‘Another Way’ Out of Atlanta comes ancient wisdom for rethinking leadership in our congregations and communities

From left: Stephen Lewis, Dori Grenenko Baker and Matthew Wesley Williams

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

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

The most important thing you need to know about Another Way: Living & Leading Change on Purpose, and the book’s three authors, is that you will find their book dramatically different than many of the other leadership books on your shelf.

Unlike most authors on leadership, this trio of ministers, activists and scholars is preaching a revolutionary message. That’s revolutionary as in turning popular assumptions upside down.

Based on years of collaborative work and grassroots programs with groups nationwide, this trio teaches that the most powerful leadership is embodied not in an individual leader—but in the heart of the community itself. They describe these insights as hard-earned wisdom from their years of work together, drawing partly on ancient African and African-American wisdom. Then, they connect their methods with wisdom from various Christian traditions around the world.

If you are still frustrated after years of trying to become a better leader—this trio begins their book with a reassuring message: You’re not alone. That awareness of the people around us is a crucial insight, because what’s missing in many leadership training programs is—your community. That’s why there are four different groups of study questions at the end of each chapter so that everyone, whatever their role in the community might be, is welcome to read and discuss these ideas.

“People are longing for community,” co-author Stephen Lewis said in a recent interview. “People want to live a life of meaning and purpose. They want to know their lives matter and that they can contribute to a more hopeful future together. When I think about these practices, they are very much steeped in my own African-American community.”

THE ‘ANOTHER WAY’ MANIFESTO

The trio explain that this book grew out of their years of work with the Forum for Theological Education (FTE), founded in 1954 in Atlanta. Their book unfolds their methods across 200 pages, but here is one short summary they offer in the book of their overall manifesto:

“We have discovered several noteworthy insights about the practice of leadership, the formation of leaders, and organizations’ efforts to develop, hire and retain the next generation of leaders. One important insight that is emerging from FTE’s work with leaders and organizations is this: current practices are too individualistic and short-sighted. Organizations want better solutions to their leadership development and change-management challenges, but too many don’t have enough time, the right personnel, or enough bandwidth to create and sustain meaningful change in their context. Individual leaders want to make a positive difference in their communities, institutions, and the broader world. However, they either don’t know how to do so in meaningful ways or they don’t fully understand that lasting, positive change requires collective and coordinated efforts of a team or community of leaders—not the lone efforts and aspirations of an individual.”

Now, if you are reading this thoughtfully, your own next question may be: Wait a minute. These authors say they’re writing out of African-American tradition. Isn’t that associated with powerful, individual leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

They have been asked that question many times and, in our interview, Stephen Lewis answered, “We do believe that communities are rich with so many gifts among the people that are just waiting to be set loose on the world. But, we also recognize for us that there is a danger in focusing on a single leader.

“Even if you look in an African American context: If there was not a community of faithful, devoted, committed women and men who were in the community mobilizing the community, there wouldn’t be the Dr. King that we honor today. We are the product of the community and the way we help people cultivate and promote their own gifts begins with asking people a question: ‘Who is the most talented reader in this room?’

“And the answer is: It’s the room itself, not one individual.”

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WHAT ARE THEIR STORIES?

So, who are these people? The best way to introduce them—in light of the core themes we’ve already begun exploring—is to show you how they each introduce themselves in just the first paragraph of their biographical section of the book. There’s much more about their lives and talents and insights to learn in the 200 pages, but these single paragraphs give you a feel for how their own lives have shaped these ideas.

STEPHEN LEWIS—”Born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, I grew up in an African-American missionary Baptist church, where I was well acquainted with the idea that God has a purpose for everyone. As a 6-year-old, I was drawn to myths and stories about healing and transformation. Some of this was directly connected to my prayers that God would heal my mother, who suffered from depression. But a lot of it was simply a natural curiosity I had about human quests and spiritual encounters, which seemed to be at the center of all these stories. Only years later, after a first career in finance, did I find myself returning to these stories, realizing they lie at the center of what matters most to me.”

MATTHEW WESLEY WILLIAMS—”I was born on the South Side of Chicago in the late 1970s to parents active in the church and in justice organizations working on issues related to poverty, equity, racism and human freedom. Early on, my parents helped me to understand that service, protest and organizing for change in the world are all expressions of active faith. They steeped me in the cultural and spiritual gifts of African-descended peoples and taught me how to drink from those rich ancestral wells. … For me, faith-rooted leadership is about social change, and change is rooted in the inner life. While I am the child of Reginald and Marcelle Williams, I am also the child of a long tradition of faithful women and men whose lives bore and bear witness to the fact that there is no task more sacred than the liberation of oppressed peoples.”

DORI GRINENKO BAKER—”I grew up in rural Florida, where my exposure to religion was Sunday morning visits to Southern Baptist churches with my girlfriends, all of us still groggy after mostly sleepless sleepovers. There, I heard about a God who planned his son’s life, death and resurrection to save me. That never made any sense to me, but I was drawn to the story of an ancient wanderer, a man who spent a lot of time outdoors feeding and healing people. I also sensed belonging to something bigger than myself. My father, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, took me to midnight vigils at the Russian Orthodox church, which I remember as a blur of men in robes speaking a language I did not understand. Between the rule-based rigidity of the Southern Baptists and the incense-filled mysticism of Russian Orthodoxy, a deep curiosity about God began to form in me.”

Matthew Wesley Williams talking with a group, a photo from the FTE Flickr photostream.

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THE ‘ANOTHER WAY’ METHOD

Did you enjoy reading those one-paragraph stories? Or did that section of this Cover Story seem too long? This is a crucial question the trio raises in this book—and in the programs they have coordinated nationwide. Can we slow down and find enough time to enjoy the story of another person?

That’s really the fulcrum on which their method turns.

In his Foreword to the book, best-selling author and peacemaker Parker Palmer endorses their process as similar to methods he has used himself over the years. One of those similar methods is the peacemaking process developed by Brenda Rosenberg after the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001—and that Brenda further evolved with Samia Bahsoun in their 2015 book Harnessing the Power of TensionThey describe their four-fold process as:

  1. Breaking bread together in a hospitable place.
  2. Listen with compassion to the other.
  3. Be the other and retell the other’s story to bring clarity.
  4. Create something new together, a tangible project in the community.

In their new book, Another Way, the trio use the acronym CARE to describe their four-fold process:

  • C—Create hospitable space.
  • A—Ask self awakening questions.
  • R—Reflect theologically together.
  • E—Enact the next most faithful step.

Brenda and Samia describe their method as coming from the deep traditions of their Jewish and Muslim communities. That’s one reason their method works well in interfaith and cross-cultural settings. Anyone of any faith—or of no faith—can tell and retell and reflect on personal stories.

The Another Way team specializes mainly in working with Christian groups, so their third step of reflecting theologically together works well in congregations and other Christian communities.

However, as Palmer indicates in his Foreword—the distinctions in these methods don’t really matter. The key is the wisdom of building leadership from the grassroots of the community upwards by connecting the lives of men and women on a meaningful level.

So, a key question that will determine how well you’ll respond to Another Way—or any of these related methods—is simply: Can you make time to slow down, sit down in a hospitable setting and share stories with each other?

“What we know is that in the midst of busy periods in our lives—the rat race of running the 9-to-5 every day—people feel they don’t have any breathing space,” Stephen said. “To create transformation within yourself and within your community, you have to create this different kind of place to be together where you can reflect and explore and excavate deeper meaning in your life—and in the life of the community.”

THE GOOD NEWS FOR WEARY ‘LEADERS’

Are the world’s deepening tensions exhausting you as a leader? Or, as an active part of a community, are you afraid that unity and a sense of collective purpose simply isn’t possible anymore?

“We want people to know that there’s good medicine in this book,” said Dori in our interview. “We might say this book is a balm in Gilead.”

If you’re close to giving up on all the angry arguments firing back and forth from deeply entrenched positions these days—once again, this trio says: You’re not alone and that’s why this kind of method, which begins with slowing down and sharing our stories, can spark fresh transformation.

