Common Threads & Clean Water

Common Threads & Clean Water for Urban FaithKory Westerhold is a graphic designer, and accidental activist, who’s using his skills to help Haiti, one T-shirt at a time.

It’s just past 1 p.m. in Brooklyn and designer Kory Westerhold is getting anxious. His e-commerce site for Haiti relief, Thread & Water, was supposed to launch by now, but there are … shall we say … technical difficulties.

“Um, let’s make that 2 p.m. Sorry y’all,” he tweets, and disappears online to tinker with the infrastructure of the site. A community of friends and colleagues stand by, waiting for his signal and building excitement amongst one another via Twitter and online chat programs. “It’s going to melt your face off,” says one friend. She’s had a sneak preview of the site and can already vouch for its quality.

Everyone’s eager to see the custom T-shirts and prints Westerhold’s selling, designed by a who’s who of top creatives, hand-selected for this project. One hundred percent of the proceeds raised will go directly to help provide clean water in Haiti (most of the participating designers have kicked in cash to pay for the back-end costs, and Westerhold is making up the rest out of his own pocket).

Common Threads & Clean Water book 1 for Urban FaithCommon Threads & Clean Water Book 2 for Urban FaithCommon Threads & Clean Water Book 3 for Urban FaithIn the wake of the disaster, water is crucial. Newly erected tent cities with makeshift latrines and food storage can turn into breeding grounds for cross-contamination from sewage to drinking water overnight. The threat of a cholera outbreak is very real in such a situation, potentially leading to more deaths than the 7.0 earthquake that leveled the already poverty-stricken country two weeks ago. Thread & Water donations will help reduce the spread of disease and prevent the devastating effects of starvation and dehydration by contributing funds to The Water Project, a charity that provides clean water and supplies to survivors … that is, if Westerhold can get the site running.

An hour later, he reappears on Twitter triumphantly declaring, “WE ARE LIVE!” Within minutes word is spread throughout the country as friends and friends-of-friends log onto to donate $25 in return for a shirt.

“It’s just so much more than I imagined it would be,” he explained the night before the January 25th launch. Westerhold never set out to be an activist. Like most of us attempting to process the images of devastation daily streaming in from the media, the young designer just felt compelled to help. Enter project Thread & Water. “This really didn’t start off to be ‘something’ — I just wanted to sell some T-shirts and allow that to help me give more than I could have otherwise — and if it is ‘something’ now, it surely wasn’t me who came up with it … it just kind of happened.”

And happen it did. Within a week, Thread & Water quickly expanded to a community project, as numerous people from Westerhold’s close-knit web of friends raised their hands to get involved. Some contributed back-end skills to get the site off the ground, like publishing guru Kristen Ball and finance journalist Erick Bauman. Others offered designs for the Thread & Water T-shirts, including Ness Higson, Danny Jones, Phil Coffman, Aaron Grauer, Joshua Blankenship, and Steven Abraham.

“I just took inspiration from them,” Westerhold says, identifying the collaboration of his friends as the driving force behind the relief effort.

And while he’s certainly no saint, this isn’t the first time Westerhold has used his design skills to effect change. He rarely talks about it, but he’s the creator of the logo for To Write Love on Her Arms, the popular non-profit started by Jamie Tworkowski to help teens battling depression and suicide. Embodying the same community-driven quality of TWLOHA, Thread & Water may see similar success. But success isn’t Westerhold’s goal. Like most of us, the accidental activist is just trying to be faithful to the small opportunities before him and join his friends to help others.

Only four days after the launch, Thread & Water is doing well. Inspired by the site, a New York City school invited Westerhold to share with students various ways they can help with the relief and inspire the children to design their own shirts, which will be sold specially on Thread & Water’s site.

The momentum around Thread & Water is exciting, but Westerhold is keeping some perspective. “There are actually lots of fantastic designers responding to the tragedy in Haiti with their talents and checkbooks. In fact, a good friend of mine, Mike Fretto, who runs Rosa Loves in St Augustine, has already sold over 1,000 shirts for the relief effort! I’m just glad that our group had the heart to respond and is doing what they can to be a part of that.”

For more information about Thread & Water, and to purchase a T-shirt for a $25 donation that will help provide clean water for Haiti, visit

Haiti’s Voodoo Realities

Haiti's Voodoo Realities for urban faithPat Robertson’s comments were offensive, but one cannot overlook Haiti’s legacy of voodoo and witchcraft. If Westerners really want to bring about social justice and spiritual transformation in Haiti, Africa, and other nations of African descent, then we need to take the implications of their religious worldviews more seriously.

