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.”
The weekend before Election Day, Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, led an interfaith prayer service live-streamed from Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital.
It was All Saints’ Day, and there were prayers for the 200,000-plus Americans who have died from COVID-19. Their deaths are among a number of things Curry believes Americans need to grieve.
That’s the first step to hope and healing, he said.
“You can’t just jump to hope,” the presiding bishop said afterward. “There’s a process you have to go through. There are no shortcuts to it.”
Curry spoke to Religion News Service in the days between Election Day and the projection of a Joe Biden win. The presiding bishop shared his thoughts about what divides the United States, what people of faith can do to help bridge those divisions and why he believes healing is ultimately possible.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Earlier this month, you led a national service for healing and wholeness. Why did that feel important in the days going into this election?
I think part of that is because the country — and the world, but, in particular, the country — has been through a lot. This is clearly a divisive election. That’s self-evident.
But that’s reflecting other things. That’s reflecting the impact of COVID-19. We still don’t know the full social, spiritual and personal impact that’s having, but we know it’s having it.
Then you add on top of that, not COVID-19, but the pandemic of 1619, which goes back into the painful reality of our racial past, of white supremacy, of domination.
So you add that racial reckoning on top of a viral pandemic and all its implications, and then on top of it, America has some deep divisions, and they’re not just racial. There are divisions of class, divisions of those who do feel left out, and they play out deeply. They played out the last time, in 2016 even, in the election.
What will it take to heal those divisions?
I didn’t tell the story at the cathedral, but this was in the 2015 campaign at a Trump rally here in North Carolina — in Fayetteville. There were protesters present. That was sort of normal, if you remember, in that last campaign. And at one of them, this one particular guy, who happened to be an older white guy, punched a younger Black guy who was one of the protesters. He was arrested and charged with assault. He apologized in court for what he did and accepted responsibility for it. And then this is the quote I can remember: He said, “We’re in a political mess, you and me, and we’ve got to do something to heal our country.”
In a subsequent story about those two, the Black guy said to the white guy, “Let’s go out and eat lunch.”
That’s what we must do in America. We must go out and eat lunch together. That’s a metaphor for the hard work of what it is going to take to heal the divisions. When people eat together, over time, they actually get to know each other. And sometimes, a whole lot of stuff you assume about the other, you discover isn’t true. At its best, you discover there’s a story behind why that person thinks or feels the way they do. You may not agree with it, but you can kind of understand it.
Then, you see, we have the capacity to figure out how to do the structural healing. You’ve got to pass laws. You’ve got to change the policy. But the truth is: Changed laws and changed policies don’t change hearts, and until you change hearts, you don’t change everything. You’ve got to take a holistic approach.
That man was right. We are in a mess. We must heal our country. I think some of that is the great work that is before us as a country, and certainly before the church and people of faith.
Can you talk about this idea of Christian unity? Does that identity supersede political beliefs or some of the other divides we might see in the wider society?
I think that is the case. I do remember some instances — I’m going back some years now — when we were close to comprehensive immigration reform. I remember going to see one particular congressperson and making the case for that. He was a devout Christian, represented himself as a conservative and a conservative Christian, but he was open, and I jokingly said, “You know, this is one subject on which I as the Episcopal bishop and the Roman Catholic bishop here, we happen to agree. And I’ve been with some Pentecostal officials and they agree.” And he said, “Oh, yeah, the Southern Baptists were here this morning, and they were making the same point.”
There is some common ground on some questions of moral, human decency and compassion. We actually share common ground because it’s so embedded into the faith, and we share it with other traditions.
You build there. You start from the common ground. You don’t start from the differences. We start from the common ground of common values. And then let that be the moral foundation for practical ways to actually live that out. That’s where there’s differences, you know? And that’s fine. That’s what democracy is about. We sort it out, figure it out, come up with the best solution.
What are some practical things people of faith can do to be part of that work?
Braver Angels has specific programs — With Malice Toward None is one — for churches and civic groups to be involved in, actually bringing together people across political differences. The Episcopal Church has a program, Make Me an Instrument of Peace, which is a five-week curriculum on civil discourse. Again, it’s not about talking nicely. It’s actually some of the dynamics of how do you foster humane, decent and respectful discourse and interchange across differences?
Nothing happens accidentally. We have to learn how to do this. There are other organizations and groups that do this. There’s plenty. We don’t have to invent the materials. We just have to implement them, bring people together for dinner.
