Miller Elementary School builds a ‘Fence of Friends’

Teacher Krista Jewett and Principal Aimee Bell at Miller school lead an anti-bullying assembly

USING VISUAL AIDS TO PREVENT BULLYING: At a Miller Elementary School assembly, teacher Krista Jewett (left in gray sweater) and principal Aimee Bell (at right) work with groups of children to discuss the best responses when bullying arises.

Hundreds of children agree:
Bullying Is No Laughing Matter

By DAVID CRUMM, Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“I was lonely, when I first came to Miller as a teacher. I didn’t know anyone! I was new here. I didn’t have any friends,” music teacher Mary Manier told hundreds of children in two assemblies at Miller Elementary School in Canton, Michigan. Behind her was a huge screen displaying the simple outline of a picket fence. Inside that outline were sketches of smiling people holding hands.

Miller teacher Mary Manier shows how to form a Fence of Friends

‘FENCE OF FRIENDS’ BEFORE & AFTER: In this photo, Miller Elementary music teacher Mary Manier talks about arriving at the school and meeting her first new friend. In the photo below, Mary Manier’s story ends with a long ‘Fence of Friends.’ (Photographs by Becky Hile for

“But do you know what happened on my first day? Someone greeted me and that made me feel a lot better,” Mary Manier said, inviting that first friendly teacher to walk to the front of the assembly, stand beside her and link arms to show their friendship. Then, Manier recalled a series of simple, kind actions by other teachers—and invited them to stand side by side. Soon, teachers had formed a long “Fence of Friends.”

Then, Manier turned to the hundreds of children sitting in rows on the gymnasium floor. “You all have people who care about you, too. You all have friends. Who is in your Fence of Friends?”

The school is racially, ethnically and religiously diverse, posing an ongoing cross-cultural challenge to the school staff. This year, the entire school—children, teachers, office staff and even janitors—are helping the children to understand how to build safe relationships at Miller. A school-wide survey of students alerted the staff that some children were anxious about the possibility of bullying. No major incidents have surfaced, but Principal Aimee Bell and her colleagues want to be proactive.

In early October, Bell, Manier and 4th grade teacher Krista Jewett invited me, as the head of ReadTheSpirit Books, to brainstorm ideas for engaging children in the effort. ReadTheSpirit publishes two helpful books: Michigan State University’s The New Bullying (for parents and teachers) and also Bullying Is No Laughing Matter (for adults to use with kids).

Miller teacher Mary Manier completes her Fence of FriendsThe Miller team especially liked the “Fence of Friends” activity, based on the Dennis the Menace comic strip. That activity guide is one of many that we provide in the Bullying Is No Laughing Matter website.

Last week, Miller held two assemblies, separating the students by age. The assembly for older students was longer and involved more talks by teachers, student skits produced by Krista Jewett’s students and brief videos on the big screen. The assembly for younger kids was geared for a shorter attention span. The high point for both groups was Mary Manier—with help from the school’s faculty—demonstrating the Fence of Friends.

“In the next week or so, you’re all going to get a chance to draw your own Fence of Friends,” Aimee Bell told the students.

The staff has duplicated hundreds of fence outlines on 8-by-11 paper, awaiting these student drawings. Teachers know that some students immediately will fill their fences with sketches of friends. Other children will sit quietly with a nearly empty fence. That’s when teachers will encourage students to look at the drawings that are emerging around the classroom—and students will be invited to “draw themselves in” to those fences that are still quite empty. In doing so, children commit themselves to being good friends for others throughout the school year.

During the assembly, Aimee Bell and Krista Jewett often turned the microphone to the children to get their responses. They asked: “Why is this so important?”

A boy named James said, “If somebody wants to bully you—you have someone to guard you.”

A girl named Julia said, “You know someone will stand by your side—they’re part of your fence.”

Through their short talks, student skits and short videos, the Miller staff stressed the nationally accepted definition of bullying (that definition is included in the Bullying Is No Laughing Matter book), then they demonstrated several strategies kids can use for quickly responding, and also they emphasized the need to alert adults if bullying persists.

Aimee Bell closed the assemblies by encouraging the students: “We’re going to talk a lot about how to respond to bullying this year. Now, we all know what bullying is—and we all know what to do when we see it.”

As children make their own Fence of Friends drawings in coming weeks, Miller teachers plan to post those drawings side-by-side to form a very long Fence of Friends around the walls of the school.

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Categories: Children and FamiliesGreat With Groups

Welcoming scholar and journalist Ken Chitwood to ‘Faith Goes Pop’

Click this snapshot of Ken's department to actually visit Faith Goes Pop.

help us welcome our newest ReadTheSpirit columnist Ken Chitwood! You can do that immediately by engaging in Ken’s creative invitation to share your own “Faith Pop.”

WHAT’S THIS ALL ABOUT? Ken Chitwood is a multi-talented journalist, scholar and “public theologian.” Ken’s work is global. In recent years, he lived and worked in South Africa and New Zealand; his online columns have appeared in news sites from the Houston Chronicle to Religion News Service; and, at the moment, he is working toward a doctorate at the University of Florida and has moved to Gainesville with his wife Elizabeth.

CHECK OUT HIS NEW HOMEThis week, Ken Chitwood takes the helm at the ReadTheSpirit department called Faith Goes Pop. That’s where Ken posted his “Faith Pop” invitation to all of our readers.

