Thursday, February 25, 2010

Between ministry and sports writing

Tustin News Publisher Bill Moses took a deep breath, relaxed back into his leather chair, interlaced the fingers of both hands, and rested them on his chest. He gazed at me.

I had just asked him for a raise.

“You know I’m letting you be sports editor at my expense,” he finally exhaled.

I was earning $4 an hour, had just graduated from college and was beginning to develop a loyal readership.

“Really? That’s what you think?”

The area boasted numerous competitive high school sports teams which frequently dominated the playoffs and won state championships: football, girls basketball, soccer, baseball and water polo, a beehive of sports activity, including swimmers training for the 1984 Olympics.

I’d taken the sports editor position after completing an internship as a reporter at the weekly newspaper in the town where I grew up.

There were three high schools in the city, all jockeying for space in the local sports pages, wanting to be recognized for their hard-won battles and scores. Good sports pages meant devoted readers, subscribers, mostly parents of kids whose only glory might be to score the winning goal or to win an actual high school championship.

My readers let me know where they stood. They wrote letters to the editor, talked to me at games, told me secrets and asked me not to print things.

I got to know their kids, whose names and pictures I’d run in the paper.

I freely quoted the young athletes and let their color and personality show through, adding depth and drama to the sports pages. The feedback from readers was mostly positive.

Coaches encouraged their players to talk to me about their experiences during the game, how they suffered a beating or outsmarted an opponent, and to get used to the needling of sports writers.

This was especially helpful for those kids who planned to compete in college, a coach once told me: “It’s good for them to learn early on how the press can really fuck things up.”

Quoting the prep athletes was fine as long as opposing teams couldn’t use their printed words against them. “If I ever hear of an opponent using something you printed as a way to get back at us, I’m holding you personally responsible.”

Overall, covering local high school sports had been a positive experience.

I liked working at the Tustin News, even though it wasn’t something I wanted to do forever. For now, it was a fun first job as a reporter.

The only problem was that my wife and I couldn’t afford to live off $4 an hour. “What are you going to do if he refuses to give you a raise?” she asked.

“Hell, I could get a job as a janitor for $4 an hour,” I said. “I’ll give him my notice. If he doesn’t want to give me a raise, I’ll go somewhere else.”

Bill pointed to the many errors I’d let pass, told me that it wasn’t cheap getting me up to speed as a page editor. He was spending a lot of money on the presses right now and wasn’t sure he could afford any more expenses….

“I’ve never hung you up, Bill.”



“We were late and it cost me a bundle.”

“If you remember, Bill, my pages were already finished when the ad department decided to throw another ad into the sports section, and not just a small ad but a quarter page. I had to cut an important story and shift things around.”

He lifted a hand from his interlaced fingers, and gestured for silence. We’d already had this discussion about late presses.

“Let me think about it.

Bill seldom gave pats on the back. As long as you didn’t hear from him, you could safely bet that he was satisfied with your work.

The next day, I stepped into Mr. Moses’ office ready to turn in my notice. I’d quit if he persisted in telling me that he was doing me a favor. I had nothing else lined up and nothing, really, to lose.

I’d already given up a chance to go into ministry.

Before going to work at the newspaper, I had been offered an associate pastor position at the American Baptist church down the road.

Pastor Hollywood, as my wife’s family liked to call him then, sat me down in his office one evening to show me that he had worked out the numbers and figured out a way to create a new position in the church budget. He only needed to get approval from the board of deacons.

The pay would have been about the same. The only difference was that the church would cover some of my seminary expenses and, down the road, a housing allowance perhaps, eventually a congregation of my own.

I liked Pastor Hollywood, even though he could sometimes come across as puffed up and buffoonish. His mantra, and his mission, was: “Bless people’s hearts and lives.” In spite of his sincerity, it always came off as a little bit vague.

He believed in me and allowed me to speak to the congregation whenever the spirit moved.

He wanted to build a family of believers, who’d gather weekly to pray, read and study the Bible, sing hymns, and occasionally sit down together for meals. He loved church barbecues and held them as often as he could.

