What special issues and concerns do religion writers keep in mind when writing about the religions of ethnic minorities?
By Kim Sue Lia Perkes
A quick review of the most recent U.S. Census shows how much the demographics of the United States have changed. Whereas white Americans were once the nation’s majority, the most recent figures indicate Hispanics will some day comprise a majority of the nation’s citizenry.
In the world of religion, faiths of all stripes are also growing among minority groups. While Roman Catholicism continues as the majority faith among Hispanics, Protestant Christianity is whittling away at a steady pace at Catholicism’s stronghold on Latinos.
The largest converts to Christianity are being gained on the African continent. Worldwide, Islam is one of the fasting growing religions. In the United States, there are Spanish-speaking mosques. In fact, the U.S. is seeing a surge of immigrant congregations of all types springing up in urban, suburban and rural areas. One of the largest Hindu temples in North America, for instance, is located is a rural area near Austin, Texas.
To understand ethnic minorities, particularly in terms of religion, you need a history lesson, according to the editor of an African-American newspaper in Dallas. As with other groups, many minority traditions may be rooted in historical experience.
For example, the length of the services in some African-American traditions-the spontaneous outpourings of praise, the singing, even the clapping-is rooted in history.
During slavery, gathering for church was the only time the people were free to be themselves: to shout, to clap and to sing.
Why have so many African-Americans converted to Islam? Before being exported for and exploited into slavery, many Africans belonged to Islam or tribal religions. Their ancestors were converted to Christianity in America. Many see Islam as a return to their heritage.
Or, why can’t you just take a photographer along to get those colorful shots of a sacred Native American ceremony? For some tribes, such as the Hopi, taking a photograph is stealing their soul. Others, who may not have staunch religious reasons for their opposition to being photographed, fear the pictures will be used for profit. Many a time, indigenous peoples have agreed to pictures or sittings for artists only to see those images end up on calendars or hanging in galleries where a white person once again uses the Indian for personal profit.
For many ethnic minorities, media people exploit the beauty of a minority tradition merely to sell a product, thereby demeaning that minority culture by making it appear weird next to the white experience.
As journalists, we know trust is established with sources through relationships. (I didn’t say friendships).
Finding the best stories, understanding the issues and learning about the cultures of ethnic minorities means spending time just hanging out in those communities. In Austin, I always tried to attend important holiday, religious and life-passage celebrations in our ethnic communities.
In Arizona, I played on a Hispanic softball team in which most of my teammates grew up in the barrios. One of the first lessons to learn about covering ethnic minorities is get over your personal intimidation and fears. Relax and be yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask legitimate questions. Don’t be afraid to admit you are attempting to cover an experience that is outside your cultural experience.
And remember this: While it’s true many ethnic groups are leery of the media (and with good reason), the reality is minorities are much more welcoming of us than we ever have been with them.