Julie has been a member of the Sojourners magazine editorial staff since 1990. For the last several years she has edited the award-winning Culture Watch section of the magazine. In her time at Sojourners she has written about a wide variety of political and cultural topics, from the abortion debate to the working class blues. She has coordinated in-depth coverage of Flannery O’Connor, campaign finance reform, Howard Thurman, the labor movement, and much more.
She studied English literature at Ohio State University and has an M.T.S. (focused on language and narrative theology) from Boston University and an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from George Mason University.
Julie grew up on a farm in the northwest corner of Ohio. She has been fascinated by the power of religious expression in and through culture since she can remember. Obsessively listening to her older sister’s copy of the Jesus Christ Superstar cast recording when she was 10 was an especially crystallizing experience. In addition, Julie’s mother often argued about doctrine and the Bible and took her at least weekly to the public library, both of which were useful background for Julie’s current work.
She lives in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. and is a member of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church (where she had an unlikely four-year reign as rummage sale czarina). Her personal interests overlap nicely with her professional ones: Music, books, reading entertainment, culture, and religion writing, art, architecture, TV, films, and knowing more celebrity gossip than is probably wise or healthy. To make up for all that screen time, she tries to grow things, hike occasionally, and wonder often at the night sky.
Some Sojourners articles by Julie Polter:
Replacing Songs with Silence
Censorship, banning, blacklists: What’s lost when governments stifle musical expression?
It’s the Sprawl, Y’all
Why suburbs-on-steroids are wearing out their welcome.
A glimpse of grace and abundance from - of all things - reality TV.
The Cold Reaches of Heaven
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Bill Phillips talks about his faith.
Just Stop It
Daring to believe in a life without logos. An interview with journalist Naomi Klein.
Women and Children First
Developing a common agenda to make abortion rare.
Obliged to See God (on Flannery O’Connor)
Posts By This Author
ONE OF THE MOST influential figures in the African-American civil rights movement did not march, organize, or speak at mass rallies. Mystic Howard Thurman found spiritual revelation in nature, championed the use of dance, theater, and nontraditional music in worship, and incorporated silence in his sermons. But his books, preaching, and teaching provided vital philosophical and spiritual underpinnings for the nonviolent resistance methods championed by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.
Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story, airing on PBS in February, is a documentary by Martin Doblmeier, the award-winning creator of films on faith including An American Conscience, Chaplains, and Bonhoeffer. In this rich, one-hour portrait of Thurman, civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson Sr., Rep. John Lewis, and others—as well as scholars such as Alton B. Pollard III, Walter Earl Fluker, Luther E. Smith, and Lerita Coleman Brown—offer insights on Thurman’s life, legacy, and the dynamic tension between contemplation and social justice.
The film’s title is from Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited , published in 1949—said to have been carried by King and often cited by other civil rights leaders. Thurman wrote: “The masses of [people] live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them?”
Thurman’s lifelong engagement with this question produced wisdom as vital for our day as it was for his.
'Even to the End of the Age'
TWO NEW ADVENT-THEMED books bring deep wisdom for this liturgical season.
Peter B. Price is a retired Church of England bishop with decades of experience advocating on the ground and in the halls of power for peace and reconciliation in conflict situations around the world. His new book, A Shaking Reality: Daily Reflections for Advent, takes its title from a mediation written by a German priest, Alfred Delp, S.J., while imprisoned by the Nazis.
Price reflects on Delp (who was later executed for being in the resistance) and the “courage and witness” of others in these graceful meditations for each day of Advent. He writes about the world’s brokenness from his sensibilities as a pastor—acknowledging structures that harm and oppress, while guiding readers toward what Delp called “God’s promise of redemption and release.”
A Whirlwind in a Wildfire
The falsehoods are so thick, the hypocrisies so outrageous, the corruption so rife, the processes so broken that you don’t know if you trust anyone anymore. The vulnerable are mocked or torn from their parents’ arms. Men in expensive suits say “Lord, Lord,” like they own air and mineral rights to the Most High. But their God, the one you thought—if but reluctantly—that you shared, is no god you recognize.
