That Aretha funeral sermon: AP offers quick look at the painful issues behind the furor

That Aretha funeral sermon: AP offers quick look at the painful issues behind the furor

During the two decades that I taught journalism in Washington, D.C., the team at what became the Washington Journalism Center did everything it could to help our students -- who came from all over the country -- see a side of the city that tourists rarely see.

We urged them to visit local churches, black and white. For two years, our students lived in home-stay arrangements all over the city, with families we met through church ties. We sent them on research trips into neighborhoods, using the buses rather than the subways (ask any DC resident what that's all about). Students served as tutors in urban after-school programs and as helpers and babysitters for mothers linked to a crisis-pregnancy center.

In discussions with students I heard one question more than any other: Where are the fathers?

That's the subject looming in the background of media reports about the controversial sermon delivered the other day by the Rev. Jasper Williams Jr., during the epic Aretha Franklin funeral. We will come back to that.

In many ways, this topic has been a third rail in American journalism ever since a 1965 report -- “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" -- by Daniel Patrick Moynihan rocked American politics (click here for Washington Post backgrounder). Here is the key stat (see this stunning chart), undated to reflect what has happened since: More than 70 percent of all African-America children today are born to an unmarried mom, a stat 300 percent higher than in the mid-1960s.

Here is the overture to the Associated Press story about the Aretha funeral. The key question: Was the heart of this sermon religious or political?

A fiery, old-school pastor who is under fire for saying black America is losing "its soul" at Aretha Franklin's funeral stands firm by his words with the hope critics can understand his perspective.

Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. told The Associated Press in a phone interview ... he felt his sermon was appropriate at Franklin's funeral Friday in Detroit. He felt his timing was right, especially after other speakers spoke on the civil rights movement and President Donald Trump.

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Ghost in the opioid crisis? Haunting New York Times report probes New Hampshire's pain

Ghost in the opioid crisis? Haunting New York Times report probes New Hampshire's pain

If you spend much time in New Hampshire, as I do (visiting family), you know that it's a complex and interesting state.

Lots of people know about "Live free or die," the state's motto. Lots of people -- The New York Times quotes the regional slang, "hella wicked many” -- know about the state's unique tax structures and its state operated liquor stores.

Of course, I am interested in the state's interesting mix of secularism and radical individualism. Take a look at the Pew Research Center's "How religious is your state?" website and there's New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, right at the bottom of the chart. Note that 43 percent of folks in New Hampshire are absolutely sure that they believe in God.

So, how does one handle religion -- or a glaring lack of religion -- when dealing with haunting subjects like this state's opioid crisis? When dealing with hurting hearts, tortured minds and ravaged bodies, should journalists raise any questions about the human soul?

I thought about that as I read a stunning New York Times feature that ran with this headline, "1 Son, 4 Overdoses, 6 Hours." It was based on a year of face-to-face research with an addict named Patrick Griffin, his father Dennis (a recovering alcoholic), his mother Sandy and his sister Betsy, a recovering addict.

This is the rare case in which I want to praise a story that appears to have zero religious content. It's a great story, one that few readers will forget if they read to the final shattering lines. However, I also want to raise a journalism question: Should someone, at some point, have asked a few religious questions when covering a story that is packed with stark, life-and-death questions about moral issues and choices? Yes, where is God during this family's agony? Are there religious issues linked to the drug culture in this secular region? The Times notes:

In Patrick’s home state of New Hampshire, which leads the country in deaths per capita from fentanyl, almost 500 people died of overdoses in 2016. The government estimates that 10 percent of New Hampshire residents -- about 130,000 people -- are addicted to drugs or alcohol. The overall burden to the state, including health care and criminal justice costs and lost worker productivity, has ballooned into the billions of dollars. Some people do recover, usually after multiple relapses. But the opioid scourge, here and elsewhere, has overwhelmed police and fire departments, hospitals, prosecutors, public defenders, courts, jails and the foster care system.
Most of all, though, it has upended families.

This is, of course, a story centering on a health crisis that affects the mind and body. But, throughout the piece, there are constant references to a great mystery: Why do some people recover and others do not?

