What’s Detroit building now? A community of tiny homes that could change poverty in America

Editor of ReadTheSpirit

“They may be tiny, but they have lofty goals—putting roofs over the heads of people who never dreamed they could own a home.”

Those are the words of PBS News Hour’s Jeffrey Brown, reporting this week from Detroit in the PBS network’s ongoing series about poverty and opportunity in America called Chasing the Dream.

Brown’s video reporting, which you can view below, is introduced to viewers this way: “Tiny houses are all the rage. … Today, there’s a twist. Tiny houses are being seen as giving homeless and low-income people a chance at home ownership.”

Are you skeptical of the PBS team’s claim that this Detroit community is catching the imagination of Americans nationwide? Well, consider that Facebook’s NowThis video series posted a much shorter report on these tiny homes in June—and that Facebook video already has racked up 34 million views! (Today, we’re featuring the newer, longer and more in-depth PBS story, which you can see below, but here is a link if you want to see that shorter Facebook video.)

Take a look at the full PBS news report here— (If you don’t see a viewable video screen here, then try this direct link to PBS News Hour.)


A Utopian Community? Learn more …

There’s a lot to learn about this visionary concept. You’ve probably heard about the popularity of “tiny houses” already. In fact, there are TV series about this trend, including Tiny House Hunters. But this Detroit concept—originated by Faith Fowler, the founder of Cass Community Services—is something new.

Click the cover to visit the Cass website and learn about ordering your own copy of this new, full-color book.

Yes, this involves little homes. But, no, this isn’t “like Habitat for Humanity.” No, this isn’t like any other group of tiny houses you’ve seen in other regions of our country. Before Faith and her team of Detroit-based allies broke ground, she crisscrossed the country looking for the best ideas in other communities. “And people were very open about helping us,” she said.

Then, Faith used the basic idea of micro-homes to lay out a visionary, multi-year plan for creating an entire neighborhood in one of Detroit’s most blighted areas.

The entire story—and gorgeous color images—are in her newest book, Tiny Homes in a Big CityThe book has not yet rolled off the printing press and already more than 800 copies have been pre-ordered—an amazing sign of reader interest. You can visit the Cass website now and pre-order your own copy.

Why are we using the phrase “utopian community” in this story? Because the search for new ways to build and organize close-knit communities is an American idea stretching back more than two centuries. Remember the Shakers? Amana? New Harmony? That’s the ambitious vision driving Faith Fowler and her team. (Want to refresh your memory on America’s long history of utopian communities? Here’s a convenient Wikipedia index to dozens of other examples throughout our history.)


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Angry? Tell your story of hope!

Editor of ReadTheSpirit

“Where can I count on finding hopeful news—every week? the answer is: ReadTheSpirit,” said author and peace activist Brenda Rosenberg in a meeting with our staff on Friday. “What you publish is so important! Don’t forget that!”

Over more than 10 years, ReadTheSpirit has published thousands of columns about religious and cultural diversity—and innovative approaches to peacemaking. Our online columns and published books come from a dozen different faith perspectives, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam and many other global traditions.

So, as world events cascaded over the weekend, as Editor, I decided to share a powerful sermon I heard on Sunday morning (August 13, 2017) at Clarkston United Methodist Church north of Detroit. While the context here is specifically Christian—we offer this as an example of swift and inspiring response from religious leaders.


This response began on Saturday with a Michigan-wide online letter from Bishop David Bard. As this coming week unfolds, many other statements from religious leaders are likely to cascade into the news—but Michigan’s Bard was swift enough to allow clergy preparing for Sunday worship to consider reading his message aloud.

That’s what happened during the Sunday morning sermon by Clarkston’s the Rev. Rick Dake. Here is the text that Bard released on Saturday, which then was read by Dake (and presumably other clergy) on Sunday:

Dear Friends,
This week, I invited Michigan United Methodists to join in prayer for our United Methodist Church during its season of discernment. The prayer I offered included a prayer for the world. God loves extravagantly in Jesus Christ.
The brokenness and woundedness of this world has become painfully evident during the week. Rising tensions between the United States and North Korea raise new concerns about war. Last night and today in Charlottesville, Virginia, virulent racism raised its ugly head as white supremacists marched in that city resulting in tragic violence and death.
Again, I invite us all to prayer, and in our praying to deepen our commitment to love, to justice and to building community for the common good. I think of the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” I think of the words of the poet W. H. Auden, “All I have is a voice… We must love one another or die.”
Peace and Grace,
David A. Bard



In Clarkston, a large congregation in a suburban area north of Detroit, pastor Dake took that bishop’s letter and made it the centerpiece of a full-throated, prophetic call to action. But not to violent action. Rather, Dake’s entire message on Sunday morning was about countering the rampant stories of right-wing groups that demonize vulnerable minorities and incite violence.