He was more social than spiritual.

He kept a proud demeanor, with wide, grandiose waves of the hand as he blessed the congregation. “May the Lord bless people’s hearts and lives through you as you go about your week,” he’d say, his hand and arm passing over the flock.

He held his head high in the pulpit, slightly tilted, like an enormous sea bird, chest puffed out, feathers extended in a showy spread, which is how he earned the nickname “Hollywood.”

His showiness, however, always came across as a little bit stiff, as if God personally held him around his mid-section with a firm hand and turned him this way and that as he preached.

He looked down his nose at the congregation. Not in proud disdain but as one who’d once been raised to new life. The new life had long since disappeared but he still kept the composure of a child whose father was king.

He wanted to grow the church, he told me, and needed a younger associate to provide support and bring in new, youthful energy. “The board will probably go for it if I can show them how to work it out in the budget,” he said.

Pastor Hollywood’s offer appealed to me on several levels:

• The job would give me plenty of time to study and pray; and I’ve always liked time alone, although God presumably is never far away, if not occupying the same space—even in our most troubled, indecisive moments.

• I liked the idea of passing on a message of hope, letting others know they were never entirely alone and always loved, no matter who they were or what they did.

• I liked the experience of grace, of unmerited favor from a person whose love is unconditional, forgiving and kind.

• I could socialize, put off a real job for a little while longer, explore church life more deeply, and learn the ways of the Spirit.

• I might find a calling, a place for my best self to excel and shine as a beacon of light and grace.

“I have to warn you, though,” Pastor Hollywood told me, “just as many seminary students are as likely to turn bitter and leave the church as they are to find a place in it.”

He meant well and spoke the truth and it scared me. I had no plans of becoming bitter and leaving the church, but I could see how it might happen. Seminary students were among the most miserable people I’d ever met.

There were no guarantees, I decided.

Even with God on my side, I was learning, there would always be some measure of risk choosing a path, especially one that meant working in the church.

Prayer, the heart enlightened by the gospel, God’s truth, the Bible—all these would serve as signposts, I was told. When they all fall into alignment, I was taught, then I’d know without a doubt which way to go.

Unfortunately, most of my major life decisions had already been fraught with troubling doubts. The three-point method of discerning God’s will—aligning the heart through prayer, fellowship, and reading the Bible—made sense in theory but seldom worked out for me.

Does God want me to be a preacher or a journalist? Does God even care? More often, I stumbled into my opportunities and made my decisions based on what felt right and made the most sense.

I had worked hard in college to master the basics of journalism. I wanted to write and tell people’s stories. My parents, who were more interested in how I would support myself than in my ideas about following God, had pointed me to a career in journalism.

“You’re so nosy,” mom would say, “you’d be good at it.”

“I’m not nosy, mom. I’m curious. And I like talking to people.”

“Well, you are very social,” she’d add as if that was the same as being nosy.

Putting great stock in the Christian ethic that a child, no matter how old, should respect his parents’ wishes, I followed their advice.

In the end, faced with the choice of a career in ministry or journalism, I chose the latter, learning quickly that my professors were right: “It’s not a career where you’re going to make a lot of money.”

I was beginning to think I’d made a mistake choosing a career.

Bill Moses wasn’t religious as far as I could tell but he was a good Republican. He spent as little money as possible to keep his news business running. I was convinced that he certainly wasn’t going to spend another penny on me.

At a minimum, I would have appreciated at least 25 cents an hour more; an hourly rate of $4.25, but I’d already given up the possibility. I was ready to quit.

“Well, Bill,” I started, “I was thinking about our conversation yesterday….”

He stopped me mid-sentence. “How about $5 an hour?”

I didn’t know what to say. It seemed a huge increase. If I’d known better, I would have asked to think about it. Play out the drama. But I was too elated, realizing that he valued me enough to make such a leap.

“That sounds good, Bill.” It was the start of a long bumpy career that today has been devastated by the digital revolution. §

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