Servant Journalism (Mizell Stewart)

The Samuel E. Cornish Memorial Lecture

Conference for Minority Christian Journalists

Tampa, Florida on August 6, 2009

SERVANT JOURNALISM

by Mizell Stewart III
 
I don’t know what it is, but it seems the Lord is trying to tell me something. The last time I was on my way to catch a plane to share a few words at a World Journalism Institute conference, a 4.5-magnitude earthquake shook Evansville as I prepared to go to the airport. More on that later, but I’m convinced that God is trying to tell us something.
 
Yesterday, I was involved in a three-car crash as I drove to the airport. I’m pleased to tell you that no one was injured and everybody involved had insurance. Praise the Lord.
 
Still, God is trying to tell us something. 
 
He places these little reminders before us that we need to continue pushing. Pressing toward the mark that is the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. No matter what obstacles are thrown in our path, we must continue to utilize our gifts and talents for the building of his kingdom and service to our communities.
 
With all that said, good afternoon. I’m so happy to have the privilege of speaking to you today – particularly at this very challenging time for our profession, our news organizations and for many of us personally.
 
As an industry, journalism is at a turning point, especially when we consider the backdrop of layoffs, furloughs and pay reductions that have affected many of us working at newspapers, television stations and web sites.  Moreover, all of us are responding to changes in the way we deliver information to people who are hungry for the news they need to live their lives and to be effective citizens.
 
It is a special privilege to be here today because being in fellowship with other believers in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ helps keep everything that is going on in the business of journalism in perspective; and on Sunday morning, when one of the mothers of the church tells you that God won’t put more on you than you can bear, believe it.
 
Put another way, the will of God will not take you where the grace of God will not protect you.  I certainly learned that by the side of the road yesterday – and I hope you rest on that knowledge each and every day.
 
Before I get started, I’d like to thank Robert Case, Kimberly Collins and everyone who supports the work of the World Journalism Institute for providing this opportunity to share a word with you today.
 
*
 
One of the true blessings of my life is to have the opportunity to share thoughts and ideas on the state of our world to people in the community I call home. I’m quite fond of saying that there is no such thing as an unbiased journalist. We are all products of our upbringing, our backgrounds and our experiences. It is one reason why diversity is so important to our newsrooms and why organizations such as the National Association of Black Journalists and the World Journalism Institute are necessary. Racial and gender diversity, class diversity and diversity of thought are all necessary if we are to accurately report on and reflect the issues and concerns of the communities we serve. As for me, if anyone in our town wants to know about my own biases, just pick up the Sunday paper.
 
One of my weekly columns this spring reflected on the “tea parties” going on around our country – demonstrations orchestrated by people upset about what they perceive as the increasing role of government in our lives.
 
Listening to speaker after speaker talk about taxes, faith, the stimulus plan and the Wall Street bailout, I was amazed at the bundle of contradictions that makes up the America we call home. Now, I made the point in the column that many of us talk about America as a nation founded on Christian principles – and we can get a little bit indignant (some would say intolerant) when someone suggests otherwise.
 
So with that in mind, I posed a question to the readers of the Evansville newspaper and web site: If every American actually gave a tithe – 10 percent of their gross income – for the support of the church and the relief of the poor, wouldn’t government be smaller?
 
I’m afraid that to actually do so would take a spirit of service and humility that seems to be in short supply these days according to The Barna Group, which conducted a national survey showing that only 6 percent of Americans tithe 10 percent to their church. But I have faith.
 
A few weeks later, I expanded on that concept in a speech for supporters of the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. It was a simple suggestion: If we all gave 10 percent of our time, 10 percent of our talent and 10 percent of our treasure to benefit of the church and relieve the burdens of the poor, our neighborhoods, our cities, our states, our nation and our world would be very different from the way they are now. 
 
As an aside, today I’m sharing this concept with all of you. Can you tell I don’t want to let it go?
 
Through the grace of God, those words at the Habitat breakfast were well received – I was preaching to the choir after all -- but I’m always amazed about how surprised people are that a member of the evil monster folks these days call the mainstream media is actually capable of quoting Scripture. Not only that, this journalist is actually in front of a crowd of people extolling the virtues of stewardship in a victorious Christian life.
 
More than one person walked up to me after that speech and suggested that perhaps I missed my calling.
 
On the contrary, I said. God has called me to be a journalist. And He has called me to serve. I believe that journalism is as strong a calling as the ministry; the community is my mission field and the practice of journalism is the way that I serve the Lord.
 
