Agony and ecstasy—12 months of turmoil, disaster, death, rescue, victory, and celebration
I once met a man who worked as our nation’s homelessness czar. His name is Phil Mangano and he’s quite the character, with his dark sweeping eyebrows, piercing eyes, and passionate speech. We sat for three hours at a café over milky coffee and chocolate chip cookies discussing homelessness—the challenges, the tragedies, and possible solutions.
After the meeting, Mangano told me he’s rarely seen in a reporter the kind of frustration he saw in me over the homelessness issue, and he seemed to see that as a decent quality. “I can assure you that I experience the same vexation at times,” he said. But after three decades of work on the issue—which isn’t improving but getting worse—Mangano is just as evangelistic as ever in his call to “solve homelessness.” Vexed he may be, but he somehow still believes that good heart and good sense will ultimately triumph over callous hearts and foolish sense.
I admired his tenacious optimism. During our conversation, Mangano mentioned he had recently watched the 2017 movie Wonder Woman and fallen in love with the sweet, righteous innocence of Gal Gadot’s character: “She sees a wrong, and she immediately goes forth to fix that wrong. There’s beauty to that innocence.” It’s the same sort of innocence I saw in Mangano: the belief that a wrong can be righted, that this world can be just and good.
I thought of Mangano’s comment about innocence last week as I spoke at a panel for a Center for Faith and Work Los Angeles conference, in which the moderator asked me to describe a significant challenge in my job as a Christian journalist. My answer: It’s the struggle not to become jaded and cynical when I’m on the front lines reporting on all the injustice and sin and suffering in this world.
Confession: If I weren’t a journalist, I probably would have jettisoned news articles for novels, where whatever tragedies the characters face, I can lean on the comfort that none of it is real. But as a journalist, my job is to wade into the pool of humanity, to swim with the creatures down below, to collect the cries and moans and screams, then surface onto a dry corner so I can shake off my emotions and personal thoughts, and somehow scratch out a factual report on what I’ve seen and heard.
You don’t have to be a journalist to know that this world isn’t right. Visit the New York Times’ website, and in one page you see headlines about the latest mass shooting, about threats from a belligerent Russia and a Machiavellian China, about clashes between Israel and Gaza, about President Donald Trump’s latest faux pas, about the impending environmental disaster. Even the less political sections are full of doom and gloom about “modern love” stories of Tinder dating and third divorces, Hollywood’s latest self-kissing shenanigans, and the dangers of diet soda (this one is particularly hard for me to swallow). Where is Wonder Woman when we need her?
Last month, I spent about a week in Seattle reporting on two topics: homelessness and domestic abuse. During the day I hung out with homeless individuals who told me stories of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse in their past, and at night I researched domestic abuse and read testimonies from abuse victims. Day and night, my head was immersed in thoughts of abuse and homelessness, issues I know will never disappear until the Second Coming of Christ, because oppression and poverty are familiar human companions as old as Genesis 3.
We are all victims of abuse, and we are all abusers. I see that certain wounds to the soul, no matter how much a person reads the Bible and prays, never completely heal. There’s always a scar left, a thinning of the skin that breaks more easily when scraped. I see too the deep poverty of mind, body, and spirit in both the 50-year-old man snorting crack on the streets with pus-oozing feet, and the 30-year-old finance guy who lives in a high-end condo with his $20,000 watch and $105,000 BMW M4 (both true stories).
Yes, abuse and poverty will always be with us. The stories I write are not new but recycled—different names, different faces, yet same time-old stories, and at times I feel like every article is similar in its revelations: “This world is broken. Its people are broken.”
In the pool of humanity, unless I anchor into something solid and secure, I am no longer an intrepid reporter wading for truth. Instead I’m defeated, lying flat on my back as I crash to and fro, letting my own waves of sin and brokenness wash into my nostrils. Perhaps it’s my natural bent toward melancholy, but I let that happen to me more often than I’d like to admit.
So the biggest challenge in being a Christian journalist? It’s the struggle to hold on to innocence—the innocence of putting full trust in God’s sovereignty, that what He says about His character and purpose is true. The innocence of believing that we are more evil than we think, yet God’s grace is greater and more powerful than our finite minds can comprehend.
We journalists can be proud and self-righteous, imagining ourselves to be crusaders for the voiceless. So it’s humbling to remind myself that without God, without that conscious, disciplined, continuous abidance in Him, I can lose my mission as a journalist in an instant. After all, God is the master storyteller of this world, and His story is not yet complete.