prison ministry

This is ironic: Paige Patterson is front-page news in Houston, too, but not for controversial comments

This is ironic: Paige Patterson is front-page news in Houston, too, but not for controversial comments

Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, is front-page news today in newspapers including the Washington Post and his local Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

If you've somehow missed the controversy surrounding Patterson, check out tmatt's recent commentary on "Southern Baptists, domestic violence and divorce: Will SBC '18 be a must-cover press event?" and "Southern Baptists and domestic violence: It's a tough issue to cover after Twitter explosion."

Actually, this post is only tangentially about Patterson and the domestic violence issue.

I mention that news only because I find it ironic that Patterson also is a key source in a front-page Houston Chronicle story today — but one with a completely different topic and tone.

The Chronicle story quotes Patterson related to a Texas prison seminary run by Southwestern Baptist. It's a program that the Houston newspaper has covered before. In fact, I wrote a GetReligion post about the feature that ran two years ago. The title of that post: "Jailhouse religion in Lone Star State's toughest lockup raises church-state question."

A few months later, when the Dallas Morning News did a similar feature on state-sanctioned minister training inside the Lone Star State's toughest lockups, I repeated my original question:

My only criticism — and it's more a question than harsh criticism — is the same as I had concerning the earlier Chronicle story: What exactly is the relationship of the state and the seminary concerning this program? How does the state sanctioning pastor training inside a prison not violate the separation of church and state? What are the rules, and how is Texas making sure to follow them?

Not to sound like a broken record, but my question remains unanswered in this latest Houston Chronicle story, which fails to offer any skeptical analysis of a Christian seminary embraced and endorsed by public officials.

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Caps, gowns and prison whites: Meet Texas' newest seminary-trained pastors

Caps, gowns and prison whites: Meet Texas' newest seminary-trained pastors

Another major Texas newspaper has produced an excellent feature on state-sanctioned minister training inside the Lone Star State's toughest lockups.

Back in March, I (mostly) praised the Houston Chronicle for such a story and shared some reflections of my own experience writing about religion and prisons.

I did, however, wonder why the Chronicle didn't make clear the role of the state and the use of any taxpayer money.

That background leads to the Dallas Morning News front-page Sunday feature that ran under the banner headline "Prophets of hope."

The Morning News story is colorful, nicely written and — if you are a person of Christian faith, as I am — inspiring:

ROSHARON — For a couple of hours, the maximum-security prison felt like a real church.
Daylight illuminated stained-glass windows as voices in spiritual rejoicing sent up hymn after celebratory hymn honoring 33 new pastors in black graduation caps and gowns in the chapel’s sanctuary.
Under a towering white cross, there were sermons, handshakes, hugs and thunderous applause. Joyful pride spilled down mothers’ cheeks as the graduates filed down the aisle out of the room, clutching diplomas and grinning ear to ear.
Beneath those caps and gowns were the prison whites of men whose criminal transgressions landed them behind bars for decades. Outside the chapel walls were the concertina wire and pickets manned by armed guards at the Darrington Unit, one of the toughest prisons in Texas.
The inmates were the second graduating class from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s seminary program. On a recent Monday afternoon, after four years of studies, the men received bachelor’s degrees in biblical studies from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Now, they will be divided into teams and assigned to one of Texas’ 109 prison units, where they will minister to other inmates. Their aim: to help those who will soon be released find reconciliation and rehabilitation through faith.
“I want to commission you today to be prophets of hope,” seminary President Paige Patterson told the men, most of whom are serving sentences of at least 25 years.

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Jailhouse religion in Lone Star State's toughest lockup raises church-state question

Jailhouse religion in Lone Star State's toughest lockup raises church-state question

Before I became religion editor of The Oklahoman in the early 2000s, I covered the Oklahoma prison system.

I crunched numbers on the state's increasing parole rate, witnessed Oklahoma's first execution of a woman since statehood and did a narrative feature on "a typical execution day."

