When asked what she would write about if she could write about anything, Ashlee Eiland’s answer was immediate.
It was 2018, and the pastor said the divisiveness and contention in public conversations was weighing heavily on her. Eiland, the formation and preaching pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church near Grand Rapids, Michigan, said she felt a “holy discontent” to offer an alternative.
She wanted to help people talk across their differences and, at the same time, still be able to recognize each other’s worth as human beings created in God’s image and likeness.
“I wanted to recapture that because I feel like, especially two years ago, some of that was being lost. I was sensing that would take us down a really hard trajectory if things continued in that direction,” she said.
But kindness isn’t all holding doors and letting people merge in front of you in traffic. The goal of kindness is restoration and transformation, Eiland said.
“I think sometimes what kindness means, if we’re doing it well, is that we are righteously angry,” she said.
“We are lamenting, we are grieving and sometimes holding that grief and anger and lament with someone,” she explained. “I’m specifically thinking of people of color in this country and Black people, who, for generations, have endured an injustice. That should not be met with a pithy call to just be nice to one another, meet each other in the middle of this and this will all be OK.”
In a series of short essays, the pastor and author shares her experiences as a Black woman in predominantly white Christian spaces. She writes of encountering both racism and belonging, of confronting her fears and offering kindness even in the face of radical opposition.
Eiland talked to Religion News Service about what it means to be kind, why it’s important to be able to speak to others across divides and how churches can play a role in that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does kindness look like in the midst of a pandemic, when fear and distrust are running high and people are unable to be in physical proximity to one another?
It is interesting talking about up-close kindness now that we are encouraged to not be so close anymore.
Before we get to this idea of outward kindness, have we truly sat with being receivers of God’s kindness toward us? Are we regularly coming back to self-kindness? One quick exercise would be over the next 24 hours just to actively note our own voice and how we speak to ourselves. And if that doesn’t reflect a level of transformation and reconciliation with ourselves, as God has offered it to us, then how are we ever going to extend that to the world around us?
I think there is a level of heart work involved before we look outward. I’m thinking of Paul’s words to the Ephesians, where he actually cautions the people of God away from hardheartedness. He says, “But be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God through Christ has forgiven you.” There’s something about maintaining a tender heart first, before we can look outward to the work of forgiving, to the work of reconciliation, to the work of truth-telling.
In the book, you share the pain you felt on election night in 2016 and your fear about “what this presidency and the rhetoric that accompanied it would mean for the poor, minorities and marginalized.” Afterward, you reached out to a Republican friend to understand why she had voted for President Trump. Why do you think it is important to try to understand and have conversations across differences?
I’m thinking of the greatest commandment — to love God and to love our neighbor — and maintaining distance in an unhealthy way. There are so many good reasons to maintain distance for the sake of healthy relationship in the way of boundaries, but I’m talking about choosing to stay distanced from one another just for the sake of maintaining our own narratives. It has great potential to create a hotbed for bitterness, resentment and hate. And if our hearts are hotbeds for bitterness, resentment and hate based on the narratives that we are persistently pursuing, then we can’t love God and love our neighbor.
I didn’t really have a desire to debate her because I knew where she stood. I really wanted to know why for the sake of seeing her humanity up close. Her being my friend is a key part of this, too. This wasn’t a random person I’d just met. This was someone I’d already done relationship with, had history with, who I’d seen lead teenagers out of addiction and into relationship with Christ — I mean, a stunning legacy. I wanted to act against the potential for bitterness, anger, resentment to grow my heart by being close to her and asking God to show me how he saw her.
Because we had a relationship, the beautiful thing was she was able to hear my heart when I was able to hear hers, and our relationship to this day is wonderfully intact, and not just intact, it’s thriving. To me, the end goal of my relationship with her isn’t to hold her close in order to change her mind or to prove I’m right. I’m pursuing unity, and unity requires truth telling, it requires the pursuit of justice and reconciliation, it requires peacemaking.
You also write about the importance of speaking out and taking action. How do you balance that?
