In ‘Pillars,’ Rachel Pieh Jones inspires us with her story of ‘How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus’

Clicking on this colorful banner will take you to Rachel Pieh Jones’ website, where you can learn about her many other resources, her newsletters—and you’ll find links to purchase the book as well.

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Rachel Pieh Jones extends a ‘Holy Welcome’ to all of us

She offers a host of inspiring resources

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

In four decades of covering religion in America, I cannot recall a book by a Christian author that so eloquently explains the Muslim faith’s close parallels to Christianity—until I discovered Rachel Pieh Jones’ new, Pillars: How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus. 

Clicking on this cover will take you to the book’s Amazon page. The book also is available from Barnes & Noble and other online retailers.

Certainly there are many academic texts examining these connections by scholars such as Huston Smith, Hans Kung and Miroslav Volf. From the perspective of Muslim family life interacting with Christian families, there is Victor Begg’s Our Muslim Neighbors: Achieving the American Dream, An Immigrant’s Memoir. But there’s nothing else like this intimate memoir of daily life between Christian and Muslim neighbors—written by a Christian and, most importantly, by a Christian woman.

What’s even more startling about Pillars is that it’s a real “page turner,” based on Rachel’s adventures during two decades of living in the Horn of Africa with her husband Tom, an educator, and their three children. In these pages, you’ll find stories about schools, markets, foods, athletic challenges, women’s health, raising children, headline news and even terrorism.

“I knew as I began writing this new book that some American Christians may be uncomfortable with how much I have opened myself to the wisdom and experiences of my Muslim neighbors,” Rachel said this week as we Zoomed an interview from her home in Djibouti. “But I want to emphasize: This book is not about coercion or conversion from one faith to the other. I like to describe this book as an invitation to ‘holy welcomes,’ because that’s the kind of hospitality I’ve experienced among the Somalis with whom we’re living.” (Djibouti is a small country north of Somalia and Somali people live across the entire region. Currently, Tom and Rachel run the International School of Djibouti.)

“This book is my invitation to readers to experience my own sacred story—it’s my holy welcome,” Rachel said. “I want readers to honestly understand the kinds of experiences I have had over the years as I have lived with and learned from Muslims. I’m saying: Come into our sacred space and experience what these five pillars are like for Muslims and for Christians. You don’t have to pray like us, but I think we all can learn from each other.”

The Five Pillars of Islam

The Pillars of Islam form the five major sections of Rachel’s memoir, sub-titled this way in her book:

  1. Shahada—There is no god but God
  2. Salat—Prayer
  3. Zakat—Almsgiving
  4. Ramadan—Fasting
  5. Hajj—Pilgrimage

Readers who are Muslim, or who have been involved in interfaith connections for many years, will recognize right away that Rachel has not shied away from the difficulty of these pillars for Christians. Even newcomers to religious reflection understand that all world religions have some form of prayer and charitable giving. Those parallels are obvious. Lesser known perhaps is that all the great religious traditions include challenges to fast in various ways. And, of course, pilgrimage is one of the most common metaphors for religious experience.

But the Shahada, firmly declaring the specific Muslim approach to worshiping and serving God? That’s usually perceived as the main deal-breaker for Christians. Of course, it is indeed one of the core differences between the Abrahamic faiths. But please read the first major section of Rachel’s memoir, Shahada—There is no god but God, and you will think much differently about this pillar. Through Rachel’s 50 pages of personal experiences—including her family’s arrival in that region of Africa and the challenges of growing a garden there—you will discover that this first pillar is far more complex and spiritually nuanced than you may guess.

When I learn about your faith, I deepen my faith

Because I am making such a dramatic claim about the unique nature of Rachel’s book, I thought I would ask a long-time colleague to challenge my judgment. Bob Bruttell has been both a university-based scholar on religion as well as a nationally known teacher, workshop leader and organizer of interfaith efforts. In Michigan he is co-founder of the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

I called Bob and discussed Rachel’s new book in some detail. He hadn’t read it yet, but agreed that he would—and likely would want to recommend it to others.

“I think you’re safe to say there isn’t another book like this—at least I can’t recall or point to another similar book as I think about it with you, David,” Bob said. “But, I do want to say that these ideas are  important to our interfaith work—and that I have been talking about these same ideas in many talks and presentations over the years. In my talks about this, I say: ‘When I have increased my understanding of Judaism and Islam, I have increased my own faith as a Christian.’ I’ve said this many times—and I’ve heard many others say this same thing in interfaith dialogues.”

Bob continued, “We say this because, quite simply, this is true: If you get involved in authentic interfaith work, and you’re someone who already has a faith basis in your own life, then the experience will deepen your own faith.”

I said to him, “I know you haven’t read Rachel’s book yet, Bob, and I don’t want to leave you with a mistaken impression of her book. In these 265 pages, she does address the very hard stuff we all face, including religious extremism and terrorism. She writes about Muslim extremism—and she writes about Christian extremism. She doesn’t shy aware from the life-and-death dangers in our world. And she isn’t trying to obscure the difficulty in forming these relationships. There will always be questions. There will always be points of disagreement.”

