Dr. David Gushee: Why ‘none of us can walk away.’

After Orlando, “I’ve learned that none of us can walk away. This is a calling we must be ready to respond to every day, for the rest of our lives.”
Dr. David Gushee

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David P Gushee Changing Our Mind front cover

Click the cover to visit the bookstore and learn more about this important book by Dr. David Gushee.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Dr. David Gushee is one of the nation’s leading Christian ethicists—as is evidenced by his election to help lead the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics. He is now a vice president in both of these nationwide groups and, within a year, is slated to become president of those organizations.

He also dared to publish his major book, Changing Our Mind, a rare case of a senior Christian scholar reversing himself on a key position from his earlier work. In this book, Gushee explains why he decided to change course and support Christian inclusion of LGBT men and women. In the year since publication, he devoted himself to barnstorming the country—talking at churches, colleges and other venues about the need to break down traditional Christian barriers against inclusion.

Then, given the extremely busy arc of his career, Gushee says he hoped to walk away from this topic, because there are so many other issues in Christian ethics that need to be addressed around the world.

This week, he says, “I briefly and foolishly thought that work was done—but obviously that is not the case. The Orlando slayings have surfaced LGBT issues in a horrifying new way that has just demands a response.”

Orlando wasn’t the only danger signal that pushed Gushee to change his mind once again—and step back into the public spotlight as an advocate for inclusion. While stressing that he is not a partisan political activist, Gushee says that the unrelenting anti-minority rhetoric coming from Donald Trump has become a dangerous appeal to the darkest fears and simmering hatred that are smoldering nationwide.

“I’ve decided that I need to speak faithfully and regularly now about the dangers in this current moment,” Gushee says. “Jim Wallis approached me and said, ‘Some of us need to say some thing more systematic about why the rise of Donald Trump is so serious.’ And I agreed.”

‘CALL TO RESIST’

Snapshot of Called to Resist online manifesto against hatred

Click on this snapshot of the Called to Resist appeal to visit that website and read the entire document.

The result of that collaboration—and a wide appeal to other Christian leaders coast to coast—is “Call to Resist,” a public appeal to church people to turn away from the anxiety, anger and animosity that have become major themes in the Trump campaign.

“The statement is about the overall tenor of a campaign that’s based on inflaming fear and is appealing to some of the baser instincts of white Americans. This is not a case of garden-variety political differences, where we all can sit on the sidelines and wait to see what happens. I hope people will read and seriously consider what we have written,” Gushee says.

He and Wallis are not alone in posting this appeal. Co-signers include leaders within the Armenian, Baptist, Methodist and Reformed traditions, the United Church of Christ, the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, Catholic University of America, several seminaries as well as David Neff, an influential evangelical voice from Christianity Today.

The online ‘Call to Resist’ manifesto says in part:

We are seeing the very worst values of our nation and its history on display with a vulgar message and style. A direct appeal to the racial, religious, and gender bigotry that is always under the surface of American politics is now being brought to painful public light.

The ascendancy of a demagogic candidate and his message, with the angry constituency he is fueling, is a threat to both the values of our faith and the health of our democracy. Donald Trump directly promotes racial and religious bigotry, disrespects the dignity of women, harms civil public discourse, offends moral decency, and seeks to manipulate religion. This is no longer politics as usual, but rather a moral and theological crisis, and thus we are compelled to speak out as faith leaders. This statement is absolutely no tacit endorsement of other candidates, many of whom use the same racial politics often in more subtle ways. But while Donald Trump certainly did not start these long-standing American racial sins, he is bringing our nation’s worst instincts to the political surface, making overt what is often covert, explicit what is often implicit.

WHY PEOPLE OF FAITH MUST RESPOND

Throughout Gushee’s long career, he has studied the impact of faith on ethics and public attitudes in many ways. Among other subjects, he is a recognized expert on the rise of Naziism and the struggle of “righteous” men and women during the Holocaust era. In his book, Changing Our Mind, he writes movingly about the connection between that research and his decision to speak out for inclusion—and accept the angry and sometimes threatening responses of those opposed to his work.

After the Orlando shootings, Gushee says, he feels compelled to remind Americans that people of faith bear a collective responsibility to speak out—because religious traditions themselves are at the core of anti-LGBT attitudes.

“It’s religion itself and by that I mean Christianity, Judaism and Islam in their traditional forms that create most of the baggage people are carrying when they condemn gay and lesbian people,” Gushee says. “People pull from sacred text and sacred tradition in trying to justify their treatment of people within this minority.

