Postscript: Why the column ended, and “now what”?

As today’s column says, my weekly “Face to Faith” column in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press has ended. My column did not explain why.

The column is another casualty of the shaky economics of the newspaper business. The editors decided to end my column as one of their cost-cutting measures. It wasn’t that expensive, but I guess things add up, and a “freelance” column (rather than being from the Press staff), it was an obvious target for the accountant’s spreadsheet.

The Johnson City Press is a midsize paper in midsize town, so I don’t expect this change to rattle any windows in New York City or Chicago. (Read that last clause in a dry, ironic tone of voice.) But this move could be read as another example of two trends: the erosion of local journalism and the erosion of religion coverage.

In the short term, this kind of change makes financial sense. Wire-service copy is quicker and cheaper than consistently good on-the-ground reporting. But in the Internet age, local newspapers and other news outlets actually have one exclusive commodity to sell: consistently good on-the-ground local coverage. Then there’s the point about good journalism being necessary for a functioning democracy and other such high-minded notions.  In a more perfect world, owners of news organizations, including newspapers, would bite the bullet in the short term to safeguard and build up their real franchise for the long run. In other words, they would choose to support solid local journalism, both as good citizens and as good businesspeople.

As for religion coverage, we come back to an argument made again and again by many people: how can we understand our world without understanding religion? If we scan headlines from around the world, we can find matters of faith, religion, spirituality and ethics every day. I’m not referring to the obvious ones, either (“Pope Forgives Assailant”). As today’s column suggests, a strong religion vein runs through many of the biggest or more important stories, often not very deeply (Just this week: Haiti … French marriage … health care … the Middle East (always) … Kurt Warner …). I may be biased, but I’m not sure it’s the wisest move for news organizations to reduce or eliminate their religion coverage at this particular point in history.

Thus endeth the lesson.

As for this blog: I will leave it in place for now but will take a break for a few weeks. I’m not sure what will come next, but I’ll get back to you about that. In the meantime, I’ll be glad to receive your comments, suggestions, ideas and questions, and I’ll respond as soon as I can. In the meantime, best wishes.

Grace and peace to you.

F2F Finale: That’s all, folks

This is my final “Face to Faith” column. It’s been a good run, since June 2003. If you’re keeping score, that’s 346 columns.

First, the thank-you notes. Thanks to the editors of the Johnson City Press for the opportunity to explore a lot of interesting territory. Thanks also to friends and colleagues who have generously offered their ideas, suggestions and encouragement.

Thanks to the countless people who let me share their expertise, insights, experiences and voices in this space. One of my favorite parts of being a journalist is the privilege of meeting people I would never otherwise get to know.

Finally, thanks to you for reading and for sending your comments, criticisms (honest!) and compliments. Even more, I appreciate your joining me in looking at all sorts of subjects through the lens of religion. One of my favorite parts of covering religion has been the variety, with the chance to write about everything from Trinitarian doctrine to tax law.

The breadth of religion, as well as its depth, is not a small point. More than ever, we need all the tools we can manage to help us understand our world, and it’s no secret that dozens of important news stories every week – whether in our front yard or on the other side of the globe – are ripe with religious meanings, causes and effects.

So before I go, let me suggest seven topics to keep tabs on, listed in no particular order. These aren’t predictions. Let’s just call this a kind of heads-up memo.

The unbuckling of the Bible Belt. I’ve regularly called our region “the area formerly known as the Bible Belt.” No doubt this place still has a different religious climate than, say, New York or Los Angeles. Even so, church attendance is lower than the national average and actual behavior and attitudes about several key social issues mirror the rest of America. With the increasing secularization of society and growing cultural diversity, we’re not as distinct as we used to be (or maybe like to think we are).

The continuing rise of syncretism. “Syncretism” is a fancy word for mixing beliefs and practices into a kind of spiritual stew, an inclination some people have tagged with labels like “me-ism” or “cafeteria religion.” This is a long-time trend, but I was reminded of its power and attraction when I saw “Avatar” last week. (See below, “impact of media, The.”) Regardless of what someone thinks of this development, it’s one that has real implications for how we view the world.

