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
Matthew Desmond Talks About the Church’s Response to Housing Instability
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
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."
Robert E. Lee Worshipped Here
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.”
Resilient Immigrants in a Crazy System
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.
'Too Blessed to Be Stressed'
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
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'?
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'
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
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.
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.
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