Web Editor and Chief Digital Officer

Sandi Villarreal came to Sojourners in 2012 after starting her career in print newspaper reporting and veering quickly into digital media and online journalism. She comes to Washington, D.C., via stops in St. Louis, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Sandi holds a BA in Journalism and Political Science from Baylor University and an MS in Journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She has worked in both print and online journalism, publishing, digital marketing, and non-profit community development.

Sandi is most interested in writing about the intersection of faith, politics, and culture, especially as it relates to the role of women both in our pews on Sundays and in our society in general. She has earned awards both for her writing and as editor of Sojourners' online publication.

Sandi hails from San Antonio, Texas, is married to a Lutheran preacher from Arkansas, and is mom to two young kids. In her downtime, you can find her visiting local wineries, watching the San Antonio Spurs, and coordinating the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Solutions Journalism Network.

Posts By This Author

How Motherhood Helped Me Understand the Incarnation

by Sandi Villarreal 05-05-2016

For me, as a mother, the incarnation becomes tangible thus: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus” and [not listed in Gabriel’s announcement] he’ll be brutally killed in front of you. It becomes tangible when I again picture this mother at the foot of a cross where her son hangs. He is the savior of the world, carrying out God’s perfect plan through his death and resurrection, yes. … But he is her baby.

Baylor Maintains Silence as Students, Alumni Demand Transparency on Sexual Assaults

by Sandi Villarreal 02-10-2016

Candlelight vigil in front of the Albritton House on the Baylor University campus on Feb. 8. by Shehan Jeyarajah

On Feb. 9, the day after more than 200 Baylor students, alumni, faculty, and staff gathered in front of university President Ken Starr’s campus residence for a candlelight vigil honoring the community’s sexual assault survivors, Starr released a statement on the school’s website saying, “We hear you loud and clear.”

Starr was not present for the vigil — according to an inquiry to the media communications office, he was in Washington, D.C., on university business.

His brief statement read: “You want us to continue to improve. And you want definitive, responsible actions after we receive the insights and recommendations from Pepper Hamilton. You have my word on both.”

Baylor Students, Alumni Call for Changes to School's Response to Sexual Assaults

by Sandi Villarreal 02-08-2016
Baylor University

Baylor University, by Danny Huizinga / Flickr.com

A group of Baylor University students and alumni will gather for a candlelight vigil outside university President Ken Starr’s home on Feb. 8 in an effort to urge changes to how the school handles sexual assault.

The vigil is being organized by Stefanie Mundhenk, a recent graduate who described her own experience through the school’s Title IX process in her personal blog. Mundhenk’s account — coupled with a recent ESPN report accusing the school of mishandling cases of sexual assault by Baylor football players, and subsequent CBS Sports commentary calling on President Ken Starr to “stop stonewalling” about the rape cases — sparked outrage among Baylor alumni, many of whom responded in an open letter to the university administration over the weekend. Since the open letter was shared on Saturday, the list of signatories has risen from 50 to more than 1,300.

Dr. Larycia Hawkins on the 'Inquisition' at Wheaton and Why She Wants to Stay

by Sandi Villarreal 01-26-2016
A Q&A with Wheaton Professor Whose 'Same God' Comments Drew National Attention

Dr. Larycia Hawkins — the Wheaton College professor who recently was placed on administrative leave because of her Facebook comments showing solidarity with the Muslim community and saying Christians and Muslims worship the ‘same God’ — has been at the epicenter of much speculation over the future of both Christian liberal arts and the evangelical faith writ large. The administration maintains that her comments seemed to be inconsistent with the college’s Statement of Faith, and earlier this month provost Stan Jones delivered a recommendation to the president to initiate termination. A hearing before the Faculty Personnel Committee on Feb. 11 will result in a recommendation to the president and board of trustees on how to move forward.

