Maya Angelou

Testing Jesus

THE GOSPELS OF Mark and Matthew both include the story of a Gentile woman who begs a reluctant Jesus to heal her daughter (Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28).

I thought of these texts last fall while reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiographical work of the acclaimed poet Maya Angelou, who died last year. Born in 1928, Angelou spent most of her childhood with her grandmother in small-town Stamps, Ark. After a few years of eating candy from her grandmother’s grocery store, Maya developed two cavities that, she writes, “were rotten to the gums.” However, the white dentist in Stamps did not take “Negro” patients, and the closest black dentist was 25 miles away.

For several days no aspirin touched the blinding pain, so her grandmother finally took her to the white dentist, determined to beg and plead for help. Her grandmother recounts the dentist’s final rejection in highly colorful language: “Said he’d rather put his hand in a dog’s mouth. … He said, ‘Annie, I done tole you, I ain’t gonna mess around in no niggah’s mouth.’”

We may recoil at such naked racism, but in the segregated Jim Crow South, this sentiment must have been typical. I can imagine white churchgoers reacting to this story by thinking, “The nerve of that woman begging help from a white dentist! She got what she deserved.”

In Mark, we find Jesus also comparing a woman of a different race to a dog. Matthew includes the same story, only here Jesus adds that he has no obligation to this woman because “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). Most commentators are uncomfortable with Jesus’ response in both places, but it is often softened by an explanation that he was testing this woman to see if she had enough faith. Or perhaps he teased her, with a twinkle in his eye, by calling the dogs “puppies”!

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Singing the Same Song in Different Languages

It's a Small World Tokyo / Kevin Poh / Flickr.com

It's a Small World Tokyo / Kevin Poh / Flickr.com

Last month we went to Disney World — a perpetual feast for the senses. But. For someone like me who needs to get alone for a little daily contemplation, it can be a bit overwhelming. Except for one saving grace: It's a Small World.

I was 17, I think — and much less self-aware, I know — when I first climbed aboard the jolting, jostling little boat that would carry me to "distant shores" through the rooms filled with dolls all singing the same song. There were different languages and different clothing styles. The customs represented varied as greatly as the terrain upon which they were stationed. Some sang among mountain peaks, others on desert plains. Some bundled in parkas and earmuffs, others in grass skirts and leis.

And I don't know what it was — the change in pace from the exhilarating roller-coaster-kind-of-rides or the welcome blast of air conditioning — but there was something stilling about watching all these representatives of different peoples mouthing words to the same tune. There was a deeper message in it for that ponytailed teenager. Depths that it would take me years to plumb.

A small, small world. Indeed.

*******

Days after Maya Angelou's passing, I posted a few of her beautiful words on Facebook:

"If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is to be present in the present ... gratefully."

Pretty amazing words, right? What could possibly be the offense in them? Within minutes a comment popped up, the gist of which was to deny the beauty and wisdom of the words for the sake of Angelou's apparently deviant beliefs about abortion (specifically, deviant according to this commenter).

What Moves Mountains?

LOVE. THAT'S WHAT moves mountains. That’s what the inimitable Dr. Maya Angelou shared with Oprah Winfrey in an interview a  year before Angelou’s passing on May 28, 2014, at the age of 86.

In the days following her death, tributes blanketed the television and internet. Perhaps the greatest came on Sunday evening, June 1, as Oprah Winfrey aired a series of exclusive interviews with Dr. Angelou. Thus, the prophet spoke from the grave and this is what she said: “Love moves mountains.”

Jesus said faith moves mountains—faith the size of a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20). Did Dr. Maya Angelou dare to contradict Jesus? The poet/prophet says love. Jesus said faith. Which is it? Perhaps both.

People of faith know—they have witnessed it. Faith does move mountains. But they also know this: Faith’s power can lay dormant until it’s set ablaze by love. Perhaps only love has the power to fortify faith enough to make the earth quake.

Anger can shake earth, but it cannot move it. Rage can break earth, but it cannot move it. What if faith the size of a mustard seed requires the force of love to move the mountain? If that is the case, we are left with one haunting question: Why have we seen so few mountains move in our lifetime?

Perhaps the miracle has eluded us not because we lack faith, but rather because we live in a generation that can get by most of the time without really loving—I mean really loving—loving sacrificially—loving with vulnerability—loving with the force of a Mack truck. I mean the make-you-join-a-freedom-ride-even-though-you-may-be-lynched kind of love. I mean the kind of love that looks on the humanity of “the other” and is melted from the inside—the kind of love that lays down one’s life, one’s dreams, one’s health, and one’s well-being for the good of “the other.”

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Weekly Wrap 5.30.14: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds 
Self-identified nerd Arthur Chu provides piercing analysis on the recent shooting in Santa Barbara, examining how rape culture and recent sitcoms have instilled a sense of entitlement for “nerds” when it comes to “getting the girl.”

