Dr. Wayne Baker: How 10 core values can rebuild a ‘United America’

Best-selling author Brian McLaren says, in his Preface to United America: “This is a book to be shared and translated into thousands of healing conversations across America. Our values matter, and you and I can help them survive and thrive.”

This couldn’t come at a better time. Dr. Wayne Baker’s book reports his conclusions from years of research conducted at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. The book’s full title is, United America: The surprising truth about American values, American identity and 10 beliefs that a large majority of Americans hold dear.

United America appears just as the Glenn Beck apologizes for “helping to tear the country apart” and says he wishes we all could focus on “uniting principles.” The problem is: Glenn Beck doesn’t know what they are.

UofM’s Institute for Social Research is known around the world for its painstaking, nonpartisan research. Now, in Dr. Baker’s book, all Americans have a roadmap to find and discuss our uniting principles.

To help promote a United America, you can …

  • Buy a copy of Dr. Baker’s book. (Click on the book cover with this interview.)
  • Tell friends. (Click on the blue-“f” Facebook icons or the little envelope-shaped email icons.)
  • Read more about the book. (After enjoying this interview, visit the United America resource page, which includes a free download of the 10 Core Values and a video of men and women already talking about this book.)
  • Read more about the 10 values. (For years, Dr. Baker has developed OurValues.org as part of his research into promoting civil dialogue. This week, he is launching a 10-part series of short columns about each of the 10 values.)
  • Plan a small-group series with friends. (This book is designed to spark small-group discussions in any community. Questions in the book are ideal for classrooms and team-building series in any setting.)


DAVID: I’ve been a journalist for four decades now and I can say with confidence: This book is big news. As a social scientist, you’ve proven that Americans agree on a whole lot more than most of us ever thought possible in this era of Washington gridlock, red-blue stereotypes and angry media pundits. You’re really busting some myths here, right?

WAYNE: Definitely. The research we are publishing now in this book clearly shows Americans share more common ground than a lot of people thought possible. I have documented 10 core values that are strongly held by Americans; and we have strong evidence in support of that.

DAVID: When you say “10 core values,” you’re not talking about simple majorities. You’re talking about almost universal agreement among Americans on these deeply held beliefs.

WAYNE: That’s right. Before I could determine that something was a core value, it had to meet a number of characteristics. To include a value on the final list, it had to be held by a very large majority of Americans over a period of time. In some cases, these values are held by 85 or even 90 percent of Americans across four national surveys, conducted over a two-year period. If people felt strongly about a value in the first survey, but a later survey didn’t show such strong agreement, then it wasn’t a core value. These beliefs are stable over time. They are widely shared across demographic, political and religious lines. We agree on them whether we are conservative or liberal, young or old, rich or poor.

DAVID: This research involved a very elaborate process, beyond the four national surveys. I know that you explored nearly all of the past studies on this issue. Tell us more about how you reached the final 10.

WAYNE: Working with the Institute for Social Research (ISR), we started by looking at more than 100 questionnaires that researchers had used over the years to explore American values. We held focus groups, talking to people about values and about how they talk about values. We compiled a very long list of possible core values and then we pared down this list, further and further through these stages of the work. We actually held focus groups where we asked people to debate the values. Finally, we reached a list of 24 possible core values that we tested in our four surveys. After the data came back from the surveys, I asked our top data people to throw every kind of test they could think of at these conclusions. Was this research solid? Had we missed something? Were these conclusions true? After all of that testing, we know the conclusions are solid.

DAVID: And these aren’t your recommended values. They’re not your opinions about what values we should hold.

WAYNE: That’s right. I did not start with any conclusions about what I would find. If we had found that there are no core values, I would have reported that. If we had found a different list of values, I would have reported those. I’m a social scientist reporting the evidence from some of the most exhaustive and rigorous research ever conducted into American values.


DAVID: Your book, revealing our 10 core values, is going to be good news for a lot of weary Americans. Polls show Americans actually hate the angry atmosphere of name calling and gridlock nationwide. How have we gotten into such a mess?

I think we’ve got a clue in Glenn Beck’s recent apology. He now says: “I wish I could go back and be more uniting in my language because I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping to tear the country apart and it’s not who we are and I didn’t realize how really fragile the people were.” Well, you know as a researcher, Wayne, that Americans do hope for unity. So, why did Glenn Beck do this for years? He now says: “I remember it was an awful lot of fun”—not to mention that it made him a wealthy celebrity!

WAYNE: A lot of people, today, make careers out of controversy. And, for a lot of people, these battling voices are a form of entertaining reality television. But, the polarization we see today is largely coming from media commentators and political elites in this country. And, there’s no question that the elected officials in Washington are deeply divided.

But my research was not among political elites—we were interested in what Americans really think.


DAVID: Your findings make a lot of sense, when we look at the major trends in American life that Pew researchers have just documented. This new Pew report on “milestones” was not designed to look at values—certainly not in the way you define values. But the Pew team’s list of “milestones” did identify some major shifts underway in American culture. And, when you look at those dramatic lines moving across the Pew charts—they make sense when compared with your list of values.

Here’s an example: Pew now finds that a majority of Americans favor legalizing same-gender “marriage.” And if you describe this as a form of civil “union,” there’s an even bigger majority approving legalization. Beyond that, big majorities of Americans feel this legal change is inevitable—whether they like the idea or not. In your study, you found that “Equal Opportunity” is an almost universally held Core Value. Now that same-gender unions are largely being seen as an example of “Equal Opportunity,” the whole country seems to be shifting toward approving the practice.

WAYNE: Yes, in that milestone identified by Pew, I think we are seeing an expression of one of the values I describe in my book. Proponents are calling this a case of “marriage equality.” This change we are seeing in this issue is a good example of how people can tap into our what I have identified as Core Values to promote a particular issue or agenda.

DAVID: Another Pew milestone is the record number of 40-million immigrants in the U.S. right now. In addition to Equal Opportunity, you also name “Respect for Others” in your list of 10. Your book is going to be good news, I think, for immigrants coming to this country. But it also suggests that we are really going to be testing our values over the next few years. Can we live up to our ideals?

WAYNE: That’s a good question we all should be discussing. This Pew report also reminds us of what people around the world think about our country. Remember that the U.S. still is the global destination of choice today, if you look at the numbers of people moving around the world. Russia is second, but it’s a distant second.

In other parts of the world—think about the Middle East or Africa—immigration can result in violence, death and even genocide in extreme cases. But, in America, a very high percentage of men and women believe that we should respect others. For example, a very high percentage of Americans believe that the sacred books of any faith should be respected—and that’s not a value in many other parts of the world. Americans believe that all races should be respected—and that’s not true in other parts of the world.