Everyone can respond to this sermon. Yes, Dake framed his appeal in Christian terms. If you read this column, today, and you are one of our many readers from other faith groups—consider how this might sound within your own tradition.

Dake directly addressed threats of nuclear war traded between North Korea and President Trump—and also the right-wing violence in Charlottesville, VA, that led directly to one woman’s death, many serious injuries and a tragic helicopter accident that killed two more people.

“It is unthinkable today to gather in the name of Jesus Christ without condemning the principles of the Alt Right!” Dake declared as he began laying out his basic theme. “We must condemn these stories that seek to condemn others and that terrorize people. … Instead, we must proclaim stories that provide hope.” It is time, he said, “To stand up and declare which stories are right and which stories are wrong.”

Then, he read aloud the entire Bishop Bard letter from Saturday. Dake pointed out that Bard is encouraging each person of faith to lift a “voice.”

Why stand up and tell “our own stories” at this moment? Because, Dake told people, we are at a perilous moment in world history. He talked about the rage within the man behind the wheel of the car that plunged into the Virginia crowd. Dake continued, “And, this week, we are on the edge of nuclear madness. How do we make sense of these stories? What stories will save our world from such madness?”

He invited the congregation to take a moment and make notes about the first hopeful, personal stories that were coming to mind. He urged them to take these notes home and think, all this week, about what stories to share with others—relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers and anyone who happens to engage in conversation.

“Why does this matter?” Dake asked. “Because there are others out there telling other stories! In every town and village and small community there are stories being told that are dangerous.” He said he wonders what dark stories the Ohio man had been hearing that would prompt him to “drive his car, thinking he was righteous, into a group of protesters.”

Preaching as a Christian, he continued: “People need to know your story! And, many of them are not likely to be coming into the church to hear your story here. You need to be ready to share your story wherever it may help. … And, here’s the story that will stop Charlottesville and I believe this is the story that keeps us from nuclear holocaust: It is to put Jesus in our midst. It’s not to debate Jesus. It’s not to get Jesus to adopt your position or my position. It’s to put Christ in the middle.”

That story is a story of peace and compassion. “Tell that story,” he told the congregation.

“Why do I know that works? Why do I have hope in that story?” he asked. “Because there were those who told that story to me. Preachers and youth workers and neighbors and parents and friends who told me that story in word and in action. And that story makes all the difference. If you and I cannot be the ones to tell that story, who will?”

He grew more passionate as he preached. “I beg of you! The world begs of you to claim your story of faith! Focus on Christ. Focus on what is possible through Christ. There are those who need to know, to hear and for someone to explain this to them. If not you, if not me—then who?”

He began to sing an old hymn a capella, lines starting with “I love to tell the story of unseen things above. Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.”

Praying for Compassion

Following the sermon, the Rev. Megan Walther offered a prayer that men and women might consider lifting up in the week ahead:

“God of grace—our world needs healing. We look at the news and the world seems to be full of hatred and violence and anger.

  • In Charlottesville, VA, where a woman was killed and many were injured.
  • In Nairobi, Kenya, were protesters were killed while protesting election results.
  • We lift up Venezuela, where people have been killed in ongoing conflicts.
  • We pray for North Korea where a leader is threatening the world.
  • And, we pray for Flint where there was just another gun death this week and where families continue to suffer the effects of toxic water.

“Lord we need your grace. Lord we need your healing. There is so much that is out of our control, whether it is the state of the world or it is closer to home, including worries for loved ones.

“Help us to be agents of your peace. Let us be faithful in even the smallest of acts, knowing that compassion and sacrificial love have immense power even in the face of hatred and violence. We reject the evil that is complacency and apathy in the face of need. … Do not let us wallow in despair. Do not let us nurture a sense of hopelessness. Do not let our hearts become hardened. …

“We are part of that work of your new creation. We confess that you are our savior, not any world leader. We promise to serve you, advocating for the vulnerable, and not settling for anything less than compassion and justice, and treating everyone we encounter with god-given dignity.

“We put our whole trust in your grace. Please heal all that is broken, among us, within us and in your world.”

So what is your story of hope?

We invite readers to email ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com if you care to respond directly to us at the magazine’s home office. More importantly, take the appeals of Bard, Dake and Walther to heart and tell your story of peace and compassion to someone you encounter this week.

Want help?

Check out the many helpful voices in our bookstore.

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Listen to ‘Grief Chat”s Mitch Carmody with the creators of ‘Never Long Enough’

At ReadTheSpirit, we are getting more and more inquiries about the unique picture-book, Never Long Enough. So, first, here’s the Amazon link to the book in paperback and in hardcover. And, here is a link to the authors’ own book-related website.

