Mightier Than the Sword (John Fountain)
Given at the closing dinner of the Spring Conference for African American Journalists of Faith (Atlanta, Georgia, April 22, 2006)
John W. Fountain is an award-winning journalist, professor and author of the memoir, True Vine: A Young Black Man’s Journey of Faith, Hope and Clarity. He has written for some of the top newspapers in the country, including the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and The New York Times.
Fountain is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is formerly a visiting scholar/lecturer at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, and is working on his second book. Fountain earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Described by peers and readers as a gifted storyteller, Fountain has won the praise of colleagues and the community for his insightful writing and reporting. He has won honors from the National Association of Black Journalists, the Associated Press, the American Association of University Women, the Society of Professional Journalists, and The New York Times.
Fountain grew up on some of the meanest streets in Chicago, where drugs, crime, decay, and broken homes consigned so many black children to a life of despair and self-destruction. A father at seventeen, a college dropout at nineteen, a welfare case soon after, Fountain was on the verge of giving up all hope. One thing saved him—his faith, his own true vine.
The Samuel Eli Cornish
Samuel E. Cornish
Samuel Cornish was born in Sussex County in southern Delaware in 1795 to a free family. In 1815 at age 20, he moved to Philadelphia, where he was picked to be tutored for the gospel ministry by members of the Philadelphia Presbyterian leadership. Cornish was recruited in 1820 by New York City evangelical Presbyterians to move to New York and minister to poor blacks. In 1824, Cornish built and settled into a brick home in lower Manhattan with his new wife, Jane. The house served as the church building for the New Demeter Street Presbyterian Church, the first black Presbyterian congregation in New York City. In March 1827 Cornish launched Freedom’s Journal, the first black newspaper in the United States. In September 1827, having completed his agreed-upon six months as managing editor, Cornish resigned from the Freedom’s Journal and in 1828, he withdrew as pastor of New Demeter Street Presbyterian Church. In 1828, Freedom’s Journal ceased publication after 103 issues. Noting this, Cornish started a new paper to replace Freedom’s Journal called the Rights of All, but it lasted only six months. In 1837, with ink still in his blood, Cornish started yet another newspaper, Colored American, which ceased publication in 1841. In poor health, Cornish died in 1858 at age 62 in Brooklyn.
Mightier Than the Sword The Ministry of Journalism
by John W. Fountain
“As a little boy, poverty silenced me. It led me to close the curtains to the windows of my world. It made me hide my worn shoes underneath the desk at school or the wooden pews at church. It made me feel ugly. Poverty sometimes kept me distant from friends when I couldn’t afford to do some of the things they were doing: going to the movies or buying an ice-cream cone from the ice-cream truck on a hot summer’s day. Or it made me sit hunched over and feeling alone in the school cafeteria because I was seldom able to afford a five-cent cookie to go with my free lunch. I never invited friends home. I figured they would laugh at my despair, symbolized by our tattered dingy sofa, the roaches and all the mice, everywhere the mice.
Poverty woke me up in the morning like a cock’s crow on a sleepy Mississippi farm. Often, there was no soap for baths, and no hot water, the lights or gas or one thing or another sometimes was disconnected, my toes poked through my socks and my knees protruded through my pants. I sometimes stood at the silver fence in my front yard where the gate had long since been crippled, dreaming with my arms stretched wide as I watched the moon and the stars above. I was a prisoner on a deserted island, watching the ships sail by on the distant horizon. Often, I lay in bed at night amid the creaking of my family’s apartment and the scratching of the mice that crept out of their holes and from behind the sink after dark. Sometimes I shut my eyes tight and imagined I would someday become a rich lawyer. With my riches, I would buy Mama a great big house with a big backyard, and I would stock a humongous deep-freeze with meats and frozen greens, then load the pantry shelves full of cereal and cookies and potato chips and stuff. Dreaming eased my pain and I eventually drifted off to sleep, any hunger or unsatisfied longing dissolved until I awoke the next morning to another day of butt-naked poverty and wanting…”
-- Excerpt from True Vine: A Young Black Man’s Journey of Faith, Hope and Clarity
I stand this evening as a testament to the power of God—
And my memoir, from which I have just read an excerpt, is an extension of my calling as a journalist.
