Let these three veterans tell you their stories via video

Cover of the MSU 100 Q&A Veterans Large BookMany men and women contributed their stories and their talents to create the unique new multimedia book, 100 Questions and Answers about Veterans. The effort began with students from the prestigious Michigan State University School of Journalism contacting veterans nationwide. They reached men and women who most of us don’t even know were veterans—as well as veterans who have become celebrities. For example, J.R. Martinez, the wounded veteran who won Dancing with the Stars in 2011 wrote the book’s opening pages, appealing to all Americans to learn more about our more than 20 million veterans.

(Read more about the students’ ground-breaking project in this story by their professor.)

Then, in recent days, editors at the nation’s leading newspapers, magazines and TV networks discovered the book. The most popular news story was reported by Associated Press writer Jeff Karoub, who tied the news of the book’s release to this holiday weekend. In a story carried coast to coast by the likes of The Washington Post, Jeff reported:

Wishing living U.S. military veterans a “Happy Memorial Day” might be well-intentioned but misses the mark on an occasion meant for remembering those who lost their lives. That and other timely reminders can be found in a new book researched and written by a Michigan State University journalism class with assistance from former servicemen and women. “100 Questions and Answers About Veterans” is aimed at clearing up myths and misunderstandings held by some civilians.

“A day of mourning doesn’t square with ‘happy,’” instructor Joe Grimm said. “They’re thinking, ‘I’m still here. My day is coming in November (on) Veterans Day.’” The book, available in print and digital versions, is the eighth that Grimm’s classes have published. Others have covered Hispanics and Latinos, Native Americans, East Asians and Muslim Americans.

Many professionals pitched in to raise awareness about this unusual new multi-media book—and the good that this book can do in educating non-veterans so we all can help to build stronger relationships with veterans. Michigan’s flagship public television station, Detroit Public Television, got involved by providing veteran videos for the book—men and women talking about their lives today. The videos remind us that veterans are our neighbors, our co-workers, contributors to our communities—and that their service shaped their lives in positive ways. In print editions of the book, these videos can be played by clicking a device like a smart phone on small QR codes printed on the pages. In digital editions of the book for iPad and some Kindles, the videos play by themselves as readers flip the book’s pages.

Today, we are sharing three of those videos to give you an idea of the stories you’ll find between these covers. For Detroit Public Television, these veterans were asked to talk about their lives today, the work that they do in their communities—and how their earlier military service played a role in the men and women they have become.

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Have you established a memorial? A sacred place in your heart?

Four Roadside Memorials

Roadside memorials take many forms. (Photos for public use via Wikimedia Commons.)

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Memorial Day commemorates those who died while serving in our armed forces—but this special day also inevitably reminds us of other losses we’ve experienced. It’s healthy to pause and ponder the way we make sacred room for these memories.

One half-mile south of the Occoquan River on I-95 in Virginia, one of the busiest corridors in our nation, is a place lodged in my memory and heart. The roadway is different now. What was then four lanes, divided by a grassy hill, has become eight lanes of concrete, ramps, guard rails and, of course, speeding cars and trucks.

Decades ago, I was the founding pastor of a new church in a planned community adjacent to I-95. Four of us in that community—three clergy and one paid fireman—did most of the fire and rescue runs during the daylight hours from Volunteer Fire Co. 10. Many of our calls were in response to accidents on I-95. To this day, I never drive that highway without remembering the spot of two runs we made.

One was filled with sadness—one with joy.

A doctor and his wife had recently bought a Winnebago Camper. She and her teenage son were driving north on I-95 in the camper while her husband followed in another car. On a curve over a steep hill, she lost control and the camper toppled over the guardrail and down the hill, bursting into flames. A young marine jumped from his car and pulled the burned son to safety but was not able to save his mother. Our arrival on the scene was to provide transportation of the victims and support for the father who was crumpled in shock and sadness. The son was flown to a burn-trauma center. There are no markers, and the landscape has been altered beyond recognition, but deeply seated in my mind’s eye is the trauma and sadness of a family’s instant transformation.

