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All-formats team tells the shared story of rural Missouri churches, immigrants, adversity and faith

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It’s a story of two churches in rural Missouri, only 30 miles apart — and worlds apart.

One congregation is mostly white, while the other offers services in five languages with members from around the world. The pandemic has united them, with pastors meeting every week to support each other, share ideas and figure out how to continue ministering as Missouri increasingly struggles with overburdened intensive care units and rocketing case numbers.

The New York-based team of national writer David Crary, youth and religion reporter Luis Andres Henao and video journalist Jessie Wardarski produced an all-formats package that seamlessly integrated this ethnic,racial,geographic and economic diversity, shining a light on communities that aren’t famous American places but are integral to the nation’s identity.

Noel,Missouri,population 1,800,was hit disproportionately by the spread of the virus. The town has a large immigrant population,including Pacific Islanders,Mexicans,Sudanese and refugees from Myanmar. Most arrived there drawn by the opportunity of a job at a local Tyson Foods chicken processing plant,and many got sick. AP has reported from the beginning about the superspreader meatpacking industry,but this all-formats story showed the families behind the numbers.

On the ground,Henao and Wardarski showed their ability to earn strangers’ trust,giving the pair intimate access to families’ lives. The reporting team attended five Sunday services in different languages and witnessed 11 baptisms in a day. They followed members of the congregations to a food pantry, hospital visits and baby showers.

They also closely documented how the leaders of two congregations have struggled to minister at a time when they temporarily shut their churches,self-isolated from loved ones and lost friends and family to the virus. And as it has for many others,the issue of mask mandates has troubled local pastors.

“A lot of them say,‘I’m damned if I do,damned if I don’t,’” said pastor Mike Leake at Calvary of Neosho,a Southern Baptist church. “If you had a mask mandate,you’d have people leave your church. By the same token,you’d have some people leaving if you don’t mandate masks.”

At the same time,the coverage showed the kindness of small town life,with a strong video piece taking readers inside the churches and people’s daily lives. The story was published by hundreds of AP members and customers,and its video promo on AP’s Twitter page was viewed more than 68,000 times.

Crary received an email from longtime AP enterprise editor Chris Sullivan days after publication that sums up the story’s impact. Sullivan wrote: “The story is one of the most moving I’ve read in a long time and thoughtfully pushes aside any simple notions that readers may have about how their fellow countrymen and women are dealing with the pandemic,and what’s behind their ideas and actions. And I have to add that the images intimately and beautifully touch every aspect of what the words convey. The story began with a great idea and could not have been executed better.”

For compelling coverage of diverse communities united in adversity and navigating with faith,the team of Crary, Henao and Wardarski wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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