Justice

Getting to Green

IN THE FOREWORD to Sacred Acts: How Churches Are Working to Protect Earth's Climate, prolific scholar-activist Bill McKibben recalls a time not long ago when many people of faith regarded environmentalism suspiciously—conservatives saw it as a cover for possible paganism, while liberals considered it less of a priority than problems such as war and poverty. Now, however, theologians and religious leaders discuss the environment almost as much as ecologists and Nobel prize-winning scientists do. As this book shows, moreover, the environmental movement now includes religious organizations such as Earth Ministry, Interfaith Power & Light, and GreenFaith, which are working at the grassroots level in congregations and communities.

Edited by Mallory McDuff, a lay Episcopalian who teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College near Ashville, N.C., Sacred Acts boldly focuses on climate change. McDuff believes that momentum is building among Christian communities worldwide as they call for just climate solutions—much like a modern Pentecost moment. The book addresses both skeptics and those who know climate change is real but feel overwhelmed by the problem's magnitude and despair of finding and implementing solutions.

The contributors to Sacred Acts include clergy, teachers, activists, directors of nonprofit organizations, and a farmer. Its 12 chapters are divided into four sections on the themes and strategies of stewardship, spirituality, advocacy, and justice.

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Nonviolence and the Drug War

ON A BLAZING August day last summer, Rosa Pérez Triana faced a crowd of several hundred people in downtown Tucson and held up a color photo of a pretty young woman.

“This is my daughter, Coral,” Pérez said in Spanish, her voice breaking. “A year ago she went missing. There are thousands of people in Mexico like me who don’t know what happened to their loved ones.”

A middle-aged woman from the violent state of Nuevo León in northern Mexico, Pérez had come to the United States with the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity to tell her North American neighbors what had happened to her daughter—and to an estimated 80,000 other Mexicans who have been killed or disappeared during the country’s six-year-old war on drugs.

Her daughter’s story is typical. Guadalupe Coral Pérez Triana vanished on July 24, 2011, somewhere on the road between Reynosa, Tamaulipas, and Monterrey, Nuevo León. Five other young women were traveling with her. All are missing and presumed dead.

“The main purpose of the caravan is to show a human face,” explained Laura Carlsen, director of the Center for International Policy’s Americas Program in Mexico, who joined the caravan on its last leg through the East Coast. “These are people whose family members were victims.” Such are the human costs of the war on drugs that the U.S. government supports with arms and money.

According to the U.S. State Department, the U.S. government has contributed $1.9 billion through the Mérida Initiative to help Mexico wage the drug war. Not only do Americans provide the market for the drugs sold by the drug cartels, they also supply the weapons that have taken the lives of thousands.

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Storytelling and Social Change

PERHAPS NO FRAMEWORK has impacted my organization, Interfaith Youth Core, more than Marshall Ganz’s approach to public narrative (“leadership storytelling”), best articulated in his March 2009 Sojourners article “Why Stories Matter.” We use it in our trainings with college student interfaith leaders and recommend it in the workshops we do with university faculty. Most famously, it was employed by the 2008 Obama campaign.

Like all effective frameworks, there is both a visceral and a heady quality to what Ganz teaches. Stories are the way human beings understand and communicate our deepest values, Ganz says, and there are three major stories that leaders must tell. The first is the story of self. This is not a selfish activity, or even one just about self-understanding (although that is certainly a piece of it). It’s about interpreting to others your reasons for being engaged in a struggle. This helps them understand your involvement and, more important, gives them inspiration and language to get active themselves.

The second type of story is the story of us. Religions, races, ethnicities, and nations tell such stories brilliantly but often do it in a way that excludes—and makes enemies of—those outside the magic circle. The challenge for the 21st century leader is to tell a story of us that includes people of all backgrounds who are fighting for the same cause. Stories of us build community out of people who would otherwise be strangers.