There is a memorial in my heart for the family as well as for the caregivers, the first responders, who served them well.

And, then the other memory follows.

It had not rained for three weeks in late August and the road had developed a film of oil. During a sudden rain storm, a north-bound 18-wheeler hydroplaned and the truck toppled with its wheels pointing north and the whole vehicle lay horizontal across all lanes.

One more amazing detail. A Ford Mustang had slid under the truck’s trailer as it toppled, with only the hood sticking out between the wheels. The rest of the car was crumpled under the trailer. When rescue teams arrived, we assumed no one was alive in the Mustang. Someone crawled under the trailer and tapped on the door of the crushed car.

Someone tapped back! Amazing! How to get to them? The rear trailer door was opened to reveal a full load of green tomatoes. Folks poured out of the blocked cars and began unloading the tomatoes onto the median strip. Special saws cut out the side of the trailer, the top was lifted off the Mustang, and four adults and two children, all pocked from broken glass, emerged from the vehicle.

I cried. What a miracle. There are no markers and the landscape has been altered beyond recognition, but deeply seated in my mind’s eye is the joy of that miraculous moment.

Across our land are countless markers left by families and friends to remember loved ones lost in traffic accidents. Roadside shrines of all descriptions dot the landscape as memorials, but for many, like myself, the memorial is carried in our minds and hearts—and the site is never passed without a moment of remembrance.

I write this to lift up each of our sacred moments of remembrance and to also express gratitude to the caregiver and first responders, be they professional or volunteer.

Memorial Day is a fitting occasion to remember those who died in our armed forces. If you have a chance to speak to a veteran this weekend about brothers or sisters lost in battle—their stories are likely to be quite specific about the location of the loss. By acknowledging the person and place—by remembering and sharing our stories like this—we are setting aside sacred space in our hearts.

THE REV. DR. BENJAMIN PRATT is a pastoral counselor with 30 years of experience working with men and women facing a wide range of stresses and tragedies. He also is one of ReadTheSpirit’s most popular columnists on a wide range of issues. Learn more about his books in our bookstore.

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Categories: CaregivingHolidays

100 Questions & Answers about (our millions of) Veterans

Cover of the MSU 100 Q&A Veterans Large Book

CLICK this cover to visit the book’s website, learn more about it and find links to purchase your copy.

ACROSS America, May is a special time for honoring our American veterans and their families. Already, Americans have marked VE (Victory in Europe) Day on May 8, Military Spouse Appreciation Day on May 8, Armed Forces Day on May 16 and soon the month will culminate in one of the biggest national observances: Memorial Day, covered by Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton.

At ReadTheSpirit magazine, we are celebrating the students from Michigan State University’s School of Journalism who have just released 100 Questions & Answers about Veterans—which includes videos of veterans produced by Detroit Public Television.

Detroit News columnist Neal Rubin already has reported on the book’s release. Neal wrote, in part, that such a book is helpful to “to correct misconceptions, connect cultures and make potentially awkward conversations more comfortable and more frequent.” Neal continued:

America’s 21 million veterans “are a cultural group all by themselves,” with customs and terminology frequently unfamiliar to outsiders. “Ask us questions,” wrote actor, Army veteran and Dancing With the Stars winner J.R. Martinez in the book’s foreword. “Listen and try not to judge or to let your perceptions get in the way of our answers.”

ReadTheSpirit magazine invited the director of this MSU journalism project, Joe Grimm, to tell us more …

By JOE GRIMM

Americans like to recognize veterans, but don’t always see them for who they are.

The fog of stereotypes and the knowledge gap between veterans and civilians can obscure our view.

MSU students Tiara Jones Madeline Carino and Lia Kamana work on the veterans book

MSU journalism students Tiara Jones, Madeline Carino and Lia Kamana work on the new veterans book.

A new guide clears some of the fog.