“I have an aversion to dogma,” Matthew put it bluntly in our interview. “And, I think stories are the antidote to dogma. We operate too much of the time in a field where people are always trying to stake out territory based on theological concepts or ideas, most of which were borrowed from a former time. What we’re arguing here is for the wisdom in the theological tradition of reflection and leadership formation that encourages people to take seriously their own stories.”

“A lot of people say they don’t like the lone ranger style of leadership—but we tend to default to it,” Dori said. “This book is about creating a new default setting for leaders. That takes daily attention to reorienting our individual selves. We hope this book is a starting point in that journey.”

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Care to read more about ‘Another Way’?

GET THE BOOKIt’s available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions.

VISIT THE FTE WEBSITEHere’s the Another Way landing page within the Forum for Theological Education website.

GET A POSTER-FORMAT VERSION OF THE MANIFESTO—On the FTE website, you will find this page (and, then, you can save the “jpg” image to print out yourself). It’s a one-page, poster-format version of the group’s manifesto, which also appears on a page in the book. This is a great way to spark a discussion about ideas you’ll find in Another Way. If you’re trying to convince friends, or perhaps the members of your small group, to discuss this book—showing them this intriguing one-page display of provocative quotes can spark lots of curiosity.

Learn about the work of Brenda and Samia

Care to learn more about the related methods used by Brenda Rosenberg and Samia Bahsoun, which are especially effective in interfaith settings?

Visit our Front Edge Publishing website for a column about their work. You’ll learn about Brenda’s book Reuniting the Children of Abraham also you’ll also learn about the Brenda-Samia collaboration, Harnessing the Power of Tension, which focuses on building bridges in deeply divided communities.

Yes, it’s all about collaborative community—Just a few weeks ago, we published a ReadTheSpirit Cover Story about the launch of Brenda’s Reuniting the Children of Abraham at a huge gathering of Girl Scouts from across Michigan at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

 

Leap for Literacy’s Stan Tucker teaches the next generation that we’ve all got a story to tell

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

On her TV show, Ellen DeGeneres donated in a big way to Stan Tucker’s work with Leap for Literacy.

“You’ve got to meet Stan Tucker!”

That’s what our Marketing Director Susan Stitt told our team recently. She lives in Georgia and had just experienced the infectious excitement for reading that Stan spreads in schools whenever he visits.

“What’s more—he connects literacy to encouraging kindness,” Susan said. “He’s doing terrific work.” (We know you will enjoy reading Susan’s own story, this week, about a recent day she spent with Stan and his book-packed Read-n-Roll literacy bus. Susan’s column is in our Front Edge Publishing website.)

But, wait before you click over to her story about this amazing bus!

There’s more here, including a terrific short video (below) that will introduce you to “Stan the Man.” We’re not alone in our enthusiasm. Ellen DeGeneres has featured Stan’s work on national television. Among his other major donors are the Zac Brown Band, which is based in Atlanta.

All of us at our publishing house have joined these stars in falling in love with Stan Tucker, because he so passionately embodies values that parallel our own founding 10 Principles of Publishing, which include:

  • We must look for the truth in every stage and condition of life—because we often overlook the voices of the most vulnerable among us.
  • The most powerful stories are in the lives of ordinary people, who often assume they have nothing to contribute. We must draw them out.
  • And: Inspiration moves through community. It’s been true for thousands of years. Good media builds healthier communities.

That’s what Stan Tucker is doing in Georgia right now—one child and one school at a time.

What made Stan Tucker jump into Leap for Literacy?

A student claims her new book on Stan Tucker’s Read-n-Roll bus on the day our Susan Stitt volunteered to help. Click the photo to read Susan’s story.

“I am a teacher,” Stan says when asked about his vocation. “I taught 2nd grade in a school here in Georgia that had lots of low income families and a high Hispanic population.”

He describes a catalytic experience on his Leap for Literacy website:

Stan was inspired to found Leap for Literacy after a particularly difficult day in his 2nd grade classroom. It went something like this:​

Mr. Tucker: “Good morning students! Today is the first day of the book fair and it is open for us to start shopping! Please line up at the door if you remembered your book money.”

2nd Grader: “My mom says we don’t have money for books, I can’t go.”

​Mr. Tucker’s heart breaks—Crackkk! He vows from this day forward that he will get brand new books into little, eager hands in any way he can.

In his mobile literacy programs, Stan now focuses on schools where a majority of students come from poor families.

How far is Stan Tucker leaping now?

Stan Tucker encourages a young reader on his Read-n-Roll bus.

“My father passed when I was 8, so we moved in with my grandmother for a while,” Stan explained in an interview. “The book I wrote, Stan and the Man, is my way of telling the story of my father and me.

“I’ve faced a lot of challenges; I’ve seen a lot of kids who are facing challenges today. And, through that whole experience, I developed the four things we teach in Leap for Literacy:

“Enjoyment—We want every student to enjoy reading, so we give them books and encourage reading in the home.

“Ownership—It’s so important that students own books; that they have books in their home; that books become a part of their lives.

“Authorship—We’ve all got a story to share; we need to help these students see that they can become authors themselves; and that’s why we give students blank books to begin writing their own stories.

“Kindness—This whole program is about more than literacy. It’s about encouraging kindness in these schools and communities. So, the kids have to participate in acts of kindness to get their books. Kindness is the currency for receiving our books.”

From ‘Stan and the Man’ to publishing new authors

Click the cover to visit the book’s website.

Stan also invites a school’s staff to help select an especially inspiring book by one of the promising young authors who write their own stories in the blank books they are given along with their free reading books. Then, just as he self-published his own book, he promises to help this handful of young students to publish their books. So far, he is piloting just a few titles—enough to have inspiring examples that plant seeds across these communities.

“I want the students to grow up knowing an author—and seeing what is possible in life,” he said in our interview. “I want them growing up knowing that their story matters—and that they have stories that are worth sharing with others.”

Stan sells his own book through his personal website: StanleyTucker.com

AND NOW—Want to a guaranteed smile, right now?

You’ve got to see this video!

A Real-Life Valentine’s Day Card: Sometimes We Need Survival Skills as Much as Hearts and Flowers

Is Love Really All We Need?

By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist to ReadTheSpirit magazine

Thelma and Martin Davis 35 years ago.

Every anniversary is special, but for my wife and me, 2020 marks a more-significant anniversary than most.

This June 29, we will have been married 35 years. Everyone knows the depressing divorce stats these days. Suffice to say that reaching 35 years of marriage is worth celebrating.

I wish that I could tell you that all you need is love to make it this long. The fact, however, is that love—while an important ingredient—is just one of an incredibly complex web of things a couple needs to survive over the long haul.

This Valentine’s Day, I would like to share a list of survival tools that have been important for my wife and me over the long haul.

I will also note that the tools I write about below are not tools that we have necessarily used well. In fact, in some of these areas I’ve been pretty inept. Though, as you will learn below, they are areas where I’ve had to get better. But before you skip to the end to read about that, take a few minutes and digest these five survival skills.

5 Survival Skills to Keep those Valentine’s Day Cards Coming

A HEALTHY DOSE OF REALITY—“Forever” is a wonderful idea, and utterly attainable if in 20 or 30 years we are the same people we were when we first fell in love. This sort of emotional and intellectual stagnation, however, is simply not reality. Over time we experience more of the world, are faced with ethical and moral challenges that force us to stretch our understandings of what is right and acceptable, and we learn more about ourselves and our partners. It can be hard to accept how your partner changes over the years. But by failing to talk about these changes we shut down the lines of communication and set ourselves up for hurt feelings and frustrations that are best dealt with in the moment, and not ten years down the line when the damage has been done. Accept that you and your partner will change. Accept that sometimes this will bring painful change to your relationship. But also be open to the idea that these changes can lead to deeper attachments that simply aren’t possible in the early years of your romance.

A GREAT KNOWLEDGE OF HISTORY—Not history writ large, but the history you and your partner share. Social media, I am becoming convinced, is doing more to divide us than unite us, but even bad tools can be put to good ends. Most every day when I look at my Facebook account, I am shown photos, videos or posts that take me back to the most special times in my life. Not necessarily the grandest days, but the special moments in our mundane days. A shared cup of coffee sitting outside our favorite café on the first really warm day of spring; a message from my son about how the simple gift of time has helped him to grow; a silly chicken costume that our daughter surprised us with for her birthday; our family hugging our pet beagle who tracked down and found a pet hamster we were sure had gone to live in our walls forever. It is the hope of creating more such moments that can get us past the darkest of times.

