narrative

A Farm Grows in Brookland

ON A TWO-ACRE parcel of land in Washington, D.C., tucked behind the provincial house of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Gail Taylor offers a visitor dragon’s lingerie.

“It kind of looks like fishnet stockings—that’s how it got the name,” Taylor says, holding up the heirloom snap bean, its pale yellow-green hull mottled with purple.

Across the aisle, Jack Be Little miniature pumpkins hide under leafy canopies. There are tomatoes and mustard greens, eggplant and legumes, lettuce and squash. “We’re doing a lot of intercropping and companion planting now,” Taylor says. So asparagus lies next to parsley, both behind a bed of raspberry bushes. Flowers also abound, with bursts of hot pink blossoms and purple clover that beautify the landscape while attracting pollinators.

For nearly 100 years this area, owned by the Oblates, a Catholic religious order, was only a grass field, a place where the priests would sometimes play soccer. In 2011, Taylor approached an Oblate priest and requested use of the land. “They were amenable and excited,” Taylor says. “They’re ecologically forward thinking, and they lead the Catholics in creation care.”

The space has become a location for Three Part Harmony Farm, the urban agricultural project Taylor established in D.C. She hopes it will become the first commercial farm in the District of Columbia since 1939, producing locally grown food to be sold in stores and farmers’ markets. First, there are some hurdles that the 36-year-old farmer must clear.

Taylor came to Washington in the late 1990s to work in social justice organizations. During a period of unemployment in 2005, she began volunteering at a farm in Upper Marlboro, Md. She enjoyed the work and began to think about a career change. The farm offered her a job the following spring, and she spent the next five years learning farming techniques.

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Pro-Israeli, Pro-Palestinian, Pro-Jesus

STUN GRENADES AND tear gas bombs exploded in the street outside of Bethlehem Bible College, forcing Rev. Alex Awad to end his class early. Down the block, youth threw stones at the Israeli separation wall that cuts deep into Bethlehem. Frequent clashes had erupted in the months since the Israeli offensive known as Operation Protective Edge killed more than 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them civilians. During that operation, 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians were killed by Gaza militants. In the months that followed, Jerusalem became the focal point of further violence.

“Many people ask, what are signs of hope?” says Awad. While the facts on the ground get worse, he names one encouraging trend: “Many evangelicals are moving from the Israeli side into what I think is the peace and justice side.”

Here are seven signs that he’s right:

1. Evangelicals are listening to Palestinian Christian voices. Jerusalem-born with a degree from a U.S. Bible college, Awad is uniquely suited to speak to evangelicals—including some unlikely guests. John Hagee, leader of Christians United for Israel, the U.S.’s largest Christian Zionist organization, arranged for five tour groups to visit Bethlehem Bible College. The first group arrived last August.

“When I started speaking, almost every two words I would see 10 hands of people wanting to ask questions,” recalls Awad. “Very patiently, I answered one after the other. Then I would make another statement, and another 15 hands are up.”

Near the end, one man stood up. “I think I am convinced that what Rev. Awad is saying is right. Am I the only one? Could I see hands?” Some 10 to 15 out of about 40 people raised their hands.

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Commemorating 9/11, Commemorating Christ

"Christian liturgy is a form of commemorative ceremony." Photo courtesy of vivver/Shutterstock.

Churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2001, and people gathered on that day, and for some days later. There was a draw to sacred space in the midst of our everyday space being turned into dust–profane, unholy, hollowed out. The liturgies I attended in those days that followed were stripped down, bare, and profoundly vulnerable. The psalms were prayed. People wept together. We clung close. We resisted asking questions of meaning, and allowed ourselves to grieve, to lament.

A lot fewer churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2002. And even fewer today. The gravitational pull to gather in sacred space has waned. And it has become impossible, for the most part, to disentangle our liturgies from our politics. No longer gathering together out of unvarnished need for the divine presence, some of us gather now precisely to ascribe meaning to the unfathomable through the inextricable linking of nationalism with religion.

Why I Shared My Sexuality Story

Photo: Audrey Hannah Brooks
A story penned by Jonathan Merritt goes viral. He reveals why he decided to share it now. Photo: Audrey Hannah Brooks

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability … To be alive is to be vulnerable.”

These are the words of Madeleine L’Engle, and this week I’ve been reminded of the wisdom they contain.

This weekend, Christianity Today posted an excerpt from my new book, Jesus is Better Than You Imaginedin which I share a story about childhood sexual abuse and my adult struggle to understand my sexuality. Many have asked why I would do such a thing.

This wasn’t a career move or a brazen attempt to sell more books. Being open about these experiences as an evangelical writer leaves me, like so many scarecrows, exposed. I do not plan to become a spokesman for any of the issues addressed in this article. The events shared are a part of my story, but they are not the whole of my calling. Today, I return to my job as a columnist committed to exploring the interface between faith and culture and helping foster difficult conversations that others may be unwilling to have.

Why There Needs to Be More than One Story

Courtesy One Wheaton
Wheaton students coordinated a sit-in demonstration before a chapel speaker. Courtesy One Wheaton

We may not all be rich. We don’t all have successful careers. We aren’t all healthy. But the one thing we all have are stories. From the beginning of time, we have thrived on connecting via stories. We consume stories for leisure, speak our stories for sanity, and create stories to capture our imagination.

We are swayed by stories. Stories can compel others in ways propositions and facts statements cannot. Our attention wanes at statistics and exegesis, but perks at vivid characters in an engaging plot. Stories have been proven to be an effective rhetorical device. They draw people’s attention in and leaves them satisfied upon conclusion.

