Brittany Shoot, a Sojourners contributing writer, lives in San Francisco.
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Faith's Power and Variety
JEFF SHARLET, author of nonfiction books about faith including New York Times best-seller The Family and Sweet Heaven When I Die, isn’t so much interested in religion as he is in belief. “That interest sometimes leads me to people who might reject the term religion altogether,” he writes of drinking whiskey with Mormons and marching in Spain with Jewish-American veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a volunteer group of up to 40,000 men and women from 52 countries who traveled to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War.
In his newest book, Radiant Truths, Sharlet collects stories like these, stories about what happens when religious ideas meet social practice. He attributes this concept to anthropologist Angela Zito. In her essay “Religion is Media,” Zito ponders, “What does the term ‘religion,’ when actually used by people, out loud, authorizein the production of social life?” Using Zito’s question as a jumping off point, Sharlet dives into 150 years’ worth of literary journalism at the intersection of religion, culture, and politics.
Compassion in the Stacks
ON A RECENT Friday afternoon, Joe Bank makes his way quietly through the stacks in the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch. Books aren’t on the 33-year-old’s mind. He’s on the lookout for people in need—people who might need the same social services he once did, when he was homeless and living in a city park.
Bank isn’t just a concerned fellow citizen—though he certainly is that. He’s also on the job, as part of the country’s first in-house, library-specific social work team. Officially, he’s known as a HASA, one of six Health and Safety Associates employed by the library in partnership with the San Francisco Department of Health. The public library HASAs are all formerly homeless, thereby possessing an innate ability to notice the telltale signs of unhoused people in need of a helping hand. Bank’s boss is Leah Esguerra, the country’s first full-time psychiatric social worker employed in a public library.
Esguerra’s small outreach team is tasked with more than answering questions or offering help to clients who need assistance locating or securing social services. HASAs also train library staff on how to respond to patrons in need and how to diffuse and de-escalate tense situations with calm, collected compassion. Furthermore, working as a HASA is a six-to-12-month vocational training program, after which the outreach workers can graduate to other social service jobs. (Bank is currently the only HASA who has stayed on longer than a year.) Esguerra says that because her staffers are all formerly homeless, they find a special purpose in their ability to give back to people in situations similar to their own. “They love the routine and their contribution,” she explains.
Letting Go—And Its Complications
FORGIVENESS IS wholeness, Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Anglican minister Rev. Mpho Tutu, write in their newest collaboration,The Book of Forgiving. Scientific research shows that forgiveness has the power to transform us in spiritual, emotional, and even physical ways. That evidence is paired with the Tutus’ collective experience in counseling, studying, and teaching and their personal stories about the difficulty of forgiving. Archbishop Tutu writes about learning to forgive his abusive father. Mpho, who writes about learning to forgive the man who murdered her housekeeper in her home, is pursuing a PhD in the topic of forgiveness.
The book lays out some simple but critical truths: Everyone can be forgiven. Everyone deserves forgiveness. You must be willing to forgive. Forgiveness is not a weakness, nor a luxury. Forgiving others is a way to practice forgiving yourself. Through forgiveness, we all become whole again. Unconditional forgiveness is an act of grace that frees all parties from further indignity, and from self-blame and corrosive hatred.
The path to forgiveness seems simple enough when you can navigate it in four easy-to-follow steps: Tell the story. Name the hurt. Grant forgiveness. Renew or release the relationship. The path is also—sorry—a bit pedestrian. That doesn’t mean the route map isn’t useful. But the book will be most applicable if you have struggled to forgive or feel that even contemplating forgiveness is an impossible burden weighing heavy on your heart and soul. If you’re carrying a load you can’t seem to gracefully shrug off or leave by the side of the road, the Tutus can help you chart the course.
