Community

Change From Within

ON A MILD morning in July 1997, a group of women gathered under the spreading arms of a great neem tree in the village of Malicounda Bambara in Senegal, West Africa. While children played nearby and others rested on their mothers' laps, a woman named Maimouna Traore spoke to the group.

Like most women in Malicounda Bambara, Traore had never gone to school as a child. Opportunities for education in villages like hers were scarce, especially for girls. But one year earlier, a program called Tostan (the word means "breakthrough" in the local Wolof language) had come to her village. The women enrolled in the Tostan program met three times a week, engaging in lessons on literacy and math, health and hygiene, problem-solving—and, most important of all, human rights.

Addressing her words to Molly Melching, Tostan's founder and the one American present among them, Traore said that, before the program, women in her community did not understand human rights. They did not know that, like men, they have the right to health and well-being, to speak their minds and offer their opinions. With their new understanding of these concepts came courage. They invited Melching because, after much thought and discussion, they had made an important collective decision: to end the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) in their community.

Melching was speechless. Rarely discussed openly, FGC, the complete or partial removal of female genitalia for non-medical reasons, is a long-held and deeply entrenched custom in many villages of Senegal, as well as in 27 other African nations. Known locally as "the women's tradition," it has been regarded as among the most critical moments in a girl's life, preparing her for marriage and making her a respected member of her community. To not cut one's daughter was unthinkable—setting her up for a lifetime of rejection and social isolation.

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'The impacts are quite severe on the ground'

FOR MANY IN the global South, climate change is not an abstract theory. Victor Mughogho, executive director of the Eagles Relief and Development Programme in the southeast African country of Malawi, has experienced firsthand the toll of global warming and extreme weather. He works with local churches to develop practical and faithful solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change. Sojourners assistant editor Elaina Ramsey interviewed Mughogho early last year when he visited Washington, D.C.

Elaina Ramsey: How has climate change affected the people of Malawi?

Victor Mughogho: The impacts are quite severe on the ground. Rural people in Malawi constitute about 85 percent of the population. These people are subsistence farmers. For them, rainfall is everything. Without the rain, there's no agriculture, no livelihood.

The weather patterns have changed and are so unpredictable now. In the past 20 years, official records from the government show that we've had five severe droughts. Because of the cycles of drought, there is less and less water in the ground. The water table is sinking. Trees and grass are stunting and rivers are drying up.

If you asked a person "What will happen in the next 10 or 20 years?" they'd say that what's bad now, in retrospect, is going to look like a good time. It looks like worse times are coming ahead.

How is your program responding to these extreme weather changes?

There's a story in the Bible where Jesus Christ asks his disciples and the people who are following him, "What do you have to feed those who are hungry?" There was a little boy with five loaves and two fish. Jesus did not just create a miracle out of nowhere. It started with what the people had. Thus, we are helping our communities and local churches to focus on what resources are currently available.

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Built to Last

"SINCE I KNOW you guys are urban/city folks like me, I was pleasantly surprised to find that you didn't build some ugly house in the woods." Reading through thank-you letters from seventh graders who had come from Washington, D.C., to work with us, we smiled at this line written by a student we had known since kindergarten.

Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area for more than 30 years, it's true we were "urban folks," but our hearts were drawn to the woods. This crazy venture of ours began more than six years ago, when the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community, located south of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., was poised to build Woodhaven, a new staff home, in keeping with their deep respect for the earth and their mission of nurturing people and community. As Rolling Ridge members, we began building this home as a way to teach and learn about a different kind of architecture and to explore whether it is possible to create an energy-efficient, attractive home that will use fewer resources, last longer, and be gentler on the earth.

This project required discerning the time for humility and the time for hubris: the humility to know when it's crucial to call on experience and skill; the hubris to jump in and try things we've never done before. We could not have built this house without the brilliant work of our architect, Sigi, and building contractor, John, as well as skilled carpenters, electricians, and plumbers. Nor could we have done it without the enthusiastic work of numerous volunteers.

Ever eager to learn by rolling up their sleeves (or in the case of stamping cob, their pant legs), people have come during the past few years to help stack straw bales into strong walls, apply lime plaster on the outside and clay mix on the inside, and plant living roofs. They have filled the house not only with finished walls, but also with a spirit of joy.