“This is one reason the change to inclusion is so difficult for many people. They see this appeal to inclusion as not just asking someone to change what he thinks—but asking that he change how he knows what is true, what is right. This is a crisis in authority. It’s an epistemological crisis for many and that’s because the attitudes are largely rooted in religious authority.

“So when you find yourself as a religious person, particularly now speaking as a Christian, suddenly on the defensive because of what religion is doing to gay people—and you find that because society has moved so rapidly toward inclusion—then this is a very, very difficult position.

“We’re in a period where civil rights and social acceptance for LGBT people have moved ahead of the attitudes of a substantial minority of the mainly religious population. People are left disoriented by all of the progress people are achieving and, while many of them may want to move toward inclusion, they’re not able to get fully to acceptance theologically. So, we’re in an era when we’re going to keep hearing these public calls against acceptance—ranging from hateful and odious appeals to ongoing polite but firm differences over theology.

“It’s now clear to me that all of us who are allies for LGBT people will be required to help sensitize the many Americans who are struggling to accept what is unfolding. I’ve learned that none of us can walk away. This is a calling we must be ready to respond to every day, for the rest of our lives.”

Care to do more?

If you haven’t already read his book, consider ordering a copy of Changing Our Mind, a landmark in publishing that already is regarded a modern classic in Christian ethics.

Religiously diverse memorial services, reflecting on the one-year anniversary of the Charleston church shootings and the Orlando mass murders, are popping up coast to coast. If you are in Michigan, an unusual memorial gathering is taking place at North America’s largest mosque: the Islamic Center of America. This diverse memorial—open to the public—is hosted by the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit on Monday, June 20, 2016, at 5 p.m.

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6 Great Social Justice Films You Might Have Missed (PechaKucha style)

This week, Visual Parables film critic Edward McNulty presented a PechaKucha for an audience in Dayton, Ohio. What is “PechaKucha“? It’s a presentation format in which 20 images are shown, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and speakers talk along with the images. The format was devised by architects Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham to force rambling speakers to be more concise. They held the first PechaKucha Night in Tokyo—and now encourage such presentations worldwide. 

By EDWARD McNULTY

Cover Edward McNulty Jesus Christ Movie Star

Click on the cover to learn more about my most recent book, full of thought-provoking study guides on faith and film.

I love films that challenge the mind and explore important social issues. From the thousands of films I’ve reviewed, I’ve compiled a list of over 700 dealing with social justice issues. Here are six that should be on your bucket list.

1.) SALT OF THE EARTH (1954) is the only film to be banned by theater owners. Its director Herbert Bieber was one of the “Hollywood 10” accused of being Communist. The film is about a strike by a miners’ union. A court forbids the men to picket their unsafe mine, which means scabs can get through to break the strike.

The miners’ wives volunteer to walk the picket lines, but one man objects. “The women aren’t strong enough. And who will cook and take care of the kids?” The women don’t accept that answer, and the next day the women, carrying signs, march around the mine’s gate. This delightful film celebrates the dignity and power of women, as well as the union to stand up to oppression. We see how Esperanza, an under-appreciated wife, learned to do this, and also help her patriarchal husband to grow up.

2.) SIN NOMBRE (2009) involves Sayra, a Honduran teenager riding on top of a freight train with her father, uncle, and many others. Hoping to escape their homeland’s violence, they plan to join relatives in the U.S.. After the train enters Mexico, a gang of young toughs clambers aboard to rob the refugees.

One of the robbers is the troubled Casper, upset because Lil’Mago, his leader has killed his (Casper’s) girlfriend. When the leader tries to rape Sayra, Casper intervenes and shoves Lil’Mago off the train. Although her father and Uncle still are suspicious of him.

A friendship develops between the two young people as the train continues north. This blossoms into a romance when the two become separated from her relatives. But can it last with Casper’s former friends urging other gangs all along the way to spot him and kill him?

3.) THE LONG WALK HOME (1990) focuses on the foot soldiers and not the generals in the Montgomery Bus Boycott during the late 1950s. Whoopi Goldberg is Odessa, who walks miles back & forth to the home where Sissy Spacek’s Miriam employs her as a maid. In church scenes we hear but never see Martin Luther King, Jr. inspiring the walkers.

Slowly naïve Miriam becomes aware of her maid’s hardship and the cruelty of the racist system her husband accepts without question. Meanwhile Odessa and the two other house servants have to listen in silence to the racist comments of the husband and guests.

Miriam begins to give Odessa rides, and there is all hell to pay when her angry husband is told about this and orders her to stop. The film shows the cost to America’s blacks, and even to a few whites, for standing up to –or should I say walking against–injustice.

