‘Land Acknowledgment’ is a first step toward justice for our Native American neighbors

JOY AND HEARTBREAKThis 1585 watercolor painting of a traditional dance among the Roanac (spelled Roanoke by settlers) is both joyous and heartbreaking, because it is one of very few images we have of this Algonquian-speaking people who once lived in present-day Dare County on the far eastern coast of North Carolina. English visitor John White, an explorer, cartographer and artist made a series of watercolor illustrations in 1585 to accurately educate the British about Roanac culture. Today, his watercolors, including this one in London’s British Museum, are among the few traces left in the world of this once-vibrant community. (NOTE: This image is in the public domain and can be shared along with this story.)

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Learning from Our Native American Neighbors, today

EDITOR’S NOTE: This year, our magazine is highlighting emerging stories about our relationships with our Native American neighbors. We have been reporting on both the tragic challenges and the multi-faceted opportunities, right now, in establishing such cooperative relationships. As residents of North America, today, we have an enormous amount of work ahead of us, including coming to terms with centuries of trauma in North American Indian boarding schools, which we have reported on earlier. This week, we asked journalist and author Bill Tammeus to report on an important nationwide effort to open up these relationships with a small first step: land acknowledgments.

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Learning to take the small first step of ‘Land Acknowledgment’

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By BILL TAMMEUS
Contributing Columnist

In the midst of racial unrest around the nation last year, my Kansas City congregation, which began at the end of the Civil War as an anti-slavery church, started a renewed anti-racism effort.

As part of this, I was especially drawn to explore how to educate ourselves about—and respond to the needs of—Indigenous people in our area. The gaps in my knowledge about American Indian history and culture were and remain legion. (Most of what I knew about “Indians” came from living for two years as a boy in India, but that wasn’t much use for this.)

EARLY NATIVE AMERICAN LANGUAGE GROUPS: This U.S. government map is in the public domain. Remember that this is just one visual representation of lands that once were home to native peoples. Many smaller tribes were not included in this map. This map is also a snapshot from one era. Over many centuries, groups of people moved across the continent and these rough boundaries changed. As Bill Tammeus reports, the way to authentically explore land acknowledgment in your own part of North America begins with contacting Indian leaders in your region. (NOTE: Clicking on this map will display a much larger and more readable version. You also can right click on this map and save a copy on your phone or computer.)

So I began reading such books as An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, by Rosanne Dunbar-Ortiz; Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, by Simon Winchester; How the Indians Lost their Land: Law and Power of the Frontier, by Stuart Banner, Diné: A History of the Navajos, by Peter Iverson, and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Learning and Listening

Along the way we invited Native Americans to teach us about food sovereignty as well as land acknowledgements and other matters that were mostly unfamiliar to many of us. (Note: This link to “land acknowledgements” will take you to the Smithsonian’s informative website; a second “land acknowledgments” link below will take you to the Native Governance Center’s website.)

In that journey, we found that it was important to let the Indigenous people we were contacting know that we were there to learn—and not to assume we knew what they needed and wanted.

So, when we learned of the Kansas City Indian Center’s practice of providing food and other necessities to people in need, we asked if we could help. The result was a collection of more than 250 pandemic-era items, such as wipes and hand sanitizers. Then, when we learned of the organization’s hopes to build a new commercial kitchen to process Native-grown crops, we asked again if we could help. The result was that our members donated more than $15,000 toward the kitchen’s construction.

Let me repeat this point, because it is important: We don’t go to Indigenous people to tell them what they need and what we’ll do about it. We go to learn and listen. And, where appropriate, to walk with them.

So when I learned about land acknowledgements, the idea especially intrigued me. This practice provides a chance for the current (usually white) owners of particular parcels of land to recognize in public ways that the land they own—or the land on which, say, their church building sits—is considered ancestral tribal land by Indigenous people from whom it may have been stolen or taken via broken treaties.

‘A Very Small Gesture’

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

I used a land acknowledgement statement in September when I preached and led a discussion of my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance, at a church in Chicagoland. I told people that such acknowledgements are a very small gesture—but they’re not nothing.

And by “very small gesture,” I mean exactly that.

As Ed Smith, a staff member of the Kansas City Indian Center told me about land acknowledgements: “I don’t think much of them. If all they do is acknowledge that you’re on stolen land but aren’t going to do anything else after that, it wouldn’t be much different than me driving by after my grandpa stole your grandpa’s car—admitting that my grandpa stole it years ago and leaving with it anyway.”

Well, what “car” are we talking about?

The quick answer: The land that makes up the U.S. today.

As Banner writes in How the Indians Lost Their Land, “Between the early seventeenth century and the early twentieth century, almost all the land in the present-day United States was transferred from American Indians to non-Indians.”

True, but it’s more complicated than that. For one thing, his verb “transferred” makes it sound like it was a simple sale of land from Indians to whites. As Banner notes, however, “Indians had different conceptions of property than European settlers had. . .so they couldn’t have understood what the settlers (“settlers” refers mostly to European invaders) meant by a sale. The Indians were really conquered by force.”

