Who really helps the needy? Pew study shows us, and so does the Orlando Sentinel

Religious people donate and volunteer more than their nonreligious neighbors. This has been established for years (yes, I'll show that in a moment), but professionals in the mainstream media don’t often pick up on it.

So it's a pleasure to read a news feature in The Orlando Sentinel -- which not only reports a new Pew Research Center study on the fact, but takes the reporting down to the level of real people and groups in its own circulation area.

Starting with a minister who pastors a church and serves dinner at a rescue mission, the article broadens into a trend story:

Echoing a new Pew Research Center study that found religious people are more apt to volunteer and make charitable donations than others, the Rescue Mission and other Central Florida charities say the faith community provides critical support in providing food, shelter and clothing for the needy.
In survey results released last month, 45 percent of highly religious people — those who said they pray daily and attend weekly services – reported they had volunteered in the past week. By comparison, only 28 percent of others indicated they'd volunteered over that time frame.
Sixty-five percent of the highly religious individuals said they had donated money, time or goods to the poor in the past week, compared with 41 percent of people who were defined as being less religious.

You could use the story in a journalism clinic on showing how national studies shed light on local trends. Not only does the Sentinel summarize the Pew findings, but it provides the big picture on charity in Central Florida:

The roughly 7,000 nonprofits classified as 501(c)(3) in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties raise about $4.6 billion each year in charitable donations, he said. congregations are likely responsible for harnessing an additional $1.5 billion, he estimated, extrapolating this number from the few churches and faith organizations that have publicly available tax reports.
These congregations also help direct people toward the right nonprofit resources, said Eric Geboff, executive director of the Jewish Family Services of Greater Orlando.

Even among secular non-profits, 10 percent to 15 percent -- such as Habitat for Humanity of Greater Orlando -- are "grounded in faith," the Sentinel says.

This story even passes a crucial GetReligion test, specifying the church that Fulmore pastors: Church of Christ at Gotha.  Many mainstream media just call clergy "pastor," as if all churches and denominations are interchangeable.

The well-sourced 700-word piece includes remarks not only from Fulmore and the Orlando Union Rescue Mission, but also from the director of the local Jewish Family Services and even the imam of area's Islamic society. I'm surprised, though, that the newspaper doesn't ask the Diocese of Orlando, which has its own charity wing.

Especially enterprising is when the Sentinel gives a few paragraphs to a secularist leader:

At the same time, the impulse that drives many religious people to volunteer might have nothing to do with belief in God, said Joseph Richardson, who belongs to a local group of secularists, the Central Florida Freethought Community. Acts of kindness often flow from a humanist perspective that atheists and theists alike can embrace, he said.
"Having this compassion and empathy for fellow human beings and understanding that they hurt and need help sometimes … that's the kind of motivation that we have for doing volunteer work," Richardson said.

I'll confess that whenever I did a story on charity as a newspaper religion writer, I didn’t think of that angle.

My only question here is, why didn’t the Sentinel ask a logical follow-up question: "Why do you think so many more religious people give and volunteer more than nonreligious?" Richardson may have left the door open to the idea that freethinkers lack the "compassion and empathy" that the religious have. He should have had a chance to explain that.

Richardson does get to voice concerns that religious people use charity to proselytize, and the Sentinel gets a denial from the imam, Muhammad Musri. That was probably adequate. If Richardson didn’t bring up overall stats, his point is more argumentative than factual.

While I admire the thoroughness in facts and quotes, I do see a religious ghost here. Why are religious people helpful and giving? The answer likely lies in the various traditions -- benevolence in Christianity, tzedakah in Judaism, zakat in Islam -- that teach the need to share what believers have received from God. That could have been a good sidebar.

Some background on giving and volunteering would have been good, too. In 2001, a Independent Sector found that religious households not only gave more to charity but volunteered more -- both to religious and secular organizations.

And in 2006, social researcher Arthur L. Brooks published a whole book on the topic, showing that given equal income and socioeconomic situation, religious and social conservatives give and do more for charity than their secular counterparts.

I also wish the Orlando Sentinel had interviewed some beneficiaries. Besides Fulmore, all of the quotes are from institutional chiefs. True, they're in a position to speak authoritatively. But a person or two who have gotten help from religious sources would have crystallized the facts on the ground.

It would also be good to link to the Pew survey. It's not easy to find, because it has a general title of "How highly religious Americans’ lives are different from others." Here's the link.

But my main problem is that there aren’t more such articles. For so many mainstream media, religion news these days is about setting straight whom to marry or which bathroom to use. Meanwhile, tens of millions of regular people quietly give and work for others.

They may not do it for the notice, but they should still get some. At least, they should, if a newspaper is truly interested in covering its community.

Photo: Pastor Willie Fulmore from the Church of Christ at Gotha serves dinner at Orlando Rescue Mission on May 25. He volunteers about once a month. Photo by Jordan Krumbine, Orlando Sentinel. Used by permission. Thumb: Helping hands, via freeimages.com/Marco Michelino.


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