OPRAH WINFREY BEGAN HER acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 2018 Golden Globes by traveling through time. “In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee. ... It is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this same award.” Hours later, her speech dedicated to those enheartened children—particularly little black girls—was eclipsed by pleas for the entrepreneur to run for president.
Since the 2016 presidential election and, more recently, the Alabama Senate election, demand has been high for black women to save America from itself. The proposition’s allure appears only to increase when black women rebuff these requests to perform political labor as trouble intensifies. Jordan McDonald writes in Bitch magazine about this reprehensible exaltation—“Black women will save us”—and how it renders black women, from Oprah to Michelle Obama, indispensable saviors. “Stripped of our humanity and agency, the refrain does not ask that Black women save, but expects it of us, as if we each were God herself. It is a disturbing testament to the world’s continued failure to love us properly.” While this latest historical failure sought to conscript another black woman into a toolbox for the country’s deliverance, Oprah’s final message—“I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon”—was impossible to rob.
As providence would have it, a film releasing this March has the potential to summon that new day, with none other than Oprah portraying the leader of a trio of immortal guides showing black girls universally what proper love looks like: the latest adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1963 Newbery Medal-winning classic novel, A Wrinkle in Time.
LAST YEAR WILL GO DOWN in history for many reasons. For women, it was the year we came together from all walks of life, said #MeToo—and were finally acknowledged and believed by many. There was and still is hope that this grassroots call for women’s rights and dignity will flow into all areas of life and become more than a symbolic action.
A glimpse of that future is taking form off-Broadway. This season three woman-written and -directed plays, performed by entirely female casts, opened to critical acclaim. It’s an exceedingly rare occurrence, as New York theater has endured a century of male dominance in all the related professions except costume design and stage management. In 2015, the League of Professional Theatre Women, as part of a project called Women Count, tracked the number of women working in all aspects of theater in 22 off-Broadway theaters from 2010 to 2015. Only 30 percent of plays premiering in these venues were written by women, with 33 percent being directed by women. So these multiple women-driven plays offer hope for gender equity in the theater world.
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play , by Jocelyn Bioh, is a dizzying romp through nasty coming-of-age teen dramedy that pays homage to Tina Fey’s classic Mean Girls. Taking place in a Ghanaian girl’s boarding school during the 1980s, Bioh’s first full-length play addresses cruel, clique-ish competition among adolescents using the template of the American genre, yet something fresh emerges. The story follows the queen of the school, Paulina (MaameYaa Boafo), as she vies to be named Miss Ghana and participate in the Miss Universe pageant.
While the comedic ending is not significantly surprising, there is a poignant and timely theme that emerges through the exploration of African beauty.
IT HAS BEEN A TIME of shadows and warnings, bursts of violence and the creeping stain of betrayal. Falsehoods, at first a dripping faucet over a tin bucket—the hint of failing seals and valves, the promise of future corrosion—have become a downpour. Disintegration seems the rule.
Where to find a true story, one that endures?
Scripture might seem the logical turn for a Christian. But I know my weaknesses. Left to my own devices, I cherry-pick favorite verses, I swerve away from difficult passages. I rarely read anything in the Old Testament except the prophets—and those while too often presuming I stand with them, already on their side, and God’s: Nothing for me to hear, except the echo of the woe and correction I’d like to dole out to others. A situational loss of hearing that is a sure path to perdition.
But then I was introduced to an unusual portal to the holy word, one that easily charmed its way past my conscious and unconscious scriptural biases: a 500-plus-page coffee-table book whose bronze cover is adorned with line drawings of people who are at turns winsome and ominous. With title and highlights in fluorescent orange, the design is reminiscent of some DayGlo-kissed whimsy from the 1960s. In the Beginning: Illustrated Stories from the Old Testament (Chronicle Books) retells, through images and spare prose that is both fresh and respectful of the scriptural sources, core stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition, from creation and the Garden of Eden to Daniel in the lions’ den.
