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Angelo Henderson: Pulitzer Prize winner and minister



Yvette Walker: Angelo Henderson was a larger-than-life, award-winning writer who won the Pulitzer prize, but he loved God more.


I talked to his widow Felecia Henderson and she shares the behind-the-scenes details of how and why Angelo moved from media to the ministry. I want to thank Felecia for graciously letting us have a peek into her family life with Angelo and their son Grant as they all walked his journey to leave journalism.


Felecia thank you so much for coming on the show today to talk about your dear husband, Angelo Henderson.


Felecia Henderson: Thank you Yvette, I can't say that enough for you asking me to talk about his life and his journey from journalism to as he would call journalism to Jesus.


Yvette: Oh, I love that. Journalism to Jesus! Well, we've known each other for a while and Angelo, in my mind, I know him as much as a minister just because I'm kind of focused more on the ministry now, but he was such an incredible journalist.


I do obviously want to talk about that path to ministry that he took uh if you can share perhaps why that happened, what his, what his meaning was as you know on the show, we're taking a look at people who were involved in the media in some form or fashion and who made their way to the ministry.


I feel like I am beginning to see that and maybe it's kind of like the funny thing like when you're pregnant then you see all pregnant women, maybe it's something like that,

but I definitely see people making that move.


I think it's really interesting and because I've had that to some degree in my own life uh love,

love hearing the stories and of course, I immediately thought of Angelo because he's such an amazing journalist.


We miss him, we miss him so much. So if you could tell me a little bit about his faith walk. I like to talk to people about their faith walk and before you even do that share with my audience when we lost him.


Okay, um I'll talk a little bit about his faith walk. His parents were very active in the church,

his mother in particular and she took him to choir rehearsals and bible study and dawn bible study.


I had never even heard of dawn bible study until I started dating him and they took me to dawn bible study


Yvette: And it was truly at dawn, right?


Felecia: It truly was at dawn. I was like The Bible study at 6:00 AM?

So religion played a very important part in his life and upbringing and that just continued into adulthood and when we dated and we got married and you know,

he was always active in the church.


When we moved to Detroit, we joined Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, joined the choir,

and became involved in the church. So that was just a very natural part of Angelo's life.


When you talk about people transitioning from journalism to Jesus,

I noticed it too, of considering the news organization we worked for previously,

there were four people who left the business to go into the ministry and I thought,

how odd is that?


But then, Angelo's journey into the ministry was really purely accidental because I already said he was involved in the church, but I think, he was 35 or 36 when he got a call at the end of the year saying they would like him to become a deacon and he's like, wow.


You know, I remember a member of our family said, “you're too young to be a deacon.

That's supposed to be when you're older and you know, you lived more life and so he thought it through and decided to um become a deacon.


So that was a nine-month process of learning. And really, it was kind of like really preparing him for the ministry because of all the duties that deacons perform, you know,

serving baptism and often, and sometimes even filling in when there's not a pastor to preach.


So that was one of the things he had to prepare for when he became a deacon, he had to deliver basically his trial sermon. So that was in 1998.


Yvette: So, let's put this on a timeline for a second. When did you guys get married?


Felecia: We got married in 1989.


Yvette: And so I know I met both of you at the Detroit News, where we both worked and that was in the early nineties. I want to say I got there in 88 89 …


Felecia: You were there before him because I remember him telling me, he met this woman who was also a (member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority) and she was married and you two were sharing the stories of the wedding journey. And so he got there in May of 89.


Yvette: And so his deacon road was a few years after that?


Felecia: Eight years later.


Yvette: OK. When you talk about someone who needs to be a great communicator,

who needs to, as you said, he had to give almost an audition, a sermon, right? To be able to go into, to be a deacon. Angelo was a great communicator. Not only in the written word, which is how he primarily, practiced his craft. But I mean he just had such a wonderful personality.


Everyone knows him for his personality. Everyone knows him as being able to command a room. Did that serve him in this in this role?


Felecia: It did. But he was not comfortable in the beginning. It took a while for him to really feel comfortable in that position (asking) what is my preaching style? How am I supposed to deliver?


And I remember my mother telling him just be you. Like you said he can command a room,

(she told him) you know how to get people's attention.