Weekly Wrap 12.18.15: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

by Sandi Villarreal, by the Web Editors 12-18-2015

As the lead editor behind the dubious byline “the Web Editors,” it is within my job description to read all the Internet. And this is how the Weekly Wrap was born. This week, I decided to show all my biased cards and give you, fair reader, a glimpse behind how I decide what’s worth your spare few minutes on Fridays. As a religion writer and journalist, I give special attention to mainstream outlets that actually get faith right; I get sucked in by clickbait on the regular; I have a few favorite go-to publications (can you spot ‘em?); I link to a piece or two from our own publication that I think are excellent and perhaps underappreciated; I usually find at least one thing from my home state of Texas; and I cry ugly tears at most things having to do with babies. There are all my secrets. And here is the Weekly Wrap. —Sandi

‘Maybe There’s Hope:’ Looking for God in 'The X-Files' Reboot

by Sandi Villarreal 12-15-2015

Via The X-Files on Facebook

 

Series writers (which included Vince Gilligan of later Breaking Bad acclaim) were never exactly subtle with their nods to faith. While Mulder was an atheist, his constant journey to a truth larger than himself, and indeed, this world, mirror many a sojourner, albeit perhaps without the little green androgynous beings. And Scully’s faith as a child in the unquestionable Catholic Church, and then as a doctor in science above all, and then as a lover and a mother in a more tangible God, allowed for a deeper-than-average glimpse at the push-pull relationship between blind belief and pure, clinical reason.

Shelter in the Storm

by Sandi Villarreal 08-10-2015
Can the church community truly become a safe space—for discussion, for reporting, for healing—for survivors of trauma?
SV Production / Shutterstock

SV Production / Shutterstock

AN IRAQ WAR VETERAN passes the offering plate after listening to a sermon on Christian persecution in the early church—tales of torture and execution. A 19-year-old student—home for the summer from college, where her first experience at a fraternity party turned violent—listens to her childhood pastor recite the story of David and Bathsheba and David’s subsequent path to redemption. A mother placates her two children with Cheerios and raisins as she struggles through the exhortations to spousal submission, hiding bruised arms under long sleeves in the middle of July.

The Christian story is littered with trauma—from slavery (the Israelites in Egypt) to sexual assault and abuse (Dinah, Tamar, Bathsheba) to the trauma of war (see: much of the Old Testament) to, of course, the crucifixion of Jesus and martyrdom of his disciples.

There is possibly no better resource for understanding the implications of and need for healing from trauma than faith communities pointing to the cross and Jesus’ answer to violence. Both the need and the opportunity are great. But perhaps too often Christians proclaim the message of Easter—victory and restoration—while skipping past the violence and trauma of Good Friday. Some theologies explain away that violence as a necessary component of ultimate salvation—but let’s get to the salvation part, okay?—leaving survivors of trauma who fill our Sunday pews without a touchstone for healing within the very communities that purport to be safe spaces.

How We Talk About Life — and Death

by Jim Wallis, by Sandi Villarreal 07-23-2015
Planned Parenthood Videos Reveal Our Collective Brokenness
Living cells, mixed media artwork.

Living cells, mixed media artwork. Ruslan Kokarev / Shutterstock.com

It’s not often words escape us. But in the aftermath of the now viral recording(s) raising concerns over whether Planned Parenthood seeks profit from aborted fetal tissue — and the crassness with which its representative discusses how to accomplish it without “crushing” the tissue/organs — that’s where we were left: with no words. We confess to being at a complete loss of what to say in the face of humanity’s brokenness.

Beyond the ethical questions of how an organization receives payment for tissue sales or the debates around the potential benefits of the patients’ donations of fetal tissue, the videos are an in-your-face reminder of our culture’s blatant disrespect for life.

That disregard is not unique in our society, of course. Journalism: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Medicine: “There’s nothing more to be done. She’s a vegetable.” Justice system: “He’s gonna fry.” War: “Light ‘em up.” Uncomfortable questions about life and death and ethics are best papered over with emotionless cliché, obviously.

