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Taking a long look

The title of the project that has culminated in the articles you will find in this issue of the Outlook is ambitious, audacious even: “Taking a long look: Using long-form, narrative, theological essays to transform issues into empathy and foster thoughtful discussion on contentious topics.” That is a complicated way of saying, “I want to tell stories that will help us talk about difficult topics in nuanced, theological ways.”

Over a year ago I was given the great gift of being invited to apply for a Duke Faith and Leadership Innovation Grant and I wrote the following in my application:

“Into this climate of often vitriolic and reductive discourse, religious publications need to present a faithful, theologically articulate alternative. Discussion needs to be elevated if we are to discern how to tackle issues that divide and heighten anxiety. Complex problems may not require complex solutions but, as Jonathan Haidt notes in his work, both elephant and rider, heart and head, must be engaged for change to occur and take root. Jesus, teaching in parables, knew this truth. Stories of real people impacted by the ‘issues’ are a means to flip the script and open up the possibility of creative thinking and communal connection.”

I sought not just to tell stories that helped us talk more deeply and theologically about “issues.” I yearned to bring a group of Christians together to address complex, difficult topics communally and to practice what we hoped we would, in the end, produce. Even after we received the grant and I began inviting writers to participate, I could not imagine what the Spirit would do once we gathered.

Scene from one of the writers’ retreats.

The work you find within these pages represents only a small portion of the results of almost a year working together. Over the course of that time we met in person at two retreats and virtually on the phone and over video conferences. The writers were free to choose their topics and the stories they would write. Most of us were genuinely surprised with what came forth. A few of us wrote one entire essay only to jettison it, start again and write something completely different. We trusted that such back and forth, endings and beginnings, were following the Spirit wherever it chose to blow. We hope that is the case. We wrote about complex family dynamics, race, incarceration, navigating multiple cultures as an immigrant, addiction and what it means to be incarnate in a body that the world does not value. We gave and received advice, constructive criticism and unwavering support through seasons where it felt as if the words would not be written.

I cannot predict how these writings will be received or if, in the end, they will accomplish the goal set forth in the grant application. What I can attest to without reservation is that those of us who worked on this project are forever changed. We shared deeply. We became more vulnerable than we imagined we would or could. In fact, some of what we wrote may never be published, but is nonetheless critical to what eventually was birthed, in words and relationships.

In that application I wrote: “I see team members growing in their writing skills, expanding their own perspectives and understanding, and connecting with new colleagues with whom they can collaborate in the future.” And so, we did, exponentially. So much so that we intend to continue to meet, collaborate, write and support one another.

The articles contained herein are a snapshot of our time and effort. The stories we tell and the topics we address are ones that we will be working on for a lifetime. We do not imagine that what you will read is finished. In that spirit, I pray you will accept these as an offering, humbly given in the hope that you will find them moving, thought-provoking and beautiful.

I cannot begin to express my thanks to those who so willingly and bravely participated in this project. All I can say is I am profoundly grateful to Nannette Banks, Carlton Johnson, Charlotte Matthews, Lori Raible, Samuel Son and Andrew Taylor-Troutman — yes, for their words, but so much more so for the gift of themselves, their courage and their friendship.

Grace and peace,
Jill

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