Healing communities: Harnessing tension through Hate2Hope

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Participants in the Rosedale program.

EDITOR’S NOTEAfter a decade in publication, ReadTheSpirit magazine is proud of our dozens of contributing writers and authors who have shared thousands of columns (and more than 50 books) that inspire readers and contribute to healthier communities. This year, as we approach the Jewish New Year 5777, we invited our Jewish writers to send updates about the work they are doing. One of the most dramatic projects is Brenda Rosenberg‘s Hate2Hope, a program that grew out of the book she co-authored with Samia Bahsoun: Harnessing the Power of Tension.

By BRENDA ROSENBERG

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Detective Brad McKenzie helps a student experience a drunk-driving simulator.

Here’s a scene you’re not seeing on your newspaper’s front page: A group of teenagers, black and white, spend time inside a suburban police station—and they leave, asking to spend more time with the police officers.

Over the past year, I have been surprised by the places I have traveled with the book I published in 2015 with Samia Bahsoun, which took the seemingly vast gulf between us as Jew and Arab and transformed that tension into a new kind of working relationship. Far from the Middle East, I found that our process for bridging almost impossible divides was sorely needed in communities right here in the U.S. So many cities and towns are trying to establish new relationships between police and both young people and people of color.

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McKenzie helps another student use a distracted-driving simulator.

One unlikely place I wound up this year was inside that police station with teens who had experienced little or no connection with police officers—other than seeing the ongoing tensions in hotspots across the U.S. in TV news or social media. Instead of tension, we found strong relationships could form.

Here are a few of the reactions you could be feeling right now.

Are you intrigued? Well, one way to learn more about what we’re doing in this pilot program is through my own professional website—or through the new Tectonic Leadership Center website. Share this story on social media. Talk to friends and community leaders wherever you live in the world. We’re eager to hear from you and to connect in positive ways.

Are you frustrated or frightened? We understand. Society is changing rapidly. Every day, we see tragedies that take place in communities, not much different from our own, and we are often left with questions that go unanswered. Our goal is to use the tension around us to be sure that we know how to work together with law enforcement in a way that is peaceful and productive.

‘It’s not my job!’

A third reaction to our work is to say: Thanks, but that’s not my job! So, I want to tell you how I got involved in this important work with law enforcement officials, teens, educators and community leaders.

I was attending a memorial service for a dear friend, peacemaker and interfaith champion here in Michigan: Dan Krichbaum. With Dan’s help years earlier, I brought another national program to life, called Reuniting the Children of Abraham, and Dan also invited me into the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion.

Years before that, I had a long career in national retail, design and marketing. My skills included a veteran’s sense of cultural trends and effective ways to respond—mainly through retailing during that part of my career. Then, after the attacks on 9/11/2001, I discovered that my job had transformed. I reassessed my skills from business and realized that I had a talent for bringing people together, despite their differences—sometimes painful differences.

For more than a decade, I traveled and worked and learned a lot about interfaith and cross-cultural relationships both in the U.S. and in the Middle East.

But, in late 2015, what did I know about law enforcement? Surely, that wasn’t my job! If that’s the way you’re thinking—the truth is: It was my job. Bringing people together is my job. Healing communities is my job. And it’s your job, too, isn’t it?

How I made this leap is how I approach all my work—through connections with people in the community. After that memorial service, another colleague—Steve Spreitzer, the current head of the Michigan Roundtable—invited me to attend a meeting of a group called ALTPACT (Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust). ALTPACT was looking for programs to combat hate and tension within troubled communities.

That was my connection—combatting hate and transforming tension into healthy working relationships is the whole theme of the book I had just published and the related workshops I was leading. The new watchword became even more focused: Hate2Hope.

I wound up at a meeting of law enforcement officials and community leaders in New Baltimore, Michigan. And I started where I always start when encountering a new group of people. I simply told them what I was hearing from them—and from people in similar communities: Too many ordinary people feel unheard, disrespected or harassed by police. There is too much bias still painfully affecting relationships with minority families. Police feel that stereotypes about their profession complicates the situation. All sides have experienced losses. All sides have fears.

And, as most worthwhile projects unfold, that night did not resolve major issues. Our path to peace was not clear, but we had a direction. Clear communication, harnessing the power of tension in the room, seemed to help. People went home saying that tension just might be a turning point, not a deal breaker.

Our work had only begun.