“Of course,” he said. “That’s the truth of this work, as well. Let me put it this way: Millions of Americans go to Sunday School. That’s believers’ school. You to go Sunday School to learn about your faith without question. Later, if you begin to question something about your faith, you may begin moving down a road where you become more self-reflective and this journey can deepen your faith. Then, if you come into a relationship with a person of another deeply held faith, through your conversations and experiences you can move even deeper in your own faith.

“One example I like to give,” he continued, “is that, as a Catholic, we have what I thought was a strong tradition of fasting—until I got to know Muslims and began to experience Ramadan with them. My first reaction was: ‘Oh my gosh! They do this for an entire month!’ I’ve said that to Muslim friends. I’m hardly able to do the little bit of fasting I’m asked to do as a Catholic during Lent. So, how are they able to do this? What happens when they do it for an entire month? What can I learn about my own tradition of fasting from my Muslim friends?”

And that is precisely what Rachel does in story after story throughout her book—focusing on one pillar after another.

The Jones family in Djibouti with The International School of Djibouti in the background.

Meet Rachel And Discover Her Multi-Faceted Work

Although Rachel lives on the other side of the world from the U.S., she is deeply engaged in American life through her journalism and magazine-style writing. She is widely known for her reporting on food, long-distance running and the ongoing challenges of the nations within the the Horn of Africa.

She also is willing to consider requests for appearances with groups where people are interested in discussing her new book. She asks that contacts be sent to rachelpiehjones(at)gmail(dot)com

But wait! Before you email her, get to know her and her work. Order her new book from Amazon, Pillars: How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesusand while you’re at Amazon, follow her via her Amazon Author’s Page. Authors always are more eager to engage if you are contacting them after having read their work, so that your inquiry reflects serious interest. Perhaps you may want to organize a discussion of her book in your community or congregation, and then you may want to invite her to appear with your group via Zoom.

In fact, Rachel told me in our interview that one reason she devoted so much time to writing this book is: “I couldn’t find any books like this out there, so I wrote one—so I would be able to give this book both to Christian and to Muslim friends and say: ‘Hey, let’s talk about this.’ ”

And—there’s even more! Because Rachel has been so engaged as a writer over so many years, there are many other ways to experience her delightful storytelling and her wisdom about so many subjects.

RIGHT NOW, you can read one of Rachel’s columns related to caregiving. Among her many global interests are coping with cancer. As of summer 2021, her doctors tell her she seems to be free of cancer after treatment for thyroid cancer. She has given us permission to repost one of her caregiving-related columns, headlined: Gifts for those with cancer—and their caregivers.

SHE ALSO gave us permission to republish her earlier column in which she shares with other writers about tried-and-true tips for generating story ideas. That column appears in our Front Edge Publishing blog, headlined:10 Ways to Generate Story Ideas.

YOU CAN ENJOY SO MUCH MORE—Rachel has a lot of information on her personal website, RachelPiehJones.com. In fact, here’s a column she wrote specifically related to the launch of Pillars, an essay titled Are You Afraid of Muslims?

Spend some time looking around her website, which includes lists of recommended stories on several topics close to her heart. Here’s a list of recommended readings on the Horn of Africa, for example, and lists on Running. and Food. She also maintains an archive of some of her best columns over the past decade.

Where should you focus, if you’re first meeting Rachel and her wealth of writing? She tells us that her two current passions in writing are focused, at least in 2021, on Do Good Better and Stories from the Horn. Gateways to these online resources appear on the homepage of her website. Both of them  are hosted on Substack, a flexible service that has become very popular with experienced columnists in recent years. If you choose to sign up for these services via Substack, you will find that there are options to pay a fee for deeper access to Rachel’s offerings—and also a free option. If you choose the free option, you will receive occasional columns via email that Rachel sends out to the general public.

Does Rachel’s body of work seem amazing to you? It should. This is a remarkable outpouring of journalism and personal reflection. Why does Rachel work so hard on all these multi-faced media projects?

“Because we need to encourage wider community conversations that cross our cultural and racial and religious boundaries,” she said. “That’s why I hope many Christians will read this new book. I am hoping that they will come away from reading my story much less scared of the Muslims around them. I hope that, after reading my book, more people will engage each other—even if that just starts with saying hello in a welcoming way. That would be amazing. We need to start more conversations that eventually can lead us into sharing about our spiritual lives.”

 

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Care to Read More?

Our own publishing house offers many popular volumes about interfaith relationships.

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

OUR MUSLIM NEIGHBORS in the memoir of Victor Begg and his family. He came to the U.S. as a young Muslim immigrant from India who dreamed of starting a business, working so hard toward his personal goals that he even pumped gas and sold vacuum cleaners door to door. Victor successfully built a thriving, regional chain of furniture stores. Along the way, he discovered that America’s greatest promise lies in building healthy communities with our neighbors. Available from Amazon.

REUNITING THE CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM starts where Victor’s and Rachel’s memoirs end. This book collects many helpful resources used by interfaith peacemaker Brenda Rosenberg, whose work over many years has focused especially on teens and young adults. This is an inspiring, nuts-and-bolts resource book ideal for starting your own interfaith group of friends. Available from Amazon.

