Betsy Shirley

Assistant Editor

Betsy Shirley is assistant 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

'Too Blessed to Be Stressed'

by Betsy Shirley, by Monica Coleman 09-27-2016
... 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.

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.

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.

'I Never Felt More Danger Than When I Kneeled to Be Ordained’

by Betsy Shirley 09-16-2015
Volt Collection / Shutterstock

Volt Collection / Shutterstock

In an interview that aired last week, Stephen Colbert — possibly the only Catholic whose popularity rivals Pope Francis himself — admitted that one of the times the Eucharist felt “most real” to him was when he attended an Anglican service and heard a woman consecrate the bread.

“The freshness of hearing a woman say that gave the message a universality that it always should have,” said Colbert.

Today, if you walk through the red doors of an Episcopal church on Sunday morning, the person presiding over the Eucharist might be female, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. But on Sept. 12, some of the first women ordained as Episcopal priests reminded the church: it hasn’t always been that way.

Forty years ago last week — before women were allowed to be priests — four women were "irregularly" ordained as Episcopal priests before the altar of St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington, D.C. Closely linked with the "irregular" ordination of eleven women in Philadelphia (the “Philadelphia Eleven”) the previous year, the ordination of the Washington Four — Lee McGee Street, Alison Palmer, Betty Powell, and Diane Tickell — is seen by many as a key step in securing women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church.

We Cannot Be Silent

by Betsy Shirley 08-10-2015
Faith, #Ferguson, and what comes next

Image via /Shutterstock

In honor of the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., Sojourners asked a variety of faith leaders — Catholics, Baptists, Muslims, agnostics, evangelicals, and humanists — to reflect: How has your faith been challenged, affirmed, or deepened by the Black Lives Matter movement? Has your theology changed? And, most importantly, what are we being called to do? 

Here’s what they said.

10 Things We've Learned about Nukes Since Hiroshima

by Betsy Shirley 08-04-2015
A primer for those who were in diapers during the Cold War
natrot / Shutterstock

natrot / Shutterstock

Like many of my millennial peers, I was barely in diapers when the Cold War ended, never practiced fallout drills in school, and only recently learned what those yellow-and-black signs on old buildings meant. As a kid, if I thought about nukes at all, it was in a passive tense, World War II-history sort of way. In other words: not my problem.

But as we mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — when U.S. aircrafts dropped bombs on two Japanese cities, killing 135,000 people, by conservative estimates — I spent some time in the Sojourners archives trying to fill the gaps in my nuclear education. Here’s what I found.