On Preach, Lee Hale Explores the Messiness of Faith

Preach Podcast KUER(Credit: KUER)

Lee Hale is an award-winning reporter who has been covering religion for over three years. He grew up in a devout Mormon household and eventually moved to Salt Lake City to cover his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This experience got him thinking differently not only about his own faith and beliefs, but the faith and beliefs of others. So now, in his new podcast Preach, he wants to talk about life’s big questions and the messy middle of faith.

Preach is for people who pray every day, or only during heavy turbulence on a plane, or not at all. If you miss late-night, existential dorm room chats, this is a podcast for you. Or if you’re curious about what your neighbor believes and how that informs the way they wrestle with struggles in life, this is the podcast for you, too. Produced by Salt Lake City-based public radio station KUER (NPR Utah), the 10-episode season debuts this week. I spoke with Hale to learn more about how Preach came to be, what’s in store for listeners on the show’s first season, and what advice he has for aspiring podcasters.

For those just learning about Preach, what’s the elevator pitch?

The pitch has changed a lot. The reason I’m able to do this show is because last summer I applied for a grant from Public Radio Exchange and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. They were interested in funding shows from the western United States and especially “middle America.” I’m using quotations because that sounds like a pejorative. They basically wanted to fund national programming that wasn’t from L.A. or New York or D.C., the classic public radio hubs.

When I applied, the show was called “Churchy.” It was a pretty simple pitch that Doug Fabrizio helped me out with a lot. When we talk about religion in reporting, we usually try to take a detour as often as possible. Like we’re talking about Islam, but we really want to talk about national security. Or we talk about this musician and we touch on their Christianity, but we really want to talk about their album, right? We get away from it. So initially the idea was, let’s lean into it. But when PRX offered me the grant, they also offered six months of training. So once a month me and a small team from KUER would go and pitch the podcast “Shark Tank”-style to a group of industry people in Boston. And then they would tear it to shreds.

The first idea, as I mentioned, was “Churchy” and people had some issues with the name and thought the concept was vague. Every time we came back from Boston, we were hanging our heads a little bit but also felt some encouragement. The big question was “Who is this for? Who’s going to listen to this show?” Originally the idea was people who listen to public radio but also want to hear about religion. That was way too vague. So we did some audience research, and one thing we settled on was a lot of people mentioned that they wish they could have more free-thinking, open-minded conversations. Think dorm room, late-night chats in college. That period of your life goes away as you grow up. Once you get in the rhythm of work, you don’t meet that many new people in your late 20s, 30s, and 40s. And you don’t want to do that with people you’re so familiar with. Then the idea was, “let’s make something where people can eavesdrop on an existential conversation.”

That’s a long answer to the question, which is that “Preach” is about people in the messy middle of faith, people who are struggling and are honest about it. It doesn’t mean they should be struggling right now, but that they’ve gone through something messy and I want to talk about that. Part of the inspiration is that I’m a religion reporter who’s been covering my own church, the Mormon Church, for a few years and I’m in a messy place. I’m trying to find people who I can relate to.

When you say people that are struggling and who are honest about it, do you meet people who are struggling but aren’t honest about that?

I think something happens sometimes when religion comes up. People’s eyes get kind of glazed over. The real thing is people have a really awesome BS meter when it comes to religion talk. You can tell when someone’s giving you half of the truth or somebody is giving you the party line. And for me it’s really refreshing when someone says, “I don’t believe in God but I pray pretty frequently.” Or, “I’m not very religious but I got really angry when my mom died and I found myself kind of trying to work through that with some higher power; I don’t know what that was.” Or somebody saying, “I just 100% believe that there is an afterlife and I have no idea what that means.” I find those kinds of expressions really satisfying.

What has surprised you about making a podcast? What has been challenging, and what has come naturally?

I needed a little break from the Mormon beat. It was kind of bumming me out, to be honest. Every religion, when it’s institutionalized, that’s how you rob all the beauty. I was really excited at the idea of talking to people who aren’t clergy, talking to people who aren’t responding to controversy all the time. People who were just living life. Doing those kinds of interviews was really, really refreshing. You do have an itch as a reporter where you’re used to getting things out there to hear. I’ve kind of been silent the last few months. That’s been a little hard for me. There were certain stories I would have covered if I was doing full time news that I just didn’t cover. But the main thing is I’m actually learning about faith right now. And I think that wasn’t happening a lot when I was reporting. I feel like I was learning about people and learning about instances, but now I’m actually learning about other people’s faiths. I really, really enjoy it. And once the podcast gets out there and people are hearing it and it’s not just theoretical, I think I’ll be a lot happier.

What can we expect in the first season?

