When Jesus wanted to teach a lawyer the universal truth about what it means to be a neighbor, He told a story about a man from one ethnic group who helped a man from another ethnic group who had been beaten and left for dead along the Jericho Road. This anonymous brother’s keeper has been venerated as the Good Samaritan, and schools, hospitals, and streets are named after him. But today, if Jesus were telling this story, I wonder if He would only focus on one person helping another person. Today’s Jericho Road is not a one-person problem. If we’re to understand what it means to be a neighbor and straighten out our Jericho Road, we’ll need a national body of determined individuals who come together to fix a dangerous curve in our historical road that has caused damage to many for far too long.
What do I mean by straighten out our Jericho Road? First, a little context. In biblical times, the Jericho Road was the way from Jerusalem to Jericho, a flourishing city. The rich and famous built their vacation homes in Jericho. Religious leaders spent their days off there, perhaps resting under a palm tree. But the road to Jericho had many twists and turns where evil people lurked and attacked unsuspecting travelers. Far too many people taking the four-hour trek down the Jericho Road found themselves victims of evildoers.
Some would question why anyone would knowingly travel such a dangerous roadway, but a better question would be: Why should anyone be unable to travel to Jericho in safety? Are we to surrender our freedom because some would want to deny our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Why are we told to go back to Africa when our forefathers and foremothers helped build this great society—for free? When we gather for Bible study in our own churches, do we have to fear that evil people are going to jump out of nowhere and attack us?
Today’s Jericho Road is a twisted state of mind
Our Jericho Road is not offenders lurking on some mountain path over in Israel. It’s individuals with twisted states of mind who believe they can wait in their own dark shadows and then, without warning, jump out and attack people because they don’t like how they look or falsely believe that individuals searching for peace and rest are a threat to them. How do we straighten out such a mindset? Do we need metal detectors at every church door? Should we take off our shoes off before we enter our places of worship, not because we’re standing on holy ground, but because we want to ensure no one is hiding a bomb in their shoes?
When our nation has experienced natural disasters and terrorist tragedies in the past, we’ve come together, stepped up with celebrity telethons, public service announcements, days of silence, and other forms of active support to tell ourselves and the world that we’re better than this… that we shall overcome all terrorist threats to a humane society.
Go public against racial hatred
When a group of African Americans tried to cross a bridge in Selma and were denied, the country rallied. People of all ethnic stripes came against forces that wanted to infringe upon the God-given dignity of others. In one collective voice, they said, “No more. Not on my watch. Never again.”
Do we have enough Good Samaritans today who are willing to go public with their determination to end racism? Can we get enough people to just say no to racism so that our national consciousness reaches a tipping point that ends racial injustice? Will we call out and straighten out our own family members, friends, co-workers, and associates when they espouse ideas and actions that would undermine the safety and sanctity of others?
There’s been a lot of talk about having conversations about race, but as we all know, talk is cheap—unless it’s meant to broaden our understanding and respect for people who are “other” to us. Should we have such honest and transparent conversations, we’d quickly find out that underneath the skin, we’re all pretty much the same, with the same dreams and aspirations for ourselves and future generations. But until people, famous and anonymous, lock arm in arm and publicly declare that life matters and that racial hatred is wrong and will not be tolerated here, we can expect more of the same.
It’s been said that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. If that is true, then good people must take just actions until evildoers realize that we the people are intolerant of racial injustice. What Jesus taught must still be shared: We are all neighbors. We all are made in the image of God. Christ died so we could all experience our universal oneness in Him. When a Black child is murdered in the streets, we all suffer. When a White child is murdered in her elementary schoolroom, we all suffer. We are all human. No one else needs to be senselessly gunned down to make this heart-wrenching point.
The alarm goes off. Your eyelids crack open as your brain starts to register the piercing foreign and unwelcome sound chosen out of a list of stock options that came with the device. In that moment, you choose. You can attempt to acknowledge that another day has indeed started or you can prolong this inevitability with one of modern history’s greatest inventions: the snooze button.
Just like all other inevitabilities, it is time to face the fact that another day has come, and with it, your routine. A lot of times, you can pretty much predict or foresee what the day is going to look like. If you have a 9-to-5, you know that you need to get up to make sure you’re out the door in enough time to beat traffic and make it to work on time.
