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Weekend Plug-in: May 8, 2020

Analysis, insights and top headlines from the world of faith is produced by Religion Unplugged.

The Pulitzer Prize. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

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

(RNS) — For the second year in a row, journalism’s most prestigious award committee has recognized the transcendent work of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette religion editor Peter Smith.

Smith and two colleagues — Stephanie Strasburg and Shelly Bradbury — were honored this week as Pulitzer Prize finalists for “an unprecedented investigation of child sexual abuse and cover-ups in the insular Amish and Mennonite communities.”

Just last year, Smith was a key part of the Post-Gazette team that received a Pulitzer for its “immersive, compassionate coverage of the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that captured the anguish and resilience of a community thrust into grief.”

Besides those stories, Smith led the newspaper’s coverage of a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report that detailed 70 years of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, noted Sally Stapleton, former Post-Gazette managing editor.

“He’s a calm, kind, consistent and transparent journalist who engenders trust among the most reticent,” said Stapleton, now the global religion editor for The Associated Press.

I asked Smith, who is president of the Religion News Association, for his takeaway on what the latest Pulitzer nod means for the Godbeat.

Here’s what he told me:

Religion journalism is vital, just as local journalism is vital, and both are central here. Our newspaper recognized the importance of this story and committed to investing our time and resources into understanding the problem in its unique cultural context, then reporting and telling the story through word and image.

I think that having a background in covering the Plain churches helped me as I got to know and understand the sources in our stories. More than one reader has expressed appreciation that we maintained a respect for the Plain culture even while addressing how aspects of the culture itself can be factors in the abuse. (For example, the Amish and Mennonites are widely admired for their magnanimous forgiveness, but that same virtue has been used to pressure a victim into reconciling with a predator, and to spare the latter from the legal consequences of criminal acts).

There can also be a multiplier effect when a news organization commits to religion journalism. A religion reporter can team up with other journalists on other beats, and they can build on each other’s expertise. Shelly and Stephanie — both remarkable journalists — had already been part of our team coverage of Tree of Life and the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation into the Catholic Church. When we started on this project, they immediately grasped its significance, and they immersed themselves in learning about the religion and culture of the Plain churches.

We all worked together on these stories, but you’ll see that their bylines are atop some of the most spiritually poignant narratives, such as Kay’s, Joanna’s and the Burkholders’. As we were bringing the project to completion, our editor commented that this is the kind of story we go into journalism to tell.

Look for more on Smith in the “Inside the Godbeat” section of this week’s column.

Power up: The week’s best reads

Nuns vs. the coronavirus

The Atlantic’s Emma Green is a master storyteller, as I’ve noted repeatedly.

This riveting piece on a Catholic nursing home — where one-fifth of residents have died from the coronavirus — is one of her best. It weaves together the personal and theological details in a remarkable way.

This is another superb yet super-sad account of a religious community being ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A pastor in the Bronx thought he knew hardship. Then his church saw 13 coronavirus deaths

Washington Post religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s lede is exceptional (one of the best of her award-winning career) and perfectly sets the scene.

Islamic and Hindu customs wipe out need for toilet paper

I was both fascinated by this story and felt I needed to wash my hands afterward. In all seriousness, I learned a lot from the report by Religion Unplugged’s Avinash Giri.

Speaking of stinky coverage that is actually excellent, this New York Times piece on Christian sewer cleaners in Pakistan is a must read. It explores how “descendants of lower-caste Hindus who converted to Christianity centuries ago still find themselves marginalized, relegated to dirty jobs and grim fates.”

More top reads: When COVID-19 tore through a black Baptist church community in West Virginia, nobody said a word about it, Joe Severino, Charleston Gazette-Mail … 15 funerals a day: Pace of death stuns a Muslim community, Todd Heisler, New York Times … Canceled mission trips expected to have long-term fallout, David Roach, Christianity Today … Late author’s voice lives on through those she championed, Emily McFarlan Miller, Religion News Service … German churches stopped singing to prevent virus’s spread. Should Americans clam up, too? Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Washington Post … Here’s why the U.S. Catholic Church is going broke and what it could mean, JD Flynn, Catholic News Agency … As pandemic persists, churches and insurance companies grapple with risk, Jack Jenkins, RNS … Trump pushes young Republicans away, but abortion pulls them back, Maggie Astor, New York Times … Greg Zanis, who honored shooting victims by building 26,000 crosses, dies, Yonat Shimron, RNS.

Charging station: In case you missed it

Recent news and opinions from Religion Unplugged.

The final plug

As The Tennessean describes it, “Becky Thompson writes about how she finds God while ‘filling sippy cups and wiping booties.’”

And apparently, a lot of people relate: Her simple prayers on Facebook each night have gained a million followers, reports Brad Schmitt.

Tired of all the coronavirus headlines? This warm-fuzzy profile offers a little something different. Enjoy.

(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.)