“They Never Resolved the Chord”: On Using Art to Teach about Mission

This blog of mine will also be posted to the UM & Global blog.  

A recent experience at the movies with my musician son, Luke, provides a good – albeit humbling – example of a challenge all professors of mission face.  At the end of the film Interstellar, as we watched the credits roll on the screen, my seventeen-year-old son exclaimed – rather loudly – “they never resolved the chord!”  “What chord?” I asked.  “The one that has been playing for the last ten minutes,” my son remarked somewhat incredulously.  I was dumbfounded.  I had not heard it.  As I walked out of the theatre into the light I had the sneaking suspicion that I was still “in the dark” on at least some dimensions of that film.  Luke’s musical awareness and training had given him a different framework or set of interpretive lenses from which to evaluate this movie. They are lenses I don’t share.  My musical awareness has never been what his is, and what little I possessed in the past has atrophied from lack of musical muscle-building.

I think all professors of mission struggle to get students to think differently and more deeply about God’s mission.  We try to help students to see things which are clearly there, but which are obscured from our students’ view just as the unresolved chord was “hidden” from me in that movie theatre.  We use cross-cultural simulation exercises – my favorite is Heelotia – to help reveal the cultural differences in our world and the power of ethnocentrism to unconsciously shape our feelings and behaviors toward others.  We tell stories about amazing missionaries in the colonial period to displace attitudes about “missionary villains” which have been formed by less than helpful fictional caricatures of missionaries in a Barbara Kingsolver or James Michener novel.  (Graham Greene, Shusako Endo, or Robert Stone provide good alternatives in fiction.)

For a number of years I have been using artwork by Christian artists from outside the West to help me displace some “images of mission” which remain too firmly ensconced in my students’ minds.  I do this also to give them new images from which to draw as they craft a theology of mission that works.

My favorite image that my students and I reflect upon at the start of every semester is entitled simply “The Great Commission” by Nalini Jayasuriya, an artist from Sri Lanka who was an artist in residence at the Overseas Ministries Study Center some years ago.  She passed away precisely one year ago on September 5, 2014.

We not only begin our Christian World Mission course together reflecting on this painting but my students see it every week on my “course banner” in the learning management software my university uses.  I ask my students two simple questions about this image (which has been cropped below even though it is also the banner for this whole website).

Jayasuriya Great Commission

What is the artist trying to say here about the so-called “Great Commission” Scripture text in Matthew?  What do you think the artist is trying to say about mission in general?  We have never failed to have at least a fifteen minute conversation about this work of art, and almost every year a student will see something in the painting which I have not seen.  (Because I’m ready for it this usually results in less embarrassment than my experience in the theatre with my son.)  Sometimes I disagree with an interpretation, but that, in itself, is generative for further conversation in class.

Little fireworks of insight emerge in the class like this:  “The disciples seem to respond to the “Great Commission” differently. What does this suggest about the church’s different responses to God’s mission?”  “People are praying in this painting. How are mission and prayer related to one another?  Is there something distinctive about a mission spirituality?”  “The Jesus figure – who looks like a woman by the way– is not really looking at the crowd of disciples.  Who is Jesus looking at?”  Here, in a burst of Trinitarian enthusiasm, I sometimes suggest that Jesus is looking to God the Father and then switch excitedly to Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity for a moment. (My Pentecostal students always easily identify the dove with the Holy Spirit.)

Most of my students are Baptists, nondenominational Pentecostals, and Methodists so rublev iconteaching with icons like this requires some work, but when the icon is viewed and discussed in light of Jayasuriya’s painting it is a bit easier to understand.  Questions about the role of the Holy Spirit in mission and the Eucharist also come up as students ponder the dove and chalice in the painting.  The vivid red, orange, and yellow colors in this painting provides the opportune moment for us to also interrogate Emil Brunner’s famous quotation: “The church exists by mission just as fire exists by burning.”

