Jesse James DeConto

Jesse James DeConto is a journalist, musician and author of the spiritual memoir This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World. He is releasing a series of excerpts like this one, paired with music videos for songs that shaped his story. "This Little Light of Mine" is the first.

Posts By This Author

Forget VBS. These Summer Camps Teach Kids to Be Community Activists

by Jesse James DeConto 07-05-2016
Franklin Golden / RNS

Children sing at the community-organizing camp in Durham, N.C. Photo via Franklin Golden / RNS

Instead of the traditional vacation Bible school, this downtown church partnered with seven other congregations — black, white, Baptist, Jewish, Episcopal, Pentecostal, and nondenominational — to put on a community-organizing camp for kids aged 4 to 12.

Among M.Div. Grads, a New Crop of Transgender Students

by Jesse James DeConto 05-31-2016

Adam Plant receives his master's hood. Image via Red Cardinal Studio / Wake Forest University School of Divinity / RNS

Like other graduates of Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, Adam Plant walked onstage earlier this month to accept a diploma and a hug from Dean Gail O’Day.

Unlike them, his journey to the Master of Divinity degree took a significant detour.

Charleston Church Shooting Survivor Speaks Up

by Jesse James DeConto 02-11-2016

Jennifer Pinckney. Image via Megan Mendenhall/Duke University/RNS

The first lady of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church offered two enduring images: her late husband’s smiling face lying in a casket, and the bullet holes that riddled the church walls when she went to clean out his office a week later. “Clementa was a peaceful person,” said Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of the late preacher and South Carolina state senator Clementa Pinckney, during a visit to Duke University to talk about gun control, race, and faith.

White Churches Start Talking About Reparations for Slavery

by Jesse James DeConto 11-10-2015

Image via Jennifer Harvey / RNS

A white scholar touring churches across the nation is trying to convince Christians that racial reconciliation is not enough — it’s time to start talking about reparations for descendants of slaves.

And among mostly white, mainline Protestants this controversial — some would say unrealistic — notion is getting a hearing.

What divides the races in America, says Drake University ethicist Jennifer Harvey, is not the failure to embrace differences but the failure of white Americans to repent and repair the sins of the past.

Why Hipster Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber Thinks the Church Is for Losers

by Jesse James DeConto 09-29-2015

Image via Nadia Bolz-Weber / RNS

Nadia Bolz-Weber is the kind of pastor who ends up doing funerals for an alcoholic stand-up comic and a transvestite. The founder of Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints, this tattooed, profanity-loving Lutheran pastor wants nothing more than to tell it like it is.

Her newest book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, expands on her trademark exploration of finding God in the unexpected.

“When it comes down to it,” said Bolz-Weber, “the church is for losers. We connect to each other and to God through our shared brokenness, not through our personal victories and strengths and accomplishments. This is why it’s hilarious to me when people sort of write me off as hipster Christianity. You have definitely not been to my congregation. It is not hip.”

When It Comes to Worship Music, Hispanic Churches Look Within

by Jesse James DeConto 08-27-2015
Sam Hodges / United Methodist News Service / RNS

Adriana Campos, front left, is a youth band member at Christ’s Foundry United Methodist Church in Dallas who teaches guitar there on Sunday afternoons. Photo via Sam Hodges / United Methodist News Service / RNS

Dynamic, charismatic-style worship is a defining feature of Hispanic churches from evangelical to mainline to Catholic, and across the U.S. they are opening their own in-house music schools to train young people to lead them.

Where English-speaking music ministers might earn postsecondary degrees in worship arts or sacred music at more than 50 Christian colleges, Hispanic congregations are following in the footsteps of Pentecostal churches by raising up music and worship ministers from within, even if they can’t fret a guitar string.

Bree Newsome at Wild Goose: 'Jesus is One of the Biggest Agitators That Ever Lived'

by Jesse James DeConto 07-14-2015
Image via Steve Mann/Wild Goose Festival

Image via Steve Mann/Wild Goose Festival

As she prepared for her mission — scaling the 30-foot flagpole outside the South Carolina Statehouse to bring down the Confederate flag — Bree Newsome reread the biblical story of David and Goliath.

A youth organizer with Ignite NC, a nonprofit group challenging voting laws, Newsome appeared briefly to raucous cheers July 11 on the main stage of the Wild Goose Festival after speaking to a smaller crowd at the four-day camp revival that celebrates spirituality, arts, and justice.

The 30-year-old activist, a dedicated Christian, drew on the biblical story of the Hebrew shepherd boy who slays a giant with a sling and a stone.

“I don’t even feel like it was my human strength in that moment,” said Newsome.

“I’m honestly just so humbled.”

How Some Churches Are Turning Empty Buildings into Artist Spaces

by Jesse James DeConto 07-01-2015
Judson Memorial Church / RNS

Abhay Singh & Friends performs during Arts Wednesdays at Judson Memorial Church. Photo via Judson Memorial Church / RNS

On the north side of Indianapolis, the historic First Presbyterian Church is now the Harrison Center for the Arts. Its owner, the upstart Redeemer Presbyterian Church, is landlord to two dozen artist studios, three apartments, four galleries, an annual music festival, and the Indiana office of VSA, the John F. Kennedy Center’s nationwide arts program for people with disabilities.

Redeemer is among a host of churches that own old buildings and have embraced the arts as a way of enlivening hallowed spaces, breaking down barriers with neighbors, and paying the heating bills.

'This Little Light of Mine': A Simple Sunday School Song and A Civil Rights Anthem

by Jesse James DeConto 12-13-2013

'This Little Light of Mine' takes on a whole new meaning in the context of the civil rights movement. il_76/Shutterstock

We used to sing this song in Sunday School, as far back as I can remember, way back when I was learning to use a big-boy potty and tie my shoes. The little light was our faith in Jesus, and letting it shine was sharing it with others, who didn't know him. Jesus loved the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they were precious in his sight, Jesus loved the little children of the world. He would make us FISHERS! of men, FISHERS! of men, FISHERS! of men, if we followed him, if we followed him, if we FAW! LOWED! HIM! I should dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm, dare to make it known. Even if they fed me to the lions.

It took almost 30 years for me to really see "This Little Light" in action. Before that, it was mostly an ideal standard that made me feel guilty for not living up to it, a measuring stick that set me in competition with all the other little lights around me; if I shined a little brighter, you'd try too. But two years before Occupy Wall Street demanded economic reform at the national level, the candles lit in Charlotte, N.C., as hundreds of protestors marched on Bank of America and Wachovia in the fall of 2009. In the midst of the subprime mortgage crisis, with people facing ballooning interest rates and foreclosures on their homes, organizers delivered a theological statement against what they called "usury" — the Old Testament sin of collecting interest from the poor.

When We Were the Pre-Party to the Tea Party

by Jesse James DeConto 10-30-2013

When I was seven years old in the mid-‘80s, Mom started taking my brother Marco and me to Grace Bible Baptist Church and School in rural New Hampshire. We’d pass by all these well-attended, high-steepled liberal churches to worship in a squat, utilitarian building hidden on a back road in the woods, with a congregation of 30 or 40 strong: The Moral Majority. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s recent claim that we’re living in the end times reminds me of those days. We were the pre-party to the Tea Party. There were Ronald Reagan posters in the lobby. We’d listen to sermons about “back masking” and the Satanist propaganda you’d hear if you played rock records backwards. One week, we came back to church every night after school to watch Russell Daughten’s four-part 1970s Rapture movie series, the original Left Behind: Polyester pandemonium.