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A whole lot of R-E-S-P-E-C-T for Aretha Franklin, the preacher's daughter who became 'Queen of Soul'

A whole lot of R-E-S-P-E-C-T for Aretha Franklin, the preacher's daughter who became 'Queen of Soul'

If you're reading the tributes to Aretha Franklin, who died Thursday at age 76, then you know that religion is a vital part of her story.

It's impossible to write the Queen of Soul's obituary without giving prominent attention to her upbringing as the daughter of a Baptist preacher.

Her gospel roots, after all, influenced not just her musical career but her entire life.

Good news: Major news organizations are giving a whole lot of R-E-S-P-E-C-T to the faith angle.

For example, here is the opening of the Los Angeles Times' lengthy obit:

Aretha Franklin, the preacher’s daughter who became the “Queen of Soul” and forged the template of the larger-than-life pop diva with her exuberant, gospel-rooted singing, has died. She was 76.

Franklin died Thursday of advanced pancreatic cancer, according to her publicist Gwendolyn Quinn.

In a career she began as a teenager in the 1950s, Franklin went from singing in her father’s Detroit Baptist church to performing for presidents and royalty as she took soul music to its creative and commercial pinnacle.

Meanwhile, this big chunk of religious background (my apologies for the length of this blockquote) is included in The Associated Press' main obit:

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Predator priests: CNN notes pope is silent on (a) secular holiday or (b) holy day celebrating purity?

Predator priests: CNN notes pope is silent on (a) secular holiday or (b) holy day celebrating purity?

Every reporter knows this truth: The typical news story -- even a longer feature -- doesn't have room for every single detail that you want to include.

Ah, but how do you decide which details make the cut? 

In my experience, reporters and editors think about the potential audience for a particular story. On the religion beat, I have always assumed that there is a good chance that people who read religion stories care about the religious details -- especially when they serve as symbols of major themes in the story. I also love details in liturgies, hymns, biblical texts, etc., that offer poignant or even ironic twists on the news.

This brings me to a rather angry note that I received from a reader -- a nationally known historian, who will remain anonymous -- about a symbolic detail in a CNN report linked to the stunning Pennsylvania grand-jury report covering seven decades of Catholic priestly sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses. The CNN.com headline: "Critics slam Vatican's 'disturbing' silence on abuse cover-ups."

The CNN report noted that Paloma Ovejero, deputy director of the Vatican's press office, simply said: "We have no comment at this time." Meanwhile, U.S. bishops of all stripes have urged Pope Francis to speak out. That led to this passage, with an expert academic voice offering commentary:

"The silence from the Vatican is disturbing," said Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. "I don't think the Pope necessarily has to say something today. He needs time to understand the situation. But someone from the Vatican should say something." 

Faggioli noted that Wednesday is a national holiday in Italy, and many church offices are closed. But he also noted that it was well-known that Pennsylvania's grand jury report, which was in the works since 2016, would be released on Tuesday. 

"I don't think they understand in Rome that this is not just a continuation of the sexual abuse crisis in the United States," Faggioli said. "This is a whole different chapter. There should be people in Rome telling the Pope this information, but they are not, and that is one of the biggest problems in this pontificate -- and it's getting worse."

Ah, what was this national holiday? 

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In U.S. political campaigns, 2018 will also be the year of the Muslim candidates

In U.S. political campaigns, 2018 will also be the year of the Muslim candidates

While the media hail 2018’s historic total of female and LGBTQ political candidates, religion writers should be covering the unprecedented 90 or more Muslims, virtually all Democrats, running for national, state, or local office. That’s the count from the Justice Education Technology Political Advocacy Center, founded in 2015 to promote Muslim candidacies. 

President Donald Trump’s words and deeds toward Muslims doubtless energize this electoral activism. Not to mention Virginia’s faltering Republican U.S. Senate nominee, Corey Stewart, who smeared Michigan governor candidate Abdul El-Sayed as an “ISIS commie.” 

Pioneering Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and very likely Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, are guaranteed media stardom, in line to be  the first Muslim women in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Tlaib, who succeeds disgraced Congressman John Conyers, just edged Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones in a six-candidate Democratic primary scramble. She’ll run unopposed in November for the 13thdistrict seat.  The oldest of  Palestianian immigrants’ 14 children and a mother of two, Tlaib earned a law degree through weekend classes and was elected to the Michigan House, reportedly only the second U.S. Muslim woman to be  a state legislator.

Two other Muslim hopefuls fell short in Michigan. El-Sayed, director of Detroit’s health department, lost the governor nomination to former state Senator Gretchen Whitmer. In U.S. House district 11, Fayrouz  Saad, who directs Detroit’s immigrant affairs office, took only fourth place.    

The first Muslim in the U.S. House, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, is the most politically powerful U.S. Muslim to date, nearly winning the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee and is currently its deputy chairman.

