Thomas Merton

The SojoMusic Interview: Denison Witmer, 'Creating Space Where Truth Can Move'

Denison Witmer by Ethan Luck.
Denison Witmer by Ethan Luck.

Singer-songwriter Denison Witmer’s 2005 album Are you a Dreamer? was part of the soundtrack of my adolescence — his calm voice a sonic companion as I navigated the choppy waters of high school insecurities; his complex fingerpicking acoustic guitar style a mentor as I learned to play and write my own music. Witmer’s soulful voice, thoughtful lyrics and inimitable style (some critics have called it “neo-folk” a la Cat Stevens or Nick Drake), has stuck with me for years. Just a snippet of his lyrics or melody can transport me back to precisely where I was when I first heard them, a younger me dreaming of who I might become. 

When Witmer’s latest tour brought him through Washington, D.C. last month, I caught up with him backstage before his gig at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. We talked in the artist lounge and sound check stage, before venturing out for a couple of veggie wraps while exploring a variety of subjects from music and family to saints and beer. And we even managed to persuade him to play a couple of songs for us, which we’ve captured here on video for you. (You’re welcome.)

Poorer, Poorer. Slower, Slower. Smaller, Smaller.

Bob Sabath at Sojourners, 1976
Bob Sabath at Sojourners, 1976

"Be anything you want. Be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form. But at all costs avoid one thing: success."
 - Thomas Merton

As my extended family gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table before the market crash in 2008, conversation with cousins flowed about friends making big money with technology start-ups: "more, more; faster, faster; bigger, bigger."

A hail of laughter greeted me when I quietly muttered that my ambition was, "poorer, poorer; slower, slower; smaller, smaller."

When Sojourners started in 1970, I was 23 years old. Seven young seminary students pooled $100 each and used an old typesetter that we rented for $25 a night above a noisy bar to print 20,000 copies of the first Post-American.

We took the bundles in our trucks and cars to student unions in college campuses across the country, and began collecting subscriptions in a shoebox kept in one of our rooms.

For more than a decade we lived with a common economic pot and allowed ourselves $5 a month for personal spending. The highest-paid staff person was a young woman from a neighborhood family who wanted an evening cleaning job.

Can Mindfulness Be Tweeted?

I attended a basketball game this winter at the University of Maryland, accompanied by an intern at my workplace, a man in his twenties. For much of the game, we chatted about everything from politics to how North Carolina is far superior to Duke in all the ways that really matter (on the court, of course). During the conversation, between glances at the game, my colleague maintained steady eye contact … with his smart phone.

The Theological Education of Will Campbell

P. D. East was the illegitimate son of a prominent but promiscuous Mississippi daughter. He came to be cared for, and later adopted by, an itinerant sawmill couple who brought him to manhood in the logging camps of southern Mississippi.

He bought the Petal, Mississippi, newspaper (The Petal Paper) shortly before the Supreme Court decision of May 17,1954, on the unconstitutionally of separate-but-equal public schools. By editorially advocating complete integration at every level of society, he hit upon a formula for journalistic suicide. In a combination Will Rogers-Mark Twain style he began satirizing the state legislature, making fun of the powerful White Citizen’s Council, the Governor, Senator James Eastland and anyone else he considered deserving of his wrath and wit. He proposed editorially that the state engage in a bit of zestful zoology and adopt the crawfish as the state symbol—because it always moved backward, and generally into the mud from which it came.

All this led to the demise of his newspaper as a profitmaking venture within a matter of months. He continued to publish his little tabloid, but without a single local advertiser. And soon it had to be done in exile, as he grew weary of the constant threats upon his life and the lives of his wife and child. With fundraising letters from people like Harry Golden and John Howard Griffin he managed to survive in Fairhope, Alabama, outside Mobile, and continued to send his paper to several thousand folks, not one of whom lived in the county where his paper had originated.

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