DAVID: But there are big gaps between our beliefs—and what we actually do in public policy. When people read your book, they’ll find lots of examples where we’re still pretty far from our ideals. One example is racism. While most Americans say we should respect all people and provide equal opportunity—the truth is that we’re also experiencing records in the wealth gap separating rich and poor, black and white. That’s part of the discussion you’re hoping people will undertake.

WAYNE: Yes, there is an obvious gap between our values and reality. We still see vast differences in actual opportunities, by race. This is an ongoing struggle. I tend to be optimistic. I think we should acknowledge the truth about the problems we face, then talk about what we might do together based on the deep values that unite us as Americans.

DAVID: You also point out in the book that—even if we completely agree on our ideals—we will have honest disagreements about the best policies to reach those goals, right?

WAYNE: Yes, working out policies to reflect our values is the tough part. But we cannot even start on that process unless we can find common ground to talk as Americans.  The problem is that we’ve forgotten we even have common ground. That’s what Brian McLaren writes about in his Preface. One of the strong messages of this book is that we do have far more common ground than most people realize.

Usually, when we talk about the difficult issues we face, we start with disagreements and we don’t get very far. Or, we may never even bring up these issues because of the mistaken impression that we can never hope to agree.


DAVID: Readers don’t have to take your word for it. You’ve proven that civil conversation is possible—even in the Wild West of the Internet. Part of the ongoing research that went into United America is the daily OurValues.org project you’ve produced, as a department of ReadTheSpirit.

WAYNE: We have published more than 1,500 OurValues.org columns over the years. I write most of those columns. We have some very talented guest columnists who have contributed, as well. We all follow a similar approach: We take a values-related issue that’s making headlines, so we know it affects a lot of people. Then, we try to present a bit of news with each column—sometimes a new survey, or some another piece of news we’ve spotted about that issue. Then, we ask questions and we moderate readers’ comments. People who comment are not allowed to personally attack each other. If that does happen, we email the author of the comment and explain why the comment was held back. This rarely happens anymore, but when we do have to intervene, the people who post offending comments respond and agree to revise what was written. This has worked surprisingly well.

DAVID: You’ve proven the potential of civil dialogue in other was, too. In recent months, two pilot groups in two different cities helped you to test the United America book in a series of discussions. Readers can watch a 6-minute video on this page, which shows some folks in those sessions talking about values from their own perspectives.

WAYNE: The first thing we learned from those two pilot groups was: People will show up to talk about this! We had big groups show up in both locations and people were eager to talk. It is true that some people did show up the first time feeling rather anxious about what might happen. They said they were afraid this might devolve into the kinds of angry confrontations we see in the media. But people were willing to give it a try and people quickly realized that we can have civil dialogue.

It was very interesting to see how this unfolded. As we talked, week by week, people resonated with every one of these values. Most people said: “We’ve never thought about it this way before.” They’d go home and talk about this with relatives and friends and co-workers, because they were so relieved to discover that we do share core values. People kept asking when this was going to go nationwide, so they could urge friends in other cities to start discussion groups. Well, that’s happening with this launch.

In some of the discussions we held, the stories people told were very personal and very touching. A lot of people were sad to see the series come to an end. They had formed new connections with others by sharing personal stories about how these values played out in their lives. The most common one-word response we got from people in these groups was: Hope.

Help promote a United America

  • Buy a copy of Dr. Baker’s book. (Click on the book cover with this interview.)
  • Tell friends. (Click on the blue-“f” Facebook icons or the little envelope-shaped email icons.)
  • Read more about the book. (After enjoying this interview, visit the United America resource page, which includes a free download of the 10 Core Values and a video of men and women already talking about this book.)
  • Read more about the 10 values. (For years, Dr. Baker has developed OurValues.org as part of his research into promoting civil dialogue. This week, he is launching a 10-part series of short columns about each of the 10 core values.)
  • Plan a small-group series with friends. (This book is designed to spark small-group discussions in any community. Questions in the book are ideal for classrooms and team-building series in any setting.)

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

10 Steps toward peace with author Judith Valente

THIS WEEK, ReadTheSpirit is recommending two new books by poet, author, retreat leader and PBS-and-NPR journalist Judith Valente. So, you’ll want to read our full interview with Judith. In addition, we invited Judith to write this column describing some of the basic steps toward rediscovering peace in our lives. This personal story by Judith opens with a scene from her new book Atchison Blue and then shares 10 insights to ponder.

Conversatio Morum:
A Pilgrimage Toward


If we are very lucky in life, we arrive at a moment that launches us on a journey of discovery. Having grown up in the shadow of New York City and spent much of my career in Chicago, I could never have imagined that my journey of discovery would lead to a place as strange to me as Atchison, Kansas, and to a Benedictine monastery on a hill.

In the spring of 2007, I was feeling very dry in my spiritual life. Like many Catholics, I despaired over the clergy abuse scandal and the increasingly politicized statements by our bishops that seemed aimed at pointing to the splinters in everyone else’s eyes but their own. In the public arena, so-called Christians seemed bent on dividing the world between insiders and outcasts.

More to the point, perhaps, there were many broken places in my own life that needed healing. As a new wife, I struggled in my relationship with my adult stepdaughters. At work, I found myself embroiled in a silly, totally unnecessary conflict with my supervising producer. My weekends were occupied with travel to different cities to give presentations on my first book, Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul. All of these commitments left me with little time for prayer, reflection or rest.

Then a door opened. I was invited to give a workshop on “Touching the Sacred through Poetry” at the retreat center of Mount St. Scholastica, the Benedictine women’s monastery in Atchison. I arrived feeling exhausted—mentally, physically and spiritually. The morning I was to give my presentation, I sat alone in the oak-limned chapel. I wondered how I was going to speak to a retreat group later that day about nourishing the soul when I hadn’t fed my own soul a decent meal in weeks.

Sunlight streamed in through beautiful blue stained glass windows. Silence saturated the room. I happened to look up at the stained glass window in front of me. There was an image of St. Benedict with outstretched arms. Surrounding him were some words in Latin: omni tempore silentio debent studere. I reached back into my high school Latin and did a rough translation. “At all times, cultivate silence.”

Suddenly the paradox I had been living stared me in the face. I had been traveling around, talking and talking, trying to help others live a more contemplative life. But in my own life what was missing were moments of silence and solitude when I could simply listen and be. Without those moments, I was losing drop by drop the inner resources I needed to do my work well and cultivate an interior life.

I didn’t have any grand plan for changing my life. I only knew that something nameless had shifted inside of me that morning in the chapel. Whatever it was, I wanted more of it.

I began carving out a few days each month to spend at Mount St. Scholastica, learning from the Benedictine sisters what it means to live a truly contemplative life. I don’t profess to have arrived (Eureka!) at the truth. As a Desert Father once told a young monk, “The spiritual life is this: I rise and I fall, I rise and I fall.” That is also the way of conversatio morum, what Benedictines refer to as conversion to the monastic way of life. And that is perhaps what I felt the first stirrings of that day in the chapel.