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A time for anger? Some Catholic bishops worked hard to limit exposure of their sins and crimes

A time for anger? Some Catholic bishops worked hard to limit exposure of their sins and crimes

It's impossible to step into the sickening whirlpool of that Pennsylvania grand-jury report, covering seven decades of Catholic priestly sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses, without feeling angry.

Right now, anger is the element of this story that I think will be the hardest for journalists to handle and to cover accurately and fairly.

First and foremost, there is the anger and grief of the victims and their families. That's a story.

Then, we also need to admit that journalists who have been on the beat for a decade or more face anger issues of their own. In many cases, reporters are facing a tough reality today -- they now know that they were often manipulated by bishops and diocesan staffs that were hiding hellish crimes.

Now they are seeing some bishops produce updated websites and public statements that -- let's face it -- look a lot like the PR campaigns of the past. Is this a story?

Also, what about the all-to-familiar flashes of anger and the sense of betrayal that many priests and bishops must be feeling today? Imagine what it feels like to be going to work right now while wearing a Roman collar.

Years ago, a friend of mine -- when he was ordained as an Episcopal priest -- said that he was shocked at how many people gave him looks of disgust when he walked the streets in black clerical clothing, thinking he was a Catholic priest. Having even one person spit at your feet is a shattering experience.

This is a story for many, many valid reasons, not the least of which is how these horrors will continue to shape efforts to handle the growing shortage of Catholic priests in parts of the world, including America.

With that in mind, read (hat tip to Rod "Benedict Option" Dreher) this remarkable set of tweets from a priest whose entire ministry has been surrounded by headlines about priests abusing children and teens:

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'The murder of souls' -- Covering massive Pennsylvania sex abuse doc = brutal assignment

'The murder of souls' -- Covering massive Pennsylvania sex abuse doc = brutal assignment

We’ve been bracing ourselves for this all summer.

Yesterday, a massive grand jury report (full text here) was released covering seven decades of Catholic priestly sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses of 1.7 million parishioners. It was the largest such report ever done in this country.

There’s not a whole lot out there that can shunt the horrors of the Cardinal McCarrick affair onto a back burner, but this report fits that bill. It is a stunning summary of degradation and evil that reporters have known about for years and have been waiting to dissect all year. I'm predicting it will be the religion story of the year in the annual Religion News Association poll.

The grand jury subpoenaed a half million pages of church internal documents. Think about that. Then they came down upon a number of bishops for going out of their way to hide these horrors over a 70-year period of time. And when did things begin to change?

When the media, starting with the Boston Globe, began reporting on this story in 2002. Think about that next time you hear Donald Trump bloviating about all journalists being the "enemy of the people."

First, listen to the video of the Pennsylvania state attorney general’s R-rated press conference in Harrisburg that introduced this report. It’s atop this blog post.

We’ll start with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s reporting, the lead story of which was written by their courts reporter, Paula Reed Ward. (She posted on her Twitter feed early yesterday a photo of all the media lining up for the press conference at which the report was released).

The 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury identified more than 1,000 child victims from more than 300 abusive priests across 54 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties…

In a scathing introduction that provides excruciating detail of only a handful of instances of abuse, the introduction explains the grand jury's purpose, its findings and its ultimate recommendations.

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Exposed: A few questions about that breastfeeding mother given an apology by a Michigan church

Exposed: A few questions about that breastfeeding mother given an apology by a Michigan church

A woman got a pastor's apology for criticism she received after breastfeeding in an open area of a church building, reports the Livingston Daily — a Gannett newspaper in Michigan.

All in all, the paper offers a fair, well-rounded account of what happened on a Sunday in June.

I don't have many complaints about the coverage, which I came across via the Pew Research Center's daily religion headlines.

But I do have a few questions — one of them the same as I asked about a Virginia breastfeeding story last year. I'll elaborate in a moment.

First, though, let's review the basic facts out of Michigan:

A Brighton pastor has apologized to a woman who said she was shamed for breastfeeding inside a church while waiting for her other children to finish Sunday school.

Amy Marchant, 29, said she asked for a public apology after she was accused of immodesty and potentially inspiring “lustfulness” in men for nursing her child at The Naz Church in Brighton in mid-June.

“Of all the places, it is most hurtful when it comes from your own church, that you are going to cause guys to lust after you,” Marchant said Thursday.

Ben Walls, Sr., lead pastor, said the church supports and encourages breastfeeding, and the Father’s Day incident “had to do with breastfeeding, but didn’t.”

He said three different spaces are set aside for “those who want a private space” – a lounge outside of the restroom specifically created for nursing mothers a decade ago and two other rooms in a children’s area “designated for ladies who want privacy.”

“That is what we want to say – we have nothing against breastfeeding and we are in favor,” Walls said. “It’s very hard because we understand that she was very hurt and we apologize to her. We’re very sorry for the embarrassment and hurt caused when she was asked to cover or use one of those rooms. We apologize for her hurt and embarrassment; that wasn’t the intention.”