Ken explains his approach to this new work in another column headlined, “Faith Goes Pop?” That column opens with a photo of music superstar Taylor Swift and says in part: “The Faith Goes Pop portal will continue to take a bold foray into the unknown and untamable intersections between, and manifestations of, religion and popular culture. … As we can readily see, the possibilities are endless.”

Please, make time this week to visit Faith Goes Pop for a glimpse of these creative possibilities! Yes, you can play a direct, creative role—and help us all with our mission of “building healthier communities” while you’re at it. How can you resist? You can have fun—and perform a good deed—at the same time.

David Crumm interviewed Ken Chitwood about his debut in Faith Goes Pop.
Here are …


DAVID: Ken, I’ve devoted decades of my life to journalism that explores the impact of religion in our world and I have to say: In this very difficult field of writing—you’re so creative! A breath of fresh air. I’m going to start this interview by showing readers how you took part in a real-life #EmojiResearch project and created an emoji-studded Tweet that explains the work that you do. Here it is:

Ken Chitwood's Emojiresearch tweet

Tell us about this. I must have spent 10 minutes pondering this elegant little Tweet. (And, by the way, our readers can follow your Twitter posts here.)

KEN: I saw an article about academics trying to express their research work using emojis. (Here’s a Chronicle of Higher Education version of that article.) My wife and I use emojis all the time when we message each other. So, when I saw that article, I thought: Why not try to express the research I’m doing using emojis? I saw some of the examples by scientists and mathematicians and historians but no one had tried an emoji description of research in religion.

It’s been fun to see how people interpret what I did.

DAVID: That’s part of the fun. The pictures make it open to interpretation.

KEN: Yes. For example, I chose an emoji that encompasses religion in general—two hands clasped together. But some people interpret that as “prayer,” and asked me if I meant to say that I study just prayer. It opens up some interesting conversations.

DAVID: This week, as you debut at the helm of the multi-media Faith Goes Pop column, you’ve got a similarly creative challenge for all of our readers. You want people to “Show me your ‘Faith Pop!’” Tell us more about that.

KEN: The main idea is that I don’t want to see my own voice all alone in this adventure. I want people to have fun and explore with me. I’m saying: Come on! I’m calling this a “bold foray” and I hope people will join with me. I want people to use Twitter or Instagram or Pinterest or Facebook—whatever they prefer—and show us where they see faith going “pop” in the world around them.

Whatever they post, I want them to use the hashtag: #FaithGoesPop


Ken Chitwood author photo Faith Goes Pop


DAVID: This work you’re doing is fun. But it’s so important, too. You like to quote Stephen Prothero on this: “Teaching about religion is bound to be controversial, but so is ignoring it.”

Not only is this a key to any hope for world peace, it’s also an eye-opening way to learn about ourselves and our families, co-workers and neighbors. You write: “When religion and culture meet, this intersection … tends to be where our convictions are discovered or displayed.”

KEN: I’m an educator. I teach and write about religion. One thing you quickly notice when you do this kind of work is—things can get controversial. People may be elated by what you’re writing or teaching, if they’re supportive of what you’re doing, but you also can experience humanity at its worst if people perceive what you’re doing as challenging their beliefs. This kind of writing and teaching does challenge concepts, but I believe we can do this in a bold and exciting way, and even in a way that includes a bit of good humor. Our goal is to learn about each other. We become stronger as a community when we appreciate our diversity.

So, FaithGoesPop is predominantly about places in popular culture where we see a mixing and matching going on with religion. The way we react to that experience can reveal a lot about our own beliefs. In the classroom, I start teaching by bringing in headlines—or some new thing I’ve found in popular culture that connects with religion in some way—because that really gets people talking.

In these conversations, people are much more likely to share from their hearts. Yes, this can be contentious at times, but most often this is wonderful. It’s fun. We all learn about each other and we grow from the experience.

‘A Safe Place’

DAVID: We have some extensive experience in this field, thanks to the sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker who created The OurValues Project. Over the past seven years, Dr. Baker has shown that civil dialogues are possible, even when the topic is a hot-button issue torn from the week’s headlines. The keys to maintaining a civil dialogue are: inviting readers to participate with us, moderating the responses so that readers are not allowed to personally attack each other—and, in general, maintaining a safe place to creatively discuss different points of view.

I’m confident we’ll have a creative and exciting experience with Faith Goes Pop. But let me push you a little further on this question. You’re actually a Christian clergyman: Among your many accomplishments, you graduated from a Lutheran seminary and you’re an ordained minister. But, I’ve read a lot of your columns in other publications and you always maintain the journalist’s values of accuracy and balance. You may push readers with your news analysis—or occasionally with humor—but you’re writing from a balanced point of view.

Is that a difficult point of view to maintain?

KEN: I’ve always been very interested in diverse religious communities, since I was a boy growing up in Los Angeles. I was surrounded by diversity and I have always sought understanding among people. I was never someone who wanted to just label a group—and then avoid it. I always wanted to learn the stories, share the stories and have fun experiencing the diverse traditions of the people who live around us. Today, anyone can learn about other cultures and faiths, if you care to do that. I want to encourage more people to learn about diversity.

I am Christian. I am Lutheran and did go to seminary and that education is invaluable in grounding me in my own faith tradition. Now, at the University of Florida, I am studying religion in a trans-national, global way. In my own journey, for example, I’ve become very interested in Islam, which I think is one of the most misunderstood religions in the world. And I always am looking for diverse ways that these global traditions are experienced today. For example, you might find me writing about a Latino Muslim community in New Mexico, which is the kind of story that people don’t expect.