Since then, I’ve come to understand conversatio doesn’t spark a sudden tectonic shift in the way we live our lives. It isn’t an earthquake, but more like the slow etching water makes on a shoreline. It is, as my friend Sister Thomasita Homan once put it, “a continuous conversation with life.”

Conversatio involves developing certain habits of the heart that then inform our daily living. Every day, as I read the newspaper and listen to NPR, I think the same thought. How different the world would be if each one of us was living out just one of these monastic habits of the heart. Would we have experienced the reckless self-interest that led to the economic collapse a few years ago if we did as The Rule of St. Benedict urges, what is best for others first? Could we avoid the vitriol that poisons our national discourse, that paralyzes our democracy if we practiced the principle: Be the first to show respect to the other. Would corporations drop their employees’ insurance coverage simply because they can, if their managers understood that the true task of a leader is the care of souls. Would the immigrant stranger be walled out, or welcomed as The Rule says all guests should, as Christ? Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they truly may be served as Christ is the kind of health care reform The Rule envisions. Would the current debate over “Obamacare” change in tone if the monastic view of care of the sick became society’s as well?

It seems facile to try and reduce Benedictine spirituality and a monastic view of life to a Seven Habits of Highly Effective People-type list. Conversatio is, after all, not a to-do list, but the work of a lifetime. Still, there are certain Benedictine values I try to keep daily before my eyes, like guideposts on a long, narrow and sinewy road. It is that spirit that I offer a few of them here.

Ponder them.

See if one in particular fits your life right now. Sometimes one will speak to us at a certain time of life, others will appear more meaningful at a later period. Conversatio is never static. The way is always unfolding before us. I rise and I fall. I rise and I fall.


It has always intrigued me that the first word of The Rule of St. Benedict isn’t pray, or worship or even love. It’s listen. And St. Benedict takes it a step further. He asks us to listen with “the ear of the heart.” We tend to talk at and over one another. Just watch any cable news channel. During the government shutdown, some political leaders suggested what was needed was more talking. I believe what is needed was more listening. St. Benedict wisely suggests we listen to the youngest voice as well as the voice of experience.

Prayer and Praise

Work and pray, Ora et Labora, is the Benedictine motto. And prayer is the main work of any monastery. Monastic men and women begin the day with the moving gesture of running their fingers across their lips in the sign of the cross. They pray, “Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” These are the first words they utter each morning and it’s a call for praise. For me, it’s a reminder that our days are made not for grumbling, self-criticism or worry, but for praise. How can we make all of our actions a form of praise? Can we make of our day one extended prayer?


In the age of 24-hour TV, silence is a disappearing commodity. E-mail, Facebook and Twitter are a form of visual noise. The Rule encourages esteem for silence. My friend Sister Micaela Randolph of Mount St. Scholastica once taught me this handy practice. Before you open your mouth to speak, she said, ask yourself three questions: is what you are about to say true, is it kind, and is it necessary? “There is so much talking that goes on that is utterly useless,” the great monastic writer Thomas Merton once said. “The redwoods, the sea, the sky, it is in these you will find answers.” In other words, in the silence, everything begins to connect.


Interestingly enough, the longest chapter in The Rule of St. Benedict is on the practice of humility. The very word runs counter to our American instincts. But humility isn’t the same as humiliation. It derives from the Latin root humus, which simply means “of the earth.” There is a wonderful custom at Mount St. Scholastica in which before they pray, the sisters bow to one another. In the land of the easy handshake and the quick hug, the bow says, “I recognize the gifts in you, and I acknowledge my own limitedness.” There was also an old and beautiful custom at Mount St. Scholatica in which a group of sisters, assigned to a task, would first bow to one another and ask, “Have patience with me.” I often muse how pleasant my work day would be if at the start, I bowed to my colleagues and they to me and we asked each other to please have patience with our human failings.


Like many professionals, I suffer from a chronic condition: over-achieverism. That is why I’m so drawn to another Benedictine motto, succisa virescit: cut back, it will grow stronger. Whenever I visit Mount St. Scholastica, I love to visit the vineyard. The grapevines are wonderful plants. They will grow and grow without much outside help. But they won’t produce much of value without the careful attention of the vinedresser, who must periodically radically cut back the vine’s branches. For someone like me, always trying to accomplish five tasks at once, it’s a reminder to regularly survey my life and cut back on excess activities so I can re-focus on what’s essential. Succisa virescit. Cut back, it will grow stronger.


Our society puts a premium on mobility. Perhaps because of our frontier history, mobility often equates with progress. Monastics turn that idea on its head. They each take a vow of stability to remain at one monastery for life. As someone who’s lived in four U.S. cities and three European cities over the course of my adult life, I’ve developed an appreciation for stability. It’s the idea of grow where you are planted. Or as a Benedictine friend once told me. “You do not need to go elsewhere because everywhere is here.”


There was a lovely tradition in ancient monasteries that whenever a stranger appeared at the door, the gatekeeper was to respond, “You blessing, please.” Visitors received this greeting regardless of whether they were perceived as friends or suspected of being enemies. Of all the mandates in The Rule of St. Benedict, the call to treat all guests as Christ is one of the clearest. No matter what our politics, The Rule calls us to respect the immigrant, the refugee, and all of society’s marginalized people. Hospitality in The Rule also extends to a compassionate concern for the sick. But hospitality does not end with works of mercy. The Rule also calls us to a hospitality of spirit and of mind. Can I be hospitable to ideas that don’t fit neatly into our established world view? Can I listen with the ear of my heart to people with whom I don’t usually agree?


Often you will find lovely gardens surrounding monasteries. I once asked the prioress of Mount St. Scholastica why that is so. Benedictines have always cultivated gardens, she said. Gardens remind the world of the need for beauty. Gardens require care and The Rule asks us to bring that kind of careful attention to all areas of our lives. Regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected,” St. Benedict says. It is a reminder that everything we encounter deserves our attention. Our natural world, most especially, is ours in trust. As the writer John McQuiston notes, “Everything we have is on loan. Our homes, our businesses, rivers, closest relationships, bodies and experiences. Everything we have is ours in trust and must be returned at the end of our use of it.” Nothing is to be neglected, most especially, beauty.


A recent study found that America is becoming a politically segregated society. Red states are becoming redder, blue states bluer. Americans increasingly live amid others who look, think, and vote just as they do. St. Benedict eschewed the solitary life as a hermit in favor of living in community, but the kind of community he envisioned was quite different. It was one where members checked their wealth and pedigree at the door. Age and education didn’t matter either. What mattered was that a person was willing to join hands with others within community in seeking God. Each was to receive according to his need, bearing each other’s weaknesses with patience. It is what still matters in monasteries today. Is each member seeking to build the others up, rather than tear them down? Are decisions made through consensus, not conflict? Is each member helping the other find the true self? St. Benedict recognized that we don’t become fully ourselves alone, or solely in the company of like-minded individuals, but in a community of many different kinds of people, each adding their own foibles, perspectives and strengths to the mix.