The third type of story is the story of now—the reason for action, sacrifice, movement, and urgency at this moment above all others.

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The Missing Figurine in Your Nativity Scene

Nativity Scene Illustration, Shutterstock.com
Nativity Scene Illustration, Shutterstock.com

In the church where I grew up, the first Sunday in Advent was dubbed the “hanging of the greens.” On that special Sunday, we sang carols in the decorated sanctuary, all culminating in the children’s live nativity scene. The service never changed from year to year. The only variables were how many kids needed roles and which young child would get stage fright, thus leaving part of the the story without visual representation. 

It always seemed like the doves were cursed. The doves rarely remained on stage for the entire performance. Over the years, I was a variety of animals — a wise man, a shepherd, and finally Joseph. I never got stage fright. I was never a dove. I can only imagine what my mother would’ve done if I had been that kid. 

It took me years to realize that there was a character missing from my congregation’s telling of the story. We always left out King Herod. 

This was a huge oversight, because Herod plays a major role in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. 

What Are You Singing: O! Holy Night

Photo: Nativity Scene, © Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Nativity Scene, © Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com

I can remember hearing several times as a middle and high schooler that Christians lie the most when they sing. These claims generally came from the mouths of college-aged worship leaders during emotional praise segments at mission camps and conferences. They were usually followed up with a heartfelt plea to raise honest words and promises to God during the next song. (And if we really meant it, we would ignore the burning stares of our judgmental, worldly peers and come down front for our seventh altar call.) 

Though I generally don’t remember these scenes and indictments fondly, I have recently been contemplating the idea of honest worship, especially in relation to the Christmas season. I mean, how often do we memorize a whole song and sing along to it regularly without really stopping to contemplate the lyrics? And even when we do realize what we’re singing, how often do we actually let those words transform our hearts or actions or perspectives?  

All of these thoughts started stewing in my mind during my Thanksgiving vacation two weeks ago. Per usual, I started playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving (and by the day after I mean a few days before). As I was washing dishes, belting out my favorite version of “O! Holy Night,” I was suddenly struck with the thought What am I singing? Read the lyrics below to see if you get what I mean. (Hint: my moment happened somewhere around the second verse.)

Getting Started

WANT TO PUT money to work for the common good? Your congregation—large or small—has more to invest than you might expect. Here are three questions to get you started.

1. Where does our church bank? "Many churches choose a bank based on proximity to the church or the church treasurer's home," Andy Loving says, but it doesn't have to end there. Approach the finance committee and say, "We want to put our money somewhere that has implications for what we value as a church," suggests Loving. Find a bank that empowers economically depressed areas through brick-and-mortar locations and socially responsible loan practices.

2. Does the bank we're considering provide options for the poor? Where are the branches located? Does it loan to people or businesses who typically don't get approved by mainstream lenders? One institution Loving recommends is Self-Help Credit Union in Durham, N.C., which has locations throughout the state—and also a web-based interface convenient for members outside the area. Another place to hunt for justice-oriented banking is the National Community Investment Fund website, www.ncif.org, which allows you to search by location and banking practices.

3. How can our church enact justice with the money we have?Loving recommends asking this of your church or a group within it, such as a Sunday school class, in order to start a discussion about surplus capital and investing. A good resource for discussion is Ched Myers and Loving's DVD series and study guide, From Mammon to Manna: Sabbath Economics and Community Investing , available at www.chedmyers.org.

Image: Coins and sprout, Anthony Berenyi / Shutterstock.com

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The Seeds of Epiphany

In the dark days of Advent, we wonder when the birth pangs will end: Will light break into the darkest corners of our hearts, our families, our lives? Will God—can God—take the twisted sinew of our warped world and redeem it? Will we—can we—hold on through the night? Can we trust that light to come? These are the questions of Advent.

