D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Category: Culture

A Response to the Failed Missionary Podcast

“One of the essential things about truth-telling is not to speak until you’ve come to a place of love”--Joy Kogawa

 

 

 as if I already didn't have a savior complex :)

as if I already didn't have a savior complex :)

EDIT: The creator/producer of the Failed Missionary podcast has re-edited the podcast and has taken out the recordings of my interview, as well as several other people.  I'm going to keep this post up for those who heard the original podcast episodes.   

 

As some of you know, I was a guest on two episodes of the new Failed Missionary podcast (for the 3-part series "Called, not Qualified"). I wanted to take a moment to unpack my involvement with the show and talk about a few issues I had with it. This conversation is important to me, (hello, I wrote a book about being a failed missionary!) and it’s one we need to be having. That being said, the Failed Missionary Podcast is not my project and I don’t agree with all of the viewpoints expressed, hence this post.

First of all, I recorded my interview over a year ago with Corey (the show creator). I have never met the co-hosts nor were they a part of the concept when I talked with Corey (and they are only the co-hosts of this particular series--Corey has said the other series will involve a wide range of hosts and guests). I basically gave a first-person account of my own journey with missions and my thoughts about it currently. To sum up: I no longer try to convert people to be white western Christians, I believe in the authority of Scripture and the Holy Spirit and the liberating work of Jesus and share about all three with my Muslim neighbors, and I think many short-term mission organizations are incredibly disrespectful and cause long-term damage by not being truthful about what they are actually doing (i.e., being a learning experience/spiritual growth opportunity for westerners).

When the podcast was released, I was very surprised by the tone of the show. One thing that has been hard as I struggle to communicate my thoughts is that I never want to be the “tone” police. I have been on the receiving end of that, and it hurts (and is not very productive—“if you had just said it better, you might have convinced everyone!”). At the same time, the overwhelming response I have gotten from people I know and people who follow my work/writing has been how off-putting the tone of the Failed Missionary podcast has been--specifically the cynicism and bitterness that many people heard. The part that makes this tricky, is that to me the hosts were operating out of personal experiences and strong emotions, and they never actually got to a place of real critique. Which is a shame, because the short-term missions machine deserves to be strenuously critiqued.

I don’t claim to have all the answers figured out, but I do know that one thing I keep finding is that I can’t work for justice and righteousness if I don’t have love in my heart. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: I can’t critique the church, or Christians, or missions in general if I haven’t come to a place of love first. I have huge issues that I am working through and grappling with, including the legacies of colonialism and imperialism that deserve repentance and the ways I have absorbed a damaging savior complex, but I also have love and tenderness for people who are trying to follow God and to be a part of the work God is doing globally.

In terms of the theme of the show—“called, not qualified”, I also feel torn. I believe it’s irresponsible to send people out to do work for which they are not equipped. I mean, I got my degree in missions and it didn’t give me any skills necessary to live and work and be a neighbor in cross-cultural settings (I went back and got my MATESOL, which has been the most practical thing I  have ever done). At the same time, I think God absolutely uses the least likely people to accomplish God’s purposes. I really disagree that just because someone is awkward or doesn’t present as “cool” means they will be terrible at working in cross-cultural circumstances. Secondly, I don’t really know that I believe in the idea of “calling” at all—it seems too convenient, in some ways to me, like it lets us off the hook. Because I think every Christian has the same call—to love their neighbors as themselves. I personally am obsessed with this idea, and I know a lot of others who are too. And sometimes, that means loving our neighbors from far away, loving them in cross-cultural contexts, moving across the ocean to love them, raising support so we can go and serve in ways that are needed to love them.

I did the support-raising missionary thing for three years and had a great experience (InnerCHANGE is the real deal, y’all). I don’t feel guilty about the money I raised because it enabled me to invest heavily in my neighbors. There did come a point, however, when my husband and I realized we could do very similar work while while also holding down jobs. We still make a point to try and support people of color who are in support raising positions, or support nationals in their countries doing work that does not earn them a paycheck. There are some huge inequalities in how important work by Christians is being funded worldwide, and we all need to be aware of that. And yet some of the most thoughtful, amazing, tender, conflicted, broken, loving people I know are those pouring themselves out in contexts very far from the ones they grew up in. I love these people, and I love how following God has brought them to the most amazing places.

In the end, I wish the hosts of the show had gone deeper into the wounds and issues without offering such vague and wide generalizations. I think the situation is far more fraught and far more hopeful than these first two episodes made it out to be. The truth is that white supremacy is real, and has infected western Christian missions from the very beginning. But it will not be dismantled with cynicism. It will be dismantled by shining a light on the truth, and by all of us stepping into the calling of neighbor-love.

I want to end this with a quote from Oscar Romero, a priest martyred in El Salvador, which sums up my hopes and dreams when I think about what Christians are called to do in the world (from the gorgeous new book of his letters/sermons called The Scandal of Redemption):

 

Dear brothers, do not betray your service to this ministry of God’s word. It is very easy to be servants of the word without disturbing the world in any way. We can spiritualize our words so that they lack any commitment to history. We can speak words that sound good in any part of the world because they say nothing about the world. Such words create no problems; they give rise to no conflicts. The word that characterizes the authentic church is the word that causes conflicts and persecutions. It is the searing word of the prophets that announces and denounces: it announces the marvelous works of God so that people will believe and worship God, and it denounces the sins of those who oppose God’s kingdom. The true word denounces sins so that they will be uprooted from people’s hearts, from their societies, from their laws, and from all those organizations that oppress and imprison and trample upon the rights of God and humankind.

 





 

For further discussion/consideration:

 

If you are in contact with people involved in missions (either long-term or short-term), here are a few good questions to ask:

1. Who is being centered in the narrative?

2. Is this trip/mission organization engaging in hierarchical practices that encourage colonialism/imperialism mindsets?

3. Where does the money go?

4. Who is being benefited by this endeavor?


 

And here are a few books that have impacted me personally on this topic:

Speaking of Jesus: the art of Non-Evangelism by Carl Medearis (sums up my thoughts on evangelism!)

Black Yellow Brown or White Whose More Precious in God’s Sight by Leroy Barber

Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World by Amy Peterson

Stop Calling it Short Term Missions --blog post by Craig Greenfield, who always has wonderful things to say about missions

Malevolent in Missions -- thoughtful blog post by Breanna Randall talking about real and specific concerns with organizations and questions to ask.

 

If you have other questions/resources to contribute, please put them in the comments!


 

monuments and memorials and me

“The way to write wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them” --Ida B. Wells, anti-lynching activist


 

So I have been working on a piece for some time now. It all started last December, when I went to Montgomery to meet and hear from Bryan Stevenson with some people from Red Letter Christians. I could not get out of my mind what I saw/heard in Montgomery, and I knew precisely what audience would need to hear this message.

 

This piece turned out to be one of the hardest things I have ever written. Not only because the subject matter is grim, but also because it was a delicate balance of compromise and caveats to get the message in a manner that would reach the people who needed to hear it the most. If you are new to me or my writing (or if you have never met me in real life) then you might not know: I am not good at compromise, at least not at first. I have a lot of emotion, a lot of thoughts, I am always wanting to do good and right by my actual neighbors who have experienced so much oppression, and so sometimes toning down my message or making it palatable can feel like a disservice to the people I love. It is a constant struggle, especially as an Enneagram 1 who so longs to be right and correct. But when it comes to being a white girl writing about race/lynchings/monuments/memorials/evangelical Christians in America--there is simply no way for me to be right. So writing this article over the past seven months was like a spiritual discipline in humiliation and sorrow and grief and fear.

 

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It became important for me to include in this this story both a concrete action and highlight racial terror in the PNW. I was born in northern California and grew up all over the “west”—Alaska and Wyoming and California again, but the majority of my life has now been spent in Oregon. People from this part of the country tend to view themselves as distanced, both by geography and ideology, to the rest of the US, but most particularly the South.

 

So when I researched lynchings in my state I found one on record. That number is small compared to other states and counties (Mississippi has over 580 lynchings on record, for instance) but there is a reason for that: in 1849 the legislature made it a law that “no negro or mulatto may enter into, or reside” in Oregon. The pacific northwest made it clear they didn’t want institutional slavery, but they also didn’t want to live alongside African-Americans. The laws had their intended exclusionary effect—even to this day, less than 2% of Oregon is black (for more on Oregon and our history of racial injustice, read this piece).

 

I knew that I had grown up in a state that had criminalized blackness from the start, and that I needed to do something to acknowledge a history that had been ignored and forgotten, brushed aside as we instead celebrated the “pioneer” spirit while overlooking the pain and trauma of both the original inhabitants (native Americans) and our exclusionary practices towards non-white citizens.