But he acknowledges that even that’s an over-simplified version.

Banner again: “At most times, and in most places, the Indians were not exactly conquered, but they did not exactly choose to sell their land either. The truth was somewhere in the middle. . .Whites always acquired Indian land within a legal framework of their own construction. Law was always present, but so was power. The more powerful whites became relative to Indians, the more they were able to mold the legal system to produce outcomes in their favor—more sales, of larger tracts, at lower prices than would have existed had power relationships been more equal.”

That’s a lot to say in a simple land acknowledgement statement!

‘Architects of Removal’

And yet there’s more. As Winchester notes in his 2021 book, Land, “(W)estward was. . .the direction to which white men moved to fulfill their promised destiny. Westward to the ever-shifting frontier, with the Indians moved ahead and into the unknown, beyond their own Pales of Settlement, and to places where, in the white men’s eyes, they could do no harm except to their savage and miserable selves. There were many architects of the removal plan.”

Among those architects he mentions Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, “(b)ut then, and most notoriously, came the seventh president, Andrew Jackson, a Democrat who would have no further truck with an evidently recalcitrant aggregation of Indian feeling in the fertile settler country of the American southeast. He wanted all to go—particularly those acknowledged to be advanced, settled and self-governing, and condescendingly known as the Five Civilized Tribes. They were told. . .go head out. . .”

In a phone interview, Winchester described himself as uninspired by land acknowledgements, though he thought they had some small value. He called such acknowledgements “outwardly pointless but they get people thinking,” noting that acknowledgements began years ago in Australia and New Zealand.

Still, he said, “a lot of Native Americans are quite right to scoff at it. But in its defense, I think it means that some people are starting to consider the problem, which they’ve long glossed over and decided not to pay any attention to. I am hopeful that it will prompt a few people to consider what we’ve done to Native Americans.”

Indigenous People Still Live Among Us

So I plan to continue using land acknowledgement statements at appropriate times and my church will be using them to recognize the bloody history that has brought us to today and to acknowledge that Indigenous people are still here and have a future.

But if we don’t do more than that by, say, trying to respond in helpful ways to the needs of Indigenous people, such acknowledgements will barely be worth the paper on which they’re written.

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Care to learn more?

One way to determine which Indigenous peoples once occupied any particular area of the U.S., the Native Lands app is useful. Native Land Digital, which produces this app, is a Canadian not-for-profit organization, incorporated in December 2018. Native Land Digital is Indigenous-led, with an Indigenous Executive Director and Board of Directors who oversee and direct the organization. Numerous non-Indigenous people also contribute as members of the nonprofit’s Advisory Council.

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Bill Tammeus, a former award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at [email protected].

 

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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.

Peacemaker Daniel Buttry publishes his best inspirational true stories

We Are The Socks book large (1)

Click the cover to learn more about this new book in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore (including a convenient Amazon link to order your copy today).

What a strange name! We Are the Socks

So, first, you may want to hear and see Daniel Buttry tell the surprising story behind this book’s title in a YouTube video that we are sharing with the world. (Although very busy with his global peacemaking work, Dan also occasionally is available for public appearances. The new video gives you a good feel for his lively speaking style.)

What will you find between these covers? Here is how Dan’s colleague in peacemaking, Ken Sehested, describes this new book:

What Dan Buttry does in We Are the Socks is what he does better than anyone I know: Write vivid, easy-to-read narratives that are hopeful but not sentimental, honest but not cynical, revealing without being voyeuristic, personal without being self-serving, sometimes humorous but never silly. And the people he writes about …mostly are commonplace folk, drawn from every sort of circumstance.

‘PEACE WARRIOR’

Dan sometimes describes himself as a “peace warrior.” One meaning of that phrase is Dan’s ongoing struggle with perceptions of global threats and violence from Hollywood, TV networks, newspapers and magazines. He’s not a media basher, but he says, “So much of what we see and hear and read, these days, is governed by fear and is trying to set people up in adversarial situations.

“We need to discover the counter-narratives—news about the many ways people are building up communities and bringing hope to the world. Our traditional media isn’t all bad; sometimes we do get these more hopeful, positive stories. But we need many more of these stories from many parts of the world to give us hope—especially in places where conflict seems intractable. I think readers will be surprised to learn that there are stories of hope even in the middle of the toughest conflicts around our world.

“Many of the stories in this new book are unknown. They’re not in the spotlight. I worked hard, in planning this new book, to give readers stories of hope from all around the world.”

Here’s how singer-songwriter and author David LaMotte describes the new book:

As Dan so compellingly shows us, there is more than one kind of hope. Yes there is naive hope, based on inexperience with hard realities, but there is also a thicker, richer hope that is born of knowing those hard realities intimately, and experiencing the light that can shine in those dark places.