100 Questions and Answers About Veterans: A Guide for Civilians answers basic questions that former service men and women say they hear all the time. With a little basic knowledge, civilians will understand how much there is to learn. This start gives us the confidence we need to talk without worrying that we will embarrass ourselves or offend a veteran.

This is the basic premise behind the series of cultural guides to which this veterans guide belongs. It is the eighth in the series, which ReadTheSpirit helps the Michigan State University School of Journalism publish. The guide, in print form and digital, includes video interviews with veterans recorded by partner Detroit Public Television.

Ron Capps

Ron Capps

Ron Capps, who wrote the guide’s preface, served in the Army and Army Reserve for 25 years. He is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and of other conflicts. His passion is the Veterans Writing Project VeteransWriting.org, which he founded. For this new book, Capps wrote in part:

Soldiers come home and get lots of “Thank you for your service” and recognition at baseball games, but rarely have the chance to tell their story. This lack of communication leads to a lack of understanding.

Veterans can become isolated, and keep to themselves. And this is wrong. We all have a responsibility to share the experience of our military even if only vicariously, through a telling or a reading.

JR Martinez is in the MSU veterans book

JR Martinez

Army veteran J.R. Martinez wrote in his foreword, “Let yourself learn from us. Ask us questions. Listen and try not to judge or to let your perceptions get in the way of our answers. And in turn, we will allow ourselves to understand that it is our duty to teach. It’s a partnership we will all have to agree on to shorten the distance between our two worlds.”

Martinez was in a Humvee that hit an improvised explosive device in Iraq, burning him over more than 34 percent of his body. He is an actor, motivational speaker and the author of Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength, and Spirit. You might have seen him on Dancing with the Stars. He wound up winning Season 13 of that series on Nov. 22, 2011.

The messages from Capps and Martinez are similar and echo many heard by the Michigan State students who interviewed veterans for the guide. These are some of the 100 questions the guide answers:

* Why do some veterans prefer not to have people thank them for their service?
* How are commissioned and noncommissioned officers different?
* How common is it for veterans to be homeless?
* What is the GI Bill?
* What are the meanings of Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

Of course, we all know there is a difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. But how do veterans see that difference? If you’re a civilian who is not sure, you have time to go into this year’s Memorial Day more informed. Get this helpful new book in paperback or as an ebook. Read it and watch the DPTV videos. It won’t take long for you to be able to have better conversations with veterans, confident that the baseline knowledge you have will lead to a better understanding.

Joe Grimm is series editor for this series of guides published by the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

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Categories: Author Interviews

Mitch Horowitz: How Stevie by John Steptoe shaped my life

Mitch writes …

Mitch Horowitz with the book StevieIllustrator and writer John Steptoe produced Stevie in 1969 when he was 19 years old. When I discovered the slender volume at my neighborhood library in Queens at age 7, it changed everything for me. Stevie awakened me to the emotional experience of reading.

In a narrative of fewer than a thousand words, Stevie possesses more poignancy than most novels. It tells the story of two inner-city boys, Stevie and Robert, whose lives are thrown together when the younger Stevie is left in the care of Robert’s household. Stevie’s mother must work around the clock, perhaps as a domestic maid, and can see him only on weekends. Robert, our narrator, spends most of the book complaining about “Little Stevie” messing up his room, breaking his toys, and getting him in trouble.

One day, however, Stevie’s parents arrive to say they are moving away with him. Robert wakes up the next morning, fixes two bowls of cornflakes, and gets ready to settle in to watch cartoons with Stevie. Then he realizes despondently that the other bowl isn’t needed–Stevie is gone.

The book shows how loss often takes us by surprise. It’s a sad irony given how much time we spend complaining about others. I liked the author’s soft-spoken realism. Stevie first comes to live with Robert, and then is taken away from him, because Stevie’s parents are pressed to earn a living. Steptoe wrote Stevie in the idiom of young African-American boys: “But why I gotta take him everywhere I go?” Some readers objected to that. I loved it. As a kid I recognized it as real.

