social change

Spotlight on the Summit 2015: Jeanné Isler

Image via Sojourners

Image via Sojourners

The work we do in the nonprofit sector is complex and multifaceted. Often we find ourselves compartmentalizing our identities based on the work we’re currently doing. Am I a woman, an organizer, an African American, a facilitator, a Roman Catholic, a philanthropist, or a manager? And which of those is most important to the success of my work?

The Summit, hosted by Sojourners, is a unique opportunity to rise above some of these identity markers and practice being as holistically authentic as we can. Over 300 leaders committed to changing the world through faith and justice gathered in June in Washington, D.C., for a three-and-a-half day exploration of the particular ways that faith leaders impact a range of social justice issues. NCRP facilitated a private conversation for nearly 2 dozen philanthropic leaders who attended The Summit to consider the role that philanthropy plays in this process.

Can You Imagine Injustice?

Imagine injustice. Image via Mopic/shutterstock.com

Imagine injustice. Image via Mopic/shutterstock.com

For people benefitting from systematic wealth, power, comfort, favor, and convenience, it can be difficult to relate to the constant and endless forms of racism, stereotyping, and injustice that are experienced by others.

The privileged don’t experience the daily realities faced by the likes of Walter Scott, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and millions of others who have lived under completely different — and radically unfavorable — circumstances.

This is why Christians — no matter what your background — must passionately engage in such things as relationship-building, participating in dialogue, and actively reading, experiencing, and listening to various perspectives. Because doing this informs, directs, and edifies one of the most powerful spiritual tools we have: our imagination.

Imagination is defined as the faculty of imagining or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses.

Friendships, personal accounts, testimonies, books, footage, stories, and experiences empower us to have a better picture, perspective, and understanding of others. Even if we don’t personally struggle with the same types of injustice and inequality that others do, we’re at least given the ability to imagine its reality, accept its existence, empathize with its victims, and comprehend truths we weren’t previously aware of.

In the Bible, Jesus is constantly challenging the status quo and striving for justice, peace, and reconciliation against cultural factors and precedents that seem impossibleto overcome. For the individuals God calls upon, they are required to imagine the inconceivable, accept the unthinkable, and break out of their stubborn paradigms in order to embrace the Divine.

Imagine the sea being parted, walking on water, feeding the 5,000, being healed of leprosy, encountering a talking donkey and a talking (burning) bush, and rising from the dead.

Robert Putnam Fights America’s ‘Opportunity Gap’ with Religious Fervor

Photo via REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / RNS

Barack Obama awards Robert Putnam the 2012 National Humanities Medal. Photo via REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / RNS

Harvard professor Robert Putnam jokingly calls himself “a nice Jewish formerly Methodist boy.”

But the public policy expert’s new book, Our Kids, reads more like a tent meeting revival, complete with an “altar call” at the end. His private meetings and public appearances at the White House and Capitol Hill, and meetings with civic and faith leaders across the country, carry the same fervor.

While evangelists convict people of their sinful ways and then convert them to the path of salvation for the hereafter, Putnam’s focus is more on this side of heaven.

His goal: to awaken and inspire Americans to “save” young people from a future trapped in a spiral of fractured families, poor schooling, and a grim economic future that Putnam says will cost taxpayers trillions of dollars. Trillions.

He is not only aiming for political, social, and religious elites. He’s also aiming at the everyday reader from Boston to Dubuque with a message that failure to act will “undermine democracy and political stability for all.” That’s why the book is subtitled, “The American Dream in Crisis.”

“I’m writing for ordinary people, not the political class. I’m holding up a mirror of American society to the ‘haves’ to say ‘look what we’ve become,’” he said.

Is the Language of Business Enough?

I’M PRIVILEGED to be part of a program called the Prime Movers Fellowship, a circle of mainly younger-generation social change agents launched by Ambassador Swanee Hunt and her late husband, Charles Ansbacher. In December, the Prime Movers had a retreat with the Council of Elders, an inspiring group of civil rights era activists. Those two days contained some of the most profound conversations I’ve been part of in 10 years.