RIDING THE BUS TOGETHER

Throughout his life, Dan has followed a number of customs that also are part of Pope Francis’s life. In following recent coverage of Francis’s life and teachings (check out our cover story on Francis to read more about the pontiff), Dan was struck by the fact that they both share a commitment to using public transportation.

“Before he was the pope, he made sure that he was close to ordinary people on a daily basis. Instead of driving to his office as a bishop, he would take mass transit,” Dan says. “I remember when I was a denominational executive for American Baptists, directing peace programs, I went to work by bus and usually I could tell that I was the only executive on the bus. I shared seats with hotel workers, laborers—working people, nearly all of them. That daily experience created a different mindset about the community around me.

“So many of our global leaders end up isolated from people. And that isolation isn’t bridged by occasionally going out and glad-handing or showing up at a barbecue to win votes. I’m talking about actually spending time with real people. That kind of closeness changes the way you perceive the world.

“That’s one reason Jimmy Carter worked with Habitat for Humanity, hammering nails up on the roof with other volunteers. (check out our earlier interview with Carter for more) Working with other people to build houses helped to change the way Carter saw the world.”

WHO ARE THE HEROES?

While Buttry now is well known around the world among activists working to foster peace in hot spots where men, women and children are suffering—he has one last point he wants to clarify about this book.

“I’m not the hero of this book,” he says. “This isn’t about what a great guy I am. The real heroes you’ll meet in this book are the men and women from many different countries who give voice to the lives of people we usually aren’t even aware are out there. These folks have been pushed to the margins in our world. This book bears witness to people who dare to give voice to the people on the margins. Some of the people you’ll meet in this book are incredibly courageous peacemakers.

“Many of their stories are unknown—until now. But, do you know that the difference between a hero and an unsung hero? It’s the singing. So, let’s get together and sing the stories of some heroes who aren’t well known—until now. That’s what this book is about—and that’s how people, by reading and sharing this book, can play such an important role. They can join me in the singing.”

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Meet Reasa Currier of the HSUS—a different kind of interfaith activist

By DAVID CRUMM, ReadTheSpirit Editor

What’s the mission of an interfaith activist?

Often, the vocation involves bridging religious barriers in our communities, combating bigotry, defending human rights, and courageously promoting peace in global hotspots (see InterfaithPeacemakers.com for more).

This week, we’re introducing a different kind of interfaith activist who is crisscrossing the nation on behalf of animals: the Humane Society of the United States’ Reasa Currier. Her title is long: Strategic Initiatives Manager for Faith Outreach, a division of the HSUS.

FAITH & PUBLIC POLICY UNITE

Reasa Currier speaking to a grup (1)

Reasa Currier of Humane Society of the United States speaks to a group.

Reasa Currier’s mission is clear: She connects with religious leaders and activists who are motivated by their faith to join in widespread efforts on behalf of animals.

She’s relatively new to the job, yet her potential impact also is clear: In June 2015, Tennessee enacted tougher penalties for animal fighting, a campaign in which the Southern Baptist Convention played a key role thanks to Reasa’s work on behalf of HSUS with Russell Moore, president of the influential Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“It’s not just a step away from the cruelty and savagery of animal fighting; it is a move away from the exploitation of the poor through expanded gambling,” said Moore, who attended the June 11 signing of the legislation in Tennessee.

The anti-animal-fighting campaign is aimed at more than owners and promoters of animal fights. Reasa reminds faith leaders that this business represents a dangerous lure for poor Americans, often drawing them into ever-deeper cycles of gambling and also bringing their children into the bloody world of animal fighting.

Fighting rings are dangerous environments for vulnerable men and women, Moore and other religious leaders argue. In a public letter endorsing the Tennessee law earlier this spring, Moore warned that a “relationship between animal fighting, gambling and organized crime continues to grow.”

Are you surprised that kids are involved? One Tennessee newspaper featured a photo of a small boy proudly showing off his fighting bird.

Reasa says, “We’ve been involved in opposing dog fighting and cock fighting rings all across the country and we often find that children are present. We’ve found playpens set up near the fighting for small children. We’ve even seen children exchanging money as they gamble on the fights. That’s why we’re focusing on keeping children away—and we also support making it illegal for anyone to attend an animal fight. All too often, police raid a fight and nearly everyone walks away with no consequences.”

Many religious leaders find such a cause is in perfect alignment with their values. (Here is Baptist Press coverage of the Tennessee effort.)

WHY FAITH GROUPS CARE

Animal welfare and creation care may not be high priorities in your congregation—but they could be, Reasa argues. She can show teaching documents that span centuries and, in some cases, millennia.

Buddha receiving honey from a monkey (1)

Sacred relationships with animals run deep in the Dharmic religions, especially Buddhism. Buddhists are not supposed to harm any sentient being. Moreover, the Eastern idea of reincarnation means that an animal you encounter might represent a friend or relative you knew in another life or might know in the future. Plus, animals play a major role in sacred stories. In this painting from a monastery in Laos, a monkey brings the Buddha a stick containing a portion of honeycomb.

