A Yachatz prayer-poem for the breaking of matzah: ‘Let all who are hungry come and eat’

Rabbi Roy Furman’s Prayer for Yachatz


EDITOR’S NOTE: Our publishing house is preparing to publish Torah Wrestling, an upcoming book by Chicago-based Rabbi Roy Furman about “embracing the other” in Torah—the first five books of the Bible beginning with Genesis that are central to Jewish tradition. As Passover 2024 approached, we invited Rabbi Furman to share the following prayer for Yachatz (also spelled Yahatz) that he wrote for his family and friends. As he explains, “Yahatz is that part of the Passover Seder when a piece of matzah is raised up, then broken, followed by this declaration: ‘This is the bread of poverty, the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need join our Seder. Now we are here. Next year in the Land of Israel. Now we are slaves. Next year, may we all be free’.” We hope that our readers will find this prayer meaningful and may want to share this prayer with friends as well—and, if you do care to share this text, Rabbi Furman gives his permission.


Yahatz, The Breaking

Lifting matzah
Bread too poor
To rise,
We snap it in two,
Intoning
“Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
Let all of bent body, of low spirit,
Rise up!
Dance mountains!
Leap streams!
Soar chasms that separate
Your world from ours.
Come! Loosen the hold on your famine and your fear.
Come into our homes.
Sit by us, shoulder to shoulder;
Be amazed at your welcome,
Eat and be sated.
But you don’t.

So we send shofar-blowers ‘round
To the wounded of our world,
Calling out to you, impoverished
And immiserated souls,
Whose home is the stench of fear-stifled breath
Where the lure of freedom is an unrequited seduction.

Come! We implore you
From the depths of our being.
Trust us, with whatever remnants of courage remain
In your desperate refuge lives.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
Come! Bring your aching bellies and your shriveled babies.
Overcome if you dare, just this once,
Your distrust of glib promise,
Your visceral hatred of smooth-tongued prophets.
Come to us,
In your bitterness,
In your deep despair,
In your unending distress,
Hear this! O please hear this!
We need you.
This year even more urgently than last,
At our Seder table heavy unto groaning.

“Let all who are in need join our Seder.”
Come!
Join your stories to ours.
Tell us of your journeys,
And your dreams,
As we break the bread of your brokenness,
And ours.

But if you don’t, or can’t, or dare not,
We will sit, waiting for you
To make us whole.
And if you come not by Seder’s end,
We will eat your portion.
We will eat your pain.
We will eat your exile.
We will eat the emptiness of our lives,
That gnawing space where you
Belong.
We will sit at this table
Where a place for you is set
And wait, as for a Jerusalem
Whole and just,
For you to come,
This year or next.

Rabbi Roy Furman

Michigan’s JCRC-AJC diplomatic seder: As Passover approaches, affirming that peace is a global value

Click on the image to enlarge it for easier reading. (Photos by John Hardwick, used here courtesy of JCRC-AJC Detroit.)

‘Confronting all forms of hate is everyone’s responsibility.’

By HOWARD BROWN
Author of Shining Brightly

In the midst of a world of strife and daily tragedy, I was thrilled to co-chair our annual Jewish Community Relations Council-American Jewish Committee Detroit (JCRC-AJC) “model seder” that represented a global gathering of religious and diplomatic leaders affirming our shared goal of peace. Each year, Jewish communities around the world host “model seders” before the start of Passover so non-Jews can experience the ancient rituals and themes we celebrate with family and friends.

The seder is a traditional retelling of the biblical account of God leading the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt. The meal features symbolic foods that remind us of everything from the bitter tears shed in slavery to the taste of unleavened bread, or matzah, during the long journey toward the Promised Land.

For many years, the Detroit JCRC-AJC has hosted a combined seder for representatives of the global diplomatic community—in particular the Consular Corps of Michigan—and also dozens of our interfaith partners. This year, more than 100 people—including Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus—attended the program. Among the nations represented were: the UK, Germany, Poland, Italy, Austria, Jordan, South Korea, Mexico, Canada, and Japan.

Our honorary chair, who spoke about the need to protect vulnerable minorities, was Yusuke Shindo, Consul General of Japan for Michigan and Ohio.

I served as co-chair of the planning committee along with Carol Ogusky, who has long been active in building interfaith partnership and writing about the importance of this work.

What impressed me this year was that, despite all of the conflicts around the world and the horrific rise in antisemitism, this circle of global leaders gathered with us once again to affirm our unity in praying for peace.