Rev. Joyce Johnson facilitated masterfully, opening sessions with prayer and sacred song. Rev. John Fife spoke about launching the Sanctuary movement through churches. Rabbi Art Waskow connected the theme of the Eric Garner killing (“I can’t breathe”) with the climate challenge (“We can’t breathe”).

Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center told a story about driving into the North Carolina mountains to try to convince a white supremacist to cancel a Ku Klux Klan rally in Greensboro. “I was driving alone,” he explained, “and halfway up the mountain I started to get a little scared. So I stopped my car and got down on my knees to pray. I felt God tell me I was doing something necessary, and I felt my courage return.” He got back into his car and drove on to the meeting.

AFTER THAT STORY, Rea Carey, a Prime Movers fellow, made an observation: When a civil rights era activist speaks, it is almost always infused with a deep religious commitment. When a younger-generation civic leader speaks, words such as “strategic plan,” “long-term objective,” and “metric” are far more common.

It was a striking enough insight that about 20 of us gathered in a breakout session to discuss it.

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The Year of Outrage

Chalk illustration of a megaphone. Image courtesy Palau/shutterstock.com

Chalk illustration of a megaphone. Image courtesy Palau/shutterstock.com

Optimism tends to accompany a new year. But we leave 2014 somewhat broken and disappointed. The online magazine Slate has christened 2014 “The Year of Outrage.” I bet the name sticks. Slate’s snappy multi-media calendar links the most outrageous news story for every day of the past year. What was so outrageous, and who found themselves offended?

January 29: “XOJane publishes an essay about a white person seeing a black person in yoga and feeling uncomfortable about it.” (Race provided a major source of outrage in 2014.)

According to Slate: ”Who was outraged: black women, nonracist yoga practitioners.”

November 6: “A mom finds mold in a Capri Sun juice pack.”

“Who was outraged: people who don’t think mold should be in juice.”

Slate pumped up the project with eleven essays on outrage. Topics ranged from “The Life Cycle of Outrage” to the twins “The Year in Liberal Outrage” and “The Year in Conservative Outrage.” I don’t know about you, but I think Slate basically named our collective mood as we enter 2015.

Outrage may emerge from petty things: “An Irish cafe bans loud Americans” (July 22). It seems to me, though, that we live in a society intensely marked by outrage. What is one to say in the face of ISIS and its blood lust? Outrage divides us. Do we find ourselves more inclined to outrage that in Ferguson, Missouri an unarmed black youth died from at least six gun — or do we find it more offensive that crowds would protest the death of a young man who may have attacked a police officer?

I know one thing: my social media feeds provide no help. They stream with the outrage of people I love, people I know, and newsmakers I follow.

Here’s the deal: our outrage grows from our most vulnerable places, our basic fear that things are not as they should be. Something is wrong with our world, and in a fundamental way we don’t know how to fix it. Faced with moral and social disorder, the deep evolutionary structure of our brains prepares us to fight: outrage! We may think we’re angry because we’re right — and someone else is so, so wrong. We’re really angry because we’re disappointed.

The opening verses of John’s Gospel confront us with a combination of things that ordinarily don’t belong together. Readers universally appreciate how this prologue applies to Jesus some of the Bible’s most high-flying, most spiritual language (1:1-18). But hints of discord also haunt this most exalted passage.

 

The Ice Bucket Challenge and Its Discontents

A child dumps ice water over his head. Image courtesy Suzanne Tucker/shutterstoc

A child dumps ice water over his head. Image courtesy Suzanne Tucker/shutterstock.com

The Ice Bucket Challenge, or "IBC," needs little introduction. Over the past month or two, it's been the internet phenomenon of challenging friends, family and co-workers to participate in some combination of donating to the ALS Association, becoming educated about the disease, or dumping a bucket of ice-cold water over their head and video-taping it. The rules are somewhat (pardon the term) fluid—but basically, invitees are given 24 hours to respond and challenge up to three persons. I don't have precise numbers—they're still increasing—but ALSA has reported over 3 million donors and over 100 million dollars raised in the past few month. Not to mention the payoff of seeing your dear ones get soaked and squeal, shudder, or grin and bear it.

