Poetry: Picture of a Family after Cavafy

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There’s a photo he carries for long journeys
like this one, for trips on loaded market lorries
where the passengers take their seat, perching
on top of cargo, or sitting on crude benches
inside the buses coming from Sudan with names
like “Best of Luck” or “Mr. Good Looking.”

As the road rumbles from Chad through Cameroon
to Nigeria, toward another year of medical school,
he always reaches into his inside coat pocket
and brings out the folded 4x6. Sees his brother,
with the latest jeans from the capital and a maroon
hoodie zipped half-way up, one leg placed forward
and his head tilted back—an “attitude” he’s learned
from movies and music pipelined from America.

Sees his mother, bright pink polyester swirling
around her figure, and remembers how she woke
before dawn to make him fangaso for his trip.
He sees the lines he and his brother have caused,
drawn into her face after years of worry,
fatherless years of selling produce in the market
and begging relatives for support. He sees the slight
twist of her mouth, the triumph of a mother
shining through the sorrow of leave-taking,
the promise for her child to have a better life.

Aaron Brown, author of Winnower, is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Maryland. He lives with his wife in Lanham, Md.

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July 2015
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The Age of Peace

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The Great War that engulfed Europe from 1914-1918 was a bitter disappointment for the peace movement. As the 19th century came to a close, the promise of progress that accompanied Darwin’s discovery of the evolution of life on earth seemed to put peace within our grasp. “Progress” was the popular byword and always meant a movement toward something better. It was the age of invention and industrialization. Human beings were overflowing with strategies to improve the lives of the poor, the uneducated, the working class, and the least and the last among us. The women’s rights movement was flourishing as well, and Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree (1896) was an outspoken and popular representative of the cause. But 1914 dashed all that hope.

Many are the disappointments in the world today, as well, if your goal is peace. We are witnessing the greatest number of people displaced by violence and war since the second Great War in Europe. Even so, much progress has also been made by movements advocating for the rights of groups excluded from privilege and power. Women, labor, the disabled, LGBTQ, the poor, and the sick have all witnessed their rights expand. And yet war continues. We are living in the best of times and the worst of times, it seems — a paradox that causes many of us to careen between hope and despair, unsure of how to move beyond the motion sickness.

A Hymn: For Schoolchildren and All Who Love Them

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Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The Crisis in the American Dream, laments the decline in social capital (how we are connected to others and care for them) with its devastating impact on poor children today. Past generations of poor children often had more opportunities because they benefited from connections with churches, teachers, coaches, and other mentors who supported them. Putnam, a respected Harvard sociologist, documents how too many children are missing these caring adults in their lives today. He offers "purple solutions" to the growing "opportunity gap" and poverty that includes support by all for public schools.

Many churches witness to their concern for school children with a "Blessing of the Backpacks" service. Some churches invite the children in the congregation to bring their own backpacks for a blessing before a new school year begins. This is a way to acknowledge that school is a common yet very important part of our children’s lives. Other churches collect school supplies for children in need, assemble the donated supplies in backpacks, and bring them to church for a blessing in worship.

The tune of the following new hymn is the same Gaelic melody used for "Morning Has Broken," and it seems appropriate to sing a joyful "morning" tune as children, parents, and teachers start to get up earlier in the mornings to head off to school.

Raising Children Un-Fundamentalist

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Here’s the thing: I live in a country that is predominantly Buddhist. Here, little kids are taught to hold incense and kneel and bow at ancestor tablets and a variety of gods. Do you know how cute it is to see a little kid praying with pure devotion to a Buddhist god? It is JUST AS CUTE as the blonde headed little girl singing Jesus Loves Me.

A child’s faith is not a testimony of the power of God to evangelize them. It demonstrates how malleable and impressionable children are to the faith values exposed to them at a young age. Children must trust wholeheartedly in order to survive. Their dependence on adults undergirds their entire worldview. Like it or not, as parents we are entrusted with this enormous responsibility to build the structures of faith in which our children will inevitably live fully into, especially when they are little.

Because of this drastic inequality of power between adults and our dependent children, we must take tender care to wield our tremendous spiritual influence on them in a way that is respectful of their autonomy, that listens to their concerns, that empowers them to grow into wholeness, and to ultimately make their own faith choices. We must always be aware of the power differential even as we act as the portal through which they come to know God.

'Mommy, Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Your Anger'

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We think it's wrong for a woman, much less a mother, to be angry. And so when anger inevitably, righteously, hits us — with its cousin fatigue and its brother frustration — we don't know what to do except to bury it beneath a smile that gets thinner and weaker as the day winds on.

We all get angry, though. It is a function of being human, and I daresay without anger we would never have won women the right to vote, school desegregation, or any other host of advances that came about when people got righteously angry and unleashed the power of justice and the Holy Spirit.