Anyone who has been to a seder knows the question we ask: “Why is this night different than all other nights?”

At the end of our program, we answered that question by reading aloud together a portion of “A Prayer for This ‘Different’ Seder 2024”, written by Rabbi Noam E. Marans, Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations for the American Jewish Committee.

In unison, we read:

We pray for the victims of horrific terrorism and their families whose lives have been shattered.
We pray for the hostages and their loved ones, who continue to live through unending horror.
We pray for the innocents who are victims of war, human beings created in the image of God. We pray for the dead, the injured, the hungry, and the displaced. …
We pray for the purveyors and deliverers of humanitarian aid who endeavor to do what is right and needed.
We pray for the peacemakers. May they bring shalom to all.
We pray for the world to wake up and say: There is no place for antisemitism in our society. Confronting all forms of hate is everyone’s responsibility.
Shirah chadashah:
Let us sing to God a new song, a hymn that longs to extol our deliverance from despair to joy, from mourning to celebration, from darkness to light, from enslavement to redemption, from war to peace.

Also, at every table, we made available my own discussion guide, titled: Interfaith Bridge Building—Why do this work? If you would like a copy of that discussion guide yourself, you can download a PDF of it for free at my website, ShiningBright.com by going to this page, then scrolling down to the navy-blue section that lists discussion guides.

Carol Ogusky and Howard Brown (at right) with Consul Generals from Michigan at the model diplomatic seder 2024. On the far left is Sam Dubin, interim executive director of JCRC-AJC Detroit.

Are you preparing for Passover with family and friends?

Photos courtesy of the Rosman family.

Rusty Rosman shows us how she makes—and transports—a family holiday favorite:

Nema’s Traveling Matzah Ball Soup


EDITOR’S NOTE—We are wishing our Jewish colleagues and neighbors well as they prepare for Passover with family and friends—starting on the night of April 22. Right now, Jewish families around the world already are planning for this traditional festival. These special seder meals are a lot of work! Rusty Rosman is the author of the new book, Two Envelopes, and she’s a grandmother who travels with her matzoh ball soup to various family homes as Passover begins—so she has developed a way to make that beloved soup quite portable. If you enjoy her column, please share it with friends across social media. All of us want to warmly celebrate with our Jewish friends at a time when antisemitism has risen to the highest levels the FBI has seen in their tracking of hate crimes.


By RUSTY ROSMAN
Author of Two Envelopes

I’m a very lucky Nema!

My oldest grandson took the name Grandma and turned it into Nema and I’ve been Nema ever since. I love the uniqueness of Nema and now it has an official place in our family history as the official name of:

Nema’s Matzah Ball Soup

And, yes, because we love our grandchildren so much, I have to admit that we’ve also made room for an alternative name for this family delicacy. When my youngest grandson was 5 years old, he couldn’t remember the kind of Nema’s soup he wanted—so he thought really hard and then yelled: “Mozzarella Soup!”

This coming week, I will be serving up this delicious soup to those eager grandchildren—whatever they manage to call it.

Matzah Ball Soup had its origins as a Passover food because matzah is a major part of the biblical story. These balls are made of very finely ground matzah flour that is only allowed to rise for 18 minutes. The matzah balls in chicken soup were so dearly loved that they became year-round delights.

Every year during Passover, there’s always the question: Did your grandma make hard or soft matzah balls? What’s your preference?

My family loves the soft. My six grandchildren firmly believe that every holiday meal menu is just Nema’s Matzah Ball Soup! Each child must have 3 matzah balls in their soup bowl—and there should be more in the pot if they want seconds.

So, here’s the story of Nema’s matzah ball soup.

I begin days ahead of a holiday because I make so much.

For the broth, I use 20 pounds of kosher chicken, the full sleeve of celery and three big carrots, six large onions, the whole bundle of parsley and dill and 3 large parsnips. And of course, salt and pepper.

First, the chicken is divided between two 20 quart pots which I cook at the same time. I put in the chicken, the salt and pepper and then cover the chicken with water—plus not too much more. Then the vegetables go into the pots.

I cook this for 3 hours.

Then the fun begins. I separate the vegetables into different bowls; the chicken goes into a huge bowl; and my husband pours the soup through a strainer into another huge pot. I push the green vegetables through the strainer so I get the liquid but not the green stuff.

