Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners.
Woodiwiss has worked with print, online, and multimedia journalism. Her favorite posture is as ethnographer, tracing the spread of ideas, objects, and beliefs through time and place—and reporting on their real-world consequences in institutions and public discourse.
She formerly wrote for the Center for American Progress, with contributing pieces at ThinkProgress, Catapult, and Macalla. Her writing most recently was highlighted in The New York Times.
For the last three years, Woodiwiss has been workshopping memoirs on loss, memory, reconciliation, sisters, and narrative statehood. Will she ever finish? Time will tell. In the meantime, her primary goal is to "make DC weird," which is how she came to be co-founder of both a design platform and a live music venue network in DC. Abiding likes include porch jams, getting grubby in nature, and futbol. Abiding dislikes are small talk, abuses of power, and football. The jury's still out on twitter: find her
Articles By This Author
Land of the Free, Home of the Weird
The Wild West as we imagine it is a bit of a sham, of course — constructed in part by people living there even at the time, who would stage train robberies and trick out saloons to thrill adventure-seeking, money-dropping East Coasters.
It’s a cartoonized myth, the kind perfectly suited to the sort of theme park that America today leads the world in delivering. This could cause even greater skepticism about our present surroundings — but really, is there great romantic difference between a bygone West of restaurants and wagon paraphernalia and a tribute West of all that plus a water park? We agree that this is the story we’re telling and we go with it; to delight ourselves and each other, to give ourselves an origin story, a reason for what it’s all for.
I should mention it is Memorial Day weekend. National holidays share a similarly constructed myth in our collective nostalgia, I think, and Memorial Day has come further than most from its original purpose.
'Where's God When...?' 3 Authors Launch Tour to Talk Loss, Doubt, and Healing
What’s it like to share your stories of loss to a room of hundreds? Wm. Paul Young (author of The Shack), Reba Riley (Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome), and Christian Piatt (PostChristian) are about to find out — and help others do the same. The three bestselling authors are launching a two-stop tour — "Where's God When..." — in Seattle and Portland on May 16 & 17, to help others hear, and share, their own stories of grief, heartbreak, and healing.
Sojourners sat down with the authors last week to talk loss, return to faith, and what it’s like to coordinate a tour focused on hard questions about God. Interview edited for length and clarity.
Local Efforts to Rebuild Nepal — And How You Can Help
Lokesh Todi, born and raised in Kathmandu, moved home to Nepal nine months ago to be an entrepreneur. When the 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit last Saturday, he and a cousin started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to help connect concerned givers with local NGOs.
“We thought we could get some supplies to local groups. Our goal was to get $20,000 — that’s a lot of money in Nepal," said Todi, a recent graduate of Yale University's M.B.A program.
Thanks to their concerned networks, including thousands of shares from Todi’s Facebook page, the campaign has now raised $120,150 — more than six times the amount they expected.
“I’m really hoping to make sure that all this money goes to right channels, and make sure that every dollar is spent properly and wisely. My goal is to help the community build back stronger and a little bit more prepared,” said Todi.
Who's Watching? Brave New Technology, Same Old Fears
In 1990, my father and pregnant mother packed up their life in suburban Illinois, bundled their four young children (including me) onto a plane, and landed in Romania to teach on a grant at the University of Bucharest.
The country was in the throes of revolution following the execution of ousted dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, and the transfer of power was by no means tidy or complete. The Securitate — one of the most brutal secret police forces in the world — proved difficult to shut down. All our neighbors operated under the assumption that their every move continued to be watched (one friend had taken apart his typewriter by hand and hid it so he could answer honestly that he did not keep a typewriter in the house). Being American, my parents were told to expect our apartment to be bugged.
Freedom had come, but the systems of omnipresent control proved psychologically hard to shake.
The specter of surveillance is an insidious tool. In the 1790s, British philosoper Jeremy Bentham developed a centralized prison model called the panopticon, in which every occupant is visible to a single guard. Most models, since adapted by prisons and schools around the world, leave open the possibility that there is no supervisor watching after all. Whether there is isn't the point — the mere promise of one is enough to coerce significant behavior change. Being constantly observable is the trap.
These days, Americans don’t need a formative year spent in post-soviet Romania to feel uneasy about omnipresent surveillance. Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive secret surveillance programs operating under the NSA, with enormous access to private data from citizens not suspected of terrorism or criminal wrongdoing, rocked our understandings of data privacy and civil liberty. Now, as then, it’s reasonable to worry that we’re being watched.
And if it’s not the state watching us, it’s corporations after our money. Uber tracks our movements and fires drivers for sharing links to bad reviews on their personal media, unless it doesn’t. Facebook uses emotional manipulation to collect behavioral data, but insists it’s no big deal. Google compiles secret profiles through wiretapping but swears it would never.
