Let's Change Our Narrative About 'Africa'

Ultimately, we learn to overlook the light already present in these places. We come to think that our responsibility is to bring light when instead we should bear witness to a flame that already exists. In reality, where God is, there is light. If this whole created earth belongs to the Lord, there is no place his light doesn’t send forth a warm glow.

I used to volunteer with an organization called PEER Servants. PEER is an acronym for Partnering for Economic Empowerment and Renewal. PEER Servants partners with indigenous Christian microfinance institutions that want to help transform their communities and empower others to do the same. During my time as a volunteer, I learned about a woman in South Africa who used the profits from her business to begin a nursery school for her community. I read about a man in Uganda who wanted to expand his business so he could provide more jobs for his neighbors. These stories spread hope to my North Carolina home, a hope as warm as a rising sun.

In the first chapter of the biblical book of John, Nathanael says to Phillip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” to which Phillip answers, “Come and see.”

Based on the typical narrative the West gives the African countries, the question might become, “Can anything good come out of the African continent?” And I would answer, “Come and see.”

Born Again, or Blind?

Alexander Tihonov /

Alexander Tihonov /

I am more and more convinced that beauty lies in the margins.

Raised in evangelicalism, we often prayed to reach those who remain in the darkness, that God would open their eyes and see the truth. We had been born again. A veil had been magically lifted off our eyes, welcoming us into the land of all that is bright and right. Like the blind man in the Gospel of John, we proclaim, “I was blind, but now I see.” Those who believe now possess some sort of special knowledge inaccessible to others, and we are tasked to go and lift the blinders off as many as possible.

It sounds a bit arrogant, which has been a common accusation against evangelical Christians. But every conversion experience is a form of turning from darkness to light. An a-ha moment, a lived miracle, a season of wrestling with doubt and crisis that somehow brought the person to a divine encounter with God. These stories ought to be honored and not dismissed. Something has changed, and it is worth celebrating a liberation into hope. I marvel at genuine, earnest faith.

The problem is when we have become blinded by our light.

A Shard of Hope: HBO’s 'The Leftovers' on Grief

Image via TheLeftoversHBO on Facebook.

Image via TheLeftoversHBO on Facebook.

As a native New Yorker, I can never forget Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I was in college, but heading to my part-time job that morning. My car was being fixed, so my father drove me to work. There was an unusual amount of traffic and as we turned on the radio, we heard a reporter talk about a plane that hit the World Trade Center.

The first thought we had was that this was an accident. It had to be an accident, right? As we listened to the reports though, the second plane hit and it was clear that something was very, horribly, terrifyingly wrong.

From our office in Queens, we watched the towers burn and then collapse. The image of the great cloud of smoke and debris encompassing the skyline has been burned on my brain. And a few days later, while handing out sandwiches to mourners at the makeshift memorial at Union Square with my parents’ church and non-profit organization, the feeling of hugging a total stranger while she wept on my shoulder will never leave me.

It is impossible to forget.

I must admit the timeliness on the part of HBO to air the season finale of The Leftovers in the week of 9/11. Tom Perotta, who authored the play on which the show is based, purposely included allusions to 9/11. Rather than a theological treatise on the Rapture, it is a beautiful case study in grief and the excruciating tension between the desire to move forward and the need to remember.

Why I Stay in the Church

A QUESTION ASKED of me 100 times in the last 10 years: Why do you stay in the Catholic Church? How can you stay in a church where thousands of children were raped around the world? Where men in power covered their ears to the screams of children and moved the rapists around from parish to parish so that smiling welcoming parents presented their awed shy children to the rapists like fresh meat? Where women have been marginalized and sidelined for centuries and their incredible creativity diluted and wasted and left to rot? Where power and greed and cowardice so often trumped the very humility and mercy and defiant belief in the primacy of love on which the church was founded and for which it claims to stand today?

Because, I said haltingly, in the beginning, when I was unsure of my honest answer in the face of such rapacious crime and breathtaking lies, because, because ... because how could I quit now? What sort of rat leaves the ship when it is foundering and your fellow passengers need help? Why would I quit now, of all the times to quit? How could I leave the ship in the hands of the men who nearly sank her? How could I abandon the brave honest mothers and priests and nuns and teachers and bishops and dads and monks and children who are the church, who compose the church, who sing the deepest holiest song of the real church?

Because, I said more and more energetically as the years went by, because there are men like my archbishop in my church, men who stood up to lies and crime and accepted the lash of public insult without a word, though the sins were not theirs.

Because there are people like my mom and dad in my church, who refuse to let the sweet wild idea of the church die in their souls or their lives or their parish, and refuse to let someone else define the church they know to be a continual verb, and endless possibility, the most revolutionary idea in the history of human beings, not merely a noun, a castle, a council of cassocks.