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The Economy and a Pair of Shoes

Worn out shoes, spot-h / Shutterstock.com
Worn out shoes, spot-h / Shutterstock.com

I believe that most people are good, decent folks who want to see their community thrive and be healthy. The can of worms with the globalized economic system we live with, however, is twofold. Firstly, it is pathologically designed to function towards injustice, and injustice implicates the exploitation, destitution, and ultimate collapse of local communities around the world, especially in the poorer countries. Secondly, this global economic system does all that it can to make “community” invisible. The vast majority of those coffee drinkers who stop by the local supermarket or coffee shop to buy a pound of coffee have no idea where there coffee came from, who picked it and under what consequences.

Thus, when one is confronted with the inevitability of making a “global” economic choice, my advice would be to take the time to think about what one would want for his or her own community, and then to question how that far-off, distant community across the world where this or that product is being produced is going to be affected. This is not going to be easy for it requires the determination to discover what is purposely being hidden by the designs of the global economic system. But that is perhaps the price we should be paying to be able to enjoy a hot cup of coffee grown thousands of miles away.

CrossFit: A Secular Church?

Photo by CrossFit Fever / Flickr
Photo by CrossFit Fever / Flickr

The first Christmas after my daughter was born, I got a two-year membership to 24 Hour Fitness as a gift. Included in the membership was one personal training session.

My trainer bristled with annoyance at my “fad diet” when I told him we were going Paleo for three months. Then he showed me to the elliptical machine and told me that he lost weight by drinking sugar-free Kool-Aid all day and ordering off of the light menu at Taco Bell.

Obviously, our philosophies weren’t in line. But I was still able to get some cardio, weights, and an occasional spin class in at the gym. No hard feelings. But staying motivated and committed to working out while staying home with a toddler has been hard.

That might be because I haven’t tried CrossFit.

I think CrossFit is like secular church. It offers more than weight loss or fitness. It speaks to our innate desires for community, purpose, and transformation.

'Unexpected Gifts' of Community

'Unexpected Gifts' by Chris Heuertz
'Unexpected Gifts' by Chris Heuertz

I’ve been asked several times in the last year or so, “How is it living in community?” Well, you see, that’s not a question to take lightly. Describing living in community takes more than just a quick response to a seemingly simple question. It’s wonderful. It’s difficult. It has its ups and downs. It’s life-giving and sometimes it feels like it takes the life out of you. How are you supposed to relay all that in a simple answer?

“Stepping into community is far riskier than expected. It’s far worse than you expect it to be. But in the end, it’s far better than you could ever imagine.”

With that line, along with the rest of his new book, Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community, author Christopher Heuertz offers a thorough reflection on how it is to live in community. Granted, he takes the space of 200 pages. But this book does give some ample reflection to those ups and downs, the failures and the joys — the, indeed, unexpected gifts — of community. With an honest and open tone, Unexpected Gifts reads like a story-filled guide to relationships, to living in community, living as Church, as Christ would have us do.

Solidarity and Sustaining the Beloved Community

Photo: Community image,  Pavel L Photo and Video / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Community image, Pavel L Photo and Video / Shutterstock.com

"I expect and am willing to be persecuted, imprisoned, and bound for advocating African rights. And I should deserve to be a slave myself if I shrunk from that duty or danger." -William Lloyd Garrison, Abolitionist (1805 - 1879)

With Black History Month coming up in February, many of us will remember the civil rights struggles that have brought us to where we are today. I recently read a fascinating book about that movement focused on the role of women in those efforts called Freedom’s Daughters. It highlights past generations of women activists, both black and white. They led in the struggles for abolition, desegregation, civil rights, and women’s suffrage. These movements carry with them the roots of our contemporary work for justice.

As I considered the lessons from that book I found myself resonating with many challenges, failures, and victories these women experienced, much of which was based on the race and gender dynamics of the day.

As an educated white woman who began my foray into community organizing though a summer internship in my early 20s — like many of the young women in Freedom Summer coming down from the North — I had not yet delved into the complicated nature of race relations in the United States. I started my summer feeling competent, a person who could learn and adapt to changes as I had on many previous international mission experiences. I carried with me an overly simplified belief in the romantic “beloved community.” The beloved community would come about as we worked together, prayed, and marched. 

