Onaje Woodbine interview: Discovering Yoruba roots in basketball

Cover of the book Black Gods of the Asphalt by Onaje Woodbine (1)

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

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit

Most Americans have never heard of the Yoruba religious tradition—but religion scholar Onaje X. O. Woodbine is working to change that. A teacher, author and also a trained Yoruba shaman, Woodbine begins to explore Yoruba’s global influence in his debut book, Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop and Street Basketball.

ReadTheSpirit magazine is publishing this interview with Woodbine to recommend that you read his fascinating new book—and make note of his name to follow his work in the future. Black Gods of the Asphalt is likely to change your entire perspective of urban basketball. As Woodbine analyzes the complex religious themes he sees in the culture of street basketball, he also briefly introduces his considerable wealth of research into the influence of Yoruba culture.

Simply put: Buy this book now. It’s a terrific story that will open your eyes to urban culture. Plus, this book is a doorway into the Yoruba-infused world of this remarkable scholar.

Don’t be surprised if you are hearing about “Yoruba religion” for the first time today. The world has largely overlooked its influence as a living spiritual community.

‘YORUBA PRACTICE TODAY’

Woodbine_Onaje-CREDIT-© Folasade S. Woodbine (1)

Onaje X. O. Woodbine (Photo by Folasade S. Woodbine, used with permission.)

“There are different ways to look at Yoruba practice today,” Woodbine says in an interview with ReadTheSpirit. “Scholars estimate there are 100 million people today who follow Yoruba traditions. But it also can look like this is an endangered tradition because during the many years of colonization and the slave trade, the Yoruba influence was often hidden or given a Christian face so that it could survive.

“Over the past decade, we are seeing a renewed interest in Yoruba scholarship and some scholars now are describing a rebirth of Yoruba traditions in the West, where people are free to express themselves. Your perspective on this issue depends on whether you define Yoruba as limited to its pure, original form coming from Nigeria—or you also recognize Yoruba influence in practices like Santeria that came into the United States through the Caribbean. With a broader definition, there definitely are strong and growing centers of Yoruba influence and practice in Miami and New York, today.”

When Pew Research released its 82-page Global Religious Landscape report in 2012, the Yoruba tradition was not even mentioned. In the Nigerian summary within the nation-by-nation section of that report, Christianity and Islam are listed as the affiliations of 98 percent of Nigeria’s population in about equal numbers. A handful of Nigerian Buddhists, Hindus and Jews are accounted for in that Pew summary. The few remaining Nigerians—including people who identified the Yoruba tradition as their primary affiliation—are listed as 1.5 percent of the population under the labels “folk religion” or “other.”

“In Nigeria, it’s commonly said that no one practices the Yoruba tradition anymore—until they have a problem. Then, everybody goes to the Yoruba priest!” Woodbine said. “It’s understandable given the strong colonial history in Nigeria and, now, the strong division in the country between Christians and Muslims. Behind those affiliations, many Nigerians still hold to Yoruba traditions.”

Pew is not alone in ignoring this religious community. When Norton released its 4,200-page, two-volume Anthology of World Religions to great fanfare in 2014, Norton, and the overall editor Jack Miles, chose to cover “six major, living, international religions”—Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Hundreds of other indigenous religious traditions, ranging from Native American to Yoruba faiths, weren’t considered either “major” or “international” enough for inclusion.

In coming years, through teaching and writing, Woodbine plans to help raise the level of global awareness.

“The situation has changed a lot in recent years. In pursuing my own studies, I was able to take Yoruba courses at Harvard and at Boston University. More scholars are studying the tradition. Global awareness is growing,” Woodbine said.

COMPARING YORUBA AND HINDU TRADITIONS

Woodbine compares the Yoruba cosmos to the oft-repeated summary of Hinduism as, “One God, many paths,” sometimes phrased, “One Truth, many paths.”

“I think the Yoruba tradition is similar to Hinduism in this way,” he says. “We say that there are many faces to the Yoruba Olodumare, the one spirit that is the source of creation. But in our tradition, then, many Oresha express different essences of the one god. So, there is a common core within the tradition, but there also is quite a bit of diversity and difference in the expressions through the many Oresha.”

In the U.S., Woodbine typically says that he is a “shaman,” because that term is more commonly used in American culture now, but more properly he is known as a Babalawo within his religious community.

FROM BASKETBALL TO SCHOLARSHIP

Woodbine began this long journey about two decades ago as a freshman at Yale University, recruited on a basketball scholarship. Very quickly, he became a leading scorer and a big star among Yale fans. In the opening pages of his book, he retells the story of his decision—which made national headlines in 2000—to quit the team and to publicly describe the jarring racial attitudes he had encountered at Yale. Looking back many years later, Woodbine explains that this painful culture clash was due, in part, to his vastly different experience of basketball growing up in Boston.

He writes: “Before Yale, I was raised around Boston’s street-basketball traditions. … The asphalt was a meeting ground for my extended family in the streets. During games we shed tears together, laughed, fought and bonded; our whole lives were centered on the court.”

That turbulent confrontation in 2000 with clashing cultures and, then, a firestorm of public response to his quitting the Yale team, pushed Woodbine eventually into a personal and scholarly exploration of his life, street basketball, and Africa. He wound up spending 10 years, traveling back and forth to Nigeria, taking formal training to become a Yoruba Babalawo. Along the way, he drew inspiration from the writings of American giants such as Howard Thurman, an African-American religious pioneer in the middle of the 20th century. Woodbine honors Thurman on the opening page of his book with these words from Thurman: “We must think and the ghosts shall drive us on.” That line from Thurman really captures the larger narrative surrounding this first book by Woodbine.