I have encountered people who ask: Why are you as a Christian studying other religions? Or they might ask me, after a particular column about Islam: Why are you writing so positively about Muslims? But I do this work because, as Stephen Prothero says, we must increase our religious literacy. I see that as part of God’s work in the world.

‘Theologian without borders’

DAVID: You call yourself “a theologian without borders.”

KEN: That’s true. I’m always looking for those places where the global becomes local—and the local becomes global. I’m not the creator of the term “glocal,” but I like that word. It’s an important idea in today’s world. We need to remember that we all have so much to learn.

I’m willing to go anywhere and learn from anyone to understand more fully how faith is playing a role in our world. I’m always looking for unusual connections. I want to know what it means to be a Christian in Kenya, or a Muslim in Mexico, or a Hindu in South Africa. I want to know how faith is shaping our world—as well as the place where we’re each living today.

I really do hope that readers will accept my invitation and agree to help me explore.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsPeacemaking

Bullying Is No Laughing Matter: Creating a ‘Fence of Friends’

Dennis the Menace in Bullying Is No Laughing Matter

CLICK THIS IMAGE to visit our free ‘Dennis the Menace’ activity guide.

WHAT are you doing for Bullying Prevention Month?

We are providing parents and teachers creative ideas for interacting with children about this problem plaguing many kids nationwide.

IS THIS A REAL PROBLEM? Yes. These days, it’s tough for adults to help kids get a handle on bullying because the attacks seem to surround children 24/7 through social media they can’t escape. This isn’t the same problem adults remember as uncomfortable playground encounters years ago. In our book by Michigan State University journalism students, The New Bullying, research shows that bullying is indeed a more persistent and dangerous problem than even a decade ago.

What are these “creative ideas” we’re providing? Teachers at Miller Elementary School in Michigan are asking their hundreds of students to take a page from our Bullying Is No Laughing Matter book—and draw pictures to discuss and display all around the school. Specifically, they’re using the free Dennis the Menace activity guide in our new section with the same name as our book:


As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I met with some of the staff at Miller Elementary School recently to discuss how this particular activity guide could be used school-wide. They already had printed out our Dennis the Menace activity page. On that page, a large comic shows Dennis and a friend standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a way that causes a would-be bully to walk away in a frustrated huff. The activity page then prompts readers with a thought: “The best defense is a Fence of Friends.”

Then an invitation: What does your Fence of Friends look like? Try drawing a picture of you with your Fence of Friends. Try not to forget anyone!

Then a reminder: “While Dennis the Menace is known to be a troublemaker, he’s never crossed the line into bullying.”

One of the teachers said: “We could have our children each draw their own ‘Fence of Friends’.”

We all agreed: Good idea! But, what about the more isolated children in the classroom who can’t think of friends to sketch to fill the “fence row” on their 8-by-11 piece of paper?

The answer … “The adults helping with this activity can watch for this happening in the group,” I said. “Some kids will whip off a sketch with many friends. Others will sit staring at their own figure on the paper. Here’s the best part: You can ask the speedy-sketching, outgoing children to consider walking around the room to look for children who have space on their paper for a friend. The kids themselves can demonstrate this concept of forming a ‘Fence of Friends’ by drawing themselves into another child’s ‘fence.’ “

“I like that!” another teacher said. “Drawing yourself into someone else’s Fence of Friends to show that you’re going to be an ‘up-stander,’ someone who stands up as a friend for others. That’s a good idea.”

This week, Miller school kids are working on this idea. Teachers are having children make their drawings, which may wind up forming a school-wide Fence of Friends. And they are planning two assemblies this week to talk with younger and then older kids about the problem of bullying. They plan to show off their ever-growing fence as a school-wide commitment made by the children themselves.


And, that’s just one study guide in our growing website. The book contains three dozen different comics, each one useful as a “discussion starter” for teachers and parents who want to interact with kids about this tough problem of bullying. While looking at a cartoon in the book, it’s easy to ask questions like: “Have you seen that happen?” “What should happen next in this comic?” “Want to draw your own?”

Bookmark and come back every week for another new activity guide.

In addition to Dennis the Menace, we’ve also published guides to these comics: Blondie, Broom Hilda, Pickles, For Better or For Worse, Rip Haywire, Luann, Jump Start, Stone Soup and It’s Magick.

A new guide appears each Monday, so stay tuned! And tell friends! Use the blue-“f” Facebook or envelope-shaped email icons with this column to spread the news.

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Categories: Children and FamiliesPeacemaking

The Kent Nerburn interview on ‘Letters to my Son’

Kent Nerburn book cover Letters to My Son New World Library

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

BEFORE Kent Nerburn became the beloved author of Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder

BEFORE that best-selling book went into production as an upcoming feature film …

Before all of that—Kent first was a promising young sculptor whose best pieces wound up in collections from the U.S. and Canada to Japan. Through his sculpture and his early writing, Kent expressed his passion for personal spiritual renewal. If we hope to lead satisfying lives, we must grapple with the values and spiritual insights that shape our world, he argued in Letters to My Son: A Father’s Wisdom on Manhood, Life, and Love. The themes in that book, published 20 years ago, later would echo in his research, travel and writing about Native Americans.

Now, New World Library is re-releasing this early book in an updated and expanded form—and today ReadTheSpirit is highly recommending this new edition.

Kent says, “Letters to My Son still has a special place in my heart, and I’m glad that New World wanted to republish and expand it.”

