Hurricane Harvey

Friday Five: Thanksgiving, missionary death, Jordan Peterson, hurricane heroes, homeless church

Friday Five: Thanksgiving, missionary death, Jordan Peterson, hurricane heroes, homeless church

Happy (day after) Thanksgiving!

I’ve been mostly away from the news this week, enjoying my favorite holiday.

If I missed any important headlines that I should have included here, by all means, leave a comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

In the meantime, let’s dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This is an international story, so you might have missed it. The Washington Post reports from New Delhi on an American missionary who tried “to meet and convert one of the most isolated hunter-and-gather tribes in the world” by offering them “fish and other small gifts.”

Instead, the Post reports that “the tribesmen killed him and buried his body on the beach, journals and emails show.”

The story offers revealing insights from the journal as well as quotes from the missionary’s mother.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: As often happens, the words “Jordan Peterson” in a headline tend to attract attention.

Last week’s No. 1 most-read post was by our editor Terry Mattingly — the piece that he wrote to support last week’s “Crossroads” podcast. The headline on that: “Why is Jordan Peterson everywhere, right now, with religious folks paying close attention?” Here’s a bite of that:

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Why are three Texas churches suing Uncle Sam over FEMA funding? Glad you asked

Why are three Texas churches suing Uncle Sam over FEMA funding? Glad you asked

The "faith-based FEMA" play a crucial role in disaster recovery.

As a journalist, I've witnessed this firsthand in places such as New Orleans, Joplin, Mo., and Moore, Okla.

Most recently, I traveled to Texas to report on people of faith mobilizing emergency shelters and distributing food and supplies after Hurricane Harvey. One of my favorite Houston stories — and yes, there was a religion angle — involved a fast-talking entrepreneur named "Mattress Mack." I also enjoyed writing about a large Oklahoma church group's journey to help Harvey victims.

In a twist to houses of worship helping after disasters, three Texas churches filed a federal lawsuit in September seeking help themselves — from FEMA. It's a fascinating case, one made even more interesting by President Trump's decision to weigh in on it.

I've wanted to dig into the case myself and try to understand it better. However, breaking news and other projects have kept me from doing so (excuses, excuses).

So I was pleased to see The Associated Press offer a primer before a court hearing earlier this week.

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Hey reporters: Seeking poignant Astros follow-up stories? Hang around for Sunday in Houston

Hey reporters: Seeking poignant Astros follow-up stories? Hang around for Sunday in Houston

Game seven of the World Series was played in Los Angeles.

But the real story was in Houston.

After a flood of biblical proportions, people in Houston finally got to celebrate -- as in big time, Texas-sized. This emotional explosion was, of course, linked to suffering and pain as much as it was to joy about a historic win.

Thus, I would like to make a suggestion to reporters who are looking for follow-up story angles with these Houston Astros.

The national media will cover the giant civic celebration and parade on Friday, in downtown. I expect spectacular images contrasting what the parade route looked like during the Hurricane Harvey flood with the same streets during the celebration. Look for the Astros to organize some kind of charity effort that takes the celebration into Houston's worst-hit neighborhoods. Cover all of that, please.

But then it would be wise to hang around for Sunday in the city that Christianity Today has called the "megachurch capital of America." Trust me, stuff will be happening.

Yes, few of these church celebrations will feature splashes of beer and champagne, but there will be lots of hooks linked to efforts by real Houstonians trying to get on with their lives.

In particular, according to a Christianity Today feature, reporters might want to seek out the Rev. Juan Jesus Alaniz, the Astros chaplain who works with the team's many Spanish-speaking players. He is the pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church’s Spanish campus.

CT noted that his ministry, with the team, includes "Venezuelans José Altuve and Marwin González; Puerto Ricans Carlos Correa, Carlos Beltrán, and Juan Centeno; Cuban Yuli Gurriel; and Dominican Francisco Liriano." Also note that Alaniz’s wife, Josie Ban-Alaniz, leads a ministry focusing on the players’ wives and girlfriends. The team's English-speaking chaplain is Kevin Edelbrock, of the parachurch group called Young Life. I'll add this question: Is there no local priest whose job includes ministry to Catholics on the team?

Will the players show up for church festivities? Who knows, but some of the most outspoken BELIEVERS on the team are also LEADERS on the team. Like who?