*
 
In my news organization, that spirit of service is exemplified by journalists such as Kate Braser. Kate was moved to tell the story of a three-year-old Evansville boy who died violently at the hands of his parents. It was domestic violence fueled by methamphetamine, a powerful drug that has a hold on people in many communities across the country. As a newspaper, we felt this was an important story that needed to be told in extensive detail. For five consecutive Sundays, Kate and her writing partner, Elizabeth Keeling, detailed how everyone – at all levels – failed this child, from his parents to the legal system to child welfare agencies in two different states. For her part, Kate was so consumed by the desire to tell the little boy’s story that she saw the project through to completion even though she left the newspaper halfway through to be closer to her family.
 
That service is also exemplified by people such as Ryan Reynolds. Remember that 4.5-magnitude earthquake I mentioned that hit Evansville last year. One reason I was still able to make my flight was because of journalists such as Ryan. The quake struck early in the morning – about 4:35 a.m. – and literally rattled just about everyone in the region out of bed. Ryan is a journalist. He checked on his wife, checked on his children and made sure his home was secure. He then turned on his computer and then began updating our Web site with all the latest information.
 
Putting the interests of others before our own. That’s servant journalism.
 
I am confident that many of you can share similar stories … similar instances where you and your colleagues have chosen to put the greater good before yourselves in service to others. Many would argue that that’s just what journalists do. The reason that is so is because the institution of journalism traces its roots to Puritan religious traditions.
 
Of course, that’s not to say that any of us are perfect. (You know what they say about sinners saved by grace.) Moreover, it is at times very, very difficult to square the mission of serving the community against the backdrop of cutbacks, buyouts and layoffs that come with life in a typical newsroom.
 
We have had to say goodbye to talented journalists and valued colleagues because the financial foundation local journalism has rested upon for so many decades is under tremendous pressure.
 
But the sobering reality is that at the end of the day, news organizations such as mine cannot serve the community if we are not here.
 
But whenever we are tempted to believe that we continue to exist under our own strength, it helps to recall the behavior of Jesus before the Feast of the Passover. 
 
In John Chapter 13, we find these words:
 
1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.
3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. 5 After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. 6 Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, “Lord, are You washing my feet?”
7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.”
8 Peter said to Him, “You shall never wash my feet!”
Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.”
9 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!”
 
Now, by tradition, the washing of the feet was a task performed by the lowliest servant in the household; think about how powerful a message that was for Jesus to assume that role.
 
For his part, Simon Peter is incredulous, basically saying, You aren’t going to wash MY feet!
 
Jesus stopped him cold: If you don’t let me do this, you’ll have no part with me.
 
At that point, let’s just say that Peter found religion: Have it your way, Lord. Wash my feet, my hands and my head while you’re at it!
 
12 So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. 16 Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
 
In the book of Matthew, Jesus says “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant – and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20 – 26-28)
 
Jesus gave his life for us. Servant journalism is about giving of our special gifts and talents in service to others. 
 
Now, I know what you’re thinking. It’s a great phrase – but what does it mean?
 
*
 
First and foremost, servant journalism is about people.
 
Now, I’ve got a confession to make. Anyone who has ever worked closely with me will tell you that I cannot stand stories and pictures about poor, defenseless pets.  Now, don’t look at me as a hater -- we have pets in our home. There is no question that animal abuse takes place in our society – and there is no question that it is wrong. I know the Lord says we should love every single creature He has created, but I truly believe that folks care more about Fido accidentally being left outside at night than Fred who sleeps under a bridge every night. When we focus on the trivial at the expense of the important, we forfeit the power we have in the minds of the public to draw attention to the vital issues of the day. We have such power as journalists to shine a light on issues that need attention – and also people who need a leg up and a way out. God has given us that gift.
 
Servant journalism is about compassion.
 
Years ago, a woman came to visit the newspaper I worked for at the time and asked to speak to a reporter. Those calls coming from the front desk typically elicit a groan from the newsroom. Frankly, a lot of people who just walk up to the paper literally get ignored. If you’ve ever talked to someone who walked in off the street you know there are those in our communities who struggle to express themselves as coherently as the well-placed source you have on speed-dial. This woman’s young son had died under suspicious circumstances. She was convinced that her child died at the hands of her babysitter – and no one – not even the investigators for the sheriff’s office -- would listen to her. She wasn’t exactly a sympathetic figure. She was a single mom with three kids who worked nights in a bar. She’d been in trouble with the law. She didn’t trust people easily. But this reporter listened – and wrote a story the editors were a bit nervous about. So nervous, in fact, that instead of the big-circulation Sunday paper, it ran on Saturday. No matter. The babysitter was convinced the jig was up and confessed to the crime on Monday. 
 
