According to the Yellow Pages, there were 400 churches in and around Lansing, Michigan. That meant there were 400-plus ministers and many thousands of lay people who either read the newspaper or decided not to. Surely, he thought, these readers must have some kind of reaction to what they saw in the news.
Yet Russell kept looking usually without success for letters to the editor offering sharp, winsome Christian commentary on news events. Sometimes weeks would pass without the appearance of such a letter, or a similar point of view in the guest editorial columns.
After a few years of this ritual, Russell decided that enough was enough.
“The problem does not exist in the editorial policies of the newspaper, which has a fair, open and reasonable position toward local participation in all of its departments,” wrote Russell, in one 1995 essay. “No, the problem exists in the lack of Christian understanding of biblical vision, mission and strategy required to disciple our nation.”
Thinking like an entrepreneur, Russell projected his local analysis out to the national level and reached a logical conclusion. He decided that it would be good if more Christians learned how to write, rather than spending so much of their time complaining about the news media.
So Russell opened his checkbook and, in his own quiet way, tried to do something positive. Starting in the early 1990s, he began looking for writers with a knack for expressing their faith in mainstream publications, and he kept at it until his death on August 31 at the age of 80.
Russell started the annual Amy Awards with a top prize of $10,000 to honor writers who published newspaper commentaries that quoted scripture while wrestling with issues in public life. He started a national “Church Writing Group” network to encourage writers to learn from each other's successes and failures. I met him because of his dedication to helping college students explore their talents, through scholarships and donations to Christian campuses that emphasized mainstream media writing.
As a businessman, Russell was known as the founder of Russell Business Forms, which grew into the Lansing-based RBF Inc. In 1976, Jim and Phyllis Russell started the Amy Foundation to support efforts to spread the Christian faith and help the poor. They named it after their fifth and youngest child, who was born with Down's Syndrome. A spokesperson for the foundation (amyfound.org) said the family would take some time before making decisions about the future of the Amy Awards and the writing projects.
“When you stop and think about it, he had no credentials of any kind when it came to working with the mainstream media,” said William R. Mattox, Jr., an Amy Award-winner who is a member of USA Today's op-ed page board of contributors. “He just came up with this idea and, when it seemed like it was doing some good, he stuck with it. He never quit.”
Russell knew what he was after. An early set of guidelines sent to the church-based writing circles stressed that their writers should strive to reach people who retained some interest in religious faith, but were rarely seen in pews. It wasn't enough to preach to the choir, because 60 to 80 percent of all newspaper subscribers say they read letters to the editor.
“The writing language should be contemporary secular English, not fluent evangelical or fellowship Christianese,” said the brochure. A few lines later, Russell advised, “The writing will never be strident or harsh, making simple points with sledge hammers, embarrassing the body of Christ.”
Russell sincerely believed that most newspaper editors are interested in reaching as wide an audience as possible. Thus, editors have a powerful incentive to allow fair, constructive debates in their editorial pages about moral issues. The question was whether religious believers had the skills to compete in the marketplace.
“Jim Russell was not the kind of man who played the heavy and came on strong,” said Mattox. “He really believed that it made more sense to take a gentle approach and then stick to it. That's what he was all about, as a businessman and as a believer.”
Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Atlantic University and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.