WHEN DUTCH ARTIST Sarah van Sonsbeeck sees photos of people wrapped in metallic emergency blankets and referred to as “migrants” or “refugees,” she’s disturbed by the way this reduces their humanity. “This abstraction, I feel, is very dangerous,” she says.
Van Sonsbeeck brought hundreds of gold-and-silver Mylar blankets to Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk (“Old Church”) for a site-specific installation last May to September. The exhibit reflected upon the church’s colonialist history and the ways that Westerners can be unwittingly complicit in migration. The last point troubled the artist from the start of her project.
“As I am not a migrant, am I even entitled to address this?” she asked herself, before realizing she too plays a role. “I belong to and am a product of the Western society the migrants are migrating to,” she says.
Just as Mylar blankets can obscure people’s humanity, van Sonsbeeck’s installation, which evoked ripples in a golden sea when the light hit off the Mylar, covered many of the 2,500 tombstones marking some 10,000 graves that make up the church floor. Some of Amsterdam’s most prominent business people, politicians, and military leaders are buried beneath the 13th century church, and Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, is another renowned long-term resident.
BOOKS ARE WINDOWS into other worlds and glimpses of experiences not our own. One of the most powerful ways books have worked in my life is to illuminate the truth that the world is a very unequal place. It started at a young age for me, my childish mind consumed with stories such as that of Helen Keller (and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who for several years lived in a “poorhouse”) and missionary biographies of people such as Amy Carmichael and Gladys Aylward, who worked with children who had been trafficked or orphaned in other countries.
Even as a child I puzzled over why some children suffered so greatly and others didn’t. It wasn’t fair.
As much as I loved stories with fairy-tale endings, such as The Secret Garden or The Little Princess, I returned constantly to narrative nonfiction that exposed me to a wider, morally complex world. And this drive never left me.
Today, there are many books that address the topic of inequality in fresh, insightful, and provoking ways.
WALTRINA MIDDLETON'S VOICE lifts you to the highest highs with bellows of crisp spoken word. Seamlessly, her croons can plunge you down the rhythm of any blues-laced freedom song. Your heart is gripped with deep, rolling riffs of truth spoken.
Harnessing the power of pain is just one of her many spiritual gifts. Middleton is an ordained minister, activist, and artist with roots in the Gullah Geechee community in South Carolina. A self-professed country girl, she grew up in Hollywood, S.C., on the coastal Gullah Sea Island of Yonges, about 30 minutes outside of Charleston.
“It was beautiful—a swampland with dirt roads, farm, and fields,” she told Sojourners. “I made my grandparents’ hogs my pets before I realized they were actually dinner.”
It’s been a winding road on the path to self-discovery for Middleton, but she says music was there from the very beginning. “Music was central to our family,” she said. “It was an intergenerational medium that brought us together, but also rooted us in our faith.”
Her grandparents had 16 children, and all of them could sing or play an instrument. The family put together a group called the Middleton Gospel Singers that toured the local church community. “Part of the country circuit is to have some kind of gospel group,” she said. “The women in my family were the instrumentalists. I was always with my family when we would be in church all day going to these programs. The whole point was to worship God. It was just something that you did.”
Even when there wasn’t a church function or performance, Middleton says music was a part of her everyday life. “We had this big ol’ barn, and we would be in the barn sitting, rehearsing, and practicing,” she said. “Sometimes there would be a fire; sometimes people would just come, listen, and talk. While they were rehearsing, we would sit out there and eat crab.”
At these family gatherings, her artistic flair began to take shape. She admired her older cousins and says they heavily influenced her style. “They had this depth to them that I couldn’t describe,” she said. “It was very low and lamenting. I found myself trying to imitate their style. It also taught me that worship could also be lamenting.”
JUST AFTER DONALD TRUMP WAS ELECTED, Vice President Mike Pence went to see the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” prompting the cast to read a statement from the stage at curtain call stating that they were “alarmed and anxious” that the new administration would not protect the planet or a diverse citizenry.