We have published several stories about this creative concept: It’s a large-format picture book—featuring an inclusive array of family images by artist Michelle Sider—encouraging families to come together and talk about the life of a beloved person. Adults and children in a family might use the book as a loved one nears the end of life—or, the family might use the book after a death. Care to learn more? Here is a link to one of our earlier stories, headlined: ‘Never Long Enough’ Helps Families Honor Loved Ones.

Now, the nationally known host of Grief Chat, Mitch Carmody, and his cohost Maureen McNeary have created the following video—based on their recent, live radio interview with author Rabbi Joseph Kraoff and Sider, the psychologist and artist who created the book’s illustrations.

Here is that video (the actual interview begins after the show’s 2-minute intro):




Why spend the time with this video? Because Carmody and his co-host emphasize the new book’s many strengths. They emphasize why this is such a remarkable book. And, toward the end of this interview, Krakoff and Sider preview the next chapter in their Never Long Enough journey.

Who is Carmody? His radio studio is located in Minnesota, but he has a national audience for his programs on grief. Like the team behind this new book, Carmody also is an artist and writer, sometimes better known online by his trademark: Mr. Heartlight. As a grief educator, Carmody’s many distinctions include serving on the board of directors for The Compassionate Friends, the largest grief support organization in the world. He knows first-hand these heartbreaking experiences: After losing his twin sister in an accident in 1985 and then his son to cancer in 1987, Mitch has dedicated his life to serving the bereaved in any way he can.

In the interview: Krakoff explains why this book covers so many themes and is designed to be read at any pace a family may prefer—perhaps just a few pages at a time. The rabbi says, “Grief is something that isn’t on any calendar or timeline. Grief is unique for everyone.”

Carmody tells him the book “totally hit the mark.”

Krakoff explains that, as a result, the book contains very few words and, instead, encourages readers to start their own open-ended conversation and storytelling. This concept draws from the Jewish tradition of Shiva. Krakoff says, “In Shiva, we go into people’s homes to give them comfort, but the way we give that comfort is not by saying a lot of things to them. We are supposed to close our mouths and listen to what they want to talk about.”

“That’s brilliant advice,” says Carmody’s co-host Maureen McNeary.

Michelle Sider talks about her dozens of illustrations. She says, “We want readers to linger on whatever page matters to them. … And, we wanted this book to be as inclusive as possible. Did you lose a parent? A spouse? A child? There are so many different experiences of grief.”

Carmody praises the combination of Krakoff’s brief text and Sider’s artwork, which moves from black and white in the opening pages to brilliant color toward the end of the book. Carmody says, “A lot of people describe their grief as living in shades of gray. I like how you did incorporate that in your book. … The same is true with the simple language you have in this book. A text-heavy grief book can be tough to read through, but here the language is so simple. Wow! … This book really is working inside of you. And, then, you will remember this book long after you go through it.”

By the time the full color emerges in these pages, the impact is breathtaking, says McNeary. The book’s colorful front cover is an example of those final pages and McNeary says, in the interview: “My gosh! That cover is beautiful Michelle!”

Carmody also points out the value of the book’s additional blank pages: “You can even journal in this book as well.”

That’s when the interview turns to the next phase of the Never Long Enough project in which Sider and Krakoff will publish an interactive coloring book, based on the original volume.

“A coloring book/workbook is a natural extension of this experience,” Sider says.

Carmody agrees and says she’s eager to see that. “That’s wonderful! Then, you will be able to weave coloring and other expressions into your reflections.”

Care to read more?

Once again, here’s the Amazon link to the book in paperback and in hardcover. And, here is a link to the authors’ own book-related website. Visit https://neverlongenough.net/


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Chalice Press knows ‘The Stakes Is High’ for people of faith

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

ReadTheSpirit Editor

Not many Christian publishing houses, these days, would release a book bearing the title of an angry rap song with a black activist on the front cover shouting into a microphone. So, why was The Stakes Is High published by the venerable Chalice Press—officially the publishing arm of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)?

The author, African Methodist Episcopal pastor Michael W. Waters, explains the purpose of this new book in the opening pages. Waters argues that, in 2017, church people are long overdue in joining a nationwide movement for justice for vulnerable minorities. It’s time to turn to “urban prophets” like the hip hop group De La Soul, who have been “crying out for justice” in songs like The Stakes Is High for many years. Waters quotes lines from the song:

Let me tell you what it’s all about
A skin not considered equal
A meteor has more right than my people.

Then Waters describes why he continues to be inspired by this song: “A sense of urgency is present in each line of The Stakes Is High. A pulsating beat adds to this sense of urgency as De La Soul seeks to awaken the masses from their slumber concerning critical matters of race in our nation.”