“Yoruba culture spread around the world primarily through the slave trade to the United States, the Caribbean and Brazil,” Woodbine says. “The tradition values nature and the God who lives in the earth. The primary way people communicate with the God is through vibrations, through movement either of bodies or hands in ritual processes. There is a lot of music and improvisation. The traditional Yoruba texts are oral. They are living texts. There are many texts that I had to memorize in my process of becoming a Babalawo.

“When I first had the experience of sitting with Yoruba elders, I also discovered that this was a highly philosophical and intellectual tradition as well—something that would take many, many years of study to understand. For me, learning about this tradition after I left Yale had a huge impact on my reading of street basketball.”

EMERGING YORUBA AWARENESS

Over the past decade, Woodbine says, “we are now seeing some major scholarly works published on the Yoruba tradition. As this work continues, this will solidify our understanding of Yoruba as a world religion and really the only traditional African religious tradition that has become a world religion.”

In Black Gods of the Asphalt, this larger world of emerging Yoruba scholarship is only a small part of the narrative. The main story in these 200 pages concerns basketball players, including Woodbine, and the many personal and spiritual challenges they face.

“My hope is that this book will reach a lot of people, including people in the inner city who live the lives I am describing in this book,” Woodbine said. “I’m trying to show readers that there is so much more to this world than they might assume. This is a world of imagination, a world of spirit. I want to bring that deeper awareness into the open.

“In my work, I want to show that religion is showing up everyday in places where we least expect to find it, perhaps even on the basketball courts in the heart of the city. At the same time, I hope that people who are a part of that urban culture feel more permission to start sharing their wisdom and the knowledge of the community that forms around this culture. If I can draw people out and encourage a deeper public conversation about these ideas, then I have done my work.”

 

 

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‘On Work and Service,’ by St. Teresa of Calcutta from ‘No Greater Love’

St Teresa of Calcutta (1)On September 4, 2016, the Vatican canonizes St. Teresa Calcutta, who died Sept. 5, 1997. The following excerpt comes from St. Teresa’s Commemorative Edition of No Greater Love, published here with permission from New World Library.) 

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On Work and Service

By St. Teresa of Calcutta

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I believe that if God finds a person more useless than me, He will do even greater things through her because this work is His.
Mother Teresa

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.
Jesus to Paul, II Corinthians 12:9 RSV

It is possible that I may not be able to keep my attention fully on God while I work, but God doesn’t demand that I do so. Yet I can fully desire and intend that my work be done with Jesus and for Jesus. This is beautiful and that is what God wants. He wants our will and our desire to be for Him, for our family, for our children, for our brethren, and for the poor.

Each one of us is merely a small instrument. When you look at the inner workings of electrical things, often you see small and big wires, new and old, cheap and expensive lined up. Until the current passes through them there will be no light. That wire is you and me. The current is God.

We have the power to let the current pass through us, use us, produce the light of the world. Or we can refuse to be used and allow darkness to spread.

It’s possible that in the apartment or house across from yours there is a blind man who would be thrilled if you would go over and read the newspaper to him. It’s possible that there is a family that needs something that seems insignificant to you, something as simple as having someone baby-sit their child for half an hour. There are so many little things that are so small many people almost forget about them.

If you are working in the kitchen do not think it does not require brains. Do not think that sitting, standing, coming, and going, that everything you do, is not important to God.

God will not ask how many books you have read; how many miracles you have worked; He will ask you if you have done your best, for the love of Him. Can you in all sincerity say, “I have done my best”? Even if the best is failure, it must be our best, our utmost.

If you are really in love with Christ, no matter how small your work, it will be done better; it will be wholehearted. Your work will prove your love.

You may be exhausted with work, you may even kill yourself, but unless your work is interwoven with love, it is useless. To work without love is slavery.

If someone feels that God wants from him a transformation of social structures, that’s an issue between him and his God. We all have the duty to serve God where we feel called. I feel called to help individuals, to love each human being. I never think in terms of crowds in general but in terms of persons. Were I to think about crowds, I would never begin anything. It is the person that matters. I believe in person-to-person encounters.

The fullness of our heart comes in our actions: how I treat that leper, how I treat that dying person, how I treat the homeless. Sometimes it is more difficult to work with the street people than with the people in our homes for the dying because they are peaceful and waiting; they are ready to go to God.
You can touch the sick, the leper and believe that it is the body of Christ you are touching, but it is much more difficult when these people are drunk or shouting to think that this is Jesus in His distressing disguise. How clean and loving our hands must be to be able to bring that compassion to them!

We need to be pure in heart to see Jesus in the person of the spiritually poorest. Therefore, the more disfigured the image of God is in that person, the greater will be our faith and devotion in seeking Jesus’ face and lovingly ministering to Him. We consider it an honor to serve Christ in the distressing disguise of the spiritually poorest; we do it with deep gratitude and reverence in a spirit of sharing.

The more repugnant the work, the greater the effect of love and cheerful service. If I had not first picked up the woman who was eaten by rats — her face, and legs, and so on — I could not have been a Missionary of Charity. Feelings of repugnance are human. If we give our wholehearted, free service in spite of such feelings, we will become holy. Saint Francis of Assisi was repulsed by lepers but he overcame it.