Steptoe worked and died at a young age–he passed away in 1989, just before his 39th birthday. In his author photograph on the original jacket he looks just a few years older than his own characters. After many years of my rereading the book–I share it today with my sons–I still feel the emotions of Robert’s surprise when he realizes that Stevie is no longer there.

MITCH HOROWITZ is vice-president and editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin. He is the author of Occult America, which received the 2010 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award—and also One Simple Idea, about America’s positive-thinking movement. He is writing a history of the positive thinking movement, forthcoming from Crown. Visit him at: www.mitchhorowitz.com

PLEASE SHARE YOUR STORY: What’s the children’s book that changed your life? Email us at ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com

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What are you building this spring? How about a new home?

Mother Shannon hugs Johannah and Isabelle Chatman

Joy and pride pour out as the Chatman family finally knows … they’re home! (All photos by Lynne Golodner.)

A SURE SIGN OF SPRING is the flurry of activity as groups nationwide prepare to help with Habitat for Humanity projects. Here at ReadTheSpirit, we’re proud that one of our authors Lynne Golodner works with Habitat and we asked her to write about how one build transforms the life of one family—in this case, a US Army veteran and her daughters. Here is Lynne’s story …

By LYNNE GOLODNER

Johannah and Isabelle Chatman breezed by on their scooters on a recent Saturday morning, the last frost-bitten fingers of winter extending into the promise of budding spring. Their smiling faces turned up to the bright sky as people crowded into their front yard, excited to celebrate the dedication of their new home in Springfield Township, Michigan.

The Chatman girls, along with their brother Chance and mother Shannon, now live in a beautiful home on a lovely green piece of land, thanks to the efforts and beliefs of My Habitat Clarkston, a movement in the Clarkston community as part of the mission of Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County.

My Habitat Clarkston is a unique part of the worldwide effort to build houses, communities and hope one family at a time. The collaborative initiative brings together Clarkston Community Church, Calvary Lutheran Church, Clarkston State Bank and others—the library, an interior design firm, the local school district, a communications specialist and the local newspaper—all for the purpose of making home ownership a dream-come-true for Shannon Chatman.

A beautiful quilt from friends at Calvary Lutheran Church

A beautiful quilt for the Chatman family from friends at Calvary Lutheran Church.

Habitat for Humanity was created in 1976 by a vision that every hard-working family achieve the dream of home ownership. In America, buying a home always is a challenge. But, since the mortgage cloud burst in 2007-2008, the mortgage industry has been ever more gun-shy about approving home loans, making it even harder for deserving families to become homeowners.

Shannon Chatman’s story is one of those just-beyond-her-grasp situations. A veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces who has a flourishing social work career in foster care, Shannon has served our country, serves her community and is single-handedly doing a magnificent job of raising three incredible kids. She just happens to be passionate about and employed in a low-paying career field.

Shannon Chatman’s whole life has been dedicated to helping others. Before her current career, Shannon was an active duty Army officer, stationed in Germany and traveling the world before motherhood inspired her to return to the States to raise her family. Dedicated to helping others achieve success, happiness and stability, Shannon was frustrated that she could not guarantee her own family a stable home life.

“My income is not high enough as a single parent to provide stability for my family, but I know what I do as a social worker is important and helps families,” she says.

Shannon is the kind of person whose smile inspires others to smile. She is grateful, humble, energetic. Her petite presence belies a strength that many covet. At the home dedication, her arms wrapped around her girls and they snuggled in for the reassuring hugs guaranteed by a mother’s love. She didn’t stop smiling through the speeches and the gifts, the prayers and the hugs, and the final presentation of the key to her purple front door.

Over the past year, scores of people have volunteered on the build-site to erect Shannon’s home. That’s the nature of Habitat for Humanity—people coming together to build a home for a deserving family. They pound nails, pour concrete, carry long pieces of wood together. They dig in the dirt and deliver lunch, they laugh and hug.