How can the pieces ever be put back together, the damage undone? What is gospel truth now?
A knot of self-righteous rage, tangled inextricably with despair, owns your gut. The accusing thought comes that you’re complicit. You’ve not done enough; you’ve saved no one. Guilt is the final straw. A voice not quite your own yet completely your own snarls: “Burn. It. Down.”
11 New Books for Your Unrequired Reading List
FEWER AMERICANS ARE reading for pleasure. According to the latest American Time Use Survey, the portion of Americans who read just for the joy of it on a given day has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2004.
I’m choosing to resist the tyranny of trends—by reading more. Lately that’s meant sinking into a sprawling novel about trees, who, it turns out, are an active force, not just part of the scenery. The Overstory, by Richard Powers, is also about community, family, conscience, love, and fighting the powers.
My editorial colleagues are also making time to read. Their stacks include sci-fi (Blackfish City, by Sam J. Miller); historical fiction ( Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee); a novel spanning Roman-occupied Jerusalem to the 21st century (Eternal Life, Dara Horn); short stories (The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson); poetry ( Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith); essays (Feel Free, by Zadie Smith); biography ( Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love , by Dava Sobel); and many more.
Below are some nonfiction books that might fit in your leisure reading mix.
The Food of Love and Memory
KARLA VASQUEZ, director of community programs at With Love Market and Café in south Los Angeles, takes a live-and-let-live approach to cooking and nutrition. In classes at the recently opened market—whose mission includes increasing access to affordable fresh food in an underserved area—she encourages people to try new foods. But the bottom line, she told Sojourners: “You don’t like kale? I will never make you eat it.”
Vasquez doesn’t teach a catechism of “healthy vs. unhealthy” foods. A community organizer with culinary training, she instead focuses on giving class participants tools for healthier, but realistic, eating: how to understand nutrition labels and cook those healthy ingredients, so they can have food that will work for them. So in a class on “guilty pleasures” Vasquez discourages the guilt, instead offering ways to gently alter beloved dishes to maximize flavor and make them more nutritious, rather than give them up completely. She calls a class on all-vegetable dishes “cooking the rainbow,” emphasizing the beauty and taste of dishes made vibrant with a variety of produce—because she knows if she used the word “vegan,” many of her students might balk. “They’d say ‘That’s not for us—that’s what hipsters eat!’” she says.
With Love Market (withlovela.com) is a for-profit business that promotes a social bottom line. Along with the food market and classes, there is a café and a community garden. With Love pays its staff an above-average wage and specifically recruits employees from the neighborhood, hoping to help long-time Latino/a and African-American residents stay despite the pressures of gentrification. And it tries to create a space where long-term and newer residents of all backgrounds, plus students from the nearby University of Southern California, feel welcome.
Beyond the 'Single Story'
TO FIND BOOKS for young people by and about people from a variety of perspectives—including race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, class, and disability—the children’s librarian at your school or the public library will often be the place to start (read why we need diverse children's literature in our December issue article, "Stories for All God's Children"). If you’re fortunate enough to have an independent bookstore in your area with a robust children’s department, the staff there may also be of help.
If in-person advice is in short supply where you live, several online sites can also provide ideas. These include the website of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books), which has bibliographies and booklists on a wide range of topics and population groups. The We Need Diverse Books campaign website (weneeddiversebooks.org) has a variety of resources for finding diverse books for young people, including a list of other websites that focus on books featuring certain demographics or on diversity in specific genres. ThePirateTree.com features interviews, reviews, and other articles from a collective of children’s and young adult book writers interested in children’s literature and social justice issues. School Library Journal (slj.com) is a key source of reviews and other publishing information for librarians and teachers who work with children and teens.
The following are examples of recent books that break free of the restraints of a “single story.”
