In her new ‘Until Now,’ Carrie Newcomer calls all of us to sing for our lives and our communities

Click the cover to visit the Amazon page for Carrie Newcomer’s new CD, Until Now. The page also lists streaming and MP3 options. Amazon also sells Carrie’s new book of poetry that expands on themes in this new album.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

What does a folksinger do without folks?

Our last ReadTheSpirit cover story featuring Carrie Newcomer was published on March 9, 2019, one year before the COVID pandemic in the United States led to social-distancing nationwide. This week, I had a chance to ask Carrie about the toll of the pandemic on her career as a performer. For many years, her life has been defined by tireless touring across North America and occasionally around the world.

So, my first question was: “What does a folksinger do without folks?”

“As happened to all of us, the regular patterns of my life completely altered. My last in-person tour happened in early March of 2020,” Carrie said in our interview. “Finally, just two weeks ago, I went out on my first in-person tour since that time. That’s a very long time to be home. Within a month of the COVID lockdown, I was spending more time at home than I had for 25 years! So the patterns of my life and the rituals of my work completely altered at the drop of a hat—like a sudden: Now, it all ends.”

While some of Carrie’s life-long habits ended for a time—new creative realms opened.

“I was very fortunate that I became involved with the start of the concert-streaming company Mandolin,” she said. Her husband Robert Meitus is a musician and a prominent entertainment-industry attorney who, during the pandemic, also was co-founding Mandolin. If you care to learn more, here is Mandolin’s own brief history.

“Because I was a sort-of resident artist as Mandolin was growing so rapidly, I wound up testing a lot of the new things they were adding to the service,” Carrie said. The company’s home base is in Indianapolis, not far from Carrie’s and Robert’s home in Bloomington. “So, I spent a lot of time with Mandolin, especially in the early days.” And, over the past year, Mandolin has turned into a meteoric success story. In June 2021, the annual music-industry awards given by Pollstar magazine honored Mandolin as the best streaming platform, as reported in Variety. Mandolin’s current concert lineup is featured here, and Carrie’s own artist’s page within that larger website lists her upcoming events.

“So, because of my connection with Mandolin, I was able to do some online concerts and workshops and that was very helpful—although it is a very different animal.”

COVID and ‘The Great Unraveling’

“A very different animal.”

The cultural, public-health, political, racial and spiritual upheavals of the pandemic have blown apart countless communities around the world. In Carrie’s new album and accompanying book of poetry—both of them titled simply Until Now—she never uses the word “COVID” or the term “pandemic.” She refers to this time of upheaval in the opening lines of her first new song as “the great unraveling.”

And what’s the good news here? Fans of Carrie’s work over the years will know that she always brings good news with the bad. The good news here is that she turns “the great unraveling” into an anthem calling on everyone to join in an effort to rebuild our world.

The opening lines of that first song are:

Here in the great unraveling,
So much of this is baffling.
When breathing feels like gambling,
Nowhere to go but here.
Things come together then fall apart.
We gather up our broken hearts,
And endings are just a place to start,
And so we start again.

We’re gonna climb this ladder rung by rung.
We’re gonna count our blessings one by one.
It’s gonna take a little grace and luck,
‘Cause baby it’s a long way up,
Baby it’s a long way up. 

“You’ve turned this into a kind of anthem,” I told Carrie. “In the chorus, when you call us to ‘climb this ladder rung by rung,’ it’s really stirring! What makes you so hopeful?”

“In a time of great unraveling, there is also a great opportunity,” she said. “As we put the pieces back together again, we can choose how we do that. We can choose how to weave our threads back together again, hopefully with a little greater awareness of where the fabric had always been a little weak.

“I understand that the pandemic is not over. I understand that we are all in a time of great suffering. I lost family members to this. I understand the pain,” she continued. “But at the same time, this is an opportunity. I do a lot of work with Parker Palmer and he talks about the possibilities when our hearts break. He says that, when our hearts break, they can shatter and wind up going in every direction like shrapnel. But there is another possibility. Our hearts can break open and, in the process, can become more open to the world. I hope that this can be a time when our hearts break open so that we are receptive in new ways.”

‘You’re just like Molly Brown’

Click on this photo of Carrie Newcomer to visit her own website, which is full of fascinating resources.

Carrie’s interplay with Parker Palmer shapes a lot of her work. In the new album, one of Parker’s casual texts to Carrie wound up inspiring an entire song about resiliency. They were sharing updates about Carrie’s work on creating new options for online streaming of high-quality music. She was texting him about the potential of online streaming.

Parker texted back: “You’re just like Molly Brown. You just keep rowing.” Molly Brown was the famous passenger on the Titanic who helped other passengers board lifeboats, eventually took an oar herself and, after she returned home, helped to raise funds for families devastated by the sinking.

“So, that text from Palmer was in my mind when I went for a long walk and I started singing about her—until that song became an homage to women who have rolled up their sleeves and who showed us the power of resilience,” Carrie said.

Between the song’s four stanzas, she breaks into a refrain that sounds like a full-force, revival-tent call to spiritual resilience. Here is the opening stanza and refrain:

I’m gonna row my boat like Molly Brown,
Picking up an oar, when the ship went down.
When she made it home, Molly kissed the ground,
I’m gonna row my boat like Molly Brown.

Pull and rest, pull and rest.
Do your best, not more or less.
Rest and pull, pull and try.
Keep asking why
‘Til we all meet on the other side.

Throughout Carrie’s new album and book of poetry, she celebrates the power of song—calling all of us to put our oars into the choral waters and row together.

