Virginia Seminar member Susan Holman interviewed by “The Poor in Spirit”

Susan R. HolmanVirginia Seminar member Susan R. Holman was recently interviewed by “The Poor in Spirit,” a theology blog written by Alvin Rapien. She discusses her influences and current literary interests, as well as her perspective on Christian responses and approaches to human poverty and suffering, a subject she has expanded upon in several of her books.

“Action’ in response to poverty — whether the poverty is our own, our town’s, our faith community’s, or the desperate injustices of a global pattern — is not just an external behavior that can be contrasted with talking and thinking,” states Holman. “Life is short; we can live out our vocation as Christians only if we think, study, pray, and make active choices in the best holistic integrity that we can manage.”

To read the full interview, click here. To learn more about Susan Holman, visit her PLT author page.

Charles Marsh to speak at the 2014 Conference on Faith and History

20140920 pepperdine cfh web readyFrom September 25-27, 2014, the 29th Annual Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History will convene at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California with author and Project director Charles Marsh as a featured speaker.

From the event website: Contemporary historians have a somewhat complicated relationship with “the public.” We long to have public audiences who will be challenged and shaped by our work, but most of us tend to produce highly specialized scholarship and write primarily for other scholars. When we do address the public, our often myth-busting strategies can come across as patronizing, contemptuous, and even politically motivated. As historians, who are our “publics”? And what responsibilities, if any, do we owe them? Are there public venues for historical understanding that we should be exploring? Does our peculiar identity as Christians have any bearing on the publics we address, what we have to say, or how we say it? Are there Christian ways of thinking about and doing public history? Is there a Christian public for our work as historians?

For more information on the event and registration details click here.

October 1: Field Reports from the PLT Summer Interns

Peter HartwigClaire ConstanceOn Wednesday, October 1, the Project on Lived Theology summer interns Claire Constance and Peter Hartwig will share their field reports, a composition of experiences gained through the PLT internship program. Claire Constance spent the summer in Limpopo, South Africa training community health workers in child development assessment and intervention, while Peter Hartwig taught a 10-week course on American religious autobiography at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.

The event will be held at Eunoia and begins at 7:30 pm. The event is open to the public and admission is free. A light hors d’oeuvres and dessert reception will be provided.

Find out all the event details here. Learn more about the internship program here. Read the intern blog here.

Trust in the jail

William Morales, Patron of Prison BreaksThere is not a single inmate who should be trusted. We should stop using the word trustee in the prison. Not one of them is trustworthy, not even a trustee. In my notes from our ACRJ orientation, I’ve written this line. It can be attributed to some lieutenant at some prison in some cold city in upstate New York. Unfortunately, though, that opinion reaches far beyond that singular sentinel, frozen to the bars of some freezing New York prison. The whole prison system is built within a vacuum of trust—every crosswire window, blinking camera and slick tile floor. The house has long been prepared for attack.

Of course, an environment perfectly devoid of trust is a feat too great even for the American penal system. No one can actually create a jail that exhausts all precautionary measures. Outfit the guard with bigger guns. Strip the visitors down to nothing. Force every inmate into solitary confinement. Threaten, like the God of Luther’s dark imagination, every misstep with death.

Once, spending the night at a friend’s house in high school, we decided to watch one of those documentaries on Netflix that no one ever watches. So we furiously scrolled backwards, like Cameron Frye’s dad’s car, into the forgotten annals and found a National Geographic film called Russia’s Toughest Prisons. In the most masochistic sleepover ever conceived, we watched the whole movie. All 44 minutes.

In case you were wondering, Russian prisons are nothing like Tina Fey’s portrayal in the latest Muppets’ movie. The documentary begins with a look at a prison known as Black Dolphin on the boarder with Kazakhstan. There, every guard wields an automatic rifle and every inmate is transported in the same position: hands bound behind the back, bent over at a forty-five degree angle, followed by a snarling German shepherd. They respond to every command with yes, sir. Every cell has a video camera. There are light and motion detectors. Every fifteen minutes a guard goes through the cells. They are not allowed to sit on their beds for sixteen hour stretches. Inmates share cells of fifty square feet in which they eat. And each cell is itself within a cell, behind three sets of steal doors. “All prison operations maintain the highest level of isolation.” (39:42)

ACRJ sports nothing close to this level of security. Inmates walk, unchained, escorted by guards—most of them less physically fit than their charges. Nathan and I walk unescorted in the facility, sealed with a badge: no escort required. My oxford button down and jeans, though, get me access into the break room, where the food accounts for the physical disparity between staff and inmate.