4.) PHILADELPHIA (1993) is a story about a young lawyer fired by his bosses when they discover he has AIDS, then the scourge of the gay community. Originally, I was intending to use Broke Back Mountain for this list, but I decided to include the Tom Hanks film because it shows that minds can be changed by a well-made film.

While speaking about films at a college, a young Christian student came up to thank me and said this film showed her that her church was wrong about homosexuals. Tom Hanks as Andrew Becket opened her eyes to the humanity of gays and that they were not the demons her church had claimed.

She also saw the irony in Denzil Washington’s homophobic Joe Miller, who at first refused to accept Andrew’s lawsuit against his former bosses. At a time when most people were still prejudiced against gays, this film dared to affirm fellow human beings who deserved to be treated with dignity.

5.) THE SAINT OF FORT WASHINGTON (1993) stars Danny Glover as Jerry and Matt Dillon as Matthew, two homeless men trying to survive on the mean streets of Manhattan. They meet after the mentally disturbed Matthew is turned out of his public housing apartment because the decrepit building is to be demolished.

Jerry, suffering from his Vietnam War wounds, becomes a mentor to the naive Matthew. He shows him how to survive by washing windshields; finding shelter on subway trains late at night; nursing a cup of coffee for as long as the restaurant will allow, and dealing with unfriendly cops.

The film’s title refers to Matthew’s healing power that helps Jerry’s knee pain and the arthritic hands of a shoe shiner named Spitz. It also refers to the city’s Fort Washington Shelter, located in a large armory. Here on some nights the two can find a bed. But there’s a bully who does not like Matthew!

6.) THE IRON GIANT (1993) is my final film on this list because I wanted to include a movie for children, but did not want to choose a Disney or Pixar hit. Set in Maine during the Cold War when fear of Communism and the Bomb set people at each other’s throats, this is the story of a strange friendship between a boy and an alien robot.

Young Hogart one night sees what looks like a giant meteor falling into the woods. Venturing forth, he discovers a huge robot. Knowing how fearful adults are, he keeps his discovery secret, though because the Iron Giant must eat lots of metal, he does ask Dean if his friend can hide in his junkyard.

Federal Agent Kent Mansley is after the alien and comes close to setting off a nuclear explosion when he orders government forces to attack the I.G. Only the boy’s pleading with his friend not to fight back with his weapons avoids catastrophe. This is a great film for all ages about fear, violence, & what it is to be “human.”

All of these films expand our horizons, calling us to enlarge our hearts and make room for those whom the powerful would exploit. These films make us aware that as humans we are all bound together.

FILM, FAITH & CULTURE

LOVE MOVIES? Enjoy all of the free resources from Ed McNulty’s faith-and-film website:www.VisualParables.org 

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Honoring My Father… Just as He Was

Benjamin Pratts father in his 20s

My father in his 20s.

Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. Exodus 20:12

By BENJAMIN PRATT

I am exactly the same age my father was when he died in 1985.

There is something quite poignant and sobering about facing this life marker. I suspect it is reason enough to explain my recent pondering of life with my father—the sweet and bitter, the tough and tender, the proud and shameful.

“My mother told me never to go near the water until I learned how to swim.” That was my father’s humorous, yet character-revealing, risk-averse response each time I asked him to go swimming with us in Lake Erie. Or maybe it was wisdom, considering how polluted Lake Erie was at the time.

He loved to laugh, tell and hear funny stories and drop in one- liners. As he aged his favorite line was, “I get stiff in all the wrong places.”

My father covered his pain with humor, tender presence and hard manual work. The woman he dearly loved became chronically ill with my birth. We watched her steady, painful decline as if we were sitting on a thin limb that might break any moment—helpless, tenuous, restless. My father was a tender man who absorbed my mother’s rants as pain and loss consumed her vitality, bent her frame and distorted all her joints. He taught me compassionate presence in the face of limitations and frailty.

As the worm turns, Dad would not have been considered a successful man. As an auto mechanic he never made enough money for us to have our own home until I was in high school. Instead, we lived with grandparents.

Growing up on a farm he never completed a high school education. Yet, I remember many nights he schooled me in math until solid geometry defeated both of us.

Benjamin Pratts father coaching his little league team in the early 1950s

Dad, upper right, coached my team in the early 1950s.

He taught me the fine art of pitching baseballs—throw the ball from my full height and bring the pitch in just above the knees, or swing the ball from a sweeping sidearm that swoops in low across the plate. He was a patient, persistent coach, never yelling but always guiding.

We loved each other but rarely displayed physical warmth. I was and am proud of him.