We know it when we experience it. But contemplation is one of those words so hard to define. “Living mindfully, looking beyond the obvious” is how the Benedictine writer Joan Chittister once defined it. For me, the life of contemplation is a lived life. It’s a promise of not arriving at your death bed wondering what the heck this life was all about. “Be where you are and do what you’re doing” is the description Mount Sister Imogene Baker once assigned to it. I like what my friend Brother Paul Quenon of the Abbey of Gethsemani once said. “Contemplation is just a big fat word for gratitude.”

Care to read more?

ReadTheSpirit magazine is recommending two of poet, author, retreat leader and PBS-and-NPR journalist Judith Valente. You’ll want to read our full interview with Judith to learn about these two inspiring books.

Retreating (close to home!) by Cindy LaFerle

THIS WEEK, ReadTheSpirit is recommending books by poet and  journalist Judith Valente. (And, don’t miss Judith’s own column on 10 steps toward rediscovering peace.) However, when we read such stories, we might get the mistaken impression that retreats are only for well-to-do people who can travel great distances. So, we invited author and columnist Cindy LaFerle to share this chapter from her book Writing Home about a simpler solution she has found.

(Close to Home)


Four times a year, I indulge in a ritual that puzzles my neighbors, not to mention my family.

It goes something like this: I rise at dawn on a weekday and load my car with two large tote bags—one crammed with books, the other with pajamas and a toothbrush. I back out of the driveway quickly and disappear for twenty-four hours. The next day, I come back looking as if I’d spent a full week at five-star spa.

My sacred escape, as I call it, is a mere twenty minutes from home, but seems a universe away.

“So, did you have fun at the monastery?” my husband teases when I return.

My hideaway isn’t exactly a monastery—but it’s the next best thing. Secluded on a wooded estate in Bloomfield Hills, Manresa Jesuit Retreat House remains one of the best-kept secrets in my part of Michigan. It’s where I go when my shoulders lock up and I can’t quite silence the white noise buzzing in my head. It’s where I turn when I feel unappreciated, uninspired, overtaxed and overwhelmed.

No, Manresa doesn’t offer facials, glycol peels, pedicures or therapeutic massages. And while the historic Tudor-revival mansion graciously opens its meeting facilities to business functions and networking events, it remains, at its heart, a place for the spirit. Religious artwork and gilded icons decorate the hallways, while Stations of the Cross and Catholic statuary anchor its manicured acres of tranquil garden paths.

And nobody goes home hungry. On a recent overnight retreat, three church friends and I enjoyed heaping portions of “Jesuit cuisine”–a divine menu of real comfort food, including roast chicken, green beans, and divine, buttery mashed potatoes. And, as we quickly discovered on a midnight kitchen raid, there’s always a plate of homemade cookies left for snacking.

After dinner, my friends and I usually set aside time alone for reading and reflection. While I also read inspirational literature at home, I enjoy this genre most in the sanctuary of my private room at Manresa. (The paneled library downstairs, in fact, is where I first discovered the writings of Henri J. M. Nouwen.)

Spending just a few hours this way, I feel as if my frazzled parts had been gently polished and refastened.

I highly recommend retreating to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation. Women, especially, need to give ourselves permission to step aside for a breather, even if our loved ones think we’re being unsociable, or, heaven forbid, neglectful. Our devotion to family and career seldom allows time to quench the soul, and few of us have a quiet place where we can pause to refuel.

Unlike health spas, where the lodgings are typically deluxe, religious retreat houses offer minimal amenities. Expect no television and very few distractions. Manresa, for example, enforces periods of silence that must be respected by all guests.

A spiritual retreat can be held in any secluded location, but be sure to plan well in advance. Leave secular worries behind and cell phones turned off. And if you’re not attending a guided retreat, prepare your own list of spiritual activities–group discussions, personal journaling, meditation, or prayer focus.

Wherever you retreat, your aim should be to return to your daily responsibilities with fresh perspective and a renewed spirit to share with others.

Care to read more?

Look around your region of the U.S. for retreat centers that are open to the public at a reasonable cost. Because retreat centers vary so widely, you might try asking a pastor, rabbi or imam in your area about sites they may recommend. If you ask friends from a similar religious background for suggestions, you’re more likely to feel comfortable when you arrive.

This column was reprinted with Cindy’s permission from her book Writing Home, which ReadTheSpirit also highly recommends. You’ll also enjoy her regular columns at www.LaFerle.com.

Wow! MSU students produce a guide to America in 70 days!

A NOTE from ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm:
We crowed last year when Michigan State University School of Journalism students produced an important book, The New Bullying, in just 101 days. Those 101 days were counted from the original idea, through extensive nationwide research, to writing, editing and final publication. Well, this year, another MSU class has trumped that accomplishment by producing a valuable new guidebook to America, written to help newcomers from abroad feel welcome in the U.S.—in just 70 days!

ReadTheSpirit Books works regularly with the MSU journalism teams to produce these books and, today, we’re celebrating with this latest group of talented students. Even more importantly, we’re celebrating on behalf of the thousands of visiting international students who will be helped by this book!

(Want to get your copy now? Here’s the Amazon page for 100 Questions and Answers about Americans.)


NEWS UPDATE DEC 11: Xconomy business news magazine’s Sarah Schmid covers the launch of the new guide. Schmid describes the guide as evidence that “Michigan is poised to become a hot spot for global talent because of its popularity with international students, particularly those studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” (Read the entire Xconomy story.)

NEWS UPDATE DEC 11: Center for Michigan’s BRIDGE magazine’s Kathy Barks Hoffman says this guide fits perfectly into Michigan’s push to welcome newcomers. She writes: “Gov. Rick Snyder is pushing for more international students to study and stay in Michigan. The Global Talent Retention Initiative, funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and a grant from the New Economy Initiative of Michigan, is bringing together Michigan universities, economic development groups, ethnic chambers of commerce and professional organizations to help retain top international talent in the state by finding them jobs with Michigan companies.” (Read the entire BRIDGE story.)

And here is Joe Grimm’s story about the launch, posted December 9:



Some Michigan State University journalism students spent the last day of classes, Dec. 6, giving copies of their semester’s labors to international students at a book launch.

In just 10 weeks, the students published a 60-page guide, 100 Questions and Answers about Americans.

Their aim was to use journalism to help international students better understand American customs and behaviors. The need for this kind of outreach has grown. International enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities has gone up for seven years in a row and was at 819,000 in 2012-2013. Michigan State, with more than 7,000 international students, is in the top 10 among American universities.