I recently was in a seminar discussing Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. In it, he gives a puzzling little reflection on love for the dead as the purest form of love. “When one wants to make sure that love is completely unselfish, one can of course remove every possibility of repayment. But this is exactly what is removed in the relationship to one who is dead. If love still abides, then it is truly unselfish”(349). Love he says is purest where there is no possibility of reciprocation, where the fault line between life and death becomes the one-way mirror across which we reach out to the Other.

One of the other students, particularly unsettled by the idea, began to talk about his brother-in-law in prison. He saw a striking similarity between the state of the dead, as Kierkegaard would have it, and the relational possibilities of an inmate, namely the inability to reciprocate. I do not recall the point he actually made. But I do recall getting excited…because we were talking about my thing now. “I actually taught in a jail this summer…” I do not recall the point I actually made. I do recall people looking at me with their eyes: he just wanted to talk about his thing now. I’ve since thought about the other student’s comparison—the jail to the dead. I am not entirely sure what I think about the love bit, or the purest form of love. But these three remain: trust, isolation and love.

Jürgen Moltmann in The Crucified God writes, “It is true that in a technocratic society all human relationships are reduced to the level of things, and general apathy is spreading on an academic scale. It is true that in a world of high consumption, where anything and everything is possible, nothing is so humanizing as love, and a conscious interest in the life of others, particularly the life of the oppressed. For love leaves us open to wounding and disappointment. It makes us ready to suffer. It leads us out of isolation into a fellowship with others, with people different from ourselves, and this fellowship is always associated with suffering”(62-63).

I hope it comes through here, as it did to me only upon rereading this paragraph, that the basic relationships between trust, love, and fellowship come through here. Love demands fellowship. Love demands that people come together in trust. Love demands the environment in which it thrives. Love draws us out of isolation, because it requires fellowship, and it opens us up to wounding, overcoming mistrust. We cannot remain alone—either in isolation or in self-concern. If we do so, we fight against love.

The jail fights against love. The jail is cold. It pours mean into their separate cells and binds them there like water in an ice tray. It sets them to the back of the societal icebox until they freeze alone. Love then comes like a flame. We cannot be kept apart, even when we forget our ID. A force among us begins to draw us together across the thin cracks in the wall.

I believe, then, that the task of the Christian in the jail is to learn to love the mistrusted in an environment of mistrust. Whatever this means, its does not mean that we take a system of mistrust as given. We go like a burning man into a fortress, a bush aflame in the desert. Perhaps though, simply being there is the first step.

Peter Hartwig is blogging this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Peter and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Image information:

William Morales, Patron of Prison Breaks

David Wojnarowicz
(American, Red Bank, New Jersey 1954–1992 New York)

Date: 1983
Medium: Acrylic on Masonite
Dimensions: H. 48, W. 48 inches (121.9 x 121.9 cm.)
Classification: Paintings
Credit Line: Hugo Kastor Fund, 1983
Accession Number: 1983.586

Crash into me

AtticApril 12013 was a Monday and, like every other Monday I’ve spent in college, I spent it in Newcomb auditorium at Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship’s Monday Night Live worship service. All of Chi Alpha gets together for your average 600-person, evangelical, college fellowship meeting: we all say hi to each other until 8:05, then someone says a short ‘be quiet now’ prayer, songs, sermon, send-off, then we all say bye to each other until 9:45. Call it the Passion City model. I do not recall whether I was expecting an April Fools disruption in the liturgy; I do not recall being particularly vigilant. But in the “everyone sit down now” transition between worship song #4 and the announcements, a gorilla chased a banana across the stage.

My friend Nick, dressed as the gorilla, chased my friend Matt, dressed as the banana, down the right aisle, across the stage and back up the left aisle. It took everyone a second to catch on. I heard gasping and laughter and then a beam of yellow struck my periphery. Matt can really move. But as he turned the left corner of the stage, the hood of the banana costume slid over his face and blocked his eyes. For some reason, perhaps the gorilla, he decided not to take the time to fix the hood and continued to run, now blind, around the corner, up the aisle and headfirst into the concrete column at the back of the auditorium.

Usually, when a crash is immanent, there’s a moment of realization, a “this is going to happen now.” Before the players collide, they close their eyes and wrinkle their mouths. Before car strikes car, the brake lights flare. Before the bomb goes off, someone yells “Get down!” But the poor banana was not afforded the luxury of that reflective moment.