Wisdom and discernment are key here. Spout out an issue, someone’s going to have an opinion about it. We all have opinions on everything, but for me personally, that doesn’t mean my voice needs to be heard in every single instance for a couple of reasons.
You talk about racism. There are times where I feel strong in my spirit to lead and to point others in the direction of how to be a better reconciler and how to do the work of antiracism in a way that honors Christ, how to speak up and to be strong and courageous, to use one’s voice in a way that doesn’t allow the people of God to suffer. And there are times when I feel like that’s not my work to do for that moment. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about it. And it doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion. But there are some times, for example, when you talk about racism and bigotry, where I feel more wrapped up in the community of God, when my white brothers and sisters speak up.
There’s discernment here. I don’t want to speak for the sake of just being heard. I want to speak for the sake of transformation. And that means I have to be attentive to the role my voice plays, whether in that moment I need to make room for someone else’s voice.
Social media is important, speaking outwardly is important and maybe a yard sign is important. I’m not minimizing those things, but am I doing the hard work within the relationships in the spheres of influence that have already been given to me? For some, the Thanksgiving table and the Christmas dinner table this year are going to be the battlegrounds because you’re talking across the table from someone who might hold a different opinion from you, and that might be the place that requires the most courage.
You also share a story about confronting your fear of police by inviting police over for coffee. What does that experience have to say to readers now in a moment of reckoning over systemic racism and police brutality following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others?
Again, I am careful not to be prescriptive. In that moment, that felt like a good next step for me. I felt like I had the energy and the desire to really step into an engagement like that with our local police department at the time. If I’m honest, there would have been other days that would have happened and I would not have had the energy or the desire because so much of what is happening is repeated trauma. So I’d say you have to be really discerning on whether that type of proximity is a good next step.
Fear was leading me, and I didn’t want fear to lead me. I know what happens when fear leads. When fear leads, the oppressed is in danger of becoming the oppressor. When fear leads, I am paralyzed (from) carrying out the mission that God’s called and placed on my life. For so many different reasons, I was sensing fear in that moment was not leading me to the flourishing and wholeness Christ desired for me.
I felt like the next step was to humanize individuals who are part of a larger system. It was also acknowledgement that not every single individual who’s operating within the system is interested in brutalizing citizens. There are good law enforcement agents who have protected and served really well. And so I wanted to counterbalance what I was seeing in the media and seeing around my neighborhood with my own eyes. To be open to it, exploring what would it be like to share with our local law enforcement how this feels for us and to be mutually curious, almost going against my natural instinct. It wasn’t like this Hallmark moment. I think what it did is it interrupted the fear that was festering in my own heart, and it gave face to a system. I was able to engage with individuals, not with a system.
In the afterword to the book, you mention the burden of being a Black woman in a “predominantly culturally white church.” We’re in a moment when many churches are saying they want to listen, learn and do better. What’s something you would share with churches about what it means to be culturally white and how wearying that can be?
Cultural whiteness says to every other culture represented within one’s congregation or staff that ours is the norm, that cultural whiteness is the norm. There might be room made for the existence of difference, but we might be hesitant to let that difference lead us in different spaces.
One is I think for church leaders to say, “How can we get a better perspective and move away from our own blind spots by listening to Black, Indigenous, people of color within our church and staff on their perspective of what whiteness is like in our church context?” If there’s a white staff or leadership team defining the culture, it’s like being a fish swimming in the water and not even knowing you’re wet. There has to be a different perspective to help inform what its impact is for others who are entering into that environment.
So a lot of listening and then examining spaces where there’s not just representation, but leadership. You can say, “Yeah, we’re a diverse church. We have 20% Latinx people. We have 10% African American.” You can say that and think you’re diverse, but unless there is someone who’s sitting at the table, not just offering ideas, but you’re actively asking to lead you, then cultural whiteness will remain dominant. And so there has to be a real reckoning — are you willing to give up some of your own space or for someone else to lead and shape and form culture?