ALL FIVE OF YOUR SENSES—If religious traditions have one great flaw, especially certain Christian and Jewish and Muslim traditions, it is the effort to demonize our senses. On the contrary, I have come to believe that it is only in activating all five of our senses that we can ever really reach a spiritual oneness with ourselves and our partners. With my eyes I can relish in my wife’s physical beauty; with my ears I can enjoy the patterns of her speech and breath; with my nose I can smell the scent of her hair, the sweat on her skin. With the sense of taste I can not only enjoy the meals that we share and the drinks we together consume, but I can savor her lips. And most important, the sense of touch. I know every curve of my wife’s face, the curve in her back, and the imperfections in her hands that match perfectly to the imperfections in my own. Our senses are at the heart of our relationship with our lovers. Relish them so long as you are able.

VULNERABILITY—To really speak the truth of what you feel, what you dream, and what you fear is to take the greatest risk of all with any person. For we never know when this level of honesty will prove too much for the bonds of friendship and love to hold. But the truth is that in exposing our vulnerabilities we exercise the bonds that bind us, creating elasticity that makes space for growth, and springiness to keep us wrapped to one another.

PAIN—The desire to avoid pain is as old as humankind itself. The Greek philosopher Epicurus went so far as to define a joyful life as one devoid of pain, and set forth a philosophy for avoiding it. Most of us realize that is impossible, but we still do all that we can to minimize our exposure to pain. Facing our pain, however, puts all of us on a level playing field. Regardless of how strong you think you are, how much you believe material possessions can shield you from it, or how strong your support networks are, there are some pains that we are all exposed to. Death, betrayal, harsh words, physical pain, and yes, even the pain that we cause our lovers. No one wants to think about this, much less experience it. At the same time, few are the people who have come through pain and reached happier shores who do not appreciate what those experiences taught them.

Over the past two months, my wife and I have gone through some incredibly trying times, but it was in these moments that we have grown closer to one another than we have arguably been in years. All five of the survival tools named above have come into play in these months.

Where these events will take us, and how they will shape us in the future, remain to be seen. But on this Valentine’s Day, because of what we have been through and how these tools have been deployed, I can say this with more surety than at any other time in my life.

I love you, Thelma. More than words can ever say, more than gifts can ever represent, and more than even the mysteries of the universe can absorb.

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And, this is us today, wishing you all a Happy Valentine’s Day.

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The building-block image—at top with today’s story—is courtesy of Welcome Images via Wikimedia Commons.

Celebrating 30 years of Edward McNulty’s Faith & Film writing in Visual Parables

GLORY, the 1989 Oscar-winning Civil War drama starring Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, was featured in the first issue of Ed McNulty’s Visual Parables when his faith-and-film journal began in 1990.

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Click the cover to visit the Amazon page.

EDITOR’s NOTE: This week, we are celebrating Edward McNulty’s 30th anniversary of his Visual Parables Journal by publishing Ed’s personal reflections on his decades of moving between movie theaters, his role as an online journalist and his ongoing work with congregations and conferences. Here’s a tip: Have a pen and paper handy as you read his column because you’ll want to note some of the wonderfully thought-provoking films Ed mentions. After reading his column, you’ll have a couple of months worth of spirited viewing ahead of you!

But first—before you read Ed’s column, below—all of us who are part of the ReadTheSpirit team want to wish Ed another 30 years in his unique role as America’s guide to spiritual themes in cinema!

Here’s our part of the Visual Parables story: In 2013, ReadTheSpirit magazine merged with Edward McNulty’s longstanding Visual Parables Journal so that we could bring his many decades of faith-and-film writing into our community of columnists and authors.

In addition to moving his huge online database of faith-and-film reviews into ReadTheSpirit online magazine, we collaborated with Ed in producing the book Jesus Christ Movie Starwhich we describe this way: “Pop some popcorn and invite friends as America’s beloved faith-and-film writer Edward McNulty leads us through a dozen big-screen stories inspired by Jesus’s life.” This week’s Front Edge Publishing column tells much more about this book.

Then, in every weekly issue of ReadTheSpirit we include our popular Faith
& Film section that features Ed’s free-to-read reviews—as well as newsy updates about the Visual Parables Journal. Here’s how we explain that to readers each week:

ED McNULTY, for decades, has published reviews, magazine articles and books exploring connections between faith and film. Most of his work is freely published. Ed supports his work by selling the Visual Parables Journal, a monthly magazine packed with discussion guides to films. This resource is used coast-to-coast by individuals who love the movies and by educators, clergy and small-group leaders. And, right now you can check out the new February 2020 issue.

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AND, NOW …
HEEEEEERE’S ED …

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By ED McNULTY
Writer and Editor of Visual Parables Journal

It was 30 years ago this month that Visual Parables was launched as a two-page, paper newsletter—so it’s time to reflect on its history and the changes that have taken place in films and the way we consume them.

I estimate that I have seen almost 6,000 movies during these 3 decades. There have been some terrific films that I have written about in the pages of Visual Parables that I want to recommend to you, as you read this story. These spirited movies still are well worth watching—so there’s a bonus in reading my anniversary story: You may wind up with a fresh list of must-see movies.

In February 1990, I was serving a Presbyterian church in Dayton, Ohio, where I also was very involved in the community as a film advocate. I led a group of churches that sponsored an annual film series at a downtown theater during Lent that drew enthusiastic crowds on the six Sunday afternoons before Easter. I had just seen four excellent films and was eager to share news of them with others, but there were few options for sharing such columns.

I decided to launch a newsletter using the $50 received for a speaking engagement (about film and theology, of course). This was the two-page newsletter Visual Parables, named after my workshops in which I showed audiences that certain films were like the parables told by Jesus. Because I was the chair of its Media Committee, the Presbytery of Miami Valley allowed me to use its mailing list of  a few hundred ministers and church leaders.

CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, Woody Allen’s 1989 tragicomedy starring Martin Landau, also was featured in Visual Parables’ first issue—and remains one of Ed’s favorites in sparking group discussions.

A NEW JOURNAL FOR THOUGHTFUL MOVIE LOVERS

The films in that first issue were Driving Miss Daisy; Glory; Born on the 4th of July; and Crimes and Misdemeanors. None of these were religious films, but I believed that all had themes and insights that religious folk could relate to and should be discussing. I had a long history of using films in church educational programs, as well as writing film reviews for numerous magazines and newspapers—secular, Roman Catholic and Protestant. I also had authored several books on media.

Of those four films in the first issue, Woody Allen’s tragicomedy Crimes and Misdemeanors is the film I keep going back to when dealing with the ways of God and recalcitrant humanity. A theology professor at United Theological Seminary annually borrowed my copy of the film to show to his class when he dealt with theodicy. The story reverses the usual order: In Allen’s film, the bad guy gets the girl and the adulterer gets away with the murder of his pesky mistress about to talk with his wife. Running through this story is wisdom from Proverbs 15:3, “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” Indeed, “eyes” are important symbols in the film, the bad guy being an ophthalmologist whose patient is a rabbi going blind. The film and its un-Hollywood ending leaves us discussing who in the film really “sees” and who is really blind. Made when the filmmaker was at the height of his creative powers, the film challenges facile assumptions about God and morality in as funny and a dramatic way as few others have.

The newsletter’s reception was positive—and some readers were willing to pay the princely sum of $12 for an annual subscription. Thus I expanded to a four-page newsletter, and soon began inserting each month a 2-page discussion guide for an especially rich film.

There were so many rich films!

Just to list a few, in 1990 there was Barry Levinson’s intergenerational Avalon focusing on the relationship between a young boy and his grandfather; a rare story about the cruel WW 2 round-up of Japanese citizens, Come See the Paradise; and the still under appreciated little master piece The Long Walk Home, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek, the former playing a “colored” maid who had to walk across town to her job as a maid and cook in a white household during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. (NOTE: All of those links will take you into the free-to-read database of movie reviews in our Visual Parables section of ReadTheSpirit.)