Singing for our lives and communities

At ReadTheSpirit, we certainly are a part of that chorus. In fact, our publishing house has a number of books that celebrate the joys of singing. There’s an entire chapter about the importance of singing in Benjamin Pratt’s book, A Guide for CaregiversHere is how Benjamin describes the power of song in the opening of his chapter:

Music and singing have amazing restorative power in our lives. Like theater and art, music sends us soaring into new realms of the spirit while we are still grounded in our daily lives. When our daily lives are weighed down by onerous, exhausting tasks, music and dance can restore—even heal—something deep in our soul.

Throughout her career, Carrie has preached the same message. In her new book of poetry that accompanies the Until Now album, she writes an entire ode to singing. It begins this way:

Songs were never meant to be left
To “the professionals.”
Never mind the person who long ago shamed you
Or the church choir member who told you to
Just mouth the words.
Don’t worry if your i’s are dotted
And your t’s are crossed,
Or your pitches are perfectly placed.
Trust me,
If you spend today singing,
If you start by
Humming in the shower,
Then whistling while picking out carrots,
Or singing as you wash dishes,
Or walk in the woods,
Or cross at the traffic light,
You might just begin to feel
Your True Heart
Open.

And there’s that theme, often shared by Carrie and Parker Palmer, popping up again: When our hearts break, one new possibility is that, by breaking open, we may welcome the world around us in new ways.

“There are so many things happening in our world right now in such a small window of time,” Carrie said. “Beyond the pandemic, we are in a time of political upheaval, climate change and we are in the midst of a great racial reckoning, which is long in coming and has been long needed. That means: There are so many possibilities of what we might do next!

“Yes, there is pain. Yes, there is tragedy. But, if we stand back and think about it, life is like a great big ocean-going ship and it’s hard to shift the direction of that ship unless something big happens—and right now there are a lot of big things happening. This is an opportunity for all of us to shift our ship’s direction. Right now, while the pandemic continues, I hope that we can do the inner work that will inform and transform our outer work in the world. I hope that we can shift as communities and as a country and all around the world. As I say this, I think about lines in one of my new songs, When the Wolf Is at the Door.”

Part of the song goes like this:

When the old world ends,
A new world starts.
What finally comes together
First had to fall apart.
I’ve been seeing things I thought I’d never see,
There once were four, but now there’s three.
Change comes slouching in, unnamed and unforeseen,
With a quiet voice or on soundless wings.
There’s a storm like I’ve never seen before,
Rumbling like a train, coming up through the floor.
We can’t just be healed, we must be transformed.
When the sky goes dark, and the wolf is at the door. 

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Care to learn more?

GET THE NEW ALBUM and PAPERBACK. Amazon and other online retailers sell both Carrie Newcomer’s newest music—as well as her paperback book of poetry.

VISIT CARRIE’S HOME ONLINE. You’ll find lots more information and inspiring resources at www.CarrieNewcomer.com

ENJOY CARRIE’S PODCASTS WITH PARKER PALMER. They call their ongoing work together on this podcast The Growing Edge. “Parker Palmer and I started doing creative projects together for more than 15 years ago,” Carrie explains. “We’ve done a couple of spoken-word-and-music programs together. We’ve written and produced a song together. And we’ve created this monthly podcast that people can find wherever they like to get their podcasts. Before COVID, we were doing in-person retreats together on the topic: Where is your growing edge? The podcasts explore the inner work and the outer work that can happen when we step up to our growing edges. We’ve had some wonderful guests on our programs and I’m very grateful that we were able to continue doing these podcasts throughout the pandemic. If you enjoy the podcasts, you will find that some of the songs on the new album relate to those conversations.”

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Bill Tammeus Preaches Inclusion

An Inspiring Video You Can Share

Bill Tammeus, author of Love, Loss and Endurance, continued his months-long nationwide effort to encourage Americans to “unplug extremism” with a Sunday-morning sermon, addressed directly to Christians in light of the New Testament.

We have an easily share-able YouTube video of that sermon, which is a prophetic call to Christians to confront efforts to subvert the Bible for hateful purposes. He was preaching at First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Illinois, a congregation attended by his sister Mary. In the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, both Bill and Mary lost a beloved family member in one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center—so this is a deeply personal message.

Here is a YouTube video of Bill’s sermon, which is “set” to begin when Bill steps into the pulpit. If you wish to see more of the service, you can easily start the video at another point.

Care to share this with friends?

This is a video you may want to share with friends or perhaps a small group within your congregation. (Bill welcomes invitations to meet with groups nationally.)

Here’s a small sample of what Bill says in his sermon:

As we learn in the book of James, faith is not worth much if it does not produce love, mercy and compassion. …

The 9/11 terrorist attacks—and examples of extremism before and after that—have sometimes tried to disguise themselves as rooted in religious thinking. But, do you know how to tell if such so-called religious teaching is not just false but also is a destructive sham? Any time those so-called religious teachings lead people to view others as less than fully human—or lead people to oppress others in some way, you can be sure it’s not the product of healthy religion and that whoever is preaching such things has it wrong. …

I want to be clear that all of our faith traditions can sometimes be subverted and distorted in this way. Yes, the twisted version of Islam that the terrorists bought into on 9/11 certainly was an example of this, but so was the kind of Christianity that slaveholders in the U.S. before the civil war used to justify their evil. And in our time, so is the kind of Christianity that encourages people to try to retain the White supremacy that was built into our nation’s founding documents—or to advocate for Christian nationalism—or to insist that our LGBTQ brothers and sisters have no place in the life of the church. To take those positions requires a distortion and subversion of scripture.

