Saved in El Salvador: Lots of media are flocking to cover gang members-turn-evangelical story

Saved in El Salvador: Lots of media are flocking to cover gang members-turn-evangelical story

Certain places in the world have problems that seem to be intractable. South Sudan. North Korea. And El Salvador.

The latter is the homicide capital of the world. Zillions of dollars have been poured into it. The U.S. government has declared war on its criminal elements. And nothing’s changed.

One institution, however, is dealing with the gangs. I was fascinated to see Molly O’Toole’s piece in The New Republic on how evangelical churches have the only solution that’s working.

Who would have thunk it?

At a small jail outside San Salvador, Brother David Borja lifted his sunglasses to talk a guard into letting us inside. The cell, originally intended for temporary holding, smelled of sweat and urine. In the center was a roughly ten-by-ten-foot cage, and inside it, a tangle of limbs and hammocks.

At the sight of Borja, a street preacher from the Baptist Biblical Tabernacle “Friends of Israel” church, bare-chested, tattooed young men began crawling down from the hammocks and pulling on T-shirts.

As Borja started to pray, the men crossed themselves and bowed their heads. A few cried silently; others testified, “Truth.” … As the guard latched the thick steel behind us, we could still hear the men’s applause, and pleas for the pastor to pray for them to be saved.

Prisons are obviously fertile missionary grounds here.

Founded in 1977, the Baptist Biblical Tabernacle “Friends of Israel” church, known as “Taber,” is now believed to be El Salvador’s largest church. Taber claims a congregation of more than 40,000, with millions of converts and more than 500 churches across the country. The megachurch also owns a handful of TV and radio stations and newspapers, extending its reach. In 1950, El Salvador was around 99 percent Catholic, but Protestantism has shot up since the 1970s, with 40 percent of adults today identifying as Protestant.

That makes Taber one of the most influential institutions in a country otherwise dominated by gangs.

The switch-over of Latin and Central Americans from Catholicism to Protestantism is still one of the more under-covered stories of modern religion reporting. It is a fait accompli one never thought would happen as recently as the 1970s. Here we read about an evangelical church that's taken on the gangs that rule the country.

According to experts, one of the gangs’ golden rules is that members can never leave with their lives. But in the past few years, there’s been a fascinating development: Gang bosses are increasingly granting those under their command desistance—a status change from “active” to “calmado,” meaning “calmed down”—if they convert to evangelicalism. At El Salvador’s San Francisco Gotera prison, about 1,000 ex-gang members have become evangelicals, nearly all of the overcrowded prison’s occupants.

The phenomenon can also be seen outside, at smaller Pentecostal parishes such as Ebenezer, whose ministry to gang members, The Final Trumpet, is known for speaking in tongues. Newfound-religious who stray from the righteous path, however—whether by drinking, doing drugs, beating their wives or girlfriends, or not attending church—can face deadly consequences from their former compatriots.

It’s an open, urgent question whether evangelical megachurches like Taber can use their influence to bring peace to El Salvador . . .

Actually, according to the link provided in the above paragraph, Ebenezer is simply a Pentecostal church and is known for a lot more than tongues-speaking. I am guessing the reporter is not too familiar with the doctrines of these various congregations.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Here's some of what Reuters missed in its investigation of Brazil's growing evangelical flock

Here's some of what Reuters missed in its investigation of Brazil's growing evangelical flock

I've only visited once, but even after a short trip, I understood that faith in Brazil is a complex affair.

These days, the traditionally Roman Catholic population is influenced by all kinds of spiritualistic forces, while at the same time evangelical Protestantism, Pentecostalism, Seventh-day Adventism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are playing increasingly important roles.