The politics of sex. I can’t think of one sex-related controversy being debated in the public square – birth control, homosexuality, the meaning of marriage (including same-sex marriage and civil unions) – that isn’t shaped by religious belief.

The impact of media. This issue goes beyond debates over the content of TV shows and movies. The media we invent – and how we use them – affect us. For example: In a digital world, how do you define a “community”? Is a church a church if it’s only on the Internet, or is a vague acquaintance on Facebook a “friend”?

The definition of “human.” Far from being a philosophical abstraction for eggheads, the question of what it means to be human is on our doorstep in a dozen ways. The abortion and end-of-life debates are prime examples. For future reference, we’ll also need to consider if there’s a point at which someone treated with cloning, genetic engineering or robotics might not be considered a fully human being anymore.

The spiritual dimensions of money. It’s not just the matter of garden-variety greed or even Bernie Madoff’s unfathomable fraud. Dozens of economic answers can raise scores of religious and spiritual questions. In other words: Are any religious, spiritual or moral issues connected to health care, jobs, welfare, education, foreign aid (think of Haiti this week), war, credit and debt (both personal and national), advertising and marketing, crime, the justice system or the care of elderly people?

The persistence of church-state controversies. Thanks to the massive gray area written into the U.S. Constitution and lived out in American history, the familiar tensions over faith and public life will continue. After 223 years, why stop now? This is part of our national DNA.

That’s all. In the words of an ancient Christian greeting: Grace and peace to you. Amen.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 16 Jan 2010.

With Hispanic ministry, ‘potenciamos unos a otros’*

If we were just counting numbers, then it would not make much sense for congregations in Northeast Tennessee to invest much effort and money in Spanish-language ministry.

Compared to the rest of the country, the region has a small Hispanic population: only 2.2 percent of Washington County’s residents, compared to 15.4 percent nationwide, according to a 2008 Census Bureau estimate.

Yet at least three area churches are making that investment. It’s not about numbers.

“Where two or three are gathered, God is there,” says Danilo Olivares, Spanish minister at First Christian Church. “We serve a niche inside the Spanish-speaking population, and we decided to give to this population. But our rolls are not fat.”

Olivares, 39, has been shepherding this flock-within-a-flock since 2006. More than 70 people are regulars in the Spanish ministry; about 55 typically attend worship on Sundays. Besides Spanish-language worship services, the ministry also offers Sunday school classes, a women’s ministry (led by his wife, Priscila), children and teen programs, midweek Bible studies and a leadership-training course.

The ministry reaches even more people in the community, such as by offering English classes and translation for hospitals and courtrooms, and sponsoring occasional registration days for immigrants.

The ministry, which started nine years ago, is integrated with First Christian Church, with Olivares a full-time minister. While other Spanish-language ministries in the area draw mostly Mexicans, more than 80 percent of the people in First Christian’s ministry come from other countries – at least 13 different nationalities. That diversity has proven to be one of the ministry’s biggest challenges.

Danilo Olivares

“I’m preaching and teaching to all these cultures at once,” explained Olivares, who is originally from Santiago, Chile. “Some words can mean different things, and South American style is different from Mexican style.”

For English speakers, it would be like working with a congregation that includes people from New York, Alabama, Wyoming, England, Jamaica and South Africa. Everyone may speak the same basic language, but so much else – from accents to cultural assumptions – is vastly different.

American culture is layered on top of all that besides, since most Hispanic members at First Christian are second- or third-generation Americans.

“They live here; they’re not in transit,” Olivares said. “A high percentage are in professions, like banking or medicine, and 95 percent are bilingual.”

That blend makes it easy to combine with the rest of the congregation, but it also raises the question of why offer a Spanish ministry at all.

Olivares explained by telling about one member, a local bank officer, who said he feels “contact with God” during a Spanish service in a way he never felt at other churches.

“Our relationship with God starts with the spirit,” Olivares said. “I feel closer to God when I sing or pray in Spanish rather than English. There’s something intimate in speaking, praying and worshiping in our own native language.”

In its early years the ministry probably attracted a large number of undocumented workers, although no one knew for sure because no one was asking. But that proportion has completely reversed, according to Olivares, with more than 90 percent being legal residents today. (In 2006, Oscar Olivares, the congregation’s first Spanish minister and Danilo’s uncle, thought most members were undocumented, a piece of old information I mistakenly repeated last October.)