Care to learn more?

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

Bill Tammeus, served for many years as the award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star until his retirement from the newsroom. Now, he writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook. Email him at [email protected].

Get his book: Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

To see the rising tide of terrorism, Bill recommends this summary from TRAC, the research center based at Syracuse University.

For more on the rise in extremism among military personnel and police, Bill points to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) article, headlined: The Military, Police, and the Rise of Terrorism in the United States

Bill also recommends: Other helpful resources for understanding domestic terrorism better include these books: American Zealots: Inside Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism, by Arie Perliger, and White Hot Hate: A True Story of Domestic Terrorism in America’s Heartland, by Dick Lehr. In addition, here’s an online resource you may find helpful from CSIS: “The War Comes Home: The Evolution of Domestic Terrorism in the United States.”

 

Major General James Dozier, 40 years after his kidnapping, writes about ‘Finding My Pole Star’

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

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What does courage look like?

Dozier writes about the spiritual core that helped him withstand captivity

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Major General James Dozier when he was freed from captivity.

Repeatedly over the past month—in the wake of the exodus from Afghanistan, a resurgence of COVID and tragic storms across the U.S.—I have heard people raise the question: What does courage look like?

That question was raised again this week by author Larry Buxton in his Leading with Spirit video, where he explains that this is a question frequently asked by “supervisors, spouses, pastors, parents, managers and bosses.” In the daily stress of our turbulent times, Buxton says that all of us want to know: “What can we do to be more courageous in our lives and in the roles we play everyday?”

Those questions are answered with inspiring true stories in the new memoir by retired Major General James Dozier, Finding My Pole Star. Forty years ago, in late 1981, Dozier’s name and photographs circled the globe as he became the public face of European terrorist groups’ rage about America’s global power.

Dozier’s book begins with a scene that takes us right back to those suspenseful weeks in 1981. A terrorist group called The Red Brigades shocked the world by overpowering him and his wife in their apartment in Italy. At the time, he was the deputy Chief of Staff for NATO’s Southern European land forces—the highest-ranking American ever to have been captured in such a terrorist raid.

Chapter 1, called Ride of Terror and Beginnings, starts with this scene:

The Fiat hatchback made its way through the early evening, transporting me from Verona, Italy, to an unknown destination and to an equally unknown future. I was in the back, jammed into a steamer trunk, lying on my left side, knees to my chest, handcuffed with my hands behind my back. Each time I moved to make myself a little more comfortable, the handcuffs would tighten.

So, what does courage look like?

In reading Dozier’s new memoir, you will find out that it looks a lot like the values millions of us learn from our families, from our teachers (in Dozier’s case at West Point), from weekly attendance at our houses of worship and from public-service organizations such as Rotary International, where Dozier is an active member. While that may sound like an anti-climactic answer to the question of courage, Dozier weaves together the significance of all these everyday lessons into the rock-solid wisdom—the pole star—that led him to take a daring and ultimately successful approach toward his kidnappers.

Fortunately for all of us, he lived to tell this remarkable story.

What’s Your Life’s Calling?

For thousands of years, a pole star has been a key to celestial navigation. For Dozier, finding one’s own spiritual pole star is the quest of a lifetime.

“I start with the firm belief that all of us who live on this earth are here to serve some purpose. God put us here for a reason,” Dozier, 90, said in an interview about his new book and his hope that it may inspire readers, especially the young people he works in Florida JROTC programs, near he lives.

He continued, “Then, if we believe there is a reason we’re here, it becomes our life’s work to figure out what that reason is—and to pursue that purpose with all our energy, even though it might take years to identify that purpose. We have to search for it. And we have to do that to the absolute best of our ability.”

Like most of the world’s great quest stories, one’s personal vocation—one’s pole star—is not always easy for a person to discern. This truth is echoed in another memoir of a famous West Point graduate, retired Col. Cliff Worthy, whose story of emerging as one of West Point’s first Black graduates is told in The Black Knight.

“Yes, I think this was true for both Cliff and myself—our ultimate purpose wasn’t obvious to us for years,” Dozier said in our interview. “You might think that a military career was always my career goal from the very start of my life—but, like Cliff, my life unfolded as the result of many fits and starts. Like Cliff, friends and mentor were vitally important to me all the way along this journey.”

Why is this such an important point?

Because many young Americans don’t develop a sense of vocation, researchers tell us. A sense of vocation can transform our lives, give us purpose and even help us to stay healthier longer in life, research shows. One particular group of men and women struggling with that challenge today are veterans who are trying to transition out of military service, writes military sociologist and Florida Gulf Coast University professor Christine Wright-Isak in her endorsement of Dozier’s new book.

“In my ten years of assisting young U.S. combat veterans from the 21st century Middle Eastern conflicts, I have learned from them the critical importance of their developing a personally important vision for their lives as they returned. Therefore, it is very important that the latest generation of Americans have the chance to hear this story,” she writes.

While held in captivity, Dozier was forced to participate in Red Brigades publicity, including this photograph that was widely circulated to news organizations as the Brigades prepared to cast him in a show trial about American imperialism.

Dozier on the Importance of Truth

One of the earliest values Dozier learned from his family and his church was truth—a value that he immediately recognized and embraced when he learned that it was central to West Point’s Honor Code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” That pledge is supposed to be part of the bedrock undergirding West Point’s motto of “duty, honor, country.”