And it won’t be just in one space, like Black History Month or an MLK celebration. Cultural whiteness, because it can be so deeply embedded in so many different church spaces, there has to be commitment to this over time repeatedly. It might seem like you’re talking about it too much or it’s coming up too much, but if it’s not revisited regularly, and if you’re not loving people well by inviting them to the conversation to help actively shape spaces, giving them leadership and authority in some senses, then we won’t see change over the long haul.
Specifically, this shows up on platforms, in the ways of worship and preaching and teaching, all the way to children’s ministry, what Bible characters look like, who’s teaching the story. Cultural whiteness impacts not just staff teams and the racial makeup of a congregation, but systems of how ministry is done. How ministry is done is directly tied to how people are formed and their view of God and life with God and each other. There has to be a willingness to be shaped and formed in any other way.
No matter what generation, being a teen girl is tough. And it’s not easy for girls to wrap their heads around the fact that the Bible can help them get through some of the more challenging times. Author Katara Washington Patton, in her new book Inspiration for Christian Teen Girls, helps serve girls with Biblical guidance in what she calls “just-the-right-size portions.” Even her subject headers are girl-friendly with titles such as “I Am Beautiful,” “Girl Power,” “Attitude Check,” “Meet the Holy Spirit,” “The Power of Encouragement,” “I Won’t Let Anger Get the Best of Me,” and more. Urban Faith had a chat with Katara about her new book and the impact she hopes it has on young women.
What do you hope Christian girls take away from this book, and what inspired you to write it?
I hope Christian girls feel empowered to walk boldly as Christians; to learn more about God and look forward to a wonderful journey and know that even when it is hard, God provides help for them. I also hope this book helps girls think about their actions and think more about God as a friend and guide. I’ve always had a passion for helping teen girls navigate through this phase in life. I can still recall my teen years and the questions and concerns I had and sometimes feeling like I was all alone. That was not true. I prevailed, and I pray every girl will too without having to live with a life of consequences because of negative choices she made in her teens. Life can be sweet and meaningful when we are following God–even when we are young.
Many teens, girls, and boys alike are struggling to discern who they are as a Christian and what they believe. How will your book help guide teen girls in this faith journey?
This book covers many of the issues that will help girls grow as Christians and connect with God on a personal level; I see God as a friend, and I want girls also to spend a lot of time focusing on getting to know God just like we get to know our friends.
Katara Washington Patton
What are the most challenging issues Christian teen girls face, and how does your book address them?
I think some issues are old and some are new and specific to this generation. Self-esteem is always a big issue for teens especially girls and now with social media and videos with filters and photoshop things are enhanced; girls have to know that God loves each of us for who we are and what we see on social media (or in other places) is not always real. Competition and bullying are also real issues girls face these days; I address both in different entries. Of course, makeup, body image, dealing with parents and other family members are also all included.
Many teen girls see all the romance novels and movies about women finding their prince charming. But what the world values isn’t in lockstep with a Godly path. What should teen girls look for to know if they’ve found their soulmate?
In the entry Find True Love, I, of course, point back to God and God’s example of true love; from there, I ask girls to think of people who truly love them and what they do to show that love. I use 1 Corinthians 13 as a model here, and I try to help girls think through what love looks like, whether that’s in a relationship with a friend, family member, or bae. Romance is something we want to experience, but it really is so much more than we realize or get to see in the movies. I pray this entry, and this book will help girls see this and help them pursue healthy, positive relationships as they grow into young women.
What would you tell a teen girl who is struggling with whether to have sex with her boyfriend?
The entry “Let’s Talk About…,” on pages 38-39 not only shares the word of God from 1 Cor. 6:16-18 from two versions (for easier understanding), but it also offers practical things for girls to think about, such as: Do you want to be connected with someone so intimately when you might not even like this person in a month or so? The activities also encourage the reader to think about just how far she does want to go: holding hands, kissing, French kissing? These are things girls need to decide BEFORE it is too late, before it is dark and they are having all of those emotions. This entry provides a tool to help young girls think about their decision before it happens and to apply God’s word on the matter in their life.