The project was proposed and supported by a grant from MSU’s Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives. The guide is the second in a series of guides to cultural competence published by the MSU J-School and Read the Spirit Books.

Several more guides are in the works for 2014.

The class of 16 students asked students from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and North and South America for their questions about life in the United States. The answers were researched, written and vetted. The students added a glossary of idioms and slang.

The guides are created with a four-dimensional approach that stresses respect, accuracy, authority and accessibility.

Powered by proprietary Read the Spirit publishing technology, the guides are available on paper, Nooks, Kindles and e-books. The entire process, from getting their assignment to having the guides appear on Amazon, took just 70 days.

Some of the questions:

“People in the United States smile at strangers for no reason. Why is that and what is the meaning?”

“What does ‘How’s it going?’ mean?”

“How can I connect with people here if I don’t understand cultural things like old TV shows, celebrities or sports?”

“When should I tip and how much should I leave?”

“What is included in a date?”

Do these sound like simple questions? Not if you come from a culture where customs of hospitality and relationships are quite different. As our American university students researched these guides—and talked to a wide range of people in their reporting—they wound up with many new insights into the challenges newcomers face in the U.S. Common phrases and small gestures that “we” take for granted are confusing, and may even seem offensive, to people who are trying to form new friendships but don’t understand “our” signals.

Student Marlee Delaney wrote, “The project was really eye-opening for me, as a student and as a journalist. I was really surprised to hear some of the questions that these international students came up with. I had no idea international students felt intimidated by Americans because oftentimes we feel intimidated by them.”

Merinda Valley expressed similar feelings. “As I asked and answered questions for our guide, I realized that many international students have trouble starting conversations and forming friendships with Americans. Though I feel that I’m attuned to the difficulties of living in a foreign country, this really surprised me. So, if our guide can take away some uncertainty about American culture, I think it will be valuable to a lot of people who want to interact with Americans and simply enjoy their experience here.”

Joe Grimm is the Michigan State University School of Journalism instructor in this course and series editor for the cultural competence guides project.

As Advent begins, borrow a football strategy: We>Me

By congregational consultant Martin Davis

(Read more about Martin Davis’s work at the end of this column.)

On Thanksgiving, after the last touchdown is tallied and the leftover turkey is tucked into the refrigerator, you’re going to head to church on Sunday to celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. Christmas is upon us! And that means every church in America is thinking about how to turn once-a-year visitors who attend on Christmas Eve—the biggest church-sampling opportunity each year—into more-regular attendees.

How do you plan to reach people this Advent? The strategy I’m going to share with you today springs from a slogan used by my son’s undefeated, championship-winning middle school football team. Let me tell you about “We > Me.”

Before this championship season started, my son’s coach developed a rallying cry, as most coaches do each year. We’ve seen a lot over the years, but I particularly liked this one: We > Me. The resonance with football is obvious. It’s a team game—no one player can be responsible for winning and losing. Everyone must pull in the same direction. Win or lose, you’re in it together.

The same is true when converting occasional attendees into regular members of your community. Winning these people over requires your church pulling together in the same direction. Both in terms of message, and in terms of the tools you use to communicate it. In short, you have to ask: How do “We” communicate to those who come to us?


Welcoming and connecting with visitors begins with examining your current communications and what they say about who you are and how you talk together. As Advent is this coming Sunday, let’s leave the bigger questions for January and instead examine three simple things you can do to find out if you’re communicating to your visitors as “We” instead of “Me.”

COLLECTING VISITOR INFORMATION: Whatever you use to collect information about visitors, are you asking about them and their needs—or pushing your agenda? Compare a “We” visitor’s card versus a “Me” visitor’s card:

  • ME: Your card or welcoming volunteer asks visitors if they want a call or email or pastoral visit; if they have a church home; if they have a prayer request. For visitors, the first two sound like what they are—member solicitation; can we recruit you? The third is asking for very personal information before they even know you.
  • WE: Your card or welcoming volunteer points them to ways to help others during the holiday season—food delivery, wrapping presents, singing in a special choral event, etc. The message? We are a place that serves, and we need and value your special gifts.

SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN: Newcomers frequently bring children. Are you prepared?

  • ME: Shuttling the kids from their parents as quickly as possible for the sake of worship decorum. Or shuttling them out the door after the first 15 minutes of worship.
  • WE: Let the families decide. If they wish to stay together, be prepared from them in worship, in Sunday School, and in-between. If they wish to move their separate ways, make sure you walk them to where they need to go—don’t expect signs to do all the work. The message? We take care of one another.

PREACH IT (EFFECTIVELY)! Don’t be afraid to say who you are, and who you are about, from the pulpit.

ME: Sermons as usual. The message? If you aren’t from here, figure it out.

WE: As actors exaggerate their movements and volume on stage, so should ministers exaggerate who the church is. The message? We care enough not to assume you will figure it out. Take extra time to explain the worship service as it unfolds, point out how to follow the music and readings, talk about what the church is doing in the community. Loop back to what I mentioned above—that “We” message you’re delivering as you welcome visitors.

All for One

These three simple steps will allow you to speak and greet as “We.” Is it more effective? Do some simple math and find out. Did a greater percentage of new guests return in three months than they did last Advent season? If they did, you have a lot to build on. If they didn’t, why didn’t they? Did the message match your members’ actions? If you don’t know, keep better data so you can compare next Advent’s results.

Whether you “win a championship” and get lots of new members, or struggle through a tough season, you will do it together. And learn more about who you are as a community. Either way, We > Me will yield a much stronger team.


ReadTheSpirit works closely with nationally known church consultant and media expert Martin Davis. We publish occasional columns, sharing his wisdom with our readers—and we are working on a couple of 2014 book projects Martin is assembling, so stay tuned! Right now, you may find some of Martin’s past columns valuable …

Your Newsletter May Shock You—and These Possibilities Will Excite You: Martin writes about the transition to e-newsletters and lessons you’ll want to learn for making your e-newsletter more useful.

4 “Secrets” to a Successful Website for Your Congregation: As Martin lays out the issues, these “secrets” make a lot of sense!

Sorting Fact from Fiction in Church Growth & Social Media: Martin’s trademark style is to cut through the hype and quickly bring readers some common-sense steps toward successful communication.

Care to contact Martin Davis? Visit his Sacred Communication website to learn more.

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

The Sacred Art of Hospitality interview with Nanette Sawyer

Hospitality is all the rage in communities coast to coast this year, in part because we are approaching the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s declaration of a national Thanksgiving. But what is hospitality? Emily Post? Serving tea? A suite at a convention with mixed drinks? Where do we turn to rediscover the spiritual core of hospitality?

Google is no help! Type in “hospitality and church” and you’ll get more than 35 million responses!