FRIENDSHIP AND FAITH should be considered a close cousin to Rachel’s new book. Rather than an entire memoir about a single woman’s journey through interfaith relationships—Friendship & Faith contains dozens of real-life stories by dozens of women from eight different faith traditions. Each story tells how a woman dared to cross a boundary in her community—and how she discovered friendship on the other side. Available from Amazon.

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I updated the page and this link should work now for the essay about being afraid of Muslims: https://rachelpiehjones.com/2021/04/are-you-afraid-of-muslims/

 

In ‘What Belongs to God,’ David Livingston Edwards prophetically urges us to: ‘Choose peace!’

Clicking on this image will take you to the book’s Amazon page.

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

What Belongs to God is a book on a mission.

David Livingston Edwards. (Clicking on this image also will take you to the book’s Amazon page.)

It contains the multi-media prophetic message of the late David Livingston Edwards, who died of cancer in 2019.

Why do we use that powerful word “prophetic”? Because David was a prophet. He lived his life urging everyone he met, he taught, he pastored, he serenaded with his songs that we are called to always—as the Study Guide at the conclusion of his book is titled—to be “Choosing Peace.”

This book is launching on May 25, 2021, with a publicly streamed hour-long presentation about the book’s message from David’s family, friends and his publisher.

A summary of David’s life that captures the warm, heart-felt storytelling you will find in the pages of this book comes from his obituary:

A kinder, more peace-loving man would be hard to find. He adored his family. He loved fishing and singing especially with children, hiking the trails of the Blue Ridge Mountains, taking walks in the woods and swimming in the ocean. He cherished quiet time alone, reading and studying scripture, exploring the sacred writings of other religions, writing and composing music and sitting to reflect and think. Because of his deep commitment to the teaching of Jesus, he became a pacifist and a conscientious objector to all violence and war. During the time of the Vietnam War he did two years of required alternative service to the draft by working as an orderly on the cardiac/surgical unit of Boston Children’s Hospital in Boston, MA. Though David contributed in many ways to what is good in this world, he considered his work as a conscientious objector to be the most important contribution of his life. 

That 150-word portrait of David’s life and prophetic mission captures the spiritual adventure that unfolds in the pages of this new book. This is why this singer-songwriter-pastor-teacher appears on the front cover of this book with his banjo, sitting along the banks of a stream in the Blue Ridge Mountains. That’s why a photograph of him singing songs with children appears on the back cover.

That’s why the covers of this book contain a multi-media array of resources you can use to talk about peacemaking with family, friends and anyone in your community who might be inspired by this story, these songs and this wise overview of the role the Bible calls Christians to play in this world.

In the midst of a global community that is shattered along dozens of racial, ethnic, religious and nationalist lines today—David Livingston Edwards is calling all of us, especially Christians, back to our roots as the people who welcome and love our neighbors.

This Truly Is a Multi-Media Treasure Trove

When this book manuscript first came to the Front Edge Publishing team more than a year ago, our initial response was: “The world needs this book right now.”

Our second response was: “How can we publish a book about David without hearing his music spring from these pages?”

David’s wife Kaye Edwards, shown here, along with their family and friends worked for more than a year to help develop this new book as well as the related website. Clicking on this image will take you to that website.

So, we are pleased that David’s family and friends assembled this website: http://WhatBelongsToGod.com—and our team of editors added convenient links within the pages of this book to key songs within that website. As you read your way through these pages, you can use the codes provided to hear David sing to you.

As you get ready to visit that website, now, we want to point out a few of the gems you’ll want to explore:

“THE BOOK” section takes visitors to either a summary of the book—or to text from the Discussion and Action Guide that also appears in the final 17 pages of every copy of the book, whether that’s Paperback, Hardcover or eBook. Showcasing the Discussion and Action Guide on the website ensures that you can look over the many suggestions for individual and group reflection, even before you buy a copy of the book. (Interested in a group order to plan a discussion or retreat? There’s a convenient link on the website to contact the Edwards team—or email us at [email protected])

“THE MUSIC” section may overwhelm first-time visitors, because it contains so many choices from David’s many years as a singer-songwriter. That section of the website summarizes what you’ll find:

This music was created and performed by the Rev. David L. Edwards. He wrote music for worship, music for children, and music for the enjoyment of all. David recorded seven CDs, and created music used in the Chalice Hymnal of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ. His music remains as an expression of his life, and of life itself. Kaye Edwards wants to share the music her husband created to add meaning to all our lives. On this website, you can hear and download MP3 files of his songs. You can download PDFs of his music sheets. You can download more than 40 responsive psalms to use in services of worship. Please use these resources freely, using the copyright notice shown at the top of each resource page. 

PLEASE NOTE: Any church leaders—including teachers, preachers and worship planners—will immediately understand that this is a remarkable gift to the world. The Edwards team already has prepared an easy way for you to use these resources, including how to freely share this material in a responsible way.

If you’re involved in the life of your congregation, please send a link to this story to worship leaders who you think may want to use some of these resources. They likely will thank you for passing along the news.

Ready to Invite Friends to Discuss this Book with You?

We can help with a full-color, printable handbill you can tack up on a bulletin board—or share in a newsletter—or post to your own website. This handbill includes a blank space at the bottom for you to write in details about where your own class or other local program will be held.

