RNS 2019 in Review: A year full of grief, scandals, fire and the perseverance of faith

2019 was a year full of losses, scandals and tragedies, from the deaths of author Rachel Held Evans and pastor Jarrid Wilson to the attacks on houses of worship from New Zealand to California and continued revelations of abuse in religious institutions. And yet faith persists in the midst of a changing religious landscape.

Flames and smoke rise from the blaze at Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019. An inferno that raged through the cathedral for more than 12 hours destroyed its spire and its roof but spared its twin medieval bell towers, and a frantic rescue effort saved the monument's

(RNS) — On his last day, the Rev. Jarrid Wilson officiated at the funeral of a woman who had taken her own life. 

He posted some tweets about mental illness for suicide prevention month, reminding his followers that while Jesus does not always cure mental illness or suicidal thoughts, Jesus would always offer them “companionship and comfort.”

Wilson followed up by asking people to pray for the victims of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas.

Then he was gone.

The death by suicide of Wilson, a 30-year-old pastor, mental health advocate and father of two young children, made headlines around the country and sparked a conversation about mental health in faith communities. His passing struck a chord even with people who had never heard of him.

A report about his death was the most-read story this year at ReligionNews.com by far. His death — and the loss earlier in the year of author and activist Rachel Held Evans — served as a reminder of the power of one person’s story.

In a year full of major religion news — the fire at Notre Dame, abuse scandals among Catholics and Southern Baptists, continued struggles over the role of LGBT believers among religious groups, attacks on houses of worship and the continued loss of faith in organized religion — the stories of Wilson and Evans still resonated.

Rachel Held Evans. Courtesy photo

Evans, who died at 37 after a brief illness, had written about mortality not long before she took ill.

“Death is a part of life,” Evans wrote at the start of Lent, the solemn time of penance and fasting many Christians observe leading up to Easter. “My prayer for you this season is that you make time to celebrate that reality, and to grieve that reality, and that you will know you are not alone. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

The stories of the nation’s first two Muslim congresswomen — Democratic U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — also made headlines this year. Both burst on the scene upon taking office in January, challenging the bipartisan consensus on U.S. aid to Israel and becoming foils on social media for President Donald Trump as members of “the squad.”

Omar and Tlaib were named Religion Newsmakers of the Year by the Religion News Association in its annual survey of religion journalists.

Other newsmakers included:

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris fire brigade, also received votes.

RELATED: ‘Who will be our Rachel now?’ Progressives reflect on movement without Held Evans

Religion journalists named an investigation into abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention as the religion story of the year. The investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio News-Express found more than 700 victims of abuse over a period of 20 years by using a combination of court records and shoe-leather reporting. Journalists built a database of more than 200 abusers, many of whom had been convicted of abuse and some of whom had continued to work in ministry even after their convictions.

The “Abuse of Faith” report led Southern Baptist leaders to own their failure to address abuse and to vow to do better.

“We lament the fact that it took a national movement of reckoning for abuse to force us to take this issue seriously in our own convention,” the SBC said in a response to the investigation published before its annual meeting.

 Attacks on houses of worship also topped the list of religion news stories.

In mid-March, a gunman entered two New Zealand mosques during Friday prayers, killing more than 50 people and injuring dozens more. The gunman livestreamed the attacks. The man accused in the shooting, who reportedly wrote an anti-immigrant manifesto before the attack, has pleaded not guilty to murder charges.

Muslims pray during Friday prayers at Hagley Park in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 22, 2019. People across New Zealand observed the Muslim call to prayer as the nation reflected on the 50 people who were slaughtered at two mosques on March 15. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

More than 250 people were killed during Easter Sunday terrorist attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. The group behind the attacks claimed loyalty to the so-called Islamic State.

Synagogues in Southern California and Germany were the sites of anti-Semitic attacks, as was a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey. The attacks were part of a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and abroad.

In mid-April, people from around the world watched in horror as a fire broke out at Notre-Dame de Paris. The fall of the medieval cathedral’s steeple was broadcast live, and the massive fire threatened to destroy Notre Dame, beloved both as a Catholic house of worship and a tourist attraction. The cathedral’s construction and heroic efforts of firefighters saved the building. Fournier, the fire brigade chaplain, gained worldwide acclaim for rescuing sacred relics from the flames.

RELATED: History lends plenty of hope for the resurrection of Notre Dame

Among other major stories in 2019 were:

  • Continued fallout from the Catholic abuse scandal, including the defrocking of powerful former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the resignation of Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone and a report claiming abuse and financial misconduct involving former Wheeling-Charleston Bishop Michael Bransfield. Catholic dioceses and other religious organizations face lawsuits after several states changed the statute of limitations on abuse cases.
  • Religious tensions in India prompted by the Modi government’s Hindu nationalism, including a crackdown in majority-Muslim Kashmir and a Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hindus who want to build a temple on the site of a razed mosque.
  • China was named a “country of particular concern” by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for its continued crackdown on faith groups, including the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in December by a vote of 407-1 calling for sanctions on China because of its treatment of Uighurs.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints revoked a controversial decision that banned the baptism of the children of gay parents. The church will also no longer call members who are in same-sex marriages apostates. And, in a late-breaking story, LDS leaders are accused of hoarding tithing funds rather than using them for charitable religious work.
  • In a stunning courtroom scene, Brandt Jean forgave former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger after she was convicted of murdering his brother, Botham Jean, a beloved Church of Christ song leader and church member. His act led to a heated debate over race and forgiveness.
  • Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, was killed by U.S. commandos.  
  • James MacDonald, megachurch pastor and host of the “Walk in the Word” radio program, was fired from Harvest Bible Chapel for misconduct. An outside investigation revealed years of financial mismanagement at the Chicago megachurch.
  • A Louisiana man was charged with federal hate crimes after destroying three historically black churches by arson.
  • Shambhala International, one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the West, faces financial struggles and cutbacks after a sexual harassment scandal.
  • In the week before Christmas, Christianity Today’s editor-in-chief, Mark Galli, wrote an editorial advocating for Trump’s removal from office. Traffic to the editorial crashed the magazine’s website. Responses from both sides flooded the news cycle. While Trump’s most ardent evangelical supporters came to his defense, the editorial was met with praise from many and caused #ChristiansAgainstTrump to trend on Twitter.

In an essay that reflected the persistence of faith amid America’s changing religious landscape, former Tennessean religion editor and RNA member Heidi Hall told the story of her own journey of faith, which was published after her death from cancer at 49.

Born into an insular religious community, Hall found herself at odds with her family and her faith in her early 20s and was eventually shunned by both. In the essay, which was among the most-read RNS pieces of the year, Hall wrote about how her family believed she would die alone after leaving the faith.

Instead, she persevered and found a community of her own, one that surrounded her in death and cared for her in her final days.

“Those 25 people taking care of me? Two atheists, a Muslim, a Jew, gay people both churched and not, and traditional church folks like me. None of them would have been accepted by the faith I left behind — where salvation was only for a chosen few,” she wrote. “ … In my search, I left behind conditional, behavior-based love and traded it for the unconditional grace shown by a true family, whose bonds have nothing to do with DNA.

“And I’m dying grateful for that.”

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