WHEATON, Ill. (RNS) — The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. still remembers clearly the moment as a teenager he thought he was going to die.
Parker was 16 years old, visiting family in Mississippi, when he woke in the early morning hours to the sound of voices in the house. Moments later, the door to his bedroom opened and a man pointed a flashlight and a pistol in his face.
He shut his eyes tight, but the shot never came.
The man moved on to the next bedroom and the next before finding and kidnapping his cousin — Emmett Till.
It was the last time he saw his best friend alive, Parker, now in his 80s, told a packed concert hall Tuesday night (Oct. 25) at Wheaton College, the evangelical flagship school in the Chicago suburbs.
What happened next — Till’s brutal murder, his mother’s decision to allow an open casket at the 14-year-old victim’s funeral, so the country could see what had been done to her son — shone a light on racial violence in the United States and became a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
Mamie Till-Mobley weeps at her son’s funeral on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago. (Chicago Sun-Times/AP Photo)
“A picture’s worth a thousand words. That picture made a statement. It went throughout the world, all over the world, and it still speaks,” Parker said of the photographs of Till in his casket, taken by David Jackson and first published in Jet magazine.
The story of Till continues to resonate because it “provides us with a lens to understand racial conflict in our own moment,” said Theon Hill, associate professor of communications at Wheaton College and primary organizer and moderator of Tuesday’s event, “Remembering Emmett Till: A Conversation on Race, Nation and Faith.”
“When we see George Floyd killed right in front of us due to the officer’s knee,” said Hill, “when we see Breonna Taylor’s death, when we see Ahmaud Arbery, we’re trying to make sense of what’s happening, and Till’s death, as tragic as it will always be, provides us with a grammar to understand this is what’s happening and this is how you might respond in your moment.”
The enduring relevance of Till’s death is apparent in the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime and signed in March by President Joe Biden, nearly 70 years after Till’s murder.
“A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till” by the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. and Christopher Benson. Courtesy image
It was 30 years before anybody asked Parker his account of what had happened over the handful of days in 1955 he and his cousin, who lived in Chicago, spent in Mississippi visiting family, according to Parker, the last surviving witness to Till’s abduction.
In Parker’s account, Till is a jokester, the boy next door he accompanied fishing, picnicking and on other trips. When his cousin found out he was planning to take the train down South to visit his grandfather, he insisted on going too.
“If you didn’t live in Mississippi at that time or experience what it was like, you have no idea what it was like,” Parker said.
He had lived in the South until he was 7 and knew “what you had to do to stay alive and what could happen to you,” he said.
When the younger boy whistled in the presence of a white woman outside a store, Parker said, the cousins left in a hurry. He worried what could happen in a place and time when a Black man couldn’t so much as look at a white woman, he said.
But days passed, and they’d nearly forgotten about the incident. Then came the moment Parker heard voices in his grandfather’s home at about 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, asking about the boys from Chicago.
“Sunday morning should be the safest place on earth for a young man in his house — on Sunday morning, waiting to go to church,” he said.
Shaking and sure he was about to die, he prayed, “God, if you just let me live, I’m going to get my life together.”
That Monday, he returned to Chicago alone, his life changed “completely,” said Parker, now pastor and district superintendent of the Argo Temple Church of God in Christ in Summit, Illinois.
The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. speaks during the “Remembering Emmett Till: A Conversation on Race, Nation and Faith” event at Wheaton College, Oct. 25, 2022, in Wheaton, Illinois. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller
What happened to Till changed the country, too.
Dave Tell, author of the 2019 book “Remembering Emmett Till,” told the audience Tuesday night that he had become invested in civil rights because of Till’s story.
“The Till story prompted a new generation to stand up for justice, and I think the good news of the night is that the Till story — Rev. Parker’s story — is still motivating a new generation,” Tell said.
It’s a story, he said, the U.S. needs to hear today more than ever. Considering the stories of Floyd and others against the backdrop of Till’s murder, it’s hard to minimize their killings as “a problem of a bad apple or bad cop,” he said.
