Repossessing Virtue: Khalid Kamau on Gaining Time and Community in the Black Church
» download (mp3, 18:11)
Nancy Rosenbaum, Production Assistant
When I started working with Speaking of Faith in January, Trent, our online editor, asked me to read through a thick stack of listener e-mails that had flowed into our inbox after we broadcast "Repossessing Virtue: Parker Palmer on Economic Crisis, Morality, and Meaning".
SOF producers had already started reaching out to past guests of the show to engage them in conversation about the moral, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of the economic downturn. We wanted to get listeners into the mix of the conversation.
I spent a few quiet winter days in my cubicle with a highlighter pen, reading the 100+ responses we had received. People wrote in with all kinds of insights and reflections — from the deeply personal and specific to more theoretical interpretations of the economic collapse, its causes, and its implications.
When I read this essay by Khalid Kamau in New York City, I knew immediately that I wanted to talk to him. I wrote on the page “I like this one a lot” and gave it a little star.
You see the theme of community keeps coming up in the conversations we’ve been having with past guests of the show and others through our continuing Repossessing Virtue series. And while living more deeply and deliberately in community sounds good at first pass, it can be complicated and fraught. My own recent-ish experiences living with roommates is a reminder of this.
Khalid nails this complexity in a very personal story he wrote about baking a cake for his parents as a kid. I’m not going to give away the guts of the story; you should hear him tell it. But suffice to say that Khalid’s received some confusing messages growing up about what it means to ask a neighbor for help. To this day, he says he won’t knock on a neighbor’s door to borrow eggs or milk.
I’m excited to share Khalid’s story with you as well as the conversation we had about how he’s experiencing the economic downturn. Unlike others we’ve spoken to, Khalid was laid off from his job a few months ago. When he was working, Khalid says he was always busy, a frenetic New Yorker (I used to be one of those too). Now he’s using this new-found expanse of time to volunteer, pray, reflect, and simply do nothing.
This is the one of the first in a series of listener conversations we’ll be featuring online and in an upcoming radio program slated for broadcast in May. We’re approaching this as a creative experiment so please let us know what you think.
Repossessing Virtue: Anita Barrows on Finding the Sacred in the Ordinary
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Larissa Anderson, Poetry Producer
There are many Speaking of Faith programs where I can remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the show, when I heard something resonate like a ringing tuning fork right up on my bones. "The Soul in Depression" is one of those shows, and we recently rebroadcast it. I particularly love the poetry in the program — like the Rilke poem that starts, “I love the dark hours of my being. / My mind deepens into them.”
Anita Barrows translated that poem. She’s a poet herself, and she’s got a new book of poetry out titled, Kindred Flame. I talked with her recently for our Repossessing Virtue series. During our conversation, she said we’re called now to examine how we take care of each other. And, she mentioned a Rilke poem she’s translating with her friend and colleague Joanna Macy that gives her perspective and strength.
I was also interested to hear her say Pablo Neruda is a good poet to turn to in these economic times. She brought up poems like “Ode to My Socks” and “Ode to Tomatoes.” "Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market" is another one. Barrows said Neruda helps her remember it’s in the ordinary things that we find the sacred.
Repossessing Virtue: Elliot Dorff on Seeing Duty as a Responsibility
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Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Elliot Dorff, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, first appeared on SOF as part of "Marriage, Family, and Divorce." Now a somewhat old program. It was before my time, an era when Krista and Mitch and Kate would pop in at conferences and interview interesting voices in a hotel room with mattresses and drapes serving as sound baffles. (Well, I guess we still do that once in a while, even today!)
Dorff, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, looks to the Torah and ancient rabbinic wisdom as a model for acting in the world during these difficult financial times. He has a special way of explaining things plainly. At the beginning of the interview, he opens with an idea that, although not particularly novel, but becomes more poignant in light of current events and crises: our collective focus on money and material wealth is a form of idolatry. When the Torah forbids people from worshipping “false idols,” the sacred text doesn’t just intend for it to apply to statuettes or icons or paintings. For Dorff, that means any being or object or idea that takes one’s focus away from God.
