The Stories We Told This Year | Sojourners

The Stories We Told This Year

California firefighter fighting Caldor Fire
A firefighter works as the Caldor Fire burns in Grizzly Flats, California, Aug. 22, 2021. REUTERS/Fred Greaves TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

“We are hungry for renewal,” Valarie Kaur wrote in the January 2021 issue of Sojourners. “Sound government is necessary but not sufficient to heal and transition America. Only we the people can bring our communities together, tend to our wounds, and do the labor of reckoning, reimagining, and remaking our nation, block by block, heart to heart.”

When Kaur wrote these words, she did not know that a violent mob would soon storm the Capitol building while invoking the name of God. Just two weeks later, America’s eyes would once again turn to the Capitol. This time, for the anticipated inauguration of President Joe Biden, whose address to the nation at the time “felt like a hopeful and dramatic reset.” Before his first day in office had come to a close, Biden had signed 15 executive actions, including orders to expand COVID-19 relief, rejoin the Paris climate agreement, and reverse the travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries. Two days later, Pastor José Chicas — an undocumented immigrant who had been in sanctuary in Durham, N.C., since June 27, 2017  — returned home; his departure from sanctuary a result of Biden’s 100-day moratorium on some deportations.

Faith leaders lined up to receive the COVID-19 vaccine late that month, sharing photos of rolled sleeves and band-aids to encourage members of their congregations and communities to get vaccinated. In February, Virginia became the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty and pastors found new ways to recognize Lent, from “Lent-in-a-box” to “Ash N Dash.” For a moment, it felt as though we were following God’s invitation to “co-labor toward the new,” in the words of artist Makoto Fujimura. But when a winter storm overtook Texas’ power grid, many realized how hard it was to be socially distanced “when tragedy hits close to home.” In March, the country witnessed food lines in the “land of plenty” while a year of coronavirus loomed and we tried to remember that Jesus, too, “was a man of many sorrows.” We drew close to that grieving Jesus when eight women were killed, including six women of Asian descent, at Atlanta day spas.

Nearly a year after the murder of George Floyd, a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty in April. It was a “ray of hope” amid a “frustrating and exhausting” season, Brenda Blackhawk, a congregational organizer for racial justice with the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, told Sojourners. That month, all adults in the U.S. became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, spurring celebration — and misinformation. While pastors worked to quell conspiracy theories stemming from QAnon in their congregations, they stumbled through rapidly shifting COVID-19 protocols. In an eager jump at reunification, some forgot in their haste that dropping all precautions left many immunocompromised congregants at risk.

In the summer months, readers took solace in the work of the pop art nun and the late Rachel Held Evans’ What is God Like? (“The God of this children’s book is wide, kind, playful, present. She seems to give very good hugs,” associate editor Jenna Barnett wrote.) Sharon V. Betcher shared hope for souls and societies, encouraging us to embrace our fragility in the presence of affliction while also reminding that “as fleshy beings all, we live in unsecured vulnerability.” In July, many in North America reckoned with the legacy of the boarding schools where Indigenous children were laid to rest in unmarked graves. “The boarding schools — what they call residential schools in Canada — were a state-planned part of the genocide of the American Indians,” George “Tink” Tinker told Sojourners. “Euro-Christian people should be mad as hell that your privilege, power, and ownership of land on this continent is rooted in those children dying that way.” Anger would continue to come in waves through the fall as we watched the impacts of climate change claim land and lives and tried desperately to cling to hope. People of faith organized for voting rights — and demanded our government take action to provide safe haven for people fleeing Afghanistan in the wake of the United States' withdrawal and Taliban takeover.

As a new school year neared and angry crowds gathered in school board meetings to protest and accuse schools of teaching critical race theory, Sojourners columnist Amar D. Peterman wrote that CRT “can illuminate the realities of multiracial communities in which the church ministers,” and Nathan Cartagena, professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, wrote that “increasing my awareness of racist colonial and imperial practices has grown my love for God and neighbor.” Amid disaster after disaster, many people turned to mutual aid to love their neighbors well and to feel more connected in a world still reeling from forced distance. And the church tried to figure out its role in a virtual world. One thing is for certain: “There will be no going back,” as Rev. Jonathan Chapman of Westfield United Church of Christ in Killingly, Conn., told Sojourners. And so faith leaders looked for a way forward, promoting nonviolence as foreign policy and standing against abortion restrictions in Texas. For the first time, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion came together to issue a joint statement for the protection of creation, and the first transgender bishop of any mainline denomination in the United States was installed. Amid change, Kate Bowler reminded readers that “the people who remember you after the bad thing happens are a very special kind of person, and you should share your Netflix password with them and never let them go.”

As the year drew to a close, Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers were found guilty of his death, but that could not return him to this earth. Many pastors joined the “Great Resignation” and congregants wondered what it meant for church as they know it. The holiday season may have been the most “anger-filled time of the year,” but it was also a moment of deep reflection as many sat together in darkness on the longest night of the year, a reminder that “it’s okay to sit in the pain for a time, to honor loss or illness or doubt or fear.” We turned to the words of Cole Arthur Riley whose @BlackLiturgies account “trades humor for holiness.” And in her words, many found space to breathe. “I’m going to sleep,” Riley told Sojourners. “And I feel so grounded, so proud, and a little more free.”

As we enter into a new year, many are still “hungry for renewal” but may we all remember that “to sustain our work, we need joy.”