Part of the reason for the turnaround is Danilo’s commitment to encouraging and helping immigrants to become legal residents.

“As Christians we need to respect the laws of this country,” he said. “We are here to help everyone, and I don’t care if they are legal or not. But if someone doesn’t have papers, part of my ministry is to help them do the right thing.”

Olivares himself never planned to move to Johnson City, a place he hadn’t even heard of until six years ago. But he comes from a family of church leaders, and he moved to Miami in 2004 to help a Spanish-speaking church there, intending to stay a few years before returning to Chile. Then the call came – literally, a phone call from his uncle – to East Tennessee.

He’s thankful for the unforeseen move, glad to experience firsthand how much good can come when North American and South American Christians work together.

“It’s not, ‘Give us this, give us that,” he said. “It’s what we can do for each other. It’s like there’s a good car engine in this room and a fine car body in that room. We put them together. We empower one another.”

* ‘We empower each other.’

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 9 Jan 2010.

You’ve seen one holiday, you’ve seen them all. Not so much.

I took a bit of vacation this week, and so this week’s column updated and adapted material from one published on Dec. 20, 2003.

If an alien dropped in on us right now, he (she? it?) would find us sorting through the remnants of holidays stacked up for more than a month: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, the winter solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s. (We’re not quite finished yet. The Christian feast of Epiphany is Jan. 6.)

Our other-worldly visitor might think all these festivities shared a common origin, that they were only variations on the theme of brightening dark and cold nights, of finding comfort in the winter chill as we wait for spring’s eventual return.

But he (she? it?) would be wrong. Similarities and even shared traditions don’t mean these holidays are the same. (A movie star and I share a birthday and we both eat cake, but that doesn’t make us brother and sister.)

For instance: Christmas – the Christian celebration, not the social and economic spectacle – marks the birth of Jesus Christ in a Palestinian village around the year 4 B.C.

Hanukkah, the Jewish “festival of lights,” observes the rededication of the Jerusalem temple after it was recovered from Greek occupiers in 165 B.C. The feast lasts eight nights because the story says that after the victory, a small vial of oil miraculously provided light for that length of time.

The winter solstice, the longest night of the year, marks the northern hemisphere’s turn toward spring as days start to lengthen again. The anticipation of warmer weather was reason enough to celebrate in ancient societies, and among pagans these seasonal changes took on religious significance.

Not surprisingly, with the rise of the Christian church in Europe, seasonal rites as such were abandoned or reinterpreted with Christian teachings. But in our more diverse time, solstice is making a comeback.

Then there’s Kwanzaa, a modern American invention, created during the 1960s as a week-long celebration of African culture and heritage.

You get the idea: similar timing, similar observances (gifts and candles galore), but vastly different meanings.

These various holidays don’t only mark different events. As a local theologian points out, they also reflect different ways of thinking about the world and how it works. The contrasts are especially noticeable when we compare holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah, which claim unique historical events as their basis, with the solstice, which marks a recurring natural cycle.

“I think you can argue that those who celebrate solstice understand time to be cyclical,” according to Philip Kenneson, professor of theology and philosophy at Milligan College. That is, a pagan view sees time like a wheel, constantly revolving alongside the cycles of nature.

It’s an idea about the world shared by ancient pagan societies and many Eastern religions. In this view, “any particular moment in time is not any more important than another,” Kenneson said. “There’s no sense of movement to history.”

By contrast, Judaism and Christianity – the religions most influential in Western cultures – typically view history as an unfolding “story” made up of unique events. In this view, said Kenneson, time takes on a different kind of significance.

“History as we understand it in the West is rooted in a more linear view of time,” he said. “Specific events have meaning. They contribute to or thwart a certain movement in history.”

While he won’t go so far as to call this a biblical view of time, he does say “a lot of this is assumed in Jewish and Christian understanding.”

There is overlap, of course. Christians and Jews observe natural cycles – look at the church calendar or the Jewish feasts – and those who observe the solstice don’t deny that new events occur.