This set off a Twitter war between Trump and opponents and posed the American theater community as an entity with a strong voice of dissent against Trump’s administration. POTUS-elect tweeted in reply to the cast’s statement that “the theater must always be a safe and special place” and then demanded that the cast apologize.
THE ART OF ... book series from Graywolf Press focuses on writing craft and criticism. In each compact volume an accomplished writer takes on a single element or theme. The most recent entry in the series is The Art of Death, by Edwidge Danticat.
Danticat’s reflections on a wide variety of literature that wrestles with death—from Taiye Selasi’s debut novel, Ghana Must Go, to C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed—offer insights for readers as much as for writers. She explores the complicated emotional landscape of death and mourning, but also the myriad ways, tangled in questions of both justice and mercy, that death comes: accident, illness, deadly disasters, suicides, executions.
IT BEGINS WITH SPEED, the red flash of taillights in the night, the illuminated city bright against the dark. Over the images we hear a voice, resonant in its drawl as the images move to decimated mountains, poisoned streams, and rushing city crowds. The landscapes are swallowed by machines, the people lost to their digital devices as the voice offers a poem about a nightmare where all is sacrificed for an abstract “Objective.” On-screen we are seeing that nightmare, and it looks very much like our daily lives.
The speaker is Wendell Berry, the poet, farmer, and prophet who has been among America’s most sustained voices for the created world and the people and places that are among its members. Many of those who have read Berry say he changed their lives, but even though he has published more than 50 books and won literary accolades, including a National Humanities Medal given to him by President Obama, Berry is not particularly well known in many circles. It was that widespread lack of familiarity with Berry and the urgent goodness of his vision that prompted filmmaker Laura Dunn to create her latest film, Look and See.
WE ALL HAVE a story of where we were that September morning, when the crumbling skyline of New York City brought the country to a standstill. For people on thousands of airplanes in flight that morning, their stories began with emergency landings and sitting for hours on the tarmac in unexpected places after U.S. airspace closed. Of those stranded “plane people,” 7,000 arrived in Gander, Newfoundland—an island town of about 10,000 locals and limited resources. The new Broadway musical “Come From Away” provides a snapshot of the rest of that story.
At a preview performance in February, the audience was on its feet for an ovation before the lights went down. For 100 minutes the musical allows the audience to pause and reflect on the events of Sept. 11. Claude Elliott, the mayor of Gander (played in the show by Joel Hatch), introduced the 10th-anniversary commemoration of 9/11 in Gander by saying, “We honor what was lost. But we also commemorate what we found.” To sit in the audience alongside New Yorkers with intimate connections to that day and tourists with their own reasons for being there was to pay tribute to those memories as part of a community of strangers.
“I JUST TURNED 19 that April, the age a girl blossoms. I was attractive. I was a fashion student in Delhi. Two months later, driving my car in Lucknow, just like that, I was cooked, finished!”
Now 30, Monica Singh, throws back her head, with its reconstructed face, the product of 46 painful operations, and laughs with real gusto at this unseemly cosmic joke. I find myself, uneasily, laughing with her.
We are sitting in Gregory’s Coffee near Times Square in New York City. It is a January evening. The café is nearly empty, and the overhead lighting seems to be struggling to push back the darkness pressing in against the window. Singh is unfazed by this Hopperesque tableau.
In the weeks after her spurned suitor hired men to pour a bucket of acid over her, she was confined to a cage-like cubicle to protect her from infectious contact. “It was like being in a coffin,” she said. “People were looking at me from a distance. I felt like an animal in the zoo. But in my mind, I was already walking, going back to school, imagining that I didn’t open my car door to the men on the bicycle, that I didn’t leave the house that day.”