Whatever you do, even if you help somebody cross the road, you do it to Jesus. Even giving somebody a glass of water, you do it to Jesus. Such a simple little teaching, but it is more and more important.

We must not be afraid to proclaim Christ’s love and to love as He loved. In the work we have to do it does not matter how small and humble it may be, make it Christ’s love in action.

However beautiful the work is, be detached from it, even ready to give it up. The work is not yours. The talents God has given you are not yours; they have been given to you for your use, for the glory of God. Be great and use everything in you for the good Master.

What have we to learn? To be meek and humble; if we are meek and humble, we will learn to pray. If we learn to pray, we will belong to Jesus. If we belong to Jesus, we will learn to believe, and if we believe we will learn to love, and if we love we will learn to serve.

Spend your time in prayer. If you pray you will have faith, and if you have faith you will naturally want to serve. The one who prays cannot but have faith, and when you have faith you want to put it into action. Faith in action is service.

The fruit of love is service. Love leads us to say, “I want to serve.” And the fruit of service is peace. All of us should work for peace.

Someone asked me what advice I had for politicians. I don’t like to get involved in politics, but my answer just popped out, “They should spend time on their knees. I think that would help them to become better statesmen.”

Strive to be the demonstration of God in the midst of your community. Sometimes we see how joy returns to the lives of the most destitute when they realize that many among us are concerned about them and show them our love. Even their health improves if they are sick.

May we never forget that in the service to the poor we are offered a magnificent opportunity to do something beautiful for God. In fact, when we give ourselves with all our hearts to the poor, it is Christ whom we are serving in their disfigured faces. For He Himself said, “You did it for me.”

Daily Prayer of the Co-workers of Mother Teresa

Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our fellow men throughout the world who live and die in poverty and hunger.

Give them, through our hands, this day their daily bread, and by our understanding Love, give Peace and Joy.

Lord, make me a channel of Thy Peace, that where there is hatred, I may bring Love; that where there is wrong, I may bring the Spirit of Forgiveness; that where there is discord, I may bring Harmony; that where there is error, I may bring Truth; that where there is doubt, I may bring Faith; that where there is despair, I may bring Hope; that where there are shadows, I may bring Light; that where there is sadness, I may bring Joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted, to understand, than to be understood, to love, than to be loved, for it is by forgetting self that one finds, it is by forgiving that one is forgiven, it is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.
Adapted from The Prayer of Saint Francis

Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.
Saint Therese of Lisieux

I assure you, as often as you did it for one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.
Jesus, Matthew 25:40 NAB

Copyright © 1997, 2001 by New World Library. Printed with permission.

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‘On Love,’ by St. Teresa of Calcutta from ‘No Greater Love’

Cover of Commemorative Edition of No Greater Love by Mother Teresa (1)

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

On September 4, 2016, the Vatican canonizes St. Teresa Calcutta, who died Sept. 5, 1997. She was born Aug. 26, 1910, as Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu (meaning “rosebud” or “little flower” in Albanian). Since its inception in 1950, her order, the Missionaries of Charity, and its 400,000 sisters have opened more than 500 centers around the world to help the dying and destitute. Mother Teresa was the recipient of many of the world’s most prestigious humanitarian awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Albert Schweitzer International Prize, and the Nobel Peace Prize. She also is the author of No Greater Love. The following excerpt comes from the Commemorative Edition of No Greater Love, published here with permission from New World Library.) 

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On Love

By St. Teresa of Calcutta

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Love each other as God loves each one of you, with an intense and particular love. Be kind to each other: It is better to commit faults with gentleness than to work miracles with unkindness.
Mother Teresa

By this evidence everyone will know that you are my disciples — if you have love for one another.
Jesus, John 13:35 RSV

Jesus came into this world for one purpose. He came to give us the good news that God loves us, that God is love, that He loves you, and He loves me. How did Jesus love you and me? By giving His life.

God loves us with a tender love. That is all that Jesus came to teach us: the tender love of God. “I have called you by your name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1 NAB).

The whole gospel is very, very simple. Do you love me? Obey my commandments. He’s turning and twisting just to get around to one thing: love one another.

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, with thy whole soul, and with all thy mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5 KJV). This is the command of our great God, and He cannot command the impossible. Love is a fruit, in season at all times and within the reach of every hand. Anyone may gather it and no limit is set.

Everyone can reach this love through meditation, the spirit of prayer, and sacrifice, by an intense interior life. Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary.

What we need is to love without getting tired. How does a lamp burn? Through the continuous input of small drops of oil. What are these drops of oil in our lamps? They are the small things of daily life: faithfulness, small words of kindness, a thought for others, our way of being silent, of looking, of speaking, and of acting. Do not look for Jesus away from yourselves. He is not out there; He is in you. Keep your lamp burning, and you will recognize Him.

These words of Jesus, “Even as I have loved you that you also love one another,” should be not only a light to us, but they should also be a flame consuming the selfishness that prevents the growth of holiness. Jesus “loved us to the end,” to the very limit of love: the cross. This love must come from within, from our union with Christ. Loving must be as normal to us as living and breathing, day after day until our death.

I have experienced many human weaknesses, many human frailties, and I still experience them. But we need to use them. We need to work for Christ with a humble heart, with the humility of Christ. He comes and uses us to be His love and compassion in the world in spite of our weaknesses and frailties.