'We Will Never Forget You'
ANYTIME A PUBLIC figure dies, there are spontaneous vigils, piles of flowers and stuffed toys heaped at the star’s home or in a town square. But these outpourings of public grief aren’t reserved only for the rich and famous. In communities across the country, everyday people hold vigils when a child is abducted or a family murdered in a senselessly random act of violence. Sometimes a prayer is murmured. Often, it’s an opportunity for neighbors to mourn their shared loss.
Getting the message right in public grieving and memorializing hardly demands immense wealth or high-minded, thoughtful analysis. I’m heartened by impromptu candlelight vigils in the rain and messy memorials, because grief isn’t organized or tidy. On vacation in Hawaii last summer, boogie boards jammed in the sand as makeshift headstones seemed to line the Big Island’s Puna Coast, glittering stones and leis assembled at the base of each monument. “Sail away,” one paddleboard inscription read. Beside it, a laminated sheet of photos was tacked to a palm tree. On some of the more menacing lava rock cliffs, where it was clear more than a few had perished trying to catch a deadly wave, entire burial grounds with a dozen granite headstones were lined up, matching benches facing the row of markers.
While those cenotaphs, like the white crosses along desert highways and at urban intersections, could be troubling (so much sadness out in the open), we become more empathetic when we’re forced to slow down, reminded of our mortality and how loss—or even just the threat of impermanence—permeates most of our lives.
The Danger of 'Orphan Theology'
THE MAXIM states that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But what happens when well-meaning Christians construct and lead others down that road? In her new book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption (PublicAffairs), investigative journalist Kathryn Joyce explores how some evangelicals have fueled the global adoption frenzy—and how adoption reform advocates are trying to stem the tide of trafficked children (and the rampant spread of misinformation) across borders. Sojourners contributing writer Brittany Shoot recently spoke with Joyce.
Brittany Shoot: Why do you think it’s been primarily evangelicals who have led the surge in international adoption?
Kathryn Joyce: The idea of the “global orphan crisis” needs some unpacking. People who talk about this crisis often cite UNICEF estimates that there are between 150 and 210 million orphaned children in the world. While the figures actually refer to a wide range of orphaned and vulnerable children in need of services, often people only hear the word “orphan” and presume these children are parentless kids in need of new homes. In fact, most of these children have a surviving biological parent or other extended family who may need some support.
Additionally, adoption has become a powerful metaphor in many evangelical churches studying and preaching what has become known as adoption or orphan theology. Many leaders within the movement teach that earthly adoption is a perfect mirror of Christian adoption by God, and it’s a way that Christians can put their faith into action in a very personal manner. Evangelicals have been encouraged to adopt by this theology as well as by other developments in their churches or denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2009 resolution that asked its members to prayerfully consider whether God was calling them to adopt.
Church of the Open Doors
WHEN CECIL WILLIAMS was 8 years old, he imagined murdering a police officer. It’s a jarring way for an influential minister to begin a memoir about radical hope and perseverance. But in a short lifetime of intense oppression, Williams had already internalized heartbreaking lessons of systemic injustice and the righteously violent tendencies that can follow. The budding young leader already nicknamed “Rev” and wise beyond his years also knew that if he could imagine brutality, he could envision a transformed society.
“Imagination is one of the most penetrating and incendiary forces I’ve ever experienced,” he writes in Beyond the Possible: 50 Years of Creating Radical Change at a Community Called Glide, co-authored with his wife and longtime collaborator, Janice Mirikitani. Building on their shared vision over a remarkable half-century, they lead what might be the most exuberant congregation in America. Glide Memorial United Methodist Church and the Glide Foundation are inextricable, legendary San Francisco institutions, the latter one of the city’s largest social service providers and the real-life shelter featured in the 2006 biopic The Pursuit of Happyness.
Writer Dave Eggers sums up Glide in the book’s introduction with a simple but uncomfortable truth: There are very few places in society where someone is not left out. Houses of worship are supposed to make a dream of inclusivity possible, but even the most inspiring visionaries live and lead imperfectly. Eggers proposes that because of the unconditional love necessary for a lasting marriage between two seemingly incompatible leaders—Williams, a black Texas minister with a solid upbringing, and Mirikitani, an agnostic Japanese-American poet from a broken, abusive home—Glide is one of the few radically accepting places where true unconditional love is practiced like the most dogmatic of faiths.