Why We (Still) Can't Wait

DURING THE unseasonably warm autumn of 1951, 22-year-old Martin King Jr. began his doctoral work in systematic theology at Boston University. Wearing his good suit in a stifling classroom, he was first introduced to the work of philosopher and ethicist Josiah Royce. King read Royce's well-regarded 1913 book The Problem of Christianity and wrestled with Royce's metaphysical values of loyalty, communitarian ideals, and the role of the individual within a group.

But don't let the high academic or philosophical language fool you. Royce was interested in only one thing: Love. It was the hidden heart of all his endeavors. And King began to study—and embrace—Royce's most important philosophical concept: the Beloved Community.

Though Royce had first written about the Beloved Community nearly 40 years earlier, King heard it in the context of his own time and place. He heard it in the context of the insidious Jim Crow laws of the South. In 1951 he also heard it in the context of the bitter race realities of the North. The July before King started classes at Harvard, a race riot had erupted in Cicero, Illinois, outside Chicago. A mob of whites attacked an apartment building that housed one black family, that of Harvey Clark Jr., a WW II veteran and bus driver who had moved into the all-white neighborhood.

According to the Chicago Tribune, "In two nights of rioting, some 3,000 persons battled police and National Guardsmen. Twenty-three civilians, police, and Guardsmen were injured and 119 persons arrested." Buildings were burned. Mr. Clark and his family moved away.

If the Beloved Community was to be authentic, King knew, it must not only impel us to action but also carry our suffering. Would it stand up in situations like Cicero or Montgomery or Birmingham?

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'Relevance' Is Not Enough

LAST FALL, I (Anne Marie) decided to take a break from the church I had been attending to check out a nearby Episcopal service with one of my housemates, Joshua. I had no idea at the time that this might turn into a permanent switch. My Baptist, Anabaptist, and evangelical roots don’t quite explain what drew me to St. Stephen’s Church that Sunday, but I remember the thought that kept going through my head: I need to take Communion.

For a number of reasons, I had been feeling apathetic toward Christian faith. I needed something official and visceral to cleanse me of the growing indifference I felt. The thought entered my mind: I need some bread and wine, because if my own prayers can’t kindle the spirit of Jesus within me, then I’ll get him in there by force. I hoped that partaking in the real-deal-flesh-and-blood would allow me to return to my own church in peace.

I can’t say that the Episcopal service that day cured me of all my doubts and frustrations about Christianity, but I did find meaning in the liturgy, rituals, and traditions that continued to sustain me in my first year in a new city. As Joshua and I continued to attend St. Stephen’s, we each reflected on what we, as young adults, are looking for in church and Christian community.

Church advertisements often focus on how to keep young people “engaged,” and there are countless new books about why young people are leaving the church. Statistics show decreased church attendance among those in our generation, and while this may be cause for concern, I’m not too worried about it. I’m glad that churches and denominations are interested in engaging young people, but so often this well-meaning desire is rooted in fear and anxiety about the future of the church. Is Christianity becoming obsolete? Will the church die away?

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10 Things I Learned in the Middle East

Photo by Jon Huckins
Photo by Jon Huckins

Over the past four years I have had the opportunity to spend a significant amount time in the Middle East. I no longer approach the time as a tourist, but instead seek out relationships and experiences as a listener who has much to learn about the way God is at work in contexts much different than my own. In that posture, it has been remarkable how much I have learned and begun to integrate into the way I live, love and lead back in my neighborhood. Theologian Paul Knitter describes it well when he refers to ones inherited worldview as a telescope. 

"No matter how objective we may think we are or desire to be, we all see the world through a specific telescope/worldview. When we choose to look through the telescope of people who are “different” than us, we begin to get a more comprehensive picture of the world and the way God is at work within it."

Leading our first Learning Community to the Middle East apart of The Global Immersion Project I recently co-founded, I was invited to take a look through the lens of friends’ telescopes who live amid conflict in Israel and Palestine. Here are some of my key learnings:  

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