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See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love

Valarie Kaur
One World/Penguin Random House, 416 pages

On New Year’s Eve 2016 at a historic black church in Washington D.C., Valarie Kaur offered an observation to a crowd of people who, like many, were reeling from the results of the presidential election:

“The future is dark…but what if—what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? … What if this is our nation’s greatest transition?”

Kaur’s speech elicited “cheers and shouts and cries of ‘Hallelujah!’” Four days later, Kaur shared that same vision with more than a thousand participants at the 2017 Montreat College Conference, which I attended with a group of students as an associate pastor from a suburban church in metro Atlanta. The audience at Montreat also stood to clap and cheer Kaur’s presentation; the electricity in the air at that moment was palpable.

Just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged folks with the message of a “beloved community,” and Congressman John Lewis energized the masses with his missive on “good trouble,” Kaur inspires with the idea that we can transform the world by choosing to give birth to revolutionary love. This is the underlying philosophy of Kaur’s first book that is both a captivating memoir and compelling manifesto.

Recently released in paperback, “See No Stranger” is such a special piece of work in part because of Kaur’s willingness to be vulnerable. She beautifully tells her story as a brown woman and daughter of Sikh farmers in California who is awakened to her calling as a storyteller and activist when a Sikh relative is murdered in the days following 9/11.

Kaur shares powerful, life-changing experiences that shaped her as a civil rights activist, attorney and filmmaker. She tells gripping stories of documenting xenophobic attacks (including the 2012 mass shooting at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin), and describes eye-opening advocacy work for the rights of those imprisoned in America and Guantánamo Bay. We are reminded to never forget the violent atrocities committed toward people of color and other religious groups. I was moved by how Kaur found the courage and strength to heal from painful encounters with police violence, bigotry, sexual assault, and emotional abuse — and how she persists in doing the work of love, compassion and justice for those hurting on the margins.

Throughout the book (which includes a section of Sikh shabads, or devotional poems), Kaur invites readers to wonder, grieve, stand up for the good, express righteous anger, listen, show empathy, practice mercy, pray and reimagine how the world can be different.

Kaur shares endearing stories about her wise and beloved grandfather Papa Ji and his enormous influence on her life. It is Papa Ji who taught her to be a non-violent warrior, to embrace vismaad (ecstatic wonder) and to believe in a God whose love sees not a stranger but another human being who is joyfully and wonderfully made. By sharing her life over hundreds of pages — each one a treasure to savor — Kaur teaches us the same lesson.

Andy Acton is the pastor of Emory Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and a regular blogger and cartoonist with a passion for social justice and the intersection of faith and pop culture.

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