 

Writing this piece was like falling down a rabbit hole of all that I didn’t know. I am not an expert in this field and I don’t pretend to be. What I am is a writer, someone who is interested in things, and I became very, very interested in why so many of us grew up without hearing or understanding the history of lynchings in America. (And lynchings is only a small part of it--there were massacres and lack of civil rights such as voting and education . . . the history of racial injustice seemingly has no end). A few years ago, when it really started to sink in about both the realities of lynchings and the response of white Christian communities to them, it was like a veil had been lifted. But I wasn’t just horrified. I was implicated. Lynchings were not just public executions--they were strategies for terrorizing black people and for uniting white people under a banner of supremacy and “order”. One of the most chilling photographs is one from Marion, Indiana in 1930. How can I not see my own face reflected here?

EP-160529827.jpg


(Side note: an artist created a mural of this same cropped portion of the photograph--leaving out the men who were hanging from the tree--and recently there has been activity to take down this mural due to white discomfort. But the artist wanted to portray just how it is that ordinary people are the ones who perpetuate and uphold racial violence in the US. These conversations are continuing, and need to be had--but will not go anywhere until we can face our true history).

 

I’m amazed at the timing of this piece. Last December, when I started writing it in my head, I did not know that we would be having a national conversation about monuments and memorials. But I am glad we are. And more than anything, I pray that we listen to the voices of the people who have been the victims of racial terror, both past and present, and take their lead on this. Bryan Stevenson is a good place to start, but there are so many others out there. I encourage you to find these voices, sit yourself down, and listen for a good long while. Any then, when the Spirit tells you it is time, I implore you to go out to your own community and share all that you have learned.


 

//

 

If you are like me and want to start to re-learn the history of our country, I encourage you to start with the Equal Justice Initiative. Spend some time at their website, learning, looking at pictures. Watch the video for the new memorial (it will give you chills). Consider asking your church to send a group of leaders and lay pastors to travel to Montgomery to visit the new memorial and embark on a spiritual pilgrimage of remembrance and repentance (perhaps forgo a mission trip to Mexico and use your funds for this instead?). And then I encourage you to start looking into the history of racial violence in your own state, city, and county. There are spiritual ramifications to our history, often done in the name of Christ. We will not be able to move forward into repair until we have dealt with this.


 

Other resources:

 

Read Ida B. Wells (my new crush!) who was a pioneer sounding the alarm so many years ago about the horrific violence systematically being perpetuated against black people in this country.

 

Read Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. This book is incredibly impactful, and is story-driven--making it accessible to most everyone.

 

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race by Emerson and Smith. Perhaps the most important book that looks at why evangelicals are so segregated and so unwilling to address the systematic factors of racism. I wish everyone would sit down and read this one.

 

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone. This book might be the most excruciating devotional on the suffering of Christ I have ever experienced--because it is made concrete in the sufferings of our black brothers and sisters in America.

 

Trouble I’ve Seen by Drew G. Hart: This book helps makes connections between our history and the present day experience of people of color in America. A must-read for Christians who want to engage.

 

Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith: I so appreciated this book for helping people walk through the steps of confronting our history (in several different areas) and walking through prayers of confession and repentance.

 

RAAN Network. This is a great place to go if you don’t have real life relationships with Christians of color. I am not reformed, but my faith has been revitalized by the voices I have found here--especially Jemar Tisby, Tyler Burns, and Ekemini Uwan (of the amazing Truth’s Table podcast). There have been multiple discussions about confederate monuments, modern-day lynchings, and more and I cannot encourage you enough to go dive into these resources.




 

Thank you for taking the time to read, prayer, and process these topics. Please share any of your favorite resources in the comments. I know that I still have so much re-learning to do.



 

The Time For Welcome is Now: Ten Ideas

My president and his administration are expected to sign an executive order on immigration and refugees that includes banning all Syrian refugees from entering our country, suspending the entire refugee program for 120 days, cutting the amount of refugees we do resettle by half, and halting all travel from 7 specific Muslim countries.

This directly affects my neighbors, and it indirectly affects me. I care for them. They are my brothers and sisters, even the ones who are waiting halfway around the world to join us in a quest for a peaceful, safe life. They have already suffered so much, and yet here again the people in power cruelly condemn them to even more suffering. When I allow my heart to fully absorb the news, I am in anguish. The only balm has been getting up off my couch and visiting with my neighbors and friends. They heal me with their love and care and attention, with their life stories and trajectory of resilience. But I know not everyone is as blessed as I am. 

Perhaps refugees and immigrants are not your literal neighbors. But perhaps your heart leaps when you think of Jesus, the refugee king, and his words of life and blessing for the sick and the sad and the oppressed. Perhaps you take the Bible seriously as a book that asks Christians to fling themselves into places of sacrificial and transformational love that transcends nationalism in beautiful and devastating ways.

Perhaps you want to know how to best welcome refugees, even as our nation's doors close to them. Here are a few ideas that I have:

 

*There are seven countries under the ban: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Find refugees from these countries (and others!) in your city. Locate your local refugee resettlement agency and ask how you can volunteer. Currently, places like Arrive Ministries in St. Paul has seen an uptick in both financial donations and volunteers due to the increased spotlight on refugees. The ways to help are endless—from sorting donated items to tutoring to family mentoring. Beyond the initial re-settlement period many refugees remain culturally isolated. Coming from communally-based Muslim cultures the busyness and individualism of America can be especially hard to adapt to. Jump in and share your life! My personal favorite agencies are World Relief, Catholic Charities, and Lutheran Family Services (but there are many more).   

*Go to restaurants from the 7 countries listed above in your area. Eat delicious food. Thank the owners and staff for being there. 

*Go visit your local mosque with a simple card that says they are welcome. Ask if they are in need of anything or if there is any way you can serve them and their community. 

*Organize a meeting in your local church to lament current policies that are unwelcoming to the stranger and immigrant. Spend time in prayer and reading the Scripture (here is a good starting point for verses) regarding God’s heart for the refugee and stateless wanderer.

*Ask your pastor/the head of your denomination to publicly address the Biblical call to Christians to welcome refugees from the pulpit. According to one study, only 35% of US churches have talked about the current global refugee crisis. Is your church part of the silent majority? Put pressure on to change this!

*Two of the sectors that disproportionately bear the brunt of refugee resettlement are public education and healthcare (specifically hospitals). Find people in your life (church, etc.) who work in these settings and ask how you can help support them as they encounter and love refugees. Ask about volunteering at your local school and tutoring English Language Learners (many of whom need help catching up to grade level).

*If you are a business owner, consider ways you can employ refugees and/or create positions that do not rely on English-only literacy.

*Donate your financial resources to places like World Relief, Preemptive Love, SARA, and other mission agencies and resettlement agencies that work with refugees both here and abroad. Ask that these organizations be vocal in their support of continuing the refugee resettlement program for everyone. If you currently donate to a missions organization, ask that they be public and vocal in their belief that welcoming refugees is a Biblical perspective. If they are not public about their support of refugee resettlement programs continuing on (without bias towards religion) then pull your support.


*Recognize that there is no grand symbolic gesture you can do. There is no Muslim registry you can sign up for. There is just rampant Islamophobia in your friends and community that you will have to push back against constantly, for the rest of your life. Have discussions about refugees (and Islam) with your people. Gently correct misinformation, every single time you see it. Be vigilant against hatred, specifically Islamophobia. Specifically ask Christians to live up to their beliefs when it comes to loving our neighbor (and our responsibility to them). 

*And lastly (but certainly not least): Pray for Christ to replace any fear in our hearts with love.

 

 

 

 

The Best of a Bad Year

Some say 2016 was the worst, but for others it was hard just like every year. For me, it was punctuated by the Big and Good (first book published, bought a house, read at Powell's) and also the Very Bad (none of which I can discuss in public, alas). Then, we have the whole freaking political situation plus every day life with small kids and jobs and bills and church and . . . you have a year that you survived. Here are some of the things that helped with that endeavor.

 

 

BOOKS

 

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Everybody read this book last year (and for good reason). A great (devastating) way to get inside the housing crisis. For me this book had a special impact in that I watched as neighbors of mine were forced to relocate over and over again. Christians need to get on a theology of safe and affordable housing, and soon! 

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence

The title is a reference to the thorn fences that surround the world's largest refugee camp in Kenya. I have friends who have lived here, so I was very invested. Again, this is a relatively risk-free way to enter into the stories of some of the most marginalized people in the world. I highly encourage everyone to read it.

The Very Good Gospel: How everything wrong can be made right by Lisa Sharon Harper

I love this book and read it in a day (though it takes much longer for all the truth contained to sink in. Harper is a smart theologian but she also weaves in current events and life experiences which makes for a much richer text. Why couldn't I have read this in Bible college? It's deep and topical (#blacklivesmatter!) and Harper brought her communities with her as she wrote about Jesus being actual good news. I can (and do) see myself giving this book to a very wide spectrum of people.

Falling Free: Rescued from the Life I always Wanted by Shannan Martin

Caveat: Yes, Shannan is my friend. She is friends with lots of cool people :) But what makes her book so special is that it is a subversive work of practical and applied theology. What if living our best life now meant diving into chaos, disfunction, a lack of a savings account, and drawing a very wide and wobbly circle around who is in our family? Oh man this book is funny but will also cut you like a knife. Be warned!

