Je Suis … [?] How People of Faith Should Respond to Paris

Anky / Shutterstock.com

Peaceful protest in Place de la Republique in Paris in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Anky / Shutterstock.com

Our first response to the horrible and frightening violence of Paris should be grief. False religion always makes the religious grieve, but when it engages in ghastly violence against other human beings who are made in God’s image, it should break our hearts as it breaks God’s.

These hateful terrorists, masquerading as religious believers, said on video they were the “avengers” of the prophet Mohamed. As such, they murdered cartoonists in the office of a magazine they identified with blasphemy. What these killers, and those like them, don’t understand is that they are the real blasphemers now by forcing their false and murderous distortions of Islam on the world and on other children of God. Their religion is now violence itself, a blasphemous interpretation of Islam, which in its truest expression is a religion of peace. Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, from the Reformed Church in America, has called Paris an “identity theft” of the Muslim faith. Several Muslim leaders have said that the damage terrorists like these do to the image of the Prophet Mohammed is much greater than any cartoonist could ever do.

While the tenet of freedom of speech has been invoked throughout the media coverage of the attacks, the religious implications here run much deeper. They are about how we in the faith community should respond when we are attacked by those who disdain us, disrespect us, distort us — as many believe the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo regularly did — and even viciously attack us. The magazine has often crudely, provocatively, and even gleefully satirized all religions in very offensive ways, suggesting that the fundamentalisms in all our religious traditions completely define the meaning of faith. Charlie Hebdo is apparently driven by its own ideology of secular fundamentalism, which regularly strikes out at all people of faith.

Singing in the Rain to Support Our LGBTQ Brothers and Sisters

Courtesy Paul Corner

Supporters create 'wall of love' to protect GCN conference attendees from Westboro picketers. Courtesy Paul Corner

My first real participation with the tension that exists between the LGBTQ community and the church came when I was a freshman at Penn State University in the spring of 1996. As is the case on many campuses, there was a preacher who would stand outside one of the campus buildings on the green and preach sermons to students. Because he stood outside the Willard Building, he was ‘affectionately’ referred to as the 'Willard preacher.' One spring day, there was a large National Coming Out Day Rally scheduled to happen on campus on the steps of the theater that sat just opposite the Willard Building. When I walked out of my calculus class that day, I had no idea that I would be walking right into the middle of a real live demonstration of the tensions that existed between LGBTQ people and the church. On one set of steps stood a group of students and speakers calling on people to be true to who they were, to not be ashamed of their sexual orientation, and to be open and proud about it. On another set of steps, led by the Willard preacher, a group of students stood chanting, “Sodomy Is Perversion!”

I did not fully understand all that was going on in my heart that day, but I felt like I had to make a choice. One choice I could make was to join the chanters. Now, growing up I had been taught that God did not affirm homosexuality, but I did not feel good about the chanting and jeers that were happening, and I didn’t think I could do that. WWJD, right? I didn’t think this was it. A second choice I could make would be to join the gay pride group. It may seem like an easy choice, but at that time and at that point in my life, I felt that joining this group was a way of saying no to God. I was struggling in my faith, but was I ready to take this step away? I could not see a way that these two groups could peaceably co-exist, and I felt like my faith in Christ was on the line. In the end, I sat down with some friends in the gay pride group.

Fast forward to this past Saturday morning. This time the choice was easier for me. The Westboro Baptist Church had gathered with their signs in protest outside the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore., where the Gay Christian Network was holding their annual conference. As an act of solidarity, support, and protection, Christians from around the Portland area gathered to build a ‘wall of love’ so that conference attenders could enter with little interference from the hateful rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist group.

To the Women: #MarchOn! — An Interview with 'Selma's Niecy Nash

Oprah Winfrey plays Annie Lee Cooper in 'Selma.' Image via selmamovie.com

Oprah Winfrey plays Annie Lee Cooper in 'Selma.' Image via selmamovie.com

I grew up in a household run by a woman of the civil rights movement. My mother, born Sharon Lawrence in 1948, was a teenager when she joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1966, one year after Dr. King’s legendary march from Selma to Montgomery and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. With the foundations of progress and protection laid, there was still much work to be done. My mother was based in Philadelphia, where she helped establish one of SNCC’s embattled northern offices.