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"Elevation of the Cross," by Peter Paul Rubens

The back-lit morning wave
Clarified emerald suddenly in olive,
Then gone; forever the cry of the Christ's torso
In Rubens' "Elevation of the Cross";
A glass pepper shaker filled to overflowing
By a finger of fallen sun at the close
Of a most mundane afternoon.
Obsessed is perhaps too strong a wod

But I seek the image of emergent light
In everything, as if a life's a collection
Of a thousand thousand such events
Becomes, finally, and somehow,
Through the slippery spirit's incomprehensible means,
A perfect surrender. The desert hermit Antony
Is said to have needed no lamp
To read scripture in his cell at night, so bright
Was the manifest glow of his abandon.

Samuel Harrison, a novelist and poet, coordinates an arts ministry at St. James Episcopal Church in Ormond Beach, Fla.

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Exporting Democracy...

Illustration by Ken Davis

FOR MORE THAN two centuries, the United States has been the proudest example of democracy in the world. Maybe not the best, but definitely the proudest. Oh sure, we’ve hit some rough patches over the decades, mainly in dealing with our native peoples and other ethnic minorities. Also with women, the poor, the falsely accused, the unemployed, and people who aren’t bankers. But let’s just call those growing pains.

For the most part, America has been that shining city on a hill, and by America, of course, I don’t mean Canada or Mexico, or the other countries whose names I forget, most of which don’t have many good hills to shine from anyway.

But I’m not talking about geography, I’m talking about pride. The pride that comes from being number one in democracy, despite being number 55th in infant mortality and 35th in math. Okay, so we don’t test well. But we’re proud anyway. And we’re still number one in Bible science! [High five!]

But lately, because of continued dysfunction on Capitol Hill, people are starting to whisper that democracy in the United States may have lost some of its shine, like we’re “hiding it under a bushel,” as it says in the old Christian campfire song of my youth. (We also sang “With Jesus in My Boat I Can Ride Out the Current Economic Downturn,” and “Children, Go Where I Text Thee.”)

But if America’s “little light” is no longer shining, at least a few other nations are providing good examples of self-government.

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'Don't Be Left Behind Now'

On Feb. 8, tens of thousands of people gathered in the North Carolina capital city, Raleigh, for what organizers called the Moral March. It was a follow-up to last year’s “Moral Monday” movement that started in April 2013 when Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, and 16 others were arrested inside the North Carolina legislature for protesting sweeping voting restrictions proposed by the Republican-controlled state government.

I ALMOST DIDN’T go to the Moral March. I kept looking for excuses. There was all that work to be done for next week. I told my professor I’d miss Friday’s preaching class. I hoped she’d chide me and I’d feel guilty enough to stay. Instead she said, “Great, go with my blessing.” I told my tutor I’d miss tutorial. She said, “I’m so glad you’re going to the march.”

Why couldn’t I go to a normal graduate school where no one left their rooms? But instead I went to seminary, and to Union, of all places!

I said, God, I’m crazy to go. Mild laughter was the only response. I glared at my reflection in the dark window. The reflection raised her eyebrow and said, don’t be left behind now.

The little voice in the window stayed with me as I put an extra pair of thick socks in my bag. Don’t be left behind, reading books about other people’s marches and other people’s spiritual revelations and other people’s religions. This march is historic, my reflection informed me. Go and be part of history. This is your history.

This is your time.

But a “this is someone else’s march” voice also lingered as I boarded the bus. I’m from California, and we’ve got a whole ’nother set of complications that seem pretty distant from North Carolina.

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Be a Light

Lighting display, Champiofoto /

Lighting display, Champiofoto /

Light is important to us. Those of us who live in the Midwest are reminded of how much we need it during this time of year. The sun sets early. On so many days, our sunlight is tinged with gray as it seeps through the clouds.

Light seems to be in short supply.

All of the festive holiday Christmas lights have been put away, leaving the darkness unchecked. We recently had religious celebrations that involved lighting candles on our menorahs, on our advent wreaths and our dinner tables. Many people celebrated the birth of a Jewish rabbi who urges everyone to be a light to the world.

Don’t wait for someone else to bring the light. Be the light.

Hope and Despair

Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

Sunrise in the Gulf of Mexico. Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

Editor's Note: New Vision Renewable Energy connects Christians with opportunities to provide renewable solar lights to people in the developing world. Their Christmas Lights Advent Devotional features daily readings and questions from prominent Christian thinkers, including Sojourners president Jim Wallis. This Day 10 of Advent devotional from Jim Wallis is reprinted and adapted with permission of New Vision Renewable Energy. You can find the full Christmas Lights Advent Devotional guide and solar light kits here:

Proclaiming Jesus as light of the world is an audacious statement. It directly challenges all those idols that persistently attempt to replace God as the center of our lives and our world. In our culture, a selfishness that denies any obligation to anyone or anything beyond our own self-interest may be the greatest idol of all. It denies that demanding more and more energy at great cost to our environment and the people who live close to the land has problematic consequences. We have lost sight of the common good and the consequences have been devastating.

In many places, hope has turned into despair. Darkness seems to be crowding out light. From where will our help come from?