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Weekend plug-in: April 17, 2020

Analysis, insights and top headlines from the world of faith this week.

In this April 19, 1995, file photo, the north side of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is shown in Oklahoma City after an explosion that killed 168 people and injured hundreds. (AP Photo/File)

Editor’s note: “Weekend Plug-in,” featuring analysis, insights and top headlines from the world of faith, is produced by Religion Unplugged.

OKLAHOMA CITY — At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, I had just stepped off The Oklahoman’s eighth-floor newsroom elevator when we heard the boom and saw the smoke in the distance.

In all, 168 people died in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City — the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

Twenty-five years ago, my Oklahoman colleagues and I found ourselves covering the biggest story of our lives, even as we joined our grieving community in shedding tears over an unfathomable tragedy.

I was blessed to tell many stories of victims and survivors. 

No single profile stuck with me, though, like the one about a blue-eyed, light-brown-haired baby named Danielle, who was killed in the second-floor America’s Kids Day Care. A quarter-century later, I caught up with Deniece Bell-Pitner, Danielle’s mother, whom I first interviewed in the bombing’s immediate aftermath.

In my story, published on the front page of The Oklahoman last Sunday, Bell-Pitner described how she progressed from anger at God to relying on him.

“I realized, ‘He’s the only way I’m going to get through this,’” she told me.

Another bombing-related angle: I wrote a retrospective piece for The Associated Press on an April 23, 1995 prayer service that began the healing process for Oklahoma and millions of TV viewers around the world.

I’ll add a link to that story once it’s published.

Power up: The week’s best reads

No hugs or handshakes: Pandemic complicates storm relief: You may — or may not — have heard that 100-plus tornadoes struck the South over two days this week, killing more than 30 people.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, for obvious reasons, eclipsed some ordinarily major news.

But I was pleased to see AP veteran Jay Reeves, based in Birmingham, Alabama, explore the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on disaster relief. Bottom line: Volunteers — many of them with faith-based groups — “are still trying to provide all the help they can, but from a distance.”

In Ohio, the Amish take on the coronavirus: Some stories are just a joy to read. This one by New York Times feature writer Elizabeth Williamson certainly qualifies. And the photos by Erin Schaff are equally impressive.

The basic storyline: “A famously traditional community has mobilized to help hospitals with medical supplies, even as it struggles with reconciling its communal way of life with the dictates of social distancing.”

For anyone curious about how a journalist goes about reporting a story such as this, the Times offers a behind-the-scenes account in which Williamson observes: “Reporting on the coronavirus has made me think more deeply than I have in years about the nature of risk. In this case, it’s physically microscopic yet as potentially dangerous as risks encountered in conflict zones.”

Searching for salvation during a pandemic: The Atlantic’s magnificent religion writer Emma Green is back on the beat after a three-month hiatus. That’s terrific news for religion news consumers.

In her first story since returning, Green talks to Jimmy Dorrell, pastor of the Church Under the Bridge in Waco, Texas.

“This is what church looks like during a pandemic: distanced, clouded by the threat of disease, but stubbornly persistent,” Green writes about Dorrell’s congregation.

Want a little more background on the Central Texas church? Check out my 2018 Religion News Service feature on “Fixer Upper” stars Chip and Joanna Gaines offering a temporary home to the congregation during Interstate 35 roadwork.

More top reads: The Trump campaign wants to win the votes of evangelicals of color, Julie Zauzmer and Michelle Boorstein, Washington Post … When the coronavirus came to Ebenezer Baptist, Joel Anderson, Slate … In ‘The Last Emperox,’ John Scalzi delivers a satisfying space opera with a soul, Bob Smietana, RNS … Priest contemplates his life, ministry after COVID-19 ordeal, Peter Smith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette … In days of contagion, last rites with less risk, Harriet Ryan and Sarah Parvini, Los Angeles Times … A new religion debate: Sending stimulus money directly to churches, Kelsey Dallas, Deseret News … Pastor steers flock and family through uncertainty of coronavirus, Errin Haines, Philadelphia Inquirer … There’s an app for that: Christian mindfulness, meditation apps find their moment, Emily McFarlan Miller, RNS … Prominent Southern Baptist opposed Trump in 2016 but will vote for him in 2020, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Washington PostSikhs turn to online Vaisakhi, Simrin Singh, RNS … How one tornado-damaged church is writing its own resurrection story amid the COVID-19 crisis, Holly Meyer, The Tennessean.

Inside the Godbeat: Behind the bylines

Back in February, I praised Slate writer Ruth Graham’s “The Bible that oozed oil” story.

Nieman Storyboard took notice, too, including Graham in its “Annotation Tuesday!” feature this week.

“It avoids the trap of easy cheap shots and roll-your-eyes dismissal of a ‘modern miracle,’” Nieman writer Trevor Pyle says of the article. “Rather, it is a complex weave of the intersection between politics and faith, and a non-cynical portrait of a community and some of the people in it.”


Charging station: In case you missed it

Here is where you can catch up on recent news and opinions from Religion Unplugged.

The Final Plug

Nearly two decades ago, I wrote a column in which I suggested, facetiously, that could be the official Christian website.

I’m not sure much has changed.

At Christianity Today this week, Ed Stetzer pointed to Christians spreading coronavirus conspiracy theories and noted, “Gullibility is not a spiritual gift.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

(Bobby Ross Jr. is a columnist for Religion Unplugged and editor in chief of The Christian Chronicle. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)