Remember—we’ve been working with two pots. Now, I wash one of the pots, put a strainer over the pot and put a large piece of paper towel in the strainer.  Then, using a one quart pot, I pour hot soup into the strainer with the paper towel, which picks up all the little particles that I don’t want in the soup.  I keep changing the paper towel until all the soup has been stained.  Now I have a very clear soup.

Just like my mom did, I push the carrots through the strainer so they go into the soup as tiny pieces.  My husband does the heavy lifting of the pot so, after it cools for a few hours, we put the pot into the refrigerator (on a towel) where it sits overnight.  The next morning, he lifts the pot out of the refrigerator and puts it into the sink—it’s so much easier on my arms than when the pot is up on the counter.  I run paper towel over the top of the soup to skim the congealed fat from the chicken.

Once it’s clear, I stir the soup so the carrot is all around and not sitting on the bottom of the pot.  I freeze the soup by the number of soup plates I’m serving.  (Example: A gallon-size zip-lock bag will hold 6 servings; the quart size holds 2 servings.)  Next, I carefully—really very carefully—lay the bags on the freezer shelf one on top of the other. Then, I pray that I sealed them well and they won’t leak!  It can take up to 24 hours for all of the bags to freeze solid.

Then it’s time for matzah balls!

My gorgeous grandchildren can easily go through 50 in one holiday and that’s not counting the 6 adults!  I make a dozen matzah balls a day. (The recipe’s on the box.)

I freeze those on a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper.  Once they’re frozen, I bag them and back into the freezer they go.

This goes on for days!

Finally, it will be travel time. Since my children live in different states, we drive for hours to get to their homes. So, I take one of the 20 quart pots and load it with the frozen soup and the frozen matzah balls.  They travel well that way. The fun begins when we arrive and the kids start counting the matzah balls and jostling to see who gets to carry them into the house!

I am the luckiest Nema in the whole world because 6 wonderful grandchildren hug me and tell me that I make the best matzah ball soup in the entire world. And I believe them because that’s all they want to eat at the holiday dinner.

I have two grandchildren that even eat it for breakfast!

My joy in making this soup overrides all the work—and it is a lot to do!  But the fun I have thinking about how happy my family is to eat this soup makes it a pure pleasure to create this memory.

I am the luckiest Nema in the entire world.

 

.


Photo by Rodney Curtis
www.RodneyCurtis.com
@rcurtis on Twitter
@that_rodney_guy on Instagram
[email protected]

Care to learn more?

VISIT RUSTY ROSMAN’s author website to learn much more about her new book: Two Envelopes—What You Want Your Loved Ones to Know When You Die.

In 2024, Rusty is considering lots of requests to appear on podcasts, in interviews, and in community groups either in person or via Zoom. She is especially popular in small groups both Jewish and Christian congregations—and meets with groups of professionals who care for our millions of aging loved ones.

Care to connect? Scroll down on her author website to learn how to contact her.

Interested in her book? Two Envelopes is available via Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle. It’s also listed on Barnes & Noble, Walmart and other online booksellers.

Historic Dallas Jewish nonprofit honors George A. Mason as Pioneering Partner

The Rev. Dr. George A. Mason with the National Council of Jewish Women Dallas Section annual Pioneering Partner Award. (Scroll down to see more photographs from the event, provided for this story by Gail Brookshire.)

Highlighting the importance of ‘dependable allies in the struggle for freedom, justice and equity’

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

George Mason—author of The Word Made Fresh—continues with his courageous messages about the need for good people to support each other and the most vulnerable among us in our communities. He has spoken about this urgent need on national podcasts, in short videos, at major conferences coast to coast—and he offered that same timely call to compassion again in Texas before the 111-year-old National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) Greater Dallas Section.

The occasion was the NCJW’s annual Pioneering Partner Award and the group’s leadership asked the 2023 award winner—nationally known Latino advocate, attorney and public policy advisor Regina T. Montoya—to present this prize to Mason.

In presenting the award, Montoya said:

Today NCJW recognizes the Rev. Dr. George A. Mason, the founder and president of Faith Commons, a nonprofit that promotes public discourse rooted in the common values of many faiths. Faith Commons aims to inspire more people to participate in public life with mutual respect, hospitality and generosity.

The Rev. Dr. George A. Mason is a Christian theologian and Baptist pastor here in Dallas, Texas, where he served as senior pastor of the Wilshire Baptist Church from 1989 to 2022. … He participates in numerous local and global ecumenical and interfaith endeavors. He is a contributor to the Dallas Morning News on subjects of public interest that intersect with religion, such as public education, racial justice, predatory lending, and climate change. He is truly a shining star—a gift and a treasure to us here in our community.

