interview

Judith Casselberry

JUDITH CASSELBERRY'S ORIGINAL LOVE WAS MUSIC. She has been a guitarist and vocalist her entire adult life, including a 1980 to 1994 stint as part of the duo Casselberry-DuPreé. She now performs with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely. She has shared the stage with Sweet Honey in the Rock, Odetta, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, and Elvis Costello, among others.

Along the way, while still performing, Casselberry earned her bachelor’s degree (in music production and engineering) and then, a few years later, a master’s in ethnomusicology, during which she discovered a passion for teaching. So she went to Yale, earning a doctorate in African-American studies and anthropology in 2008. She is an associate professor of Africana studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, teaching courses on African-American women’s religious lives, music and spirituality in popular culture, music and social movements, and issues in black intellectual thought.

Casselberry’s forthcoming book, The Labor of Faith: Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism (Duke University Press), employs feminist labor theories to examine the spiritual, material, social, and organizational work of women in a New York-based Pentecostal denomination, Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith (COOLJC). In the course of her research, Casselberry immersed herself for more than two years in the life of True Deliverance Church in Queens, N.Y. She spoke by phone with Sojourners senior associate editor Julie Polter in late January.

Sojourners: You examine the “religious work” of women—including prayer, teaching, care for the sick and grieving, liturgical music and movement, and guiding converts. Why did you choose this framework?

WRITER AND ACTIVIST Chuck Collins, the great-grandson of meatpacker Oscar Mayer, gave up his inheritance when he was 26 and has spent the subsequent decades working to address economic inequality and environmental issues. Via email with Sojourners senior associate editor Julie Polter, he discussed his newest book, Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good (Chelsea Green)—and why organizing and building community across economic lines is good for everyone.

Sojourners: What is your main message in this book?

Chuck Collins: I want to invite wealthy and affluent people to “come home”—to return from wandering in the desert of wealth and privilege, the disconnection from community and place. It means putting a personal stake in reversing the deepening ruts of extreme wealth inequality and the ecological crisis. If we read the signs of the times, we understand this is both in our selfish interest as well as strengthening the common good. These inequalities and ecological challenges are undermining the quality of life for everyone, including wealthy people. There is no wealth on a degraded planet.

By reconnecting with people and places, we come out of exile. Racial and economic advantage is a “disconnection drug”—distancing us from both the suffering and the joy of being a human.

Many of the ultra-wealthy are “placeless” and “stateless”—literally holding multiple passports with money globalized in offshore financial centers around the world. So “coming home” means bringing the wealth home too—taking it out of the offshore tax havens, out of the global financial casino (“going off the Wall Street grid,” as one of the people I interview in Born on Third Base says), and out of the fossil fuel industry.

LAST SUMMER, THE FUTURE of for-profit prisons seemed bleak. The U.S. Department of Justice announced it would begin phasing out its use of privately run prisons and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security quickly followed suit, declaring that it would reconsider its use of privately run detention centers. Stocks for companies that ran for-profit prisons plunged.

But then Donald Trump was elected president, and private prison stocks immediately soared. The nation’s largest prison company, CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), reported a boost of more than 40 percent in the value of its shares. Given Trump’s promises to “create a new special deportation task force,” investors bet that privately run detention centers will play a key role.

And the investors may be right. Every year, DHS detains about 400,000 undocumented immigrants in 250 centers nationwide, and 62 percent of the beds in these centers are operated by for-profit corporations.

According to Maria-José Soerens, a licensed mental-health counselor serving undocumented immigrants in Seattle, there are two major problems with for-profit detention centers. First, for-profit centers are not held accountable to the standards that govern federally run centers. In her work in these centers, Soerens has heard complaints ranging from a lack of medical attention to inadequate opportunities for parent-child visitation; one young woman who was having suicidal thoughts was kept in solitary confinement until she told guards she was “better.”

But the deepest problem, explains Soerens, is that most detention centers only exist because corporations saw a “business opportunity.” Beginning in the early 2000s, for-profit prison companies successfully lobbied Congress to expand drastically the number of beds in the immigration detention system—a move that doubled the revenue of the two largest for-profit prison companies. In 1998, there were 14,000 beds available for immigrant detention; today, there are 34,000.

