Community

Remember That Our Lives Matter

Pedro II / Shutterstock.com
Pedro II / Shutterstock.com

It feels awkward and even a bit inappropriate to be talking about ‘celebrity news’ when so much is going on around the world: Iraq, refugees in Syria, children stranded at borders, Michael Brown’s death and Ferguson, Ebola, Ukraine, and the list tragically goes on.

But then again, it feels appropriate because it’s another reminder of the fragility of our humanity.

As has saturated the news, Robin Williams passed away this week. His life ended way too short at the young age of 63 – apparently because of suicide. While this was news to me, Robin had been struggling with intense depression – especially as of late — and was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

To be honest, I don’t get caught up too much on celebrity happenings mainly because there’s not much genuine connection. I don’t really know them personally. Make sense? Robin Williams’ death – on the other hand – just felt like a painful punch in the gut. Perhaps, it’s because Mork and Mindy (Nano Nano) was the first TV show I watched (along with Buck Rodgers) after immigrating to the United States. I deeply resonated with Mork – this ‘alien’ or ‘foreigner’ from another land trying to fit in. Perhaps, it’s because so many of the characters he played in countless movies influenced me on some level as it did so many others.

A 'Discipleship of Equals'

"Living the Word" reflections for October 2014 can be found here. -- The Editors

ACROSS DENOMINATIONS, Christians have attempted to build a more egalitarian and democratic ecclesiastical structure. The phrase “discipleship of equals,” coined by the feminist theologian Elisabeth S. Fiorenza, suggests that a community of Jesus’ followers cannot tolerate an absolute, centralizing power that justifies a relationship of dominance and subordination.

Yet, while Christians continue to challenge hierarchical structures in the church, we also acknowledge that a discipleship of equals will not be established simply by removing the hierarchy. The church is enmeshed in a concrete reality of everyday life, filled with a web of power relations that are neither fixed nor necessarily top-down.

Power relations experienced within the church are often inconspicuous. They take the form of microaggressions, subtle insults against other members because of gender, sexual orientation, race, class, and ability status. What is even more hurtful is that these insults are often disguised as “caring,” as when someone perverts a prayer request into gossip. The experience of the powers in the church can be paradoxical. Christians must deal with complicated and variegated claims to power, all of which borrow the name of God.

The texts for the next four weeks highlight the struggles in forming a community of God. They raise the question of power relations within the faithful community: How do we use the word “power” and what should be our first instinct in situations of conflict?

Min-Ah Cho is assistant professor of theology and spirituality at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn.

[ SEPTEMBER 7 ]
Slow Peace
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

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Catholic Sisters Are Redefining Leadership

A new model of leadership that’s been refined in the fires of change and conflict is emerging from U.S. religious women.

In June, the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, along with Solidarity with Sisters, invited 150 people to Catholic University for an opportunity to discuss the model of leadership that has developed in Catholic women’s communities around the world over the last 50 years since Vatican II. The event coincided with the release of Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times, an anthology of 10 addresses given by Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) presidents.

Catholic sisters are emerging as leaders ahead of their times. From Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, and Nuns on the Bus to Catholic Health Association CEO Sister Carol Keehan, DC, who helped pass the Affordable Care Act, to former LCWR president Sister Pat Farrell, OSF, who practiced authentic spiritual leadership in the face of the Vatican’s ongoing investigation of that organization (an investigation that Pope Francis should have laid quietly to rest, but has not), religious women are getting notice for their thoughtful, faithful leadership in the face of withering criticism and their own communities’ dramatic changes.

What are the marks of this new leadership?

1. Leadership must begin with facing oneself. Sister Marie McCarthy, SP, calls this taking “a long, loving look at what is.” Developing a prayerful, contemplative consciousness allows illusions and judgments to fall away. What changes are needed so that we can go “deeper into life, into service, into God,” as Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, writes? “The purpose of leadership is not to make the present bearable,” writes Sister Joan, but “to make the future possible.” This kind of leadership is measured and evaluated by the degree to which the people around the leaders are inspired to effective, resilient change.

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Agents of Grit and Grace

THE 67 PEOPLE gathered in the basement of Union Baptist Church in Memphis have come from all over: Appalachian State University and Asbury College, Louisiana State and Liberty University, Wright State and Wheaton College. The youngest is 21; the oldest, 48. They’ve come to teach in some of the lowest performing schools in the state of Tennessee.

For the next 12 months, they’ll live, learn, and pray together, becoming a family as they also learn to become teachers and colleagues. All were drawn by faith and a dream that God is doing unexpected things in the city schools of Memphis.

Welcome to the Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR), a faith-based nonprofit that’s become one of the most effective teacher training programs in Tennessee.

At the front of the room, Rev. Tom Fuerst, an associate pastor at Christ United Methodist Church, gives the morning devotional. His message: The world is broken and so are Memphis schools. But God wants to fix them both. Fuerst describes the idea of “prior grace”—that God is at work in the world long before we are aware of it—and invites the new trainees to become agents of that grace by becoming great teachers.

But Fuerst, like everyone at MTR, is quick to warn the aspiring teachers—known as residents—against proselytizing. The residents, as public school teachers, don’t preach faith in the classroom, hold Bible studies, or actively discuss their faith. That would make the classroom unsafe for non-Christian students, warned Fuerst.

That doesn’t mean that MTR hides its Christian identity. Organizers believe that every student in Memphis is a child of God and deserves a great education. They believe that providing great public education is part of the gospel. The gospel motivates everything they do. But preaching is not part of their educational strategy.

