Catherine Woodiwiss

Deputy Online Editor

I'm deputy 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, collective memory, and war, with work appearing in the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, the Washington Post, Think Progress, 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

How Do We Avoid Becoming Numb in the Face of Online Tragedy and Violence?

by Catherine Woodiwiss 05-30-2017
The world hurts everywhere, including in our social media feeds.

IF THERE IS ONE CONFESSION a journalist never wants to make, it’s that she can’t handle the truth. Many of us got into the business for the express purpose of truth-telling, and for journalists growing up in the post-9/11 dawn of the 24-hour news cycle and the war in Iraq, the challenge to tell it boldly and well is our guiding star.

The nights are awfully cloudy these days.

When Syrian refugee children washed ashore in Libya in 2015, the images were indelible in their lonely, awful stillness—our decade’s “vulture and the little girl,” our “Falling Man.” Editorial rooms around the country debated whether splashing images of drowned babies across our platforms was truly in the public interest. Can pressing on exposed nerves yield anything but a howl?

Many outlets—including Sojourners—decided against publishing the photos. Everyone saw them on social media anyway.

White Women and Racial Complicity

by Catherine Woodiwiss 05-30-2017
How do we face being precariously power-adjacent?

WHEN WATCHING a creative imagining of what feels like your own demise, the last thing you want is for an audience to cheer. But for white women watching Get Out, the record-breaking horror flick from comedy writer Jordan Peele, that’s more or less what happened. It was a revealing moment, to say the least.

Get Out follows black photojournalist Chris, whose white girlfriend Rose invites him home for a weekend. To his terror, Chris slowly realizes that her nice, white, liberal family is masking a deep, violent racism. (“I would have voted for Obama for a third term” is a catchphrase played first as proof of the family’s “colorblindness” and later revealed to be a cover for their fetishization of black bodies.) Rose—a seemingly “woke” white woman, who yells at cops for unfairly profiling her black boyfriend—is, without giving too much away, a less-than-ideal ally.

The film was released one month after Trump’s inauguration, and it was easy to cheer for Chris as he took ownership of his fate and sought vengeance on his captors. In the last year, we’d seen unabashed patriarchal white supremacy pulling the levers in our politics and our churches. But then 52 percent of white women—many of them white Christian women—voted for Trump, and the role of white women in building and perpetuating damaging policies, narratives, and theologies was made more clear. Frankly, for me, and other white women who raced to see the film, Get Out felt like a chance to atone. White women have often skated by in the larger battles over identity and justice, inside and outside the church: Let us now give our money to the telling of truth.

To be a white woman in America is to be precariously power-adjacent: Because of our skin, we carry unquestioned privilege in power systems. Because of our gender, that security has a shelf life—we are included only as long as we are able or willing to perform according to those who control the levers.

The World Begins Anew

by Catherine Woodiwiss 03-23-2017
To see blooms adorning a church on Ash Wednesday—instead of at Easter—scrambles the spiritual metaphor.

REMEMBER THAT  you are dust, and to dust you shall return. The prayer said around the world on Ash Wednesday wielded a rather pointed moral to the tail end of the hottest February on record where I live. Penitents in my neighborhood church shuffled in a sun-kissed line to receive ashes on tanned foreheads, summer sandals slapping the floor. Outside, overeager daffodils bloomed their Easter welcome. A strange one, this backward Lent: balmy with a side of dread.

This existential reversal felt nothing if not timely—all through the winter, a collective litany of weary newsfeeds asked whether we really needed quite so much of it. The first months of this year have witnessed a steady erosion of trust in whatever institutions we had left: the federal government, the electoral process, our checks and balances, our freedoms, our faith, each other. Some trace our hard skid sideways to the election, or the Super Bowl, or the Oscars. (I peg it to the Cubs’ win in November. I grew up in Chicagoland—I know reversing a curse has consequences.)

But there’s something particularly dizzying about the separation of church and earth. The globe is getting hotter every year now, but the effects of this ecological trauma, like any grief, are far from linear. If warming simply meant the usual weather, shifted a month early or late, we could figure out how to recalibrate—but our snowfall is breaking records and our ice caps are melting. A winter afternoon can begin as warm as an early summer day and suddenly drop 25 degrees to freezing rain.

60 Congregations in DC Metro Area 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.

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