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

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

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

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Cautionary humor’ about life’s great challenges?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And—Here’s Minnie Black

 

Jeffrey Munroe and Nicholas Wolterstorff: ‘A book so meaningful, strangers tell others to read it’

Jeffrey Munroe (right) with Nicholas and Claire Wolterstorff


EDITOR’S NOTE: “It’s a book so meaningful, strangers tell others to read it.” In 17 years of publishing books, we can tell you: That’s the highest praise an author can aspire to earn. Since our founding in 2007, our authors have shared our mission: “Good media builds healthy community.” That happens when strangers feel compelled to spread the good news to others. Jeff Munroe’s new book, Telling Stories in the Dark, is receiving that valuable word of mouth. In this column, Jeff writes about one of his mentors who impressed him in this same way.


Meeting an author whose life and books have shaped my own

By JEFFREY MUNROE
Author of Telling Stories in the Dark

Sometime in the 1980s, I attended a discussion about dismantling Apartheid, the South African system of discrimination and segregation that allowed a non-White minority to rule that country. One of the speakers was Nicholas Wolterstorff, a professor of philosophy at Yale University. Wolterstorff was joined by Alan Boesak, President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a black South African who had very few civil rights in his own country. Their conversation was enthralling, and after the event I walked into a pop-up store that featured books by the authors.

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s books were on topics like art and aesthetics, reason and religion, and justice and peace. I suspected they were beyond me. (No one was going to suggest I study philosophy at Yale.)

Amid these weighty tomes, there was a small book called Lament for a Son. When I picked it up, a stranger leaned over and said, “Oh, you’ve got to read that one.” As I experienced, it’s a book so meaningful strangers tell others to read it.

Wolterstorff had lost a son in a climbing accident a couple of years earlier. Lament for a Son was a full-throated cry of anguish, sorrow, and grief. I took it home, read it in a day, and then read it again. I’ve read it five or six times since—it’s one of those books I keep returning to. There is great comfort in Wolterstorff’s words. He hadn’t put aside his great intellect to write the book, but there was nothing academic or intellectual in an off-putting way about it. It was thoroughly human and riveting and it is a book I treasure.

Fast-forward more than 30 years: As I was working on my book Telling Stories in the Dark, a book about people who have not only faced great loss but have done something redemptive with their loss, I thought of Nicholas Wolterstorff. I wondered if I might interview him for my book. I knew he was about 90, but had a mutual friend who told me Wolterstorff was still at the top of his game. I asked the friend if he would introduce us through email, and, as it turned out, Wolterstorff was happy to talk with me and be in my book.

The pandemic was winding down, so I used Zoom for the interview, which also gave me an easy way to record our conversation. The first thing the distinguished Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff did was insist I call him Nick. Then he mesmerized me as he spoke not only about the loss of his son but of living with this loss for decades. I knew our conversation was going to be very helpful for others.

When the interview ended, I shut down Zoom and waited for my computer to tell me it was storing the recording. Nothing happened. After a few moments of panic, I realized I was so excited about interviewing Nick—I had never hit the “record” button. (I might have said one or two bad words at this point.)

I quickly wrote down everything I could remember—thankfully, I had my list of questions, so used that as an outline. Then I decided the only thing to do was come clean. I decided to go back to him, tell the truth (leaving out the part about messing up because I was nervous about talking to one of the gods on Mt. Olympus), and hope for the best.

He was incredibly gracious. He offered to do the interview again, and also offered to send me some additional things he’d written as background. I used what he sent, augmented my notes, and then sent what I had to him.

He wrote back almost immediately, gave me a few corrections, and told me it was “excellent.” (For a second, I thought maybe I should have studied philosophy at Yale after all.)

I am profoundly grateful that we know each other. Nicholas Wolterstorff is one of our most distinguished philosophers. He has been invited to lecture at virtually every prestigious university in the world. Yet the other day, when I visited his church to lead an adult education class on sorrow and grief, he not only welcomed me enthusiastically—he walked me through the large building so I arrived where I needed to be.

He and his wife sat in my class and expressed gratitude that I had told their story well. His humility and authenticity are remarkable.

And so is his story, which I am exceedingly proud makes up Chapter 9 of Telling Stories in the Dark.

