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He had faith in his job

COLUMN ONE

A reporter's work covering church sex scandals, religious tycoons and healers tests his beliefs -- and triggers a revelation.

July 21, 2007|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

WHEN Times editors assigned me to the religion beat, I believed God had answered my prayers.

As a serious Christian, I had cringed at some of the coverage in the mainstream media. Faith frequently was treated like a circus, even a freak show.

I wanted to report objectively and respectfully about how belief shapes people's lives. Along the way, I believed, my own faith would grow deeper and sturdier.

But during the eight years I covered religion, something very different happened.

In 1989, a friend took me to Mariners Church, then in Newport Beach, after saying: "You need God. That's what's missing in your life." At the time, I was 28 and my first son was less than a year old. I had managed to nearly ruin my marriage (the second one) and didn't think I'd do much better as a father. I was profoundly lost.

The mega-church's pastor, Kenton Beshore, had a knack for making Scripture accessible and relevant. For someone who hadn't studied the Bible much, these talks fed a hunger in my soul. The secrets to living well had been there all along -- in "Life's Instruction Manual," as some Christians nicknamed the Bible.

Some friends in a Bible study class encouraged me to attend a men's religious weekend in the San Bernardino Mountains. The three-day retreats are designed to grind down your defenses and leave you emotionally raw -- an easier state in which to connect with God. After 36 hours of prayer, singing, Bible study, intimate sharing and little sleep, I felt filled with the Holy Spirit.

At the climactic service Sunday, Mike Barris, a pastor-to-be, delivered an old-fashioned altar call. He said we needed to let Jesus into our hearts.

With my eyes closed in prayer, I saw my heart slowly opening in two and then being infused with a warm, glowing light. A tingle spread across my chest. This, I thought, was what it was to be born again.

The pastor asked those who wanted to accept Jesus to raise their hands. My hand pretty much levitated on its own. My new friends in Christ, many of whom I had first met Friday, gave me hugs and slaps on the back.

I began praying each morning and night. During those quiet times, I mostly listened for God's voice. And I thought I sensed a plan he had for me: To write about religion for The Times and bring light into the newsroom, if only by my stories and example.

My desire to be a religion reporter grew as I read stories about faith in the mainstream media. Spiritual people often appeared as nuts or simpletons.

In one of the most famous examples, the Washington Post ran a news story in 1993 that referred to evangelical Christians as "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command."

Another maddening trend was that homosexuality and abortion debates dominated media coverage, as if those where the only topics that mattered to Christians.

I didn't just pray for a religion writing job; I lobbied hard. In one meeting with editors, my pitch went something like this:

"What if I told you that you have an institution in Orange County that draws more than 15,000 people a weekend and that you haven't written much about?"

They said they couldn't imagine such a thing.

"Saddleback Church in Lake Forest draws that type of crowd."

It took several years and numerous memos and e-mails, but editors finally agreed in 1998 to let me write "Getting Religion," a weekly column about faith in Orange County.

I felt like all the tumblers of my life had clicked. I had a strong marriage, great kids and a new column. I attributed it all to God's grace.

First as a columnist and then as a reporter, I never had a shortage of topics. I wrote about an elderly church organist who became a spiritual mentor to the man who tried to rape, rob and kill her. About the Orthodox Jewish mother who developed a line of modest clothing for Barbie dolls. About the hardy group of Mormons who rode covered wagons 800 miles from Salt Lake City to San Bernardino, replicating their ancestors' journey to Southern California.

Meanwhile, Roman Catholicism, with its low-key evangelism and deep ritual, increasingly appealed to me. I loved its long history and loving embrace of liberals and conservatives, immigrants and the established, the rich and poor.

My wife was raised in the Catholic Church and had wanted me to join for years. I signed up for yearlong conversion classes at a Newport Beach parish that would end with an Easter eve ceremony ushering newcomers into the church.

By then I had been on the religion beat for three years. I couldn't wait to get to work each day or, on Sunday, to church.

IN 2001, about six months before the Catholic clergy sex scandal broke nationwide, the dioceses of Orange and Los Angeles paid a record $5.2 million to a law student who said he had been molested, as a student at Santa Margarita High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, by his principal, Msgr. Michael Harris.

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