Yonat Shimron

Friday Five: RNA lifetime winner, new Forward editor, funny obit, Jeffrey Epstein, Rob Moll tribute

Friday Five: RNA lifetime winner, new Forward editor, funny obit, Jeffrey Epstein, Rob Moll tribute

The Religion News Association hit the jackpot with this selection.

Cathy Lynn Grossman — “one of the giants of the modern religion beat” — will receive the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award on Sept. 22 at RNA’s 70th annual conference in Las Vegas.

The announcement was made this week.

“I'm thrilled, surprised and humbled! (but obviously not too humble to post it on social media. Ha!!),” Grossman, who is best known for her 24 years with USA Today, said in a public Facebook post.

Past recipients include GetReligion’s own Richard Ostling, retired longtime religion writer for Time magazine and The Associated Press.

In other Godbeat news, Religion News Service’s Yonat Shimron reports:

Jodi Rudoren, an associate managing editor at The New York Times, was named the new editor-in-chief of the revered Jewish publication the Forward on Tuesday (July 23), marking a new beginning for an organization that has weathered tough times.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This is not the normal kind of religion story that I share in this space, but it’s too good not to include.

Dave Condren, who spent 20 years with the Buffalo News, including 14 as a religion reporter, wrote his own obituary.

This is just the first hint that it’s definitely worth your time:

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The numbers matter — and so does doctrine — in Methodists' high-stakes meeting on LGBT issues

The numbers matter — and so does doctrine — in Methodists' high-stakes meeting on LGBT issues

“Will the United Methodist Church be ripped apart?”

We considered that question in a recent post that critiqued a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story.

Now comes The Associated Press with a report — getting lots of play in newspapers across the nation — previewing the big meeting that starts this weekend:

The United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly convenes Sunday for a high-stakes, three-day meeting likely to determine whether America’s second-largest Protestant denomination will fracture due to divisions over same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy.

While other mainline Protestant denominations — such as the Episcopal and Presbyterian (U.S.A.) churches — have embraced gay-friendly practices, the Methodist church still bans them, even though acts of defiance by pro-LGBT clergy have multiplied and talk of a possible breakup of the church has intensified.

At the church’s upcoming General Conference in St. Louis, 864 invited delegates — split evenly between lay people and clergy — are expected to consider several plans for the church’s future. Several Methodist leaders said they expect a wave of departures from the church regardless of the decision.

“I don’t think there’s any plan where there won’t be some division, and some people will leave,” said David Watson, a dean and professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, who will be attending the conference.

The AP coverage is informative and filled with crucial details related to what’s at stake.

But two important facets of this scenario seem to get short shrift. Some of that, no doubt, is a matter of a wire service reporter with limited space. Trust me, I know — as a former AP newsman — that there’s never enough space to include every fact you’d like.

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Three key facts about Trump administration allowing religious freedom for S.C. foster care provider

Three key facts about Trump administration allowing religious freedom for S.C. foster care provider

Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill and Hillary Clinton, has 2.4 million Twitter followers.

So when the former first daughter tweets, what she says gets attention — be it announcing her pregnancy with a third child or commenting on a news story about a faith-based foster care agency in South Carolina.

I’m certain that Kelsey Dallas, religion writer for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, didn’t mind the extra clicks that Clinton’s tweet generated for her coverage of a Trump administration decision involving religious freedom — or religious discrimination, depending on one’s perspective.

The lede from Dallas:

The Trump administration on Wednesday made a decision in support of a faith-based foster care agency in South Carolina, announcing that religious organizations are protected by federal religious freedom law and can receive government money even when they won't serve LGBT or non-Christian couples.

"Faith-based organizations that provide foster care services not only perform a great service for their communities, they are exercising a legally protected right to practice their faith through good works. Our federal agency should not — and, under the laws adopted by Congress, cannot — drive faith-motivated foster care providers out of the business of serving children without a compelling government interest," explained a statement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Miracle Hill Ministries, a Christian organization based in Greenville, had been at risk of having to close its foster care program or adjust its screening process for prospective foster parents if HHS didn't grant it a waiver to nondiscrimination law. Miracle Hill, like many conservative, religious foster care agencies, has been under fire for the last year for refusing to work with LGBT couples for religious reasons.

The Trump administration's decision, although long-expected, sparked an outcry among liberal legal activists, who argue that religious freedom shouldn't protect discrimination.

Like the Deseret News, the Washington Post offered a factual, balanced report on the decision, opening its story like this:

The Trump administration said Wednesday it was granting a Christian ministry in South Carolina permission to participate in the federally funded foster-care program, even though the group will work only with Christian families.

The long-standing policy of Miracle Hill Ministries of Greenville violates a regulation, put into place in the closing days of the Obama administration, that bars discrimination on the basis of religion by groups receiving money from the Department of Health and Human Services.