As a society and as individuals, when we fail to recognize the imago dei in others, we trend further away from our uniquely human capacity to empathize and closer to isolated, analytical, and almost robotic assessments of value.

When Parenting Meets #FeedFear

by Sandi Villarreal 04-13-2015
A mother carries her child through a city. Image via Konstantin Sutyagin/shutter

A mother carries her child through a city. Image via Konstantin Sutyagin/shutterstock.com

As a journalist, editor, media professional, and all-around digital addict, I believe the ever-present “newsfeed of fear” engenders a very real threat to our personal well-being. But is it possible that it also harbors startling implications for our behavior and even our relationships?   

Reflecting on Gareth Higgins’ words on “availability heuristic” (“A Newsfeed of Fear,” Sojourners, May 2015) — basically, that our fear of bad things happening is based on how many examples of those bad things we can easily bring to mind — the first thought that entered my head was my constant command to my 1.5-year-old, “Hold Mommy’s hand!”

Of course, we live in the middle of Washington, D.C., on a high-traffic street with no front yard to speak of; any time we leave the house, I have to go on high alert lest my newly running toddler dart off the sidewalk. But when I dug a little deeper to explore in what other circumstances my danger-Will-Robinson-danger alarm has gone off, I was forced to admit that it can occur basically any time she’s in my care.  

When I became a parent, it inexplicably became frightening that my house didn’t have a mudroom — or anything save a single slab of lockable wooden door separating our warm and cozy home from the terror that existed beyond it. Suddenly, a 5-degree rise or drop in my kid’s nursery — indicated by her video monitor, which also plays soothing lullaby music — became cause to purchase a window AC unit and an electric heater despite our house’s central air and heat. I contemplated buying the mattress pad that sounds an alarm if it detects baby has stopped breathing (because SIDS), but opted against it since I was already checking on her every five minutes anyway.  

First, let me say, I think all of these are good and normal (right?) reactions to first-time parenthood, and I have since calmed the hell down. But they can also be artificially generated behavioral responses to the digital world we live in, enhanced by mommy blogs and parenting books warning us of the dangers of crib bumpers (27 accidental deaths/year) and window blind cords (about 7 deaths in 2014). And don’t even get me started on #PregnancyFeedFear — somewhere around 6 months in, you give up and just eat the dang sushi and deli meat.   

Breeding 'Like Rabbits,' Sex by Rhythm Method, and Other Natural Family Planning Myths

by Sandi Villarreal 01-27-2015
Pope Francis in October. giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis in October. giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

In discussing birth control and population issues when visiting the Philippines recently, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church promoted “responsible parenthood” that didn’t require good Catholics to be “like rabbits.” The frank imagery prompted a flurry of playfully creative headlines that ranged from mocking to woeful. And the byproduct of such reaction stories? The continued misinformation on what Catholics currently practice and what the Catholic Church actually teaches when it comes to family planning.

The pope’s remarks referenced Catholic teaching that prohibits artificial birth control. Family size, according to the Church, should be regulated by abstinence or a form of Natural Family Planning, sometimes characterized simply as trying really hard not to have sex when you’re “not supposed to,” which often fails and results in a ton of kids. Proponents of NFP say the method(s), and its practitioners, are too often misunderstood.

NFP for pregnancy prevention involves charting a woman’s cycles by testing for various biological markers — like basal temperature or cervical mucous — in order to assess fertile days and abstain from sex during that time. According to the World Health Organization, fertility awareness methods like NFP are 95-97 percent effective when used correctly and consistently (75 percent with typical use), and individual NFP models claim higher effectiveness.

Practicing NFP can certainly be complicated, especially when taking into account marriage and family dynamics that aren’t always conducive to the attention it requires.

