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This American Life and Religion Ghosts

March 6, 2013

This American Life
One almost-good thing that came out of the frenzied and non-stop focus on gun violence and gun control by the media for pretty much all of February was this lengthy investigative radio piece by This Ameircan Life. It was a fascinating deep-dive into a high school in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, where shootings are commonplace, and gangs are nearly unavoidable. I’ll explain why I say “almost” good.

(Let me first pay my dues to the term “religion ghost,” which belongs to the venerable tmatt of GetReligion. It refers to the phenomenon of a religion reference appearing as a ghost in a news story. Dues paid.)

Most of the piece was excellent. Three reporters went into the school and did in-depth reporting and interviews for an entire semester, during which several shootings occurred and the school officials made bold decisions that affected students’ lives.

However, there was one shocking — and frustrating — part of the report.

Let’s imagine that you are the reporter, in a dangerous neighborhood in the South side of Chicago. Gangs are so prevalent that students are virtually assigned a gang based on their zip code, whether they want it or not. Kids are dragged into gang life against their will, getting involved in shootings and arrests, without willfully joining the lifestyle or “becoming a bad guy.” Wouldn’t you want to be looking for examples of individuals who combat the ubiquity of gang violence and lead a responsible life? Wouldn’t you want to find the responsible students and compare them to the ones that end up in the gangs, and note the differences?

In the midst of this chaotic environment, you come across one young man who has decided to make his “entire identity” to be anti-gang, and is a responsible role model for other students. (What a find! What makes him different? Why is he anti-gang, and other students aren’t?) And suppose that young man was an “outspoken Christian” and “holds Bible study in his living room”? What a fascinating coincidence. Perhaps there’s a connection between those two things!

Wouldn’t that be, if not the most interesting part of the story, at least very central angle to explore? Part of the purpose of your story is to figure out why the cycle of violence continues and wham! Right in front of you is a case study of a young man who is bucking the trend and choosing to avoid the gang life at all costs. And he’s a Christian. Wouldn’t you want to explore that connection, as a reporter?

As luck would have it, that is exactly what happens in this story. And yet in two entire hours of the Harper High School story, less than a minute of air time is dedicated to this mysterious anti-gang Christian student. Here’s a text version of the relevant clip, which occurs between minute 19 and 21 of the audio. (I’m guessing on the spelling of his name.)

If you want to see the lengths you have to go to to not be part of a gang, you should meet a senior named Diante. Being anti-gang is Diante’s entire identity.

He’s an outspoken Christian — he holds Bible study in his living room.

Other kids come to him for advice, a role he wholly embraces. He’s poised to be the valedictorian. When you talk to Diante you get a sense of what it takes to stay away from the gangs.

“Do you ever go out just around the neighborhood?”

“Oh no, no. And that’s hard too, because that’s when depression is likely to set in….I’m not really friends with anybody.”

And that’s all we hear from Diante. I hope and pray that he’s doing OK, and has some church support behind him. Because he certainly didn’t get any hint from Linda Lutton that he’s doing the right thing.


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