Archived Sections, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

PIONEER PRESS RELIGION WRITER HANGS IT UP

I wanted to foster tolerance,” says Clark Morphew, reflecting on just short of 20 years as religion writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
The ordained ELCA pastor-turned-journalist retired from the St. Paul daily paper in November, saying he feels he accomplished what he hoped to do. “Tolerance is the goal that I think is supreme for a religious journalist,” he says. “The United States has become a gathering place for world religions. We need to learn to respect each other and listen.”
Opportunities to do this came at Morphew constantly. “I did a story on a Jewish circumcision. It was bloodless and painless, but many readers were outraged after reading the story. I tried to help them understand Judaism better. I think I accomplished that. I hope so.”
Over the years the veteran reporter, whose weekly col-umns will continue to blanket the country through the Knight-Ridder Syndicate, has seen the religious scene change significantly.
“I think everything’s different now,” he says. “We no longer look to the bureaucrats. We see they can’t save the world. The state of religion generally appears to be in great turmoil, and a lot of decline is in evidence. But in every place there are some islands of effectiveness, where lives are being impacted by the church.”
He points to local neighborhood churches where members are “not looking for publicity, just doing their faithful work.”
Morphew says, “You drive past all these Lutheran Churches in the Twin Cities — a lot of them are big, old, dark buildings. You think, ‘They have to be dead!’ But not necessarily. Of course, some are not filled with happy people. Those are destined to fail. Still, there are these hopeful islands of faith, everywhere you look.”
Which stories have been most satisfying for Morphew? “The ones when, after I wrote them, I realized something im-portant would happen, a change would result to make things better.”
He retells the circumstances of writing one such story, making it clear that it’s still vivid in his memory.
“A Roman Catholic bishop from New York died in a Stillwater, Minnesota, AIDS hospice. I got a tip. I got the death certificate. It said he was a laborer, not a bishop, and that he died of natural causes.
“Now, I knew it was against the law to falsify a death certificate. So, on a Sunday night I called the doctor who signed the certificate. He sounded very nervous talking about the situation.
“Next, I called the funeral home. Finally I called the archbishop, Harry Flynn. And then, I wrote the story. And guess what? The archdiocese was forced to change the death certificate. I felt good about that, because it created change.”
But Morphew paid a price for such tough reporting.
“Archbishop Flynn has never talked to me since. When I left messages about stories I was trying to write, he never responded. I think he’s still mad at me because he thinks I embarrassed his church.”
Do editors of commercial publications respect religion writers who work for them? “In the early years I kept hearing from other writers how stupid they thought editors were about religion issues. But you know, I never had that experience. They didn’t seem to me to be cut off from religion. They had their own religious experiences. One of my editors was a Unitarian. We got along just fine, working together.”
There was a time when religion got a lot of play in daily newspapers, especially on weekends. Then all that changed. Morphew says he’s seen the pendulum swing in both directions.
“When I first came to the Pioneer Press, there was a well-respected religion section. Then the paper decided to make religious stories compete with other features. Generally religion tries to suppress conflict. When it can no longer do that successfully, trends begin to emerge, and you have to write about them if you’re going to be credible as a religion writer.
“I remember how, for a few years, we were writing about the Roman Catholic Church’s trouble with sexually abusive priests. That was a hot story for 2-3 years. And then Protestant clergy started showing up in the same kinds of stories.
“For Lutherans in Minn-esota, I suppose the most damaging story must have been the one about the president of the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations (AFLC). He was elected president at a convention where the AFLC called homosexuality an abomination. But it came to light that he gave his wife AIDS and then died from it. That was a horrible story to have to report, and certainly painful for the AFLC to have to deal with.”
Morphew admits not all the important religion stories are negative. He recalls, “I just did a story about a congregation whose new pastor only accepted the call on a condition. He said, ‘Don’t call me unless you want to grow.’ Well, they called him. In three years they went from 300 members to 3,700. This is a Baptist Church in White Bear Lake. But Evangelism can be done just as well among Lutherans. It isn’t that hard. But you have to want to do it.”
Over 40 years, Morphew has been teacher in a Lutheran pa-rochial school, a Lutheran pastor, a curriculum editor, and a religion writer. Which gave him the most satisfaction?
“Teaching. It was just a marvelous experience, watching the faces of young people when I presented them with new information.
“Of course, the school couldn’t afford to pay me enough to cover my bills. I had to do something else. So I headed off to seminary. But teaching was great!”
He served two ELCA congregations, and then edited for Augsburg Publishing House, before going to work for the Pioneer Press full-time.
“I’ve worked 40 years,” he says. “Now I’d like to learn what it means to be a free human being.”