What are three or more things every Christian teen girl needs to know about living a life with purpose?
Build your faith–it really will carry you through so much in life; love yourself–so many negative actions stem from just not loving yourself; God created each of us and wants us to live as the true God-created souls we are; love others– it’s just like the great commandment–we have to be connected to God, love ourselves and love others, which includes vowing to do no harm to ourselves or others.
What are three or more things every Christian parent needs to know about guiding their young woman into living a life with purpose?
I think parents need to listen to their teens–not only what they are saying but what they are doing–so they can keep the lines of communications open. Girls need to be able to come to their parents with what they are feeling and/or questioning in life; I also think parents need to remember when they were teens…things were confusing and complex and now they may be 10 times that; give your girls space and time to walk through this phase, keep them prayed up and keep your hearts and minds open to them; guide them well–hopefully this includes connecting them with faith groups and communities who can also serve as mentors and people they can communicate with. It can be lonely and isolating to be a teen; help girls find the resources and support they need during this time.
As a Christian mom with a daughter, what core principles do you hope to instill in your daughter?
Loving God and desiring to grow with God and turning to God for all of our needs; I think when you have that, you will succeed no matter what.
Christmas is coming, and gifting is at the forefront of many minds. The latest tech changes from year to year, as do the latest fashions. But the gift that never seems to go out of style? A book.
The publishing world is at its busiest in the months leading up to Christmas. In Iceland, there is even a name for this: jólabókaflóð (pronounced yo-la-bok-a-flot) or “Christmas book flood”. The term has also come to refer to the Icelandic custom of exchanging books on Christmas Eve. As a result, a substantial portion of annual hardcover sales are during this period and nearly 850 new titles were released in 2019’s Icelandic book flood alone.
The UK’s annual Christmas book flood begins on Super Thursday: when publishers release a barrage of new titles just in time for the Christmas shopping rush. Some of the heavy hitters among the 426 hardcovers released on October 3 included Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, Jojo Moye’s The Giver of Stars, and MP Jess Phillips’ Truth to Power.
A long history of books as Christmas gifts
People were giving books as gifts even before words were ever put to paper. In one of his books of epigrams, the ancient Roman poet Martial recommended the works of famous Roman writers like “Ovid’s Metamorphoses on parchment” (animal skin) and “Livy (the Roman historian) in a single volume” (appearing in a scroll, on papyrus, or on parchment) as presents for the December festival of Saturnalia. Martial’s recommendations also included book-related items like “a book-case” and “a wooden book-covering”.
As Christmas grew more commercialised, the holiday became increasingly important for the book trade. In his Battle for Christmas, American history professor, Stephen Nissenbaum, argued that books were “on the cutting edge of a commercial Christmas, making up more than half of the earliest items advertised as Christmas gifts”, citing examples from the 18th century. By the Victorian era, periodicals were regularly featuring Christmas book reviews to promote book sales during the holidays.
One such article from a 1914 issue of the New York Times begins with the declaration that “the war is not the greatest thing in the world. It cannot destroy Christmas … The publishers are ready to help”. This article touts various “gift books” suitable for Christmas exchanges: “Sumptuous books, books in the making of which illustrator and printer and binder have exercise their art at its best.”
These 20th-century gift books follow from a tradition of sumptuous books given as holiday gifts. Medieval manuscripts, for example, were gifted for a range of religious, romantic, diplomatic, and festive reasons. A 2015 exhibition about medieval gift gifting at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, now archived online, further supports the understanding of manuscripts as gifts with personal and social value.
Books in today’s world
Writing about medieval manuscripts, Geert Claassens noted that a book – whether a medieval manuscript or a modern mass market paperback – always functions as both an object and a text. This observation is especially relevant in a world with e-books, which largely remove the “object” aspect of the book. However, a recent series of focus groups conducted by Laura Dietz at Anglia Ruskin University as part of a wider study about social perceptions of e-books has indicated that readers still prefer gifting and receiving print books over e-books. Maybe this is because it’s remarkably difficult to wrap an e-book and place it underneath the Christmas tree.
