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Editor elicits understanding, relationships

There's room for more issues in the archives behind Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp.

Freelance ecumenical journalist Mary Stamp, editor and publisher, who co-founded The Fig Tree with Holy Names Sister Bernadine Casey in the spring of 1984 started work on it in the fall of 1983 after attending the World Council of Churches (WCC) Sixth Assembly in Vancouver B.C.

One assembly document on "Communicating Credibly" sparked thinking about the editorial approach, including being clear and concise to hold the attention of readers saturated by media.

Mary reviewed The Fig Tree history and described how it grew into a peace/solutions journalism editorial approach.

A 1967 graduate of the University of Oregon School of Journalism, she became a freelance feature writer for national denominational publications and dailies in Astoria, Ore., and Fresno, Calif., before writing and selling ads for seven years for the weekly Standard Register in Tekoa.

A pastor friend on the Spokane Christian Coalition board knew she had started a publication called InterChurch in Fresno and suggested the coalition work with her. They recruited people to serve on a steering committee. One was Holy Names Sister Bernardine Casey, who co-founded The Fig Tree with Mary and was associate editor.

"We still have the Holy Names sisters actively involved with editing, writing, planning, mailings, displays and distribution," said Mary. "Sr. Catherine Ferguson brings her global and national leadership experience to the board, writing, editing and helping raise funds, including an annual grant from the sisters.

"Originally, we saw a need because religion was becoming invisible in media, except to play up contention and divisions," Mary said, likening its sidelining religious voices to ignoring the voices of women unless they fit the stereotypes of the mostly male-dominated media.

Mary brought a background in ecumenical religion—working to build understanding among the diverse faith communities—and in feature writing.

She used those skills to write features about religion, focusing on people of faith and values who were making a difference and able to share why they are committed to justice, peace, love, creation care and more.

"I have a passion to hear people's stories beyond the surface to understand who they are, which often means exploring their cultural heritage," she said, noting that people originally from Austria, Zimbabwe, Brazil and Korea have different language backgrounds that are part of who they are.

"In training writers, I encourage them to listen beyond the surface in order to sense underlying faith and cultural perspectives to gain a better understanding of nuances of what the person is saying," Mary said.

"It's important to ask questions to help them articulate who they are, why they're doing what they're doing and how that relates to their faith and values," she said.

In 1999, John Olson, executive director of the coalition when The Fig Tree started, retired. New leaders wanted The Fig Tree to be a newsletter promoting what was then the Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries.

"That would have undermined support, because we were established for wider coverage and to be independent," said Mary.

In 2000, The Fig Tree separated and in 2001 became an independent nonprofit with a mission to communicate among the community of faith and to build understanding among diverse people and connect people to share resources.

"That mission opened us to being more than a newspaper. In 2006, we added the directory, which the Interfaith Council no longer had enough staff to do. We also took on planning the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference," said Mary. "I had helped coordinate both as associate director of the council."

The Fig Tree mission includes educational events and other media—its website, social media, networking and plans for a podcast.

"Much of what we do we learned by doing it as we moved from typing copy set in galleys that we pasted on layout pages, to using computer design and photo software to prepare camera-ready pages for the printer. We learned to design a website by doing it with website design software. We continue to consult with people like Kai Teoh, who is volunteering to help us make the website more user friendly.

"Over the years, we began to talk of our journalistic approach as peace journalism, which means covering various perspectives, not just two opposing viewpoints. Because we share stories of people who make a difference, we also refer to our approach as solutions journalism," said Mary, who found both terms used by journalism schools and by the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC).

"We wonder why society is so divided. Most mass media define news as what divides—conflict, violence, sensationalism, sex and the unusual.

"Divisions are exacerbated when just two sides are covered to the point people grow numb," said Mary, pointing out that "peace journalism understands that our differences are not wide gaps or just two options, but multiple nuanced differences, with many areas of common ground.

"We help people articulate those nuances and realize there are solutions, and people are capable of solving problems," she said. "All sorts of people do all sorts of actions out of their values, faith and spiritual commitment. People want to make the world a better place.  Stories help people tell why they are doing what they are doing."

Looking over 40 years of Fig Tree newspapers, Mary said the issues contain thousands of stories. At first, issues were eight tabloid-size pages. Now they are just 12 or 16 pages—no more—so many read the whole issue because it's enough, not too much.

By training students and others as editors and writers, The Fig Tree has an impact on their writing for other media.

"I've seen changes. Local media now feature stories on difference makers. They see how stories empower people," said Mary, a member of the Northwest Alliance for Media Literacy.

As The Fig Tree interviews people, it also hopes to help them articulate their story with integrity and confidence for other publications.

"Part of doing an interview is understanding that each encounter with another human being is an encounter with the source of all being," Mary said.

"Often we argue over or are influenced by statistics and polls that are not objective but can be skewed by how they are interpreted. Also I read news apps on my cell phone, I see that much is labeled as opinion or an interpretation of the news."

"We struggle in society knowing what is true. Trust does not come from the best facts but from the power of a story—lived experience—not geared to convince," said Mary, who has seen empowerment come from stories.

"As a feature writer, I believe stories motivate and show threads of common ground," she said. "I love doing this. I find meaning. I find my being in the relationships I have with people."

The Fig Tree has been influenced by Mary's experience with the World Council of Churches, which involved living, working and studying with 60 people from 40 countries in a 1969 to 1970 study program, and attending assemblies at Canberra in 1991, at Harare in 1998, at Porto Alegre in 2006, at Busan in 2013 and online at Karlsruhe in 2022.

"From my living in a global, intercultural, interracial, interfaith community, The Fig Tree is multifaith, multicultural, multiracial and multi-gender," said Mary. "We are also committed to raising the voice of women to build a healthy, just community of women and men."

As part of its anniversary, The Fig Tree will scan issues from the first 20 years to include with pdf files of the last 20 years that are already on the website. They will also in the online archives of Washington Digital Newspapers.

The Fig Tree also plans two books. One will share The Fig Tree history through articles over the years. The other will compile selected articles and editorials by Mary.

For information, call 535-1813 or email

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April 2024