Families, by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly, is a picture book for very young children that describes and celebrates all different configurations of families. Holiday House (Ages 2 to 6)
Thunder Boy Jr. is the first picture book by beloved young-adult fiction author Sherman Alexie. Illustrated by Mexican- American artist Yuyi Morales, it is the exuberant story of a little boy who is nicknamed after his father but wishes instead for a name “that celebrates something cool that I’ve done.” Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (Ages 4 to7)
Wealth and the Common Good
WRITER AND ACTIVIST Chuck Collins, the great-grandson of meatpacker Oscar Mayer, gave up his inheritance when he was 26 and has spent the subsequent decades working to address economic inequality and environmental issues. Via email with Sojourners senior associate editor Julie Polter, he discussed his newest book, Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good (Chelsea Green)—and why organizing and building community across economic lines is good for everyone.
Sojourners: What is your main message in this book?
Chuck Collins: I want to invite wealthy and affluent people to “come home”—to return from wandering in the desert of wealth and privilege, the disconnection from community and place. It means putting a personal stake in reversing the deepening ruts of extreme wealth inequality and the ecological crisis. If we read the signs of the times, we understand this is both in our selfish interest as well as strengthening the common good. These inequalities and ecological challenges are undermining the quality of life for everyone, including wealthy people. There is no wealth on a degraded planet.
By reconnecting with people and places, we come out of exile. Racial and economic advantage is a “disconnection drug”—distancing us from both the suffering and the joy of being a human.
Many of the ultra-wealthy are “placeless” and “stateless”—literally holding multiple passports with money globalized in offshore financial centers around the world. So “coming home” means bringing the wealth home too—taking it out of the offshore tax havens, out of the global financial casino (“going off the Wall Street grid,” as one of the people I interview in Born on Third Base says), and out of the fossil fuel industry.
From Stage to Page
JUDITH CASSELBERRY'S ORIGINAL LOVE WAS MUSIC. She has been a guitarist and vocalist her entire adult life, including a 1980 to 1994 stint as part of the duo Casselberry-DuPreé. She now performs with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely. She has shared the stage with Sweet Honey in the Rock, Odetta, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, and Elvis Costello, among others.
Along the way, while still performing, Casselberry earned her bachelor’s degree (in music production and engineering) and then, a few years later, a master’s in ethnomusicology, during which she discovered a passion for teaching. So she went to Yale, earning a doctorate in African-American studies and anthropology in 2008. She is an associate professor of Africana studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, teaching courses on African-American women’s religious lives, music and spirituality in popular culture, music and social movements, and issues in black intellectual thought.
Casselberry’s forthcoming book, The Labor of Faith: Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism (Duke University Press), employs feminist labor theories to examine the spiritual, material, social, and organizational work of women in a New York-based Pentecostal denomination, Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith (COOLJC). In the course of her research, Casselberry immersed herself for more than two years in the life of True Deliverance Church in Queens, N.Y. She spoke by phone with Sojourners senior associate editor Julie Polter in late January.
Sojourners: You examine the “religious work” of women—including prayer, teaching, care for the sick and grieving, liturgical music and movement, and guiding converts. Why did you choose this framework?
How to Love Like You are Dying
THE ART OF ... book series from Graywolf Press focuses on writing craft and criticism. In each compact volume an accomplished writer takes on a single element or theme. The most recent entry in the series is The Art of Death, by Edwidge Danticat.
Danticat’s reflections on a wide variety of literature that wrestles with death—from Taiye Selasi’s debut novel, Ghana Must Go, to C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed—offer insights for readers as much as for writers. She explores the complicated emotional landscape of death and mourning, but also the myriad ways, tangled in questions of both justice and mercy, that death comes: accident, illness, deadly disasters, suicides, executions.
The Resurrection of ‘Jesus’
My obsessive inner nerd rose to attention. You couldn’t have seen resurrection in Jesus Christ Superstar because there was no resurrection in Jesus Christ Superstar. That was the point! [I online shouted.] That’s why some considered it scandalous — a very human Jesus, a Judas who makes a lot of sense if you listen to him, and no Jesus rising from the dead. It doesn’t deny the resurrection. It just stops beforehand
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