Matt ran right into the pole. There was running. Then there was pain and, a second later, blood—a slight disruption in the liturgy.

The difference between Matt and me is that when I ran headlong into the jail, I maintained a certain willful blindness. In the blog post called, Here’s How We Got Started, I talked about the moment when the idea was hatched in me to teach in a prison and about the year-long process of badgering a bureaucracy to let us into jail. Over the summer, I have had to retell the story a thousand times. “Oh, really? What an odd summer job. How did that happen?” By the end of August, it has gotten pared down to one-thousandth of its original length. “Um…I got this terrible idea to teach in a jail and someone funded it! It just worked out.”

I fear that there might be a note of arrogance in there or the glory of the victor. Veni, vidi, vici. I fear that you might hear me saying, “We did it on our own. We did it. (Well, actually I did it. Don’t tell Nathan).” I hope that is not true and that whenever the voice of pride has crept up on my shoulder, I’ve brushed off the insect.

But in retelling the story, even as it’s gotten shorter, I’ve been struck by how I was certain of uncertain things. From its conception in the Starbucks at Gibson, I believed that the project would work out somehow. And I’m not really sure where that came from or what to call it: faith or arrogance or naiveté?

As a theological point, giving “it” a name—my certainty that the project would work—means determining an object of certainty, the thing trusted-in. Faith means God; arrogance means the self; naiveté means no object, failure to consider the need for trust, failing to comprehend the possibility of failure. I am not sure if any single one of these has been true of my time as an intern. It is very possible that, in fact, the object of my trust has changed daily, or that other objects have arisen at various times.

At first, I attributed my failure to speak with theological specificity on this point to a lack of theological knowledge. “If only I’d read more Bonhoeffer I would know how to describe my summer. If only I could finish out this framework of trust, then I’d be a better blogger.” But the more I think about it, the less I think it is true—not that I am trying to let myself off of the task of theory. I am however more convinced that the problem is one of perspective.

My attempts to find and isolate the object of my trust decay into a confused navel-gazing. Counter-intuitively, the search turns introspective. I hoped to find out where it was I thought I was traveling by looking only at the direction of my feet. Instead, I’ve just got a good look at my toes. Because now that the event is over, now that we’re no longer teaching, now that we’ve actually been into the jail—I can’t imagine that the thing, whatever it is, I was trusting has stuck around, still visible and material. When I let go my fingers in relief, having gotten into jail, it feels as though the thing I held on to, like a dream, vanished.

In high school, I had read enough Jungian and Freudian theory to offer fairly entertaining dream interpretations all about guilt and sex and your parents. When I came to college that fact was leaked on my first year hall—in a momentary lapse of my own ego, I’m sure. During the fraternity-pledging season in the spring, one of the other residents came to my dorm at the end of the hall.

“You can interpret dreams?” Morpheus asked me.

“It’s not like a magical power. I just read The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud. It’s more of an intellectual exercise.”

“So in this dream, I’m just walking on the street and this guy comes up, this ugly guy. And he tells me I need to kill someone or he is going to kill me. So I just start running around trying to find someone. And I find one of the other guys in my pledge class just randomly. So I like kidnap this guy! And the cops are searching for me and they’re all after me. And I like put the kid in my basement at home. The cops are outside and I tie him up in a chair and leave him there for a whole year—it doesn’t feel like a year. But it’s a whole year. And it was like everyone had forgotten. The cops leave the house and after a year I just let him leave. He just walks outside and then I wake up.”

“How are you feeling about pledging?” I asked.

“Good. I think. I do stuff that I’d rather not do, but it’s good.” In other words, awful.

“Well, I think—and I’m not like an expert—I think it’s about pledging. I say that because of the pledge brother. So the guy on the street, the guy that says ‘unless you compromise your morals, I’m going to kill you’ would be the fraternity. Maybe you’re afraid that if you don’t pledge, you will die. Socially, you know. So in exchange for social life, the frat demands you compromise yourself. It’s important, I think, that you kill one of your pledge brothers, because he is you. If you killed one of the brothers in the frat, you would kill the frat. But instead you tie up the thing that’s most like you, one of your compatriots. You know? But you know that if you can just wait out this spring and keep everything under control that you won’t die, you won’t lose your social life. So you just keep him in the basement for a year. You don’t even kill him. Just leave him there for a little bit. And on the other side, it’s like it never happened. Except you know better than that.”

