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on selma, the curve of time, and being born again

I’ve felt intense, enduring pangs of pain and sorrow at a few pointed moments this past year.  On some of these occasions, my sadness manifested sharply and solely as a sort of deep grief, the kind I felt when a musician played taps at my grandfather’s burial.  At other times, the pressure in my head and heart has been more akin to feelings of intense, helpless anger at some cruel betrayal.

The first time in recent memory that I can remember feeling this way was in June, when I visited a former American concentration camp on a pilgrimage with Japanese American youth.  As I looked over barbed wire and metal gates, I couldn’t help but thinking of family members who were locked up in camps like these, and all the innocent people who were torn from their homes by police officers and FBI agents and incarcerated here.

The next time my chest felt like it was going to collapse was on the night of the Ferguson grand jury verdict. I wept silently as my family cast strange glances and threw weighty barbs in my direction. That night, I stayed up alone, angry and afraid for countless hours, my face lit up blue in the bedroom dark as I scrolled through social media reading friends’ alternating reactions of pain and glee.

Earlier this month at a weeklong retreat called Leadershape, I again felt this refrigerator-grade weight pushing down on my rib cage, grating at my chest like acid.  The sixty or so students in attendance participated in an interactive simulation meant to evoke incisive comparisons to class/ism (and perhaps poverty and race). It felt like I was on the front lines of the Stanford prison experiment.  Many of us felt crushed or traumatized after we examined the implications of our behavior – I myself was cut to the bone by my own actions and particularly by the ways that the most privileged groups acted when it came to looking out for those of us on the way, way bottom.

a snapshot from Ava DuVernay's Selma

a snapshot from Ava DuVernay’s Selma

Shortly after this I was fortunate enough to see the spiritual epic that is Ava DuVernay’s Selma.  I cannot express how much I believe that every American – black, white, whatever color you claim – should see this film.  The intimate glimpses of the tale (of Malcolm and Martin, of nonviolence and brutality) that we are exposed to in this movie is an integral part of our country’s history. As Americans from all backgrounds and nationalities, we must recognize that billy clubs, police hoses, confederate flags, and staunch, segregationist state-sponsored terrorists comprise our collective inheritance. Black, white, Latino, Arab, Japanese American, we all inhabit different spheres of this history and its legacy impacts us differently, but its marks, scars, martyrs and heroes remain.

White folks should see Selma for the same reason they should read books like Farewell to Manzanar, or reckon with Solomon Northup’s journey – if you are a product of the American educational system, it is likely that these stories have been glossed over at best, obscured and swept aside at worst. White folks should seek to understand these historic brutalities in order to better recognize their complicity in upholding modern racist frameworks. (White Christians in particular might seek to also learn how they might come to the cross of Jesus in the name of repentance from the white supremacy that infects the cultural air we all breathe.)

I would encourage my friends of color to see Selma because it is the telling of the stories of the underdog. Because before the civil rights movement was ever viewed as a positive thing, before Dr. King was ever called Dr. King by white folks, there was a burgeoning and bloodied movement for justice and freedom that upset the president, the FBI, white liberals, and millions of Northern and Southern segregationists. The series of moments in history captured in this film serve as important reminders of how far we still have to come, and it helped me connect to the not-so-distant past in a novel way.

a plant blooming in the desert dirt of Manzanar

My friend Broderick has written about the curve of time, asking what would change if we viewed time as an ocean rather than as a flat trajectory.  I played with this same idea in a personal reflection after visiting Manzanar: if we see time as a sort of stream, we find that past trauma can revisit us in startling ways, as if these atrocities aren’t ancient history but mere inches away. If we understand the passage of time as winding and fluid, then the suffering in places like Manzanar, Selma, Dachau, and Ferguson is not only intertwined, but more than inclined to hit each of its descendants just as hard with each new breath.

