churches

If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story?

If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story?

Is it a news story if a church is set on fire or vandalized in some other way? What about if it’s part of a string of incidents? What if it happens five times? How about 10 times?

What if there are flames pouring out of one of the world’s most iconic cathedrals and it’s Monday of Holy Week?

We will come back to the flames over Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in a moment.

The answers to the earlier questions are yes, yes, yes, yes and, of course, yes! As someone who worked as a news reporter (and later a editor) at two major metropolitan dailies (at the New York Post and New York Daily News) and a major news network website (ABC News), I can tell you that any suspicion of arson at a house of worship, for example, is a major story.

It must somehow no longer be the case in the new and frenetic world of the internet-driven, 24-hour news cycle. That’s because a major international story — one involving at least 10 acts of vandalism at Catholic churches in France — went largely unreported (underreported, really) for weeks. The vandalism included everything from Satanic symbols scrawled on walls to shattered statues.

That’s right, a rash of fires and other acts of desecration inside Catholic churches — during Lent, even — in a country with a recent history of terrorism somehow didn’t warrant any kind of attention from American news organizations. Even major news organizations, such as The Washington Post, were late to covering it and only did after running a Religion News Service story.

This brings us to Monday’s fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, where a massive blaze engulfed the 12th century gothic house of worship. It’s too early to tell if this incident is part of the earlier wave of vandalism, but it certainly comes at a strange time. For now, officials say the blaze remains under investigation. The cathedral has been undergoing some renovation work and the fire may — repeat MAY — have started in one of those areas.

It would be crazy to assume there is a connection between all of these fires and acts of vandalism. It would be just as crazy for journalists not to investigate the possibility that there are connections.

There will be more to come on the Notre Dame story in the hours and days that follow and comes at the start of Holy Week, the most solemn time on the Christian calendar.

But back to my questions about the earlier string of fires and the lack of coverage.

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Bring in the Millennials, Kansas City Star says of churches (But what about old timers?)

Bring in the Millennials, Kansas City Star says of churches (But what about old timers?)

Props are due to the Kansas City Star for noticing that some churches in its area are attracting, and not, apparently, repelling, the young cohort of worshipers that could be grouped under the banner of "millennial."

Indeed, the message is up front in the story's headline: "Bucking a trend, these churches figured out how to bring millennials back to worship."

Once a reader gets past a nice setup anecdote about one of the newly booming congregations, we get these salient points:

In 2015, a wide-ranging Pew Research Center study concluded that America was becoming less religious due in part to millennials distancing themselves from organized religion. Only 27 percent of Americans born between 1981 and 1996, the study found, regularly attend weekly services.
As a result, some area churches and synagogues have created special programs that cater to younger members.
But a handful, most notably, perhaps, City of Truth on the East Side and The Cause on the West Plaza, now cater almost exclusively to millennials.

This is a solid, well-reported story in which I can find few flaws to note. The Star is to be congratulated for this kind of coverage. Hence, you won't find any "big" journalism problems highlighted in this blog post.

So why write this post? As tmatt would say, "Hold that thought."

As readers find out from the story, City of Truth serves a largely African-American congregation, while The Cause's members are mostly white. The services times on Sundays may differ, but they apparently remain one of the most segregated hours in America, as the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once observed.

Such changes did not come without a price for City of Truth, as the story explains:

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Does deductibility really influence church giving? Salt Lake Tribune skirts the question, sort of

Does deductibility really influence church giving? Salt Lake Tribune skirts the question, sort of

The fact that Americans who itemize their income tax deductions can also deduct their donations to the church, mosque, synagogue or (recognized) religious outpost of their choice is a cherished part of American taxation, something that's not true in all nations of the world.

Now, the latest tax reform proposal knocking around Congress may -- or may not -- put a dent in such deducting. If the "standard deduction" of $5,500 for individuals and $11,000 for married couples is doubled, as proponents want, the thinking goes, more folks will skip itemizing and just go with the higher number. No itemizing means less in the collection plate, they theorize.