I’m inspired and troubled by the stories I have heard.
In the blue light of evening all boundaries get blurred.
And I believe in something better, and that love’s the final word,
And that there’s still something whole and sacred in the world.
               —“Help in Hard Times,” by Carrie Newcomer

CARRIE NEWCOMER IS a Quaker singer-songwriter whose music is inspired by hope and the great human potential for peaceful coexistence. The Beautiful Not Yet is the title of both her newest album (Available Light Records) and an accompanying book of poems, essays, and lyrics. She is also working on a spoken word and music collaboration with Parker J. Palmer (author of Let Your Life Speak and Healing the Heart of Democracy) called “What We Need Is Here: Hope, Hard Times, and Human Possibility,” which is scheduled to premiere in spring 2017.

Newcomer lives in southern Indiana when she’s not traveling the world singing her folk and gospel-infused tunes and engaging social and environmental justice issues.

She was interviewed for Sojourners by John Malkin, a musician, journalist, and radio host in Santa Cruz, Calif., whose books include Sounds of Freedom: Musicians on Spirituality and Social Change and The Only Alternative: Christian Nonviolent Peacemakers in America.

John Malkin: When did you start making music?

Carrie Newcomer: I picked up a guitar when I was in my early teens and learned my first three chords and started writing songs. I’ve always loved the combination of language and music.

In the liner notes of The Beautiful Not Yet, you mention that many of these songs were written on trains and planes. How has travel been a part of your life and music?

Image via RNS/Reuters/Brittany Greeson

The American Civil Liberties Union collected more than $11 million and 150,000 new members. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Twitter account gained 9,000 followers. And the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism and other bigotries, saw donations increase fiftyfold.

In the days since Donald Trump won the presidency, these spikes, in support for groups that defend religious and other minorities, speak to a fear that the president-elect will trample on their rights — or at least empower those who would.

Image via Fort Greene Focus/Flickr

Saunders’ spirit of generosity, cloaked in the dark humor and melancholy of his stories, has made him something of a guru to younger writers. A practicing Buddhist, with a childhood in the Catholic Church, Saunders approaches his essays in particular with a spiritual frankness — comfortable with his own limits, unabashedly willing to admit what confounds him, and ready to tell the truth as faithfully as he can. 

In July, he published his months-long attempt to understand Trump supporters and how they came to invest so much in a highly divisive, unconventional candidate. He seems both a natural and a jarringly wrong fit to capture this election season — perhaps the writer best ready to chronicle the already-absurd, and the one most willing to take it seriously. And at this moment in 2016, Saunders may be a kinder national narrator than we deserve.

Juergen Faelchle / Shutterstock

Juergen Faelchle / Shutterstock

How are a poisoned water supply in Flint and water shut-offs in Detroit connected? Tommy Airey, co-editor of RadicalDiscipleship.net, talked with Detroit activists Monica Lewis-Patrick and Cecily McClellan to get the story behind the story.

LONG BEFORE water shut-offs and poisoning in Flint, democracy in much of Michigan had been hijacked. By the time a governor-appointed “emergency manager” was foisted on Detroit in spring 2013, every large black-majority city in Michigan—from Flint to Benton Harbor to Highland Park to Saginaw—had been appointed an EM, stripping all powers from elected leadership while possessing the authority to renegotiate or cancel union contracts, hire and fire government employees, and sell, lease, or privatize local assets.

Two years ago, about the same time that Flint’s EM transferred the city’s water source from Detroit’s water system to the highly toxic Flint River, Detroit’s EM ordered the city water and sewerage department to begin shutting off the water of all Detroiters who were two months or more behind on their water bills.

Today, in a city with 40 percent of its population surviving below the poverty line, Detroit water rates are twice the national average, and an estimated 100,000 residents, including many elderly folks and children, have had their water shut off by the city. The measures are forcing many longtime, low-income residents, the majority of them black, to leave the city.

Since 2008, the grassroots organization We the People of Detroit (WPD), led by five African-American women, has been creatively resisting emergency management—first of the school system and then the entire city—with a steady campaign of awareness-raising, canvassing, water delivery and advocacy for shut-off victims, and a comprehensive mapping project soon to be released.

Monica Lewis-Patrick is the charismatic, energetic point guard of the group, fueled by the Holy Ghost and her morning standard: a cup of coffee sweetened with four sugar packets. Lewis-Patrick, who’s a grandmother and the mother of two teenage daughters, lost her bid for city council two years ago by a few hundred votes. A few weeks later, she lost her only son to gun violence.

Cecily McClellan, the quiet, confident, all-business power forward of Team WPD, is a retired city employee and former vice-president of the Association of Professional and Technical Employees.