A testament to the power of telling our own stories,
Of lending our own voices and perspectives
—unfettered and unfiltered—
For the glory of a God who hears even the cries of a ghetto boy.
I am a journalist.
But long before I became a journalist,
I was a child of God.
Long before I knew anything about the inverted pyramid style of news writing,
About deadlines, narrative flow, tone, and kickers
About nutgrafs and classic feature story structure,
Long before I ever knew anything at all about journalism,
I came to know JESUS.
Long before I garnered my first byline,
Long before I landed my first front-page, above-the-fold story,
Or my first Sunday double-truck takeout
Or my first hand-written note from a publisher or executive or managing editor,
I learned the words:
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (St. Mark 8:36)
I learned the words:
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
I learned that He—God our Father—is the giver of gifts
And that He calls us according to His purpose.
That He is sovereign or supreme,
and the supernatural architect of careers as well as the cosmos.
I used to say that journalism was my calling
Until one day within the last few years, I heard—as my grandmother would say—the “voice of the Lord,”
though in the sense that He speaks in a still, small voice
to the souls of men.
And what that voice was saying so plainly to my soul was:
“That’s not your calling.”
I remember scratching my head, and thinking:
Well, Lord, what is my calling?
A few minutes passed. Then the answer resonated in my soul:
“Your calling is to say what I tell you to say
and that is what it has always been.”
To speak Truth
To seek Truth
To speak Truth
I submit to you this evening that such is our calling
as Journalists of Faith:
To seek and to speak truth
To shine the light on the dark and hidden corners of despair.
To illuminate hope.
To be true to our craft.
And also to our calling as people of faith.
To operate squarely within the parameters
of the journalists’ code of ethics.
To identify, verify and clarify the facts.
To be fair, comprehensive and proportional.
To be unwavering, uncompromising and unflinching in our pursuit of the story.
And to seek and speak truth.
Always endeavoring to seek and speak truth.
* * * *
It is an honor to be here at the World Journalism Institute’s spring conference for African-American Journalists of Faith, particularly to give the second annual Samuel Eli Cornish Memorial Lecture.
I give honor to Bob Case,
To conference sponsors, supporters and organizers, especially Kimberly Collins, who works so diligently to bring us all here and make this whole experience so wonderful.
To my brother Dr. Anthony Bradley, who convened this conference
and enlightened us all last night with his opening address.
To Karima Haynes, who last year so eloquently presented the inaugural Samuel Eli Cornish Memorial Lecture.
To all of you.
It’s good to see all of you—students as well as working or aspiring journalists—who have come from far and near—
especially you “brothers”
with black men being in ever too short a supply in journalism.
It is indeed wonderful to be in the company of other believers.
* * * *
You know, while on book tour a couple years ago,
an interviewer—aware of my Pentecostal background—once asked:
“How do you handle being both a Christian and a journalist?”
(Sometimes I have to admit, I have wondered that myself.)
But in truth, I responded,
“As long as I don’t stand in the newsroom and speak in tongues, I think I’ll be okay.”
Growing up in the Church of God in Christ,
my folks did speak in tongues and they danced in the aisles—
for we were Holy Rollers, you know—
And my grandfather and grandmother
(George and Florence Hagler)
—migrants to the “Promised Land” by way of Cairo, Ill.—
who later founded True Vine Church of God in Christ on Chicago’s West Side, had a simple prescription for a good life:
Love each other,
My grandmother, especially my grandmother, also had this way of putting everything into proper perspective,
so much that when I went away to pursue a career in journalism,
whenever I returned home with news of having some new job in journalism, or of having won some journalism award,
my grandmother would simply look at me and nod and say:
“Do you still love the Lord?”
