The value of faith
By Victor Merina
There is pride in what we choose to remember, and there is often regret in what we put aside. As a journalist, I experienced both when I came to a crossroads over whether to remain on a writer’s path. But it was the personal pain of humility and the unexpected faith of others that eventually saved me.
As a reporter in Indian Country, I waded through the flooded streets of a hurricane-stricken town and watched how Houma Indians fought the rising water and scraped the clinging swamp grass that spilled from a Louisiana bayou.
I slogged through six inches of mud that coated the floor and picked up the splintered furniture littering the ravaged house of a Biloxi Chitimacha tribal member whose home on the Isle de Jean Charles was at the center of a storm called Rita and at the mercy of another called Gustav.
And I once held the hand of a Native mother as she described how her 16-year-old son paddled his boat through the swollen waters of yet another hurricane named Ike searching for rice to eat and stepping from his boat to a storm-soaked porch – only to plunge through the weakened slats of the wooden floor and drown in the silt-filled waters below.
I spoke to tribal leaders as I stood in a Colorado football stadium in the midst of swirling flags and cheering voices, taking notes in the late summer night when a man named Obama won his party’s presidential nomination. And I stood in the bitter cold of a January day as Barack Obama was inaugurated and Northern Arapaho drummers and Eastern Shoshone dancers joined the parade marching along Pennsylvania Avenue.
I walked the land of the Wampanoag who greeted the Pilgrims when they built on a foreign shore and who helped the newcomers as they struggled to survive in a place called Plymouth. And I breathed in the air of the Black Hills of South Dakota, running my fingertips along the mammoth stone figure of a war chief named Crazy Horse who resisted the newcomers pouring into the territory of his people as they struggled to exist.
In all this, I listened to Native voices so I could tell their stories, with my own words. And I worked with Native writers as they tapped their own voices, to tell their own stories, using their own words.
As a traveler among the indigenous people, I believed in their distinctive voices. As an itinerant journalist in Indian Country, I believed in mining the truths in their stories.
But for how much longer I could do that, I did not know.
I was in an industry that had been shaken and stirred like Bond, in a news business whose people had been bought out and wrought out. And as I sought to tell the reality of Native life, I found myself facing the ugly reality of my own personal life. As a journalist, I was not broken – but as an individual, I was broke.
I arrived at a journalism gathering with $11 in my wallet and $14 in my bank account. I had an IRS lien and a State Franchise Tax Board levy. I had a cell phone account on life support and a supported life that was awash in red. The website for whom I wrote had seen its funding dwindle. And the institute for which I toiled had lost its financial anchor. With no immediate paycheck in sight, I was at a loss even as I befriended a machine called Coinstar as my banker, turning my loose coins into bills and that petty cash into unexpected treasure.
In a down economy, my situation was worse than some and better than many. Any complaint seemed painfully hollow. So I was loathe to lament even as I strived for solvency not prosperity.
I had a wife who was the family breadwinner. Who housed and clothed and fed us. And she wrapped those payments in genuine love even as her bank account was drained by her spouse’s nomadic career chasing elusive stories and her frustrations mounted with each debt of his writer’s poverty-stricken life.
The children were grown. Our children were always willing to help. But children have lives of their own, and there are few things more shameful than asking one of your children to pay your bills, to settle your accounts. Nor is there humiliation quite like asking a relative or a friend to tide you over.
So what could I do, even as I pondered the stories I hoped to write and underscored the importance of what I cover?
I agonized. I rationalized. I fought against being demoralized. I found myself weighing my values. I found myself measuring my life, ruing my old age and dissecting my future until I asked myself the once unthinkable question: Was it finally time to leave the journalism life?
If I departed, would I feel as I did when I suddenly jettisoned the newspapers I use to buy each morning at the 7-11 store near my home? The Los Angeles Times. The New York Times. USA Today. The South Bay Daily Breeze. I no longer could take them home, and it pained me not to support my own profession, to abandon the hard print of my fellow writers. But when I totaled what I was spending each day, it heartened me to think I now had gas money. I could now buy mass transit vouchers. I now had something in my pocket.
The convenience store clerk, however, missed one of his most faithful customers and one day he asked me why I stopped buying the newspapers.
I need the money, I simply told him. He looked disbelieving, then laughed and shook his head. “Sure thing,” he said. “You’ll be back.”
Well, I did return, if not to buy newspapers then to write stories. And the reason were the words above, collected in an essay and read to a room full of essay writers.
Jettisoning my thoughts of other topics, I had decided to write about a journalist’s naked fear of losing his way, of abandoning his calling, of silencing his voice. I wrote with a new-found humility where pride had always resided. I felt the familiar rush of regret but with a new passenger in tow. And after reading my reluctant piece, I was surprised by my fellow journalists.
A journalism professor and his wife gave me a generous check. A fellow reporter gave me a clutch of bills she had collected around the room while another listener pressed a hastily- written check into my hand. And yet another journalist took me aside and quietly insisted I accept her money gift as a birthday present – even though it was actually her birthday that day and mine was five months away. Later, when I was asked to re-read my piece to another group of journalists, I was dazed by that audience’s similar response. When I returned to my room that evening, I discovered that someone had slipped a note under my door with $50 folded inside. the note read simply: I believe in Victor.
What I believe in is the value of humility, the generosity of strangers, and the faith of friends and colleagues. What I also have learned is that there is grace – and then there is saving grace.
Victor Merina’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.