But while it may be more difficult than, say, popping a daily pill or using an IUD, modern technology — like tracking apps and temperature-monitoting gadgets — is simplifying the process and coinciding with a resurgence in popularity. NFP practitioners say they appreciate the choice it offers — whether the motivation is following Church teaching or simply avoiding synthetic hormones.

The Myth of Crying Rape

by Jim Wallis, by Sandi Villarreal 12-18-2014
A woman holds up her hand. Image courtesy Kamira/shutterstock.com

A woman holds up her hand. Image courtesy Kamira/shutterstock.com

The fact that the journalistic “scandal” got more public attention than the original story should give us pause. And the narrative that is playing out in the story’s wake — the one that says the college campus rape crisis is nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by the left — is disturbing.  

Thanksgiving and Ferguson: Lost in Translation

by Sandi Villarreal 11-26-2014

Sign on boarded up window in Ferguson on Nov. 25. R. Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com

For me, Thanksgiving was always Christmas’ annoying little sister. Thanksgiving isn’t a festive season spanning three months that warrants its own albums; it’s a day when American gluttony reaches its zenith, and also the Cowboys play. It’s not a holy day of obligation — and in my worst moments, I complain to my preacher husband about the additional service “invading” our holy midweek day off work.

But this year Thanksgiving feels especially out of place — sandwiched between an early winter and the hopelessness of misunderstood lament. I want so badly to be thankful because I truly have so many reasons to fall on my knees in exaltation. But before I count my “blessings” — before the praise hits my lips, it’s strangled by the cry for others whose lots might only be described as cursed.

Adam Ericksen penned a great reflection this morning, saying, “God doesn’t force us to be thankful in times of grief and despair. Rather, God meets us in our honest and raw emotions.”

Bitterness seems all at once selfish and appropriate. I grieve the chasm that has been revealed between brothers and sisters. If there is anything I learned from my Monday night glued to television screens watching my former home of St. Louis in flames it’s that this “conversation” everyone keeps saying we need to have is happening in two different languages.

Do We Really Want to Be Transformed?

by Sandi Villarreal 08-28-2014
Background image via creationswap.com

Background image via creationswap.com

The Internet is a wonderful, fascinating, and disturbing place — a petri dish of The Fall characterized by opinion as truth. As the Web Editor of Sojourners, I spend more time than anyone has a right to (or typically, the stomach for) perusing unconscionable clickbait, racism and sexism parading as deeply informed counter-thought, various analyses of others’ public failures, and, obviously, cat and baby memes.

I’m not sure how many times a headline has toyed with my emotions, threatening to “blow my mind” by dropping a “truth bomb” that “no one saw coming!” Invariably, whatever is behind the façade of amazement punctuated with eight exclamation points fails to impress (unless it’s this baby goat jumping for joy set to indie acoustic guitar), and I’m left with a handful of moments of my days I’ll never get back.

In the Christian publication world, we easily fall prey to this trend, and I’ll confess I fail on a fairly regular basis. A colleague and I were discussing how there seems to be a clear trend in Christian blog posts that are aimed at airing the church’s dirty laundry in attempts to prove “yeah, we’re Christians, but …” We’re Christians, but we’re not like them. We’re Christians, but you can probably believe whatever you want to believe and it’ll be fine. We’re Christians, but we’re not going to try to convert you. It goes a little something like:

In Praise of Slow Response

by Sandi Villarreal 05-15-2014
Slow down sign, Semmick Photo / Shutterstock.com

Slow down sign, Semmick Photo / Shutterstock.com

The hum of 24-hour “news” drones on in the background most of my days. I’m not quite sure what television media's version of “Breaking” means anymore, though what accompanies it is closer to this Saturday Night Live spoof than real life.

Something is always “breaking.” And someone is always responding. We feel the need to get there first, to offer the most unique point of view, to lend our “expertise,” or to speak on behalf of our [fill-in-the-blank]. Organization? Generation? Gender? Or some cross-section of all of the above?

