TOWARD THE END of the film documenting the performance of Aretha Franklin’s album Amazing Grace, the singer sits at a church piano. Like so many times in her childhood, she begins playing — gradually, almost tentatively — the opening chords to “Never Grow Old.” It was her first single, released when she was 14. As she sings of “a land where we’ll never grow old,” built by “Jesus on high,” folks in the audience — including gospel pioneer Clara Ward — cannot help but get up and dance. “Never, never never” — and then a Franklin trademark: mmm-mmm-mmm — “never grow old,” she testifies. You believe her.
This year, Aretha’s Amazing Grace turned 50. The album — recorded live at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles with James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir and one of the greatest backing bands in all of pop music history — blends and crosses boundaries of genre, generation, race, and class. In 1972, Amazing Grace was not just a return to Aretha’s roots, but a vision of a future — one rooted in the Black experience in the U.S.
The liner notes credited Gene Paul as “assisting engineer.” Today, he is a legendary producer. Paul traces the genesis of Amazing Grace to Aretha’s 1972 record Young, Gifted and Black. That album’s title track, penned and first sung by Nina Simone, was a breakthrough in the civil rights and Black pride movements. “In the whole world you know / there’s a million boys and girls / who are young, gifted and Black,” the lyrics proclaim. While recording Young, Gifted and Black, Paul told Sojourners, Aretha began to conceptualize the live recording of a gospel album as a follow-up. When she thought of the potential project, Paul said, she “was smiling, captivated.” To Paul, there is a clear through line from Young, Gifted and Black to Amazing Grace: The former spoke to the contemporary Black political moment; the latter looked back in time while pulling her spiritual and cultural roots into the present. Both pointed the way to a Black future that was joyous and free.
TO THE LEFT of a buffalo photograph on my wall, a rosary hangs from a thumbtack. Frequently, my eyes linger there. It came to me a couple of years ago on my birthday as part of a gift from my mother — looped through the ribbon of a wrapped box that contained a tea set. When I held the rosary before my face, I found it curious. My mother explained that it had been my late father’s, and that it was one of his most prized possessions. I was a little stunned because I had never seen it before. It was a gift, my mom continued, made by his grandmother who died two years before I was born. Now, it had come to me.
My great-grandmother’s parents were part of a group of 25 Red River Métis families who settled on Spring Creek in central Montana in 1879, an area now known as Lewistown. They, like all the tribes of the region, were pursuing the final dwindling herds of buffalo. It was a tumultuous time to be Indigenous, with settlers flooding the landscape from all points east and gobbling up land, whether it had been promised to Indians or not.
The origins of my Métis people can be found in the late 1600s, and likely earlier, when the first European traders first began establishing trading posts in the Red River Valley. This region, named for the mighty Red River of the North, is centered at what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba, and extends into today’s Minnesota and North Dakota. These early Europeans, mostly from France — with some coming from Scotland, Wales, and England — married into the Indigenous people already inhabiting the region: Cree people and Ojibwe people. From these unions sprang descendants who created their own unique, mixed-culture people — the Métis.
CLARENCE L. JORDAN died on Oct. 29, 1969, at 57 years old. The radical Southerner who dedicated his life to farming, sharing the gospel, and imploring his neighbors to actually follow Jesus is not widely remembered. Jordan died as simply as he lived — buried in a wooden box used to ship coffins, in an unmarked grave, and wearing his overalls. In early 2020, a little more than 50 years after Jordan (pronounced “Jurden”) died, I came across his work and was enamored. I began reading anything from or about him I could find. Jordan’s Georgia roots and love for the South mirrored my own. His charm and cutting humor were irresistible. Most appealing was Jordan’s stubborn commitment to radically following Christ, which led him to reject and rebuke the practices of racism, capitalism, and militarism in the U.S.
On the podcast Pass the Mic, writer Danté Stewart put a name to what I found in Jordan. “The reason why white [siblings] are struggling in this moment is because most of their models have been violent white supremacists,” Stewart said. “White [siblings], they don’t have models of liberation and love, so therefore they’re struggling in this moment.” Clarence Jordan was a “model of love and liberation” that we can learn from now. The dehumanizing forces of racial capitalism and militarism are no weaker in the U.S. today than in his lifetime, and many white Christians are avid proponents of both. Jordan’s resistance and radical theology did not die with him; instead, they can evolve and grow with the times. We should engage Jordan without idolizing him and advance his core commitments with a critical eye, honestly appropriating them for our modern struggles.