Today, we’re proud to introduce the Rev. Nanette Sawyer and her book: Hospitality—The Sacred Art—Discovering the Hidden Spiritual Power of Invitation and Welcome. Our good friends Fred and Maryanne Brussat at the Spirituality & Practice website have reviewed Nanette’s book, calling it “excellent” and providing a quick summary of the book that we will share with you here:

The Rev. Nanette Sawyer is founding pastor of Grace Commons, an innovative Christian community in Chicago that holds hospitality as a core value. An ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church (USA) … Sawyer sees the spiritual practice of hospitality as sending out circles of meaning and connection in our lives. Its three main qualities are receptivity (opening the door to God), reverence (entering the space of love between us), and generosity (giving the gifts that we have received).” You may enjoy reading the Brussats’ entire review or an excerpt of the book that the Brussats published at their website.

As you can tell already, this is not an Emily Post guide to etiquette. At the same time, it is a very practical book. The chapters have titles such as “Hospitality to Neighbors: Becoming the Merciful Neighbor” and “Hospitality to Enemies: Extending Generosity through Non-Retaliation.” In each section, Nanette divides up her material with easy-to-follow sub-heads and lists of helpful bullet points. She explains step by step how readers can explore all of these forms of hospitality. It’s a great choice for small-group discussion in your congregation.

However, we also want to be clear: This isn’t a cookbook guaranteeing church growth as an outcome. This book is—as SkyLight Paths so appropriately has labeled the book—about learning the “Art of Spiritual Living.” This process makes for a better life—and a better world and, if you follow these practices, a much healthier congregation and community. In the course of Nanette’s book, you’ll find ideas that parallel our own Read The Spirit Founding Principles.

At one point, Nanette describes the value this way: “Through this practice of hospitality to ideas and the people who hold them, I have been opened and inspired, nurtured and reassured of the deep relationality that is life. I hope that my learnings can shine a light on your path as well.


READ THE SPIRIT EDITOR DAVID CRUMM: As I travel around the country, I meet countless people talking about “hospitality.” Kindness is a central part of our American character—but, most of us are ashamed that our country now seems so divided and so—well, so flat-out rude. I’m going to urge readers to buy your book to discover a much broader understanding of what hospitality means—where it begins and how far it extends.  I’m also going to tell readers that you aren’t Emily Post. So, give us a big picture of hospitality: What is it?

THE REV. NANETTE SAWYER: I have often thought of my book about hospitality as a book about love. It’s about learning how we can become people capable of love. I’m asking: How do we learn to love like this? How do we show love? How do we use love? Think about love as a tool that we can learn to use more effectively and we begin to appreciate how incredibly empowering and transformative this can be.

DAVID: I like that! One way to explain the big picture of hospitality is to define it as an expression of “love.” You’re teaching people that hospitality really springs for a deep authenticity—as deep as love itself, right?

NANETTE: Absolutely. And if we hope to be hospitable in an authentic way, then we have to take risks and learn to see both ourselves and others in new ways.

In his declaration of a national Thanksgiving 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln told the nation that we must be honest about our own failures and limitations. He wanted Americans to see these truths. Yet, he wanted Americans to understand that we still are precious and we can heal from our wounds. That’s another important part of this process. Hospitality calls us to be better people.

DAVID: You’re touching on forgiveness here—giving up the angry knots of hurt we feel toward people we believe are our enemies. One way “forgiveness” is described is that we consciously give up our desire for vengeance for past wrongs. We let go of the fear and the anger we’ve nursed since the original offense.

NANETTE: That’s right. Now, we need to say that forgiveness is not permission to simply let people go on acting harmfully. But forgiveness is closely related to hope. Forgiveness says that we are placing our hope in this new kind of hospitality we are developing. Forgiveness is a big process. We have to learn to forgive ourselves. We have to let God forgive us. This is all part of becoming better people capable of love and capable of hospitality.


DAVID: My wife and I are helping to clean out the home of my elderly parents, who now live in a smaller apartment. Our whole family has been involved in this process for months now. It’s a big task. But one thing people learn in cleaning out a person’s former homestead is that we certainly can’t hold onto the things we accumulate forever. It’s an ancient truth in all the world’s religions: These things we seem to “own” in life are not really “ours.” And, it seems to me, that’s a part of what you’re trying to get readers to see about hospitality.

NANETTE: That’s part of this bigger vision I’m encouraging. As people talk about things being “mine” or even “our own”—they are describing only their own isolation. As you say, we don’t really “own” what we have in a permanent way. My book is about building a shared community. I’m calling people to open ourselves up to a bigger reality. It’s about sharing everything that we have and everything we think we own.

DAVID: Let’s take this down to a practical level. The fact is that most people in congregations coast to coast don’t know much about the other people in their own congregation. On most residential streets across America, neighbors don’t know each other anymore. If some of the things we’ve said so far in this interview seem a bit abstract—your practical advice in the book starts with very tangible steps. You advise readers to: Spend more intentional time with your family. Meet your neighbors. Learn about the other people in your congregation.

NANETTE: Right.  If we’re going to welcome neighbors, we have to start by knowing who lives nearby. We ultimately need to be aware of the whole planet, but we can start with becoming aware of the people who live with us on our street, in our neighborhood, in our town. Maybe the people on your street are all like you—but maybe not. It takes a great deal of courage to go out and meet the people living nearby. We need to practice an awareness of what’s happening around us in our neighborhoods.

I also talk to readers about practicing hospitality in your family. And I encourage people to learn about each other in congregations, as well. In many congregations, these days, there is a real hesitancy to invite other congregants over to your home for dinner. I want to encourage people to start thinking and talking about why that isolation is so common today. What is it inside of us that makes it hard for us to open our homes? Is it because we’re afraid of what we might learn about them—or what they might learn about us?


DAVID: After 40 years of interviewing people around the world, I love conversation. But this really is a skill that most people haven’t mastered, today. In fact, as we move more toward digital interaction with the world, the ability to start a good conversation with another person really takes some practice. Of course, the best conversationalists are those people who are genuinely interested in the person they’re meeting—so interested that they spend as much time asking questions as they do talking about themselves.

One thing that sold me on the value of your book was the practical pages you provide in the heart of the book about the practice of conversation. You provide several good discussion starters—classic questions that good conversationalists often use. Tell us about that.

NANETTE: I write about something as basic as conversation because most people don’t regularly experience intentional conversation.

DAVID: You write, “Intentional conversation has this effect of creating a free and open space between the people conversing. It is the space of encounter in which we are deeply attentive to each other. In this space, we foster our curiosity about each other and express that curiosity in the form of an invitation to know each other better.”

NANETTE: Most people tend to go for easy topics in conversation—like the weather. And that’s not bad. We’re culturally conditioned to do that and the weather can be fine as a starting point. But, you want to find out more about what’s important to this person you’re meeting. We really want to get to know people, so how do we move from passive comments on the weather—to finding out about the other person. You can ask: What do you do for fun? Or ask about the person’s hobbies. It’s simple. Just ask: What are your hobbies? Or ask: What’s been on your mind lately? That’s a nice open question that invites a person to take their answer in a number of directions.