Then, Mason rose to accept the award and said:

Thank you so much to NCJW for this remarkable award! Receiving it from this organization is significant to me because we live in such perilous times. Democracy itself is under siege. And having dependable allies in the struggle for freedom, justice, and equity is crucial these days—whether we’re talking about the endangered rights of women on all fronts, the full dignity of the LGBTQ+ community, the right to be safe from gun violence, the opportunity for a good public education that promotes critical inquiry and is free of religious control—or simply the most fundamental right of all—to vote.

NCJW is always on the job—and we salute you. The testimony of the recently murdered Russian dissident Alexei Navalny continues to echo in our hearts. From his isolated prison cell in Siberia, he told us that the forces of evil always want you to feel alone in your struggle for freedom and democracy. But we are never alone—despite how it sometimes feels. And, if you sometimes do feel that way—look around this room.

In these days, I know that many of you here have felt the agonizing tension between your deepest moral convictions and your spiritual and communal bonds. I want you to know tht we see you and stand with you in that tension.

In my own religious world, the fissure caused by Christian Nationalism continues to widen—and it is a threat that must be addressed from within our own community. Any religious ideas—even from our own faith—that deny or diminish the humanity of others or that endanger the planet we all share must be opposed.

George was interrupted by applause.

Fortunately, I c0me from a long line of radical Baptists—little noticed at times.

Interrupted by warm laughter.

Nonetheless, we believe that dissent can sometimes be the highest act of loyalty. For 35 year, I have had the privilege of serving or being part of a Baptist church like that—a church that believes it and practices it: Wilshire Baptist. And for the past six years, I have served through Faith Commons—alongside my peerless and fearless partner in that nonprofit, Rabbi Nancy Kastin.

Interrupted by applause.

We have gained inspiration to persevere from people like you in this room—people who believe that and practice it.

So keep the faith—and keep up the struggle faithfully.

And I’ll end with these words from the late minister of Riverside Church in New York City, William Sloane Coffin:

“The world is too dangerous for anything but truth.
And too small for anything but love.”

Applause.

Care to learn more?

The Rev. Dr. George A. Mason’s most powerful messages from throughout his long career at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas are collected in the new book, The Word Made Fresh, which is available in hardcover, paperback and Kindle from Amazon.

 

As hate crimes continue to rise, this inspiring documentary about two courageous mothers—Mindy Corporon and Sunayana Dumala—is Must See TV

Three key people behind this new public TV documentary, Healing Hate, are from left: Sunayana Dumala, Solomon Shields and Mindy Corporon.


“Hate has no place—because it will touch everybody.”
Mindy Corporon in the documentary Healing Hate

“But both Mindy and Sunayana and their families used the worst days of their lives to empower them to engage the world in positive ways.”
Documentary filmmaker Solomon Shields


See this powerful documentary right now:

Right now, you can learn more about this documentary, created by Kansas City PBS along with filmmaker Solomon Shields, by reading our ReadTheSpirit cover story below.

But, first: Thanks to Kansas City public TV’s YouTube channel, you also can stream the entire half-hour documentary here:

To read Mindy’s entire story, including how she met her friend Sunayana—get a copy of Healing a Shattered Soul in hardcover, paperback or Kindle via Amazon.


‘Healing Hate: Turning Pain into Power’

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

After weathering some of the most horrific hate crimes in America over the past decade—including a catastrophic mass shooting at a parade in February—Kliff Kuehl, the CEO of Kansas City’s PBS station, and filmmaker Solomon Shields committed themselves to arousing public action.

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

As the resulting 30-minute film debuts this week, Kuehl is telling viewers, “Kansas City PBS is honored to bring Healing Hate to our viewers. This documentary has the potential to inspire and ignite a collective commitment to stand against hate, fostering a more inclusive Kansas City,”

The film’s power springs from the stories of two women who have transformed their grief over losing family members, killed in earlier shootings, into major ongoing efforts to promote compassion, healing and inclusion.

The first of these two friends is author and nationally known advocate for community compassion Mindy Corporon, whose son and father were killed 10 years ago in an antisemitic hate crime outside the  Overland Park, Kansas, Jewish Community Center in 2014. Mindy has published the widely read memoir Healing a Shattered Soul and also is co-founder of the nonprofit community movement known as SevenDays.