“Many Americans are aware of the ancient tradition of  compassion toward living things in the Dharmic faiths,” which include Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh traditions, Reasa says. “But, all of the world’s faiths have some teaching on animal stewardship—so I’m not trying to convince people to accept something new. It’s right there in their religious traditions. A lot of my work is connecting with faith leaders to lift up the teachings that they already have in their communities.”

The majority of Americans are Christians, although they may not often explore their teachings on animal welfare. The Christian connection draws on ancient roots of compassionate stewardship of land and animals in Judaism—a message of care for life that also extends into the other “Abrahamic” faith: Islam.

Many iconic Christian leaders—from St. Francis to the founder of United Methodism John Wesley—were famous for advocating animal welfare. ReadTheSpirit magazine has one of Wesley’s sermons on the topic. During his lifetime, some of Wesley’s harshest critics poked fun at his soft heart for animals and joked that they could spot a Methodist farmer’s barnyard by the kinder ways he treated his animals.

“Christians have a great and ancient history in understanding there is a sacred relationship between the farmer and the land, the land and the community and that includes the welfare of animals,” Reasa says. “There are so many scriptures that speak to this relationship.”

Given this deep consensus, Reasa says, “The easy part of my work is getting endorsements from faith leaders for issues the Humane Society is supporting. Sometimes it only takes a call or an email to tell them about an issue we’re working on—and they’ll want to be part of it. The hard part of my job is building community among the individuals we reach. We need to establish ongoing connections around animal stewardship.”

While Reasa’s work is in the U.S., she points out to religious leaders that efforts on behalf of animals and the environment can build relationships in the burgeoning Southern Hemisphere, where Catholics, Protestants and Muslims all have been experiencing growth. Uniting North and South is a message championed this year by Pope Francis.

REFUSING TO SLIDE INTO DESPAIR

methodist-theological-farm-photo-by-reasa-currier

Click on this photo of the seminary farm to visit the United Methodist website where Reasa published her article. (Photo by Reasa Currier.)

As she travels, Reasa writes and speaks about signs of hope she sees nationwide.

“The news about climate change and the challenges of creation care can quickly turn to conversation about hurricanes and poverty and tragedies—and that can lead to a kind of helplessness,” she says. “The problems can seem to be of such magnitude that it’s just hopeless to try to make a difference as an individual.”

HSUS is well aware of that danger. That’s why the organization promotes lots of individual initiatives like The Humane Backyard, which people can work on wherever they live. Here’s how HSUS describes the idea:

In addition to providing food, water, and cover, a Humane Backyard gives wildlife a safe haven from harmful pesticides and chemicals, free-roaming pets, inhumane practices (such as wildlife trapping), and other dangers in our human-dominated world. Whether you have an apartment balcony, suburban yard, corporate property, place of worship, or community park, you can turn it into a habitat for wildlife, people, and pets.

For her part, Reasa lifts up small but significant examples she spots, while on the road. Recently, she published a column about a seminary that has established a community garden that is changing the way people think about the food they eat.

“I was impressed with their garden,” Reasa says. “They aren’t sinking into helplessness. They are doing something—planting a garden, harvesting vegetables and making a commitment that all their food is sourced in a sustainable and humane manner. They get their meat and dairy from local farms that have high animal-welfare standards. And the vegetables they grow are letting them cut back on the amount of food they’re buying that has to be transported thousands of miles.”

Want to get involved?

Learn about the Faith Outreach division of HSUS.

th Cover Dr Seuss What Pet Should I GetThis week, ReadTheSpirit is publishing several columns packed with ideas you can use with friends. If you found this story about Reasa Currier interesting, then you’ll also want to read our story about the importance of Pope Francis’s campaign on creation care—and you’re sure to enjoy the OurValues series exploring the historic release of a new Dr. Seuss book: What Pet Should I Get?

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Iona meets Interfaith Peacemakers in John Philip Newell’s ‘Rebirthing of God’

Dramatic peaks vistas and drop offs in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland photo by Nigel Brown Wikimedia

A dramatic landscape: Peaks, vistas and dangerous drop offs in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland.

The Rebirthing of God by John Philip Newell SkyLight Paths Publishing

Click the cover to visit the book’s main page at SkyLight Paths.

WE at ReadTheSpirit magazine sometimes overlook great new books, until colleagues reach out to us and urge us to recommend them. Such is the case with John Philip Newell’s new The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings, which was released some months ago.

Of course we can heartily recommend this book! ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and Publisher John Hile have made multiple pilgrimages to the centuries-old Christian community on the island of Iona, which defines John Philip’s life and is a cornerstone of the stories in this slim new volume. And, we have recommended his other books in recent years, including A New Harmony as well as Praying with the Earth.