One day I picked up a man from the gutter. His body was covered with worms. I brought him to our house, and what did this man say? He did not curse. He did not blame anyone. He just said, “I’ve lived like an animal in the street, but I’m going to die like an angel, loved and cared for!” It took us three hours to clean him. Finally, the man looked up at the sister and said, “Sister, I’m going home to God.” And then he died. I’ve never seen such a radiant smile on a human face as the one I saw on that man’s face. He went home to God. See what love can do! It is possible that young sister did not think about it at the moment, but she was touching the body of Christ. Jesus said so when He said, “As often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me” (Matthew 25:40 RSV). And this is where you and I fit into God’s plan.

Let us understand the tenderness of God’s love. For He speaks in the Scripture, “Even if a mother could forget her child, I will not forget you. I have carved you on the palm of my hand” (see Isaiah 49:15–16). When you feel lonely, when you feel unwanted, when you feel sick and forgotten, remember you are precious to Him. He loves you. Show that love for one another, for this is all that Jesus came to teach us.

I remember a mother of twelve children, the last of them terribly mutilated. It is impossible for me to describe that creature. I volunteered to welcome the child into our house, where there are many others in similar conditions. The woman began to cry. “For God’s sake, Mother,” she said, “don’t tell me that. This creature is the greatest gift of God to me and my family. All our love is focused on her. Our lives would be empty if you took her from us.” Hers was a love full of understanding and tenderness. Do we have a love like that today? Do we realize that our child, our husband, our wife, our father, our mother, our sister or brother, has a need for that understanding, for the warmth of our hand?

I will never forget one day in Venezuela when I went to visit a family who had given us a lamb. I went to thank them and there I found out that they had a badly crippled child. I asked the mother, “What is the child’s name?” The mother gave me a most beautiful answer. “We call him ‘Teacher of Love,’ because he keeps on teaching us how to love. Everything we do for him is our love for God in action.”

We have a great deal of worth in the eyes of God. I never tire of saying over and over again that God loves us. It is a wonderful thing that God Himself loves me tenderly. That is why we should have courage, joy, and the conviction that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

I feel that we too often focus only on the negative aspect of life — on what is bad. If we were more willing to see the good and the beautiful things that surround us, we would be able to transform our families. From there, we would change our next-door neighbors and then others who live in our neighborhood or city. We would be able to bring peace and love to our world, which hungers so much for these things.

If we really want to conquer the world, we will not be able to do it with bombs or with other weapons of destruction. Let us conquer the world with our love. Let us interweave our lives with bonds of sacrifice and love, and it will be possible for us to conquer the world.

We do not need to carry out grand things in order to show a great love for God and for our neighbor. It is the intensity of love we put into our gestures that makes them into something beautiful for God.

Peace and war start within one’s own home. If we really want peace for the world, let us start by loving one another within our families. Sometimes it is hard for us to smile at one another. It is often difficult for the husband to smile at his wife or for the wife to smile at her husband.

In order for love to be genuine, it has to be above all a love for our neighbor. We must love those who are nearest to us, in our own family. From there, love spreads toward whoever may need us.

It is easy to love those who live far away. It is not always easy to love those who live right next to us. It is easier to offer a dish of rice to meet the hunger of a needy person than to comfort the loneliness and the anguish of someone in our own home who does not feel loved.

I want you to go and find the poor in your homes. Above all, your love has to start there. I want you to be the good news to those around you. I want you to be concerned about your next-door neighbor. Do you know who your neighbor is?

True love is love that causes us pain, that hurts, and yet brings us joy. That is why we must pray to God and ask Him to give us the courage to love.

From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. If your heart is full of love, you will speak of love. I want you all to fill your hearts with great love. Don’t imagine that love, to be true and burning, must be extraordinary. No; what we need in our love is the continuous desire to love the One we love.

One day I found among the debris a woman who was burning with fever. About to die, she kept repeating, “It is my son who has done it!” I took her in my arms and carried her home to the convent. On the way I urged her to forgive her son. It took a good while before I could hear her say, “Yes, I forgive him.” She said it with a feeling of genuine forgiveness, just as she was about to pass away. The woman was not aware that she was suffering, that she was burning with fever, that she was dying. What was breaking her heart was her own son’s lack of love.

Holy souls sometimes undergo great inward trial, and they know darkness. But if we want others to become aware of the presence of Jesus, we must be the first ones convinced of it.

There are thousands of people who would love to have what we have, yet God has chosen us to be where we are today to share the joy of loving others. He wants us to love one another, to give ourselves to each other until it hurts. It does not matter how much we give, but how much love we put into our giving.

In the words of our Holy Father, each one of us must be able “to cleanse what is dirty, to warm what is lukewarm, to strengthen what is weak, to enlighten what is dark.” We must not be afraid to proclaim Christ’s love and to love as He loved.

Where God is, there is love; and where there is love, there always is an openness to serve. The world is hungry for God.

When we all see God in each other, we will love one another as He loves us all. That is the fulfillment of the law, to love one another. This is all Jesus came to teach us: that God loves us, and that He wants us to love one another as He loves us.

We must know that we have been created for greater things, not just to be a number in the world, not just to go for diplomas and degrees, this work and that work. We have been created in order to love and to be loved.

Always be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little. He cannot make anything small; they are infinite. Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God, and which I respect greatly.

Do not pursue spectacular deeds. We must deliberately renounce all desires to see the fruit of our labor, doing all we can as best we can, leaving the rest in the hands of God. What matters is the gift of your self, the degree of love that you put into each one of your actions.