For example, what would happen if religious communities of all stripes paired up and said: We’re going to be in a relationship for two years, and we’re going to start out by doing With Malice Toward None. We’re going to do civil discourse. And then we’re going to have a planning group that thinks through how do we nurture this relationship over time? That is very practical.
Failure to know the other is a setup for conflict.
You sound optimistic. Do you think this kind of healing is possible — that it is possible for us to bridge these divides and move forward together as a country after a really polarized season?
Oh, yes. Now, I’m not naively optimistic. I know human progress and growth is possible and can happen, but it only happens as a result of hard work, of struggle over the long haul, and that hard work and struggle includes setback.
I mean, I’m an African American man. I’m a product of the Black community. I’m a product of — go far enough back, you’re into Jim Crow; far enough back, you’re in slavery; far enough back, you’re in the Middle Passage crossing from West Africa over here. I’m a product of that tradition that has learned there is progress and there are steps forward and then there’s a pushback. There always is, but you keep moving forward. You don’t go back.
I have seen progress happen in my lifetime. I have seen the pushback, but I’ve seen we’re always moving forward. There’s a spiritual of the old slaves. I think they were talking about this when they said, “ Keep a-inchin’ along like the inchworm.” That’s how progress happens. It doesn’t happen in quantum. It happens inch by inch, pushback, inch by inch, pushback, inch by inch, pushback, inch by inch, pushback, and before you know it, you’ve moved farther down the road than you ever thought you would.
I believe it is possible for us to be instruments of healing in this culture. And I refuse to give up. As long as there’s a God and God doesn’t quit, I’m not quitting.
Beyoncé in her new visual album “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
Beyoncé’s visual album “Black Is King,” released Friday (July 31) on Disney+, brings to life the music of her 2019 album, “The Lion King: The Gift.”
“Black Is King” reimagines the story of “The Lion King,” which told the tale of a young lion named Simba who flees his home after his father, the king, is killed, rediscovering himself and returning years later.
African Americans have been on a similar journey, said writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow.
“It is this human story of both Simba and Black people — that we are trying to find home, come back to home and live into who we truly and fully are,” said Benbow, who created the #LemonadeSyllabus social media campaign after the release of Beyoncé’s previous visual album, “Lemonade.”
Spirituality plays a huge role in that journey in “Black Is King,” which draws imagery from Christianity and traditional African religions.
“It is this honoring that Black people have always been a spiritual people, full stop, and that spirituality is robust and that to demonize it in any way, shape or form is also to demonize yourself,” Benbow said.
Here are five times religion and spirituality make appearances in “Black Is King.”
1. Moses imagery
“Black Is King” may be a reimagining of “The Lion King,” but the young king’s journey of knowing and returning home to himself and his people also parallels the story of Moses told in the Hebrew Bible, said Tamisha A. Tyler, co-executive director of Art Religion Culture, or ARC, and a doctoral candidate studying theology, culture and ethics.
Moses imagery in “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
At the time Moses was born in Egypt, Pharaoh had enslaved the Israelites and ordered all Hebrew boys who were born to be killed, according to the Book of Exodus. To save her son, Moses’ mother, Jochebed, placed him in a papyrus basket and placed it in the Nile River.
Pharaoh’s daughter discovered Moses and raised him. He went on to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt and is revered as a prophet in a number of religious traditions.
“Moses grew up to be a young man that helped his people find freedom. Moses became then the person or the symbol of liberation” for the people of Israel, Tyler said.
“Black Is King” begins with the image of a basket tumbling down a river.
Later, during the song “Otherside,” viewers see Beyoncé placing her baby into the basket as she sings, “Best believe me / You will see me / On the other side.”
Nicholas R. Jones, assistant professor of Spanish and Africana studies at Bucknell University, sees the Moses imagery in “Black Is King” as “this rooting and reclaiming of Christianity as a continental African type of religion in many ways.”
After all, Jones pointed out, Christianity was in Africa long before European missionaries and colonizers arrived on the continent.
2. The orishas
“The orishas hold your hand through this journey that began before you were born,” Beyoncé says as the film draws to a close. “We never forget to say thank you to the ancestors, noble and royal, anointed, our blessings in the stars.”
Orishas are “intermediaries between human beings and the higher divine” that are represented or manifested in nature, according to Yoruba spirituality, Jones said.
Beyoncé first appears in the film on the beach, dressed in white and holding the baby she presumedly has drawn from the water. She kneels in front of two men swinging censers as she describes “coils in hair catching centuries of prayers spread through smoke.”
“You are welcome to come home to yourself. Let ‘Black’ be synonymous with glory,” she says.
