Short Takes

5 Questions for a Pastor Taking Mental Health Seriously

Rev. J. Barrett Lee
Rev. J. Barrett Lee

Rev. J. Barrett Lee is pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Mich., whose mission is to "practice our ministry alongside people who live with mental illness." Website: wearenorth.org

1. Why is it important to talk about mental illness? The only time people want to talk about mental illness as a broad social issue is when a mass shooting occurs. It’s a huge problem because it perpetuates the myths of what mental illness is and how people with mental illness operate. People think, “What if some mentally ill person gets a gun and is going to shoot up a church or a school?” But the reality is that people who live with mental illness are actually 10 times more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence. I don’t know a single person in my church who even owns a gun.

2. How is North Presbyterian’s call to ministry unique? We decided that our ministry with people living with mental illness was not going to be a side project. It wasn’t going to be something we did in addition to our ministry. We felt God calling us to reorient the entire life of our congregation around making a space where all people can be treated as equal partners in Christ’s service. We started the Togetherness Group, a weekly social activities group where the whole goal is to be together. We do lots of fun activities, whether that’s going out to lunch, going to the zoo, or just playing bingo on a rainy day. For a lot of folks, this is their one safe space each week when they can get out of the house, be treated like a human, embrace their own humanity, have a good time, and take some of the pressure off of daily living.

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Short Takes: Erika Totten

Rick Reinhard

Bio: Erika Totten is a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement in Washington, D.C., and the black liberation movement at large. She is a former high school English literature teacher, a wife, a stay-at-home mom, and an advocate for the radical healing and self-care of black people through “emotional emancipation circles.”

1) How did you get started with “emotional emancipation” work?
Emotional emancipation circles were created in partnership with The Association of Black Psychologists and the Community Healing Network. I was blessed to be one of the first people trained in D.C. I had been doing this work before I knew what it was called. My organization is called “Unchained.” It is liberation work—psychologically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.

I want to tell people to be intentional about self-care. Recently, we had a black trans teen, who was an activist, commit suicide. A lot of times you need to see a counselor or therapist, which is often shunned in the black community. Because of racism, we are taught that we need to be “strong.” But it’s costing us our lives. As much as we are dismantling systems, we have to dismantle anything within ourselves that is keeping us from experiencing liberation right now.

2) What does liberation look like to you?
It’s a multitude of things, and it changes every day. But mainly it is having the space to be. To just exist. To not have to perform. It is the ability to exist and live life unapologetically. You don’t have to accept me, but my life shouldn’t be in danger because of my skin. And for my children, liberation means walking down the street and not being harassed. Liberation means living.

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Short Takes: Anastasia Uglova

1.  How would you describe Akilah Institute’s goals for its students and alumnae? Rwanda today is a far cry from the genocide-torn country that most think of when they hear about it. Rwandans have a vision of a knowledge-based economy, and Rwanda is fast becoming the region’s leader in information technology and new business development. And yet, only 1 percent of Rwandans attend university, and just 30 percent of these are women. We want to make sure that young women have a part to play in building the country’s future.

Akilah’s unique model of market-relevant education empowers young women to launch professional careers and assume leadership roles when they graduate. During their three years at Akilah, students develop English fluency, leadership, public speaking, and critical-thinking skills.

2. Why does Akilah feel young women specifically have needs that must be met through education? Akilah’s nurturing environment creates a culture of community where students can heal from some of the trauma of their past, and no one struggles alone. Of the overwhelming majority of young women in Rwanda and Burundi, an estimated 95 percent will never enter the workforce. Ultimately, we hope that empowering these young women to take control of their future pays dividends generations down the line. Educated women tend to marry later in life, have healthier and fewer children, and are able to disrupt the cycle of poverty for themselves and their families.

3. What makes Akilah unique in the education it offers women? We admit only the most promising young women. But our admissions process is unique in that we don’t just look at academics. We are much more interested in fit, potential, and passion. What’s special about Akilah is that it is extremely career-focused, assessing students’ career interests and rigorously preparing them to find meaningful employment and launch their own businesses.