This new book inspires us especially, because John Philip includes inspirational profiles of men and women who we also celebrate in Interfaith Peacemakers, including Aung San Suu Kyi, Thomas Merton, Mahatma Gandhi and Simone Weil. (If you’ve enjoyed our stories about these heroic saints, then you’ll definitely want to read John Philip’s stories about them in this new book, as well.)

DUNCAN NEWCOMER’S PERSPECTIVE

Long-time contributing writer, scholar and author Duncan Newcomer prompted today’s column, recommending The Rebirthing of God. Last week, Duncan wrote to our home office that he had just used an illustration from the new book in a sermon he preached. Duncan wrote:

I read John Philip’s book and was so astonished that I read it a second time. Then, I outlined the book, because I know I’m going to be discussing it as I travel and speak to groups around the country.

Recently, I told John Philip: “While I will always most highly favor your 2003 book, Shakespeare and the Human Mystery, this new one may be your best in that it has such an intense and clear focus, incredibly condensed and urgent. It’s a unique and remarkable collection of sources and resources all dramatically presented in their essence. What seems most remarkable is that you have collected a cohort of strong, originally and courageously involved people to quote—and you give us cameo images of their lives.”

As I read the book, I thought: Imagine a round-table discussion of all the people we meet in these pages!

JOHN PHILIP NEWELL’S PERSPECTIVE

Then, here’s a page from John Philip’s new book to give you a feeling for his style in these inspirational stories. Many passages are, indeed, about the lives of interfaith heroes. But, again and again, John Philip brings these ideas home to his native Scotland and frequently tells us about experiences on Iona itself. After describing the compassion that defines the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, he writes:

Many years ago when my wife and I were hiking in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland we had just reached one of the highest peaks, Sgoran Dubh, when a thick cloud descended on s. It covered the mountain. The mist was so thick that we could barely see our outstretched hands. Climbing in the Cairngorms can be dangerous. Every year hikers die in such circumstances, slipping off precipitous cliffs. Sgoran Dubh can be particularly treacherous because a few yards from its summit there is a sheer drop of over 2,000 feet to the next glen.

God using a compass in creation

In this 13th-century illumination, a Divine compass is used to measure and connect points in the creation of the universe.

We knew where we were and we had a compass and a map. So we took a reading and, one step at a time, followed our readings of the map and compass down the mountain. There were moments when we could barely believe the compass was right. At times our senses were telling us something entirely different. But we knew that we had to place our faith in the compass. In the end we emerged safely from the cloud down the mountainside.

Notice the similarity between the word “compass” and the word “compassion.” They share an etymological root.

The earliest use of the word compass does not, of course, refer to the modern hiking compass as we know it, the one I had in hand as we descended the mountain. The word is first used to refer to the mathematical compass, that simple two-pronged device that many of us remember  using in grade school to measure the distance between two points and to draw arcs and circles.

A compass, then, is used to determine the relationship between two points. The related word compassion is about honoring the relationship between two people or between one group and another, and remembering those who suffer. It is about making the connection between the heart of my being and the heart of yours, and following that connection—just as we followed the compass in descending the mist-covered mountain—even when we are filled with doubts as to whether we are moving in the right direction.

 Order a copy of John Philip Newell’s new book from SkyLight Paths.

The Eileen Flanagan interview about her memoir ‘Renewable’

The Cover of Renewable by Quaker writer Eileen Flanagan

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

“The renewable energy we need most is people power!”
Bill McKibben

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Frederick Buechner

AN EARLY SIGN of spring’s renewing power is the rise of common violets, pushing heart-shaped green leaves through even the thickest thatch of winter-mottled lawns and fields. And just in time for spring, Quaker writer and activist sends us all Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope.

This is a book about time and travel—and much like The Wizard of Oz, which we just wrote about recently, Eileen’s memoir carries us around the world yet brings us inevitably home again with a renewed love for our own back yard. She carries us through time, as well, greeting us in the opening pages at age 50, then looping us back through the decades to her days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana. As we travel with her through the times and places that represent milestones in her life—she is inviting us as readers to reflect on the many twists and turns in our own lives.

You’ll walk away from this book less afraid of the future—and you may find yourself swept up in Eileen’s enthusiasm for rediscovering and renewing her life’s vocation in the second half of her life.

Mid-way through the book, she quotes Sue Monk Kidd’s description of this process: “When change-winds swirl through our lives, especially at midlife, they often call us to undertake a new passage of the spiritual journey: that of confronting the lost and counterfeit places within us and releasing our deeper, innermost self—our true self.”

That’s the hope that will rise through the winter-mottled thatch of your own life as you enjoy this new memoir.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH EILEEN FLANAGAN
ON ‘RENEWABLE’

DAVID: Let’s say I was introducing you at one of your public appearances. How should I describe you?

Quaker writer Eileen Flanagan author of RenewableEILEEN: “A Quaker writer and activist.”

DAVID: Quaker first?

