Bringing journalists into an academic project breaks some conventional standards of social science research, which typically focuses on controlled samples and standardized research protocols. Doing so allowed us to pull off a far-ranging project such as this, and to look at questions about how both journalists and academics craft narratives about the people they study.
To give the researchers and journalists a common frame, we provided an adapted “life story interview” tool (see page 62 for the guide), which encouraged journalists to solicit exemplars to share their life trajectories. Religion is not a “thing” that can be abstracted and examined in isolation; rather it is integrally interwoven in everyday experience. Furthermore, examining spirituality or religious identity at a single point in time is not adequate, as spiritual exemplars evolve in response to particular crises, events, opportunities—and the quest for meaning itself. Within these life story interviews, CRCC asked its researchers and journalists to touch on common themes: inspiration; sustenance, the reciprocal effect of the work on the exemplars’ spirituality, the shadow side, and their relationship with institutional forces, whether their own organization or a religious institution.
Working with about 140 coding categories, academic researchers have processed hundreds of interviews, analyzing themes across the global database. Themes include: the life trajectory of exemplars, values they embody, their spiritual practices and beliefs, as well as their personal qualities and characteristics, program focus and strategies, and their shadow side.
It is simplistic to say that religion or spirituality inspires exemplars to act in the world. Rather, the interviews reveal multiple pathways to humanitarian work. For many individuals, it was a search for meaning and purpose in their lives. For others, they encountered a personal crisis or trauma in their community that called out for a response. And for some, it was a nearly accidental involvement where they engaged in initial acts of charity that then evolved into a life-long passion.
At the heart of exemplars are a number of values, including compassion, empathy, selflessness, hope, tolerance, courage and humility. These are individuals who live for others, not themselves or their own happiness. And yet joy and a sense of purpose permeate their lives.