In one of her first encounters with violence linked to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Deann Alford heard, or felt, a bullet pass and slam into a door frame, with shrapnel striking a nearby woman and child.
The future journalist was both shocked and inspired by her contacts with Christians caught in that land’s toxic climate of paramilitary warfare, narcotrafficking and kidnappings. She struggled to grasp how someone like pilot Russell Martin Stendal, after years held for ransom, could forgive his kidnappers and then start a missionary effort to convert them.
“Without his months as their hostage, I’m convinced he never could have reached the FARC,” wrote Alford, in “Victorious: The Impossible Path to Peace,” her blunt memoir about religious freedom in Colombia.
Stendal, she added, “has forgiven all. But I have not. … In my quarter-century as a journalist, I’ve written dozens of articles about Colombian guerrilla groups’ crimes against Christians, ranging from extortion to murder. Many of these stories regard crimes of the FARC, typically threatening and abducting church workers, missionaries and pastors, extorting them with offers they could not refuse.”
Eventually, Alford realized that it wasn’t enough to cover Colombia with telephone calls, faxes and Internet connections. She would have to put “boots on the ground” and return. “But I didn’t. I was afraid. No, that word is too mild. I was terrified. I let the risk of being killed and kidnapped keep me away.”
Alford’s bottom line: “I told the Lord I would go anywhere for him but Colombia.”
But she returned and, over years of contacts, her fears mixed with frustration. After working in secular newsrooms, as well as Christian publications and wire services, she couldn’t understand why more people — journalists and religious leaders — could not see the importance of the faith stories unfolding, decade after decade, in Colombia.
This is another example of an important theme woven into my work with this “On Religion” column, with this week marking the start of my 35th year. Simply stated, many journalists do not “get” religion, in terms of grasping the role faith plays in many important events and trends stories.
But Alford was dealing with an even more complex equation. Yes, many editors fail to value religion-news coverage. But it’s also true that many Americans — including people in pews — do not value coverage of international news. Thus, it’s hard to imagine a tougher sell in today’s media marketplace than coverage of religion news on the other side of the world.
Alford faced what many would consider a worst-case scenario.
“Colombia has been a quagmire of corruption and violence for generations. It’s deeply ingrained in the culture,” said Alford, reached by telephone. “Large parts of Colombia have never known decent institutional authority.”
The horror stories were true, but so were the transformations in human lives that she considered amazing — if not miraculous. “The whole idea of anyone finding peace through Jesus Christ is a strange idea in Colombia. … There’s a spiritual reason for that, a kind of sickness of the soul with violence producing more violence.”
However, it’s hard to ignore the “faith component” of life and news in Colombia and Latin America, in general, she said. “Look at the centuries of Catholic history. Look at growth of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. How can religious faith NOT be on the radar of journalists trying to tell stories about Colombia?”
Colombia isn’t the only war zone in which journalists struggle to cover the complex role that religion plays in terrifying events that rarely create First World headlines.For example, the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law, based in Eastern Nigeria, recently released a report claiming that 52,250 Nigerians have been killed, during the past 14 years, because of their Christian faith. In the first 100 days of 2023, another 1,041 “defenseless Christians” were killed, and 707 kidnapped, according to this report.
Where is the secular or religious news coverage?These victims in places like Colombia and Nigeria are “not like us,” said Alford. “It’s easier to care about people who are like us. Journalists tend to cover news about people who are like us. … It can be a kind of Me-ism — out of sight, out of mind — and it affects what happens with journalism and in our churches. It’s tragic.”
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