THE IMAGE THAT first brought Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate to many people’s attention is one that doesn’t even include her.
In January 2020, Nakate was invited to join five other young activists in a climate demonstration during the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. An Associated Press photographer snapped a photo of Nakate standing with European climate activists Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg, Isabelle Axelsson, and Loukina Tille. But when the AP published the photo that afternoon, Nakate wasn’t in it.
“Even now, well over a year after being cropped out of that photograph, it’s hard for me to talk about what happened,” wrote Nakate in her 2021 book A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis. “By cutting me out of the photo they’d originally sent to global media organizations, the AP had denied an African activist a chance to be seen and, possibly, her message to be acknowledged.”
While the AP did some “soul-searching” following the incident, Nakate used the moment to ignite an overdue conversation about the whiteness that has long plagued the global environmental justice movement. “Being cropped out of the photo changed me,” she wrote. “I decided, from my perspective as a young African woman, that I would dedicate as much of my time as possible to addressing the many interlocking facets of the climate crisis, environmental justice, and gender discrimination — and to do so without apology or fear of erasure.”
Nakate founded the Rise Up Movement to amplify the voices of climate activists from Africa and launched a fundraising campaign for the Vash Green Schools Project to bring solar panels and cookstoves to schools across Uganda. At 25, she’s busy. And faced with a global climate emergency, it makes sense. “I don’t often get asked what recharges me,” Nakate told me when we spoke in early August. “But for me, it’s my relationship with the Holy Spirit.”
Raised in an Anglican family, Nakate became a born-again Christian as a teenager. “Activism can be very hard and prayer and attending services (or, in Covid times, watching online) have been extremely important sources of love, grace, and support,” she wrote in the acknowledgments of A Bigger Picture.
“If I feel distraught or disturbed by anything, I know the Holy Spirit will remind me of the peace that surpasses all human understanding,” she later told me. I spoke with Nakate via Zoom about her Christian faith, the role social media plays in her activism, and why we can’t eradicate poverty without addressing the climate crisis. — Christina Colón
AT THANKSGIVING, MILLIONS of us across the country gather around tables. Gratitude will be expressed for blessings both great and small, which indeed is an opportunity to trace the goodness that enfolds our daily lives. Gratitude is one of the more ancient practices of our human society. It has long been observed across different religions, researched in the field of psychology, and mused over by philosophers. Orator and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
One of my most formative perspectives on gratitude comes from Indigenous practice. Indigenous cultures in the Americas have observed collective practices of gratitude that have long preceded our legislated day of thanks. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois or the Six Nations, have a daily Thanksgiving Address recited by school children just before classes begins. This is a practice author Robin Wall Kimmerer calls “an allegiance to gratitude.” The address uses gratitude to trace life-sustaining provision to the Creator, to the community, and to every food and water source, through every plant, every creature, and even the land itself. Gratitude is essentially ecological this way.
YOU NEVER KNOW where you’ll see the hands of Christ.
In central Kyiv, a mural depicting two elegant hands breaking a sword is surrounded by towering apartment buildings. Painted in 2016 by Ukrainian artist Sergii Radkevych, “Fragments of Hope” was one of a series of murals organized in response to the 2014 conflict in eastern Ukraine. It was public art on a mission to inspire a Ukrainian vision for peacemaking.
Radkevych combines religious iconography with street graffiti and realism. He pays particular attention to expressive hand gestures. “Fragments of Hope” became a frequent gathering point for protests in solidarity with eastern Ukrainians in 2017 and 2019. “This is my manifesto against violence and cruelty, a call to mutual understanding,” said Radkevych at the time. When I was in Kyiv in May, after more than three months of intensive Kremlin-led violence, I was grateful to find the mural still standing.
AT A SCIENTIFIC conference held in June, researchers from two U.S.-based biotech companies announced they had treated 44 patients suffering from beta thalassemia — a blood disorder, found primarily in Southeast Asia and Africa, that negatively impacts the production of hemoglobin and can lead to a shortened lifespan. In its most severe forms, frequent blood transfusions are needed. After the experimental treatment, 42 of those patients no longer needed any blood transfusions. Additionally, the companies reported treating 31 patients with sickle cell disease, which disproportionately impacts populations in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as approximately 100,000 Americans. After treatment, none of these patients continued to have the recurrent painful symptoms that often lead to hospitalization.
All these patients were treated with an innovative approach that depended on the gene-editing technology CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). In the coming months, the companies CRISPR Therapeutics and Vertex Pharmaceuticals will submit these treatments for regulatory approvals in Europe and the U.K.