About a year ago, the South Carolina Department of Social Services learned of Miracle Hill’s policy, notified the group it was in violation of federal law and downgraded it to a provisional license. Gov. Henry McMaster (R) then asked HHS for a waiver.

On Wednesday, HHS said it would grant the waiver, days before the group’s provisional license was set to expire. The department argued that the Obama-era regulation was ill-conceived and that some of its requirements “are not reflected” in the underlying statute.

In reading a variety of news accounts of the decision — including this one by the The Associated Press —  I was struck by certain details that seem important but weren’t reflected in every story.

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Monday Mix: Failure at the top, heartbreaking ties, Sutherland Springs anniversary, black churches

Monday Mix: Failure at the top, heartbreaking ties, Sutherland Springs anniversary, black churches

Welcome to another edition of the Monday Mix, where we focus on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

The fine print: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Four weekend reads

1. “The bishops simply do not have anyone looking over their shoulder. Each bishop in his own diocese is pretty much king.”

A massive story broke over the weekend in the Catholic Church’s ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandal: a joint investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer and Boston Globe concerning American bishops’ failure to police themselves.

The stunning finding:

More than 130 U.S. bishops – or nearly one-third of those still living — have been accused during their careers of failing to adequately respond to sexual misconduct in their dioceses, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer and Boston Globe examination of court records, media reports, and interviews with church officials, victims, and attorneys.

At least 15, including Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington who resigned in July, have themselves been accused of committing such abuse or harassment.

2. “It was an attack on America because it challenges our right to assemble and worship our God in the way we want. It has continued a downward spiral of hate, one that’s prevalent in all corners of the United States.”

After another hate-fueled shooting at a house of worship, an African Methodist pastor from Charleston, S.C., and a Conservative rabbi from Pittsburgh are bound together by “the unspeakable grief of two unconscionable desecrations.”

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Seven can't-miss takes on use of Romans 13 to defend policy on separating immigrant families

Seven can't-miss takes on use of Romans 13 to defend policy on separating immigrant families

Move over, Two Corinthians.

There's a new Bible reference making lots of headlines: Romans 13.

Who knew that Donald Trump and his administration would bring such attention to Scriptures?

In case you somehow missed this controversy, here are the basic details via The Associated Press:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Bible on Thursday in his defense of his border policy that is resulting in hundreds of immigrant children being separated from their parents after they enter the U.S. illegally.

Sessions, speaking in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on immigration, pushed back against criticism he had received over the policy. On Wednesday, a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church said that separating mothers from their babies was “immoral.”

Sessions said many of the recent criticisms were not “fair or logical and some are contrary to law.”

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful."

Sessions' remarks — coupled with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' declaration that "it is very biblical to enforce the law" — have sparked a wave of press attention exploring the meaning and history of Romans 13.

For those interested in insightful, enlightening coverage, here are seven can't-miss links:

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RNS wonders why more people are avoiding the MDiv degree in U.S. seminaries

RNS wonders why more people are avoiding the MDiv degree in U.S. seminaries

There was a fascinating piece by Yonat Shimron of Religion News Service last week about how more people in seminary are opting for two-year master’s degrees instead of three-year master’s of divinity degrees.

To most people, this may sound like an ecclesiastical yawner but stay with me. There’s some really interesting trends in there, trends that have been building up since the 1980s and the rise of pastoral counseling.

Back in 1992, I got a master’s degree in religion from Trinity School for Ministry, one of 11 Episcopal seminaries. I always felt the seminary favored the MDiv folks, while we MA students were definitely second class. This was beyond annoying in that the MA'ers were paying the same tuition amounts per year as the MDiv’ers.

But the three-year degree folks were seen as the real reason a seminary exists -- to get people into positions as priests and bishops in our denomination. The master’s degree earners were all laity whose callings weren’t held in the same esteem. So I was surprised to hear RNS saying that the MA degree is actually preferred these days.

This excerpt starts a few paragraphs into the article:

The gold standard for church leaders -- the Master of Divinity -- is losing some of its luster to its humbler cousin, the two-year Master of Arts.

“People are trying to get the training they need and get out,” said (Sean) Robinson, 28, who graduated Friday (May 11) from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “It all boils down to time and convenience and the culture and lifestyle we see today.

A new projection from the Association of Theological Schools, the main accrediting body for seminaries in the U.S. and Canada, finds that the number of seminary students enrolled in various Master of Arts degrees will likely exceed the number of Master of Divinity students by 2021.

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How major papers played Billy Graham's death on front pages: These bylines will be familiar to many

How major papers played Billy Graham's death on front pages: These bylines will be familiar to many

For those in Godbeat circles, many of the bylines splashed across today's front pages are extremely familiar.

I'm talking about names such as William Lobdell and Russell Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, Gayle White of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today.

