Los Angeles

Los Angeles Times writes nice story about jail chaplains, with a few eyebrow-raising word choices

Los Angeles Times writes nice story about jail chaplains, with a few eyebrow-raising word choices

There’s a lot to like about a recent Los Angeles Times feature on jail chaplains.

But there also are strong hints of holy ghosts as well as a few eyebrow-raising word choices. I’ll explain what I mean in a moment.

Let’s start, though, with the positive: This is an in-depth piece that offers a helpful primer on the state of jail chaplaincy in Los Angeles and even quotes experts such as Luke Goodrich of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

The specific Times angle is that some religious groups have enough chaplains — all volunteers — while others, including Jewish and Muslim groups, have a shortage.

The narrative-style lede sets the scene:

There are days when Rabbi Avivah Erlick sits in her car outside Men’s Central Jail, too afraid to go in. She’s counseled hundreds of inmates, but sometimes she arrives downtown only to drive back home, not ready to face the sudden lockdowns, the stale air and the stories about violence and loneliness.

When she does go in, Erlick feels overwhelmingly behind. She used to be a part-time jail chaplain supported by a grant from the Jewish Federation, but it wasn’t renewed. Now she volunteers whenever she can. She spends hours updating her list of inmates to visit, which includes dozens more than she has time to see.

The work is too important to stay away.

“I listen — I’m the only person who does,” she said. “I went into chaplaincy because I feel so drawn to help people in crisis.”

Then comes this generalization:

The chaplains in the Los Angeles County jails, some of whom were once behind bars themselves, are united by a simple mission: remind inmates of their humanity. It’s a job they often do in one-on-one visits. They’ll tell jokes, share a prayer, teach a religious text, or simply listen.

I’m torn on that description of the simple mission: “remind inmates of their humanity.” I suspect a number of the chaplains — particularly the evangelical Christian ones — would be more specific and say their goal is to save the inmates’ souls.

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What happens when a travel story about spiritual spaces in Los Angeles goes wrong?

What happens when a travel story about spiritual spaces in Los Angeles goes wrong?

Well, it seemed like a delightful story. 

A New York Times freelancer decided to visit contemplative sites and institutions in greater Los Angeles and make a travel story out of it.

I was in LA for few days in January. And after experiencing the region’s numbing traffic several days in a row, I hid out at a friend’s home in a gated community in Buena Park. I was thanking God that I had never gotten a job in this region. I thought commuting in DC was rough. This was the Beltway on steroids.

But this writer gave a positive spin to all the craziness. Thus, we follow him as he explores what Los Angelenos do to escape the maddening crowd.

The key: Finding vaguely spiritual sites that help people calm down and deal with stress. But are all "spiritual" places created equal? Are some "spiritual" activities linked to, you know, religion?

This meditative mind-set was fitting for my 3 p.m. appointment, which I was now 45 minutes late to. I was supposed to be visiting the Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens as part of a larger quest to seek out spaces of refuge and retreat across the city’s endless suburban sprawl. I wanted to find the quiet, contemplative Los Angeles, the hidden pockets of reverence, reflection, silence; places Angelenos repair to in order to recharge their batteries so that they are ready to face another day, another traffic jam, another screaming child, another vindictive boss. A city is not necessarily defined by its landmarks or its flashiest moments but by all the subtle ways its citizens forge the necessary solitude that allows them to live in proximity to their neighbors. ...

He showed me how to walk the labyrinth, a circular pathway of travertine marble. Have you ever walked a labyrinth? Labyrinths, unlike mazes, are unicursal -- they have only one way in and one way out. Each step becomes a purposeful movement. They are an ancient form of meditation; this one is based on the labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France, built in the early 13th century. As you walk, the city becomes a distant dream, a movie half-remembered. In a way, it is bit like the festina lente of Interstate 10, but without the cars, the smog, the man in the neon-yellow Dodge Charger listening to Whitesnake’s “Here I go Again” at peak volume. One way in, one way out.

The writer introduces the reader to the concept of shinrin-yoku, which is immersing oneself in greenery, as in a forest. Stay with me for the next lengthy passage:


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A broken nation hears, according to elite press, vague sermons on unity and reconciliation

A broken nation hears, according to elite press, vague sermons on unity and reconciliation

As America wrestled with bitter realities in Dallas, Baton Rouge, La., and the St. Paul, Minn., area, editors of The Washington Post and The New York Times reached the same conclusion -- this was a good time to send reporters to church, as in black and white churches in these troubled communities.

I agree with that decision, in part because I reached the same conclusion during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when I was teaching at Denver Seminary. Let me pause, for a second, to explain what that was all about.