I know. I can definitely be part of the problem, and in this, I attempt my confession — sometimes my judgment fails me and I fall into the trap of the sensationalized newsbyte. I’m the web editor of a publication — meaning, I solicit, edit, sometimes even write some of these responses, of which there are a variety.

We have the “first response.” They are those who get there immediately. On television, these might come with the Impact font-ed “Exclusive,” or even “First to Report” (gross). Sometimes they just recount the events. Often, they will include — whether by slant storytelling or outright commentary — their reaction to said events.

Then there’s the “second-day response.” More nuanced, and typically with corrected “facts” that first responders didn’t mind repeating ad nauseam the day before, these reports put the events into greater historical context — or at least whatever context the writer could whip together from Wikipedia entries and closest possible “expert.” (We have a missing plane? Look, here’s a flesh-and-blood PILOT to explain what happened.)

From there, you get the out-and-out commentary. The “here’s my take,” or “this is whose side I’m on.” Rarely unique, though under the constant illusion of specialness, these commentaries attempt to stake out ground for a person or group of people. This happened, here’s how it happened, and here’s where I [we] stand on it.

Inevitably, you’ll then get the response to the response: How dare you stand there! She’s missing the whole point of [news-making event].

And on it goes.

Biden Announces New Efforts to Combat Sexual Assault on College Campuses

by Sandi Villarreal 04-29-2014

Today Vice President Joe Biden announced a series of new initiatives aimed at addressing sexual violence on college campuses and launched NotAlone.gov — a website that pools campus reporting data and points both students and school officials to sexual assault resources.

The administration is also releasing the first report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which was established in January.

Under Title IX, college campuses that receive federal funding are already required to take steps to prevent sexual assault on campus and respond promptly when sexual assault is reported. Further, the Clery Act requires those that receive funding to report their crime statistics and provide policies for prevention. The website NotAlone.gov will be a central repository for these reports and clarify for students their rights under the Clery Act and Title IX.

What is unclear, however, is what has changed for Christian college campuses and other private institutions.

Gluttony: Battling a Culture of Convenience

by Sandi Villarreal 03-26-2014
Media consumption illustration, violetkaipa / Shutterstock.com

Media consumption illustration, violetkaipa / Shutterstock.com

I tend toward the “eat, drink, and be merry” life philosophy, popularized by the Bible, and also Dave Matthews Band. Growing up in a very large, very loud, very food-centric family in South Texas ingrained this in me, as we gathered many a Sunday around the table(s) to celebrate that month’s birthdays and talk politics, family businesses, and, mostly, the last Seinfeld episode. What you might call gluttony, I call Sabbath — and I’ll quote Scripture at you to prove my point.

So smug was I at my “breaking bread as Jesus did” epicurean lifestyle that I probably should be writing about pride instead. But a few weekends ago, while finishing up season two of House of Cards three days after it released — and also a bottle of Zinfandel — and taking eye-attention breaks to check my Facebook and Instagram feeds (that adorable photo of baby girl only garnered 64 likes?!), and to see how many steps my Fitbit recorded for the day (so much for that post-dinner Skinny Cow), I paused to reflect upon the concept of gluttony.

When does our reliance upon a constant stream of multi-channel entertainment and instant gratification become harmful?

How Not to Raise a Daughter

by Sandi Villarreal 02-19-2014
The author's daughter. Photo by Brandon Hook

The author's daughter. Photo by Brandon Hook

I became a mom for the first time in November. Insert here all of the cliché observances about life-changing experiences and never knowing love before and having a better understanding of God and whatnot. Of course, they’re all true, but so are most clichés.

There are also things no one tells you, instead using above clichés to paper over the less desirable realities of parenthood. No one told me about that feeling — the feeling that the word “overwhelming” doesn’t even begin to describe. No one told me that feeling that makes you weep inconsolably and go off the rails at the thought of leaving the house is actually what it means to love your child. That size of love is truly overwhelming.