Do not allow yourselves to be disheartened by any failure as long as you have done your best. Neither glory in your success, but refer all to God in deepest thankfulness.

If you are discouraged, it is a sign of pride because it shows you trust in your own powers. Never bother about people’s opinions. Be humble and you will never be disturbed. The Lord has willed me here where I am. He will offer a solution.

When we handle the sick and the needy we touch the suffering body of Christ and this touch will make us heroic; it will make us forget the repugnance and the natural tendencies in us. We need the eyes of deep faith to see Christ in the broken body and dirty clothes under which the most beautiful one among the sons of men hides. We shall need the hands of Christ to touch these bodies wounded by pain and suffering. Intense love does not measure — it just gives.

Our works of charity are nothing but the overflow of our love of God from within.

Charity is like a living flame: The drier the fuel, the livelier the flame. Likewise, our hearts, when they are free of all earthly causes, commit themselves in free service. Love of God must give rise to a total service. The more disgusting the work, the greater must love be, as it takes succor to the Lord disguised in the rags of the poor.

Charity, to be fruitful, must cost us. Actually, we hear so much about charity, yet we never give it its full importance: God put the commandment of loving our neighbor on the same footing as the first commandment.

In order for us to be able to love, we need to have faith because faith is love in action; and love in action is service. In order for us to be able to love, we have to see and touch. Faith in action through prayer, faith in action through service: each is the same thing, the same love, the same compassion.

Some years have gone by, but I will never forget a young French girl who came to Calcutta. She looked so worried. She went to work in our home for dying destitutes. Then, after ten days, she came to see me. She hugged me and said, “I’ve found Jesus!” I asked where she found Jesus. “In the home for dying destitutes,” she answered. “And what did you do after you found Him?” “I went to confession and Holy Communion for the first time in fifteen years.” Then I said again, “What else did you do?” “I sent my parents a telegram saying that I found Jesus.” I looked at her and I said, “Now, pack up and go home. Go home and give joy, love, and peace to your parents.” She went home radiating joy, because her heart was filled with joy; and what joy she brought to her family! Why? Because she had lost the innocence of her youth and had gotten it back again.

God loves a cheerful giver. The best way to show your gratitude to God and people is to accept everything with joy. A joyful heart is a normal result of a heart burning with love. Joy is strength. The poor felt attracted to Jesus because a higher power dwelt in Him and flowed from Him — out of His eyes, His hands, His body — completely released and present to God and to men.

Let nothing so disturb us, so fill us with sorrow or discouragement, as to make us forfeit the joy of the resurrection. Joy is not simply a matter of temperament in the service of God and souls; it is always hard. All the more reason why we should try to acquire it and make it grow in our hearts. We may not be able to give much but we can always give the joy that springs from a heart that is in love with God.

All over the world people are hungry and thirsty for God’s love. We meet that hunger by spreading joy. Joy is one of the best safeguards against temptation. Jesus can take full possession of our soul only if it surrenders itself joyfully.

Someone once asked me, “Are you married?” And I said, “Yes, and I find it sometimes very difficult to smile at Jesus because He can be very demanding.”

God is within me with a more intimate presence than that whereby I am in myself: “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28 NAB). It is He who gives life to all, who gives power and being to all that exists. But for His sustaining presence, all things would cease to be and fall back into nothingness. Consider that you are in God, surrounded and encompassed by God, swimming in God. God’s love is infinite. With God, nothing is impossible.

At the end of our life, we shall be judged by love.
Saint John of the Cross

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Jesus, John 3:16 RSV

Copyright © 1997, 2001 by New World Library. Printed with permission.

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Get ‘Grounded,’ Part 5: Where is God? Perhaps—at dinner

Pilgrims from Ann Arbor FUMC breaking bread together in Palestine (1)

When pilgrims from our Ann Arbor congregation traveled to the Holy Land, we enjoyed dinners together like this one in a Palestinian restaurant. A dinner table is an important reminder of God’s presence in our world.

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This summer, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and Christian educator Debbie Houghton invite readers to get a copy of Diana Butler Bass’s new “Grounded: Finding God in the World” and read along with us. Over five weeks, David and Debbie have published five reflections on Bass’s book with questions to consider. Here’s a link back to Part 1, also to Part 2, and Part 3—then Part 4 This week, Debbie offers Part 5, our concluding reflection …

By DEBBIE HOUGHTON

I was living in Sweden when 9/11 occurred—I had just returned home from the daily school pick-up of my sons and the phone rang. My husband, who was in London for work, told me to turn on the TV—as I did, the image of the airliner hitting the World Trade Center jumped out, as it has for a million times since that day. Just as all people of the world, I was fearful and anxious, and wondering what would happen the next day, and the day after that.

An art project representing the WTC done by the son of Debbie Houghton while in Sweden (1)

An art project created by my son while we were living in Sweden, reflecting on the World Trade Center and the attacks of 9/11/01.

What did happen was that I took my children to their Swedish schools, and was met by my Swedish friends, who hugged me and acted like my family members had died. Which in a way, they had.

The love and care expressed to me by the Swedes was in my mind as I read this last chapter of Grounded. Diana Butler Bass uses the events of September 11th, 2001 to illustrate the question that frames her book—where was God on that horrific day in New York City?