Quite simply, those lines also sum up Waters’ new book—an incendiary series of real-life stories about injustice and prophetic responses, wrapped up with a ringing appeal for long-overdue justice. The “sense of urgency” is apparent on every page of this book. Waters clearly hopes to “awaken the masses from their slumber.”

If you know Waters’ work, then you may have seen his earlier book Freestyle, also released by a publishing house with mainline Protestant roots (in that case Upper Room Books, connected with the United Methodist Church). Comparing Freestyle with Stakes is like comparing Guideposts to a sermon preached at an open air protest. In the more folksy memoir, Freestyle, readers were introduced to generations of Waters’ family. As we read that earlier book, our hearts were warmed with inspiring reflections on how we can maintain hope—and keep pursuing justice. Now, in Stakes, there is nowhere to hide from the prophet’s call. The cover should contain a warning label: Reading this book will propel you to action.

Freestyle is uplifting reading. Stakes is a dangerous book to carry around in your congregation. Many passages are raw, recounting violence against the vulnerable, and filled with righteous wrath as Waters encourages us all to find constructive ways to respond.

And that’s just one of the new books from Chalice Press. Once better known for producing “denominational resources“—and still proudly doing so to serve the Disciples denomination—Chalice’s current staff clearly believes that faith should actually make a difference in our daily lives and in the larger world. Upcoming titles include The Execution of God—Encountering the Death Penalty and Gods Gays and Guns—Religion and the Future of Democracy and Urban Souls—Reflections on Youth, Religion and Hip-Hop CultureIn many Christian congregations across America, you will court controversy by carrying these books under your arm on a Sunday morning.

From our perspective at ReadTheSpirit, we say: The Christian world could use a whole lot more of this kind of prophetic provocation.

One 2017 title we have reviewed and can highly recommend is Better—Waking Up to Who We Could Be by Melvin Bray. Organized for a 10-week, small-group discussion series, Bray’s book looks at how hateful stories told about vulnerable minorities—and how we tell our own individual stories within those minorities—shape the future of diversity in America. Bray argues that, understanding the power of stories, we all can begin to build healthier communities. The book offers lots of practical tips for taking control of our stories. (Visit the book’s Amazon page to read our full review of that book.)


There isn’t a denomination in the U.S. that can claim to be more “American” than the Disciples of Christ, whose members trace their roots back more than two centuries to the Second Great Awakening. One root of the denomination extends all the way to 1901 to Cane Ridge, Kentucky, one of the most famous revivals in American history.

However, unlike other more traditionalist Protestant movements, Disciples saw their evangelical mission as clearly and loudly proclaiming justice and inclusion. That isn’t a trendy change of theological gears. As Disciples see it, that mission is in keeping with the movement’s earliest embrace of anyone who wandered into those early camp meetings.

Chalice Press proclaims a mission statement specific to its vocation in publishing. Here at ReadTheSpirit, our own publishing house staff recognizes kindred spirits in the Chalice staff. The mission statement appears on the Chalice website, but it is well worth quoting right here as well:

At Chalice Press, we are working to create a better world. A world in which all people, regardless of their faith tradition, are inspired and encouraged to challenge harmful theology and work together for justice.

A world in which the growing number of spiritual-but-not-religious people have resources to inspire them on their unique journeys.

A world in which the conversation about racism, largely dormant for decades, experiences a resurgence, and once again new voices call out discrimination and offer solutions that can lead us toward the Beloved Community.

A world in which a growing number of people accept the wondrous diversity that surrounds us. As LGBTIQ equality works its way into the justice system and our society, more and more Americans move from mere tolerance to full acceptance and love in the way of Jesus.

A world in which the greed that creates a vast gap between the rich and the poor—and stealthily crafted social policy that sustains that gap—is exposed and confronted.

A world in which the fear and intolerance of other faiths turns toward connection, finding common ground and respect for our differences.

Because the words we use create the world we inhabit, we at Chalice Press believe our ministry is one important part of creating the better world we know is possible.

To that, we say: Bravo! (And, if you care to jump back to 2007, here are the founding principles behind ReadTheSpirit publications, which we adopted on our first day in business and continue to follow. You will find a kindred spirit in these mission statements.)


So far in this review of Chalice’s upcoming books, we have focused on some of the more provocative titles on the horizon. However, you also will find a wide array of warm, inspirational, refreshing books that are meant to fit into the daily search for spiritual solace in millions of families.

That phrase about a “daily search for spiritual solace” may sound like an unfounded truism. But, in fact, journalists have been buzzing over the past year about Pew Research’s data on a rise in spirituality nationwide—among both traditionally religious Americans and those who tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation.