But I think it's also raised a second topic into public debate: the ethics of action and motivation. And even beyond the philanthropy going on, I think that's worth talking about, and I suspect it will be the Challenge's more enduring legacy.

A Summit for Change

IN JUNE, SOJOURNERS decided to take part in a little experiment. What would happen if 300 faith and social justice leaders gathered together for a few days to discuss some of the most pressing issues of our time? Our first ever Summit, under the leadership of chief strategy officer Timothy King, had as its tagline: “World Change through Faith and Justice.” Only time will tell how this experiment will play out in the long run, but in the short term I would consider it a great success.

Held over four days in June at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the conference brought together 296 leaders from churches, faith-based organizations, NGOs, media outlets, business, and politics. Fifty-three percent of attendees were female, and half were people of color; they were drawn from a wide range of Christian and other religious and spiritual backgrounds.

On the first night, when I saw who was there, I knew the Summit was going to be a powerful and wonderful time. Some participants were local Washingtonians. Others came from as far away as Ethiopia to attend. The group included icons of the social justice movement such as Ron Sider, Marie Dennis, Yvonne Delk, Otis Moss Jr., and Tony Campolo as well as newer leaders such as Otis Moss III, Rachel Marie Stone, and Daniel Varghese, a Georgetown undergraduate who celebrated the Summit’s “radical egalitarianism.” As Timothy King mentioned in our opening session, the group looked a lot like the kingdom of God!

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The Play's the Thing

WHEN I FIRST arrived in a western district of Georgia, on the shores of the Black Sea, in 2004, I met a group of young people walking along the muddy dirt road to school. They were walking slowly, linking arms and talking and laughing together. Like teenagers anywhere, the young people were happy to talk about their own lives: tensions with parents, boredom at school, friends, and anticipation of the future.

The girls that I spoke with also mentioned their fears of being abducted for marriage.

Surprisingly, in this modern era, the abduction of girls for marriage was still considered common and acceptable. In rural Georgia, if a young man fancied a young woman, he arranged with his friends to have her abducted as she walked home from school. If she was held overnight away from her home (and often raped), her chaste reputation was lost, and she had no choice but to leave school, marry him, and move in with his family. Honor demanded it.

In rural Georgian high schools, rumors flew about who was about to be kidnapped, or who was thinking of kidnapping someone. Boys thought it was romantic and a test of bravery and manhood. Almost all the boys we spoke with said they would help a friend abduct a girl if requested, and many said they felt pressured by their friends to abduct girls. It was seen as a way of proving yourself a man, a true Georgian man.

Most girls were afraid of being abducted, but some girls I spoke with had mixed feelings, wondering if they could manage to elope with their boyfriends using a traditional kidnapping story as the cover to overcome their parents’ disapproval.

Parents also commented on the problem. One mother of a teenage girl said, “When I was in school, kidnapping girls for marriage was a big problem. In order to be a ‘real man’ and demonstrate his bravery, a boy had to kidnap a girl. But girls did not think kidnapping was romantic. They saw it for what it was—violence.”

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Up Ahead? Massive Social Change, Experts Say

A woman smoking marijuana. Photo courtesy of Stanimir G.Stoev via Shutterstock.

National attention on a proposed Arizona law allowing business owners to deny service for religious reasons to gay people signals how attitudes on social issues have shifted dramatically in recent years.

Experts said such changes will accelerate on issues such as same-sex marriage, interracial marriage, legalization of marijuana, and childbearing among the unwed. Younger people are more liberal and less conventional, they said.

“We’re entering a period of massive social change,” said sociologist Daniel Lichter, of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “This traditional pattern is reinforced by very large racial changes in America’s composition. The Baby Boomer generation — which is predominantly white and affluent and in some ways, conservative —  in the next 20 [to] 30 years will be replaced by a younger population, and that population is going to be disproportionately minority.”

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