In 1991, young John Singleton startled the film world with his unblinking look at teenagers trapped by racism in the ghetto, Boyz n the Hood. Also there was Lawrence and Meg Kasden’s great take on urban malaise of both blacks and whites, Grand Canyon; in Rhapsody in August, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa transported us to Nagasaki where a family whose grandmother was widowed by the atom bomb anxiously wonder how she will receive the visit of a distant relative from America; and one of my favorite movies, The Fisher King, artfully combined the medieval myth of the Fisher King, the Quest for the Holy Grail, and even a bit of Pinocchio and the Genesis story of Jacob the Grabber. I have lost count of how many times I have used scenes from that Terry Gilliam film in Visual Parables articles and workshops. It remains my favorite Robert Williams film. Same goes for his co-star, Jeff Bridges.

1992 was a good year too, with the then little-known story of the WW2 opportunity for women to play professional baseball, A League of Their Own; a true story of a mother’s love and frantic search for a cure for her ill son, Lorenzo’s Oil; another true story of the little understood black leader feared by whites, Malcolm X; and the sadly forgotten Love Field, taking its title from the Texas airport where the Kennedy’s landed on that fateful November day in 1963.

Connecting the Spiritual Message to Scripture

The purpose of the newsletter grew from merely reviewing new films deemed worthy—lots of religious publications were already doing that—to suggesting ways that a leader could use the film to explore the gospel and ethical issues. I spent considerable time seeking Scripture passages that related to themes in the film. I think that my citing so many passages from the Hebrew Scriptures—especially Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and Psalms—was the reason that I have welcomed Jewish readers, as well, over the years.

I agreed with such writers as G. William Jones that people of faith should enter into a “dialogue with the movies.” I was encouraged when numerous folk told me that they now were looking at movies in a new way, that they saw them as more than just entertainment. A number of them were calling or sending notes asking if I had a film discussion guide on a particular movie or theme.

The newsletter’s readership slowly expanded across the country and Canada, and in April 1993 Don Bosco Multimedia, run by a Roman Catholic order, took on its publishing and distribution. They also turned it into a digest-size magazine. In the January 1994 issue, I succumbed to the critic’s year-end desire of making a Top Ten List of films.

At the top of the 1993 list was A Bronx Tale, brilliantly written by Chazz Palminteri and starring Robert De Niro as a bus driver trying to keep his teenaged son from being influenced by a charismatic local gangster.

Stephen Spielberg’s Holocaust film Schindler’s List did not open in Dayton until early 1994, but it dominated the March 1994 issue with a review of both the movie and book and what I think is one my two best discussion guides. Organized around Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” it is divided into 3 parts, “The Hell of Foresakeness,” “The Hope for Deliverance,” and “Remembering and Giving Thanks.”

Another film that I think influenced society was Philadelphia in which Tom Hanks plays a lawyer dying of AIDs and Denzel Washington is his prejudiced lawyer who takes up his suit against his former employers for unlawful job termination. At a college workshop, a young women raised in a Fundamentalist church told me “This is the film that made me realize my church was wrong.”

Other notable 1994 reviews included the Disney-animated  The Lion King; Ang Lee’s Eat, Drink, Man, Woman; Quinten Tarantino’s incredible Pulp Fiction, which surprised me with its theology of grace! Also Priest dealt sympathetically with the gay issue in the Roman Catholic Church; and the little-known Kevin Costner film The War presented a powerful demonstration of what Gandhi and MLK meant by nonviolence. Director Robert Redford gave us a great parable on Temptation and Fall in the fact-based Quiz Show. And what a delightful parable of hope Shawshank Redemption turned out to be!

Up in ‘Smoke’

When Don Bosco decided to drop out of the publishing business in March 1995, I took on the tasks of formatting, printing, and distributing the magazine, in addition to writing most of the material. 1995 saw the release of another of my favorite films, one dealing with spiritual discernment and the changing meaning of a bag of money, Smoke, set in of all places, a Brooklyn tobacco shop. The suggestion was made to preachers that during their church’s stewardship campaigns this film could be used to show how money changes meaning as it changes hands. Another great film of 1995 was the grace-filled prison film Dead Man Walking, with a Catholic nun serving as a Hound of Heaven in bringing a condemned racist-murderer to accept responsibility for his deeds.

Just as Don Bosco stopped publishing, I moved from Dayton to become the pastor of a small congregation in the picturesque Catskill Mountains of New York. Bovina Center was 30 miles of winding road from the closest theater complex, but because the closer theater did not show many of the independent films so beloved by VP’s readers, I found myself several times a month making the almost two-hour drive to Albany with its larger theater complexes and art house theater.

A Babe-themed Vacation Bible School

1995’s Babe turned out to be more than a children’s film about a little pig, but a parable of compassion and understanding. The next summer, the children of Bovina were treated to a Vacation Bible School using Babe to explore how God and Christ lead us across foreboding boundaries toward understanding and compassion. I also used it in a church-officer workshop to demonstrate two forms of leadership style, one of top-down demanding, and the other of eliciting cooperation.

Shortly after this move, a friend suggested that because so many preachers used the Common Lectionary, Visual Parables might suggest films suitable for the lessons. Thus began, in the June 1995 issue, what became Lectionary Links. This first column included just one Sunday, Pentecost, with a paragraph on the unity of a group of striking coal miners in John Sayles’ great social justice film Matewan. The coverage expanded to three Sundays in the next two issues, and then to all the Sunday texts of the month—well not all, usually the Gospel text being the focus. A number of readers informed me that Lectionary Links was the first section they turned to and read when they received the journal.

In November, 1996, the first of the series “Praying the Movies” appeared, inspired by the video of the 1935 version of Les Misérables. Although similar to the monthly discussion guide in that it had some questions for reflection, Praying the Movies was meant to be a devotional, and so it consisted of several Scripture passages, an introduction, a descriptive meditation based on a film scene and where to find it on the VHS tape, a few questions for further thought, and a closing prayer. Later a relevant hymn was included. These became so popular that Westminster John Knox Press published two volumes of them. Here’s the Amazon link to the first one, Praying the Movies, and here’s a link to the second volume.

Some of the fine films in 1996 included the delightful Fargo; the female Christ Figure tale set in a small town café, The Spitfire Grill; the belated bringing to justice the murderer of Medgar Evers, Ghosts of Mississippi; Ponette, French film about the poignant quest of a little grieving girl for God to let her see her deceased mother; and a bittersweet story of a friendship between a mentally challenged man and a boy.

February 1997 marked the beginning of publication by Viaticum Press, founded by Presbyterian minister Robin Kash. Films of 1997 included Robert Duvall’s masterful story of grace about a preacher on the run for murdering the man carrying on affair with his wife, The Apostle; Stephen Spielberg again tackled a weighty theme in Amistad, the story of the defense of African captives who had killed and taken over their slave ship.

1998 was an even greater year for films, with Spielberg showing us the horrible price of war as we had never seen it depicted, his WW2 Saving Private Ryan making every American appreciate all the more “The Greatest Generation.” Italian director Roberto Benigni dared to use comedy in his Holocaust film about a father’s total devotion to shield his son from its horror, Life is Beautiful; and independent filmmaker John Sayles wrote his film parable, Men With Guns, in Spanish, revealing how hapless Central American peasants are beset by murderous guerrillas on one side and equally brutal soldiers on the other!

Biblical Themes in ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Bringing Out the Dead’

Visual Parable’s July 1999 cover boasted a full-color picture of Liam Neeson starring in Star Wars: the Phantom Menace. That year there were a number of films with easy-to-see biblical themes, such as American Beauty (spiritual discernment); Martin Scorcese’s Bringing Out the Dead, with Nicholas Cage’s medic a good stand-in for Christ: a prison film The Green Mile focusing on an African American gentle giant of a convict with healing powers; and the incredible Magnolia including a scene kin to the Exodus plague of frogs as the stories of hurting people, longing for connection, unfold.

In the January 2000 issue, United Methodist minister Doug Sweet’s column about movie-related resources was introduced. Earlier, Doug and I had met at a national workshop he was leading, and we struck up a friendship that led to his volunteering to contribute a column. He has faithfully written it ever since because of his love for sharing cinematic resources, and, other than thanks, he has never received any remuneration. By subscribing to so many publications and tracking down film books Doug has greatly enhanced the usefulness of Visual Parables.