And the church has a role to play in sharing that story, both Tell and Parker agreed.
The biblical Book of Genesis tells the story of Abel, murdered by his brother Cain, Tell pointed out. In the story, God says Abel’s blood cries out to him from the ground, where Cain has tried to bury what he did.
If God demands that voices that have been buried be brought to light as part of the work of justice and healing, shouldn’t the church? Tell asked.
“We’ve got to keep the legacy going — got to keep the story going — and not with animosity,” Parker added.
“Just tell the story. It’s history. It’s real. Tell what happened,” he said.
Wheaton College has an open library commemorating Tolkien and the “Lord of the Rings” universe, formally known as the Marion E. Wade Center, at the college in Wheaton, Illinois. RNS Photo by Emily Miller
WHEATON, Illinois (RNS) — It started with an inkling.
It was the 1950s. Clyde S. Kilby, then an English professor at Wheaton College, had a feeling about a British author he’d been reading named C.S. Lewis — that he was “probably going to be famous one day,” according to Crystal Downing, co-director of Wheaton’s Marion E. Wade Center.
So Kilby wrote to Lewis and started collecting books and letters written by the author. He met some of Lewis’ friends and family.
Years later, he was traveling to England to work with Lewis’ Oxford University colleague J.R.R. Tolkien on “The Silmarillion,” a collection of stories that fill in the background of Tolkien’s beloved “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Decades later, the professor’s collection of letters and books has grown to become the Marion E. Wade Center, one of the foremost research centers not only on Lewis, but also Tolkien and five other British Christian authors who had influenced Lewis’ work.
Now the Wade Center is preparing for an influx of archival materials and interest as Tolkien and his fantasy world of Middle-earth have once again grabbed the spotlight.
After years of speculation, the first two episodes of “The Rings of Power” — the multimillion dollar prequel series produced by Amazon Studios and inspired by the appendices to Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” novels, debuted Thursday night (Sept. 1) on Prime Video, Amazon’s streaming service.
“Tolkien probably would never have gotten published if it weren’t for Lewis,’” Downing said.
“And, of course, Lewis wouldn’t be famous if it weren’t for Tolkien because Tolkien is the one who convinced him he could be a Christian.”
The Wade Center can feel like the evangelical Christian college’s best-kept secret, housed in a cozy building that looks like a stone English cottage nestled into Wheaton’s suburban Chicago campus.
Laura Schmidt, archivist and Tolkien specialist at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. RNS Photo by Emily Miller
But Laura Schmidt, archivist and Tolkien specialist at the center, said, “Tolkien knew about Wheaton College. He knew about the Wade Center.”
Pre-pandemic, the Wade Center welcomed about 10,000 people a year, ranging from elementary students from Chicago-area school districts to scholars from around the world.
Its archive includes books belonging to authors Lewis, Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams (including more than 2,400 from Lewis’ personal library alone). It also includes original manuscripts of their work, letters they wrote and oral history recordings of people who knew them.
Among its treasures are rare, autographed first editions of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit,” all featuring cover artwork designed by the author himself.
Marion E Wade Center, home to the Tolkien Library, is housed on the campus of Wheaton College in Illinois. RNS Photo by Emily Miller
An exhibit in the museum shows how those covers have changed over time, from Tolkien’s artful eye of Sauron circled by Elvish script to a 1980s paperback featuring an Olan Mills-style portrait of the dwarf Gimli and elf Legolas with flowing, romance-novel hair.
Another exhibit atop the dining room table from Lewis’ house displays merchandise that accompanied the popular “Lord of the Rings” films released in the early 2000’s and more recent films based on “The Hobbit.” There is a Lego scene of The Shire; a letter opener made to look like Bilbo Baggins’ Elven sword, Sting; even a board game.
The museum also features the small, nearly hobbit-sized desk at which Tolkien wrote “The Hobbit” and much of “Lord of the Rings,” as well as the dip pen he used to write, slightly melted on the end he used to tamp his pipe tobacco. Its most popular attraction, though, is the wardrobe carved by Lewis’ grandfather that inspired his beloved children’s story “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
Yes, there are fur coats inside.