“Truth is a very tough standard to live with,” he said in our interview. “And I’m so embarrassed that West Point has just gone through another cheating scandal.” A cheating scandal in 1976 shocked the nation and the Army—then more than four decades passed without incident. The disruptions of COVID isolation are largely credited with the 2020 scandal. West Point officials discovered that dozens of cadets cheated on a math exam that they took remotely due to the pandemic.

“That’s why I think we have to keep reminding ourselves: There is no excuse for not telling the truth,” Dozier said.

Clearly, the reminders in his book are more timely than ever. Too many Americans—even some West Point cadets—have become un-moored from the pillars of community life that reinforce such basic values as truthfulness.

The Rotary Test: ‘Is it the truth?’

Just as Dozier felt right at home when he first encountered West Point’s emphasis on truthfulness, later in life he recognized that same moral pillar in the century-old service organization Rotary International. At that point in his long life, Dozier was transitioning from the military to become a leader in Florida agri-business.

“You could call me a turn-around specialist,” he said. Initially, he was asked to tackle a management shakeup in a company that ran 30,000 acres of citrus groves. Among his other leadership roles, Dozier worked with a nonprofit that provides transportation for needy families.

“The business and nonprofit worlds are the same as the military in a lot of ways: Your word had better be your bond,” he said. “That’s why I included Rotary in my book.”

As an active member of Rotary, he explains the group’s ethical code. That includes the famous Four-Way Test that Rotarians agree to use in their personal and professional relationships. That test now has been translated into more than 100 languages and is recited at meetings around the world. According to Rotary, the test is:

Of the things we think, say or do:
Is it the TRUTH?
Is it FAIR to all concerned?
Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned? 

“Truth develops trust and, throughout my entire life, truth and trust have been intermingled—even when the Red Brigades held me captive and decided to put me into a kind of public trial they wanted to stage to try to show what they thought were American war crimes,” Dozier said. Even though his life was at stake, Dozier told his captors: “You can put me on trial, but you may not like what I have to say. I will not lie to you.”

“And there was something else about trust that I had to remember in that situation,” he said in our interview. “I was trusted not to disclose any information that was classified. And I told my captors that I would never disclose any classified information while they held me captive. I held to that. I never did.”

Dozier on the Importance of Church

As Dozier tells his story in Finding My Pole Star, he shows how that pole star is most clearly visible through the lens of his faith. And that faith depends on a lifetime of involvement with churches from his childhood until today. Currently, he attends Edison Congregational Church in Fort Meyers, Florida, which is coming up on its own centennial in 2025.

In the section of his book on attending West Point, for example, he explains how he carefully weighed his own religious commitments in light of the diversity of other cadets’ faiths. “As I talked with my friends about their religious commitments, and as I thought about religion in new ways, I began to realize why my mother had emphasized certain things in my early religious education. And I think that’s a common experience.  We may start with a faith we grow up with at home—but then all of us go through this process of questioning and learning what makes sense in our own lives. It was really at West Point, talking with my friends about the choices they were making, that I really began to nail down the beliefs that I would follow.

“Like the values of truth and trust and West Point’s ‘honor, duty, country,’ my faith really has shaped my whole life,” Dozier said.

Plus, public health research around the world now shows that active involvement in a congregation contributes to health, wellbeing and longevity.

“I certainly agree with that,” Dozier said. “Our church has a wonderful minister who inspires us. We have wonderful church organizations in which we stay active and we reach out to help other people. Since I’m 90 years old right now, I’m living proof of how important it is to remain sociable every single week. I can tell you: The longer you can maintain your social and religious relationships in life, the better off you are.”

In fact, Dozier says, he took the time to write this memoir—assisted by his friend Commander Douglas Quelch—to share this kind of valuable life lesson with others.

“You could call a lot of what I have learned ‘common sense values’—values that a lot of us grew up with and then develop further throughout our lives—but the truth right now is that we’ve got millions of young people who have not had as much opportunity to learn those values,” Dozier said. “Today, one of the most important things I do in my life is work with young people. So, if I had to describe an ideal reader for this book, I hope it would be young folks who might pick up through my stories how my pole star developed.

“We all face disappointments, setbacks and failures in life. How we respond to those fits and starts is what builds our character,” he said. “No one starts out in life with a clear-cut pole star. That vision develops throughout your life through the influences of people we encounter along the way. I am hoping that, through this book, I might be one of those positive influences in the lives of readers.”

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Care to Learn More?

Watch this brief video about Dozier’s memoir, Finding My Pole Star:

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Dr. Deanna Womack: Now, it’s time for ‘NEIGHBORS: Christians and Muslims Building Community’

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

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

As we pass the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and face a perilous new relationship with old foes in Afghanistan, there are no more timely words for all of us in America than these by Dr. Deanna Womack, who teaches interfaith relations at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta:

“We Christians and Muslims in the United States find ourselves at a turning point. We can either talk to and learn from one another, or we can slide into yet more fear, distrust and division. Positive things have come from the increasing diversity of our country, things like conversation about what we share as worshipers of the God of Abraham. Yet that same diversity gives rise to fear and resentment. Too often that fear focuses on Muslims. Too often politicians and religious leaders fuel that fear in order to boost their own power. … Our fellow American citizens represent just about every religious and nonreligious group on the planet. We Christians need to get along with all of them. But at the present moment, we need to reach out particularly to our Muslim neighbors.”