 

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah

Full disclosure: I am not all the way done with this one. But I already know it is one of my favorites. It is like the most intensely timely commentary on the book of Lamentations you will ever read. In one or two sentences Rah will upend so much of what I was taught in my childhood--and he does this over and over again. It's gorgeous and makes me feel like I recognize the God the world that Rah is talking about.

 

 

Fiction:

I'm not a huge fiction person but I read a few this year that I can't stop thinking about. These are like bonus picks for intense non-fiction me :) 

 

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

This book is about a missionary going to another world in order to convert the locals. Already relevant! Then it takes a harrowing turn as the main character communicates with his wife back on earth, where things are slowly falling apart. This book brought up so much for me to process. If you have read it, lets chat about it!

 

The Story of A Girl by Sara Zarr

Ah, the holy grail of YA that is actually grounded in non-middle class sensibilities and conflicts . . . I think I read this book in a day? Definitely some heavy themes (but hey, all the teenagers I know are all dealing with very grown-up problems) but the writing is wonderful and fast-paced and it is a really good portrait of living with quietly angry adults in your life and how to overcome. Bonus: this is being made into a movie this year!

No Parking At the End Times by Brian Bliss

This is another YA book with a fascinating plot: twins whose parents completely embraced an end-of-the-world cult. The twist is, we meet this family right after the world DOESN'T end. The tension in this book is real, and I could vividly sense what it was like to be in the main character's lives . . . well worth the read!

 

 

(Bonus bonus: kids books!)

The Story of Ruby Bridges.

 

 

 

PODCASTS

Here are some podcasts that I really dug this year:

 

Pass the mic

This podcast is from the Reformed African American Network. I am neither African American nor Reformed and yet this podcast has helped me so much! The hosts (Tyler Burns and JEmar Tisby) use much of my evangelical language but they infuse it with new belief. I love this. This is such a great way to learn from POC if you are in mostly-white spaces. 

Pop culture happy hour

Still my go-to for when I need to switch my brain off and listen to witty ramblings about pop culture. Love it.

Code switch

This is a fascinating podcast on all things related to race in America. I learn so much and have to wrestle through a lot while listening--which I enjoy!

Pray as you go

This is so awesome for people (like myself) who need some help being contemplative. Every day there are scripture readings, songs, and reflections. Some of my favorite memories from the past few months involve me wandering around my neighborhood in the early mornings, listening to pray as you go. 

 

 

TELEVISION

 

Brooklyn 99

Still my favorite comedy on TV. Fresh off the Boat was in second place but this season has felt rather heavy handed . . .

Mozart in the jungle

This show is weirdly delightful. There are a couple of storylines I could do without, but I think the characters are fascinating!

Man in the High Castle

Ok so I have not seen the second season yet. The conceit is--what if the Nazi's won? It is the only drama I really watched all year and I was totally on edge. Now I am wondering if it will all seem too applicable . . .

Super Store

This little comedy was a sleeper surprise--I think it tackles issues of class and religion in ways most television shows don't. Also as someone who worked in retail for many years I highly relate to it.

 

Bonus: Kids Shows!

For kids, I love Puffin Rock (Chris O' Dowd is the narrator!) and when my daughter is older I can't wait to watch Gortimer Gibbons Life on Normal Street with her.

 

 

MOVIES

Honestly, I didn't love most of the (few) movies I watched this year. Here are the three I could come up with wholeheartedly recommending.

Song of the sea

Sing Street

Babettes feast

 

 

MUSIC:

I'm not a super big music person these days but here are my highlights:

Hamilton (duh)

Hamilton Mixtape (even better than I could have imagined)

Teenage Politics by MxPx (somedays you just want to be as self-absorbed and angsty as a teenager)

25  by Adele

 

 

FOOD ITEMS

Pho (and trying to make it myself)

Little Debbies Christmas Tree Cakes

Chili oil

Afghan-style bread by my neighbor, who is a baking genius. 

 

 

 

And there it is--my rather random list. What are some things that helped you survive this past year? I want to know!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Year of the Bully, The Year of the Artist

If I could characterize it, I would say that 2016 was the Year of the Bully. Personally and on a national level this was true for me and mine. If you love all the things that come with oppressive power—perks, privilege, your own empire safely guarded—you probably had a pretty good year. But if you are someone who has suffered at the hands of others, if you are not at the top of any particular ladder, then you know that crushing feeling when you realize it is the one who wants to harm you who once again gets all the power. It was a year where it became crystal clear that our world is oriented towards the abusers. 

When Donald Trump was declared the winner on Nov 8th I could not sleep at night. My own energy already worn thin by life, I suddenly discovered I was down to the dregs of my ability to empathize, and it went to a scary place. I imagined the children sleeping in beds all throughout my neighborhood. I felt their fear, their worry, the way they were grown beyond their years. I saw myself, safe and sound in my house—white, privileged—and I saw everyone around me that I loved be carried off by a wave of hatred. I watched myself remain while everyone else was swept away into suffering. I was paralyzed by grief. In my mind I started prepping for the end of the world.

But as luck (or providence) would have it, I happen to live surrounded by survivors. My neighbors, mostly refugees and immigrants, when they have chosen to share, display a wide range of reactions towards the past year and those upcoming. What they do choose to share is both heartbreaking and inspiring. They will not ever stop putting one foot in front of the other. They push me to do the same.

I’ve been learning from others, as well. People for whom America has never been the promised land. This is the year when the majority of white evangelical Christians were loud and proud about their bullying ways, revealing true natures that I have long tried to apologize for. To save my faith in the wider church my husband and I drank like people dying of thirst from the books and podcasts of people of color. They reclaimed our religious words and infused them with real meaning. Is it possible that the Jesus we have tried so hard to follow really is good news for everyone? Is it possible that God’s kingdom has a place for my neighbors? Is it possible that white supremacy is not God’s dream for the world? These pastors and prophets and poets said yes. Their faith is like diamonds in my eyes, something glorious and true that only comes out of intense pressure and suffering. 

//

I got the chance to go to Montgomery for a few days last week and I took it. I paid my own way, but along with a crowd of other people who spend their lives thinking about Jesus and Justice, I got to spend a morning and afternoon at the Equal Justice Initiative, the place where Bryan Stevenson has poured his heart and soul into. Is it a law office or an art gallery or a museum or a halfway house or a living testimony to a history most people would prefer we forget? It is all these things, and more. I was only there for a few hours and I knew: it was kingdom ground. 

If you haven’t read Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, I urge you to stop now and remedy that (I wrote about it and Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman last year). In Just Mercy, he highlights the dire inequality of the criminal justice system, looking mostly at death row cases in the South. There is a reason Stevenson moved his life and work to Montgomery. As he met and talked with us, he told us just a bit of the history. On the wall behind us in a conference room there were rows after rows of glass jars, filled with soil. They were gorgeous, filling the room with rich tones of red and brown with hints of gold and green. But upon closer inspection, you discover: the soil in each jar is from a specific lynching that happened in Alabama. To stare at that wall, the jars towering above and on either side, knowing this is just one state, these are just the documented ones, this is just the smallest slice in the terrorization of black bodies that has been sown into the very ground of our nation. 

A man came in to talk to us. His name was Anthony Ray Hinton. He was on death row in Alabama for 30 years for a crime he did not commit. He is a lovely man. When he spoke it felt like a testimony in the truest sense of the word. “I wish I could tell you that the state of Alabama made a mistake, but the truth is—they didn’t.” They arrested and tried him on purpose, because he was a poor black man, and they could. Anthony speaks in a gentle voice and tells us funny and sad and poignant stories of how he learned to deal with his life in prison. He told us about how he went away in his mind, how he travelled all over the country, how he came back occasionally to check on his body. He made us all laugh, is the thing, he was and always will be a man with a sharp sense of humor, he made us see how he survived, at what people who are like him have to do to make it out. 

 me and Anthony

me and Anthony

Anthony does not hate. Anthony loves God. Anthony bought himself a California King sized bed when he got out but he still can’t sleep in it unless he curls his knees up to his chest, because that is how he had to sleep on his tiny bunk in his 5x7 cell. When Bryan Stevenson came to visit him in prison Anthony said he heard a voice saying “this is God’s best.” Bryan worked and got famous ballistics experts to prove the bullets from the crimes committed did not match the gun found in Anthony’s mothers bedroom. They had to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court since Alabama refused to re-open the case. And finally, finally when they were forced to, they said they no longer saw what they had 30 years ago. And Anthony walked out, he felt rain on his face for the first time in 30 years.

There was so much more I learned in my few days in Montgomery. I hope to share more about it at some point. But what I want to say right now is this: Anthony is God’s best to me, and to you. He is a prophet, revealing the true nature of our systems, how they only work with those who have power. 

