Catherine Woodiwiss

Senior Associate Web Editor

I'm the senior associate online editor for Sojourners, where I report on culture, tech, and religion, and look for voices to contribute to conversations on faith, spirituality, justice, innovation, and daily life. A collection of my reporting on sexual abuse and Christian communities, "I Believe You: Sexual Violence and the Church," was published in 2014 (avail on Amazon).

Beyond the religion beat, I also write on business, tech, community innovation, nostalgia, loss, memory, and war, with work appearing at the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, the Washington Post, and Books&Culture. In 2014, I spoke on collaborative solutions and "Do It Together" design models at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

My favorite postures are ethnographer and producer — reporting on the spread of subcultures, ideas, objects, and beliefs through time and place; and creating the conditions for others'​ voices and talents to thrive. 

My nonofficial, not-so-subtle goal is to keep DC weird. Hold me to it.

Posts By This Author

60 Congregations in the D.C. Metro Pledge to Provide Sanctuary

by Catherine Woodiwiss 03-21-2017

Image via David Beltran/Sojourners

"People have asked, 'Why do you stand with these people?' Because black bodies have been assaulted since we first came to this state. And they are continuously assaulted. What we know is, if we are silent when brown bodies are assualted, when gay bodies are assaulted, when trans bodies are assualted, when female bodies are assualted, then all of us remain in prison and in bondage."

The Heartbeat of Deep Space

by Catherine Woodiwiss 01-31-2017
In our science narratives, there’s a long tradition of featuring beautiful, rich white people and ignoring people of color and women.
Mirrors on the James Webb Space Telescope / NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given

Mirrors on the James Webb Space Telescope / Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given

THE FIRST THING NASA cinematographer Nasreen Alkhateeb does when approaching new stories is to look for the heartbeat. A transmedia artist, Alkhateeb spent much of the last year at NASA recording Goddard engineers as they constructed the massive James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2018. The largest-ever space-based telescope is designed to capture images at an astonishing distance, collecting data on the formation of some of the first galaxies in the universe.

Alkhateeb’s job, she says, was to translate the complexities of this tool to a non-science audience. For that, she primarily focused on the workers on the ground.

“It’s really about all the different fingerprints that have touched this project,” she tells me. “The story of the telescope goes hand in hand with telling the story of the individuals and the agencies who are collaborating to build it.”

Outer space has twinkled in the American imagination at least since since NASA’s founding in 1958. One secular hope for salvation lies in inhabiting the heavens—whether on Mars, a source of fascination for National Geographic and for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, or elsewhere.

Yet the role NASA will play in future space exploration is up for debate. Public faith in NASA is strong—the agency is the second most-trusted government institution in America, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new Trump administration “clearly values space as an inspirational tool,” Pacific Standard opines. But there’s quite a bit to suggest a reshuffling of funding priorities from the president, whose advisers have challenged NASA’s focus on earth science—including recording the evidence and effects of climate change, which will disproportionately affect poor and marginalized communities.

Radical Refuge

by Catherine Woodiwiss 12-22-2016
The Sanctuaries collective creates a new kind of sacred space for art and justice.

I.
My family was earthquaked
I changed the noun into a verb
because it’s almost like someone did this to me on purpose ...
—Sanctuaries artist Mazaré, “Where is God in the Natural Disaster?”

OUTSIDE, A MID-NOVEMBER storm of biblical proportions is raging, but the hushed crowd gathered in this church basement is in rapt attention to a woman giving testimony. In the parking lot, a hollowed-out school bus holds the detritus of a homeless life. A handmade “Wheel of Misfortune” dangles from one rain-splattered window, over empty bottles and voided bank notes.

Suddenly the crowd erupts in cheers, and the poet, grinning, cedes the floor to a pair of musicians. Today the church is playing host to a collaboration between Street Sense, a publication run by and for Washington, D.C.’s homeless community, and The Sanctuaries, a D.C.-based art, spirituality, and justice collective. The bus—filled with real experiences of D.C.’s homeless community, represented by Sanctuaries artists—will tour the city as a mobile story. It’s the culmination of months of work. To some, it’s an act of resistance. To others, it’s church.

For all the breathless predictions of what the day after Nov. 8 might bring, a reckoning with mortality was not one of them. Yet a marked grief snaked across some newsfeeds and private emails in the days that followed—a feeling that with the election, something precious about life as we knew it had died.

That morning, the founding organizer of The Sanctuaries, Erik Martinez Resly, sent a simple note to members: “I love you.” A few improvised hours later, a small group had huddled at a church on 16th Street in D.C. to share the real-time experience of the country’s historic change in direction. For The Sanctuaries, response looked like art and togetherness—two qualities that have guided the group from its beginning.

Faith Leaders to Trump Administration: Support and Protect LGBTQ Rights

by Catherine Woodiwiss 12-09-2016

Image via Cjames Fotografia/Flickr

“As a black lesbian growing up in the South, being in a room filled with Christians excited and ready to engage with the powers that be at all levels of government is something I could only have dreamed would exist,” Victoria Kirby York, National Campaigns Director for the National LGBTQ Task Force, said.

“We must love our neighbor as ourself. And it is radical, and it is broad, and it is all-encompassing.”

Entering My 'Power Decade'

by Catherine Woodiwiss 12-01-2016
My over-30 colleagues have shared a common sentiment: Our 30s are so much better than our 20s.

IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged that a woman turning 30 must be in fear of her age. When I was 27, I got an accelerated peek into the process—I was in a bad car accident, and the recovery left me temporarily reliant on the trappings of old age: breathing apparatuses, a mostly liquid diet, walking with a cane.