WE OWE A lot to Anne-Marie Slaughter. Last summer, the Princeton University professor’s Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” kicked off an overdue, protracted national-scale debate on the difficulty of juggling the demands of professional success and committed parenting, the likes of which we haven’t had in a while. Shortly after Slaughter’s polemic hit newsstands, Marissa Mayer, just 37, was named CEO of Yahoo!, becoming the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company at the time and stirring controversy when she revealed that she was seven months pregnant. (Months later, she banned telecommuting companywide and was sharply criticized by some as being “anti-parent.”)
Then, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg got in on the action, publishing in March the ambitiously titled Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In the following months, it sat at the top of bestseller lists, with staggering sales triggering multiple printings. Sandberg, one of the wealthiest women in the world, donates all related profits to her newly established nonprofit, also called Lean In, encouraging women to form consciousness-raising Lean In Circles, in which they’ll discuss money and maternity.
Suddenly, there was a lot of estrogen in the air. A year into this cultural conversation, we’re still trying to make sense of what it all means.
First, a caveat. I don’t know anyone, woman or man, naïve enough to believe that any of us can have whatever “it all” entails. When Slaughter’s indignant article set off a firestorm about the impossibility of work-life balance, I was happy (as I always am) to witness a (mostly) thoughtful discussion unfold. But I was and still am miffed that anyone thinks women were sold a false bill of goods. Who was that mightily influential yet terribly mysterious person who promised us everything we ever wanted? How did we let him (it must have been a “him”) get away with spreading such a vicious lie, and why do we allow it to persist?
Old School Harmonies, Hold the Irony
IF YOU GREW up like I did—surrounded by PraiseGathering devotees and with Gaither Family VHS tapes stacked on the home entertainment system shelves—you probably have a frame of reference for Douglas Harrison’s Then Sings My Soul. If you weren’t raised on such a specific Bible Belt diet of white male quartets and singspirations, Harrison’s use of the term “Southern gospel” may initially seem confusing, if not meaningless.
According to Harrison, Southern gospel wasn’t labeled as such until the 1970s, and the label didn’t catch on with mainstream audiences until the 1980s. Before then, all genres of gospel—sacred music spanning regions, decades, ethnic heritages, and faith-based traditions—were given the broad label. As Harrison defines it in what is arguably one of the first contemporary attempts to do so, Southern gospel is a participatory style descending from a “post-Civil War recreation culture built around singing schools and community (or ‘convention’) singings popular among poor and working-class whites throughout the South and Midwest.” While he notes that most rigorous investigations of gospel’s longevity and legacy refer to black gospel, Harrison departs from this framework and instead focuses on the likes of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, The Cathedrals, and gospel impresario Bill Gaither, pasty proselytizers without whom the 20th century gospel movement would not exist.
Harrison has been blogging (at averyfineline.com) about Southern gospel for the past decade, during which he’s showcased his deep knowledge and fondness for the genre’s mid-tempo nostalgic modernism, a retro style performed without irony by up-and-coming artists. His is an outsider’s, nonbeliever’s ode to professional, commercialized gospel entertainment, a style attributed to a variety of performers. “Southern gospel was what Elvis Presley really wanted to sing,” Harrison notes. He goes on to identify Southern gospel’s evangelists as a cluster of record and distribution labels, organizations such as the National Quartet Convention, and the Gaither Homecoming phenomenon (including videos, music recordings, concert tours, and even cruises under that branding), all of which share a common historical, economic, social, and cultural heritage.
