Betsy Shirley

Associate Editor, Sojourners magazine

Betsy Shirley is associate editor at Sojourners magazine. She rejoined the editorial staff of Sojourners in 2015 after previously serving as an editorial assistant from 2010-2011. She holds an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School and a B.A. in English from Butler University.

Betsy began writing narrative nonfiction at the age of 6, though she now writes less stories about cats than she did back then. These days she prefers to focus on stories that delve into the complexity of contemporary religion—faith, doubt, scandal, schism—and the ongoing tension of believing in an unseen reality while living in this one. She’s especially interested in stories about gender, sexuality, evangelical history, and interfaith collaboration.

Betsy’s articles and essays have appeared in Religion Dispatches, Religion & Politics, OnFaith, Reflections, UTNE Reader, and of course, Sojourners. She is a member of the Religion Newswriters Association and a 2015-2016 recipient of the Handa Fellowship in Interreligious Communication. She can be found on Twitter @betsyshirley.

When she’s not cooking up story ideas for an award-winning magazine of faith and social justice, Betsy enjoys historical walking tours, board games, and sitting around campfires.

Posts By This Author

Holy Fools and the Carnival de Resistance

by Betsy Shirley 09-25-2018
A traveling troupe of actors, musicians, and artists celebrate justice through theater. A photo essay.
WHEN ASKED HOW often he went to the circus, William Stringfellow replied, “Not often ... about 20 times a year.”

The wry 20th century theologian saw the “radical and wondrous splendor” of the big top as an image of the kingdom of God: miraculous, death-defying stunts; an impending sense of both calamity and delight; parodied pantomimes of social convention—all enacted by a company of the “freaks” snubbed by polite company. “The circus is eschatological parable and social parody,” wrote Stringfellow. “It signals a transcendence of the power of death, which exposes this world as it truly is while it pioneers the kingdom.”

Drawing inspiration from the biblical covenants between God, people, and land—as well as Stringfellow’s beloved circus and other resistance traditions, including Brazilian Carnivale parades, Burning Man, West African drumming, and the warnings of Indigenous elders—the members of Holy Fool Arts pitched their tents in Philadelphia this summer to stage the seventh Carnival de Resistance, “a traveling carnival, village, and school for social change bridging the worlds of art, activism, and faith.”

During the week, the troupe partnered with local groups to paint murals, work in gardens, teach Bible studies, and join creative acts of protest. On weekends, they staged ceremonial theater performances (with a bike-powered sound system), demonstrated fossil-fuel-free living in their eco-village, and hosted an interactive carnival midway, complete with sideshow attractions, art installations, crafts, and games.

“Carnival traditions are about simultaneously subverting the dominant order while temporarily inhabiting an alternative world of festive celebration, playful mockery, and embodied community,” director Tevyn East told Sojourners. “We at the Carnival de Resistance seek to honor these long-standing traditions and spark the prophetic imagination through acts of resistance and incarnation.”

'Too Blessed to Be Stressed'

by Betsy Shirley, by Monica Coleman 04-25-2018
... and other phrases Monica Coleman thinks the church should erase from its vocabulary.
Sean Bear/ Shutterstock

Sean Bear/ Shutterstock

IN A GIVEN YEAR, about one in five U.S. adults will experience mental illness of some kind. And though mental illness does not discriminate, African-American adults are more likely to experience serious mental health problems, but less likely to seek treatment, than white folks, due in part to the lasting effects of slavery, segregation, and other forms of race-based exclusion—effects that translate into socioeconomic factors such as poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse which are, in turn, risk factors for mental illness.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the factors that keep African Americans from receiving mental health services include a lack of health insurance, a distrust of the medical community, and conscious or unconscious bias among practitioners resulting in misdiagnoses. But NAMI also named another barrier to African-American mental health: the church. While one’s “spiritual leaders and faith community can provide support and reduce isolation,” explained NAMI, the church can also “be a source of distress and stigma.” The report noted that even when medical care is necessary, African Americans turn to their families, communities, and churches rather than turning to health-care professionals.

None of this comes as a surprise to Monica Coleman, a professor of constructive theology and African-American religions at Claremont School of Theology in Southern California. Throughout her new memoir, Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith, Coleman navigates the challenges of race, gender, and the church as she heals from rape (committed by her then-boyfriend in seminary) and wrestles with a faith that ebbs and flows like the cycles of severe depression that began as she entered adulthood.

Sojourners assistant editor Betsy Shirley spoke with Coleman about mental health, social justice, and how the church might become a place that more fully fosters both.

Resilient Immigrants in an Unhealthy System

by Betsy Shirley, by Maria-Jose Soerens 04-25-2018
The church in North America has a lot to learn, says mental-health counselor Maria-Jose Soerens.

LAST SUMMER, THE FUTURE of for-profit prisons seemed bleak. The U.S. Department of Justice announced it would begin phasing out its use of privately run prisons and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security quickly followed suit, declaring that it would reconsider its use of privately run detention centers. Stocks for companies that ran for-profit prisons plunged.

But then Donald Trump was elected president, and private prison stocks immediately soared. The nation’s largest prison company, CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), reported a boost of more than 40 percent in the value of its shares. Given Trump’s promises to “create a new special deportation task force,” investors bet that privately run detention centers will play a key role.

And the investors may be right. Every year, DHS detains about 400,000 undocumented immigrants in 250 centers nationwide, and 62 percent of the beds in these centers are operated by for-profit corporations.

According to Maria-José Soerens, a licensed mental-health counselor serving undocumented immigrants in Seattle, there are two major problems with for-profit detention centers. First, for-profit centers are not held accountable to the standards that govern federally run centers. In her work in these centers, Soerens has heard complaints ranging from a lack of medical attention to inadequate opportunities for parent-child visitation; one young woman who was having suicidal thoughts was kept in solitary confinement until she told guards she was “better.”

But the deepest problem, explains Soerens, is that most detention centers only exist because corporations saw a “business opportunity.” Beginning in the early 2000s, for-profit prison companies successfully lobbied Congress to expand drastically the number of beds in the immigration detention system—a move that doubled the revenue of the two largest for-profit prison companies. In 1998, there were 14,000 beds available for immigrant detention; today, there are 34,000.

Robert E. Lee Worshipped Here

by Betsy Shirley 04-25-2018
A Southern church wrestles with its Confederate history.

JP Keenan / Sojourners

IN A SERMON that lasted less than 11 minutes, Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley suggested something no one had said from the pulpit in the long history of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Va.

“What if,” asked Adams-Riley in his faint South Carolina drawl, “we begin a conversation here at St. Paul’s about the Confederate symbols here in our worship space?”

He listed examples: “The Davis window there, that identifies Jefferson Davis with St. Paul himself, in his imprisonment. Or the Lee windows there, that identifies Robert E. Lee with Moses,” he said, pointing around the sanctuary. “And there are the plaques on the walls, and two kneelers up by the old high altar. They [the kneelers] each have a little Confederate flag on them.”

The sermon was remarkable in its restraint. It wasn’t a jeremiad against the church that had, up until the 1960s, emblazoned its official stationery with “Cathedral of the Confederacy.” Nor did it mention the words that would ripple through the congregation in the months that followed, words like “racism,” “slavery,” and “reconcile.”

In fact, there weren’t many words at all. Adams-Riley’s preaching style is spare and impressionistic; his tone, much like his personality, gentle and encouraging. He quoted the Wisdom of Solomon: “The generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them.”

“Generating. Building up. Giving life,” repeated Adams-Riley. “Strengthening. Healing. Bringing wholeness. That is what God does. And we, being made in God’s image, find our greatest fulfillment in doing likewise.”

At Play in the Fields of Church and State

by Betsy Shirley, by Charles C. Haynes 04-25-2018
How a Lutheran preschool playground became the setting for a major religious liberty debate.

IN JUNE, THE U.S. SUPREME COURT ruled in favor of a Lutheran church in Missouri seeking state funding to replace the gravel yard of its playground with a softer surface made of recycled tires. But was it a victory for religious freedom or a violation of the principles separating church and state? Sojourners associate editor Betsy Shirley interviewed Charles C. Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, to help sort it all out.

Sojourners: Let’s start with the basics: Where does the idea of “separation of church and state” come from?

Charles Haynes: The Establishment Clause—or, more accurately, the “no establishment clause”—is the part of the First Amendment that separates church from state, preventing the entanglement of religion and government that has been the source of repression and conflict for much of human history. But it also protects the right of religious groups and individuals to participate fully in the public square of America.

The Power of the Poor

by Betsy Shirley 04-04-2018
Fifty years later, a new moral movement picks up where Martin Luther King Jr.'s final campaign left off. But will it succeed?

BY MOST MEASURES, the day had been a success. On the morning of Dec. 4, 2017, nearly 300 people crammed into a small room near Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill to reignite the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. Camera crews filmed while clergy, Indigenous leaders, Fight for $15, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and state groups from around the country pledged their support.

From there the leaders marched to the U.S. Capitol to deliver a letter condemning the then-looming tax bill. “Woe to those who make unjust laws,” they read from Isaiah 10, “to deprive the poor of their rights.”

Later, the same crowd—plus locals lured by a lineup featuring Sweet Honey in the Rock, Maxwell, and Van Jones—gathered at D.C.’s Howard Theater to celebrate. Faith leaders and activists who’d linked arms together in places such as Flint, Mich., Charleston, S.C., and Standing Rock in the Dakotas sipped drinks and ate free ice cream provided by Ben and Jerry’s. The overall vibe was part social-justice pep rally, part family reunion.

But Rev. William Barber II wasn’t feeling it.

While the DJ played ’80s hip-hop, Barber lumbered onto the stage unannounced. He didn’t have a microphone, so he just started yelling. The perplexed stage crew scrambled to find a working mic, but Barber was impatient. The DJ cut the music and the theater grew quiet.

“My brothers and sisters,” boomed Barber once he had a mic. “This is a Poor People’s Campaign mass meeting and concert; this is not a party.”

‘Make this nation cry’

For the next 10 minutes, Barber worked his way through the litany of injustices that he and Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the campaign, had repeated from countless pulpits over the past year as they crisscrossed the country recruiting people for the Poor People’s Campaign: deaths caused by lack of health insurance, the rollback of voting rights, corporate drilling on Native American lands, homelessness, police violence, an unlivable minimum wage, Flint’s inability to provide its citizens with clean water, political corruption. He spoke without notes, rambling at times (“I don’t have time to be scripted because the evil that’s happening is not scripted”), but it didn’t matter; as he neared the end of his list, the mood of the room had grown somber.

Erica Lea to Become First Openly LGBTQ Lead Pastor of Mennonite Church USA

by Betsy Shirley 09-18-2017

Erica Lea. Image via Erica Lea.

Albuquerque Mennonite Church will announce today that they have called Erica Lea to be their pastor — the first openly LGBTQ person to serve as a lead pastor in the Mennonite Church USA, a denomination that claims more than 70,000 adult members in the U.S.

Matthew Desmond Talks About the Church’s Response to Housing Instability

by Betsy Shirley, by Matthew Desmond 04-25-2017
An interview with the Pulitzer-winning author of 'Evicted'
Harvard Magazine

Harvard Magazine

It’s awkward to become famous for writing about poverty. Just ask Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, whose book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. For his research, Desmond spent more than a year living in trailer parks and inner-city rooming houses to document the housing struggles of eight Milwaukee families—struggles that Desmond could not forget.

“I couldn’t help but translate a bottle of wine placed in front of me at a university function or my monthly daycare bill into rent payments or bail money back in Milwaukee,” writes Desmond in Evicted. “It leaves an impression, this kind of work. Now imagine it’s your life.”

Desmond used the proceeds from Evicted to create two foundations: Just Shelter, which highlights organizations preserving affordable housing, and another to directly assist the families he writes about in the book. But Desmond doesn’t want to be lionized; he wants to reframe the conversation about poverty in America.

“When we talk about the poor, it’s almost as if we talk about them as isolated from the rest of us, as if their lives aren’t connected to ours—but they absolutely are,” Desmond told Sojourners associate editor Betsy Shirley. As he sees it, that means we all need to consider “how we receive some benefit that others don’t—and ask hard questions about the fairness of that.”

Christians Call out Paul Ryan, GOP Health Care Plan

by Betsy Shirley 03-15-2017

Almost immediately after House Republicans unveiled the health care plan they hope will replace the Affordable Care Act, a number of Bible-quoting, justice-loving Christians began pointing out that the GOP's proposed replacement doesn't quite live up to Jesus's command to "heal the sick."

7 #CalvinistPickupLines You Wish You Knew in High School

by JP Keenan, by Betsy Shirley 09-09-2016

Image via /

In the last 24 hours, a steady stream of #CalvinistPickUpLines have leaned heavily on the five points of Calvinism — lines that surely would have made Lyman Beecher blush.