So be angry when you are angry. The Bible says so. Do not be ashamed to say, in the moment, "This is not right. I'm angry."

Raising Children of Faith and Justice

Nolte Lourens /

Photo via Nolte Lourens /

What happens when the heart of God is broken?

What happens when, in spite of our best efforts, we are overcome by human frailty, we are assaulted by the reality of the sins of humankind, and it appears there is nothing we can do that will overcome the tragic pain of our fractured lives? Such are the questions that come upon us when we read of the tortured life of King David, the pain and agony of his personal sin, and the tragedy that befell the life of Absalom, his beloved son.

To My 4 Kids, From Dad

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After five days in the hospital, filled with overwhelming joy, paralyzing fear, and complete exhaustion in the wake of the birth of our twins, I finally found a moment to walk outside the florescent lights and sit under the bright moon. Sitting on a small patch of grass outside the hospital doors, the reality of being a father to four kids finally hit me. I was both overwhelmed and overjoyed by the gift and responsibility of raising four kids in a world so desperately in need of mustard seeds of hope that one day blossom into healing and beauty.

So as I sit in relative comfort and begin to dream big dreams for my kids, I am struck by the reality that most fathers around the globe are forced to welcome their kids into a world where there is no "ladder" to climb because it has been knocked out from under them by broken systems that are breaking people. A world where many kids are born into families fleeing violent persecution and being nursed on the trauma of war in battered refugee camps — places where the thought of hope is a distant second to simply fighting to survive. A world where one’s value is more closely associated with gender (male) than with the beautiful uniqueness inherent in every new life. 

But this is also a world pregnant with possibilities. A world where former enemies move beyond their past, share tables, and begin to imagine a future together. A world where the blossoms of new life begin to sprout in the shadowy corners of forgotten neighborhoods. A world where the diversity of God’s kingdom begins to awaken our eyes and hearts to the new world God is making. 

It is in this world — a world both beautiful and broken — that I offer this prayer over my four kids.

Evidence for the Abnormality of Violence

Naufal MQ /

Naufal MQ /

The faces of children show us just how foreign to human nature violence actually is. Children shrink from violence. They withdraw inside of themselves, and the face they turn outward to the world is one stripped of their personalities. They lose their affect, are unable to smile or respond to overtures from others. I suppose if you think that joyless, lifeless, blank stares are “normal,” then violence can be thought of as essential to normal human functioning. But if you think that children like this are abnormal — in other words, if you think that violence has prevented them from developing normally — then it’s fair to conclude that violence is anathema to human life and therefore cannot be part of our DNA. Violent behavior must be contingent, just one possibility among others in the vast repertoire of human behaviors. One we can opt for or opt out of as we choose. A choice that a careful study of mimetic theory forces us to face.


Unless We Change: Children Lead the Way to Peace

 BNMK0819 /

BNMK0819 /

Unless you change and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom heaven. (Matt. 18:3)

Jesus spoke these words as a response to a question from his disciples. Which of us, they demanded to know, was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus must have been struck by the contrast between his rivalrous disciples, so-called friends bickering and vying for attention, and the children who were playing nearby. He could have said, “I am, you silly gooses! Don’t compete with me – follow me!” But he had tried words before to no avail. So he summoned the children to show that greatness in the kingdom means playing joyfully in the moment with a humility that is heedless of rank or position. Only such as these, he explained, are able to know me and follow me.

Moral Free-Riders

IMMANUEL KANT has been on my mind as I’ve followed the national response to recent measles outbreaks. Kant, a German philosopher, emphasized the danger of a temptation we are all vulnerable to—the temptation to make special exceptions for ourselves. The person who acts against principles that she thinks others ought to follow becomes a kind of moral “free-rider,” attempting to benefit from public moral order without contributing to it.

The spread of disease among the intentionally unvaccinated highlights the free-rider problem faced by parents who seek exemption from vaccination.

Some people believe that leaving their children unvaccinated (or under-vaccinated) minimizes their children’s health risks. If everyone around them has been vaccinated, their risk of infection is indeed low. But when too many people decide to forego vaccination, “herd immunity” is lost and disease outbreaks occur.

In a public without herd immunity, the risks posed by disease far exceed the small risks associated with vaccination. In other words, free-riding does not work when everyone is doing it. Herd immunity does not require universal vaccination, but it does require vaccination of a sufficient majority.

Who should get to be in the minority that remains unvaccinated and yet retains protection from disease? This is who: Babies who are too young to be vaccinated, our elders who cannot mount a robust immune response to some types of vaccines, and cancer patients and people with compromised immune systems all clearly have a claim to be shielded by their neighbors’ immunity. The decision to ask for an exemption for one’s own healthy child is a morally risky decision, one that requires an honest examination of conscience.

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