Then you work all day, unwind at home, eat something, go to sleep, and do it all over again. Before you know it, you’re caught in this cycle and your life has become the one word childhood dreams and imaginations dread: mundane.
The Drum Major Instinct
As Christians, we believe fundamentally that we are all created for a God-given purpose. We believe that there is a reason we are on this earth, that our lives mean something. Scriptures like Jeremiah 29:11 and Ephesians 2:10 reinforce this belief. We serve a great (i.e. massive, full of grandeur) God and He made us so surely we are meant to be great, right?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to this feeling of being meant for something greater in his sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.” He states, “We will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first… It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.”
It is a natural inclination to want to be significant.
When we consider purpose, we must consider that which we were commanded. We’ve all heard them before: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Then, Jesus’ last instructions before He ascended to Heaven were, “Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
This is our purpose.
Love God, love people, make disciples. In everything we do, we can point back to these three things. It’s vague and specific at the same time. How can we do these things when we are just normal people?
A word on Purpose from the late Dr. Myles Monroe
Most people will never know Lyle Gash. He was a boy with Downs Syndrome in a rural town in the foothills of North Carolina.
When he was born, his mother and father were told he would not make it through the night. Then, when he did, they were told he wouldn’t make it through the week. Then, when he did, they were told he wouldn’t see a year. And so on, and so forth for his 24 years of life.
Lyle survived multiple open heart surgeries, kidney failure, and various other health complications. He finally went home to heaven at 24.
One might ask, “What was the point of his life? He struggled for 24 years then died. Where’s the purpose?”
Well, one year, Lyle’s mother had an idea. Watching her baby boy suffer in pain, she wanted to do something to make him feel at least a little better.
She noticed whenever he received “get well soon” cards his mood was significantly better. She wrote a simple Facebook appeal to all who would read it: “Let’s collect 10,000 cards for Lyle.”
It seemed like an insurmountable feat. However, once word got out, cards came zooming in from all over the world. Lyle even got a special card from President Barak Obama and his family. All of a sudden, the story of a boy with Downs Syndrome in small-town North Carolina was impacting the lives of thousands of people that he never would’ve dreamed of meeting.
Lyle’s story serves as a very important lesson: as long as there is breath in your body, you have purpose. It’s up to us to seek out that purpose in our everyday lives.
It’s up to us to never lose our wonder. Whether we realize it or not, in our seemingly mundane lives, we have the opportunity to dream, to encourage others, to delight in creation, and to take advantage of every second of every day.
We can search out beauty and joy. We can take pause and acknowledge the miracle of every breath we take in. We can help others. Life becomes so much more meaningful when it becomes about more than just you. Don’t let the mundane steal your purpose.
During Lent, we commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. As if it were New Year’s Eve, most Christians make a Lenten resolution, consecrate it with prayer, and stick it out until Easter. Our concern for particularity in this moment, while laudable, can prevent us from grasping — and being grasped by — a broader sense of mission. The immediacy of figuring out, “What am I going to give up?” can prevent us from asking, “What sort of person is God calling me to be within the church and the world?” The first question pivots around our personal aspirations; the second one opens up a vista of service and mission. Developing the latter theme, we might approach Lent as an opportunity to embrace the care of Christ and emulate his ministry of coming alongside and caring for the least of these.
Embracing the care of Christ can be painful, for it often requires a prior admission that we are wounded. Many recent college graduates work hard to secure employment and repay loans, only to experience job loss, a reduction of responsibility, or another economic shift causing them to move back in with their parents. They are wounded. Some 222,000 veterans have returned from Iraq to a jobless recovery, a gridlocked Congress, and employers who cannot grasp the relevance of leadership skills honed in a military context. They, too, are wounded.
Our individual ailments differ, but we share an Augustinian solidarity. The bishop of Hippo suggests that we are Good Samaritans, called to love across differences of race, class, religion, and other social realities. Yet we are also recipients of God’s boundary-bursting, Samaritan love — Jesus found us by the side of the road, bandaged our wounds, and nursed us into wholeness by the power of his Holy Spirit.
