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« The perfect post-election, culture-making book: How Free People Move Mountains | Main | Beyond Homeless by Brian Walsh & Steven Bouma-Prediger reviewed at the website »

An American Awakening and other new books for post-election civic conversations and action

627101_0_150.jpgAn American Awakening: From Ground Zero to Katrina, The People We Are Free to Be by Courtney Cowart (Seabury; $24.00) is a book I've not quite known how to promote, but now it hits me.  This is, like the one I mentioned yesterday (How Free People Move Mountains), a great example of the sort of book that could enhance our conversations in these next heady days about who we need to be as a people, and what we need to be about.   President-elect Obama put out a clear call in his moving acceptance speech the other night that government can not--perhaps should not---try to fix everything.  "The first thing to say about politics," Father Richard Neuhaus has said, "is that politics is not the first thing."  Efforts at cultural renewal and attention to civil society and institutions other than the state are as urgent now as ever.

An American Awakening is a fine book, a study of hope, and of ways that grace has worked its ways in and around places of real suffering.  This moving telling of the tales of discipleship that have lead to caring and concern, action and activism, is just the sort of witness to relevant faith that we need.  As Walt Brueggemann puts it on the back cover (a cover laced with significant quotes) "It is a raw human account of day-to-day care and generosity that is marked by faith and that smacks of courageous staying power.  It is a narrative of immense power that invites recovery of human dignity, neighborly solidarity, and active hope."  Rev. Cowart is a "sacred activist" and a 9-11 survivor (she worked at Little Trinity on Wall Street) who has served in relief work across the country.  Sad and serious stuff, to be sure, but also exiciting, substantive and thoughtful.

New Neighbor: An Invitation to Join Beloved Community  Leroy Barber  (Mission Year)leroy.jpg $14.99. Oh wow, is this a cool, cool book.  It is trim, a bit larger than pocket sized, full color on serious stock, and an amazing synergy of graphic art design, photography and testimony of folks who have reached out through the ministry called Mission Year. (Do check out that link to their website, it is fabulous!  Or go to the website for the book itself.)  I like the line of Rusty Pritchard (Director of the Evangelical Environmental Network) who said "When you see the problems of the world as clearly as Leroy Barber does, most are tempted to despair.  But time and again I've seen Leroy counter that despair with encouragement, hope, and down-to-earth examples of love in action."   These stories---and evocative photos by Brian T. Murphy---are enough to inspire even the most jaded to sacrifice and action.  This is the kind of stuff we need to be talking about, the sorts of innovative caring that can bring healing and wholeness to our broken urban communities.  Kudos to Mission Year for their amazingly good work, and, now, for prodocuing a handsome, hip handbook, an art project that shares the gospel, telling the stories of those who love.  Highly recommended.  Mr. Barber, the CEO of Mission Year, will be at Jubilee 09 in Pittsburgh in February.  Gonna be great...

Speaking of inspiring urban warriors, Bill Strickland is a guy I briefly met and immediately admired over 30 years ago in a rough and tumble bit of the North Side of Pittsburgh called Manchester.  There was an evangelical Catholic Worker house nearby, and I'd take friends to hang out and help out.  Strickland, I heard, was starting to do job training for urban youth around traditional arts and crafts skills (and, getting guys to play jazz, as well, which has earned him respect from his friend Quincy Jones.)  From pottery to stained class to flower arranging, the Manchester Craftsman Guild helped bring renewal and change to this tough place, impacting the lives of thousands.  Stickland is still the activist leader of Manchester Bidwell, and has gone on to become a world-renowned speaker and his story is nicely told in Making make the impossible.gifthe Impossible Possible co-authored by Vince Rause (Doubleday Currency) $23.95.  On the front the audacious title continues One Man's Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary. 

Strickland is a true African American hero, kind of an inner city, artsy, highly motivated, very multi-faceted, entrepenureal Ben Carson, perhaps.  Hillary Rodham Clinton notes, "The Guild is a testament to the power of the arts to transform children's lives.  Its students learn much more than how to shape clay, take pictures, and appreciate jazz.  They leave knowing that they have the potential and tools to become successful and productive citizens." 

With endorsements from the likes of Fast Company and Harvard Business School, this ghetto blaster gets around.  His story is remarkable.  That his work told here may inspire more social enterprise innovations is even better.  He will be speaking at the Jubilee 09 conference in Pittsburgh, and his faith and guts will inspire many.  Check out Make the Impossible and invite others to dream about what they could do, even if on a smaller scale.

What can churches do to help create this kind of social reform?  Could you have conversations about this kind of stuff?  We'd recommend  Linking Arms Linking
linking arms.jpg Lives: How Urban-Suburban Partnerships Can Transform Communities (Baker) $14.99 which is a title I reviewed here  briefly when it came out a week or so ago.  I could have said so much more as this includes great Bible study, good stories, ideas for "next steps" and discussion.  Written by Ron Sider and John Perkins, Wayne Gordon and Albert Tizon, this is a beautiful example not only of thoughtful and visionary strategizing, but of what God is doing to bring "good words and good works" together in an evangelical, wholistic Kingdom approach.  It has tons of great stories, too, really great stories.  A motivational and inspiring read, this is a book that ought to be in the hands of every church leader who cares about outreach, service, missional thinking and working beyond their own doors.   

If you like Obama and his vision, it seems to me that we must carry on this notion that we are called as fellow citizens to work for the common good, being agents of change and hope in ways that are not necessarily legislative.  If you are more conservative, then you surely agree: it is the task of the private sector and local agencies to reach and out get busy, doing the work that government, too often, simply cannot do.  I hope these books can help inspire thoughtful prayerfulness, discernment and action.  We would be thrilled to know that a few people are getting together with their neighbors, friends, co-workers, classmates or church members, to read together how others have worked at these kinds of innovative projects. 

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1 Comments

Dear Byron,

Thank you for perceiving precisely why I wrote An American Awakening at this particular time. I believe that now is the time because we have finally elected a leader who will challenge us to make the values and behaviors we sometimes reserve for the catastrophic - normative - daily ways to live one's life. That's why Obama keeps saying, "We know it won't be easy. It's going to take sacrifice...." I sent my manuscript to the publisher last March, when no one knew what the outcome of the election would be. But I literally prayed, and I believed that we would make this choice we did. And this is the other part of my message, which perhaps is made too subtly or not confidently enough: I believed I had seen evidence on a massive scale from my sight line inside catastrophe, of our true, but sometimes hidden, character and identity. And that identity, that deep incredible character, I have been blessed to see up close on an extraordinary scale twice is what I refused to believe had somehow died, or was just a mirage, or a fleeting fancy. What we witnessed in the reactions and responses of people on election night was extremely revealing, because we displayed how passionately so many have held our deepest civic yearnings in our hearts, hoping against hope, fighting, believing, insisting that it could not be true that we had become so depraved, so ugly as some would suggest. Sometimes I even go so far as to believe that we might not have chafed against the twisted narrative that unfolded if we had not matured as a nation from living through the horrors of 9/11 and Katrina - and they were in some ways stepping stones to the Obama victory. So I wanted to let you know that I was delighted to find someone who sees the connections as well, and understands that this is what An American Awakening is about. It was written believing this moment would come about and that we would need stories to help us claim the moment of testing and opportunity. I'm coming to Philadelphia for some book events in the new year. Should we do something at Hearts and Minds? I'd love to.