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Yes, we'd love to know more about the 'God thing' in viral story of woman invited to eat with strangers

Yes, we'd love to know more about the 'God thing' in viral story of woman invited to eat with strangers

“A wonderful story beautifully told” is how ESPN’s Mike Greenberg described a recent CBS News report on an elderly widow invited to eat with strangers.

“It will restore your faith in humanity,” a Syracuse, N.Y., television news anchor said of the piece.

On both counts, I’d cheerfully agree.

But — and you knew a “but” was coming, right? — I’d suggest this otherwise inspiring tale is haunted by a holy ghost. (In case you’re new to GetReligion, here’s an explanation of what I mean by “holy ghost.”)

Before I embark on ghostbusting duties, however, here’s the compelling opening of the report by CBS’ “On the Road with Steve Hartman,” explaining how the woman came to eat dinner with three strangers:

For barbecue lovers, Brad's Bar-B-Que in Oxford, Alabama, is heaven on Earth. But 80-year-old Eleanor Baker said her visit here earlier this month was especially divine.

"I think it was a God thing. I think God sent me there," she said. 

Eleanor is a widow and lives with her dog. While she has a big family, they mostly live out of town, so she was alone the night she went to the restaurant. 

Security footage shows her entering, and at about that same time, three young men arrived.

"We were all sitting there talking," said Jamario Howard, who noticed Eleanor, describing her as "older woman, sitting by herself."

Jamario said hates seeing people eat alone. "And I seen that," he said.

When most of us see someone eating alone we feel that way, but our sympathy never solves anything. And Jamario really wanted to fix this, so he got up from his table and sat at hers.

"He just came up and he said, 'I saw you sitting over here alone.'  And he said, 'Do you mind having some company?''"

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Friday Five: Abuse of nuns, pope on God's will, 'delivering' Mass, church parking tax, Tim Tebow

Friday Five: Abuse of nuns, pope on God's will, 'delivering' Mass, church parking tax, Tim Tebow

Friday Five always is a quick-hit collection of links from the world of religion news.

It’ll be even more so this week as I’m typing this from a Pennsylvania Turnpike travel stop en route to New Jersey on a reporting trip.

Since I need to hit the road again, let’s dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Priests sexually abusing nuns? What next?

It’s not an easy story to read or comment on. Perhaps that’s why we’ve neglected to mention it so far here at GetReligion. Sometimes a story is just too big and too complex to get a quick take on it. Also, the web of stories linked to clergy sexual abuse just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and more complex.

But we’ll keep our eyes open on this one.

Meanwhile, these early headlines should not go unnoticed, including “Pope Francis confirms priests' abuse of nuns included ‘sexual slavery’“ from CBS News, “Pope Francis acknowledges abuse of nuns for the first time” from Axios and "Pope Francis confirms Catholic clergy members abused nuns” from the Washington Post.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: Pope Francis figured, too, in our No. 1 most-clicked commentary this week.

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Friday Five: Pastor suicide, religion of Congress, Catholic sex wars, frugal philanthropist, cow holiday

Friday Five: Pastor suicide, religion of Congress, Catholic sex wars, frugal philanthropist, cow holiday

I missed this incredible story in the midst of celebrating Christmas.

A few days before the holiday, the Los Angeles Times published Hailey Branson-Potts’ compelling and important piece on a young pastor who preached about depression then killed himself a few days later.

Speaking of the Los Angeles Times, that paper has been boosting its staff since its $500 million purchase last summer by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who has voiced a desire to compete with the Washington Post and the New York Times.

As far as I know, the Los Angeles Times hasn’t hired a full-time religion writer as part of its revival, but that would be a tremendous step, right? Who wants to organize the petition?

In the meantime, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Congress is getting more diverse, but it’s still dominated by Christians, according to a Pew Research Center study cited by CNN’s Daniel Burke, Religion News Service’s Jack Jenkins, the Deseret News’ Kelsey Dallas, NPR’s Tom Gjelten and others.

In related news, the Washington Post — in a story produced by Godbeat pros Michelle Boorstein and Julie Zauzmer, along with Marisa Iati reported on the swearing in of the nation’s first two Muslim congresswomen.

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'Deconstructing My Religion' at CBS: Another tiresome diatribe on sex and evangelicals

'Deconstructing My Religion' at CBS: Another tiresome diatribe on sex and evangelicals

There’s no question that “Deconstructing My Religion,” CBS’ 26-minute special that aired Dec. 2, was supposed to be ground-breaking. Instead of footage on the evangelical juggernaut, here were folks who had actually left those beliefs and lived to tell about it.

But after sitting through the presentation and re-watching parts of it, I realized it wasn’t news, it was simply a diatribe with three talking heads talking about how they left white evangelicalism. I say “white,” because no ethnic minorities are featured. There’s the requisite academic patched in near the end and a few snatches from people at conferences and panels.