EILEEN: My hope is to reach a broader audience but I’ve decided “Quaker” is such an important part of my identity that I want to include it.

DAVID: Your website describes Quakers this way:

Quakers (also known as Friends) often speak of “that of God in everyone” to sum up the idea that each of us is connected to the Divine Spirit and can feel its guidance in our lives directly, without the need of a priest or minister. Quakers have also long held that faith should be expressed in the way we live, not just our words.

I think that’s a helpful description and it positions Quakers, or Friends, among religious groups in America as a very welcoming spiritual community—something lots of Americans are searching these days.

EILEEN: When I talk about being Quaker, I often joke that we’re not Amish because that’s a common misconception.

DAVID: I’m chuckling as you say that, because that’s a telling detail late in your new book. When you’re getting ready to take part in this big protest with Robert Kennedy Jr., the actress Darryl Hannah and the activists Julian Bond and Bill McKibben—you remember to put on mascara. Why? You tell your colleague it’s so they’ll know you’re not Amish.

EILEEN: When people hear the word “Quaker,” they think we’re associated with some bygone day. A lot of people think of the Amish.

To me the exciting thing about Quakerism is that we believe God’s guidance is continuously revealed. And, I think it is a very contemporary faith.

What’s really core about Quakerism? The direct relationship with the divine and that we experience that and test God’s guidance in community. In many religious traditions, if you feel you’re hearing some guidance from God, then you check that guidance with church leaders or with the Bible. In Quaker tradition, the community is really the check and balance with our religious experience.

‘THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING THE MANY’

DAVID: That’s a central theme in this new memoir—community. Again and again, you emphasize that, even though you have experienced a few shining moments with celebrities, this effort of raising awareness and changing our lives is really about—to borrow your phrase—“ordinary people” working in communities.

Here’s a passage I like from late in the book. You’re describing what you discovered in this long, reflective journey you’ve taken:

From Africa, to Appalachia, to Alberta, and right around the world, there were ordinary people stepping up to defend the future. Like the crowd that encircled the White House that February day, we were pouring forth—past the view of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King, Jr. had spoken at the 1963 March on Washington, past the White House gate where Alice Paul had stood for women’s rights, past the wrought iron fence where I had stood a few days before. We were the many, emboldened by the realization we were not alone, and we were moving forward with hope.

And I have to say about that passage: That truth you were glimpsing is powerful stuff. And it’s not a foregone conclusion for most people. Just read James Gustave Speth’s Bridge at the End of the World to see how he prioritizes the most serious questions about the Earth’s future. One of the biggest questions Speth raises is: Do human beings care enough about the planet to act as a global community?

Your book is a resounding message: Yes, ordinary people can act in concert, if we recognize and act on that possibility.

Eileen Flanagan right with George and Ingrid Lakey

Author Eileen Flanagan, right, with George and Ingrid Lakey representing their nonprofit activist group: Earth Quaker Action Team. Eileen’s new book includes the story of their work together.

One of the people who makes this point in your book is the famous activist and teacher George Lakey who says: “We need to have the experience of being the many.” George is a friend and mentor to peacemaker Daniel Buttry, who created the Interfaith Peacemakers project. I know you work regularly with George, Eileen, and I was so pleased to see him in this book.

EILEEN: George is a very strong proponent of the idea of focused, long-term campaigns. You pick a target and then you work on a long-term strategy for your campaign. That’s different than the kind of activism in which people decide to go to one big event a year and then go home.

So, a national march was happening and I said, “Let’s go to the march as a group.” Then I wondered: But, is this the sort of thing we should do? Are we tired of going to marches on the Mall? And, George got behind the idea.

George said, “We’re doing our work on our own, so it’s important to connect with others doing this kind of work.”

I hope readers understand this combination. It’s not just glorifying national marches. I’m writing about this combination of doing very focused work and then also deciding to be with other people doing focused work. When you do that, you realize that your own work is part of a growing movement—a global movement—and that helps us not to get stuck in despair about whatever we’re facing in our own work.

SEEING OUR WORLD THROUGH OTHERS’ EYES

DAVID: One of the central messages of this book is: Age doesn’t matter. We can renew our vocation at any age and find good work, even close to home. The first sentence of your book identifies you as a woman who had reached the age of 50, at that point. This book really is both a summing up of the first half of your life—and a look ahead toward the good work you’re hoping to do in your life’s second half.

EILEEN: My experience is as a woman who put child-rearing first. Timing in life can be different for women and men, in general. A lot of men go full throttle in their careers from their 20s through their 40s and then their 50s is a time when they want to step back. I made choices in my life as a woman to put parenting first and, in those years, I wrote part time, in the cracks of my day. I chose to spend time with my children in the schools, with my congregation and I hit the age at which this book opens. I realized that I wanted to do more work in the world.

For some people, mid-life is a time when we want to let go of external work. For me, it was the opposite. I felt there was something I was meant to do in this world that I hadn’t done yet.