He sees the current economic and cultural crisis as more than just a spiritual dilemma — it’s a point of pragmatism that pulls together community for those in need. The Torah requires him to help the poor and the needy. And serving those in need means more than charity. Helping others means preserving their human dignity and we, he reminds us, should not look on this service to others as a duty but as a responsibility.
One of the best ways to help is to give that person a job or invest with that person. It’s a matter of dignity by empowering people in need to foster long-term sufficiency. He tells a story where he and other faculty members put this idea into practice by taking a salary cut so that fellow colleagues’ positions would be preserved.
Dorff’s perspective and grounded wisdom reminds me that the psyche of my fellow man is as important as is his basic need for food and shelter. Being able to hold one’s head up brings alleviates the burden of survival. We don’t want to simply exist, we crave respect and creation and ambition, in the best sense of the word.
Repossessing Virtue: Katie Ford on Poetry, Katrina, and Wasting One’s Life
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Larissa Anderson, Poetry Producer
I used to teach The Grapes of Wrath, and I remember it was such a strain on my students’ imaginations. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Joad family these past few months, with the staggering the numbers of people losing jobs, and collecting unemployment, and I wonder how the Joads’ experience can offer some insight into the current economic crisis.
Honestly, it feels like a strain on my imagination to think about how the Joads endured. They lived on lard, flour, and potatoes. (The potatoes I can figure out, but I don’t even know what I would do with lard and flour.) They lost everything except what they could pack in their truck, along with over a dozen people — some too old to live through that kind of journey — and drove, slowly, across the country to find a job, to survive.
I invited Katie Ford to join Speaking of Faith's conversation about the current economic environment. She studied theology at Harvard University, and she studied poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s just come out with a new book titled Colosseum; it’s a collection of poems about Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it left behind.
In our conversation, Katie Ford talked about turning to literature to find wisdom and comfort during times like this. She looks to James Wright, a poet who grew up during the Depression in a working-class family and knew what it meant to struggle through economic turmoil. She mentioned one of his poems, “In Terror of Hospital Bills,” and talked at length about some of his most well-known poems like "A Blessing" and "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota."
We thought this might be an ideal time to ask you about poetry and its role in your life. What poems and/or poets are you turning to in this economic environment? What insight are they offering you? Share your story in the comments section below or, if you prefer, write us here.
Repossessing Virtue: Greg Epstein on Human Solutions and Not Divine Ones
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Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
We last spoke to Greg Epstein in the wake of a Pew poll on the American religious landscape, finding that 16 percent of Americans identified themselves as unaffiliated, atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. Greg Epstein is the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and he has been an emerging leader in trying to unify that growing population of the non-religious — to create a community driven not by a stance against religion, but by positive ethical beliefs and actions.
So as we turned to Greg Epstein again, we wanted to know how he’s seen his community experiencing the current economic crisis. Epstein once defined humanism as “philosophy of life without supernaturalism that affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment aspiring to the greater good of humanity.” It turns out that the current economic crisis has refocused his community’s vision of what that “greater good” should look like.
Repossessing Virtue: David Hilfiker on Strengthening and Liberating the Poor
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Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
We last spoke to Dr. David Hilfiker in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he gave insight into the issue of poverty and its modern history. We’re hearing from him again after several years and, although much has changed, Hilfiker’s message about caring for the poor has remained consistent. He discusses how poverty is as much of an issue now as it ever has been, and how the current economic situation might provide an opportunity to renew a social contract between the affluent and the needy.
Repossessing Virtue: Shane Claiborne on Opportunity for Renewed Community
» download (mp3, 14:10)
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
In the young Evangelical world, Shane Claiborne is a rock star. And this isn’t hyperbole; I witnessed it first-hand at last year’s National Pastor’s Convention in San Diego. After he spoke on a panel hosted by Krista and another solo lecture, throngs of people surrounded him asking for his autograph or seeking counsel. He’s infusing a new generation of Christians with hope and a sense of social service. It’s this enthusiasm and his way of living in a monastic community that compelled us to ask for his perspective on the current economic crisis.