Servant journalism is about building community.
 
Hugh Hewitt is a national radio host and commentator who shared an interesting thought at a previous World Journalism Institute conference – and he had an interesting thought. He believes that if young Christians are going to have a significant impact on the media, they should aspire to work in the major media capitals of this country: Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. As Hugh put it, “why go to Gaul when you can go to Rome?”
 
Now, I’m a journalist in what most people call “flyover country.” For the uninitiated, “flyover country” is the part of the United States between New York and Los Angeles.
 
I’m not ashamed of that. Souls need to be saved in Gaul, too – That’s why I’ve worked in places named Springfield, Tallahassee and Evansville; places where a committed journalist can begin to make a difference simply by showing up.  This is particularly true for journalists of color – there are communities of color far outside the nation’s metropolitan areas that need your service and your commitment.
 
One of the most powerful moments of my life was when a woman who fought the battles of the civil-rights movement in the South met the editor of the local newspaper who just happened to be an African-American. “I read about you in the paper,” she said. “we are so proud of you.”
 
Servant journalists are a part of the community rather than apart from the community. Yes, we want circulation, revenue and ratings – those are necessary to perpetuate the journalistic enterprise. But we want to accomplish it in a way that brings people together rather than tearing people down.
 
Servant journalism is about humility.
 
The Quaker theologian Richard Foster once wrote that "Nothing disciplines the inordinate desires of the flesh like service and nothing transforms the desires of the flesh like serving in hiddenness. The flesh whines against service but screams against hidden service. It strains and pulls for honor and recognition. It will devise subtle, religiously acceptable means to call attention to the service rendered. If we stoutly refuse to give in to this lust of the flesh, we crucify it. Every time we crucify the flesh, we crucify pride and arrogance."
 
One of the more troubling developments of the internet age is the notion that one has to be a brand – the result when applied to the work of a journalist is that one becomes more obsessed with self-preservation than service to our readers, our viewers and our communities.  One symptom of that is the fact that today we have three 24-hour news networks, but there is really only four hours of actual newsworthy content in a given day. That results in four hours of actual news and 68 hours of people talking about the news. It does less to build community and more to divide us – but that’s a topic for another speech.
 
When you are tempted to make yourself a “brand,” remember this: It is not about you. It is not about me. It is about God.
 
Speaking of humility, servant journalism doesn’t necessarily have to be done by journalists employed by journalism organizations. You would be amazed at how much your skills – critical thinking, writing, photography, graphic design, and verbal communication – are needed by community organizations starved for talent.
 
Our relationship to Christ is as a servant – and service to others must always be the essence of our work.
 
*
 
In an era where the phrase “mainstream media” is more of an epithet than a term of endearment, I’m proud to call myself a card-carrying member. The call on my life to serve others through the media – rather than, as some would suggest, in spite of it – remains strong.
 
If you are a journalist who is struggling in the present and anxious about the future, consider this: Rick Warren, the author and pastor of Saddleback Church in California, said recently that God is more interested in your character than your comfort; God is more interested in making your life holy than He is in making your life happy. 
 
Our challenge as Christians is to grow closer to Christ by growing in character – and we grow in character through challenge, change and the word of God. As Rick Warren put it, we can focus on our pain or we can focus on our purpose.
 
B.F. Westcott once said that “great occasions do not make heroes or cowards, they simply unveil them to the eyes of men. Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or we grow weak and at last some crisis shows us what we can become.”
 
God does not give us the spirit of fear, but of power and a sound mind – are we going to be self-centered or are we going to serve?
 
*
 
Before I take my seat, let me share one more very brief story:
 
My pastor was returning from a conference on the West Coast when he ran into a problem. He arrived at the gate to catch his flight and learned that the flight was overbooked. He ended up with the last seat on the airplane – and the gate attendant placed him in first class. To God be the glory.
 
He tells of being surrounded by high-powered business types bragging about the companies they worked for. “I work for General Electric,” one said. “I work for Bank of America,” said another.
 
My pastor’s seatmate looked his way. Who do you work for?
 
“I work for God,” he said.
 
“God came before GE and God came before Bank of America. I serve Him.”
 
We can look at it this way: God came before Knight Ridder, Gannett and CNN – and He’ll be here for a long time thereafter.
 
As a servant journalist, I work for God. Won’t you?
 
Thank you very much.