If you ask questions in this more open-ended way, you’re likely to discover new things that never would have occurred to you. If you risk this kind of conversation—if you risk learning about the people around you in this way, then we all will feel more connected and less isolated.


DAVID: You recommend many ways to interact with people—conversation is just one of the essential steps. In your own life, you’ve been experimenting for years with creating collaborative artworks as a way to build community.

I’m going to provide a link so readers can take a look at one of your online installations, based on a large-scale collage project you did a year or so ago. You took the centuries-old format of Stations of the Cross and you invited lots of people to help you create contemporary stations. (Here is the link to Stations of the Cross: Pray with Grace Commons, built around immigration themes.) I’m in awe of what you achieved here! It’s one thing to recommend your book. But, it really underlines the value of your book when people can see how powerfully you’ve spread this message. Just look at your Grace Commons Stations of the Cross. To create this big installation, you produced some of this art yourself. The members of your congregation and community produced some. And then—you created a hospitable place where other artists and other congregations also created artworks. Finally, you brought them all together.

I think this really is a tangible sign of the power behind your ideas.

NANETTE: I’ve become an artist through my work with Grace Commons. We intentionally did a lot of work with the arts in ministry because we wanted people to tap into different ways of engaging in spiritual life. We did an arts workshop on what we called Mapping Forgiveness. We started a project called Art Space in which people would actually do art in what we consider a worship time. One project was to make an all-original stations of the cross, so we tried that in 2007. There were some artists in the community who agreed to create one or two stations. Then, we created other stations as collaborative art projects involving a lot of people.

That went so well in 2007 that we created this later Stations of the Cross on immigration themes that you’re going to link to online. If you look at the art we produced in that second stations project, you will see a lot of collages among the pieces. That’s because I needed to develop a way of doing art that would convey meaning and yet also could be done in a community setting. With collages, everyone can tear paper and paste it.

DAVID: Clearly, you’ve got lots of talents in teaching and talking with people. So, here’s the last question: If you had a chance to talk with readers as they finish reading your book, what would you tell them?

NANETTE: I would say: I hope you feel affirmed in your preciousness. I hope you feel affirmed in seeing that you are precious and loved by God. I hope that you are encouraged not only to accept that love deeper in your own life—but that you also want to share love with the people you encounter each day—and then with our larger planet.


The Rev. Nanette Sawyer is a pastor, artist, teacher and spiritual counselor who understands that hospitality has the power to heal. The author of Hospitality—The Sacred Art, Nanette teaches about a soul-deep hospitality that is nothing short of transformative. For years, she has been involved in interfaith work both locally and nationally. As an author, she writes as a Christian who is committed to what she describes as “reclaiming the historically dynamic nature of Christianity, as well as its roots in hospitality and generosity.”

Raised in a conservative Christian church, Nanette renounced the faith in her pre-teen years and spent more than a decade finding her way to a Christian faith that made sense and was rooted in grace and love. She recalls that it was the hospitality of generous teachers and practitioners that led her to this new experience of Christianity as a positive force in her life and in the world. Nanette began her working life with a two-year stint as a repair seamstress after getting out of college. Next, she directed a Women’s Resource Center at a small liberal arts college in Amherst, Massachusetts, for eight years before heading to Harvard Divinity School to study Comparative World Religions and to obtain a Masters of Theological Studies. After Harvard, Nanette worked at the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalists in Boston for two years, and then headed to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago to get her Masters of Divinity degree. In 2002 she was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and was one of the first women to found an emergent style church.

Supported by the Presbytery of Chicago, Nanette launched an experimental “church without walls,” now called “Grace Commons” (originally Wicker Park Grace) in Rogers Park on the north side of Chicago. Since November 2012 she also pastors a small, progressive church, St. James Presbyterian Church, which is currently the host of the Grace Commons community. In addition to her book on Hospitality, she has chapters and articles in a number of books and magazines. A sought after speaker, you can learn much more about her life and work by visiting her main blog: A Transformed Faith at www.NanetteSawyer.com

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

Open Outcry: How sharing ideas inspires people nationwide

SHARING is a vital part of Read the Spirit. We welcome readers to share our content as long as you include an appropriate link to our online magazine. Yesterday, we saw a dramatic example of this unfolding—and we’re now sharing the whole story with you.

TWISTS & TURNS IN THIS VIRAL SHARING: Last year, our popular author and columnist the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt was touring Chicago when his imagination was captured by a phrase related to that city’s Mercantile Exchange: Open Outcry. He returned home to Virginia and wrote a column, headlined Call to Compassion: Hearing the Open Outcry. Then, his column was republished via the website for the Day1 radio network. Author and hospitality expert the Rev. Henry Brinton is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia. Late last year, Read the Spirit published an in-depth interview with Brinton about his work in promoting hospitality. Brinton and Pratt were following each other’s work via Read the Spirit—and Brinton wound up preaching his own Open Outcry sermon on Sunday June 30 (we are publishing that sermon, below, so you can see the latest version of this influential idea).

Meanwhile, the idea already is moving further across the landscape. Brinton writes for Homiletics Online, where this sermon also will appear for subscribers to that influential preaching magazine. (So, the sermon below is published with permission of http://www.homileticsonline.com.)

On this particular Sunday, Brinton’s congregation—which practices hospitality on a regular basis—hosted a group of Turkish Muslim families. Brinton mentions their presence in his sermon. Pratt also visited Brinton’s church and took today’s photograph.

Open Outcry

June 30, 2013
Written and Preached by the Rev. Henry Brinton, Fairfax Presbyterian Church

Psalm 5:1-8

Ben Pratt was a pastoral counselor here in Fairfax for many years, and is now retired.  On a recent tour of Chicago, he made a discovery.

He learned about a system called “Open Outcry.”

This system is used at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where milk and butter are traded, along with interest rates and currencies.  The traders gather in a large trading pit, and all of the communication about buying and selling is by hand gestures.  This system is Open Outcry.

“Open Outcry,” said Ben to himself.  “I couldn’t get the phrase out of my head.  For more than a century, that phrase has captured the emotional, split-second, make-or-break trading system that fuels a major part of our economy …. Yet, somehow, I hadn’t heard that phrase until our tour of Chicago — or had I?”

Psalm 5 is an Open Outcry:  “Give ear to my words, O LORD, give heed to my sighing.  Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray” (vv. 1-2).

Open Outcry.

I am so glad that members of the Ezher Bloom Mosque are with us in worship today.  One of the things that unites us is that we all pray to God, and ask for his help.  We need God to hear us and respond, especially in times of trouble.

