Why Faith Matters
Something was missing.
It wasn't my notebook. It lay on the car seat next to me as I drove back to the city desk.
It wasn't the information I had gathered during a luncheon interview with a Korean businessman who was revamping a mini-mall filled with Korean merchants.
It wasn't the answers to the additional questions I had asked during the subsequent tour of the retail operation he provided. He had spoken freely about how he hoped to change the image his Korean retailers had among the African-American community; he wanted to improve relationships between the two groups.
What was missing was a sense that I had the full story.
He had said all the right things. He had been in Los Angeles during the riots in the early 1990s. He knew something needed to be done in the city he now lived in. He wanted to provide a bridge of understanding.
It all fit together so well. In fact, that's what bothered me. His answers sounded too pat.
So instead of writing my story that afternoon, I decided to go back the next day and talk to him again. I asked more questions. I probed more deeply. His responses sounded similar to the ones he had given me previously.
I prodded some more. I asked him if there were any core values he held that made him feel he was the person who had to take this step.
"I want you to know that I've been telling you the truth," he replied. "But there is one more thing I haven't told you."
He went on to explain how he had been very successful in another line of business some years ago. Then he had suffered financial setbacks. What sustained him during that devastating time was his Christian faith. He became determined not simply to believe what his faith taught him, but to live out what he believed. Eventually, his financial situation improved. But he did not forget his promise to be faithful.
But one particular passage in the Bible bothered him. It had been gnawing at him since the Los Angeles riots. It is where the apostle Paul writes to the Galatians there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; that we're one in Christ Jesus.
What he realized, he said, was that he actually did believe African Americans were inferior to Koreans. And that he didn't believe he and African Americans were truly "one."
When the opportunity to buy this mini-mall came up, he decided that it would enable him to address the demons of discrimination he harbored. If he owned the mall, and had his own store there, he would have to deal directly with African Americans and his prejudices.
And then he said those words that every journalist hates to hear: "Don't print that."
Why not? I asked.
He said that if I put that in the newspaper, people might read the word "Christian" and apply their own label and prejudices to it. And if he failed, they would say Christians don't mean what they say, they don't live out what they believe, they're just hypocrites, using the word "Christian" when it suits them.
I told him I needed to tell a story that was not just accurate, but authentic. It needed to be as complete and true as I knew it to be. I added that I knew scripture as well. And I mentioned the passage that said that you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
He liked the scripture. He wasn't sure he wanted to be set free just yet.
He still didn't like the fact that I wanted to include his faith as part of the story. He called me twice at the office in an effort to convince me not to use it. I tried to reassure him I would use it in context.
When the story appeared, I didn't include his faith in the lead. In fact, it didn't appear until the middle of the jump page. The reason? A variety of elements played a role in the image the mini-mall had and the steps involved in his attempts to change it.
His faith represented just one of them. But it reflected a pivotal one. And it needed to be understood in the context of the whole story.
This reporting experience provided several lessons:
It reminded me not only of the importance of paying attention to what I was hearing, but also to what I wasn't hearing.
It reaffirmed my inclination to take more time to seek out the truth.
It warned me about how easy it would be for me to tell an accurate story, but not an authentic one.
It also indicated that matters of faith manifest themselves in all kinds of places, among all kinds of people. And to ignore that meant that I could still tell the story, just not the whole story.