Beyoncé carries a child in the beginning of her new visual album, “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
Jones and Benbow describe the scene as an offering to Olokun, the orisha who has dominion over the ocean, depths, darkness and profundity.
“You are immediately tuned into the fact that this is a deeply spiritual quest, and it begins with an offering to the African deities who have carried our ancestors and who carry us,” Benbow said.
Beyoncé also is channeling Oya, an orisha often represented by the water buffalo, when she appears wearing horns and cowhide and smoking a pipe in another scene, Jones said.
There are other spiritual beings in the film, too, including the zangbeto — shown covered in palm fronds and climbing onto the hood of the adult king’s car later in the film — who “puts things back in order and essentially demands justice,” he said.
“For me, in ‘Black Is King,’ Beyoncé is really playing with all of these types of images, iconography, so on and so forth,” Jones said.
“I really see the message being a decolonial type of spiritual project, really calling both Black people in the diaspora and in continental Africa, as well, to sort of this decolonial project to return to your roots — explore your ancestral, spiritual, religious roots.”
3. The divine feminine
Throughout the film, Beyoncé embodies the divine feminine, imagery she has evoked many times before.
Viewers of her 2017 Grammys performance spotted references to Kali, a Hindu goddess who has been worshipped as the Divine Mother and Mother of the Universe; Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty; and the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus in Christian traditions. Beyoncé also evoked images of two orishas: Yemoja and Oshun.
“Black Is King” offers glimpses of paintings in the background of several scenes in which Beyoncé is depicted as the Virgin Mary, haloed and holding a child.
Beyoncé depicted as Oshun in her new visual album, “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
She makes this clear in the song “Mood 4 Eva,” singing, “I am Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter / I am the Nala, sister of Naruba / Oshun, Queen Sheba, I am the mother.”
Like Oshun, Beyoncé is pictured in gold and yellow and often near water and waterfalls. She also is accompanied — as are several of Oshun’s avatars — by birds, including peacocks and vultures, according to Jones.
“Even in the diaspora, when enslaved Africans were clearly praying to Virgin Mary, we have to think about different forms of religious syncretism and the camouflaging of Catholic saints with different orishas or divinity,” he said.
Beyoncé returns to water again and again in “Black Is King.”
“Water” is the name of one of the songs in the visual album, featuring Pharrell Williams and Salatiel. The film features rivers, waterfalls, the ocean, recycled water containers, even a synchronized swimming sequence, and serves as the setting for rituals and offerings.
“Water signifies life. Water signifies purity. Water signifies hope and water signifies the ability to be reborn,” says a voiceover in the film.
Water is a symbol of rebirth in the Christian rite of baptism, Benbow said. It represents life, she said, pointing out many believe the continent of Africa is the origin of all life and civilization.
“And so to go back to water, which represents life, and to see these Black people in water, dancing in water, doing all of this around water, it is again embracing the truth that this life, these contributions, what we know to be true, to be us, they don’t exist without Black people,” she said.
Water also is part of the imagery associated with several orishas, including Olokun, Yemoja and Oshun.
In “Black Is King” water is “transformative,” Cate Young wrote for NPR.
“Its mythical power is reflected in both the pain of sailing Black people across endless oceans for subjugation and its healing potential to wash away the violence of that history,” Young said.
Beyoncé performs ’Spirit’ in her new visual album, “Black Is King.” Image via Disney+
5. Coming full circle
One of the film’s most powerful moments comes near the end, when Beyoncé sings the triumphant anthem “Spirit” in what appears to be a sun-drenched chapel. She is framed in the window like a halo and surrounded by a choir dressed in purple.
Tyler sees the scene coming full circle from the opening Moses sequence.
“You can’t get that moment in ‘Spirit’ without seeing all of the orishas. All these different pieces that you see throughout the film lead up to ‘Spirit,’” she said.
“It’s a return to something that you understand at a deeper level now, so that the choir, the voices singing together, that moment in that church is deeper because you’ve reclaimed a part of yourself that people have tried to deny you.”
Even as she appears surrounded by the church choir, Beyoncé is dressed in yellow, evoking Oshun.
The moment highlights the way the spirit that has guided and continues to guide Black people is “at work in all places,” Benbow said.
“Beyoncé is a church girl, born and raised Methodist. She just released another visual album steeped in honor and reverence of the indigenous religious/spiritual practices of our ancestors,” she tweeted.
“Sis, if you have been looking for permission to explore and understand, let this be it.”