Reuters, the global newswire, dropped in on an Assemblies of God congregation in a favela, or slum area, of Rio de Janiero, Brazil's second-largest city, and extrapolated much about the spiritual condition of the entire nation:

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -- Pastor Marcio Antonio stands at the pulpit in a one room evangelical church built precariously above barbed wire fences and illegally hung electrical cables, exhorting his flock in a Brazilian favela to improve their morals.
A former drug dealer in Cantagalo, an informally built hillside settlement where most residents lack official property rights, Pastor Antonio and his flock at the Assembly of God Church are part of a growing trend.
Evangelical churches are expanding rapidly in Brazil, home to the world's largest Catholic community, especially in poor favelas, experts and parishioners said.
These communities, which developed from squatter settlements, often do not have the same services as formal Brazilian neighborhoods in terms of healthcare, sanitation, transportation or formal property registration.
"The government doesn't help us so God is the only option for the poor," Pastor Antonio, 37, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation following his Sunday sermon.

It is the "Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters," which claims responsibility for the story. The foundation "covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience," and an end note to the piece says the foundation should get the credit for this piece. So noted.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Ah, those mysterious Protestant Evangelicals, as pondered by our cultural elites

Ah, those mysterious Protestant Evangelicals, as pondered by our cultural elites

Just when you thought you’d seen enough analysis of those U.S. Protestant Evangelicals to last a lifetime or two, a major April release is commanding yet more ink: “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America” by Frances FitzGerald (Simon & Schuster).

Any book from FitzGerald, a boldface author who won the Pulitzer Prize for her Vietnam lament “Fire in the Lake” (1972), gets guaranteed media attention. Her latest, hailed as “masterful” by Time magazine, will surely be mandatory reading for religion writers. This blockbuster has already gained major reviews from highbrow analysts Randall Balmer, Alan Wolfe and Garry Wills (also a Pulitzer medalist).

The Religion Guy has yet to read this 740-pager but is wary after learning that FitzGerald pays so much attention to figures like Rousas Rushdoony. His idiosyncratic theocracy scheme frightens the journalism natives, but is hardly representative of mainstream evangelicalism, or even of its most politicized segments.

Otherwise, the reviews provide  significant cultural indicators of how elitists view a movement that’s somehow so mystifying and unnerving to outsiders, and the way adherents are ogled with condescension, particularly after so many voted for Donald J. Trump. Irredeemable deplorables, anyone?    

Balmer, Dartmouth’s religion chair and the author of a somewhat competing 2016 title, “Evangelicalism in America” (Baylor University Press), says having such a “distinguished author” undertake this topic should be “cause for celebration.” But he finds the result “curiously pinched and narrow.”

One of his criticisms, echoed by others, is that FitzGerald’s narrative omits African-American Protestants. That’s an important choice that the Religion Guy finds justifiable because these believers, as well as Latino Protestants, have such  distinct subcultures. Explaining the larger population of “white” evangelicals is more than enough for one book.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Halloween church show: Washington Post peeks at the trend without passing 'judgment'

Halloween church show: Washington Post peeks at the trend without passing 'judgment'

I don’t usually jump into a story without an intro, but the Washington Post's lede on Judgement House is pretty vivid:

SOUDERTON, Pa. — She stepped into the pitch-dark room, illuminated only by eerie flames, as the sound of moans and shrieks rose over the ominous music. A hooded figure, dressed in black, leapt from the darkness to hiss in her ear.
Shadeilyz Castro burst into tears.
When the shaken 10-year-old left the room, clinging to her aunt, she was not talking about witches or goblins — she was talking about the Bible. "I have to read it more," Shadeilyz said. "With my brother. I have to talk to him. He doesn’t read it much."
Judgement House did its job.

The Post, in turn, does a more-than-decent job of telling the literally torturous story of Judgement House programs -- "all sorts of earthly tortures (kidnapping, child abuse, drug abuse, a hidden pregnancy)" -- through the lens of Immanuel Leidy’s Church, near Philadelphia. It's intense, maybe shocking -- and a bit flawed -- but not cynical.