These are opening words from Womack’s book, NEIGHBORS: Christians and Muslims Building CommunityThis book for general readers is based on Womack’s career as a scholar and educator teaching interfaith relations at Candler—and in many congregations as well. Published by the Presbyterian Church’s Westminster John Knox (WJK) Press, the book’s nine chapters come with questions sprinkled throughout the text to spark individual reflections as well as conversation with friends. She also adds a complete discussion guide at the end of the book.

These examples from the chapter titles suggest Womack’s very practical approach:

  • Religious Diversity Starts at Home
  • Changing Our Minds about Other Religions
  • The Deep Roots of Islam in America
  • Opening Our Ears to Muslim Neighbors
  • Resources for Community Building

Readers who have been following our weekly ReadTheSpirit issues since our debut in 2007 will see right away that Womack’s overview of grassroots peacemaking parallels what our own team has been publishing over these 14 years. Womack’s goal in her new book is the same as many of our own books, including Love Loss and Endurance by journalist Bill Tammeus, Blessed Are the Peacemakers by Daniel Buttry, Friendship and Faith by the women of WISDOM, Reuniting the Children of Abraham by Brenda Rosenberg and Our Muslim Neighbors by Victor Begg.

This week, Victor Begg’s own new column appears in newspaper websites nationwide as well as in the widely read IslamiCity website. His message is appropriately headlined: 9/11 Remembrance Should Be a Time to Recommit to American Values. Like Womack, Begg points out that building peaceful relationships with our neighbors is part of what it means to be a good American.

So, if you already have some of these earlier books, why are we so strongly recommending Womack’s book now?

Because she is adding to this national chorus of peacemakers from her own unique perspective as a university-based scholar—and because she has focused her book on the weekly needs of mainline Christian congregations. She has skillfully adapted her stories—and her many discussion questions—to encourage a fresh wave of interfaith conversation. Congregations nationwide are home to millions of small groups, Sunday School classes and circles of men and women. Womack is experienced in working with those groups and has crafted her book as a resource that can be picked up and easily used by local group leaders.

The Most Common Questions about Islam

Womack talked with me about her efforts in the days just before the 9/11 anniversary in a wide-ranging interview about the timeliness of this effort.

“In planning this book, I started with the most common questions people ask me when I visit congregations,” Womack said. “It doesn’t matter whether the congregation is liberal or conservative, I am always asked: What is Islam? Is Islam violent? Doesn’t Islam oppress women?” she said.

“I’ve spent years thinking about how to present this information to seminary students who are going out into these congregations across the U.S. In this book, then, I’m thinking about how to present this to ordinary men and women across the country who are asking these same questions.”

In our interview, I asked Womack: “How much is 9/11 still shaping American attitudes toward Islam?”

“That’s a complex question to answer,” she said. “9/11 has been a reference point for Americans for 20 years, but it happened when I was back in college myself. I’m now teaching students who are so young that they have no personal memory of 9/11. What they know about it is mainly from stories they’ve been told by parents or grandparents. Then, there is everything that has happened among Christians and Muslims over the past decade. There’s the rise of Trump and new extremist groups. There are headlines from Afghanistan right now that are part of our national conversations.”

She paused, then added, “I think we all realize that this is difficult material to present to a group and then try to lead discussions about it. I’m thinking about all the people in congregations across the country who may want to explore Christian-Muslim relations in their classes and small groups over the coming year. They really need some guidance to help them understand the background and then to think about all these issues today. That’s why I wrote this book. That’s what I hope the book will help them to do.”

Womack is relentlessly hopeful. “There’s no way to go forward without being hopeful. As a Christian, I am hopeful.”

“Where do you see hope?” I asked.

“That starts with realizing that we are in a different world now than we were in 2001, and some of what has developed is good,” she said. “Yes, we know that we have seen various narratives of blame and anger and a desire for revenge. But we also have to note that, since 9/11, there have been so many new Muslim-Christian initiatives that were launched after 9/11 and now have matured. Right after 9/11, so many people wanted to know about Islam—and about how to counter all of the angry and negative voices people were hearing—that a lot of hopeful new work started. So, we have come a long way in these 20 years in developing new relationships and organizations.

“Having said that, I point out in my book that more than half of Americans still have not experienced a meaningful meeting with a Muslim. We are living together in our increasingly diverse communities, but there still are huge barriers between us. As Americans, millions of people still don’t know their neighbors. That has to be the starting point. That’s why NEIGHBORS is the title of my book.”

Reaching out to our neighbors is far more than a matter of warm feelings, Womack says. It can be a life-and-death issue. Hate crimes have risen in America during the pandemic, especially a dramatic rise in crimes targeting Asian Americans, but also against religious minorities, including Jews and Muslims.

“We have been living in some dark times and I don’t know if things are going to get better right away,” she said. “Things may get better as we move through COVID to a point where people are comfortable going out again and freely engaging with other people.”

A central message of her book is that, for the Christians she is addressing, this embrace of our neighbors is not merely a personal preference.

“This is our calling as Christians,” Womack says. “This isn’t an option for us. Of course we know that hate crimes are contrary to the teaching of Christ. But we are called to do so much more than just stand up against hate crimes. It’s part of my witness as a Christian to meaningfully connect with all of our neighbors so that everyone feels that we are part of the same community. I don’t have a choice about this. It’s my calling as a Christian.”

Bill Tammeus: Three ways we can become healers at the 20th anniversary of 9/11

Echoing a Universal Call to Heal the World

By BILL TAMMEUS
Contributing Columnist

Twenty years after al-Qaida terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., including my own nephew, it should be embarrassingly clear to American leaders that military force won’t stop violent extremism.