IN THE 2015 speech announcing his candidacy for president, Donald Trump declared, “The American dream is dead.” The people of Lancaster, Ohio, a small town at the edge of Appalachia, heard him loud and clear and later gave him 60 percent of their votes. Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town , by Lancaster native Brian Alexander, shows in fine-grained detail how the American dream of opportunity and fairness died in Lancaster and in similar towns all across the middle of the country.
Lancaster should have been the last place you would look for evidence of American decline. In 1947, a Forbes magazine cover story depicted it as “the All-American town.” It had a thriving manufacturing economy, a burgeoning middle-class, and enlightened civic leadership. For reasons of history and geography, Lancaster also had a reputation as “the whitest town in America,” but that didn’t bother Forbes too much back then.
The Lancaster of Alexander’s childhood and youth sounds a lot like Bedford Falls in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, but as the 20th century wore on, the town turned into Pottersville. When Alexander went back to write this book, he found that the glass factory where his father had worked was demolished. Most people had to drive an hour or more to Columbus for a job, civic life was deteriorating, and opioid addiction was rampant.
The main foundation of Lancaster’s All-American past was Anchor Hocking, a Fortune 500 glass manufacturer. According to Alexander, the industrialists who built Anchor Hocking in the early 20th century were real George Bailey types. Sure, they wanted to make a buck, but they were suckers for fuzzy-headed notions about the common good that led them to subsidize various public amenities for the town and cooperate with the unions that delivered a family wage to generations of Lancastrians. In those days, we learn, executives and managers might live on the same block with machine operators and share beers at the same local tavern.
PRIOR TO THE ELECTION, I read J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, in an attempt to understand Trump’s appeal to lower-income white Americans. However, this didn’t prepare me for the 81 percent of white evangelical Christians, some of them my extended family members, who cast their ballots for, it seemed to me, religious intolerance, misogynistic policies, environmental neglect, and white privilege. On Nov. 9, 2016, I awoke to find not just a world divided between Democrats and Republicans, but two versions of Christianity at odds with one another. Clearly, I had missed something.
Once initial shock over the election results subsided, I began purchasing books—stockpiling them. Perhaps I could build a wall of literature for protection, one of those enormous noise barriers separating residential neighborhoods from freeways, something to block out the racism and bigotry I assumed were behind the election results. What did theologians have to say about these topics? How had previous generations faced authoritarian threats? I searched progressive Christian reading lists: Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, Drew G.I. Hart’s Trouble I’ve Seen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship ... The list grew. I couldn’t stop. Amassing these titles and stacking them higher made me feel righteous. I began referring to them as my “resistance library.”
Existing titles from my bookshelves joined new acquisitions to form adjoining soundproof panels. Some portray a radically different God from the one with whom I grew up: Marcus J. Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination, and Scott W. Gustafson’s Behind Good and Evil. Rachel Held Evans’s memoir, Faith Unraveled, details how she moved away from fundamentalism. Her faith journey mirrors parts of my own. After further rearranging within my bookcases, I erected another section dedicated to world religions. God Is Not One, Stephen Prothero’s book on eight world religions, sat next to Reza Aslan’s primer on Islam, No god but God, and the biography Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith.
JUDITH CASSELBERRY'S ORIGINAL LOVE WAS MUSIC. She has been a guitarist and vocalist her entire adult life, including a 1980 to 1994 stint as part of the duo Casselberry-DuPreé. She now performs with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely. She has shared the stage with Sweet Honey in the Rock, Odetta, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, and Elvis Costello, among others.
Along the way, while still performing, Casselberry earned her bachelor’s degree (in music production and engineering) and then, a few years later, a master’s in ethnomusicology, during which she discovered a passion for teaching. So she went to Yale, earning a doctorate in African-American studies and anthropology in 2008. She is an associate professor of Africana studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, teaching courses on African-American women’s religious lives, music and spirituality in popular culture, music and social movements, and issues in black intellectual thought.