This always feels like a breaking down. You turn on the news and see death in the streets of your country, murderers walking free. A parent sits you down on a couch and tells you that your mom and dad are getting a divorce. Your sibling calls you sobbing and asks why she can’t live with you anymore. You visit a Californian concentration camp, and wonder where all the good (white) people were. A family matriarch succumbs to mental illness and your heart tightens in fear of your own future. A friend comes out to you and your heart shatters, wondering why you weren’t there for her more. You discover human trafficking going on in your home town.

I look back at the times that I have felt destroyed. The pain in my chest has always felt like a forest fire, a dam bursting. There is this overwhelming period of hurt and circulatory congestion, but it is usually followed by a kind of growth. Something sprouts from the ashes not long after. I’ve honestly been made harder, better, faster, stronger by the things that have shattered me (na, na, na, that that don’t kill me…).

We improve, our eyes and ears continually open to the world, and we affirm the possibility for positive change. As author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his memoir, “You know one way or the other we all get touched…All the truly living, at least once, are born again.” This sounds similar to something my uncle Warner said reflecting on his interview with George Wallace (played by Tim Roth in Selma) towards the end of the former governor’s life: “people can become something different.”

I’m not entirely sure how to conclude these thoughts. Maybe it’s enough to reaffirm that the past has a way of winding around and breaking us apart, paving the way for new possibilities going forward. In my experience, healing can begin to enter when we remain open to this process, and to the depths of human emotion and intensity that accompany it.

This doesn’t always cut it. But it’s sometimes enough to light up our faces with hope, resplendent with the glow of tomorrow’s promise.

black and blue lives matter

I am the child of two police officers.

My parents are respected veterans of their profession: my mother began her career doing undercover drug busts in the narcotics unit before settling in evidence handling, and now works to transport and guard prison inmates.  My father worked Chicago’s interstates for years as a highway patrol officer before finally making the rank of acting master sergeant and retiring a few years ago.

For many of my formative years, I saw only one parent while the other deliberately worked long hours to make a living.  Early on, I recognized the discomfiting, unspoken truth that every time my mom and dad went out on a shift, there was a chance they wouldn’t be coming home.  I know – it probably sounds cliché – but I think every child of cops comes to internalize this message: that what your parents do is tough and dangerous and often puts their lives at risk.

Because I grew up in a nice, white suburb, I never understood why people called cops “pigs” or said things like “fuck the police.”  Seeing the militarized, hyperbolic ways that police in Ferguson and elsewhere have responded to peaceful protesters has been a complete shock.  For all the love I have for police in my heart, these actions naturally harken to mind images of attack dogs and fire hoses, tear gas and billy clubs, reminiscent of this land’s bruised and ugly not-so-distant past.  It was, after all, local and federal police who chose to enforce immoral laws and disregard righteous ones, thereby unleashing all sorts of evil on black protesters.  In the past few months many Americans have learned how difficult it is to divorce the history of the policing profession from the legacies of its most horrific incarnations in this country.

Because of my family background and the small organizing I’ve done locally against police violence, people keep asking my “opinion” on the protests sparked by the August 9th killing of Mike Brown and my “stance” on the December killings of two New York City police officers.

To take them one at a time, I’ll first condemn the slayings of officers Oscar Ramos and Wenjian Liu without a second thought.  I am filled with unspeakable rage and pain at the deaths of these two men who I never knew, public servants who were victims of a sad psychosomatic revenge fantasy.  (I try not to see my parents in dead or injured cops, but the mind always finds the bitterest connections: Officer Ramos, who was studying to be a police chaplain, reflects the kind of deep personal faith that both my parents have always tried to instill in me.  I see in Officer Liu my father, who served as one of the only Asian American troopers in Illinois.)

police box

Those of us with family in the field will tell you about the unique form of social outrage that’s unleashed whenever a police officer is killed.  Every time something brutish and tragic happens to an officer in our state or elsewhere, my parents and their friends speak of the fallen as if they were distant family, speaking in hushed tones and shaking their heads for days afterwards.  It could have been any of them.