The seminary had created a unique seminar -- it was planned long before the riots. Half of the students were black and half were white and our goal was to combine a class on the Old Testament prophets and my mass-media-framed class, "The Contemporary World and the Christian Task."

When the riots broke out, I decided the syllabus outline needed an update. I told the white students to contact black churches and find out (a) what the pastors had preached about on Sunday (days after the riots) and (b) what biblical texts they used. I asked the black students to call white churches, talk to the ministers, and ask the same questions.

So what did our students learn? Before I tell you, let's find out what happened when -- under very similar circumstances -- reporters at these two elite newspapers took on, sort of, the same assignment. Let's start with the Times story, "On a Somber Sunday, ‘One Nation Under God Examines Its Soul.' "

First things first: Times reporters covered several services focusing on justice and racial reconciliation. However, it appears that none of the services included spoken prayers or references to scripture, even when white pastors preached on the sins of white racism and the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile on Minnesota. Here is a typical anecdote:

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Does the priest in this Los Angeles Times story have a reason for his season?

Does the priest in this Los Angeles Times story have a reason for his season?

Once again, we’re reading one of those Los Angeles Times’ “great reads” stories from A1, in this case a long feature about an unusual individual who has some involvement with religion.

Such is this story on a Los Angeles priest who has mentored gang members for three decades. It sounds like a thankless job for someone with a deep calling to be in a difficult place. Here's the interesting question: It's a story about a priest, but is there a faith element in here somewhere?

We start here:

In a small mortuary in East Los Angeles, a mother wept over the silver casket holding her son. Behind the pews, photos of Roger Soriano showed a young man throwing up gang signs with friends, a tattoo reading "J13" for Jardin 13 etched into his scalp.
He had been killed at 21, shot dead as he allegedly tried to rob a shopkeeper.
Behind the pulpit on that July day, the priest betrayed no strain in conjuring up virtues from the short arc of a life that had ended so messily.
"I knew Roger when he was a little kid and later on when he was a teenager, and you could always see the goodness. Always," Father Greg Boyle said. "Where Roger is right now, he has the same perspective that God has. The same God that is too busy loving us to be disappointed."
For decades now, young men who died by the gun have gotten their final benediction from Boyle, who began as a fresh-faced, thirtysomething priest in an era when the City of Angels churned out gang carnage on an industrial scale, inspiring movies such as "Boyz n the Hood" and "Colors" and making "drive-by" part of the country's lexicon.

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The religion beat: Hillsong rocks the evangelical world, and the NYTimes' front page

The religion beat: Hillsong rocks the evangelical world, and the NYTimes' front page

A photo of a crowd at what appears to be a rock concert dominates the front page of today's New York Times.

No, the image has nothing to do Apple's U2 album giveaway, although the Irish rock band makes a cameo appearance at the end of the Times'  Page 1 feature on a "megachurch with a beat."

I'll make a few constructive criticisms (that's why they pay me the big bucks, after all), but it's a solid story overall with a terrific, colorful lede:

LOS ANGELES — A toned and sunburned 32-year-old Australian with the letters F-A-I-T-H tattooed onto his biceps strode onto the stage of a former burlesque theater here and shouted across a sea of upstretched hands and uplifted smartphones: “Let’s win this city together!”
The crowd did not need much urging. Young, diverse and devoted to Jesus, the listeners had come to the Belasco Theater from around the city, and from across the country, eager to help an Australian Pentecostal megachurch that is spreading worldwide establish its first outpost on America’s West Coast.
The church, Hillsong, has become a phenomenon, capitalizing on, and in some cases shaping, trends not only in evangelicalism but also in Christian youth culture. Its success would be rare enough at a time when religion is struggling in a secularizing Europe and North America. But Hillsong is even more remarkable because its target is young Christians in big cities, where faith seems out of fashion but where its services are packing them in.
Powered by a thriving, and lucrative, recording label that dominates Christian contemporary music, it has a vast reach — by some estimates, 100,000 people in the pews each weekend, 10 million followers on social media, 16 million albums sold, with its songs popping up in churches from Uzbekistan to Papua New Guinea

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What do conservatives really think about Cardinal Mahony?

Yes, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles will be in Rome and will vote in the process to select the next pope. In fact, as part of his social-media campaign against his critics, he plans to tweet whenever and wherever Vatican officials will let him get his hands on a keyboard.

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Westernized Zen and the art of hiding sexual abuse

So many details will sound terribly familiar. At the heart of the news story is a powerful religious patriarch, surrounded by disciples who view him with a reverence that helps support an iron-clad climate of silence and secrecy.

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