He fell eerily silent and looked at my like I was some kind of gypsy. So to try and soften the moment I said, “But, you know, if you don’t think that’s true, then it probably isn’t. Dreams are just your subconscious speaking to you, kind of. This could really all be nothing, just sort of an intellectual exercise.”

He said something like “Yeh right, haha.” And walked away. I just remember him walking away.

I don’t know what he did for the rest of the spring. I think he stuck with it. The last I saw him was at a sorority date function where he looked especially fraternal. So, I guess he just waited out the year. After all, the dream was right: on the other side of the year, the pledging season, it is all practically a dream. It’s almost like it didn’t happen. The cops leave your house. You let the pledge go. And the only person who remembers your captor-hood is you.

I feel now—now that the moment of trust is over, now that we are in the jail, now that everything will work according to the godless mechanism of bureaucracy—as though I have the answer to the question for which I was trusting. We are already sailing. And searching for that original object of our trust would be like searching for an anchor at the bottom of the sea. We are cut loose now.

I do not like this position, this self-centered, self-focused orientation. Without the externality of a trust-object, I feel like I am the only fossil I have to examine. It feels like my perspective is quite small. It is perfectly fit to the shape of my own very self. A shroud the exact shape of my world is blinding me.

The problem with my perspective is that it is mine. So, how do I get out of it? Running headlong up the aisle, blinded by my own costume, eventually I might hit the pole. Hopefully, harshly, hurtfully, and without the luxury of the reflective moment, I might just bust my skull on the pillar of the jail. But, it is, I think, worth the moment of pain.

Peter Hartwig is blogging this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Peter and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Image information:


Willem de Kooning
(American (born The Netherlands), Rotterdam 1904–1997 East Hampton, New York)

Date: 1949
Medium: Oil, enamel, and newspaper transfer on canvas
Dimensions: 61 7/8 x 81 in. (157.2 x 205.7 cm)
Classification: Paintings
Credit Line: The Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection, Gift of Muriel Kallis Newman, in honor of her son, Glenn David Steinberg, 1982
Accession Number: 1982.16.3
Rights and Reproduction: © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Legendary Civil Rights Movement activist to speak at U.Va.

Paul GastonOn Wednesday, September 24, Paul M. Gaston, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Virginia, will lead a seminar on the Civil Rights Movement in Charlottesville, Virginia. The seminar will begin at 3:30 pm in the University of Virginia’s Jefferson Hall (West Range Hotel C). The public is invited and admission is free.

Paul Gaston was born in Fairhope, Alabama. He graduated with a B.A. from Swarthmore College in 1952, was awarded a diploma from the Danish Graduate School for Foreign Students in 1953, and graduated from UNC with an M.A. and Ph.D. in 1961. Dr. Gaston has lived in Charlottesville since 1957, when he arrived as a junior instructor of history at the University of Virginia. He has received many awards and honors, including the Arabella Carter Award for Community Service and the Legendary Civil Rights Activist Award from the Charlottesville-Albemarle branch of the NAACP. Dr. Gaston has published many books and essays, including his acclaimed memoir, Coming of Age in Utopia: The Odyssey of an Idea.

Paul Gaston is well known in the Charlottesville community for his civil rights activism in the 1960s. Raised in Fairhope Colony, an idealistic community founded by his grandfather on the principles of justice and equality, Dr. Gaston learned at an early age of the racial prejudice and economic disparity that divided America. After moving to Charlottesville, Dr. Gaston became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement and participated in many rallies and protests, including the 1963 sit-ins at Buddy’s Restaurant, which ultimately played a critical role in spurring desegregation of the region.

In an interview with the University of Virginia Magazine, Dr. Gaston stated, “The early 1950s was a time when it was clear… that great changes were coming to the South, and I wanted to take part in it.”

Learn more about Paul Gaston and his experiences of growing up in Fairhope Colony, teaching at the University of Virginia, and living in Charlottesville during the Civil Rights Movement, at U.Va. Magazine here.

With maraca-like speed

And so we dance. – Kellylee Evans

Graduation ceremonies in the States are like saltine crackers in comparison to the graduation ceremonies in Limpopo. For every bit our graduations are dry, predictable and a little bit square, ceremonies in Limpopo are bursting with color and ceremonial flavor.