Top Ten Films for 2000 ranged from the Coen brothers funny tribute to Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou to the coming together of whites and blacks around its newly integrated football in a racially troubled Virginia suburb, Remember the Titans.

The June 2002 issue was the last one published by Robin Kash. The magazine had not risen enough in circulation, and he had accepted a position as interim pastor at a large church that left him no time to tend to the chores of formatting and distributing the journal. During its time of stewardship of Visual Parables, Viaticum also published my book Films and Faith: Forty Discussion Guides, filled with almost a year’s material if a film group were meeting on a weekly basis.

It was providential that I had been contributing exegetical materials to the journal LectionAid, because its editor/publisher J. Nicholas Adams came to my aid by putting me in touch with his printer and the technology (Adobe PageMaker) to format the magazine electronically. (During the intervals between publishers earlier I had used the scissors and paste method for formatting an issue.) This change to a new publisher now meant no more color covers and the adoption of a larger 8 ½” x 11” format, both due to printing costs. Also, inside there would be fewer pictures for the same reason. Those printing and distribution costs continued to rise until we resorted to publishing VP for a while on a bi-monthly, and then on a quarterly basis for a couple of years.

Into the New Millennium

In the new millennium, Visual Parables Top Ten lists included such significant films as Lord of the Rings and Shrek (both in 2001); About Schmidt and The Pianist (2002); in 2003 the second of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and a small independent film about an even “smaller” hero, Station Agent, about which several readers have sent their thanks for bringing this overlooked gem to their attention.

In 2004 bad boy Mel Gibson’s incredibly bloody The Passion of Christ grossed out some of the faithful and drew others by droves into theaters. Talk (or sing) about “washed in the blood”! C.S. Lewis fans were relieved in 2005 when Disney did not remove the references to Christ in Chronicles of Narnia, and in Munich Stephen Spielberg subtly linked the endless cycle of violence among Arabs and Jews to the Twin Tower tragedy.

In 2006 Clint Eastwood rose to new artistic heights with the release of his twin films Flags of our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, honoring soldiers of both sides in WW 2.

The Fall 2006 VP marked still another major milestone: It was the last print issue. The combined costs of printing and distribution that had afflicted so many mass media publications took its toll on Visual Parables as well. But, thanks to Nicholas Adams’ technical expertise VP survived by becoming an online publication, with an annual “Best of VP” printed and sent out to subscribers. The good news of this change was that reviews could be posted and read far more quickly on the website. We adopted the policy of posting the reviews on a free basis and the review with discussion questions in the journal available only to subscribers.

A new feature was added to the site, “Film Capsules,” very short reviews designed for use by readers in the newsletters or bulletins of their organizations.

A Great Year: ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Lars and the Real Girl’

Amazing Grace (2006)

2007 was an especially great year for films, with such movies as Amazing Grace telling the story of William Wilberforce’s long battle to outlaw the slave trade in England. I almost skipped Lars and the Real Girl because it involved a life-size sex doll, but when readers convinced me to see it, discovered that it was a sweet film with a positive view of a church that truly practiced Christ’s mandate to love the outsider. The next year gave us the delightful animated science fiction film Wall-E about a robot cleaning up a polluted Earth that humans had abandoned. There was also a moving tribute to gay politician Harvey Milk—Milkand Changeling, an exciting story of how a Presbyterian minister in 1920s Los Angeles came to the aid of a grieving mother being abused by a ruthless L.A. cop following the kidnapping of her son.

In 2010 I was especially moved by the French film Of Gods and Men, based on a true story of a group of monks ministering to villagers in Algeria during the civil war there. Refusing to abandon the villagers, they were martyred by terrorists. In 2011 Trence Malick’s spiritual odyssey Tree of Life led the Top Ten list, and in 2012, the adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel of grace versus law, Les Miserables. The following year it was the adaptation of 19th century black abolitionist Solomon Northup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave. By incorporating into the study guide a number of awful passages from a book that appeared in the same year—1863—as Northup’s, Bible Defence of Slavery, I believe my review/guide for this was one of my best, equaled only by the one for Schindler’s List.

The Move to ReadTheSpirit

The free access to reviews was continued when Visual Parables moved to ReadtheSpirit.com online magazine.

A major advantage of this change was that I was taught how to post a review, eliminating the sometimes long interlude between my writing a review and my old publisher finding the time to post it. My association with this interfaith publisher also led to another book, Jesus Christ: MOVIE STAR, as well as a greater exposure of the reviews to an interfaith readership.

Through the years as the journal has gone through various transformations and publishers, other writers have also contributed their services gratis. Emily Schlaman Larsen reviewed a great number of short films, as has her husband Eric, who also occasionally reviewed an adventure film. These two have also helped greatly to promote the magazine, for which I am grateful.

Markus Watson, the staunchest Star Wars fan that I know, has also covered adventure films that I did not have the time to see. He has moved on to create and host an excellent podcast consisting of interviews with church leaders on the cusp of change entitled Spiritual Life and Leadership.

Pastor Charles Robertson began and contributed to our occasional series “Preaching the Movies.” He is gifted with the ability to weave a powerful film throughout a sermon.

These and a few others have considerably enriched the journal, and I thank them now.

Discovering Unknown Movies: ‘Walking Across Egypt’

“Through the years” also reminds me that here have been just as many, and far more consequential, changes in film and filmmaking as in Visual Parables. In 1990, 16mm film was on the way out for church use, replaced by VHS, which itself a few years later was made obsolete (though not killed off) by DVD. Many thought this too would give way to Blu-ray, but, perhaps because of people like me who have so much invested in DVDs, it has proven hardier than expected.

I have been sorry to see video stores fall by the wayside because of having been able to buy so many used DVDs at such great prices. I also used to love discovering movies in the endless racks of DVDs. That’s how I spotted Walking Across Egypt, the story of an old church lady (played by Ellen Burstyn, which is why I bought it without knowing anything of the film) who learns one is never too old to serve God. It’s the best film for use whenever one is dealing with the Parable of the Judging of Nations in Matthew 25.

Two films from overseas topped VP’s annual list in 2014, a film about an Irish priest who almost literally walks the way of the cross in Calvary because an unknown angry man lumps him with the child molester priests, and Ida, the successful Polish Oscar entry about nuns during the Nazi occupation.

As with Calvary, VP’s top film for 2015, Spotlight, dealt with sex abuse by Catholic priests, this film focusing on the staff of the Boston Globe seeking to expose the cover-up by the diocese. Silence (2016), Martin Scorsese’s theological story of the martyrdom of Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan raises again the question of where is God in the midst of human suffering, as does Paul Schrader’s great story, First Reformed (2018), about a Protestant minister close to losing his faith in the midst of environmental ruin of the land near his church.

In between these years was the first streaming film to make VP’s list, Mudbound, Netflix’s powerful film about racism that effects 2 families in 1940s Mississippi.

It has been a fascinating journey, sometimes bringing me into contact via phone or in person with filmmakers, such as Robert Duvall, Ed Asner, Cliff Robertson, Mike Rhodes, Ken Wales, Cristobal Krusen—skilled artists with the camera who make me understand and love film all the more.

I don’t know how many more years I have to enjoy sharing my love of film and the gospel, but as long as I am able, I hope you will come along for the ride. I love seeing and writing about such films as this year’s top film, Harriet, calling us to value freedom enough to fight for it, as Harriet Tubman did so effectively during the even darker days of the mid-19th century. The ride may not always be smooth, but it will be interesting, and sometimes in response to a movie like Just Mercy—exhilarating.

Girl Scouts, Detroit Institute of Arts and Brenda Rosenberg Are Reuniting the Children of Abraham

THE GIRL SCOUTS’ CLOSING CIRCLE wound around stone pillars, across this vast lobby and into a nearby hallway to link all the more than 100 participants hand-to-hand in a pledge of unity. The girls had come from across Michigan on January 26, 2020, for a special day of exploration and peacemaking under the banner: ‘Reuniting the Children of Abraham.’

