ProPublica

What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

If you lived in or near Baltimore during the spring and early summer of 2015 then you were affected, one way or another, by the waves of urban violence that shook the city.

This tragedy was impossible to ignore. It was more than images on the evening news. You could stand in your yard and see the smoke over the neighborhoods east and west of downtown. One night, the fires were so large that I could see the reddish-gold glow in the sky — fires that included a community center and senior-housing unit that was being built by Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore.

What happened to Baltimore in those months, and the stunning violence that has gripped the city ever since, is a massive, complex story. It’s a police story. It’s a story about drugs, young men on the loose and shattered families. It’s an education story. It’s a political story. It’s a tragic story about government officials trying to find someone to blame.

But if you followed the local news during those months (and some of the national television coverage) you also knew that what happened in Baltimore was a religion story.

This is no surprise, since black churches — old and new, past and present — have always played a major role in urban life when people try to cope with danger and tragedy. No one worked harder than Baltimore pastors when it came time to respond to the violence and the bitter realities that provided fuel for the fires.

That’s why I was disappointed when I read a massive story on this subject that ran the other day, co-produced by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine. Here’s the dramatic double-decker headline:

The Tragedy of Baltimore

Since Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, violent crime has spiked to levels unseen for a quarter century. How order collapsed in an American city.

Let me be clear. This is a must-read story for anyone who cares about urban life and issues facing the poor. I am also not arguing that it was wrong for the story to devote so much ink to police and government issues.

I am simply saying that this story needed to include some content from pastors and other church leaders — if one of the goals was to show how Baltimore people responded to the riots, or uprisings, of 2015. The story needed the voices of religious believers, if the goal was to listen to Baltimore.

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Friday Five: Missionary muckraker, Kavanaugh hearing, McCarrick crisis and more

Friday Five: Missionary muckraker, Kavanaugh hearing, McCarrick crisis and more

See how this title grabs you: "The Biblical Guide to Reporting."

Marshall Allen's commentary in the New York Times sparked quite a bit of discussion on social media this week.

Allen spent five years in Christian ministry before becoming a journalist. Now covering health care for ProPublica, he explains in his op-ed how he believes his faith makes him a better reporter.

"Some people might think that Christians are supposed to be soft and acquiescent rather than muckrakers who hold the powerful to account," Allen writes. "But what I do as an investigative reporter is consistent with what the Bible teaches."

The piece is definitely intriguing and worth a read.

Interestingly, the column grew out of a speech that Allen gave last year at The King's College in New York City. Read the full text (.pdf here).

Now, let's dive into the Friday Five:

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A world religion few readers know about: Sikhs get some news coverage from ProPublica

A world religion few readers know about: Sikhs get some news coverage from ProPublica

ProPublica, the investigative journalism powerhouse, doesn’t have a religion reporter even though it has a raft of other specialties ranging from civil rights, the military and health care to consumer finance, tech and education.

Why this newsroom doesn't cover the motivating force behind how billions of people live their lives is a puzzle but recently the organization did come out with a piece about religion.

Called “Sikhs in America: A History of Hate,” it chronicles how a blameless religious minority has been mistaken for Muslims for years and often murdered in cold blood because of that misperception. Remember, it was not a Muslim but a Sikh: Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered at a gas station in Arizona right after 9/11.

The lengthy first-person feature begins with an incident that took place not far from where I live.

The 1907 episode in a seaside timber town in Washington came to be known as the Bellingham Riots. Really, though, there were no riots. There was a pogrom.
At the time, the U.S. was suffering through deep economic distress, a panic-filled recession that had begun the year before. Angry anti-immigrant sentiment was ascendant. And hundreds of Sikh men who had traveled from India to Bellingham to toil in the lumber mills paid the price.
Some 500 white men, many of them members of the local Asiatic Exclusion League, descended on the Sikhs and other South Asians, routing them from the bunkhouses where they roomed and chasing them into the streets. Within hours, the entire Sikh population of Bellingham had fled, frantically piling onto trains and boats in search of some sort of refuge. Many had been physically battered.

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Could Facebook officials censor religious content? Many people say they already do

Could Facebook officials censor religious content? Many people say they already do

Have you ever been in “Facebook jail?” Censored if you try to start dialogue about something that’s religiously or ethically noxious?

I’m spotlighting a very interesting Washington Post piece about the inner workings of Facebook, which in my mind are harder to figure out than a CIA organizational chart. For the sake of this blog, we’re interested in news coverage of the religion part of this equation and what this has to do with the power that Facebook has over a good portion of the globe.

An accompanying photo shows Zahra Billoo, a hijab-clad woman who is the executive director of the San Francisco office of the Council of American-Islamic Relations. So, two weeks after Trump was elected, 

Billoo ... posted to Facebook an image of a handwritten letter mailed to a San Jose mosque and quoted from it: “He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.”
The post -- made to four Facebook accounts -- contained a notation clarifying that the statement came from hate mail sent to the mosque, as Facebook guidelines advise.
 “I couldn’t tolerate just sitting with it and being silent,” Latour said in an interview. “I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin, like my kids’ innocence was stolen in the blink of an eye.”
Facebook removed the post from two of the accounts -- Billoo’s personal page and the council’s local chapter page -- but allowed identical posts to remain on two others -- the organization’s national page and Billoo’s public one. The civil rights attorney was baffled. After she re-posted the message on her personal page, it was again removed, and Billoo received a notice saying she would be locked out of Facebook for 24 hours.
“How am I supposed to do my work of challenging hate if I can’t even share information showing that hate?” she said.

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Will the waning Barack Obama administration rewrite religious hiring rules?

Will the waning Barack Obama administration rewrite religious hiring rules?

Church-and-state disputes are a hot beat and it's getting hotter all the time.

We have religious objections over the government’s transgender bid to control school toilets and locker rooms nationwide, the Supreme Court’s bounce back of the Little Sisters’ “Obamacare” contraception case, states’ debates over whether merchants can decline gay wedding services on religious grounds, and much else.

Media coverage to date shows little interest in how church-state policy might be affected by a President Clinton, or a President Trump, or the jurists on Donald Trump’s recent Supreme Court list, or a Justice Merrick Garland. Will this be raised at a big June 9-11 “religious right” confab in D.C.? Speakers will include Trump and former challengers Cruz, Fiorina, Huckabee, Kasich, Paul, and Rubio, plus House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Meanwhile, interest groups are ardently lobbying the Obama Administration to change religious hiring policies during its waning days. At issue is application of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) under the 2007 “World Vision memorandum” (click for .pdf) from the Bush Administration’s Department of Justice.

World Vision, a major evangelical organization, had landed a $1.5 million grant to provide mentoring for at-risk youths. The memo ruled that it’s legal for such religious agencies fulfilling service programs through  federal grants to consider religious faith in their hiring. The Obama White House has thus far resisted pressure to abolish that policy, most recently in a Feb. 22 letter from ranking Democrats in the U.S. House.

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