I spoke with them at WPD headquarters on the third floor of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church—a stone’s throw from a downtown getting a corporate facelift financed by public bonds, subsidies, and tax abatements to draw companies in from the suburbs, while many residents struggle just to survive and keep their homes. —Tommy Airey

Tommy Airey: Let’s get this straight: Are you advocating for free water for low-income Detroiters?

Monica Lewis-Patrick: Free water has never been the ask. Personally, I’m not opposed to free water. I believe that water is a human right, and that everyone should have access to it. But the ask here in Detroit has always been for affordable water.

What are the mayor’s objections to an affordability plan in Detroit?
Lewis-Patrick: Over the last 11 months, water shut-offs have led to more foreclosures and pushing people out of the city. We believe [city officials] do not want to participate in a water-affordability plan because it would allow more people to stay in the city, especially in communities they want cleared out for future development.

Is this a conspiracy?
Lewis-Patrick: Conspiracy, in my mind, isn’t the appropriate term, because a lot of times people marginalize conspiracy as just somebody’s idea or accusation. What I would say is that it has been a collaborative, well-orchestrated system of evil. We know for a fact, through all the political analysis and economic research that has been done, that the city bankruptcy didn’t have to go down. People saw it as an opportunity to be able to divest from the water department, to weaken the water department intentionally.

Flint was actually advised by the governor and his emergency managers to come off of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department system and then to become a part of another water system called KWA [Karegnondi Water Authority]. Flint was the largest external customer of the Detroit water system. How is it that you are advising us to become financially solvent, while at the same time all your deeds are making us insolvent?

Rev. Romal J. Tune 1-19-2016

Image via /Shutterstock.com

A few days ago I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a day with Richard Rohr. Our conversation from the moment he picked me up from the airport, was energizing and thought provoking. Rohr's demeanor is very calming and without the fear of shaming or blaming, it's pretty easy to talk to about anything. We discussed the institutional church, poverty, self-care, the contemplative life, and many other issues. But one topic came up that I didn't anticipate, the issue of white privilege.

Nicola A. Menzie 1-14-2016

Michelle Higgins. Image via Urbana/RNS

Michelle Higgins has been making waves lately. A leader in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, she recently addressed a gathering of 16,000 evangelical students at an InterVarsity conference in St. Louis, during which she urged them to back the movement.

Patrick Walls 11-12-2015

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Sojourners founder and president Jim Wallis appeared Nov. 7 on the Drew Marshall Show, a spiritual talk show that broadcasts on radio stations all over Canada. In the interview, Rev. Wallis discussed a range of topics from baseball and his love of coaching his sons, to Sojourners’ push for immigration reform, Pope Francis’ recent visit, and his upcoming book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.

Rev. Wallis also talked about his faith journey, from his experience at a revival as a child, to his leaving his home church to join the student movements in the 1960s and 1970s. He discussed the encounter with an elder in his church where an elder said that they had “nothing to do with racism. That’s political. Our faith is private.” 

This exchange, Wallis noted, is what led him to eventually leave his church, only to come back to his faith after reading in Matthew 25 about how followers of Christ should treat the “least of these,” and what leads him to say that “Faith is always personal, but never private.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Image via Blake-Ezra Photography / RNS

Religious zealots fill newspapers and screens with bloody images of bombings and beheadings. They kidnap children and make them into soldiers. They pray before they rape women.

But “not in God’s name,” says Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, who just published a book by that title.

“The greatest threat to freedom in the post-modern world is radical, politicized religion,” Sacks writes. Religion News Service asked Sacks how people can kill in the name of God, and how religion can counter religious extremists.

Patrick Walls 10-14-2015

Image via Brazos Press.

“When Trayvon Martin was shot and killed, I felt - you might call it the lament of a white father. I knew and the whole country knew that my son Luke — six-foot-tall baseball athlete, going to college next year — had been walking and doing the same thing, same time that Trayvon was doing in Sanford, Fla., everyone knows he would've come back. But Trayvon didn't come back, and so it was a parable. Jesus talked about parables. They teach us things. Michael Brown — Ferguson — was a parable. Charleston was a parable. The parable about where we are as a nation — we have to see our original sin and how it still lingers in our criminal justice system.”

Ryan Stewart 9-18-2015
Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com

Stephen Colbert at the 65th Emmy Awards on September 22, 2013 in Los Angeles. Photo via Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com

“I’m no particular exemplar of my faith,” says Stephen Colbert.

“I just happen to have affection for my church.”

Colbert’s latest interview with Toronto-based Catholic outlet Salt and Light is bursting at the seams with wisdom — and, of course, more than a few good laughs.