While I was pregnant, I tried really hard to avoid all of the parenting books — how to raise well-behaved children, the countless “methods” for getting your child to sleep, how to master breastfeeding (“the most natural thing in the world!” ugh, wrong) — in favor of being a “go-with-the-flow” type parent. In fact, the only book I really read and still lives in a stack by my nightstand is The Sh!t No One Tells You: A Guide to Surviving Your Baby’s First Year.

And being the future mother of a girl, I had grand ideas about “protecting” her from human-made gender norms. I ordered the “Forget Princess; Call Me President” onesie. I shunned head-to-toe pink (for about a week). I created a collage wall in her nursery of black-and-white photos of all of the badass women in her family she has to look up to.

And then this week I caught myself doing something that has the potential to harm my daughter more than being drenched in pink and purple for the next 18 years ever could.

'One Relationship Can Help Us See the Light'

by Sandi Villarreal 11-01-2013
Photo courtesy Convergent Books

Rutba House, the hospitality house in Durham, N.C. Photo courtesy Convergent Books

“Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them.”
- Dorothy Day

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Catholic Worker Movement — best known for its hospitality houses that dot the nation, bringing together communities of individuals in need and offering them housing and love.

It was in that vein that Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and his wife, Leah, began Rutba House in Durham, N.C., after experiencing what he calls the “Good Samaritan story:” While the couple were on a peacemaking trip in Rutba, Iraq in 2003, friends were injured in a car accident, and local physicians gracefully cared for them.

Jonathan and Leah returned to the states looking for a way to extend the same type of love and welcome they received in Iraq. Ten years later, Rutba House holds countless stories of transformation through community, which Jonathan recounts in his book Strangers at My Door: An Experiment in Radical Hospitality, out Nov. 5.

Upon first glance, the arc of the narrative does seem radical. The hospitality house welcomes strangers in to live as part of the community — even at midnight, even when they might not pass society’s presentability test, even when the host is tired, even when they come straight from prison.

“I think part of what I’ve learned over the past 10 years — what Jesus is revealing to us through this call to greet him in the stranger — is something basic about who we are and who we’re made to be,” Wilson-Hartgrove told Sojourners. “All of us are called to hospitality — not just as Christians, as human beings. Because humans can’t live alone.”

Join the Chorus: #FaithfulFilibuster's Message to Congress

by Sandi Villarreal 10-10-2013
Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Faith leaders gather to pray at the Capitol Building on Wednesday. Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Thursday marked the tenth day of the government shutdown and the second of the #FaithfulFilibuster — A Vigil for the Poor. People of faith, both across the street from the Capitol Building and across the world on social media, are reading through the more than 2,000 Bible verses that deal with poverty and justice as a witness for those the shutdown is affecting the most. 

The rain didn't deter the prayers, as leaders from Sojourners, Bread for the World, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Salvation Army, and more gathered once again to call on Congress to end the shutdown and stop hurting the poor.

They are asking people of faith to reach out to Congressional leadership. Join along with them to Tweet at those members of Congress with your message to them and hashtag #FaithfulFilibuster.

Meet the Nones: Jewish Americans Increasingly Disaffiliating

by Sandi Villarreal 10-01-2013
Courtesy Pew Research Center

Courtesy Pew Research Center

The top religion story of 2012 was the “rise of the ‘Nones’” — the one in five adults in the U.S. eschewing any religious label. That trend is now evidenced across the American religious spectrum, including in Jewish communities. About 22 percent of Jews now describe themselves as having no religion, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews.

“Fully a fifth today of Jews in the United States are people who say they have no religion. They’re atheists, agnostics, or, the largest single subgroup, nothing in particular,” said Alan Cooperman, co-author of the study.

The trend of disaffiliation mimics that of other backgrounds, particularly by age. For example, 93 percent of Greatest Generation Jews (those born between 1914 and 1947) identified as being Jewish by religion, while only 68 percent of Millennial Jews (those born after 1980) say the same.