By: Si Liberman
Riling traditionalists but enthralling newspaper readers, a local preacher builds an audience
When the Rev. Michael Riley steps up to the plate each week on the religion pages of three Gannett-owned New Jersey dailies, there’s no telling what subject or sacred cow he’s about to take a swing at.
In his no-holds-barred “Only Human” column, the 39-year-old Baptist pastor has written about his vasectomy after the birth of his fourth son and described how the child was conceived during the blizzard of ’96.
He’s called Southern Baptist conventioneers “goofy” for voting to boycott Disney products, expounded on adultery and chided religionists for blindly following rituals, such as male circumcisions, that are based on what he considers biblical fables.
And to emphasize a point, he’s not averse to using an expletive.
Reader reaction? Split 50-50, pro and con, say editors of the Asbury Park Press (158,000 circulation), Home News Tribune (76,000) and Bridgewater Courier News (48,000).
“Sacrilegious . . . profane . . . a disgrace” are adjectives readers have used to vent objections to the column. And there have also been these reader comments: “I laugh, I cry, I agree and I disagree but it is the first thing I turn to on Saturday mornings. . . . God bless you” and “Yahoo. . . . Thank you very much for the relevant, amusing and spiritual epistles.”
Riley acknowledges losing some of the 130 parishioners of his Stelton Baptist Church in Edison Township since becoming the Home News’ outspoken religion page columnist seven years ago. Among them, Jack Pace, chairman of the Pulpit Committee, who called him to the New Jersey parish from a congregation in Medford, Mass., in 1990.
An effort to reach Pace for comment was intercepted by his wife, Nyda, who coolly reacted, “We’re not too fond of Michael Riley. We have no comment.” With that, she hung up her phone.
The column has also brought curious and/or inspired outsiders into the small Baptist church on Sundays.
In preaching Christian principles, the beleaguered columnist says, he tries not to do it in a staid way.
People don’t hear them when communicated in a conventional way. Earthy, colorful language and subjects demand attention.
Audrey Villano, a grandmotherly, 30-year member of the Stelton Baptist Church, is a staunch supporter of Riley. “Each pastor brings something special to the church,” she says. “Some are backslappers. Some speak the truth. He’s the latter. Some elderly members put pastors on a pedestal and aren’t used to very frank talk. I really enjoy his column, though, because of his honesty and willingness to reveal where his own faults lie.”
While growing up in a south Jersey mobile home colony next to a truck stop, Riley says he was an atheist.
“A girl I lusted for got me back into the church,” he explained. “She was into religion, and I kept writing to her. A youth leader suggested I become a minister.”
That led him to Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa., where he graduated. It’s where he met his wife, Susan, the daughter of a former minister of the church in which he now finds himself preaching. He also has a degree from the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
“When we started the column, we got lots of complaints,” Home News editor Dick Hughes recalls. “We published the negative letters and got counterpositive responses. You have to be willing to take the heat.
“Riley writes from the personal element. However earthy the columns are, they all lead to a lesson in spirituality. I believe he truly loves the Lord.”
Last year, Hughes showed his appreciation of Riley’s talent by hiring him as a full-time feature writer. “I believe he’s one of the best in the country,” the editor says, “and I think sooner or later Gannett will put the column on its news wire.”
Since becoming a full-time Home News staffer, Riley said he serves his congregation on a part-time basis. “But they haven’t taken back the key to the parsonage where we live,” he says.
How have his pulpit peers reacted to his column? “Well, they haven’t defrocked me yet,” Riley laughed. “I really don’t hang around with ministers. They can be tiresome.”
The Rev. Roy Medley, executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey, which include 260 congregations throughout the state, sees Riley as an extraordinary communicator.
“He chooses not to be preacherly in his writing,” Medley said.
“He’s able to talk about the deepest issues of faith and life in ways people understand. He communicates to an audience outside of the church but doesn’t use the same earthy language in his sermons as he does in his column.
“I don’t always agree with what he writes but he stimulates my way of thinking.
“And, you know, the guy we followed also got into a lot of trouble for talking like that.”
Here are some excerpts from Riley’s column:
“This world was not built for the squeamish. The namby-pamby need not apply. The ugly and ooky, as well as the breathtaking and the sleek, are all part of God’s creation.”
“A family is a hell of a thing to be born into anyway, full as it is of sinners and strangers and secrets. . . . It’s pure dumb luck that gives us our dad’s nose, our mom’s eyes, and Uncle Ed’s penchant for throwing back a dozen boilermakers and bothering his nieces and nephews with the old ‘pull the finger’ trick every Thanksgiving. And it’s love that prevents us from bringing a loaded AK-47 to our family reunions.”
“Adultery . . . is not about plumbing or who’s thingamabob got stuck where. It’s about betrayal and faithlessness, which is why, on a human level, it is so hard to forgive and damned near impossible to forget.”
?(Liberman is a retired editor of the Asbury Park Sunday Press.) [Caption]
?( Editor & Publisher Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher May 30,1998) [Caption]