I discovered on 9/12 that God was in the love and comfort offered to me by my Swedish friends. We shared the human connection of loss and fear, and the thirst for community in a time of great unease. Diana calls this sacred cosmopolitanism, a state of being citizens with God and one another in a holy cosmos. This holy cosmos connects us with dirt, water, and sky, and to the natural world that we believe will last forever, but needs our care and love to survive.

Our roots and where we call home connects us to those who are our neighbors, and how we share our community space creates compassion for all. Throughout the book, we are called to see God in this connected cosmos, and to understand that God-with-us means here and on the horizon.

Diana tells us that in May of 2015, Pew Research Center released this data about the landscape of American religion: the percentage of Americans who identified as Christian dropped from 78.4% of the population to 70.6%, while people who are religiously unaffiliated grew from 16.1% to 22.8%. These numbers underlay her assertion that we are undergoing a spiritual revolution right now, and established congregations of all faiths need to provide gatherings that allow people to encounter the spirit of God in community, and lead them to make this world a sacred space for all.

New York, NY, September 27, 2001 -- Mandy Holke and her husband Ramsay (background) from NC, together with NY resident Martha Calhoun have volunteered to serve food to rescue workers at the site of the World Trade Center collapse. Photo by Michael Rieger/ FEMA News Photo

Dinner tables popped up in many unlikely places in New York City in the weeks after the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks. Here, volunteers are serving dinner from sidewalk tables they set up near where other volunteers were working at Ground Zero. (Photo by Michael Rieger/ FEMA News Photo)

One of my favorite images from this last chapter of Grounded is that of the dining room—Diana suggests that instead of thinking about Revelation’s holy city as an imperial throne room, we should imagine a dining room instead. The beauty of this dining room is that there are many chairs and many kinds of diners–human, animal, plant–all creations of God.

Diana describes the table here:

No one owns the table. No one gets to take it over. We receive this table; it is the gift of heaven to earth. Our job is to pull up more chairs. And make sure all are fed.

Grounded opens with the question, “Where is God?”

God is the host of this table—the world that is holy for all of us. How do we find God? We practice hospitality for all creation, acts of love, care, and healing that show us God in our human neighbors and families, in our landscapes and homes, and in the flora and fauna of the earth.

To quote Diana Butler Bass, “God is with us. Here.”

Come visit us!

I have so enjoyed this reading of Grounded and I hope you have, too. It gives me hope to think that we are not dying out as spiritual people. We do need to recognize the connections between God and the world that we live in, and open our minds and hearts to new ways of searching for and finding God.

I am very excited that Diana Butler Bass will be visiting our church in March 2017 to talk with us about Grounded and her thoughts about a spiritual revolution. She will be with us on March 24-26, 2017, at the First United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor, MI. For more information, contact me at debbie@fumc-a2.org or check out our web page at www.fumc-a2.org.

Many thanks go to David Crumm and Read the Spirit for encouraging me to contribute to this series and for providing valuable guidance!

 

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1st United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor (1)

Come visit us at http://www.fumc-a2.org/ (Just click on the photo of our building.)

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Adam Henig: The story behind ‘Under One Roof’

By ADAM HENIG
Author of Under One Roof

Dr. Ralph Wimbish Sr. (1)

Dr. Ralph Wimbish Sr.

A couple of years ago, when I began researching my second book, Under One Roof: The Yankees, the Cardinals, and a Doctor’s Battle to Integrate Spring Training, I had no title in mind, no contacts, and little to go on. The central figure, Dr. Ralph Wimbish, did not even have a Wikipedia page.

What I did have was an article I came across during my research on Alex Haley, the subject of my first book. Before he was a famous author, Haley was the ultimate freelancer, contracting himself out to any magazine who would hire him. In 1961, SPORT magazine, a now defunct publication that was the precursor to Sports Illustrated, had contracted Haley to write a story about segregation in Major League Baseball’s annual spring training. Although African American players could have contact with whites on the field, once the game or practice was over, it was off to separate quarters, adhering to the local segregation laws.

In St. Petersburg, Florida, where the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals were based, Dr. Wimbish, a local African-American physician, took a public stand against the segregated conditions that black players were forced to endure. His position made headlines across the country. Alex Haley went to St. Petersburg to cover the man and the event. The article Haley penned not only ignited the idea for Under One Roof, but became the foundation of my research. In addition to news articles, books, and archival documents, the other vital components of my research were interviews with Dr. Wimbish’s children, especially his middle child and namesake, Ralph Wimbish Jr.

When I began corresponding with Ralph, Jr. a retired sports journalist and editor, he was excited to have his father’s life story told for the first time. After our initial phone conversation, he did something that every biographer desires: He opened up my subject’s world. Ralph Jr. put me in touch with his family’s former neighbors, colleagues, and friends, including former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman and President of the National League, Bill White.

When I visited St. Petersburg and interviewed the two surviving children in Ralph’s sisters’ living room, it felt, for the first time during the course of my research, that Dr. Wimbish had truly come alive. For a biographer, this is crucial. I learned about the mundane—where he liked to dine (Jewish delis), the cigarettes he smoked (Salem), and the musical instrument he played (piano)—as well as the intimate details of his life, notably the relationships he had with his wife and children.

As I embarked on this journey, coincidentally, the topic of racism in America had once again simmered to the surface. To this day, African Americans continue to suffer basic infringements of their rights as citizens, whether as victims of unprovoked violence, sometimes fatal, judicial inequality, or numerous other forms of social and economic bias. Indeed, racism in the United States remains a persistent problem that will not disappear on its own.

