Jared Felkins' Column: Every word matters, especially in the midst of controversy

“I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”  – Martin Luther King Jr.
Nov 17, 2012

“I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”  – Martin Luther King Jr.
Two recent conversations nearly a week apart keep sticking out in my mind like a sore thumb.
Each conversation, distinctly different by contrast yet extremely similar in context, makes me wonder just how hypocritical I truly am in retrospect.
Often, I tell my staff something I was told over and over again by a former boss and manager. He used to say, and I say it often, “Every word matters.” I thought I had it all figured out. I have found in the last week I have a lot to learn.
More than a week ago, we shared a story of a Lebanon preacher who was outspoken in opposition of President Barack Obama’s re-election both before and after Election Day. I stand behind the work we did on the story and feel we were neutral in our reporting the controversial topic. Further, I choose not to offer my own opinions on what the pastor said or the setting in which he chose to say it.
But that story led to my first conversation. The following Friday, a Lebanon deacon named Leonard Stevenson Jr. called me to express his displeasure – rather disgust – with The Democrat for running the story. Prior to Stevenson’s conversation, I felt confident this newspaper simply did its job by accurately reporting the views of a pastor preaching politics from the pulpit. Anyone who disagreed with what that preacher was doing would certainly find fault with the preacher himself and not the newspaper that reported it. Stevenson had a different take than mine, and so I told him I would share his thoughts in the pages of The Democrat just as we did with the preacher.
“What he’s done is totally wrong with preaching this from the pulpit,” Stevenson said. “If he wants to do this at his home with some of his friends, that’s fine, but not in the church. I believe in freedom of speech, but you don’t use it in the pulpit. That’s hate rhetoric.”
Stevenson graduated from Lebanon High School in 1970 and worked for DuPont for 32 years before he retired. Stevenson has also lived in New Jersey and, last Friday, was planning a trip to take supplies there to help relief efforts following Hurricane Sandy.
Stevenson said he’s proud he voted for Obama and wore a campaign hat in support of the president many times in the community. But he said campaigning should stop at the church doors.  
“Respect the office even if you don’t respect the man,” Stevenson said. “All of this stuff is further dividing the country. It’s the same thing that was going on in the ’50s and ’60s.”
“Business and politics, church and politics, they don’t mix.”
Stevenson said much of the anti-Obama rhetoric he’s heard he believes borders on racism.
“I think it’s because he’s a black man,” Stevenson said. “He’s done a good job despite the circumstances he was dealt when he came into office. When the people speak, so be it.
“I want the same thing for everyone. There is further divide between the rich and the poor. There’s no middle class any more.”
Stevenson was also critical of my use of the word redneck. For weeks, I tried to find Wilson County’s biggest redneck to no avail. I even used this space to explain my mission.
But Stevenson told me he didn’t like the term, and was one he hopes will go away.
I assured him my use of the word redneck had no implications of ill will toward any race, and the effort served simply as an attempt to add a little humor to the newspaper.
He didn’t find it funny, and I immediately went back to the fact that every word matters in my mind.
The second conversation started as a request Wednesday from New Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church member Brenda Huddleston, who told me of her church’s pastor Jeff Maynard would celebrate his one-year anniversary at the church Sunday. I really didn’t consider it a story at that point. I mean I’ve seen stories on pastors celebrating 50- and 75-year anniversaries with churches in the past. But when she told me he was a white man preaching in a predominantly black church, my interest level heightened.
The story appeared in Friday’s Faith and Values section of The Democrat. While writing it, I kept coming back to the same question in my mind. Should the fact there are mixed races coming together to worship God really be so surprising that it deserves its own story? Don’t get me wrong. My internal struggle has nothing to do with Maynard or the church. But about midway through the story, I got to the discussion of race as it relates to the church.
Following the interview, I couldn’t help but ask him about the pastor story we published the week before. Again, without inserting my own opinion, Maynard offered his take.
“I think that’s a subject he should not touch from the pulpit,” Maynard said. “It appears he’s trying to sway people’s votes from the pulpit, and I think he’s very wrong with that. I’m not saying his views are necessarily wrong, but they should not be shared from the pulpit.”
On Tuesday, I posted a question on Facebook after hearing more than 20,000 people had signed a petition at whitehouse.gov, asking people whether they supported Tennessee’s secession from the Union. Some of the responses are below, but again I find myself wondering if I’m responsible for creating further division. After all, I posed the question.
I’d like to think, and I keep telling myself, that ignoring the problems of race relations in America isn’t going to make them go away. My hope is that we’re offering a medium that allows discussion of the issue, regardless of its complexity.
At the end of the day, it’s my responsibility to put the facts out there and let our readers decide where they stand on the issues. We have a responsibility not to shy away from even the most controversial topic. These past two weeks, I hope, prove that.
It’s my pledge I will try my best to ensure every word in The Democrat matters, and that’s without question.
Jared Felkins is The Democrat’s director of content. He may be reached at 615-444-3952 or jfelkins@lebanondemocrat.com.

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