We visited my mother’s grave a year after her death in 1980. We stood quietly together for some time when he softly said, “You’ve noticed that one side of this cemetery is filled with large, ornate tombstones. Your mother and I have markers that are flush with the ground. We chose this side because everyone is equal over here.”

Perhaps my most significant learning came after a scene that still haunts me. I was probably in the ninth grade at the time. The newspaper boy knocked on the door of my grandparents’ house to collect for the daily paper he delivered each morning, a total for the month of $2.35. I had answered the door and called my father to come. My father rifled through his pocket and found only a small amount of change. He turned to me and asked to borrow the money. I made a very smart mouthed comment about his need to pay me back since I had made the money mowing yards. His face was in pain as I left the room to get the money. He never scolded me. Maybe his shame was even greater than mine. I ached for days about what I had said. His silence stunned and taught me a lesson I may not have learned any other way.

Benjamin Pratt towers over his parents as he graduates from Grove City College in 1963

I towered over my parents when they came to my graduation from Grove City College in 1963.

Somehow I made the choice to accept this man I loved just as he was. I didn’t need or want him to be more than, at the core, he was. I look back and thrill with gratitude that I didn’t get locked into a struggle to make him someone else.

This feels like the completion of love, the acceptance of the other as the person he was. Professionally, I spent a lot of time counseling people who expended enormous energy trying to remake their parents, their spouse, their children, rather than accepting them with their gifts, graces and limitations.

As I cross this threshold of age at which my father died, I am grateful for the gifts this humble man gave me.

I’m reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer. Perhaps you may want to share it, as well, this week.

Father, give us courage to change what must be altered,
serenity to accept what cannot be helped,
and the insight to know the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

 

 

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Uniting at a wedding ‘salon’ in the heart of a zombie apocalypse

Julia and Erik Baker wedding in Georgia

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit.com

“You never know when you’ll be someone’s answer to prayer.”

These are the words I’ll remember most from my trip to Senoia, Georgia, the historic tree-lined town that’s now the home of the globally celebrated zombie apocalypse better known as AMC’s Walking Dead. There’s also an ongoing comic book series, but it’s the TV series that has fans circling the planet to visit tiny Senoia.

This week, as editor of our online magazine, I’m sharing a personal story of unexpected inspiration—even as I found myself surrounded by zombie fans. I flew down to Georgia with my wife Amy, plus one of our long-time copy editors Celeste Dykas and her husband Bryan to attend the wedding of the daughter of our marketing director Susan Stitt and her husband Evan. Anyone who has worked directly with our publishing house knows that Susan also is the head of a company called Morgan Street Media, which she operates from an office in their home on this quaint little thoroughfare called Morgan Street.

the walking dead tv stillWhat few people know is that Morgan Street actually is inside the sprawling, walled-off set used by AMC to produce Walking Dead. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ve glimpsed Susan’s house on TV many times. Weird but true—she runs her company and our marketing department from the heart of the TV set.

This past week, their home was wedding central and Susan hosted a rolling series of meals, receptions and what once were known as salons—occasions for diverse people to talk about life (and of course death given the apocalyptic world surrounding their home). Frankly, my life is so busy these days, I forgot how wonderfully inspiring a true, relaxed salon could be. In effect, the entire array of experiences surrounding the Stitt family wedding—all the many gatherings in Senoia—were part of Susan’s commitment to conversation. She even insisted that the DJ at the wedding reception regularly schedule periods when the music wasn’t set to an ear-shattering level.

“We told him—give people a chance to talk sometimes,” Susan explained.

Hollberg Hotel aka Veranda Bed and Breakfast (1)At one point during the long wedding weekend, for example, I sat on the front porch of the historic bed and breakfast where Susan had suggested we stay and talked at length with a publishing family from Netherlands who had traveled all the way to Georgia because they are huge fans of Walking Dead. They weren’t part of the wedding at all, but they wound up looped into the sphere of the unfolding event as I talked with them.

“Why travel all the way across the Atlantic for this particular TV show?” I asked the Dutch couple.

“Well, we are not ‘believers’ like you would say it here in this country. We are what you might call agnostics—not part of any church,” the patriarch of the family said. “But we are fascinated by the theology of the Walking Dead. It calls us to think about the most basic values of life and death and community and even barbarism. What is life itself? What is the extent of human aspiration? Why are we here? What holds us together as humans? Doesn’t everyone around the world wonder about these deep values?”

You get the idea: We were in one of the most unusual corners of the U.S. for a wedding and while you might figure that all weddings are pretty much alike these days—you’d be—well, dead wrong.

