What Happens When A Journalist Starts Reporting On Their Own Church?
As a reporter, Lee Hale says he was used to cutting himself out of the story — especially when it came to his personal faith experiences. With his latest project, though, he’s taking a different approach. He’s laying it all out there, and he hopes his guests will do the same.
Hale’s new podcast Preach features conversations with people of different religious backgrounds living in what he likes to call the “messy middle of faith.” No authority figures or experts who claim to have it all figured out, just average people grappling with their beliefs.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: You’re opening up about your own faith journey on this show. You’re a Mormon religion reporter who has been covering The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for KUER the past few years. How has that impacted your faith?
Lee Hale: I don't talk about my faith very often because, honestly, there's no room or space for it when you're doing quick news stories. It's kind of irrelevant. But the reason I've been able to report the way I have is because I am a Mormon. And probably the worst thing you can do to your faith is to cover your own church. That's a bad idea if you want your faith to remain intact, because you do examine the institution. You examine the controversy, and you focus on the things that are tough. That's what I've been doing, and thankfully Preach has given me a little bit of a break from that.
CB: It's a vulnerable space, it sounds like.
LH: Yeah, I like being honest about that because I think a lot of people can relate to a time in their life where they have to examine their faith in uncomfortable ways. I've done that kind of publicly in a way and now I'm doing it especially publicly because I'm talking about it on this podcast. But it's been hard.
CB: Preach deals with big questions. Are they too daunting, in some ways?
LH: No. I think everybody thinks about life's big questions like “Is there a God?” “Where do we go when we die?” “What does it mean to be a good person?” I just think you need to feel safe before you trust people with your own answers. What Preach is all about is let's make this the safe kind of conversation — and not safe as in careful, but safe as in thoughtful. Let's make a space where people can play around with those things.
Our first guest is Rainn Wilson. He says very simply a thought that a lot of people have had which is whether there's a God or not determines a ton of how you live your life:
Rainn Wilson: If there's a creator then there's a purpose, and who we are is not just our bodies but we continue on in some way after this physical plane. And if there's not then live a great 70 to 90 years on this planet, have as much pleasure and meaning and fulfillment as you possibly can, and then die. And that's it. And there's no ramifications for anything you do. So I really needed to dig deeper.
LH: He kind of does it slightly clumsily, but I like that because we're not talking to philosophers or experts. We're talking to people who are stumbling through these questions, and I love when people are honest about that.
CB: Right. I think you call it the “messy middle” of faith. What is it about that that draws you in?
LH: I just got tired, especially as a religion reporter, of people having an agenda. I think when something's messy you don't have an agenda because you're just too busy working your way through it. I guess I'm drawn to that because that's where I find myself — it's messy. I am a religious person. I'm a faithful person, but that means something different every year of my life.
CB: Who is a guest that you've interviewed who embodied that mess?
LH: Glynn Washington. He's the host of the public radio show Snap Judgment, and he was actually raised in what he calls a Christian cult in rural Michigan. Even though Glynn and his family are black, it was actually kind of a white supremacist cult. So there's a lot of things that are very problematic about the way he was raised and beliefs he was given. But he was also told as a child over and over again that he was a child of God, that there was a spark of divinity in him. Although Glynn now doesn't really believe in God — he's agnostic — he says he sees that spark of divinity in his children:
Glynn Washington: When I say that there is a purpose for my children, for me, for the world. That there's a judgment that happens or there's karma in the world — am I telling them that's a religion? Those are religious concepts that I'm telling my kids, and I am not a religious person, but I still believe those things. I believe they're here for something. I believe that I see the spark of the divine in them. No question about it. Am I religious because I said that stuff? Maybe.
LH: I love that even though he had so many things that he's left behind, so much baggage that he rightfully had to get rid of to move on with his life, there has been some crossover from his past. Like this idea of seeing God in yourself, even for someone who doesn't believe in God. He can still see that in the people he loves.
CB: What do you hope listeners take away from these conversations?
LH: The same thing that I've been experiencing doing the interviews, which is you're probably doing okay. You're doing all right. And when someone's honest it's alarming how well you can relate to people, no matter the faith they come from. I've found so many commonalities and so many crossover points with people I've interviewed, whether it's someone who's Baha’i or Muslim or someone who's Mennonite. Every person I've talked to — there have been plenty of things I felt I could relate to. So I want people to learn about faith through this podcast. But most importantly I want them to see themselves in other people, especially people they wouldn't expect to.
Preach is a new podcast from KUER and PRX. The first episode is available now. Learn more at preachpod.org