Keep on lovin’ the Lawd baby darlin’
Keep on lovin the Lawd
There’s somethin’ mighty sweet about the Lord…
So yes, I am a Christian who also happens to be a journalist,
who also happens to be black,
who also happens to be male,
who happened to grow up poor in Chicago,
who happens to still remember the pain and shame of poverty
and who isn’t ashamed to admit it.
And who, my grandmother—if she were still with us today—would be happy to know still loves the “Lawd.”
All of which shapes my perspective,
And ultimately my journalism,
which I will talk more about before I conclude this evening.
I will explore this evening this question of what is journalism—the mission of which I believe, even in a world of emergent new media,
remains unchanged at its core.
I will address this notion that journalists who happen to be Christian somehow are inevitably destined to skew the news, somehow must be incapable of producing a journalism that is fair, thorough, inclusive and balanced;
This misperception that the Christian lens through which we see the world somehow makes us more biased and our observations less valid than those journalists who are not believers;
This idea that we as journalists of faith must be apologetically Christian—that our potential contribution is somehow to be less coveted, less valued,
is somehow less desirable because of our Christian lens;
I want to address this evening how that kind of thinking seems to be the antithesis of the philosophy of an American news media as a collective that indeed endeavors to be more inclusive;
How it is the antithesis of newsrooms that truly embrace diversity; of news organizations that truly seek to produce a brand of journalism that is reflective of the multicolored, multi-layered tapestry of the American landscape.
Before I am done, I will share at least one example of the kind of insight, sensitivity, sensibilities and perspective that we
Journalists of Faith
bring to the newsroom,
to the daily journal of American life reflected in the pages of American newspapers, and the platter of news presented in broadcasts and new media.
Along the way, I also hope to share my passion, my purpose and perspective as an African-American Journalist of Faith.
* * * *
What is journalism?
What is journalism?
In journalism, there are no black stories or white stories.
No Hispanic American or Asian American or Arab American stories.
No urban, rural or suburban stories.
In journalism, there are only Human Stories
Stories to be found in everyday life.
Stories out there—in here (in your heart and soul)—
just waiting to be told
Stories that breathe and swelter,
Stories that allow readers to hear the wind whistling or whispering
Stories that allow readers to see the cresting Mississippi River rolling furiously, spilling over its banks in Niota, Ill., and wearied town residents stacking sandbags.
Stories that allow readers to see the frozen tree limbs encased in glass after an ice storm in Lenexa, Kan.,
and to hear them snap like Popsicle sticks.
They are stories, like the story of life and death along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, in Southeast Washington, D.C., where the slumberous, winding Avenue awakens to the march of working mothers with 9-to-5 faces on a frozen winter morning.
They are stories that transmit the anxiety of tattered homeless men huddled in the corner of a Minneapolis shelter on an unforgiving winter’s night as the lottery bowl for a warm bed rattles and they anxiously await their fate.
They are stories that allow readers to hear the fainting
beep of a heart monitor
—15-year-old Jason Kostlenik’s transplanted heart failing—
to sense his mother’s pain as she and Jason’s friends surround his hospital bed, whispering their final tearful goodbyes.
All are stories that I have had the honor of covering as a journalist.
They are stories of life, and of loss.
Stories of despair, and yet, stories of hope
Stories you can feel.
They are stories like that, which I wrote as a national correspondent
for the New York Times, about a little place called Pembroke, Ill., just an hour’s drive south of Chicago
A place where people still live in crumbling houses
with caked dirt floors,
No running water and no natural gas pipeline.
They are stories waiting for a new generation of writers like you
—waiting for writers, like many of you—
to go out and tell them.
They are stories that for me speak so clearly to the Power of Journalism.
* * * *
As I mentioned earlier, my memoir True Vine is an extension of my career as a journalist,
An extension of my storytelling—
an extension of my desire to “make a difference.”
To give voice to the downtrodden,
to the overlooked and the otherwise inaudible voices in our society.
It is an extension of my desire to shine the journalism light
on the hidden corners of our world.
To find solutions, or at least hope,
I have called it, “My Calling”—journalism, that is.
I must confess, however, that not all journalists feel this way.
And truth is, we don’t all act this way.