All of those veteran religion writers — just to name a few — wrote their respective papers' major obituaries marking Wednesday's death of the Rev. Billy Graham at age 99.

But here's what might surprise many ordinary readers: None of them has worked for those papers in years. 

"I must have written and updated a whole suite of advance obit stories on Graham at least three times over 15 years," Grossman said. "I last polished up the package in 2013, in the week before I left the paper on a buyout. However, I stayed in touch with USAT editors (and) emailed them where fixes/changes might be needed over the years."

Welcome to the concept of the "prepared obit."

Here's what that means: News organizations put together obits in advance for certain prominent people, such as presidents, movie stars and — in the case of Graham — world-famous preachers. That way, they're prepared (at least somewhat) if the person dies 10 minutes before deadline.

A New York Times obituary writer explained it this way in a 2014 piece:

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Jeffrey Weiss, a religion reporter who covered his own cancer fight, is gone. Here's his last speech

Jeffrey Weiss, a religion reporter who covered his own cancer fight, is gone. Here's his last speech

It was about 10:30 a.m. my time on Wednesday when I heard that longtime God beat pro Jeffrey Weiss had died at home at noon Dallas time, surrounded by his family. I’d last seen Jeff in September at a Religion News Association conference in Nashville. His family told me he’d probably last until January. Less than seven weeks later, he is gone.  

Last December, he learned he had glioblastoma, a terminal brain cancer and the same ailment that Arizona Sen. John McCain has. Not wanting to use the word “death” to describe his fate, he came up with “egress” and used it with much humor during the last year of his life. He decided to “go out with fireworks,” as he told his employer, The Dallas Morning News, so he spent his last few months writing a column on dying for Religion News Service and  pushing the Food and Drug Administration to move quicker in finding solutions for terminally ill people like him.

See here for a fabulous sketch by Morning News staff artist Michael Hogue of Jeffrey climbing a Mt. Everest-like slope shaped like a brain.

Last month, the RNA gave its Lifetime Achievement Award to Jeff for his work. After receiving the award at the RNA banquet the night of Sept. 9, he presented a speech read by his niece, Lindsey Weiss. As you can see by my photo (above), he stood to her left during the entire thing, wearing his trademark Fedora with a card stuck in it proclaiming "Cancer sucks."

It's a bit of a tearjerker, so I’ve transcribed it below (and here’s the video of him delivering his speech)  for those of you who wish to remember Jeff’s last words to the reporters covering a beat he loved so much. “It’s kind of like his home room of beats,” his wife, Marni, told us.

I appreciate this award, even more so than when I was told my first time about this. And I’m here. I am working better than I am not working. I have loved this organization, even from my odd angles. I'll admit it might not have been a ton of angles and at times more so than I’ve expected. At the moment, I know I may have a particularly short amount of time because of my brain cancer. My glioblastoma may be setting a clock for me and maybe my egress will be at the time of my 63rd birthday this coming January.

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Homeless ministry on wheels: a compelling take on 'least of these' in wealthy Silicon Valley

Homeless ministry on wheels: a compelling take on 'least of these' in wealthy Silicon Valley

Back in 2004, my Associated Press colleague Matt Curry — now a Presbyterian pastor — tipped me to the story of "SoupMan."

If I recall correctly, Curry served as a volunteer for David Timothy's mobile soup kitchen in Dallas and didn't feel he could write the profile himself (for obvious conflict-of-interest reasons).

Thus, I ended up with a nice feature that ran on the AP national wire:

DALLAS — The theme from “Rocky” blares from a rickety white van that David Timothy calls his “SoupMobile.”
The music alerts hundreds of the homeless that it’s time to eat, and in a more subtle way, tells them that they – like Sylvester Stallone’s boxer character, Rocky Balboa – can overcome challenges.
“Rocky started with nothing and he rose to the top as world champion,” Timothy said as the hungry men, women and children emerged from their cardboard boxes under Interstate 45. “And these people here don’t have much. I just wanted to give them a little hope that they can rise to the top.”
On Thanksgiving Day, as he does every weekday, the 56-year-old Timothy will nourish those in need. Each will get a bowl of soup and a healthy portion of hope. But for the holiday meal, he’ll also serve up something special: turkey sandwiches bought in memory of his wife, Peggy, who died a month ago after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
“She was always a cheerleader for the SoupMobile,” said Timothy, whose red “S” on his shirt gives his nickname as “SoupMan.” “She had a real heart for helping people and I feel she is with me every time I turn the key to start the SoupMobile.”
To the hundreds he assists, Timothy is more like Superman than Soupman.

I thought about that story and that still-active ministry after reading Religion News Service managing editor Yonat Shimron's recent compelling take on a mobile ministry that serves the homeless in wealthy Silicon Valley.

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