As a community whose health has been and is being restored, Christ calls us to tend to the social ills of his people and all people. Matthew 25:31-46, in particular, underscores the importance of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those who are in prison, and welcoming the stranger.
By caring with and for society’s most vulnerable members — Jesus calls them “the least of these” — we bear witness to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in Christ. We embody his love by performing acts that immediately address the maladies of drug addiction, domestic violence, and chronic sickness. Moreover, our engagement in intermediate, systems-transforming work on behalf of the least of these — inmates, immigrants, gay and lesbian military personnel, and so on — testifies to the restorative justice of God’s kingdom in Christ.
Such care, whether personal or structural, does not itself build or establish God’s kingdom. To claim that it does collapses human initiative into divine work (making devils out of those who may oppose it for well-argued reasons) and, more dangerously, runs the risk of idolizing the stratification of power that enables such change (e.g., relief and development arms of denominations or national governments become sacrosanct instruments beyond critique). Our individual and collective care for “the least of these” represent necessary and yet feeble attempts to follow in the footsteps of our Lord who prioritized the marginalized in his ministry. Our call is not about politics, not about ideology, but about modeling the love and justice of Christ. Cornel West has famously remarked that, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” What does our Christian faith look like out on the street?
Lent reminds us that the church’s social service and justice-making efforts fall short of God’s glory, that our best attempts to repair the world are still broken, leading us to depend anew on the care of Christ. We are weak, but the consolations of our Lord are strong; through him we discover the strength to love, the power to carry on.
It’s hard to relax. We’re in an uncomfortable place right now. The future is unclear. Our leaders are not all stable. And the world economy is in flux. But God. He’s our anchor. His love never changes and we know that when we pray, it helps calm our heavy hearts and anxiety about the uncertainty of it all. Below you’ll find a compilation of two-minute podcast shorts by the late Dr. Melvin E. Banks, founder of UMI, on prayer. We’ve pulled them from Dr. Banks’ daily radio program which was called Daily Direction and covered a variety of issues and topics. So, turn the ringer off on your phone, find a quiet place, be still, and listen.
In late winter, many Christian denominations observe a 40-day period of fasting and prayer called Lent. This is in preparation for the spring celebration of Easter, a religious holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
As a scholar who studies Christian liturgy, I know that by the fourth century, a regular practice of 40-day fasting became common in Christian churches.
The practice of fasting from food for spiritual reasons is found in the three largest Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In all three, refraining from eating is intimately connected with an additional focus on prayer, and the practice of assisting the poor by giving alms or donating food.
In the Gospels, Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness to fast and pray. This event was one of the factors that inspired the final length of Lent.
Early Christian practices in the Roman Empire varied from area to area. A common practice was weekly fasting on Wednesday and Friday until mid-afternoon. In addition, candidates for baptism, as well as the clergy, would fast before the rite, which often took place at Easter.
During the fourth century, various Christian communities observed a longer fast of 40 days before the beginning of the three holiest days of the liturgical year: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter.
As Christianity spread through Western Europe from the fifth through 12th centuries, the observance of Lent did as well. A few Lenten days were “black,” or total, fast days. But daily fasting came gradually to be moderated during most of Lent. By the end of the Middle Ages a meal was often permitted at noon.
Also, bishops and theologians specializing in church law specified restrictions on the kinds of acceptable food: no meat or meat products, dairy or eggs could be consumed at all during Lent, even on Sundays.
Today, Catholics and some other Christians still abstain from eating meat on the Fridays of Lent, and eat only one meal, with two smaller snacks permitted, on two days of complete fasting. In addition, they also engage in the practice of “giving up something” during Lent. Often this is a favorite food or drink, or another pleasurable activity, like smoking or watching television.
Other activities are also suggested, in keeping with the idea of Lent as a time for spiritual renewal as well as self-discipline. These include making amends with estranged family and friends, reading of the Bible or other spiritual writers, and community service.
Though some practices may have changed, Lent in the 21st century remains essentially the same as in centuries past: a time of quiet reflection and spiritual discipline.
When Caitlin Gooch was working with elementary school kids as a teacher’s assistant, it was sobering to find that most children were not reading at grade level.