DAVID: Part of that decision, for you, involved travel. Your book encourages people to get out and about—to move around our planet.

EILEEN: It’s not the distance you travel that’s important. What’s most important is experiencing other cultures, and you don’t necessarily have to travel very far to do that. Within a five-mile radius of almost any American city, you can find cultures that you’ve never experienced.

I am a great advocate of travel, but it’s not just the miles you travel that are important. You could travel all the way to Botswana and go on safari there—yet you might never actually experience the lives of the people who live there. We need to see our world from the perspectives of other people who live here on this planet with us.

‘INSPIRED TO TAKE ACTION TOGETHER’

DAVID: Give me an example of a cultural difference you’ve seen that could help us here in America?

EILEEN: One example is the way we think about community. I grew up in the suburbs in an apartment, where we didn’t think about our neighbors in the way people in Botswana think about community. Let’s say you’re cooking dinner in a suburban home and you realize you don’t have an onion you need to finish what you’re making. Most Americans would drive to a store and buy an onion. In Botswana, neighbors walk next door and ask if they can have an onion.

Lots of church people here in the U.S. are willing to share when they know someone is in need. But, we find it hard to ask for help.

DAVID: And you connect this kind of idea with your goals of simplifying life in general—and helping to combat climate change, right?

EILEEN: The connection I make is that, if we’re going to strengthen our communities by living more simply, then we have to find out what we truly need in our neighborhoods. Do we all have to go out and buy every gadget that’s ever been invented for taking care of our homes? Could neighbors share a lawn mower, for example?

This will become more important in the years ahead if we are going to survive climate change. We’re going to see more severe storms. In a hurricane, it becomes very important to know your neighbors and to depend on each other.

I had to go far away to see that value of community sharing in action, but you don’t have to travel that far to rediscover it. Sharing really is a core human value and we find it running through all kinds of cultures around the world. It’s just that in the suburban America of the late 20th century, the place I grew up, that value had been diminished in a lot of ways.

DAVID: So, what’s your hope for readers of this book. What do you hope they’ll experience?

EILEEN: I have two hopes that reflect the two themes of the book. One is that I want to encourage people to live their own purpose to the fullest. I’m telling people: Don’t wait. Whatever it is you want to do—do it now. Use the gifts you have in service to others.

Secondly, I would love to see people doing more on climate change, after reading this book. A growing number of people of faith are already thinking about this. And, in this book, I’m telling readers: I found that I couldn’t do this all by myself. I would love to see more people of faith inspired to take action together.

Care to read more?

VISIT HER ONLINE HOME—You’ll find lots of resources at EileenFlanagan.com, the author’s online home. That includes an “Epilogue” post she wrote shortly after we completed this interview. If you buy her memoir, you’ll want to read that Epilogue after you’ve finished her book. It contains some additional “good news” about her efforts. You can also find out about her public appearances across the U.S.

READ HER EARLIER BOOK—Eileen’s earlier award-winning book The Wisdom to Know the Difference was endorsed by the Dalai Lama. In 2009, ReadTheSpirit interviewed Eileen about that book. You also might want to explore her Amazon author page, where you’ll also find recent updates.

GET INVOLVED—Climate change is a central concern in Eileen’s work. One of the best places to learn about her work on climate change is this 2013 story she wrote for The Christian Century. (Of course, there’s much more about this issue in her new memoir and on her website, as well.)

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

‘Teach Your Children Well …’ Books to help kids fall in love with nature

Covers Just Like Me Climbing a Tree and The Olive Tree and Welcome to the NeighborwoodKIDS love our world—and expect those of us who are adults to take care of the planet until they are old enough to fully enjoy the Earth. One poll after another confirms that truth—and that’s a huge responsibility as Earth Day 2015 rolls around.

As adults who love kids, the first challenge is convincing children to open the door and explore our natural world. A nationwide study of kids by The Nature Conservancy concluded: “There is a growing disparity between the time kids spend indoors wired to technology and the time they spend outside enjoying nature. The vast majority of today’s kids use a computer, watch TV, or play video games on a daily basis, but only about 10 percent say they are spending time outdoors every day. Why? Lack of access to natural areas and discomfort with the outdoors are two primary factors.”