A few years back, as I fished through boxes brimming with old papers and notepads, I discovered handwritten notes from James Forman to my mother. Forman offered detailed instruction to the then 18-year-old young woman who would become my mother only a few years later. Her job was much like mine is now: church outreach. The way she tells it, there were only a few churches in Philadelphia willing to offer their pulpits for movement people to speak. It was her job to secure those pulpits when giants like Forman, Stokely Carmichael, and others came to town.

I grew up aware of the women of the civil rights movement — my mother was one of them.

Perhaps that’s why I was so struck by the rare effort made by the film Selma to highlight the roles of women in that struggle, which by many accounts was the high-water mark of the civil rights movement. 

A Challenge to My White Brothers and Sisters — Acknowledge Your Defensiveness and Learn to Listen

Communication breakdown illustration, durantelallera / Shutterstock.com.

Communication breakdown illustration, durantelallera / Shutterstock.com.

Our tenth anniversary kicked off a season of unprecedented strife, most of which was circumstantial. My husband and I were homeschooling our three sons (all under the age of six), navigating multiple part-time jobs, and trying to manage my sudden health crisis. Both of us lacked sleep, energy, and patience. Prior to this time period, conflicts had not been an issue for us. We had them, processed them, forgave each other, and moved on. But a decade in, something shifted. And it wasn’t for the better.

In retrospect, we regressed to deeply embedded patterns from our families of origin. My northern European clan silently withdrew from one another and stoically pretended nothing was wrong. His Italian American household vocalized anger in operatic fashion. Tempers flared, voices cracked — and then someone made a joke and served dessert. That dynamic may have worked for them but when my husband applied it to our marriage, he unequivocally trumped me. Unable to match his emotional output, I resentfully deferred.

In the midst of one blowup, I made a tearful plea. When I’m angry, what if you listened rather than responded defensively? Based on his expression, this was indeed a new concept. As soon as he stopped matching my anger, the tenor, severity, and duration of our conflicts changed — this time for the better.

When he dialed down, he created a safe space for me to talk, which de-escalated my anger and validated my concerns. From his side of the equation, quieting his defensive tendencies allowed him to see that I was not imagining problems but rather responding to something real. When he was culpable — which was certainly not all the time — and offered me an apology, it calmed the raging sea and allowed us to address the actual issues rather than endlessly reacting toward one another.

This was not an easy or quick shift for us. I had to coach myself to speak up, present my side without blaming or accusing, and choose to trust him. He had to weather my tempest and face a degree of powerlessness. Fourteen years later, we’re still learning how to do this well.

I’m not a sociologist but I wonder if is this same dynamic contributing to the racial tension that we are now experiencing in the United States.

A Christian Mother’s Response to Leelah Alcorn’s Suicide

Photo via Lena May / Shutterstock.com

Tiny feet of newborn baby. Photo via Lena May / Shutterstock.com

My Darling Daughter:

I’ve been meaning to write you this letter in case you need it when you’re older, but after hearing about the Dec. 28 suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, I feel an urgency to get this down.

Right now, you’re not even a year old, far too young to understand the tragedy of how Leelah, feeling socially isolated and rejected by her Christian parents, stepped in front of a passing semitrailer on an interstate in Ohio. She was just 17. As a mother, her death breaks my heart. As a Christian, it moves me to speak out.

When I was a few months pregnant with you and the perinatologist told me that the prenatal blood test “showed no signs of Y chromosomes,” I knew that you were a girl. I was thrilled.

On the sunny spring afternoon that you were born, the nurses wrapped you in a blanket and put a tiny, gender-neutral pink-and-blue-striped cap on your little head. As soon as I started speaking to you, my voice a steady coo, you settled, and I knew that you were my daughter.

But what if it turns out you aren’t?

What if you are actually my son?

'Selma's David Oyelowo on Playing MLK and What It Means to Be a Christian

David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 'Selma.' Photo courtesy Selma Movie on Facebook.

“I do know the voice of God.”

That’s what David Oyelowo, the actor who beautifully portrays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the new film Selma, told me last night. It’s that voice, he said, that called him to play the role.

I was at the December preview of Selma in Washington, D.C., and then took my family to see it at an early showing on Christmas day. I sometimes respond emotionally to films, but Selma made we weep. It also made me grateful that for the first time in 50 years, a big studio had finally made a film about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the people in the movement around him in Selma. I believe this movie, unlike most others, could actually change the nation’s conversation about race and reconciliation at a crucial time, perhaps even providentially.