From this conversation, Chief James Berlin of Roseville and I initiated a 10-week pilot series in partnership with Roseville Police and Roseville Community Schools in January of this year. Detective Brad McKenzie, our liaison to the Roseville police, played a key role in shaping our students’ experiences in the following weeks.

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Amari Taylor presenting her “What is Justice?“ art project. Students were asked to express in any art form their expression of Justice to share with peers, educators, law enforcement and parents. Art projects included rap songs, video, poems, essays and posters.

In this program, students experienced tours of police facilities, where they participated in drunken-driving simulators, texting-and-driving simulators, and even firearms-training simulators. Students also had the opportunity to engage in dialogue with members of the law enforcement team and the administrative team at their school district to create protocols and procedures for responding to interactions with police officers and violent situations in their communities.

Throughout Hate2Hope—or, as we usually refer to it, simply H2H—students continuously had the opportunity work alongside FBI agents and other law enforcement officials to engage in discussions surrounding local, nation and international issues that plague their local communities.

What was the outcome? Surprisingly, nearly 90 percent of students’ evaluations asked for more one on one time with the police and FBI.

We were—we are making a difference.

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Left to right: Bushra Alawie MSW, office of public affairs FBI Detroit, who participated in part of the Roseville program; Brenda Rosenberg; and Nicole McGee, Victims Specialist FBI Detroit.

 

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Glenn Wagner: God is alive and well and calling all of us

‘GOD INCIDENTS’ ARE ALL AROUND US

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Click on the cover to learn more about the book.

By DAVID CRUMM
ReadTheSpirit Editor

A startling Pew Research Center report arrives just as thousands of congregations nationwide are gearing up for the busy autumn season.

No, it isn’t surprising to read Pew’s latest confirmation that a significant minority of Americans are opting out on organized religion (nearly 1 in 4 of us). What is startling to religion-watchers is Pew’s finding about the far-and-away, No. 1 reason that Americans choose to join a congregation. (And, yes, both “location” and a “welcoming atmosphere” are still relatively high on Pew’s list of factors contributing to church-goers’ choices.)

The shocker is the pinnacle of that list. More than 8 in 10 Americans told Pew that their No. 1 reason for joining a house of worship is: the quality of the preaching. How many bad jokes do you know about boring sermons or the irrelevance of preaching today? And, yes, there may be some truth in those jokes. But, the remarkable fact is: Americans overwhelmingly say they really need inspirational messages, these days.

Shoring up Pew’s finding is the latest report from the Association of American Publishers that find sales of inspirational books, as a genre, keep rising year after year. There’s a powerful and widespread desire for inspiration out there.

A WELCOMING FAITH

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Glenn M. Wagner

That truth about Americans’ need for a sincere, welcoming faith means that veteran pastor, preacher and new author Glenn M. Wagner is well poised this year in offering his book, God Incidents: Real-Life Stories to Strengthen and Restore Your Faith.

And, wait! There’s more news! The other body of Pew data that Wagner has been closely watching concerns the nearly 1 in 4 Americans who now say they have no religious affiliation—even though 78 percent of these “Nones” were raised in families that belonged to a congregation. This means that the vast majority of “nones” chose to leave organized religion. Many Nones say they are “spiritual” today; many Nones are essentially secular. What unites the Nones is their conscious decision to opt out on joining a congregation.

Why did they leave? One message comes through loud and clear in the Pew findings: There’s a widespread belief that churches are mean-spirited organizations that are divisive to friends and families. Nones say that congregations are especially divisive, because they are tearing people apart over issues like acceptance of LGBT family members. In blunt terms: For millions of Americans, congregations aren’t centers of goodness—they’re toxic.

At such a moment—with a significant minority of the population rejecting bad religion and an overwhelming desire for some inspirational preaching—Glenn Wagner has drawn from a lifetime of pastoral teaching in God Incidents.

‘PEOPLE ARE HURT’

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Giving a talk about this new book to a small group.

“Wherever I travel, I’m hearing what Pew’s interviewers have been hearing,” Wagner says in an interview. “Yes, many people still love their congregations. Religious life is alive and well in many communities. But, at the same time, many people are hurt, disillusioned, frustrated and they have big questions that aren’t being answered by religious communities, today. In fact, many people feel that their questions aren’t even welcome inside our churches. So, they turn away. And, that is something we can change. Our congregations should honor people’s questions, should allow them to be raised, and should welcome people on our journey as we all search for answers.