As recent national events have reflected, there is also a specially elevated release of societal rage and lament whenever a(n unarmed) civilian (of color) has their life taken by a representative of the state under questionable circumstances.  As writer Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, in both of these instances – when a cop kills or is killed – we see a distinct communal emergence of anger and grief that is entirely legitimate.  We naturally hold our government representatives to higher standards, so and something terrible happens that involves law enforcement we are allowed to feel exceptionally upset.

This is the paradigm at play whenever we’re having a discussion about unjust police killings of civilians or civilian killings of police.  This logic isn’t alien to our sense of conscience – it’s why we believe that all sexual abuse is terrible, but sexual abuse on the part of clergy and religious leaders is particularly despicable; it’s why our laws acknowledge that although violence between children is perfectly contemptible, this negligence at the hands of a parent is another level of abhorrent.

I was privileged enough to grow up around law enforcement, and I respect and cherish plenty of great cops.  I know that few of them are unapologetically, blatantly racist – those are the ones who tend to get fired.  It seems to me that the plethora of implicit racial biases and prejudices that all of us have are simply operating with much higher stakes for police officers.  I think these prejudices are wicked, and we must work to eliminate them especially when lives are at stake.  This should speak to the importance of more effective training, finding better ways to weed out and fully castigate the bad apples, and encouraging officers to critically engage with things like race, white privilege, and mass incarceration – issues which many police departments seem reticent to acknowledge, issues which swaths of (white) Americans remain blissfully ignorant of.

black lives matter

my residents recently helped me put up some encouraging artwork

Now. on the killing of Mike Brown: like my friend Morgan, I don’t believe that police officers are somehow more racist than your average white person.  Yet after several centuries of black men being cast exclusively as savage demon rape/kill monsters in America’s collective imagination, it would be a miracle if this tradition didn’t manifest itself as latent internalized bias that bleeds into and affects most everything we do, from the most banal of decisions (should I cross this sidewalk? should I make eye contact with this guy?) to the most severe (this man has something that might be a gun, should I shoot? this person is approaching me quickly, are they a threat?).  Notably, the very words Darren Wilson used to describe Mike Brown played right into this heavily racialized framework: in his testimony before the grand jury, he tellingly referred to the teenager as a superhuman “Hulkmonster” and a “demon.”

What I want to tell anyone who asks my “stance” on the Ferguson protests is that yes, black lives matter.  Eric Garner’s life mattered, Akai Gurley’s life mattered, John Crawford’s life mattered, Mike Brown’s life mattered, Tamir Rice’s life mattered, Kiwane Carrington’s life mattered.  They were fathers, boyfriends, sons, college-bound seniors, twelve year olds on the playground, children in our college town of Champaign, but it didn’t matter – all of them and hundreds more were indelibly swallowed up by the expansive chasm of white “colorblind” racism, their killers thus far held unaccountable.  Many believe this (not to mention the booming mass incarceration business) to be a form of modern-day lynching (and Jim Crow).

Here’s what people don’t understand: none of this goes against the fact that blue lives matter.  Yes, as Rage Against the Machine prophesied, “some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.”  And yes, as in all professions, there is sometimes moral corruption and painful bureaucracy.  But there are also countless cops who despise the legacies of oppression that inform policing’s uncomfortable history, who work as kind and caring and flawed human beings to make positive differences in their communities.  There are so many of these.  Many police, like my parents, also share marginalized racial or sexual/gender identities, and strive to represent and respect all citizens from their positions of advantage.

All that to say, police officers in our country do not deserve to be injured or arbitrarily killed.  Your local cops are probably not the Khmer Rouge or the SS, and because cops and civilians are not mutually opposing factions in a mass, countrywide civil war, there is no inconsistency in condemning the illegitimate slayings of unarmed civilians and the slayings of police officers.  In fact, if you aren’t doing both, I’d venture to say you’re missing the point.