Susan’s family is deeply committed to a life of faith. She and her husband and their adult children all take seriously the callings of their Christian faith. What was so inspiring about this several-day wedding celebration is the often forgotten core of our collective faith that Susan and her husband Evan modeled for all of us. In fact, they repeatedly called us to this value throughout the four days of this event.

What is this “deep value” they laid before us?

It’s that faith should be an open door and, as we walk through that door, our lives connect with others and we recognize the possibility that each one of us might make life just a little better for the strangers we encounter.

Think about that for a moment. If someone asked you to describe your faith, is that a value you would remember to include on your list? In fact, it’s a truth in all the world’s great religious traditions, often called “hospitality.”

This may surprise you as well: It’s a truly American value. Read Dr. Wayne Baker’s book, United America, and you can find the elements of hospitality listed in the core American values identified in Baker’s years of research.

Throughout the events and meals and chance meetings that were part of this long-running Senoia salon—we encountered a wildly diverse array of strangers. We discovered, over time, that we were chatting with ultra-liberal Clinton supporters, hard-core Trump backers and nearly every other point of the political compass—but in the context of this celebration those divisions never caused friction. We conversed with rich and poor. We talked with young and old. We sat with traditional Catholics, evangelical Protestants and seekers on their own spiritual journey—but doctrine never divided us. Most of us were white, but some of us were black, Asian and of other ethnicities.

I was surprised to discover this shared culture in the hot-button summer of 2016 where every chance meeting with a stranger is a potential powder keg. Of course, we should not be surprised, Baker writes in his book. In his detailed research, he found that the No. 1 American value is “respect for others.” Baker also found that the vast majority of Americans believe we should accept people of different backgrounds—and that none of us should be afraid to express ourselves, even unpopular ideas.

And in Senoia last week: People didn’t talk about front-page conflicts. Instead, we talked about our families, our hopes and—even though our faith backgrounds were so different—we talked honestly about our faith. And by that I mean, we talked about the many ways our faith helps us to wake up each morning and face another day.

Consider this example: One of the universal fixtures in a wedding reception, these days, is the DJ with the bank of electronic devices booming dance tunes through the reception venue. We all know the standard routine and DJ patter, by now. But this DJ, in that setting in Senoia, felt moved to interrupt the music to make a point of personal privilege. DJ Mervin Sweeting told us all how proud he is to be married to his wife, who he met through his church, and how especially proud he is that she is now an eight-year cancer survivor. We cheered along with the Sweetings.

Or consider this: Everyone knows about wedding toasts. The best man is supposed to crack jokes and usually verges on the risqué—perhaps even delves into the truly crude.

Not this time. In this case, the best man told about his deep friendship with the groom and the many ways this dear friend had helped him to develop his own personal faith. One way the groom does that is through a motto he shares with people, the best man said.

“I don’t know how many times he’s said this to me. It’s one of his favorite things to say,” said the best man.

Listening to the toast, we had no idea what would come next. A joke after the inspiring build up? Perhaps a final ribald jab at the groom? But no, what the best man shared from his friend Erik was a perfect description of what our religious traditions mean when they call us to practice what the great sages call “hospitality.”

The groom’s motto is: “You never know when you’ll be someone’s answer to prayer.”

Thanks for the hospitality Susan and Evan!

Congratulations Julia and Erik!

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New: ‘ACCESS to School’ celebrates an all-American success story

ACCESS to School team launch their book

Team members from ACCESS gather to launch their new book at the Arab American National Museum. (Launch-event photos by Charles Baeder, used courtesy of ACCESS.)

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit.com

ACCESS to School book front cover

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

This week, our publishing house launched the first of six books, in partnership with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, telling the story of innovative programs to improve the school readiness of young children in low-income communities. The new book, ACCESS to School, tells readers nationwide about an unusual preschool program in a community that is attracting immigrants from rural Yemen fleeing the ongoing, lethal turbulence in their homeland.

That neighborhood also is home to many Hispanic-American families and one pleasant surprise in this ACCESS program are the friendly multi-lingual friendships that have formed between immigrant families from various parts of the world. These new Americans aren’t planning to stay locked in ethnic enclaves; they are eager to form cross-cultural relationships.

The book is an inspiring, true story about this program in Detroit, Michigan, that begins by teaching parents English as a Second Language—and then goes on to help the parents prepare their pre-schoolers to start attending public schools. It’s a huge challenge. At least some of parents in the program come from remote rural areas where they never had an opportunity to attend school.

