Confession is good for the soul, but it will also tell you a little bit of how I have come to write some 750 religion columns for The News-Gazette. Way back in the day in northwestern Kansas where I was raised, when I got to High School, I was interested in sports and girls. I was a big fish in an extremely tiny pond. My studies took third place, although I liked to read. I loved the books by John Steinbeck.
When I went off to Kansas State University, I started writing my thoughts down in spiral notebooks, a habit that has continued for more 40 years. About 50 journals ago, I turned from spiral notebooks to my favorite moleskine journal (www.moleskine.com).
In a college history class one day, the professor used the word precipice. A precipice is a steep cliff. I wouldn’t have thought a thing about it, except the girl sitting beside me, who I knew liked me, asked me after class, “What does precipice mean?” I had no idea but instantly said, “Oh, it means a need for understanding.”
“Oh, come on,” she said. “That’s ridiculous.” In my pride and stupidity, I didn’t back off and said, “Look it up. You’ll see I’m right.” She did, and then promptly looked me up. “Precipice means a steep cliff, Mr. ‘Oh, it means a need for understanding.’ Maybe you ought to jump off one.” I remember exactly where I was standing when she confronted me. “I’m sorry.” We never talked much after that. She quit sitting beside me in class.
That very day I walked my ashamed self into the office of the Manhattan Mercury newspaper and subscribed. For the next two-and-a-half years I read that daily paper cover to cover. I discovered columnists such as William Safire, Russell Baker, Jack Anderson and Mike Royko. Sometimes I stood in my tiny third-floor apartment holding the paper and read the columns out loud. I wrote in my journal, trying to imitate the writing styles I liked. I looked up vocabulary words I didn’t know.
March forward 25 years to the late 90s when I was a campus pastor at the UI. One day I called The News-Gazette’s John Foreman, the editor in chief of the paper. I told him I’d like to write the religion column. A local rabbi was writing a column every other week, and I said I thought it would be good to have a Protestant pastor like me write on the off weeks.
Foreman said writing a regular column is harder than I thought. He asked me to send him 50 ideas, which I did. He liked them. Then he asked me to write three columns. After I sent him my first one, he called me and said, “I like this. We’re going to run it. Think you can keep them coming?”
“Of course,” I said assuredly. I wrote two more columns, but then I froze. “I have written everything I know,” I moaned to my wife. “I jumped too soon. I have no clue what I’ll write for my fifth or sixth columns. I can’t even write my fourth one. I’m going to call John Foreman, apologize and say, ‘I’m sorry, sir. I guess you’re right. This is harder than I thought. Thanks any way. I won’t bother you again.’”
“Don’t do that,” my wife said. “Why are you worried about your fifth column anyway? Just sleep on it and your 4th column will come to you in the morning.” It did, and, well, that’s what I still do. I never called Foreman, thankfully. Even now, I rarely plan ahead what I will write next. Forty years in the ministry gives me plenty of fodder. So, I’m not too worried about my 760th column, just my 754th one. And that is this one.
I’ve been a freelancer the whole time, having always continued in full-time vocational ministry. While no two columns I’ve written are the same, the themes are. I write that life is a journey, that it’s a battle, that it’s often unfair. I write that some people’s faith, though maybe very different from yours, might be stronger than yours.
Most papers don’t have the resources to carefully cover issues of faith the way they might like, even though faith and religion are the heart and soul of communities. With so many newspapers selling and changing, I fear that some of the most important stories of faith throughout society, will be left untold.
I certainly plan to tell them in the newspaper as long as I can. But like other writers, I write about faith issues on my blog (donfollis.com). There I write about what is on my mind on any particular day. I hope you’ll look for me there. But be forewarned, if you subscribe, and start reading the blog, you might just encounter the word precipice.