So are we being watched or aren’t we? And do we care?
Songs of Ourselves: Grief, Hope, and Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell (out now), is a heartbreaking meditation on personal grief. It’s also joyful, baffling, and delicately mundane.
In the spirit of a listening party, a few of us sat down to play through the album, sharing liner notes and meditations on the songs that grabbed each of us. Conclusion: it's really, really good. Stream Carrie & Lowell here, and listen along with us below.
Tripp: I love the first song of an album. I think of it as the introduction to a possible new friend. “Where The Streets Have No Name” on U2’s Joshua Tree or “Signs of Life” on Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, that first track can be the thesis statement to a sonic essay.
So, when I get a new album — even in this day of digital albums or collections of singles — a first track can make or break an album for me. I sat down and listened attentively to “Death With Dignity.” It does not disappoint. With it Stevens introduces the subject of the album — his grief around troubled relationship with his mother and her death — as well as the sonic palate he will use throughout the album.
Simple guitar work, layered voicing, and a little synth, the album is musically sparse. The tempo reminds me of movies from the nineteen sixties or seventies where the action takes place over a long road trip.
Catherine Woodiwiss: I was thinking road trip, too. There’s real motion musically, which, given a claustrophobic theme and circular lyrics, is a thankful point of release. It’s a generous act, or maybe an avoidant one — he could have made us sit tight and watch, and he doesn’t quite do it.
Julie Polter: This isn’t a road movie, but the reference to that era of films just made me think of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack for Harold and Maude, especially “Trouble.” (This album is one-by-one bringing back to me other gentle songs of death and duress and all the songs I listen to when I want to cry).
Agree to Disagree: Millennials Talk Sex and Morals
When it comes to consensual sexual ethics among millennials, all behaviors are on the table … if the time is right. For the same generation in which no single religious group claims more than about one in 10, there is also little clear generational consensus on sex and reproductive health, a new report finds.
“Across seven behaviors related to sexuality [including: using contraception, sex between minors, unmarried cohabitation], there were no issues for which a majority pronounced them morally wrong in general,” the report, authored by Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox at the Public Religion Research Institute, states.
Millennials prove a regular source of fascination for commentators and other millennials alike. This is the generation that launched a thousand think pieces, and understandably so — in study after study, millennials consistently defy both traditional categories and expected reactive categories alike. (We’re an obstinate bunch.)
When it comes to sex, PRRI’s new release highlights what its authors call “situationalist ethics” — a flexible set of acceptable behaviors. Far from displaying a lack of moral code, the report suggests millennials embracing nebulous but durable moral through-lines that eschew the “whats” of behavior for the “hows” and “whens.”
For example, in the case of sex between two adults who have no intention of establishing a relationship, millennials are evenly divided for and against (37 percent), with a significant number saying it depends on the situation (21 percent).
When it comes to abortion, most say it depends on the situation (39 percent), though more say it’s morally wrong than morally acceptable. Using artificial forms of birth control is by far the clearest point of agreement, with a full 71 percent saying it’s morally acceptable and another 14 percent depending on the situation — only 9 percent rejecting the use.
The report examines how our generation’s religious, racial, and political diversity is shaping attitudes, but it’s worth nothing how educational attainment is shaping moral frameworks, too. Much of the report’s findings reflect similar attitudes on broad categories across racial and religious lines, while noting some stark differences when broken down by educational attainment. (Not discussed in the report, but well-documented elsewhere — the crucial question of poverty and economic mobility when it comes to sexual norms.)
Faith Leaders Nationwide Call for Stay in Atlanta Woman's Execution, Scheduled Tonight
It is a great and terrible irony that our country’s correctional system does not often allow for or take much pride in perpetrators’ self-correction.
Yet to the degree that transformation within the system is possible, such appears to have happened for Kelly Gissendaner. The 46-year-old woman was sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of her then-husband, Doug. It is well-documented that her accomplice and then-boyfriend committed the act — he is sentenced to life, with a chance at parol.
Gissendaner faces excecution tonight at 7 p.m. EST.
If carried through, it will be the first time since 1976 that the state of Georgia will execute an individual who was not the person physically using violence in the crime.
Gissendaner’s case — that of a person guilty of murder whose profound internal transformation while in prison has led to a contemplative life of studying theology, mentoring at-risk youth, offering pastoral care to fellow inmates, and expressing full and sincere remorse for her actions — calls into stark question whether our criminal justice system, and specifically the state's use of the death penalty, honestly allows for the possibility for redemption.