The last is not unimportant: This topic is ripe for ridicule, if the reporter is so inclined. But WaPo tells the story, quotes the people on their feelings, and rejects the usual "trip to the zoo" contempt of many secular media:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Graham and Trump? Charlotte Observer's coverage shows a kind of fixation

Graham and Trump? Charlotte Observer's coverage shows a kind of fixation

Decent story idea: Cover Franklin Graham's 50th and last God-and-country rally. Did it somehow mutate? Because than half of the Charlotte Observer's article was about Graham's purported relationship with Donald Trump.

Yes, the story dealt with other things. Prayers for victims of Hurricane Matthew. Fallout from HB2, the law in North Carolina that bans all cities from making gender-identity bathroom ordinances. Graham denouncing Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts for her tight relationship with the LGBT community. The wrap-up of Graham's 50-state Decision America tour (although, for some reason, that title doesn't appear in the article).

But the lion's share of the 1,100 words probes every possible link between the evangelist and the politician. It even insinuates that he all but endorses Trump:

Addressing the presidential race, Graham said many Christians have told him they don’t like either Republican Donald Trump, who has lately come under fire for lewd comments about women, or Democrat Hillary Clinton, who has been widely criticized for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
Graham’s recommendation: "Hold your nose and go vote" for the would-be president who will appoint justices to the U.S. Supreme Court who will protect "religious liberty" and stand against abortion.
"This election is not about (Trump’s) vulgar language. And it’s not about (Clinton’s) emails that are missing," Graham told his flock. "It’s about the Supreme Court."
Since Trump has pledged to nominate justices approved by conservatives – he even released a list of possibilities – Graham’s comments sound to many like a tacit endorsement of Trump.

Ummm, yeah. Two devices that roll our eyes here at GetReligion.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Bias and inaccuracy: New York Daily News on gays and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Bias and inaccuracy: New York Daily News on gays and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Like the clichéd "pig in a python," mainstream media have been slowly digesting the story of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and its newly announced policy on gays. But some news outfits aren’t digesting the chunks well.

Time.com last week broke the news that the Christian college organization asked its 1,300 employees to fess up if they disagreed with IVCF's stated beliefs on same-sex marriage -- then make plans to leave the organization.

We're now seeing the usual reaction from bloggers and columnists: everyone from Christian Today to Gay Star News to the Huffington Post.

Except for the likes of the New York Daily News. They couldn't wait for the opinion phase -- they had to add it to the news article.

Here is the paper's idea of a news lede:

The Bible states that you "shall not oppress a stranger."
But one of the largest evangelical college groups in the country appears to be doing just that, as it recently told its 1,300 staffers that they will be fired if they support gay marriage or deviate from any of the organization's strict positions on sexuality.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA recently sent out a six-page letter saying the national group will initiate "involuntary terminations" for all staff members who support LGBTQ people's right to marry.

My first reaction: "Geez, I wonder how gays feel about a lede like that? Being called strangers?"

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Post-Olympics: The Atlantic sees psychological, emotional issues, but not spiritual ones

Post-Olympics: The Atlantic sees psychological, emotional issues, but not spiritual ones

The Atlantic meant well. Its post-Olympics feature examines the depression that athletes often suffer after such sports events, as they strive to cope with their futures and stress linked to big wins and big defeats.

It's a literate, sympathetic piece, gently but incisively examining the emotional crash; the reluctance to ask for help; how intensely athletes identify with their achievements; how  much they fear losing themselves by losing in competition.

Almost every angle is covered, it seems, but -- you knew this was coming -- the spiritual one. The story leaves Mount Olympus haunted with religious "ghosts."

This is the kind of eloquent passage that makes me loathe to write off the article totally:

Take the Michigan-born swimmer Allison Schmitt. After winning five medals, three of them gold, and setting a world record in the 2012 London Games, Schmitt sank into a hole from which she couldn’t emerge. She had no idea why she felt depressed -- especially considering her undeniable success -- but realized she needed counseling. The decision didn’t come easily; depression is still a dirty word in the locker room.
"I didn’t want to show my weakness," she said in an interview with Channel 4 in Detroit. "I didn’t want to ask for help, but in this situation I found out … that I couldn’t keep fighting it by myself. … There’s this thing that they call post-Olympic blues and I think I had a little bit of that and I kept isolating myself and isolating myself."