Last fall, Shannon’s build site was the lucky location of a spontaneous visit from the world-famous country music duo Florida Georgia Line, securing nationwide TV news coverage in a flurry of excitement. All the while, Shannon humbly hung back, not in any way desiring the attention, just hopeful that one day, she could provide a home for her children.

After moving three times in six years, searching for a safe, affordable place to call home, Shannon was approved to become a Habitat homeowner in 2012. She says the experience was inspiring. Her home sits on a beautiful open lot framed by trees and quiet breezes. “Finally having a safe, secure and stable home to raise my family will give me peace of mind and set my children on the path to success,” she says.

Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County CEO Tim Ruggles

Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County CEO Tim Ruggles

Habitat for Humanity is a grassroots organization dedicated to the elimination of poverty and substandard housing. Habitat accepts donated homes or lots, and builds or renovates them in partnership with qualifying families, who pay an affordable mortgage provided through Habitat. Worldwide, Habitat has built and renovated more than 1 million houses since 1976.

Celebrating its 20th year, Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County has built and renovated homes for more than 190 families in Oakland County, Michigan, during its two decades in existence. Its very first homeowner, Doreen Marquis, was able to send her children to college because she was secure in the knowledge that her home was safe and affordable. She advanced her own career after becoming a Habitat homeowner and now has grandchildren—the third generation to achieve and thrive all because their family was built on the foundation of homeownership.

Habitat’s vision is a world where everyone has a decent place to live. The non-profit is driven by this mission: Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities and hope.

At Shannon Chatman’s home dedication, Habitat for Humanity of Oakland County CEO Tim Ruggles, a very tall and commanding leader who speaks in strong, measured steps, handed an envelope to Shannon. It contained a gift certificate he’d won at a My Habitat Clarkston benefit event, offering a weekend with a Cadillac and four tickets to a Beatlemania show.

“I never win anything,” Tim said to the crowd on Shannon’s driveway and in her yard. Except for his steady voice and birds chirping in nearby trees, the morning was perfectly quiet. “And as I lay in bed last night, about to go to sleep, my wife said, ‘We have to give this to Shannon.’” As he said the words, his voice choked with emotion, his eyes glistening with tears. He handed the envelope to Shannon and clasped her in a big bear hug.

American Legion Post Number 63

Shannon Chatman is a US Army veteran. American Legion Post #63 posted the colors and stood, rifles at their sides.

The men and women of American Legion Post #63, in full uniform, posted the colors, rifles and American flags at their sides.

A woman from Calvary Lutheran Church presented a handmade quilt to Shannon and her girls.

Friends of the Springfield Township Library brought a bag of books and gift cards, artist Tim Yanke’s Yankee Doodle painting was presented in a substantial black frame to hang on her wall.

In the end, the journey toward home ownership is one that most people cannot do alone. It is the American dream, to have a place to call home, a safe place to come back to every night, to swing on tires roped onto a tree branch, to coast on scooters down the dirt road to the homes of newfound best friends.

Community makes a life worthwhile. And in this case, it takes a community to build a home, to put down roots in the soil and trust that with water and sunshine, they will grow tall, strong and far-reaching, many years into the future.

Want to get involved?

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The Martha Spong interview about her book and RevGalBlogPals

Theres a Woman in Pulpit cover book edited by Martha Spong

CLICK this cover to visit the book’s page at the publisher’s website: SkyLight Paths.

A HOST of women have led religious movements.

Ancient Jewish heroes Esther and Judith risked their lives to save their people. At the dawn of Christianity, it was a woman (Mary Magdalene) who preached the first Christian message that Jesus was risen from the grave. Through the centuries, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena shaped the Catholic church so profoundly that they now hold the esteemed rank: Doctors of the Church. In colonial America, Lady Deborah Moody established a early community with interfaith freedom and Mother Ann Lee founded the Shakers. A host of church women led campaigns against slavery from the Grimke sisters to Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sojourner Truth.

