The religion beat; I lost it at the paper...

Dateline: Wed 08 Aug 2007

The Week magazine picked up an excellent piece from the LA Times by the paper's former religion writer, William Lobdell: "I got the story, but lost my faith." (Aug. 10, 2007, issue).

Lobdell had the religion beat for four years or so at the Times. Initially, he thought it was a perfect fit: he was a born-again Christian and an eager potential convert to Catholicism; how wonderful to have the chance to write about the effect of belief in peoples' lives. He never had a shortage of topics -- an Orthodox Jewish mother who made clothing for Barbie dolls, a group of Mormons who rode a covered wagon, replicating the journey made by their forebears. He loved, he said, to go to work.

But it wasn't all sweetness and light. What transpired during his years on the job would have rocked anyone's boat: he covered ex-Mormans who were ostracized by their church at a time when they needed love and acceptance; he reported on greedy, ultra-rich evangelicals who raked in the dough while encouraging cash-poor believers to use credit cards to make pledges to get into heaven.

But the worst scandal, the most soul-draining and wrenching, was within the church he thought he would join: the Roman Catholic sex-abuse crimes led him to firsthand accounts of children who were raped and sodomized; parishioners who defended priests against all evidence; and corrupt bishops who transferred pastors around rather than acknowledge their sinfulness. The breaking point for Lobdell was a priest who had fathered a child during seminary schooling, but refused in a court of law to make any financial contributions to his son or the boy's mother. The priest won his case. That incident was the final blow; Lobdell was finished.

Lobdell's conclusion: "My problem was that none of that surprised me anymore...I saw clearly that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap in faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don't."

His account, no doubt, rang central with many secular journalists who are both believers and have written about religion, or in my case, struggled to write about it.

I dealt with similar issues during the three or so years I covered religion at the Star. The hardest part was writing about my own beloved Catholic church. My "big story" was a few years before the sex scandal hit; it was about a food pantry run by a rough old New York Times printer who had moved to Indy and joined St. Thomas Aquinas parish. He and a bunch of equally salty old birds, and others more tender, were providing daily soup and sandwiches to the poor and hungry at a church building adjoining the Cathedral Downtown. The program was set to come to an abrupt halt when the then vicar-general, Msgr. Gerald Gettelfinger, ordered the kitchen closed because of future renovations on the Cathedral grounds.

The working-class Catholics manning the stoves did not take the news well. They were in the Jesus business; feeding the poor was what they did. The story was compelling enough to make Page 1, but I found myself embarrassed and saddened at a prayer breakfast a few days later -- (this was the GOP era; prayer breakfasts were part of the fabric of cultural political life in Indy). The archbishop himself, Edward O'Meara, was there, along with Msgr. Gettelfinger. Like Catholic clergy everywhere, they stood out like a sore thumb, as counter-cultural as hippies at a stockbrokers' convention: in a sea of businessmen in suits and pastors in ties, they wore long black cassocks; the arch wore a ruby red hat and scarlet cape. They nodded and smiled at me, but Msgr. Gettelfinger delivered the coup de grace: "Our own people are doing us in, Ruth."

I felt branded as a traitor; so were the good men and women of St. Thomas running the soup kitchen. That was the first in a series of incidents in which I found it increasingly painful and difficult to write the truth about churches. Catholics were hardly the only problem. Blacks and Jews at the time were undergoing extreme tension, due to a visit by Minister Farrakan, in which the Chicago Muslim leader condemned Jews and called them "Hymies." Afterwards, there was a lot of making nice with the rabbis and the black pastors, all initiated by the rabbis. But the untold story was the tension that existed between black and Jewish women who had come together to form a group called Dialogue. The initiative was largely Jewish; black women, I believed, were along for the ride. "You can't ever say anything about black men (during Dialogue)," a Jewish matron told me. "Their women are very protective." It was the same old racial tension, just dressed up and doused with perfume.

A side issue of covering religion was that editors wanted scandal and sex. If a church was in financial hot water, if a prominent pastor was having an extra-marital affair (and this happened, on both counts, time and again), why didn't we have the story?

Altho my accounts about the forced-out food pantry received the biggest reader response (yes, the archbishop prevailed; the kitchen closed), the story that was far more interesting to pastors was on a workshop for "wounded warriors." The Methodists put on a two-day seminar for pastors suffering burnout; it was on those frontlines that I learned, firsthand, what a difficult, demanding and thankless job it can be to minister to God's people. For weeks afterwards, I received grateful comments from pastors, pastors' wives and others close to clergy, thanking me for the coverage.

All in all, I was glad to leave the beat. I learned something about myself: that I genuinely respected Archbishop O'Meara and did not wish to disappoint him, and that the nuances in that relationship -- his generous spiritual advice, my sense of unworthiness -- weren't fit newspaper copy. I know in my heart I would have struggled mightily to have covered what was the biggest story of the century for the church, the priest-abuse scandal; I stayed in denial about that one for some time. I did not lose my faith as a result of any of this, but the experience caused me to think about what faith is, and what it is not. Certainly, faith and the church are, mercifully, not necessarily the same.

How can this be? The church is a human institution; anybody who doesn't understand the tension between its ministers and Christ should read Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory," about a corrupt, failed Mexican priest who, despite his sins, still believes. Undeniably, as non-believers so often tell us, the church is responsible for much suffering and sin in this world; our transgressions are great. Anybody who has ever covered religion can confirm that. But believers also know what Lobdell says is true" "Either you have the gift of faith or you don't."

And if you are lucky enough to have it, the only response is the antithesis of a page 1 story: humility and silent surrender.

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