Here’s what Pew says: “Americans have become less religious in recent years by standard measures such as how important they say religion is to them and their frequency of religious service attendance and prayer. But, at the same time, the share of people across a wide variety of religious identities who say they often feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being as well as a deep sense of wonder about the universe has risen.”

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

That’s exactly the niche Presbyterian pastor and educator Traci Smith hopes to fill in Faithful Families—Creating Sacred Moments at Home, also newly published this year by Chalice Press. (An earlier version of Traci’s work was published several years ago under a different title—but this newly revised 2017 edition is the one you want to buy on Amazon.)

Since we have mainly been sharing our own views about the Chalice books, let’s turn to Rachel Held Evans’ review of Traci Smith’s new volume—as a way of underscoring the widespread endorsement of many of the new Chalice titles. Rachel writes:

Faithful Families is a thoughtful, practical guide to teaching by doing—to integrating prayer, tradition, Scripture, and ritual into the routines of a normal, busy family. What I love about this book, and about Traci’s work, is how it illuminates the sacred in the everyday, how it invites us to turn a lazy Saturday morning breakfast, a long car ride, the death of a pet, or the end of a stressful day into an opportunity to look for God, hiding in plain sight.

This isn’t a memoir. It’s not even standard prose. Traci uses her 250 pages to present nuts-and-bolts, step-by-step ideas for spiritual practices with children—including an indication of the best age range for each activity. The book’s main sections are:

  • Traditions for Every Day, including a Night Time Blessing and Grace with Meals.
  • Traditions for Holidays, including Lent, Earth Day and a Birthday.
  • Ceremonies for Marking Life’s Transitions, including the Parents’ Anniversary and Moving to a new home.
  • Ceremonies for Difficult Times, including Worries and Divorce.
  • The Spiritual Practice of Prayer, including Smartphone Prayers.
  • Ancient Spiritual Practices, including a Labyrinth.
  • Other Spiritual Practices, including Serving an Honored Guest and the Golden Rule.

Overall, many of the new Chalice titles take seriously the idea that relatively small changes in our daily lives can have significant spiritual implications—and just may be a step toward making our world a better place. In Traci Smith’s epilogue to this book, she writes about an experience with her son that, more broadly, illustrates this larger spiritual principle in action:

“My heart was filled to overflowing when I saw how something so simple had taken root in my son’s heart and mind.”

Thanks, Chalice Press. As we publish—may it be so.


And, there’s even a sale …

Watch the Chalice Press website and, over time, you may find special discounts. As we publish this ReadTheSpirit Cover Story, Chalice is in the middle of a sale that runs through August 15, 2017.

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Justin Dillon urges us to join in ‘A Selfish Plan to Change the World’

CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s page at Amazon.

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Since founding our online magazine and publishing house more than a decade ago, I’ve met countless people who hope to make our world a better place. I always ask them three questions:

  1. Why do you climb out of bed in the morning?
  2. How do you make it through another stressful day?
  3. And, when you look back at the end of each day—what did you do that truly mattered?” (Those are my versions of the timeless spiritual questions: Why are we here? How shall we live? And what truly matters in this world?)

If you can answer those questions—if you can describe your daily passion for living—then you are naming what activist Justin Dillon calls your “riot.” Reading his new book, A Selfish Plan to Change the World, I fell in love with that term for what amounts to the classic idea of “vocation.” What’s your special purpose? Or, many of us might say: What’s your Divine calling?

Justin asks people: What’s your riot?

Why call it a “riot”? Justin began his career as a musician who learned a lot about the world of high-energy music—clubs packed with people eager to open themselves so completely to the sensations that they feel they are unleashing a “riot.” His book’s first chapter is a dramatic recounting of the first punk concert in Ireland by the Clash in 1977, when they performed “White Riot” in Dublin. And, at the back of the crowd that night, five unknown lads felt especially transformed by the emotional, music-driven tidal wave. Who were those five lads? Well, I won’t spoil the suspense of that first chapter—so, you’ll just have to read Justin’s book to find out. It’s a terrific opening chapter!

Why pay attention to your riot? Justin’s transformative message boils down to this: Any one of us can change the world, if we can only identify the “riot” simmering inside of us. Justin firmly believes: Each of us does, indeed, have a riot somewhere inside of us. Letting it loose can be easier than you think. You don’t even have to describe your riot in clear, concise terms. You can simply and intuitively unleash your own riot—and have a lasting impact.

Why does Justin think this works? Because Justin Dillon practiced precisely what he is preaching. His “riot” was a gut-level passion for combatting human trafficking—and he launched a simple, global challenge that has made a huge impact on the darkly shrouded infrastructure of modern-day slavery.


Author photo by Rainer Hosch. Used with permission.

“I consider myself ordinary.”

