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Friday Five: SBC wrap-up, Catholic hotline, #ChurchToo, abuse lawsuits, cult ranch, VeggieTales

Friday Five: SBC wrap-up, Catholic hotline, #ChurchToo, abuse lawsuits, cult ranch, VeggieTales

Southern Baptists in Birmingham. Roman Catholics in Baltimore.

Clergy sexual abuse scandals, obviously, high on the agendas in both places. Lots of reporters in the house, in both places.

Yes, the annual meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and the spring general assembly of U.S. Catholic bishops made lots of headlines this week.

So we better dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The Tennessean’s Holly Meyer has a nice wrap-up of the SBC meeting, reporting on three ways churches will tackle abuse after the meeting.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey also has an interesting roundup, explaining that while the SBC took action, some question whether it’s enough.

Meanwhile, the Post’s Julie Zauzmer and Michelle Boorstein delve into the pros and cons of the Catholic bishops’ decision to create a hotline for reporting abuse.

Some of the GetReligion posts on the Baptists and Catholics this week:

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Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Back in the religion-beat Good Old Days — roughly 1985-95 or hereabouts — religion-beat professionals in most American newsrooms could count on getting travel-budget money to cover at least two major events every year.

That would be the annual summer meeting of the national Southern Baptist Convention — prime years in the denomination’s civil-war era — and a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, where some progressives were wrestling with Pope St. John Paul II and there were rumblings about a massive sexual-abuse scandal among priests and bishops.

Along with meetings of the Religion Newswriters Association, these were the dates on the calendars when the pros could get together and talk shop over a few modest meals/drinks on the company dime.

Well, those meetings roll on, of course, and continue to make news. A few reporters get to attend these major events, since they represent newsrooms that are (a) still quite large, (b) led by wise editors or (c) both. Lots of others scribes (speaking for a friend) catch key moments via streaming video, smartphone connections and transcripts of major speeches and debates.

With that in mind, here is a double-dose of weekend think-piece material linked to these two events which will take place in the next week or so in Birmingham, Ala., and Baltimore. Some people get barbecue and some get crab cakes.

First up, an essay by a key SBC voice, the Rev. Russell Moore of Beltway land, entitled: “10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Southern Baptists.” There are some important topics early on (“Westboro Baptist Church isn’t one of us” and “There are some things in our past we’re ashamed of”) but the most important info comes near the end, in terms of topics currently in the news. For example:

#8. We’re more ethnically diverse than you might think.

Among the fastest growing demographics in the Southern Baptist life are African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American congregations. The most vibrant of our churches often include many languages and ethnic groups.

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Bombshell Washington Post report details alleged lavish spending by former Catholic bishop of W.Va.

Bombshell Washington Post report details alleged lavish spending by former Catholic bishop of W.Va.

“Bishop spent millions on self.”

That’s the crisp, concise way that the front page of today’s Washington Post boils down the newspaper’s bombshell report on the former Catholic bishop of West Virginia.

As The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher put it in a blog post titled “Bishop Bransfield’s Lush Live,” the Post “has the goods” on the bishop, who resigned last fall.

Yes, indeed.

Here’s a big chunk of the top of the story by religion writer Michelle Boorstein and two investigative reporting colleagues, Shawn Boburg and Robert O’Harrow Jr.:

In the years before he was ousted for alleged sexual harassment and financial abuses, the leader of the Catholic Church in West Virginia gave cash gifts totaling $350,000 to fellow clergymen, including young priests he is accused of mistreating and more than a dozen cardinals in the United States and at the Vatican, according to church records obtained by The Washington Post.

Bishop Michael J. Bransfield wrote the checks from his personal account over more than a decade, and the West Virginia diocese reimbursed him by boosting his compensation to cover the value of the gifts, the records show. As a tax-exempt nonprofit, the diocese must use its money only for charitable purposes.

The gifts — one as large as $15,000 — were detailed in a draft of a confidential report to the Vatican about the alleged misconduct that led to Bransfield’s resignation in September. The names of 11 powerful clerics who received checks were edited out of the final report at the request of the archbishop overseeing the investigation, William Lori of Baltimore.

Lori’s name was among those cut. He received a total of $10,500, records show.

The Post obtained both versions of the report, along with emails and financial records.

On Wednesday, in response to inquiries from The Post, Lori said he is returning money he received from Bransfield and is asking that it be donated to Catholic Charities “in light of what I have come to learn of Bishop Bransfield’s handling of diocesan finances.”

Lori acknowledged that the names of senior clerics were cut from the final report. “Including them could inadvertently and/or unfairly suggest that in receiving gifts for anniversaries or holidays there were expectations for reciprocity,” he wrote. “No evidence was found to suggest this.”