You cannot debate a story. While it may be tempting to try and deconstruct the reasoning behind stories when it goes against your agenda, the genius of stories is that it can’t be used as an argument. The story of a chain smoker’s longevity sits uncomfortably in the presence of someone advocating the ills of nicotine. The story just is. We cannot alter it, the only thing we can control is how we choose to respond to it. Any attempts to dishonor or discredit someone’s story is an assault to their humanity.

Public Radio makes 'The Invisible Visible'

Image by Tsian /shutterstock.

Earlier this month, the public radio show This American Life held a wide-scale live event in New York City. I attended the two-hour event via satellite in Washington, D.C. Like its weekly radio broadcast, the live show included pieces from a variety of storytellers gathered around a common theme — in this case “the invisible made visible.”

The medium of radio doesn’t lend itself to visuals — it is "theater of the mind" after all — but the live-on-stage iteration of This American Life  took full advantage of the occasion (and change in medium), including many extra bells and whistles they could never pull off on the airwaves alone.

A Different Kind of Atheism

There is a moment in the middle of the forthcoming book Faitheist that about took my breath away. The author, Chris Stedman, is living in Bemidji, a small town in the northern part of Minnesota near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Stedman arrived in Bemidji hoping to escape his past in Minneapolis and to live where, as he writes, “I didn’t run into ghosts from my former Christian life that reminded me of the years I spent hating myself for being queer and unable to change it.” By the time he was a student at Augsburg College, Stedman’s disgust at religion had come to define him as deeply as his evangelical identity once had.

Stedman took a job working as a direct service professional for adults with developmental disabilities at a social services agency run by Lutherans (yes, he is self-aware enough to note the irony). His closest relationship was with a man named Marvin, a man who couldn’t talk and who could barely sign. Stedman watched movies with Marvin, sat with him for hours just keeping him company, read to him from his favorite books.

One day Marvin brought Stedman into his room and placed in his hands one of Marvin’s most precious possessions, his prayer book. He wanted Stedman to read from it. Stedman hesitated for a second. Perhaps he was reminded of all those nights he lay awake searching through scripture verses, hoping to find one that would make him feel loved for how God made him. Perhaps he was reminded of the time when, in a drunken rage, he kicked in the glass panel of a church sign. But neither longing nor anger overcame him now. This moment was about what it means to be a friend, about expressing care for something Marvin values. Stedman read Marvin a prayer. Marvin pressed his face tightly to Stedman’s blue flannel shirt and kept it there for a long time.

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Music to Help You Make It Through the Winter

Fire. Image via Wylio, http://bit.ly/xaE5ms.
Fire. Image via Wylio, http://bit.ly/xaE5ms.

Winter has always been a sweet spot for discovering and sharing music. A little bit mellow, comforting — something you can listen to as a fire crackles or cozy up beside with a mug of hot coffee.

In heeding the groundhog's warning of "six more weeks of winter," here's a short list of independent music to help you make it through the season's chill: Three albums hosted over at Bandcamp that might provide a little warmth on the colder nights.

The Story of Everything

Terrence Malik's latest feature film, The Tree of Life, is gloriously flawed, so overreaching in its ambition and scope that it can scarcely be expected to leap the bar it set so high. It attempts to portray everything from the Big Bang to the death of our own sun, taking in single-celled organisms, dinosaurs, volcanoes, and embryology along the way. It is also an intimate portrayal of family life in '50s America and how the bereaved deal with loss. It is more than most directors dare tackle in a full career.

Since his debut, the seminal Badlands a lifetime ago in 1973, Malick has only made a handful of films. Renowned for lavishly shot, indisputably gorgeous movies with unusually fractured timelines, his films are either, depending on your natural prejudices, painfully slow or very carefully paced. With mere scraps of conventional narrative, The Tree of Life is a demanding experience for even ardent fans. Narrative elements are interspersed with lengthy sequences of cosmic and natural phenomena. The camera moves longingly over formally analogous images: wave-molded ripples in wet sand play against weathered sedimentary layers in serpentine arroyos; towering clouds of interstellar gas reveal their kinship with drops of paint falling through water.

There are echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Douglas Trumbull handled visual effects for both films) and Charles and Ray Eames' groundbreaking Powers of Ten (1968), which explored everything from the subcellular to the galactic via a family's lakeside picnic. The Eames' film uses the intimate and human purely as a vehicle for the dazzlingly universal. What Malick does, almost miraculously, is put the cosmic at the service of the intimate.

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Telling the Old, Old Story

I remember vividly the first time I went to a comic book shop with my mom. I'd sneaked there before. But this time was different. This time I’d come without pretense, openly confessing my love of the four-color art form. I was in the fifth grade.

While I perused the back issue bins in the middle of the shop, my mother looked from one rack to the next, her face slowly solidifying into a grimace. On one cover, a half-naked green man punched a half-naked rock man in the head. On another, a woman wearing spandex tight enough to be body paint draped herself over some sort of futuristic motorcycle. Eventually, my mother’s eyes fell upon the cover of a sword-and-sorcery title near the cash register. Behind a tan, sinewy barbarian stood a harem of women, all wearing thin strips of well-placed linen. We left before I could make a purchase.

On the way out, she grabbed my hand and crossed herself. Surely, a good Catholic woman had to protect her son from such drivel. I sighed, knowing I would have to go back to my sneaking ways.

She didn’t know it at the time, but my mother had just played out in microcosm the long, antagonistic relationship between Christianity and comics. Since its inception in 1933, the modern comic book has drawn the ire of preachers, priests, and parents. Committees and associations have been formed on both sides of the struggle.

This animosity is curious, especially since Christianity and comic books have a lot in common. Christianity was established by a small band of poor Jewish men who loved stories. Almost 2,000 years ago, Peter, James, John, and their peers in the neighborhoods of Galilee gathered around a wonder-worker who taught by telling stories. From this community grew the largest religion on earth.

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