Every year for Anthony has been the year of the bully; for so many people I know and love they can say the same. For me it is new, and it tastes sour like betrayal, bitter like fear—and yet, there is something else. Bryan Stevenson, Anthony Ray Hinton, and countless other people I have been listening hard to this year—they all say the same thing: we have to have hope. Faith is easier, said Bryan. You can keep doing what is good just because you know it is right, without ever believing that you will change anything. Having radical hope in the face of extreme injustice is much harder. And yet, it is vital for the days coming.

//

If 2016 was the year of the bully then 2017 will be the year of the artist, I think. 2017 will be the year when Matthew 25:40 becomes the watershed verse for those professing to be Christians. “Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” 2017 is the year we can change who we are listening to. 2017 is the year we stand up to the bullies. 2017 is the year we look for God’s best exactly where our culture tells us to see the worst. 2017 is the year our faith becomes true, and beautiful, and terrible to those who are in power.

And lastly, it is my hope that 2017 is the year the least of these will lead us, in all ways—through stories and songs and testimonies and Facebook videos—it is the year they will lead us to Christ himself.

 

 

 

 

 

*If you have a moment, I invite you to explore the Equal Justice Initiative's website. It is a treasure trove of information

 

 

 

 

apartments of resistance

 

The thing I like best about the apartments of my Somali friends are the colorful tapestries on the walls. The fabrics, draped everywhere, to give a little comfort and beauty in low-income spaces. Velvet posters and elaborate tea sets and woven mats and faux-persian carpets cover the walls. Low, luxurious couches line the walls. It smells of cooking oil and ginger and meat. There is probably a thermos full of chai, somewhere. There is most likely a TV in the corner, watching either PBS or Jerry Springer or possibly a video of wedding of a relative far away.

I have spent countless hours in such apartments. I sort of wrote an entire book about it. Sitting in awkward silence. Getting in the way of the day's activities. Trying to decipher bills and school memos for people. Going over homework that will never be fully absorbed. Watching Disney channel movies. Eating goat liver while sitting on the floor. Talking about families and relatives and catching up on all the gossip. Calling electricity companies and being put on hold for hours. Trying to sort out problems with money transfers, or helping older folks get onto Facebook, or troubleshooting broken cell phones. I am good at none of these things, but these hours spent being lost and confused and intrigued and welcomed inside these sacred spaces of East African life in the U.S.—they are the hours that changed me. They are the hours that made me who I am today.

 

//

 

Three men plotted to blow up such a space. A 120 unit apartment in Kansas where many Somali families lived. They planned to park trucks at all four corners of the apartment complex, the day after the presidential elections, and kill every man woman and child that lived there. These men were crusaders, they called themselves. The hatred in their hearts seems unthinkable to me, except that is no longer the right word. For Somali refugees, for instance, it is probably within their realm of normal thought that someone would try and harm them, try and ruin their way of life and kill their babies, that someone would want to exert their dominance in such a violent, horrific way. After all, such situations are why so many had to flee Somalia in the first place, so they are not new to this situation. But I am. I have never known before what it feels like when friends of mine are targeted for death, for hatred, like they are bugs to be squashed. I have never known what is feels like to be acutely aware that it is my people, my culture, that wants to eradicate others. Or maybe, just maybe, I have known. I just never wanted to admit it out loud. That white males are the single most likely terrorist group of our time. And yet they are the ones who I was taught to look up to, to learn theology from, to uphold as the bastions of family virtues and values. And now, all around me, I see the opposite. I see my culture being so vocal in their lust for power, the belittlement of women and immigrants and Muslims and people of color, I see a culture that has betrayed me and just about everyone I love.

 

//

 

Here’s how I move forward:

I think about a few weeks ago. Visiting a friend who is a refugee from Afghanistan. She brings out trays of food to her coffee table, smashed in-between two overstuffed couches. She gives us pistachios and cake and candies wrapped in cellophane paper, dates and large glasses filled to the brim with cranberry juice. My children are ecstatic, eating the sugary items with great joy as I try not mind the inevitable crash I will have to deal with later. My friend has her oldest daughter take a picture of me and her and my children. It’s for my mother, she says, so she will know I have a friend who visited me for Eid. I felt very small in that moment; I hadn’t even remembered that it was the Eid-al-Adha holiday. Technically it was the next day, my friend told me, but she decided to celebrate a day early once I showed up, just so she wouldn’t have to celebrate it alone. I was happy to fellowship with her, to chat and laugh and eat the festive food. But I was also acutely aware that I had just happened to stop by on accident, a whim, to give a reminder about some school related item. What if I hadn’t stopped by? Would she be alone that day, like so many others? Would I be alone in my own house, unaware of the trials of others?

The great wells of cultural isolation, the ocean of loneliness we all swim in—it overwhelms me. So I keep doing the only thing I know how to do: I knock on doors and sit on couches. The apartments of refugees are where I am doing battle for the light. I am fighting for my neighborhood, my community, and ultimately, my country.

 

//

 

If I lived in Garden City Kansas, I might have resided in that very apartment complex. Those are the kinds of spaces I am obsessed with, that I love, that fill me up and open my eyes to so many new experiences. Here in Portland, I lived for years in what was considered to be our own Little Somalia. If these men had lived here, me and my children and my husband might have been blown up. This does not fill me with fear, because it is still just a theoretical. And yet it is turning out to be a much more plausible fear than one that any of my refugee neighbors would ever harm me.

My country was founded on white supremacy, the belief that the white western way of operating in the world is superior to all others. The results of this underlying assumption that undergirds nearly everything of our country ranges from benign naivety to micro-aggressions to men plotting to kill hundreds of people based on their race and religion. If this election season has shown us anything, it is that white supremacy is alive and well in our hearts and minds, and always has been. It’s been jarring and depressing for people like myself, but this season is not without its own silver lining. Only what is brought into the light can be dealt with. And here we are, a blazing light being shown on the ugliness within. It’s time to figure out how to be white in a society which elevates us and denigrates others. It’s time for radical hospitality, empathy, and action. It’s time to give up positions of power and influence and platforms and listen to the voices who have been saying all along that there is another way. It’s time to mourn how oppressive white supremacy is, how anti-gospel and anti-Jesus it is. It’s time to start fearing for our own souls. People say they are scared of refugees, scared of Muslims, scared of foreigners and protestors and immigrants and activists. But these are the ones who have shown me another way. They have taken my fear and my despair and turned it into something else: they have turned it into hope.

 

//

 

Today a storm is hitting Oregon. It is wet and dark and rainy and the winds are starting to pick up. If the power goes out I will be worried about all of my friends in apartment complexes. Do they have water? Will they feel scared? And I realize they have survived so much more than me, they will survive a few days without power, a little bit of flooding, but still—I pick up a few extra gallons of water just in case. They would do the same for me, and more, in a heartbeat. They watch out for me and my family. As I grieve my own community—Christian men defending assault and xenophobia and outright racism—I find comfort in the safe spaces of the apartments of my friends and neighbors.

Survivors teach us. They teach us how to continue on, how to rebuild lives, how to exist in a world where people want you harmed, or worse. They are also the watchmen of our culture, and they are the first to suffer as leaders whip up aggression and fear.

Please keep our refugee and immigrant neighbors in your prayers. If you attend a church, or are a leader in a church, please consider contacting your local mosque and asking how you can support their community in this time of violent words and violent action. Contact your local refugee resettlement program and ask how you can volunteer or help with Muslim refugees, to let them know that we have a greater capacity for welcome than for hate.

Maybe someday, you too will find yourself in a similar apartment, a similar couch. This is the only strategy I have for these days and times, and in the end I think it is the only one that will work.

 

In the cocktail party of my life

I was listening to a podcast the other day, and the woman talking about trauma and writing and what to do about confronting systems of abuse within families said something that stopped me. In the cocktail party that was her life, she said, there was always this one thing that she wanted to talk about. That’s how she knew what she needed to write out. The one thing she wasn’t supposed to share, the deep, dark, raw truth within her, the conversation that would quell all the chatter about the superficial business we surround ourselves with. In the cocktail party that is your life, she said, what is it that you are bursting to say?

//

There is something I just keep writing, over and over. It’s a compulsion of sorts. I try and write an essay about anything—motherhood, the summertime, food choices, whatever—but I always end up writing the same thing. Time after time, I keep coming back to one certain experience, worrying over it, writing it down, always knowing it is not quite what I wanted to say.

It happened one year ago, almost to the day. A few days ago, on Monday, it was our nation’s independence day. I have a lot of mixed feelings about this particular date—gratitude, a creeping suspicion I don’t know what it would be like to live in a different country, sadness at our current attitudes towards refugees and the poor and people of color, excited for the chance to celebrate with others, wondering if it is OK to celebrate if the freedoms we talk about are not available for us all. On Monday night, around 10pm, the fireworks started. I laid in my bed (really, a mattress on the floor) and I suddenly started to cry. I was no longer in Portland, Oregon, listening to kids shout and shriek as they set off who-knows-what in the parking lot outside my bedroom window. I was back in Minneapolis, my baby was at the Children’s hospital hooked up to so many wires, and I was having a mental and spiritual breakdown. 