As a matter of fact, there have been times in my career when people have gotten wind of this notion of mine that journalism is a ministry—so to speak—a calling.
And I have watched as their eyes have glazed over.
“Did you hear, John Fountain thinks journalism is some sort of calling or something?” I can still hear a colleague, relaying the words of another.
Journalism is a J—O—B, some say.
It pays the bills.
I certainly can’t argue with that;
It has—paid—the bills.
But Journalism is more. Much more.
It is so much more.
As a journalist, I have gravitated to stories about the poor.
Stories about people who live in grim corners of American society.
People who live in places that mirror the impoverished Chicago West Side community where I grew up.
People whose voices are seldom heard.
Often, the people who have been the focus of my stories have been victims of crime,
People I have met in death through journalism.
But being drawn to this “calling” was not something I planned.
In part, it grew out of my experience as a police reporter, and the incessant, late-night crackling of the police scanner with news of shootings and a mounting body count,
almost exclusively African American.
My gravitation toward these nameless, faceless figures emerged, in part, from the discovery that with little exception, such stories went largely uncovered by newspapers, outside of the daily dead man’s list.
And in these victims, I felt kinship.
I also came to understand a sobering truth:
That there but for the grace of God go I:
Just another dead black man listed on the hometown newspaper’s police blotter—
Name, Age, Address, GSW (gunshot wound) to the head.
Just the facts ma’am.
My “calling” to journalism also grew out of my desire to
“make a difference.”
Out of my desire to try and help make my corner of the world
a little better,
a little brighter.
That desire stems greatly from my faith in God
From my belief as a Christian
that I must help somebody as I pass along this way.
Then and only then, the old church song goes, will I know that
“My living shall not be in vain.”
But maintaining my purpose and passion in journalism over a more than 20-year career has required nothing short of prayer and the power of Jesus Christ;
It has required exercising the hard work of faith
and standing on the promises of God.
Even in the midst of what sometimes has seemed
like a godless world,
Even in what at times has seemed like a godless newsroom—
Even amid the slow turning wheels of promotion;
Amid the familiar feeling of invisibility in the newsroom
and the marginalization of my voice, perspective and potential contribution as a black journalist, let alone a Christian journalist.
For it is the case that of all the things I might have felt free to stand up and declare that I am, openly in the newsroom,
the one thing that I was not free to declare,
at least not without fear of being labeled a religious radical,
or to be otherwise professionally stigmatized,
was that I was a Jesus-loving, born-again believer.
I could have declared that I was gay or lesbian
That I was Republican or Democrat
Conservative or Liberal
Atheist, agnostic or even anti-Christ.
In fact, each day journalists filter the world through the prism of their own world views:
whether humanistic or secular,
liberal or conservative.
Whether theirs is a prism filled with stereotypes
—short on insight and high on insensitivity
with regard to the communities or issues they cover—
the news is daily sifted through any of these lenses without apology.
Yet, to see the world through a Christian worldview—
Not as a “Christian conservative,”
but as a born-again believer—
To see the world through the duo-lens of justice and hope
and also to see its potential through the prism of redemption—
Or to have at your core a longing for peace and healing in a world
in which God created all men equal and in His image,
is for some reason viewed with suspicion,
as lacking in journalistic purity or integrity.
Yet, I contend that the journalism that emerges from a journalist with a Christian or biblical worldview is no less valid—
That it should be no more alarming
than the journalism from any non-Christian.
In fact, on the contrary,
it would seem indispensable to achieving the kind of balance,
fairness and clarity
the news media purport to present each day.
I have to admit that during the course of my 20-year tenure as an American journalist, there have been few times that I have had the occasion to mention Jesus in my stories;
and few times that I have felt the need to trump my Christianity in the newsroom, though always I have been ready to give answer for the hope that lies within me.
But my personal belief is
that the greatest sermon one will ever preach
is the one we live
and that my job as an African-American Journalist of Faith
is not to preach out the newsroom,
but to live out my theology
while on assignment in Babylon,
like Daniel and the Hebrew boys,
allowing my life to be the mirror that reflects the image of Christ.