HOW WE’RE HELPING

‘JUST LIKE ME, CLIMBING A TREE’

OUR 1st OF 5 RECOMMENDATIONS—Kids have been climbing trees for thousands of years—so the appeal of Durga Yael Bernhard’s book will be almost universal among the kids you love. It’s also true that trees are endangered ecological engines that continually clean the air we breath, retain soil from erosion and provide all kinds of useful products: fruits, nuts, syrups, oils, wood for building shelters and fibers for a wide array of other materials that make our world a better place to live. But that’s not the primary story this artist and author tells us, as her readers. Oh, you’ll learn a whole lot about the huge range of trees around the world! I have a life-long love for Gingko trees and, in my own lifetime, I have planted a few gingkos in various towns. And, mid-way through this book, I smiled when I met a little Chinese girl high in a majestic Gingko with its fan-shaped leaves. I love olive trees, as well, and we meet a girl high in an olive tree in Israel. The author also tells us more about each kind of tree in the back pages of this large-format picture book—so there is real educational value here. But, as I say, that’s not the main storyline here. This book’s appeal is as simple as our timeless desire to look up into the trees around us—and dream of climbing high into those branches. That’s why Robert Frost’s Birches became an American classic. Before you close this book, you’ll see girls and boys in a dozen countries around the world scrambling into these leafy limbs. This could become a family favorite on your bookshelf. And, Just Like Me, Climbing a Tree: Exploring Trees Around the World is now available from Amazon.

‘THE OLIVE TREE’

THERE is a no more potent tree on Earth than the noble olive. In dozens of languages around the world, an “olive branch” means peace. Olives and olive trees are a part of the scriptures in millions of homes and communities, whether families are reading from the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian Bible or the Quran. And, the ownership and treatment of olive trees are matters of deep international concern. Author Elsa Marston understands all of that. She has a life-long fascination with the ancient world as well as the modern Middle East. She knows her history and, in 2013, she released another book that I heartily recommend, The Compassionate Warrior—Abd el-Kader of Algeria, also published by Wisdom Books. Her latest book, a collaboration with illustrator Claire Ewart, is a wonderfully engaging picture book about The Olive Tree. The tree in question has been growing, and producing olives, for more than a century on the property line between two families’ homes in Lebanon. Throughout that long and turbulent history, the families have separated and now they are trying to restore their neighborhood. The trouble is—that olive tree. And, the hope for their future? Yes, it lies in that tree, as well. The Olive Tree is available from Amazon.

‘WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORWOOD’

Honeybee pop up from Shawn Sheehy Welcome to the NeighborwoodYOU won’t believe the wonders inside this picture book! That is, you won’t believe it—unless you’re already an avid collector of contemporary Pop Up books by the likes of master book builder Robert Sabuda. In our family, we’ve been collecting Pop Up books since relatives returned to the U.S. from Japan in the late 1940s and brought back a miraculous Pop Up book that showed the colorful daily life of a typical family in scenes that literally sprang from each opening page. We’ve been hooked on the genre for 60 years, raising kids on the surprises within this picture-book genre. Perhaps you’ve never heard of Shawn Sheehy, but he is following in Sabuda’s path. Sheehy is turning his own his brilliant talents as a paper-and-publishing artist toward the natural world in his various projects. At the moment, his crowning accomplishment is this book. After this, I’m sure there are many wonders yet to come from Sheehy’s studio. I know I’ll be watching for more. No question, if you love Pop Up books and the natural world—grab a copy of this book now. It’s sure to be a classic! And, Welcome to the Neighborwood is available from Amazon.

Want to see for yourself? Click to watch the pages open in this video:

‘EVERYONE PRAYS’

Covers Everyone Prays by Alexis Lumbard and Night Sky Dragons by Mal Peet and Elspeth GrahamAS a journalist for U.S. newspapers for 40 years, I specialized in covering issues of global diversity. That’s why, I fell in love with Alexis York Lumbard’s book Everyone Prays the moment I saw it. This book belongs in every home where parents value religious freedom, diversity and the hope that world peace is possible if we focus on what unites us. There are very few words in this gorgeous book—but the words and the colorful scenes chosen by illustrator Alizera Sadeghian convey an entire library of truth about the world’s great faith traditions. I guarantee this: Even the adults who read this book with the kids they love will learn a thing or two about the nature of prayer before they close this picture book. Everyone Prays: Celebrating Faith Around the World is available from Amazon.

‘NIGHT SKY DRAGONS’

OUR final choice among these five books that will inspire the children you love to open new doors into our world is Night Sky Dragons by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham. This is both a “picture book” and a “story book” that adults will want to read to kids, at first. Eventually, you’ll find, this will become a family favorite and the kids will read it back to you. The story is set centuries ago in the heart of the Silk Road that connected East and West for trade in some of the world’s most valuable commodities. The main characters are a family charged with defending a safe town along that famous route. When a deadly gang of bandits besieges the town, the adults are paralyzed and desperate. That’s when a little boy named Yazul has a brilliant idea to use the kites that he loves to build with his grandfather to peacefully scare away this terrifying force encamped outside the town’s gates. Anyone who has traveled across Asia knows the timeless ritual of greeting the spring with kites. In Western culture, you might fondly recall “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins. What this husband-and-wife writing team has achieved in this book, though, transcends those spring rituals and gives our love of kites in the blue spring sky a whole new meaning. There is a much deeper tale here—a message that our love of the seasons and the natural world, coupled with timeless wisdom like the ancient talent of building sophisticated kites—holds the promise of saving our troubled world. And, Night Sky Dragons is available from Amazon, too.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)