2. Why #NotAllMen Misses the Point
#NotAllMen is a flawed response to the twitter trend #YesAllWomen: "Avoiding blame isn’t enough to heal us. Distancing ourselves won’t end cycles of injustice, whether in the form of sexism, racism, or any other division. #NotAllMen can’t break an oppressive culture towards women."

3. Maya Angelou Knew How To Inspire As A Writer, Teacher, and Great Human Being 
Sojourners board member Joshua DuBois reflects on the life of Maya Angelou: "The African American author, dead at 86, led an extraordinary life and wrote about it in extraordinary ways."

4. Maya Angelou Is Not in Heaven 
"Angelou is not in heaven 'now.' Her writings show a joyful person who was never not in heaven. To me, an ongoing theme of her remarkable work has always been its full-on, all-in commitment to living life in the kingdom."

5. Slavery Is Still Thriving And Is More Profitable Than Big Oil 
The International Labor Organization (ILO), a United Nation's agency focusing on labor issues, this weekreleased a report on the global "forced labor" industry. The results are staggering.

6. Inside the Mind of Edward Snowden 
After months of behind-the-scenes contact, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams sat down with Edward Snowden, a man wanted for espionage here at home, for his first American television interview. Nothing was off limits.

7. This Film Will Change How You See Immigration
The Stranger is a new 45-minute documentary created to introduce Christians to the stories and lives of immigrants living in this country. Interviews with pastors, Christian leaders, and policy experts provide a biblically based context for the immigration challenges that face our country today.

8. Palestinian Refugees Welcome the Pope: The Story Behind the Iconic Photo at the Separation Wall 
In an effort to resist the Bethlehem Municipality’s efforts to beautify a section of the Apartheid Wall where Pope Francis was scheduled to pass, Local activists from Aida Refugee Camp gathered to paint slogans both against Israeli occupation and welcoming His Holiness, on the eve of his arrival, on May 24th 2014.

9. The Wrong Way to Approach the Poor
Before we rush in with righteous vigor to help the helpless, so to speak, we would do well to dispense of some archaic lenses through which we view poverty.

10. The Record for the Most Expensive Starbucks Drink Has Been Broken By a $55 Frappuccino 
On a lighter note, someone really took advantage of those free birthday drinks that accompany a Starbucks Gold Card membership — 60 shots of esppresso should be enough to wake you up, right?

In Remembrance: Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, public domain; illustration by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Maya Angelou, public domain; illustration by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

When I heard the news I wept.

“Renowned Poet and Author Maya Angelou Dies at 86,” read the NBC News headline.

My fruitless effort to hold back tears was proven vain as I made my way into the bowels of a D.C. Metro station — tears streaming. I felt silly.

“Why am I crying,” I thought. “I didn’t know Maya Angelou.” I met her once, but she wasn’t family or a close friend, yet I was reacting with the same profound sense of loss, as if my own beloved great grandmother had passed?

The New York Times called her a “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South” in the headline that announced Ms. Angelou’s death this morning. But for nearly four decades Dr. Maya Angelou served as a kind of great grandmother of the African-American community — a bridge between the ancestors and us.

Author and Poet Maya Angelou Dies at 86

Angelou reciting her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning", at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, January 1993. Public Domain.

Maya Angelou, a renowned author, poet and civil right activist, has died at 86. Angelou, know for her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, also authored six other autobiographies along with numerous collections of poems.

Throughout her career, Angelou she was active in the Civil Rights movement, working with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. She also served a one point as the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group founded following the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Dr. King and others.

NBC News reports her numerous achievements: 

Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, under the name Marguerite Annie Johnson. She grew up to become a singer, dancer, actress, writer and Hollywood's first female black director.

Angelou had an impressive list of accolades: She was a three-time Grammy winner and was nominated for a Pulitzer, a Tony, an an Emmy for her role in the groundbreaking television mini-series "Roots."

Remembering the Greatest Political Leader of the 20th Century: Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela died on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013. catwalker/Shutterstock

Today I had the great honor of saying a prayer at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the most important political leader of the 20th century. This was an honor, not only because of Mandela’s stature on the world’s stage, but because he was someone I admired very deeply and personally. His fight for justice and reconciliation is one that has inspired me in the work that we do at Sojourners.

There were several highlights of the service today. There were several choirs, two of which brought each mourner to their feet, clapping along to their versions of Shosholoza and Siyahamba. There were many beautiful speeches and recitations, including a reading of Maya Angelou’s poem for Mandela called “His Day is Done.”

But what stood out to me the most was the homily by Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, Director of the Desmond Tutu Center at Christian Theological Seminary, Butler University. As he paid tribute to Mandela’s life and described his “long walk to freedom,” he punctuated his remarks with “it ain’t over, until God says it’s done,” a quote from Maurette Brown-Clark’s song of the same name.

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