Highly charged services

What are some helpful hints on covering highly charged religious services, especially ones that seem to defy rational explanation?

Sandi Dolbee has been a journalist since 1973, working as a reporter and editor in newspapers in Washington state and California. She was the religion & ethics editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune and now freelances. She serves on the RNA Board and the board of its foundation.

By Sandi Dolbee
The San Diego Union-Tribune*

You walk into the room and the first things you hear are the sounds. People mumbling and wailing, speaking in languages you simply don’t recognize. Others are falling down, with ushers discreetly covering them with blankets.

Welcome to an inside look at the Holy Spirit, or Holy Ghost. It’s the least understood part of the Trinity, though the New Testament speaks of it frequently. The second chapter of the Book of Acts is particularly descriptive in capturing the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (the rush of wind, speaking in tongues).

Is it just a Christian thing? No and yes. In Judaism, for example, prophets transmitted and received their messages through the Holy Spirit, but when the age of prophecy ended, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel (The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religions).

Fast forward to the 20th century and what we know as the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906, which launched modern Pentecostalism. The Los Angeles Times reported people were “breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand.”

Many of the modern-day Christian charismatic revivals take their lead from the Azusa Street Revival with some twists and turns. There was, for example, the Toronto Blessing, a movement that began in 1994 at the Toronto Airport Vineyard Fellowship and spread rapidly around the world. Also called holy laughter, worshipers in these gatherings break out in waves of “laughter, weeping, groaning, shaking, falling,” according to the fellowship’s own description.

Slain in the spirit? Essentially, the term means being physically overcome by this invisible force attributed to the Holy Spirit.

Speaking in tongues? Part of the Pentecost experience in which the spirit takes over speech.

How do you cover these events? By asking a lot of questions.

First: Do your homework. Have your library check with the news clip databases like LexisNexis, which provides stories from around the country. LexisNexis also can check for court cases, as can another nifty data service called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). Check with the ecumenical council or clergy association.

Second: When you get there, from the leaders to the people in the congregation, let them explain for themselves what it means to them. Have them describe what happened to them: what did they feel, see, hear, smell and so forth during the experiences?

Third: Look also for those who weren’t overcome. What did they see and feel? What do they think of what happened?

Fourth: When people say they are healed, find out who they are and all that you can about their ailment. Who is their doctor? What does this doctor say? Try also checking with the local medical association for comment.

Fifth: Follow the money. Are collections taken up during the services? If so, where does the money go? And how much is it? If the leaders tell you that they’re not a public institution, try responding this way: You are more important than a public institution. You are an institution of public trust.

Sixth: Have some handy resources standing by to help you understand the jargon. The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion and The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions are two basic texts. With end-times stuff, there’s the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University.

Don’t underestimate the power of Internet search engines, such as Google, or the data bank you have right there in the form of professors at your local universities.

Seventh: Remember the ‘r’ word. Not religion; respect. Yes, these behaviors may seem to defy rational explanation. And yes, there are cases of shams and scams. But for many people who attend these revivals and other such emotionally charged gatherings, they regard their feelings as legitimate and authentic. As journalists, part of our job is to capture and explain their stories as fairly and accurately as we can: coolly, neutrally and with respect.

*This article was written in 2001, at the time Sandi Dolbee was writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Dolbee is now a freelancer.