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By DAVID CRUMM
ReadTheSpirit Editor

DETROIT, January 26—More than 100 Girl Scouts from across Michigan gathered at the internationally renowned Detroit Institute of Arts for a one-day challenge to explore the many religious themes in the DIA’s collection. This elaborately planned day of cross-cultural discovery was part of the 2020 redesign and relaunch of Brenda Rosenberg’s innovative Children of Abraham peacemaking project.

CORA KUJAWSKI, a Girl Scout from a troop based at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Warren, proudly shows one of the photos her group took in the Detroit Institute of Arts galleries to meet the many challenges in the interfaith scavenger hunt. “As we worked on this hunt, I really liked meeting new girls and learning about different faiths,” she said. Cora plans to continue studying science and literature as she prepares for a related career.

The special Girl Scout day began with high-tech, interactive fun. DIA staff members had adapted a popular “scavenger hunt” app for smartphones so that girls and adult mentors could quickly organize themselves into small teams that fanned out across the museum’s 100 galleries spanning 658,000 square feet.

Among the series of challenges that popped up on the girls’ phones in this sprawling adventure were these:

  • Find the European galleries. Find the Peter Paul Rubins piece “David and Abigail.” Take a photo of your group posing as some of the subjects in the painting.
  • Near the Contemporary galleries, find “Bookshop” by Ben Shahn. What clues indicate that this is a Jewish bookstore? Enter your answer.
  • Go to the Medieval and Renaissance Gallery near the Ancient Greek and Roman balcony. Find the piece “Holy Family and St. John.” Can you identify the figures in this painting?
  • Make your way to the Islamic gallery and find the Quran under the large arch. What country provided the paper for this text?

Note: In this article, we have provided links to three of these examples (above), so you can see some of the art enjoyed by the Girl Scouts. However, in their quest to explore the museum, the girls were not given such helpful links. Their teams had to share their own instincts, drawn from information on DIA brochures, signs and maps.

‘Share Your Experience’

Click to visit the book’s Amazon page.

After the scavenger hunt across the heights and breadth of the DIA, the girls and their adult mentors gathered in a DIA theater to view the documentary film Brenda produced about the growth—and the potential—of the Children of Abraham project.

She explained that Reuniting the Children of Abraham is a multimedia peace initiative created with Jewish, Christian and Muslim families to combat the fear, bigotry and bullying that fuels violence. The project, which is described in her new book, includes inspiring and educational materials that flow from the ancient story of Abraham, a patriarch in all three faiths. Just as Abraham’s own children were reunited at the time of the patriarch’s death, this project is a model for calling these widely separated families of faith back toward building peaceful relationships.

Brenda introduced the film from a podium at the front of the theater: “As a child, my parents brought me here almost every week. The galleries were my playground. I learned about the beauty, different cultures, religions and people across hundreds of years. I saw wood, metal and paper take on magical shapes. I watched movies in this very room that inspired me to make the documentary you are about to see. I hope today’s experience will inspire many more visits and you will take the lead in bringing friends, classmates and people from your church, mosque or synagogue to share your experience.”

Natural Collaboration: Girl Scouts, Arts and Faith

HAWRAA JOUNI, a Girl Scout from a troop based at the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights, opened the glitter-splashed gift bags each girl was given—featuring a copy of Brenda Rosenberg’s book ‘Reuniting the Children of Abraham.’ Hawraa said this was her first time at the DIA and the 100 galleries were like a maze that was quite a challenge. One day, she hopes to be a pediatrician.

The collaboration of Brenda’s team, religious communities and the Detroit Institute of Arts reaches back to principles from the founding of Girl Scouts in 1912. At that time, international interest in the Boy Scout movement was spreading. In the U.S., Camp Fire Girls already had been organized as one option for young women. Other girls’ groups also were forming.

Juliette Gordon Low, an American living in the UK at the time, had a particular vision that led her to begin organizing first in the UK—then back in her American homeland. Juliette Gordon Low was an artist who specialized in painting, woodworking and metalworking. Part of her vision for Girl Scouts focused on her strong belief that girls should be trained in a wide range of arts and crafts so they could achieve self sufficiency.

“Girl Scouts is a secular organization but we have always recognized that the Girl Scout Law is rooted in principles that are shared by many religions,” said Suzanne Bante, Chair of the Interfaith Committee for Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan and one of the main on-site coordinators of the event at the DIA.

“If people want to learn more about this, simply Google ‘Girl Scouts My Promise’ and you’ll find all kinds of resources,” Suzanne said. Those include: an overview of this area of exploration within Girl Scouts; plus a printable, one-page flyer about My Promise, My Faith pins; as well as a 10-page, 5-week curriculum for My Promise, My Faith.

Modeling a Diverse Community

The organizers of the DIA event intentionally mixed girls into diverse teams for the scavenger hunt and later gatherings around long tables for snacks, conversations and the drafting of individual heart-shaped pledges to collaborate on peace.

“We also asked parents to be split up from their girls—and I was pleasantly surprised that the parents were quite happy to do that,” Suzanne Bante said to the group as the girls began writing on their heart-shaped pieces of construction paper.

The intentional mingling put Christian, Muslim and Jewish girls shoulder to shoulder throughout the day. As they drafted their personal pledges, the girls adeptly balanced their markers in their right hands—and their phones in their left hands. Even as they wrote their pledges, their left hands were showing off photos and short videos they had shot on those phones throughout the day.

In addition, Suzanne introduced two officially sponsored media professionals—a photographer and a videographer—and explained that “anyone who doesn’t want to be on video today—that’s OK—but I know most of you like to share in this.” In this media-rich environment, countless photos whizzed through social media. And, at the close of the day, girls were invited to step up in front of a microphone to produce a short video clip as they read aloud from their heart-shaped pledges.

‘I promise to respect other people’s beliefs.’

HANNAH RICHARD’s heart-shaped pledge was to “Share my story.” She’s already got a remarkable story to share. Most girls at the DIA event were in middle school, but Hannah was there as one of the older helpers at the event. Hannah earlier worked with Brenda Rosenberg on a special project to help young people respond in positive ways when they encounter police officers. That project earned Hannah the Girl Scouts’ top Gold Award.

A steady stream of girls came to the microphone.

“My promise is to not judge others based on their religion or race—but on how they treat others.”

“My promise is to be a role model to understand everyone from different backgrounds and to educate others who might not know about the many social issues in the world.”

“My promise is to always do the best to welcome everyone despite differences we may have.”

“My promise is to be an active member of my community and encourage and educate everyone around me about the importance of working together.”

“I promise to respect other people’s beliefs.”

“My promise is to treat others in the way we all wish to be treated.”

“I promise to see everyone first as a friend, and not an enemy.”

“My promise is to be more welcoming to people from other backgrounds.”

“I promise to seek, first, to understand, before trying to be understood.”

The litany of promises was met with repeated rounds of applause and continued—and continued—until every girl who wished to share a message had an opportunity to come forward.

Suzanne Bante concluded the day—moments before the official Girl Scout closing circle—by telling the girls: “The reason our committee felt so strongly about doing this program is that we want you to be prepared for the world you live in. It’s a big world and it’s very small nowadays. It’s so easy to sink back into a little bubble and we don’t step out of it. As you girls move into the adult world and the business world, you will discover that you will be interacting with people from many different races and cultures, from all over the world. This kind of program gives you skills that no one else in your organization may have. This kind of program gets you ready to become our world’s leaders as you help us step into the future.”

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Care to Learn More about the Book?

JOIN THIS SPIRITUAL ADVENTUREReuniting the Children of Abraham is a small book of timeless religious wisdom that invites readers everywhere to experience the unique program Brenda Rosenberg has been sharing with groups and conferences by special arrangement over the years. Now, Front Edge Publishing has collaborated with Brenda to produce a book-length overview of the many deep connections between Christians, Muslims and Jews. Now, readers across the U.S. and around the world are invited to explore these connections that can help to reunite our dangerously divided world.

LEARN MORE—This week’s Front Edge Publishing column is a more detailed overview of the book, including praise from early readers, a short biography of Brenda and our own columnist Suzy Farbman, who wrote the Foreword to the book.