So then, what we offer as Journalists of Faith, at our best, is not bias,
Not narrow mindedness
Not half-baked, half-hearted, halfway journalism,
but solidly-reported, well-written, well-done stories produced in the spirit of adhering to the highest journalistic standards of the land and with the same commitment as if you were doing it for God himself.
“And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men;”
It is my sensitivity as a black man—as father, son, brother—that helps me see the depersonalization, dehumanization inherent in news stories that refer to the Duke University rape victim on first reference only as an “African-American Stripper.”
Because of my blackness, I see the reflection of my aunts, uncles and grandparents in the faces of Katrina victims and am immediately sensitized to their plight.
So that what some call looters, I see as survivors.
My having black sons, nephews and cousins heightens my awareness
to the fatalism and pathology that threaten their very existence.
My own observations of the absence of black men in the church and the growing disconnection of the black church from the community stir a yearning to ask those questions that beg for answers.
My experience as an African American of feeling marginalized, dehumanized and depicted in black face helps me understand how
Indians-as-mascots for sports teams just might offend Native Americans.
Even something like the depiction of Pentecostals as crazed Holy Rollers makes me sensitive to the portrayal of Muslims,
sensitive to the sacredness of others’ religious beliefs and customs.
It gives me insight
into the ever-burgeoning importance of “faith” on the American landscape
and to the American way of life.
That’s not bias.
That’s a ray of sunshine
A breath of fresh air
A new hue on the journalistic canvas of what is too often
a jaded portrait of life in America.
* * * *
Maintaining my purpose and passion in journalism has required understanding who and whose I am.
It has required remembering and holding fast to the belief that in my mother’s womb, God knew me and called me for His purpose.
It has required patiently working to perfect my craft so that I might
more excellently walk in my purpose.
Early on as a journalist, I adopted the notion that as a black man with a foot in each world
I might somehow bridge the gap between two worlds:
One white; the other black.
To help readers understand the dilemma of law-abiding,
decent black folks,
who are in the majority, even in crime-ridden neighborhoods,
but who are plagued
by a relatively miniscule number of black criminals.
To help readers see the humanity, even in a dead thug;
To lend my voice and perspective to the daily record of American life so that 1,000 years from now, the roles of African Americans will not show up in journalistic accounts as having been only rappers,
athletes and criminals.
To show how the tentacles of violence, crime and poverty permeate America’s forgotten communities;
And to find the hope, even in the direst of circumstances.
Always to find the hope.
Throughout my career as a journalist,
reporting and writing have been my tools.
But so have compassion and faith
—Whether it was that faith that was compelling me to pursue certain stories, believing in my gut that they were worthwhile.
—Or faith that was at the root of my belief that my having crossed paths with a subject was more than happenstance.
Yes, inasmuch as reporting and writing and pens and pads and computers have been my tools of the craft,
so too have faith, and hope and passion
or fire in the belly, as my mentor, the late Prof. Bob Reid at the University of Illinois would say.
It is a fire that has led me to burn the midnight oil
Or to get out of bed at 2 a.m. to drive miles just to get a small scene for a story,
Or to live, breathe and exist at times for a story,
almost exclusively for the story,
until finally it was done,
until another mission had been accomplished.
Along the way, my journalism
has been shaped by my own list of guidelines
I call the B-Attitudes for Journalists of Faith:
(A journalist never sacrifices fact for details.)
(To the craft, to the reader, to your editors.)
(Be on time; Do quality work.)
lBuild on good mechanics
(Master the fundamentals of journalism.)
lBe consistent and diligent with writing and reporting
(Regularly practice the craft. Diligently work in school to learn how to do good journalism. Work at school and community newspapers,
lBe a reader
(Good writers are Good readers.)
(Learn to take criticism and grow.)
(As a journalist, there are hills and valleys. Don’t judge your worth by a difficult valley experience.)
lBuild a network of support
(Editors, colleagues, non-journalist friends and family can lend perspective and balance.)
