OKLAHOMA CITY — I’m a journalist, so I have no choice but to do a year-end list, right?
When I look back on 2022, a few special moments stand out.
Crying happy tears as my son Keaton married Paige, the love of his life. Joining my granddaughter, Norah, at her first Texas Rangers game — a big deal in our family. Watching amazing sunrises with my wife, Tamie, on a Caribbean cruise.
On the not-so-fun side, I tested positive for COVID-19 while on a reporting trip to Chicago.
Professionally, I kept living my dream. In August, I began my 33rd year — wow! — as a full-time reporter and editor. God has blessed me so much.
In a busy 12 months filled with major news, I traveled to a dozen states (besides Oklahoma) to report for The Christian Chronicle, The Associated Press and ReligionUnplugged.com.
My Top 10 stories of 2022 (mostly in chronological order):
1. Mayfield tornado: In western Kentucky, I covered the aftermath of an EF4 twister that demolished hundreds of homes, businesses and churches. The storm claimed 22 lives in Graves County, where Mayfield is the county seat. For The Christian Chronicle, I profiled a Christian couple who started an unlikely relief center and found other inspiring stories amid the devastation. For The Associated Press, I reported on the half-dozen historic churches in the central core of Mayfield that were destroyed or heavily damaged.
2. War in Ukraine: For ReligionUnplugged.com, I visited a little country church where a Ukrainian priest prayed for his mother — and his homeland. That church in Jones, Oklahoma, is the only Ukrainian Orthodox congregation for hundreds of miles. Also for RUP, I spent time at a Russian-speaking church in Alaska. That Pentecostal congregation in Anchorage has become a hub for helping Ukrainians. In my Weekend Plug-in column, I delved into religion’s role in Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
3. COVID-19: For the third year, the pandemic remained a key storyline in my Christian Chronicle work. At the two-year anniversary, I reported on the blessings — and drawbacks — of livestreaming worship. In Anchorage, I experienced the first Alaska State Lectureship in three years. In Chicago, I covered a long-delayed national meeting of Spanish-speaking young people. In Ohio, I explored the pandemic’s impact on a congregation in a growing town. In Texas, I learned how COVID-19 accelerated financial problems that led to Christian Care Centers Inc. filing for bankruptcy. In Florida, I reported on children’s homes adapting as the coronavirus deepened staffing concerns. And in Virginia, I interviewed three Christian women inspired by the lockdown to lead global Bible studies via Zoom.
4. Godbeat reunion: Speaking of the pandemic, the Religion News Association conducted its first in-person conference in 2½ years in Bethesda, Md., near Washington, D.C. I wrote about the conference in my Weekend Plug-in column for ReligionUnplugged.com and did my Inside Story column for The Christian Chronicle from there. While in the Beltway, I also headed to Fairfax, Virginia, to profile religious freedom attorney Lori Windham. And in nearby Springfield, Virginia, an Afghan refugee shared the story of his family’s emotional — and heartbreaking — journey.
5. Mass shootings: When 10 people died in a supermarket barrage in Buffalo, New York, and 19 students and two teachers were killed at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, I oversaw The Christian Chronicle’s coverage. I don’t know which is more difficult: reporting such stories myself or sending colleagues to do so. As Tulsa, Oklahoma, became the latest city to mourn a senseless attack claiming multiple lives, I attended a Sunday service in that community and asked: Is there a solution? I also talked to survivors of past shootings about the painful memories rekindled by the latest ones. A month later, I reported from the scene of yet another mass shooting: Highland Park, Illinois, where seven people were killed and dozens wounded in a Fourth of July parade.
6. Queen Elizabeth II’s death: I wrapped up my third year of writing the Weekend Plug-in column for ReligionUnplugged.com. My Friday column features analysis, fact checking and top headlines from the world of faith. One of my favorite columns of 2022 was the one I wrote about the beloved British monarch’s death, headlined “5 facts about religion in the life of Queen Elizabeth II, who served Jesus her King.” Other favorites included “Why my old school district removed 41 books, including the Bible, from its libraries” and “Just say no: The four-letter word religion writers really want to avoid.”
7. The Waltons: During the pandemic lockdown, I rediscovered the classic TV show about a Depression-era family in rural Virginia that premiered in 1972. I watched all 221 episodes, and at some point, I started emailing myself notes about religion references in specific episodes — those with titles such as “The Sinner,” “The Sermon” and “The Baptism.” As the show’s 50th anniversary approached, I pitched a story to The Associated Press. I was delighted when AP’s global religion editors, David Crary and Holly Meyer, let me write it. I enjoyed interviewing two stars of “The Waltons”: Richard Thomas (John-Boy Walton) and Kami Cotler (Elizabeth Walton).
8. Bart Barber: At a time of major crisis for the nation’s largest evangelical denomination, I profiled Southern Baptist Convention President Bart Barber for The Associated Press. I spent a Saturday with the rural Texas pastor at a livestock show and at his farm northeast of Dallas. I talked to Barber about the sex abuse crisis rocking his denomination as well as his life experiences that prepared him for that challenge. In my Weekend Plug-in column for ReligionUnplugged.com, I detailed the sex abuse reforms approved by Southern Baptists at their annual meeting. (By the way, my AP profile was published a week before Anderson Cooper interviewed Barber on CBS News’ “60 Minutes.”)
9. Racial unity: In recent years, I’ve traveled across the United States — to cities including Baltimore, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Tulsa — to cover racial justice and reconciliation stories for The Christian Chronicle. This fall, I flew to Atlanta to report on Christians seeking to bring racial healing to a Georgia county with a history of racial violence. “It’s mentally hard for a lot of folks to cross that county line,” Kelvin Teamer, a Black minister in Atlanta, said of Forsyth County, which has an ugly racial past and remained nearly all-White into the 1990s. Another highlight of 2022: Legendary journalist Jerry Mitchell, author of the memoir “Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era,” accepted my invitation to speak at the Chronicle’s national board of trustees meeting in April.
10. Human-interest stories: For The Christian Chronicle, I traveled to New Bern, North Carolina, to interview Sam Birmingham. The 78-year-old Christian received a life-saving kidney donation from a stranger: Melissa McFerrin, a 30-year-old sister in Christ touched by his story. While in North Carolina, I revisited a military congregation I first encountered during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For The Associated Press, I wrote about the bison’s relocation to Native lands reviving a spiritual bond. For the Chronicle, I profiled an Alabama minister who has preached for the same congregation for 65 years and covered an inaugural Christian youth convention in Sin City. For ReligionUnplugged.com, I explored the truth of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 school desegregation case.
Whew. That’s it for my Top 10 list. Thank you for reading what I write and making what I do possible.
Happy New Year!
Featured photo of Highland Park, Ill., shooting memorial by Audrey Jackson