Discussing Nalini Jayasuriya’s painting is a beautiful introductory exercise in my class.  By the time my class takes a break during our first class session together most students have a sense that mission is far more than strategic decision-making for their local congregation. They also recognize that mission is not so neatly defined as the line-item on their church’s budget spreadsheet labeled “mission” might otherwise suggest.  I have Nalini Jayasuriya’s artwork to thank for that, and on this first anniversary of her death I celebrate her life for the life she has helped me to infuse in my teaching.

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Deacon David Pendleton Oakerhater

Two weeks ago I was in Kansas to see a friend and decided one evening to drive three oakerhater deacon pichours to Watonga, Oklahoma to visit the gravesite of David Pendeleton Oakerhater (1850-1931), the first Native American (Cheyenne) person ordained a deacon by the Episcopal Church and the first and only American deacon to be named a saint by any denomination so far as I know.  I have been intrigued by Deacon Oakerhater’s life ever since first learning about him in 1998 while writing a book about the United Methodist diaconate.  A few months ago I had the opportunity to get re-aquainted while writing an article about him for a new Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States (Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming).

My three-hour drive to Watonga, Oklahoma was a time for me to reflect on Oakerhater’s life, the friendships he formed, and the history of injustice toward American Indians which many Christian denominations – including my own United Methodist Church – have been trying to better understand and confess wrongdoing for the sake of the Gospel of reconciliation we strive to profess.  United Methodists have had a number of services to express this desire for reconciliation.  The Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference had theirs just a few months ago; The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference will do the same next year.  Such services surely have their place, but I think it is fair to say that many white folk have a hard time knowing what to do next.  My visit to the Indian cemetery in Watonga was a modest personal next step.  I wanted to honor the memory of a Native American deacon saint whom I admire. I am a United Methodist deacon myself, after all, who grew up on the Minnesota plains which in some ways are not so very different from the rolling hills of central Oklahoma.

After arriving in Watonga and passing by an Indian Baptist Church and then several other churches in this small Oklahoma town I stopped to ask a boy riding his bike where the Indian cemetery might be.  He fetched his grandmother who kindly explained to me where it was – immediately south of the airport.  I followed her directions and arrived at the cemetery just as the sun was setting.  I read nearly every tombstone in that graveyard before finally finding Deacon Oakerhater’s grave under a tree.  In retrospect, I suppose it was right to first read the names of the Indians whom he served for so many years and the names of those who died long after the saintly deacon’s ministry was finished.  Deacon Oakerhater gave his life for them, after all.

Oakerhater represents for me also a story of reconciliation through friendship.  He took the name “Pendleton” from Jeanie Pendleton whose family helped support his education.  His ordination as deacon was also encouraged by another friend, Mary Douglass Burnham, who had started a ministry for Native Americans at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Boston – a congregation in which I had spent an afternoon of research (on Charles Cullis) for my dissertation over a decade ago.

Oakerhater’s friendships with these people and his willingness to recruit other Indian students for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania raise questions for me – the answers for which mostly remain hidden.  What were these friendships like?  Were they of a condescending quality or were they deeply genuine?  After returning to Oklahoma why did Oakerhater recruit Indian students for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School?  Did he find something truly redemptive in this institution?  How so?  I believe he did find some things helpful about his time in Carlisle, because the alternative explanation of Oakerhater being a mere pawn in the hands of whites to further harm his people just doesn’t square with who he was and is simply not supported by the evidence.  Oakerhater was a bicultural or “liminal” person who sought to build bridges at a time of tremendous cultural upheaval for his own people. Doubtless he was misunderstood in his day and will be misunderstood in our own day as well.

oakerhater grave

David Pendleton Oakerhater’s gravesite

As I sat next to Oakerhater’s grave and watched the Oklahoma sunset a couple weeks ago I prayed for my friends, my community, and my work just as Oakerhater no doubt prayed many times so many years before.  I prayed for Native American communities too in my new state of Oregon and resolved to learn more about their stories just as I learned about Oakerhater’s story.  I prayed too for my friendships – and for future friends – where the good but slow work of reconciliation might also grow.  Deacon David Pendleton Oakerhater’s feast day is just a few days away on September 1.  I will celebrate it.

oakerhater sunset

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On Researching Forgotten Gratitude

I am currently researching the life of Ms. Agnes C. L. Donohugh for a chapter I’m writing