As people of faith, what do we need to know about CRISPR, and how might Christians respond to its ethical challenges?
JUST AS FOR 50 years Ohio was a bellwether for presidential elections, since 2011 North Carolina has become a testing ground for Far Right legislation aimed at controlling federal election administration. In his book Indecent Assembly, author Gene R. Nichol says North Carolina is now “a laboratory for extremism.”
In September, the Supreme Court included on its docket a Republican-backed case out of North Carolina that pits voters against a state legislature that seeks to greatly increase its power over elections by limiting the ability of the state judiciary to review the actions of the legislature. This could potentially unbalance the fundamental checks and balances essential to a functioning democracy by giving one body total control over a function of government.
While the specific case of Moore v. Harper deals with whether the North Carolina state Supreme Court has the power to strike down state legislation that produced illegally gerrymandered voting districts, the federal Supreme Court will deliberate on whether the U.S. Constitution’s election clause, the primary source of constitutional authority to regulate elections, prevents a state judiciary from ordering a state legislature to comply with federal election laws.
“BRINGING HOME THE incarnation was the motivation for Clarence’s writing, his preaching, and his living. He believed that the incarnation was the only method of evangelization, that ‘we haven’t gotten anywhere until we see the word become flesh.’” So wrote associate editor Joyce Hollyday in our December 1979 cover feature on the Southern activist/farmer/writer Clarence Jordan. Our December issue, for many years, was our “incarnation” issue, focused on a contemporary or historical figure who lived out the way of Jesus.
IN AUGUST, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the most significant legislation ever passed by Congress to address climate change. But what happens now? After all, the days aren’t getting any cooler — a recent study by the First Street Foundation suggests that in 30 years more than 100 million Americans could experience heat index temperatures over 125 degrees Fahrenheit. In our polarized politics, there is already a great deal of confusion and obfuscation about what this historic bill will do. A related question: How will the IRA affect what people of faith do about the existential threat of climate change?
The IRA invests $369 billion over the next 10 years into tax incentives for renewable energy and electric vehicles, domestic manufacture of batteries and solar panels, and pollution reduction. The idea is to make renewable energy and electric vehicles more affordable, both to manufacture and to buy, thus encouraging more consumers to adopt them. The IRA also targets methane pollution by imposing an escalating fee on some oil and gas companies that emit too much methane in their operations and increasing royalty rates paid to the government on methane extraction from public lands. The IRA includes an unprecedented investment of $60 billion into environmental justice initiatives, including clean energy and emission reduction for low-income and disadvantaged communities, block grants for community-led projects in disadvantaged communities to “address disproportionate environmental and public health harms related to pollution and climate change,” and funding to reconnect communities divided by highways.
It’s silly to call trees people
saying firs waving limbs are yelling at wind,
and cedars so tall their tops disappear
have heads in the clouds,
or to sympathize with plants below
ripening berries, sending out seeds
on wings while struggling for scraps of light,
and then feeding survivors of fires.
Silly. Better listen. Memorial
services have their ways of bringing up
IN THE NOVEMBER 2022 issue of Sojourners, author and researcher David E. Kresta suggests that community economic development is one significant way that churches can bring hope and healing to their neighborhoods. Editorial associate Liz Bierly spoke with Kresta about how he connects his faith and his vocation, his book Jesus on Main Street and his Ph.D. research on the connection between churches and gentrification, and some steps faith communities can take to truly love their neighbors. You can read his article, “Your Church's Soup Kitchen Doesn't Create Social Change,” here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Liz Bierly, Sojourners: You went from a degree in computer engineering to having experience in marketing and management to a Ph.D. in Urban Studies that you leveraged to explore the role of churches in neighborhood change. Can you tell me more about that career trajectory?
David E. Kresta: I started out, as you noted, in the high-tech field as a software developer; I had this parallel journey, I guess. I had my vocation, and then I had my Christianity — and when I was raised, those things were separate. I grew up in this space where I was essentially living my “American dream life” — following and pursuing high tech, making money, having a job, and having a family — and then [having] my spiritual journey, and they weren’t connected. Over time, I think God sought me out and said, “Hey, these are things that need to be connected.”
And through a long process, I became aware of things that I had been blissfully ignorant of. I grew up in Detroit, which was hyper-segregated; I was very much isolated from poverty, and I didn’t even know anything about gentrification as I was growing. I think that captures a lot of what people live today: Things that are out of sight, they really have no connection to, and they don’t even know about them other than what they maybe hear on the news. To make a long story short, I started doing some volunteer work with churches to serve their communities and really became more aware of the things that are going on in the world around us, and the brokenness at the systems level.