(Write and rewrite, understanding that good writing is a process.)
lBring your perspective
(Your uniqueness will generate unique stories and enables you to tell a story as only you can.)
(You can’t argue with excellence!)
(In the story, in the power of journalism, in your ability to make a difference.)
(Rather than talking who you are, just BE who you are.)
* * * *
As I begin to close, I want to say that journalism and my Christian faith are similar
in that they stand on the principles of truth and hope.
As both a Christian and a journalist, I am required to abide in integrity
To be constantly searching for the truth,
Always seeking to improve, always striving for excellence.
Journalism is a ministry
in the sense that it allows me to make a difference
in the lives of others;
To use the gift that God has placed within me as a storyteller;
To at times speak for those who cannot speak for themselves;
To at times tell a story in such an intimate and compelling way that it makes readers not only understand, but also feel.
It allows me at times to enlighten,
at other times to encourage, and at others, to inform.
Being a journalist, who happens to be a Christian, is not so different from being a journalist who happens to be black,
or a journalist who happens to be a man,
or who happens to be a father,
or a journalist who happens to be a woman or Hispanic,
I do not proselytize.
I do not speak in tongues in the newsroom.
I do not pray before writing each story.
Simply put, I cannot separate who it is that I am at the core
from what I do as a journalist.
Ultimately, my byline, my name on a story, signals to a reader that the story of which I am the author is the “gospel, according to John.”
That’s why we have bylines.
* * * *
I don’t remember the first time I cried
The first time I was moved to tears by the tragedy of human suffering I have encountered as a journalist.
I have stood over the coffins of far more children than I can recollect.
I have rambled through the darkened, ghastly halls of high-rise public housing complexes, habitats not fit for animals, let alone people.
Always I have tried never to betray the trust of those who trusted me enough to share their world, their words, sufferings and mistakes.
But I have tried to be true to them and to their stories, while placing my faith in the power of the pen,
in the power of journalism,
to give voice, dignity and pride to the voiceless and forgotten.
I believe that good journalism,
like the Gospel,
can change lives,
can make a difference.
* * * *
Speaking not long ago to a large group of Illinois high school students interested in journalism, I concluded by telling them that
what I also love about journalism
is that it can be so many different things to so many different people—all at the same time.
If you want to see the world, I told them, I offer journalism.
If you want to cover sports from the football field or to have a courtside pass as the Bulls win a championship and slap high fives with the players as they file by,
I offer journalism
If your desire is simply to be read by hundreds of thousands,
if not millions,
I offer journalism.
If you want to venture across America, filing dispatches from places like Brewster, Neb., where real cowboys watch over a herd and cows give birth during calving season
If you want to experience the thrill of covering a hurricane
To travel with the candidate on a presidential campaign
If you want to cover business or hip-hop culture or fashion
If you want—not a backstage pass to your favorite pop group,
but an exclusive front-door pass to a sit-down interview—
If you want a passkey to parades, parties and a world of possibilities
Or even if you simply want, like me, to make a difference
I offer journalism.
I offer journalism
But I tell YOU this evening,
That if it is hope you need,
I offer Jesus.
If you want the recipe for a prosperous and successful life,
I can only offer Jesus
If it is a life of purpose and fulfillment you seek,
If you want to know real joy, real love, real peace,
I offer Jesus.
As a journalist of faith, I have discovered
that the stories we tell with craft, passion, purpose and excellence
ultimately reflect the incomparable, unfailing light of Christ
Because His light shines within us.
Shines through us.
Shines all around us.
What I have also discovered is that where journalism fails,
He is sufficient.
That where all else fails,
He is sufficient.
That jobs and editors may come and go
That newspapers may fold and circulation ebb and flow
That uncertainty and loss and sufferings will surely run their course
But He is sufficient.
The songwriter said, ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away,
but Jesus never fails.’
Journalism IS mightier than the sword.
But God is almighty.
And our individual callings and gifts,
though they may be many,
only exist for a single purpose:
To Glorify God!
That is my purpose
That is my hope
To God be the glory.