In May, Americans celebrate the holiday originally envisioned by churchwomen Ann Reeves Jarvis and her daughter Anna Jarvis as a time for honoring women—and performing community service. In fact, if the elder Ann Reeves Jarvis had her way, spring would be a time for what she liked to call Mothers’ Day Work Clubs. Women led the way, rolling up their sleeves and tackling the toughest problems faced by poor families, especially TB and other life-threatening diseases in her era. When her daughter Anna finally achieved a nationwide holiday, Anna was horrified to see it transformed into a commercial bonanza devoid of its original faith-based mission.

Even conservative popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI each promoted a woman to the rarefied status of Doctor of the Church. John Paul added St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Benedict promoted Hildegard of Bingen. The latter news surprised and pleased theologian Matthew Fox, one of Hildegard’s biggest cheerleaders. Fox admits he was surprised that Benedict let this feminist “Trojan Horse” into the highest ranks of the church.

So, why do most of the world’s 2 billion Christians refused to let ordained women into their pulpits? (That phrase “most of the world’s Christians,” of course refers to the roughly 1.5 billion Catholic and Orthodox Christians plus millions of evangelical Christians as well.)

Entire library shelves groan with books and journals arguing this issue, so we won’t repeat the classic pros and cons. In fact, what’s so delightful about Martha Spong’s new book, There’s a Woman in the Pulpit, is that she lets a little girl make the case in the book’s opening chapter written by the Rev. Ruth Everhart. Indignant at the injustice of her family’s church leadership refusing to ordain her mother—or any woman—young Hannah Everhart declared to her mother:

“Even a first grader knows you’re a good minister. Stupid-heads!”

In fact, if you buy a copy of Spong’s marvelous collection of nearly 70 true-life stories written by 52 clergywomen from 15 denominations, you may close the book repeating what Hannah’s Mom tells her family after the little girl’s outburst: “Hannah’s right. They’re stupid-heads!”

Lest long-time ReadTheSpirit readers object that we are unfairly criticizing traditionalist churches, we point out that American polling over the past decade by Gallup and Pew and other researchers clearly shows that even a majority of American Catholics support the idea of women’s ordination. Currently, about half of Catholics think the Vatican isn’t likely to make this change in their lifetimes—nevertheless, most Catholics say they like the idea of women in the pulpit. (Pew provides a helpful score card on what denominations are—and aren’t—ordaining women, as of late 2014.)

Whatever your opinion on women’s ordination may be, we guarantee that you’ll enjoy these inspirational, often downright funny and sometimes emotionally stirring stories. Read one a day for a couple of months. Martha Spong has found some terrific storytellers to share their real-life experiences in this volume.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the co-writer and overall editor of this new book. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH THE REV. MARTHA SPONG
ON ‘THERE’S A WOMAN IN THE PULPIT’

DAVID: Help me introduce you to our readers. You have so many talents and projects! How do you typically describe yourself, when you step out to talk to a new audience?

Martha Spong from her website

CLICK this photo of Martha Spong to visit her website and learn more about her many projects, including the Reflectionary columns she writes.

MARTHA: I usually say I’m a United Church of Christ pastor. I’m a Mom. I’m a wife. I grew up Baptist and became United Church of Christ. I’m a writer, an editor—and a rather obsessive knitter, too.

DAVID: You’re best known as the director of the large online community known as RevGalBlogPals, which describes itself as “a supportive community for clergywomen since 2005.” This new book really is a collective creation from network of women writers. First, tell our readers what they’ll find if they visit RevGalBlogPals.

MARTHA: What they’ll find is both a collection of resources aimed at clergy and, as we say on the website, a supportive community for clergywomen. This all started as a group of bloggers but it’s not limited to bloggers anymore. There are many people who visit with us, participate in our preaching discussions and share comments. We’re also very active on Facebook where clergywomen from dozens of denominations all around the world participate. Facebook is a good place place for people to come with questions, prayer requests and stories from ministry and find support from others. We’re also active on Twitter. We’ve even gotten involved in Pinterest—and Tumblr, too. We’re all over the place now, wherever women gather.

