New York Times Journalist Ivan Penn Speaks to Students and Alumni

Guest speaker Ivan Penn talks about overcoming fear at the convention dinner.

“God, why am I in this business?”

This was the hardball question that New York Times journalist Ivan Penn presented to Biola students and alumni  at a speaking event in late October in the Andrews Banquet Hall and Calvary Chapel. The function was organized in an effort not only to share the stories and ministry of journalists in positions of influence, but also to encourage alumni, faculty, and undergraduate students that the task of the journalist is a truly meaningful and admirable calling.

Beginning at five o’clock in the Andrews Banquet Hall, all guests were invited to attend a semi-formal dinner for a time of fellowship, delicious food, and introductions. Opening with a greeting from Todd Guy the dean of Fine Arts and Communication, and associate dean Joy Qualls, the evening also included two open-mic interviews with the DJAM students themselves, conducted by Professor Michael Kitada, as well as a warm welcome to the esteemed visiting alumni from Dr. Tamara Welter. Finally, Dr. Michael Longinow introduced speaker Ivan Penn.

Visiting alumni are recognized in the Andrews Banquet Hall during the dinner before the main speaking event at Calvary Chapel.

After introductions were made by faculty, Ivan Penn spoke briefly before the guests left the building. During this time, he encouraged students and aspiring journalists not to fear, but rather to trust in God’s sovereign power over their lives. This introductory message focusing on letting go of the human tendency which all believers are tempted with to doubt God’s good plan. It prepared the audience for his  following presentation at Calvary Chapel, where he would dive into the personal difficulties and obstacles that God had brought him through in his life and throughout his career as a New York Times journalist.

Not only was Penn’s message encouraging for students within the throws of college midterms, but his bold fortitude also inspired alumni already working within the industry. Claire Flores, a Biola alum who graduated in May of 2009, affirms this, saying, “I was very thankful Dr. Welter invited me and my husband, Oscar to attend. I enjoyed Mr. Penn’s talk with us so much. Working in the news industry can be a dark and negative place sometimes. Going to hear Ivan Penn’s talk was inspiring and brings a journalist back into the light of why we go into the news field in the first place. I liked how Mr. Penn spoke about his job and how his faith works right along side. It is encouraging to know that there are journalists working for major publications that are Christians. After the talk, I felt energized and refreshed to go to work Monday. I have always felt that working in a newsroom is a form of ministry and Mr. Penn affirmed that belief. Christians need to be in every industry sharing and being a living example of the Gospel.”

Calvary Chapel Address

“God why am I in this business?” Ivan Penn recalls asking himself this question not too long ago as he shares with the audience gathered in Calvary Chapel why truth telling is his calling. He opens his speech with a story of the death threats he received for exposing the retired congressman Parren Mitchel’s nephew for stealing his uncle’s money to buy a new car. On top of the threats Ivan was sued for 251,000,000 million dollars for emotional distress under the false claims of not identifying himself as a journalist upon interviewing the congressman. 

“At times I felt like a hired assassin… my stories have led to indictments,  forced people out of their jobs, and cost politicians their careers.” After years of stories such as the politician’s nephew with visible and real threats, Ivan shared it was hard to not feel like the bad guy. He shares, “I carried, sometimes, a sense of guilt about exposing people instead of, simply, bringing them to Christ.” Penn struggled with recognizing how journalism could be a calling, or in what way ministry could enter a field where the truth comes at a cost. These thoughts, experiences, and fears over time led him to ask “God why am I in this business?” In fact, he begged God to release him from this business in journalism for 15 years because he could no longer wrestle between his desire for ministry and being a journalist with grace. It was after these 15 long years when “I realized,” he states, “what I was doing as a reporter is ministry, it was actually cultural care, someone has to stand against those who abuse and oppress others.” 

Upon this realization he saw Jesus reflect this ideal in His own ministry. He then shares the story where Jesus saves the woman caught in adultery, he points out how Jesus did not condemn her but looked beyond the context of the Jewish society in hopes to bring a change in culture, a change to the way the Pharisees would respond to such a situation in the future. Penn then brings it together by claiming “Jesus defies the norms of the time to appeal to the needs of the moment, telling stories that resonate with their heroes in defiance of what had become accepted in their culture.” and in the same way so should journalists. Ivan shares he was asked much later in his career, “How did you become a journalist and a Christian” to which he answers, “How could I not? When the represent element of being a journalist is to tell the truth.” He concludes with the answer to the question of origin, “God why am i in this business?” Penn shares, “I realized that if I had left journalism, it would have changed the course of events that God ultimately designed to benefit our culture, and to counter the weight of oppression and conflict. Not only nationally but on a global scale.” Ivan’s inspirational speech left guests with encouragement in their calling as truth-telling journalists.