Hate crimes against gay and transgender students are way up! And—we’ve got helpful resources.

In a rising tide of hate crimes—

Our authors are publishing, teaching and speaking out for equality and inclusion

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(EDITOR’s NOTE: Special thanks to MSU School of Journalism Professor Joe Grimm for writing about this alarming new report on the steep rise in hate crimes among our most vulnerable young people. Joe is one of many authors in our publishing community concerned about equality and inclusion. Right now, for example, Christian ethicist Dr. David Gushee is preparing to deliver the April 14 keynote at the Parent & Family Summit—”Interwoven: Uniting Kids, Parents and Community.” Follow that link to learn more about the event, which you could attend online.)


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By JOE GRIMM
Founder of the MSU School of Journalism Bias Busters

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page

Hate crimes against gay and transgender students are way up, especially in states with laws against transgender rights or teachers’ speech about gender and sexuality, according to The Washington Post. And the crimes are not up by just a little.

FBI statistics on anti-LGBTQ+ school hate crimes doubled from 2015-2019 to 2021-2022. But in the 28 states with new anti-LGBTQ+ laws on the books, such crimes quadrupled, The Post reported.

FBI stats show the most common crimes associated with LGBTQ+ school hate crimes are simple assault, intimidation and vandalism. Forms of bullying, which are lower on the aggression scale, might not rise to the level of being a crime. Recently, however, news stories have linked bullying of LGBTQ+ students to suicide.

On March 13, a summary autopsy report said Oklahoma high school student Nex Benedict died by suicide after being bullied in a restroom at their school because they did not identify as strictly male or female. The Washington Post report came out against that backdrop.

The Post looked at laws that bar students from sports teams or school restrooms that differ from the gender they were assigned at birth. Other laws limit or forbid teachers from talking about gender identity or sexual orientation.

How are state laws related to bullying?

The Post quoted Amy McGehee, an Oklahoma State University doctoral student who researches LGBTQ+ health and well-being. She said, “Policy sets the tone for real-world experiences [and] discriminatory policy just creates a hostile environment.”

The Post also quoted California high school student Max Ibarra, who identifies as nonbinary and transgender: “The school board has made it very clear we’re not welcome here. It’s very clear they don’t want us to exist.”

3 Valuable Books to Help Change Community Thinking

The Michigan State University Journalism School’s Bias Busters series has three guides that address basic questions for people who seek greater understanding.

One book is titled: “100 Questions and Answers About Gender Identity

Here’s an example of a common question we ran into for that guide:

Do all transgender people have gender-confirming surgery?

The answer:

Most do not. According to the U.S. Transgender Survey, only 25 percent of respondents said they had some type of gender-confirming surgery. Transgender men were more likely than transgender women to have had surgery, 42 percent to 28 percent. Nine percent of nonbinary people have had surgery. Fourteen percent of transgender women and 21 percent of transgender men said they never wanted surgery. Surgery is expensive and insurance doesn’t always cover it. Even if a transgender person does not have or want surgery, their identity is still valid.

A second book is titled: 100 Questions and Answers About Sexual Orientationhttps://www.amazon.com/Questions-Orientation-Stereotypes-Surrounding-Sexualities/dp/1641800275

And a third closely related book is: “The New Bullying: How social media, social exclusion, laws and suicide have changed our definition of bullying, and what to do about it

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Joe Grimm is an MSU journalism professor and founder of the series.

Byron Borger of Hearts & Minds says, ‘There’s power in telling these stories!’

An enthusiastic new review of Jeffrey Munroe’s ‘Telling Stories in the Dark’

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

THIS WEEK, we’re bringing you a video book review of Jeffrey Munroe’s new Telling Stories in the Darka review in a video podcast with Hearts & Minds bookseller Byron Borger.

You can learn more about Byron’s bookstore at his website, HeartsAndMindsBooks.com

Recently, Byron appeared on this podcast, hosted by CCO campus ministry network, offering reviews of a number of books that Byron is currently recommending.

Byron starts his list with an enthusiastic review of Jeff’s new book, so we have “set” the YouTube video below to begin with that review. (If you care to see the entire video, which includes about 2 minutes of introductory material, simply reset the video “slider” to the beginning.)