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Four Questions for Beth Katz

Photo by Dana Damewood

Bio: Beth Latz is founder and executive director of Project Interfaith.
Website: projectinterfaith.org 

1. Why did you decide to launch Project Interfaith?
There are a couple experiences in my life that led me to found PI. One would be that my grandparents immigrated to this country after experiencing harsh persecution as a result of their Jewish identity. Another would be growing up as a religious and ethnic minority and encountering a lot of people making assumptions about what that means. I didn’t always feel welcome or free to be who I am. But growing up and hearing about my grandparents’ experiences in other countries, I realized how lucky we are to have certain rights in this country. So I wanted to make sure people understand these rights and freedoms.

2. What is Project Interfaith’s mission and approach to interfaith work?
Our mission is to grow understanding, respect, and relationships among people of all beliefs and cultures—not to force agreement. And we don’t try to make everything run through PI, but rather we create different educational resources and digital tools that people can then take and use in their own communities and contexts. Some people think we’re trying to replace face-to-face gatherings with online experiences, but we’re not. Rather, we use digital media as a tool to enhance what happens when people come together.

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Six Questions for Kelly and Peter Shenk Koontz

Kelly and Peter Shenk Koontz near Kabul. Photo by Grace Royer.

Bio: Kelly and Peter Shenk Koontz spent the last three years serving in Kabul, Afghanistan, through a Mennonite Central Committee partner.
Website: MCC.org

1. What work were you doing in Afghanistan?
We worked with a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner in Kabul as Peacebuilding Project Managers. Our job was to integrate peacebuilding within different sectors of the partner organization, including adult education, community development, and many others. Day-to-day, this primarily meant developing curriculum and planning and conducting trainings for a variety of contexts—including rural community development teams and university students in Kabul.

2. How would you summarize the biggest challenges in Afghanistan today?
In our opinion, the biggest challenge continues to be the ongoing violent conflict between the established government of Afghanistan and armed opposition groups, particularly the Taliban. The conflict in Afghanistan varies greatly by region, so some areas of the country experience relative stability while others experience violence on a regular basis. It is clear that there is no military solution to the conflict, and a negotiated agreement is the best way forward. However, many human rights groups fear that bringing the Taliban into the government will destroy important human rights gains—especially for women and minorities.

 

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Five Questions for Katerina Friesen

Katerina Friesen

Bio: Katerina Friesen is studying theology and peace studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.

1.  How would you describe your current vocational role?
I see my role as both revaluing what has been cast down and degraded and building resilient communities. So far this has taken shape through land-based ministries of farming and community gardening, inviting people to work together and celebrate the sacramental in soil, food, and one another.

2. You spent several years with the Abundant Table Farm Project in Santa Paula, Calif. Can you describe the project and your role there?
The Abundant Table Farm Project is a working farm and young adult internship program that has evolved into a Christian community. I joined the project in 2009 and lived in community with four other women. My daily work of farming gave me a bodily understanding of farm workers’ labor and the need for justice and wholeness in our incredibly disconnected food system.

3. What is unique to the theology of farming—particularly for women farmers?
Women are growing in the field of agriculture in the U.S., especially at the margins of the industrial food system, and they’re doing farming in a very different way. Many talk about their labor as a form of love. Their theology of love is not some abstract idea; it’s an embodied force that feeds them in their struggle for justice, since their work brings them into tension with the dominant food system as well as with patriarchy. I think Jesus’ incarnation challenges us to know love as personal action for the restoration of life, as doing and not just being.

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Four Questions for Sister Jean Lait, CSF

Sister Jean Lait prepares pies for a Thanksgiving meal. / Photo courtesy of CSF

Bio: Sister Jean Lait, CSF, is an Anglican Franciscan sister based in San Francisco who protests drones and their effects on children.

Website: communitystfrancis.org

1. Why did you decide to stand up against drones?
During WWII, I experienced the bombing of Coventry in England. As a child of 9 years, I slept under the stairs, anxiously waiting for the bombs to drop. Toward the end of the war, flying bombs known as “doodlebugs” were used. These were very similar to drones and were sent from Germany. They were aimed anywhere. These were bombs where you heard a whistle and then it was silent before the bang.

