A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s story of faith
As a newspaper reporter – someone who honed his writing and investigative skills by covering the police beat, a task that by its nature required him to chronicle people during the worst moments of their lives – Tom Hallman Jr. of The Oregonian in Portland developed a personal storyteller’s bible.
Hallman’s First Commandment went something like this: Don’t be afraid to ask any question the reader might want answered, but be absolutely certain to keep everything and everyone at a safe distance.
The journalist as dispassionate observer is a safe way to make a living, but the journalist as storyteller, Hallman discovered, is a noble way to make a difference.
Since the dawn of creation, when stories were passed down orally through the generations, there has been something universal and powerful about a story – a parable – well told.
Hallman himself discovered that in 2000, when he wrote a four-part series for The Oregonian on Sam Lightner, “The Boy Behind the Mask,” a Portland teen who endured extensive surgeries to correct severe facial abnormalities and ultimately emerged from the shadows of his shattered self-esteem.
The series ends with Sam, 14, his face having been reconstructed by surgeons 2,500 miles away in Boston, registering for classes in a crowded gymnasium at Grant High School in Portland. His last stop is the yearbook booth, where he sits for his school photo. Sam chooses Package E – “the one that will give him two extra prints.”
Hallman closes out the parable:
“Sam Lightner looks straight ahead. This is for the yearbook. This is for history.
“He smiles. Broadly.
“And a brilliant flash illuminates his face.”
Hallman’s story of human dignity, hope and love won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, the Mount Olympus of journalism awards. So there was Hallman, a few years later, pulling the Sunday morning shift at The Oregonian, feeling very un-Pulitzer-like. His Monday editor had dropped a note on his desk about covering services at the Life Change Christian Center, an African-American church that was back in a new home eight years after a fire had destroyed the congregation’s original church.
It was going to be a forgettable story, and Hallman had it all worked out in his mind before he pulled into the parking lot. Interview the pastor and collect a few quotes from members about their renaissance. Maybe he’d even be back in the office by noon and could cut out early.
“That simple story launched me on a journey to discover the meaning of faith,” Hallman writes in “A Stranger’s Gift: True Stories of Faith in Unexpected Places,” which is an amazing compilation of faith stories that theologians might not ever get around to writing.
It took a storyteller – and a man of hidden faith – to write it from the heart.
The book includes the stories of real people struggling to face seemingly insurmountable problems – and then, when there are no answers to the mystery of suffering, relying on their faith to pull them through.
That morning, Hallman watched from a back pew while a man in his 60s walked to the front of the church and talked about his vulnerabilities – providing for his family and holding on to his job. On his way back to the pew, the man caught sight of Hallman and gave him a strong squeeze on his shoulder.
“As he stood there so exposed and vulnerable,” Hallman wrote, “I felt as if he were speaking to me, even though our situations seemed so different.”
That led Hallman, who had “dabbled briefly in church when I was a child,” on a journey of faith. A few weeks later he felt drawn to return to the church, without his notepad. One person led him to another, one life to another life. There was the neonatal intensive care unit, where there were two critically ill babies – one abandoned by his crack addict mother and the other born to parents who returned every day to pray for the infant, the doctors and the nurses.
The baby born to the crack addict survived, but the other baby did not.
“One of the threads in the book is the idea of doubt and not knowing the answers,” Hallman said. “Why do bad things happen to good people? The mother of the baby I watched die told me, ‘You have to be a part of this story. You cannot hide behind your role as a journalist and writer, get these answers and then move on to the next story.’ The idea of reflecting on my life was exciting, but also new.”
Faith, Hallman says, cannot be relegated to “an owner’s manual.” It is a journey, maybe even a motorcycle ride.
Pete Bogren, who drives a Harley and wears a leather jacket, tells Hallman: “Faith reminds me that God has given me great gifts to navigate life. By using those gifts and relying on faith, I’m constantly reminded that there’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“A Stranger’s Gift” is an inspiring read, not a theological treatise, and thank God for that. And thank God for parables, especially when the storyteller ditches his mask.