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
What Song Should We Sing for the Dead?
NUMBNESS IS GOOD for dental work and as a temporary coping skill in surviving direct traumas. But most of us are not survivors of tornados or wildfires, haven’t lost our loved one to a young man with an assault rifle, nor worked triple ICU shifts at the peak of the pandemic. Yet many of us, myself included, hunker down deeper into whatever task is at hand when another breaking news bulletin about a mass shooting pops up on our phone. We barely glance at the latest tally of U.S. COVID-19 deaths or reports on war and natural disaster.
A few things recently have cracked open my numbness and made me wonder if we owe it to the dead and the grieving to let our hearts break.
I first saw the photo of a child-sized casket decorated with princess pink and a TikTok logo in a story shared on Instagram. Trey Ganem, a man who has a business creating custom caskets, had donated his work to the grieving families in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed in their school by an 18-year-old with an assault rifle. Ganem sat with parents and asked about their children. Then he and his team made designs reflecting the delights and obsessions of typical childhoods: TikTok. Spider-Man. Softball. Whales for the girl who dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. The colors were bright and glossy; the caskets’ handles and trims were lovingly painted to match.
In the past I might have pondered the prevalence of commercialism in both American childhood and the funeral industry, or the cultural history of how we grieve. But this was only days after the Uvalde shooting, and the juxtaposition of cheerful designs on obscenely small caskets brought a rush of feeling: I wept at a stranger’s heartfelt attempt to bring solace to the inconsolable. I was deeply agitated that we are a country where slaughtered kids are sent to their graves in candy-colored caskets while politicians and weapons manufacturers rake in power and profit.
‘If We Don't Change, the World Will Soon Be Over'
THE OPENING IS spare, just electric piano over a gently throbbing synth bass line, and then the vocal: “A boy is born in hard time Mississippi / surrounded by four walls that ain’t so pretty.” The radio cut of Stevie Wonder’s 1973 hit song “Living for the City” is a four-verse sketch of a loving Black family who work hard, live right, and yet can’t get ahead under the racist economic and social strictures of their Southern town. The instrumentation builds quickly—drums, synthesizer, hand claps, backup vocals—all performed by Wonder. It fades out on a choir of Wonders, singing variations of the chorus: “Living just enough, just enough for the city.”
The album version, more than 7 minutes long, segues from that repeated chorus into a spoken interlude. The boy of the first verse is now a young man arriving in New York City. He is quickly arrested for unwittingly taking a handoff of something illegal and incarcerated for 10 years. The melody and vocals return, heavier, rougher, with Wonder singing from “inside my voice of sorrow” to describe a now broken man who wanders the city, homeless.
“Living for the City” is from the album Innervisions, the third of an astonishing run of five albums Wonder released between 1972 and 1976. During this period, Wonder, a self-taught multi-instrumentalist who made his recording debut in 1962 as a 12-year-old, was stretching lyrically, innovating musically, and embracing a deeper social consciousness.
Two Devotionals That Inspire Us to Connect to Creator and Creation
DEVOTIONALS AND OTHER daily readings can set and solidify intentions in a new year, enrich liturgical seasons, or serve as a spiritual touchpoint during hectic days. Two new books set out to root such soul work in a deepened relationship with creation. Christian theologian and scholar Randy Woodley is a Cherokee descendant recognized by the Keetoowah Band. He and his wife, Edith, an Eastern Shoshone tribal member, develop and teach sustainable Earth care based on traditional Indigenous practices in North America. Along with skill-sharing, they “hope to help others love the land on which they live.” In Becoming Rooted: One Hundred Days of Reconnecting with Sacred Earth, Woodley notes that even those of us who are not Indigenous have ancestors who likely lived somewhere for generations in community with the soil, water, plants, and animals around them.