There is no question that if Dr. Wimbish was alive today, he would have been on the front lines of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. When he was battling injustices in the 1950s and the 1960s, Dr. Wimbish was characterized as “the devil” by the southern white establishment, and criticized by some African Americans as reckless, risking all the gains that they had made over the years.

He was advised to take it slow. But who benefits by marking time? Those who want to maintain the status quo are the chief beneficiaries. If there’s one lesson to be learned from the story of Under One Roof, for fundamental social change to occur, pressure must be applied immediately and effectively. Dr. Wimbish applied that pressure fearlessly, despite the risks to his own safety, his family’s well-being, and to his livelihood; it is why he deserves to be remembered.

Care to read more?

BENJAMIN PRATT reviews—and recommends—Henig’s book, Under One Roof.

th Under One Roof by Adam Henig front coverADAM HENIG is the author of Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey (2014) and Under One Roof: The Yankees, the Cardinals, and a Doctor’s Battle to Integrate Spring Training (2016). His writings have appeared in the San Francisco Book Review, African American Literature Book Club (AALBC), Medium, The Biographer’s Craft, and Blogcritics. He has been a guest on the New Books Network podcast and the television program, Beyond the Game. A graduate of California State University, Chico, Adam lives with his family in Gilroy, California. To find out more about Adam, visit his website or sign up for his monthly newsletter at www.adamhenig.com.

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Review: Adam Henig’s ‘Under One Roof’ will inspire you, too

Under One Roof by Adam Henig front cover

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

Book Review by Benjamin Pratt

Jackie Robinson, fielded by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, was the first African American to play major league baseball. It was not until 1955 that the pin-striped New York Yankees integrated their team with catcher Elston Howard. While many teams fielded two, three and even four black starters, Howard was the only African American who played regularly for the Yankees at the end of the 1950s.

Integration came slowly to America’s favorite sport, even though it went well among players on the field.

Desegregation lasted longest, not on the playing field, but in housing for players at spring training. By 1961, thirteen of eighteen major league baseball teams trained in Florida. Florida cities thrived on sunshine and the economic boost of baseball-driven tourists. None more so than St. Petersburg, FL, which hosted two teams, the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals.

Adam Henig eloquently tells the story of the integration struggles of St. Petersburg in his latest book, Under One Roof. The long history of this racially divided city and the exceptional efforts of Dr. Ralph Wimbish (1922-1967), a fearless fighter for equal opportunities in health, housing and education set the stage. Wimbish, the founder of the St. Petersburg Ambassadors Club, is credited with leading the integration of St. Pete’s lunch counters, theaters, public restrooms, swimming areas, schools and hospitals. His spacious, beautiful home, built on the racial dividing line in the city, was the place black celebrities visited and stayed in the segregated city.

Ralph and Bette Wimbish hosted Dizzie Gillespie, Alex Haley, Jesse Owens, Cab Calloway, Elston Howard, Althea Gibson since none of them could rent housing in the all-white local hotels.

Once teams integrated, Wimbish would escort black players around his community searching for housing during spring training. In 1961, he said, “Damn it, we’re not going to do this anymore.”

He had support from journalist Wendell Smith, a superb pitcher in his youth who was never signed because he was African American. Instead, Smith became a journalist with a cause: integration of the sport. On January 7, 1961, Smith published a column demanding baseball executives to stop supporting Jim Crow. “The time has come for big league owners to rebel against hotels which bar their Negro players during Spring training.” Some team executives, like Dodgers’ Branch Rickey and Sox’s owner, Bill Veeck, used their economic leverage to push justice forward. The Yankees cooperated but St. Louis, like so many other teams, did their best to avoid the issues.

This short, well-crafted book, reminds us how many justice issues are won or lost at the local level. It makes clear how significant are the vitality and power of specific players in the fight to bring forth justice. It also reveals the sad truth that the loss of a significant leader can change the course of the struggle. Ralph Wimbish died prematurely in 1967. In spite of the efforts of his wife Bette Wimbish to continue the work, the loss of Ralph resulted in many setbacks in St. Petersburg’s struggle for justice.

Care to read more?

ADAM HENIG also has contributed a column to ReadTheSpirit magazine about how he undertook the challenge of writing this new biography. (You’ll want to read Henig’s story, in part, because it includes a photo of Wimbish.)

BENJAMIN PRATT is an author and columnist who, among other things, loves baseball. If you’d like to learn about some of his books, then please visit Ben’s author page.

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Get ‘Grounded,’ part 4: Can we see the forest for our trees?

West side of the Isle of Iona in northest Scotland (1)

On the west side of the Isle of Iona off Scotland’s western coast is a vast crescent of green grass called the Machair, which is Gaelic for “fertile plain.” On Iona, the Machair is considered the island’s commons for grazing.

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This summer, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and Christian educator Debbie Houghton invite readers to get a copy of Diana Butler Bass’s new “Grounded: Finding God in the World” and read along with us. For five weeks, David and Debbie will offer five reflections on Bass’s book with questions to consider. Here’s a link back to Part 1, also to Part 2—and Part 3. This week, David offers Part 4, looking at the sections of Diana’s book on Neighbors and Commons …

By DAVID CRUMM

And now, we come together.