It was our last day at Tiyani Clinic. When we arrived, all the community health workers we had trained last week were already in the center of the clinic courtyard dancing with summer-storm fervor. In contrast to the starch, navy blue uniforms they had sported during their training session the day before, today they were each decked out in their finest traditional wardrobes. Brightly colored striped dresses and long beaded necklaces swung around and around their bodies as they bounced and spun. On their hips, the women wore large tasseled belts that moved with maraca-like speed as they shook around the circle.

celebration dancing

A few of us jumped right into the spiral of dancing. We all marched around the circle together, shaking our hips as fast as we could, until the head nurse called for us all to sit down.

The day continued in a stream of dance. When each woman was called up to receive her certificate for completing our training workshop, the music was turned back on, and she sashayed her way down the aisle. There was a sense throughout the courtyard of dance being the only adequate way to greet good news.

* * *

Throughout this summer, whenever we have gathered together with our community partners in Tiyani or for an appointment at the University of Venda, each meeting has been structured around three main things: an agenda, tea time, and a vote of thanks.

Though I can’t speak for all of South Africa, or even all of Limpopo, people in Thohoyandou, it seems, love agendas. Whenever we arrived at a group gathering, within the first five minutes someone would hand us an agenda detailing the proceedings for the next couple of hours. Without fail, each of these agendas included “tea time” about halfway through the proceedings and concluded with a “vote of thanks.”

The first time we ever heard about votes of thanks was back at the beginning of the summer, during our orientation day at UNIVEN. During lunchtime, our main faculty administrator from U.Va., Dr. Dillingham, addressed the group of us and said that it was customary for guests to end a gathering by taking a few minutes to thank their hosts for having them and to extol the virtues of the meeting. “It might seem a bit formal to us Americans, but here in Limpopo people are just very explicit about expressing gratitude,” she explained. “Would anyone like to volunteer?” I couldn’t help but smile. What an exquisite thing to value. My hand shot up in the air.

For the rest of the summer, whenever we had to give a vote of thanks, it became my job. On a couple of occasions people just wrote my name into the schedule and I wouldn’t find out until I arrived at the meeting myself that I would be giving the vote of thanks for the day. I loved it though. The whole summer I was plagued by a continual feeling that our team of students could never, through our research, give quite as much to the people we met in Limpopo as they had given to us. So I relished these opportunities to thank them. At times it felt like the only truly worthwhile thing I had to offer.

* * *

The ceremony was winding down and all that was left on the agenda was “Message from a Graduate” and “The Vote of Thanks.” As the young community health worker took the microphone and began to speak she said:

“Greetings to you all in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, hallelujah, amen!”

“Hallelujah, amen!” chorused the audience of community health workers in reply. The rest of the young woman’s speech was in Tsonga, but every couple of sentences she would shout, “Hallelujah!” and the women in the audience would respond, “Amen!”

As I went up to the main stage to give the vote of thanks, I turned to the audience and observed the looks of polite attentiveness on each of the women’s faces. I thought about how funny I must look to them, dressed in the style of the elderly women in their communities (we found out very belatedly that only the grandmothers in their village wear floor-length skirts) and lacking the festive accessories that one ought to wear at celebrations like this. I thought about how little they had asked of us during our stay, and how relatively little we had to offer them in return.

And so I began, “Greetings to you all in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, hallelujah, amen!”

Each one of the woman’s face lit up in surprise. “Hallelujah, amen!” they cheered.

I told them how much I admired them. In the meager bit of “Church English” that we all shared, I told them that I thanked God for having met them and for having been able to spend the summer learning about how they care for their communities. I told them that the greatest blessing of my summer had been to learn that women like them existed, that they had renewed my faith in community health work and had given me hope for the future. After I finished each thought I would say, “Hallelujah!” and the women would respond with a hearty “amen!”

When I sat down again, I was shaking. After a summer of holding focus groups, teaching lessons, blogging and giving presentations, I suddenly had nothing left to say. After a summer of looking for the right words, I had found them in the most familiar of places: hidden quietly in plain view of a shared faith.

Hallelujah, amen.

CHIL 473


Claire Constance is blogging from Limpopo, South Africa, this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Claire and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Stone Soup Books hosts Charles Marsh

Author photo cropped - web versionOn Wednesday, September 10, Project director Charles Marsh will speak on his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Stone Soup Books in Waynesboro, Virginia. The book talk and signing will begin at 6:30.

Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been called “Truly beautiful and heartbreaking. . . [An] excellent biography . . . a splendid book . . . [and] one hell of a story” (Christian Wiman, The Wall Street Journal). Learn more about the book here