Casselberry’s forthcoming book, The Labor of Faith: Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism (Duke University Press), employs feminist labor theories to examine the spiritual, material, social, and organizational work of women in a New York-based Pentecostal denomination, Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith (COOLJC). In the course of her research, Casselberry immersed herself for more than two years in the life of True Deliverance Church in Queens, N.Y. She spoke by phone with Sojourners senior associate editor Julie Polter in late January.
Sojourners: You examine the “religious work” of women—including prayer, teaching, care for the sick and grieving, liturgical music and movement, and guiding converts. Why did you choose this framework?
IT’S A WEDNESDAY night in early November and the sanctuary of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan., is full. The audience, mostly 20- and 30-somethings, is listening in rapt attention to Mike McHargue, better known as Science Mike. Self-proclaimed science enthusiast McHargue, co-host (with musician and songwriter Michael Gungor) of The Liturgists Podcast, is doing a live episode of his solo side podcast, Ask Science Mike, as part of a tour for his new book, Finding God in the Waves.
After questions ranging from the neurological effect of belief on the brain to the role of women in the church, a young man stands and shares his story. He works at a conservative church, he says, and finds his beliefs are starting to differ from the people he works with. Finally, he asks, “When you start to ask big questions, and you don’t know where they’re going, and you don’t know where they’ll take you, how do you find the courage to continue to move forward when you know it might have dramatic consequences?”
“I have terrible news,” McHargue answers. “If this continues, you will not fit in where you are. How do I know? There are a thousand people at a Baptist church, who I love dearly, who could not stand to be in a room with me, because I’m the one who rebelled against the tribe.” He pauses a moment before continuing. “Here’s the other thing. This is good. The way you understood God, that served you for so long, isn’t working anymore because you’re growing. ... So I say, get excited.”
McHargue and his Liturgists Podcast co-host Gungor are no strangers to questions about belief, doubt, and straying from the theological tribe. Both men grew up in conservative evangelical churches, and both men lost their faith as adults, regaining it in a different form later on. It’s an experience familiar to plenty of the millennials and Gen-Xers who make up the “nones,” the growing portion of the U.S. population who have no religious affiliation.
A PERSON HAS a thousand ways of being, not just one but many selves, and Leonard Cohen embraced them all.
He sang the blues with Old World struggle, rasped epic tales and sometimes gospel, strumming Spanish chords on a broken-down guitar. But his final album, You Want It Darker, released a month after his 82nd birthday and only 17 days before he passed away, was like someone transcendently singing the prayer for ascension at his own funeral.
As if chanting a private liturgy, there was no more hunger for a voice. At last Cohen was the praise singer, aged and fatigued, a pilgrim with just one journey left to make. From the opening supplication—“I’m ready, my lord”—to the closing blessing—“It’s over now, the water and the wine”—the album is an uninterrupted prayer unto death.
“Traveling Light,” You Want It Darker’s ecstatic peak, bids au revoir to the self and the soul, the lover and beloved, the human and divine. Even in old age, Cohen is still no preacher, sage, or a saint. “I’m just a fool / A dreamer who / Forgot to dream / Of the me and you / I’m not alone / I’ve met a few / Traveling light / Like we used to do.”
Gone is the seductive blurring of sacred and profane and peeking through the curtain to glimpse the dealer’s latest game. The verses slide into an older and saltier way of singing, a sacred undertow, always there in songs of love and of despair, now amplified by the kind of wordless prayer people once sang from dusk until dawn.
My family was earthquaked
I changed the noun into a verb
because it’s almost like someone did this to me on purpose ...
—Sanctuaries artist Mazaré, “Where is God in the Natural Disaster?”
OUTSIDE, A MID-NOVEMBER storm of biblical proportions is raging, but the hushed crowd gathered in this church basement is in rapt attention to a woman giving testimony. In the parking lot, a hollowed-out school bus holds the detritus of a homeless life. A handmade “Wheel of Misfortune” dangles from one rain-splattered window, over empty bottles and voided bank notes.