Mindy’s friend is Sunayana Dumala, who Mindy met in 2017 after national news broke about the murder of Sunayana’s husband by a shooter in an Olathe, Kansas, restaurant. The murderer declared that he wanted to kill someone from the Middle East—and that he thought his victims were Iranian.

“I worked a lot of long hours with Mindy and Sunayana and many others on this project because all of us know how timely this documentary is,” Solomon Shields said in an interview this week.

The urgency they all feel this spring includes the latest mass shooting at the Kansas City parade—as well as national reports that hate crimes are rising to an all-time high, plus the upcoming April 13th 10-year anniversary of the antisemitic shootings that killed Mindy’s loved ones.

“All of us felt we had to share this documentary with as many people as possible—right now,” Shields said.

What’s so horrifying is: When bullets fly—they can hit anyone

“What’s so astonishing is that in all three tragedies—the gunmen were coming from a place of anger and violence that wound up killing people who they never intended to kill,” Shields said. “That’s one of the main themes of this documentary: When bullets fly, they can hit any of us.”

In 2014, Mindy’s son and father were in a parking lot preparing to participate in a community program being held inside the Jewish center—but they were not Jewish. In 2017, the shooter in Olanthe was raving about Middle Easterners and mistook Sunayana’s Indian-American husband for an Iranian, according to news reports. And, in February 2024, the one death and 22 injuries were caused by several armed young men who opened fire at each other in a personal dispute that had nothing to do with their 23 innocent victims.

“We have to realize: When guns are blazing and bullets are flying, those bullets don’t care what you look like or who is waiting for you at home,” Shields said. “It’s so important for people to understand that we all must take steps to prevent this from happening to others.

“This is definitely something that hits close to home for me as an African American filmmaker,” he said. “I have had friends who have lost their lives to gun violence: wrong place, wrong time and a bullet happens to hit them. I was very honored to work on this project because it’s something I can relate to. I remember both of these earlier shootings and they had a real impact on me.

“The main theme of the documentary is how these two families overcame such unspeakable tragedies so that they could continue to live and build relationships. That’s the flip side of this documentary: Even after such tragedies, we can decide to build relationships that can make our entire community better.

“I am so impressed by the strength of the human spirit in these two women who were able to face the world again after the worst days in their lives,” Shields said. “For a lot of people faced with this—it would have been understandable to simply say: We need our privacy and refuse to talk to anyone anymore. But both women and their families used the worst days of their lives to empower them to engage the world in positive ways.”

That took an enormous amount of emotional strength within these families—as readers learn when they read Mindy’s memoir. In this new public TV film, viewers also will see and hear these two friends talk about that process of transforming anger into hope.

Shields said he continues to be amazed at their strength. “I realize that they may not ever have a perfect day again after such tragedies—because every day they will remember the loved ones they lost. That’s why this film is so inspiring. These women chose not to close themselves off to the world. They decided to show the rest of us that there is still life worth living, if we can work on these issues together.

“When people see this documentary, I want them to come away, first, feeling informed about all the reasons this is such a timely message. Second, I want viewers to feel inspired that, even though these horrible things continue to happen, there are relationships we can form that can help us, our families and our communities—that is, if we are willing to search for those new relationships.

“Finally, I want people to feel that there are things they can do whoever they are and wherever they are,” Shields said. It’s a lesson he took to heart as he worked with these families and the Kansas City PBS staff to produce this film. “That’s what I could do right now. I’m a filmmaker here in Kansas City and I did something: I created this documentary that can share this story with so many people out there. And, now, I appreciate that others are out there trying to encourage more people to see this film.”


And one last reminder …

Wherever you live across the U.S., you can contact your local PBS station and urge the management to seek out this documentary to broadcast in your region. If you have never done this before—simply find the website of your “local” PBS station, contact station management through their website and share a link to this story. Most public TV stations appreciate local viewers making such recommendations.

To read Mindy’s entire story, including how she met her friend Sunayana—get a copy of Healing a Shattered Soul in hardcover, paperback or Kindle via Amazon.

Dr. Catherine Meeks transforms the “rags” of family trauma into a beautiful “Quilted Life”

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

Moving Together Toward Compassion:
A Call to Daily Transformation

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Most of us who have made it into the middle of adulthood can recall moments of harrowing tragedy, humiliation and harm we have suffered in various forms.

The scholar and teacher Dr. Catherine Meeks—who now is 78 years old as she gives us her memoir A Quilted Life—calls such experiences the “rags” we accumulate in life. The central metaphor of her book is the traditional way African American women, in particular, saved discarded cloth “rags” so they could cut small, useful pieces to assemble beautiful quilts.