About Jeff’s book, Byron says in part: “There’s power in telling these stories—and I’m not kidding you! This book is moving!

“And, here’s what’s interesting: Jeffrey Munroe not only tells and narrates each story, which itself would be worth reading. But then, in the second part of every chapter, he brings another person into the conversation: a therapist, a pastor, a clinician, a theologian.

“He brings somebody in and he says, ‘As I’ve told this person’s story, what do you see happening here?’ And then that other person who he’s interviewing … helps evaluate what was going on in that story of trauma. So you’re getting not only a moving story of somebody who went through hard times and coped with it—but then you’re getting an expert … who then evaluates the story and brings some insight. …

“So, it’s not ony the story that’s told but it’s also the evaluation that Jeff does when he engages these experts … And he has lots of good people in here! … And that’s what makes this book shine compared with other books of this kind.”

See Byron’s review of Jeffrey Munroe’s new book

Here’s the YouTube video:

We clearly have questions about the ‘Nones’ among us. MSU Bias Busters have the answers!

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

By JOE GRIMM
Head of the MSU Bias Busters project

Whew! Our team of Michigan State University School of Journalism students—known as the Bias Busters—produced our latest book just in time!

For weeks now, journalists and religious leaders have been running in every direction after the latest reports on the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans.

The same new Pew research data is being described in seemingly opposite ways. Headlines have included:

Fox: Religious ‘nones’ decline for first time since 2016, Pew study finds

NPR: Religious ‘Nones’ are now the largest single group in the U.S.

Nether headline is wrong.

While the proportion of religiously unaffiliated people in the U.S. population has declined slightly, other groups, notably Christians and Catholics, declined more. So, everybody wins— or loses.

Reactions within Christian religions to bringing people into churches varied as much as the headlines.

In The Baptist Paper in Alabama, Mark MacDonald wrote, “As believers, we need to decide if we try to reach this unchurched group, who are ‘characterized as morally directionless,’ or shake our heads and not even attempt the challenge. I would argue the question is not ‘if’ but ‘how.’ Remember, nones are not all the same, but they all need Jesus.”

MacDonald is executive director of the Center for Church Communication. He is also a speaker, consultant, author, church branding strategist for BeKnownforSomething.com. MacDonald proposes building bridges with community-helping ministries, sharing stories, leveraging social media, extending inclusive invitations and demonstrating relevance to daily life.

Michael Pakaluk, a social research and business professor at the Catholic University of America, took a harder line in an interview with the Catholic News Agency. He told CNA, “The fields are there and are ripe for the harvest. People recognize that atheism is its own form of religion. It’s harsh and unattractive. Agnosticism was never widespread and has always been limited mainly to educated classes.”

He said that if people identify as “nothing in particular”—“then in my view they are right back where the church started, among pagan nations, and that is great for us, for evangelization.” Pakaluk told CNA the rise of religious unaffiliation is due to “secularized education and the trauma and poor example of divorce.”

Despite his concerns, or maybe because of them, Pakaluk said now is a great time for evangelization. He said, “Catholic parents should think twice, or three times, before they send their children to any colleges except faithful, vibrant, Catholic colleges.”

Writing for Crisis magazine, historian and author W. Crocker III took a harder line. “Before we can reach the adult nones with the good, the beautiful, and the true, we need to shake them out of their willed imbecility. … Until that is achieved, arguments about truth will miss the mark. Christian humility, charity, and generosity will not move them. … You want to win the nones? Treat ’em rough.”

The evangelical Christianity Today ran this headline, “Why Evangelicals Aren’t Afraid of Being Outnumbered by Nones.” In the article Erik Thoennes, professor and department chair of biblical and theological studies at Biola University, said his Generation Z students are turned off by church marketing or bids to make it cool. They want authenticity.

He said he goes with traditional strengths such as the power of Christ. As the article concludes, he is quoted, “I don’t have to stay atop of the latest trends to make sure dechurching doesn’t happen at my church.” He is pastor of Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada, California. He said. “It’s simple: Stay focused on Jesus.”

Got questions about our minority friends, neighbors and coworkers?