Woodley has written 100 short daily meditations, each with a suggestion for reflection or action, to encourage all of us to “recover or discover” these values of living in harmony and balance with creation. He draws on Indigenous thought and practice, past pastoral experience, lessons from the natural world, and insightful critiques of the so-called American Dream. Through beautiful descriptions, such as how American violet seeds are dispersed by slugs and ants—“Then in the spring, another field adorns itself with food, medicine, and beauty”—and more somber reflections on the physical and spiritual toll of destructive systems, Woodley models a humble, prophetic invitation: “To accept our place as simple human beings—beings who share a world with every seen and unseen creature in this vast community of creation—is to embrace our deepest spirituality.”
Confronting the Privatized Blessing of Domestic Life
I WAS A weird kid who faithfully read the syndicated “Hints from Heloise” newspaper column and the household tips in my mom’s many women’s magazines. I loved how a mundane problem in everyday life could be cheerfully solved with vinegar and “elbow grease” or the strategic deployment of a couple of rubber bands.
This was before Martha Stewart famously built an empire providing perfection-oriented household advice, such as mopping tips that note “sparkling floors begin with the correct tools.” In contrast, the advice in my childhood was humbler, with a how-to/can-do spirit that acknowledged that making a home clean and safe, and keeping a family fed, clothed, and nurtured on a budget is difficult and time-consuming.
When I was young, this was still sometimes called “women’s work.” Religious conservatives and organizations such as Focus on the Family added a faith twist—a woman’s role in the home was sacred duty (based on Jesus’ lost parable of the submissive helpmate?). The term “women’s work” is less common now, but studies show that in households where both a male and female partner are employed outside the home full time, the woman is still more likely to do more of the domestic work.
The Art of Redeeming Our Battered Era
Artist Makoto Fujimura uses materials and techniques from nihonga, a Japanese style of painting. The pigments are pulverized minerals and precious metals applied in multiple layers, in what he describes as “a slow process that fights against efficiency.” Prayer and contemplation are woven into the work. The tiny mineral particles refract light, often creating subtle prismatic effects. It is a style of art made for the type of long, unforced gaze that slowly reveals evermore depth. Deceptively simple and quietly extravagant.
Fujimura’s thoughts on art, theology, and culture are, like his paintings, many-layered and refractive, celebrating God as love, beauty, and mercy while also contending with pain and desolation. He is a mystic as well as a painter, and in his latest book, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making, he speaks out of his spiritual and his artistic practice.
But Fujimura also builds on three decades of reaching far outside his studio to evangelize on the necessity of art for human thriving and the call to shift from fighting over culture to caring for and nurturing it. He founded the International Arts Movement in 1992, which facilitates connections and communication between groups seeking to creatively and positively impact the culture, whether they are from the arts, music, business, education, or social change organizations.
Reviving Our Common Life in a World Struggling to Breathe
WE KNOW WE intertwine with one another and the rest of creation in ways both material and symbolic: through blood and law, employment and play, through the full range of physical contact and social niceties, as well as loan papers, traffic tickets, and contracts. We sing a hymn in church, and the song swells into harmony, a gift of complexity and cooperation.
Through it all we breathe: Breathe in. Breathe out. My breath out mingles with your breath in. A communion of droplets. And so clusters of COVID-19 come not just in places of forced confinement—prisons, nursing homes, meatpacking plants—but after birthday dinners and choral practice, weddings and retirement parties.
“We’re all in this together” you might have heard as stay-at-home orders spread across the country; “the virus is the great equalizer.” After all, what could be more universal than breath? A pauper or a prime minister might breathe in a sufficient viral load to become critically ill.
BUT THE CONDITIONS in which we breathe, the condition of our breathing bodies, and the conditions of the facilities that treat our bodies when breathing becomes difficult are rarely equal. Some people of great wealth have died from COVID-19, but many, many more of modest or little means have perished from it.
Societal inequalities of income and race incarnate as preexisting medical conditions, including diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, and kidney and pulmonary disease, that increase the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. For example, in Washington, D.C., the bottom 10 percent of income earners have a rate of diabetes nearly 74 percent greater than the median. The wealthy can pay for better food and housing; they have less stress and exposure to industrial pollutants and more access to recreation spaces and health care. The lowest-paying jobs, many of which force people into overexposure to the virus, are disproportionately filled by those with options limited by racial bias and legal status. As Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic, “Black and Latino workers are overrepresented among the essential, the unemployed, and the dead.”