But with words like “memoir” and “traditional,” readers may wonder: How relevant is this message to us today?

So, that was the first question I asked Dr. Meeks in our Zoom conversation about this memoir. “How do you assess our moment in history?” I asked. “How relevant is your message to our world today?”

She said, “Well, I’m trying to be a helpful voice in our moment in history—but I’m not always sure how we should describe this moment. On my good days, there’s a side of me that wants to say, ‘I don’t really think things are any worse today than they have ever been. Can you find a time in the historical narrative of the world when we were able to live together? We’ve always been in the midst of some kind of upheaval somewhere on the planet.’

“So,” she continued, “there’s that side of me—on my good days. On other days, it’s more likely I’ll answer your question: ‘Oh my God! The whole thing’s going to hell in a hand-basket! How in the world are we going to stop the flow in that direction?’ ”

She paused, then added, “But the biggest thing I want to say right now is: I think this is a moment that calls us to be grounded in whatever we believe deep within us can hold us together. You can’t count on external circumstances to be anything other than chaotic. Right now, at this moment in history, we have a real invitation for people to find out what truly matters to them beyond just the externals in life.”

This answer prompted a wide-ranging exchange as Dr. Meeks and I connected her core message with similar messages from authors as diverse as Maya Angelou and Jeffrey Munroe. For example, the theme of Jeff’s new book, Telling Stories in the Dark, reflects author Frederick Buechner’s defining message that telling our stories honestly to each other helps us to discover we are not alone—and to connect with other people.

“I think it’s a powerful message we need to hear loud and clear, right now,” I said to Dr. Meeks. “That’s why I’m talking to you today and publishing a story in our magazine to urge people to read your book.”

She nodded. “Yes, and that’s a message I’m also hearing from some of the first folks who read my new book and reached out to me about it. They’re saying my story helps them to remember their own story better,” Dr. Meeks said.

“You know, when the idea of this book first came up, I was hesitant,” she told me. “I asked myself: Who needs to read one more story about somebody’s journey—unless it is a catalyst for people to engage in their own journeys? And that’s why I agreed to write this book: I want readers to reconnect with their own stories and memories and be engaged—to go deeper into their own lives. My ultimate intention is to be a contributor to healing and wellness by helping people to connect with whatever God has for them to do in their life for the good of the world.”

“Powerfully said,” I told her. “I’ll definitely quote you on that from the transcript.”

She nodded again, then added, “You know, we get into so much trouble in this world, because we don’t realize that your story is my story and we share a human story. If people would understand this better, we could begin to erase the racism and sexism and classism and able-ism dividing us and causing so much of the tragedy in our world.”

Transforming the ‘Rags’ to See Their Beauty

At the end of that lament about harmful “isms” from Dr. Meeks, did you note her concern about “able-ism”?

Readers may assume that the this book is mainly about Dr. Meeks’ long family struggle with racism—as well as her struggle as a brilliant woman trying to make her way in a strongly entrenched network of male academics and church leaders.

But, there’s even more to ponder in this memoir about the search for equality and justice!

Dr. Meeks also is an eloquent advocate for the millions of Americans with chronic health conditions that complicate family life and access to work—as well as places of worship. For decades, she has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis—and that struggle has been as potent a learning opportunity as confronting sexism, racism and classism.

Early in her book, she writes:

My journey resembles quilt making in that it comprises many experiences that the world would see as raggy—irredeemable or useless. I have suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and have been exhausted by trying to build a career in racist institutions. I have raised two Black young men, on my own, in a country that threatens the lives and safety of Black men. Despite the hardship, each of these experiences has allowed me opportunities to listen for the sound of the genuine in myself and in the world around me. The rags became more than rags. They are threads of love that were waiting to be put into conversation with one another. Pieced together, they would be transformed into a beautiful whole. All the disparate emotions, fears, hopes, dreams, successes, and failures that may seem worthless actually hold massive potential to help in creating something new that never existed before.

Then, later in her memoir, Dr. Meeks addresses her long struggle with her chronic health condition and draws this startling conclusion: “Rheumatoid arthritis became my teacher.”

To learn how that painful disability became an opportunity for growth in Dr. Meeks’ life, you will want to get a copy of her book, of course. But, overall, Dr. Meeks’ constant call to readers is to think of those painful parts of our own lives—our “rags”—and to consider the radical idea of re-envisioning those rags as beautiful and life-giving parts of our lives. And, by sharing those stories with others, she says to us repeatedly, those rags can contribute to a life-giving transformation of our communities.