Agnes Donohugh - gray scale FOR PRINT

Agnes C. L. Donohugh

with some anthropologists and theologians.  I’m the lone historian of the bunch, but it’s a great bunch.  I sort of stumbled upon Agnes Donohugh in the process of doing some other related research, but I think she was the first American missionary to take a university-level Anthropology course prior to serving as a missionary overseas (with the Methodist Episcopal Church).  She went on to be the first American missionary to receive a graduate Anthropology degree from Franz Boas, the so-called “father of American Anthropology.”  She was also most influential in crafting the shape of anthropological training for missionaries between World War I and II.  In spite of these contributions and notable “firsts” hardly anyone has ever heard of her.

There are several reasons for her forgottenness.  At Hartford Seminary’s Kennedy School for Missions (where she taught from 1917 to 1944) she was always the less famous person teaching anthropology courses even if she did it longer than anyone.  British anthropologist/missionaries Edwin W. Smith and William Willoughby both published more books, were older than she was, and were, well, men.  It didn’t help that Agnes had a master’s degree from Columbia University and not a doctoral degree in an age when Anthropology as a field was increasingly becoming professionalized in such a way to exclude people from anthropology circles who didn’t have a Ph.D.

On a recent research trip to Columbia University it was a rather fitting – if frustrating – testimony to Agnes’s “forgottenness” that I learned that her 1917 master’s thesis was rather difficult to find.  It had no call number.  Conversations with four different and helpful university librarians finally yielded fruit, and I have been assured that they will be able to find it somewhere off-site.  Even her correspondence with Franz Boas – limited though it is – is proving a bit difficult to get my hands on through another archive.  But this is all part of the task of historians and, admittedly, these challenges are pretty mild compared to the sort of detective work many historians working on many other projects have to do on a routine basis.

Agnes Donohugh was more of a teacher than a scholar, although her contributions as a scholar are not, it turns out, insignificant.  (You’ll have to wait for my chapter to get done for me to elaborate on that.) She readily acknowledged at the end of her twenty-five year teaching career at the Hartford Kennedy School for Missions that she “never had time to write books.” She held many ideas about anthropology and Christian mission loosely such that she always considered them subject to alteration.  I sympathize with Donohugh in many respects.  My contributions, like hers, are far more likely to be recognized in the classroom or in the occasional “thank you” from a former student than in some future retirement banquet at the American Society of Church History where renowned professors are often rightly honored.  And I am OK with that.  I cherish my students’ “thank you’s” deeply.  I have a hunch that Agnes Donohugh did as well.

It is for this reason that I spent the better part of a sunny March Monday in the cold basement of Hartford Seminary’s library paging through twenty or so dissertations from the 1930s which I thought might mention Agnes Donohugh in the Acknowledgments of their work.  (Most of these dissertations actually didn’t have an Acknowledgments section unlike dissertations of today.) I was looking for hints of what her students thought of her.  After several hours of doing this I realized that I was researching the history of gratitude in Agnes’s life.  While tedious, I was struck by the beauty of that.

Today, I was grading papers from my United Methodist History and Early Doctrine course, and a common quotation from Wesley’s sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” one student commented on struck me with renewed force.  In describing what sanctification was all about, Wesley famously wrote that “It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. It is love “rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in everything giving thanks [emphasis mine].” In everything giving thanks…  Indeed, gratitude is a marker of one’s sanctification.   Gratitude given and, perhaps, gratitude received.

Many have noted that gratitude lies at the foundation of so much of life.  There are around thirty Psalms of Thanksgiving in the Bible.  Maybe I should consider brief sentences thanking Agnes Donohugh as little sonnets of thanksgiving as well.  Seen in that way, the day spent searching the Acknowledgments and other parts of eighty-year-old dissertations for hints about this forgotten anthropologist and mission professor does not seem so misspent after all.  Now, if only I could have the same attitude toward my unmarked papers I’ve yet to grade…

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All Saints Day: On “The Enormous Condescension of Posterity”