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Lessons (long ago) from Hurricane Harvey news: Yes, even Brits fussed about Joel Osteen

Lessons (long ago) from Hurricane Harvey news: Yes, even Brits fussed about Joel Osteen

“A week is a long time in politics,” is a saying attributed to the late Harold Wilson, Prime Minister of Britain from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1976. What is of vital importance today, for politicians and the press, may be of no concern a week later.

A week? What about a month?

This phrase, like that attributed to Harold MacMillan, “events, dear boy, events,” has worked its way into the fingers of journalists around the Anglosphere. It is a handy cliche to be trotted out by the hack who wishes to appear world weary and sophisticated, and who is also pressed for time and cannot think of something original to say.

Biographers of Wilson and MacMillan claim not to be able to verify if or when these phrases were ever uttered by their subjects. Yet, provenance is no longer important when they appear in an article -- they serve to set a tone.

If one looks back in time, that furor over Joel Osteen’s alleged callousness towards those seeking shelter from Hurricane Harvey in Houston is a fine case study of reporting via tone. In American the press, social media and the television networks had extensive coverage of the report the telegenic pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston had failed to open his 16,000-seat church to those fleeing the rising flood waters in Houston.

The story seemed to be everywhere -- then 10 days later it was nowhere to be found (except in commentary pieces, of course).

The reason? “Events, dear boy, events.” Hurricane Irma, etc., displaced Hurricane Harvey in the press cycle and the lidless eye of Mordor media turned its gaze from Texas to Florida and back out into the Atlantic Ocean.

But back to that Houston case study.

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Hold on! Tell me again why places of worship are playing a pivotal role in hurricane relief

Hold on! Tell me again why places of worship are playing a pivotal role in hurricane relief

The Associated Press reports out of Houston that many undocumented immigrant victims of Hurricane Harvey are turning to churches for help.

It's a timely, newsy angle and one that immediately drew my attention, especially since I've recently delved into both subjects myself: Harvey relief and Texas immigration.

However, AP's "nut graf" seems like a case of taking a solid story and trying to amp up the volume just a bit too much. I'd still recommend this story — but with a somewhat major caveat. I'll explain in a moment.

But first, the lede sets the scene:

HOUSTON (AP) — Immigrants came from across Houston to a Baptist church gymnasium and stacked dollies with boxes of cereal, orange juice and household necessities like cleaning bleach.
For many of them, the church was the safest place to seek relief after Harvey devastated Houston and left thousands of immigrants fearful of turning to the government for help amid fears they would get deported. A similar response was seen in immigrant-heavy sections of Florida after Irma swamped the state.
“We have to come together as churches to help the undocumented,” Emmanuel Baptist Church pastor Raul Hidalgo said while mingling with victims and volunteers on the church gymnasium’s parquet floor.

Good stuff.

But see if anything strikes you the wrong way — as it did me — in this next highly important sentence. This is where AP attempts to explain the big picture and boil down why this news matter:

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Yes, the 'faith-based FEMA' is crucial to the recovery effort after disasters such as Harvey, Irma

Yes, the 'faith-based FEMA' is crucial to the recovery effort after disasters such as Harvey, Irma

Yes, the "faith-based FEMA" is crucial to the recovery effort after disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. 

After deadly tornadoes struck my home state of Oklahoma in 2013, I wrote a piece for Christianity Today on how various Christian groups aided victims based on what each denomination does best.

That story noted the important role of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. National VOAD, as it's known, is an umbrella group for denominational relief agencies and secular charities.

From that story, which is mostly hidden behind a paywall at this point:

National VOAD works to avoid duplication of services by FEMA and faith-based groups—a collaboration that has caused few church-state concerns because no money changes hands, said Robert Tuttle, a George Washington University professor of law and religion.

Fast-forward to this week, and I was pleased to see a national publication highlight the faith-based coordination.

The publication? USA Today.

The reporter? Washington correspondent Paul Singer. 

If that name sounds familiar, it's because we interviewed Singer just last week about why he came to the Religion News Association annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., looking for faith and religion stories.

Singer's piece on faith groups providing the bulk of disaster recovery, in coordination with FEMA, is a good one:

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About that prayer circle featured on New York Times front page: great writing or overly dramatic?

About that prayer circle featured on New York Times front page: great writing or overly dramatic?

As a media critic, it's my job to have an opinion. I'm supposed to be able to read a story and then let readers know what I thought.

Is it good journalism? Did it get religion?  Those are questions that I'm expected to answer in this space. And most of the time, that's no problem. 