“In fact, I wrote this book with those readers in mind—the people outside the church looking in,” Wagner continues. “Since this book was recently released, I’m already hearing that people within the church are welcoming these stories. But there’s a potential here to reach beyond the walls of congregations. I personally am calling on readers to help cultivate communities where people don’t have to check their brains at the door. I’m talking about congregations where we encourage questions as a part of our spiritual life.

“I believe in God’s math—everybody counts.”

Clearly, Wagner is a champion of the church. In Michigan, he is one of the statewide United Methodist leaders working to unite the two “conferences” that historically have covered the state into a single, new conference that is better adapted to ministry in this new century. But beyond that strong support for traditional religious life, Wagner says he always has one hand extended to people who have abandoned the church, often because of wounds over diversity.

“We will only be the church we should be when we recognize our shared humanity and can tolerate differences,” he says.

REDISCOVERING HOPE

While an analysis of national trends is compelling news for religious leaders, the inspiring connections that Wagner wants to make come down to very personal experiences. His book is full of such moving stories—often involving glimpses inside his own family.

One of those stories involves Wagner literally breaking a leg as a part of a spiritual quest.

For more than 40 years, Wagner has traveled back and forth to the Middle East, beginning with the school year 1973-74 when he attended the American University of Beirut and the Near East School of Theology in Lebanon. In fact, he played basketball for the Beirut university and was part of a Lebanese national championship team that year.

Later, in the 1990s, serving as pastor of a church in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, he was involved in an interfaith network that made national headlines for the scale and quality of the diverse programs hosted by various congregations.

His ever-growing interfaith outreach dovetailed with his deep love of communities in the Middle East and especially in Israel, where one of his visits in the 1990s led him up onto a mountaintop with a Bible scholar. “The main reason more Americans should go is to discover how the actual geography opens up the Bible in a whole new way,” Wagner says in the interview. “In fact, that’s why I was up on that mountaintop that day.

“I remember a group of us were listening to a fabulous lecture about Psalm 23 with connections to the lands we could see all around us. Then, the professor pointed out so many fascinating places surrounding us that we should look at more closely before we left. Below us, we could see St. George’s Monastery, more than 1,000 years old. And, I decided to take some photographs of that.

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Glenn Wagner with a broken leg at Wadi Qelt near Jerusalem in 2001.

“I thought we were on solid ground, but I suddenly felt the stone on that mountain shifting beneath my feet. I slid. My leg shot up in the air! I came down hard and that surface may look soft like sand, but it’s certainly not as forgiving as sand. This is rock and crumbling rock—and the fall snapped my leg in two places.

“Fortunately, we had a doctor in our group and he was able to give me some help immediately. Then, a medical crew came out from Jerusalem. To this day, I am grateful to an Orthodox Jewish group from Chicago that donated an ambulance to the crew of Jewish rescue workers that came out to get me. One day later at the Hadassah Medical Center, surgeons operated and put a rod in my leg to repair the breaks.”

What happened next is a scene Wagner describes in his new book. Most Americans are unaware of the diversity within Israel itself and Wagner’s eight-bed hospital ward included Jewish and Palestinian patients.

“I learned a lot about building a healthy community in that ward. I was there less than a week, but as the newcomer to that ward, it was amazing how quickly we all got to know each other,” he recalled. “We needed to know what each of us could do, and couldn’t do, given what skills we had before we arrived and what limitations we had from our surgeries.

“For example, one of the Jewish patients was multilingual and could help us all talk with each other. Some could get up and walk to get something that someone else needed. One Palestinian was from a family that ran a restaurant and they brought in this marvelous food. I can still remember the sweet desserts they brought us. And, because this was a teaching hospital, the doctors made rounds and talked about each of our cases in the ward. So, we all knew a lot about each other’s problems. This whole week of sharing so much just fascinated me!

“After that experience, I thought: Wouldn’t it be great if the world could learn from a hospital ward like that. The truth is—we’re all injured or broken in some way. We all have talents. Together, we could help to heal each other and even heal the deep rifts that divide so many of our communities in the world today.”

WHERE IS GOD?

Ultimately, Wagner says, the Pew data on the importance of good preaching makes a lot of sense. “Excellent preaching is something you just have to have in a vital church, but there’s something more we need to say about that. Your words alone can be powerful, but what’s most important in a healthy community is for people to speak with absolute honesty and integrity. That’s what I try to do in this new book.