The full story is a whole lot to digest. I’m still attempting to do so. Let’s just say that the Post did its homework on this one. The result is strong, strong journalism.

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What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

If you lived in or near Baltimore during the spring and early summer of 2015 then you were affected, one way or another, by the waves of urban violence that shook the city.

This tragedy was impossible to ignore. It was more than images on the evening news. You could stand in your yard and see the smoke over the neighborhoods east and west of downtown. One night, the fires were so large that I could see the reddish-gold glow in the sky — fires that included a community center and senior-housing unit that was being built by Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore.

What happened to Baltimore in those months, and the stunning violence that has gripped the city ever since, is a massive, complex story. It’s a police story. It’s a story about drugs, young men on the loose and shattered families. It’s an education story. It’s a political story. It’s a tragic story about government officials trying to find someone to blame.

But if you followed the local news during those months (and some of the national television coverage) you also knew that what happened in Baltimore was a religion story.

This is no surprise, since black churches — old and new, past and present — have always played a major role in urban life when people try to cope with danger and tragedy. No one worked harder than Baltimore pastors when it came time to respond to the violence and the bitter realities that provided fuel for the fires.

That’s why I was disappointed when I read a massive story on this subject that ran the other day, co-produced by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine. Here’s the dramatic double-decker headline:

The Tragedy of Baltimore

Since Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, violent crime has spiked to levels unseen for a quarter century. How order collapsed in an American city.

Let me be clear. This is a must-read story for anyone who cares about urban life and issues facing the poor. I am also not arguing that it was wrong for the story to devote so much ink to police and government issues.

I am simply saying that this story needed to include some content from pastors and other church leaders — if one of the goals was to show how Baltimore people responded to the riots, or uprisings, of 2015. The story needed the voices of religious believers, if the goal was to listen to Baltimore.

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Baltimore Sun finds the faith angle in the Baptist officer ensnared in Freddie Gray case

Baltimore Sun finds the faith angle in the Baptist officer ensnared in Freddie Gray case

The Baltimore Sun is no longer the dead-tree-pulp newspaper that lands in my front yard each morning. Thus, logically enough, there has been a sharp decline in the number of Sun stories that show up here on GetReligion.

Also, the newspaper's website features a numbing array of intrusive auto-cue forms of advertising, so sane readers would only go there when there are no other options. However, my many Charm City-area friends still let me know, from time to time, when something interesting shows up.

In this case, the Sun recently offered an in-depth profile of Alicia White, the only female officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray, the infamous case that still hangs over life in Baltimore like smoke from burning urban neighborhoods. This was a big story for one simple reason, as stated in the headline: "Baltimore Police Officer Alicia White, charged in Freddie Gray case, becomes the first to speak out."

The surprise in this story is that it truly explores the human side of this woman, as well as the legal and political angles of the story. As is often the case among public servants in Baltimore's African-American community, that led the reporters into spiritual territory.

Right from the get-go, the story stresses that this case has had painful consequences for White as a person and as an officer.

For the past 18 months, her co-defendants either went to trial or were called to the stand to testify while she awaited her own trial. Out of public view, White spent much of the time grappling with crippling anxiety, and at one point was rushed to a hospital. The stress led her and her fiance to call off their engagement, and she spent months unemployed. Then, in July, all charges were dropped.

In addition to the interview material from White, it's clear that the Sun team did extensive background work in the community, digging into her life and work. That's where her educational background and church ties show up.

In other words, her Christian faith was and is part of her identity and, in the past, it affected her actions. Thus, it's part of the story.

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Why don't men like church? Sometimes a story is hard to see because it's just too common

Why don't men like church? Sometimes a story is hard to see because it's just too common

This week's "Crossroads" podcast is rather different from the norm. Please allow me to explain why.

You see, this podcast is not about a story that is in the news. It's a discussion of a larger trend that I am convinced is helping shape some major trends -- in culture, in the church and, yes, often in the news.

Like what? Well, it is relevant to the rise of the "nones," especially the departure of young men from pews. It's also, I have long been convinced, linked to several hot-button debates about the Catholic priesthood. You could make a case that this trend -- centuries old, actually -- is helping fuel the decline of liberal Protestantism in the West, while also causing problems (to a lesser degree, statistically) in evangelical and Pentecostal sanctuaries.

Oh, and then there is that whole "Jesus is my boyfriend" issue in modern church music, in megachurch Protestantism and even in some liturgical circles.

We are talking about the fact that lots and lots of men just don't want to go to church. Go to most churches -- especially struggling churches -- and look around. What is the ratio of women to men?

I wrote a pair of columns about this and, frankly, I have been getting some interesting feedback from readers. People are not neutral on this subject, for sure. They either think this problem is real or they think that people who want to discuss the issue are (a) way too liberal, (b) way too conservative, (c) anti-women, (d) anti-Catholic tradition or some combination of the above (and I could have added lots of other factors that folks put in that mix.)