In her native North Carolina, 36 percent of fourth graders are reading at a proficient level, and it’s about the same nationwide, according to The Nation’s Report Card, a congressionally mandated assessment of students nationwide. Adjusting for race, Black fourth graders across the country tied for the lowest average reading score. In North Carolina, White and Asian fourth graders scored more than 20 points above Black, Latinx and Indigenous children on average.
Then, in 2017, Gooch was volunteering at a Scholastic Book Fair with a Western theme and realized not all kids at the fair had enough money to bring books home.
“I know that authors and illustrators have to make money, but it also pains me really bad that books are so expensive,” Gooch said. “Children deserve new books.”
A lightbulb went off for the 28-year-old, who grew up surrounded by horses on her family farm. Gooch established Saddle Up and Read that year with the mission to get more books to kids, using her childhood horse, Goat, as the magnet to draw kids into her book drives.
Gooch fundraised enough money to put down a third of the cost of a trailer to take Goat on the road. A farm in Kentucky sent in money to help offset the cost. Farmers in Maryland donated a truck with 40,000 miles on it.
“I was really happy, because it seemed like at that point people were starting to not only pay attention to Saddle Up and Read, but pay attention to literacy rates, and that’s something that I don’t want people to forget,” Gooch said.
She now travels to towns and neighborhoods in North Carolina, handing out gift bags with books. Gooch has given out at least 200 books this year.
During the pandemic, she hasn’t hosted readings on her farm out of an abundance of caution, so she and Goat are on the road more often. These gifts allowed Gooch and Goat to show up in North Carolina neighborhoods with books and goodie bags.
Over the first weekend in December, she posted a selfie in front of her horse trailer, captioned with a simple request: “See that truck and trailer?” the tweet read. “I drive it to different communities to give books to children in need. Oh and I bring my horse with me. [Retweet] so I can get the word out. I’m in N.C.”
After posting the tweet, Gooch, a mother of three, went to record a podcast interview in her car (it would’ve been impossible inside her noisy house). When she was finished, she looked at her phone and saw a message: “Oprah tweeted you, sis.”
In conversation with The 19th, Gooch talked about bringing together her love of reading with all things equestrian, and her efforts to inspire the next generation of book-lovers.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The 19th: Tell me a little more about Saddle Up and Read. Why did you launch it?
Caitlin Gooch: I started it because I saw that children, Black children, were struggling when it came to literacy, when it came to reading, in general, and even putting together sentences.
In the roles I’ve volunteered in, and my role as an assistant teacher, I get to help kids with their spelling words and their vocabulary. And when they’re struggling to spell three-letter words and four-letter words, I feel like that’s a red flag — especially with some of the children who were in fourth grade and fifth grade.
I took the time to research it and figure out what the literacy rates actually were. I went into a rabbit hole and I found that children of color were far behind their White peers. I looked up reading and writing performance [charts] in every school in my area. When it came to the Black students, the bar was so small and you could barely even see it on the graph. What is really happening? I wanted to get to that part. For me, when I see a need for something, I’m going to work until I can fill it.
I thought, this can’t just be an issue in my area, and it wasn’t. It’s North Carolina and then it’s America, in general. We’re so far behind other countries. What’s the difference here? Why aren’t children reading? What I found is that many children don’t have books at home or they don’t have books with characters who look like them or ones that interest them. Maybe that’s a part of the problem. [Ed note: The 2019 Cooperative Children’s Book Center survey on diversity in young adult and children’s literature found about 12 percent of such books featured a Black main character, nearly 30 percent of books feature animals.]
One: We don’t have a lot of books with representation. Two: The number of those book titles is smaller when it comes to figuring out what children like to read. Of course they’re not all going to be into the same things; they have their own personalities and interests. So with Saddle Up and Read, I said, let’s use horses to get kids excited about reading. Because if they’re excited about reading and they don’t see it as a chore, then just maybe it’ll make it easier for us to nurture that love of reading, and we can use horses to do it. I have yet to meet anybody who doesn’t like horses. I’m pretty sure those people might be out there, but I haven’t met them.
What’s your relationship with horses?