The new host of the Late Show sat down with Father Thomas Corsica for a 45-minute conversation, one which centered on the Catholic comedian’s reflections on faith and theology.

Image via Stefano Rellandini/REUTERS/RNS

In two wide-ranging new interviews, the pontiff discusses matters both weighty and personal, such as: the perils of his popularity, his plans to welcome divorced and remarried Catholics, and his fear that the church has locked Jesus up like a prisoner.

Speaking Sept. 13 to the Argentine radio station, FM Milenium, Francis lamented those who posed as his friends to exploit him, and decried religious fundamentalism.

And speaking to Portugal’s Radio Renascença in an interview that ran on Sept. 14, Francis said that a priest comes to hear his confession every 15 to 20 days: “And I never had to call an ambulance to take him back in shock over my sins!”

Simon Oh 9-11-2015

Image via /Shutterstock

My friends and colleagues are generally aware that before I began working at Sojourners, I was a patent examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for six and a half years. What most of them do not know, however, is that I interviewed for that job — a five-minute drive from the Pentagon — on September 11, 2001.

Early that morning, I decided to take the Metro rather than drive to the USPTO’s offices in Crystal City, Va. I reasoned that if I got the job, I would want to get some idea about my future daily commute. This would prove to be a fortunate decision later on.

Even before the end of my trip to Crystal City, I had already heard news of the first World Trade Center tower being hit. When I arrived at the office, I hoped the interviewer would remember me after our conversation. He did — but considering the significance of all that happened that day, my concerns about employment now seem minuscule in hindsight.

Photo via Andrea Sabbadini / RNS

Pope Francis appears on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on March 13, 2013 in Vatican City. Photo via Andrea Sabbadini / RNS

The “Pope of the Interview” strikes again: Pope Francis has given a lengthy — and fascinating — interview to a Mexican television station, which broadcast it on March 13 to mark the second anniversary of his election.

Speaking to the program “Noticieros Televisa,” Francis displays his usual candor, dishing details about the secret conclave that elected him, talking about how he senses his papacy will be short, how the church must get tough on sexual abuse, and how all he really wants “is to go out one day, without being recognized, and go to a pizzeria for a pizza.”

Here are some of the highlights based on Vatican Radio’s English translation and the original Spanish:

On whether he likes being pope:

“I do not mind!”

Dotti Groover-Skipper

Florida is a target state for traffickers, with the Tampa Bay area as a top destination for this monstrous activity. Tampa Bay has a lethal combination of tourism, world famous beaches, hospitality and agricultural industries, sports arenas, a military base, international seaports and airports, as well as a destination spot for one of thelargest adult entertainment industries in the nation. This combination attracts all forms of human trafficking which has become a larger money maker than selling drugs, as the human "product" can be used and re-used over and over again.

Photo by Dana Damewood

A brief interview with the founder of Project Interfaith 

Elaina Ramsey participating in Sojourners' day of action to help end violence against women.

I firmly believe that people of faith can transform the world. Despite the many flaws and failures of the church and her people, Christians have a tremendous amount of power and influence to do good. This campaign is all about harnessing the leadership of churches and clergy, and encouraging people of faith to raise their voices on behalf of women and girls. Through education and empowerment, we can confront gender-based oppressions and change harmful practices, policies, and structures within the church and the broader culture. It’s a tall order, but one that demands nothing less from us if we truly believe in the sacred worth of women and girls.

Ryan Stewart 11-04-2014

Maria Hinojosa, left, speaks with Yolanda Sayres, right, about healthcare and education in Rochester, New York. Photo via ABTN.

“Behind every number, there’s a story.”

That’s what inspires Maria Hinojosa, host and executive producer of NPR’s Latino USA, to investigate the dramatic demographic changes taking place in the United States in her new PBS showAmerica by the Numbers. In a nation that will be majority non-white by 2043, Hinojosa’s storytelling focuses largely on the oft neglected experiences of immigrants and people of color.

Unafraid of what mainstream media too often neglects, Hinojosa’s America by the Numbers brings to life the tensions at the heart of a rapidly diversifying America. She examines not only the unjust treatment of underrepresented communities by the American government but also the cultural conflicts inherent within these communities. For Hinojosa, the conflicts between tradition and progress, community and individuality, white and non-white are not to be avoided, but rather spotlighted.

Last week, Sojourners chatted with Hinojosa about America by the Numbers and the role the media can play in welcoming these demographic changes. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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