But here's the journalistic question: Does a mere assertion mean something's a fact? Logic would say no, but sometimes a media outlet will seem to glide around logic for a compelling story. At the least, that's how it could look to a reader.

The Salt Lake Tribune, serving a state where returning tithe is mandatory for Mormons, dives right in to the charitable deduction issue, leading with a dramatic point:

A Republican tax plan being debated on Capitol Hill maintains the deduction for charitable giving but still may have an unintended consequence that could hurt donations to churches and nonprofit groups.
The impact of the tax bill — if passed and signed into law — could mean less revenue for the LDS Church and other denominations and faith-based organizations as well as groups like the Salvation Army, Goodwill and humanitarian operations.

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Faith in what, exactly? Courier-Journal series on Indiana town battling AIDS pulls up short

Faith in what, exactly? Courier-Journal series on Indiana town battling AIDS pulls up short

One of the most challenging assignments in the world is stuffing 10 pounds of sugar into a five-pound sack.

Reporters face this all the time: A carload of details that must be crammed into a small shopping bag.

Such may well have been the lot of investigative reporter Laura Ungar of the Louisville Courier-Journal, a daily now noted as "part of the USA Today network." After six months of reporting, she delivered a devastating three-part series on the HIV epidemic that still plagues Austin, Indiana, a town less than 40 miles north of the paper's offices, in a region known as "Kentuckiana."

Let me be clear: This is important work touching on a vital topic of national interest, and it deserves a wide readership, I believe. How HIV gripped this town, how addictions to opioids opened the floodgates, how transmission the virus is being fought and what the human and policy consequences are should concern every American. After all, as noted in the two-year-old PBS NewsHour video above, one trucker hiring a prostitute in Austin could subsequently carry the infection hundreds of miles away.

The articles focus on the health care and policy issues, subjects well within the reporter's wheelhouse. But we also get glimpses of faith elements at both ends of the series.

The glimpses left me wanting more.

The first piece begins with a discussion of the Christian physician laboring to help save the town, and the final installment boldly proclaims Austin as "having faith" in the midst of the crisis, Ungar -- or her editors -- seem to hold back when discussing the exact nature of faith that's involved.

The final installment's headline, "Healing Austin: Faith lifts small town from depths of HIV plague," could lead a reader to expect a more detailed discussion of just what that faith is, how it is practiced, what it entails. The subhead is equally promising: "As the outside world moves on, [a] small city draws on faith to save itself from drugs and disease."

Everyone who imagines we're going to get a few tales of tent revivals and the old "sawdust trail," please raise your hand.

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Red and Blue America: Does the New York Times give facts on ground or views from top?

Red and Blue America: Does the New York Times give facts on ground or views from top?

In yet another election postmortem, the New York Times team tried a novel idea -- a street-level view of the thoughts and fears that drove Red and Blue America. The simple goal was to report what ordinary people said.

Or at least readers got to hear what the Times people heard. Some of the 2,600-word piece reveals a viewpoint as skewed as some of those it reports.

The article is broken into segments, each by a different writer, and they vary widely in tone and balance. Some are genuinely sensitive.

There's an almost palpable anguish in Julie Turkewitz' section, on how many people isolate themselves from those who differ with their worldviews:

In some ways, the echo chamber was the winner of this election. Here we are, deeply connected. And yet red America is typing away to red America, and blue America is typing away to blue America. The day after the election, some people said the echo chamber had begun to feel like a prison.

Turkewitz notes that one of her two main sources truly wants to escape her bubble. The woman, who voted for Hillary Clinton for president, has only two or three friends -- both on Facebook -- who supported Trump. The other woman, a fellow Clinton supporter, seems happy to stay in her echo chamber.

Religion is seeded throughout the article, but only one section deals directly with it. Times veteran Laurie Goodstein draws from interviews on the Godbeat this year.