God really challenged me through this process of discernment to dive in and, as best as we can, try to understand what is going on in the world around us. That’s why I decided to pursue that Ph.D.: Because I felt like the church really had something to say in this space, and we need to be better equipped to speak into and address the issues that are going on around us.
IN THE NOVEMBER 2022 issue of Sojourners, culture columnist Josina Guess explores the legacy of Denmark Vesey, Mother Emanuel AME Church, and the stories that resist removal. Guess spoke with editorial associate Liz Bierly about the connection between art and practice, the mentor that impacted her life and writing, and the full-circle moment of being back in Sojourners’ pages. You can read her November column, “Remembrance as Resistance,” here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Liz Bierly, Sojourners: You previously pursued a BA in fine and studio arts, and now you are working toward an MFA in narrative nonfiction. What led you to pursue these studies, and what does it look like for you to pursue the intersection of those topics?
Josina Guess: In college, I was just captivated by ceramics and by the process of having something that got my hands dirty and centered me every day in the swirl of college life. I think that’s why I majored in art — I could have studio time — but I wasn’t necessarily pursuing a career in the arts. I had been recognizing that words felt like a medium that I could carry with me anywhere I went, and I didn’t need to have a studio or a kiln.
I ended up not really pursuing ceramics, but I think writing was sort of a continuation of that sort of art as practice. When I’m trying to think about what my days are like [now] — like today I moved some goats, picked some cucumbers, and made some kimchi — I think it’s this combination of these real-life practices of gardening and farming and parenting, and then just engaging in and paying attention to what’s going on in the world and writing about it. [I’m] trying to find a balance in my own life of joy and centering, and then also seeing how to respond to the really broken and wounded parts of myself and of the world, and hope that healing comes in all of those practices.
IT'S HARD TO tell whether Southern California, where I live, holds more nondenominational churches or neighborhood gyms. Sometimes, it’s even hard to tell whether a facility is a nondenominational church or a fitness center. At both the church and the gym, you are likely to encounter over-enthusiastic greeters in the foyer. And as you proceed farther into either type of institution, you’ll begin to hear vaguely inspiring pop-rock music. (Are the lyrics love songs to your boyfriend, to Jesus, or to an unrealistic projection of your future self? It’s hard to say — that’s the genius of it.) As you arrive in the back of these buildings, you’ll see a shared main attraction: a vivacious man in expensive sneakers urging you to strive for greatness, push through the pain, and please, please, please bring your friend with you next time. The websites of both the gyms and the churches will promise you a “no judgment zone” where “all are welcome.” Pretty good chance both are lying to you. But there’s free child care!
The biggest similarity of all between nondenom churches and neighborhood gyms? Their names: They will usually be one word long: Arise, Equinox, Crossroads. Likely, the names could also serve as code words for MDMA or WWE wrestlers’ stage names: The Rock, The Renegade, Saddleback.
Below are the names of gyms and churches. See if you can rise to the challenge, push through the pain, and determine which names belong to churches and which ones belong to gyms that I can’t afford.
WE ARE APPROACHING the end of the liturgical year, and the texts have a thread of anticipation running through them. We are deep into the promises conveyed by the prophets and the eschatological vision cast by Jesus. The texts are inviting us to prepare ourselves for something — but what, exactly?
The last Sunday in November, in many traditions, is the Advent Sunday of hope. In biblical Greek, the verb is elpizō (“hope”), which means to wait for salvation with both joy and full confidence. When we hope, we wait not out of boredom or a lack of options but in full confidence that what we are waiting for will arrive. This is the same word used in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The word “assurance” here can also be translated as “foundation,” as in that of a house. Faith is what anchors our hope into the ground and allows it to stand upright. Faith also often requires that we act before we see. Our hope is first materialized in our faith before it is ever materialized in our reality. Hope pushes us to walk, move, and live as if what we’ve hoped for has already arrived.
Perhaps this moment calls to us to build foundations for the futures we need in defiance of our present realities. Our texts dare us to live into new possibilities, even as our current condition offers far fewer promises.
I WAS SITTING in a large auditorium full of market researchers. A speaker suggested that, by selling wrinkle cream, we were helping to make the world a better place because women would feel better about themselves. I looked around the room, thinking, “Is everyone buying into this? Do people really think this is true, or do they see that it’s just a corporate pep talk?”