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New & Noteworthy

THROUGH THEIR EYES
In 2011, Raul Guerrero provided 100 Kodak disposable cameras and taught basic photography skills to nine young students in the Newlands area of Moshi, Tanzania. The Disposable Project book brings together their images of their community, with text by Guerrero. the-disposable-project.com

JOURNEYING
“Migration has been, for centuries, not only a source of controversy but a source of blessing,” Deirdre Cornell writes in Jesus Was a Migrant. Inspired by ministering among immigrants in different settings, this is a beautifully written set of deeply humanizing reflections on the immigrant experience and Christian spirituality. Orbis Books

FAITH AND STRUGGLE
The New Black is a documentary film on how the African-American community is grappling with gay rights. Focusing on the campaign for marriage equality in Maryland, it shows activists, families, and clergy on both sides of the campaign, with special attention to the role played by the black church. newblackfilm.com

OUTSIDE THE BOX
Some Christians happily become “non-goers” to official churches. In How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community, Kelly Bean explores the reasons and the channels some have found (or founded) for service, pastoral care, and discipleship. Baker Books

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A Handbook for Justice

FAITH-ROOTED Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World outlines a theological cartography of social change. In this critical intervention, Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel reimagine—and as a necessary consequence, rechart—the landscape of vision, action, and strategic planning needed for social change.

Full disclosure: I have attended several trainings conducted by the co-authors. Indeed, the dual authorship of the text is a principal strength. Faith-Rooted Organizing blends the voice of an evangelical-activist theologian in Heltzel with the homespun profundity of a seasoned pastor and campaign organizer in Salvatierra. The authors delight readers with complementary writing styles: Heltzel speaks through theological propositions, interpolated intermittently with jazz references and theological punch lines; Salvatierra communicates through proverbs, organizing anecdotes, poignant biblical passages, and narrative side notes.

The result is a well-argued and accessible text that should resonate from the seminary to the sanctuary. Their driving thesis is that faith communities, especially Christian ones, should organize for social change in a way that is rooted and guided by the stories, symbols, sayings, and scriptures of our faith. Faith-Rooted Organizing functions as an instruction manual on effective advocacy while providing a theological rationale and vocabulary for a vocation marked by tremendous victories and colossal failures, breakthrough partnerships and fragmented coalitions, glimpses of beloved community and portraits of democracy stillborn.

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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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Viewing Community

THERE ARE apparently 2,000 film festivals around the world, so the format of red carpet arrivals, gala screenings, and Q&A sessions that appear all but scripted in advance have become well and truly entrenched. The best festivals recognize that their purpose is to cast a spell over filmgoers and filmmakers alike, inviting them into a spacious place where the heart of the dream that led to the film being made and the audience’s reason for watching it can beat in a community of people who thirst for art that gives life. Unsurprisingly, the biggest festivals find it hardest to pull this off—asking for contemplative mutuality at Cannes or Sundance is like looking for a Buddhist tea garden at Disney World.

Yet film festivals can be places where small is indeed beautiful. It’s only the movies that need to be big—or at least their capacity to alchemize with the viewer’s autobiographical narrative. The trappings of VIP lounges, paparazzi, and celebrity gossip are just that: They trap the aesthetic air, creating distance between people and art. Smaller festivals may be more capable of nurturing something that really feels like community.

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No Longer the 'Best Kept Secret'

softdelusion66 / Shutterstock.com
softdelusion66 / Shutterstock.com

SINCE HIS ELECTION as the 265th successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis has provided a refresher course on Catholic social teaching to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. “Catholic social teaching is no longer a secret,” says Jean Hill, director of peace and justice for the diocese of Salt Lake City. “Everything Pope Francis is saying comes from social doctrine and is about social justice.”

Through his various homilies, speeches, and meetings, Francis is “reading the signs of the times” and making practical application to the issues of the day. Some of his most powerful statements to date were made in his first pastoral document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” including this declaration: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church that is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Pope Francis is calling the faithful to be more merciful, compassionate, joyful, and centered upon the needs of the poor and vulnerable. He wants a church that sees the human person before the law and one that does not “obsess” about a narrow set of issues, but affirms both human life and human dignity. He invites Catholics to pray, reflect, and embrace the beauty and breadth of Catholic social teaching—a rich tradition that is predicated on the dignity of the human person.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) defines Catholic social teaching as “a central and essential element of our faith. Its roots are in the Hebrew prophets who announced God’s special love for the poor and called God’s people to a covenant of love and justice.” This teaching is also founded on the life and words of Jesus. It posits that “every human being is created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family.”

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This Land is Our Land

RURAL COMMUNITIES in the U.S. wrestle with many of the same problems facing the rest of the country—persistent unemployment, access to quality health care, air and water degradation, a broken immigration policy. Other issues—such as supporting sustainable farming practices and drawing young people into agriculture, lack of broadband access, and the challenges of small-town economic development—are more unique to rural life.

Even though the 46.2 million people living in rural U.S. counties constitute only 15 percent of the country’s total population (spread across 72 percent of the nation’s land area), we are all connected—urban, suburban, and rural—by foodways, waterways, wilderness areas, and our national politics. As one Midwest-based organizer put it, “many progressives fundamentally don’t understand rural America—they don’t even know why they should care about it. You can’t understand the power of the tea party without understanding rural America. It is the key to the House of Representatives, and progressives will be hamstrung until they can make inroads in a few key congressional districts.”

But that organizer and others also draw power and hope from the deep history of populism in the rural Midwest and parts of the South, and the endurance of community-oriented values that aren’t just “heartland” clichés.

While many young people are itching to leave rural areas and small towns—anxious to find better jobs, educational opportunities, or city culture—others have always stayed put or returned after time away. And some “city cousins” move to rural America, enjoying the opportunity to work on issues they care about (with the bonus of a brilliant night sky). Here are four stories of young people investing in rural communities in the Midwest.  —The Editors

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