DAVID: There’s a wonderful story in the book about ministry in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina by the Rev. Sally-Lodge Teel. In 1978, she was the first Presbyterian woman ordained in the state of Mississippi and, as you point out in the book, she was really the catalyst that got RevGalBlogPals started 10 years ago, right?

MARTHA: That’s right and for a while we mainly had a web ring that allowed us to connect our blogs into an internet circle. People continued to join and we decided to write a devotional book as a fundraiser after Hurricane Katrina. We formed a 501c3 and I was one of the original board members. About two years ago, the board began talking about creating a more professional role in the organization. So, at this point, I’m the part-time director, running our web activities and I organize and administer our continuing education events, which we’ve been doing since 2008. Today, there are about 40 women who contribute directly to our blog and more than 300 bloggers who are in our web ring.

A FAMOUS FAMILY

DAVID: Our readers are also likely to recognize your family name. For about 30 years, I’ve maintained a warm professional friendship with now-retired Bishop “Jack” Spong. I first got to know him when I served as an American newspaper correspondent in the UK in 1988 at the month-long Lambeth Conference where the world’s Anglican leaders debated women’s ordination. He was very active in that campaign. (NOTE: Interested in our past ReadTheSpirit interviews with Bishop Spong? A few of our more popular conversations were in 2009 talking about Eternal Life—A New Vision, in 2012 talking about Reclaiming the Bible, and in 2013 talking about The Gospel of John.)

MARTHA: Yes, we are related. Jack and my Dad are first cousins. We’re happy to claim each other. Jack baptized my oldest child and was at my wedding two years ago.

IS THERE A DIFFERENCE?

DAVID: I’ve already described the book, to some extent, but tell us more about what readers will find if they get their own copy.

MARTHA: The book contains stories that each are about 800 words long, so they’re perfect if people want to read one a day. They could be daily devotional readings for a couple of months. All of them are real-life stories by women who are juggling the work of ministry with the work of child rearing. Some of the stories tell what happens when these clergywomen go out into the community to do something not church related.Some of the stories are funny. Some are heart-wrenching. Each story puts the personality of the writer at the forefront.

DAVID: Let me ask you a question that, as a journalist specializing in reporting on religion, I’ve been asking for many decades now: Are women different than men as clergy?

And before you answer, let me tell you: Some famous women have either refused to answer the question or have objected to it. One of them is retired United Methodist Bishop Judith Craig who, for a while back in the 1980s, was the only woman bishop in a mainline denomination in the world.

When I asked Bishop Craig that question, she told me that she thought the question was a trap. If she said that women are different, that would label all women as identical in their talents and personalities. If she said women aren’t different, that would deny that women generally have developed some talents that may give them fresh insights into church growth. She didn’t want to group women as a homogenous gender.

I’m asking it because it’s obviously a common question, especially in churches that still refuse to ordain women. Are clergywomen different than clergymen?

MARTHA: You could say yes to that, because society expects women to have different skills and to fulfill different roles than they expect male clergy to fulfill. And people ask us questions they wouldn’t expect to ask male clergy.

But I agree with what you’re telling me about Bishop Craig. I don’t think the question of our gender or orientation is the significant one in terms of defining how we operate in ministry. If we assume clergywomen are different than clergymen, then that question presumes that we’re alike as women—and that’s not true.

‘A GENERATIONAL SHIFT’

DAVID: I’ll never forget the month I spent in Canterbury covering the Lambeth debates on women’s ordination. The whole world was represented there—even Archbishop Desmond Tutu—and the debates became very emotional. Flash forward 30 years, and I don’t think it’s as a big a deal in American culture to see clergywomen participating as local community leaders. Once it was so rare, it was surprising. What do you think? Are we seeing progress?

MARTHA: I think it is a generational shift. My own childhood denomination was the Southern Baptist Convention. But then, in February of this year, I was invited to come back and preach at the church where I grew up.