I had worked in the world of international market research for nearly 10 years. Though there were a few moments like this one when something just didn’t feel right, in many ways I still didn’t see the issues I see so clearly now — marketing techniques are the air we breathe.
I eventually left my work in marketing to pursue a master’s in social justice and a doctorate in theological ethics. I began to investigate how marketing practices negatively impact how we live as human beings and how we think about marketing in the church. In contemporary society, we tend to view marketing techniques as neutral tools that can be applied in different contexts — whether for businesses, nonprofit fundraising, or church communication. But can we adapt tools that have been developed in the context of capitalistic profit maximization to the mission of the church? Are there fundamental differences in how the church views and relates to human beings?
I had worked in the world of international market research for nearly 10 years. Though there were a few moments like this one when something just didn’t feel right, in many ways I still didn’t see the issues I see so clearly now—marketing techniques are the air we breathe.
THE EARTH SEEMS ablaze. Each year, flames appear more savage, more far-ranging, and more inescapable. The prophecy of Ezekiel is coming to pass: “They shall go out from one fire, and another fire shall devour them” (15:7). The planet is, as some see it, careening toward a secular apocalypse.
To be caught between two fires is an old notion. But a lot has changed since Ezekiel’s warning. Today, we do not have to cope with two fires but with three. The first is the fire that has burned as long as terrestrial vegetation has existed. The second is the fire that humans tamed from the first. The third involves burning fossil fuels. The three fires together are shaping our world, which makes humanity uniquely suited to serve as a steward, for we are Earth’s fire creature, the only one with the systematic capacity to start and stop flame.
WESTERN CIVILIZATION HAS a long heritage of fire myth, lore, religion, and science. Early Indo-Europeans seem to have worshiped a fire deity. Of the 12 ancient Olympians, two were gods of fire — Vesta for the hearth, Vulcan for the forge. Ritual fire became a fundamental practice of Zoroastrians, among the first of the monotheisms. New colonies or dislocated peoples would take fire from their mother city to literally “rekindle” its offspring. The hearth fire, most famously in Rome, stood for both family and state. Pyromancy, the practice of divining meaning in flames, is an old practice.
Three ways churches can decenter themselves and economically empower their communities.
CALEB WILDE is familiar with death. He is the descendant of two long-term generational funeral home families and went into the funeral industry himself. His first book, Confessions of a Funeral Director, delved into some of the more uplifting stories he’s had in death care. His latest book, All the Ways Our Dead Still Speak, is more introspective.
The early chapters detail a few death experiences — an atheist seeing the dead parents of her husband as he dies, for instance — and at first, that’s what I thought the book would be about: exploring what people’s deathbed visions meant to them, regardless of whether those visions were real. But for Wilde, that’s missing the point. What matters is that the dead are still speaking to us. Death isn’t necessarily an end, Wilde argues — it’s a transformative experience; the living carry inside us the essence and dreams of the dead. Open conversations about death and dying can lead to a healthier society.
Wilde specifically calls out white people, his ancestry and mine, for being disconnected from their ancestors. He cites the difference between the polite, private, quiet funerals of white people versus the communal, intensive, emotional funerals of Black people. Many white people believe that grief is a personal, private journey. However, in many Black families and cultures all over the world, grief is a communal process. People come together to remember, love, and support each other. In these times, they cease to become individual selves and instead focus on the plural self — on community: A community of people both dead and alive.
I FIRST BECAME aware of Tricia Hersey’s work through social media (@TheNapMinistry on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook), and I suspect many others have as well. Yet, Hersey is hardly your run-of-the-mill social media influencer and indeed can be brutally critical of the effects that social media culture has on our bodies and souls. Hersey is a performance artist, activist, theologian, and, perhaps most importantly, a daydreamer. Her work is centered on Black liberation, and particularly liberation from the present-day grind culture of capitalism that is driven largely by social media. In her first book, Rest Is Resistance, she aims to recover the divinity — that is, the image of God — in every human.
Rest Is Resistance is a stunning call to a slower, richer life of faith. Hersey’s writing seems animated by concerns such as those articulated by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his classic book The Sabbath. While humanity may live and work in a technological society, both writers argue, we do not have to be subservient to our technological tools. Our technological victories “have come to resemble defeats,” writes Heschel. “In spite of our triumphs,” he continues, “we have fallen victims to the work of our hands; it is as if the forces we had conquered have conquered us.”