When I was a student at Christ for the Nations School of Missions, I learned about the so-called “pact with the devil” that the African slaves of Haiti made to free themselves from the French. Later I learned about the so-called “renewal of the covenant” presumably made by Aristide in 2003 where he officially recognized Voodoo as a state religion.

When the earthquake struck Haiti, I knew that it was only a matter of time before a televangelist would say something that the media would pick up and allow themselves yet another opportunity to paint evangelicals in a negative light. While I agree that Pat Robertson’s comments were embarrassing and offensive (for the record: I don’t think that anyone should ever claim they have divine knowledge as to why a specific natural disaster occurs. Luke 13:2-5 speaks loudly against that), I also think that the reaction of the secular media and some in the progressive faith community has been — good intentions not withstanding — condescending.

Perhaps I’m overly sensitive about this. A couple of weeks ago my wife and I visited a peace-oriented church in Albuquerque. After the service I struck up a conversation with a guy that asked me what I do for a living. I told him I’m a missionary that travels the world and that I lived in Africa for a period of time. When I told him about how missionaries view most African traditional religious practices as demonic, the reaction I got was “Um…oh…that’s nice. I’m sure you see some value in traditional African religious practices [aka witchcraft] … don’t you?” I told him the truth. No I don’t.

Here’s the ironic part. While I’m sure that this man felt justified in his appreciation for traditional African culture over and against the supposed mentality of “culturally imperialistic” missionaries, the reality is that millions of African Christians — and I suspect Haitian Christians as well — would agree with me, not him.

One of the reasons why Christianity has exploded in Africa, and countries of African descent like Haiti, is because many African social systems are structured around fear of evil spirits. Unlike in the West, where the predominant salvation model centers around guilt/forgiveness, in African societies people often place their faith in Christ because they view the message of the resurrection as a cosmic defeat over the power of demonic forces. This is why when Africans (and/or people of African descent) read their Bibles, most don’t read through the prism of Western liberalism. They take what the Bible says about the supernatural at face value.

Western liberal academia might scoff at the idea that idolatry leads to poverty, but for millions of African Christians, the dots were connected a long time ago. They themselves are fighting against sorcery and witchcraft in their spiritual warfare conferences — without the prodding of Western missionaries. And for good reason. Witchcraft is a poor moral base to build a prosperous society. When people are afraid to succeed in their jobs or businesses because they fear their neighbor will place a deadly curse on them, that’s bad news for the economy. Most African Christian leaders recognize this. This is why when Western media and religious elites treat witchcraft/voodooism as a harmless practice that may or may not be compatible with Christianity, what they’re really doing is trivializing the beliefs of millions of African Christians — a sort of paternalism in reverse if you will.

Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not saying that idolatry/witchcraft/voodooism is the only factor perpetuating poverty in African societies. Certainly the legacy of slavery and colonialism, unfair trade laws, Western interference in internal political affairs and — name your political injustice here — have all played a role in keeping Africans and people of African descent in economic slavery. But if we in the West want to partner with African background Christians to bring about social justice in their respective countries, then we need to take their worldview a bit more seriously. If you don’t believe me, read Philip Jenkins’ book The Next Christendom or, better yet, watch any film made in Nigeria.

I can’t speak for every African and/or Haitian Christian, but my sense is that while many would be offended by Robertson’s comments, most would also tell us that if African societies are to progress into the 21st century, then both physical and spiritual issues will need to be addressed.

This article appears courtesy of a partnership with Sojourners.

Gilbert Arenas’s Unfunny Business

Gilbert Arenas's Unfunny Business for urban faithAmong other things, the NBA star’s troubles offer this sobering reminder: An occasional joke is okay, but don’t quit your day job.

Washington Wizards basketball star Gilbert Arenas was recently suspended by the NBA because of a practical joke involving several unloaded handguns, a joke that he played on a teammate who was angry over an unpaid gambling debt. Consequently, Arenas was hit with a gun charge, to which he pleaded guilty, and now his contract with the Wizards appears on the verge of termination.

Clearly, the joke didn’t go over that well.

Nevertheless, Gilbert Arenas is a genuinely funny guy, and I hope that somehow, despite the fallout over his recent transgressions, he doesn’t lose his sense of humor.

See, humor is a funny thing.