He admits, though: At first, the idea of expanding the book was a problem. A lot of readers had responded enthusiastically to the book over the years. What could he add to that? “I agreed to do this, then I had to figure out what I could add. The book was written so long ago at a different point in my life,” he says. “I had to think about this for a long time.”

What he added in just a couple of chapters is a deeper perspective about life’s most challenging transitions—moving from one home to another, aging and losing loved ones.

For Kent’s legion of fans who may be reading this interview: No, this is not a new volume in Kent’s best-selling Native American trilogy, which includes (after Wolf nor Dog): The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows and the 2013 book The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky.

However, this newly revised book does, indeed, talk to readers from the same source of passion that shaped Kent’s very popular Native American trilogy. In fact, one way to describe the theme of Letters to My Son is to say: It mirrors the so-called “Seven Generations” pledge in the Iroquois “Law” that peacefully bound tribes together in the early 1700s. Later, that Iroquois text influenced the drafting of our U.S. Constitution. The Iroquois Law says in part:

In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. … Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground–the unborn of the future Nation.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Kent Nerburn about the new edition of Letters to My Son. Here are …


DAVID: In this interview, I’m going to start by reading four short passages from your book. Then, I’ll ask you to talk about each passage. Here’s the first passage from early in your book. Recently, my own father died after a very long life and I’ve often thought about the idea you express here: We cannot predict from our countless interactions in life exactly which moments will influence us the most. You write …

Who can know which touches have meaning? A word here, a glance there, a time together, a time apart—which will be the moments that will rise up in memory and shape the child who looks without judgment on all that you do and say?

Kent Nerburn. (Photo used with permission of the author.)

Kent Nerburn. (Photo used with permission of the author.)

KENT: Those words you just read represent core philosophy in my life. If we put ourselves out there in the world, then we are of  the world—and what happens to us is out of our control. We can set the course but we can’t guarantee who we’re going to meet or what’s going to happen as a result of those meetings.

We know that some of our encounters will change our lives. But, we don’t know which encounters will change us—or will change others’ lives. And we can’t predict how those encounters will change us.

Now, when I meet someone and we begin talking, I’m constantly aware that what I say—and what we do together in this encounter—might be a moment on which our lives will turn.

That’s why our encounters with others have such spiritual power and why we should treat them with great care.

DAVID: Here’s the next passage—a little further into the book. You’re talking about choosing the kind of work we do as an essential part of shaping a satisfying life. You write:

What you need to do is think of work as “vocation.” This word may seem stilted in its tone, but it has a wisdom within it. It comes from the Latin word for calling, which comes from the word for voice. In those meanings it touches on what work really should be. It should be something that calls to you as something you want to do, and it should be something that gives voice to who you are and what you want to say to the world.

So a true vocation calls to you to perform it and it allows your life to speak. … A vocation is something you feel compelled to do, or at least something that fills you with a sense of meaning. It is something you choose because of what it allows you to say with your life, not because of the money it pays you or the way it will make you appear to others. It is, above all else, something that lets you love.

KENT: Again, core philosophy in my life. Another way of thinking about this is to ask the question: What have I found that, once I begin doing it, I can’t stop? Or: When I wake up in the morning, what am I eager to do for another day? If you have found something like that, then you should try to build a life around it.

I didn’t start my adult life knowing that I wanted to be a writer. As you know, I started out as a sculptor, but as I worked and met people—I kept hearing stories that moved me. I discovered that I loved to travel. Anything that involved collecting stories and traveling was something that I was eager to do. Eventually, I found a form of doing those things for a living—by becoming a writer. And, yes, this did turn out to be an easier task for me than it might be for other people. But the process is the same: Find something that you’re eager to do when you wake up in the morning, connect it with other things that call to you in the same way—then see if you can build a life around that kind of work.

If you do find something you love doing, then your vocation does become a voice for your life. It’s how you spend your days. It’s how you put your feet on the earth. It defines your time on the planet.


DAVID: The next passage comes from later in your book and appears in a chapter called “Leaving.” This chapter really moved me, because I had been going through the slow death and then the funeral preparations for my own father, so I was thinking a lot about the departures in my own life as I read this passage:

I now look at every act of leaving—whether from a home, a relationship, a job, or any other situation where we have invested our time and heart—as having love at its core. It may be love for what we had, love for what we have lost, love for what might have been, or simply love for the familiarity of what we are leaving. …

The place, the person, the world you are leaving helped form you, for good or for ill. It made you who you are and moved you further along the adventure that is your own unique life.

The secret to a good leaving is to know how to turn toward your past and say, “Thank you.”

Being thankful for something is not the same as giving your approval for what it was or what it did to you. But holding anger toward it gives it power to shape your future and define your life.

Who among us has not been treated cruelly by another? Who among us has not had our heart broken? Who among us does not wish that we could have back at least one choice that we have made? These experiences are part of life, but they damage us only if we let them.

KENT: I’m glad you chose that passage to read. It’s from one of the two new chapters that I wrote when they asked me to update this book. I thought: What can I write about now that has a voice in keeping with the original book that was written so many years ago? And I concluded that I should write about this principle: Our life—whatever is given to us in life—is a gift. That may sound like a simple thing to say, but think about it for a moment. So many people look at their lives as a limitation, as a series of regrets, as a series of people we blame for doing this or that to us. And I do not doubt that there is real pain in our lives. But most importantly, we must realize that life itself is a gift.