Simply right click on this image and save it to your own computer.

Simply right click on this image and save it to your own computer.

 

 

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The ancient hero David is a doorway for timely interfaith dialogues on the values of leadership

David’s name is everywhere in the Holy Land. This photo shows a portion of the stone walls in Jerusalem’s Old City looking toward what today is known as the Tower of David. (Wikimedia Commons photo shared by Pudelek.)

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“There is so much we share as Muslims, Jews and Christians—if we could only remember that God intended us to live peacefully as brothers and sisters,” said Victor Begg, author of Our Muslim Neighbors. He was one of many authors who called or Zoomed with the home office of our publishing house over the past two weeks and talked about the urgency of maintaining peaceful dialogue between the Abrahamic faiths.

“Most Christians and Jews don’t realize that Moses, or Musa as we call him, is the single most frequently mentioned individual name in the Quran,” Victor said. “There are even more references to Isa, our name for Jesus, in the Quran. These are just two of the major sacred figures we all share—like the great Prophet Dawud, as we call David—who we regard as a righteous messenger of God.

“Go into any Muslim community, and you’ll meet people named after these great figures. I know a number of Musas, Isas and Dawuds,” Victor said. “God truly made us brothers and sisters. For the future of our families, I continue to devote myself to telling anyone who will listen: We must find ways to peacefully live together.”

David as a Prophetic Doorway to Discussing Leadership

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

At Victor’s mention of David to me—as Editor of ReadTheSpirit and also a bearer of David’s name for 65 years—I realized that I also should reach out to our resident expert on David: Larry Buxton, author of 30 Days with King David—on Leadership. I scheduled a Zoom with Larry and his colleague Ibrahim Anli, executive director of the Rumi Forum, a nonprofit that promotes interfaith dialogue from its home base in Washington D.C.

This summer, thousands of Catholic and mainline Protestant clergy nationwide (those who plan their preaching around the Revised Common Lectionary) are scheduled to read about and preach about the life of David for 10 weeks. That means millions of us will have an opportunity to recall the inspiring life of this ancient hero.

That’s also why Larry Buxton has just posted online a 10-week series of short videos that we invite men and women to use individually—or with their small groups—during this summer of David.

In the opening pages of Larry’s book, Ibrahim Anli has written an endorsement of Larry’s work on David that begins:

We are navigating through a period that calls for exceptional leadership. This book is a fascinating guide that brings King David’s story to the help of contemporary individuals trying to achieve a virtuous life rewarded with success. Larry Buxton seamlessly connects landmark scenes from the King’s life with challenges that test the contemporary individual’s leadership qualities. This is a timely journey in the footsteps of King David, particularly for those in search for renewed determination to face their own Goliaths, whatever they might be.

Ibrahim could have written that same endorsement—about “a period that calls for exceptional leadership”—as recently as the past two weeks.

LARRY and IBRAHIM PREVIEW AN INTERFAITH CONVERSATION

Where would a dialogue with Muslims about the life of David begin? What similarities and differences could that conversation explore?

Both Christians and Muslims agree that God chose David as a divine representative—and that David’s Psalms are sacred hymns. Where Christians and Muslims disagree is that Christians tend to talk about David’s passionate desire to remain close to his divine calling, despite temptations and some epic failures. In Islamic tradition, where great prophets are viewed as sinless, accounts of David’s life omit any stories of sinful behavior.

“He is one of our major figures in Islam,” Ibrahim said. “But as we begin to talk in interfaith conversations about him, the big difference for Muslims is that we do not associate our prophets with anything that might be considered disrespectful.

“In Islam, we focus on a different view of David’s role—as a great leader both in the day as a commander and field marshal defending the realm of monotheism and also at night when he was deep in prayer asking for God’s guidance. David is an example of a leader who is constantly tempted by the desires that may come with worldly success—and yet he also is constantly in prayer that his military career not lead him to these temptations.”

“That’s what makes David such a good example of the tensions of leadership,” Larry said. “What Ibrahim is describing is discussed in my book. The life of David is very rich in insights as we wrestle with what it means to be wise and faithful leaders today.”

Care to Read More?

Larry is correct about directing readers, next, to the actual book about David. If this column is intriguing to you, then please order a copy of his book.

Because of the 10-week focus on David in thousands of congregations, this summer, Larry is freely sharing 10 videos. Visit www.LarryBuxton.com/Preaching-David to find all of the videos.

Please help with this peacemaking effort. Share that link with friends. Encourage your pastor, lector, small group leader or Sunday School teacher to check out these videos. They’re easy to share—and easy to show to friends as a brief “video clip” to spark discussion in your congregation or small group.

And, YES, for those of you who pay careful attention to intellectual property: You do have our permission to stream these clips in your community.

AN EASY REMINDER: If you want to make the videos’ location even easier to remember, just go to www.LarryBuxton.com and you’ll find a link to the Preaching David video series right there on the opening page.

Interested in placing a group order of books for your class or circle of friends? Amazon ordering is quick and easy for most of us. If you are interested in 10 or more copies, email us at [email protected] 

Care to have Larry or Victor visit your group?

