I knew very little about the world of religion when I became the full-time religion-beat reporter at the Los Angeles Daily News back in 1985. I knew next to nothing about how religious organizations functioned and not much more about the myriad ways that religious beliefs play out in people's lives.
That included Judaism, the faith into which I was born but to which I was barely culturally connected at the time. I also possessed what I soon realized was a superficial understanding of the Eastern meditative traditions to which I had become attracted.
But Pope John Paul II was scheduled to visit LA in 1987 and I'd had enough of seeing bad movies at odd hours in small screening rooms and talking to self-important studio public relations hacks on the Hollywood film and TV beat. My way forward came when I realized that the paper would need someone to lead what would surely be saturation papal visit coverage, and that that someone (meaning me) would need a long lead time to get prepared.
My one great advantage was that my editors knew even less than I did about covering religion. That, and I volunteered for the beat before anyone else. And so began my on-the-job training.
I made many rookie mistakes, including mistaking titles for actual names (don't ask). Despite that, I quickly realized that I needed to rid myself of my stereotypical thinking about religion and religious believers.
An early lesson came at the 1985 Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas. It was there that I came to understand that not all Southern Baptists -- and by extension, not all evangelicals -- were alike in their theology and practice.
It was also in Dallas that I realized just how politically brutal religious organizations can behave.