Every day, every encounter is an opportunity to re-examine our lives and the lives of others. It’s true that for some people life may be a very dark gift. These encounters may carry emotions that we don’t want to deal with because they’re just too painful. But if we see life as a gift and each encounter as a potential moment of re-examination in our lives, then we are on a path to a much deeper appreciation of life.

You mentioned your Dad and I’ve written in this book and in others about my own relationship with my Dad and about various experiences I’ve had with leaving and with loss. When they asked me to write something new to add to this book, I thought: Everyone will experience leaving and loss. We need to talk more about this, so I wrote this chapter and I hope readers will find it helpful.


DAVID: The last of the four passages describes what I’ve heard other writers call a third stage in life. Richard Rohr and Brian McLaren have written about this process of aging and this idea of a later stage in life when we shift the way we approach our work and the world. Toward the end of your book, you write:

I am more patient now. Like the crops in the field, I know that there are times to act and times to wait. The seeds I have planted will blossom only when they will, and nothing I can do will rush them.

I am clearer. My youthful desires and dreams have settled into simple truths, and common kindness often seems enough.

I bear burdens more gladly. The joyous weight of family and fatherhood have softened my heart, and I more willingly embrace the obstacles and limitations of life.

But most of all, I am gentler with myself and others, because I know something of grace—how much our lives are the product of a touch, a glance, a letter never sent or received.

KENT: You made good selections. There is a thread here that runs through all of these passages and ties us back to the initial idea in that first passage. Who knows what the touch is, or the moment is, when our life will turn? That awareness can shape our lives so that we embrace the people and the things that we encounter. I’ve tried to live my life that way and it has led me toward quietism and balance.

Now, I can still get as mad as anyone at that crazy dangerous driver who we all will encounter on the road. Things happen that make us mad. People do bad things to us. But I have come to appreciate the Native American idea of balance.

When some crazy driver cuts us off on the road and nearly causes us to crash, we get angry, we may choose some colorful language to shout at that guy, and we may want to get even with him. But, that’s not the way Native people try to think about bad things that happen. They are more interested in restoring balance.

That’s a different way of responding to bad things that happen to us. Native people have a way of approaching this that isn’t all about righteousness or revenge or trying to even the score. They talk about wanting to put life back in balance.

That’s something we understand as Midwesterners. My wife and I have moved west to Oregon now to be closer to our grandchildren, but I think of myself as a Midwesterner after all of our years in Minnesota. Midwesterners understand this process because we experience the cycles of the seasons year after year. We understand cycles and seasons and the idea of life’s balance.

I’m not a fatalist. And I’m certainly not saying: We can’t do anything about injustice in life, so don’t even try. What I am saying is: Our feet are in the clay and we have limitations in what we can do in life. So, accept our limitations and wake up each morning and appreciate the gift of this life with all of its cycles, its seasons and its balance.


DAVID: Your fans are eager to know more about the movie. IMDB says the movie is slated for 2015 and we know that Christopher Sweeney plays you in the movie. We also know that the director paid attention to finding Native Americans to play key roles in your story. Richard Ray Whitman, who has appeared in a number of Native American independent films, plays your friend Grover, who readers of Neither Wolf nor Dog know so well. Can you say just a word about that movie?

KENT: I hope that my story has new life in this film. The characters in the book were developed from real people I knew. I took these real people and transmuted them into the characters in the book. Now, I hope that the actors and the director will transmute the characters in my book into this film.

There are a few small changes. If people are very familiar with the book, they will notice a few of these things. In my book, Grover has a crew cut and he doesn’t in the movie. Things like that. But I appreciate the authenticity that has been brought to this film. The man who plays Dan is a legitimate Lakota elder who carries around in his life all of the pain as well as the deep core values of the Lakota.

So, overall, I’m fascinated by how the original story and the film are interweaving and producing something new for the audience.


DAVID: The last thing I want to ask about is your relationship with your huge and loyal fan base. I’ve interviewed hundreds of authors in recent years and I’ve found very few with the kind of enormous, affectionate readership that you have attracted.

Here’s just one example: A year ago, you published The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo and I just checked the Amazon reviews for that book. You’ve got 126 reviews, which is a lot, but more significant is the fact that 121 of those reviews give your book 4 or 5 stars. Five reviewers did give your book 3 stars. But you haven’t had any reviews with 1 or 2 stars.

How do you interact with your readers beyond the books themselves?

KENT: One of the early encounters that shaped my life was back when I was a graduate student at Stanford. And I began to feel that I didn’t fit in the mix of what was going on at Stanford in the early ’70s. I already had started doing some writing and I was reading, too. I was quite taken by a book from Norman Mailer. So, here I was this earnest young man and I wrote to Norman Mailer.

He wrote back. His letter was short and personal. I still have his note. It meant a lot to me that he took the time to write back. Because of that response I received from Norman Mailer, I decided: I am going to answer letters that I receive. And, I still do.

Today, I have to keep the exchanges short. Sometimes readers want to engage for extended periods and I’ll have to say: I’ll respond once or maybe twice, but I can’t respond more than that. But, because I have spent all that time writing to people over many years, I’ve established a very strong connection with my readers. I care about my readers. I care about their lives. I can’t write extensively to them, but I do enjoy the interaction.

That’s one reason I have a good relationship with readers. A second reason is that my books are first-person narratives and my readers identify with me. They’ve taken journeys with me through my books.

In my books, I invariably write about myself as the traveler, the learner, the one who is sharing stories from someone else. I go out into the world and encounter people who might be my teacher for a time.