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

Now that the last American troops have limped out of Afghanistan, where the 9/11 terrorists trained, that anguished country is being turned back over to the Taliban—the same religious fanatics who allowed al-Qaida a safe haven in the first place. So now we must find a different approach to opposing terrorism—both the international and the domestic varieties.

In fact, while our government has been lavishing blood and treasure on reacting to foreign-based extremism, domestic terrorism has been growing and now constitutes a major threat to our American republic and to our ability to live in peace.

What’s even more distressing is that active-duty military personnel and reservists are participating in an increasing number of terrorist actions and plots.

So while we need to continue watching for terrorists from abroad trying to slip into the U.S., we might make more progress by focusing on why some Americans get sucked into extremism and what we can do to counter that disastrous trend.

In my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance, I devote the final chapters to exploring exactly those two matters. Prior to those chapters, I describe the multiple traumas my extended family experienced because my nephew, Karleton Fyfe, died as a passenger on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center on 9/11. The ideas I offer for responding to violent extremism also can be applied against domestic terrorism, such as the Trump-inspired insurrection at the nation’s Capitol last Jan. 6.

3 Ways to Help Unplug Extremism

Here are three of those ideas, along with brief commentary on them:

Become more religiously literate. Our human tendency is to fear what we don’t know or understand. To break that habit, it’s necessary to commit ourselves to learning about religious traditions and philosophical world-views beyond our own. There are many ways to do that. One is simply to read some helpful books. I’d start with Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, by Stephen Prothero.

Deepen your knowledge of both American and world history. A fair amount of global terrorism is tied to the shock waves that have radiated across the nation and around the globe from historical events about which many people, especially Americans, seem to know little or nothing. That’s particularly true about geopolitical and religious history in developing nations, including parts of the Middle East. In addition, the public’s knowledge of American history seems to have lots of gaps in it, which is why it surprised many people finally to learn of the domestic terrorism that happened 100 years ago in the Tulsa Race Massacre of Black residents there.

Spend time with people who have experienced profound grief. This is the emotional equivalent of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. It can open our eyes to the countless ways that death—particularly unexpected, violent death—can affect almost every aspect of the lives of survivors. At the very least, go to funerals of people whose families you know, even of people who died of old age or of some illness late in life. Be present. Hear their stories.

People of faith should be leaders in this effort to unplug terrorism, whether foreign or domestic, given the overwhelming messages about love and acceptance from the world’s great religions. But sometimes religion is a source of extremism. When we see anything like that tendency in our own faith communities, we must call it out and help others understand why it’s unacceptable. That can take courage—and it can’t be fire-hosed onto people in a way that sounds like extremism battling extremism. Rather, it must be rooted in both love and facts.

I wish I were more optimistic that radicalism can be expunged from the weary and wounded world. But I’ve read history, so I know better. Nonetheless, that doesn’t absolve me—or you—from continuing to do what we can to oppose monochromatic, strait-jacketed thinking that leads to violence. Let’s keep at it.

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Care to learn more?

Bill Tammeus, served for many years as the award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star until his retirement from the newsroom. Now, he writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook. Email him at [email protected].

Get his book: Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

Want to learn more about Afghanistan? Bill recommends Afghanistan: A History from 1260 the Present, by Jonathan L. Lee, which is available from Amazon.

To see the rising tide of terrorism, Bill recommends this summary from TRAC, the research center based at Syracuse University.

For more on the rise in extremism among military personnel and police, Bill points to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) article, headlined: The Military, Police, and the Rise of Terrorism in the United States

Care to learn more about scholar Stephen Prothero’s work promoting “religious literacy”? ReadTheSpirit magazine has featured a number of interviews with Prothero through the years. Here is a ReadTheSpirit interview with him about his first book on “religious literacy.” Then, a couple of years after that, here is another interview with Prothero about his companion book, God Is Not One.

Bill also recommends: Other helpful resources for understanding domestic terrorism better include these books: American Zealots: Inside Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism, by Arie Perliger, and White Hot Hate: A True Story of Domestic Terrorism in America’s Heartland, by Dick Lehr. In addition, here’s an online resource you may find helpful from CSIS: “The War Comes Home: The Evolution of Domestic Terrorism in the United States.”

 

Rochelle Calvert invites us into the spiritual solace of ‘Healing with Natue’

Rochelle Calvert leading a retreat prior to the pandemic.

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

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

After nearly two years of pandemic, simply opening the door to the outside world and gathering with others may seem like a daring step.

For years, Rochelle Calvert had been leading groups of pilgrims into spiritual encounters with the natural world, then her own plans for gatherings were hit by COVID concerns. Now, she is inviting all of us to get a taste of these adventures through her new book, Healing with Nature: Mindfulness and Somatic Practices to Heal from Trauma.

Plus, Rochelle has added free audio meditations, and there are  opportunities to meet her and join in her future programs. Of course, she charges for those in-person programs.

This is a good time to discover Rochelle’s work, because she is moving once again toward building a schedule of her signature in-person retreats. She is moving her home base this autumn to Taos, New Mexico—from which she plans to travel to her retreat sites across the Western states in coming years. She currently is booking guests for a November 19-23 retreat at Ghost Ranch, which once was artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in New Mexico.

(Note to readers: This is a good time to share this cover story with friends who might also be interested in Calvert’s work. You can do so by using the social-media links on this page, or even by printing out this story to share using the green “PrintFriendly” button at the end. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a friend who wants to read her book along with you and discuss it—or who might even want to go with you to Ghost Ranch.)