In a recent article for the international READ-IT project (Reading Europe Advanced Data Investigation Tool), media professor, Brigitte Ouvry-Vial, describes reading as “a social imaginary” that contributes to both personal and collective development. That is, reading has perceived benefits for both individuals and communities. However, she wrote:
The very motivation for non-prescribed reading has clearly shifted across time from an essentially knowledge-driven cognitive activity, to a broad information-driven cultural experience as well as a leisure activity.
This shift has also led to an association being made between being well-read or reading a lot with well-being, as books are more regularly valued according to the level of psychological uplift and self-healing they provide.
Books represent more than just knowledge; they’ve also taken on the role of highly personalised home decor. This is because books can say things about their owners. Likewise, the book you choose to give someone for Christmas can speak volumes about your relationship with that person. It’s not enough to just give someone a book and call it a day – it has to be the perfect choice.
For more modern options, YouTube is teeming with video reviews of the latest releases, as well as of “bookish” gifts to give in lieu of or alongside a book. There are also a variety of monthly book subscription boxes. By giving a book or book-related item in 2019, you’ll be contributing to a long and lovely tradition.
At times in your life, you may feel like you’re in a rut. You’ve got a great job, attained a degree or two, but something is holding you back from reaching your real God-given purpose. For some reason, you just don’t feel fulfilled. Maybe you’ve tried to read self-help books or be inspired by successful business leaders in the past but nothing has spoken to you spiritually. Dr. Ray Charles may have the roadmap you need to make a lasting, meaningful, and righteous change. In his book “Enough IS Enough: What’s in Your S.H.O.E.?,” Dr. Charles openly shares how he overcame his own personal and professional struggles and outlines a method that takes readers on a journey of looking inward and authentically about themselves and what pebbles are hindering their success.
UF: When you’re doing all the things that you were told to do — you go to school, you get your degree, and you work hard — what is the missing piece that keeps people from feeing fulfilled?
DC: I’m going to share with you something that I don’t believe I shared in my book. My best friend was a two-time Super Bowl champ — Chicago Bears and the New York Giants. After the N.F.L., he decided to enroll in the Harvard Executive M.B.A. program. He aced that program. Then, he took a company from $5 million in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to 65 million in five years. He had the “Midas Touch,” everything he touched turned into gold. And then he hit a precipitous fall. The business took a turn. He committed suicide. He had C.T.E., which is the concussion the player had in the Will Smith movie (Concussion 2015). The gentleman reached for a gun and the movie ended and everyone knew that it was suicide. That was my best friend Dave Duerson. Why did I share that story? It’s because he had one of the highest IQs that I know of. Just through the roof. He knew his business acumen. When the pain came and when the storm came, what he tried to reach for didn’t necessarily sustain. College prepares you for the “what” but not the “who.” So companies have a business plan, a marketing plan, a strategic plan, a sales plan, and all of the other plans. But college doesn’t prepare you for a personal plan. So how do you navigate your way when you hit the bumps in the road? Most of us tend to look at things external to combat those bumps, when in fact it’s not external, it’s internal. And that’s what the “who” is.
UF: Is there a particularly emotional intelligence issue that people have difficulty getting over? Something that you see more often than others?
DC: I think what people have difficulty getting over is the depth. Because in order to get to the “who” it goes through the cross. You gotta go through Calvary to get to the “who”. People don’t want to give that up. In order to get to the “who,” you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone.
U.C.L.A. did a research study that shows leadership success comes down to two things — intellect and how do people feel when they experience you. It doesn’t necessarily have to be physically entering the room. It could be, how do people feel when your name shows up in someone’s email inbox? So according to this research, 93% of leadership success depends on how people feel. People have to experience the authentic you that was designed by God. It has to be a pursuit of, “What is my divine purpose?” When I come to terms with that, and when I walk into a room, it’s going to cause a certain sense of joy and peace, gladness and engagement. Most folks spend their time going after the 7%, which is the intellect. So we have leaders of nations and businesses, very smart people who are suffering.