Order the Book Now from Your Favorite Bookstore

The book goes on sale January 28, 2020, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books and other online retailers.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s New Book Indicts Evangelical Christian Leaders Who Embrace Donald Trump

Click the cover to visit Amazon.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Millions of Christians—especially black Christians and mainliners who care about at-risk families—already have seen evils in Donald Trump’s policies and moral lapses. However, millions of evangelical Christians remain in lock-step obedience to those outspoken evangelical leaders who are misusing the Bible in support of Donald Trump.

That’s the powerful indictment that evangelical writer and activist Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove lays at the feet of leading evangelical spokesmen in Revolution of Values—Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good, a book published to coincide with the 2020 election year. This is very much like the historic decision by Dr. David Gushee to write his book Changing Our Mind to present the evangelical case for LGBT inclusion.

In Revolution of Values, Wilson-Hartgrove argues that evangelicals won’t be swayed to break with Donald Trump until a strong evangelical case is made in terms they can understand and accept. That’s the model Gushee followed in his book. And, that’s what Wilson-Hartgrove delivers in this detailed analysis of how many outspoken evangelical leaders have led their followers astray, including what he describes as deliberate misuse of the Bible to support Trump.

“I’m not claiming that the Bible lines people up with any political party but the distortion that has been created by the Religious Right over the last 40 years has been crippling to so many Christians,” Wilson-Hartgrove said in our interview this week. “Evangelical Christians are not going to change their mind about this unless we turn back to the Bible and open up a biblically based space to talk about what has happened.”

Those conversations simply are not happening in many churches, he said. “I’ve had conversations with Christians all across this country that have convinced me of this: Many evangelical Christians already are deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s presidency. They’re troubled by his actions at the border, by his profanity, by his actions that could land us in a world war, by other policies. If they have a chance to talk with other Christians who allow them to openly share their concerns, then they will make a change. But, if they’re surrounded and dominated by these strong evangelical leaders who are supporting Trump—they will tend to remain obedient, to tamp down their troubled spirits, remain quiet and continue to vote for Trump.”

A HISTORIC CHALLENGE FOR EVANGELICALS

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

This new book is a potential game-changer in evangelical America, much like Mark Galli set off a political earthquake under the Trump administration by calling for Trump’s removal in a December editorial in Christianity Today. Judged by the magazine’s modest circulation of just 130,000, that editorial might have remained a mere blip on the political landscape. However, Christianity Today was founded in 1956 by Billy Graham himself and is the flagship of the evangelical movement. Suddenly, Galli’s little editorial was front-page news nationwide. Trump was so worried about the editorial that Graham’s son, Franklin Graham—one of the leaders Wilson-Hartgrove indicts for making a pact with Trump—quickly stepped in to condemn what Galli had written.

“I was grateful for Mark’s editorial in Christianity Today,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “It doesn’t change everything with one editorial, but Mark did speak out and he gave white evangelicals some opening to speak out and begin saying: Something is wrong here with our support of Trump.”

Wilson-Hartgrove’s book also was published in December and, so far, it has flown under the radar of national news media, because the book’s message is not easy to spot online. That’s apparently part of this book’s marketing plan, at least so far. The book’s message is so explosive that Wilson-Hartgrove’s publisher—the venerable evangelical publishing house Inter-Varsity Press (IVP)—downplays the book’s content on its Amazon page. There’s no mention of Donald Trump, who is a central focus of this book, in the main description of the book that IVP provides to Amazon.

Brian McLaren’s Plea to Evangelical Trump Voters

Instead, the book’s subversive message shows up in endorsements. For example, a full-color, four-page press release IVP has prepared to promote the book mentions Donald Trump in the middle of the third page. That’s where IVP placed Brian McLaren’s loud-and-clear description of this book:

“Are you one of the 81 percent of evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, thinking you were making the Christian and biblical choice, or one of the mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics who joined them? Are you having some second thoughts? Here’s the story of a young evangelical (Wilson-Hartgrove) who rethought his decision to be a foot soldier in the Religious Right and is now a leader in a revolution of values that you may want to join too.”

THE CASE AGAINST THE EVANGELICAL RIGHT

Wilson-Hartgrove builds his case across 200 pages, starting with Page 1: “Since the late 1970s in America, political operatives have invested money and energy in framing the cultural concerns of conservative white christians as the moral issues in our public life.”

He contrasts the rise of the Right against the core values in the heyday of the civil rights movement, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still alive, which Wilson-Hartgrove lists as: “voting rights, equal protection under the law, economic justice, peace and the environment.” By the time Wilson-Hartgrove was growing up in the South in the 1980s and ’90s, King’s fervent Christian appeals to justice were eclipsed by conservative political movements with names like Moral Majority and Christian Coalition.

Within his own Southern Baptist Church, “I was trained as a foot soldier in the culture wars. I was taught to vilify liberals, environmentalists, and civil and women’s rights advocates, not as a strategy to gain political power, but as a religious duty,” he writes. What finally opened Wilson-Hartgrove’s eyes to the evils of “the genocidal white supremacy and patriarchy that have compromised Christian witness throughout US history” was spending a great deal of time with poor and at-risk families.

That’s literally what Jesus asks his followers to do—repeatedly—in the pages of the Bible. That’s what transformed Wilson-Hartgrove’s view of the world—and the core values of Christianity.

PEW RESEARCH: AMERICANS SIDE WITH THE PEOPLE

In addition to his role as an outspoken theologian and social-justice activist, Wilson-Hartgrove also is a historian steeped in America’s religious history. He understands what Dr. King demonstrated in the 1960s: Americans will change their minds when they see the faces of their neighbors at the heart of an issue. That’s the same foundation on which Dr. Gushee built his work on LGBT inclusion, the story he tells in Changing Our Mind.

That’s also the core message of a widely cited Pew Research Center report this week, headlined: Mixed views about civil rights but support for Selma demonstrators. This is an analysis of polling data written in 2015 by the late Pew Research co-founder Andy Kohut.

What the data show is that, as the marches were underway in Selma, Americans still were very hesitant about supporting civil rights. Kohut writes:

But despite all these reservations, views about what occurred in Selma were another matter. By a 48% to 21% margin, a Harris poll in May 1965 found its respondents saying they sided more with the civil rights groups involved than with the state of Alabama. Not unexpectedly, virtually all of the black respondents sided more with the demonstrators (95%), but the balance of opinion among whites was also clearly with them rather than with the state of Alabama (46% to 21%).

That’s why every chapter in Wilson-Hartgrove’s book includes inspiring stories about his experiences shoulder-to-shoulder with poor and at-risk men, women and families. Are evangelicals ready to abandon Trump? Polls show that evangelicals have deep reservations about voting for anyone else in 2020. What could change their minds?

The stories of real men, women and children who are affected by Trump’s policies.

JESUS’S FOLLOWERS WHO WORK WITH AT-RISK FAMILIES

In his book, Wilson-Hartgrove asks that readers learn more about The Poor People’s Campaign. Many of the inspirational real-life stories in this book came from work the author pursued with that group. You also can learn more about this work with the Poor People’s Campaigns—and other organizations—through the rich array of materials in Wilson-Hartgrove’s own website.

One of the other main groups he recommends to readers is Evangelicals for Social Action, founded by Ron Sider. Ron is the sister of clinical psychologist and clergywoman Lucille F. Sider, who added their Sider family story to the #MeToo movement in 2019 by publishing Light Shines in the Darkness: My Healing Journey Through Sexual Abuse and Depression. This is Lucille’s story of resilience and hope as a survivor of sexual abuse. Ron has fully supported his sister’s efforts to speak out openly and honestly about the toxic environment in which they grew up.

A NOSTALGIA FOR WHITE NATIONALISM

In stark contrast to these groups that lift up the concerns of at-risk and marginalized men, women and children—Wilson-Hartgrove builds his central indictment through page after page of quotes from top evangelical leaders calling Donald Trump the answer to their prayers.

These “court evangelicals” have no interest in justice, diversity, inclusion or the wellbeing of the poor, Wilson-Hartgrove argues. Instead, they share a nostalgia for a male-dominated white nationalism that champions unrestrained capitalism, he writes.

For Christians who are tempted to believe that “rich people are godly and poor people are morally suspect, then the Bible’s complex collection of multiple genres of literature can be distilled into basic instructions for climbing the ladder of success in a capitalist society—as long as you don’t pay too close attention to the details.”