On Tuesday, scholars from Ireland and Australia perused texts in the reading room, home to at least one copy of every book published by the seven Wade authors, as well as nearly everything ever published about them.
Meanwhile, across campus, members of the Wheaton College Tolkien Society shared their plans for watching “The Rings of Power” while manning a table at Wheaton’s club and ministry fair. The series had yet to premiere, and members were feeling both excited and apprehensive.
Elizabeth Church, president of the Wheaton College Tolkien Society, was one of several students helping to run a booth about the club at the school’s Club and Ministry Fair. RNS Photo by Emily McFarlan Miller
Tolkien Society President Elizabeth Church said that what drew her to Tolkien’s stories was the “found family aspect.” In the “Lord of the Rings” series, the Fellowship of the Ring brings together hobbits, elves, dwarves, humans and others for a single purpose: to destroy the one ring and defeat evil.
Church has found a similar family in Wheaton’s Tolkien Society, she said.
“We’re very much like the fellowship in the books in that we are a ragtag bunch of people who come together for one goal, which is to be a fellowship,” the senior said.
The first two episodes of “The Rings of Power” set up an epic battle between good and evil. In one of its opening scenes, a young Galadriel, who will become the elven Lady of Lórien in “Lord of the Rings,” questions how to recognize the light when evil masquerades as good.
The answer comes near the end of the episode: “Sometimes we cannot know until we have touched the darkness.”
Light and dark, good and evil are themes found throughout Tolkien’s work, Schmidt said before watching the new series.
And Schmidt, who advises the Tolkien Society, expects the series to get dark.
The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College includes a wide variety of memorabilia including cards, miniature swords and other decorations symbolic of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” series. RNS Photo by Emily McFarlan Miller
It’s drawn from writings set before the events of “Lord of the Rings,” when the evil sorcerer Sauron is handing out what Schmidt jokingly called “friendship rings” to men, dwarves and elves that he’ll later use to control Middle-earth. It’s a long time before the conclusion of “The Return of the King,” the final book in Tolkien’s series, when good ultimately triumphs over evil.
Those themes are also part of the reason why the author’s work not only endures nearly 70 years after it first was published, but also has inspired what has been called the most expensive TV show ever made.
“I think that’s going to really resonate with people in this time and era now, because there’s a lot of darkness that we’re trying to figure out. That’s why these books are pertinent to our time, and it’s going to, hopefully, inspire hope in people’s hearts that the fight is worth fighting,” Schmidt said.
“Maybe we’ll get a ‘Return of the King’ in a few years.”
Hundreds of people gather near the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2021. The U.S. military and officials focus was on Kabul’s airport, where thousands of Afghans trapped by the sudden Taliban takeover rushed the tarmac and clung to U.S. military planes deployed to fly out staffers of the U.S. Embassy, which shut down Sunday, and others. (AP Photo)
by Jack Jenkins & Emily McFarlan Miller (RNS)
WASHINGTON (RNS) — President Joe Biden has authorized an additional $500 million to aid refugees from Afghanistan, pushing through the funds as the White House fends off suggestions it failed a moral test to aid those fleeing the war-torn country.
Biden approved the funds in a memorandum Monday (Aug. 16) to meet “unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs,” drawing the money from the United States Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund.
The memo, addressed to the U.S. secretary of state, stressed the funds were for “the purpose of meeting … (the) needs of refugees, victims of conflict, and other persons at risk as a result of the situation in Afghanistan.”
The president of Jewish refugee resettlement group HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), Mark Hetfield, said the move was expected and the fund exists “precisely for this type of situation” — referring to the effort to evacuate Afghans desperate to leave the country after it fell to the Taliban over the past week.
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about how the new funds will be used.
At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that seven C-17 aircraft left Afghanistan over the past 24 hours, carrying 700 to 800 passengers, most of them a “mix” of people from other countries and Afghans seeking a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, with the U.S.