As I watched, I kept on wondering: What is the purpose of this show? There was no survey data presented. There were no alternate points of view. If you wish to view this documentary, don’t watch the version off the CBS site, as it’s full of ads and constant interruptions. The YouTube version is way better.

It started with a nine-minute monologue by Linda Kay Klein, now 39, who became born again at 13. I’m guessing that was about 1991. Her major gripe was the “sexual shaming” she endured. More than one-third of the show was her complaining about how her rigid upbringing constrained her ability to sleep around later in life.

A narrator intones:

“Sex outside of heterosexual marriage in evangelical culture is considered a sin. In the 1990s, an entire industry was created to support this message and it continues today.”

Lord, are they kvetching about purity-themed Bibles, purity pledges and the like again? That complaint was run into the ground some time ago. The “True Love Waits Bible” was published in 1996, 22 years ago. Get over it.

One reason why CBS gave Klein so much air time is because she just came out with “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free,” published by Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS.

Of course I am very envious of how Klein got a 26-minute book trailer courtesy on prime time. Guess it’s who you know (and who you want to attack).

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Deacon Greg 'CBS' Kandra vents: USA Today sports said WHAT about Brett Kavanaugh?!?

Deacon Greg 'CBS' Kandra vents: USA Today sports said WHAT about Brett Kavanaugh?!?

I truly appreciate people who have the ability to show restraint in today’s crazy, heated world of social media.

Take, for example Deacon Greg Kandra, a former CBS News writer with 26 years, two Emmys and two Peabody Awards to his credit. He is now a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church, assigned to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, a 3,000-member parish in Forest Hills, a Queens neighborhood on the north end of New York City.

Kandra has a blog called “The Deacon’s Bench” and it’s a great site to bookmark, if you want insights into everything from good preaching to trends in pew-level Catholic life.

At the same time, he has been known to offer commentary on news coverage of church events and trends. His credentials speak for themselves. Frankly, I wish he wrote about news issues — television news, in particular — more often.

Kandra showed as much restraint as possible in a recent post that ran with this dry, biting headline: “Great moments in journalism: USA TODAY’s botched column on Kavanaugh.

What happened? Kandra quotes several summaries of this train wreck, including this material from The Daily Caller:

A Friday USA Today article stating that Judge Brett Kavanaugh “should stay off basketball courts for now when kids are around” was re-edited the next day and the original tweet to the piece was deleted.

“The U.S. Senate may yet confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, but he should stay off basketball courts for now when kids are around,” USA Today sports reporter Erik Brady wrote in the piece which has since been changed to an opinion column.

“A previous tweet contained a statement that has since been edited out of a sports column,” tweeted USA Today on Saturday. “That tweet has been deleted. The updated opinion column and editor’s clarification are here.”

The result was what Kandra called a “shouting match on social media.” So much for the deacon’s quiet weekend.

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Predator priests: CNN notes pope is silent on (a) secular holiday or (b) holy day celebrating purity?

Predator priests: CNN notes pope is silent on (a) secular holiday or (b) holy day celebrating purity?

Every reporter knows this truth: The typical news story -- even a longer feature -- doesn't have room for every single detail that you want to include.

Ah, but how do you decide which details make the cut? 

In my experience, reporters and editors think about the potential audience for a particular story. On the religion beat, I have always assumed that there is a good chance that people who read religion stories care about the religious details -- especially when they serve as symbols of major themes in the story. I also love details in liturgies, hymns, biblical texts, etc., that offer poignant or even ironic twists on the news.

This brings me to a rather angry note that I received from a reader -- a nationally known historian, who will remain anonymous -- about a symbolic detail in a CNN report linked to the stunning Pennsylvania grand-jury report covering seven decades of Catholic priestly sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses. The CNN.com headline: "Critics slam Vatican's 'disturbing' silence on abuse cover-ups."

The CNN report noted that Paloma Ovejero, deputy director of the Vatican's press office, simply said: "We have no comment at this time." Meanwhile, U.S. bishops of all stripes have urged Pope Francis to speak out. That led to this passage, with an expert academic voice offering commentary:

"The silence from the Vatican is disturbing," said Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. "I don't think the Pope necessarily has to say something today. He needs time to understand the situation. But someone from the Vatican should say something." 

Faggioli noted that Wednesday is a national holiday in Italy, and many church offices are closed. But he also noted that it was well-known that Pennsylvania's grand jury report, which was in the works since 2016, would be released on Tuesday. 

"I don't think they understand in Rome that this is not just a continuation of the sexual abuse crisis in the United States," Faggioli said. "This is a whole different chapter. There should be people in Rome telling the Pope this information, but they are not, and that is one of the biggest problems in this pontificate -- and it's getting worse."

Ah, what was this national holiday? 

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Not a dying trend: This is why cremations — and religion — keep making headlines in the U.S.

Not a dying trend: This is why cremations — and religion — keep making headlines in the U.S.

If you read my last post on the subject, you know that my wife, Tamie, wants to be cremated when she dies.

I, on the other hand, prefer to be dressed in my Sunday best and await the resurrection with what's left of my skin and bones fully intact.

