The biggest — and best — news of the year was the birth of my granddaughter, Norah.
But besides that banner headline, here are my top stories of 2021 (mostly in chronological order):
1. The pandemic: I started the year with coverage of many Christians welcoming the COVID-19 vaccines but others voicing skepticism. In a personal column, I reflected on the joy that the vaccines brought to many, including my own family. I explored the challenges of pandemic-era church shopping and the difficulty of organizing a youth rally with COVID-era protocols. I moderated a panel discussion on the post-pandemic church at Harding University in Arkansas. I also contributed to a front-page Washington Post story on falling vaccination rates imperiling President Joe Biden’s goal of getting shots to at least 70 percent of adults by the Fourth of July.
2. Saints and singers: This feature ranked as the No. 1 most-read story on The Christian Chronicle’s website this year, topping 100,000 pageviews. The story, featuring Dolly Parton, began with my curiosity over a purported 1966 Church of Christ directory photo showing the entertainment superstar, identified as “Mrs. Carl Dean.” I did some digging and was able to track down the source of the photo. The picture became the key peg for my piece on the surprising ties of many of country music’s biggest stars to Churches of Christ.
3. George Floyd case: The pandemic grounded me for over a year, but after becoming fully vaccinated, I traveled to Minneapolis to report on fired police officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction in Floyd’s death. I wrote a front-page profile of minister Russell A. Pointer Sr., a leading champion for justice in that Midwestern city. And I explored the difficult conversations that Floyd’s death brought to a suburban Twin Cities congregation. I also did a related Q&A with Jerry Taylor, founding director of the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action.
4. Tulsa Race Massacre centennial: As the nation commemorated the 100th anniversary, I did a Religion Unplugged feature on a prayer room highlighting churches’ 1921 sins and seeking to bring healing. Oklahoma Watch, where my son Keaton works as a Report for America investigative reporter, republished my story. For The Christian Chronicle, I reported on two churches — one White, the other majority Black — focusing on racial unity at the centennial. And I delved into how Christian faith drives two leading advocates of massacre justice.
5. A reckoning in Canada: “It is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter. The discovery of the remains of 215 children in British Columbia put a focus on Canada’s 120-year practice of taking Indigenous children from their families and forcing them into church-run residential schools. Other graves were found elsewhere. For The Christian Chronicle, I talked to church leaders as well as tribal members about the history and whether justice and healing are possible.
6. A moving ‘reunion’: In 2004, when I worked for The Associated Press in Dallas, I was honored to tell the story of Anna Salton Eisen and her father, George Lucius Salton, a Holocaust survivor. Seventeen years later, she trusted me with this follow-up piece, published by AP (thanks to David Crary and Holly Meyer on the Global Religion team). As a bonus, I got to see AP photographer Mat Otero, who once spent a week with me in Mexico (and didn’t kill me when he got a really bad stomach virus the first or second day).
7. Weekend Plug-in column: Besides serving as editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle, I write a weekly newsletter for Religion Unplugged. Each Friday, Plug-in features analysis, fact checking and top headlines from the world of faith. The most-shared editions of 2021 highlighted Dave Ramsey doxxing a religion writer, Beth Moore leaving the Southern Baptist Convention and the role of Christians and conspiracy theories in fueling the Jan. 6 Capitol mob. Last week, some of the nation’s top religion writers shared their top stories of 2021. This week, we presented the best of Religion Unplugged.
8. Tennessee flooding: Last year, deadly tornadoes brought me to the Volunteer State. This year, I drove from Montgomery, Ala. — where I attended Lads to Leaders founder Jack Zorn’s funeral — to two small communities in Tennessee hit with historic flooding. I reported on one church’s immense effort to help victims in its town and on another congregation whose building flooded for the second time.
9. Anti-abortion ministry: I traveled to the Detroit area to report on a church whose members picket clinics and urge women not to terminate their pregnancies. This feature ran as a front-page sidebar to a main story that Kenneth Pybus and I wrote for The Christian Chronicle on whether the U.S. Supreme Court might overturn Roe v. Wade.
10. Best of the rest: OK, not every story I wanted to mention would fit. So let’s combine the rest here, beginning with the “Flags, faith and fury” piece that Hamil R. Harris and I did on the Christian nationalism seen on Jan. 6. Among my other favorites: I wrote about Carolina Bible Camp’s annual bluegrass festival marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I spent time with an evangelistic group doing a door-knocking campaign in Georgia. I profiled an Alabama baseball coach and his wife whose view of “adoption” extends from the baseball diamond to their home. I interviewed a bivocational minister who preaches and works as a flight attendant. And I covered the dedication of the Botham Jean memorial at Harding University in Arkansas.
That’s it for my Top 10 list.
In August, I began my 32nd year — wow! — as a full-time reporter and editor. Like any work, mine can be frustrating sometimes. But overall, I’m just so blessed to have realized my dream and still be living it.
Thank you for reading and making what I do possible!