The Spiritual Wisdom of ‘Putting One Foot in Front of the Other’

This journey—and the hope of the kind of transformation Dr. Meeks is describing—certainly is not easy!

It certainly was not easy for Dr. Meeks! At nearly every turn in her life story, readers will discover that her successes seemed to be met with fresh challenges, dangers and traumas.

She told me, “I certainly did not write this book so that people would say: ‘Oh, what an amazing person!’ That’s not what I am trying to communicate! What I am trying to communicate is that life is about perseverance. Life often is hard. Very hard. But I am a person of hope who is trying to persevere each day, because I refuse to be stuck. I want to be free. I want to transcend the limitations that are placed all around me. And so I wake up each day and continue putting one foot in front of the other until I am moving through my day.

“This book isn’t intended as a celebration of my life. It’s a story of perseverance. We’ve got to greet each day, ready to keep moving on—because we are pilgrims forever. That’s my message I hope readers will see in this book.”

‘Pilgrims Forever’

Did you note that very quotable phrase? “We are pilgrims forever.” Dr. Meeks’ book is packed with quotable lines, another good reason to read it. Her wisdom is likely to be quoted in countless columns and Sunday-morning sermons over this coming year.

There is another reason Dr. Meeks agreed to write this memoir, she admits: She realized that many people today have no idea what it was like growing up in a Black sharecropper’s family in the South. She watched as her own father’s faith and hopes were crushed year after year, because the sharecropping system was designed to never allow him to bring his family’s heads above the deep waters of his debt to white property owners. At one point, her father even took a desperate action to break free—and failed. Dr. Meeks watched her father eventually die, sunk in his decades of discouragement.

So, these traumas Dr. Meeks writes about are more than insults or slights. These are life-and-death matters and her memoir is full of her own indomitable quest for justice—for herself and for her thousands of students over many years.

Yet, through it all, Dr. Meeks’ voice “sounds” very much like we are sitting around a kitchen table after dinner as this  matriarch tells her life’s story. Even in the most dramatic moments she encountered—for instance, the 1965 Watts Uprising—there’s no effort to over dramatize in her narration. In reading this book, we’re simply letting a beloved storyteller stitch together this astonishingly varied patchwork quilt into a narrative that has the potential to heal us—if we read carefully and take the lessons to heart, that is.

‘Turquoise and Lavender’

The book ends just before Dr. Meeks decided to add just a bit more to her life’s quilt. Shortly after she finished this manuscript, she finally retired from some of her major daily commitments (you can read all about her many accomplishments in the memoir)—and decided to launch a new online community dedicated entirely to healing individuals and communities by evoking shared experiences. Those include outdoor experiences, especially with flowers, herbs and stones.

If you want to explore that latest colorful section of Dr. Meeks’ quilt, visit her new website Turquoise and Lavender. If you do click that link, you’ll find a page with a longer summary of Dr. Meeks’ many accomplishments—and you’ll be able to see watch a beautifully produced video in which Dr. Meeks talks to visitors about this new project.

This memoir is inspiring because Dr. Meeks not only triumphed over adversity herself but, more importantly, has kept inventing new ways of promoting transformation in others. You’ll feel it’s well worth the effort to spend some time by Dr. Meeks’ side.

Redrawing the history of ‘comic books’ and celebrating the creative joy of all ‘outsider’ artists

Could a family member or neighbor be an unheralded light in our world?

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

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

In my half century as a journalist covering religious and cultural diversity, I have profiled hundreds of “outsider” artists whose unique creations in music, visual arts, filmmaking, poetry and sculpture have been a rich part of global cultures for thousands of years. I am continually looking for those overlooked men and women who are spreading joy—or are sharing their laments—through whatever art-forms they can envision.

I once profiled an Appalachian artist who constructed his entire two-story home to look like a gigantic duck (covering the entire duck-shaped home in shingles that looked like feathers) as his tribute to the birds he loved. In Asia, I profiled an artist who created an enormous shrine to his ancestors made entirely of seashells and beautiful stones he found along the ocean shore. I profiled an Appalachian coal miner who recreated the entire book of Genesis in wood-carved tableaux that eventually wound up at the Smithsonian. And, perhaps my personal favorite: I profiled an Appalachian woman who fashioned musical instruments from gourds so that she and her friends could play gospel tunes.