“What you’re trying to say—and the message people can see in your life—they must be in alignment. We need congruence in our messages about life and faith.

“People don’t want heavy-handed preaching. People want honest help in looking at their lives through new lenses that can help them to see God already working around them. My wish for this new book is that it will help readers begin to think about all that has happened in their lives and remember some experiences that made them stop and think, like I did in that hospital ward: ‘Wow! Look at this!’

“It’s with that new vision that we can discover God at work in our world, even when we weren’t even aware of God. I hope readers are surprised not only by the book, but by what they can discover about their own lives.”

Care to read more?

FROM PEW—Here is the main Pew report on “Choosing a New Church.” Here is the latest report on why “nones” are leaving. In addition, Glenn Wagner and this column about his new book also have drawn from Pew’s extensive reporting on “nones” over the past year, so you may want to search around within the Pew website for additional reports.

GET THE BOOK—You’ll be glad you ordered a copy of God Incidents.

CONNECT WITH GLENN—Wagner has an active schedule of speaking engagements, programs and retreats. Connect with the author and learn more at: glennmwagner.com.

Glenn M. Wagner and daughter Bethany in Israel in 2009.

The broken leg didn’t deter him from his pilgrimages. Wagner was back in Israel in 2009, standing here in Nazareth with his daughter Bethany.

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MSU journalists publish To My Professor: Student Voices for Great College Teaching

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The Michigan State University School of Journalism students who published the new book To My Professor.

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By JOE GRIMM
MSU School of Journalism

Cover of To My Professor by MSU School of Journalism

Click on the cover to see all the online options to order a copy of this book today.

What would college students tell their professors if they could?

In To My Professor: Student Voices for Great College Teaching, a journalism class uses more than 100 such comments to get things started.

They include:

“What type of professor gives you a bad grade on a paper and the only comments written were ‘incorrect use of a semicolon’ and ‘good’?”

“I spend a lot of money to go to school here. It would be nice if a professor knew my name.”

Comments like these were selected as starting points for more than 50 chapters in this new book.

This level of confusion and frustration is not surprising to anyone connected with higher education, these days. College campuses have become complicated places. The college population is more diverse than ever, tighter budgets and expanding technology are changing the role of professors, and students are more willing than they have been in 50 years to ban uncomfortable speech. Often, a professor, whether adjunct or a tenured PhD, becomes the fulcrum where all of this change seems to turn on campus.

MSU School of Journalism students now are veterans of identifying and producing helpful books on a wide range of issues concerning America’s changing culture.

This new project, To My Professor, was born when some ugly classroom incidents prompted a committee in the Michigan State College of Communication Arts and Sciences to ask for a teaching guide written from the student’s point of view. The request went to a class called Bias Busters because its students had published earlier 100-question guides to greater cultural competence. To My Professor, became a much bigger project, however, and grew to become a 230-page book written by 18 students over a 15-week semester.

Among the major sections of this book are:

  • Engaging everyone
  • Out of bounds
  • Technology
  • Life stages and circumstances
  • Health and wellness
  • Racial inclusion
  • International community
  • Gender and inclusion

The subjects include communication, grading, the needs of commuters, financial stresses, parent-student issues, challenges faced by first-in-the family students, international students and a growing blend of race, culture and gender identification.

FRICTION OVER DIVERSITY

Among the comments collected as starting points in the research, many focused on diversity, including:

There was frustration “when profs do not learn a Black student’s name because it’s ‘too hard’ but they can learn scientific names for plants+animals.”

“My professor just asked if I speak Arabic and then told me I look like a terrorist.”

“I felt like I had to choose between my grades and my religion, but what’s worse, I don’t know which my parents will be more upset about.”

In researching their chapters, the MSU journalists interviewed students and educators—and they also turned to nationally known master teachers and experts on crucial issues. For example, in sorting out the many potential points of misunderstanding over religious practices and observances, the students turned to the nation’s leading journalist covering religious holidays and observances: Stephanie Fenton, who has reported for ReadTheSpirit magazine over the past decade.

WHAT THEY LEARNED

 

So, with the book now out and getting into the hands of educators through Amazon and other booksellers, let’s turn the lens on the student-authors. What do they think now? Here is what some wrote:

“Interviewing professors and students for this book was eye-opening. Some were apathetic to our project, and that alarmed me. From the start we knew that the professors who didn’t want to learn or adapt their teaching styles wouldn’t be our readers—though they likely need our book the most. Others were inspired, and that fueled me to produce better work.”