As we enter the season of Epiphany, new questions arise: Will we allow the light that has broken forth to illuminate the darkest corners of hearts, our families, and our lives? Can we—will we—follow Jesus as he untwists the mangled metal of our shattered souls ... and redeems it? Can we—will we—trust the light or will we hide from it? These are the questions of Epiphany.

The light of Epiphany illuminates in two directions: It flashes inward, revealing our twisted and fragmented souls, and it flashes outward, revealing the carnage and consequences of the lies our world has embraced and used to craft public policy, the lies we have believed and reinforced through our complicit acceptance, and the truth we must speak.

As we enter 2013, we look back and see that over the past four years much public good was done. Remember: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act made it easier for women to fight pay discrimination. Remember the drama when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act and the Supreme Court upheld it, creating a path for tens of millions of Americans to finally receive health care. Remember the image of the last troops leaving Iraq.

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The Truth About Thanksgiving: Why You Should Celebrate

Photo by SSPL/Getty Images
Engraving made in 1847 after Captain Seth Eastman meeting Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag. Photo by SSPL/Getty Images

"The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history but honest and inclusive history." – James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, 92.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving. This Thanksgiving, as we take turns around the dinner table sharing why we are thankful, a sense of awkwardness settles in. The awkwardness is not only due to the “forced family fun” of having to quickly think of something profound to be thankful for. (Oh, the pressure!) The growing awkwardness surrounding Thanksgiving stems from the fact that we know that at the table with us are the shadows of victims waiting to be heard.

Humans have an unfortunate characteristic – we don’t want to hear the voice of our victims. We don’t want to see the pain we’ve caused, so we silence the voice of our victims. The anthropologist Rene Girard calls this silencing myth. Myth comes from the Greek worth mythos. The root word, my, means “to close” or “to keep secret.” The American ritual of Thanksgiving has been based on a myth that closes the mouths of Native Americans and keeps their suffering a secret.

Reflections on an Eco-Justice Anacostia River Tour (PHOTOS)

Brandon Hook / Sojourners
The river tour gave a few of us the opportunity to get some waders on and clean the river. Brandon Hook / Sojourners

On Saturday, Sojourners sent a group of staff members sailing down the Anacostia River.

But this was no pleasure trip.

Dottie Yunger, from the Anacostia Watershed Society, teamed up with Sojourners’ Creation Care campaign to teach some of our staff and a few other members of the local community about the state of the Anacostia river, how we as people of faith can be better stewards of our God-given resources, and how we can help create a healthier system where all creatures (both human and non-human) can survive and flourish.

Here are a few reflections from the trip.

Singing the Stories Untold

SINGER-SONGWRITER Caroline Herring was completely naked when she truly found God.

Straight out of college, she spent three months as a missionary in China. “I was so ill-equipped,” she says now, over tea just before a show in Knoxville, Tenn. “The program was respectable—we weren’t Bible smugglers, but obviously we had an agenda.”

One of her students—a woman who had journeyed seven hours to attend English classes Herring was teaching with her fellow missionaries—took a liking to her and asked if she would leave the comfort of her air-conditioned room (with a private toilet) to join her students at the dirty, crowded bath-house, outfitted with several spigots in the ceiling. Herring believes it was a way to welcome her into their fold.

“And I felt like I was a part of humanity for the first time in my life,” Herring says, her face suddenly luminous. “My preconceived notions about the Trinity just slipped away. It was too much to comprehend, but I knew that the Holy Spirit was moving amongst us because we were people together, being kind to one another.”

Herring, now 42, says the experience changed her life. She left China a different, humbled person, with whole new ideas about what God, religion, and service were.

“I knew for sure that I had a lot more to figure out about my own place in the world before I had the audacity to spread the word of Christ across the globe,” she says.

Several years later she wrote a haunting song called “China” that recounts the experience. “The father and the son left but the holy dove stayed / maybe clouds parted and the curtain was torn / but I was naked as the day / the day I was born,” the song goes. It appears on her 2010 EP, Silver Apples of the Moon.

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