That’s the first thing Justin Dillon told me in our hour-long interview about his new memoir, A Selfish Plan to Change the World. And that may come as a shock to readers, because all of the promotional materials about this book make it clear that Justin now is a world-renowned activist in the realm of modern-day abolitionists. He has appeared on the major TV networks, in widely read newspapers and magazines, and before agencies of the United Nations, the U.S. government, the Vatican and Fortune 500 companies.

Today, he’s anything but ordinary!

“This book is my chance to tell the story of how everything I’m doing today began in a very ordinary place,” Justin told me. Whether or not he’s truly special now—the point is, “I wasn’t anyone special when I began all of this. I simply decided to let my riot out into the world to improve the lives of other people—and extraordinary things happened. That was true for me. It can be true for you. It can be true for the ordinary people living around you.”

In writing this book, Justin said, “I wanted to pull apart my own journey as an ordinary person. I wanted readers to understand that changing the world is a very normal activity. It’s not something that’s special. It’s not reserved for special people. When the world is substantially changed—this usually starts with someone who at some point was deemed ordinary.”

The great temptation in writing a memoir is turning oneself into the hero of the story. It’s the temptation Charles Dickens identifies in the first sentence of David Copperfield. Instead, in writing this book, Justin tried to turn that temptation on its head. He conceived of this new book as convincing us as readers that we can be the heroes.

“The problem is that we think of changing the world as such a role for superstars that a lot of us feel disqualified,” Justin told me. “We feel that what’s inside of us shouldn’t come out. We’ve created a world where we think that changing the world is for powerful rich people. Instead, I want people to know: There’s something inside of every one of us that wants to come out and it’s the way each of us can change the world.”


In the middle of Justin’s book, you will discover what may seem like a startling argument for doing good works in the world. If you are used to reading books that celebrate sacrificial heroes and selfless compassion, often called altruism, then Justin’s rethinking of these traditional concepts may come as quite a jolt. But if you have probed more deeply in our religious traditions—into concepts of justice and community—then you will find yourself right at home.

Justin’s use of the word “selfish” is his way of saying: All of us—rich or poor—have needs in life and, first, we need to recognize we’re all the same in this regard. Avoid pity, he warns. The best outcome for the world is not for the “haves” to sacrifice themselves for the “have nots,” he argues.

In fact, he includes a chapter titled “Don’t Try to Save the World,” rejecting that idea. The larger goal should be what he calls “parity.” And, if you know the roots of the world’s great religious traditions—Justin is tapping into that transformative value that goes all the way back in the Abrahamic tradition to ancient Judaism and certainly was reflected in the teachings of Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad. These middle pages of his book reminded me of theologians like Dorothy DayHoward Thurman and William Stringfellow—although you won’t find their names mentioned anywhere in this book.

Here is Justin on page 64 as he begins to unfold this concept on his terms: “It’s important to understand that we were built to see mutuality between ourselves and people we don’t know. Why is this important? Because seeing others’ challenges through the lens of pity is a double mistake. Pity lacks the power of truly helping others because it is only a feeling, and it lacks the power to produce any meaning in our lives because it requires zero vulnerability on our part.”

If you follow Day or Thurman or Stringfellow, do you hear the resonance there?

What’s so refreshing and energizing about this new book is that Justin makes this argument—example after example, page after page—without the usual trappings of these great theologians. He argues his case in terms and examples and citations that a restless, religiously unaffiliated, 30-something can understand.

Why should we dare to see the world through this transformative lens of parity and mutuality? Because, Justin says, it simply makes sense that way for all of us! If we dare to glimpse the world this way, then our own lives will have new meaning. Focus that restlessness, he argues. Let your riot out into the world, he coaches. Ultimately, he argues: It’s OK to connect our own search for meaning and wellbeing to helping others.

And, in that way, Justin pitches classic vocation to a new generation.

aka what justin did

There’s another enormous narrative behind this book: It’s what Justin did.

Justin unleashed his own riot and his own cobbled-together talents and his ever-growing circle of eclectic friends to combat the timeless global evil of slavery. Readers will learn a lot about that story in the pages of this book—but this book really is not structured as a history of Justin’s genius in tackling slavery. Rather, think of this book as a chance to spend a long afternoon over coffee with Justin, listening to many of his inspiring tales from around the world—and getting one step closer to unleashing your own riot.

Want to know what Justin did? The coolest version of his story (It really is fun!) is a series of cartoon-like screens that pop up when you click the “Our Story” link on his signature website: http://slaveryfootprint.org/

That’s right. Visit the site. Look for the link toward the bottom of the home screen and the cartoons emerge, starting with: “Justin Dillon—a one-time musician who got involved in the anti-slavery movement hosting benefit concerts.”