Even so, Kenneson thinks a fundamental difference exists between those who find meaning mainly in the recurring cycles of nature and those who find it in a developing story.

 “Those cycles by themselves don’t tell the whole story. They are real, but they don’t shape our whole lives,” Kenneson said. “(In the linear view) there’s something above and beyond that. The direction of history has been forever altered.”

Maybe that’s why we wish each other a happy new year. We not only anticipate the year to be different. We expect it to be literally meaningful – to truly mean something.

 First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 2 Jan 2010.

The Top 10: Religion news in 2009

President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last June, when he declared his desire to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” was the biggest religion story of the year, according to a survey of the Religion Newswriters Association.

In his wide-ranging address, Obama said that the U.S. and Islam “overlap and share common principles … of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” focusing those themes on seven specific issues. The president quoted the Qur’an, the Bible and the Talmud as he held out the prospect of a relationship “based on mutual interest and mutual respect (and) based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”

The speech was well received by local Muslims, according to Taneem Aziz, leader of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee.

“On the whole, it was a very positive speech,” Aziz recalled this week. “The general perception of the U.S. (by most Muslim countries) was negative, and I think the president was trying to improve that. I think it’s a good step.”

It was significant that the president delivered the speech at a highly regarded university in a historic Muslim capital, he said.

“Using the greeting of ‘Assalamu Alaykum’ (Peace be unto you) was a nice touch,” Aziz added. ”I liked the way he said would like to deal with issues and conflicts in the world today.”

But how Obama’s words will ultimately translate into policy is not yet clear, and so members of the Muslim community also feel wary, particularly about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which the president addressed at length.

“(Obama’s) bias towards Israel was very evident,” according to Aziz. “On the one hand he said, ‘Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.’ And then he went onto speak about the Israelis and the elevated status they had with the U.S.”

So Aziz doubts that the U.S. can act as an honest broker in the Middle East, “and that is what is needed.” On the other hand, American Muslims understand “that if he does not toe the Israeli line, he may stand to lose the next election.”

Here is the complete list of the year’s Top 10 Religion Stories, as selected by active members of Religion Newswriters Association:

1. President Obama pledges a new beginning in Muslim-U.S. relations and reaches out to the world’s Muslims during a major speech at Cairo University.

2. Health-care reform, the No. 1 political topic for most of the year, involves faith-based groups appealing strongly for action to help “the least of these,” and others, such as the Roman Catholic bishops, for restrictions on abortion funding.

3. Because Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused gunman in the Fort Hood massacre, was considered a devout Muslim, the role of that faith in terrorism again comes under review.

4. Dr. Carl Tiller of Wichita, Kan., regarded as the country’s leading abortion provider, is gunned down in his Lutheran church.

5. Mormons in California come under attack from some supporters of gay rights because of their lobbying efforts in the November 2008 election on behalf of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Later in the year, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire approve gay marriage, but it is overturned by voters in Maine.

6. Obama receives an honorary degree and gives the commencement speech at Notre Dame after fierce debates at the Roman Catholic university over Obama’s views on abortion.

7. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America votes to ordain gay and lesbian clergy living in a committed monogamous relationship, prompting a number of conservative churches to move toward forming a new denomination.

8. The recession forces cutbacks at a variety of faith-related organizations.

9. The Episcopal Church Triennial Convention votes to end a moratorium on installing gay bishops, ignoring a request from the archbishop of Canterbury not to do so. In December the Los Angeles diocese chooses a lesbian, Mary Glasspool, as assistant bishop.

10. Obama’s presidential inauguration includes a controversial invocation by Rick Warren and a controversial benediction by Joseph Lowery, as well as a pre-ceremony prayer by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 Dec 2009.

Christmas in 30 seconds (give or take a minute)

If someone asked you what people should keep in mind this Christmas – and you had about 30 seconds to answer – what would you say?

That’s the question I asked several Christian leaders in Johnson City, Tenn. While their replies touch on familiar themes, they also offer insights that are eye-opening and often challenging.

So what shall we remember at Christmas? Here’s what they said.