Which is, of course, that both black and blue lives matter.  Especially if you believe that each human being holds some kind of divine spark – the very breath of God – within them, then it cannot be anything less than a sin and unconscionable evil when Eric Garner’s breath was illegally choked from his lungs.  If you truly believe in the dignity of all human life, then it cannot be anything but anathema, a heresy of the highest kind, when Oscar Ramos’ and Wenjian Liu’s bodies were violated with metal bullets.

In some ways, those who assassinate public servants and those who uphold racist policing practices have more in common than they’d like to think.  They will both have to answer for the blood on their hands; they are both condemned by their brother’s blood, which is crying out at them from the ground.

WORLD magazine gets it wrong on Wheaton College

I last wrote about Wheaton College in February, when over a hundred students peacefully demonstrated in response to the school bringing ex-gay speaker Rosaria Butterfield to speak at an all-campus chapel session.

This past week, the school was targeted by World Magazine’s Julie Roys, who wrote about school employee Julie Rogers, the celibate gay Christian (which the article defines as “someone who identifies as homosexual but does not act on her same-sex desires because she also believes such behavior is sinful“) who currently works in a chaplaincy office that provides spiritual direction and pastoral care for Wheaton students.

The article has already received quite a bit of backlash from students (one of whom is quoted directly by Roys) who claim that the piece manages to simultaneously misrepresent their perspectives, malign a trusted friend and mentor, and under the guise of orthodox journalistic tactics manages to discreetly promote ex-gay “reparative” therapy.

world magazine

From WORLD’s website: “We stand for factual accuracy and biblical objectivity, trying to see the world as best we can the way the Bible depicts it. Journalistic humility for us means trying to give God’s perspective.”

How accurate are these claims?  If the scare quotes in the article’s title or the strikingly antiquated discourse around reparative therapy are any indication (not to mention the author’s description of “former lesbian” Rosaria Butterfield’s story as “eloquent” or Roys’ subtle framing of ex-gay advocates as the embattled faithful ), these students may just have a case.

Yet it has been particularly disheartening to see the approach that the author and others have taken to actively defending the way WORLD went about writing this piece.  This article is not necessarily advocating for a practice that has been proven destructive to human life, Roys and others seem to be saying, she’s just giving an equal voice to all perspectives.  Roys herself has tweeted similarly several times in defense of her work, saying “[my article] was very fair and had both sides” and “reporting both sides of a controversial issue is not encouraging either side.”  (To be clear: the “sides” here are a) allowing a celibate gay-identifying person to exist as an employee on a college campus and b) promoting hope in “changing” one’s sexual orientation through prayer and pseudoscience.)

Perhaps it is not surprising that an article as cold-blooded as this might emerge from the depths of a very conservative and entrenched religious publication.  But what is truly dumbfounding are the author’s claims of supposed objectivity.  If her claims of mere impartiality and adhering to industry-standard journalistic practices are to be believed, it would be the first time in WORLD history that her magazine took this approach.

My statements here aren’t intended to be provocative or hyperbolic – anyone familiar with this publication, headed by former political advisor Marvin Olasky, is likely to understand that Roys’ claims of fairly reporting “both sides” ring awfully hollow.

Olasky, the editor-in-chief, founder, and visionary behind WORLD magazine, has repeatedly gone on the record rejecting traditional journalistic commitments that seek an impartial or unbiased presentation of facts.  Speaking to his organization’s operational ethos, he remarks that on some things, “the Bible is very clear, so we are not going to be even-handed in the sense of balancing subjectivities, which is what ‘objectivity’ often [comes] down to.”

In his landmark work, “Telling the Truth: How to Revitalize Christian Journalism,” Olasky argues that Christians in the field of journalism must recognize that in some areas, popular understandings of fairness in reporting must be jettisoned.  In his book, he calls this kind of journalism “Biblical objectivity,” and gives the example that, among other things, this “means showing the evil of homosexuality.”  His logic?  “Balancing…stories by giving equal time to gay activists is ungodly journalism.”  After all, “in an article showing the sad consequences of heterosexual adultery there is no need to quote proadultery sources.