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

Are you interested in scheduling a time when either of these authors could virtually visit your group this summer or autumn?

FOR LARRY BUXTONVisit the Contact page on Larry’swebsite. Depending on schedules, Larry welcomes such invitations and may be able to arrange something.

FOR VICTOR BEGG—The same is true of Victor Begg. His Contact page is on the website he maintains for his bookOur Muslim Neighbors: A Muslim Immigrant’s Memoir of Pursuing the American Dream and Serving Our Communities in Turbulent Times.

AND, PLEASE, encourage the peacemaking work of these authors by sharing news of this story with friends and members of your congregation, class or Sunday School group.

‘What the world needs now is Hugs, Hugs, Hugs!’ Thanks to Zamir Khan, that’s easier than ever.

Clicking on this image will take you to the VidHug.com website right now.

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Canadian Software Engineer Zamir Khan Is Helping Millions of Families to Hug Again

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“What the world needs now is: Hugs! Hugs! Hugs!” media entrepreneur Howard Brown told me as he urged me to check out the popular new service: www.VidHug.com. Founded just before the COVID pandemic at the urging of a small circle of friends and family living in Canada, VidHug now is exploding around the world with more than 4 million hugs delivered so far.

“We all need a good hug after more than a year of isolation,” Howard said as we worked together on the editing of his upcoming memoir, Shining Brightly. Howard’s upcoming book is full of dozens of ways you can brighten the world—one act of kindness at at a time. “I practice what I preach and I found this super-easy-to-use online service, VidHug.com, to help me send a few more hugs out into the world even in the midst of this pandemic. People absolutely love the videos we’ve created on this service. They’re overwhelmed when they see the VidHug the first time—and I’ve found that they like to view these hugs again and again. Whenever they’re feeling lonely, that VidHug is right there for them.”

Howard’s creation of personalized VidHug videos is mentioned in his book as just one example of his own outreach to friends and loved ones. So, Howard and I resolved to track down VidHug’s founder, Zamir Khan, and schedule a Zoom interview with him. Adding to our interest in meeting Zamir is a book co-authored by Howard’s wife, Lisa Brown. It’s called Now What? A Guide to the Gifts and Challenges of Aging. From the very first chapter of that book, “isolation and exclusion” are identified by researchers worldwide as the No. 1 threat to health and wellbeing as we age. In Lisa Brown’s section of that book, she emphasizes the healthy benefits of taking part in public service as we age. Given their own writing about personal connections, both of the Browns have become big fans of VidHug.com.

Zamir Khan: ‘People feel better after sharing’

Zamir Khan

When we explained our idea of publishing a story about VidHug in an email to Zamir, he scheduled an hour of Zoom time with us.

In our interview, I told him: “Zamir, did you know there’s real scientific research that says making meaningful connections with other people is a ‘social determinant’ of health? It’s clear from reading about you on your website that you’re doing this because people enjoy this experience.”

“And, right now in the middle of a pandemic it’s also a perfect entrepreneurial project,” Howard added.

“But, one thing we wanted to ask you is: Are you following the public-health research about the effects of isolation?” I said. “We think there’s a strong case to be made that meaningful contact like this actually contributes to people’s health and wellbeing. Are you following those studies?”

“In general, of course, I know that people enjoy what we’re enabling them to do,” Zamir said. He explained that public health research is not his specialty, but welcomed our making that connection from the team of authors who produced Now What?

“I don’t want to misrepresent the data,” I cautioned. “No researcher has specifically tested the health benefits of your VidHug.com—although, maybe someone will study it someday at the rate your online service is growing. But, the overall finding is that meaningfully connecting with people on a regular basis will tend to help them live happier and longer lives.”

“Well, I am glad to have you making that connection with what we do,” Zamir said.

We also immediately mailed him a copy of Now What? Collectively, we are trying to find allies to spread the message—in this era of deep divisions—that there’s healthy power in authentic human connection.

How Zamir Discovered the Power of a Virtual Hug

Zamir discovered that power himself when he created an online video montage for his own mother’s birthday, inviting family and friends to send him short video clips of their messages for the birthday girl. Given Zamir’s professional background as a software developer for sophisticated medical devices, he understood how to gather digital files, edit them, create a colorful montage and post it online.

That was the very first and only VidHug several years ago. Today, after hundreds of thousands of VidHugs from around the world, Zamir has published that “origin story,” which begins:

I pressed play and watched with bated breath. We were all sitting in the living room of my home, including my wife, our young children, and my parents. Everyone’s stomach was full after having celebrated my Mom’s 70th birthday at a delicious vegan restaurant (her choice!). The MacBook placed on her lap was about to play a video that I had painstakingly spent many days to put together. Looking back, I had no idea (a) how emotional her reaction would be and (b) that I had started on a path to building VidHug.

Corine, my mother, undoubtedly like someone in your own life, is notoriously difficult to buy gifts for. She doesn’t have material wants and spending a lot of money is a surefire path to her disapproval. If you ask her, she’ll tell you that she doesn’t need anything other than your love, presence, and maybe a hug. 

If you care to read the rest of Zamir’s origin story, this link will take you to his website.

