco, especially the poor.

Ah, but there’s the problem. Even when these evangelicals try to help people, they have biblical standards linked to a word like “help.” So even the good efforts, you know, turn out to be bad — from the BuzzFeed point of view.

After all, the Gaines family and its church are — no doubt about it — “traditional” when it comes to just about everything in life (when viewed from a modern Bible Belt perspective).

There’s no way to tell this story without lots of religious content. Where does this content come from?

That’s the real journalism story here. This BuzzFeed story, after all, does not need to be balanced or fair, in terms of how it portrays these evangelical Fixer-Uppers. We already know who is right and who is wrong, in this morality play.

Instead of being a dialogue or even a debate between the BuzzFeed world and the Antioch world, this story is a duet between the BuzzFeed outsider perspective and the views of “former” — yes, “former is a big word in this story — members of Antioch. You know, the “Antioch survivors.”

The not-so-subtle hint here is that Waco has a new, friendlier cult. These Gaines folks are just so winsome and attractive.

The same applies to their Christian faith, which they profess without hitting people over the head with it. They’ve both shared their testimonies multiple times — a video of Joanna’s, released in 2015, has been viewed over 5.8 million times. But they also minister through their presence. If you admire Chip and Jo, and are curious about what makes their lives work, then that curiosity might also lead you to Jesus.

That particular style of proselytizing typifies the work of Antioch Community Church, whose 5,000-plus-person congregation includes the Gaines family as well as a far-reaching constellation of Magnolia employees, Fixer Upper alumni, and local leaders. (There’s another Antioch in Waco with a predominantly black congregation, founded in 1896. “People talk about Antioch Community like it’s the only Antioch that ever was,” one woman told me. “But Antioch Baptist has been around.”)

In the late 1990s, the younger Antioch split from Highland Baptist Church, one of the major Baptist churches in town. “The people who chose to stay were the more traditional families,” one person, who was a Highland member at the time, told me, “while Antioch always felt young and, like, sexy.” Based on the service I attended, the congregation is also majority, but certainly not entirely, white.

In the very beginning, Antioch was meeting in a parking lot, baptizing people in a horse trough. In time, the church moved from the parking lot to an old H-E-B grocery store in North Waco — an area familiar to viewers of Fixer Upper as the site of many of Chip and Jo’s house flips. The H-E-B provided an affordable landing spot for Antioch’s fledgling congregation, but North Waco also fit the church’s mission: to minister to the nation and “the nations.”

Ah, North Waco.

That' isn’t the part of town that one would normally associate with powerful, successful folks. Here’s the heart of the matter: Antioch sees this as mission territory and has moved into the “bad” part of town. But they did this, saith BuzzFeed, for flawed reasons.

The church’s plan was to move into the neighborhood and “love on them and minister to them,” as one former Antioch member put it. Or, as Antioch’s website explains, “we plant churches and impact communities with God’s love that we might see His Kingdom come and His Will be done.” The pastoral staff moved to North Waco near the church, and dozens of others followed. Over the last 20 years, the church has continued to buy more property in the area, including houses that they converted into addiction recovery homes. …

Over the last 20 years, Antioch has also expanded its reach far beyond Waco, with 28 churches “planted” across the United States, and 80 “teams” in 40 countries across the world. Today, the old H-E-B serves as the church’s auxiliary building, and services are held in a newly built auditorium that seats 5,000. Its local mission, Impact Waco, works to boost reading scores in elementary students, and ministers to “victims of human trafficking” and men and women dealing with addiction.

Oh my, that all sounds terrible.

Within Waco, Antioch has taken on a position that, depending on who you talk to, is either life-centering or psychologically destructive. 

Now, we can’t look at this whole “reader.” It’s just too long. We have, of course, the sidebar-like detours into gay life in Waco, as well as Baylor’s attempts to modernize (think gay life, again) without really modernizing enough. The atheists on campus remain unhappy. So nothing’s perfect. As a former dissident from normal Baylor life, I can certainly understand that.

Let’s end with some summary material from BuzzFeed.

What about the old Waco? The city with the image problems and fog of bad news?

That was the Old Waco, some might say — and this is the New, restored through hard work and time and grace and gleaming, freshly painted exteriors. But the thing about restoration is that the underlying structures — physical or institutional — remain intact. You can’t fix a broken foundation until you acknowledge what caused the cracks in the first place. You can’t rectify a history of exclusion without seeing the ways in which your hospitable city might still not be welcoming to all.

And there are many people in Waco — including members of Antioch — who are trying to think this way. 

Whoa! There are actual members of Antioch who understand that their efforts are not perfect? They understand that even the best of motives can take detours into human fallenness?

Let’s talk to those people! Let’s hear them out!

Sorry, this isn’t that kind of feature. This journalism methodology leads us to one ridiculous sentence that is — #NOSURPRSE — totally free of attribution. Read this sentence two or three times, because it is the key to the whole story.

Conversations about gentrification — or what Antioch members call “restoration” — often pivot on the question of intent.

Wait a minute. Is “gentrification” (a hot-button political term) really what Antioch ministers and volunteers mean when they talk about “restoration” (a term with theological content, for those willing to go there)? Who drew the connection between the two terms? Is that connection worth debating?

By this point, readers living outside the BuzzFeed journalism world already know the answer to that.

So here is the final word of judgment from on high. Once again, look for signs of attribution. Who is speaking here?

If you don’t mean to push out members of a community that’s occupied an area for years, can you be blamed? If the intent is to “love on” a neighborhood by moving your church there, does it matter if the result is their displacement or disempowerment?

To consider development in terms of God’s plan can mean inoculating oneself from its consequences. What’s the response when someone can’t afford their property tax? When they’re frustrated that people call their family home a dump? When they feel like their whole life has been a string of white people deciding whether what they own is valuable, based solely on how much they want it? When it’s all God’s plan, that couldn’t be the result of a failure to collaborate with the community, or create policies that protect current residents. It’s no one’s fault.

Ask anyone in town, from anywhere in town: Waco is a better place to live than it was 10 years ago. That’s not the question. The question is who will be able to live in that town in the years to come — and participate in it as homeowners, as entrepreneurs, as authorities on and within their own communities.

“Chip and Joanna, they really want to do the right thing for Waco,” one resident told me. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences that they couldn’t have foreseen.”

You know who would agree with that final statement?

Hint: BuzzFeed editors must have decided early on that they didn’t need to have anyone interview them. This wasn’t that kind of news story. This wasn’t that kind of journalistic visit to the new Waco, or the old one, either.

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