So, if they’re reading my books in the right way, my readers don’t see me as the teacher. I guide them in going out and finding teachers. Readers look at me as a model of ways that they can travel and look for teachers, too. My relationship with my readers is a real joy to me and I hope that they will find something helpful to them in this new book, too.


(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)


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Good News from Detroit: We’ve never seen a book launch like this!

Editor of ReadTheSpirit

DETROIT, MI—Think book publishing is fading in the face of new media? Think the City of Detroit is “bad news”? Need some good news today?

We’ve never seen a book launch like this in the city of Detroit! Nearly 1,000 men and women from across Michigan bought tickets to Detroit’s Orchestra Hall on Saturday (September 27) to celebrate the launch of the city’s first ecumenical publishing house in 200 years, headed by one of the city’s most accomplished pastors: the Rev. Faith Fowler.

In a lengthy Detroit Free Press column, Mitch Albom writes: “Faith Fowler, 55, is not your typical pastor. She is funnier. And more blunt. And, Lord, does she get things done. … She is the most important currency of our city, a loving, egoless, inspiring leader who doesn’t see color, doesn’t see class, who looks at our poorest, most neglected citizens and sees only hope and opportunity.” At the Orchestra Hall event, Mitch showed up in person to further praise Faith’s work.

And Mitch was not alone! The launch was a symphony of community connections, orchestrated by Faith.


William Jones of FocusHOPE and Laurie Haller of Birmingham First United Methodist read at the Cass launch event

A SIGN OF UNITY: Focus:HOPE’s William Jones reads with Birmingham pastor the Rev. Laurie Haller.

It’s accurate to call this launch “unique.” The crowd was enormous. The landmark setting was inspiring. Detroit hasn’t seen a publishing house like this in two centuries.

But the real reason this launch was unique? It was not all about Faith Fowler. In fact, she appeared on stage only briefly. It’s a rule in American publishing that book launches are a showcase for the author—but not this one!

Faith made sure that this launch was all about the community. And that is Faith’s most important talent. The Orchestra Hall stage was filled by musical groups from her congregation, singing such stirring selections that people in the crowd leaped to their feet, hands waved and “Amen! Amen!” echoed through the auditorium.

Everyone at Orchestra Hall felt the electricity when a beloved sports legend, retired University of Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr, took the stage.

Anyone who cares about the city of Detroit was moved when the Rev. Laurie Haller, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Birmingham, took the stage to read one of Faith’s stories with William Jones, the head of Detroit’s famous Focus:HOPE. In the crowd, minds silently flashed the connections: Suburb and City. White and Black. Female and Male. Church and Nonprofit.

Together, Haller and Jones read a moving story from Faith’s book. But they did more than read to the crowd. The sparked possibilities. Their appearance alone was good news to many.


ReadTheSpirit reaches readers around the world—but if you are in Michigan this week you can catch this infectious spirit. Come and see! Faith and friends are touring Michigan all this week.

Detroit Orchestra Hall ready for Faith Fowler launch of Cass Community PublishingOn Sunday, September 28, Fowler and the Cass musical group, the Ambassadors, begin a week-long, statewide tour. All events begin at 7 p.m. except the Gaylord event, which begins at 6 p.m. Admission to these tour events is—free! Books and Cass Green Industry products will be available for purchase. Profits from book sales benefit the work of Cass Community Social Services.

Come on!
Get involved!

Wherever you live in the world, you can catch the fire of this amazing “good news” campaign.

The crowd at Orchestra Hall was as diverse as Michigan, but United Methodists were were especially well represented—because Faith herself is a United Methodist pastor. Just as this was a historic day for those who love the city of Detroit, this was a proud milestone for Michigan United Methodists.

“It was such a great day!” said the Rev. Marsha Woolley, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Northville, MI. “I brought with me some women who are native Detroiters and who, these days, are feeling really good about what is happening in Detroit. Experiencing this launch was just so inspiring—about the city of Detroit and about ministry in Detroit and about all those of us who want to work with the city’s very diverse people.”

“Inspiring! Uplifting! That’s what I felt,” said Maggie Hakala, a member of First United Methodist Church in Plymouth, who also went to the launch with a group of friends. “The readings from the book were so great. We all got our books as we left and I’m really looking forward to reading it, now. And I have to say: We appreciated the visit from Mitch Albom, too!”

Learn more about Faith’s book and buy a copy right now.

(SPECIAL THANKS: Becky Hile and John Hile took the photographs published with our coverage of this book launch.)

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Categories: ChristianChurch GrowthGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

Marcia Falk interview on ‘The Days Between’

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

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

Whatever your faith and whatever the season, Marcia Falk has blessings, poems and spiritual guidance to help you through a time of reflection and renewal. Her new book is called, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.

As the subtitle indicates, this is a series of reflections, readings, blessings and prayers appropriate to each day from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. But this book also is full of timeless spiritual wisdom, eloquently signaled in these concise lines. Consider this eight-line reading that Falk calls “Turning the Heart.”

Slow spin of earth
against sky—

imperceptible yet
making the days.

One stone tossed
into the current,

and the river, ever-
so-slightly, rising.


ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Marcia Falk. Here are …


DAVID: Your website,, describes you as “Poet, Painter, Judaic Scholar.” We will include a photo of your book’s front cover, which features your watercolor-and-pencil work, called “Gilead Apples.” Your career is so varied. How do you describe your overall body of work to audiences, when you tour and talk about your new book?

Marcia Falk, photo used with author's permission.

