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Translating faith: Cecile Holmes finds meaning in religion writing

Cecile Holmes is what you’d call a veteran journalist. In her nearly 40-year career, she’s covered just about everything—school board meetings, court cases, bus crashes, food. But one subject in particular—as multifaceted as any other beat in the business—has held her attention since she entered USC as an Honors student in 1973. That subject is religion. For Holmes, now a journalism professor at her alma mater, religion is often the most important and most ignored part of any human and historical equation.

“It’s a piece of understanding politics and culture and war that we just ignore far too often—‘we’ being media people,” said Holmes, who created a semester-long course, “Faith, Values, & the Mass Media” at USC in 2003. “It’s as though religion is the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle in so many social, political, and economic situations.” 

For her commitment to covering religion, Holmes recently was honored with the Religious News Association’s 2016 William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award. Named for the first African American journalist to cover religion, the award recognizes Holmes’ decades-long work covering the good, the bad, and the boring on that beat. There were Southern Baptist conventions and United Methodist General Conferences, 10 trips to Heritage USA when Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were at their peak of fame, nine press trips with Pope John Paul II, working trips to Israel and Jordan, and then a second trip to Jordan with students. During her 10 years with the Greensboro News & Record in North Carolina and 13 with the Houston Chronicle, Holmes covered all manner of faith groups.

“My first year in Houston I wrote about four kinds of Buddhism,” she recalled. “And there was a huge Roman Catholic diocese with big Vietnamese and African American and Hispanic populations. Somebody asked me once, ‘how can you stand to go to mass in church?’ And I said, ‘how can you stand to constantly cover politics?’ Because even though they may be difficult, religious people believe passionately and deeply in what they believe, whether it’s civil rights or biblical interpretation.”

That sort of passion meant for compelling storytelling, and Holmes, ’77 journalism, was nominated seven times for the Pulitzer Prize during her tenure as religion reporter and editor in Greensboro and Houston. Her writing also has appeared in The Washington Post, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, the Orlando Sentinel, and the L.A. Times. The Episcopal New Yorker, the United Methodist Interpreter, the American School Board Journal, Religion News Service and Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly have published her work.

Holmes embodies the yin and yang of journalism—the physical energy required for research and reporting and the mental strength to sit still and write. Her first book, Witnesses to the Horror: North Carolinians Remember the Holocaust, reflects her interest in World War Two. Her second book, Four Women, Three Faiths: Inspiring Spiritual Journeys, follows mentors she met on the job. She’s pondering a third book, one that would examine civil rights and forgiveness.    

A lifelong Episcopalian who grew up in Columbia, Holmes is only half joking when she says if she were Presbyterian, she would have been predestined to be a religion writer. Her two godfathers are Episcopal priests, and she grew up listening to her father, a Biblical lay scholar, talking politics and religion with them late into the night. As a teen, she asked questions at religious forums, and none of the adults thought that was unusual since her dad encouraged her to speak up. Thinking she might work for the Episcopal or the United Methodist churches in media, she entered USC’s journalism school, where she discovered a secular career suited her best.

“The role and purpose of journalism—it’s cause-oriented—really got into my blood. I realized this was a professional path I could follow.”

Teaching also was of interest to her, and in 1994 Holmes earned a Master’s of Liberal Studies at UNC-Greensboro. A four-year certificate in church history/theology from University of the South, Sewanee, deeply bolstered her knowledge of church tradition and of Scripture. Both were a plus on the religion beat, and the certificate allowed her to lead similar small group studies. At USC, where she began teaching in 2000, she is head of the journalism sequence. Besides her Faith and Values course, she teaches magazine writing and conducts independent studies (and Honors College theses) in media and religion-related topics.

“Teaching made me realize how important subsequent generations are to our very complicated and often war-torn world,” she said. “The energy of undergraduate and graduate students has kept me young, and made me yearn to help them find the kind of professional lives that people helped me find.”  

Not that she’s giving up writing. The award from the Religious News Association is just more fuel, whether another papal interview is in her future or not.

“While it’s fascinating to do reporting that you know will probably make the front page, perhaps the more important side of religion writing is telling faith stories of people from all religions that would never be told without your work. From snake handlers in western North Carolina to warring Baptists in Dallas and all kinds of immigrants—trying to translate a faith group that is still not well-known, like Hinduism or Islam or Sikhs—is a struggle and an honor. That’s really the way I feel about it.”   

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