Rediscovering the Natural Roots of Our Faith

The central affirmation that Rochelle makes in her in-person work, her online teaching and in the pages of this book is that each of us can discover our own spiritual pathway toward healing with nature.

“I firmly believe that people need to be free to explore the spiritual paths that will bring them emotional, psychological and physical healing, so I am not trying to direct people into any one faith tradition,” Rochelle said in an interview about her book. “I want to help people to increase their capacity to experience their own faith.”

This approach is possible because all of the world’s religious traditions ultimately rest on truths that are drawn from the natural world and that continue to call followers to connect with the planet.

In 2015, Pope Francis wrote an entire encyclical on this theme, Laudato si’ (On Care for Our Common Home). The letter was so timely that the Vatican’s website crashed shortly after its release because so many people around the world wanted to read Francis’s message. Both Francis and Rochelle start by pointing out the same central dilemma. The pope begins his letter by addressing both the trauma humans are inflicting on the planet—and the trauma humans are experiencing in our own hearts, minds and spirits. The two are eternally related, he argues.

Similarly, Rochelle devotes her entire book to encouraging healthy responses to our collective trauma through a deepening relationship with the natural world. Rather than a lone voice crying in the wilderness, Rochelle’s new book is part of a global chorus, now.

And yet, in a number of ways, her approach also is unique.

Healing Our Many Forms of Trauma

Rochelle certainly is not alone in zeroing in on “trauma” as one of the central sources of the anxiety, conflict and violence we experience daily in our communities. For example, over many years our online magazine has recommended books by Dr. Robert J. Wicks; most recently his The Tao of Ordinariness was the subject of a cover stories. Then, Mindy Corporon, author of Healing a Shattered Soul, is now devoting her professional efforts to Workplace Healing, a project to assist employers in responding to the many traumas experienced in the lives of their employees.

So, then, why are we so strongly recommending Rochelle Calvert’s book and her ongoing work?

Because she is charting new territory with her series of outdoor retreats that take participants to many different locations around the West—as well as adapting those practices to outdoor experiences that readers can develop at home or close to home. As a writer and teacher, she is always thinking about adaptive strategies. She’s a fresh and compassionate voice.

The stories in the pages of her book ring true, because she has distilled them from her own, unique, real-world experiences.

She also is solidly grounded in her field. In the book, Rochelle defines “trauma” in terms summarized from leading international sources. You could find a similar definition, for example, in books by Dr. Wicks. Here is an example in Rochelle’s words, from page 2 of her book:

Traumatic experiences come in many different forms. The psychological community has classically defined traumatic events as including natural disasters, serious accidents, terrorist acts, war, combat, rape and other violent personal assaults. But trauma also can arise from experiences of loss of control, like medical trauma (including life-threatening illness, surgeries and childbirth) and the loss of a loved one. Betrayal, racism, bullying, abuse of power, helplessness, political unrest, pandemics and the climate crisis may also be traumatic experiences for an individual or a society.

In our interview, Rochelle explained, “Through my work and now through this book, I hope that people can learn to wake up and heal from trauma. To help people become healthier, I am encouraging spiritual practices with nature. I’m hoping that people begin by tasting these experiences and that they go on to develop their own unique way of healing through reciprocity with nature.”

In fact, as her book explains, the complex and timeless forces within the natural world can teach us a great deal about resiliency and recovery from trauma. In her opening pages, for example, she describes how the living creatures within the natural world try to regenerate after a disaster. Those regenerative forces often spring from the heart of that trauma.

In her book, she writes:

This is where the wisdom of the natural world can help. Nature has an intrinsic tendency to thrive, and it always works with and toward a traumatic or difficult experience to find a new way of being and restore health. We can see this in the way a tree grows back after a limb is torn off by the wind, or a tiny patch of grass grows up through a crack in concrete.

In 16 chapters across 288 pages, then, Rochelle lays out many of the principles she has found effective in her work with people over the years.

As a powerful bonus, she also adds links to audio meditations that readers of her book can download to enhance their reading experience.

THE AWARENESS OF A CAREGIVER

Over the years, our ReadTheSpirit magazine office has received dozens of review copies of new books about sources of spiritual renewal that humans can find in nature. After all, the idea stretches all the way back to the first book of the Bible, as Pope Francis points out.

What makes Rochelle’s book distinctive within this ongoing flow of books? One welcome feature of Rochelle’s book is that she writes with a veteran caregiver’s concern for readers who are not in perfect health. Countless other books seem to assume that readers are fit and flexible and capable of tackling all manner of outdoor activities. Within the opening sections of Rochelle’s book, she makes a point of stressing that not everyone is capable of every experience.

In a section called “Challenges of Attending to the Breath,” for example, she takes time to address readers who may have breathing concerns, including asthma. This may seem like a simple point, but this kind of real-world compassion for the wide range of our physical bodies is rare in such inspirational books. In a section on “Body Awareness,” Rochelle takes time to encourage readers to approach the ideas she is sharing with “an attitude of kindness and compassion” toward the limitations of our bodies.

‘TASTING WHAT IS POSSIBLE’

“This concern that you are picking up in my book is intentional and I’m glad you’re highlighting it,” Rochelle said in our interview. “For example, I’m a huge proponent of building from small steps until we gradually build up our capacity for some of these bigger experiences. Especially if people are working toward healing from challenging experiences in their lives, like trauma, then we don’t want to start by trying to sit with that in meditation for two hours right out of the gate. That’s probably going to flood us, to overwhelm us and to cause turmoil.