“Keep in mind the importance of relationships. Relationship is the key. This summarizes the commandment of loving God and loving our neighbor. The basis for my answer comes from Luke 3, when three groups of people asked John the Baptist, ‘What should we do?’ The simple answer is that relationships to others is the key.”

Anietie Akata, pastor, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church

“In some way focus on the fact it is (Jesus’) day, not our day, and do all the things we need to prepare. Spend some time reading the Bible, and make sure they’re in church. Make sure they do something totally generous and off the wall in giving to someone who’s not family or a friend. Focus on someone who can’t pay you back. Do something in the name of Jesus Christ, rather than focus on our own needs.”

Clint Andrews, senior minister, Crossroads Christian Church

 “I would ask: How are you dealing with the fact that sometimes things seem so futile, that things sometimes seem to be going places you don’t want them to go? How do you deal with the fact that in the end we’re going to die? That’s the human existence. If you stop and think about it without all the attempts to anesthetize ourselves, life seems empty.

“So Christmas is about this: God understood the fact that humans had gotten themselves into a horrible predicament of futility, emptiness and death. And so he has come to save us from ourselves. He didn’t do that by ignoring it or tossing it away but by absorbing it into himself, and now all existence is full of life. Even the things that seem most dire, empty and futile are now shot full with life. Every moment we make a choice: We either deal with suffering without any assistance, going in the direction of anesthetizing, screaming or whining. Or by the choices we make, we incarnate within ourselves the truth of Christ – that everything is full of life, even suffering, and we can redeem all of it. This is what Christ has come to do.”

Neal Hughes, deacon, Holy Resurrection Orthodox Christian Mission

“What is the greatest virtue you can think of, and how can you make it real for someone else? If your desire is to make Christmas meaningful for yourself, then it also should be shared with others. If there’s something of value to you, then make it real for someone else. In so many words, that’s the theology of the incarnation: that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. Part of the incarnation is that the life of Christ makes its seat in us who believe, and therefore it must be manifest in life.”

Hal Hutchison, rector, St. John’s Episcopal Church

“Christmas is the time when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Jesus was God who came to earth, and that was a step of moving out of God’s comfort zone to where we are. To show us God’s love, to celebrate Jesus’ birthday properly, we should go to others and show them God’s love. That could mean staying in Johnson City or going somewhere else. It could be going to heal relationships that are disintegrating. At Christmas, people tend to be more giving, open and loving. The trick is to make every day like Christmas. Every day we should be reaching out with God’s love.”

Louis Imsande, pastor, First Presbyterian Church

“At Christmas we should think about the essence of the gift, which was wrapped in swaddling clothes. But the gift was that God gave us reconciliation – reconciliation between God and man, between man and man and man with himself. With Christ we have the opportunity to be put back on track in our relationship with God. With that on track, we have our relationships with each other. And reconciliation always works best when a person is reconciled with oneself.”

Danny Johnson, pastor, Thankful Baptist Church

“In one way, Christmas seems to be all about us: God loved us, Christ took on flesh for us. Later he died to forgive us of our sins and rose to give us everlasting life. But Christmas is a celebration of what he did for us. We celebrate by loving him, praising him and serving him by serving others. For example, a man in our church found a homeless man sleeping in the cold, just out on the concrete, and took him into his home. That’s a great example of serving Christ by serving others, especially at this time of year – but we can do that any time of year.”

Greg Salyer, pastor, Southwestern Baptist Church

“If someone were to ask what I think, I’d say that for me, Christmas is God with us. It promises me that no matter what our condition, God is with us. Christmas is more than hanging out with my family and opening gifts. It’s the very fact that God broke through the chaos of the human condition and companioned with us. For people in the hospital, this is good news. It means we’ve not been abandoned, we’re not alone.”

Debbie Shields, Washington County senior chaplain, Mountain States Health Alliance

“Christmas from the beginning has been a celebration of God’s amazing love for all people. I think we should try to communicate that message louder than any others. When God sent Jesus to earth, he didn’t owe us anything. He did it out of his graciousness to us, and in response we need to do this for one another. We need to get past the patterns of acting out of misplaced indebtedness and treat other people with grace, whether they deserve it or not.”

Michael Sweeney, president, Emmanuel School of Religion

 First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 19 Dec 2009.