And I think once he heard that, he realized that he could be comfortable being himself in delivering sermons.


You asked me when he died and it was in 2014 a year later.

I had just boxed his papers, and his sermons, they were everywhere in his office. And I remember I spent a few months organizing his sermons and then reading his sermons and they were just like, the stories he wrote. The writing was so well crafted and you never think about that.


Sometimes you'll hear a phrase when a minister delivers and you say, oh wow, that was catchy.

But when I read through them, I was like, wow. And I remember him saying that everything,

every skill he ever had, every skill he had ever learned, he used it in the ministry.


So I thought about that about his reporting and his writing style when it came to newspapers really transferred over to, preparing and writing sermons.


He would often use recordings and he played different songs to deliver a point he was trying to make. But he always tried to make his sermons very engaging and, and pull the audience in so wonderfully.


Yvette: And I know what you mean when you're listening to a sermon, there's a couple of things that are happening. Obviously, it's touching you spiritually, but it's also making sense to you. And it's also teaching you things and so all of that together. … when you just said he took everything that he knew and put it into that, that makes perfect sense because that's really the best of the best sermons, I think.


ne thing that I have learned when I've talked to a few people is that they recognize that they have been given gifts of communication, various gifts that they wanted to use in the service of the Lord. Did he ever talk about how that was important to use those gifts in God's glory?


Felecia: He didn't talk about it a lot, but I saw it. He would never let me in on his sermon preparation. It was always, “Oh, you'll hear it on Sunday.”

Yvette: Oh, really? You did not see it? You didn't read it ahead?


Felecia: Now, I was his first read editor as a journalist, right? But when it came to the sermons, No, he kept that to himself. But I know he spent as much time reporting and researching like he was reporting a story,


There are so many books, oh my gosh, there are so many books in our lower level where he worked. Books that he used as research for sermons. It's It was it's really ridiculous. It's probably like 1,000 books down there. But yeah, he approached the sermon much like he did a story.


Yvette: I definitely want to talk about the Pulitzer, but before we get there, you're going to church, you are playing a large role in the church, which I also see in other cases and he's getting, you know … maybe drawn in isn't the right word,

but there's a connection.


Felecia: They asked him to become a deacon, he asked to think about it, but then he says,

Yes.


Yvette:

How long of a process was that?


Felecia: That was nine months, 10 months.


Yvette: Was it kind of traditional classes or workshops or things like that?


Felecia: Yeah, I recall they would have um they would have homework in the week, they would meet on Saturdays every Saturday through October, maybe September, and then they would go through meetings with Dr. Adams and other ministers on staff to make sure that they were fully prepared and knowledgeable in the role and the duties. Then they were preparing for their sermon.


It was always on the second Sunday in October and that particular year in 98 was the day before his birthday, I believe, and that made it even more special.


Yvette: So, he is playing this role but still in the newsroom at that point, correct?


Felecia: That's correct. By that time he was at the Wall Street Journal.


Yvette: He worked at the Detroit News for several years, where we met, and then went on to work at the Wall Street Journal. I remember that that was such a special time. We were all so proud. And not just to the Wall Street Journal, but he was the bureau chief …


Felecia: He ultimately became Deputy Bureau chief. And so at that point,

he was Deputy Bureau Chief when he was ordained as a deacon. That was ‘98.

Yvette: So let's talk about the Pulitzer. The Pulitzer website says of Angelo’s story won “For his portrait of a druggist who is driven to violence by his encounters with armed robbery, illustrating the lasting effects of crime.”


Tell us a little bit about what he won the Pulitzer for and what year that was.


Felecia: The year he started working on that story would have been in ‘97 and I think it was published in ‘98. The interesting thing about that Pulitzer story, he had written a story for the Detroit news on the struggle that business owners in the Redford district in Detroit where we're having with crime and he talked to several business owners, one was a pharmacist.


And so fast forward. Five years later we see on television that there had been a pharmacist who had been robbed in an attempted robbery in the Redford district and he killed the robbery, the pharmacist and Angelo said, “So I think that's the same man that I interviewed for ‘crime at the crossroads,’ -- that was the name of the project, and he called him that Monday.