There are now more than 20 guides in the Bias Busters series. Which ones would you like? 

Laura Elizabeth welcomes hundreds of readers into an immersive dinner theater based on her cozy mystery

“Welcome to Mongin Island” The dinner theater was held beneath a huge white tent at the Kaya Vineyard and Winery—giving guests a sense of stepping into the mysterious world woven by novelist and now playwright Laura Elizabeth. (More photos below—so, please, continue reading.)

Beloved Cozy Mystery Characters Spring to Life—with an Author-Curated Soundtrack, as well


EDITOR’s NOTE: In our 14-year history as publishers, we have never had an author turn a book’s “story” into dinner theater. So, we hope readers will understand how thrilled we are to see cozy-mystery author Laura Elizabeth stage a triumphant theatrical run in partnership with Kaya Vineyard and Winery in Georgia. We invited Laura to send us a column about this special experience.


By LAURA ELIZABETH
Author of The Island Mysteries, No. 1: All Is Now Lost

Click on this photo of Laura Elizabeth holding her cozy mystery to jump to the book’s Amazon page and order your own copy in hardcover, paperback or Kindle.

We’re celebrating our three sold-out performances under the tent at Kaya Vineyard in Dahlonega, Georgia! Over 350 people joined us for these performances.

The All Is Now Lost dinner theater followed a script that I wrote, based on my book and I had the good fortune of greeting the crowd each evening to thank them for supporting this work, my book and Kaya.

The audience took a fun-filled journey to Mongin island where they experienced landmarks in the novel including: Books & Brew, which is Carr’s bookstore, and Governor’s Point.

Blue Ridge Community Theater took that script and added some improv—bringing out the personalities of Carr, Barb, Tripp, Coastal Carl, Missy, Theresa and Deputy Julie.

In between scenes, the tent was filled with the tunes from my Spotify playlist, which set the mood for this island mystery. (You can enjoy that playlist right now by visiting this page in my website.)

At intermission, the audience was asked to guess who they thought was our criminal. Correct guesses were entered into a raffle for a gorgeous gift basket.

As I moved through the crowd, I heard many alternate theories to solving the crime. It was definitely a fun, interactive, show that built community—just like what my characters experience on their beloved Mongin Island. Of course, some people had already read the book, but that didn’t stop the crowd from guessing!

Each night, I met so many readers and fans of this book—with some people traveling from Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and South Carolina to see this show and to meet me. It was an experience filled with Island Magic!

To see my characters brought to life and to hear the words I wrote was an absolutely incredible experience. We are already working out the details for four shows next year based on the next installment of The Island Mysteries.

Don’t miss a moment!

Visit my The Island Mysteries website and sign up for my free monthly newsletters.

Before showtime, author Laura Elizabeth visits with a central character from her popular cozy mystery known as Barb.

In the midst of the drama, the main character Carr (center) considers looming twists in the unfolding plot with Theresa (right) and Deputy Julie.

FICTION—Laura Elizabeth’s novel is set partly in a bookstore called Books & Brew on Mongin Island, a fictional version of the real-life, historic Daufuskie Island. FACT—In real life, Laura’s novel is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart and other book retailers.

‘Now what?’ An Idea Incubator at a creative Michigan church bursts with ideas for helping families to embrace ‘The Gifts and Challenges of Aging’

GENERATING FRESH IDEAS FOR THE ENTIRE COMMUNITY: Founding Editor David Crumm presents an Idea Incubator program at Clarkston United Methodist Church in Michigan. The church’s “gathering space” was set up with tables so participants could easily indicate their preferences for various ideas on survey sheets.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Seventy men and women packed the “gathering space” at Clarkston United Methodist Church in Michigan for an “Idea Incubator” about “The Gifts and Challenges of Aging.” That’s the subtitle of our book, Now What? It’s a valuable resource book written by experts in aging—packed with helpful and inspiring information about the many ways we can transform fears about aging into creative resilience as we mature.