A lot of the episodes will feature one individual, and we want you to really sink into their mind. To use an example, we interviewed Glynn Washington, host of “Snap Judgment.” He grew up in a Christian cult in Michigan. He’s black and it was a white supremacist Christian cult. He’s talked a little bit about it. But I thought, let’s give it the “Preach” treatment. I want to know, day-to-day, how are you operating on a spiritual level? We’re going to take the linear journey of his life from childhood to now, but we really pause on the moments where he had to make decisions, like when he chose to leave his church. But the thing I’m most interested in is now. He talked about how there’s so many things about his religion that he’s left behind that felt damaging, but that he still feels a spark of divinity that makes him feel very valuable. He’s like, “I’m keeping that.” I love that. You can walk Glynn’s path and then you end in a place where he’s uncertain. He’s got kids and he says, “I want them to feel the spark of the divine. I want them to feel like they are loved by an eternal being. I don’t talk about God at home, though. So, I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

Each week you’ll hopefully step into somebody’s head in a way that you’re not used to doing, especially in public radio because I ask some pretty blunt questions. If someone prays, I want to know what their prayers are like. If somebody felt like God was distant, I want to know what that specifically felt like.

Your first episode features Rainn Wilson, who most people know as Dwight from “The Office.” How did you get to interview him?

We knew we wanted a little star power for the first season, but we didn’t want to find someone just because they’re famous. We wanted to find someone who doesn’t get asked about their faith and probably wants to be. He’s very publicly a member of the Baha’i Faith, which is kind of unknown. I feel some camaraderie with them because it started around the same time Mormonism did in the 1800s. There was a prophet who was alive at the same time as Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. He lived in Iran, where tragically now Baha’i members are persecuted. He had an open-minded look at faith. He kind of collected Mohammed and Christianity and parts of Judaism and thought there’s truth in all of them. And now they build temples around the world, which is another thing that they share in common with Mormons.

So Rainn has spoken about his belief a lot. He hosts a podcast where he interviews people about their faith, but I never really heard someone go deep into it with him. I knew he had taken time of his life away from his faith, for about ten years and I really wanted to talk about that. He was really open and charming and quirky, like you’d expect Rainn Wilson to be. The most important part to me, though, is that there’s a few moments where he was trying to articulate what it feels like to come back into your faith. He said there’s no “a-ha! moment for him, he just found himself, like easing into the ocean. After a while, it became normal. The water’s temperature felt okay.

You mentioned to me that you have a set of “Preach Commandments.” What are the commandments?

I actually have a list, so let me pull it out. Part of it is we don’t want to alienate the audience but also as a believer I know what it’s like when you feel mocked. Sometimes there’s this assumption that when you’re mocked, you’re OK with everything your faith’s traditions involve. And there’s nobody on earth who is 100 percent in line with their full faith tradition.

As a Mormon, when I feel mocked, I am uncomfortable, I’m sad and I just feel like should just leave. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they should leave, even if we have an audience of 10. So, here’s the list:

1. We laugh, but we don’t mock.

2. We ask the dumb questions.

3. We don’t allow guests to evangelize. It’s very important. We don’t want somebody uses this opportunity to try to convince our audience.

4. And last but not least, we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

Through your career, as well as through this podcast, what have you learned about faith and spirituality in the 21st century?

I’ve learned that there’s this idea that people aren’t religious and that’s backed up by Pew Research. But we need to be really careful about what non-religious means. I have a Post-It posted on my cubicle that says “Non-religious does not mean atheist.” It can, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that. And I think what I’ve realized is that if you could do the thing I want to do, which is create a safe space for people to ask dumb questions, to not be preached to, that it will surprise you how many people are actually curious. A lot of people are very curious about the beliefs of others. They’re not interested in being evangelized to. They’re not interested in signing up for a weekly activity that requires them to spend money. But they are very curious about belief. And that’s really encouraging to me. I’ve yet to meet somebody who straight up has no interest. I’m sure there are people out there, but I don’t meet them. I think that the biggest thing is when someone says they don’t have an interest in religion, you shouldn’t think they’re not interested in God. That would be a big mistake.

What advice would you give to people who are looking to make a podcast?

I’ve been really lucky to do this as my day job, but also this grant has allowed us to experiment so much before we launched. That’s a luxury a lot of people don’t have, and I know that. I help friends start podcasts a lot, actually. And everyone feels really ambitious at the beginning. They want to make it and they want to make it every week and then they quickly lose steam for various reasons. Usually there’s not enough listeners or it’s more work than expected (usually that). I tell everyone: make a pilot. Get everyone together that you feel you want in the show. Make it the best 30 minutes or hour you can think of and then send it to ten people you trust. And then listen to their feedback.

I did this recently with a group of assistant principals who were interested in doing a show. One of them was a friend of mine. They had all this ambition. I thought it was great, so I helped record a pilot. And they recorded it and they sent it out and there’s been some good feedback. There was also some not so great feedback, so they’re taking a moment to rehash. But I thought it’s better to take a moment and really assess, “Do I want to make this thing?” Because nothing’s worse than giving up five episodes in. I would say put your best foot forward and then give it to people you trust as a Google Drive or Soundcloud file. Just see what happens. Some of it’s enough just to get it out of your system. But then sometimes you might think, “Oh, actually there’s something really special here and people are telling me that they haven’t heard this before.”

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Elliot Morris is a writer based in Utah and a founding editor of Podcast Review.