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20 years ago at the SBC newsroom

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–In San Antonio in 1988 I stood awestruck at the reception table fronting the Baptist Press newsroom at the Southern Baptist Convention.

James (Jim) Hefley had arranged a credential for me to be able to follow him around inside, to watch and listen and learn. He interviewed Jerry Vines, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and co-pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla.; Adrian Rogers, former SBC president and pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis, Tenn.; and Johnny Baugh, a Texas businessman who turned red whenever he talked about those who, in his words, were trying to take over the SBC.

We were in San Antonio initially because the Hefleys asked my husband and me to help distribute copies of Jim’s newest volume of “The Truth in Crisis” on the controversy in the SBC. His book had been banned from the Baptist Bookstore and he wanted people at the SBC annual meeting to have access to it. I was a part-time student and full-time employee at Hannibal-LaGrange College in Missouri, where my husband John, an Army reservist, was studying for the ministry after 12 years of active duty.

As a fledging journalist enrolled in Jim’s writing for publication class, I also would be able to see up-close how one goes about covering about something as foreign as the annual meeting of the SBC.

John and I headed to Texas in our Ford van with a built-in shelf of a bed in the back. Loading up several boxes of books, our two young children and a trusted college student who doubled as a nanny, we headed to a friend’s house near San Antonio.

It was 1988 and I was 26 years old. Looking back at that moment in time, I could never have imagined one day I would freely pass the newsroom reception desk, nodding at colleagues and stride to my desk where I serve as the news editor for Baptist Press during the Southern Baptist Convention.

When the Hefleys both died in 2004 within two months of each other, I was devastated. For more than 20 years they were my teachers, my mentors, my friends, my “cheerleaders.”

Sitting at my desk editing for the past two days, I have been listening to various speakers at the SBC Pastors’ Conference. Over and again, if I have heard them say anything, I have heard them talk about the importance of relationships and that the younger generation is watching us closely in this area — as I believe they should.

Jim Hefley exemplified that model of ministry in that area. No matter how much he might have been baffled by some of what he “discovered” or “uncovered,” he sought to find out the truth and to report it. He did not try and “read into” or “analyze” beyond simple factual reason a person’s motivation relating to a situation -– a practice he regularly demonstrated to me. And to this day it is the reason there are a few of us journalists trained in that same way who prefer to write longer stories on controversial issues in order to include longer quotes and let the reader interpret the facts rather than make assumptions ourselves by adding what we “think” the speaker should/could/would have meant, had he/she been more brief.

So, in the spirit of that teaching, I’m not going to try and summarize what the speakers at this year’s Pastors’ Conference said, except to say this, I agree that in order to move forward as a denomination we must pay attention to relationships.

This can be difficult, to be sure. I came onto the scene in the late ’80s. I remember how shocked I was when reading Jim’s first volume of The Truth in Crisis and learning the SBC’s then-Christian Life Commission had waffled in the area of abortion and was not considered pro-life. Baptized and raised Catholic as a child, I was appalled to learn this.

In 1989 in Las Vegas, I remember my first “walk and talk” interview with Jerry Vines. The SBC budget that year included $50,000 (reduced considerably from previous years) for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (whose duties have since been transferred to the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberties Commission) and some felt it was time to totally defund the organization. In interviewing Vines on his way from the floor of the convention center through a long, hot passageway, he agreed to speak with me on the record and told me he was against the motion to defund the BJCPA because he wanted to affirm the work of the budget committee.

I remember being surprised by his answer, thrilled at his kindness and determined to try to come out of my shell at the press conferences when I thought of a question but was too insecure to ask it. I began writing for the Indiana Baptist newspaper the next year which finally launched my career in writing for the denominational press, which eventually was the gateway through which I began writing for Baptist Press.

Two years later, after San Antonio and under Jim’s careful tutelage, I left my first-ever major news story -– and a film canister -– on the editor’s desk of the Hannibal Courier-Post in Missouri. Missouri Citizens for Life, a group with a large number of Southern Baptists, had a huge presence at a St. Louis rally, and I went along as a volunteer to cover the event. I think it was Marti who tracked me down later that day and told me the afternoon edition of the paper had run my story and photo with a large headline on the front page above the fold. My career as a journalist was launched. More importantly, years later, as I sat in front of the hospice covering the starvation and hydration death of Terri Schiavo, it seems strange irony – no, providential – that I would have been uniquely positioned to cover that story for more than two years.

Meanwhile, our families continued to interact even after I graduated, and long after our family left Hannibal in 1992 for Indiana.

Jim and Marti encouraged me to keep writing, even though I was engaged in other pursuits as well. In Indiana for four years in the 1990s, I was engaged in full-time campus ministry. In Kansas City, while my husband earned a seminary degree, I taught public high school journalism, English and public relations.

Periodically, Jim would query me: “Do you want to work for a state paper yet? Do you want to do something in denominational journalism?”

He had another question. “When are you going to write your book?”

I’ll never forget the last time he asked it. In November 2003, I went back to Hannibal for what turned out to be a final goodbye with Jim and Marti. (They died the following spring.) Jim asked me about the book. Shrugging my shoulders, I laughed and said, “Well, if you add together all the stuff I write, then I would have had a book a long time ago.” Jim just looked at me.

Two other things happened that day. Marti asked me to make sure to write the stories of their passing. She also told me, that because of the nature of contents of their papers and files, she and Jim had long discussed that they believed I would best know how to handle the archives.

In the true Marti Hefley way, she didn’t really give me a choice. I was to be the keeper of the files. That meant I needed to decide at some point after their death what to do with all the personal and professional correspondence, interview notes, photos, papers, documents –- more than 100 boxes -– that their lives represented. She reiterated to me the importance of what was in some of the files and the things people had shared in confidence. She reminded me of the book they had written about President Jimmy Carter and others and, of course, the mega files related to the conservative resurgence.

Marti said, staring straight at me, “You always said you wanted to write another volume of The Truth in Crisis with Jim, correct?”

“That was a long time ago, Marti,” I told her, gulping. Truth be told, both Hefleys were tremendous and prolific writers, but their work spanned such a wide field of interest, that many believed it would be difficult for any one institution to appreciate all the work they had accomplished.

Months later, when they both died, their daughters made it clear it was Jim and Marti’s wish that I be given their papers and I needed to figure out what to do with them.

It has been more than four years since then. I’ve had a lot of wise counsel and spent many a sleepless night in prayer. Then months ago I woke up one morning feeling as though a huge burden had been lifted.

The files have found a home at Southern Seminary where serious researchers can learn more about the variety of subjects the Hefleys explored -– from Cam Townsend to Muhammad Ali, from exploits in the Amazon to a “Lemon Drop” in the White House, from astronauts on the moon and skunks in the Alamo to Baylor’s X-rated films and golden parachutes and sacred cows.

I will forever be thankful for the legacy of Jim Hefley who first ushered me into the newsroom those 20 years ago.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan