Betsy Shirley

Associate Editor

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

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 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 /Shutterstock.com

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.

A Martyr of 'Laudato Si'?

by Betsy Shirley 03-18-2016
The indigenous spirituality of assassinated activist Berta Cáceres

Activist Berta Caceres. Image via Goldman Environmental Prize.

The deadly environment for activists is closely tied to recent Honduran history. Following the 2009 coup, in which democratically-elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was deposed, the new government declared Honduras “open for business” and granted profitable contracts to transnational companies looking to capitalize on Honduran natural resources — including resources on indigenous land. When leaders like Cáceres demanded the rights guaranteed to indigenous people by the U.N and the International Labor Convention — including the right to determine how indigenous land is used — it wasn’t great for business. The death threats followed.

'This Is My Church Too'

by Betsy Shirley 03-01-2016
LGBTQ Christians talk about why they stay in denominations that are less than affirming.
DC_Aperture / Shutterstock

DC_Aperture / Shutterstock

IN OCTOBER 2014, at the age of 35, Ingrid Olson stood before her church of many years. “I am loved,” she told the 80 or so members of her congregation seated in the sanctuary on that Sunday evening. “I am God’s child. I am accepted—completely.” Olson listed other parts of her identity: her curiosity, athleticism, passion for music, Swedish heritage, her tendency to be passive-aggressive. “I am a sister, a daughter, a niece, a granddaughter, a friend,” she continued. Then she added something most people in the church didn’t know: “I am a Christian, lesbian woman.”

Olson is a lifelong member of the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), a denomination with Swedish-Pietist roots and 850 congregations in North America. Though the central identity of ECC churches is found in six “affirmations,” including the authority of scripture, the importance of missions, and the experience of personal rebirth, the ECC is not what’s known as an “affirming” church—one that encourages LGBTQ members to participate in the full life of the congregation, including marriage, church leadership, and ordination. Delegates at the 2004 ECC annual meeting voted to make binding a resolution that asserts the “biblically rooted” position on human sexuality is “heterosexual marriage, faithfulness within marriage, abstinence outside of marriage.” While the ECC might not say that being gay is a sin, it would certainly say that pursuing a same-sex relationship is out of the question.

Short Takes: Nia Zalamea

by Betsy Shirley 02-01-2016
Five questions for Nia Zalamea

Nia Zalamea is a board-certified general surgeon. After five years in a traditional medical practice in rural Virginia, she joined the Church Health Center, an organization in Memphis, Tenn., that seeks to reclaim the biblical commitment to care for our bodies, minds, and spirit. She is one of two general surgeons in the U.S. who does full-time charitable work.

1. Why did you leave traditional medical practice? I went into medicine to serve; it was the one craft and skillset I could offer to an individual in front of me. But after five years, I found out that I wasn’t actually living my mission; I had put five people into bankruptcy. What I saw in rural America was that even one operation could completely derail not just one generation but multiple generations. Not just in terms of economics, but in terms of social capital, education, and everything we know that affects health and medical care.

2. What exactly does the Church Health Center do? The Church Health Center is a medical wellness home for the underserved, the uninsured, and the underinsured of Memphis. We provide surgery on a sliding scale; if someone can’t afford the surgery, it gets written off. The hospital supports the surgery in not charging the hospital fee, which is a huge chunk of the cost. So it’s not free, but the out-of-pocket cost for the patient is extremely low. We just make it affordable.

3. What are some of the barriers that prevent your patients from having access to health care? We have ongoing workshops during open enrollment to get people on to Affordable Care Act plans, but what is deemed “affordable” is not always affordable; the majority of my patients are 150 to 200 percent below the poverty line. Another barrier is access: Just because you have an insurance card doesn’t mean the doctor will see you. And this is where a lot of the injustice lies; many doctors’ offices and businesses have closed their doors to new Medicaid patients. Finally, the Affordable Care Act doesn’t cover everyone; my patients include undocumented immigrants, refugees, and patients from other countries whose children are being treated nearby at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

The Gay Christian Network Conference Just Met in Houston. Here's Why That's Significant.

by Betsy Shirley 01-11-2016
Gay Christian Network founder Justin Lee

Gay Christian Network founder Justin Lee.

Less than 10 weeks after Houston voters — many persuaded by local Christian pastors — repealed a city ordinance that would have protected Houstonians from discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity (as well as race, religion, and other traits), 1,450 people gathered in the city for the Gay Christian Network conference, the world’s largest annual event for LGBT Christians and their allies.

Short Takes: Julia de la Cruz

by Betsy Shirley 12-08-2015
Five questions for Julia de la Cruz
Julia de la Cruz / JP Keenan

Julia de la Cruz / JP Keenan

Julia de la Cruz, originally from Mexico, is a farmworker, an organizer, and a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). After forging agreements with 14 of the largest food retailers in the U.S.—including Walmart, McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s, and Chipotle—to establish labor standards and fair wages for tomato workers, CIW launched the Fair Food Program, a partnership among growers, farm workers, and retail food companies ensuring fair pay and humane working conditions on participating farms. This interview was conducted in English and Spanish, with Elena Stein, a faith organizer for Alliance for Fair Food, translating.

1.  Why have farm workers in the U.S. continually faced unfair wages and inhumane working conditions? The body that was most responsible was not the growers who employ us, but actually the corporations at the very top of the supply chain who use their enormous purchasing power to demand artificially low costs of the produce we harvest. That demand results in growers cutting costs in the one place where they can: labor. And there you get the poverty and exploitation that we have experienced for decades.

2.  Does it help farm workers if consumers stop purchasing products that are grown in bad working conditions? More and more we hear this idea of voting with your fork: this idea that consumers affect conditions based on how they use their dollar. But the truth is that if somebody chooses to refrain from buying a good, the impact really won’t be felt by corporations such that they’ll be forced to change their policies. But corporations will be impacted and forced to change their policies when a worker-led campaign forces them.

So we’d ask consumers to build consciousness by listening to farm workers and their experience and their analysis of the food system that nourishes each of us. The second thing we’d ask for is commitment—and that can mean a lot of things, but it definitely means getting to the street and protesting the corporations that have turned a blind eye to the abuses they have perpetuated.

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