Authors of ACCESS to School from left Nahed Alkashbari Amanda Morgan Anisa Sahoubah and Breanne Wainright

Authors of ‘ACCESS to School’ from left: Nahed Alkashbari, Amanda Morgan, Anisa Sahoubah and Breanne Wainright.

The success of the Detroit program, developed by educators from the Michigan nonprofit ACCESS, is nothing short of amazing. In the book, readers discover how the program was started, the challenges educators faced in launching this creative program and responses from children and parents who have taken this training.

Overall, the book shows how similar these immigrants’ stories are to the beloved stories told in countless American families about ancestors who crossed the world to contribute in healthy ways to communities in the U.S.

United Way team working with Social Innovation Fund and ACCESS

United Way for Southeastern Michigan team who facilitated the publishing project, from left: Rebecca Tallarigo, Shaun Taft, Jennifer Callans and Lindsey Miller.

“There is also a larger reason that our publishing house is proud to be working with United Way and ACCESS to send this book out to readers nationwide. All Americans need to hear this kind of inspiring story about Arab and Muslim immigration,” I said this week—speaking as Editor of our publishing house at the launch event for the book at the Arab American National Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate that originally was established by ACCESS.

“In 2016, we are hearing more toxic anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric in national politics than we have heard in more than a decade,” I said. “This book vividly reminds readers that America is a nation of immigrants. We need to be reminded that the strong American values these recent immigrants share are right in line with the stories told in countless American families whose ancestors arrived over the past century.

“This year, too many Americans are publicly reviving stereotypes about immigrants from the Arab world as if such new Americans bring dangerous values with them. In fact, we have the Islamic world to thank for preserving the world’s ancient wisdom and values for all of us. Most Americans don’t even know this vital chapter of our world history. This new book is all about educational innovation in one neighborhood today. But, as we talk about the importance of this new book—we also can say that this first book in the United Way series comes out of a community that historically has valued literacy as a way to improve our world.”

INNOVATION IN THE MUSLIM WORLD

What does that comment mean? The audience at the museum understood the reference, explained in historical displays in one gallery after another. Here’s some background on that vital part of our shared history:

Library in the Islamic Golden Age (1)

A 13th Century library in the Islamic world.

Today, we would have lost much of the world’s classic literature if not for the centers of translation and publishing, including the creation of diverse public libraries, that were hallmarks of the Islamic Golden Age. In the 8th and 9th century, Arab-Muslim scientists embraced research into mathematics, glass-making, astronomy, medicine and chemistry.

The Quran teaches that scholarship is a God-given talent and, in the Golden Age, great libraries were organized to preserve our collective wisdom. As the centuries passed, the Islamic world was a global center for map making, mechanical engineering, calligraphy and a wide range of talents used in publishing.

Care to read more? Just one example is the great library and center of scholarship known as the House of Wisdom, described in Wikipedia.

AMERICAN DREAMS & OUR CHILDREN

Khali Gibran in the 1880s (1)

Portrait of the artist as a young man: Khalil Gibran at age 15 in his new American home.

The final story I shared at the book launch involves perhaps the greatest Arab-American poet: Khalil Gibran, also profiled in Wikipedia. Gibran was born into a Maronite Christian family, but throughout his life he wrote about themes at the heart of many of the world’s great religious traditions.

In addressing the crowd at the book launch, I pointed to the poster-size cover of the new book and said, “Just look at the eager faces of the children on this book’s cover. Here in this museum, one of the main galleries opens with an exhibit on the famous poet Khalil Gibran. Gathered here today, we all know and celebrate this world-class poet. But, you may have forgotten that he arrived in Boston’s south side in 1895 at age 12 with a mother so poor that she had to work very hard to support him.

“The transformative moment in young Khalil’s life was his enrollment in a program that today we would call English as a Second Language—much like the families in this ACCESS program are doing more than 120 years later!

“That early opportunity helped him to become the Khalil Gibran the whole world celebrates today. Now, look again at the faces of the children on this new book cover. We could be looking at the faces of future Khalil Gibrans.”

 

 

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Ken Wilson adds a P.S. to his influential ‘Letter’ on LGBT inclusion

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Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

By DAVID CRUMM
ReadTheSpirit EDITOR

“Third way”—the phrase is buzzing through religious groups where members are searching desperately for some graceful and faithful way to welcome gay and lesbian members after a long history of condemning them. The Rev. Ken Wilson is widely regarded as the man who turned the “third way” idea into a national movement, largely through his popular and influential book A Letter to My Congregation and his ongoing website Third Way Newsletter. This spring, he is publishing an expanded second edition of his book to tell more of his story and to clarify what it means to chart a “third way” for congregations.