Keep reading, and a key issue seems to be that the mother had exposed both her breasts while feeding the baby in a public area. You can read the full story for all the specific details both from the perspective of the mother and that of the church.

My questions relate more to other important context: For one, the mother twice in the story calls the congregation — which she has since left — her "own church." Does that mean she is or was a member? How long had she attended the church?

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The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber flies solo: RNS offers readers a love song that avoids her critics

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber flies solo: RNS offers readers a love song that avoids her critics

It's easy to understand why the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber has always received so much attention from the mainstream news media.

Many journalists start with The Look, referring to her many tattoos, edgy hair and love of weight-lifting. Then there is the message -- a jolting mix of traditional religious language, lingering traces of her work in stand-up comedy, candor about her complicated personal life and a set of moral and political views that place her solidly on the religious left. And the aging world of old-line Protestantism is not full of pastors, male or female, who built growing urban congregations that appealed to the young.

The bottom line: Bolz-Weber is a media superstar.

So it was totally logical for Religion News Service to produce a long feature about her final service as pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America church that she started a decade ago in Denver. Here's a crucial passage:

Bolz-Weber said she had decided to step away only recently and still can’t entirely explain what made her feel like it was the right time. She reached a point, she said, where “the church still loves me, but I don’t think the church still needs me.” ...

But there were signs, too, that she had done all she could do at HFASS. “I didn’t come to this job with everything, but it felt like I was equipped with the ability to welcome thousands of people through the doors,” she said. “I was at a retreat recently where there were 30 people I didn’t recognize, and I just had this feeling like, ‘I can’t welcome any more people.’”

Bolz-Weber’s signature talent is welcoming people who think the church wouldn’t welcome them. The eight people who showed up in her living room for a Sunday evening service in 2008 were mostly LGBT people, those with religious baggage, addicts and others who don’t fit at many Sunday services but want to experience God’s grace.

After a decade, the church has roughly 500 members. That's a rather average-sized church in megachurch friendly Denver, but that is a very large church in the context of liberal Protestantism.

Needless to say, Bolz-Weber has critics as well as fans.

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Remember the Church Page? RNS story on churches aiding South Sudanese refugees will take you back

Remember the Church Page? RNS story on churches aiding South Sudanese refugees will take you back

The Republic of South Sudan is one of the world’s misery portals. Since its independence in 2011, (it's the globe’s youngest fully-minted nation) South Sudan has known little else but war, poverty, hunger and political infighting among its power elites.

The result of which is ongoing misery for the north-central African nation’s ordinary people. This BBC backgrounder tells the tale -- though, curiously, it fails to mention that South Sudan sought to secede from its northern neighbor, Sudan, in large part over religion. Sudan is staunchly Muslim while the people of what is now South Sudan largely practice traditional African tribal faiths, though Christianity is also a major force.

A newly brokered power-sharing agreement could change things for the better. However, those in the international media paying close attention to South Sudan note that we’ve been here before. Al Jazeera English reported that this is the 12th ceasefire and second power-sharing arrangement between the current civil war’s rival parties. So don’t start clapping just yet.

All I’ve said so far is meant as a prelude to dissecting this recent -- and troubling -- Religion News Service story about an upsurge in South Sudanese refugees in Uganda seeking “healing” in Christian churches.

Here’s the top of it. This is long, but essential:

BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda (RNS) -- Every morning when Achol Kuol wakes up, she borrows a Bible from her neighbor and reads a verse to comfort herself before she meets others in an open-air church rigged from timber. They sing, dance and speak in tongues during the service. Some who feel filled with the Holy Spirit scream and jump -- not with joy, but remorse.

Confessions flow as they recall the ones they killed in the civil war back home in South Sudan. They cry out, lamenting ordeals they endure at night. Others weep in prayer as they ask God for forgiveness.

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'The hardest story I've ever written': Journalist masterfully tells story of church gunman's wife

'The hardest story I've ever written': Journalist masterfully tells story of church gunman's wife

Want to read the best, most insightful coverage of the aftermath of last November's massacre at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas? 

Then you absolutely must follow the byline of San Antonio Express-News journalist Silvia Foster-Frau, who repeatedly has produced extraordinary journalism on this sad subject.

Just three past examples of her must-read reporting on Sutherland Springs:

• Her hopeful, sensitive, nuanced portrait of victims a month after the tragedy.

• Her poignant account of survivors attending National Day of Prayer events in Washington, D.C., in May.

• Her detail-laden profile, published in June, of the “good guy with a gun” who confronted the gunman outside the church. 

And now comes another masterpiece from Foster-Frau, this one from the front page of Sunday's Express-News and featuring her exclusive interviews with the troubled wife of the dead gunman.

How incredible was this latest story? Consider that at least two other major Texas papers — the Houston Chronicle (a sister publication of the Express-News) and the Dallas Morning News — both reprinted it on their front pages today.

The chilling opening scene recounts what happened at the home of Devin and Danielle Kelley on the morning of Nov. 5:

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