And surprisingly, the pharmacist answered the phone. He really didn't expect him to answer the phone! He's like, “You are back at work? You just killed somebody!” And he said, “Well this is my business.”


So he told him he wanted him … he knew that that was going to be a difficult period for him, he said, but he was really interested in telling his story. … It was the kind of story that people would want to read.


Uh, I missed a step. Most importantly we saw this on the TV news on a Saturday night and the next day we got the Detroit News delivered to our doorstep and he looked in the paper and it said you know pharmacist Dennis Grill was um a robbery, attempted robbery and he killed the burglar. So he said, “Oh my God that is the same guy.”


So anyway, he would call him like once a month to check in on him. So after probably eight months, he wrote the first draft of the story. His editor in New York said, “Oh great story,” but the story really just focused on the pharmacist and what his experience was like, and his editor said “let's tell the story of the man he killed, let's really dig into his story. And he was from Chicago and he lived in a very um dangerous section of Chicago and he sent letters, certified letters, to his mother and she just was not responding.


So his editor said, “You're going to have to go there,” and Angelo's like “OK, this is going to be interesting.”


So as he would tell, if he were telling this story, he would say if he was doing a story in a dangerous neighborhood, he would always take someone who was familiar with the neighborhood, who was carrying a weapon on him legally. He knew he needed to have some backup with him.


So he's like, “OK I'm going to Chicago, who can I have do this? And you know Angelo was a graduate of the Cherub program out of Northwestern University, and that's a high school program for budding journalists. So he had he maintained a friendship with a woman who was in the program with him. She was a journalist in Milwaukee but her husband was from Chicago.

He knew the community well, so he was, his sidekick, if you will.


They went to the apartment, interviewed the mom and his brother just happened to come in. His brother had just been released from prison and he just started to tell, started telling the story of his brother.


And Angelo was just writing these notes, taking them furiously. And interestingly, the judges said that part of the story read like Ernest Hemingway. It can't get any better than that right?


So he's just taking notes -- he never used recording devices -- and his friend said, “when there's I give you this signal that means you've got to wrap it up quick because something's about to go down.” And so the brother leaves goes in the room and shortly after that his friend gives the signal. And so they wrap up the interview. They get out of there.


I find out years later that when they were leaving, they

ran to their cars and as they're driving off quickly, the brother is in the middle of the street firing a gun at them.


Yvette: What?


Felecia: I couldn't believe it, he was telling us at a journalism conference and I'm sitting in the back like “what?!”


Yvette: Wow.


Felecia: Yeah. So it was it was crazy. So that story was published, I want to say early 98,

and you know, he ultimately sent a letter of thanks to the mother, he sent her the story. And then a little funny side note, the editors, they said the response reaction was great, from the public. And the editor said, oh we should have you go back and tell the story of the brother. (laughter)


Angelo was like, no, no, That will not be happening. (laughter)


Yvette: Oh wow. Thank you so much for sharing that. It's just so interesting, And you know we are a little bit of news nerds and people watching this may not necessarily care about that, but I just want to point out that I think so much of (what we as journalists do) plays a role in all the kind of decisions that we make and I think potentially played a role in how he wanted to really spend the rest of his life in service to God.


Did he talk about … you didn't hear that story until at the journalism conference, but I can't help but wonder was he praying? Was he happy God was with him? (laughter)


Felecia: Oh yeah, knowing him. Yeah, he was and it's interesting because that was even a faith walk … that story was nominated as a wild card, so it wasn't even placed in a particular category, it was a wild card entry and so the judges liked it and they put it in the feature writing category. So the fact that it even won … it's so interesting because 20 years later I became a Pulitzer judge myself in the feature writing category and I got to see who the judges were in that category and I got to speak with one of the judges and he said still resonates as one of the best stories I've ever read.


And so yeah, it's really nice that people still hold that story up as the bar when it comes to writing.


Yvette: I know you're so proud,


Felecia: I'm so proud. You know, we've all we've been in this business long enough to know that there are editors who just take pleasure in dimming or you know, thwarting your success. His very first editor told him he needed to reconsider being a reporter and then, two editors after that told him, you're the worst journalist in the department. So for me as the wife, the supporter, I'm praying “Lord, I know I'm not supposed to be praying for this Pulitzer, but I would love it if you could just let him win this prize so he can show the naysayers he has the talent and he's recognized as one of the industry's best.”