Hiking Through Heartbreak
WRITER Cheryl Strayed’s unusually apt last name was self-selected in the wake of her mother’s premature death from cancer and after her first marriage collapsed under the weight of grief-stricken infidelity in 1995. Anguished and reeling from loss, then-26-year-old Strayed, a novice hiker, picked a new name for herself and took off on a 1,100-mile solo hike up the Pacific Crest Trail. In three months, she hiked from the Mojave Desert in California to the Washington state line in an attempt to heal. In her new memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf), she recounts her bold trek into the wilderness and her restorative journey home.
Strayed is also the wildly popular advice columnist for the online culture magazine The Rumpus (therumpus.net), writing under the pen name Sugar until she revealed her true identity in February. A collection of her “Dear Sugar” columns, Tiny Beautiful Things (Vintage), will be published in July.
Brittany Shoot: Your stint as Sugar on The Rumpus has been wildly successful. How do you feel about the fact that many readers take so seriously advice from ordinary people? How does it feel to be treated as a life experiences expert?
Cheryl Strayed: I’m grateful when people tell me my advice has affected them positively, but I don’t translate that into letting myself believe I’m a “life experiences expert.” When I first began writing the “Dear Sugar” column, I thought a lot about whether I was qualified to give advice. Pretty quickly, I came to the conclusion that there really is no such thing as a qualified advice-giver. People who are willing and able to deeply reflect upon a matter and then express those reflections with as little bias and self-interest as possible are almost always going to offer something of value, regardless of their so-called expertise. That person might be your mother. It might be someone you met in the grocery store and chatted with one afternoon. It might be your pastor or therapist or school counselor. It might be an advice columnist who calls herself Sugar. All sorts of people are capable of giving excellent advice, just as all sorts of people—even those who give advice professionally—are capable of doing the opposite.
Chronicling Belief's Strange Wonders
WITHOUT SOME advance warning, you might not know that Jeff Sharlet is a man of God. That’s not an insult or backward compliment so much as it is fact. Though perhaps best known for his acclaimed nonfiction expose The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, Sharlet doesn’t beat readers over the head with the proverbial Bible he carries in his knapsack. If you don’t know what clues to look for—tales of Germans born again in Oklahoma, descriptions of hipster trucker caps emblazoned with flashy youth crusade logos—you might miss some of his most powerful nods to spiritual and religious influence in his travels. You might mistake the nondenominational journalist for just another fantastically gifted storyteller, a shrewd correspondent reporting back from remote spiritual enclaves, rather than a disciple of God seeking to understand those with whom he shares some belief.
Sweet Heaven When I Die begins by tracing Sharlet’s youthful days visiting a girlfriend’s Colorado ranch and his grandmother’s Knoxville home. His keen sense of personal history first grounds his essays in what is clearly important in his own life: the closeness of loved ones, the nearness of God. But he quickly moves beyond situating himself in his writing and instead steps back to peer like a prophet into the lives of others—philosopher and educator Cornel West or Yiddish novelist Chava Rosenfarb.
Sharlet also nimbly passes through the outer realms of faith and lack thereof. In one of the book’s most poignant vignettes, he retraces the short life of Brad Will, once called one of the country’s “leading anarchists.” (The oxymoronic label suitably amused Will.) Will’s activism began in a same-sex marriage standoff with Promise Keepers in Boulder, Colorado, and then carried him north to Quebec City and south to his 2006 death in Oaxaca de Juarez. Throughout his fiery life, he kept in close contact with his straight-laced Republican family; attending his mother’s 60th birthday party celebration was a chief concern when he was detained for a week following the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.
Power Ballads for Jesus
No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism, by David W. Stowe.
Forgive and Forget?
Contrition seems more popular than ever.
Are You Paying Attention?
How do we find ourselves and God in the midst of media overload?
Happiness You Can't Buy
A review of Why Love Will Always Be A Poor Investment: Marriage and Consumer Culture, by Kurt Armsrong; foreward by Aiden Enns. Wipf & Stock.
A Believers' Web
Digital Jesus: The Making of a New Christian Fundamentalist Community on the Internet, by Robert Glenn Howard. New York University Press.