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New podcast: Breaking bread, while listening for hints of Godtalk, in Waffle House America

New podcast: Breaking bread, while listening for hints of Godtalk, in Waffle House America

To put things in country-music terms, this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to listen to that) is about pain, sorrow, alcohol, divorce, blue-collar families, coffee, hard times, opioids and God.

Oh, and waffles.

If you don't live in Waffle House America, let me explain. We are talking about a chain -- in 25 states -- of old-school, Southern-style dinners that serve breakfast 24/7 and attract large numbers of workers and rural folks who don't work normal schedules.

If you want to laugh about the Waffle House world, you can listen to the country-fried tribute song by Stephen Colbert (a native of South Carolina) and alt-country star Sturgill Simpson, entitled, "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Knuckleheads."

But the podcast isn't really about laughter. It's about the complex issues that affect ministry to many hurting people in this slice of the American people.

My chat with host Todd Wilken focused on my "On Religion" column this week -- which is about a United Methodist pastor in Alabama who is doing some interesting things while trying the reach working-class people. His name is Pastor Gary Liederbach and he uses his local Waffle House as his unofficial office on weekday mornings.

This anecdote sets the tone:

One recent morning, Liederbach sat down at the diner’s middle bar, where the line of side-by-side chairs almost requires diners to chat with waitresses and each other. He didn’t see the empty coffee cup of a rough, 50-something regular whom, as a matter of pastoral discretion, he called “Chuck.”
When Chuck came back inside from smoking a cigarette, he lit into Liederbach with a loud F-bomb, blasting him for taking his seat.


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This opioid addiction recovery program relies on the 12 steps. So why didn't Washington Post mention God?

This opioid addiction recovery program relies on the 12 steps. So why didn't Washington Post mention God?

We're going to do a little opioid-related ghostbusting today.

As regular GetReligion readers know, our journalism-focused website is built on the premise that "millions of Americans who frequent pews see ghosts when they pick up their newspapers or turn on television news.

"They read stories that are important to their lives, yet they seem to catch fleeting glimpses of other characters or other plots between the lines. There seem to be other ideas or influences hiding there," editor Terry Mattingly wrote when GetReligion launched in 2004. 

"One minute they are there. The next they are gone. There are ghosts in there, hiding in the ink and the pixels. Something is missing in the basic facts or perhaps most of the key facts are there, yet some are twisted. Perhaps there are sins of omission, rather than commission.

"A lot of these ghosts are, well, holy ghosts. They are facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith. Now you see them. Now you don’t. In fact, a whole lot of the time you don’t get to see them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there."

Many of our faithful readers have become quite adept at spotting these ghosts and sharing them with us.

Today's tip comes via email from a reader who is a long-term member of a 12-step program. It relates to this recent story from the Washington Post.

The Post's compelling opening:

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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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Faith is in details: Tragic death of Prince is a story about fame, health and, yes, religion

Faith is in details: Tragic death of Prince is a story about fame, health and, yes, religion

So the news is out that Prince died of an opioid overdose, if a quote from an anonymous law official "close to the investigation" can truly put this kind of information on the record.

That makes the death of this hard-to-label superstar a health story, which means -- since we are talking about a practicing Jehovah's Witness believer -- that his tragic death is also a religion story.

So as you look at the updated news reports on Prince, it's logical to see if they contain (a) references of any kind to his faith and (b) material about ways in which the practice of his Jehovah's Witness faith may have affected his struggles with his addiction and the physical pain that drove it. Believe it or not, the basic Associated Press story ignored all of that.

There are two potential levels of faith content. Reporters can simply say, Prince was a Jehovah's Witness, they are strange religious people who believe strange things about health issues (think a rejection of blood transfusions) and, thus, his beliefs helped cause his death. Or, (b) it would be possible for reporters to talk to experts on this faith, ask specific questions about the legal and illegal uses of certain kinds of drugs, and then let readers wrestle with the results. As you can probably tell, I am pro option (b), since I love journalism.

So here is what readers are given by The Los Angeles Times:

According to authorities, Prince was last seen alive at 8 p.m. April 20, when someone dropped him off at Paisley Park. The musician was apparently left alone that night, without staff members or security.
Prince, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, was “a very private person,” said Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson. “I don’t think it would be unusual, for him to be there by himself.”

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