Marcia Falk, photo used with author’s permission.

MARCIA: I would say that I am a creative artist, a poet and a translator with a strong scholarly background in the work I do. I’ve brought together the literary world and the world of scholarship in my work interpreting and recreating Jewish liturgy from a non-hierarchical perspective. I don’t just sit down and write liturgy. Everything I do is based in the tradition.

DAVID: Evidence of your very thoughtful process is that your books take many years to complete. Probably your most famous book—at least one that has been on my own reference shelf for many years—is your rendering of The Song of Songs.

MARCIA: That has been in print for almost four decades and it has migrated through a number of publishers over the years. It is available today from Brandeis University Press. I began that work when I was a graduate student in English and comparative literature at Stanford, independent studies in three different areas at once: I was in a poetry translation workshop and I was doing an independent study in American poets and then—and this is the most important thing—I had decided to go back and study the original Hebrew Song of Songs, which of course I had known since childhood in my Jewish background.

I remembered The Song of Songs as very musical and lyrical and I already loved the book but I had never studied it. It is an extremely different book linguistically. I worked with a Bible scholar, sitting together and reading this book. I researched every word and phrase and never thought about translating it. I was just absorbing the book. And then one night my translation workshop had an evening when we were sharing our work. When my turn came, I said, “I don’t have anything to show. I’ve spent all my time studying this wonderful book and it’s completely taken over my life.” I began to talk about The Song of Songs and how they couldn’t understand this aspect of it from the King James Version or they would miss this aspect in the Revised Standard Version. I was talking to them about what’s in the original Hebrew.

That’s when I realized that I really should translate this book that had become such a big part of my life. And, that took me years. I went to Israel. I wanted to study at the feet of the great Bible scholars there. I wanted their approval that I was on the right track. Eventually my translation became my doctoral dissertation, the translation accompanied by a commentary.

DAVID: That’s a terrific story because it conveys to our readers the great care and the long years you spend on your work. Let’s point out that I’m certainly not alone in praising The Song of Songs. A very long list of great literary lights have praised that book, including Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer who wrote about your book, “I thought until now that the Song of Songs could not be translated better than the King James Version. Marcia Falk really managed to do an exceptional poetic job. She has great power in her language.”

So, then, leaping forward to the mid 1990s, you produced the big Book of Blessings.

MARCIA: I actually began writing that book in 1983. It was a 13-year project; The Book of Blessings finally came out in 1996. That book is a recreation of prayer for Shabbat, the Sabbath, and for weekdays. My impetus for doing that book was a deep frustration with the patriarchal focus of traditional prayer that was so unsatisfying to the point of being painful for many Jewish women and, it turns out, many Jewish men as well. When it was published, that book created a pretty big stir in the Jewish world.

Then, in 1996, I thought I would dive right into the next volume, which would be for the high holiday season, because that is the time of year when more Jews enter the synagogue than at any other time of year. But The Days Between, which just was published, took another 18 years.

DAVID: I’ve been a journalist covering religion and cross-cultural issues for 40 years now and I am fascinated by this thoughtful, long journey represented in your work. There is a great deal that evolves and matures in us as we go through the years. I talked about this issue, this spring, with the writer Barbara Brown Taylor and asked her why five years had passed between books.

Barbara laughed at that and said: “I envy the writers who can turn out a book every year, but I teach full time, my husband and I live on a working farm, I travel a lot to speak. And, honestly, I think it’s worth taking time to actually live the kind of life that will produce something worth writing about.”

MARCIA: There are many reasons it took me so many years: raising a child, needing to make a living as a professor and many other things. But the main reason was that this needed to evolve in my mind and heart. I needed to really grapple with what this very difficult liturgy was all about. The themes of the high holidays are extremely profound and they are at the core of all of human endeavor.

It took this many years to complete, really, because I needed to live long enough in the world—and needed all of the experiences that come with birth and grief and growth and renewal and all the things that make up a human life through those years. I needed to grow through all of that. My living was seeping into my poetry all that time.

DAVID: I hope that readers of this interview understand that, while your book is Jewish and ideal for Jewish readers, this book also can be appreciated as an inspiring and spiritually challenging reader for non-Jews as well. As I was preparing for our interview, Marcia, I was also balancing hours of visiting my father in hospice care. He’s at the very end of his long life, now, and I found many passages in your book just electrifying.

Let me read one prose passage from the opening of the book that really helped me in my own reflections right now. You write: “Positioned between dawn and dusk, dusk and dawn, we live between past and future because we cannot live in them; we cannot act in them or change their outcomes. In this sense, past and future don’t exist for us: only the time between them—the present time—exists.” And then you continue a few lines later: “How do we live with the knowledge not just of our own mortality but of the truth that we cannot hold on to anything? How do we keep from succumbing to despair?”

I underlined those lines and turned down the corner of that page. That summarizes, so eloquently, the spiritual challenge we all face at times of major life transitions. It certainly was very helpful to me in the midst of hospice care with my Dad. I read those lines aloud to him.

MARCIA: To me, that’s the best reward as an author—to hear that kind of response from a reader. I should also mention that it’s been very interesting to me that, wherever I speak about this book, hospice workers in particular come up to me and I see how engaged they are. I feel very gratified that the book is of use to those in hospice. I think that hospice workers are doing something extremely important in our world world.

DAVID: I think it speaks, even more broadly, about how these timeless truths and insights—these blessings and prayers—can touch many lives whatever one’s faith might be. So, let me close our interview by asking: What do you hope general readers will take away from reading your book?