Last year on the fourth I had not slept for several days, and I went home to my house to try and catch a few hours of rest while my husband took the nighttime shift at the hospital. I left the white, sterile hospital and walked the street near my house, smelling the smoke and hearing the booms and feeling as if I was walking through a war zone. What country did I even live in anymore? I lived in the country where the older you get, the more bad things happen to you. I lived in a country where I almost died, twice, due to a high-risk pregnancy. Where tiny babies get very sick and you are helpless to do anything but sit and watch them suffer. I lived in a new country, one I never knew would be mine. A country of the un-well and the un-sound of mind, and on this particular night a year ago, it felt like I was the only one who lived here.

I keep writing about that time in my life because I still can’t make sense of it. All I can say is that I had a break from reality. I lost my mind, a little bit. I had a crisis of faith. A dark night of the soul. The hard part is that I knew my baby was going to get well, most likely, that he was being cared for by an extremely sophisticated team of doctors and nurses, that all we could do was wait it out and make sure it wasn’t anything dire. But even as I hoped and prayed for my own baby to be well, the stories of all the babies who didn’t get better followed me. The ones born in developing countries, the ones born in war and famine and strife, in refugee camps and on the run, the ones born without access to medical care or the ones who were but just happened to have fatal diagnosis. Those babies haunted me, the ones I knew and all the millions of ones I didn’t. I couldn’t pray for my own child without thinking of them. How could I care so much about my own baby being safe without mourning all those who were not?

//

I think these days will go down in history. The days where black bodies are mocked, tormented, killed, splashed on the front pages with blood running down their chests, Facebook videos showing the last moments their spirits are here on the earth. I am in a coffee shop right now as I write down these hurried thoughts, surrounded by people who look like me, with Scriptures on the walls, a map of the world, lavender lattes for sale. No one is screaming and crying, but then again, neither am I. There is a girl reading her Bible and underlining it. What does she find in there, I wonder? How do we find the faith to press forward when the world is so very unjust?

I hear the news that more people have been killed, and I look at my own children: my baby, big and blonde and attached to my side; my daughter, tall and wearing all-pink and declaring loudly with her hands on her hips that she will not bow to any God but God (she is very into her Children’s Bible currently). And I know: I don’t feel safe because not everyone is safe. And I no longer want to pretend that this is OK. 

//

I’ve been reading in Hosea, and in chapter 11 it talks about God as a mother, one who feeds her children, who lifts her babies up and kisses their cheeks. This visual has reached out and clutched my heart. A God who smothers her children with kisses, swooping them up in a gesture familiar to all. When I feel lost and scared in this new country I live in, I think about this image of God, and it comforts me. 

In chapter 12 Hosea writes about Jacob. That man-child who struggled, wrestled, bit and clawed and screamed at God. He wrestled with the angels, he never stopped. The scriptures say he strove and he wept and he ultimately prevailed: he met with God and God spoke to him. I was telling my friend Kelley about how I could not stop writing about my time in the hospital, how I wished I could get past it, write about something newer, better, more cheerful and peppy and empowering. You are like Jacob, she said. You won’t stop wrestling with God until you receive what it is you are looking for. 

In the cocktail party that is my life, what I always want to say is this: I am wounded by the inequality in our world. I no longer can feel safe and calm and righteous, I can’t forget the realities of so many I know and love. In the cocktail party that is my life I just want to thrash around and scream and cry until I get what I am looking for, when I see all babies healed and no black bodies murdered, when I get God to explain why things are the way they are.

 

Like Jacob, I will be tenacious. I will keep struggling until I have no more strength. I will “hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for God.” And, like Jacob, I expect to carry a limp for all the rest of my life.

 

 

 

Refugees and Me

I met a refugee family last night, completely by accident. I was in the office helping out at a homework club, and they came over looking for the manager due to a plumbing emergency. Long story short, I ended up having to be the liaison to call the after-hours company, and then I had to be the one to tromp over to their apartment in the midst of a gigantic storm and tell them that no one could come fix it until the morning.

Knocking on the door, I deliver the bad news. Immediately, the family opens the door wider and invites me in for a cup of tea. If you know me, you know that these kind os experiences are a balm on my rough little soul, so I slipped in the door and sat down on the couch in the midst of a bare living room (two lamps the only other pieces of furniture that I saw, the lampshades put on upside-down) and I heard just a bit of their story. 

They have been in America two weeks, they know no-one, they are from a country which is primarily Muslim and which they had to flee, they are optimistic yet daunted, mentally calculating how they have $50 a month for a family of five to buy necessities, the young teenagers are nervous to start high school this week. They tell me amazing stories of survival. I stir sugar cubes into my tea. I am the bearer of bad news, yet they just want to sit and talk and talk and talk. The mother (through her oldest son) asks me how old I am, a strange question that I honestly have not been asked before in these situations. 31, I tell her, and she smiles at me. I am 34, she tells me, in English. I have to hide my surprise, because I thought she was in her 50s. Her son explains she was married at 15, which is why she is so young yet her children tower over her.

My gosh I could sit there all day and soak in the stories. My gosh I could stay up all the night long wondering how I can communicate to you, the reader, the people of my country, what an absolutely precious gift these lives are. How refugees, more than any people I have ever met, have extended the kindness of Christ to me. But also: how razor thin the margins of survival are. How lonely so many feel. How there are families like this everywhere, everywhere, who just want someone to talk with for a little while, they want to drink tea and share what they know. But we have to be close enough to knock on the doors. 

//

I wrote a little devotional of sorts for Off The Page, talking a bit about my own struggles with anxiety and how it is helping me have empathy for the deep wells of fear I keep hearing about. Last night and my accidental tea-time is just another confirmation that being in relationship with people is truly the best way to change our beliefs. I just feel so grateful for my life and experiences, even as they have brought pain and a closeness to suffering which can be hard to bear. Anyways, go on over to Off The Page and read about how I am trying myself not to be so afraid these days

 

Other random things I have written/been a part of:

A round-table discussion on The Hunger Games for CT (where I get to drop phrases like "prophetic imagination" and "I love Peeta" (except I didn't actually say that last one but I meant to.

A round-table reminiscence of the influence and importance of JESUS FREAK by dc Talk--which is 20 years old this month!!!!! There are a ton of famous and cool people in this round table, and then there is me talking about my bizarro dreams (and my own Jesus tattoo)

 

Thanks for reading, and let's keep our neighbors both near and far close to our hearts, and may we lift their burdens up to God, the only one who can shoulder them fully. 

 

 

update city

 

 

 how we be rollin' these days

how we be rollin' these days

 

 

heyo. A few things have happened in my real life that has made it hard to update you all about my writing life. But for now I am sitting in a house (housesitting) while my baby naps and my 4 year old watches Spongebob, so I may as well do it now. 

 

1. Firstly, for the month of July I had the incredible honor of being Image Journal's Artist of the month. Seriously, the nice things they said about me almost made me cry. They also re-designed their website and it is AMAZING. Plus, they went ahead and made their content more accesible, so if you never got the chance to read what I wrote for them, now is the time! Be warned: this particular essay is probably one of the bleakest I have ever written, and in a sense I was trying to explain what it means to burn out AS you are burning out in a literary fashion. Anyways, here is a link to that piece: The Rule of Life.

 

2. Secondly, I also had the honor of receiving the VanderMey NonFiction prize from Ruminate Magazine. If you have never heard of Ruminate, you might want to remedy that right now. It is an absolutely gorgeous journal, chock full of art and poetry and a bit of prose, and it feels incredibly fresh and awake to me. If you only had the choice to subscribe to a few journals, I would put this in the top of your list. 

Anyways, I submitted an essay to their non-fiction contest and in return got some lovely words from none other than Scott Russell Sanders himself (squee!). Which just goes to show: submit, submit, submit! While you can't read the essay online, you can buy PDF versions of the journal for the bargain price of $5

 

3. Thirdly I, like everyone else in the world, wrote about Harper Lee's new book Go Set A Watchman. I had a bit of a controversial take on it (spoiler: I think GSAW was her original intent all along). You can go on over to The Curator to read the rest

 

4.  And lastly, I wrote an intense little piece about Cosby, Dr. Dobson, and not raising polite kids over at Christ and Pop Culture. I have to be honest and say I did not think this essay would blow up like it would, but so far it seems to be resonating with a lot of people. You can go on over and read it here

 

 

Well, when I type it all out it certainly gives me the illusion that I have been productive in spite of living out of a suitcase for the past month or so. Even though our car broke down (for good) and we don't have jobs yet, things are looking up for the ol' Mayfields. We move into an apartment on Wednesday and I am sure at some point I will tell you all about it. I just can't seem to help myself.

 

 

 

 

Resolved: On Reading the Internets

Well I already did My Year in Reading but I wanted to touch on something else. Specifically, Internet Reading. I would be lying if I didn't say that it is real-life books that get me going, but I also wake up and check my blog reader nearly every AM (my favorite one is Feedly, BTW). I prefer paper books to digital, but I am increasingly being convinced of the affordability and sustainability of e-books, though I can hardly ever be convinced to sit down with my own cumbersome kindle. 