Just as 19th-century Southern Christian pastors preached that slavery was morally mandated by the Bible, modern white nationalists cherry pick verses that have built a Christian mandate to support Trump. Now, several years into the Trump regime, Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “The moral crisis of the Trump administration has revealed the danger of false teachers who misuse the Bible and twist its words to whitewash injustice.”

‘REVIVING THE HEART OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY’

So, is this situation hopeless? The author answers with a resounding: No.

Change can come, as Dr. King preached, “in a revolution of values that would necessarily be led by America’s poor, coming together across dividing lines that have been used to pit us against one another.”

On the book’s final page, Wilson-Hartgrove preaches this message as an opportunity to tap deep into the wellspring of our American and our Christian origins. He writes:

“Without Christian nationalism, there would be no President Trump. However extreme religious nationalists may seem to our neighbors and the watching world, the Republican Party as it is currently constituted cannot exist without them. They are the base that the Religious Right built.

“Within the experiment of multiethnic democracy that we call America, Christian nationalism is the greatest threat to the ‘more perfect union’ that our Constitution calls us to strive toward. In a nation that is increasingly less white and less Christian, the coalition the Religious Right helped to build clings to power by undermining the democratic principles that sustain America’s social contract.  …

“The task of a moral movement is nothing less than reviving the heart of American democracy.

“We must do this for the sake of our near neighbors, and we must do it for the sake of our human family on the other side of the world. But we who claim to follow Jesus must do it alongside people of every race, creed, religion and culture because the moral crisis of our time continues under the leadership of men and women who claim the blessing of our God.”

 

Perspectives on Dr. King’s Legacy from Utah and Italy: The Dream Is Still a Dream

This photo of the Rev. Dr. France A Davis, pastor emeritus of Utah’s largest African American church, Calvary Baptist, appears at the top of his online biography within the Calvary church’s website. To learn more about Dr. Davis’s remarkable life, click on this photo to visit the church’s online biography of him.

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EDITOR’S NOTE—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is global, so this week, veteran Italian journalist Elisa Di Benedetto writes about her experiences with Dr. King’s ally and a long-time civil rights advocate in Utah: the Rev. Dr. France A. Davis. As she explains in this story, Elisa visited Utah for the first-ever North American conference of the International Association of Religion Journalists. The primary event organizer was Pulitzer-prize-winning Salt Lake Tribune religion writer Peggy Fletcher Stack. At the conference, journalists from around the world heard a stirring talk by Dr. Davis, then not long after the conference, Peggy wrote an in-depth profile to mark the retirement of Dr. Davis, headlined: Utah civil rights legend France Davis retires from the pulpit after 46 years, but his life remains a sermon in service. Here at ReadTheSpirit magazine, we are thankful that Peggy brought Dr. Davis’ prophetic voice to a wider attention—and that Elisa wrote this column for the holiday honoring Dr. King.
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The Dream Is Still a Dream

By ELISA DI BENEDETTO

Dr. Davis after Sunday services at Calvary Baptist Church. Photo by Elisa Di Benedetto.

“If the dream is that everybody would be treated the same—it’s still unfulfilled. It is still a dream.” Those are the words of the Rev. Dr. France A. Davis, who recently challenged journalists around the world to continue to report on efforts to combat injustice.

Even though I live in Italy, I have been thinking about Dr. Davis’s prophetic message to us as we approach the American holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. Not only did I hear him address our conference, I also visited his Calvary Baptist Church, Utah’s largest predominantly black congregation, where he has served since 1974, before retiring from active pastoral ministry on December 29.

I asked him how he assesses the progress since Dr. King was alive.

“Some pieces perhaps have been realized, like Mr. Obama getting elected to the presidency of the USA. But, other than those pieces, there is still a lot of work left to be done to ensure that everybody is treated the same,” he said, with a little bitterness in his eyes. “That’s what I see his dream is: that everybody would be treated with fairness and justice and have worth and value.”

I met Dr. Davis on a sunny Sunday morning, last October. It was my first time in Salt Lake City. I travelled there from Italy to attend the first North American conference of the International Association of Religion Journalists on “Cultivating, Understanding, Accuracy, and Empathy in a Polarized World.” It was a great meeting with journalists from different regions in the world discussing the challenges we face as we report about the important role religion plays in daily life. The intense 2-day program included keynote addresses from representatives of the local religious majority, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints, and the minority, the Calvary Baptist Church.

VISITING DR. DAVIS’S CHURCH

Dr. Davis shared the history of his church and the challenges of being a religious minority in “the Mormons’ land.” As he ended his powerful speech, I wanted to visit the Calvary Baptist Church and attend the Sunday morning worship service there. I walked to the church along a main access street into downtown, which was renamed Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard in 1993, thanks to Rev. Davis’s advocacy and the community’s efforts, after a long and debated negotiation.

Dr. Davis’s life has been tightly connected to Dr. King, since the marches during the 1960s, which would raise support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and led to the voting Rights Act of 1965. “I was there for the march in Washington in 1963, and in 1965 in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. A part of my work here has been connected to that, and I’ve become the person who many people turn to when they get injustices here in Salt Lake City.”

That advocacy work resulted in the vandalism of Dr. Davis’ office by gunfire—one of the dramatic moments in his life included in my colleague Peggy Fletcher Stack’s Tribune profile of him at the time of his retirement.

GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES

Working from my home base in Italy, I am a journalist who specializes in covering religion as well as issues involving migrants around the world. I also have served as a volunteer working with migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. I see first-hand the challenges of racial, cultural and religious minorities in Europe. I was fascinated to learn about these challenges from a veteran of the American civil rights movement.

“The first challenge has been that the traditional racial issues that the U.S. has had are alive and well here,” he said, recalling examples that included hate letters he received from somebody purporting to belong to the KKK, people beaten up because of their race and name-calling.

“We feel like we are the left out, the least and the last,” he said. “But in addition to that, we are a religious minority and so we have to work hard to be accepted and seen as a viable religious group.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF DIALOGUE

Dialogue and good relationships with other faiths and religions, especially with the LDS Church leaders, have made that possible, he said.

“We work together with all kinds of religious groups, but we agreed to disagree in terms of the theological positions,” he explained. Religious leaders have crossed denominational lines to work on issues including fair-housing laws. In her profile of Dr. Davis, Peggy described how he was barred, because of his race, from the first apartment he tried to rent when he first arrived in Salt Lake City in 1972.

I asked Dr. Davis: So, how were these interfaith relationships established to work on hot-button issues like housing or access to health care?

His answer: “We just agreed not to debate about, discuss or talk about the theological differences—and to work together on the areas we have in common: housing, food, the hungry, the homeless and other social issues like that.”

His congregation provides many services to the community: a housing complex for the elderly and physically disabled; educational opportunities, including preschool reading programs, tutoring and scholarships for college students; recreational programs “so that people can develop mentally and physically”; food and other urgently needed resources for at-risk families.

WELCOMING THE STRANGER

As I stepped into the church that Sunday morning, I immediately experienced how inclusive and active the community is and how every single room in the building is designed to fulfill the needs of a growing community that counts 700 to 800 members from all over the state. They welcome 10 to 12 new members every month. Among them, there are also refugees from Congo, Sudan and other countries, who can attend a service in Swahili language for them, every Sunday at 2 pm.

On January 1, 2020, Reverend Dr. Oscar T. Moses began his pastoral leadership of the Calvary Baptist Church, which celebrated its 127th anniversary last November. Meeting the Rev. Dr. France Davis and his wife Willene Davis, who supported him over the plus 45 years of full-time service pastor, was one of the most enriching experiences of my trip to the US.

In 2020, Dr. King’s vision might still be a dream, but the world badly needs to hold up such dreams, every day—wherever we live and work.

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A Diversity Note for Readers

Front Edge Publishing, founded in 2007, is the media company that produces weekly issues of ReadTheSpirit magazine. Front Edge has published many books about religious, cultural and racial diversity, including Dr. David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind. In 2020, our Front Edge team is producing a series of translations of that influential book about inclusion to share Dr. Gushee’s inspiring message with communities around the world. First, a Mandarin-Chinese version will be published, then a Swahili-language version. Keep in touch with us via [email protected]