“What I’m encouraging is that people begin by tasting what is possible, like tasting the fruit of new life,” she continued. “We might even start with just five minutes of stepping outside into nature and opening our sensory doors to nature—and that short experience may start a ripple effect that can build day after day. We often undervalue how beneficial even short periods of time can be, especially if we welcome them, build on them and let them take their course in our lives.

“With small increments, we can move from that first tasting to build, day by day, toward real change in our lives and real healing.”

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Care to Learn More?

GET THE BOOK (and the links to audio meditations that are in the book). Healing with Nature: Mindfulness and Somatic Practices to Heal from Trauma is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

VISIT ROCHELLE’S WEBSITE. In our interview, Rochelle explained that some sections of her website, NewMindfulLife.com, will be updated through this autumn—but the website does contain a wealth of current information and resources. While some areas of the website still are being updated, one current page lists Rochelle’s upcoming schedule. The website also explains how to get in touch with Rochelle, how to sign up for some of her free content—as well as how to register and pay for future programs.

WATCH A BRIEF VIDEO:

 

 

 

Emily Brown: ‘I Turned to Face the Mountain’

By EMILY BROWN
Contributing Columnist

“I trust myself,” I whispered as I turned to face the mountain.

“I trust myself,” I said again, loudly enough that my friend could hear it this time. He helped me store all the extra weight from my pack as he waited for me to complete my ascent, because he had a sore Achilles and could not make the climb himself.

Looking back and smiling, I thanked him for letting me borrow his new pine-green sunglasses and tucked them into my chest strap. Heading uphill alone, all that was left between me, and my first 14,000-foot summit, was rock and scree.

And fear.

How high is that? Skydivers jump from 14,000 feet. The Smokies and Appalachians top out at less than 7,000 feet.

“Be here now.” I rolled these words around like hard candies over the taste buds of my mind as I ascended.

“Be here now.”

“Be here now.”

The repetition filled and cleared my mind, so I could let the pleasure of the present sweep over me as I confronted my first true boulder field. I wasn’t afraid. It was sweet. It was tempting. I had forgotten my friend’s sore ankle and all my other cares that had weighed me down in the world.

Testing my technical ability, I swiftly traversed the terrain.

Then came the mental checks:

Check your foot placement.

While shifting your handhold, are you sure it’s stable?

If not, readjust. If yes, make your move.

I urged myself to just go, reminding myself that I had taken all the precautions possible in my mind. Clear headed, I shifted all feelings of presence to my body. Knowing without a doubt that my hands and feet will get me where I need to go, I exhaled fear. It was freeing to begin letting go of the mental chatter and anxiety that has made a home in my lower brain.

I know all too well how that mental chatter can arise into a crippling sickness. So, as it faded from my all-consuming focus on the climb, I began to inhale confidence with each one of my breaths—true, physical breaths. No longer emotionally gasping for air due to unmet needs, I was able to let the air fill and leave my lungs as it wanted to.

High up in the Rocky Mountain sky, I relinquished control of my breath into a life-giving rhythm: an all-consuming inhale followed by an all-releasing exhale. Breathing became pleasure as movement became good-pain I could offer my body. I accepted that I was at the mercy of the mountain, yet we had a mutual sense of respect. Two separate forces of energy, each system working in harmony with another, I began to feel that trust I had promised myself at the outset.

As I climbed, I felt the strength of a growing bond, a trail of its own terrain, a lasso of light, connecting my physical body with the inner workings of my mind. My mind and matter were one cohesive unit; no longer at anxious arms with each other, each side set down their weapons and began to embrace.

I was taking completely embodied action for what felt like the first time in a long time.

What a joyous meditation in movement!

Every sense was unified in one purpose and one moment. There’s a clear-headedness that comes from embracing this kind of pain as pleasure. It’s a state of flow, one where the stars inside me align. If I unlinked the constellation for a second, thinking about something other than my present action, I would physically slip in the gravel.

Of course, I slipped sometimes. Each time I did slip, though, I would shake my legs out and repeat my mantras. Over and over.

“I trust myself.”

“I trust myself.”

“I trust myself.”

Then, I beamed straight back into the galaxy of complete presence and celebrated my own return.

On July 30, 2021, at 9:50 in the morning, I summited my first 14er, Mount Sneffels (via Yankee Boy Basin and Lavender Couloir).

Standing at 14,150 feet, with the entire San Juan range in view, I stared off in every direction, fully absorbing this point in time into myself. With overwhelming gratitude, I thanked the universe, the mountain, life’s timing and my body.

Life that high revealed stunning blue glacial lakes, rocky ridge lines, and huge pine forests where the individually colored trees blended to create a crashing wave of emerald.

And among the vast natural beauty of Mother Earth, there was little me with my head in that rarefied, clarifying atmosphere for a few unforgettable moments.

I’m not a technical climber. I’m not a world-class mountaineer. I’m not someone with fifty-something peaks already in their bag.

I’m simply a girl with an undying love for adventure who is learning to trust herself.

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EMILY BROWN is a University of Michigan creative writing student and journalist who is combining her love of travel, the natural world and meeting a wide diversity of people into a vocational pursuit of storytelling with a healing purpose. Although she is young, she already has spent a decade earning various certifications in wilderness skills and she is an experienced leader of backpacking trips for young people in wilderness areas. A true story about how she inspired her father, Howard Brown, a Stage IV cancer survivor, to make it to the top of a peak in the Caribbean will appear soon in Howard’s memoir, Shining Brightly. This is Emily’s first column to appear in ReadTheSpirit magazine. Watch for her byline in the future!

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