So, we all read on the internet, right? And things have changed quite a bit. I haven't been a blog reader for long (I started when I had my daughter, and I needed something quick and comforting for my sleep-deprived and addled brain). Nowadays, the blogs I read and enjoy are very few and far between--mostly, I suspect, since some of my very favorite writers are too busy to write on the interwebs these days. So here is my short list of what I consistently enjoy, and a plea for you to share your own favorites. Again, I would put more of my friends and favorites on this list, but I only want to direct you to actual, prolific writers. So here we go:

 

General Reading:

The Millions.

If you are not subscribed to the Millions, you should be. Everything you could ever want on anything book-related. I consistently find it engaging and fascinating, and they alternate short little news bursts with longer, thoughtful essays. My personal favorite staff writer is Nick Ripatrazone, a whip-smart Catholic guy. Here's the website.

 

Longform

Technically I started listening to the podcast first, then I ended up subscribing to the blog. I tend to bookmark these pieces and come back when I have time because well, they are long in form. Get it? But yeah it's like having the best non-fiction pieces from the internet (and print publications) curated for you on a variety of topics. So good. Here's the website.

 

Humans of New York

Pictures of . . . humans. Mostly in New York, but not always. With a quote or a caption or something underneath. Bound to make your hearts swell or burst or shrink within itself. This was a great discovery for me in 2014, and I ain't going back. Find the website here

 

 

And . . . that's it. There are a few others I subscribe to and I like some (but not all) of the content. Places like The Toast, Good Letters, Red Letter Christians, The Curator, Christ and Pop Culture . . . but all of these are all over the map (which can be a good thing, but also means I can't unilaterally endorse, nor do I always click on through). 

 

 

Personal Blogs:

Flower Patch Farmgirl

Ok, the name alone cracks me up. Because it is SO not what I think of when I think of Shannon. I am new to her blog, but I absolutely adore it. She is all over the map. She writes about poverty and privilege and trying to live simply and adoption and salsa and jeans and systematic racism. There is something for everyone (and conversely, something for everyone to not like so much. Which again, I adore). While I could care less about decorating tips (which she has!) I so appreciate the breath of fresh air she brings to the internet, and the whole I-Am-A-White-Lady-Who-Lives-And-Works-In-A-Diverse-Neighborhood thing. Because it gets real complicated there. There is a balance of emotional honesty and respecting privacy that never gets easier. I don't make the same choices as Shannon in this regard, but I view her as an important voice in communities I have no stake in. Also she is super funny. I won't insult her by calling her space a "mom blog" but it shares a few characteristics--and if you only had the option to read one, I would pick hers. 

 

Shirt of Flame

This is Heather King's blog, and never do I ever not adore it. I found out about Heather by reading her essay which appeared in a best-American non-required reading collection (I forget which year). She wrote about her awesome, diverse, low-income neighborhood and it just teemed with verve and joy. Then I read a few of her books and liked them (always a sucker for a sobriety/catholic memoir) but it is her blog that shines. She is cantankerous and holy and what she says about poverty and wealth makes me want to stand on a chair and cheer (and also sometimes convert to Catholicism). I hope I am like her in a few decades. Go on over and read her blog here. 

 

Fosterhood in NYC

I have written about this one before, but I will say it again: the best source of real-life information on what the foster care system in America is like. I am always stunned at the wells of empathy that Rebecca has not only for her children, but for the workers in the system and the birth parents and extended families who are most affected by it all. Truly stunning stuff happening. While she is not a religious person, I see the upside-down kingdom in all of her writings. Follow her along on her journey here.

 

 

Again, that's about it. I mean, I have amazing friends and total writer crushes who technically have blogs--but they just don't write on them consistently enough to post here.

This is what I mean when I say I need a few more recommendations.

So please, share away in the comments! What spaces/blogs on the internet are you currently obsessed with? Please share!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Year In Reading

 

You guys. 2014 was a YEAR. A lot happened, most of it not fit for a Facebook year in review. I went to LA, Mexico, Portland, Michigan, Maryland, and a monastery in northern MN. Life was hard. Relationships were strained and repaired. Following Christ wherever he leads in 2014 was a continual process of being wounded, a continual process of being healed. I am not a brave soul, so if I had my druthers I would not care to do it all again. But it happened, and I am so incredibly grateful. 

One thing I did do a lot of this year was read. Being stressed and teensy bit desperate helped. So did the fact that I started to LOATHE television with everything within me. I just read, a bunch. Not everything was great, but I did manage to corral a nice bunch of books for y'all. 

 

Here, in no particular order, are my favorite reads of 2014:

 

 

 

Works of Love Are Works of Peace: Mother Teresa and The Missionaries of Charity by Michael Collopy

The images in this large, gorgeous, black and white book are stunning--mostly of the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta. I don't think I can convey the power of the pictures of the Sisters and their volunteers holding people as they leave the world. Collopy's photographs are so powerful, they almost don't need words. But luckily Mother Teresa also took the time to say and write down some important treatises on what it means to love one another, and what it means to love the poor. The pictures juxtaposed with her simple beliefs about love and Christ and vocation make this into the best coffee table book ever. 

 

 

 

 

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss

John Wilson (of Books & Culture) asked if I would be interested in reviewing this book. After a brief look at the subject matter (vaccines) I thought nah. But I adore Graywolf Publishing and Mr. Wilson had a hunch I would be interested. And boy was I ever. This is hands-down the best book on fear and isolation and the myths we believe in regards to individualism and community. It's about a lot more than vaccines, but it does make a compelling argument for us all to lead more interconnected lives (and to live with our more vulnerable neighbors in mind). I would give this book to anyone, but especially new mothers and fathers. You can read the review in the January/February print edition of Books & Culture.  

 

 

 

 

Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

What a year for essay collections! This one was lovely (although it does lag in spots). I just read a great review which mentioned that it is a bummer that it took a  white woman with a veneer of intellectualism to convince us that essay collections were powerful--but hey, I will take it. I love it when people are fearlessly committed to mining the depths of their fears and questions, and this book certainly did that. 

 

 

 

 

Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor

I don't read a lot of fiction. In fact, part of the reason I read this was because I thought it was literary non-fiction. But nope--it's a collection of short stories that MUST be read in order (srsly). It is searing, beautiful, and reads so true and painful. Minor comes out of a fundamentalist background and is definitely chasing some demons (and forces us to face a few ourselves). I am warning you that the territory is rough, but well worth the read. If you aren't ready for a punch in the gut, maybe skip it. But I will feel sad for you. 

 

 

 

 

The Wisdom of Stability by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

I met JWH this past summer and that guy is the real deal. I was so impressed with his character that I immediately went out and bought this book. My husband and I have been drawn towards reading about community and this is the best book I have read on the subject. It is humble, thought-provoking, and very challenging in forcing me to think through how vulnerable it is to commit yourself to being rooted in a place. I also love how he undercuts his well-thought out theology with stories from his friends and neighbors. I think Wilson-Hartgrove is one of the great listeners of our time, and we could all stand to learn from him.

 

 

 

 

 

Red Yellow Brown Black and White: Who's More Precious In God's Sight? by Leroy Barber

This is a challenging read. Barber exposes why there are so few people of color involved in missions and non-profit work, and it ain't pretty. As a white girl who moved into a diverse neighborhood (and who also works for a Christian non-profit) yeah, it stung a little--but in all the right ways. Some of the stuff I have been feeling in my spirit was laid bare before me, and it felt good. While it leans a bit too heavy on talking specifically about leadership, I still found this to be a valuable resource in working through my own vocation, and ways that I can do better. I urge you to read it!

 

 

 

 

 

The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day is my spirit animal. She is a scrappy journalistic Jesus-lover with a razor sharp tongue. I finally re-read her autobiography this year and loved it--the Catholic Worker truly is inspiring, and the history of where America was in Day's time was fascinating. That being said, I wish Day had been able to examine herself a bit more deeply (you don't get much vulnerability from her there) but it is an inspiring, flawed look at a movement which sought to love and serve the most vulnerable in our world. 

 

 

 

 

Palestine Speaks: Voices from the West Bank and Gaza (Voice of the Witness)

I wrote about this book for the upcoming issue of the Englewood Review of Books. I stand by my claim that the Voice of the Witness series of first-person narratives are some of the most important works being published today. Oral histories are not sexy in a bloggy world, one where we listen to the loud and the brash and the (often) white and male. This book takes a look at what life is like in occupied Palestine through the varied eyes of many residents (including a few Israelis). I am a firm believer that our lives are enriched by getting to know people different from us, and reading first-person narratives is a smashing good step in that direction. Plus, this volume is smashingly edited. Go read it right now. 

