Good Friday, the ‘Coffee Haggadah’ and the Catholic-media showdown

A few things today after a day off:

First, two Good Friday items. For the last decade, the largest non-denominational Protestant service in the region has been held in Westchester, usually at the Westchester County Center. I covered the “Westchester  One in Praise” service a couple of times and saw thousands gather on Good Friday — mostly evangelicals and Pentecostals, a racial and ethnic mix.

This year’s 7:30 p.m. service will be at Mount Vernon High School. The featured speaker will be Dr. Carolyn D. Showell of First Apostolic Faith Church in Baltimore.

What else? Last year, I visited the Peale Center for Christian Living up in Pawling to write about their annual Day of Prayer on Good Friday.

I sat in the back of a chapel at the home of Guideposts magazine and watched a few dozen people read prayer requests from strangers and then pray for them. Rotating teams of staff and volunteers prayed for something like 16,000 people between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

If you want to know more or might want to send in a prayer request for this year’s 40th anniversary Good Friday Day of Prayer, go to www.Ourprayer.org.

Second, Passover. Someone gave me a copy the other day of a Maxwell House Haggadah. I found myself wondering how a coffee company wound up creating the most popular Haggadah in the U.S., used by countless families at their seders over decades.

I came across a short article from Moment magazine that answered my questions.

Here is the opening:

*****

In 1923, when Maxwell House Coffee signed on with the Joseph Jacobs Advertising agency in New York, it was already a legend. Theodore Roosevelt supposedly drank a cup in 1907 at the Nashville hotel for which it was named, proclaiming it “good to the last drop.” Fortune smiled even more on the brand when Jacobs conceived a plan to entice American Jews to serve the coffee at their Seders. First, he lined up a prominent rabbi to assure Jews that coffee beans were not forbidden legumes but fruit. Then he convinced his client to underwrite America’s first mass-marketed Haggadah. When it appeared in 1934, free with the purchase of a can of coffee, the Maxwell House Haggadah swiftly revolutionized how American Jews celebrated Passover.

*****

So there you go. Producing a Haggadah — and a good one — was good for business.

Kraft, which now owns Maxwell House, still produces the Haggadah. One million copies were printed in 2009 for distribution through supermarket chains like ShopRite.

Rabbi Burton L. Visotsky of the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, notes: “Local custom ruled liturgy. Maxwell House did more to codify Jewish liturgy than any force in history.”

Being something of a coffee snob, I haven’t had a sip of Maxwell House in a long time. Now I find myself wondering what it tastes like.

Third, an international conflict grows over the recent media coverage of various sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.

Several reports that have called into question the past decision-making of Pope Benedict have unleashed passionate defenses of the pope and increasingly  harsh criticism of the media — especially the New York Times.

Most of the criticism has focused on extensive NYT reporting about a late Milwaukee priest who allegedly molested close to 200 boys at a school for the deaf, where he worked from 1950 to 1974. While no one seems to dispute that the priest, Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, was a monster, the Times’ contention that the pope — then Cardinal Ratzinger — was slow to react in 1996 has created the firestorm.

Archbishop Dolan, who defended the pope after Palm Sunday Mass by comparing attacks against him to the persecution of Jesus, now writes on his blog about “diatribes” against the church and the pope.

He concludes with this GREAT soundbite:

*****

Let me be upfront: I confess a bias in favor of the Church and her Pope.

I only wish some others would admit a bias on the other side.

*****

Meanwhile, a Milwaukee priest who presided over a canonical criminal trial involving Murphy, has stepped out in the Catholic media to complain that he has been widely misquoted — even though he was never interviewed by a journalist.

“As I have found that the reporting on this issue has been inaccurate and poor in terms of the facts, I am also writing from a sense of duty to the truth,” writes Father Thomas Brundage.

Brundage writes that Murphy was guilty of “unmitigated and gruesome crimes.” But he takes the Times to task for all sorts of things, which I can’t fully summarize here.

Among other things, he writes:

*****

With regard to the inaccurate reporting on behalf of the New York Times, the Associated Press, and those that utilized these resources, first of all, I was never contacted by any of these news agencies but they felt free to quote me. Almost all of my quotes are from a document that can be found online with the correspondence between the Holy See and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. In an October 31, 1997 handwritten document, I am quoted as saying ‘odds are that this situation may very well be the most horrendous, number wise, and especially because these are physically challenged , vulnerable people. “ Also quoted is this: “Children were approached within the confessional where the question of circumcision began the solicitation.”

The problem with these statements attributed to me is that they were handwritten. The documents were not written by me and do not resemble my handwriting. The syntax is similar to what I might have said but I have no idea who wrote these statements, yet I am credited as stating them. As a college freshman at the Marquette University School of Journalism, we were told to check, recheck, and triple check our quotes if necessary. I was never contacted by anyone on this document, written by an unknown source to me. Discerning truth takes time and it is apparent that the New York Times, the Associated Press and others did not take the time to get the facts correct.