Yvette: And so in 99, he wins the prize. And some people might say that's the pinnacle, where can you go from there? And I'm not saying that that had anything to do with the decision to leave full-time journalism and become a minister, but talk a little bit about that path.


When did that happen? What year? And what was going on around that time?


Felecia: I have to start in 99, right after he won the Pulitzer and I believe, and I'm not sure how these conversations went, I just knew that was April and by August or September. He's telling me he signed up for a class in the urban ministry program at Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, and I'm like, when do you have time to do that?


After he died, I was going through um you know, actually clearing out um just boxes that he had had from church and I found these notebooks. I had them in a pile to throw away and I went downstairs in his office, and it was just like the spirit was saying “retrieve those books” and I did, and I opened one and one of those books was his journal for the first class he took in this urban ministry program.


And the first thing it said was, “I just told my wife I decided to enroll in this program and she looks at me ‘like how in the world are you going to have time to do this?’”


And he says, “I'm asking myself that too.”


And so as I kept reading through the journal, it just gave me a little more insight as to how the program was starting to shape him. And then I found a letter that he had written to Dr.

Charles Adams at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church. This was probably a year later in 2000. It said, “I'm sitting in this 25th-floor office with this view of downtown Detroit.

I have a story I'm supposed to finish, but I don't even have the desire to do that anymore. All I have is the desire to serve God.


Yvette: And there's the call.


Felecia: Yeah. And I thought, wow, that's interesting cause he never, ever really shared that moment with me. He graduated in 2002, and at that point, he didn't know what capacity in ministry he wanted to serve.


He knew he did not want to be a pastor of a church. He just knew he wanted to serve God. So we were still at Hartford at that point and I think at that time because we had been working as teachers in Children's Church and then I think he was ministering to the teenagers. The last professor he had in seminary, called him in May 2003 and said I'd like you to join, Hope United Methodist Church in Southfield.


I remember him calling me at work and I said, “does that mean we have to leave Hartford?”

I was like, oh man, are you serious? And so he mulled that over for about four or five months. We didn't even talk, he didn't talk about it.


And so he got a call from the same pastor in September of 2003 and they had a Friends and Family day at the church and my mother just happened to be in town. So I said, “take mom with you because if you get her to sign off on this then we should be good.


And my mother loved the church.


At that point, he was working on this yearlong project at the same time. I mean he has left the Wall Street Journal, he's back at the Detroit News. He turns in the first draft and for whatever reason the executive editor says he’s no longer interested in the project. He’s killed it. And he says that's fine, I'm quitting and I'm going to the ministry. So that's what he did. He decided to take that leap. And it was interesting how God had to work on me because I was very angry. I carried a lot of anger because I sat next to the editor every day and I thought, “OK, so God, you really are working on me too.”


But then around that first one-year mark, I said to Angelo, “You know what? This is clearly how God had this happen because it is what I learned in that year, other things were happening and, in my experience, when God says no, it's like that door closes, it's so abrupt! It's like it's one of those things that just really makes you pivot and go in the direction he wants you to go.


I think that was by design and he said, “You know, I never thought of it that way, but if this project had done really well, it would have been harder for me to leave the ministry or leave journalism for the ministry.”


Yvette: Great story. I think there's such an important message in there to really anyone listening that when God shuts doors, I mean, there are reasons behind that and it just will not make sense to any of us.


Felecia: And so, it was around that time that he, he coined this phrase, journalism would drive you to Jesus.


Yvette: Amen to that!


Felecia: There are a lot of different stressors that are inherent in the job and sometimes you don't have the right people in those positions of authority who make decisions and decisions that are made sometimes are arbitrary. It causes frustration for people and forces them to make choices about whether they want to stay in the business or not.


But I think to the point you were stating earlier about why people tend to go into the ministry from journalism. When you think about why people choose journalism as a career, there's usually we feel like we want to save the world.


There's some part of us that wants to really make our readers feel like or people in the community feel like their stories are told and making sure their stories are being told right? Because they've been so long ignored particularly in communities of color.