Thinking back on the fear and anxiety I experienced, the whole idea of drone warfare is just immoral to me. No child should ever be that frightened. No child should have to live in a war zone. That kind of trauma affects you, one way or another. You either use that experience for good or otherwise.

2. What do you and your community do to protest drones?
My order is committed to peace and justice. At one time, my community and I would be out there marching in the streets and protesting. But as one gets older, there are other ways of speaking out against injustice. I’m in my 80s, so the best thing I can do is just be myself and share my story in hopes that it brings awareness to the horrors of drones.

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Four Questions for Khaipi

Photo by Dawn Araujo

Bio: "Khaipi" (real name withheld) is a peace studies professor in Thailand and a Chin religious freedom activist who served as researcher for the Chin Human Rights Organization's 2012 report detailing abuses against ethnic and religious minorities in Burma.
Website: chro.ca

1. What is at the root of the persecution of Christians in Burma?
There is an unwritten policy called “Burmanization,” which means that to be Burmese you have to be a Buddhist and you have to speak Burmese. The Chin people are not allowed to practice Christianity, and we are not allowed to study our own ethnic languages. But it’s not all about religion: They are attacking our ethnic identity because Christianity has become our identity.

Before Christianity came to the Chin people, they practiced an indigenous religion. In this religion, they believed in an Almighty One who created the world. In 1899, the very first American Baptist missionaries came to Chin state, and when they talked about the Christian God, our forefathers could adopt it very easily because it was very close to that indigenous belief. Today, when the Burmese military junta persecutes us, they say, “Okay, we want to take out this kind of Western religion.” But for us, once we believed in God, it became our religion, not a Western religion anymore.

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Five Questions for Susan Burton

Susan Burton, photo by Kathleen Toner

Bio: Founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project in California, which has provided housing and support for more than 500 formerly incarcerated women.
Website: anewwayoflife.org

1. What motivated you to start A New Way of Life in 1998?
Through the kindness of a special person, I was able to access treatment services in Santa Monica [Calif.] after the sixth and final time I was released from prison. This was a new phenomenon for me. I am originally from South Los Angeles, and I was amazed that such resources were available in this more-affluent part of the city. I began to wonder why those same resources were not available in my home community—an area so heavily impacted by the “war on drugs.” I knew the need was desperate, and I wanted to bring those resources to South L.A. My work since then has been, and continues to be, a work of faith. I step out in faith, and God shows up.

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Four Questions for Kelvin Hazangwi

Kelvin Hazangwi

Bio: Executive Director, Padare/Enkundleni Men's Forum on Gender in Harare, Zimbabwe
Website: www.padare.org.zw

1. How are women working for gender equality in Zimbabwe? We have a very strong women’s movement in Zimbabwe. We have the Women and AIDS Support Network. We have the Campaign for Female Education, an organization doing wonderful work giving grants to girls so that they stay in school. We have another organization that deals with violence against women; there are no government-provided shelters for battered women in Zimbabwe. There are organizations for young women, for women in rural communities—I could go on and on.

2. “Padare” and “Enkundleni” mean “meeting place” in Zimbabwe’s Shona and Ndebele languages. What does Padare work to do? We are not bringing a new agenda to the table; we are saying, let’s look at all of these women’s organizations and the issues they’re bringing—violence against women, access to education, access to reproductive health, HIV and AIDS. What can men do? Perpetrators of violence against women are men. Men can make a personal commitment of not being violent against their partners. That’s a political statement, but from a very personal perspective. So the feminist slogan that “the personal is political” is equally applicable to men.

3. What else can men do? Statistics now indicate very clearly that women in marriage might not be able to negotiate safe sex; they are at risk of HIV and AIDS. What if married men take a personal commitment of promoting their own health and their partner’s? One of the national campaigns was saying: Let’s keep mothers alive and ensure zero infection of unborn babies. But we also need to keep men alive to support their families.

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