The First Key Is Ease of Use

Everybody knows how to hug. It’s as simple as opening and then closing your arms.

“A VidHug should be simple, too,” Zamir said in our interview. “In fact, we keep updating the service all the time based on user comments. That’s our concept really: Anyone should be able to do this.

“When I made that first VidHug, it was so popular that I had lots of people asking me to teach them how to make these—or even to do this for them. I didn’t have that much time. I thought: I just should build a way for people to create these videos without having to understand all the software. As I went, I envisioned this: Think of my aunt who is not a technical person and certainly isn’t interested in becoming a power user. If I could help my aunt create something like this with a few clicks, then she’d certainly want to do it.

“To this day, we keep telling ourselves: If we can make this even simpler—we will.”

“Yeah, I can testify to that,” Howard said. “Your users don’t need to know all the technical magic that’s built into the software. They just want to create a VidHug and, for most people, that’s got to be very easy. Your service definitely is user friendly.”

The Second Key Is Self Expression

“The other goal we have is: ‘Joyful connections made easy’,” Zamir said. “Or, because some of these connections are for more serious or somber occasions, we also say, ‘Meaningful connections made easy’.”

On his website, Zamir lists the most popular occasions for VidHugs:

  • Holidays—so many opportunities!
  • Birthdays—and anniversaries
  • Weddings—lots of opportunities to support the loving couple
  • Business—especially onboarding videos to greet remote staff
  • Schools—perhaps to welcome children back to school or to celebrate a special school event
  • Memorials—celebrating the lives of loved ones

“The power of these little video clips is that you’re seeing each person—or group of people—speaking to you from wherever they’ve turned on their camera,” Zamir said. “Even if their message is just 30 seconds or so, that’s a much more meaningful connection than the typical note you find on Facebook.”

Far and away, Facebook remains the most popular platform for sending greetings at milestones that pop up in users’ lives.

“But think about how a typical Facebook birthday greeting happens,” Zamir said. “That happens just because it’s automatically built into your profile. Your birthday pops up and people may acknowledge that, but usually most of them are as basic as three letters: HBD. Typing three letters to mark someone’s birthday doesn’t qualify as a meaningful connection. But, going on video and talking for even a few moments to the other person—that’s really expressing yourself.”

Even after the Pandemic, Isolation Still Will Be a Challenge

It’s true that VidHug.com is a pandemic success story, Zamir acknowledged. The numbers tell the story.

“We were getting a few hundred visitors per day before the pandemic,” he said. “By May 2020, we were getting more than 100,000 people visiting each day—and recording 30,000 videos per day. When this idea started, it was just me. Now, we now have a team of seven and the VidHug.com you see today is the product of our developers and customer support staff.”

The pandemic solved the entrepreneur’s greatest challenge: discoverability. How does anyone even know you are offering a product? With enforced isolation, millions of people suddenly were Googling for solutions—then sharing their discovery widely across social media.

“So, yes, we are growing because of the pandemic,” Zamir said. “But the thing we all have to acknowledge is: There was isolation before the pandemic—and there will be isolation after the pandemic ends.

“What has motivated me all my life is simply trying to do work that will make our world a little better place,” he said. “When I was working on the software for sophisticated medical devices, I had the satisfaction of knowing that my work did have a positive purpose. But the impact was distant and indirect. I was contributing to a device that a salesperson had to bring to doctors, who might use it and eventually someone would be helped—but it was not an impact that I ever could see. I was quite removed from the positive results of what I was doing.

“But today, I can see the positive contributions these videos are making every day. That’s why I still like to do some of the customer support myself, because it connects me with the users of our service. I’ve heard so many stories of people telling us how these video messages helped them to get through some very tough days.

“You might think that our service is mainly used for happy times like birthdays or holidays, but I’ll never forget a woman who told me about her father who was so ill that it was clear he would not be leaving the hospital. So, the family used VidHug to share farewell wishes and the hospital’s chaplain sat down in the room and watched the VidHug with him.

“When you hear a story like that, you realize that this isn’t just a business. This is a real privilege to become a part of these families’ lives.”

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Care to Read More?

In our special We Are Caregivers section of ReadTheSpirit, you will find an excerpt from the opening pages of Now What? That passage begins to explain the central challenge of isolation, which millions of us experience even without pandemic restrictions. If you have interest in this new book—or in organizing a group discussion of it—please email us at [email protected]

Thanks to filmmaker Martin Doblmeier, the prophetic Rabbi Heschel speaks to us again

You can click on this banner image from the new documentary to visit Martin Doblmeier’s Journey Films website, where you can learn much more about the film—as well as the extensive educational resources that can help you spark discussions with friends. But first, read this story. We also have a 3-minute preview of the new film, below in this column.

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Filmmaker Martin Doblmeier finally is ready to hit the road later this year, assuming pandemic restrictions subside, with a transformative project that has taken him many years to complete. And, rest assured, he also is making plans for adapting to any restrictions—including virtual events he offers to host (details about that are below).

“Finally, we are ready to start organizing showings and talks with people across the country about a question that so many of us are asking these days: How can we raise up the prophetic voices we need right now in this country?” Doblmeier said in an interview this week, marking the national release of his fourth and final documentary in his series on American’s great spiritual and social sages. “I like to describe these four films as Prophetic Voices of the 20th Century and, with the release of the Heschel film (in May 2021), we’re now ready to invite people to experience the entire series.”