The Atlantic also quotes sports psychologist Scott Goldman noting that the Olympics amount to a "hundred-mile-per-hour ride" that "comes to a screeching halt." He says the sudden end leaves athletes "just physiologically depleted, as well as psychologically."

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Rio's Christ statue: Washington Post adds a delightful angle to the Olympics

Rio's Christ statue: Washington Post adds a delightful angle to the Olympics

The Olympics in Rio have already thrilled millions with the gold medal performances of champs like Michael Phelps and the Final Five gymnastic team. But the Washington Post takes the occasion to look even higher: at the statue of Christ who stretches his arms out over the city.

This delightful newsfeature, by the Post's veteran religion writer Michelle Boorstein, captures several sides of what she calls "the most recognizable Christian image in Latin America": the history, the sheer size, and the many meanings behind it.

Yes, meanings, plural. As Boorstein says, "Christ the Redeemer" stands high in that class of national symbols standing for many things to many people. And yes, religious and spiritual elements are on her list.

Her story smoothly blends background, color, humor and informed sources:

But Cristo’s meaning to Brazilians varies. Some see it as a tribute to Catholicism while others consider it a salvo against secularism. Still others in the rapidly diversifying country consider it a general symbol of welcome, with arms open wide. One of its original creators called it a "monument to science, art and religion."
Cristo is an iconic image of Brazil. It is "reproduced everywhere," read a 2014 BBC feature, "in graffiti art, sand sculptures on Copacabana beach — and even on skin." During Carnival, there is a street party called Christ’s Armpit, or ‘Suvaco do Cristo," that weaves its way at the base of the mountain, called Corcovado.

I can even forgive her for writing "iconic image of Brazil." Whenever I see that worn adjective "iconic" these days, it looks like a flag for "Creative Shortfall Here!" But this time, the subject matter deserves it.

This story has a lot of what we old-school journalists used to call the "Hey, Mabel!" -- fun facts you'd want to tell your mate right away. We imagined a husband reading the paper over coffee and saying, "Hey, Mabel! Did you know that …"

Please respect our Commenting Policy

On California college bill controversy, media drift toward one-sided reporting

On California college bill controversy, media drift toward one-sided reporting

Nice to see that we GetReligionistas aren’t the only ones who notice. When the Religion News Service churned out a story on bigoted, LGBT-hating Christian colleges -- seemingly an emerging mainstream media theme days -- a Faithful Reader alerted us along with a complaint:

RNS can’t be bothered, it seems, to actually interview an opponent of this bill, choosing instead to quote from an article on a conservative website and a statement of a state representative.

But RNS isn't alone: Other responsible media, such as the Catholic-oriented Crux, are doing much the same from the religious side.

First, the RNS article. In writing up a bill crawling through the California legislature that would yank federal aid from schools seen as discriminating against gays, RNS reaches out for a single direct quote -- from a gay activist.  The opposition? A conservative blogger and a Republican state senator -- their remarks lifted from written statements.

RNS says the state bill would apply Title IX -- a federal regulation forbidding sexual discrimination in schools -- to religious as well as secular schools. If it becomes law, the California stricture may well have national impact, the article explains:

While the law is seen by some as an attempt to get California religious schools to comply with the state laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, it could have national implications. Human Rights Watch, which calls the Title IX religious exemption "a license to discriminate," reports there are 56 schools nationwide that have requested such exemptions, including Wheaton College, Liberty University and George Fox University.
Forty-two California colleges qualify for Title IX religious exemptions, according to the National Center for Law & Policy, a California-based Christian legal defense group. At least seven have applied, including Biola University, Simpson University and William Jessup University.

Well, gee, who could object to that? Only religious groups that have believed for centuries that homosexuality is sinful, as well as the schools they’ve founded. Our regular readers likely see parallels with the recent bad p.r. against Gordon College, an evangelical school near Boston.

Please respect our Commenting Policy