He looks to the words of Jesus, describing them as fresh and an invitation, an opportunity, to hear them anew during these turbulent times. He looks to the model of early Christians, to Gandhi, to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, to the nobility of the poor. In all of these cases, it’s community, he says, that perseveres no matter the economic state of society. After you listen, please leave us a comment about what you think.
We’ll keep releasing mp3s of our interviews via this blog, our podcast, and now on a Web site for Repossessing Virtue. And, please share your ideas about how this downturn has affected you in terms of personal conscience and values?
Repossessing Virtue: Humility Is the Basis of My New Faith
Jessica Sundheim, Guest Contributor
Editor’s note: We asked our listeners and readers to tell us their stories about the moral and spiritual aspects of the economic downturn. In the coming months, we’ll be featuring some of these on SOF Observed an as part of our First Person project, "Repossessing Virtue."
Jessica Sundheim reminds us that personal transformation and understanding happens at any age. She kicks off this first person exploration, and continues our series of interviews with wise voices, including Martin Marty, Prabhu Guptara, Esther Sternberg, Rachel Naomi Remen, and others to come.
Since I was very young, like just about everyone I know, I had a strong mechanism deep within that could smell injustice, layer upon layer of it. I knew at age three that going to daycare sucked, and I knew that my peers were favored because we were cared for by their mother. However, the complexity of greater social injustices didn’t really begin to sink in until I turned 25. Before then I think of myself as a protestor/whiner. I saw the injustice at face value and whined about it. Growing up on poverty and years of watching PBS documentaries of war demonstrations, the liberation of concentration camps, civil rights marches, The Wonder Years, and listening to my parents old LP’s of The Beatles and Janice Joplin had left their mark.
The tragedy of 9/11 took place just weeks after my 23rd birthday. It was shaking, like someone had struck a chord that had resonated for years and then on 9/11 someone struck a new chord, a chord no one knew. I quit my job to stay home with my kids. I flew home to Tennessee with my toddler and eight-month-old baby to visit family. We bought a new car. We waited. I was ready to act, but no direction came. I also began to seek out spiritual renewal and joined a very fundamentalist Bible study. Soon, my car was tuned to a different station, one that focused on my family and my role in it instead of news and the world. My head was filled with directives to isolate, seclude my young, and become as perfect as possible. My goal was to be Jesus Christ and to get everyone else to be just like me.
The mechanism that smelled injustice began to be tweaked. “Could it really be injustice if the person isn’t a Christian? God works for the good of those who believe in him.” Personal behavior and faith status became the stick with which I measured out those who suffered for no cause of their own and those who deserved it. No longer a sheep in the flock, I wasn’t even the shepherd; I was the butcher, me and about 5 million others. So when the war that I had been fated to protest for years came, I was blinded by a belief system that mandated an eye for an eye.
My belief system had little sympathy or compassion for people who could not control their sinful nature. I didn’t even believe in funding public schools, or that women should work outside the home. Our society was falling apart because of working women, sex, Godless public education, taxes, and fast food. I really, really believed in this.
Shortly after 9/11 my husband became the director of an environmental learning center. Two years later, when the funding was cut and the center folded my life changed. I started a cleaning business at seven months pregnant because no business would hire me, and I got a job as a coordinator for an after school program (in a public school). I also became vehemently opposed to any business that would have the audacity to discriminate against a pregnant woman.
My husband worked endlessly. He had three jobs. He went to tutor at the school at 3:00 p.m., from there he went to his overnight factory job at 6 p.m. He got home after working an 11-hour shift at 5 a.m. At 9 a.m., after four hours of sleep, he went on call as an EMT with the local ambulance service. He could still catch some sleep if he didn’t get a call. Without the paycheck that we had become accustomed to, public school began to look like a good deal, my dream of home schooling was fading. Something I had railed against for years (welfare) began to look like a social safety net. I’ll never forget the time I was at a Christian women’s meeting and the director of the food shelf leaned over and said, “You can go to the food shelf so many times per year. You should go.” She squeezed the life out of my hand, as if to say if you don’t go I’ll hurt you. I went.