*****

On NationalReview.com, Raymond J. de Souza also dissects the Times’ coverage of the Ratzinger connection.

“The story is false,” he writes. “It is unsupported by its own documentation. Indeed, it gives every indication of being part of a coordinated campaign against Pope Benedict, rather than responsible journalism.”

Finally, Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and prominent historian of American religion, suggests on ReligionDispatches.org that Catholics who are “disgruntled” by scandal go Episcopalian.

He notes that the Vatican has reached out to conservative Anglicans who are fed up with their church’s leftward drift.

Balmer writes:

*****

So what do we learn from these developments over the past five months? Consider the evidence. I gather that the lesson from the Vatican is that homosexuality, even on the part of those in loving, committed relationships, is sin, must be exposed to the light of day for its shamefulness and must never be countenanced. It’s okay, however, to turn a blind eye to pedophile priests, to reassign them quietly to do harm elsewhere or simply to ignore the problem.

I’ll take my Episcopal Church, warts and all, any day.

Riverside Church shows pastoral perils

It was pretty clear when the Rev. Brad Braxton took over last year as chief minister at NYC’s Riverside Church — interdenominational, interracial, historic, all that — that it was going to be a tough job.

He was replacing James Forbes, the classic tough-act-to-follow.

And he was taking over a big congregation that was divided in its mission. Are we a “social activist” church first or a “church-church” first?

So now Braxton has announced his resignation, releasing a letter to the congregation that bubbles with frustration: “The consistent discord has made it virtually impossible to establish a fruitful covenant between the congregation and me that facilitates the flourishing of the congregation, the broader community, and my family.”

And the Church Council chair has responded by acknowledging that there is a problem: “Dr. Braxton’s decision to step down has illuminated the need for our Church community to gain clarity on our shared mission, and the Church Council is looking forward to engaging with the congregation in the deep soul-searching and conversations that will allow us to move forward as a stronger, more unified congregation.”

The Rev. Randall Balmer, a leading scholar on American religion and an Episcopal priest who recently led a parish for year, has an illuminating, short essay on ReligionDispatches about how a divided congregation can chop down its pastor piece-by-piece.

He is what we call brutally frank:

*****

Although the vast majority of churchgoers, in my experience, are decent and kind, parishioners less charitably disposed can find ingenious ways to make a minister’s life miserable: criticism of everything from comportment and grooming to sermons, salary and administrative style. If you’re decisive, you’re an autocrat; if you seek to build consensus, you’re a weak leader. Late in my father’s very successful ministerial career, the board of elders in a large and affluent congregation demanded that he personally reimburse the church for the photocopies he made for church business.

Some congregants, intent on disruption, can be more devious, striking by indirection. In my case (and, as I understand it, at Riverside), dissident members leveled criticisms at the minister’s wife and family. I’m inclined to follow the injunction of Jesus to “turn the other cheek” when criticisms are directed at me, especially when I’m confident that I’ve acted honorably. It’s a different matter, however, when the people I love come under attack.

Eventually, such sniping exacts a toll. I threw myself, heart and soul, into my parish, despite the fact that mine was carefully stipulated as a part-time appointment. No matter. The vestry (the governing body of the congregation) insisted on still more. Worse, by the actions of some in the congregation, I was asked, in effect, to choose between the parish and my marriage.

Religion getting squeezed out of the race

Isn’t it funny how religion kind of evaporated from the presidential race?

Obama and Clinton are both pretty devout mainline Protestants who don’t have many faith-based issues to tussle over.

tjndc5-5ixmz92nge01ka1765e0_layout.jpgAnd John McCain isn’t all that interested in talking about religion. He will, of course, as he tries to rev up the GOP’s evangelical base. But he’s not too good at it.

In fact, Columbia prof Randall Balmer has written an hysterical piece about McCain’s earlier confusion over whether he is an Episcopalian or a Baptist.

Balmer, an Episcopal priest (whose new book is God in the White House: A History) walks McCain through the differences. One example:

If the pews are filled, you’re probably in a Baptist church. Sadly, if there are a lot of empty seats and a lot of grey hair, it’s likely you stumbled into an Episcopal church.

I did come across an interesting interview with John Green, the maven of religion and politics, about why McCain may need to win over evangelicals. Among other things, he says:

White evangelicals have been a very strong Republican constituency – the exit polls in the 2004 general election showed that 78% of white, born-again Protestants voted for George W. Bush. Thus, in that very close election, evangelicals were quite important to Bush. And if the 2008 election is close, they would be as important to the Republican nominee. McCain may have some trouble achieving that level of support from white evangelicals given that a majority of them preferred other candidates in the primaries. In addition, many of the leaders of the Christian right have been hostile to McCain.

(Photo: AP/Gerald Herbert)