Our latest Notable Narrative is “Grace in Broken Arrow,” by Brooklyn-based freelancer Kiera Feldman. The long-form investigative narrative, about a child-sex-abuse scandal at Grace Fellowship Christian School outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, ran last week, connecting previously obscure facts of a story that had dogged the school and its evangelical church parent for a decade.
The piece starts this way:
No more sleepovers. No more babysitting, or car rides home. No more being alone with children or “lingering hugs given to students (especially using your hands to stroke or fondle).” Aaron Thompson − Coach Thompson to his PE students − sat in the principal’s office at Grace Fellowship Christian School as his bosses went through the four-page Corrective Action Plan point by point. It was October of 2001, the same month Aaron added “Teacher of the Week” to his resume.
Grace’s leader, Bob Yandian − “Pastor Bob” as everyone calls him − wasn’t there: no need, he had people for this kind of thing. Pastor Bob’s time was better spent sequestered in his study, writing books and radio broadcasts. His lieutenant, Associate Pastor Chip Olin, was a hardnosed guy, “ornery as heck,” people said. Olin brought a USA Today article on the characteristics of child molesters to the meeting. At age 24, Olin explained, Aaron was acting immature and unprofessional, and someone might get the wrong idea.
What follows is an account so detailed, so insidery, some readers assumed the writer was a church member. In fact she’s a 26-year-narrative newcomer who obsessively reported this piece for This Land, a two-year-old web/print publication in Tulsa that the Columbia Journalism Review has called “a rare example of literary journalism on the community level.” Feldman, a former public-radio reporter and producer, recounts what happened in the months leading to the arrest, on child molestation charges, of Aaron Thompson, a popular former Grace basketball star who had become the school’s P.E. teacher and basketball coach. In wrapping the piece around the larger culture of evangelicalism and consequences of abuse, she elevates the story beyond the sensationalism that can sink a sex-scandal story.
Check back tomorrow for our talk with Feldman.