MARCIA: For my Jewish readers, I hope I’m bringing a new entry into Judaism. I also hope it will reveal something for non-Jewish readers as well. I hope it touches people and enriches their paths through life. We’re all human beings and we’re all in this together.

In this book, I am dealing with big themes that speak to and for all of us. Of course, I’m doing this in Jewish language and metaphor—but ultimately for any religion or tradition to meaningful, it has to be dealing with the universals of human life. No religion works unless it is really talking to the whole community of humanity.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleGreat With GroupsHolidaysJewish

Immersed in the spirit of tashlikh as a family

As part of our coverage of the Jewish High Holidays, ReadTheSpirit magazine welcomes author Lynne Meredith Golodner, writing about her own contemporary experience with tashlikh.

Throwing Away Mistakes:
It’s that time of year


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe will walk through the cascading hills of Cranbrook’s grounds, between and among the tree-shaded trails. The kids will climb into the arms of a steady old tree, balance in the fork of branches, jump down without fear. We will debate whether to take the path that leads to a carefully scripted line of boulders, where they can dance and skip from rock to rock, or take the other path, the back way, and end up at a grand finale of stones.

At some point in the middle of this autumn hike, my four children, husband and I will pause beside the water. Most years, it’s the drumming river next to the Japanese gardens, but last year we sat on a platform beside the still and silent pond. Either way, we’ll open the bag of old bread and crumble pieces into crumbs to disseminate over the water’s surface, letting the current take last year’s choices and regrets away forever, making room for this year’s clean slate.

This is the tradition I’ve built with my family in the spirit of tashlikh, the Jewish practice on Rosh Hashanah, or sometime between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 10 days later. Tashlikh is the ritual of throwing away our sins so that we may start anew, start fresh, in the dawning of a new year.

It’s a cleansing, so to speak, of the soul.

When I became a single mother of three young children in 2008, I began my journey toward personalizing my spiritual pursuits. I grew up as a secular Reform Jew, doing my duty–services twice a year, where my sister and I camped out in the synagogue bathroom and commented on other people’s outfits. Bored by the observances, we muscled through until the time when we were set free into the parking lot and onward to home, to imbibe chicken soup and matzoh balls and revel in the day off from school.

In young adulthood, I chose Orthodoxy, my form of rebellion. I spent a decade in the ritualistic rigidity of very traditional Judaism, learning the roots of my heritage, observing as much as I could stomach. I sat in long services on two days of Rosh Hashanah, trying not to fidget from the not-knowing, the lack-of-understanding. My rabbi had compassion; he encouraged me to attend a learner’s service, admitting that the high holy day observances are heavy, too much for someone not raised in the culture of immersion.

I dreaded the 25-hour fast day of Yom Kippur, though I did it, muscling through in the way that I did as a child in my liberal synagogue. Either way, I didn’t find my place in my religion until I set myself free from an unhappy marriage at the age of 37. It was then that I felt brave enough, confident enough, strong enough, to create my own rituals, and involve my children in tangible observance of our long tradition.

The first time I took the kids to Cranbrook for tashlikh, I made a conscious choice not to use the word “sin,” which is the common construction for this practice. The bread crumbs symbolize our sins, which we cast off for the moving waters to carry away from us. And then we are free, free from sin, a clean canvas with which to start a new year, in hopefully better spirits and character than the one just ended.

I didn’t want to teach my children that our religion is a punishing one. I wanted them to embrace themselves in success and in failure, and the word sin has such a harsh connotation. So I used the word “choice,” asking the then 2-, 4- and 6-year-old sweet ones what choices they would like to make in the coming year.

“I will be nicer to my brother,” said one of my children.

“I will listen to Mommy more,” said another.

“I will read more books,” said the third one.

And I joined them, admitting my own human-ness in front of these precious souls.

“I will try not to yell,” I said. It was hard being a single mother; I was easily excitable in those early years trying to figure it out for myself. I threw that regret into the waters and watched the bread crumb dissolve into nothingness.

After the bread supply was depleted and I had just a plastic bag left to carry home, we continued on our journey. The Pewabic tiled fountain under leafy pine and maple. The cairn beside the swampy pond. Overgrown shrubbery nearly obscuring the narrow path toward the majestic old house with its fountains and gardens.

We dipped into the Greek amphitheater and the children ran up and down the rows of seats, called with echoing voices from the open stage. We were free in the forest, reveling in our connection and in the freedom to be reborn after making mistakes, grateful for second chances.

My children are older now and I am thankfully calmer. We still do our tashlikh routine, a favorite of mine at least, with each passing year. We go to synagogue to mark the significance of the holiday season with community, but it isn’t until we get out in the open air and sunshine that we feel energized to start anew.

I have two middle-schoolers who roll their eyes at me even as they snuggle in close. I have a third-grader and a fifth-grader, too. All are wrapped in their version of good and bad, their understanding of the way our world rejuvenates itself.

I still use the word “choice,” preferring its participatory connotation over the finger-wagging “sin.” As we stroll along the pine-scented trails, I listen more than I talk, letting them take the stage, letting them share their revelations of what it is to live a good life, what it is to release regret into the warm hug of the generous world.

Lynne Meredith Golodner is author of eight books including The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads. She owns a public relations company called Your People LLC, guiding spiritually-focused businesses and nonprofits in storytelling and relationships to build their reach, and blogs daily at She lives with her husband and four children in Huntington Woods, Michigan.

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Categories: Jewish