Griffiths: When the writing life meets the faith life - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Griffiths: When the writing life meets the faith life

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Posted: Friday, December 26, 2008 5:06 pm | Updated: 12:03 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

At Tempe's annual Interfaith Thanksgiving eve services, I was captivated by this line in a responsive public prayer: "Thank you, God, for the young, for their high hopes, for their irreverence toward worn-out values; their search for freedom; their solemn vows."

Read Lawn Griffiths' blog

If only worn-out values could give way to fresh, healthy, relevant principles for justice, love and the advancement of humankind on this planet.

Those words of that prayer sent my thoughts reeling back 40 years to the 1960s and my good fortune of having matured in that transformative decade of irreverence, political awakening and the questioning of authority. It was the decade of Vatican II, civil rights reform, counterculture and my being drafted into the U.S. Army from Peace Corps service in Paraguay.

But it was Sept. 4, 1963, that my first words showed up in a public newspaper. I was editor of the high school newspaper called Top Talk, and it was printed weekly in the largest paper in the area, reaching readers in Butler and Grundy counties in Iowa.

I would find writing dangerously easy for me, and I quickly realized ideas, a facile grasp of words and courage could take me into a career in journalism. My editorial the second week got the school superintendent and high school principal to jerk me out of third-hour trigonometry to scold me for criticizing the school board for making senior English only an elective in the curriculum. Seemed like a step backward to me.

Oh, how I came to realize the importance of questioning authority. I've been to the woodshed a few times over the years for my writings.

Twenty-four years into that career, I was managing editor of the Tempe Daily News Tribune when abruptly the staff was dismantled for a new model.

I found myself suddenly the religion editor for what also included the Mesa Tribune and Chandler Arizonan Tribune. After a period of feeling sorry for myself, I accepted what I had been dealt. I still was doing twice-weekly columns for the papers, and it was a hoot writing about plans for Pope John Paul II to come that September of 1987 to Phoenix and Tempe.

In 1990, then-publisher Sandy Schwartz urged me to start a weekly religion column, Common Ground. It proved to give me my best outlet for reflecting on the wide world of faith. In its heyday, the Tribune's religion section was chosen among the top 10 religion sections in four out of six years in the Religion Newswriters Association contests.

Oddly, in 1994, I balked at leaving the religion beat to become the daily Town Crier columnist when the job opened. I found writing about faith more provocative and enriching than writing happy, people-related items in a column on the front page of the local news section. But for 4 1/2 years, I wrote that Town Crier column, different versions each day for the various Tribune editions. With the sale of the Tribune and a new format ordered by Thomson owners, the column was continually moved around in the paper and finally and buried next to the obituaries.

In September 1998, I asked to have the column euthanized because its place in the paper was so obscure that it was no longer bringing me readers' tips or compelling material to use.

So I reverted to being religion editor. In short order, we changed the name of this section from Religion to Spiritual Life to reflect the fact that many regard themselves as spiritual, but find "religion" to be about doctrine, rules, orthodoxy and labels.

Across the landscape of American newspapers, religion coverage has always been endangered. Many papers' managers have regarded religion as a marginal area for assigning people and resources. After all, "faith" is a personal thing, they reasoned. It's amorphous, soft, and an infinite world of anything-goes beliefs.

Newspaper religion sections have been among the first to be eliminated in economic downturns. Or those who are assigned to write news about the faith community have been tasked with other beats or duties, as well. The Dallas Morning News, for example, developed a six-page religion section in 1994, which was chosen best faith section in 10 of 11 years in national competition, but the section was eliminated last year and writers reassigned. More than a decade ago, the Arizona Republic ended its two-page religion section. For most of my years here, the Tribune has had four broad-sheet pages of religion news and advertising.

Come Jan. 3, my tenure ends at the Tribune.

I join others here whose jobs have been eliminated because of the breathtaking changes sweeping through the newspaper trade because of the Internet, changing reading habits and advertising options. My departure comes almost two months short of 25 years with this company, in all its newspaper names and formats, going back to February 1984. The Tribune, when it rolls out anew on Jan. 7, plans to continue with spiritual life content that will be coordinated by advertising representative Chris Carlston.

Meanwhile, I have been invited to continue to write the Beyond Belief blog (blogs.evtrib.com/spiritual life), which I started in April 2006.

In the bowels of the Internet is a conservative's own blog titled "Time for Tribune to Cut the 'Lawn'." So he should be pleased that the "time" has come.

With pride and appreciation of the blessings in my life, I can declare that I end my 36 1/2-year daily newspaper career, going back to June 17, 1972, with just two sick days taken (Jan. 28-29, 1978). A colleague says that it's because I donate blood every eight weeks and profusely regenerate that new "liquid life." Others say it was the Iowa farm background and the animal bacteria that gave me powerful immunity. My late mother would say it was because I was born with a "caul" on my head, the blessing of the birth sack clinging to me like a veil of mystic protection. I say it was because of great genes and an abiding love for this craft of reporting and writing and the lessons from each new person I have met in newspapering. I am so indebted to thousands of people, clergy, some giants in theology, lay people, spiritual wanderers and even rigid ideologues for giving me their stories and framing their picture of God and the divine.

In a final column on Jan. 3, I will reflect more deeply on what has been my nearly 18 years of writing about the world of faith, especially what I see as the stumbling blocks that prevent some major religions from reaching the ideals of healthy faiths. They are especially patriarchal religions that cling to "worn-out values" to their detriment and the suffering of their own and others.

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CONTACT WRITER: lgriffiths@evtrib.com or (480) 898-6522.

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