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Cuz: Book Review


Danielle Allen’s thoughtful recounting of her cousin’s life and death, in and out of prison, is a fascinating read as a memoir. She goes beyond the storytelling, however, to delve deeper into the social, racial, and criminal justice systems that shaped his life.

In particular, she paints a detailed picture of the damage done to the country and, especially, to the black community by the War on Drugs, explaining that”The illegal drug economy overburdens our judicial system, increases prosecutorial workloads, and drives down homicide clearance rates, leading to a phase shift in levels of violence in urban areas.”

On a personal level, Allen provides an unflinching look at how and why her path in life and her cousin’s path diverged.

I found this book especially compelling because of my own experiences with family members in the criminal justice system, but its rich storytelling will make it a good read for anyone.


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Dream Country: Book Review

dream country

Beginning with a Liberian immigrant family in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota in 2008, Shannon Gibney’s Dream Country zig zags through time and space, telling stories from Liberian colonization and civil war to African American and Liberian American present day. Each segment focuses on an individual within a family, showing not only the individual struggle but also the inextricably linked family dynamic. The individual story segments bring to life the historical settings and events, from Liberian colonization to civil war to diaspora.

Dream Country, the publisher says, is a young adult novel. Don’t let that fool you: Shannon Gibney respects her audience too much to write down to them or to soften the emotional and historical facts in any way. Her audience may include young adults, but this is a novel for all adults, as intense and troubling as any novel on the various book award and best seller lists.

For me, Angel’s words sum up how the five separated but interrelated family stories come together and why this book tastes like life:

“The truth is fluid and fungible and untrustworthy and won’t abide by any one telling. And sometimes, in inventing truth, we can discover something deeper. We can find our place in the story, because that, at least, is one thing that we can make for ourselves. A story.”

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Advent Riffs: Fourth Sunday, Walk (and Work) Toward the Light

advent candles

Photo by Alex Harden, licensed under Creative Commons.

Why does Mary leave her home and set out “with haste” to her cousin Elizabeth? Is she afraid of being found pregnant? Is she afraid of her coming marriage? Is she simply in need of her cousin, her friend, one who understands her deepest thoughts and fears and longings?

That is Elizabeth. Her cousin. Her friend. Who tells Mary:

Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

You are right, Elizabeth says to Mary. You are right to believe. You are right to hope. You are right to know yourself as good and chosen and important.

Do you believe that? Do you believe that you are good and chosen and important in this world? Do you believe you can make a difference and you will make a difference? Can you believe that? Can I? Can we believe it of ourselves and of each other? Continue reading

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Advent Riffs: Third Sunday, Repent and Act

Advent candles, Third Sunday

Advent candles, Third Sunday, photo by Melly95, used under Creative Commons license

This Sunday brings us powerful words from John the Baptist.

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

We are not to sit stewing over sins, but to repent and to act, to bear fruits worthy of repentance.

And the crowds ask him: How? What can we do? We are here in the desert, with you.

He tells them:

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Anyone who has none. Anyone who does not have enough food, does not have a coat, does not have a shelter against the storm.

Jakelin Caal.jpgAnyone who has none. Surely that includes the desperate migrants at our southern border. Jakelin Caal was seven years old when she died after crossing the border on December 6. She walked from Guatemala with her father and a hundred other people, desperate families seeking life and hope and safety. Instead, she died in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol, dehydrated and in shock after the journey. Continue reading

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Advent Riffs: Second Sunday, Healing the Earth

IMG_6126John proclaims a baptism of repentance:

A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

John is the voice of one crying in the desert. He tells people to prepare for the Messiah, that the King is coming, that the Messiah will overthrow the wickedness of the world and conquer all, with a winnowing fork to clean the threshing floor and an inextinguishable fire to burn up the chaff.

I love the resonance of these verses, and the shiver-inspiring Godspell invocation of “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.”

And yet—John is wrong as much as he is right. Continue reading

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Advent Riffs: First Sunday, Sweet December

pottery shards

Pottery shards / Flickr / Creative Commons

Archaeologists dig for clues and artifacts of ancient civilizations. They may find an amphora handle and a fragment of a casserole, which will become part of a collection, perhaps on display in a museum. From these fragments, they may deduce the age of a home and the wealth or poverty of its inhabitants.

Like archaeologists, we dig through the scripture, looking for meaning and truths. What are the message to be dug out of today’s scripture readings? Continue reading

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Human Life Is Precious. Stand Up For It.

Talmud do justice nowThis week, on Wednesday, a white man shot and killed two black customers in a Kroger supermarket in Kentucky. He came to the supermarket shortly after he tried and failed to gain entrance to a nearby black Baptist church. He acted out of hate.

This week, another white man mailed bombs to prominent Democrats and to news organization who have been denounced repeatedly by Trump. The bombs were sent by a man who listened to Trump and who lived in a van plastered with Trump stickers and slogans. He acted out of hate.

Today, another white man, screaming his hatred of Jews and of immigrants and refugees, went into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 Jewish people praying there, and wounded many more in the congregation and also four police officers who tried to stop him. He acted out of hate.

Tonight, I am heart sick because of these tragedies, because of the hate overwhelming the country.

That hate does not come “from all sides.” That hate is amplified and encouraged and spoken and tweeted daily by our president.

Tonight I remember the words of Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

My daughters are Jews, and we fear someone is coming for them. I have friends who are immigrants and refugees, and we fear someone is coming for them. I have friends who are people of color, who are gay and lesbian and transgender, and we fear someone is coming for them. We fear someone is coming for us.

Perhaps fear is the wrong word. We know someone is coming. We just do not know who or when.

Here’s a lesser-known part of Pastor Niemoller’s story. At first, when Hitler was coming to power in Germany, Pastor Niemoller supported him because Hitler was anti-communist. Then, as he saw the evils and the hatred that Hitler spread, he became a leader among clergy opposed to Hitler.

The first lesson I take from Pastor Niemoller is the obvious one: that we must stand up for everyone and must always stand against hate.

A second lesson I take is this: that people who once supported Trump, the loudest voice of hate in this country today, can change and oppose his hateful speech and actions now.

Today and every day, I oppose that hate. Today and tomorrow and every day, I stand in solidarity with the people who are the immediate targets of that hate: with people of color, with immigrants and refugees, with lesbian and gay and transgender and bisexual people, with Jews and Muslims, with socialists and communists and Democrats and journalists.

At noon on Sunday, I will stand on Lake Street, with transgender people and allies, in an action to “show to the world our power as fellow human beings and to support and show love for each other in a time where our government seems to be discarding us.” Standing on Lake Street for an hour is a very small thing, but it is something.

Can you find something to do, too? Can you find a small action to take? Even listening to the voices of people who are suffering under these attacks is something. Even reading the news instead of turning away is something. Voting against haters is something.

Let me say this once again: the hate that is preached from the bully pulpit of the presidency is affecting lives right now, today. Please do something.




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