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A Visit with Eileen Flynn, Faith Columnist, Austin American-Statesman
by Tom Goodman
June 17, 2011

I want to periodically use LeaderLines to introduce you to some community leaders and opinion makers in our area.  As we move through this periodic series, we may not agree with every observation from every interview.  Still, we can benefit from their insights about our city.  I welcome your suggestions of community leaders and opinion makers you'd like me to interview.  Our first interview was with Donna Houser, principal of Anderson High School.  Today, I visit with Eileen Flynn, who writes a twice-monthly faith column for the Austin American-Statesman.

Joshunda Sanders also covers the "religion beat" for the Statesman, but since Eileen and I have corresponded for 5 years on various issues, I wanted to interview her for this LeaderLines series.  Eileen has written about our church and me several times, including my take on The Da Vinci Code phenomenon, emergent Christianity, the young evangelical infatuation with Barak Obama's candidacy, and most recently about our discussion nights with leaders of other religions.  She is an exemplary journalist, especially for the often-contentious field of religion reporting.  She blogs at The Grand Scheme.


Tell us a little about yourself: where you were raised, your family, and what you enjoy doing when you're not working as a journalist.

I grew up in North Adams, Mass., a small, economically depressed though once thriving mill city in the northwest corner of the state.  My mother and father come from Chicago and Gary, Ind., respectively.  Between 1958 and 1965, they had five children.  Ten years later -- surprise -- I arrived on the scene.

I had a strong Irish Catholic identity growing up and was passionate about rock and roll and baseball.  And religion.  I loved meeting people from different spiritual and cultural backgrounds and would lug around a clunky tape recorder and conduct "interviews."  And, in retrospect, I guess I was also interviewing my parents, especially my father, about Catholicism.

What do I enjoy doing when I'm not working as a journalist?  That question might be better phrased as "What do you enjoy doing when you're not working as a mom?"  And the answer would be "trying to work as a journalist."  Ha.  Seriously, my life is consumed by my daughters, ages 2 and 4 months.  I try to keep up with my blog on religion and my twice monthly column for the Statesman.  And occasionally, when I've met my deadlines and the girls are asleep, I will play the piano or read.

Where else have you served as a journalist before coming to Austin?

I started working at the Statesman in 2000, initially as the weekend cops reporter.  I did a few other temporary gigs (county government, state politics) before landing the religion beat in March 2002.

Before Austin, I was a reporter in the Massachusetts State House bureau in Boston, writing for the MediaNews Group papers the Lowell Sun, Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise, the Berkshire Eagle and North Adams Transcript.  Before that I was a reporter, columnist and weekend editor for the Transcript.  I got my start there as a 17-year-old doing an unpaid internship.  And I worked there all through college getting paid $25 a story.

What brings you the most joy in covering faith stories, and what are the biggest challenges?

Religion is often misunderstood.  I get the greatest joy when I am able to shed light on something that readers didn't know -- or thought they knew but were misinformed about.  The greatest compliment is that I'm fair and accurate, especially when I'm writing about something controversial like the Catholic sex abuse scandal or the Southern Baptist Convention's role in the presidential election.  And when you can impress a Presbyterian with your understanding of church polity, you feel pretty good.

On a more personal level, though, it always makes me happy when I get to share the story of a truly inspiring person like Alan Graham, founder of Mobile Loaves & Fishes.  These are the stories readers tell me change their lives.

The biggest challenges are the nasty emails, phone messages and online comments.  One guy used to call me all the time to inform me I was a heretic.  The topics that generated the most passionate responses tend to be homosexuality, Islam and Israel.  I don't get phone calls anymore since I don't work in the newsroom, and if people want to write me an angry email, they have to go to the trouble of going to my blog and sending a comment.  So it's not nearly as bad as it used to be.

I want to ask you a couple of questions about how evangelicals are perceived in Austin.  So, these questions aren't meant to explore how you perceive evangelicals particularly.  But I think you're in a unique position to observe the city's reaction to Christians of my stripe.  So, first, what do you see as the biggest misunderstandings of evangelicals in Austin?

As I see it, evangelical as a word is fairly easy to define: someone who shares the Good News.  But a lot of people tend to heap on all sorts of other descriptors when they hear the term.  In a liberal-leaning city like Austin, I think people associate evangelicals with being aggressively pro-life, pro-war, anti-gay, Republican and judgmental.  They (and I guess I should define the "they" here as a mix of theologically liberal Christians and politically liberal secularists) distrust evangelicals.  They believe evangelicals are trying to knock down Jefferson's wall of separation (between church and state).  They believe evangelicals want to convert everyone.  They believe evangelicals lack compassion for the poor and the disenfranchised, and if they are helping those people, they're only doing it to win souls.  They believe evangelicals don't care about the environment.

Wow.  That sort of reads like a creed, doesn't it?  Seriously, though, I'm generalizing of course.  Not everyone thinks all of these things.  But everything I list above has been expressed to me over the years.

I have written about tree-hugging evangelicals or peacenik evangelicals or card-carrying-Democrat evangelicals.  I have written about evangelicals giving up well-paying church jobs to pursue their own ministry in poor neighborhoods.  And even then, I've had liberal Christians and secularists tell me they don't believe it.

What do you think evangelicals are doing right to overcome these misunderstandings, and where do you think we could do a better job?

A lot of evangelicals are doing their part quietly.  They're getting out of the church bubble and developing connections with people in their community.  They're going beyond the mission trip model and volunteering to help people in need in their own backyards.  They're initiating conversations with people of different backgrounds not to proselytize but to listen and learn.  They're recycling and composting and riding their bicycles to be eco-friendly.

As you know, there's a great deal of controversy over if and how much evangelicals should embrace popular culture.  It's an important debate, and I don't want to minimize the concerns that some evangelicals have about getting too comfortable with the culture.  But I do believe that by becoming more connected, more plugged in to the culture, evangelicals have made great strides in the way they are perceived and in their ability to influence the world.

In terms of doing a better job, I think evangelicals should mingle more.  Invite people to your space, as you did with the dialogue series with non-Christians.  And try to increase your presence in interfaith events/discussions or non-religious events where evangelicals wouldn't be expected.  See what's going on.  See how you can contribute.  And then do it on a smaller scale -- in your neighborhood or at work.

The biggest problem is we don't really know each other, but we think we do.  We think we have "the other" figured out, but most of the time we're basing our opinions on a caricature of that person or group.

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