I grew up riding horses. My dad has a horse farm in Wendell, North Carolina. We moved five different times into different houses, but the farm has always been at the same place. When I was a kid, I’d wake up, I’d see horses. I mean, we literally use the horses as our mowing system. When I was 3, [my dad] started me out riding, and we’d do trail rides together. At trail rides I ride Western but also ride bareback. So that is where my love for horses started.
What was your relationship with reading growing up?
I love books. I can’t even tell you what books I used to read, but I love reading. I was really into the “Twilight” series. I think I finished that series in a day or something. Books have always kept me centered and at peace. They’ve just allowed me to imagine even more. So I put books and horses together.
Can you say more about uniting those interests?
When I used to work in a child care center, I was the teacher’s assistant, and I was kind of a floater. I worked with 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds. And those children, I love them so much, they were so stinkin’ adorable. I used to show them my horse on my phone to really grasp their attention. But sometimes we would be doing something, or it was like free play or something, and they’d say, “Ms. G, can I see your phone so I can see your horses?” This one boy, he was 3 years old, he used to cry if I didn’t let him see my phone and watch the videos.
I would try to talk to their parents and say, “You should just bring them out to the farm.” I felt like I was incredibly blessed to have grown up with horses. How many people does that happen to? I felt like that happened to me for a reason, and I shouldn’t just be selfish and keep my horses to myself — I have to share them. Sometimes I would just wake up and it was so pretty outside, and I’d make a Facebook post that would say, “It’s so pretty outside, bring your kids to the farm.” Kids deserve to have that exposure.
When you decide to hit the road with your horse, Goat, and your trailer of books, how do you inform people where you will be?
A few weeks ago was one of the first times that I actually went into a neighborhood. With a pandemic I’m trying to make sure that I’m being extremely safe. I went to my aunt’s neighborhood because she’s very supportive of everything I do with Saddle Up and Read. I drove the horse trailer, and I’m not that good at backing up. I had to pull forward and back up, and pull forward and back up, because I was in the middle of the road in this neighborhood. I parked the truck and already people were looking out the window like, “What in the world?”
My husband was with me. We got the books out of the trailer, and got the books set up — that way when the kids came, they could just grab their book and their bag and they could leave. Then I got my horse out. I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna walk down the street and walk back.”
As I started walking back, there was a group of kids, maybe five, at the horse trailer. They started asking me all these questions about my horse, Goat. They were asking me why I was out there, and I said, “It’s really important that you read.” My husband and I gave them their goodie bags that were donated. Some of them got like three or so books. The bags had hats in them, so the kids put on their hats and went down the street to their friend’s houses and neighbors to tell them to come outside.
I know we all wish the pandemic was over. I’m wondering how you feel handing out books now as so many kids struggle with virtual or hybrid learning, or may be among the thousands of kids nationwide who’ve just disappeared from the roster.
I think this is the perfect opportunity to understand something else: Libraries are absolutely fantastic, programs like mine are absolutely fantastic, but there’s an entire population of kids who are missing out because they don’t have transportation. Where I live, there’s no bus route. The kids who can get out [to the library or to the farm] have that luxury of parents who can bring them in a car.
Those kids who are missing out on school right now because they’re not enrolled virtually and they’re not in physical school, I wonder if it’s just linked to a lack of resources. This is another reason why I don’t advertise [on social media] where I’m going, because sometimes people who don’t necessarily need Saddle Up and Read will show up. I really want to get to the kids that need us first. I’m not going to deny any child, I just would rather make sure I go out to those kids who need it first; that’s what I’m doing it for. I hope I can identify where those kids are who aren’t enrolled in anything and maybe go out and spend some time. Even if I have to say stay 6 to 12 feet away, I’ll read a book to you.
I have reading videos up, and other people have read to their horses on behalf of Saddle Up and Read. But there are kids who don’t have a computer. I really have to figure out how to tap into that. Because kids being out of school is going to have a negative impact on the literacy rates. Who knows how far back this is going to push everything.
What else do you want our readers to know?
Reading to kids 20 minutes a day really helps. Even if you don’t have children, maybe there’s some children [you] can read to. Or maybe they just want to donate to Saddle Up and Read. Or, if they don’t like children and they like horses, they can sponsor one of our horses.