Psaki also reiterated the claim that “a good chunk” of SIV applicants “did not take advantage of those visas and depart” before the Taliban took control of Kabul, as the president asserted in his Monday address on Afghanistan — although she did not specify how many.
On Monday, in response to Biden’s address, leaders of several faith-based refugee groups disputed this account, saying they spent months urging the White House to expedite the evacuation of Afghans who aided the U.S. government during its 20-year presence in the country.
“We have been in touch with countless SIV recipients who have been desperate to leave Afghanistan for months and have not been able to due to insufficient financial resources and inadequate flight accessibility through international organizations,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, head of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said on Monday.
Similarly, Hetfield described Biden’s assertion as a case of “blaming the victim.”
Afghan government collapses, Taliban seize control: 5 essential reads
On Tuesday, faith-based groups continued their pressure on the White House to help U.S. allies and other vulnerable Afghans, including Christians and other religious minorities.
Among them, the Evangelical Immigration Roundtable sent a letter to Biden signed by leaders from World Relief, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.
“As Christians, we believe that each person is made with intrinsic value in the image of God, and we cannot treat any person’s life as expendable. Our government has a particular obligation to those who are now facing threats upon their lives due to their service to the United States, and to go back on our commitment to them would be a moral failing with reverberating consequences for decades to come,” the letter read in part.
(RNS) — More than a million children around the world may have been orphaned by COVID-19, losing one or both parents to the disease or related causes.
Another estimated 500,000 lost a grandparent or another relative who cared for them.
The numbers are from a new study by researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others that highlight another grim reality in the sweeping devastation caused by the ongoing pandemic.
“These new estimates highlight the tremendous impact COVID-19 has had on children around the world,” said Elli Oswald, executive director of the Faith to Action Initiative.
Members of the Faith to Action Initiative, a coalition of faith-based child welfare organizations that includes Bethany Christian Services, World Vision and other nonprofits and ministries, responded this week to the study published Tuesday (July 20) in The Lancet, encouraging Christians to mobilize to care for those children and support surviving family members.
“We know when families are supported during these tragic times, they can provide the love and care a child needs to thrive. The church is best placed to respond to the needs of these children as it carries out the vision we see in scripture of God’s intention for family, and ensures that a child never needs to be placed in an orphanage,” Oswald said.
Researchers from the CDC, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank and the University College London used COVID-19 mortality data from March 2020 through April 2021 and national fertility statistics for 21 countries to offer the first global estimates of the number of children orphaned by the disease.
Their methods were similar to those used by the UNAIDS Reference Group on Estimates, Modelling and Projections to estimate the number of children orphaned by AIDS.
“Orphanhood and caregiver deaths are a hidden pandemic resulting from COVID-19-associated deaths,” according to the study.
Children who have lost a parent or caregiver are at increased risk for disease, physical abuse, sexual violence and adolescent pregnancy, according to a press release accompanying the study. They also risk being separated from their families and placed in orphanages or care homes, which researchers say have been linked to negative effects on social, physical and mental development.
The solution, said Chris Palusky, president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services, is “the loving care of a family, not another orphanage.” He pointed to Scripture passages that say God sets the lonely in families and call on Christians to care for those who have been orphaned.
“We urge Christians to support efforts to strengthen vulnerable families and communities, reunify families, and place children without caregivers in loving families, so that children never have to live in orphanages,” Palusky said.
Losing a loved one and caring for orphaned children also puts “immense” stress on remaining parents and extended family members, added Margaret Schuler, World Vision’s senior vice president of international programs.
“Yet efforts for care must be focused at supporting them in and through their families to prevent unnecessary separation,” Schuler said. “We encourage Christians and the Church to mobilize to keep families together in order to help children thrive.”
The study was published alongside a report by the CDC and other agencies titled ” Children: The Hidden Pandemic 2021.”
A bestselling book on prayer has some Christians upset and calling on Target stores to remove it from their shelves.
“ A Rhythm of Prayer: A Collection of Meditations for Renewal ” — edited by progressive Christian author Sarah Bessey — features a number of different types of prayers written by theologians, pastors and authors from various Christian traditions. It hit bestseller lists in both the United States and Canada when it was released in February.