Flash forward: You’ll learn about the 2011 launch of the website posing the question, “How many slaves work for you?” That website is SlaveryFootprint and remains very active.

Now, Justin also has moved his growing organization toward a vast analysis of commercial data from around the world. Or, as his other website (https://madeinafreeworld.com/) describes it: “We developed the largest federated database of supply chain data designed to assist companies, organizations, and institutions to protect their purchases from human rights abuses.”

That’s enough to get you going in exploring Justin’s cause—even without buying his book.

But, wait!

You really should buy the book. All the cool cartoons—and the exciting world-changing ideas for combatting slavery—will energize you. But it’s in the pages of this book that you get to have that afternoon of coffee and conversation with Justin himself. He tells you the story behind the story. You’ll learn who the five lads were at the back of that Clash concert. And you’ll learn how you can unleash your riot, too.

Toward the end of his book, Justin’s voice echoes another great Christian writer, Frederick Buechner, whose Telling Secrets argued that, while telling our own story, we ultimately realize that we are part of a much larger story.

Or, as Justin writes on page 225:

“Our plans to change the world are ultimately about changing ourselves. If we genuinely pursue improving the lives of others, the quality of our lives will improve. This is a universal axiom that’s never been proven wrong. We were made to experience resistance and to participate in a bigger story. Your backstory, along with its disappointments, is what makes your offering to the world so unique. Things that bother you about the world bother you for a reason. Listen to that, and don’t let it sit idle and atrophy. That’s your soul dream, and it wants to live. No one will give you permission to change the world. Only you can do that.”


Originally published in www.ReadTheSpirit.com online magazine. You are free to share, reproduce or quote from this column. But, please, give us credit and a link.

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Master translator Willis Barnstone unveils ‘Poets of the Bible’

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

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

The vast majority of Americans tell pollsters they own a copy of the Bible—and read it. In fact, studies show that millions of Americans own multiple translations of the Bible. This overwhelming interest in the world’s all-time bestseller is a sign of the vitality of millions of small prayer and Bible-study groups coast to coast. And, while some traditionalist congregations prefer their members use a single translation, most Bible readers prefer an array of English renderings of the ancient Hebrew and Greek.

Enter the master translator Willis Barnstone, now 89 (and we may all pray for his good health to continue his work for many more years). Granted, he’s not a household name among American readers like J.K. Rowling or John Grisham, but the world’s literary treasures are grander and richer because of Barnstone’s work over many decades.

How long is Barnstone’s career? His biography includes a note that, as a child in the 1930s, he met Babe Ruth and wound up in the stadium watching Ruth and Lou Gehrig play in the World Series. A man of immense creative interests and scholarly abilities with language, Barnstone has produced a huge range of published work from biblical texts (and other ancient texts from the biblical era) as well as translations of poetry by Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda’s only play.

If you collect a range of Bibles, the one Barnstone book you are most likely to have on your shelf is the massive, 1,500-page Norton edition of The Restored New TestamentMuch of the innovation in that earlier work was rendering sacred texts in poetry that earlier were presented as prose—and then adding some additional books to the collection that usually are described as “gnostic.”

As you open this new volume—Poets of the Bible: From Solomon’s Song of Songs to John’s Revelation (also published by Norton)—Barnstone once again is presenting poetry and also includes books he believes should be read along with the Christian New Testament to understand a deeper context of Jesus’ life and the early Church. So, in this new book, he includes poetic renderings from the gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Judas.

Willis Barnstone. Photo by Sarah Handler; used with permission.

Genesis alone is worth the price of the book. The NIV, the most popular evangelical translation, these days, translates the opening scene of Genesis with the phrase “the Spirit of God … hovering over the waters.” In an effort to more closely reflect the original Hebrew, the mainline-Protestant NRSV translation uses the phrase “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This is close to the standard Jewish translation, these days, the JPS version: “a wind from God sweeping over the water.” While different in word and imagery—there is a similarity between all three translations: that is, they all translate the creation story in past tense.

The first thing you will notice in Barnstone’s translation is his choice of the present tense: “In the beginning God creates heaven and earth …” That’s how his Bible opens. And, this is no small matter! This startling change in verb tense is in keeping with those more progressive religious leaders who talk about God’s Creation as an ongoing process. Creation isn’t something that happened in ancient times and was forever fixed in stone. Creation continues, more progressive preachers and teachers argue.

Then, still in the opening lines of Genesis—when we reach the Spirit/wind phrasing—Barnstone gives us another flourish: “And a wind from God roars over the face of the waters.” Wow! “Roars!” Whole Bible study sessions and sermons could be developed from Barnstone’s addition of that one word in his attempt to capture the energy of the original Hebrew.