She sounds sympathetic to people on the Right, at first:

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Oooo, an atheist pastor: Washington Post offers wide-eyed yet manipulative look at Canadian conflict

Oooo, an atheist pastor: Washington Post offers wide-eyed yet manipulative look at Canadian conflict

When I last looked at the Rev. Gretta Vosper, the famously atheistic pastor in Toronto, I praised Canadian media for their measured coverage. "In the United States," I wrote, "we'd be reading and hearing ferocious barrages of rhetoric."

Well, I take it back. Now that a national committee of the United Church of Canada has recommended Vosper's ouster, the report from at least one American publication -- the Washington Post -- isn’t quite that fierce. Just cartoonish. And inferior to the writeup in a Canadian newspaper.

Let's start with the good first. The National Post, that Canadian paper, starts with a straight account of the facts:

A United Church of Canada minister who is a self-professed atheist and has been the subject of an unprecedented probe into her theological beliefs is one step closer to being removed from the pulpit.
Sub-executive members of the church’s Toronto Conference announced Thursday they have asked the church’s general council, the most senior governance body, to hold a formal hearing to decide whether Rev. Gretta Vosper, who does not believe in God or the Bible, should be placed on the disciplinary "Discontinued Service List."
"Some will be disappointed and angry that this action has been taken, believing that the United Church may be turning its back on a history of openness and inclusivity," it said in a statement.
"Others have been frustrated that the United Church has allowed someone to be a minister in a Christian church while disavowing the major aspects of the Christian faith. There is no unanimity in the church about what to do."

This is what Terry Mattingly likes to call the "American model" -- fair, straight, honest. Sad that we had to look outside America to find it.

The National Post continues to say that the conference committee found Vosper "not suitable" as a UCC minister for deserting her beliefs. The 700-word article also allows space for some back-and-forth:

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Thinking outside the bricks: Sensitive Washington Post piece reports fate of empty church buildings

Thinking outside the bricks: Sensitive Washington Post piece reports fate of empty church buildings

Church rolls may drop, but the buildings don’t always fall to the wrecking ball -- some of them are converted to condos. That trend is the focus of a story in the Washington Post that is at once factual, thoughtful and sensitive.

The smoothly written piece is a massive 1,480 words, yet it reads rather fast. It gives us an overview of the situation across the nation's capital. It offers a few insights on how professionals convert church buildings. And it shows a soothing feel for the concerns of the people who had to leave their sacred spaces.

Church conversions are a kind of gentrification, but with a difference, as the Post points out.

"As churches’ congregations move to the suburbs and D.C. property values soar, increasing numbers of religious institutions are selling their properties in the city, usually with plans to move closer to their congregants," the paper says.  "But … some experts say that a church’s former life as a sacred space requires a particular kind of respect."

The Post gets into the expected issues of restoring a big building with neglected windows, plumbing and HVAC.  It deals also with how to divide up a big room that's built around a pulpit. But it's much more, says writer Amanda Abrams. 

A freelance writer who is not a religion specialist, Abrams might have well gotten caught up in those mundane details. But no, she recalls the reason for the buildings -- and so do her sources:

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NYTimes story blurs issues in minister's employment problems

NYTimes story blurs issues in minister's employment problems

Many a reporter has started one kind of story that turns into another.  You can either break it into two or more stories -- or, as the New York Times recently did, stitch them together.

That’s my guess for why a Times article begins as a piece on problems of a young minister, then blurs it with several paragraphs on problems of young ministers in general -- then makes it about problems of a young, black female minister.

The main character is a Brooklyn minister who is doggedly pursuing her calling, despite money and employment issues. She served as an unpaid associate pastor and worked as a hospital chaplain, and she still couldn't make it work. Why she couldn't is the muddled matter.

To read the Times, Atchison is a commanding, evocative presence, blending vocal skills, body language and inspirational sermons:

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Does help for communities justify churches’ tax exemption?

(Paraphrased) Secularists challenge tax exemptions for houses of worship, saying this denies valuable revenue to communities that get little or nothing in return. True?

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