But even on the prison beat, I managed to touch on religion in a few stories. One of my most memorable involved a cemetery where forgotten inmates are buried:

McALESTER — Song 176 in the "Baptist Hymnal" flaps in the whistling breeze as five men clad in jeans and light blue inmate shirts surround a pine box.
The simple casket, made of fresh, light wood that reflects the leafy shadow of a cedar tree overhead, contains the remains of Richard Arnold Picha, 61, Oklahoma inmate No. 086428.
The inmate pallbearers and two prison chaplains have come to remember a man they never met.
"Pass me not, O gentle Savior, hear my humble cry," they sing, their emotion-filled voices riding the wind to the cloudless blue sky. "While others Thou are calling, do not pass me by."
This four-acre cemetery, which inmates long ago named "Peckerwood Hill," serves as the final resting place for Oklahoma prisoners who die with no place else to go. It sits a few hundred yards northeast of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Between 12 and 15 inmates a year are buried here, said Bob Jameson, a state Corrections Department spokesman in McAlester.
Picha's grave will be the 615th since the cemetery opened in 1913.

Fifteen years after trading the prison beat for the Godbeat, I still find stories about "jailhouse religion" fascinating (as, apparently, do a few others — my GetReligion post last year on Jeffrey Dahmer keeps drawing a few hundred clicks a month).

That lengthy intro leads me to the point of this post: an exclusive Houston Chronicle story on inmate baptisms in Texas' supermax prison.

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Bizarre Kellerism debate: Was Bobby Ross Jr. calling for bias in favor of Jeffrey Dahmer?

Bizarre Kellerism debate: Was Bobby Ross Jr. calling for bias in favor of Jeffrey Dahmer?

Every week or two -- either in private emails, on Twitter or perhaps in our comments pages -- I get involved in a debate with a reader about an issue that's at the heart of GetReligion's work. The hook is usually a post in which the press, when covering a controversial issue, has focused almost all of it its attention on the views of one side of the argument while demoting the other side to one or two lines of type, usually shallow, dull information drawn from a website or press release.

The reader, in effect, is defending what we call "Kellerism" -- click here for a refresher on that term -- and says that there is no need to give equal play to the voices on both sides because it is already obvious who is right and who is wrong. The reader says that GetReligion is biased because we still think there is a debate to be covered (think Indiana), while we believe that it's crucial to treat people on both sides of these debates with respect and cover their views as accurately as possible.

My slogan, shared with students down the years: Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you.

This cuts against a popular "New Journalism" theory from the late '60s and the '70s arguing that balance, fairness and professional standards linked to the word "objectivity" are false newsroom gods and that journalists should call the truth the truth and move on. Some may remember a minor dust-up a few years ago when a powerful news consumer seemed to affirm this "false balance" thesis in a New York Times story:

As president, however, he has come to believe the news media have had a role in frustrating his ambitions to change the terms of the country’s political discussion. ...
Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a “false balance,” in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.

This brings us, believe it or not, to our own Bobby Ross Jr. and his much-discussed (and trolled) post on the state of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's soul.

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5Q+1 interview: From God and guns to Death Row salvation, JoAnne Viviano excels reporting on faith and values

5Q+1 interview: From God and guns to Death Row salvation, JoAnne Viviano excels reporting on faith and values

JoAnne Viviano covers faith and values for the Columbus Dispatch, a central Ohio newspaper with a daily circulation of 120,000 and an average Sunday circulation of about 230,000.

Her Godbeat writing earned her the 2014 Cornell Religion Reporter of the Year Award from the Religion Newswriters Association. That award honors excellence in religion reporting at mid-sized newspapers.

"I grew up in suburban Detroit, where my mom fostered in me an early love for books by taking me to the library regularly and teaching me to read as a kindergartener," Viviano said.

She received a bachelor of arts degree in English and communication from the University of Michigan ("not very popular here in Columbus!") before starting working as a reporter. She recalls "an amazing mentor there named Jon Hall, who helped me find the confidence I needed to turn my writing abilities into a career as a reporter."

Her first writing job came with her Michigan hometown weekly, The Romeo Observer, followed by stints with The Macomb Daily in Mount Clemens, Mich., the New Haven Register in Connecticut and The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio. Along the way, she covered beats ranging from general assignments to municipal governments to state courts to education to crime.

Shortly before a strike hit The Vindicator, she left an earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. That led her to The Associated Press, where she worked for several years, starting in the Detroit bureau before moving to Columbus, eventually serving as a breaking-news staffer.

"I came to The Columbus Dispatch in 2012 because I missed beat reporting and being part of a metro newsroom," Viviano said. "It was a scary choice, with the way the industry has been, but I’m glad I made it. The Dispatch has remained strong and is a supportive, positive place to work."

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