I’ll never forget that experience. I, a hard working, educated, sober, business woman was going to a food shelf! The people were so nice. The form was one page, about five questions. I thought we’d get enough food for one meal, but I had to pull my car around so that I could unload box after box into my car. We were given so much, I couldn’t fit it all in my cupboards. We ate every last can of tuna, box of instant potatoes, and even SPAM with relish.
Humility is the basis of my new faith.
I do not look at the state of our country’s economy as a crisis in the same way as most. The state of affairs is an opportunity, in many ways. I still have a sense of justice, and so I think that someone should pay for the frivolous, machismo, arrogant politics and policies of the last 15 years. But, I know that for the most part the powerless, not the propagator, will suffer most in this mess.
However, poverty for me is no longer a judgment handed down to the lazy, uneducated, drunken, egocentric sloth. I no longer define poverty by neighborhood, class, education, or even bank account. Poverty is to lack the ability to help others as one would want to help oneself. Poverty is the inability to forgive — the blind, misinformed faith that isolates and secludes a person from joy, self-forgiveness, compassion, and love for one’s neighbor.
Our family has gone through a financial crisis much like what the country is facing now. We have learned a lot and I feel that we are better off. The leadership I am looking for at this time is a leadership that believes in everyday people. Leadership that doesn’t look at the person’s bank account or position of status to find value, but instead a leadership that understands the inherent value of every citizen of this country. A leadership that doesn’t seclude or isolate, but reaches out to all of us and in turn gives some useful direction, a map.
What am I doing differently? I am no longer a secluded housewife. My kids go to school. We moved to a new community. I am grateful for welfare, food stamps, and Medicare even though we no longer use them. The food shelf still rocks. Involved in my local political party, I fought hard for a candidate with real vision as a delegate to the DFL state convention. (I am the former chairperson for the Big Stone County Republican Party). For the last year I worked two jobs, helped plan a fundraiser, door knocked for Barack, had a house party, marched in a lawn chair brigade in many parades for my local candidate for Minnesota House Seat 10A. As the volunteer coordinator for A Center for the Arts, I naturally voted “yes” on the constitutional amendment.
I find wisdom at a unique church. The church is actually two churches, United Church of Christ and a Presbyterian church, which came together to worship in the same house when a tornado blew through town almost a hundred years ago. The six of us live in a two-bedroom house on the tracks in the “ghetto” of Fergus Falls, and I let the kids play with the neighbors. I could not be more different, or any further from my old idea of “perfection.”
I find leadership in my elders, veterans, the people who grew up during the Great Depression, and my grandmother. I also look for ways to be of use. I find spiritual renewal in many forms of art, but my favorite is dance. I enjoy other’s points of view and I don’t always know mine. I like collaborating.
I once called into an MPR pledge drive during SOF to protest the show and withdraw my membership. I am sorry. Now, I want to tell you thank you. This [essay] is humongous, but it’s been a journey and I wouldn’t be the person I am now without having listened to the different ideas and perspectives (especially an interview with an Evangelical fundamentalist a few years back). Your show makes a difference, so I look forward to tuning in.
Jessica Sundheim was born during the Carter administration and lives in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
Repossessing Virtue: Rebecca Blank on the Ethics of the Free Market
» download (mp3, 7:36)
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
The financial crisis has been a topic at all of our recent staff meetings, and we’ve been looking for different ways to address it. One idea was to begin conversations with thinkers in a variety of fields about the moral implications of what has happened and why. For the first of those conversations, we called up the economist Rebecca Blank, co-author of the book Is The Market Moral? She brings together a faith in the power of markets and her life-long Christian faith, providing a unique ethical perspective on the free market at a time when even Alan Greenspan has been expressing his doubts about it.
Give a listen and let us know what you think. And while you’re at it, share your story of how this crisis is affecting you, what you think the implications are, and where you’re looking for wisdom and strength in this shifting economic landscape.
(photo courtesy of PBS)
Editor’s update: Changed the title to include in our Repossessing Virtue series.