In one sense, it’s a basic human need, a notch or two below the need for food, clothing, and shelter. This is why sitcoms and comedians are so popular. As people, we don’t just love to laugh, we need to laugh. Humor is a critical way that we humans express shared meaning and make sense of the world, and it exists at the convergence of our intellect and emotions.

Unfortunately, this makes the concept of funny mysterious and hard to pin down. It often depends on context, which is why sometimes it’s so hard to relay a funny joke from one situation into another. So many factors can change the equation so many times, that a joke that sparks a bout of side-splitting laughter here might only elicit a chorus of yawns there — or worse, an avalanche of boos.

This problem has plagued many comedians over the years, especially White entertainers who complain of an unfair double standard regarding ethnic slurs. Many White folks in general have cited, from the annals of Black pop culture, example after example of things said by Blacks that if said by a White person would be denounced as racist.

So it’s with more than a little schadenfreude that pundits and commentators of almost every persuasion have emerged from the woodwork to pontificate on the subject of fallen-NBA-star Arenas and his recent incident involving handguns in the locker room. Like Caesar, they come not to praise Arenas, but to bury him under a cloud of suspicion.

This wholesale denunciation is problematic.

Much has been said in defense of Arenas’s quirky, practical-joking “Agent Zero” persona. And I agree with those who have detected a racialized difference in the overall response and coverage of this and incidents like it, proof of the NBA’s overall image problem in mainstream America. Both the NFL and MLB have been dogged by far more police blotter activity, particularly as it relates to violent crime and drug abuse, yet neither is tagged as routinely as the NBA is as a “league full of thugs.”

Furthermore, too little has been said about the reason why Arenas had the guns in the locker room in the first place, which, according to reports, was because he didn’t feel comfortable with them coexisting with his children at home. This seems, on the face of things, to be a responsible decision.

But all of that is beside the point.

The real travesty is that Gilbert Arenas earned all the penalties levied against him because he failed to grasp a rather obvious truth: In life, not everything is a joke.

Inveterate pranksters often use humor as a defense mechanism to mask their insecurity. Arenas’s story — abandoned by his mother and raised by his father, whom he didn’t meet until he was 3 years old — is filled with the kind of personal pathos that can inspire insecurity and fear of rejection. Not only has Arenas fit this pattern throughout his career, but after the gun incident went public he actually admitted in his Twitter feed — boasted, really — that he never takes anything seriously.

This quality often makes him an engaging interview subject, but in this case, it clearly impaired his judgment.

How do we know this?

Because with even a modicum of awareness, he would have noticed the following:

• Guns are often involved in violent crimes, which are often perpetrated by, and thus associated with, young Black men

• The NBA is a league dominated by young Black men

• The NBA has, for the last few years, been trying to recover from a series of scandals that have generated a lot of negative publicity

• The D.C. team used to be known as the Washington Bullets, but the general public decided the name was in bad taste, considering the District’s notoriously high murder rate

• Not coincidentally, The District of Columbia has some of the strictest gun laws in the country

All of this, and still …

Not only did Arenas not have the sense to ask a team official about how to properly deal with his guns, not only did he not have the sense to realize that guns and practical jokes don’t belong in the same sentence, but even after he did these things and they became public knowledge, he didn’t have the sense to apologize or show any genuine form of contrition outside of a statement drafted by his attorney.

I think Gilbert Arenas defaulted to his normal response to everything, which is to turn it into a joke and hope it goes away.

This time, it just didn’t work.

Now, I’m not saying that he should lose his job over this. Some punishments, though understandable and legally permissible, are still excessive — like the guy who was fired from his job for being a fantasy football commissioner.

Plus, this will remain as a stain on Arenas’s reputation. As such, Gil will probably continue to feel misunderstood as he tries to put his career back together. Like many talented Black men with chips on their shoulders, he might be tempted to adopt a me-against-the-world mentality.

“Only God can judge me,” goes the typical ‘hood refrain. This could become his mantra.

But I hope not.

Likewise, I hope he doesn’t lose his sense of humor altogether. Maybe one day he’ll crack open a Bible, find Proverbs 26:18-19, and learn to use discernment when cracking jokes. And maybe he’ll discover Romans 13:1, and learn to receive correction from authority more gracefully.

Maybe, as part of his NBA penance, he’ll end up in a public service announcement about the dangers of practical jokes.

Now that would be funny.

Photo of Gilbert Arenas by Keith Allison from Wikipedia.