I was recently in Princeton, New Jersey to visit a friend and wound up spending an afternoon in a superb bookstore – The Labyrinth – across the street from campus.  Browsing bookstores with the density of serious academic titles this one had is not a frequent experience for me these days, so I really enjoyed myself.  I happened upon a new book by Cal Winslow, E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays and Polemics (Monthly Review Press, 2014).  I regularly assign in one of my classes Thompson’s famous chapter (to historians of Methodism anyway) on Methodism in The Making of the English Working Class.  A couple years ago I also caught the tail end of a session at the American Historical Association celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of that monumental and bestselling book.  I think Thompson got plenty wrong about the Methodist movement, but the work is still generative for good thinking about what made Methodists tick.

Winslow’s book, however, is mostly a collection of E.P. Thompson’s political writings which, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, I have never read at all.  I don’t know why.  I knew he was a creative thinker who somehow combined the life of an activist and historian and that he was resolute in searching for a thoughtful socialist alternative through opposing political camps in the mid-1950s and early 1960s.  He was seeking to craft the first “New Left” in those years.  As I read his work in Winslow’s book I couldn’t help but admire his courage, creativity, and thoughtful idealism.  His concern to rescue the English working class of an earlier era from the “enormous condescension of posterity” was unrelenting as was his refusal to espouse easy compromises between prevailing ideas.

I think we need to reconsider Thompson’s work these days as the tendency to be condescending toward those who have gone before us is equally unrelenting in today’s world.  “Disruptive innovation” all too often seems to have replaced careful thinking about and learning from history.  (Jill Lapore’s essay, “The Disruption Machine,” in The New Yorker a few months ago is well worth reading on this.)

Last month I wrote a letter to the editor of The Oregonian criticizing an op-ed piece by Steve Duin on plans to remove a statue in the U.S. Capitol of a pioneer Methodist missionary to Oregon in the early 19th century.  I agreed with Mr. Duin that it may be time to switch whom we memorialize in that space, but not for the reasons he espoused.  Methodist missionary to Oregon Rev. Jason Lee surely had blind spots and was guilty of unjust treatment of Native Americans, but he does not deserve condescending condemnation.  He accomplished a great deal, and based on my brief survey of his work I believe his motives were consistent with some of the best missionaries of his age.  The memory of Rev. Lee would be well-served by open acknowledgment of his failures so long as we also asked for what failures future generations may likewise criticize us.  That is the kind of reflection All Saints Day should prompt in our lives.

To further encourage that reflection on this All Saints Day E. P. Thompson should get the last word:

It is never safe to assume that any of our history is altogether dead.  It is more often lying there, as a form of stored cultural energy.  The instant daily energy of the contingent dazzles us with its brightness.  What passes on the daily screen is so distracting, the presence of the status quo is so palpable, that it is difficult to believe that any other form of energy exists.  But this instant energy must be reproduced every moment as it is consumed; it can never be held in store.  Let the power be cut off for a while, then we become aware of other and older reserves of energy glowing all around us, just as, when the street-lights are dowsed, we become aware of the stars.  –E. P. Thompson, “A Special Case” in Writing by Candlelight cited in Winslow, E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left. 2014.

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Friendship

I have been thinking about friendship a fair amount recently.  There are a number of reasons for this.  I have recently moved to Oregon from Pennsylvania and am separated from friends who remain “back east.”  In my research I am trying to better understand the friendships which helped to create international Christian organizations like the World Council of Churches, the International Missionary Council, and several other ecumenical and mission organizations in the early twentieth century.  People too often only see these as the bureaucratic structures they became.  Deep friendships and trust formed these organizations.  Bureaucratic gymnastics did not – or at least not as much.  I have also been moved by expressions of friendship and love at our new church and also among my children as they have sought to maintain friendships from Philadelphia and have begun to establish new ones in Oregon.  Even the start of Lent has brought these friendships to mind as I meditated last week on the conversation or silence shared by four friends descending Mt. Tabor after the Transfiguration.  (I preached on that story at two churches last week – my Oregon preaching debut!)  The study of Christian mission as well as Methodism throughout the world could surely be told also as a story of friendship in many different times and places. One of the most influential Christian tracts ever used by missionaries was written by William Milne and was simply called “Two Friends.”  It was very influential in China for a century beginning in the early 19th century.