The columns were based on a series of lectures by the conservative Catholic writer Leon Podles, author of the controversial 1999 book "The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity," that were delivered recently at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore. In a way, Podles -- a former federal investigator with a doctorate in English -- was updating the work in that book.

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Baltimore Sun attempts to navigate complicated world of Orthodox iconography

Baltimore Sun attempts to navigate complicated world of Orthodox iconography

What we have here is a beautiful little feature story about a subject that is, literally, close to the heart and soul of any Orthodox Christian -- icons. The story ran in The Baltimore Sun, the newspaper that landed in my front yard for a decade, which means that it's about an Orthodox congregation that I have actually visited.

Iconography is a complicated subject on several levels, both in terms of the theology, the history and the craft itself. This story gets so many details right that I hesitate to note an error or, maybe, two -- one of mathematics (I think) and the other is, well, just a strange hole that would have been easy to fill.

First things first: Here is the overture.

As  Dionysios Bouloubassis picks up his paint brush at Saint Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church early one morning, the large canvas before him is blank but for the outlines of an angel he has sketched in pencil.
Swirling on reddish-brown pigment, he brings its wings to life. He fleshes out a Bible, then two hands to hold it. By nightfall, the cherub seems alive, its eyes gazing down from heaven.
The angel, a figure from the Book of Revelation, is one of 16 that Bouloubassis, a master iconographer from Greece, plans to paint and affix to the 60-foot dome inside Saint Mary, part of a years-long project in art and worship the Hunt Valley congregation launched in 2013.

So far so good. However, the very next paragraph contains a crucial error of history.

If all goes as planned, Bouloubassis will leave the interior of the year-old church covered in icons -- mural-sized renderings of Christ, the saints, angels and other religious images that have been part of the Orthodox Christian worship tradition for more than 1,200 years.

Where did that reference to 1,200 years come from?

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Really? Sun says amazingly faith-free ministers visit the haunted streets in Baltimore

Really? Sun says amazingly faith-free ministers visit the haunted streets in Baltimore

Oh ye Baltimore Sun editors, what will I do without your tree-pulp product landing in my front yard every morning?

This morning I picked up the paper and, as I chomped on my bagel, I read a cutline under the A1 featured photograph that showed the Rev. Alveda King, with the Rev. C.L. Bryant of Louisiana looking on, singing as she met with some people gathered near the Billie Holiday Memorial statue here in Baltimore. The photo appeared with a story that ran with this headline: "After unrest, GOP looks to make inroads in Baltimore."

I, of course, wanted to know what the niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was singing. There is a chance that it was, "God Bless the Child," but I would think the odds are higher that she was singing some kind of hymn. Ministers have been known to do things like that, from time to time. However, the content of her song was apparently not worthy of inclusion in the cutline or the story.

Come to think of it, I would also liked to have known something about what Alveda King and Bryant had to say while they were in town. But, alas, almost everything that they said was not relevant to this news story, or, at least, the religious content of their visit was not relevant.

Why? You see, this visit was a political visit -- period. I do not deny that politics was involved, of course, because the story goes out of its way to stress the GOP ties of these two ministers and the political nature of their visit. However, might the significance of their visit have been linked to their ability to speak to African-Americans in pulpits and pews? Might the religious content of their visit have been newsworthy, even as political content?

Apparently not. Here is the top of the story:

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Where is Sen. Moynihan when you need him? Baltimore's 'Hero Mom' going it alone

Where is Sen. Moynihan when you need him? Baltimore's 'Hero Mom' going it alone

By now, many GetReligion readers will have already seen some or all of the video at the top of this post, the one in which Toya Graham of Baltimore offered some blunt guidance to her son as he was poised to throw rocks at police during the Baltimore riots.

In online coverage and commentaries, the 42-year-old Graham is often known as the "Hero Mom" and police and civic leaders have praised her for trying to control her child, while noting that they wish there were more parents around who would do the same.

The Baltimore Sun did a very interesting and complex profile of Graham and covered almost all of the bases relevant to this story, including some interesting material about her church ties. Still, by the end, I was left asking a familiar question: What would the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a giant of the Democratic Party in the late 20th Century say about this sad urban scene?

I suspect that, like many readers in commentary boxes on reports about this incident, he would ask a basic question linked to faith, family and culture -- Where is this young man's father? Moynihan, of course, is famous for producing a 1965 report (50th anniversary news feature alert) in which he argued that in the future the key factor in poverty in America would no longer be race, but whether children were raised in intact homes, with a father as well as a mother.

Is that a question with religious and moral overtones? I suspect that many, but perhaps not all, leaders in the black church would say that it is.

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