By Nick Carey (Reuters, September 24, 2008)
If there is one thing you can usually count upon while working as a journalist in the United States – and in particular if you happen to be British like myself – is that Americans are not only unafraid of talking to the media, many do so without hesitation. It is an endearing characteristic of the American people, a wonderful sign that they are not afraid to stand up and be heard.
But in the six months that I spent working on my feature “For many Christians, it’s God before mortgage” that ran on Sept 21, I ran into a wall of silence for the first time since coming to work in the United States three years ago.
It all began back in February, while working on a series of feature stories that I compiled on the U.S. housing crisis. In interviews with non-profit counsellors in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Atlanta and then Memphis, the subject of tithing and how some struggling home owners would rather lose their homes than cease their payments to the church kept coming up.
At first in Chicago, I confess that I all but ignored the topic. I was focused on trying to get a handle on the scale of the housing meltdown and its implications – the fallout of which has been all too evident on Wall Street in recent weeks. Interesting, I thought to myself, how someone’s obligation to God and the church would take precedence over their earthly home, and filed away the comments for later use.
But as February turned to March and April and interviews in Atlanta, Memphis, then St Louis, Dallas brought up the same topic again and again, I knew I had found a fascinating story. Getting counsellors, religious leaders, academics and researchers to comment on the story was no problem – but the difficult part was finding a home owner to talk about it.
Non-profit groups that have spoken to hundreds of thousands of stricken home owners around the country while trying to deal with the biggest housing slowdown since the Great Depression agreed to put me in touch with tithing home owners who had chosen to lose their homes rather than break off their commitment to God.
Again and again over the course of four months, I received an email from a counsellor from Atlanta or Memphis, upstate New York or southern California telling me that they had found a home owner I could talk to for my story. But more often than not, those home owners changed their minds when they answered the phone, or when I turned up on their doorstep to talk. “It’s too personal,” was the almost inevitable explanation.
Those who would talk did so warily and always – to my dismay – having stated quite clearly that anything they had to say was off-the-record and that under no circumstances did they want their names to appear in the press.
Finally, in August, I tracked down a woman in St Louis who said she would talk to me for my story and agreed to do so on-the-record. But as she was recovering from surgery, she asked me to call her in a week to talk. On the verge of what I saw as a key step – providing a real person as an illustration for my story – I readily agreed.
But when I called back a week later, she had changed her mind. “I don’t want people thinking I’m crazy,” she said. We talked at great length about her faith, her commitment to God and that after 30 years of tithing to the church she would rather face foreclosure than break that contract with her God.
She told me in detail about the good works of her church, why tithing mattered so much to her. She relished the chance to talk but after an hour on the phone it was clear there was nothing I could do to persuade her to let me use her name.
At this point I had reached a dead-end. After six months, I knew I was unlikely to find a home owner to talk on-the-record. Academics and religious researchers told me this came as no surprise because tithing is such a deeply personal and private issue and said I should give up on trying to find anyone to talk. So this left me and my bureau chief in Chicago, Peter Bohan, facing a dilemma.
What we had was a story that shed some light on how much faith matters to some Americans, to the extent where it is more important than their homes. But we had no one to link that story to. After much deliberation, we decided that the story was simply too interesting to let it go and we decided it had to go to print.
That said, I am still searching for a passionate, tithing American Christian who has lost their home rather than give up making payments to the church and is willing to talk to me about it. Next time, I’d like to use someone’s name.
Anyone out there ready to talk?