I bring up this issue — once again — because the rising number of cremations in the U.S. again has sparked a wave of headlines.

The New York Times is among major news organizations covering the trend, with a story headlined "In a Move Away From Tradition, Cremations Increase":

An envelope was in Carmen Rosa’s desk in her apartment in Co-op City in the Bronx — an envelope that she had instructed her son not to open until after she died. Inside were more instructions, and they left her son, Alfredo Angueira, flabbergasted.
Ms. Rosa, the longtime district manager of Community Board 12 in the Bronx who died in March 2015 at age 69, directed that she was to be cremated and her remains placed at Woodlawn Cemetery. Mr. Angueira called that “a shocker.”
“Never in a million years would I have thought that this is what she would have wanted,” he said, explaining that he had expected her to say she wanted a traditional burial at St. Raymond’s, a Roman Catholic cemetery near the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge where celebrities like Billie Holiday and Frankie Lymon are interred. So are at least four of Ms. Rosa’s relatives, including her mother.
But cremations are quickly becoming the choice for more and more families. And now, for the first time, more Americans are being cremated than having traditional burials, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The cremation rate in 2016 achieved a milestone, edging past 50 percent to 50.2 percent, up from 48.5 percent in 2015, according to a report issued recently by the funeral directors’ association.

Right away, the Times hints at a strong religion angle (read: changing beliefs) behind this trend.

And later, the story notes:

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Muslim women: Do their good stories get less news coverage than the bad ones?

Muslim women: Do their good stories get less news coverage than the bad ones?

If you're a sentient being, you're undoubtedly aware of the situation facing women living in patriarchal Muslim-majority nations. Likewise, you've also surely read your fair share of yarns such as this New York Times piece from 2015, headlined, “Women in Tunisia Tell of Decades of Police Cruelty, Violence and Rape.”

Or this 2016 survey story, from U.S. News & WorldReport, that placed eight Muslim nations among the 10 worst when measuring gender equality. Or this one from 2015, produced by Al-Jazeera English, on the situation facing women in Afghanistan.

Such stories of women's status and treatment in Muslim nations are a staple of Western journalistic coverage of the Islamic world. When done fairly and placed in their appropriate cultural context  -- without allowing that context to serve as an excuse — these stories are important and should be told.

But I'm wondering why stories detailing legal advances for women in Muslim nations seem not to receive equally strong play in mainstream Western news media?

Sure, such changes tend to strike Westerners as merely incremental and long overdue, which tends to dull their news value in the minds of some reporters and editors. Nor are such steps as life-altering as more difficult to achieve grass-root cultural changes, meaning how ordinary people actually live and treat each other no matter what the law says.

Still, legal changes, as aspirational as they may be, set precedents that can promote real change down the road. As such, they deserve wide media attention.

Two stories on this sort caught my eye last week -- though apparently not the eyes of many others in the world of elite Western media.

The first, reported here by Al Jazeera-English, told of how the Jordanian parliament has moved toward ending the ability of rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victims, a time-honored loophole that persists in parts of the Muslim world.

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Who is Karen Handel, winner of that big Georgia race? Surprise! Press ignored a key angle

Who is Karen Handel, winner of that big Georgia race? Surprise! Press ignored a key angle

When you consider the oceans of ink poured out in coverage of a certain U.S. House of Representatives race down in Georgia, it's interesting how little attention was devoted to a powerful component in the life of winner Karen Handel.

Want to guess what was missing in the mainstream coverage? Hang on, because we will get to that (sssssshhhhhh, she's a Roman Catholic) shortly.

But first, I want to flashback a few weeks to a related controversy. You might recall that Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez made news when he proclaimed that

"Every Democrat, like every American," he said, "should support a woman's right to make her own choices about her body and her health. This is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state." In fact, he added, "every candidate who runs as a Democrat" should affirm abortion rights.

As you would imagine, Kristen Day was not amused. She serves as executive director for the Democrats for Life of America network. Neither were Catholics from all over the political and theological spectrum -- from Cardinal Timothy Dolan to Father James "Colbert Report chaplain" Martin. Day noted:

"Tom Perez needs to know that what he is saying isn't what lots of Democrats are thinking. It's not what Democrats are thinking in places like Nebraska -- places between the coasts where Democrats are trying to find candidates who are the right fit for their congressional districts or people to run for governor who fit their states."

Wait, she had more to say:

"The Democratic Party is pretty weak in large parts of America," said Day. "Can we really afford to push people away right now? I'm not sure that New York City and West Coast values are going to work with lots of voters in the heartland and down South."

Maybe this issue is relevant to the Georgia race? To be blunt, would Handel have had a tougher time winning if her opponent was a married, pro-life Democrat (or one interested in centrist compromises on that issue) from her district who could answer a question or two about his religious convictions in non-Nones language?

So, how much attention did mainstream news outlets devote to Handel's faith and moral convictions? The answer, of course, is zero, zip, nada, nul, niches, niente.

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