Readers may wonder at the nature of this poetry. Is this abstract, arcane stuff? Poetry sometimes is defined by its mysteries. However, in this case, Barnstone’s re-organization of the text into shorter, poetic lines turns some familiar stories into downright page turners. This book will be a revelation to anyone still having trouble slogging through the story of Abraham and Isaac—or the long tale of Joseph and his sojourn in Egypt—in those double-column King James Version editions of the Bible. In this book, your eye leaps from one short, poetic line to the next.

Of course there are phrases and choices in this new English narration that regular readers of the Bible—let alone Bible scholars steeped in the original Hebrew and Greek—would debate with Barnstone. That’s a natural benefit of any new translation—the ability to puzzle over these English renderings. And, these days, with the popularity of liberal paraphrases of scripture like The Message—even the evangelical world accepts the idea of comparing how the ancient language is turned into English for today’s readers. It’s a treasured part of Bible study, these days, in communities coast to coast. So, certainly, you will quibble over some sections of Barnstone’s book—it’s one of the pleasures of diving into such a work.

Anyone who loves these scriptures and reads the Bible regularly will enjoy this new collection (which, by the way, is priced considerably cheaper than his earlier Norton volume on Amazon). This would make a terrific autumn or year-end gift for someone on your shopping list. (Note: It’s not too soon to shop for intriguing new reading to prepare for the Jewish high holidays in September, even if Christmas is still months away.)


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Faith & Health: Prophetic calls remind us of God’s concern for the wellness of all

ReadTheSpirit magazine

For a decade, ReadTheSpirit has been publishing columns and books—featuring a wide range of authors—exploring the deep connections between faith and health. As July begins, that connection is sparking headlines nationwide. Religious groups—including leaders from Catholic, Protestant and other faith communities—are voicing dramatic calls to action to their members about the future of health care in the U.S.

Duke School of Medicine’s Dr. Harold Koenig, a leading scholar in trying to bring these two worlds closer together, pointed out in a widely cited overview of the subject that, today, people assume there is a “near total separation of religion, medicine, and health care.”

In calling for the kind of “re-alliance” of faith and health that we are seeing emerge in 2017, Koenig described it not as an innovation but as a wise acknowledgment that the two realms have historically shared deep values. As Koenig describes it: “A quick tour of history reveals that the Christian church built and staffed the first hospitals during the Middle Ages, the entire nursing profession emerged from religious orders, and most physicians during early American colonial times were also ministers. In the mid-20th century, church-related hospitals in the United States cared for more than a quarter of all hospitalized patients, and Catholic hospitals alone saw nearly 16 million patients per year. A re-alliance between the religious community and the health care system would build on a long, long history.”


The Republican Party’s efforts to repeal “Obamacare” and replace it with a less-expensive healthcare system—as of the start of July 2017—includes plans to drastically slash benefits and spending on healthcare for needy Americans.

One of the most prophetic voices in headline news this past week was Jim Wallis, who published one of his messages on HuffPost under the headline: How People of Faith Can Make a Difference in the Health Care Debates.

Among the largest and most influential groups preaching against the current Senate plan are the nation’s Catholic bishops, considering that nearly 1  in 4 Americans is Catholic. America Magazine covered the bishops’ prophetic appeals in a story: U.S. bishops say Senate health care bill will ‘wreak havoc’ on families. Want a different Catholic perspective? Here’s a second America story about why the proposed plan is “simply unacceptable” for Catholics. Or, turning to the progressive news magazine ThinkProgress, the headline is: Catholic bishops condemn Senate’s ‘simply unacceptable’ Trumpcare bill.

Of course, leaders from the entire spectrum of religious life are involved. Search news stories in your part of the U.S. for more—or ask local religious leaders for community events in coming weeks. One example of smaller, regional events: Penn-Live news covered a predominantly United Methodist protest in one town.

Muslim leaders have their own ongoing struggles for fairness, these days, with the Trump administration. While many regional Muslim leaders are involved in the public outcry over the healthcare proposal, the largest non-Christian condemnation is coming from the Jewish community nationwide.

Just a few examples of recent headlines about Jewish responses: The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports Jewish Groups Urge Senate to Oppose GOP Health Billthe Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism reports on National Jewish Organization Letter on Senate Health Care Billand there is similar coverage in The Times of Israel as well as The Jewish Journal.


Dr. Harold Koenig is responsible for a steady stream of journal articles and books. One of his landmark books is the definitive Oxford University Press Handbook of Religion and Health. That exhaustive volume of nearly 1,200 pages is expensive, beyond the price range of most of our readers, so we also recommend Spirituality in Patient CareKoenig’s latest series of books involves faith perspectives on mental health, including Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist.

Our own publishing house offers many great choices. Follow the links to learn more:

Whatever else you do, this week, share this news with friends. Our collective health as a national community hangs in the balance.




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