It would be unimaginably vapid to assume that Olasky’s philosophy here doesn’t hold any particular sway when it comes to reporting on a gay-identified individual who works on what is widely considered evangelicalism’s flagship campus.  Whether Roys knows it or not, WORLD’s founding paradigm drenches every aspect of this article, and she should apologize for suggesting that she has taken a fair approach in reporting on this non-issue.

share lines

If we remember the ethics that informed the construction of this article, it makes more sense why there are no LGBT affirming quotes present, and why Roys’ share taglines are almost entirely comprised of quotes advocating for reparative therapy

I am beginning to understand a bit more how this report was constructed.  The author appears to have gone out and interviewed a few individuals under false pretenses, then found enough random people to talk about a celibate person having a job nearby.  As evidenced by her inclusion of the guy who works at a church a mile off campus, she wasn’t really concerned if these people went to Wheaton or were related to the issue at all as long as they were willing to parrot “pray the gay away” talk couched in intentionally vague rhetoric around “healing,” “faithfulness,” and the “possibility” of “change.”

Then she shared the piece with WORLD’s readers (who generally hold to the impossible position of both anti-sexuality and anti-celibacy for gay Christians) and feigned indignation when she was accused of presenting a report biased towards the discredited practice of trying to “convert” a gay person into a straight one.  It seems inappropriate to use the word agenda here, but either Roys was intentionally employing the wicked language of implied gay-no-more miracle cures to advocate for the practice (and therefore appease her readers), or she simply forgot the publication she works for and elapsed by reporting in what she really believes was an objective manner.

* * *

Actual LGBT Wheaton students are already responding to Roys’ work, so I won’t take up much more space here.  Part of the valid criticism I received after folks read my last article on Wheaton was that because I’m not on the ground, I don’t have the full perspective on what happens there.  This is more than true.

One final observation I will make though is that we’re sure to see more conservative pile-ons when it comes to non-issues at Wheaton.  Because of the institution’s stellar reputation in evangelical circles – and because of its historic commitment to espousing conservative religious and political ends – supporters are likely to feel a territorial sense of defensiveness for anything smelling like liberalism that comes anywhere near campus.  Wheaton students are holding a silent demonstration in response to a potentially harmful message?  How dare these uppity young people think to protest the Gospel.  The campus office holds to the stance of the vast majority of conservative churches by hiring a non-heterosexual person who is celibate for life?  They’re believing the lie that God cannot change anyone.

These pundits are correct when they predict that we can expect to see more of these “liberal” trends (such as affirming the leadership and scholarship of women in the church, respecting the human dignity and agency of lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gay people) as they continue to impact public life at institutions of Christian higher education across the country.

But for one reason or another, Wheaton seems to draw the fiercest critics.  While, for example, Mercer University’s Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life can write a book about his journey of becoming LGBT affirming, and fairly conservative Calvin College can host a brave series of articles and discussions showcasing the stories of their openly LGBT students, because Wheaton is often framed as the national cradle of evangelical academia and theology, my feeling is that fewer such moves could be made here without immediate pushback from powerful donors and supporters.  Maybe that’s because, in the end, it simply feels like the stakes are higher when it comes to Wheaton College.

While significant disparities and problems certainly plague some aspects of life there, the Wheaton students I’m privileged enough to call friends have shown me that though support is sometimes lacking, the special home that the school holds in the hearts and minds of so many should be enough reason to stand against the kind of muckraking apparent in Roys’ recent reporting.