Suddenly the crowd erupts in cheers, and the poet, grinning, cedes the floor to a pair of musicians. Today the church is playing host to a collaboration between Street Sense, a publication run by and for Washington, D.C.’s homeless community, and The Sanctuaries, a D.C.-based art, spirituality, and justice collective. The bus—filled with real experiences of D.C.’s homeless community, represented by Sanctuaries artists—will tour the city as a mobile story. It’s the culmination of months of work. To some, it’s an act of resistance. To others, it’s church.
For all the breathless predictions of what the day after Nov. 8 might bring, a reckoning with mortality was not one of them. Yet a marked grief snaked across some newsfeeds and private emails in the days that followed—a feeling that with the election, something precious about life as we knew it had died.
That morning, the founding organizer of The Sanctuaries, Erik Martinez Resly, sent a simple note to members: “I love you.” A few improvised hours later, a small group had huddled at a church on 16th Street in D.C. to share the real-time experience of the country’s historic change in direction. For The Sanctuaries, response looked like art and togetherness—two qualities that have guided the group from its beginning.
I’m inspired and troubled by the stories I have heard.
In the blue light of evening all boundaries get blurred.
And I believe in something better, and that love’s the final word,
And that there’s still something whole and sacred in the world.
—“Help in Hard Times,” by Carrie Newcomer
CARRIE NEWCOMER IS a Quaker singer-songwriter whose music is inspired by hope and the great human potential for peaceful coexistence. The Beautiful Not Yet is the title of both her newest album (Available Light Records) and an accompanying book of poems, essays, and lyrics. She is also working on a spoken word and music collaboration with Parker J. Palmer (author of Let Your Life Speak and Healing the Heart of Democracy) called “What We Need Is Here: Hope, Hard Times, and Human Possibility,” which is scheduled to premiere in spring 2017.
Newcomer lives in southern Indiana when she’s not traveling the world singing her folk and gospel-infused tunes and engaging social and environmental justice issues.
She was interviewed for Sojourners by John Malkin, a musician, journalist, and radio host in Santa Cruz, Calif., whose books include Sounds of Freedom: Musicians on Spirituality and Social Change and The Only Alternative: Christian Nonviolent Peacemakers in America.
John Malkin: When did you start making music?
Carrie Newcomer: I picked up a guitar when I was in my early teens and learned my first three chords and started writing songs. I’ve always loved the combination of language and music.
In the liner notes of The Beautiful Not Yet, you mention that many of these songs were written on trains and planes. How has travel been a part of your life and music?
KARLA VASQUEZ, director of community programs at With Love Market and Café in south Los Angeles, takes a live-and-let-live approach to cooking and nutrition. In classes at the recently opened market—whose mission includes increasing access to affordable fresh food in an underserved area—she encourages people to try new foods. But the bottom line, she told Sojourners: “You don’t like kale? I will never make you eat it.”
Vasquez doesn’t teach a catechism of “healthy vs. unhealthy” foods. A community organizer with culinary training, she instead focuses on giving class participants tools for healthier, but realistic, eating: how to understand nutrition labels and cook those healthy ingredients, so they can have food that will work for them. So in a class on “guilty pleasures” Vasquez discourages the guilt, instead offering ways to gently alter beloved dishes to maximize flavor and make them more nutritious, rather than give them up completely. She calls a class on all-vegetable dishes “cooking the rainbow,” emphasizing the beauty and taste of dishes made vibrant with a variety of produce—because she knows if she used the word “vegan,” many of her students might balk. “They’d say ‘That’s not for us—that’s what hipsters eat!’” she says.
With Love Market (withlovela.com) is a for-profit business that promotes a social bottom line. Along with the food market and classes, there is a café and a community garden. With Love pays its staff an above-average wage and specifically recruits employees from the neighborhood, hoping to help long-time Latino/a and African-American residents stay despite the pressures of gentrification. And it tries to create a space where long-term and newer residents of all backgrounds, plus students from the nearby University of Southern California, feel welcome.