Award-winning journalist delivers J. Arthur Martin Lecture

Sam Kestenbaum ’09
Sam Kestenbaum ’09 talks about his career in journalism during the J. Arthur Martin Lecture in the Holman Room in Mary Lyon Hall. (Photo by Keith Nordstrom)

Sam Kestenbaum ’09 shares his approach to stories published in The New York Times, Rolling Stone and other media

When Sam Kestenbaum ’09 begins a profile, he asks himself “what is engaging about this person and what would it be like to be moved by them?”

Kestenbaum is a freelance journalist who reports on religion. He interviews people of faith and writes about the many ways in which religion shapes our society. Writing about religion has taken Kestenbaum all over the world: he began his career reporting in China, then moved to the Middle East, where he served as editor of The Yemen Times before returning to the United States.

Because of his career success and accomplishments, Kestenbaum was selected to be this year’s J. Arthur Martin lecturer, an annual lecture series sponsored by the Wheaton College Religion Department.

Kestenbaum was chosen by religion professors Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, Jeffrey Timm and Barbara Darling. Brumberg-Kraus said they chose Kestenbaum because the Religion Department “likes to feature alums who have made a name for themselves and made remarkable achievements in the field of religion.”

The lecture, which took place on February 27, was titled “Prophets, Psychics, and Other Wild Spirits: Journalism from the Front Lines of American Religion” and drew a crowd of Wheaton students, alumni, faculty and staff to the Holman Room in Mary Lyon Hall.

During his lecture, Kestenbaum shared several “snapshots” of reporting that he has done, using stories published in theLAnd magazine, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. One was about a piece centered around Kathryn Krick, an aspiring actress turned TikTok-famous faith healer who became popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. This piece, published in theLAnd, earned the Wilbur Award for excellence in magazine writing and was part of a portfolio that won third place in the 2023 American Academy of Religion Journalism Awards for best in-depth reporting.

Another snapshot Kestenbaum presented was about his story—“Keano Is N.Y.’s Most Famous and Mysterious Subway Psychic. I Found Her”—that was published in The New York Times. In the article, he wrote about his search to find the identity of Keano, a fortune teller who plastered the subways with ads promoting her psychic business in 2019.

In addition to earning awards from the American Academy of Religion, Kestenbaum also has won commendations from the Society for Features Journalism, Religion News Association, the Los Angeles Press Club and the Silurians Press Club. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The Forward, and he has appeared on National Public Radio.

Kestenbaum, who majored in music, described his journey through Wheaton as a time in which, “I was beginning to imagine I might chart a real professional life for myself by thinking and writing about religion in all its complexities.”

“It was a pleasure to return to old stomping grounds, share my work with students, and visit with some of the thinkers and educators with whom I had spent a formative time of life, years back,” he said.

Professor Brumberg-Kraus said that he and professors Darling and Timm “think Sam does a terrific job representing religion accurately and fairly to the broader public. And we found his own story going from Wheaton to reporting from Ramallah in Palestine, to Sana’a, Yemen, to writing about less well-understood contemporary American religious groups to be fascinating and appealing.”

The annual J. Arthur Martin Lecture is supported by the J. Arthur Martin Fund, which was established in 1978 in honor of Professor Martin at the time of his retirement by students, alums and friends. Martin was a member of the Religion Department from 1947 to 1978. The fund was increased by gifts in memory of the professor after his death in 1980 and by gifts in memory of his wife, Virginia Crosby Martin ’34.

—By Elsie Carson-Holt ’24