 

 

 

 

Women In Clothes edited by Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, and Sheila Heti

This was my weird book of the year. This is a compilation of surveys that the editors asked over 600+ women to complete on the subject of clothes. It sounds incredibly boring except it turns out that how we present ourselves to the world says a lot about our inner lives. This book actually forced me to think through a great many of my life choices and attitudes, just by asking me about the clothes I wear (for the record, I dress to protect myself and be invisible and be culturally appropriate). This book is long, bizarre (one page will be about a fashionista paying $500 for a purse and the next will be interviews with garment workers in Bangladesh), and totally stretched my mind. I recommend it, especially if you (like myself) think that you don't care too much about clothes. 





My Name is Child of God, Not "Those People": A First-Person Look at Poverty by Julia Dinsmore

Here's a thought: what if people who grew up in generational poverty wrote books on what it was like to be poor in America? It seems common sense, but there is a serious lack of these kind of books to be found. Julia Dinsmore (who I had the pleasure of meeting this summer) wrote a beautiful, hard, lyrical book about her life (and the lives of so many others). Seriously, the woman is a poet who is not afraid to say the harsh truths. She makes me uncomfortable in all the best ways, and she is truly someone who is listening to the Spirit of God. This book is a treasure. Read it, then give it to all of your friends.

 

 

 

 

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Probably my favorite straight-up novel of the year. Adichie is so fast and smart and witty. The beginning of the book sucks you right in, and immediately you are engulfed in a book that is more about race relations in America than it is about the cross-cultural experience of being an immigrant. It is eye-opening, relentless, so readable. I hated the ending, but besides that this was the perfect blend of being engrossing while stabbing your heart with truth. I wrote an extensive review over at SheLoves (which you can read here). 

 

 

 

 

There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America by Alex Kotlowitz

Ok technically I may have read this at the very end of 2013. It's the story of a journalist following two boys around one of Chicago's infamous low-income high rise apartments,  chronicling an entire year with them will simultaneously getting hopelessly attached.. The writing is stunning, and achieves that rare feat of creating empathy and humanity while still exposing great dysfunction and chaos. There is a sense of dread as the pages build, as you watch the little boys start to build up the armour they need in order to survive. This book will wreck you, in the best way possible. And don't be fooled--although this book was written in the 1990s I am here to tell you that this other America is alive and well. I know this because I see it every day. 

 

 

 

 

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Here is my YA pick of the year. I went on a John Green bender where I read his entire oeuvre during my hard and dramatic summer and it honestly left me feeling a little ill (enough with the manic pixie dream girl tropes, John!). This book, however, sticks like meat to your bones. A love story between two teenagers becomes something much more--a book on acceptance and grief and poverty. I thought it was just lovely, and a super quick read. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Children of Crisis by Robert Coles

I have talked about this book before, but I have to mention it again. This wasn't the first year I read it, but I found myself cracking open the (huge) book and poring over the pages again this year. This is a pulitzer-prize winning feat of radical compassion disguised as journalism. In the 1960s Robert Coles toured the country and lived with the most vulnerable in America--the poor, migrant workers, native Americans, kids in the south--and he listened to them and recorded what they thought in their own words. He had them draw pictures and talked about what they meant. He wites eloquent treatises on the resilience and emotional bounty of people who have been left to dissapear by the rest of America. The New York Times called it the most important book of the century, and I don't dare disagree. This is a book to buy and spend the rest of your life reading and re-reading. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Honorable Mentions (books that were lovely, but I couldn't be bothered to type out any more paragraphs):

Free by Mark Scandrette

I am the Beggar of the World by Eliza Griswold

The Sacred Year by Mike Yankoski

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber

The Intentional Christian Community Handbook

 

 

 

Also, to keep it real:

Books I started but Didn't finish (the fiction because I lost interest, the non-fiction because it was too much/too good):

The Goldfinch The Circle Let Us Now Praise Famous Men The Magicians A People's History of the United States Sabbath as Resistance in a Culture of Now With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God

 

 

Do me a favor and check some of these out, ok? Oh, and please feel free to comment/point me to a list of your favorite reads of the past year.

 

And here's to finding ourselves in the words of another in 2015.

 

 

Another Post On Advent

 

The last thing the world needs is another depthless post on Advent. This doesn't mean our world doesn't need a bit of good news about light entering into the darkness--no, we sure could still use that. But we surely don't need another post yammering on about expectation and longing, all self-contained and individualized, ignoring the fact that a large portion of humanity is suffering terribly right now--that people are hungry for freedom and justice, ready for the systems of oppression to fall now. All people have to lose is their chains. And they are tired of waiting.

//

I had the absolute privilege to hear Dr. William Barber preach a sermon. Me, white girl from the NW, sitting in front of the leader of the Moral Mondays civil resistance movement, a man who so believes in Jesus--that he came to preach good news to the poor, the sick, and the sad--that he he cannot stop preaching--even when he is the general assembly for the state of North Carolina and it gets him arrested. 

Dr. Barber pointed out that the birth of Jesus involves mourning. Not just holy longing, but gasping, painful sorrow. Matthew 2 quotes Jeremiah:

 

“A voice was heard in Ramah,

weeping and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be comforted,

because they are no more.”

 

This isn't the song we like to sing at Christmas, but it is one that too many already know by heart. It is hard for me not to think of Trayvon, Mike Brown, Eric Garner in this words. It is hard for me not to think of all of my refugee friends, so many of their families devastated by war and death. So many people in our churches and communities with empty seats at the table--people taken from us by addictions, broken relationships, unjust systems, or the plain old evil of death. 

 

For so many people, they are living in Ramah, that is their reality. And this Advent, they are never far from my mind.

 

All of these things and more have made it impossible for me to just write another post about Advent. So instead I wrote about how tired I am of waiting, and what my Somali friends have taught me in regards to this. Click on over to read it. 

 

 

Signs Your Neighborhood Might Be Gentrifying

a list. because I am in a weird mood, and it is Thursday*.  

 

 

image from Wreck City.

 

 

Signs Your Neighborhood Might be Gentrifying

 

1. Ethnic restaurants crop up by the dozens; however, no ethnic people appear to be eating there.

 

 

2. The nearest Redbox is consistently out of any Aronofsky, Anderson, or Lynch films. Tyler Perry for days, though.

 

 

3. Sometimes, there are books other than religious tracks marketed towards children inside that one Little Free Library.

 

 

4. Your garage door gets vandalized with an aggressively optimistic Oprah quote.

 

 

5. Your neighborhood hosts a block party and everyone brings veggie pasta salad.

 

 

6. The ice cream truck/narcotics man goes out of business. Instead, a man on a bike tries sell you butternut squash soup out of his attached trailer.

 

 

7. Donut inflation becomes a serious, crippling issue.

 

 

8. Blonde-haired children strapped to their father’s bosoms are suddenly everywhere. Especially on Saturdays, waiting in line for an vaguely ethnic-sounding brunch spot.

 

 

9. A neighbor offers unsolicited mulching advice and invites you to join his guerrilla gardening squad.

 

 

10. All the poor people move out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*don't worry, I won't give up my day job to start writing comedic pieces.

 

D.L. Recommends Vol. 3: The Summer In Retrospect Edition

First, a few things I don't recommend:

Cheap sparklers for four year olds. Getting the flu whilst being in Mexico. Flying with a toddler who has the flu. Reality television, of any kind. Going on Pinterest when your self-esteem is already a bit low. Underestimating the urban squirrels and how much they enjoy plums/corn on the cob. 

 

 

and here are some things I do:

 

 

Re-watching seasons 1-4 of the Office

Because re-watching Jim and Pam fall in love is so worth it. Anything past those seasons is quite meh. 

 

Robert Coles

Do you guys know Robert Coles? I learned about him first from Philip Yancey. This guy is a psychologist with the heart of a literary giant. I have been re-visiting his massive Children of Crisis series and it cemented in my all-time favorite books category (an excellent Christmas present for the voracious reader). His interviews with children in various degrees of poverty/marginalization in America will stun you. And even though it was written over 50 years ago, not much has changed. I don't know how someone can be so smart and write so beautifully about such sad things.

 

Dying Your Own Darn Hair

Ever since the ombre look came back into style, the frugal madam inside me has rejoiced. I go and buy a $2 box of bleach, slather it on the lower half of my hair and presto: I look OK. #cheapskateftw. 

 

What Alice Forgot

This book would be classified as my "summer romp". Quick, fast, interesting--not brain science here, great for summer--and some excellent reflections on relationships and how people change. 

 

Making a Dirt N' Worms Cake for your Daughter's 4th Birthday Party

All the kids will freak out in excitement.

 

Works of Love are Works of Peace

This book has beautiful images/words from Mother Theresa at her home with the sisters of Charity in Calcutta. It is the perfect (IMO) coffee table book: beautiful, disturbing, heartbreaking, hopeful. Pictures of people dying, and other people holding them while they do. Reminders that the world is ugly and terrible and we are just to do that one thing in front of us that we need to do. And if we aren't connected to people who are suffering, then that might be the place to start.

