There is no substitute for visiting churches, mosques, synagogues or temples for worship and other gatherings. The sights, sounds, rituals, textures, mood and conversations will tell you more than any book ever can. Here’s some advice on getting started.
ON THE RECORD?
If a worship service is open to the public, you can consider what is said in it on the record. Sermons, in particular, can be quoted because they are public proclamations. Reporters should be careful about quoting prayers, however; people have filed lawsuits over their private problems being made public.
In most cases, reporters find their visits go more smoothly if they call in advance, and they consider it a professional courtesy to let the religious leader know a reporter will be present. There are, however, plenty of exceptions. If you have been tipped that the preacher is endorsing a politician against federal rules, you obviously don’t want to let him know you’ll be listening. Similarly, a meeting after a worship service may include discussion of a controversial issue, such as tearing down a historical building or splitting a congregation.
WHAT TO WEAR
If you’re unsure how to dress or act, call in advance and ask. Houses of worship welcome visitors and want to make them feel comfortable.You can also consult the book How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook, edited by Stuart M.Matlins and Arthur J. Magida (Skylight Paths Publishing), which details dress and customs for most traditions. Some houses of worship also post information for visitors on their Web sites.
The most important thing is to be respectful, which means being silent during prayer, standing when others do, removing your shoes if the tradition requires it, etc.
SHOULD YOU SING?
If you’re attending a worship service as a reporter, you are not expected to participate. Some reporters find it easier to sing during songs or close their eyes during prayer in order to blend in. If you’re visiting a place of your own tradition, you may feel comfortable singing and praying, but remember: If you’re on assignment, it’s your job to observe and report. And, if people see you participating, they may expect coverage that extols their faith rather than simply reports on it.
IF YOU’RE FEMALE …
Many traditions have particular customs or rules regarding what women wear and how they act. Some are easy for reporters to comply with, but others hamper your ability to report.
Many mosques require women to cover their heads, and most reporters don’t mind bringing a headscarf or donning one made available to them. Similarly, some traditions —Muslims and some Pentecostals, for example— expect women to dress modestly, so reporters intentionally wear clothes that cover their arms and legs.
When religious customs limit reporting, most veteran journalists handle restrictions with ingenuity and perseverance rather than confrontation. If women are not expected to approach men and initiate conversation, you might enlist a woman to ask her husband to explain your need to interview men. If men and women are segregated during worship, as they are in some mosques and synagogues, you might quietly try to reposition yourself so you can see the men’s section.
Some groups prohibit men from shaking hands with women. Wait until a hand is extended to you before attempting to shake someone’s hand.
PHOTOGRAPHY, VIDEO AND RECORDING
You must get permission in advance to photograph, film or record a worship service. Many religious leaders will set restrictions on whether flash can be used (often not) and where photographers or operators may stand. They may restrict what can be filmed or recorded.
Orthodox Jews frown on doing work on the Sabbath, and that includes taking notes. Reporters tell stories about running nto restrooms to scribble notes or hiding notebooks under their coats.
Some reporters toss a dollar or two into the collection plate as a courtesy; many don’t. Reporters who cover political candidates end up in churches a lot and tell great stories about their own “contributions” on the campaign trail.
Journalists sometimes become targets for conversion or are invited to join “altar calls,” where people confess their faith. Such invitations are best handled with aplomb. Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News has a standard reply when people ask if they can pray for his salvation: “I never turn down a prayer.” If people persist journalists should feel free to be firm about not engaging in conversation.