I'm deputy web 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 D.C. weird. Hold me to it.
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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?”
Entering My 'Power Decade'
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.
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.
The Heartbeat of Deep Space
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.
The World Begins Anew
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.
Maybe We've Gotten Gratitude All Wrong
Woodiwiss: We're coming up on Good Friday and Easter. And a lot of strains of Christianity teach the story of Good Friday as, “God also gave us this gift of Jesus’ death. It was horrible, but Jesus did it to pay for our sins, so we have to worship him.” There's this implied debt.
Bass: It makes absolutely no theological moral or biblical sense at all. So where do we get that? It's very complicated, but Protestantism was built on this idea of faith: On one hand, they said that salvation was a free gift, that it was the act of grace. On the other hand, they complicated that free gift with this idea of economic exchange.
Note From Self
RECENTLY, a Facebook troll accused me of liking country singer Carrie Underwood. The troll was ... me.
“I hate to admit it ... but in the interest of full disclosure, I kind of love Carrie Underwood’s ‘Cowboy Casanova,’” said 23-year-old me. Real-time me was horrified.
The indignities kept coming. College junior me: “I was impressed by Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul,” after a GOP debate in South Carolina in 2008. ( Mike Huckabee?!) College senior me, more inscrutably, presumably comparing President Obama’s first inauguration to Woodstock: “Back from Obamastock, living the dream.”
Of all the ways to be internet shamed, I hadn’t counted on my old selves.
Launched in March 2015, Facebook’s feature On This Day collects every status update and photo users have shared on that day, every year, all the way back to the beginning of (Facebook) time.
For a social platform, this function is oddly, endearingly private. Newsfeed and Pages and Groups are where we meet others, but On This Day is where we meet ourselves. The for-your-eyes-only digital diary delivers a daily string of our admissions from years gone by, betting on our appetite for nostalgia and navel-gazing. Sometimes, reading the morning roundup delivers an ego boost. (“I was funny!” I once announced to an empty home.) Other times, I’ve shared things that my present self flat-out refuses to believe.
Facebook is 12 years old and has been with me longer than most close friendships in my life. And it acts like it: On This Day is a best friend eager to remind me how desperately, and how often, I’ve tried to be cool. But it also reflects me at my most earnest, filled with unselfconscious observations on life and tentative explorations into new ideas of justice, identity, and belonging.
2018 World Watch List: Christian Persecution Rising, Women Particularly Vulnerable
Open Doors USA, a ministry that works with persecuted Christians around the world, released its 25th annual World Watch List at the National Press Club Wednesday in Washington, D.C. The list, a compilation of field interviews and aggregated data from other agencies, ranks the 50 most dangerous countries in the world for Christians. Dangers include religious militancy, organized corruption, Islamic extremism, among other factors.
The Day That Had Two Noons
AS FAR AS WE know, Nov. 18, 1883, was the only day in history to have two noons. In a move to standardize haphazard railroad timetables, the United States was divided into time zones. Major cities wound their clocks to a newly designated “noon,” suddenly separated from their neighbors into zones of “now” and “not yet.”
Some newspapers and bulletins responded with humor. “We were not so far behind as [Maine], and therefore do not need so great an advance,” one Trenton, N.J. paper joked.
But this existentially momentous event was largely observed with pragmatism. “When the reader of THE TIMES consults his paper at 8 o’clock this morning at his breakfast table it will be ... 6 o’clock in Denver, Col. and 5 o’clock in San Francisco. That is the whole story in a nut-shell,” declared The New York Times. The slight change was necessary for standardization—time zones meant progress, efficiency, growth. Who could argue?
And so there was noon, and there was noon again, on that first day.
The Mistake That Toppled the Berlin Wall
The wall wasn’t supposed to come down.
Günter Schabowski, a spokesperson for the East German Politburo, was tired. He hadn’t thoroughly read the travel regulation updates, handed to him shortly before his news conference. He didn’t know the document’s shifts in rhetoric, developed by leaders in the East German government, were simply an attempt to appease the swelling ranks of East Germans demanding reform. On Nov. 9, 1989, facing journalists’ cameras and notepads, Schabowski took questions for a forgettable almost-hour. Then someone asked about rumors the border may open.
Schabowski mumbled over his answer, confused. But a few of his words were clear: “Immediately ... right away.”
Reporters pounced. Breathless reports in West German media soon filtered over the wall through East Germans’ pirated signals. The Politburo had assured checkpoint guards that no changes had been made, but it was too late—a trickle of curious East Berliners quickly grew to massive crowds, yelling “Open the gate!” At a loss, and unable to get through to leadership for clarification or backup, the guards eventually gave in. Within hours, nearly 40 years of iron-fisted East-West divide was undone.
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