The pastor I knew years ago as a young man today is over 80 and he’s still preaching there. He invited me back to preach and he introduced me by saying to the people, “You may have heard that Southern Baptists don’t allow women preachers, but that’s not true.” And then he reeled off the names of a number of women who are serving Southern Baptist congregations—and he complimented their leadership and he finished by saying, “In the Baptist church, there are no absolutes.”

It was wonderful to go home to that church and to stand in the place in that church where I had never stood before. It was a tremendously positive experience.

DAVID: It may seem surprising to our readers that women do preach and serve in at least some Southern Baptist congregations, but I know that’s true. Southern Baptists are so loosely organized that there is more variation nationwide than people may think.

MARTHA: The problem is that, even in churches that ordain women, clergywomen often are limited to smaller churches or to part-time churches, because there’s still a demand for male pastors to serve larger churches. It seems like a no-brainer to me that women have the gifts for ordained pastoral leadership at all levels—but we still see resistance at the local level in a lot of congregations.

‘YOU ARE NOT ALONE’

DAVID: If our readers do get a copy of your book and start reading—what do you hope they’ll find between the covers of this book?

MARTHA: I hope this book will encourage women who are considering ministry to continue on in their dream. I also hope that it will show doubters how faithful women can be in ministry. And, I hope that it will show women in ministry that they have a lot of friends out there who are having similar experiences. I hope clergy women will realize: You’re not alone!

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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An inclusive vision for National Day of Prayer

President Raman Singh of the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit

InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit President Raman Singh. (IFLC photo used with permission.)

Raman Singh—a Sikh educator and peace activist—is the new president of the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit, one of the nation’s leading regional interfaith networks. These days, the National Day of Prayer is often associated with the divisive political goals of some of its national organizers. (Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton has that story.) Now, some regional groups are trying to help communities rethink and re-open this American holiday to the truly diverse religious voices in our communities. Here is Raman’s perspective …

By RAMAN SINGH

MANY in our nation will celebrate the National Day of Prayer on May 7, 2015. Signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1952, this is a day set aside for people of faith to introspect and connect with a power higher than themselves, within the context of our national community.

Most important to those of us in the interfaith community is the inclusivity of this occasion. In the spirit of democracy itself, the National Day of Prayer offers all of us an opportunity not only to pray in our individual religious traditions, but engage others of different faiths to find commonalities and build a stronger community based on common values.

People of faith generally aspire to do good in the world. We want people to be literate; to be fed and nourished; to be warm in the winter; to achieve holistic well-being.

I’ve spent a lot of time doing interfaith work. It seems to be part of my DNA. My vision for interfaith has always been about making connections and breaking barriers; pulling people together based on commonalities—aspiring to our highest self. People of faith, when called to look at their highest vision realize there should not be barriers. Hopefully we can come together and do good work, drawing on strengths of a shared vision.

My vision, as the newly elected president of the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit, is to bring together people of faith and to continue the work of eliminating barriers between groups and organizations. I believe that through interfaith engagement we can harness the resources and good intentions of people to impact some of the challenges facing our region.

The InterFaith Leadership Council has served as a hub for uniting people of faith in common purpose. Our focus areas are “Connections, Conciliation and Education.” One of the areas of great promise is our adult religious literacy work. Understanding the great belief traditions and practices not only reduces social difference, but expands our collective consciousness of the possibilities of faith.

As we come together for the National Day of Prayer, we will be contemplating and evoking many of the same aspirations: to reduce conflict and the inequity suffered by our vulnerable populations. To improve ourselves as human beings. We will seek the strength to carry out the important work that creates community and promotes well-being.

We hope this Day can serve as a reminder to continue educate ourselves about other faith communities. Do they pray? How do they pray? What does prayer mean to them? Through education we can continue to make connections. Which aids in conciliation.

It is our hope that we can use the National Day of Prayer as one of the times during the year when we can come together in commonality: as Americans of faith and people of purpose.

READ MORE about the regional work in Michigan at the IFLC’s website.

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