The series is:

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See the Heschel Preview

The most important news about the Heschel film is summarized in a 3-minute preview of this new film. In the video frame, you will see a link to “buy” the film, which is one option. But, starting in May 2021, the film also will be showing free of charge via public TV stations.

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Q: Why should you see and share this film?

A: Because each week brings fresh headlines about extremist political efforts to suppress the rights of minorities, oppose immigration and spread fear about racial, ethnic and gender diversity across America. Of course, there also are millions of Americans celebrating diversity and working toward peace and hospitality. This is an ideal time to organize inspiring programs to promote civil conversation.

Here is how our Faith & Film writer Ed McNulty summarizes the importance of both Heschel and this film:

Thanks to Martin Doblmeir’s PBS documentary Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel will become a better known figure to millions of viewers. Now available on DVD and streaming, this is a worthy addition to his other filmed biographies of great thinkers and movers—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Reinhold Niebuhr, all brave thinkers who have had a deep impact upon the modern world.

The film’s title is taken from a telegram the rabbi sent to President Kennedy in response to the President’s call for a national conference on race and religion. However, Heschel knew that the Kennedy was not really interested in a concerted effort of the federal government to mount an attack on racism. Instead, the conference was  intended to ward off A. Philip Randolph’s planned march on Washington in 1963. Such a March would have been politically embarrassing and would force him to take action that would hurt him at the polls in the South in the 1964 elections. Instead of agreeing with Kennedy, Heschel, according to his daughter Susannah, sought to bring the President fully into the struggle for equal rights, “I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

It did indeed, and Rabbi Heschel himself was prepared fully to plunge himself into the struggle, later marching by the side of his friend Dr. King at the Selma Bridge in 1965. 

Want to read Ed’s entire review? It’s right here.

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The third Selma Civil Rights March frontline. From far left: John Lewis, an unidentified nun; Ralph Abernathy; Martin Luther King Jr.; Ralph Bunche; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Also visible in the second row is Rabbi Maurice Davis from Indiana. About this march, Heschel later wrote his famous line: “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” (Photo copyright by James Karalas; used with permission from Journey Films.)

Q: Why should you start with the Heschel film?

A: Because this film begins with a powerful reminder of how Heschel, among many other American clergy, risked their lives to stand up for racial justice during the most dangerous days of the Civil Rights movement. Today, once again, weekly headlines describe political efforts in a number of states to limit peaceful protests. Of course, millions of good-hearted Americans oppose such extremist campaigns, but new restrictions on civil rights are likely to pile up in a number of Southern states.

Among the four Journey films about American prophets, the Heschel film is the perfect first choice for discussions of these issues in coming months.

“In keeping with the central theme here, it’s ‘prophetic’ how you devote the first quarter of this Heschel film to his daring decision to march with Dr. King,” I told the filmmaker in our interview. “You could have started your Heschel film with his childhood, or with his interfaith work, or with his anti-Vietnam activism, or his support of aiding Soviet Jews—there are so many important chapters in his life. You deliberately chose to start the film with Dr. King’s three Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965—and Heschel’s decision after the first two marches to defy warnings from Jewish friends and colleagues. He marched with King and John Lewis in the front line leading the thousands of protesters on March 21, 1965. That’s a powerful way to open this film.”

“Thank you for pointing that out to your readers, because as a filmmaker that’s certainly what I was thinking,” Martin said. “I felt strongly that this was the best entry point to illustrate Heschel’s engagement with the world—and how civil rights was a natural part of that prophetic work. So, in that opening sequence, we put him right there in the front line shoulder to shoulder with King and others. This is a great way to get people talking about the need for all of us to become allies in facing so many challenges we are encountering today.”

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From left: Martin Doblmeier interviews Pulitzer Prize winning historian Taylor Branch for the Heschel film.

Q: How can you start the conversation?

A: Martin Doblmeier and his team have developed extensive resources, ranging from photographs and video clips to suggestions for further reading—and even a series of complete discussion guides on seven different themes you may want to explore, all based on Heschel’s life.

Here is the link to the Heschel discussion guide index at Journey Films. The seven available themes are:

  • God in search of man
  • The Prophets
  • Repairing the world
  • No religion is an island
  • The Vietnam War
  • The Jewish tradition
  • The Sabbath

“Please do explain to your readers that our discussion guides are always a work in progress and we encourage people to contact us if they see ways we can add to these offerings,” Martin said. “We’ve followed that process for many years. We want people to make suggestions. So, please, invite people to write to us or call us or email us with suggestions.”

To mail: 1413 King Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314. Or call: 1-800-486-1070. Email: [email protected]

“Also, let people know that I’ve already done a whole series of virtual programs about this film—and the others in this series—and I’m eager to keep doing programs across the country, especially as pandemic restrictions are lifted this fall and winter. Contact us if your group is interested in an event.”

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Mindy Corporon: A week of tragedy and prophetic recommitment to teaching compassion

Mindy Corporon returns to the site of the vigil on the night of the murders and talks with the Rev. Kelly Demo, a co-host of that 2014 vigil. You can see this remarkable video, below.