To these students, I can only say that while it may seem like there is little hope of shifting the sordid stance of your school and its “defenders” when it comes to the LGBTQ conversation, WORLD magazine wasn’t wrong about one thing: the times are indeed changing, and God can certainly move mountains.  Anything is possible.

faith through life and death (a letter to grandpa Sykes)

I wrote this letter to my grandfather on October 30th or so of last year, when it looked like he might be dying.  I emailed it to my mom who printed it out and read it to him in his bed.  He held on for another thirteen months, though, as his health slid down and deteriorated in a painful, helpless way.  He just passed, a week before Thanksgiving.  I want to thank everyone who has been there for my family through this time, and I had the inkling to share this letter on my blog because I recently unearthed it (rather by accident) and I think it captures a lot of things I will always care about, including my grandfather.

I remain happy to have known one of the kindest men to ever walk this earth.  I stand by every word of this today:


hey grandpa,

I really wish I could have come up this weekend so I could see you tonight, but unfortunately I won’t be able to make it home until next week.  I’ve heard that although your mind is still as sharp as always, your body’s health is really failing you now.  And that’s really unfair and it makes me so sad and angry because you are one of the best people I know, grandpa.  One of the humblest, surest people I have ever met.  And you deserve a body that listens when you tell it to.

I wanted to write you a letter saying what I would say to you if I could have seen you tonight.  I asked my mom to read it to you and make sure you understood it.  I really hope to see you soon, but hopefully this will get across want I want to tell you for now:

I want to thank you for everything you have done for me over the years.  Thank you for the unconditional love I have always felt from my Sykes side of the family for all of my life.  Thank you for babysitting us as kids.  Thank you for being my sponsor when I was confirmed into our Church, despite your body not allowing you to be there for the ceremony.  Thank you for raising us up and teaching us about God and for praying the rosary for me years and years before my mom and dad ever met.  Thank you for sending flowers to my Kuramitsu side of the family when you didn’t need to and for keeping us always in your thoughts and prayers.

Thank you for praying for – and this still blows my mind – my children’s children.

I wanted to especially thank you too, grandpa, for listening as my mom, your wife, and I talked together a few months ago, when we had that conversation about forgiveness and hurt and heaven and hell and gay people and how God’s love is big enough to cover everyone.  I know that when I was telling you stories of my gay friends and when my mom was telling you and grandma about her story, some of this was really totally new ideas to you.  But you listened, and we talked about things, and we prayed together afterwards, and it was one of the most  spiritually healing nights I have had in a long while.  I want to thank you for listening with us then, for modeling for me personally what our Lord Jesus would look like if only he were here physically with us today.

Your faith inspires me so much, grandpa.  It reminds me that I am an irrevocable part of something way, way bigger and more ancient and mysterious and loving than myself.  The faith you model for me is one that I try to cultivate in my own life.  It connects me with my past and it pulls me forward into my future.  It makes me appreciate the divine presence and the sacraments and the gift that it is to be alive loving others, both in this age and the next.

You know, if I thought this was the last chance I’d ever get to see you, I would have canceled work, missed my shifts tonight and tomorrow, and made a mad dash for home, where I would have said a depressed and hopeless goodbye.  I’ll be honest, we are all going to be devastated when you leave us, grandpa, but I also cling to the hope that you have taught about for my whole life: I know Jesus is waiting to meet you, and that this is not the end.  I know we will see you again, and it will be a million times better and – in the presence of God – our bodies and minds will be a billion times stronger than they are now.  Though I am in tears writing this now, I remember everything you have taught me about Jesus, and I know that the life He promised us is bigger than death or hell or any other scary thing that sin or the devil can cast at us.

I rest in the hope of the resurrection, and I believe with all of my heart that you will be warmly welcomed, John, straight into the heart of God the moment you pass from this earth.

Because you really don’t fit in that body, and everybody knows it.  Your mind knows it, your spirit knows it, and all of us who have ever known you and are furious that this is happening to you know it.  I have great trust that you will be getting a new body soon, one in which, like it says in the Bible, you can “run and not grow weary, walk and not be faint.”

I guess, all that to say, if I know only two things, they are this: that I love and remember and thank you with all of my heart, and that I will see you soon.

All of my love,

Ryan

grandpa and me

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