I am deeply grateful for the true friends I have been privileged to know.  Out of gratitude, in this post I simply would like to post a few quotations on friendship from authors which I have come across over the years.

 The friendship is not reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out.  It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others.  They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by friendship God opens our eyes to them.  They are, like all beauties, derived from Him and then, in a good friendship, increased by Him through the friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing.  At this feast it is He who has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests.  It is He, we may dare to hope, who sometimes does, and always should, preside.  Let us not reckon without our Host. (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 89-90.)

And what is a friend? More than a father, more than a brother: a traveling companion, with him, you can conquer the impossible, even if you must lose it later. Friendship marks a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing. It is a friend that you communicate the awakening of a desire, the birth of a vision or a terror, the anguish of seeing the sun disappear or of finding that order and justice are no more. That’s what you can talk about with a friend. Is the soul immortal, and if so why are we afraid to die? If God exists, how can we lay claim to freedom, since He is its beginning and its end? What is death, when you come down to it? The closing of a parenthesis, and nothing more? And what about life? In the mouth of a philosopher, these questions may have a false ring, but asked during adolescence or friendship, they have the power to change being: a look burns and ordinary gestures tend to transcend themselves. What is a friend? Someone who for the first time makes you aware of your loneliness and his, and helps you to escape so you in turn can help him. Thanks to him who you can hold your tongue without shame and talk freely without risk. That’s it. (Elie Wiesel, Gates of the Forest )

As George Eliot writes of Dorothea at the end of Middlemarch: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” (George Eliot, Middlemarch, cited in Tom Palaima, “On the Power of Mentors” )

May these be sources of inspiration and encouragement for all who read them to face the challenge and beauty of being a true friend.  Challenge and beauty… I wonder if that is what the three disciples learned as they walked off the Transfiguration mountain with their friend, Jesus.

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Epiphany

It has been some weeks since the Church celebrated The Feast of Epiphany (January 6th).  This is the day in the church calendar when the Three Wise Men get extra “air time” in the church and when the Gospel as light to all the world is celebrated.  In Eastern Orthodoxy the baptism of Jesus is also recognized on this day.

I spent Epiphany this year teaching my history of world Christianity course in Philadelphia, a course we call “The Church in Mission through History.” After teaching that one week “intensive” I travelled to New Haven, Connecticut for another week of research at the wonderful Day Missions Library at Yale Divinity School.  During my week of research I stayed at the Overseas Ministries Study Center (OMSC) across the street.

At OMSC I was struck by a number of the pieces of art on display which were done by previous “artists in residence” whom OMSC sponsors.  I had seen these pictures before in books which the Center has published over the years, but in the days after Epiphany the following painting was most striking to me as I encountered it walking up the steps to my room after a day in the archives.  It was the delight and surprise of the encounter the artist portrays between Egyptian princess and Hebrew infant that jumped out at me in the painting as I trudged up the steps tired from a tedious day of research with few epiphanies.  The colors, brightness, and joy of this story from Exodus 2:1-10 have not been something I have reflected upon before.  The text even says that Moses cried, but can that be understood as a cry of laughter as the artist, Sawai Chinnawong, portrays it?  Sure!

Chinnawong painting moses and princess

This story is not typically considered as one appropriate for Epiphany, but it could be.  The encounter surely occurred in the midst of a great deal of darkness – the enslavement of Hebrews by the Egyptians and the deaths of many infants of similar age to Moses to mention just two dark realities surrounding the story.  This brief encounter portrayed by the artist is filled with light in contrast to that darkness but not separate from it at all. The symbol of empire in the princess’s crown and the reality of an infant slave escaping persecution by that same empire is here.

The joy of the cross-cultural encounter portayed here is also striking.  In my teaching I try very hard to teach about the challenge and hard work of cross-cultural communication.  I implicitly teach about the joy of cross-cultural relationships as well through the laughter inevitably produced in the intercultural communication games I play with my classes.