The writer of Psalm 5 is crying to God, asking for help.  Facing the threat of violence, he begs God to destroy those who are telling lies (v. 6).  Perhaps he has been accused of wrongdoing himself, and is now pleading his case to God (v. 3).  The psalm can be used today by anyone being threatened by wicked, evil, boastful, bloodthirsty, or deceitful people.

All of us have been threatened by violent people, here in the United States and abroad.  We need God’s help in the face of these threats.  After the bombings at the Boston Marathon, the parent organization of the Ezher Bloom Mosque issued this statement:  We condemn “the actions of those responsible for the horrific incidents in Boston yesterday.  Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the victims and their families, the wider Boston community and all Americans.  Terror, violence and the killing of innocent people can never lead to beneficial results.”

Our Turkish brothers and sisters joined their voices in an Open Outcry after this act of violence.  And for that, we are grateful.

So how are we helped by crying out to God?  First, we find relief by offering our honest prayers to God.  “O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice,” says the psalm – this verse reminds us that God actually hears what we say.  “In the morning I plead my case to you and watch.  For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you” (vv. 3-4).

Believe it or not, we can gain relief simply by speaking honestly about our troubles.  “Talk therapy” is the technical term for this, and it can do a lot of good for people feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious.  “Don’t bottle it all up inside — you’ll explode,” says the website of the JFK Medical Center in Florida.  “This may seem like another cliché, but it has truth and value. Talking about your feelings can really help.”

So talk about your feelings with God.  In the morning, plead your case — ask for help with neighbors, spouses, coworkers, and relatives.  Pray for strength to face the challenges of the day, knowing that the Lord is “not a God who delights in wickedness.”

Second, bring your Open Outcry to others.  Following his tour of Chicago, Ben Pratt talked with his fellow travelers including two men from New Jersey.  They were struck by the beauty and opulence of Chicago, as well as by the sight of street people begging for money.  Their conversation turned into a discussion about economics and taxes.

“I don’t mind that a lot of people make a lot of money,” said one of the men from New Jersey.  “That’s the way of our system.  What really bothers me is that so many children in our nation don’t have food for breakfast or they go to bed hungry at night.”

When people do evil to us, we should begin by crying out to God.  But our Open Outcry should never stop there, especially in a society in which we have the power to improve the world around us.  Just as we have reason to scream when a family member lies to us, we should also be shouting when our community fails to provide breakfast for children.

In the Bible, Open Outcries are directed both to God and to other people:

We cry to God:  “Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer,” says Psalm 86; “listen to my cry of supplication. In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me” (vv. 6-7).

We cry to others:  “Cease to do evil, learn to do good,” says the prophet Isaiah; “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:16-17).

We cry to God:  “My God, my God,” cries Jesus from the cross, “why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

We cry to others:  “Know that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the LORD your God,” says Jeremiah; “the fear of me is not in you, says the Lord GOD of hosts” (2:19).

Throughout the Bible, God’s people are not afraid of Open Outcries.  Sometimes the cry goes up to God, saying, “Give ear, O LORD to my prayer.”  Sometimes it goes out to other people, saying, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good.”  In either case, passionate words are being spoken and heard.  In the face of evil and deceit, we should never stand silent.

This is another area in which Christians and Muslims can stand together.  We can join together to feed the hungry children who are living in motels along the Lee Highway corridor.  We can work together to make sure that affordable housing is preserved here in the City of Fairfax.  We don’t mind that people make money in the United States, since this country has long been a land of opportunity.  But we don’t want children to go to bed hungry, nor do we want them displaced from their affordable apartments because the buildings are being replaced by luxury units.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, shared these concerns.  That is why her first extended speech in the Gospel of Luke is an Open Outcry:  God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” says Mary, “and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:52-53).

Mary’s words reveal the kind of God we worship—one who brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly.  Her cry also reminds us of the work we are supposed to do as followers of God—feeding the hungry while also telling the rich, “Hey guys, you’ve got enough.”

Open Outcries remind us of the true identity of God, and of our own true identity as well.  I think this applies equally to people of faith who are Muslim and Christian.

“As people of faith, we are called to welcome the Open Outcry,” writes Ben Pratt.  “It’s not an arcane system of signals that we can claim to have forgotten.  Those of us with even modest means need to respond with compassion.  Even humble Mary is crying out the vision to us today:  Our God leads us toward exalting the humble and filling the hungry with good things.”

Finally, Psalm 5 starts us on the path toward rediscovering our identity as people of faith.  “The boastful will not stand before your eyes,” says the psalm; “you hate all evildoers.  You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful” (vv. 5-6).  “Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me” (v. 8).

You’ve probably heard the expression “the best defense is a good offense.”  You’ll certainly hear it as the Washington Redskins go into training camp in July.  In this case, what’s true in sports is also true in the life of faith.  Following God in the way of righteousness is going to have the effect of preoccupying your opposition.  Walking a straight path is going to confound your enemies and reduce the chance that they will do you harm.

So go ahead:  Kill your enemies with kindness.  As the apostle Paul says to the Romans, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals upon their heads” (12:20).  Remember what our Turkish brothers and sisters said after the Boston Marathon bombings:  “Terror, violence and the killing of innocent people can never lead to beneficial results.”

Abraham Lincoln showed kindness to his enemies when he chose three of his presidential opponents to serve on his cabinet during the Civil War.  These three men had run against Lincoln for the Republican nomination in 1860, and they disdained him for his backwoods upbringing and lack of experience.  But Lincoln soothed their egos and turned them into allies, finally winning their admiration and respect.  Together, they led our country through one of its most challenging times.

Lincoln destroyed his enemies by turning them into his friends.  That’s our challenge as well, especially as we get ready to celebrate the birth of our country on Independence Day:  To destroy our enemies by turning them into friends.

When facing opposition or attacks, don’t keep your feelings to yourself.  First, lift them to God in an Open Outcry.  Second, call out to the people around you, and work together to seek justice and help the oppressed.  Finally, turn to God for help as you seek to walk in the path of righteousness.  Treat your neighbors fairly, and turn them into friends.

In the most desperate of situations, God will hear your cry.  And respond.  Amen.

Pratt, Benjamin. “Open Outcry.” Read the Spirit Website, October 6, 2012, readthespirit.com.
“The Benefits of Talk Therapy,” JFK Medical Center Website, April 18, 2012, http://blog.jfkmc.com. Burgess, Tina. “‘Team of Rivals’: Lincoln, Doris Goodwin, Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis,” Examiner, November 10, 2012, www.examiner.com.

Want to keep this sharing going?

You can do a great deal to keep this inspiring idea spreading further across the nation and around the world. Simply click on the blue-“f” Facebook icons at top and bottom of this column and share it with friends. Or click on the little envelope-shaped icons and email to friends. Come on! Please, tell a friend.