The latest major denomination to introduce the “third way” phrase is the United Methodist Church, which concluded its worldwide General Conference in Portland, Oregon, last week. The phrase “third way” was used by some church leaders debating strategies to get around the long-standing United Methodist condemnation of gay people—a condemnation so serious that the church’s pastors can be fired for so much as blessing a same-sex couple. The global conference ended with no immediate change on LGBT inclusion, which effectively maintains the church’s harsh condemnation for now. But, leaders did agree to a special gathering in 2018 where these issues will be reviewed in a comprehensive way.

What’s clear is that a “third way” option will be vigorously discussed for the next two years in one of America’s largest mainline denominations.

Wilson watched events unfold at the United Methodist conference from a distance, reading press reports. Overall, he said the denomination’s movement seems hopeful, especially by exploring a “third way” option. But he is not a member of that church.

As readers of the first edition of his book know, he was one of the nation’s leading pastors in the Vineyard denomination when he launched the third way within his large Ann Arbor, Michigan, congregation. Some Vineyard leaders followed his example; others staunchly opposed the move. In early 2014, A Letter to My Congregation carried his story coast to coast and drew many new, strong supporters of his compassionate approach to inclusive ministry. Since that time, Wilson has moved on from Vineyard to help establish a new denomination called Blue Ocean Faith that holds “third way” as a core principle.

The second edition of his book, first, shores up and clarifies some of the key points he makes about “third way.” Then it also tells the story of the remarkable spiritual journey he has taken over the past two years.

Photo of the Rev. Ken Wilson by Julia Huttar Bailey. Used with permission.

Photo of the Rev. Ken Wilson by Julia Huttar Bailey. Used with permission.

Does he have any regrets about the sometimes turbulent changes in moving from his former denomination into this entirely new Christian movement called Blue Ocean Faith?

“No regrets at all,” Wilson said in an interview about the release of the book’s second edition. “What I have added to this new second edition clarifies points I made in the original book that raised some questions with readers. And then I tell what’s happened since I first published the book.

“It is true that we all experienced a painful transition—but all of us at Blue Ocean are in a better place now. Sure, I look back and I ask strategically: How could I have managed the change process better? But that’s true of any change process.

“The reward of making church a safe place for sexual minorities makes the church safer for everybody. The reward for achieving that is so great that there’s no question of regret. And part of what I realize now is that I hadn’t even appreciated how many constraints I had been laboring under. I don’t spend a single moment saying I regret making this move.

“The freedom that people experience when they are fully included—that is to die for. That’s such a tangible reward that I want people to know: We can survive all the tomfoolery and pain that the Christian church can sometimes cause its members over these issues.

“What we need to remember is that there are people still coming to faith—and the very LGBT people who have been most targeted by the worst aspects of the church in the 21st century are still hungering for God and they are coming to the church.”

‘YOU CAN’T BE A PILLBUG’

Pillbug safely rolled up (1)What religious leaders are discovering—most recently at the global United Methodist gathering in Portland, Oregon—is that avoiding issues of gender and sexuality is impossible. America has moved dramatically toward acceptance both in terms of public opinion and legal protection—and that is ushering in an era when sexual minorities feel free to publicly express themselves. The question of inclusion vs. exclusion is a core issue of our time.

“That’s why I expanded my book, because this continues to be so important to families everywhere you go,” Wilson said. “You can’t be a pillbug anymore as a member of a faith community. You can’t curl up and live within your small world.

“We are all part of the wider world in irreversible ways. That’s been happening for a long time. With the internet and social media, parts of our lives that we used to whisper about in secret—we now shout from the rooftops. And that truth affects what it’s like to be a person of faith today. This affects the level of certainty we think we have on traditional ideas. We all are working out what the pathway looks like ahead of us. The third way allows us all to come together even as we are still working out what it means to be a church.”

In this difficult time of transition, some critics are chiding church leaders who refuse to move away from traditional teachings of condemnation and exclusion. Wilson said he is well aware of the criticism, including some highly critical voices that say the church is fatally flawed at this point.

“And to that, I say: It’s still a bold confession of faith to say that I’m a follower of Jesus Christ,” Wilson said. “And in saying that I’m reminding us all that Christianity is about following Jesus, a Jesus who is active and moving. We believe that he’s out there in the world today—making moves in our world. Our job is to be there with Jesus when he’s making his moves. In Matthew, Jesus summons people and this call is so compelling that they drop their fishing nets and follow him.

“That remains the essential movement of Christianity. Everything else is window dressing compared to that call to follow. We keep moving. And I continue to make my bold confession of faith: I follow Jesus Christ.”