The prayers in the book include a benediction by Bessey, a poem by Potawatomi Christian author and speaker Kaitlin Curtice, a prayer based on a chicken soup recipe by pastor and peacemaker Osheta Moore, “A Liturgy for Disability” by author and disability advocate Stephanie Tait and even blank pages for those times when it feels like there aren’t words.
But it’s the “Prayer of a Weary Black Woman” by clinical psychologist and womanist theologian Chanequa Walker-Barnes that has caught the attention of Fox News and conservative Christians on Twitter, some tweeting at Target to remove the book from its stores.
One line from the prayer in particular has caused the backlash, which reads: “Dear God, Please help me to hate White people.”
Bessey and other contributors to “A Rhythm of Prayer” responded to what they said has been a “firestorm of harassment, criticism, coordinated attacks, threats, and furor against her and the book” with a statement published Thursday evening (April 8) on Bessey’s website, saying critics are missing the point of the prayer.
“Dr. Walker-Barnes’ prayer is faithful, honest lament, modelled on Scripture. It is a gift of intimacy and vulnerability to the Church and we are grateful to her, not only the prayer, but for her work and her witness in the world,” the statement reads.
“The backlash that Dr. Walker-Barnes is facing because of her prayer ironically serves as proof of why such a prophetic, powerful, and potent prayer is necessary.”
The controversy seems to have started — as most controversies do these days — with a tweet.
Over the weekend, a Virginia pastor posted a photo of the first page of Walker-Barnes’ prayer that he said was sent to him by a member of his church who spotted the book at Target. The controversial first line of the prayer was underlined.
In a follow-up tweet, Ryan McAllister, an elder and lead pastor at Life Community Church in Alexandria, Virginia, added, “This kind of thinking is a direct result of CRT and is completely anti-biblical.”
CRT, or critical race theory, is an academic theory examining systemic racism.
The theory has become a lightning rod since the Southern Baptist Convention’s Council of Seminary Presidents issued a statement in November declaring it incompatible with the denomination’s statement of faith. The statement did not define critical race theory or explain how it clashes with the core beliefs of Southern Baptists, and several prominent Black Southern Baptists since have announced their departures from the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
Conservative writer Rod Dreher described the prayer as racist and blasphemous Thursday in a blog post.
“What Walker-Barnes and her progressive Christian allies represent is, let’s be clear, the spirit of Antichrist. It is blasphemous to call on God to make you hate people at all, much less on the basis of race,” Dreher wrote.
The statement from contributors to “A Rhythm of Prayer” pointed out Walker-Barnes’ prayer is modeled on biblical Psalms of lament and anger, called imprecatory Psalms.
“Prayers in Scripture often reflect a similar arc of anger and exhaustion and longing that turns the petitioner right back to trust in God’s goodness, hope, and call to love, just as Dr. Walker-Barnes modelled so well,” it reads.
Walker-Barnes tweeted, “Being a professor, I can tell when people haven’t done or understood the reading.”
The author explained on social media that she had written “Prayer of a Weary Black Woman” after a white person she had considered a friend used the “N-word” in casual conversation with her.
“I took my rage to God in prayer. I owned it. I was truthful to God about what I was struggling with. And I prayed for God not to let anger and hatred overwhelm me,” Walker-Barnes tweeted.
While her own personal experiences and her family history — her grandfather fled sharecropping in South Carolina — have given her reason to hate white people, she tweeted, God has given her “a different spirit, one that insists on looking for goodness and possibility, one that holds anger and hope together.”
In the prayer, Walker-Barnes begins by asking God to help her “at least want to hate” white people, to stop her from “striving to see the best in people,” to be “able to walk away from them and their sinfulness without trying to call them to repentance.” But, she continues, “You have kept my love and my hope steadfast even when they have trampled on it.”
The prayer ends: “Thus, in the spirits of Fannie and Ida and Pauli and Ella and Septima and Coretta, I pray and I press on, in love.”