Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Behind each one, a story of faith

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Before Peggy Wehmeyer became the first full-time religion reporter for a U.S. broadcast news network, she worked for a Dallas TV station. While there, she had a knack for finding a faith angle in many stories.

After coming back from yet another reporting assignment with a story about religion, an exasperated producer exclaimed: "How come no matter what we send you out on, you come back with God?" She replied: "How come you keep missing Him?"

That story came to mind for me this week while thinking about Jason Collins, the first male professional athlete to come out as gay -- and the mostly missing faith element to his story.

When Collins came out publicly in a thoughtful essay in Sports Illustrated, the media across North America wrote and said a lot about his groundbreaking move. One thing that received almost no attention was the role religion played in his decision.

As it turns out, one of the things Collins credited with helping him make his decision was his Christian upbringing.

"I'm from a close-knit family," he wrote. "My parents instilled Christian values in me. They taught Sunday school, and I enjoyed lending a hand. I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding."

In a column on SI.com titled The Story Behind Jason Collins' Story, reporter Jon Wertheim wrote that Collins took it as a sign from God when, on the day of the interview about his sexuality, he read from a daily prayer manual his grandmother had given him.

That day's entry was titled Freedom, and it said: "The clarion call of freedom sounds within my soul, trumpeting the truth that the love of God liberates me from unhappiness, hurt or fear. I bid farewell to any emptiness from the past, and open myself to realizing my heart's deepest longing and aspiration."

While the faith element in Collins' story was mostly missing, another important story that revolved around faith was almost completely absent from the major media -- the death of Leopold Engleitner, the oldest known survivor of the Nazi concentration camps.

Unlike the million of Jews who suffered and were murdered in the camps because of their race, Engleitner -- who died April 21 at the age of 107 -- was a Jehovah's Witness and a conscientious objector who refused, on the basis of his faith, to join the German army.

Also unlike the Jews, Engleitner and the other Jehovah's Witnesses who were rounded up for not supporting Hitler were given an option to leave the camps -- if they would renounce their faith.

Engleitner refused. He spent four years in the Buchenwald, Niederhagen and Ravensbrueck camps before being sent to work as a slave labourer on a farm.

When asked why he refused to renounce his faith so he could go free, he said that doing so "would have been a complete denial of my faith. I would have acknowledged that I was no longer one of Jehovah's Witnesses from that moment on."

He was convinced, he said "that the Nazis were wrong and that peace was only possible by living in agreement with Bible principles. I was determined not to ever give up. I would have sooner died than give up my conviction."

Also, by renouncing his faith in order to obtain his freedom, Engleitner knew it would have jeopardized other members of his church.

"If I would have signed it would have been a major triumph for the SS and strengthened their belief that further pressure would bring more Jehovah's Witnesses to their knees," he said.

Before he died, his friend Frederic Fuss said that what captivated him about Engleitner was the strength of his "unbroken will and determination," his "positive outlook," and the fact that "the intensity of his trial never made him bitter."

During presentations at schools before he died, Engleitner would tell students: "You don't need to go along with peer pressure, you can stick by your conscience."

Jason Collins and Leopold Engleitner: Two completely different men making two completely different decisions with very different consequences -- yet behind each one, a story of faith.

Or, to quote Wehmeyer, all you need to do is look.

jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 J14

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