Pastor Ousted Over LGBT Inclusion: 'There's So Much Grace'
Sojourners: What’s your hope for the ECC broadly? I’m not sure whether you can even speak to this yet, but are you hoping to stay within the denomination? What’s your hope for where this conversation leads the church?
Phillips: Well, I just, I deeply love the Covenant Church. I keep using “we” language instead of “us” and “them” language, because it really hasn’t sunk in yet. And there’s some confusion around, how do I operate as an ordained minister in a former Covenant church plant. For me, this all comes back to our Covenant pietistic roots about relationship, new life in Christ, and reading the bible together.
I’ve just met dozens and dozens and dozens of gay Covenanters in recent weeks that have said, hey, thanks for speaking up, and they’ve told me their stories of exclusion or being ostracized in some cases. These are good Christian people — people that grew up in the Covenant, working at Bible camps, going to Covenant schools. And some of these folks have experienced depression; some have experienced suicidal thoughts. And that’s the kind of thing that I hope that my friends in the Covenant, no matter where they stand on this matter, can work together to at least find some way for hospitality and inclusion to take place.
You know, I never thought that the Covenant needed to change its policies to become an open and affirming church. I was simply hoping that we could hold in tension this kind of historic covenant agreement to disagree on matters that weren’t what some would call “essential matters” — like resurrection, like new life, like the presence of the Holy Spirit. I have dear friends in the covenant that wouldn’t hold my position, and they’re doing amazing work in ministry — alongside the gay community, even — so you know, I hope that we can find some way forward that can get beyond this moment of confusion.
Sojourners: Many churches and Christian organizations in the U.S. right now are afraid to take a stand on LGBTQ rights precisely for this reason — whether it’s a hesitancy to break with denominational tradition or, maybe more pragmatically, a fear of getting defunded. For someone newly in this chaos, do you have any wisdom from having this happen to you?
Phillips: I think it’s imperative that we lean into what the Holy Spirit is doing. I think the Holy Spirit is guiding us on this conversation — and there’s so much grace. Even though there’s so much pain and fear. I think in the end, grace wins out.
I’ve found that in the midst of all this, amazing friends emerge, and new friendships are forged. And you know, God’s doing something really cool right now. And it seems chaotic, and it seems scary, because so many of the old models are outdated. But God’s truth is not changed whatsoever, and God’s news is still good. So I just encourage people to keep leaning into God’s promises and friends along the way that can walk with us as we figure it out as we go.
5 Apps for a ‘Closer Walk’
Religion writers get a lot of curious mail in their inbox. Our favorite this week was from Instapray, a social praying app.
Instapray does exactly what you'd think it would — matches communal prayer with the real-time get-it-anywhere nature of social media by allowing users to add, share, comment on, and update prayers. Like similar apps before it, there’s a spiritual motivation, too — users can mark that a prayer has been answered, or “repray” with others in solidarity of situation or spirit.
Most social prayer apps to date are some variation on Instapray, if less catchy/hokey in name — the Prayer Network, Ora, Intercede, Fellowshipper. Their thesis is clear — we often forget or don’t make time to pray; we don’t know who and what to pray for; we want to know our deep questions or petitions are being heard. (One also has to wonder whether the psychological pitfalls of digital social tools apply doubly when faith is involved — “What about all my prayers left publically unanswered? Why doesn’t anyone else share my prayer?".)
There’s a growing sense of partnership potential between Silicon Valley and faith communities, but the market for Christian social media to date remains largely untapped. It seems developers and faith leaders have yet to discover their collaborative sweet spot, where often-private religious inquiry best meets digital social tools. Instapray is one newer attempt at finding that nexus — success TBD.
In the meantime, here are 5 other Christian apps tooled to provide a closer walk with … well, each other.
Remembering J. Edward Guinan, Passionate Advocate for D.C.’s Most Vulnerable
Kathleen calls Ed’s lifework — which also includes authoring the 1979 D.C. statehood constitutional convention initiative and acting as Pax Christi USA’s first General Secretary beginning in 1972 — "a tiny seed that really sparked a lot of transformational education."
Kathleen mentions several former volunteers who went on to start their own hospitality houses, federations for organic farmers, prison rehabilitation initiatives, and food and poverty programs worldwide.
And the impact of Guinan’s work lives on in the city today. In 2008, Ed and Kathleen received the WETA Hometown Hero Award for residents working for "positive change for underprivileged people." The CCNV’s medical clinic has since grown into one of D.C.’s most recognizable service groups, Bread for the City. And according to the Washington Post, the CCNV’s Federal City Shelter still houses 1,350 beds — the country’s largest shelter for the homeless.
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