“I learned that professors don’t suck on purpose. They really are trying their best and they do mean well. Hopefully our book can help them be even better! “

“I learned that there are some AMAZING professors, but there is always going to be some not-so-amazing professors, too. It’s important to realize, though, that these professors, just like us, have a life outside the classroom.”

“As a student you sometimes feel alone in the way you are treated by professors, but you’re not. There is a whole nation full of students just like me.”

CARE TO READ MORE?

Joe Grimm is visiting editor in residence in the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He was the teacher and editor for To My Professor: Student Voices for Great College Teaching. He is also the editor of the Bias Busters series of guides to cultural competence. And here is a link to the MSU journalism students’ author page.

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Daniel Buttry: Remembering our call in ‘Safeguarding the Stranger’

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

Book Review by DANIEL BUTTRY

I was raised on the heroic stories of Christians in Europe who hid Jews from the Nazis. Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, first the book and then the movie, were big hits in my circles, relating how her family hid Jews in their home until the whole Ten Boom family was sent to concentration camps. Only Corrie survived their risky acts of hospitality. But time goes by and in recent conversations with some Christian young adults I found they didn’t know who Corrie Ten Boom was.

We need to revive her story and countless other stories of people who have provided protective hospitality in times of danger (many of these stories are told in my Interfaith Heroes books).

Our news has been full of stories of Syrian refugees, immigrants from Africa braving the Mediterranean’s waters, unaccompanied children from Central America sent north to avoid conscription into gangs, and the political railing against immigrants. Do we let political figures determine the agenda, or is there a transforming ethical word that comes from the faith community?

Jayme Reaves provides such a word in her recently published Safeguarding the Stranger: An Abrahamic Theology and Ethic of Protective Hospitality (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2016). I met Jayme when I was teaching at a seminary in Croatia. She guided me around the region, showing me the devastation of Vukovar but also the efforts of healing and reconciliation. Then she moved to Northern Ireland where she worked in various reconciliation efforts. She earned her Ph.D. in Theology from Trinity College at the University of Dublin.

Jayme Reaves is what I call an academic/activist, a special breed of folks who can handle the highest intellectual pursuits but are driven to continually engage in real-world struggles and concerns. Reaves addresses this directly in her book as she writes about grounding all the discussion of hospitality in praxis. So she starts with the stories of hospitality for the at-risk “other,” specifically the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon protecting Jews during World War II and the Sanctuary Movement in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s when the wars in Central America sparked a movement of refugees seeking a safe haven from the violence and human rights abuses they were facing. At the end of the book Reaves returns to the practical challenges of protective hospitality, drawing upon her own direct experiences especially in Croatia and Bosnia.

Reaves surveys and interacts with the limited literature that addresses hospitality. She grapples with the issues of boundaries, hospitality as resistance, risk—both from the guest and from those seeking to harm the guest, and the “dangerous memories” that inspire and compel the risky action of protective hospitality.

The richest gift from this book for me was her deep exploration of the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. She explores their commonalities related to hospitality, but also the unique perspectives that each religion brings that can shine light on the limitations of the others and spark growth in the practice of hospitality through interfaith dialog. For example, the rootedness of hospitality in Islam in the concept of justice pushes Christians to think more deeply than just compassion to some of the structural dynamics that threaten the “other.”

Safeguarding the Stranger has grown out of her academic work, and the book reads like a thesis. That is excellent for those who want deep intellectual engagement. She has copious footnotes and bibliography materials. As she notes, there is a paucity of material related to the practice and ethics of hospitality in general let alone protective hospitality. Reaves has filled an important space in this discussion, and done it not as a mere intellectual exercise but as a profound ethical challenge at this historic moment.

However, reading her book left me hungry for more, specifically a popular version of this discussion. With refugees and immigrants filling the news as well as the shrill voices of fear and inhospitableness, we need to increase the voices of the counter-narratives and ethical challenges for hospitable responses. I look forward to Reaves’ activist side to distill another book for the average folks in churches and communities facing decisions of what to do. I hope she keeps the rich interfaith dimension of her current work as I think that is a key to finding a way to transformation in the present crises. Keep writing, Jayme, as you have so much more to share for a time like this!

Care to read more?

Visit Daniel Buttry’s author page.

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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’

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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 canonized 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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