 

Meeting Writers You Admire IRL and Having Them Be Better Than You Imagined

I was at Collegeville for a week of hanging out with amazing writer/activist/practitioners and it was led by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. The first few days I was all like is this guy for real? And by the end of the week he was probably one of the best people I had ever met. His genuine listening ear and championing spirit will stay with me for a long, long time--and it makes me like his writing even more than I did. Do you know how rare this is? I am telling you: humility is a lost-art form, and one I dearly need to learn. JWH has it in spades. I am a huge fan. (If you are new to his work may I suggest starting here or here).  

 

Philomena

Favorite movie of the summer, hands down. I was not quite prepared emotionally and sobbed my ever-loving guts out. As I go through my own issues with growing my family this film spoke to me so much through the perspective of the birth parent. Also, the forgiveness scene is fantastic. Watch with tissues clutched tightly in hand (but be prepared to laugh at all the naughty words as well).

 

Whoopie Pies

They are so delicious. 

 

The Aeropress

My friend (and InnerCHANGE General Director) Darren Prince sent this to our family and boy howdy, is it amazing. Relatively inexpensive, this is the way to make coffee when you travel! Darren would be horrified to know that I add milk and home-made vanilla syrup to make the best iced lattes you can get in my neighborhood (srsly), but I ain't too proud to say it here. Also, you can check out this awesome instructional video by my favorite Irish theologian/internet friend Kevin (I won't even try to type his last name). 

 

The Chapter Book Stage of Life

We bought our daughter a few chapter books and it is so exciting I just want to squeal: Little House in the Big Woods, Paddington, The Ramona series . . . it is all still a bit over her head but my enthusiasm keeps her going. The costs are steep but my goodness the rewards of parenting.

 

Pickling Things You Grew in the Dirt

Stereotypical white girl urban gardner newbie recommendation alert. I grew a bunch of cucumbers and used my amazing sister's recipe to pickle them. I can't stop eating them. 

 

Reading Woody Guthrie Quotes

"I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. ... I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."

 

Watching the New Season of Doctor Who

Somehow my husband figured out how to get it to stream for us and now I am rising up and calling him blessed. I am totes into Peter Capaldi and his eyebrows being the new doctor. Begone, silly-scarfed one! Bring on the dramatic Scot with no ridiculous love situations!

 

Being Quiet

This has been a summer for being quiet in the midst of a loud world. We actually got this quiet book for my daughter and my husband was inspired to photoshop make some images just for me:

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(all original illustrations by Renata Liwska and for heaven's sake don't steal them or anything)

 

I recommend taking the time to do the inner work of thinking and working through what it is we all need to sort out. Doing the hard inner work of cleaning our houses, of ensuring that we aren't all just white-washed tombs bumbling about our world. I recommend going into this fall as people who know we are quietly beloved, and there isn't a thing we can do to change that.

 

 

 

So, what are some things from the summer that you would like to recommend? Hit me up!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Book That Changed Amy's Life

Well, I will be straight with you: this one is a doozy. I SO identify with everything my good friend Amy writes here-- missionary biographies were my JAM growing up. However, Amy highlights some pervasive lies we swallow in regards to vocation that have serious consequences for us all. As someone who devoured these types of books with fervor (and realizing how they have shaped me) I am so glad that Amy is working on a book-length project (!) that deals with all of these sorts of issues. I cannot wait to read it.

 

 

 

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The Book That Changed My Life

by Amy Peterson

 

 

 

 

This summer I’ve been re-reading the missionary biographies I devoured in childhood. Amy Carmichael was my favorite missionary, not only because we shared a name, but because she was as imaginative, daring, and heroic as Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew combined.  Amy Carmichael started a Bible study for “mill girls” on the margins of Irish society, traveling through neighborhoods considered unsuitable for proper young ladies. Eventually 500 girls attended her Bible studies.  In India, she snuck disguised into temples to rescue girl-children destined to be temple prostitutes.  She adopted the Indian way of dressing, assimilating at a time when few missionaries understood the importance of entering a new culture as a learner.  She wrote poetry. I loved her- her rebellion, her zeal, her heroism, her red hair, all of it.

But when I opened With Daring Faith: A Biography of Amy Carmichael this summer, to re-read it, my breath caught in my throat at the author’s dedication. It was to her daughter:

To Katherine Joy Davis

with the prayer that she will hear and

answer a call from the Lord

to a foreign mission field.

I tried to imagine praying that for my daughter, Rosie, when I put her to bed at night.  Wouldn’t hearing that prayer send a seed into the soil of her heart, implanting the idea that I believe (or even that God believes) that overseas missions work is the best thing you can do with your life? What kind of pressure might that put on a child?

 

 

I wondered if Katherine went.

***

Before I continue, there are some things you need to know.  Chief among them is that when I was twenty-two, I moved to Southeast Asia to “teach English.”  When I say that books like With Daring Faith changed my life, what I mean is this: when it came time for me to decide how to live an adult life, I could envision no more interesting, meaningful, or heroic work than missionary work overseas, and I blame that mostly on the books.

Sure, if you had asked me, I would have said that there was no division between “sacred” work and “secular” work -- that working as a copyeditor at a publishing house could be just as meaningful and worthwhile as moving to a foreign land for God -- but I didn’t really believe it.  How could I?  No one wrote biographies of copyeditors.  Accountants never snuck into temples. Housewives never changed the world.

Sermons that talked about living lives fully dedicated to God rarely held up sweeping the floor daily as an example of dedication.  They seldom lauded people who responded to emails punctually and thoughtfully.  They didn’t praise those who regularly attended conferences for professional development so that they could be up-to-date in their fields.

I wanted an extraordinary life, flush with spiritual vitality and adventure, fully committed to God.  I wanted to be the greatest.  And the only way I could see to find that life was by going overseas.

***

How does a child begin to believe that one way of life is more spiritual than another?

***

I read the dedication to the book, and I wondered about that daughter - Katherine. How old was she when she found those words?  What did they mean to her then? What do they mean to her now?

My daughter is five, and I’m not sure she knows what the word missionary means.  I ask her.

-Have you ever heard the word missionary?

-I think, maybe, once.

-Do you know what it means?

-No.

-A missionary is a person who goes to another country to tell people - people who have never heard about Jesus - to tell them about Jesus.

-Oh. {pause}.  Like, if Mae Mae and Papa didn’t know about Jesus, and we went to visit them and told them about Jesus?

 

 

 

 

Yeah, like that.

***

I confess: then I googled her.  I googled the author, and found her on Facebook.  Her daughter Katherine is married now, maybe a few years younger than I am.  She has an art degree and lives in Michigan with a husband and a baby.  There’s no sign that Katherine ever heard a call to foreign missions.

***

I’ve been wondering if I should put missionary biographies on the shelf for my daughter.  She’ll be old enough to read them in just a few years. Do I stack them next to Nancy Drew and Half Magic and A Wrinkle In Time, or keep them in my office?

***

I went overseas, running face-first towards what I thought was the will of God. I hit a wall of thorns, landing flat on my back, the God I thought I knew quite well wilting like a punctured balloon animal next to me. I went overseas looking for adventure and found tragedy. God was silent, and I spun into a dark night of the soul.

That’s why I’ve been re-reading these books from my childhood.  I had to know: did they leave the tragedy out when they wrote the stories for children?  Why had I expected adventure but not opposition, spiritual success but not sorrow?

Here’s what I found: the hardships are there, right there in the stories I read as a child.  Gladys Aylward leading a group of starving children through mountain passes. Elizabeth Elliot losing Jim. Eric Liddell dying in an internment camp, hardly having spent any of his adult life with his wife and children. The heartache was there, plain as day.  Why hadn’t I remembered it?

I hadn’t remembered it because missionary biographies shaped my imagination in my formative years, when I could understand heroism but had no framework for tragedy.  The intrigue and daring had stuck with me, but the losses and struggles had gone in one ear and out the other.  I had no way of comprehending them.

It’s like this: you read Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth before you have your first baby, and you feel confident in your ability to give birth: you hear these stories about women strong and in touch with their bodies and their babies, and you think, I can do that, too.

Then you go into labor.

And when you read Ina May again after having given birth, you notice things that slipped right past you the first time.  Oh, in this story her labor lasted for thirty-six hours.  Oh, one woman said the pain was orgasmic, but another described it as the worst feeling of her life.

Before, your mind had attached to the successes, but now, when you read about the thirty-six hour labor, that detail doesn’t go in one ear and out the other.  Now, you know exactly what that feels like.

So should we encourage women to read Ina May before they give birth, knowing that they won’t really have the framework to understand the stories?  Should we encourage children to read missionary biographies?

I haven’t decided whether to put the books on the shelf for Rosie yet.  I still have time.

***

 

If I ever dedicate a book to my daughter, I’ll say this:

 

To Rosemary,

the beloved of God,

with the prayer that she will grasp how wide

and long

and high

and deep

is the love of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Ockenga Honors Scholars at Taylor University. Read more at her blog, or follow her on twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

 

 

 

 

 

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