But I just think in general, journalists want to save the world and we have,

personal missions and reasons why we got in this business. And I think that's probably that thread that moves people into ministry in terms of helping people and wanting to be of service in the same way that journalists are in service to community.


Yvette: That makes complete sense to me. I think sometimes it doesn't make sense to other people because there's this love-hate relationship with the media and so many people, especially today, believe the media is as far away from Jesus as you can get right, you know, and not thinking that the people who are practicing journalism have this within them, that really there's a I think that there's a connection to faith. I mean, when we're doing our work and we haven't talked about this with anybody yet, but I mean, I feel like when we're doing our work, we're doing a lot on faith, wouldn’t you say?


Felecia: Absolutely, Absolutely. You're hoping you get that source you've met, you're making these connections with sources, and you're hoping that they will call you back so you can tell the story. I mean, that is that's faith, right? It's very interesting.

I work now with journalism organizations and I'm coaching them on how to talk with members of the community, how to um how to be present in the community, a community that hasn't seen those people behind the scenes creating stories so they understand that these are people who care about the community. But for so long, journalists have been inside the newsroom and not in the communities that they cover.


So it's very easy to villainize as you were saying earlier, to villainize journalists, and perceive that we're the enemy. But that's not the case and you know for most of us we really care about the communities but we haven't been visible.


Yvette: Yes, you're right about that. So, I don't think we can really finish talking about this without talking about family.


You mentioned that only when you read his journal you understood, you know, really how he was wrestling with it. But how was it for you I don't know if you were ever considered first lady anywhere?


Felecia: What's interesting is people tried to pull me into that. At Hope Church where there were other pastors who were married, I'd say, “look,

I'm the fourth wife, fourth lady. There is a first lady. I am not going to take that role. But they would try to pull me into events or in different ways of service, and he would have to remind them that my job is at the Detroit News and mother to Grant and taking care of him while he was there until 8, 9, 10 o'clock at night every night.


So I really served where I could, but I was more support. Especially because he worked harder at the church than he did in journalism. And that was during Grant's formative years from he was in the fourth grade until Grant was a sophomore in college.


Yvette: So I'm glad you brought up Grant. We couldn't finish this conversation without talking about the two most important family people in his life who were family. He has become such an amazing young man and I love when I see any social media posts about him.


I imagine this might be true with any father-son relationship when the father is in the church, but because Angelo was so magnetic, I wonder do you think Grant ever felt like he might follow daddy's footsteps into the ministry at some point?


Felecia: I've gotten glimpses of that. So, we'll have to see, I mean, Angelo never thought he would ever be in the ministry. If you had said this to him when we got married and he was 27 … oh, no. It's really interesting. I found that those who are truly called are the ones who fight it. But there's something that's really planted there. And I think there's enough that he learned through not only being in his presence but through osmosis and just what he poured into him that has really made a difference.


And it was something that Grant said to me last year and I thought, I guess I better hold on to these robes! Now if he hears this, he'll be like, what? But you never know what God has in store for you. So that's why you have to always be open.


But it is beautiful that he understands the word. He walks in the word. He has his own personal journey. So it's very nice to sit back and watch that.


Yvette: So we lost him in 2014. For you and for Grant, how did this journey take you to a place of peace?


Felecia: You know that was it right away oddly enough. I mean I was devastated because you know my best friend Um 28 years … it just felt like my arm was cut off. But at the same time, I know God makes no mistakes.


I also know that you know our time is already predetermined. And so when you go through those different stages of grief, anger was never there for me. I just said God's in control, and God you've got to guide me through it now.


Interestingly. I felt Angelo's presence right away. That's when I began to understand when people say, “Oh they're with us in spirit.” Yeah, that really rang true.


Yvette: This a story that I just don't think has been told before and I think it's an important one. And I and I hope that this series answers some questions, just recognizing that, God can touch someone and take them in a completely different direction. And I know we've seen it in lots of different places. But I'm seeing it in this industry.


Well, Felecia, I think this is going to be a very special installment in Journalists Advancing Ministry.


Felecia: Thank you and thank you for having me and thank you for allowing me to share our story, Angelo's story, and his journey.



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