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Reporting and worrying

God often replaces my anxieties with an abundance of helpful sources

Reporting and worrying

In Thousand Oaks, Calif., a group gathers to remember the victims of the Borderline Bar & Grill shooting. (Sophia Lee)

As a journalist, I’ve often had moments of anxiety when I felt like I would never be able to produce a story. That is, until I remember I serve a God who hears my prayers. 

Each time after I pray, God opens doors to sources that turn out to be what I call a “journalist’s jackpot.” That was the case while I was reporting on a story about the Borderline Bar & Grill shooting and wildfires in Southern California. 

The original story was meant to be only about the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, a sleepy suburbia 40 miles northwest of where I live in Los Angeles. Then less than 24 hours later, news about blooming wildfires in the same area began overshadowing news about the shooting. Ironically, all these events erupted while I was 400 miles north in the Silicon Valley, reporting on California’s housing crisis as thousands of homes crumbled into ashes. 

By the time I drove back down to Los Angeles Friday evening, the shooting seemed like old news. The county had closed major highways due to the burgeoning fires, making me wonder if I’d even make it home that day. I was also worried because I was already late on reporting on the shooting, which had happened Wednesday night. Already, college campuses and local churches had conducted their vigils and moments of silence, which would have been the best place for a reporter to meet and talk to people. The media had already hounded all the grieving loved ones and caught their fresh tears on camera. I wasn’t sure where to go or who to call, and I really didn’t want to bother the parents and spouses of victims for quotes after other media publications already had their go at them. 

Richard Vogel/AP

The remains of broken telephone poles line the Pacific Coast Highway, which remained closed in both directions on Nov. 10 after a wildfire swept through to the area outside of Malibu, Calif. (Richard Vogel/AP)

That Friday, I called my editor and told him I wasn’t too optimistic. The fires were getting worse, I told him, and they were affecting the very region where the shooting had happened. Not only would the fires physically prevent me from reporting on the scene, but if officials called for an evacuation, I wouldn’t even have people to talk to. What’s more, because of the fires, internet and phone service in certain regions was damaged. 

“Oh, you’ll get the story, no problem! It’ll be a great story,” my editor replied, displaying confidence that I sure wasn’t feeling. 

“Well, I’ll try my best,” I said, and hung up. 

I had a six-hour drive ahead of me to continue freaking out and plotting ways to produce the story. That’s when a voice in my head reminded me, “Hey, remember when you were reporting on men with HIV/AIDS, and you had no idea who would be willing to talk to you, but you prayed about it and somehow God made things happen? Remember when you spent two months in Southeast Asia, feeling like a fool on a wild-goose chase, and God directed you to meet all these wonderful people and stories? Remember all those other times when God provided just what you needed to make a story work? Why don’t you … I don’t know … pray?” 

So I did, and when I returned home to LA that night, I immediately went to work planning a contact list and blasting out emails. One contact I emailed was a campus ministry pastor at Pepperdine University, which had lost one of its students to the shooting and was now watching the Woolsey Fire devour the hills surrounding its campus in Malibu. That pastor was the only person who responded to my meet-up request, and I invited myself to his Sunday morning service on campus. 

Then early Sunday morning, the pastor sent me an email encouraging me to stay home—the Santa Ana winds were picking up and may blow for days, he wrote, and that meant the flames were spreading: “With the fires and all, you may not be able to get here—but more importantly, if you do, you might be stuck and unable to get home.” 

When I read that email, I was already heading toward Malibu with a big cup of coffee, so I decided to stick to my original plans. I reckoned that if I got stuck because of the fires, that itself could be a story. 

It was eerie driving up the Pacific Coast Highway: The air was thick with smoke and dust, the ocean waves were churning and crashing, and the streets were almost completely empty except for a few crazy individuals who thought it was a fine idea to go jogging in the smog. As I left Santa Monica to head toward Malibu, clusters of police cars blocked the highway. With my press pass, I was able to pass through one row of LAPD officers, but half a mile up the highway, the California Highway Patrol stopped me and turned me back. 

I pouted for a second, then shrugged: God closes one door, He’ll open another. I decided to head to Thousand Oaks to visit the Borderline Bar & Grill, where the shooting had happened. I didn’t know what to expect, but assumed I’d perhaps meet a few residents who might be able to tell me how the local community was processing its grief. Turns out, that trip was my “journalist’s jackpot.”

Sophia Lee

A memorial for the the victims of the Borderline Bar & Grill shooting in Thousand Oaks, Calif.. (Sophia Lee)

Since the direct highway to Thousand Oaks was shut down due to the fires, I had to drive a long detour that lengthened the travel time by at least 40 minutes. When I arrived at Borderline, a man from Chicago had just set up a dozen white wooden crosses as a memorial to the 12 victims. There at the memorial, I hugged the carpenter (who makes crosses for mass shooting victims across the nation), listened to survivors of other mass shootings, held hands and prayed with local church members, and met a pastor who a year ago had ministered to the Las Vegas shooting survivors. What I thought would be an uneventful trip turned out to be a full day of collecting heartfelt quotes and humanizing stories, and witnessing sincerely touching moments of grief, compassion, and community. 

Over the next few days, God kept opening doors for me to meet the right people—and I didn’t even get to meet a single person on my carefully planned contact list. Yet the result was the kind of story that makes me feel proud and thankful to be a journalist. It was a story that I hope reflects the bittersweet realities of human life: a human race capable of horrifying evil, yet also capable of profound goodness. A fallen earth of natural disasters, yet also of beauty and power. A world where people instinctively recognize common experiences of sorrow and comfort, love and loss. Where they recognize the sanctity and preciousness of each human life, cherished and missed by others who will one day also have to meet their Maker. 

If the best writing blesses and teaches and challenges the writer first, then I really should stop freaking out about my stories. But ... truth be told, I’m already worrying about my next story. God have mercy on my forgetfulness. 

Comments

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  • Janet B
    Posted: Tue, 12/18/2018 03:19 pm

    Sophia, your stories always come from the most remarkable point of view.  Trust God.  He knows what He is doing with you. You are a marvelous journalist!