IMAGINE YOUR GROUP’s LOGO ON THE COVER—This is the special Clarkston modified edition of the nationally released book Now What? If you click on this cover, you will visit the book’s main Amazon page. If you are interested in modifying a special edition for your community, we will be happy to talk with you about that—if you will email us at [email protected]

In preparation for that program, members of this very active church northwest of Detroit had ordered 70 copies of our book, adapted so that each copy was personalized for their congregation. Their church’s logo was on the front cover of each book distributed for the special program. Plus, the opening pages bound into this Clarkston edition are a two-page letter from their senior pastor, the Rev. Amy Mayo-Moyle. In her letter, Amy explained why this fresh approach to aging is in perfect harmony with the congregation’s mission statement: “Connecting people to people—and people to God.”

The distribution of these books—and an opportunity to take part in this unusual Idea Incubator—raised the enthusiasm in this community to a whole new level! Evidence of that was in participants’ glowing responses to the program’s organizers and speakers that night. They also expressed their interest on survey sheets. Plus, two of our authors who spoke during the program—Rusty Rosman and Howard Brown—sold far more of their books than any of us had expected.

We were surprised, in part, because everyone who participated that night already was reading their specially modified “Clarkston United Methodist Church” editions of Now What? As they arrived, we could see that their copies of that book were studded with bookmarks, Post-it notes and other markers.

Then, in addition to Now What?—they welcomed the idea of fostering future programs on various aspects of aging and caregiving. And, most of them went home with an additional book in their arms that they had decided to purchase, after the program, from Rusty or Howard.

That’s why we called this program an “Idea Incubator”—a way to lift up creative possibilities and build excitement.

It was a fitting way to use this special book. It was in keeping with the spirit of the 14 major organizations that came together just prior to the COVID pandemic—along with 15 expert authors—to develop Now What? Together, we assembled a rich collection of resources on everything from health and wellbeing to caregiving to funeral planning. The nonprofit network that created this resource intended it to be used by groups to generate ideas for new programs to help individuals and families. And, then, the pandemic hit. Public programs nationwide were cancelled. So, this week, the Clarkston church became the first to finally offer a public, in-person program exploring all of these “gifts and challenges.”

How did our Idea Incubator work?

As the General Editor of this book project from the start, I presented its most valuable ideas to the audience. For example, the first one I summarized was this one:

“People who care about their congregations—Christians, Jews and Muslims—hope to welcome more people. Here in Clarkston, you do, too. You hope to encourage more people to join you. Of course, you’ve got lots of reasons to encourage people: You’re warm, welcoming and inspiring. But, did you know that there also is solid, scientific evidence from around the world that connecting with a congregation actually is good for you? After two decades of public-health research, there’s now a global consensus that connecting with a congregation is a predictor of health, wellbeing and increased longevity. That may sound surprising, but it’s true: Secular research on the ‘social determinants of health’ concludes that the caring community connections we form in congregations will help us live happier, healthier and longer lives. It’s summarized in the heart of this book, Now What?—specifically look at chapters 9 and 10.”

At that point in the presentation, I watched as people in the audience pulled out their pens and made notes. Some people opened their books and moved bookmarks to those chapters so they could focus on them later.

After I listed this particular insight—the social determinants of health as they relate to congregations—I listed 13 more valuable ideas in this book for individuals and families. Each person at the event had been given a single sheet of paper with all 14 ideas listed. Below each idea, participants drew a “star” along a range of preferences from “No thank you, this one isn’t for me” to the opposite end of the spectrum: “I’m interested.” When we concluded, those sheets expressing the individual interests of everyone in the room were collected for the congregation’s leadership to consult as they plan future programs.

When they got that pile of responses, Amy and her leadership team could see at a glance that they represented many months of ideas to explore across the coming year. “There’s so much to look over and use here!” Amy said. “This definitely will be part of our planning process this year.”

How this event was organized

Clarkston United Methodist Church already has dozens of ongoing outreach programs and many “life groups”—plus classes, programs for children and youth, discussion circles and public-service projects in Michigan and abroad. That’s one reason we collectively chose this community for this first big program on Now What? We all knew that these folks in Clarkston would be wonderfully receptive.