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

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

The events of this past week would have devastated a lesser prophet, but Mindy Corporon weathered tragedy and dared to return to one of the most emotionally traumatic scenes of her life this week—with a recommitment to her message of compassion.

First, if you need more background about this story, here is our recent cover story about Mindy and her new book, Healing a Shattered Soul. Mindy lost both her father and her young son in 2014 when they were murdered by a white supremacist intent on killing Jews in Overland Park, Kansas.

Then, here’s the news: The same day that ReadTheSpirit cover story was published, the killer died in prison. He was on death row, but died of what prison officials said were “natural causes,” likely stemming from his chronic emphysema. On that May 3, 2021, book-launch day last week, Mindy’s book already was reaching readers nationwide and the NPR news network even quoted a brief response from Mindy in its news report about the killer’s death.

You may note, however, that we are not using the name of the killer in this article—nor does his name appear anywhere in the 300 pages of Mindy’s book. On May 3, Mindy’s family released a statement reflecting on the killer’s death, including these lines:

“We choose to not use his name ensuring he occupies zero percent of our consciousness. … The murderer took the lives of two Methodists and a Catholic while intending to murder Jews. No one should have lost their lives at his hands. We are neither happy nor sad. He stole so much from our family, but he didn’t steal our hearts or our dignity. He did not steal our memories, the love that sustains us or the ability to offer forgiveness and kindness in the face of such tragedy.”

As astonishing as this may seem—on May 6, 2021, Mindy returned to the scene of deep emotional catharsis on the night of the murders: St. Thomas Episcopal Church. The book includes a full-page photograph from the community-wide prayer vigil that night in 2014, showing a devastated Mindy clutching the hand of her close friend. That photo opens Chapter 16, which describes the vigil that night at St. Thomas.

Then, on May 6, 2021—at the invitation of the St. Thomas clergy, who hosted the prayer vigil seven years ago—Mindy returned for a triumphant, prophetic public talk. She read from the book and then spoke in a dialogue with one of the pastors. This was the same spot where she felt compelled to speak, even if haltingly, on the night of the murders.

On that night in 2014, Mindy managed to say, in part, “I can’t tell you how much it helps to see other people.”

In her return on May 6, 2021—in the wake of years of grieving and even the latest breaking national news of the unrepentant killer’s death—Mindy once again told the crowd, and all of us, that healing should continue and all of us should continue reaching out in compassion.

You can see that remarkable appearance at St. Thomas on May 6, 2021, in the video below:

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Mindy Corporon’s Family Statement on the Death of the Murderer

MAY 3, 2021—Our family learned in the late evening hours of May 3, 2021, that the convicted murderer who took the lives of our family members, William L Corporon MD and Reat Griffin Underwood as well as the life of Teresa LaManno on April 13, 2014, had died of natural causes. We choose to not use his name ensuring he occupies zero percent of our consciousness.

We offer gratitude to the first responders, Overland Park Regional Medical Center, police, detectives and the Johnson County District Attorney’s office for their assistance with all matters relating to the soulful lives taken and the capture and conviction of the shooter. A jury of his peers convicted him. A judge sentenced him to death row, and this is where he took his last breath.

The murderer took the lives of two Methodists and a Catholic while intending to murder Jews. No one should have lost their lives at his hands.

We are neither happy nor sad. He stole so much from our family, but he didn’t steal our hearts or our dignity. He did not steal our memories, the love that sustains us or the ability to offer forgiveness and kindness in the face of such tragedy.

With shear grit, determination and faith, our family forgave this murderer his sins against us. In no way does this forgiveness mean that his actions were correct. Our forgiveness releases the hate from our own hearts. Hate comes in all shapes and sizes, all colors and creeds. We pray that our healing journey helps others move forward during their own struggles and challenges. Don’t allow hate to occupy your heart or mind. It will rot you from the inside out. This murderer was rotten to his core. At no time did he ask for our forgiveness or offer regret for his actions.  He was taught to hate by his own father from the time he was young.  Only knowing how to hate another drove him to murder. This is heartbreaking.

We are sad. We miss our family, Bill (aka Popeye) and Reat. But we don’t carry the weight of hate in our hearts.

As Christians and people of faith we learned the Gospels. The Gospels taught us to forgive.

On May 3, Healing a Shattered Soul, a memoir by Mindy Corporon was published. The fact that this memoir—Mindy’s faithful journey of courageous kindness after the trauma and grief of domestic terrorism was published on the same day the murderer who inflicted horrendous pain into our lives, died, is not lost on us. In fact, we feel even more connected to our family members in Heaven with each passing minute.

Typically, we have answered the question about “closure” to say that there is no closure when you lose a loved one. In the same way, you lose a limb, you learn to live without it. We are thankful that the court system, media and our families no longer have any need to concern themselves with a potential appeal from the convicted.

Thank you for your prayers upon our family and others who suffer at the consequences of hate. We each have a responsibility to love our neighbor. Our family started the Faith Always Wins Foundation to promote dialogue for the betterment of our world through kindness, faith and healing. Our work will continue.