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AP team finds diversity of politics and religion among West Virginia evangelicals

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The story began when AP global religion editor Sally Stapleton noticed, under a story by the religion team, a comment posted about Christian leaders who’ve backed former President Donald Trump, and the clergy’s messaging following the Feb. 6 Capitol riot.

“A difficult conversation most Americans are not ready to have,” Lesley Dillon tweeted. “But most people in my rural, Appalachian hometown are being radicalized at church by their pastor, which is the person they trust the most.”

Stapleton asked reporter Luis Andres Henao to look into a story. Henao first spoke with Travis Lowe, the pastor of Crossroads Church in Bluefield, West Virginia. Lowe said that he and other pastors were concerned that fiery rhetoric and baseless claims from the pulpit could stoke more divisions in their small city of 10,000 in West Virginia. He also mentioned Doyle Bradford, a local pastor who joined some congregants during the Jan 6. rally that degenerated into the storming of the Capitol.

Henao saw that on Facebook Bradford said he believed the riot was a “planned response from non-Trump supporters.” He claimed there was “plenty of evidence of fraud” in the presidential election and called on people to “wake up” because “America is at stake.”

Before their reporting trip,Henao and Wardarski tried unsuccessfully for days to contact Bradford and members of his church. Still,they traveled to Bluefield,hoping they could meet Bradford in person and explain the importance of including him and his congregants in the story.

On their first day in town,they attended a basketball game by Bluefield State College where they met and interviewed a student who attends Bradford’s church. In the following days,they also spoke at length to congregants at two other churches. In between interviews,Henao continued to message Bradford on social media and share some of the work by the religion team. Bradford,who had not responded for almost two weeks,finally agreed to an interview. But hours later,he politely declined,asked the reporters not to attend his Sunday service or contact his flock, and wished them a safe trip back home.

After covering two other Sunday services,the team decided to pass by Bradford’s Father’s House International Church. They waited for the service to end before introducing themselves. They already had a “no” for an answer,but they persisted,because as they explained to Bradford they cared about their reporting and they wanted an open conversation where they could give him the opportunity to explain his views in his own words,rather than relying on his Facebook posts. Bradford explained that he had declined because he doesn’t trust the media, thanked them for taking the time to meet him in person and said that he would think about it again and give them an answer soon.

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Luis Henao, religion team faith and youth reporter, conducts an interview in Bluefield, W.Va., January 2021. – AP / JESSIE WARDARSKI

A few hours later,he sent them a message agreeing to talk on the record. The result was a two-hour interview in which Bradford defended his actions, denied he was part of a larger movement toward Christian nationalism and said that he did not participate in or even see the violence on Jan. 6. He also said that he had only attended the rally to exercise his freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

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Religion team visual journalist Jessie Wardarski records a coal train in Bluefield, W.Va., January 2021. – AP / LUIS ANDRES HENAO

After the interview,Henao and Wardarski insisted on speaking with members of his community,and Bradford helped contact congregants who spoke about their Christian values and their concerns,from losing coal jobs to the new administration’s support for abortion rights. In the end, the pastors and members of the three churches had much in common. All of them condemned the desecration of the Capitol and prayed for a way to find common ground. But they diverged on their view of what they believed should be the role of evangelical Christianity in America’s divisive politics.

Moving the same day the impeachment proceedings began, the all-formats package garnered more than 30,000 page views on AP News with high engagement. It also sparked plenty of discussion on social platforms about the role of Christianity in American politics.

Political coverage too often lumps all evangelicals together,but with gentle persuasion and balanced reporting,Henao and Wardarski produced a nuanced portrait of three congregations in one West Virginia town, earning them this week’s Best of the States award.

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