So, you can see right away why I was so eager to read and review this beautiful, fascinating, 634-page tribute to the comic books created by the until-now-unknown comic pioneer Frank Johnson. The debut of this selection of Johnson’s comics now will redraw our official history of American comic books. That will take some time, but that rewriting is sure to come—especially since this book was produced by the highly respected Fantagraphics and includes extensive opening essays by curator and historian Chris Byrne and fine artist and graphic novelist Keith Mayerson.

At this point, though, Frank Johnson does not even have a Wikipedia page—although that is certain to change over the next year or so. And Wikipedia still sums up the official history of American comic books pretty much like all the other history books, to date:

The term comic book derives from American comic books once being a compilation of comic strips of a humorous tone. The first modern American-style comic book, Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics, was released in the U.S. in 1933 and was a reprinting of earlier newspaper humor comic strips, which had established many of the story-telling devices used in comics.

This new Fantagraphics volume contains examples from half a century of the comic books Frank Johnson drew in blank, bound notebooks that were available in stores for students and office workers from the 1920s until his death in 1979. In other words, Johnson was creating full-fledged comic books a decade before Famous Funnies. His own private creative instincts led him to envision, plan, write and draw what is now considered an important American art form—years before there was any example on the market.

What could possibly have kept Frank Johnson going for so long in this private pursuit?

Minnie Black’s All-Gourd Band: ‘A Joyful Noise Unto the Good Lord’

I remember interviewing Minnie Black, the Appalachian gourd artist who created an entire band’s worth of instruments from gourds. She eventually appeared nationwide on radio and TV and had a sampling of her work collected by the Smithsonian—but in her early years as a gourd artist, her friends thought she was a bit eccentric even by Appalachian standards.

“Minnie, you created the first all-gourd band anyone has ever heard,” I said. “What made you think of this? And what kept you going even when no one seemed interested, at first?”

“I just wanted to make a joyful noise unto the Good Lord and I saw a gourd one day that was shaped like a dulcimer—and the next thing I knew, I was seeing gourds that looked like other instruments, too,” she said.

Minnie was a full-fledged artist—the Smithsonian would call her a “folk” or “naive” artist—for years before the world discovered her body of work.

‘Cautionary humor’ about life’s great challenges?

What’s so fascinating about Johnson’s body of work, beyond his pioneering creative vision, is that—like Minnie Black’s gourds—his comics reflect the challenges of his life.

The book opens with selections of Johnson’s Bowser Boys comic books, whose “heroes” are a group of homeless alcoholic friends who pursue booze with clever twists and turns every day of their lives. They rise to the challenges of daily life—even though their clothes are rags, they are covered in grime and Johnson draws them with flies buzzing around their heads.

As it turns out: At one point in Johnson’s real life, he was an out-of-control alcoholic himself and clearly these comics are a kind of wildly satirical exorcism of that raging addiction. Eventually, he became a devoted member of AA, but that era seems to have remained in his mind and heart for the rest of his life. We don’t know for sure, because Johnson left few biographical details when he died, but these comics could have been cautionary humor to share with friends Johnson got to know at his AA meetings. Perhaps some surviving friend will surface, now that Johnson is receiving more publicity, to fill in that biographical gap.

However, the majority of this book focuses on his decades-long Wally’s Gang series of comic books. This series feels like a first cousin to Archie and Gasoline Alley: a small-town gang of friends forever facing challenges in their relationships—and often pulling pranks on one another.

Some outsider artists—notably Minnie Black, who eventually appeared on Johnny Carson’s late-night talk show—attain a measure of fame in their lifetimes. In fact, I helped with her ascent into the public eye as a journalist, publishing one of the first major profiles of Minnie for a national wire service in the 1970s. She thoroughly enjoyed all the attention she received until she eventually died in 1996 at age 97.

But far too many “outsiders” only shine posthumously. Keith Mayerson captures the bittersweet truth of Frank Johnson’s career in this haunting line: “Frank Johnson laid out the future of comics for an audience of no one.”

No one was aware of his astonishing lifetime output until his descendants realized there was value in all those notebooks he had stored away.

If you would like to glimpse what the other kind of outcome for an American outsider artist can look like, you can watch a marvelous 4-minute video of Minnie Black uploaded to YouTube in 2023 by the Appalshop Archive.

For Frank Johnson, the creation of his body of work was enough to keep him going for many decades. The sheer joy he found in creating these stories is obvious in the glee shared by members of Wally’s Gang. And, now, his family can celebrate the true creative genius of their patriarch.

And—Here’s Minnie Black