Diana Butler Bass cover of Grounded Finding God in the World

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

In our overview of Diana Butler Bass’s Grounded, Debbie and I have divided the book roughly into five sections. In what we have defined as the first three sections, Bass’s stories and spiritual reflections have led us out into the real world of dirt, water and sky. She also has led us to reflect more deeply on our families and our sense of home. These stops along our pilgrimage with Bass bring us spiritual solace from fresh insights into our connections with the earth and the family taproots we have sunk into our planet’s soil.

An appropriate metaphor—used on the book’s front cover and through these first major sections of the book—is a tree.

Now, in chapters called “Neighbors” and “Commons,” Bass is saying: Perhaps we cannot see our forest for the trees.

If your commitment to reading is waning, here are a few previews of coming attractions in these 74 pages of the 335-page book. This section opens with the beloved Fred Rogers and shares a bit of poetry from Robert Frost. Bass includes one of Hillary Clinton’s lessons from her Methodist family heritage, very timely now that Clinton has publicly identified her own value of public service as having Wesleyan roots. In these chapters of Bass’s book, there’s even a retelling of the moving story of the 1914 World War I Christmas Truce.

For pilgrims who have visited the “thin space” of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, Bass’s section on “commons” will spark deep memories of that spiritually potent little island. No, Bass doesn’t specifically mention Iona in that section, but Iona pilgrims will share a special thematic connection because the Machair, the Iona “commons,” is a centuries-old symbol of the island’s cohesive community.

Those are just a few of the gems awaiting you in this part of the book!

As you read this portion of the book, remember that Bass is highly respected as a historian of religion in America. She also understands all of the latest research into religious trends—especially the dramatic growth in the number of Americans who say they don’t have a religious affiliation. Once, that percentage of the population was in single digits. Now, 23 percent of our adult population—nearly 1 in 4 Americans—tell pollsters they don’t have any particular religious affiliation.

Here is a link to a Pew magazine cover story on that trend, which I researched and wrote for Pew earlier this year. One way to greet this news is with fear about the future of our congregations. But Bass is urging us to appreciate the abundant possibilities in this situation. People are open to new definitions of what it means to gather together in communities of faith. The old definitions and labels don’t interest more than 50 million Americans anymore. This is a historic opportunity for creative freedom!

1st United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor (1)

The 1st United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor stands across the street, now, from the University of Michigan’s new North Quad. That new residence hall stands where Ann Arbor High School once opened in the early 1900s, giving way to a UofM classroom and office facility, the Frieze Building, in the 1950s.

My wife and I have been a part of the Ann Arbor First United Methodist Church for more than 40 years, dating to my undergraduate years at the University of Michigan and her years at Eastern Michigan University in the mid 1970s.

We’ve seen thousands of “neighbors” of our church come and go. Remember when the Borders mother store was a neighbor? Or, the more exotic Shaman Drum bookstore? An Olga’s? Various other shops, restaurants and second-floor apartments that now are history? How about the UofM Frieze Building, home to students and faculty in a wide range of academic disciplines? All gone.

Now, the church is surrounded by enormous high-rise living facilities, plus an ever-changing array of retailers. These are our neighbors.

Through all of this history, however, the people who meet in our building have gathered for worship, Christian education and social service from all over Washtenaw County—and beyond. Inside our church building, we are an intentional community comprised of people who—with few exceptions—don’t physically live as neighbors.

Imagine for a moment what our church building would feel like if we convened a truly neighborhood service of some kind? What if we could convince a lot of the people living in the new high-rises, the dormitory as well as staff and regular patrons of local businesses, to gather for a time of collective prayer and spiritual renewal? Can you even imagine such a gathering?

“Nice idea, but obviously it would never work!”

If you’re saying that right now, then I probably would agree with you as a pragmatic journalist who has covered religion in America for many decades. People just don’t think like that! Imagine the spiritual diversity of all the people who live around our congregation! The range runs from atheists, agnostics and neo-pagans to religions with Asian roots—to all of the Abrahamic faiths, including Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants.

Here’s another way to ponder this section of Bass’s book: Did you know that public health research around the world confirms that intentional, locally based friendship circles are closely related to well-being, lower levels of chronic health problems and, overall, a longer lifespan? Scientists right now are studying these small, intentional friendship circles all around the world from Japan to southern California.

Today, it’s commonplace to talk about our “friends,” because the smartphones in our pockets provide a long list of so-called friends on Facebook, our email Contact list and other forms of social media we enjoy. However, those lists of “friends” aren’t the healthy circles researchers are finding will predict greater wellbeing and longevity. A true friend is more than a Facebook link. And, that’s not to disparage Facebook as a tool to keep in touch! It’s a call to look for something deeper in friendship using whatever tools and whatever time and talents are available to us.

What Bass is prompting us to think about in these two chapters is a question that was central to Jesus’s teaching: Who is my neighbor? Do you remember those passages from the Gospels?

Think about all of the ways this idea is explored throughout scripture. From Genesis to Revelation, this question resonates: Who is my neighbor? It’s a cornerstone of ancient Jewish law. It’s foundational to Jesus’s teaching. And, as Bass points out, it’s the core of the Christian sacrament of communion.

In this era when millions of us are quite comfortable shedding centuries-old religious identifications—and perhaps shedding traditional spiritual teachings along with those labels, we have to ask: So, what are the responsibilities we have as neighbors? Or as friends?

This week ask yourself: What is my relationship to the people living around me? What should our relationship be as neighbors? How does our faith call us to interact with the people we should value as friends?

Our series will conclude next week with Part 5, written by David and Debbie.

 

 

 

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