Care to read more?

Check out the second edition of Wilson’s popular and influential book A Letter to My Congregation and his ongoing website Third Way Newsletter. 

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Alvaro Vega aka ‘Communion’: Roman Catholic Hip Hop Seminarian

Communion - headshot A

Alvaro Vega aka Communion

By DAVID CRUMM
ReadTheSpirit Editor

What’s new in the Catholic church? How about this: A Florida-based, Hispanic-American seminarian who is in the process of discerning a vocation to the priesthood—and has so much talent for hip hop music that he is creating new songs to help young people discover the love and power of God.

As a candidate for the priesthood, currently on a sabbatical, he’s known as Alvaro Vega in the Archdiocese of Miami. As a music and video artist, he’s emerging nationally as “Communion,” a stage name he chose to point toward the core sacrament in his church.

Ironically, Vega discovered his vocation to the priesthood in a very traditional way. In 2008, he began reading Thomas à Kempis’s early-15th Century classic, The Imitation of Christ. Like countless Christian converts over the nearly 600 years of the book’s existence, the stark spiritual teachings as described by Thomas à Kempis transfixed him. After finishing the book, Vega said in a profile published by the Miami archdiocese, he was convinced that “God was real, and was with me, and loved me.”

Like Thomas à Kempis many centuries before him, Vega decided to prepare for the priesthood. For two years, Vega left behind his early dreams of a musical career. But, well into seminary, he realized that God could use some hip hop in the church.

MEETING ‘THE BOY MESSIAH’

Chris-Stepien-Photo (1)

Chris Stepien

Most recently, Vega (as Communion) connected with another unusual Catholic media professional—Chris Stepien, who lives in Michigan. Stepien has worked for many years in broadcast TV, audio, video, writing and all-around media production for secular clients. Then, Stepien felt a calling—like Vega—to use his talents to inspire others.

Stepien stresses that he is neither a trained Bible scholar nor theologian. Nevertheless, Stepien set out to painstakingly research a vivid yet mysteriously brief chapter in Jesus’s early life. For many centuries, artists have referred to a brief passage in Luke’s second chapter as: Finding Jesus in the Temple. That particular scene was one of Rembrandt’s favorites among the Gospel stories. In summary: Jesus was 12 and his family went to the temple in Jerusalem at Passover. They headed home afterward; without telling them, Jesus stayed behind to talk with elders around the temple; and it took several days for the frantic family to reunite with their son.

After a long period of research, Stepien wrote Three Days: The Search for the Boy Messiah, a fictionalized account of what might have happened during those several days. The book is intended for Christian readers and has a combined rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars from 32 mostly glowing Amazon reviews.

3DAYS-front (1)

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

So, perhaps it was a movement of the Spirit—as Stepien tells the story—for this Midwest Catholic media personality with a book about Jesus’s childhood to connect with the Catholic artist in the Florida seminary using music to try to reach young people.

Stepien wrote the lyrics; Vega agreed to write the music, perform and produce it as a hip hop tune. While hip hop may not be everyone’s favorite form of music—the fact is that media experts say that hip hop is one of the most popular genres of our era.

No question: Once you hear Vega’s performance, it’s hard to forget the lyrics, which include:

So you’re the boy messiah with your bucket at the well.
Do they know what’s deep inside ya?
What it’s like to conquer Hell? …
So you’re the boy messiah
And you’re from a tiny town
Was a Virgin mom that had ya—
Holy Spirit came on down.

Intrigued? Read on … we’ve got the music video below!

Want more?

FIRST, GET THE BOOKS!
Chris Stepien now has two inspirational books you’ll enjoy. First, there is the original Three Days: The Search for the Boy Messiah, which one reviewer describes as “a wonderful interweaving of history and imagination exploring the life of a young Jesus.” Another reviewer puts it this way: “Stepien invites the reader to a rare exploration of the 1st Century life-setting and activities when Jesus actually walked upon the earth.”

Chris Stepien Dying to be Happy (1)

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Want to know more about Stepien’s own spiritual journey? In the spring of 2016, Beacon Publishing/Dynamic Catholic is releasing his new book, Dying to be Happy—Discovering the Truth about Life. In addition to telling some of his own story, he has gathered a series of short, true stories about people confronting and overcoming a fear of death. The book is structured so that readers could enjoy these stories over a series of days and, in the process, recapture the joy of life and faith.

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CHECK OUT THE MUSIC VIDEO!

Here is the “Communion” version based on Chris Stepien’s lyrics …

 

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