Finally, the painting is also a reminder for me to always strive to learn the stories of people whom we are too often quick to categorize as the enemy, the oppressed, the poor, the oppressor, the weak, or the rich.  The future Queen of an Empire and a Hebrew infant slave seem to meet one another in this painting in a way that their true selves are recognized.  The artist chooses to not portray Moses as suffering – even if he and his people were – but rather as joyful.  The ripe wheat in the background also brings to mind for me the abundance and grace of God’s provision – an abundance squandered by the Egyptians in future years as the story of Moses unfolds.

Epiphany is usually considered a New Testament sort of holiday.  I still love the story of (possibly) Zoastrian Wise Men on a crazy journey through Iraq and Jordan to follow a star.  It is even a holiday that expresses hope for mission professors on a somewhat less treacherous voyage through an archive! This painting that I saw in the days after Epiphany was a reminder that epiphanies can come in many different ways.  May we have eyes to see them when they come and hearts open enough to receive them with joy.

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Make Poverty History

I have noticed in my teaching about international development as a dimension of Christian mission that some of my students express uneasiness with the way I discuss this topic in my Christian World Mission course.  The uneasiness likely comes from a number of different sources.  Let me explain.

Students at Palmer Theological Seminary get a fair amount of exposure to what might be called liberationist and ”postcolonial” perspectives in their systematic theology and ethics courses.  These courses are usually taken before they enroll in my course.  Students affiliated with Palmer’s Sider Center sometimes come with such perspectives already well-established from courses they took during their undergraduate courses of study.

One source of the uneasiness then is that I simply take a different tack in my course.  Some years ago, Sojourners magazine sponsored a conference entitled “Make Poverty History.”  I did not attend, but the conference theme struck me in a different way than the sponsors no doubt intended.  I try to “make” (learn, teach, and write about) poverty history.  I do this for a variety of reasons, one of which is my belief that many bad solutions to the problems of poverty in this country and abroad have been created out of a frenetic but insufficiently thoughtful desire to “do something.”  The history of poverty alleviation efforts is a lesson in humility.  That is always hard to learn.

My students who are or will be Christian leaders in many different congregations will have ample opportunity – if they choose – to engage their congregations in promoting international (and local) development efforts through countless NGOs engaged in poverty alleviation work.  It is my hope that this awareness of the history of poverty alleviation around the world will not only give them a sense of humility but will also help them to be more discerning of efforts in which they choose to invest their and their congregations’ time and resources.  An additional source of uneasiness seems to emerge when I mention that ostensibly well-intentioned and currently popular efforts may, in fact, do a fair amount of harm.

A final source of my students’ uneasiness is perhaps one I share most strongly.  When introducing the topic of international development as a dimension of Christian mission I choose to mostly tell the story of bilateral (government), multilateral (UN, World Bank) and nongovernmental organization engagement with poverty alleviation efforts during (mostly) the last fifty years.  Obviously, I do not provide an exhaustive overview.   I readily admit that this is also a “view from above” rather than a view of poverty from the perspective of poor persons which varies considerably with context.  I stress that understanding large international organizations is nonetheless important even if our attentiveness to “the grassroots” may be emotionally and even theologically more appealing.  I explain how efforts at poverty alleviation are enmeshed in US foreign policy decisions which are not always altruistic in nature.  Many – and sometimes conflicting – motivations are at play.  I have no truck for theological platitudes masquerading as true insight nor for rhetoric which romanticizes the poor and the ugliness of absolute poverty.  I do not want to overstate my students’ uneasiness, however, with this historical analysis of international development organizations.  Many students genuinely appreciate this overview even if it does cloud over the sometimes starry-eyed rhetoric to “make poverty history.”

I will continue to take the title of that Sojourners conference literally.  I wish more students, pastors, and scholars were engaged in learning lessons from history by literally learning, teaching, and writing poverty history.  We surely need more people – myself included – who are actually doing the work with the poor.  My own focus on teaching and writing poverty history does not make sense unless others similarly focus on grassroots work.  My prayer is that my students’ uneasiness with this topic in my class or the way I choose to discuss it will propel them to action in a way that is true to their vocations.

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