UF: In your book, you talk about what has hindered your success both personally and professionally. How were you able to make a successful shift in your life?
DC: I was arrogant. I changed when I saw right before my eyes a mirror of who I was. But after that change was a transition. The event was the change. I went on an “in-venture” — an internal adventure. I went on that In-venture to discover, “Ok, how do I get out of this? How do I make this habitual? How do I make this a lifestyle?” I thought I was confident. My wife was like, oh, no brother you are arrogant — and then my fraternity brothers validated that. I was like, okay, I get it. I get it. How do I change? Show me the proof of change and the proof came in the Word. That was the event. Change is external, but transition is internal. The transition, that journey, is what S.H.O.E. is about. I’m taking folks through a journey, but change happens in an instant.
As Black History Month commences, here are a few must-have books from Black authors, spanning time periods, themes and genres. However, one thing they have in common is critical acclaim and a strong command of tackling the Black experience with grace, courage, originality, and historical context, making them essential reads during Black History Month and throughout the year.
1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece novel is frequently included on the list of must-read American books by one of the most prolific Black authors. The story follows an African American man whose color renders him invisible. It’s a groundbreaking take on a racially polarized society and the struggle to find oneself through it all.
2. Home by Toni Morrison
The 2012 novel by Morrison tells the story of a 20-something Korean War veteran and his journey home from an integrated army to a segregated society. The book was named one of the best novels of 2012 for its careful consideration of mental illness, race relations, family, history, and the concept of home.
3. How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston
Baratunde Thurston, a longtime writer for The Onion, serves up laughs with this collection of comical essays, such as “How to Speak for All Black People” and “How To Celebrate Black History Month.” Thurston covers social interactions and media portrayals with an insightful and satirical perspective.
4. God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson, creator of the Black National Anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” first published God’s Trombones in 1927 as a book of poems. The poems take on the structure of a traditional sermon and tell several different parables and Bible stories, some of which specifically focus on the African American story. Dr. Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates have called this collection one of Johnson’s most notable works.
5. The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates
From the best-selling author comes a poignant tale of life and race in the inner city. Coates explains how his father worked for his sons to obtain a free education and escape Baltimore’s drug culture. This inspiring book tells a powerful narrative about community and honoring your history across generations.
6. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Citizenis an award-winning collection of literature blurring the lines between poetry and criticism. Divided into seven chapters, it provides a powerful meditation on race that creates a lyrical portrait of our current social and political climate. Hailed as “a dazzling expression of the painful double consciousness of Black life in America,” according to the Washington Post. Citizen is said to feel like an “eavesdropping on America.”
7. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
You may think you know Malcolm X, but you’ve never read anything like Marable’s highly-regarded biography, which provides new perspectives and information on the controversial leader. Marable connects Malcolm’s life with other leaders, faith, and Black Nationalism in a masterful, historical context and call for social change.
8. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
In this novel, an African American teenager spends a summer with his brother in 1985 Sag Harbor. The work is more personal than most of Whitehead’s books and explores race, class, and commercial culture in light of a newer generation of Black Americans who are less marked by their color.
9. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
In a classic tale, Wilkerson chronicles the journey of three African Americans who took part in the massive movement from the South to the North, Midwest, and West that millions of Black families took in the 20th century. The Warmth of Other Suns is an acclaimed historical account that studies a definitive period in American history.
10. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes
This extensive collection of poems was hand-picked by Hughes, himself, prior to his death in 1967 and span his entire career. They offer a breathtaking look at being Black in America that is contemplative, celebratory, gut-wrenching and praiseworthy. From “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “The Weary Blues,” to “Still Here” and “Refugee in America,” this collection directs us to fight, believe, dream, and claim our self-worth.
11. Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals
In this riveting memoir, Beals recounts her time on the front lines of school desegregation as a member of the Little Rock Nine – the group of African-American students who famously integrated Arkansas’ Central High School. Her account of the harrowing experiences that forged her courage will stick with you long after the last page.