On the premiere night, I met David Oyelowo, who spoke publically after the film about his faith. I don’t hear that kind of talk very much in D.C., but David was open and forthright, saying that playing the great Christian leader became part of his personal calling as a Christian.

In our conversation afterward, I asked David what he meant by those words. His answer prompted me to ask for an interview with him before the film, which debuts this weekend, came out. He and I talked last night (listen to the full interview below).

‘Selma:' We Are, Because They Were

Actor David Oyelowo and Director Ava DuVernay on the set of ‘Selma.’ Photo court

Actor David Oyelowo and Director Ava DuVernay on the set of ‘Selma.’ Photo courtesy Lisa Sharon Harper/Sojourners.

In the first moments of SelmaI feel butterflies rise in my stomach as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) practices his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech while trying to tie his ascot. Butterflies rumble in my soul. I am almost fearful as we step into the world of Selma, because I am a student of the Civil Rights era. The movement’s lessons have shaped my life. I feel like I am about to meet my heroes.

So, King fiddles with his ascot in Oslo, Norway, and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) comes close to comfort him, and little girls descend into the bowels of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and butterflies rise and my soul sits at attention. I know what is coming: hell … and glory.

The film still haunts me. Every performance is nuanced, textured, and humanizing. Director Ava DuVernay’s technique is breathtaking. Her eye translates words into feelings into images — moving images that never leave you. Brutality and reverence occupy single frames. At once, the audience is horrified and awe-struck. I have no doubt Selma should win Oscars.

It is an amazing film, but it doesn’t haunt me because of its excellence. As I sat in the dark watching the movement unfold before my eyes, it was not the past that haunted me. It was the present.

FBI Investigating Explosion Near NAACP Yesterday; Twitter Protests Lack of News Coverage

A makeshift bomb placed outside a local chapter of the NAACP in Colorado went off yesterday, releasing smoke but failing to ignite a gasoline can placed beside it, Newsweek reports. There were no injuries.

The FBI has declared the bombing "deliberate," but is still investigating whether the NAACP was the intended target. The building's other tenant, a hair salon, does not appear to have been the target.  

The media's slow-to-silent response to the incident has raised ire on Twitter, with many concerned that the bombing did not make news on mainstream outlets until today.

"Thankfully, no injuries were reported, but the fear it struck in the local community and in citizens concerned for issues of racial justice everywhere were felt immediately ... In a time when racial tensions in our country appear to be growing, the troubling nature of this act of domestic terrorism should be blatantly obvious, but the lack of mainstream media coverage of the bombing ... was downright disturbing," wrote Shaun King, staff writer for the Daily Kos.

According to Newsweek, the FBI has asked that anyone with information call its Denver tip line at 303-435-7787.

People Get Ready

JEN BAILEY PAYS attention. She recognized the paucity of healthy food choices in Nashville’s “food desert” areas and designed an interfaith toolkit to enhance the skills of food- justice organizers tackling that issue. Jen—now Rev. Bailey of the African Methodist Episcopal Church—listened to the recurring theme in her own lived experience: Faith communities can be a catalyzing source for good and are even more powerful when they work together. Bailey hasn’t yet hit 30.

Millennials have gotten serious press this year from Pew, NPR, The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, and the like. Amid their diversity, these roughly 80 million people appear to share several common traits. They are global citizens who want to act and impact locally, who crave meaning, seek entrepreneurialism, prioritize people and networks over institutions, and often profess different parameters of and pathways to success than previous generations. If Bailey is emblematic of her generation in any way, we have a lot to be hopeful about.

This year, Bailey started the Faith Matters Network (FMN), a “multi-faith alliance dedicated to building the power of people of faith to transform our social and economic systems.” The group focuses on the South and Midwest because both areas are significantly impacted by economic inequality and are highly religious. That is, there is a lot of work to be done and lots of people (theoretically) committed to doing it.

In addition to connecting folks with resources and partner organizations, FMN has two main programs: faith “collaboratories” and transformational storytelling. The first is a new form of gathering “communities of praxis” to work together to tackle local challenges. The second recognizes the power of story to connect us, one to another, and to get people to pay attention.

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