The other reason we wound up at Clarkston was the encouragement of an “angel”—the term our publishing house uses for a community leader who steps up to ensure that book-related programs happen. Brenda DuPree is a longtime lay leader in the Clarkston congregation and she contacted me, because she remembered that our publishing house broadcast on this book’s national release date from the Clarkston church’s “gathering space.” At that point in the pandemic, we couldn’t host a big public event to launch the book. We needed to use Zoom—and the Clarkston staff volunteered its audio-visual resources to produce the elaborate Zoom event. For an hour, experts from across the nation shared ideas from this book across Zoom.

Brenda DuPree remembered that Clarkston connection with this book—and she realized that the resources in this book had never really reached as many people as we had hoped. So, with pandemic fears having subsided, she launched this new Clarkston planning project, and she also generously supported the whole effort for several months leading to our Idea Incubator this week. The event would not have been possible without Brenda’s tireless work as a local “angel.”

“Angels” like Brenda DuPree can make a huge difference across an entire community and now—with the publication of this ReadTheSpirit story about the event—nationwide.

What Brenda accomplished is exactly what all the expert-authors and nonprofit co-sponsors of this book had hoped.

This book table was shared by Rusty Rosman and Howard Brown at this event in Clarkston, Michigan. By the end of the evening, most of these books were heading home with men and women who were inspired by their talks—and were eager to read more.

Rusty Rosman and Howard Brown—’Shining Brightly’

Click to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Two authors who understood the importance of this program each agreed to give a short talk at the event—and both wound up far outshining my own presentation of the book’s core ideas.

Of course, I was not surprised. That is why I invited Rusty Rosman, author of Two Envelopesand Howard Brown, author of Shining Brightly, to conclude our presentation with personal talks.

When Rusty began her talk, she started with the summary she uses with audiences nationwide (in person or via Zoom or podcast): “When you die, there are so many things your family and loved ones immediately need to know. Two Envelopes is your voice, conveying your final wishes regarding your death and your estate.”

She went on: “We know that three of the most emotional times in our lives are our marriage, birth of our children and the death of a loved one. We cannot predict how we will react at these times but our emotions come out whether we’re expecting them or not. Two Envelopes helps keep chaos at bay when dealing with the emotions of the death of your loved one.”

As she talked, I saw people across the room smiling and nodding their heads knowingly. They already knew what “chaos” can ensue when a loved one dies without ever expressing their wishes about what should come next.

Many people laughed when Rusty said that one of the thorniest questions for families is: “What will you wear when you’re dead?” As they laughed, many nodded. The question struck a personal cord.

She said, “One of the most emotional topics of family discussion when a loved one dies—and it can even become an argument—is what their loved one will wear for viewing and burial. Even if cremation is chosen, there often is a viewing before the final service.”

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Then, Rusty told several stories about dear friends whose families had wrestled with such questions. This was emotional stuff! Rusty’s emotions reverberated in her voice. Emotions also were obvious in faces all across the “gathering space.” And, that’s why, when the program ended, a third of the people in attendance flocked to Rusty’s book table to buy copies of their book.

Clarkston already was planning programs later this year to discuss end-of-life decisions. The interest in this subject was clear cut in that crowd. We collectively hoped to heighten awareness of the importance of this subject across the whole community.

And, of course, Howard Brown’s conclusion of the program built on those emotions Rusty had stirred. A two-time survivor of life-threatening stage IV cancer, Howard simply told the story of several “miracles” that he has witnessed in his own life—because of personal resilience and because of the support of so many friends and family members.

Howard’s story was so moving that—at that point—the audience interrupted him for applause three times! None of us expected applause at such a program, but—at this point in the evening—it was clear we were talking about life-and-death issues close to the hearts of so many people in that room.

Similarly, when the program ended, a wave of people gathered around Howard and bought his Shining Brightly book to take home with them. Some people, in fact, bought both books. None of us expected such a heart-felt response!

Care to join us?

Is there an “angel” in your congregation—or your regional group, library or nonprofit—who would like to bring such a program to your community? A lot of planning and preparation went into that special night in Clarkston, but our publishing house is willing to plan such events with other interested groups in the future.

Contact us at: [email protected] or [email protected] Either email address will reach our offices.

Want to learn more about Rusty Rosman? Visit her website, RustyRosman.com

Want to learn more about Howard Brown? Visit his website, ShiningBrightly.com

Want to learn more about this remarkable congregation in Clarkston, Michigan? Visit their website.