But what happens when I'm not 100 percent sure whether I liked — or disliked — a particular piece of reporting? When I find myself arguing with myself? Believe it or not, that happens every so often.

Such is the case with my attempt to analyze a New York Times narrative feature, which ran on Sunday's front page, on "17 people (who) joined in prayer before clearing out the flooded house of an aging widow. God, they insisted, was also there."

The Times sets the scene this way:

“In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit
WHARTON COUNTY, Tex. — Jeff Klimple, head bowed and eyes clinched, had locked his meaty mechanic’s hand into the trembly, creased fingers of his 80-year-old mother, Angie. She, in turn, held the right hand of her 24-year-old granddaughter, Natalie. Natalie was clutching a box of Hefty Ultra Strong garbage bags with her left hand, so the Lutheran pastor standing next to her, Lee Kuhns, wrapped one arm around her and draped the other over the shoulder of the gray-haired woman on his left, Rosalie Beard.
In all, there were 17 Texans linked in a ring on Angie Klimple’s front yard last Saturday afternoon, a circle of prayer broken only by the hay wagon that would soon carry away the putrid, sodden remnants of 50 years of her life.
“Father, we come to you and thank you for all of these people you sent us,Mr. Klimple continued.
The group gathered in what had been a tidy yard on Blanche Street, one house away from a cotton field, an hour’s drive southwest of Houston. Wharton County, bounded on the northeast by the San Bernard River and bisected by the Colorado, has some of the state’s most productive farm and ranch land. But by Aug. 30, the deluge brought by Hurricane Harvey had lifted water levels by five to 10 times their norm and both rivers had breached their banks.

My uncertainty over that lede: I couldn't decide whether I thought it was great writing or overly dramatic. So I asked a few people whose opinions I respect.

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Harvey lesson: Sometimes, a complex disaster requires a simple feature focused on one person

Harvey lesson: Sometimes, a complex disaster requires a simple feature focused on one person

I spent three full days in Houston and other parts of Texas last week reporting on the faith-based response to Hurricane Harvey.

I’m writing a package of stories for The Christian Chronicle. My first piece, focusing on churches that opened their doors to evacuees, was published today. I also did a Religion News Service profile of Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, a Houston furniture icon whose compassionate response to flooding victims made him a hero to many.

But here’s my confession: I found the massive nature of Harvey — involving tens of thousands of flooded homes and at least 60 deaths — a bit overwhelming.

Covering Harvey's aftermath reminded me of how I felt when I traveled to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast to report on Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

On Twitter, I noted:

Similarity between #Katrina and #Harvey: my inability to even begin to scratch the surface of all the faith-based relief work. #reporterlife

But then I came across a lovely USA Today feature packed with revealing details about just one flooding victim. Understanding hit me like the realization “I could’ve had a V8.” (That V8 reference will make sense to GetReligion readers of a certain age.)

 

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Classic MZ: How many stupid believers must government heroes save off houses in Houston?

Classic MZ: How many stupid believers must government heroes save off houses in Houston?

Let's face it. It takes a certain degree of courage for a journalist to mock the people living along the Texas Gulf Coast -- the sprawling multicultural city of Houston in particular -- at this moment in time.

We are, in this case, talking about an editorial cartoonist -- Matt Wuerker of The Politico -- as opposed to an actual reporter or columnist.

As you can see in the screen shoot at the top of this post, the point of the cartoon appears to be that the people of Houston, and the thousands of volunteers from Louisiana, upstate Texas and all over the place, are giving too much praise to God for their deliverance and not enough thanks to agents of government.

I grew up in Port Arthur, most of which was under water in the most recent images I saw, and my late parents spent most of their adult lives in the Houston area and the Gulf Coast. That doesn't make me an expert on Hurricane Harvey. It does help me understand how Texans think and act under these circumstances. The bottom line: It's a complex region, with just as many progressives as libertarian, fundamentalist, anti-government Yahoos (or whoever that guy is in the Confederate flag shirt).

So I'll just state the question this way: If you have been watching media reports about the first responders -- government or volunteer -- and the people they have been rescuing, does the contents of this cartoon ring true to you? Is this how the people of Houston are acting?

I don't think so. And ditto for M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway, who lit into Wuerker in a piece at The Federalist. Consider this another installment of our ongoing series that could be called "Classic MZ." From a GetReligion point of view, this is the slam-dunk section of her essay.

 

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