I managed to weather it with good humor, knowing most of the changes were temporary (who hasn’t dreamt of shaking her cane from a porch at noisy youths below?). Now, back in my “correct” age, I’m grateful for that behind-the-scenes trial run at the other end of things. To be young and healthy again is a relief. But I’m now not afraid of aging, either.

I turn 30 this month. To be, at 30, unmarried, childless, career still evolving, and happy about it, as I am, is still viewed with suspicion, especially for women. While we’ve mostly divorced specific ages from expected signifiers of “adulthood”—marriage, children, home ownership, defined career—there’s still an underlying social expectation for women and men alike: Your 30s are when you “settle down.”

But my brief sojourn into old age didn’t give me a craving for these trappings of thirtydom. Instead, this visit to the end of the line gave me a deep look into my own soul. I did not emerge from enforced solitude in my later 20s looking to lock down a career and a man. I did emerge eager to honor my soul’s boundaries, newly curious about the divine, insistently pulled toward creating spaces of peace and healing for others.

Now that the chronological experience of life has been scrambled and the expected scripts tossed out, crossing over into 30 feels like the beginning of some real fun.

Reporters Have to Get Better at Listening. This New Docuseries Shows How.

by Catherine Woodiwiss 11-16-2016

Image via "The Messy Truth."

We’re part of a community of people who are using cameras and pens and microphones to explore our differences — and I think that’s what keeps our differences from being explored by knives and bombs and all these other forms of destruction. What you’re doing with a publication, what we're doing with film, it’s all part of the same effort.

That’s where you see democracy at work, and that’s really what we’re rededicating ourselves to.

Pretty Much Everyone Thinks Contraception Use Is Fine, Survey Confirms

by Catherine Woodiwiss 09-29-2016

Image via /Shutterstock.com

The survey, released by the Pew Research Center on Sept. 28, polled more than 4,500 adults on the use of contraception and other recent “values” controversies in an effort to put data to the often-public communications breakdowns between America’s understanding of religious liberty and nondiscrimination. Other hot button issues in the survey included whether businesses should be required to provide wedding services to same-sex couples, and whether transgender people should be able to use the restrooms of the gender with which they identify — both of which revealed national opinion to be nearly evenly split.

Poetic Justice?

by Catherine Woodiwiss 09-29-2016
The moral of the story? We're working on it.
 Everett - Art / Shutterstock

 Everett - Art / Shutterstock

YOU HAVE TO feel for Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, who probably gets tired of hearing about his own death.

Kamen, still very much alive, introduced the self-balancing vehicle in 2001. But since 2010, when new Segway Inc. owner Jimi Heselden accidentally drove a Segway off a cliff to his death, popular memory has conflated the tragedy with its creator.

There are any number of plausible reasons for this case of false identification, but one of the most persistent deals with moral comeuppance: A person invents an obnoxious, silly vehicle; a person dies from the frivolous invention. It isn’t kind, but that sort of morality tale is enduringly satisfying. When we despair for humanity, our inner cynic appreciates when humanity gets what’s coming.

Kamen isn’t the first victim of misapplied poetic justice—fascination with the archetype of the doomed inventor stretches back to Greek myth, punctuated by names from Hamlet (whose snide “’tis the sport to have the engineer / hoist with his own petard” unwittingly championed his impending demise) to Alfred Nobel, who, despite popular myth, did not actually have many regrets about inventing dynamite.

John Sylvan, inventor of the Keurig single-cup coffee dispenser, is a recent case of the regretful kind—he publicly laments having introduced the waste-belching quick-fix to bulk coffee, and later designed a fully recyclable prototype that would remedy the environmental concern. But most of us only know (or care?) about that first part.

There’s something viscerally satisfying in the demise of a technological Icarus. Such falls let us root for our own inertia—a triumph against the hubris of building something nonessential, and the idealism of thinking it could change the world. To stop at a moral tale of disaster is to keep the focus on poetic justice and our own wisdom. It also, conveniently, keeps us from having to face the complexity of, “What do we do about it now?”

George Saunders on Trump, Mystery, and Why He Rejects Social Media

by Catherine Woodiwiss 08-30-2016

Image via Fort Greene Focus/Flickr

Saunders’ spirit of generosity, cloaked in the dark humor and melancholy of his stories, has made him something of a guru to younger writers. A practicing Buddhist, with a childhood in the Catholic Church, Saunders approaches his essays in particular with a spiritual frankness — comfortable with his own limits, unabashedly willing to admit what confounds him, and ready to tell the truth as faithfully as he can. 

In July, he published his months-long attempt to understand Trump supporters and how they came to invest so much in a highly divisive, unconventional candidate. He seems both a natural and a jarringly wrong fit to capture this election season — perhaps the writer best ready to chronicle the already-absurd, and the one most willing to take it seriously. And at this moment in 2016, Saunders may be a kinder national narrator than we deserve.

The Myth of the Midlife Crisis — And What That Can Mean About Faith

by Catherine Woodiwiss 08-02-2016
A Q+A with journalist Barbara Bradley Hagerty

Image via /Shutterstock.com

It's my experience, observationally and personally, that people of faith go through the same kind of U curve, the same ennui that you experience psychologically. …. this malaise, this sense that you're praying and no one's listening, that the honeymoon is over. Those really rich feelings during prayer or everyday life — that God is here and present in this moment, “I feel the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit” — for most people, I think that ebbs. I think that's part of the plan.

… I talked to a group of nuns who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, because I figured they had a dog in this fight — if they lost their faith it actually would matter. What do you do when stuff gets boring or dull or hard? To a nun, their answer was the same — sometimes you don't feel God, and you just keep going. It's a relationship.

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