And the pandemic did not stop the other ways we deprive people of the breath of life: A neighborhood lynch mob stalks, films, and kills jogger Ahmaud Arbery but is not charged for months; police officers shoot Breonna Taylor in her own home during a botched raid; a white cop kneels on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
I breathe out. You breathe in. Before coronavirus, some people did that without a second thought. Yet every day others were struggling to breathe at all.
Lent Is Grimness You Didn't Know You Needed
ON ASH WEDNESDAY the dust from which we came and to which we return is daubed on Christians’ foreheads. It is an intimate reminder that the Spirit of God breathes in us and we live; without the Spirit we crumble.
To be more Christlike means facing death in all its forms—the death of reputation, the death of truth, and the bodily death of our beloveds. Lenten scriptures keep before us stories of temptation, failure, and the heavy machinery of this empire or that, always shifting into position to crush those who threaten human power and wealth. There are hints of resurrection in the lectionary readings, but the pain and destruction of dreams and life that comes before is given its full due.
We are too well acquainted with the world and its ways not to imagine what massacre or plague filled that valley with dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision. And, in John’s gospel, Jesus is confronted by Lazarus’ grieving, accusing sister. Why did you not come when called? Mary demands, while Lazarus was alive and could be healed. The story is raw with the pitch of her rage and Jesus’ own tears.
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
Myths and Migrants
Tisha M. Rajendra discusses her new book, Migrants and Citizens: Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration (Eerdmans), with Sojourners senior associate editor Julie Polter.
The Bible According to an Oversized Book of Cartoons
IT HAS BEEN A TIME of shadows and warnings, bursts of violence and the creeping stain of betrayal. Falsehoods, at first a dripping faucet over a tin bucket—the hint of failing seals and valves, the promise of future corrosion—have become a downpour. Disintegration seems the rule.
Where to find a true story, one that endures?
Scripture might seem the logical turn for a Christian. But I know my weaknesses. Left to my own devices, I cherry-pick favorite verses, I swerve away from difficult passages. I rarely read anything in the Old Testament except the prophets—and those while too often presuming I stand with them, already on their side, and God’s: Nothing for me to hear, except the echo of the woe and correction I’d like to dole out to others. A situational loss of hearing that is a sure path to perdition.
But then I was introduced to an unusual portal to the holy word, one that easily charmed its way past my conscious and unconscious scriptural biases: a 500-plus-page coffee-table book whose bronze cover is adorned with line drawings of people who are at turns winsome and ominous. With title and highlights in fluorescent orange, the design is reminiscent of some DayGlo-kissed whimsy from the 1960s. In the Beginning: Illustrated Stories from the Old Testament (Chronicle Books) retells, through images and spare prose that is both fresh and respectful of the scriptural sources, core stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition, from creation and the Garden of Eden to Daniel in the lions’ den.
Business and the Gospel of Enough
JoAnn Flett decided at a young age that she loved both spreadsheets and Jesus. After more than 20 years of senior accounting and management experience, she now directs the masters in business administration program at Eastern University, a theologically informed curriculum with a strong sense of social justice that equips students with business acumen to serve God and society through business. She sat with Sojourners senior associate editor Julie Polter in June to tell her story.—The Editors
When we think of the church and business, we tend to think of them at opposite ends of a spectrum. We often think of businesspeople as a certain kind of person, one that doesn’t conjure up the best images of humanity.
I was privileged, early on, to have friends who were very successful business leaders. What drew me to them was that they were people whose faith mattered to them; they led their organizations without making a big fanfare about this, but they were leading from a faith perspective.
I admired that they ran successful companies that transformed their employees, their business partners, and their local communities. But nobody seemed to celebrate them in their local churches. It’s easy to think of teachers and nurses, people in the “helping professions,” as doing God’s work. Yet there are people of faith who lead powerful and influential organizations. These people go to work and make critical decisions, and their faith has all kinds of implications about how they live in the world, but their work is not being affirmed on Sunday.